The best book I read this year
Seeing that Frees by Rob Burbea
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Seeing that Frees is a dense 464 page guidebook and training manual for your conscious experience.
It is incredibly precise, detailed, original and filled with practical examples to follow the trails that its author, Rob Burbea, has followed into the depths of his mind. I’m only about a quarter of the way through, but there’s enough in the first hundred pages that I think I could spend the next 10 years living with it and still feel like I have more to learn from it.
The basic idea of Seeing that Frees is that there are different ways of “seeing” yourself and the world, that some of those contribute to pain and some to growth and freedom. Its aim is to show us how we can learn through practice, play, and experimentation to free ourselves of the ways of seeing that create more pain, and learn to use more of the ones that are helpful for growth.
If you’re at all interested in learning about what is underneath productivity—how your own mind works and how that ladders up into your experience of, and effectiveness in the world—this is a seminal book.
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Most serious books about meditation are pretty dogmatic and tradition-oriented. They start out with positing a kind-of-crazy-sounding series of propositions: life is suffering, suffering comes from delusion, if you meditate enough you’ll realize your delusions, you’ll stop craving things, and then you’ll stop suffering! These books make big promises about the nature of reality and what you can accomplish if you just sit in a room and look at your breathing for a while.
But it also often sounds…I don’t know, unappealing? Not very believable? It turns a lot of people off.
I think I know why they do this: it’s basically good copywriting! Don’t bury the lede! Make your big claim up front! Life is suffering!
If you do things this way you have the advantage of converting lots of people who are suffering a lot and are really motivated to change that, which is a win. But you might miss all sorts of other people who might benefit from learning about the things you have to say but aren’t ready to accept the big metaphysical claims that your techniques seem to rely on.
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In response to this are all sorts of other meditation books that are designed to hook you with tangible benefits like reducing your stress levels and increasing your focus without strapping you into an entire philosophical outlook and religious tradition that might turn you off. These are also very useful gateways for people, but by design they suffer from a lack of depth, originality, and power.
It’s very rare to find a book about meditation and Buddhism that retains the lack of dogma, pragmatic, playful and results driven attitude that are common to the second type of book, while combining the depth, wisdom, and seriousness of the first.
Seeing that Frees by Rob Burbea is that rare kind of book.
The really, really nice thing about this book is that it isn’t tied to any one particular insight or any particular level of explanation. It operates with expert skill on the level of everyday psychology and also on the deepest levels of meditation experience.
Most meditation books, for example, focus on the idea of “being with what is”. But from Burbea’s perspective, that too is just a way of looking. Sometimes it’s helpful, and sometimes it’s not. And it’s important to know when and how to deploy it.
“Actively cultivating a range of skillful ways of looking, is premised, then, on the understanding that we are always and inevitably engaged in some way of looking at or relating to experience anyway. But we are not usually aware of this fact. Nor are we usually aware of how we are looking—what exactly the view is—at any time.”
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The core thing you probably should know about the book is this: it’s basically a collection of ways to get insight.
Insight is defined as any realization, understanding, or way of seeing things that brings about a decrease in your own suffering. (Decreases in suffering lead to more freedom which gives you more ability to act in the world in ways that are most effective.)
This is great, because we all deal with problems in our day to day lives and it means this book is a compendium of lots of great ways to solve those problems. It’s filled with various places you can intervene in your own system of consciousness to root out problems and untie knots and weird feedback loops of suffering so that you can realize a sense of freedom that might be lacking.
So what are these insights you ask?
Insights can be an experience of something: an aha moment of realization about yourself or about someone else. Or they can be a way of looking at the world that generates a lessening of suffering. It’s basically the equivalent of mental models for your own consciousness.
The insights apply in ways that are very practical: for example, giving a presentation at work that you’re nervous about. In Burbea’s world a mundane example like that turns into a spectacular 20 page moment by moment analysis of how your sense of dread about the presentation you're about to give is created by past experiences, and how your mind tends to focus on it, stoke it, and create more of it in various feedback loops that keep you trapped. Once he’s done painting a picture of your mind that is both as detailed and precise as anything you’ve ever read, he then unpacks in great detail how to unknot yourself. He goes through various different places to intervene in the loops that keep us trapped, and he does so at every level of experience from the level of ordinary psychology, all the way down to the level of basic awareness of metaphysical reality.
Choose your poison, whatever helps. If you want a book to help you expand your explanation space for problems in your life and introduce novel solutions…then this is it.
. . .
The next thing you should know about this book is that, in Rob’s view, the biggest kind of freeing insight, and the most interesting way of looking, is emptiness.
Emptiness is kinda hard to understand, and is probably best left to experience, but Rob tries various ways to point in the right direction so you get the gist:
“Emptiness is the absence of this inherent existence that things appear to naturally and undeniably have.”
Okay…so emptiness means that things are not really as they seem. Basically, if you sit in a room long enough and do nothing but focus on your breathing or some other object of attention you’re going to see some wild stuff as different parts of your brain turn on and off. In particular, you’ll find that some of the conceptual apparatus that holds the world together—thoughts, ideas, emotions, memories, facts—drop away.
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