Epistemic status: a parable making a moderately strong claim about statistics
Once upon a time, there was a boy who cried "there's a 𝟱% chance there's a wolf!"
The villagers came running, saw no wolf, and said "He said there was a wolf and there was not. Thus his probabilities are wrong and he's an alarmist."
On the second day, the boy heard some rustling in the bushes and cried "there's a 10% chance there's a wolf!"
Some villagers ran out and some did not.
There was no wolf.
The wolf-skeptics who stayed in bed felt smug.
"That boy is always saying there is a wolf, but there isn't."
"I didn't say there was a wolf!" cried the boy. "I was estimating the probability at low, but high enough. A false alarm is much less costly than a missed detection when it comes to dying! The expected value is good!"
The villagers didn't understand the boy and ignored him.
On the third day, the boy heard some sounds he couldn't identify but seemed wolf-y. "There's a 15% chance there's a wolf!" he cried.
No villagers came.
It was a wolf.
They were all eaten.
Because the villagers did not think probabilistically.
The moral of the story is that we should expect to have a large number of false alarms before a catastrophe hits and that is not strong evidence against impending but improbable catastrophe.
Each time somebody put a low but high enough probability on a pandemic being about to start, they weren't wrong when it didn't pan out. H1N1 and SARS and so forth didn't become global pandemics. But they could have. They had a low probability, but high enough to raise alarms.
The problem is that people then thought to themselves "Look! People freaked out about those last ones and it was fine, so people are terrible at predictions and alarmist and we shouldn't worry about pandemics"
And then COVID-19 happened.
This will happen again for other things.
People will be raising the alarm about something, and in the media, the nuanced thinking about probabilities will be washed out.
You'll hear people saying that X will definitely fuck everything up very soon.
And it doesn't.
And when the catastrophe doesn't happen, don't over-update.
Don't say, "They cried wolf before and nothing happened, thus they are no longer credible."
Say "I wonder what probability they or I should put on it? Is that high enough to set up the proper precautions?"
When somebody says that nuclear war hasn't happened yet despite all the scares, when somebody reminds you about the AI winter where nothing was happening in it despite all the hype, remember the boy who cried a 5% chance of wolf.
Originally posted on my Twitter
Applying science to meditation isn’t unique to Jeffery Martin’s course. Fortunately for the world, there’s a whole movement around this. That being said, I haven’t heard of anything that seems more likely to figure out how to actually achieve enlightenment (or fundamental well-being (FWB) as he calls it, which I prefer).
Most science I know of is doing things like putting meditators in brain scans and seeing if anything is different from regular brains, or running RCTs to see if meditation makes you happier. This is foundational and important to do. However, it’s very black box thinking and doesn’t give you any gears-level understanding of how to achieve fundamental well-being.
Meditation classes usually teach a variety of different techniques. Which techniques are causing the change? Most studies focus on averages, which ignores the thing we’re most interested in - those outliers who don’t just start feeling less stressed but have eliminated suffering. Who are living in states of profound bliss and serenity. How does that show up on a psychological item asking “On a scale of 1 to 10, how satisfied are you with your life?”?
The Finder’s Course on the other hand clearly followed a methodology that was truly trying to solve the problem. The way he did this was to find over 1,000 people saying that they had achieved fundamental well-being, and he went and interviewed all of them. The interviews would often last up to twelve hours. He asked them what their experiences were, what had gotten them there, and ran them through batteries of psychological tests.
From this exploratory research, he started pulling out patterns. You can read some of the results of his research in his book. He took the top findings out of his research and turned it into a course. It was formerly called the Finder’s Course (a play on the usual spiritual terminology of people being “seekers”).
He continues to do science on the course, and this is part of what most intrigued me. It’s mandatory for the course to take a whole battery of psychological evaluations before and after, such as PERMA, satisfaction with life scale, CES-D Questionnaire, etc. After doing a week of each technique, he also does a shorter survey.
The results from this he claims are that 65% of people who finish the course achieve fundamental well-being. This is an incredible claim, and I figured it was probably just hype. Then I spoke to a friend he said that he’d recently done the course and could now go into fundamental well-being at will. This is what inspired me to give it a go.
Before I started the course, I publicly pre-committed to writing about my experience, regardless of how it went. Usually, people only write about something if it goes particularly well or poorly, and I wanted to help even that out.
So, without further ado, here’s my review of the course.
What’s in the course and how it works
Experiment with different techniques to find your meditation “fit”
The main thing that I liked about the course was its underlying strategy:
What Jeffery found was that people who’d achieved fundamental well-being hadn’t just used one technique to get there. Some people got there mostly through concentration practice, others through insight practice, others still through headless way techniques, and so on.
He explains his thinking and guides you through a few techniques in this 55-minute video. I’d watch it and if you like it, take the course. This is extremely representative of how the course is.
An aside on why if you hate concentration practice, you might enjoy mantra meditation
Interestingly, this video might have had as much impact on me as the whole rest of the 6-week course. I’d always struggled with concentration practice, especially on the breath. It had never really done anything for me except cause boredom and frustration. I’d had more or less the same experience with other meditation objects such as listening to the waves or focusing on other parts of the body or a candle.
When I tried the mantra meditation he describes in the video, it led to massive breakthroughs in my concentration practice. It went from a mostly boring trial of willpower to one of the most reliable techniques in my happiness workout routine. About 85% of my concentration practice sessions now involve intense joy, with about 40% of the session being spent in joy.
This is for a few reasons.
You can’t not “hear” the mantra.
The breath has always been the bane of my meditation existence. Whenever I tried focusing on it, my breathing would get really shallow and soft, making it really hard to tell what was happening there. I was constantly asking myself “Is this the breath?”. It’s really hard to concentrate on something that’s so subtle.
The mantra, on the other hand, is under your control. You can make it as “loud” or as “quiet” as you want. You can slow it down so that you only move on to the next word after you’ve fully paid attention to the current one. You could even say it out loud if you want. I personally find that if I’m starting to get way more distracted, I can just start “shouting” it in my head, and it makes it vastly easier to focus on it.
Teachers often say that the breath being subtle is a pro because it forces you to beef up your attention muscles. I think this might be true if you’re already at a certain level of concentration practice, but for me and I suspect many others, it’s too hard too fast. It would be like trying to run a marathon on your first day of taking up jogging after being a couch potato your entire life. You’ve got to build up to it.
It’s easier to focus on things that are pleasant
Some meditation teachers talk about how calming the breath is. I’m sure that’s true for a lot of people. But for me most of the time it’s pretty darn neutral. Or it gets weird when I’m having interesting meditative experiences, which then takes me out of the experience.
The mantra on the other hand is deliberately and consistently pleasant. And that’s just so much easier to pay attention to! It’s so much easier to get yourself to do enjoyable things, and if your mantra is about being grateful for your life, that’s something that will be easier to get your brain on board with.
Naturally, this only works for mantras that are pleasant. That’s one of the reasons I recommend against mantras that aren’t in your native tongue and that you didn’t choose yourself.
The mantra is your thoughts
The main distraction in concentration practice is your thoughts. However, if your meditation object is a mantra, then that is a large part of your thoughts. Your thoughts consist of other things too, like images and urges, but a huge part of many (but not all!) people’s thoughts are verbal commentary. So if your meditation object is the internal narrative, it’s easier to not get distracted and more clearly see when it goes away.
I highly recommend trying it out. And just experimenting widely with a bunch of different meditation objects. The general principle of experimenting widely and then drilling down on the ones you find suit you best seems really strong.
Some potential meditation objects that aren’t just the breath:
Structure and techniques covered in the course
The techniques are taught via pre-recorded video. Throughout the course, you’re supposed to meditate one hour a day combined with short ~3-minute exercises you do when you first wake up and when you go to bed. There’s no enforcement aside from them asking once a week in a survey which days you meditated. I’d highly recommend doing the course with a friend or partner to help you stick to it.
The course was $249 last I checked. It’s a bit pricey for an online course, but the price definitely makes you more motivated to finish it.
Results: ambiguous data and imposter syndrome cured
So, I took the course. Am I enlightened now? Have I achieved fundamental well-being?
Did I improve my happiness? The results are ambiguous.
I’ve been tracking my emotional well-being and other metrics for the last seven years, and there doesn’t seem to be any noticeable change before and after the meditation course beyond noise.
On the other hand, my emotion tracking is not very sensitive to changes. One of the hardest periods of my life only showed a 0.6 change on a scale of 1 to 10. This was mostly because my coping mechanisms were so good that they masked my misery.
On the whole, I’m inclined to not be too concerned about the numbers, because the real headliner of the whole thing is that it probably cured me of my impostor syndrome, reduced my anxiety around work massively, and just made me a much more confident person.
How I got rid of impostor syndrome with loving-kindness meditation
I was a confident kid, then I worked at 80,000 Hours back in 2013, and living in Oxford gave me impostor syndrome. Turns out that basing your confidence on being a big fish in a small pond only works if you stay in a small pond.
Between 2013 and 2022 I had more or less chronic low confidence and high anxiety around work. I tried everything to get rid of it: concentration practice, CBT, IFS, emotional coherence therapy, exposure therapy, ACT, talk therapy, and just plain old reason. Nothing made a dent.
Then the first week of the Finder’s Course was doing an hour a day of loving-kindness meditation. I’ve done a bunch of loving-kindness meditation in the past, but it was always more of a “dessert” technique. After I’d had my vegetables of concentration practice, I could treat myself with 2-5 minutes of loving-kindness at the end. It was never the main course.
This first week though was one hour a day on just loving-kindness.
It was amazing and profoundly changing.
There are a lot of different loving-kindness techniques. The one that I was doing was the one where you:
At first, I focused on feeling loving-kindness toward others. That’s always been pretty easy for me. It was lots of fun, just radiating love towards people in my life and the world.
Then, inspired by this amazing post by Charlie Rogers-Smith on self-love, I tried turning it on myself. What if I tried radiating loving-kindness towards myself instead of others?
Immediately, a wall slammed down in my mind.
“No,” a part of me said. “You definitely cannot love yourself.”
I immediately burst into tears.
So, you know, a perfectly healthy reaction.
While this session wasn’t exactly the most enjoyable one I’ve ever had, it was possibly the most fruitful. After a brief temptation to avoid such negative feelings, I realized that this was the clearest signal I was ever going to get to dig deeper.
I decided to dedicate the week to loving myself in particular. I started with an easy source of loving-kindness, then tried to find things about myself that were easier.
At first, everything was hard.
Could I love myself when I was doing good things? No.
OK, how about bad things? Heck no!
Maybe I could imagine liking myself when I was a kid? Still a no.
OK, what about as a baby? Surely there can’t be any reason to not love myself as a baby!
Nope. I was a pudgy baby. And clearly you can’t love pudgy babies.
Eventually, I found my “in”. I could imagine being my mom, holding my baby-self, and feeling how she felt about me. Even if I had a lot of self-dislike, I am extremely confident my mom loved my baby-self.
From there, I was able to build up. I realized it was easier to love myself when I imagined previous times in my life when I was suffering. From there I felt love for myself in particularly potent scenes from my childhood.
After a while, it was easy. I then started applying the same strategy, but towards feeling confident directly. So establish the feeling of confidence by imaging a scene that brings it up easily, then start working towards harder and harder scenarios.
There’s more to it than that, but this is already becoming a rather long post. I think it would be useful to have a fully written up explanation of my techniques for anxiety/confidence, so I’ll write that up in a separate essay. If you want to hear about it when it comes out, just follow me on Twitter, my personal blog, or set the forum to notify you when I post next.
Overall though, it’s been about six months since the shift, and it’s felt remarkably stable. There have been a couple of times where I’ve reverted to beating myself up again, but it’s lasted max a couple of hours. This is especially amazing because I haven’t done the meditation regularly for five months now, and I’ve never had a stretch of confidence this long in the last ten years.
Of note though, while I was practicing regularly my confidence was about a 9/10, and since not practicing regularly it’s stabilized at around a 6.5/10. This is still amazing though compared to my 3/10 confidence previously.
And a friend of mine went through the course with me and she hated the loving-kindness meditation week. So I already know this won’t work for everybody.
However, this has affected the quality of my life and my work so much that I think most people should give it a shot. I feel way more resilient. I feel far less anxiety. I feel more motivated to work on AI alignment. I’m far better at receiving feedback because it doesn’t threaten my self-worth. I feel more secure with my friends. I enjoy my work more because I’m not constantly beating myself up.
Try one hour a day for a week and see how you feel.
Things I liked and disliked about the course
Spiritual blue balls
The loving-kindness meditation week was one of the happiest of my life. But then it was the next week and it was a meditation that was most definitely not a fit. It followed this pattern, where I’d be super excited about a new technique, then I’d have to put it on hold until the end of the course. By the end of the course, I was so glad it was done so I could just focus on the ones that were working for me.
Of course, I don’t think this is a flaw really. This is to be expected if only some techniques fit you. This would have mostly been fine if it hadn’t been for-
The weird obsession with the nose
Following the first week was around three weeks of concentration and noting practice that nearly destroyed me. It was your typical concentrate on the breath practice, but they firmly insisted you could only pay attention to the nose. Most teachers usually let you choose between the chest and nose, wherever you feel it the most clearly.
But not this class.
In this class, it was nose or bust.
The problem was - I couldn’t feel my nostrils at all.
In the lecture, he said that everybody had sensations in their nostrils unless there was something really wrong with them. I mean, if you shoved a chili pepper up your nose, surely you’d feel it?
Sure, I’d feel that. But that’s a far cry from sitting still and having my breath get softer every minute.
I asked if I could focus on my chest since that was so much clearer to me and they said no. That I should just keep focusing on the nose area and usually feelings will start coming up, and if there wasn’t anything, just to focus on there being nothing.
Focus on nothing. . .
This worked so poorly that it has become a joke in my house about me ranting about the Nostril Weeks.
It lasted about three weeks, and I did an hour a day, even when I got covid part way through. Funnily enough, covid actually made it better because then I could feel my nostrils because my nasal passages were so blocked.
It was torture. Eventually, I could feel the slightest of sensations on the out-breath, but it was so subtle it could have just been my imagination. In the end, I periodically added a mint-scented medicine to my nose so I could feel something there, but then it was mostly slight pain, which is a difficult meditation object.
Why did they insist on the nostril? I don’t know for sure and they didn’t answer when I asked why, but I have a few hypotheses for their reasoning. One is that they wanted you to focus on a really narrow patch of sensations. This would help you achieve more genuine single-pointedness. The other is that they were giving pre-recorded video lectures, and it added complexity to the instructions to allow for multiple meditation objects. Finally, maybe there’s something special about the nostril that leads to more enlightenment that’s hard to put into words.
In the end, that was just a really difficult three weeks, and I wouldn’t recommend it. I think if I had just switched to doing concentration and noting practice on a mantra or my chest, that would have been way better. If you have the same issues, I’d just give the nostrils a couple of days, to see if maybe you can sensitize the area, and if not, switch to a meditation object that’s a better fit for you.
His epistemology wasn’t the worst, but also wasn’t the best
If you are allergic to non-rigorous epistemology, I would stick to:
However, I think you’ll be seriously missing out on a lot of really important psychological wisdom if you can’t learn from people who have sub-optimal epistemologies. Just because somebody believes a lot of things that are wrong doesn’t mean that everything they believe is wrong.
To be fair, I don’t think his epistemology is bad for a meditation teacher. In fact, it’s far above average. However, he definitely made some very bad arguments in a substantial fraction of his videos, and his surveys imply that he believes in meditating leads to good things happening to you (i.e. law of attraction). Just wanted to flag it for the people who are more sensitive to that sort of thing.
Publicly promising to write about it as a commitment and learning device
This isn’t part of the course, but it’s something I wanted to share because it worked so well for me. Before I started the course, I committed to writing about my experiences, and this definitely made the course better for me. Knowing that I’d said it publicly made me stick with it, even when it was really hard. It also made me learn better because I knew that I would have to explain it to people afterward. I highly recommend it.
The polish of the course could be improved a lot
Right now a huge drawback to the course is that it looks a little scammy and unprofessional. I think if they invested in improving their website that would go a long way toward improving their offering.
The importance of hour-long sessions
I’ve always been averse to doing longer meditation sessions. Giving up even half an hour of my day feels like such a sacrifice. When Jeffery said that it was imperative to do an uninterrupted hour a day, I really didn’t want to believe him.
And yet, I put at least a 20% chance that I would not have fixed my impostor syndrome if I hadn’t done hour-long sessions. My initial insight into my lack of self-love was 45 minutes into a session. I think part of the reason I was able to avoid noticing this side of myself for so long was that I just looked away if I got too close to it.
I have also noticed that I haven’t hit diminishing returns for meditating yet. I’ve regularly practiced anywhere between 10 minutes and 2 hours per day, and with 10 minutes a day, I barely notice a difference, whereas when I do 2 hours regularly, it feels as if I’m floating on a cloud of joy all day.
Of course, 2 hours is a lot and I’m not sure it’s worth the trade-off compared to counterfactual uses of time. However, I think it’s correct to model meditation like exercise: doing even a small amount can help, but it’s hard for most people to do it too much.
Different meditation techniques do indeed work differently for different people
My favorite week by far was the loving-kindness week. For my friend, it was the worst. I mostly felt nothing for the body scan week, and my friend practically got drunk on it, feeling super giggly after each round.
It might seem obvious in retrospect, but I feel like this is a really important thing to both acknowledge and work with. This is by far my favorite part of the course. If you do the body scan and aren’t feeling anything after a week, just move on. Life is too short to waste on techniques that aren’t doing anything for you.
The Buddha is famous for saying to not take his word for anything but to try it for yourself and see if it works. People say that, but then don’t walk the walk. Jeffery Martin does, and I love that about the course.
Do I recommend it?
Overall, yes. I don’t know of any courses that have as good a chance of leading to substantial increases in your well-being.
If you’re excellent at self-directed learning, I think you can get most of the benefits outside of the course, or maybe make it even better. Simply commit to doing each of the techniques for an hour a day for a week. I’d consider adding other techniques too, such as internal family systems, cognitive behavioral therapy, journaling, and other techniques you’ve tried in the past with some success or you think might work well for you. If you don’t have the commitment device of paying a large sum of money for it, I’d add some alternatives. Making a public commitment on social media and/or doing it with a friend or two would probably do it.
Better yet, pre-commit to writing your own review of it. I’d be really interested in hearing about other EAs’ and rationalists’ experiences with the course, and it’s an amazing commitment device.
The Parable of the Boy Who Cried 5% Chance of Wolf
The most important lesson I learned after ten years in EA
Why fun writing can save lives
I'm an effective altruist who co-founded Nonlinear, Charity Entrepreneurship, and Charity Science Health