Sunday, May 14, 2017

Meditation Design

words: 2367


There are two kinds of people: People who meditate a lot, and people who feel guilty that they don’t meditate.

(There are in fact many more kinds of people than this, but these are certainly two of the kinds of people that there are.)

The people who meditate a lot tend to do it thusly: They’ll hear some good things about meditation, go off to a mindfulness retreat or read a book on zazen, and take up a regular practice of whatever sort of meditation they learned about. Then they’ll just keep doing it, in about the same way, indefinitely.

The second type of person will start such a practice, find that it’s not working out, and then feel vaguely guilty forever because they aren’t one of the cool people who meditates.

I’ve been each of these myself, at some point or another. And from my current perspective, both relationships with meditation seem dysfunctional. Neither one resembles how I behave, or what I feel, when I Actually Try to do something (besides maybe follow instructions).

Now, I’m not saying you shouldn’t meditate.

What I’m saying is, maybe the forms of meditation that were designed by other people for the purpose of achieving parinirvana, or migration to the Pure Land, or communion with God, are not the best possible forms of meditation for you to be doing.

Maybe they’re not even very good, for you in particular. Even if they lower your blood pressure. Even if you sometimes feel better after you do them. Maybe the value of a meditation depends on your particular goals and cognitive style, so that it’s almost impossible for anybody besides you to find the perfect fit for your situation.

We are not broken. Meditation is.

(Well ok maybe we are broken; this just isn’t much evidence one way or another.)

But maybe, we can fix it.


I don’t have a general-purpose procedure for designing meditations (yet). But I do have a firm enough grasp on the thought-style to design meditations for myself at this point. I hope I can at least gesture at what I’m doing.

I’ll start with three foundational principles:

  • Your meditations are yours. Other people’s meditations might be good for inspiration and guidance, but you’re the only one inside your mind. You have your own problems, your own goals, your own strengths, and your own weaknesses. You should therefore have your own meditations.
  • You are allowed to have goals. Some meditations shun them, but yours doesn't have to. You are also allowed to stuff your mind full of whatever you want. You are allowed to be attached to things. Perhaps you will be best served by clinging tightly to the goal of following as many thoughts as possible in twenty minutes. Or maybe for you, that would be bad, but you mustn’t take it for granted. It is your mind, you make the rules.
  • There is no One True Meditation. The perfect rain dance cannot clear the clouds. It’s not just that different people need different dances for summoning rain; the same person might need rain one day day, and sun the next. No single cognitive dance can accomplish every goal. Equip yourself with many meditations.


Ok, enough prep. Time for the nitty gritties. Here is how I designed an orientation meditation for myself a couple weeks ago.

I started with a familiar imagined experience that indicates a problem.

Problem: I have a trapped feeling of un-directed futility, like I don’t know why I’m doing what I’m doing, what I might do instead, or what difference it would make.

Then, I used it to identify a goal. To find the goal, I asked myself, “How would I experience the world where my problem has been solved?” If my problem were solved,…

Goal: I’d feel a sense of perspective, clarity, and decisiveness. It would be as though I could see my life from above, like a rat armed with a satellite image of its maze. I’d understand how my present experiences and next actions relate to my large-scale strategy. I’d feel determination and equanimity.

So I wanted to design a meditation that moves me from a state of disorientation to a state of clarity. I began to brainstorm paths from the first state to the second, but then I backed up and tried brainstorming approaches to finding that path instead.

Possible Approaches

  • Go straight for a solution as though whatever plan I have after five minutes is the one I’ll use forever.
  • Imagine in concrete detail an experience of being trapped and disoriented in a tiny perspective. Imagine that ten minutes later, I’m no longer trapped and disoriented, but rather free, clear, calm, and determined. In between, I do something. What exactly do I do?
  • Ask a friend who seems to be good at finding direction and clarity what they do to be like that. Ask a friend who seems to struggle a lot with being trapped in a tiny perspective how they deal with it. Ask Facebook. Ask Google.
  • Again, imagine the experience of being trapped and disoriented. How did I end up that way? See if my list of causes suggests obvious solutions.
  • Can I remember times when I went from feeling trapped and disoriented to feeling free and clear? What happened in my mind? Can I deliberately reproduce some of that?

Then I picked my favorite approach, and took a shot at using it. I went with the second one: “Imagine being disoriented. Ten minutes later, I’m oriented. What happened?

From here, things got a bit messier. I’m not clear on how I did the rest, except that I took many components from other meditations or techniques I’ve used before.

But here is what I actually came up with in response to the prompt.

Meditation For Clarity

Step 0: Advocation. I notice that I’m in a bad spot, and that I need to take care of myself. I summon the will to do that by the same method I usually use: I recite Invictus. My new attention to self-care alerts me that I need to find clarity and direction, and should therefore move into my clarity meditation.

Step 1: Presence. I become very aware of my current context. I say exactly where I am, what I’m doing right now, and what I’m feeling. For example, “It’s May 2017. I’m at my house in Berkeley. I’m sitting on the couch scouring the internet for the perfect teapot. I feel frustrated, disoriented, and drifty. I feel like I’m wasting time, but I don’t know what to do with it instead.”

Step 2: Self Compassion. I bring attention to (the very general reason) why I’m feeling trapped and disoriented. I do this with the guidance of my past self, who has designed and stored for me a mantra. They’ve composed the words, and my only job is to sink into the large, self-compassionate perspective they point toward. It goes something like this: “I am only an egg. My mind is too small to support the me I yearn to be. I am ambitious, but limited, and can only see a little at a time.”

Step 3: Maximum Zoomout. Then I remind myself of my largest-scale goal and my largest-scale strategy. These words are also pre-scripted by a past self, and I try to sink into their meaning. “I want humanity to survive and flourish. I will mitigate global catastrophic risk by accelerating AI alignment research.”

Step 4: Transition. I begin the second half of the meditation with a question: “By what means am I moving forward?” The problem I’m addressing involves being stuck, so rather than answering by stating my local strategy as something static (”I’m supporting AI alignment research by [various means]”), I want to focus on motion. I search specifically for deliberate growth, creation, and change. “I am moving through my life toward a goal,” I think. “By what means am I gaining speed, accuracy, and precision?”

Step 5: Declaration of Motion. This part is a little different each time, since my focus changes month to month, week to week, even day to day. But by this point in the meditation, I’ve arrived at a mental space where I have enough vision to answer the question on my own.

Were I to do this right now, I would say, “I am leveraging my strengths, accommodating my weaknesses, and increasing stability. I am learning to use social support, establishing routines that promote comfort and concentration, and seeking more sustainable dynamics with the people I love.”

Step 6: Orientation. Finally, I look over my opportunities for the rest of the day. “From my current position,” I ask myself, “how can I move in the ways I’ve just described? What actions are available, and which tiny tactics advance my strategy?” I choose at least one next action, and resolve to take it.

Over the past two weeks, I’ve used the full version of this meditation about three times. The full version is most helpful when I notice that “something is wrong”, and the wrong thing turns out to be “I feel directionless and disoriented”. But an abbreviated version is part of my routine now, and I use it for daily planning either first thing in the morning or late at night.


The bits I feel confident about end there, at least for now. But just for fun, let’s dip our toes into some theory. I’ll talk a about what I think meditation is for, and when it might be a good idea to meditate. From that I’ll extract a (tentative) taxonomy of meditations, which I intend as a jumping-off point for others.

I hope you’ll concede that meditation is at least helpful for some people sometimes. But even then, going straight for meditation can be wrong. Maybe you can re-gather concentration by doing a concentration-gathering meditation; but it might be more efficient, or at least better for you in the long run, to try eating a snack first.

From my perspective, it looks like the best reason to take a few skill points in meditation is that eating a snack doesn’t always work. Sometimes there’s just no ready-made hack at my disposal that will do the trick, and for all I know the tool I need doesn’t even exist yet. At these times, meditation is a way to sit down with myself, look myself straight in the mind, and say, “Ok, self, it’s all up to us. Let’s do this.”

Meditation is for problems that can be solved just by changing what your mind is doing. It’s not so good for problems that are best solved in dialog with the environment. It would be silly to meditate on opening a jar of peanut butter, if your goal is to thereby open the jar of peanut butter. (Young me spent a lot of time trying this, in fact. Doesn’t work.)

But if your problem is that you want to re-produce an experience of heightened awareness you once had after studying for a long time, or that you spiral into a pit of shame whenever you feel jealousy, or that you want to be more honest and epistemically humble, or that you want to grok every implication of the lecture on supervised k-means you just heard, then meditation may be in order.

In other words, a few things meditation can help with are

  1. deliberately moving from one mental sate to another,
  2. re-training cognitive reflexes,
  3. cultivating capacities and dispositions,
  4. gaining awareness of your own cognitive patterns, and
  5. deeply integrating information you already have.

The orientation meditation I showed you is of the first type: deliberately moving from one mental state to another. These five classes of problem probably require distinct classes of meditation; that was just one.

For instance, mettā (or loving-kindness meditation) is type 3: cultivating capacities and dispositions. It’s often practiced like prayer, as though thinking nice thoughts about someone will make nice things happen to them; but what it actually does is cultivate compassion in the person who uses it.

I recommend finding a meditation of each type that works for you at least some of the time, whether you make it from scratch or borrow from somebody else. That way, when you run into a problem that could benefit from meditation, you’ll have a source of inspiration and guidance that resembles the meditation you need.

But I’d hate for this rough taxonomy to tie you down, just like I hope you’re no longer bound by meditations you’ve already tried. I’ll be extra happy if this post spins off better theories and systems, and not just a few new personal meditations.

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