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Breaking down is updating

I very much enjoyed this podcast - - in which Ruben Laukkonen, a psychologist, lays out a comprehensive model for how the mind works and how this relates to meditation and Awakening. I got in touch with him to ask how he would fit meditative "purifications" into this model. His answer made good sense, so I'm going to build upon it to give an account of what is actually going on when meditation leads us to experience memories, associated emotional outpourings, and subsequent relief.

But first, what is this comprehensive model for how the mind works? It's called "predictive processing" and it starts with the brain's basic predicament: it is stuck in your skull, and has no direct access to the world outside. In order to know what's out there, it has to rely on a stream of electrical information coming in from your sense organs. From this, it simulates the world. And that's what you experience: the world you inhabit isn't actually the "real world", but rather your brain's best guess as to what is "out there", based on all the electrical signals it's getting. This will be eerily familiar to devotees of certain Buddhist schools: the idea that what we take to be reality is, per the Diamond Sutra:

A star at dawn, a bubble in a stream,

A flash of lightening in a summer cloud,

A flickering lamp, a phantom, and a dream

The brain's job, on this view, is to model the world as accurately as possible, so that it can tell your body to do the right things out there in the "real world". So, it constantly makes predictions - "if the model is right, then the incoming signals are going to go like this and then like that". And when the incoming signals don't match the model, something has gone wrong: prediction error. The model needs updating to take account of this new information. All being well, this happens, and you go on your way. On this view, your whole life, every aspect of your experience, is a simulation whose underlying code is continually being updated to keep it more faithful to a reality that we can never directly know.

So, how do meditation and catharsis fit into the model? Well, as you'll learn if you listen to the podcast, meditation involves deconstructing the simulation, moving down from the uppermost levels of abstraction (e.g. complex theories, such as predictive processing itself), through simpler conceptual constructs (e.g. "this blogpost is boring. I'll look at TikTok instead"), to sensory data including the feel of emotions (e.g. the raw bodily affect of boredom), and right down, perhaps, to the relatively unprocessed, undifferentiated, endlessly shifting flow of data from which the higher-order constructs are constructed (ie. the emptiness of all phenomena that is experienced in some versions of Buddhist enlightenment).

And catharsis or purification fits nicely into this picture if we consider that pain, whether emotional or physical is (amongst other things) an error signal. When your predictions don't match reality - when you get dumped, or don't get the promotion, or walk into a lamppost - you feel pain. And all being well, you update your model and get on with your (simulated) life.

But here's the sticking point. Pain is an error signal, and the brain was designed by evolution to minimise error signals. And sometimes it seeks to do this not by updating its predictive model (as it should) but instead by just trying to get rid of the error signal itself. In experiential terms, we don't like the pain of walking into lampposts, and sometimes we try to avoid that pain not by looking where we're going, but by taking painkillers after the event.

So, if I get unexpectedly dumped, it would be best for me to update my predictive model: to accept and learn from the experience, and perhaps pick more suitable partners in future. But instead, in order to make the pain stop, I might lie to myself, distract myself with work or social media, or drown my sorrows with alcohol. I might dive straight into another, equally ill-fated relationship. And so I might manage to avoid both my pain and the useful message that it conveys, and I might learn nothing from it.

And amid all these strategies we use to avoid pain, the most insidious is thinking. Because, as well as helping us to solve problems and learn lessons, our thoughts can become just another distraction from the raw feel of our emotional pain, which registers in the body as well as the mind. So, all that thinking that you might do after you get dumped, including your best efforts to analyse the situation and learn something useful from it, might in fact be an instinctive effort to stay away from direct contact with the raw feel of your pain - the emotional error signal that needs to be fully received in order for your predictive model to update.

And we can get stuck like this for years, or forever. We keep on thinking about things, avoiding full awareness of how we feel, and the error signal, not having been fully received, keeps on firing, somewhere below the level of awareness. The model doesn't get updated, and we keep on picking the wrong partners.

In this model, meditative purifications happen when meditation strips away our avoidance strategies, and we make direct contact with the error signal - the raw feeling - that we've been avoiding. On your meditation cushion, you can't distract yourself with work or social media or alcohol or another relationship, and, after a while, the mind starts to quieten, which means that your cognitive avoidance strategies fall away too. Which is to say, the higher-level, more abstract levels of your brain's simulation (i.e. thoughts) shut down somewhat, and the error signals hiding at lower levels - the level of feeling - start to emerge. And so, strong emotion surfaces, possibly with accompanying memories, and you have a big cry. And thusly your brain's model of reality finally gets updated, and you move on with your life, accepting that, "That relationship didn't work out, but I learned a lot from it".

So what does this have to do with Awakening? The implication seems to be that catharsis is a byproduct, rather than causally related to Awakening. When I quiet my mind and strip away the layers of my own personal reality - starting with my day-to-day worries and ending with the basic division between self and world, and between one thing and another thing - I am liable, along the way, to run into emotional error signals that have never been fully reckoned with. Hopefully, when I run into them, they will be fully felt, the information they carry will be integrated into my predictive model, and they will finally cease. And so I might feel better and live better. But there is no causal relationship between the Awakening itself and the purifications. So purifications might be a sign that you're heading in the right direction, towards Awakening, but they don't themselves help the process along.


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