One of the most impactful lectures I've seen in the past year is Dr. Shamil Chandaria's The Bayesian Brain and Meditation. In it, he explains how the brain takes sensory input and creates a coherent model of the world. Building upon this, he shows how various meditation practices can fundamentally change—and improve—our experience of the world, in quite different ways. This was the first time I encountered a clear model of what meditation actually is, and how different meditative practices can be useful to achieve specific outcomes.
In the previous post, we've seen that practices assume a base, offer techniques that take practitioners along a path, and lead to an outcome. (If you haven't, read the prior post which covers this briefly.) If you're wanting to explore meditative practices, this essay will help understand the mechanistic models that support various practices, and how to find practices that resonate with you.
Our Bayesian Brains
Chandaria notes how we never experience reality directly. Perception is not a passive experience—we are not detached observers, objectively taking in sense data. Senses give lossy, incomplete, and noisy information (optical illusions exploit this). Our brains create a model of reality that feels entirely cohesive and complete, even though we're updating this model without "full fidelity" of what reality actually is. Our models exists, and then makes incremental and statistical updates based on new information. In general, we want to minimize surprise—aligning our models with reality. This Bayesian brain hypothesis, drawing from Immanuel Kant's ideas about perception, offers that our phenomenal world is organized by certain hyper priors like space, time, and causality. Objects must conform to these hyper priors rather than vice versa.
Our brains dynamically "compute" a probability density function of features of the world based on lossy sensory data. And instead of sense gates feeding directly to a single model, the brain is structured in a hierarchical system of increasing abstraction:
Each layer, moving from raw sense data, aggregates information from previous layers in a statistical manner to build and update priors. Each layer, then, passes up its own prediction errors, and receives predictions from the next higher layer. Surprise sense data updates priors more aggressively, allowing us to be attuned to what is most important in our environment and minimize predictive error of our internal generative model of reality.
We construct a constrained fabrication, and our perception is the output of our generative model, which includes things such as our representation of ourselves—which includes our perception of senses, thoughts, emotions, and selves. We organize our perception into subject/objects, internal/external, and agency/action.
Families of meditation practices
Assuming this model of cognition, there's immediate interesting areas to consider for self-development and improvement. One problem we may want to solve is where we find ourselves in a suboptimal or unhelpful attractor basin. These basins could be psychological, such as self-reenforcing negative self talk, overly reactive behavior, or bad habits. They could also be deeper, such as our understanding of self, subject/object duality, etc. Our higher levels of abstraction can be stuck with models that no longer serve us, or we may want to directly tweak our phenomenological experience towards more joy, kindness, and equanimity.
If we can learn how to relax the weights of top-level priors, we can move from one attractor basin to another. This can help us rebuild our view of the world to find new degrees of freedom in our perception.
This motivates creating maps that can be used to explore this internal landscape. These maps are meditation practices, which tunes the dynamics of our generative model towards different outcomes. This is why "meditation" is about as specific as "exercise": there's a rich history of techniques that produce an entire landscape of meditative practices, each outlining different paths towards different results. These practices certainly include the sorts of seated mindfulness that's popularly taught in the West, but also include prayer, movement, communal, imaginal, and many more practices.
So, if you're interested in meditation, where should you begin? This was difficult for me, because many practices actually conflict, both in their techniques—literally doing opposite things—and model of the world. I later learned that this doesn't mean one is "true" and another is not, because the practices are adopted to be useful primarily, and may be achieving different goals. This isn't particularly helpful, though, because there's so much to choose from.
Here's some high level guidance about things to consider when choosing a practice:
- Be open eyed and clear about the assumed starting place or base. Some practices have rare and difficult to achieve bases (such as Dzogchen).
- See if the techniques practiced make sense, both logically and intuitively. Is this something you can stick with? Would this be overall playful and enjoyable? Does it meet your expectations of rigor and support? Do you know where you would go if you needed assistance?
- Is the outcome where you want to go? The outcome a secluded monk in training seeks may not be useful or interesting to you. Look at others who have adopted this practice for a while.
A popular, especially in the West, seated mediation practice relates to tuning our attention processes. This both hones our "control" of attention, and can create a stable space to recognize thoughts, emotions, distractions, and sensation. If you've ever done a meditation that focuses on the breath, this is an attention practice.
The primary goal is to calm the mind — reducing the noise and contents of awareness. They strengthen the self-regulation of attentional processes. Most common mindfulness practices are in this category.
Focused attention: narrows attentional scope and cultivates concentration. These include practices such as many calming mind, breath following and counting, body awareness, and mantra meditations. A good starting place is using popular mindfulness apps for guided meditations. Building a strong ability to focus attention is useful as a scaffolding practice for other practices, and has immediate benefits for many people of increased calm.
Open monitoring: broadens attentional scope to tune into the flow of subjective awareness. These include Stoic practices such as prosochē, choiceless awareness, and several popular psychotherapy tools such as Mindfulness-based Stress Reduction and Dialectical Behavior Therapy. The best highly-available starting place I've found is the Waking Up app, and then I recommend the Opening Awareness practice guide. These practices help tune into what is with wide and spacious awareness.
Constructive-oriented meditations recognize that we can indeed change our subjective awareness. This shouldn't be too surprising: if you have a bad attitude, your subjective experience is indeed worse than if you have a good attutide. These practices provide techniques and tools to construct various useful mind-states, which may be therapeutic, enjoyable, or fulfilling.
Relationship orientation: settles the mind towards different states that enhance relationships between oneself and the outside world, particularly towards others. A popular practice is metta (loving-kindness) meditation, where strong feelings of love and acceptance are generated towards oneself and others. Others include many approaches to prayer and gratitude practices, or if I may be liberal with categories, listening to many forms of religious music. This post and this video are helpful starting places to learn loving-kindness meditation. The benefits are straight forward: practicing being more loving will make you more loving.
Values orientation: leads towards specific non-relational outcomes. The Stoic practice of meditating on your mortality is an example of this, but this category is wide, and can include any sort of focus on a value or value system you wish to cultivate, or reading scriptures or inspirational passages. This post explains the Stoic approach, and why people may want to pursue such a difficult thing. We could also loosely associate breathwork practices in this category.
Where the constrictive family of meditations attempt to create specific states of mind, deconstructive families directly seek to loosen priors in the Bayesian abstraction landscape. As open monitoring practices attempt to see things how they are outside in, these practices attempt to break apart mental patterns inside out. There are subcategories of object-oriented insight, subject-oriented insight, and non-dual insight, but many deconstructive practices span multiple subcategories. In general, all approaches dissects what can be known of reified objects, such as sensory information, external objects, thoughts, emotions, and the self. A common outcome is to see the emptiness of these objects, since all are quite literally mental constructions. This loosens the grasp of "objectness", which can lead to a more equanimous relationship with the world. Popular practices include vipassana meditation, non-dual dzogchen meditation, Zen koans, and Cognitive Behavioral Therapy.
Beginning a practice
As we've seen, the Bayesian brain hypothesis presents a compelling model of what meditation attempts to accomplish and why it may be effective. Shifting towards actual practices, the landscape is incredibly vast. I've skipped many practices and each of the listed practices can go incredibly deep (see Reconstructing and deconstructing the self: Cognitive mechanisms in meditation practice for more detail).
Each family of practice has a lot to teach us, and exploring each area is likely beneficial to most people. I've known several people with fine-tuned attentional practices that benefitted immensely from adding loving-kindness meditation. Think deeply about what outcomes you're interested in.
If any of these practices seem particularly interesting and resonate with you, that's probably a great starting place. Otherwise, if you have no existing practice, I recommend starting with Waking Up, as it contains high quality guided meditations from several different practices. As you discover techniques that work well for you, I encourage you to seek out more information and instruction directly from a book, course, or teacher.