This week in the sangha we have been inquiring into Insight in relationship to the practice of concentration.
Damien Quartz shared the process of finding the bug in a computer program as a simile for the process of concentration/observation and insight:
When thinking about what it means to have insight, I thought about one of the processes I use when trying to determine why a computer program that I’ve written isn’t working the way I intended it to. We’re used to experiencing programs as interactive graphical interfaces, but what they actually are is a set of instructions for manipulating the state of a bunch of bits of memory. When a program has a “bug,” where it produces an incorrect result, or behaves strangely, or stops working entirely, I use another program called a debugger to freeze the buggy program at the place where I think the error might be occurring. The debugger allows me to inspect the state of all the bits of memory relevant to that portion of the program, which can give me insight into why the program is behaving incorrectly. I might see that a number in memory is negative that should never be negative, or that a piece of important text has become garbled, and I can begin to reason about how that might have happened. I can run the program again and freeze it at an earlier point in time, stepping through the instructions one by one until I discover what’s causing the error. Without a debugger it can be extremely difficult to reason about the internal state of a program because so much of the inner workings are hidden by the interface. Programs are opaque in this way, unknowable almost. A debugger allows for close, careful inspection. And, sometimes, in the course of investigating a bug, I discover that while the behavior may be unexpected, it may be that it is a legitimate outcome I did not foresee when writing the program. In these cases, it’s often OK to stop debugging and say, “Ah, it’s a feature, not a bug!”
Folks are often drawn to meditation practice because of the experience of suffering or when a thought or action “produces an incorrect result”, or our emotional body, thinking or physical body “behaves strangely, or stops working entirely”. Meditation practice is like having a “debugger” to “freeze” the habit stream and conditioned thoughts so that we can closely observe the causes and conditions that lead to the habitual behavior or thinking causing suffering. In the stillness of open ended concentration/observation, there is an opportunity to see and experience the reality of the present moment without the interference of the “bug” of conditioned habits. This is a rich culture for unconditioned insight that leads to healing and clarity. It may even lead to the understanding that what we assumed was an aberration or obstacle is rather, a doorway to freedom from suffering. “In these cases, it’s often OK to stop debugging and say, “Ah, it’s a feature, not a bug!”
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