Patterns

One of the things I’ve heard people with experience on the matter describe monasteries doing is “internalizing the externalities of your own maladaptive patterns.”

We all (more or less all—I’m aware of no counterexamples) learn various coping strategies throughout our lives to prevent ourselves from experiencing physical or emotional pain. These coping strategies tend, on the whole, to increase the total amount of suffering. But in the normal world, that suffering is typically not our suffering, and often not even suffering that’s visible to us. So absent any corrective feedback, we tend to just keep using these strategies again and again, and they become ossified patterns.

In monastic training, the situation is different: as much as possible, the person who suffers as a result of engaging in such a pattern is the person doing it. Create an environment like that, and over time, those patterns will die out as we notice that they aren’t working anymore. (In fact, they never worked, but now we can notice that they aren’t working.)

One result of this is that monasteries can be particularly unpleasant places to be for people, such as yours truly, who have developed a lot of maladaptive patterns.

I observed this in my first run through this training, but lacked sufficient contextual awareness, so I perceived it as “monastic training is terrible and bad for me,” and consequently left. These days, I know better than to measure the success of this training by how I’m feeling while I’m doing it—maybe a better method would be “how am I feeling on average each year?” or “how do I and those I interact with do when I’m in various situations in the normal world?”

But I mention this all to say that a particular clump of patterns has been coming up pretty strongly. It seems well explained by this string of tweets from my close friend Javier:

I am, by at least a few objective measures, a smart and successful person. And I can recall looking at the other people in my life as stupid and unworthy of my presence all the way back to elementary school. Even as I did work on the consciously accessible aspects of that pattern, it still shaped my world view, in that the sorts of solutions that presented themselves to me didn’t account for the needs of most of the people I was around. I invested my care-units into the people I deemed worthy: the hacker community and the people in my life who’d proved themselves to be pretty smart by my standards.

Out there in the world, that looked like experiencing some amount of disdain at being around “normals” and relative glee when I was around people I admired. It felt like a lot of isolation and loneliness. It resulted in engaging in all sorts of additional maladaptive patterns in an attempt to deal with those feelings.

I never noticed the connection between the disdain for normals and the feelings of loneliness. The disdain didn’t look like something I was doing—as it goes with beliefs, it just looked like the way the world was. So it never occurred to me that I might feel differently if I looked at myself and others differently, because that wasn’t visibly an option—and if it was, why would I take it? Why change my preferences if that would lead to less satisfaction of my preferences-at-the-time?

So what does that look like in monastic training? Well, the same thing happens in here as happens out there: I look at the people around me as stupid and unworthy of my presence. So I decide—mostly unconsciously—to do other things with my time than interact with them. Let them do whatever dumb things they’re going to do, while I engage in high-brow, smart, superior things like…

And here is a useful bit of cognitive dissonance. Out in the world, I didn’t notice just how ridiculous my alternative behaviors were. Here, there’s just less to do, so it’s kind of obvious that I just spent all day browsing reddit and refreshing a few different social media pages in the hopes that someone smart would say something to me. It’s sort of obvious that this wasn’t all that productive.

So the pattern is visibly causing suffering, and the primary recipient of that suffering is me.

Yet here I am, still doing it.

Another thing that becomes pretty obvious at a place like this is that changing patterns is often really hard and often takes a long time. The tools we have aren’t magical—they just work given steady application over enough time.

But they do work. It’s perceptible in small but concrete ways. The pattern is definitely still here, and it’s also definitely much less pronounced than it was when I entered this training.

Another good friend of mine, Michael, at one point characterized his progress on the path before joining the monastic academy as “fast and fake,” and after joining as “slow and real.”

So, here’s slow and real. Signing off now to spend some time with my friends here.