Middle Way Philosophy: A Quick Guide

For an alternative  video introduction to Middle Way Philosophy please see this page.

Middle Way Philosophy begins with the recognition that we are finite and embodied. We live in uncertainty, but grounds for confidence and positive values are also found in our own wider, more integrated experience. We do not have to appeal to absolutes beyond experience to develop increasingly adequate beliefs and values.

The Middle Way is a principle of judgement, focusing on how we respond to our experience rather than claims about how things finally are. By avoiding absolute claims, both positive and negative, we can judge more adequately. Avoiding absolutes, we are thrown into the messy, uncertain world of experience where genuine justification is to be found, rather than taking refuge in irrelevant certainties that we cannot relate to as embodied beings. Middle Way symbol

Absolutes  Absolutisations are also referred to in Middle Way Philosophy as metaphysics. The absoluteness of a claim depends on the person making it, their context and their mental state, not just on the words used in the claim. What makes absoluteness so unhelpful is not whether it is true or untrue, but that we are not in a position to check on absolutes or relate them to experience at all. That means that they can be used by groups (e.g. religions, nations, ideologies etc.) as rallying points of unconditional commitment. They are thus a tool of unaccountable political power, and psychological repression as individuals accept that power. Absolutisations repress alternatives so that we remain unaware of them, and also narrow and decontextualise our judgements.

Evidence for the effects of absolutisation There is gathering scientific evidence that absolutisations are responsible for the mistakes we make in judgement. In brain terms, absolutisation is correlated with over-dominance of the narrowly focused left hemisphere (which specialises in linguistic representations of the world and associated goals) over the right (which is open to new information from the body and senses). In cognitive psychology, the practical and remediable element of the mistakes we make in thinking (cognitive biases and fallacies) can be readily identified as absolutisation. History also provides plenty of examples of the negative effects of absolutised, totalitarian beliefs in creating conflict and repression.

Even-handedness The practice of the Middle Way involves continuing recognition of the equal difficulties created by both positive and negative absolutisations. Negative absolutisations have to be understood here clearly as denials of positive ones, not just a failure to believe them. Thus for example atheism as a denial of God’s existence is no more justified than theism as an affirmation of it. Middle Way Philosophy here parts company with secularist and naturalistic approaches when they fall into absolute negative assertions. However, it can be recognised that many secular humanists (together with many liberal religious believers) are motivated by a recognition of the problems caused by absolutisation.

Provisionality and integration The positive alternative to absolutisation is provisionality, where we hold beliefs that are selected in awareness of possible alternatives. This makes it possible to change belief when our experience changes. The justification of these beliefs is incremental (more or less) rather than absolute, but we can nevertheless be decisive and confident in our judgements. Another way of putting this is that provisional beliefs are capable of integration with alternatives, where absolute beliefs instead react against alternatives as opposites. Integration depends on our whole psychological state rather than just our ways of consciously reasoning.

Practice The Middle Way is thus a matter of practice as  much as theory. Integration of our mental states helps us remain provisional in practice, and thus we make better judgements about our beliefs. In Middle Way Philosophy three interdependent forms of integrative practice are recommended: body awareness practices that work to integrate our whole state and most basic desires; the arts and creativity practices that provide us with wider resources for judgement; and critical thinking/ objectivity training practices that work directly with our beliefs by helping us reflect on their justification.

Ethics Middle Way Philosophy is as much concerned with ethical judgements as with factual ones, and rejects the absolutizing division between them that is commonly employed. Ethical judgements can be more adequate (and thus incrementally objective) if they avoid absolutisations and build on experience. There are thus no ultimately right ethical rules, but some judgements are better than others. We can improve our ethical judgements in practice through awareness of the range of alternative ethical approaches, selecting those that avoid absolutisation and positively offer an ethical ‘stretch’ that we can experience within the judgement of a particular situation.

For more detailed information see the other pages under the ‘Middle Way Philosophy’ header on this site, and/or Middle Way Philosophy books

Robert M. Ellis, 2015

32 thoughts on “Middle Way Philosophy: A Quick Guide

  1. Hello Robert,
    thanks for the site, a lot of interesting thought for food and valuable practical advice here. However, it seems to me, also a great deal of confusion.

    For example, already in the first sentence on this page there is one of these “absolute” “metaphysical” claims, which for some reason is not seen as problematic: “we are finite and embodied”. Thinking that we are finite, separate beings is a dualistic belief, and it’s opposite is that what we are is infinite, timeless and unbounded. In fact if I am not abiding in left-hemispheric conceptual thinking or my belief-structures, I cannot find any direct experiential evidence for the belief you hold.

    For example, observing what’s going in my visual field of vision, I see no bounds or separation, and except for my prejudicial thinking, I see no reason to assume that I am some separate being just behind this field of vision – rather than, for example being the whole field of vision, or that this field of vision is a part of me.

    Judging from my direct experience, this seems to be the case with all my sensory experiences, thoughts and in fact all objects of consciousness – there’s no reason to hold on to the belief that any of them are somehow “outside of me”. In a way it feels more like all of it is “inside” of me – after all, they are my objects of consciousness, and if they were truly outside of myself, I wouldn’t even be aware of them. But even these dualistic concepts like “inside” and “outside” are just part of the left-hemisphere merry-go-round and cannot describe direct experience. (I’m using terminology from McGilchrist’s hemisphere-model as I noticed from your book review that you’re familiar with the work, but it’s not necessary for what I’m pointing at.)

    So it seems to me that you’ve fairly arbitrarily categorised some beliefs as “metaphysical” “absolutisations”, and as I see it the categorisation doesn’t hold water. From my point of view it would be better to let go of all dualistic beliefs – i.e. beliefs that can have an opposite.

    So, everything I’ve read on this website shouts “LEFT-HEMISPHERE” to me. I would agree with McGilchrist that philosophy (at least in the way it is handled on this website) is “overwhelmingly as an activity of the LH, in which it tries to make sense of the RH in its own terms” and that “trying to use philosophy to understand the RH is ‘a bit like trying to fly using a submarine'”. And so my impression of reading the texts on this website is of “a LH-dependent scholar telling us about the wonders of holistic and intuitive experience”. There is talk about embodiment, integration etc, but it seems like just talk, and the LH seems to be firmly in charge of all this intellectual philosophising. That is, even though I know you practice meditation and mindfulness etc, judging by the content of this website it does not seem that you have yet successfully broken free from the “hall of mirrors” of the self-referential virtual reality of the left-hemispheric merry-go-round.

    I understand that you’ve drawn inspiration from Buddha’s teachings, but as you’ve noted, it seems that those teachings have been pretty profoundly warped in the following 2500 years (just as what seems to have happened in Christianity). I think much better source to that message are contemporary teachers that are as awake, free and clear as S.G. seems to have been, but have not fallen victim to 2500 years of mis-interpretation (which I think this website also continues wrt. to Buddha). Luckily, there are many of them – e.g. Eckhart Tolle, Adyashanti, Mooji, Rupert Spira, Nisargadatta Maharaj, Gary Weber, Suzanne Segal, Douglas Harding etc. What they are teaching – and, it seems, what Buddha and Jesus (and in fact all spirituality that is pointing at direct experience rather than just bouncing concepts in the LH) also were pointing at – is these days called non-duality.

    If you haven’t already, I’d suggest you start by reading Eckhart Tolle’s Power of Now, supplemented with doing some of Douglas Harding’s “Headlessness”-experiments (http://www.headless.org/experiments.htm). I suspect – and hope – that I’m actually preaching to the choir and that you have read that book and are at least “well-read” in (i.e. intellectually deeply familiar with) non-duality in general – it would seem strange to construct a philosophy like this and not to be! But in case that has flown under your radar, I leave this as a small pointer here. Currently this MiddleWay philosophy as presented here seems to me largely lost in the hall of mirrors of the self-referential conceptual virtual reality.

    1. Dear Visa,
      Thanks for your comments. There are a number of underlying issues here. Those issues have been much thought through and are not the product of ‘confusion’ (It seems easy for people to project ‘confusion’ onto positions they merely disagree with.)

      Describing our position as ‘finite and embodied’ is for me merely a way of describing a position rooted in experience, and is not itself necessarily a metaphysical belief (though it can be turned into one by naturalists). It doesn’t imply that there are rigid bounds to our experience, (which seems to be something you are reading into the word ‘finite’, but rigid boundary beliefs are amongst the absolute beliefs I criticise). I am using the term ‘finite’ only to indicate the limitations of our knowledge and awareness, which depend on our situation as individuals with bodies at a particular point in space, limited senses, and the limitations of language. I wouldn’t deduce from that that we are absolutely separate beings, but nor do we have a God’s eye view.

      I agree with you that we should let go of all dualistic beliefs, but what I mean by dualistic beliefs are absolute beliefs. The distinction between absolute and provisional beliefs is not just a question of whether claims have an opposite, but of whether we hold them in a closed, absolutizing state of mind that denies alternatives.

      It’s not surprising if you find everything on this website ‘left hemisphere’, since the left hemisphere is essential to all linguistic communication. For the same reason, your comment comes into the same category! I aim to use the left hemisphere in a way that is adequately linked to new information coming in from the right hemisphere, so that it is not over-dominant or absolutizing. That does indeed require practice as well as thought, but thought is also essential. The test as to whether what I write here is ‘just talk’ needs to be based on whether it is helpful in avoiding delusions that are associated with an absolutizing left hemisphere and gaining a more integrated perspective. That’s likely to be a gradual process that varies for each person, so it’s possible that it may not be helpful for you in your particular embodied situation. That depends on which absolutisations you are coming to grips with first.

      I disagree with your apparent view that there is any kind of shortcut past this gradual, messy process involving both our hemispheres. Meditation is very helpful for broadening our awareness and thus providing an experiential basis for catching our own delusions: but it does not lead to any kind of absolute knowledge through ‘direct experience’. Direct experience of what? The belief that it can produce some kind of key to absolute knowledge about the universe is just another metaphysical absolutisation. If you believe in such ‘direct experience’ that may also lead you to over-rely on the authority of the spiritual teachers you list. I’m sure Eckhart Tolle has much to communicate that is very helpful about meditation technique, but he doesn’t have a hotline to Reality. If you want to engage with the complexity of conditions around us, meditation teachers need to take their place alongside many other figures who can offer us various kinds of insight, whether moral, political, psychological, philosophical, religious, artistic, or just practical.

  2. Dear Robert,

    thanks for taking the time for replying in depth. However, I still feel that I’m not able to get across what I’m trying to communicate. That is perhaps because it cannot be understood literally – in fact, in a sense it cannot even be explicitly talked about at all – it can only be pointed at (“The tao that can be told is not the eternal Tao”). So no doubt these issues have been “much thought through”, but what I’m pointing at is beyond thought, and in a way inaccessible to thought. (Paradoxes arise automatically when taking it to the conceptual domain, but they are only paradoxes in the conceptual domain.) There’s a world beyond thought, and it’s not what we think it is.

    You misunderstood what I meant when I said that “everything I’ve read on this website shouts “LEFT-HEMISPHERE” to me”, perhaps because you took it too literally. I realised there was this risk with using this model, and I want to repeat that using this model or talking about the brain in any way is not necessary at all to my point – the point relates to mind/consciousness. Yes, I know the left hemisphere is essential to all linguistic communication, but there are different ways to use language, and some of them are more metaphorical or implicit, some more literal. Taking things literally is typical of the closed, self-referential nature of the left-hemisphere’s word. It’s like balls bouncing on a frictionless pool-table without pockets. It is, in a sense, the implicit and the metaphorical that ground what would be otherwise a closed system – a hall of mirrors – to the direct experience at all.

    I agree that the proof (of” whether what [you] write here is ‘just talk’”) is largely in the pudding. And for example the Trump-analysis here (http://www.middlewaysociety.org/the-middle-way-on-trump/) does not convince me that any substantial integration or avoidance of delusions has happened. The use of the MiddleWay philosophy there seems rigid and working completely in the domain of LH intellectualisation. “Absolutizing” beliefs are constantly thrown around and leaned on, but clearly conveniently not categorised as such and hence not viewed as problematic. But from my point of view using words like “seems” and “apparently” don’t imply any deeper integration – they’re just rhetorical devices that writers have used for a very long time to give an impression of a moderate and balanced viewpoint. So statements like this seem to me as rigid as those of the next guy: “[Trump] apparently hasn’t even reached first base in assembling a basically coherent ideological view of the world about which one might be dogmatic.”; “His view of the world is that he can’t be wrong or acknowledge weakness regardless of his inconsistency, and the beliefs that he holds to absolutely are just that what Donald Trump believes in right now is right. That makes him an ultra-pragmatist in the worst, not the best sense – that is, of someone who will follow political expediency based on very narrow values. He doesn’t flip-flop because he’s so integrated that he’s provisional, but rather because he’s not even integrated enough to hold an ideological position.” For me it seems clear that there’s just a bunch of smoke and mirrors going on if you need to make statements like this: “That’s a politically partisan wish, but not one coming from unreflective absolutism.” To me a lot of that article reads like: “It might look from what I write like I hold rigid/absolutist beliefs, but I don’t because I repeatedly say I don’t”.

    A lot of emphasis in the MW philosophy is based on “incrementality”, which is an idea the LH loves, because it guarantees that the closed system of the LH self-referential internal narrative is not escaped. But actually realizations, intuitive leaps or breakthroughs of understanding are never incremental. And so deep integration, deep realizations and deep wisdom require non-incrementality. You can check out for example how Einstein came up with his theories and fundamental ideas.

    You say that meditation “does not lead to any kind of absolute knowledge through ‘direct experience’” and that Eckhart Tolle “doesn’t have a hotline to Reality”. How do you know? On what evidence are you basing this? These sound to me like absolutizing beliefs and this time you didn’t even bother using “seems” or “apparently”. Clearly on the basis of the MiddleWay philosophy you need to remain open to the possibilities that meditation can lead to some “absolute knowledge through ‘direct experience’” and that Eckhart Tolle might have some kind of “hotline to Reality” that you don’t. In fact I have “overwhelming confidence” that they do. After I became “overwhelmingly confident” that enlightenment is not as rare as we think – not just Buddha, Jesus, Lao Tsu, Hui-neng, Ramana Maharshi etc, but that there are tens of thousands of self-realized people in the world right now, and realized that there’s an innumerable amount of writings, talks and other testaments left by both them and those of past ages – the idea that enlightenment is just a myth or doesn’t exist started to seem like a hugely unlikely, implausible and unbelievable theory that I have “overwhelming confidence” against. But of course I must remain open to that opportunity as well until I know for certain.

    The question “Direct experience of what?” is a bit funny, because obviously it cannot ultimately be conceptualised, so giving more food for the LH here would be counterproductive. Direct experience of _________. But this “hotline to Reality” is nothing more special than normal, everyday consciousness, MINUS the fundamental conceptual delusions most of us are under. Perhaps the most important of these is the conceptual idea that we are separate persons, and when this illusion is seen through (not incrementally of course, but in a realization), the conventional sense of selfhood disappears, and this is why it has been called “to die while living”. Of course, none of this will make any sense to the left hemisphere! Intuition – or body intelligence / gnosis – needs to be acute to penetrate even the surface of these issues.

    None of those people who I listed are “meditation teachers” – the relationship between what they’re writing about and meditation is similar to the relationship between McGilchrist’s book and meditation. I wouldn’t have bothered suggesting you meditation teachers as I know you’re familiar with the mindfulness-viewpoint to meditation. As I said earlier, I suggested (and continue to suggest) that you read Power of Now primarily because it renders with IMO much greater clarity (for contemporary readers) what Buddha (and Jesus etc) was trying to get across. It seems to me that you haven’t grasped at all the fundamental issue that Buddha was trying to point at, and outside its context his discussion of the Middle Way is fairly meaningless. Power of Now has also sold millions of copies – which is very interesting and unusual for a book that deals with the nature of reality and the human condition in such a deep way – so I would view it as “common knowledge”, at least as far as the topics of this website are concerned. I would also argue that non-duality hits the same nail on the head that this MW philosophy is trying to hit, and so I find it very strange that a deep reading of non-duality has not been part of the construction of this philosophy.

    ———————————-

    Perhaps none of this pointing actually manages to get anything important across, so probably the only really useful thing in this message is the sincere suggestion for you to read Power of Now. And perhaps another useful thing I could do is give you the following riddle. I would be glad to verify any answer-candidates, and I assure you that it is very much worthwhile dedicating some time (if necessary) to trying to solve it:

    A father and son were involved in a terrible automobile wreck. Both were picked up by an ambulance and rushed towards a hospital. Along the way the father died of his injuries. At the hospital the boy was wheeled into an operating room, and doctors were called. A neurosurgeon arrived, took one look at the boy, and said, “I can’t operate on this boy; he’s my son!” Who was the neurosurgeon?

    1. Hi Visa,
      I think we’re interested in different things and have different goals here. I’m interested in developing helpful ways of thinking and practising that address every aspect of human experience, from the most profound to the most mundane. I obviously open myself to the potential of much misunderstanding, as well as error, by writing about politics, but I do so particularly to try to show that the Middle Way does not consist in trying to find pure beliefs or states of mind, but rather in thrashing around in the mundane mud making lots of mistakes. I’m not very interested in the eternal tao (or whatever you want to call it), because I don’t think it will help people very much unless it can be incrementally applied to make a difference in every area of experience. Most of our experience involves the conceptual domain, so I do not seek any kind of purity beyond it.

      I note that in your criticisms of my Trump article, you simply apply the sledgehammer approach of general dismissal on the grounds that I can’t possibly be right because I’m not pure, rather than an incremental approach of a kind I would be much more inclined to engage with. I may well be wrong about Trump (and my provisionality markers are sincere, though not everyone’s may be), but what’s the alternative? If you disagree with me, tell me your better alternative view and why I should believe that instead, without appealing to absolute positions. In Critical Thinking terms, you seem to be subject to the Nirvana Fallacy (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Nirvana_fallacy).

      You also seem to be thinking of yourself as special in your concern that you can’t get across what you’re trying to communicate. But this is not the unique problem of the enlightened or those who believe they’ve understood discontinuous insights, it’s the common lot of humanity. We can’t even fully describe the experience of seeing a tree, let alone an enlightened state, because embodied meaning means that there is no such thing as an true or correct representation in language, only one that’s practically adequate to achieve a particular purpose. All experience is ‘beyond thought’ and can only be pointed to.

      I agree with you that our moments of insight can be sudden and thus apparently discontinuous (which I suspect is because a new synaptic connection links to areas of the brain that were previously unconnected, and energy poured into that new link rapidly strengthens it). Incrementality is not about that, but rather about the beliefs we hold about things, where an incremental belief is generally likely to be more adequate than a discontinuous one because of the absolute boundaries assumed as part of our delusive tendency. I disagree that this is “an idea the LH loves”, as the opposite seems to be the case. The *over-dominant* left hemisphere thinks it has the whole story, and one way that it seal that assumption is by relying on rigid conceptual boundaries to whatever it is considering.

      The reason that I can state with confidence that “Eckhart Tolle does not have a hotline to reality” is simply that he is a human being (or at least, I think he is – I haven’t met him personally). Human beings have all the limitations we have discussed because they have bodies. If you are talking about Tolle’s *experiences* then I would agree that I don’t know what those experiences are. It’s quite likely that they are astonishingly integrated and beyond my ken. However, if his interpretation of those experiences is that they justify absolute beliefs, then he takes a step too far, perhaps encouraged by a long tradition of religious figures who have made the same mistake. His experience may be amazing, but he forgets that he is still an embodied human, rather than a disembodied left pre-frontal lobe, or a god, when he interprets that experience.

      I’m not surprised that he’s successful, like many other people who offer false certainties, even if these are also baited with useful practices. It’s such a shame that so many spiritual teachers fall at the final hurdle – telling us about our delusions at first, and impressing us with their practical attainments, but then feeding fundamental delusions in the end by claiming to have penetrated to some sort of ‘reality’. Presumably people accept this because of an underlying craving for certainty, even after they have acknowledged many of the initial layers of delusion they are subject to.

      Your riddle is familiar to me, the answer being that the surgeon is the boy’s mother. But this itself is an example of a need for reframing within the practical context of worldly experience. We shed our illusions like this, gradually, by recognising the limitations of one framework of assumption to adopt a slightly wider one. We don’t penetrate to some sort of experience of ‘reality’ only to come back again and suddenly recognise these limiting assumptions all at once. Even the Buddha and Jesus had limiting assumptions that we can even read about in the idealising religious records of their lives that we have. The final goal is a meaningful symbol but not a justifiable object of belief – instead we have only process.

      1. Hello again Robert,
        ok, I think there’s a chasm in the way we view these issues that’s unlikely to be bridged in this discussion. But anyway I’ll try to clarify or comment on a couple of points you brought up:

        “I’m not very interested in the eternal tao (or whatever you want to call it), because I don’t think it will help people very much unless it can be incrementally applied to make a difference in every area of experience. Most of our experience involves the conceptual domain, so I do not seek any kind of purity beyond it.”

        In my experience the “eternal tao” makes an immeasurably large practical difference to every area of experience. When you’re not constantly “abiding in your mind”, as they say in Zen – in practice being hypnotised by the conceptual mental chatter going on in your head – you can notice that life becomes much simpler, and you have a much more direct “hotline” to the non-conceptual reality and body intelligence / gnosis (or perhaps RH intelligence), which in my experience proves to be hugely more intelligent and practically valuable than conceptual intellectualisation. I’m not claiming that I’m enlightened by the way, and I was living very deeply “in my head” (i.e. being lost in the LH hall of mirrors) for the first two decades of my adult life. But after I started trying to maintain a meditative clarity as much as possible in all my daily activities, gaps between thoughts slowly became longer, and I started to abide more and more in mental silence (i.e. a state without any mental chatter and hence without any conceptualisation).

        Ashtavakra Gita has a nice line relating to this: “He who believes he is a person is constantly acting, even when the body is at rest. The sage knows he is not a person and therefore does nothing even when the body is in motion.” I still feel like a person (even though I’m intellectually “overwhelmingly confident” that I’m not), but I have tasted enough of this sage’s mental silence to understand what it is pointing at, and to know that it is not an “idea”.

        Saying that “most of our experience involves the conceptual domain” is contrary to my experience and sounds pretty odd to me, but if that is the case for you, then I understand better where you’re coming from. So, if you, say, take a walk, in what sense does this whole experience “involve the conceptual domain”? You might think that you see ‘trees’, ‘cars’ and ‘buildings’, but these are just concepts, and you’re not actually seeing concepts – I take it that you agree with this as you wrote that “all experience is ‘beyond thought’”. So in fact all your sensory input is completely non-conceptual, and you’re walking in an alive, non-conceptual world. Hence you’re completely immersed in a non-conceptual experience. EXCEPT that for most people, while they do that walk, they have a constant internal monologue going on (“mental chatter”, or “self-referential internal narrative”), so they’re kind of multi-tasking: there’s the actual non-conceptual experience, and the conceptual talking going on in their head. AFAIK, most people are pretty deeply hypnotised by that mental chatter, and so it might seem to them that their experience is conceptual – this is a shame, as that chatter is usually not necessary or useful for the walk (or for anything else for that matter) and it substitutes a mechanical, dead experience in stead of an alive, “real” one.

        It loos like you misread/misunderstood my criticism of your Trump article. I never said that you “can’t possibly be right because [you’re] not pure”. (I’m by the way not really interested in “purity”, which is just another concept for the LH to juggle with.) I said that the statements appeared “as rigid as those of the next guy” and that the article was “working completely in the domain of LH intellectualisation” and didn’t portray any “substantial integration”. In fact your viewpoints seemed very similar to many of the clever opinions I have seen from my Facebook friends who are largely highly educated and appear as intelligent but completely living inside their heads (i.e. completely trapped in the LH hall of mirrors). The only major difference was that your opinions were supplemented with meta-comments like “[that wish is] not one coming from unreflective absolutism”, that to me look like attempts to create some kind of “false neutrality”. Normally people don’t do that, because it’s assumed anyway that everyone things their opinions are right, reasonable, well reflected and well-grounded. So it looks to me cheap to put forward ordinary opinions that look just as “un-integrated” as “those of the next guy”, but trying to make them look more authoritative and true by explicitly and literally underlining that ‘these opinions are based on the “power of coherent provisionality etc” and hence have the support of overwhelming confidence behind them’.

        I’m not saying that my opinions on Trump are substantially different than these, but I’m suggesting a completely different attitude to them. Rather than trying to justify the opinionated opinions with another layer of LH intellectualisation, I would suggest that these opinions are seen as ‘just thinking’, just some objects of consciousness that appear like clouds in the sky and on which it is best to not get attached to. So basically I’m suggesting an attempt to stop being so attached to conceptual thinking in general and just acknowledge that these things appear in you consciousness and try to switch back to the alive world of direct non-conceptual perception if there’s no reason to remain in the conceptual domain (at that moment). In my experience better answers and actions arise from that (RH) domain, even in political matters.

        I agree with the paragraph ending with: “All experience is ‘beyond thought’ and can only be pointed to.”

        But I think the distinction between an “incremental belief” and a “discontinuous one” is largely fabricated as long as we stay in the conceptual LH domain. Beliefs are beliefs, and hence always have an element of “absolutism”. Some beliefs might appear more subtle, “incremental” or provisional, but in my experience this tends to be a surface-oriented illusion, and digging deeper some rigid boundaries can still be found. This is simply the nature of the LH domain, there’s no way of escaping from it via LH domain methods (e.g. conceptual thought-based intellectualisation such as the MW philosophy), and in my experience the only escape is to become less attached to your thought-machinations in general and consequently abide more in the RH.

        As for Tolle et al. I’m definitely NOT talking about “Tolle’s *experiences*”, and in fact none of the discussion about enlightenment is about gaining cool “experiences”. These are recognised to be transitory and ephemeral, just as all other objects of consciousness are, and so attention is placed on that which is aware of all the objects of consciousness. That is: thoughts, experiences, sensory perceptions etc appear and flow through consciousness. But what is it that is aware of all these?

        There’s no message in nonduality that any of it “justifies absolute beliefs” or in fact justifies or doesn’t justify any beliefs for that matter. Beliefs are just thoughts, which just appear in consciousness like clouds in the sky. Instead attention is placed on that which doesn’t appear or disappear or change in any way.

        I think your interpretation of Tolle and his success is way off. It’s no wonder since you haven’t read the book or otherwise seem to be familiar with him or in fact any contemporary form of non-duality, and so your viewpoint seems to be based on just vague and imprecise prejudices. Tolle is not offering “false certainties” or feeding “fundamental delusions”, but instead advocated getting beyond all delusions, which are all conceptual. There are no (and can be no) delusions in direct non-conceptual experience. In my experience people don’t get interested in Tolle’s message because he’s “impressing us with [his] practical attainments”, but because what he says activates a kind of latent (perhaps RH) knowledge that they had all along, but that was simply obscured by constant abidance in though. In fact Tolle (and any true spiritual or nonduality teacher) would find the idea that “he” has “attained” anything at all to be quite nonsensical and very funny. People hear what he says and confirm its truth by themselves, by looking into their own direct experience. At least that is how it has been for me.

        Many teachers say: don’t believe anything anyone says, look by yourself. It is not so difficult to get a “glimpse” of enlightenment by firstly seeing with clarity that indeed, all these ideas we hold (about ourselves, the world, enlightenment, philosophy, morality, ethics etc) are just thoughts – and it doesn’t even feel like we’re “thinking” them, they just appear in consciousness – and have no “meaning” outside thought; and secondly, having by some stroke of luck or “grace” a kensho or unity-consciousness -experience, where they are fully abiding in the unity of the direct experience without any self-referential internal narrative for some time. This could be called non-abiding awakening. After having one of those, there’s nothing speculative about – or “false certainties” relating to – enlightenment.

        Anyway, since I’m still stuck in personhood, don’t assume that I can give a good synopsis of Tolle’s book or the message of any of the nonduality-teachers I mentioned earlier. Instead see for yourself.

  3. Hi Visa,
    Thanks for continuing to develop the discussion so that I can better understand your point of view. However, I still feel that you don’t understand mine. Particularly, you don’t seem to understand the distinction between provisional and absolute beliefs. This video might help with that http://www.middlewaysociety.org/audio/middle-way-philosophy-introductory-videos/mwp-video-3-provisionality/. Provisionality may have much in common with what you describe as ‘just thinking’ or ‘becoming less attached to your thought machinations in general’, but it’s not a matter of a purely right hemisphere process – rather one in which the left hemisphere is sufficiently informed by the right, so that it has further alternatives available to the main one that might first occur to us and its negation.

    I also continue to feel that you are implicitly seeking purity, even though you deny this. That’s because you don’t seem willing to accept messy solutions. Provisionality is messy. You write that ‘digging deeper, some rigid boundaries may be found.’ So what? That’s only a problem if you expect to be able to be pure of absolutisations. We can work sincerely at reducing them whilst recognising that we will probably never completely succeed. Each new judgement also provides a new opportunity for provisionality, if we can make that judgement with sufficient awareness.

    The standpoint that you attribute to a hypostatised state beyond concepts, I would say has nothing to do with such a pure state, but is due to a process of practice. Mental chatter or proliferation is a problem that can be tackled by meditation or other practices – and we can make progress with it, messily. That has nothing to do with whether we use concepts or not, and everything to do with whether we get caught up in positive feedback loops in which obsession or anxiety create new mental representations that then create new obsession or anxiety. You (and some elements of Buddhist tradition) seem to confuse the concepts themselves with the process in which the concepts are used. Greater awareness can indeed help us weaken the power of the feedback loops, but this is an incremental process, and there is no need for the eternal tao to get involved. When we do have a greater degree of awareness, we can continue to use the concepts, but more provisionally – i.e. with more awareness.

    You also continue to interpret me as insincere in my use of provisionality markers in the Trump article. Disagree with me by all means, but surely provisionality is the starting point that we would need for any fruitful discussion? Way too much political discussion gets terminated with nothing learned because people merely throw absolute beliefs at each other, reacting and taking offence. A provisional space is one where these issues can be considered, and the language of provisionality is one means (not enough by itself, but it might help) to create that provisional space. But you won’t be able to engage in helpful debate in such a provisional space if you persist in interpreting others as insincere when they try to create one. So why not apply the principle of charity and interpret my language as sincere rather than insincere? You seem to be distracted by the boundary between intellectual and intuitive language, but neither of these is infallible, and we are all in the same messy boat of seeking more adequate political perspectives. You also won’t manage to have a political discussion without using concepts and intellectualisations.

    The discussion about Tolle seems to have become a red herring. I agree that I don’t know much about him, but he was just an example of a meditation teacher, or indeed an advocate of nonduality, standing for a general perspective that you are advocating. One characteristic of such ‘nonduality’ perspectives in my experience is one you exemplify above, of falling back on paradox, when you write “In fact Tolle (and any true spiritual or nonduality teacher) would find the idea that “he” has “attained” anything at all to be quite nonsensical and very funny.” This is straight Diamond Sutra style stuff, and I do interpret it, I think with some justification based on experience, as spectacularly insincere. The idea that he has not attained anything is just another theory of the type he pretends to have got beyond – moreover one that seems to mainly have a spoiler function of distracting any critical challenge. This again, involves an apparent assumption of purity (from concepts and ordinary human motivations). Then you also write “There are no (and can be no) delusions in direct non-conceptual experience.” Maybe not, but as soon as you start interpreting it, it becomes an absolutised dogma. We can’t avoid such interpretation, because we are embodied beings who have to make constant judgements that use concepts. The paradoxical language just entrenches people further in absolute thinking, instead of helping them to apply what they have gained from spiritual practice in the messy domain of ordinary human judgement.

    I suspect that if we go much further with this discussion we will start entering the unfruitful stage of repeating ourselves. Do rest assured that I have indeed personally tried out a lot of the approaches you advocate, in the context of Buddhism – and found them practically helpful in some ways, but often unhelpfully framed. You might be interested in my book ‘The Trouble with Buddhism’ – It was written in 2008 and I now think it needs a revision with some more tactful phrasing in places and some references, but it does give my core arguments against the ‘nonduality’ approach you are urging here, particularly about the Buddhist tendency to flip between absolutisations instead of engaging their practical insights in ways that are actually helpful.

  4. Hi Visa
    I’ve been following your discussion with Robert with interest and I hope you don’t mind me butting in with a question. You quote quite liberally from Iain McGilchrist’s work on brain lateralisation especially his use of the term ‘hall of mirrors’ and how you see Robert as being caught in such a left-hemisphere self-referential feedback loop. I don’t know if you are aware that Iain is the patron of the Middle Way Society and a strong champion of Robert’s work. Here for example is his forward to the Middle Way Philosophy Series :

    The “Middle Way” Ellis argues for so cogently is far from being a simple compromise between existing polarities, but a departure at right angles to typical thinking in the modern Western world, which looks to me like the path to ancient wisdom.
    The perception that objectivity is neither an absolute, nor any the less real for that, is central. Ellis argues for an approach that is incremental and continuously responsive to what is given, rather than abstract and absolute. This is the difference, as he notes, between the pragmatic, provisional, nuanced, never fixed position of the right hemisphere in the face of the absolutism towards which the left hemisphere always tends.
    The need for certainty must inevitably lead to illusion, whether in philosophy or in the business of living, and here too Ellis makes clear – as far as I am aware for the first time – the connections between the cognitive distortions known to psychology and the fallacies identified in the process of philosophy.
    This is an important, original work, that should get the widest possible hearing.

    I’m just wondering how you might account for him holding such views. Is he caught in his own hall of mirrors too with regard to Robert’s work?

    1. I’ve been directed to this conversation by Barry as a result of a short email exchange in which I mentioned my enthusiasm for a book on Parmenides by Peter Kingsley called Reality.

      Barry looked into Reality a little and surmised that the book might be an attempt to lead the reader to a direct experience of reality and if it were would that not clash with the Middle Way/Skeptical view that due to our embodied/finite nature we can’t have access to Truth or Reality.

      I replied to Barry’s point but I think that his point summarises some of the discussion between Robert and Visa. Visa appears to think that the Middle Way could do with some appreciation of Non-Duality but Robert expresses a wariness in this regard to do with offering false certainties with the dubious implication that Advaita teachers have a hotline to Reality.

      One of Visa’s observations is that the Middle Way writing seems very much centred on LH activity and Robert’s reply was that this was to be expected because the LH is dominant in communication.

      Kingsley’s book is interesting in this regard. There is plenty for the LH to engage with. Kingsley is a respected Classics scholar and the book is heavily referenced. However, he has all of that tucked away at the back and the main body of the text is unencumbered by what would be a heavy smattering of alphanumerical superscripts. The main body of the text is quite different to anything that might be found on the Middle Way website. Could this be characterised as RH activity? I don’t know and I don’t even know if such a thing makes sense. Kingsley’s book though is more than about making a scholarly re-evaluation of Parmenides contribution to Western culture. Otherwise he could have just called it ‘Parmenides: A Re-Evaluation’ or something like that. He’s using words with a deeper goal perhaps something akin to poetry. He called it Reality. So what red flags are going up here with regard to the Middle Way?

      Does it lead, or claim to lead, to a direct experience of the oneness of reality as Barry suggested? I don’t know what that means! I hope not and I’m not sure I would want such a thing anyway! Perhaps Barry might have rephrased his concern another way but in any case does it want to lead us to an experience of some sort, some kind of ultimate experience? In order to do so, the author will have to have some special status of the spiritually advanced guru type. There’s plenty to be wary of there!

      Kingsley describes Parmenides poem as an initiation and he invites us to enter into it with him as he forensically plumbs its depths. Having just watched Robert’s link on provisionality this seems like an ample opportunity to practise it. Our beliefs are very much who we are. Provisionality involves letting go of beliefs in the light of evidence. In doing so we become different as the extent to which we hold beliefs and the beliefs we hold change us. In the context of initiation this is described as dying before we die.

      So why Reality?

      I’m not speaking for Kingsley here. My suggestion here is how we consider our own experience. It has been subverted. It has been subverted in particular by allowing scientific understanding to diminish us existentially. Science tells us that we can only ever experience a model of reality. The story of sense perception hammers this home. I take it this is in keeping with the Middle Way outlook? How can a finite embodied being experience the reality behind the model?

      It obviously can’t. We’re being set up to fail. What we experience cannot be real. Our experience is rubbish. :)

      And so notions of sudden realisation and a hotline to reality are obviously rubbish too!

      The best the Middle Way can offer us is to do a bit of meditation and maybe get into a bit of art, poetry and ritual maybe. It might help you get a bit integrated in a gradual way. You’re going to have to do a lot of reading and get your head around a lot of ideas though.

      I’m going to take a little chip here at what is perhaps the keystone to this discussion. That is the notion of direct experience. Let’s explore this.

      Can you drop, at least for a few moments all the stories you’ve been told about a body and the senses, of a world out there and of a process called sense perception? These stories are not part of your immediate experience.

      What is your immediate experience?

      Turn to your experience to it right now. The ambient sounds, sights and sensations. It is as it is. It is as it is…A variety of sensations. In doing so, consider can this experience ever be other than direct?

      As you’re experiencing now, does it even make sense to categorise it as direct or otherwise?

      It isn’t direct if you insist on adhering to beliefs concerning a body experiencing an external world through a process known as cognition. But all of that is nothing more than froth on the surface of experiencing and I asked you not to do that.

      There is no hotline to reality because our experiencing is the only reality we know! We have though got into the habit of pushing it aside and replacing it with the froth of beliefs and denigrating it as ‘subjective’ which is far inferior to the status of ‘being objective’.

      We’ve lost our centre. It’s ‘out there’ somewhere. We have become existentially impoverished. We have turned ourselves inside out – everything that really matters is going on ‘out there’. We don’t really know any ‘out there’ of course because even according to science – even though it calls it a model – it is being constructed right here where I am. We hypothesise an ‘out there’ and invest emotionally in it. But this is all we can know. We have no way of verifying that what we’re experiencing is a model. That is just a way of thinking which is useful in certain contexts.

      In the experiencing itself there is nothing of a model. No experience has an inherent ersatz quality to it. We realise this when we come home to our own experience which is where we are anyway. There’s no gradual way of knowing this. It’s either apparent or it’s not. However, even when it is apparent it is easy to slip into limiting mental habits once again and it’s a gradual process to undermine those habits.

      There is nothing “spectacularly insincere” here about realising that you’ve attained nothing. There is sense of a ‘bottom ground’, this is it. Are we saying it’s absolute? Does the absolute not pertain to beliefs? There is nothing illusory about experience. The only thing that is illusory is our understanding. Saying that you’ve attained nothing is just an honest description. Lots of stuff has actually been dropped. No knowledge has been attained, no understanding, no special experience, no hotline to reality. It’s simple, direct experiencing. Any qualifiers like ‘simple’ and ‘direct’ are unnecessary. How can experiencing be of any other kind? Experience only becomes an idea when we talk about it and then when we talk about it we can describe it as indirect. I can tell you about the pain in my finger but this isn’t the pain in my finger. If it were otherwise then you’d be experiencing the pain in my finger too.

      So what’s the big deal? Are we not in danger here of reducing ourselves to a primitive animal state of sorts? Not at all. We are no longer subject to ongoing existential impoverishment. That’s a big deal, joyful even. We can rest unflinchingly in the actuality of our subjectivity. Mental clarity ensues although communication from here is always problematic as it is with any attempt to communicate experience. The surface froth of our ideas and beliefs are given their appropriate due and are no longer allowed to usurp the heart of our experiencing.

      In conclusion, I wouldn’t describe the contents of the Middle Way website as confusing as Vista did. I doubt that’s what s/he meant. My own response to it is that it’s top(LH?)-heavy and somewhat asphyxiating. At the same time, I don’t find anything to disagree with and find much to appreciate and admire in the project.

      Something needs unlocking and opening up though (I’ve no wish to denigrate it in any way. This is simply my response and I appreciate that others might feel quite differently) and perhaps Vista’s suggestion of a positive consideration of some of the authors s/he listed might help and even Kingsley’s Reality which gets an enthusiastic review from Eckhart Tolle!

  5. Hi Robert,
    thanks for clarifying and elaborating on your position. I agree that from now on we would start to repeat ourselves – at least I don’t really have anything further to add – so probably better to leave it at this. Also, now that I’m more familiar with your viewpoint after this lengthy discussion, I’m starting to suspect that you probably wouldn’t get much out of Tolle or the other teachers I mentioned, so I wouldn’t push that recommendation so firmly anymore. Thanks for the discussion!

    ———————————–

    Re: Barry (Hi Barry!):
    Yes, I had already noticed earlier that Iain McGilchrist is a patron of the Middle Way Society and in fact one reason I was using McGilchrists terminology so profusely here was that I knew Robert was familiar with it, so I was trying to use it to bridge what might otherwise be an unbridgeable chasm. From my point of view one of the main advantages of McGilchrist’s work on the divided brain is indeed in bridging that kind of chasm. Talk about nonduality or non-conceptual awareness may seem nonsensical or incomprehensible for people who live very deep inside their heads – that is, people who are almost constantly caught up in conceptual thinking and who believe their thoughts. McGilchrists work might help create some fractures in the “hall of mirrors” that are probably a necessary prerequisite for escaping it (suffering is another good creator of such fractures, btw). In this context we can attribute “hall of mirrors” as his term, but actually nonduality teachers have used that and similar metaphors for as long as there has been written language – only difference is that they are talking about mind and consciousness (rather than brain), which are, as far as I’m concerned, ultimately the key issues.

    Although I still think that McGilchrists work can be useful as a stepping stone into nonduality, I now think that it has its own inbuilt traps (i.e. risks of creating new delusions/illusions). In the end consciousness cannot really be researched by looking at any of the objects of consciousness (e.g. our thoughts, the idea about the brain and what we think we know about it etc). Although it seems to me that McGilchrist is in touch with his intuition/ body intelligence/ gnosis to an unusual degree for a person with his background, I still think it’s a completely different order of magnitude from the teachers I mentioned in my first post. And so some aspects of Master and his Emissary do strike me as trying to “make sense of the RH in [LH] terms”, or “trying to fly with a submarine”. It also seems that McGilchrist has interest in several western philosophers whose work I see as largely trapped in the hall of mirrors (although I must say I was very interested in much of it when I was younger). In a way McGilchrist’s views wrt. to the Middle Way philosophy (particularly the comment that it (“looks to [him] like the path to ancient wisdom”) tells me more about him than the MiddleWay philosophy.

  6. Hi Bill,
    Thanks for your post. My main thought in response is to ask whether you have tried to apply the Middle Way thoroughly here – if that’s what you want to do. You seem to acknowledge that the moment we turn our inspired experience into a claim or belief there’s a danger of slipping into positive absolutes by going on about ‘reality’, so does this not apply just as much on the other extreme? If we have an inspired experience I don’t think it should be undermined by claiming that we have achieved ‘nothing’. I don’t think that’s an ‘honest description’ because, being human and having egos, we are very likely to feel that we have attained something. Saying that we have achieved ‘nothing’ seems to just lead us back into the flip between positive absolutes and negative absolutes which I think is so unhelpful in Zen, Perfection of Wisdom etc. To put that experience into a perspective in which we can understand it better in relation to alternative beliefs we need to incrementalise it, which means on the one hand recognising that we haven’t achieved enlightenment or the eternal tao or whatever you want to call it, and also on the other, positively recognising that we have indeed experienced and achieved something of positive value.

    As for what you say about direct experiencing, I still think that you are effectively asserting something that is in grave danger of being interpreted absolutely. Why is it so important to you to assert that experience is ‘direct’? Can’t it be either direct or indirect, or just unknown? If you’re not actually wanting to assert that there is a pure or direct experience, why not just give up that sort of language and concentrate on talking in ways that will be more helpful? I can’t see that it achieves anything apart from taking us back into flips. But, I must reiterate, that is no disrespect to the experience itself – it’s a pragmatic issue with regard to how we choose to talk about it.

    I’ve been writing about Christianity recently, including about idolatry, and it seems to me that there is a parallel issue here in Buddhism and in the Judeo-Christian tradition. The Israelites, if Exodus is to be believed, had some amazing experiences of God. At that time, most people were illiterate and the main way they hypostatised and reified was in images, and the laws of Moses forbade idolatry (making graven images etc) in order to avoid people turning the living experienced God into a rigid form. However, as I see it, the Judeo-Christian failed to move with the times as people became more literate. Images gradually became less rigid signifiers and more potentially liberating enrichments of experience through the development of art. But the focus of idolatry became claims made in words instead. At the time of Moses, just having to obey consistent laws was a step forward, but these laws became rigid dogmas in later ages. The idolatry of words was enshrined in representationalism – the belief that propositions made out of words could represent reality – and this dogma supports beliefs in religious revelation through scripture and analytic philosophy alike.

    I’d see a broadly similar process occurring in Buddhism, except that the limitations of words were recognised at a much earlier stage. The Buddha, and others, had profound experiences in which they become temporarily highly integrated and/or glimpse their potential as integrated beings. Idolatry was similarly forbidden in the early centuries of Buddhism, but the enlightened experience rapidly became reified as the words of the enlightened, and the Mahayana reacted against this with the doctrine of emptiness, in which the tendency to hypostatise and reify was countervailed by the use of paradoxical language. This was a new protest against idolatry – the idolatry of words this time. But the Mahayanists had no alternative way of understanding meaning, so they got stuck at the point of using paradoxical language as a replacement for representational language. Thus not only claims about reality, but also their flip relationship with denials of reality, often became the focus of idolatrous belief.

    Whatever the human limitations of my own grasp or practice of it as you may find them expressed on this website or elsewhere, I think there is an alternative to this kind of idolatry of verbal formulations, consisting in a recognition of embodied meaning, provisionality, incrementality etc. That does not mean experience is ‘subjective’ (a word I never use, by the way), but rather that both experience and language is meaningful and powerful – all the more powerful for being interpreted in terms of the Middle Way rather than dogma. If you find any aspects of my philosophically-led presentation of the Middle Way “somewhat asphyxiating”, I invite you to find your own more adequate ways of presenting it in ways that will engage more fully with the sense of meaning in your own and others’ experience.

  7. Hi Bill
    My summary of the book ‘Reality’ was basically me just scanning an article on Wikipedia about Peter Kingsley and lifting it from there. Here’s the relevant section:

    “Kingsley’s work argues that the writings of the presocratic philosophers Parmenides and Empedocles, usually seen as rational or scientific enterprises, were in fact expressions of a wider Greek mystical tradition that helped give rise to western philosophy and civilisation. This tradition, according to Kingsley, was a way of life leading to the direct experience of reality and the recognition of one’s divinity.”

  8. Hi Robert
    I think it’s unlikely that when someone is caught up in the type of circular thinking you ascribe to Visa (and members of the Buddhist community) that they are being spectacularly insincere. On the contrary, I know from my own experience at least, that when I’m prone to thinking dogmatically, I genuinely believe what I’m saying and that indeed is the problem. If you remember Dan Kahan’s work, he argues that education and intelligence are usually no safeguard against bias, but often simply help one justify our way out of dissonance more articulately when our beliefs are being challenged and what seems key to making more adequate judgements is an openness and curiosity to being wrong. Of course, people can be insincere in arguing in such an apparently closed way, but I don’t think it’s a foregone conclusion and therefore I would suggest you also weren’t showing the principle of charity here which as you know generally only puts people on the defensive.

  9. Hi Barry,
    I’m grateful for your attention to mistakes I might be making, but in this case I think you’re misreading me. I didn’t accuse Visa of being insincere, and I agree with you that accusations of insincerity are generally ill-advised. I was referring to a person such as a meditation teacher who had had experiences of deep integration or insight (such as Eckhart Tolle, but he was just an example) and who claimed to have no attainment. I said that I thought this would be spectacularly insincere, since it effectively involves such a person denying that they have an ego and that they identify with their achievements, when one would fully expect them to be aware of the fact that they have an ego and are aware of their achievements. I set the bar high because of the kind of person we were talking about, and them claiming that they have attained nothing seems to be a failure of sincerity rather than a matter of mere unconscious delusion, precisely because of the degree of self-awareness that I would expect them to have.

  10. Hi Robert
    I see now that I’ve misread you with regard to Visa. Apologies for that. However, I think it’s prudent not to underestimate the ability we have to delude ourselves (as opposed to being deliberately duplicitous), even someone as apparently integrated as Eckart Tolle (who’s book ‘The Power of Now’ I have read).

  11. Hi Bill,
    thanks for chiming in, I found your descriptions to be potent and alive. If you’re interested in further discussion on these kinds of topics, I would recommend the discussion forum at http://spiritualteachers.proboards.com , where I’m registered with the same name as here.

    Re: Robert:
    “being human and having egos”… “the fact that they have an ego”

    It doesn’t seem that you took Bill’s invitation to explore the direct experience here, so I’ll give it another go from a different angle. You seem to be completely convinced of the existence of this “ego”, to the extent that you say that every human having it is a “fact” and use this as a important basis for your argumentation. If it’s so certain, it should be easy for us to verify it right now in our own experience – so let’s try to locate/identify this ego.

    So, try to look at (be aware of) your direct, non-conceptual experience, without abiding in thought (if necessary following e.g. Bill’s instructions). Where is this ego? Can you find it? What is it? Does it have some kind of feeling-character or associated body sensations? Again, I’m not interested in speculation, philosophizing, or descriptions of your ideas on the issue or what you think you know about it – but simply a description of your direct experience. Out of practical necessity here we can use “first-order” conceptual language for trying to put that experience in words, as long as we remain grounded in our immediate experience and don’t take these descriptions out for further conceptual spins.

    Re: Barry:
    “I think it’s unlikely that when someone is caught up in the type of circular thinking you ascribe to Visa”…

    So what exactly was this circular thinking and how exactly is it circular? BTW, do you realize how this message might look like to the one you’re arguing against (or possibly anyone outside the MW posse)?

  12. Hi Visa,
    I think we’re completely talking past each other here, and would be better sticking to our previous agreement to stop doing so. I’ve certainly explored direct experience – apart from around 30 years of meditation, that’s what humans do. But you seem to be completely ignoring the point that we are using language here to discuss interpretations of ‘direct experience’, and cannot actually discuss it without interpretation. Although you theoretically recognise that this is the case, you seem to be following the common habit in non-dualist/ Buddhist circles of saying we can’t talk about ‘reality’ one moment, and then proceeding to talk about it the next.

    In your discussion of the ego you’re jumping straight to an absolute perspective, which ironically depends entirely on a theoretical position even though you are emphasising direct experience. I was talking about ego simply in terms of the fact that we experience identifying with things. That experience of identification can be attenuated, but if anyone claims to have got past it altogether I would suspect them of denying their human embodiment, of which the ego is part. Whether or not anyone actually has egoless experiences I don’t know – I’m just confident that interpreting them as egoless is extremely likely to be deluded.

    In the land of interpretation in which we are stuck in this discussion, this is just another flip: I’ve discussed the flip in this blog: http://www.middlewaysociety.org/the-mystical-flip/. I don’t think we’re going to have a fruitful discussion if you can’t acknowledge that your language involves an interpretation rather than being able to refer directly to experience, and follow that through consistently. I nevertheless have full respect for your experience or anyone else’s, and would also suggest that you avoid making assumptions about what *I* may or may not have experienced myself when interpreting my writing.

  13. It seems that I’ve been somewhat on a back foot in these discussions, responding to criticisms. But I have a question for Bill and Visa. Given that on their own account they can’t talk about them anyway, why can’t those who believe they have had (or that others have had) direct experiences simply shut up about them?

  14. Hi Visa
    I was simply referring to what Robert sees as some flaws in your arguing that he has pointed out to you on several occasions. I certainly recognise that I personally am fallible and I know Robert sees that in himself too. You also seemed quite comfortable in suggesting as much by describing Robert as being in a “hall of mirrors”, a suggestion Robert I think has responded to with politeness and thought . In addition, you implied Iain McGilchrist’s appraisal of Robert’s work is subject to similar limitations which of course you are entitled to do so. So why may I ask is it apparently offensive when someone questions your own thinking and you use derogatory language such as seeing me as being a member of a ‘MW posse’ in what seems like an attempt to insult me? This way of framing things is perhaps an example of circularity you enquired about in the sense of:

    ‘A view of mine is being challenged by someone. I don’t like it. I dismiss the person via insult. My view remains intact. ‘

    I hope this helps.

    Barry

  15. Hi again Robert,
    okay, so I suppose we need to clarify a bit this whole thing of “not being able to talk about (direct) experience”. Firstly, the term “direct experience” has become a bit problematic in this discussion, looking like it’s referring to some “thing”, while it’s not (it’s “no-thing”). For the purpose of this discussion, I would perhaps define it simply as present-moment experience in the absence of the hypnosis by (or identification with) self-referential conceptual thinking. Not a super great definition, but perhaps it’ll do. When we are locked in in our thinking, our beam of attention is very narrow, and we loose the sense of holistic experience of what’s going on right now.

    From that point of view, it’s then a bit problematic to talk about “direct experienceS”, because it seems to me that AN experience is an event that has a beginning and an end in time and has happened in the past (for it to be framed as “an experience”), and hence only exist in the present moment as a memory – that is, as thought. So, again, experienceS are not the crux of what I have been talking about.

    So, for not being able to talk about direct experience. It is clear that we do try to describe and talk about our experience (and refer to things outside both reason and the system of language) all the time. It is also equally clear that this description is not the experience itself and cannot directly convey the experience to anyone else. In a sense talking about anything faces the same dilemma: either you’re stuck with exchanging empty concepts in a closed system of tokens (i.e. talking about things you can 100% talk about), or you try to reach outside those systems, but if scrutinised closely enough this always results in something akin to paradox or inconsistency from the point of view of the system. But we talk anyway, and usually make the latter choice.

    Some concepts are perhaps less problematic than others – e.g. “apple” in the context of “could you pass me the apple”, as opposed to “consciousness”, i.e. “that which is aware of all objects of consciousness” – and usually in the first case we don’t get so lost in in the forest of concepts that we are not soon eating an apple. In the topic of nonduality the issue is particularly difficult, as habitual conceptual thinking is seen as one of the most substantial obstacles to perceiving that which is being pointed at, so if the talking about it serves to rev up conceptual thinking rather than dissolve it, then it’s in fact taking one further away from that which is being pointed at. Hence the talk about this subject needs to work kind of like Nicorette – concepts are used in order to dissolve attachment to other concepts, and although new beliefs are likely to be generated in the process, these are hopefully not held as strongly as the old ones.

    So I’m aware of the issue that “we are using language here to discuss interpretations of ‘direct experience’, and cannot actually discuss it without interpretation” – I agree with it, and don’t think that I have actually ignored it (although I didn’t think it’s necessary to write about it in length as my posts were already long). But we seem to have the opposite view on what’s the solution to this issue, which might partly account for why we’re “talking past each other” here.

    The impression I get is that you seem to suggest that the solution is to have as clear, fixed and explicit definitions of concepts as possible, and use these as consistently as possible – otherwise we risk becoming meaningless. My view is the opposite: that it is this explicitness and rigid rationality and rigid consistency that ensure that we remain trapped in the closed systems of reason and language, and that rob the discussion from any possibility of meaning “flooding in”. Our one common touching stone, McGilchrist has some insightful observations relating to this in his book:

    ———-

    “The ‘parallel between Heraclitus’ style and the obscurity of the nature of things, between the difficulty of understanding him and the difficulty in human perception, is not arbitrary: to speak plainly about such a subject would be to falsify it in the telling, for no genuine understanding would be communicated’. The point is not that the nature of things is contradictory, but that the attempt to render them in language leads inevitably to what we call paradox, and the attempt to avoid paradox therefore distorts. ”

    “Literal language, by contrast, is the means whereby the mind loosens its contact with reality and becomes a self-consistent system of tokens.”

    “The existence of a system of thought dependent on language automatically devalues whatever cannot be expressed in language; the process of reasoning discounts whatever cannot be reached by reasoning. In everyday life we may be willing to accept the existence of a reality beyond language or rationality, but we do so because our mind as a whole can intuit that aspects of our experience lie beyond either of these closed systems. But in its own terms there is no way that language can break out of the world language creates – except by allowing language to go beyond itself in poetry; just as in its own terms rationality cannot break out of rationality, to an awareness of the necessity of something else, something other than itself, to underwrite its existence.”

    ————–

    So from my point of view we should not get attached to words, but to use language lightly, as a stepping stone. Zen uses the metaphor of its teaching being a finger pointing to the moon. The only function of the finger is to get the gaze turn to the moon. To turn the attention to the finger – to put it through endless analytical scrutiny, for example – is to miss the point. Sometimes this is called “pointer-licking”. From my perspective it looks like part of what you’ve been doing in this discussion and some of your criticism of Buddhism and mysticism fall under pointer-licking. (For the record, idolatry could be seen as another form of pointer-licking.) But perhaps this is inevitable since the pointers don’t seem to have resonated with you. In any case I might not have been making the case very well – and in a sense I don’t really feel qualified to make it – which is why my original intention was just to throw this topic out there while giving a suggestion of further reading that makes the case much better than I can.

    So, with all the difficulties, why do I talk about direct experience (again, without the ‘s’ in the end) at all and not just shut the hell up? Currently it feels to me that this is pretty much the most generally useful/important topic I could talk about. From my experience I’m drawn to conclude that the root of human suffering lies in abidance in thought, believing these thoughts, and – most importantly of all – identifying with them, so drawing attention to this whole mechanism seems valuable. In this particular case (i.e. starting this discussion here), much of what is written on this website seems to me at least indirectly related to this topic, and you were familiar with McGilchrist’s book, which also indirectly touches on it – however, there was still no mention of non-duality, or to my perception any acknowledgement of what it’s pointing at, so I thought it might be worthwhile to bring it up, as it looked like this angle had flown under the radar here.

    ————

    With all that said, rational argumentation can also have some value in this general “pointing” – most markedly in the possibility of dissipating limiting beliefs, as in the Nicorette-metaphor. With this in mind I’d like to turn to this ego-issue again. I think “talking about ego simply in terms of the fact that we experience identifying with things” is a good way to proceed and I think its a perfectly fine working definition for our purposes. (I’m not sure what the absolute perspective/theoretical position on ego you were attributing to me is, but you might have been jumping to conclusions.) So, you experience egoic identification (as do I), but you remain open to the possibility that people can have temporary egoless experiences. From my point of view it’s very obvious that they can: humans get through the first 1-2 years of their lives just fine without an ego, and I suspect *most* adults experience some temporary egoless states e.g. when falling in love or in “flow”-states related to music/art/sports. And yet, you seem certain that it is a fact that a permanent egoless state is an impossibility? Why? This looks to me like an unsubstantiated metaphysical belief. If (as it seems to me) there is no convincing evidence confirming that permanent egolessness is indeed a factual impossibility, wouldn’t it be more in line with provisionality to adopt the more open and provisional belief that it might be possible?

  16. Hi Barry,
    re: “circular thinking” – ok, but you were actually the only one who used the expression “circular thinking” – as far as I can tell Robert was primarily talking about paradox, which is different (see some thoughts about that in the above post). I still haven’t noticed any circular thinking in what I have been saying here.

    Re: “MW posse” – I was using “posse” in the common informal sense of “a group of friends or associates (“hanging out with your posse”)”, so there was nothing derogatory about the expression MW posse – it just referred to the active community of MiddleWay society. In my experience the use of that word in its older formal definition is so rare in discussions that it didn’t even occur to me that it could be interpreted that way. But otherwise I’m aware that I might be coming off as fairly assertive here.

    Re: the rest – I don’t find it offensive when someone questions my thinking – in fact I’m completely up to my beliefs being challenged. (So far I haven’t felt that my beliefs have been challenged in a substantial way in this discussion, perhaps because when they are supposedly being challenged, “my position” is being re-interpreted and reframed in such a way that I no longer really associate with it.) I just found your message a bit ironic from the point of view of what you were saying (and from the point of view of MW-philosophy), as it seemed to me that you were considering only two possible alternatives: that the person who’s challenging your beliefs is 1.) insincere and wrong, or 2.) sincere and wrong. Apparently extending your field of possibilities to include this latter option in addition to the first is viewed as “principle of charity”. “If only he would come around and understand how blind to his closed, dogmatic view he is!” So, most of the things you were saying could be turned around straight atcha, and I would’ve thought that the MiddleWay philosophy makes that very explicit.

  17. Hi Visa,
    Well, this is beginning to seem slightly less fruitless and a little more promising. You seem to have misunderstood my position in several ways, but your own way of putting things in your last post suggests we might not be that far apart. You at last seem to be recognising that we’re unavoidably having a conceptual conversation rather than apparently attempting shortcuts out of it.

    Your definition of ‘direct experience’ as “present-moment experience in the absence of the hypnosis by (or identification with) self-referential conceptual thinking” sounds to me like the kind of awareness that produces provisionality in general, as long as you are prepared to see it incrementally. In other words, conceptual thinking continues and we get increasing perspective on it. Even in the dhyanas as described in Buddhism, initial and sustained thought (vicara and vitarka) continue for quite a while.

    It’s the dichotomy of this that I want to challenge: “either you’re stuck with exchanging empty concepts in a closed system of tokens (i.e. talking about things you can 100% talk about), or you try to reach outside those systems, but if scrutinised closely enough this always results in something akin to paradox or inconsistency from the point of view of the system.” You quote McGilchrist at times when he is referring to closed left hemisphere rationality, but McGilchrist also provides a basis for understanding the interaction between the hemispheres. We are not just restricted to a 100% closed left hemisphere dominated state or an alternative that is outside it, with mere paradoxes when the two come into contact. Instead, the perspective offered by the right hemisphere can be used to integrate the desires and beliefs held by the left at different times. Integration is an incremental process, involving gradual strengthening of the interaction between the hemispheres. Personally I think paradoxical language is an admission of integrative failure, which is why I do everything I can to try to avoid it and replace it with incremental language.

    I note that you are also now using incremental language in places, despite your earlier disparaging of incrementality: “Some concepts are perhaps *less* problematic than others”; “in the first case we don’t get *so* lost in in the forest of concepts that we are not soon eating an apple”; “concepts are used in order to dissolve attachment to other concepts, and although new beliefs are likely to be generated in the process, these are hopefully not held *as* strongly as the old ones.” We’re apparently agreed about that then.

    It’s to avoid fruitless paradox and flipping that I no longer talk about ‘nonduality’ – though I do still occasionally use the term ‘non-dualism’ referring to an integrative Middle Way attitude rather than an ultimate state.

    “From my experience I’m drawn to conclude that the root of human suffering lies in abidance in thought, believing these thoughts, and – most importantly of all – identifying with them, so drawing attention to this whole mechanism seems valuable.” Agreed again. But what does this have to do with non-duality? If we really want to engage with this process of identification in every area of experience, it’s simply far more effective to do so incrementally. If that’s what’s important to you, I don’t think it requires you to spend time defending beliefs about pure ‘direct experience’ or the like at all. On the contrary, they’re a stumbling block of identification, as I think aspects of this discussion illustrate. You’re setting off in a direction and engaging in a process, and that’s a process that may require the questioning of every belief, including beliefs about enlightenment or the like.

    Where your misunderstanding of my position particularly emerges is here: “The impression I get is that you seem to suggest that the solution is to have as clear, fixed and explicit definitions of concepts as possible, and use these as consistently as possible – otherwise we risk becoming meaningless. My view is the opposite: that it is this explicitness and rigid rationality and rigid consistency that ensure that we remain trapped in the closed systems of reason and language, and that rob the discussion from any possibility of meaning “flooding in”.” However did you get the impression that I think “we risk becoming meaningless” if we don’t have fixity of concepts? On the contrary, I argue that meaning is prior to and independent of such beliefs – see any of the resources on this site regarding meaning, e.g. http://www.middlewaysociety.org/audio/middle-way-philosophy-introductory-videos/mwp-video-6-integration/mwp-video-6b-the-integration-of-meaning/. Within the limitations of a particular cognitive model, I do think it is helpful to clarify our terms, but the usefulness of this has its limitations because we don’t necessarily share cognitive models (which are built on metaphors and embodied experience). The integration of meaning involves not just clarifying terms but also tolerating ambiguity and expanding our range of symbols and metaphors. It’s quite possible to see the value of clarifying terms without seeing that as an end in itself and whilst seeing that value in a bigger provisional context. I also think that your position as you describe is unhelpfully absolute: meaning is not opposed to consistency of belief, but simply prior to it. Our beliefs always depend on more basic meanings, so the processes that help us get in touch with meaning may not be impacted by our beliefs, but we can also develop helpful practical beliefs about how to integrate meaning.

    I’m not “certain that it is a fact that a permanent egoless state is an impossibility”, only confident of it, on the basis of finding signs of ego even in records about Buddha and Jesus, as I’ve already mentioned, plus the difficulty in developing any comprehensible view of how a human could actually operate on earth without an ego. Confidence can be based on 99.999% practical justification from experience, especially when the only counter-evidence appears to be based on absolutisations, but that’s not 100% provided we can consider alternatives. More importantly, I think beliefs about permanent egoless states are likely to be both irrelevant to practical progress and a source of absolute beliefs.

    So I think all this stuff about egoless states and direct experience is just a distraction from the more important things that we agree about. It seems to be a nexus of meaning for you, and I have no problem with that – meaning for me personally lies more in Christian symbols. We can symbolise and celebrate absolutes as meaning, but that’s quite distinct from believing in them, which leads to all sorts of trouble.

  18. Hi again Robert,
    Yes, I agree with most of your post.

    ____________
    “It’s the dichotomy of this that I want to challenge: “either you’re stuck with exchanging empty concepts in a closed system of tokens (i.e. talking about things you can 100% talk about), or you try to reach outside those systems, but if scrutinised closely enough this always results in something akin to paradox or inconsistency from the point of view of the system.”” …
    “I also think that your position as you describe is unhelpfully absolute: meaning is not opposed to consistency of belief, but simply prior to it.”

    Sure, I don’t have a problem with challenging these dichotomies or possibly even throwing them out of the window altogether. I suppose I was polarising my position in an attempt to gain exaggerated clarity. (Perhaps another way of viewing the first expression is that actually we in fact *always* choose the latter option, that is, we’re never completely 100% trapped in the system – in which case it’s not in practice a dichotomy, but perhaps more a matter of degree.)

    __________________
    “Your definition of ‘direct experience’ as “present-moment experience in the absence of the hypnosis by (or identification with) self-referential conceptual thinking” sounds to me like the kind of awareness that produces provisionality in general, as long as you are prepared to see it incrementally.” …
    ““From my experience I’m drawn to conclude that the root of human suffering lies in abidance in thought, believing these thoughts, and – most importantly of all – identifying with them, so drawing attention to this whole mechanism seems valuable.” Agreed again. But what does this have to do with non-duality? If we really want to engage with this process of identification in every area of experience, it’s simply far more effective to do so incrementally.”

    Ok wonderful, these are substantial agreements then. (BTW, I realised that many people use “direct experience” differently, referring to a temporary state of complete egolessness and a total lack of separation, where complete unity (or “being one with God” in e.g. Christian lingo) is experienced. In Zen it’s called “kensho” and some people say it’s possible to get enlightened without ever having had a kensho-experience (in this definition it can be “an experience”). My definition was closer to what tends to be called “mindfulness” in the West, and I think it works fine for us here.)

    I can accept that from abiding more and more in this kind of “mindful” state, provisionality is likely to increase incrementally, or at least in a way that seems incremental. But it can also increase non-incrementally in different kinds of realisations, when some kind of delusion or pattern of thinking is “seen through”. In the case of subtle realisations, it might not be even noticed so clearly that something non-incremental had taken place, and I’m actually inclined to think that all expansions of our cognitions happen in this way: in subtle non-incremental realisations (as in seeing through the father-son-neurosurgeon riddle). With subtle realisations it could be seen as fairly irrelevant that the grain of the cognitive expansion might in the end be non-incremental (if it’s so subtle that it’s only noticed afterwards and therefore retrospectively concluded to be incremental), but with deeper realizations this can be very obvious, and these can propel one to some kind of “altered state of consciousness” for some time (hours, days). However, you could still say that the only way to approach the practice is incrementally, that is we simply practice mindfulness etc daily without any grand expectations (ideally with no expectations whatsoever).

    Anyway, this gives me the opportunity to rephrase hopefully in a clearer way one of the main reasons why I wrote the initial message – what I was really getting at when I wrote that “this website shouts “LEFT-HEMISPHERE” to me”. So we both agree that reducing identification with or attachment to thoughts and beliefs is very important and useful. But I feel that the content of this website is not ultimately pointing to that direction – or, rather, that it is pointing that way, while walking the other way. In my experience philosophising (in the Western intellectual manner), theoretical speculation etc are more likely to increase the abidance in and attachment to thought. From my POV there seems to be an unnecessary amount of meticulous intellectual analysis of the Middle Way concepts and theoretical frameworks – that, is, the concepts and theories don’t seem to me to be used lightly as “stepping stones”. I suspect that’s what Bill was referring to when he said that he finds the website “somewhat asphyxiating”.

    To me a the most important and provisionality-generating point on this website is simply the suggestion to practice mindfulness (meditation or otherwise) and self-inquiry, while a lot of the other content seems to me to create further attachment to thought, i.e. is not likely to fulfil the Nicorette-function of dissolving more beliefs than it generates. (As a comparison, I remember reading a well-written book on mindfulness some years ago, and although it was a couple of hundreds of pages long and was referring to scientific studies and theories etc, I got quite a different feeling from it – that the way it was using its concepts and theories was successful in reducing attachment to thinking and beliefs (in the Nicorette-way).)

    _____________
    “You’re setting off in a direction and engaging in a process, and that’s a process that may require the questioning of every belief, including beliefs about enlightenment or the like.”

    Indeed, I completely agree – sincere questioning of every belief is fundamental. In fact, that is common thread in non-duality as well, including beliefs about enlightenment – for example I remember Zen Master Seung Sahn saying something like “wanting enlightenment is a big mistake”. Actually some aspects of this MW-philosophy – particularly that of recognising ones delusions and hence retreating from untruth, rather than trying to approach some “truth” – remind me greatly of the mystical Advaita Vedanta -branch of Hinduism. I would describe its basic methodology as follows. The one thing we know with the greatest certainty in this world is “I am” – that is, something here exists and is experiencing/witnessing stuff, and we know its existence directly, without the need for any thinking or speculation. But what is this “I” that we feel exists – what kind of thing is it? Then one looks as all the possible options such as ideas or stories about oneself, and is forced to conclude “not this, not this…” (neti, neti); that is, none of them is able to get to the bottom of what this “I” in “I am” is. Then one simply continues this “self-inquiry” until the question is resolved. This could be viewed as the fundamental kernel of non-duality (which has in fact gotten its name from Advaita Vedanta, which means “not-two”) – no beliefs about enlightenment or anything else necessary! So in one sense I view non-duality as the most direct path to cutting out beliefs and delusions which the MW philosophy is (at least to some extent) aiming as well.

  19. Hi Visa,
    I think if I continue I’m in danger of repeating myself on the remaining points. On the question of incrementality, I’m just going to paste in what I wrote on 1st Jan:
    “I agree with you that our moments of insight can be sudden and thus apparently discontinuous (which I suspect is because a new synaptic connection links to areas of the brain that were previously unconnected, and energy poured into that new link rapidly strengthens it). Incrementality is not about that, but rather about the beliefs we hold about things, where an incremental belief is generally likely to be more adequate than a discontinuous one because of the absolute boundaries assumed as part of our delusive tendency.” You seem to be continuing to think of incrementality along the lines of ‘gradual enlightenment’ as opposed to sudden progress. Instead it’s concerned with all the ways we express our beliefs, including our beliefs about relatively sudden processes.

    You also say “In my experience philosophising (in the Western intellectual manner), theoretical speculation etc are more likely to increase the abidance in and attachment to thought.” Our experiences are obviously very different. Mine is that critical thinking is an important tool for lessening our absolutizing attachment to beliefs, because it makes us aware of our assumptions. Again, as I’ve said before, I think you’re confusing our attachment to particular beliefs with the thoughts themselves that are vehicles for those beliefs. There are all sorts of ways of working with our beliefs, some of them primarily conceptual and others with a focus on aesthetic or non-conceptual experience to cultivate mindfulness. We need a mixture of methods in my view. Such a mixture of methods also exists in the Buddhist tradition. Mindfulness is very helpful, but not the answer to everything.

  20. Hi Robert,
    ok, right, yes seems I got a bit sidetracked there with the incrementality-issue. However, I would not agree (not sure if you do, but I get this feeling from the MW philosophy sometimes), that we cannot know anything for certain, and I think “I am” is an example of completely certain direct knowledge. Not sure if you’d view “I am” as an example of discontinuous absolute belief. In any case, I think we should also remain open to the possibility that our pool of direct, certain knowledge – of the type of “I am” – can expand, perhaps by drilling deeper and deeper into the nature of this one piece of direct knowing.

    I actually agree with you that “critical thinking is an important tool for lessening our absolutizing attachment to beliefs, because it makes us aware of our assumptions”, *but* in order for it to fulfil that function it’s then vitally important that it works in the Nicorette-manner. And this is perhaps the crux of the whole issue: in my view the way nonduality is taught does, but how things are approached on this website doesn’t. But that might just be a consequence from our experiences being different…

  21. Hi Visa,
    Given that the whole point of this website is to encourage provisionality – i.e. what you call ‘working in the Nicorette manner’, it would be an important failure if it didn’t. But from previous things you’ve written, I guess that we have a different view of this not so much because our experiences are different as because our interpretations of them are different. To expand on this I would just be repeating myself.

    We indeed do not know anything for certain, positively or negatively, solely because of our embodied state, and I would indeed include “I am” in that along with any other such claim, if this was interpreted as an absolute.

    I can make no sense of what you’re saying, which seems to constantly flip between one absolute and another, more recently acknowledging incrementality but not following through the implications. If our interpretations need to be incremental, this is inconsistent with absolute positions, whatever they are, so why are you now asserting new absolute positions? If you accept that critical thinking is useful, why are you so dismissive of the critical thinking on this site, labelling it ‘speculative’ when it is very carefully non-speculative? If you accept that we are unavoidably dealing in interpretations, why do you keep going back to claims about certain direct knowledge? It seems that, having conceded that a lot of your assumptions were based on misinterpretations, you are nevertheless going straight back to your starting point even though you can’t justify it. My suggestion is that, having evidently mis-read a good deal of what’s on this site, you try re-reading it with a more charitable eye.

  22. Hi Robert,

    I think I my answers to the questions you asked have already been provided in my previous posts, either explicitly or implicitly. I think you read too much to my “acknowledgement of incrementality”, which is only partial as far as the MW philosophy is concerned. I continue to think that the MW philosophical system is confused, and therefore would never subscribe to it. If it’s not certain to you that you exist (without obviously jumping to any conclusions on the nature of the “you”), BUT it’s certain that you abide in a finite embodied state, and BECAUSE of that embodied state, it’s certain that you cannot know anything for certain, including “I am” – then I think you have the cart firmly in front of the horse.

    This pretty much sums up my issue with MW philosophy and for me this is a good example of how philosophical speculation (I might use the word speculation differently than you do) is leading one astray from obvious direct knowledge on this website. Moreover I continue to see several metaphysical absolutisations (we abide in a finite embodied state and therefore cannot know anything for certain etc) in the grounding beliefs of the MiddleWay Philosophy. Your most recent post made it pretty clear to me that my misinterpretations only concerned some details and that the fundamental assumptions I started with were not based on misinterpretation.

    1. Hi Robert,

      Thanks for your reply to my post.

      I’ll address the points you made here in reference to my post. In order to facilitate this I’ll copy your points so that it’s clear what I’m addressing. I’ve also read your blog on Mystical Flips and my reply also addresses that.

      Your first point addresses what you regard as a ‘mystical flip’, contrasting an inspired experience with having achieved nothing:

      “ My main thought in response is to ask whether you have tried to apply the Middle Way thoroughly here – if that’s what you want to do. You seem to acknowledge that the moment we turn our inspired experience into a claim or belief there’s a danger of slipping into positive absolutes by going on about ‘reality’, so does this not apply just as much on the other extreme? If we have an inspired experience I don’t think it should be undermined by claiming that we have achieved ‘nothing’. I don’t think that’s an ‘honest description’ because, being human and having egos, we are very likely to feel that we have attained something. Saying that we have achieved ‘nothing’ seems to just lead us back into the flip between positive absolutes and negative absolutes which I think is so unhelpful in Zen, Perfection of Wisdom etc. To put that experience into a perspective in which we can understand it better in relation to alternative beliefs we need to incrementalise it, which means on the one hand recognising that we haven’t achieved enlightenment or the eternal tao or whatever you want to call it, and also on the other, positively recognising that we have indeed experienced and achieved something of positive value.”

      My reply:

      If I have misplaced my glasses and looked everywhere for them without success and then scratch my head wondering where I’ve put them and find that they were there on my head all along, have I achieved anything? There will be relief at finding them and perhaps amusement at my own silliness but did I find them as a result of my own efforts? Of course not, my finding them was purely fortuitous. It might have happened straight away or after hours of searching. My previous efforts did not contribute in the slightest. I am pleased that I found them but it was rather in spite of my efforts rather than because of them. I can claim that I’ve found them but can I take any credit for it? I can’t because my conscious efforts were consistently missing the point. It would be really quite ridiculous for my ego to be fed in any way by this. On the contrary, I should be humbled by my dogged wrong-looking and forgetfulness but at the same time feel the positive relief at being able to see clearly once again. Is there any incrementalism here? No. There was nothing in my looking and searching that would have got me to this point. However, there is possibly some incrementalism here for future occasions where I’ve misplaced my glasses. Rather than repeat the same identically fruitless search, I would hope that sooner than later I would remember to check if they are on my head. Is my positive feeling at finding my glasses a result of integrating my previous mode of searching with how I actually found them. Again, no, my initial search was misleading and had simply to be dropped. However, perhaps if I were sufficiently integrated I wouldn’t make such a mistake again.

      Your next point concerns direct experiencing:

      “As for what you say about direct experiencing, I still think that you are effectively asserting something that is in grave danger of being interpreted absolutely. Why is it so important to you to assert that experience is ‘direct’? Can’t it be either direct or indirect, or just unknown? If you’re not actually wanting to assert that there is a pure or direct experience, why not just give up that sort of language and concentrate on talking in ways that will be more helpful? I can’t see that it achieves anything apart from taking us back into flips. But, I must reiterate, that is no disrespect to the experience itself – it’s a pragmatic issue with regard to how we choose to talk about it.”

      My reply:

      I think this is the heart of what we’re trying to get at here. What it is the direct experience *of* is not relevant. It can be anything. It has as much to do with sitting on the toilet as it has with what you might call an inspired or mystical experience (- I tend to regard mystical experiences as rarefied good moods).

      You are correct in that there is a grave danger of such talk being interpreted absolutely which is why it is important to have what you call ‘mystical flips’. I would rather call them necessary balances and in this respect are a core aspect of practising the Middle Way.

      To answer your question as to why it is important to assert that experience is direct is because it can’t be anything other than direct! but for various reasons this is regarded as a dodgy assertion even perhaps having something to do with absolute metaphysical beliefs. Experience cannot be indirect or unknown and as I pointed out in my original post even the qualifier ‘direct’ should be eventually dropped.

      The reason it needs to be asserted is because there appears to be an ongoing confusion between experience and interpretation of experience. The experience is usurped by the interpretation/understanding of the experience. I mentioned the pain in my little finger that only I can know – even the description of it to myself using the word ‘pain’ is an interpretation. A masochist could put a contrary interpretation on it. The actual experience, the sensation indicated by the word ‘pain’, is real and direct. The interpretation of it isn’t. You could possibly call the interpretation an ‘indirect experience’ but it would be wrong to call the sensation itself indicated by whatever word we might use as anything other than direct. There are even metaphysical assumptions built into the representation of the sensation. I call it a pain in my body. ‘My’ refers to a belief in an experiencer and ‘body’ refers to a belief in an external world – that which is experienced. A Middle Way approach steers between those poles and focusses on the experiencing. It could be regarded as an exercise in progressive mindfulness. Now, what is the point of this? There are infinite answers and it would be best if you could find your own. Philosophically it is the epitome of pursuing the examined life. In the modern West this has been almost exclusively an intellectual exercise but from ancient Greece to the Far East there has been a strong experiential element to it. In teachings on non-duality it is referred to as ‘self-enquiry’, or simply ‘enquiry’, a descendent of Ramana Maharshi’s injunction to answer the question ‘Who am I?’. For Merton, in the quote you gave in your article on ‘Mystical Flips’ it is a necessary and overdue balance to the belief in “an infallible intellectual progress to truth and spirit”. I have a book by the mathematician Roger Penrose called ‘The Road to Reality’. As much as I admire Penrose, the title reflects the hubris which Merton is endeavouring to puncture. Mathematics and science can only ever give us a model which is fine in particular contexts but disastrous existentially if we actually believe they are giving us the truth on reality. You see Merton as doing a mystical flip between self-obsession and self-forgetfulness and not being able to engage with any third alternative. Surely he is only striving for some balance in terms of what you might call ‘left-hemisphere’ dominance? His ‘self-forgetfulness’ could be understood in terms of what I wrote above regarding the ‘pain in my finger’ – bypassing the metaphysical beliefs in a me and a world that this me is experiencing. It would be worth exploring this term further but I won’t do that here.

      You then wrote some paragraphs on verbal idolatory.

      “Idolatry was similarly forbidden in the early centuries of Buddhism, but the enlightened experience rapidly became reified as the words of the enlightened, and the Mahayana reacted against this with the doctrine of emptiness, in which the tendency to hypostatise and reify was countervailed by the use of paradoxical language. This was a new protest against idolatry – the idolatry of words this time. But the Mahayanists had no alternative way of understanding meaning, so they got stuck at the point of using paradoxical language as a replacement for representational language. Thus not only claims about reality, but also their flip relationship with denials of reality, often became the focus of idolatrous belief.”

      As always, Robert, I appreciate your take on things and the thought you put into what you say. Your take on the use of paradoxical language may well have some truth in it but there is a lot more going on than that.

      The Mahayanists and the Zenists in particular were not concerned with a way of understanding meaning. They were endeavouring to communicate the realisation of the directness of experiencing. To get caught up in their formulations is missing the point. The point is to look at direct experiencing for yourself and then their formulations become exemplars of empirical simplicity. It’s a ‘finding your glasses on your head’ moment, or as Douglas Harding describes it, ‘the re-discovery of the obvious’. It’s no big deal but it is also cosmic in scope!

      Annoying, I know, but only to LH dominated mind! This though is the Middle Way balance in operation. The example you use from the Diamond Sutra in your blog on ‘Mystical Flips’ is another example of looking for balance in the face of imbalance.

      “Subhuti, do not say that the Tathagata [Buddha] conceives the idea: I must set forth a teaching. For if anyone says the Tathagata sets forth a teaching he really slanders Buddha and is unable to say what I teach. As to any Truth-declaring system, Truth is undeclarable, so “an enunciation of Truth” is just the name given to it. ”

      Is this statement really about not absolutising the teachings of the Buddha? In which case it is in keeping with Middle Way practice. What did the Buddha teach? It is simplistically and naively understood as the way to Enlightenment. But who can say what this means? The Mahayanist deflates such beliefs by saying that this is slandering the Buddha. And surely you’re in agreement with the final statement regarding Truth-declaring statements?

      The statement to Subhuti is also an excellent caveat to not give undue authority to the words of the Buddha. It is not the content of the words that is important but what they are indicative of. Do you not see a parallel here with the first line of the Tao Te Ching? – ‘The Tao that can be named is not the eternal Tao’. The belief that any conceptual model could be regarded as Truth is a disaster. Again, is this not really in the spirit of the Middle Way rather than a ‘problematic mystical flip’? And yet, in the name of the Middle Way you are dismissing this fine example of its application!

      I felt so much enthusiasm for your initial explication of the Middle Way philosophy, Robert, as something anchored in experience and avoiding metaphysical absolutes – an approach inherent in authentic teachings on non-duality – but then this enthusiasm is curtailed by extensive writings based on particular metaphysical beliefs. This is unavoidable to some extent but when certain provisional metaphysical beliefs prevail – examples being embodied learning and the brain – then they get taken as dogma and occlude the obvious directness of experiencing. Barry’s comment on direct experiencing being contrary to the understanding of embodied learning is a case in point. As is your reply to Vista regarding Eckhart Tolle : “The reason that I can state with confidence that “Eckhart Tolle does not have a hotline to reality” is simply that he is a human being (or at least, I think he is – I haven’t met him personally). Human beings have all the limitations we have discussed because they have bodies.” Here you are asserting an absolute belief in individual human beings although I take heart in your doubt that he might not be! (I suggest that the ‘hotline to reality’ refers to nothing more than openness to the experiencing and the awareness within which it arises. It is accessible in ordinary mindfulness practice. Everything else follows on from it.) You are actually correct though. Human beings cannot have a hotline to reality. It is incumbent on us therefore to leave our human beingness aside which is what happens when we come back to awareness/experiencing. Here there is no experience and no experiencer. Eckhart Tolle knows this too which is why he can in all honesty say that he has attained nothing etc.

      If the directness of experiencing is not obvious to you could I ask you to explain how it is indirect?

  23. Hi Bill,
    Thanks for the exploratory tone of your post. However, I think it is still framed by some basic assumptions on which you have either misunderstood me, or we basically disagree.

    Your talk of ‘provisional metaphysical beliefs’ particularly raises alarm bells. If you don’t understand, or don’t accept, that metaphysical beliefs cannot be provisional, then we are plainly not talking about the same ‘Middle Way’ at all. You also talk about ’embodied learning and the brain’ as examples of these, which makes me think that you don’t really understand what I mean by embodied learning (or embodied meaning). Embodiment is a very basic issue that you can’t just elide like this. It is not, and must not be confused with, reductionist claims about experience and consciousness being ‘just’ the brain.

    We are both using language. In order to recognise that language as meaningful, both of our brains respond to words and their grammatical arrangement with the stimulation of synaptic links that to some degree evoke experiences connected with those words. Those experiences of meaning, following the account of Lakoff and Johnson, may connect with cognitive models processed in Broca’s area in the left hemisphere, but those cognitive models in turn depend on metaphorical structures and embedded memories of childhood meaning experiences via the right hemisphere. Thus all this language you’re reading is only meaningful to you because of its connection to your *body* via your nervous system and right hemisphere. Its meaning is unique to you, even the different meanings we experience may overlap sufficiently for some communication to take place.

    Metaphysics is not just basic assumption, because our basic assumptions may be absolute or provisional. Instead ‘metaphysics’ is only a way of referring to our state of mind when we make absolute assumptions. In order to make absolute assumptions we have to assume that meaning is based in our left hemisphere and is made up of propositions that are meaningful if they potentially match reality or not if they don’t. This involves a basic denial of the role of the body and nervous system in supporting our sense of meaning. For example, think of the sentence “Gloria vomited”: when you read the word ‘vomited’ there is likely to be a little recapitulation of the embodied experience of vomiting. We get used to abstracting and limiting that re-experience of emotionally loaded language, but we can’t stop it entirely, because our very understanding of ‘vomited’ depends on our embodied experience. But a statement like ‘God exists’ or ‘Truth is undeclarable’ is likely to involve a denial of that link to experience, with the assumption that meaning stops at the level of the abstract cognitive models we are using to understand the words. But this is a delusion: it doesn’t. Our understanding of ‘God’, for example, I think depends on an archetypal experience, which is another way of talking about metaphor – which allows us to connect one basic experience with another.

    If you continue to defend ‘flips’ as somehow expressions of the Middle Way, I don’t see how you can do so whilst understanding and appreciating the Middle Way as a whole alternative way of thinking dependent on the appreciation of embodied meaning – so I presume you don’t understand it. We engage in flips when we are stuck in the assumption that language is only meaningful in relation to truth or falsity, but if we can appreciate language as live, rooted and metaphorical, and above all try to use it incrementally, we can use language differently. We won’t be pure of metaphysical assumptions, but we will have an incremental way out. In contrast, the traditional view of metaphysics as inevitable assumptions that you seem to be using leaves us no hope – no way out of absolutisation – only flips and leaps of faith.

    Saying ‘The Tao that can be named is not the eternal Tao’ us just an abstract statement of two metaphysical alternatives. There is no acknowledgement of the basis of meaning in experience there at all, just more shuffling of concepts. At best, this might help to induce a dissatisfaction with metaphysics, but it offers no alternative. It’s not that it’s ‘false’ or that I disagree with it. It’s just practically useless.

    Like Visa, you seem to be misunderstanding incrementality as being concerned with how quickly we make breakthroughs of insight rather than a more generally adequate way of articulating our beliefs. I have no problem with recognising that some breakthroughs may be sudden, including your example of finding your glasses on your head. I’ve already said this above in my responses to Visa. But that’s really not the point. It’s not how we make breakthroughs that is the issue, but how we can develop more adequate beliefs that encourage such breakthroughs.

    As to whether experience is direct or indirect or whatever – I only suggested it might be ‘indirect’ as a way of trying to encourage you to recognise that we don’t know and that it isn’t relevant anyway. As long as we don’t try to use it as the basis of authority claims that support metaphysics, I don’t think it makes any difference what experience in itself is like. I respect your experience and enjoy my own, whatever it is like, but I reject all attempts to turn appeals to the directness of experience into absolutisation.

    1. Dear Robert,

      The problem in our communication is that we are using similar language but coming from quite different places, you from your schema of understanding and me from somewhere that you’re trying to fit into your schema.

      I should probably just leave it. However, you call it The Middle Way Philosophy and the Middle Way is no more a philosophy than is walking or breathing. If you’d called it something else then no problem – I’d happily leave you to get on with it. That is probably the best thing to do anyway but before I do so, I’d like you to consider the feasibility of some of your conclusions.

      We would both describe what we’re doing as The Middle Way. Perhaps we would both even say that we are practising the Middle Way. However, you are also putting a huge amount of effort into modelling the Middle Way – that is to say, formulating a conceptual structure – and looking at things from the point of view of this model. This seems fair enough but I have reservations about the outcome of this because as I touched on previously you have ended up rejecting huge swathes of Middle Way practice in the name of the Middle Way. Let me expand on this.

      Would it be fair to conclude that in relation to the Perfection of Wisdom texts that you see neither Wisdom nor the perfection thereof? You concluded that the Diamond Sutra for example consisted of mainly mystical flips and suggested that the authors of such texts were stuck in paradox in a futile attempt to battle verbal idolatry. Would it also be fair to say that you conclude such texts to be practically useless?

      It would be missing the point though in regard to the nature of these texts. They are like a trail of slime left by a snail as it wends its way. Your conclusions focus on the slime. My take focusses on the snail which many people don’t see. I’m obviously making a claim here but there was a time when I was like most people and at best scratched my head trying to figure out the trail. It shifted in a ‘glasses on the head’ moment and I saw the snail. A similar thing presumably happened to Hui Neng on hearing a few verses of the Diamond Sutra read aloud in the market place and to many others. I can neither take credit for this nor deny it. The texts, which I refer to as Wisdom texts, revealed themselves as treasure troves to be opened and explored. This is what I’m doing in my videos.

      The change isn’t a permanent one. There is an ongoing habit of forgetting to look at the snail and replacing it with a memory, an idea, a concept, an understanding or even a teaching. A side effect might even be to big oneself up for having seen the snail. There are many dangers and a veritable razor’s edge becomes apparent. The Middle Way is what is necessary to walk this razor’s edge.

      You might wonder what the point or benefit of seeing the snail is. It’s at this point that everything we might understand as ‘spiritual practice’ comes into its own. It’s about treading the Middle Way and it is basically the art of living. This is what my videos are about. I will give a link at the end of this post to the first of a two-part video specifically entitled ‘The Art of Living’. It’s from a series on Patanjali. I suspected that Patanjali had also seen the snail and so I examined his Yoga Sutras one by one to see if this was actually so. His Sutras otherwise seem to have inspired so much nonsense and the situation needed to be redressed.

      There is nothing I can do to get you or anyone else to see the snail. I have tried and had zero success in this regard, as far as I know. All I can ask though is that you take an agnostic stance towards those texts which you regard as consisting of mystical flips, metaphysical absolutes and practically useless. It would be somewhat more charitable towards the authors of these texts in regard to their motivations. Is it really feasible that the rationalisations that you give can justify the huge quantity of such texts that have been produced? They would be nothing more than massive follies.

      And what of my motivations in producing my seemingly interminable videos! Am I motivated by some geeky interest? Am I concerned with putting across my own schema of understanding, a model of sorts? Am I selling some metaphysical absolutes? None of that. They are actually the slime trail produced in my pursuit of the snail. I begin with the trail but the snail should typically be in plain sight by the end of each video.

      This talk of the snail must sound suspicious. (Am I slipping some metaphysical absolute in there?) Although I utilise such talk as what I hope is a helpful metaphor it also deliberately does not cater to the modelling mind. You could see this snail right now if you could examine the start of your attention as you’re reading this. It would be purely fortuitous if you succeeded but the chances are that this description in terms of the attention will kick your modelling mind into gear and you can start thinking in terms of right/left hemisphere and all the rest once again.

      As a point of interest, where does the attention fit into Middle Way Philosophy?

      The Middle Way is all about the attention, a first-hand exploration of the attention. What could be more practical or fundamental than this? There is no room for metaphysics or models in this. Language is being used in quite a different way to that with which we are accustomed. It is pointing, pointing, pointing all the time to the subtlest aspects of the attention, pointing us to the snail. To take it as anything else is to miss the point wholesale and ends up with your egregious (yet perfectly understandable) dismissal of these slimy trails – and you’re doing it in the name of the Middle Way! I simply ask that you take a more agnostic and charitable approach.

      The attention is something that you are using all the time. You are using it to read these words – you couldn’t read them otherwise. You are using it in your response to these words whereby it turns to thoughts and feelings as you consider what I’m saying and formulate a response. It might be turning to all sorts of other things in the meantime otherwise known as distractions. You can observe the attention and its behaviour. Could we even say that you have direct access to it? Do we need a model to do this? Of course not.

      You can make a point of knowing what your attention is doing at this moment irrespective of what beliefs you might hold, metaphysical or otherwise. It is a first-hand practice rather than a modelling one. If you have some facility in this then you will hopefully recognise what I mean by ‘the start of the attention’.

      You might not see much potential in such an investigation but doesn’t it strike you as strange that something so fundamental to our experience is constantly overlooked? In fact, Buddhist mindfulness is the only thing I can think of that touches on it and such mindfulness practice is no more than a starting point. Mindfulness is usually spoken of in the context of mental training but its real value is in what I’ve been referring to as ‘the snail’. I could use other words but these might set you off in other directions. It is a hypothesis on my part but it is one that I’ve thoroughly tested and continue to do so – that Zen, Lao Tzu, Patanjali, Advaita, Parmenides etc as well as a lot – but not all – of what you might call ‘mystical’ writings all relate to first-hand exploration of the attention. In fact, it is the key to appreciating the full import of these texts.

      It can be a glorious adventure and can bring about a sense of existential resolution. However, it is a razor’s edge and the Middle Way is the walking of it.

      The Art of Living: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=adEVJ7m0d7k

  24. Hi Bill,
    The problem in our communication is that we are using similar language but coming from quite different places, you from your schema of understanding and me from somewhere that you’re trying to fit into your schema.

    Yes, that’s not in quotation marks, because I’m saying it to you as well. You have a schema of understanding too, and I’m failing to fit into it in the way you would like. In your schema, if I understand it correctly, there is a valuable non-conceptual experience that in some way provides a foundation or an inspiration for your beliefs. I have already said many times that I fully respect whatever experiences you’re drawing on, but I’m concerned with practical judgements that have to be made in a modelled way and avoid making claims about the implications of such experience. There’s no point in repeating myself further on this point.

    You say “the Middle Way is no more a philosophy than is walking or breathing” – but this is itself a philosophical claim, which by making you enter the ground of philosophy. If you deny that the Middle Way depends on conceptual and cognitive elements as well as experiential ones, you must perforce be basing such a view on a cognitive construction of what the Middle Way is or is not (and remember negative claims are just as much claims as positive ones). For my part I think the practice of the Middle Way needs us to engage effectively with all aspects of human experience including the philosophical. But ‘Middle Way Philosophy’ as a whole is just a label that should not mask that it is just as much about practice as conceptual philosophy.

    I don’t have any problem with your snail image, if what you mean by it is that our words are the by-product of our total state and our experiences. But if you only see the snail’s trail there are limitations on the assumptions you can make about the snail. As to whether you or I or anyone else “sees the snail”, I think it’s best to reserve judgement given the limitations of our perspective. Reserving judgement is not in any way a cover for negative judgement, just as intellectual clarity and development is not in any way a cover for sole reliance on those things. Reserving judgement, indeed, is probably the best way of getting closer to “seeing the snail” as you put it.

    As for attention, I agree with you wholeheartedly that it is a very important aspect of the practice of the Middle Way. That’s one reason why the society promotes meditation. If you’re interested in my view of attention, there’s a recorded talk about it here: http://www.middlewaysociety.org/audio/2014-summer-retreat-talks/attention-audio/. But I think the opposition you set up between ‘attention’ and ‘modelling’ here is a false one. We cultivate attention in order to improve the way we use cognitive models, and we refine our models in order to improve attention. An important part of Middle Way practice involves challenging such false oppositions (and not just by flipping them).

    “Would it be fair to conclude that in relation to the Perfection of Wisdom texts that you see neither Wisdom nor the perfection thereof?” It would be fair as regards the perfection, but not the wisdom. Mahayana thought has made a huge contribution to wisdom. All I resist is the over-idealisation of this literature by Buddhists.

    “Would it also be fair to say that you conclude such texts to be practically useless?” No. I would say that, as with many texts or traditions that fail to entirely avoid metaphysical assumptions, there are nevertheless many insights there, and where there are insights there is also potential practical benefit. But such texts need to be winnowed rather than assumed to contain some total truth, and in my experience it is rare to see Buddhists adopting a properly critical attitude to them that investigates ways they might be wrong. My protests against such idealisation should not mask the point that I also think they are important records of a human process of seeking wisdom, as well as a rich source of meaningful symbols. The very fact that the Mahayana texts record a human and not a divine process is both a sign of warning and a sign of achievement at one and the same time.

    1. Hi Robert,

      “The problem in our communication is that we are using similar language but coming from quite different places, you from your schema of understanding and me from somewhere that you’re trying to fit into your schema.”

      I’m quoting you this time! When you say that I’m trying to fit you into my schema of understanding is this a general assumption or an evidence-based conclusion?

      As schemas go I’m perfectly happy with yours. It is brilliant and impressive in so many ways and I generally find myself in agreement with it and any criticisms I have made in the past were simply in keeping with what I thought was your view on metaphysical assumptions.

      As for any schema that I might have I wouldn’t dignify myself with any such thing! To the extent that I have one it is nothing formal and I have no interest in propagating it.

      In our interaction the assumption appears to be that we’re looking at things from the point of view of your schema and you correct me accordingly as evidenced in your previous posting. I don’t recall fielding any enquiry from you with respect to any schema of mine. This is okay for me since this is the MWP website after all! It really isn’t correct therefore from an evidence base that I’m trying to fit you into my schema. Is it therefore an assumption on your part that I must be doing this?

      Perhaps you regard it as a de facto part of any interaction but again the only formal schema in evidence here is that of the MWP. To the extent that I have one, formal or otherwise, I’m not the least bit interested in putting it across.

      My concerns are with the use and applicability of MWP, particularly with what you described as “winnowing” above and whether the criteria you use are justifiable. I would also like you to take a look at the “snail” – this isn’t an experience that I’ve had but is something intimate to you that you’re using right now that you appear to overlook in certain respects.

      So when you give me the benefit of the doubt by saying that I have had a valuable non-conceptual experience then this is completely irrelevant. Whatever beliefs I might have based on such an experience are therefore even more so. I really am not concerned with propagating beliefs but rather with enquiring into anything which is clung to as such particularly with what you label as metaphysical beliefs. This is actually the basis of both the appeal and my discomfiture with MWP. There are two metaphysical extremes embedded within it – namely the existence of an objective physical world and of an individual that is experiencing this so-called objective world through cognition based fundamentally on the process of sense perception. Although problematic it is very understandable given that such metaphysical assumptions are embedded within our use of language. As such, it is practical to acknowledge such metaphysical beliefs as provisional and indeed, I thought that this was something suggested by yourself in a discussion on this we had elsewhere but perhaps I’m mistaken given your antipathy to such a notion as expressed above. Let’s do away with them! Such metaphysical assumptions are also embedded within Physics (Natural Philosophy) which focuses almost exclusively on the “external world”. The results have rendered our understanding of the physical world into mathematical abstractions which question its existence independent of the observer. Some attempt has been made to apply the scientific method to the other metaphysical pole, the individual, through disciplines such as Psychology and Sociology. As far as I know they haven’t reached the same level of questioning with respect to the individual as Physics has with respect to the world. I suggest that Buddhist and Advaitin enquiry take us further along in this direction particularly the Buddhist teaching of the skandhas. Indeed, the pole known as the world, a world/universe which is always there as individuals come and go falls into the category of eternalism and the extinguishable individual is an example of the opposite but equally dodgy view of annhihilationism. Both poles dissolve with effective appreciation of the teaching of anatman.

      Now you say that you are concerned with practical judgements. My concern too is with practical conclusions rather than selling a belief system based on whatever experience I might have had. You assume that I have some model in the way that you have a model as the basis of this.

      Of course I have and use models but when it comes to Middle Way Enquiry models are dislodged. Middle Way Enquiry is not about the modelling mind. You try to pin the label of ‘philosophy’ onto this. I’m not averse to the philosophical label in the sense that Socrates is described as a philosopher. What schema of understanding did Socrates espouse? As far as I know it isn’t clear but this is not what he is known for anyway. In fact, he was notorious for his probing of schemas of understanding so much so that he was regarded as dangerous and sentenced to death!

      Is it fair to say that Socrates was more about method (or enquiry) than schemas?

      It would be easy to pin some label onto what I’m doing, perhaps calling it some kind of Idealism. Such labelling is chronically habitual, the need to ‘understand’ something by slotting it into a particular pigeon-hole. However, Idealism is a particular schema of understanding and as such I have little interest in it. I practise enquiry. A particular line of enquiry which I’ve followed relates to our understanding of sense perception. This is obviously a useful model in certain contexts. As something that connects two poles of dubious metaphysical standing though it needs to be examined. It doesn’t actually withstand much examination but in looking into it it could be misconstrued that I am promoting a particular view. I’m not. I’m simply looking into it.

      To what end you might ask?

      To consider where it is worth directing the attention. You consider that the attention should be directed towards cognitive models the refinement of which improves the attention. This is obviously a worthwhile enterprise but its worth is undermined or at best limited by the dubious metaphysical assumptions that such models are based upon (although within particular contexts it is undoubtedly of value).

      Thanks for your link to your podcast about the attention. Can I assume that it is about cultivating the attention perhaps with reference to mindfulness practices?

      I suspect that you don’t see any other options. After all, if we don’t direct the attention to the world or the individual or to the result of cognitive models based on the understanding of sense perception then what are the options?

      Have we painted ourselves into a corner with nowhere to go?

      At this point we can look directly at the attention itself. This of course is what I mean by the “snail”. The attention is typically overlooked for whatever it is attending to. Conceptually this might seem rather dubious. How can the attention attend to itself? Are we not getting into some kind of recursive infinite regress? Experientially of course it isn’t an issue. If I asked you to direct your attention to the beginning of this paragraph you can do this. If I asked you to move the big toe of your left foot you begin by directing the attention towards it. You can attend to what the attention is doing. Even if the attention is going off in directions you’d rather it didn’t you can be mindful of this. In the practices of mindfulness we can work with the attention. I take it that this is covered within MWP.

      But this isn’t what my focus is although I wouldn’t preclude such efforts. No, my concern is with examining the nature of the attention itself. It’s right here in operation right now. And you can do this directly. You can argue that the focus of the attention is on the result of some cognitive process but the attention itself isn’t. The attention isn’t based on some experience that I’ve had. I’m not trying to sell you some philosophy or point of view. Is the attention even a thing? Is it something separate from its object? Is it different from mindfulness Etc. Enquire directly into the nature of the attention.

      That’s all I’m asking.

      It might not appear obvious how to do this. It is quite subtle. In fact, it might leave you scratching your head and drawing a blank which is an honest start. It involves drawing your focus in a little closer than what you are probably used to. You’ve practised mindfulness of breathing. You need to draw your focus in a little closer than that to the mindfulness itself or to what it is that is being mindful (is there a difference?). It’s closer than breathing. Similarly, if you are practising mindfulness of mental activity then bring your focus back to what it is that is being mindful (or to the mindfulness itself). It’s closer than thinking.

      And you can draw your own conclusions. They’re entirely up to you. Formulate your own questions and from your direct observations formulate your own answers.

      My own conclusions lead me to assert that Zen and teachings such as The Perfection of Wisdom Sutras contain precisely zero metaphysical content. They are 100% practical. As such they might better be called the “Perfecting of Wisdom” rather than Perfection! It’s an ongoing process. You can see this yourself if you use such texts as an aid into exploring the nature of the attention. However, it is essential that they are used as no more than an aid – they make little sense to the modelling mind and first-hand enquiry is essential. By the way, I agree with you about Buddhist idealising of such texts. I am not a Buddhist so I have no tribal axe to grind. However, I can understand that such idealisation as well as the attribution of magical power to them has had the practical effect of preserving them. I have also used nominally Hindu texts and have a series based on a nominally Christian text coming up. When the use to which these texts can be put is appreciated then such appreciation can know no bounds. It can seem miraculous that they even exist. My YouTube videos are also such an aid. They exemplify how such texts can be used.

      It doesn’t actually contradict anything in MWP as far as I know although the metaphysical assumptions within MWP that I addressed are a sticking point. MWP seems to me like a vast plain capable of spreading in all directions. It is missing that extra dimension provided by Middle Way Enquiry and it would surely be enriched by such.

  25. Hi Bill,
    I don’t feel that we’re making a lot of progress here, but I’ll try to respond to what I perceive as new in what you’ve written above.

    We seem to be at cross-purposes in the use of the term ‘schema’ as well as ‘metaphysics’. Schemas are not the same as philosophies, but rather a kind of unconscious formatting. ‘Metaphysics’ on the other hand, consists as I use it in absolute beliefs. We all have basic formatting to our thinking as well as assumptions that may be more or less conscious, but such formatting is not necessarily metaphysical unless we grant it absolute status. I disagree profoundly with the conventional academic use of ‘metaphysics’ to mean something like schemas, because it tends to be a way of unnecessarily entrenching metaphysical belief. There’s also no such thing as provisional metaphysics, though we can try (often with great difficulty) to make schemas provisional.

    If “Middle Way Enquiry is not about the modelling mind” then I’m not sure what it’s about. Your talk of attention to attention itself strikes me simply as a type of practice – no doubt a useful practice. But how can the attention given to attention itself constitute the whole of Middle Way Enquiry? If it was, most of our experience would be irrelevant to Middle Way Enquiry. Cultivation of attention can be an important part of Middle Way practice, but there are a variety of ways of cultivating attention, and this seems to be only one of them. I don’t understand why you put so much weight on one particular type of practice.

    But the underlying sticking point that we seem to keep fruitlessly recycling seems to be your wish to exempt your particular beliefs about your practice and its value from evaluation as beliefs. No doubt you’ll dispute that way of summarising it, as you have all my other attempts to summarise the problem, but there seems to be no value in continuing to dispute this point when we can’t even agree on a characterisation of what it consists in.

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