Sunday, September 22, 2019

The Dharma of Persona 4

"You should try meditating. The Zen Center has a introduction day the first Wednesday of every month," my therapist said. It seemed unlikely to help, though maybe it was worth a try. But trying to make a commitment to go to an event that happens once a month is hard enough when you're not depressed. When you were, it was impossible. Eventually I got my meds sorted and I never bothered going.

About a year later, I was feeling more anxious but the background culture had mentioned meditation so much more often it almost seemed reasonable. David Lynch, one of the few artists I respect almost unreservedly, credits much to meditation. Having luck with the Fitbit I bought a gadget to monitor my brainwaves and gamify the habit long enough for me to stick with it. It wasn't as hard as I thought, but I always dislike doing things if I don't know the full reason behind it. Using Robert Wright's Why Buddhism is True as a starting point, I began to investigate why, according to the Buddha, meditation was supposed to be helpful. Since then I've read Alan Watts, D. T. Suzuki, Aldous Huxley, Stephen Batchelor, Jon Kabat-Zinn, Michael Pollan, Beth Jacobs, Thich Nhat Hanh, the Tao te Ching, the Chuang-Tzu, the Upanishads, the Bhagavad-Gita, the Heart Sutra, the Diamond Sutra, the Lankavatara Sutra, bits of Dogen, and parts of the Pali Canon and I think I finally have an answer.

The point of meditation that Buddhism sets out is: To get your brain to shut the fuck up, because it doesn't know what it's talking about.

Zen koans and Buddhist paradox is meant to stun your logical nitpicky brain into silence. In Buddhism "dharma" means a teaching or an idea, a concept. The Diamond Sutra contains this gem:

The Buddha said, "If someone should claim I teach a dharma, such a claim would be untrue. Such a view of me would be a misconception. And how so? In the teaching of a dharma, in the 'teaching of a dharma' there is no such dharma to be found as the 'teaching of a dharma.'"

The part of your mind that points out that you can't teach a teaching that is not a teaching: That part of your mind is singularly unhelpful to your life.

The Buddha was a great pragmatist. When asked how the universe was created or where Buddhas go after they die, he dismissed them as speculative questions that avoid the task at hand. He also described his dharma as a raft. The point of a raft is not to carry it with you your whole life, over plains and mountains as a great burden. It's to be used get across the ocean and then to be abandoned, perhaps so someone else can use it.

And what is the task at hand for which you need the raft? The ending of suffering.

The Four Noble Truths

Can all suffering really be ended? Who knows. I imagine it's like an asymptote you can approach but never reach. It's a good ideal, though. Dan Harris says that meditation can make you 10% happier, and that's a reasonable promise that can almost surely be met. It's certainly something.

Buddhism is complicated and has a lot of interlocking parts. I think it's simple as it can possibly be without becoming trite and meaningless. To give a good starter understanding of it I need to describe three key Buddhist concepts: The first are the Four Noble Truths, and the Buddha loved numbered lists even more than Jenny Nicholson. The Four truths are modeled after an Ayurvedic medical diagnosis, first describing the disease, the cause of the disease, whether it can be cured, and the cure. If you've taken a comparative religion class you're probably familiar with something like this:

1. Life is suffering
2. We suffer because we want things
3. Nirvana is the end of suffering
4. Follow the eightfold path to reach Nirvana (another numbered list!)

This isn't wrong, but it lacks subtlety. What is usually translated as suffering is dukkha, which can also mean anxiety, disappointment, or the unwieldy unsatisfactoriness. There's something... lacking, and not just in the obvious bummers of aging, death, and sickness. Dukkha is also present when we get what we want. You want a pizza, and eat it... and a few hours later you're hungry again. A movie that you've long anticipated is not as good as you've hoped. The dream job you hoped for grows elements of tiresome routine. This goal was going to make you happy forever, but it didn't. Now you don't care and you have a new goal you need. Psychologists call it the hedonic treadmill. Even if you get what you want, there won't be a transformative happily ever after. You'll just grow accustomed to it and want something else. I think Anthony Bourdain is the best example of the idea that you can seemingly get everything you could possibly want and still be completely unsatisfied and unhappy. No external element is ever going to give you lasting happiness. This is dukkha.

This suffering is caused because we cling, we crave, we thirst. The world used is tanha which means literal thirst, making the internet slang even more hilarious. We crave things, but we also crave permanence in a world that is forever changing. Japanese aesthetics are all about impermanence. Consider a Japanese romance like 5cm/s, and how the romance is told basically through brief moments and distant longing. There is no fairytale happily ever after. This valorization of evanescence and impermanence feels so lacking to a traditional Western view! The idea of appreciating a relationship based on a single night in a cold train station is alien! We need every single property from our childhood rebooted because we cannot let anything go. This desire to cling, this desire to seek permanence in what cannot provide permanence, is the cause of dukkha. In his Man's Search For Meaning, Viktor Frankl, who survived a concentration camp, pointed out that those who seek happiness rarely find it, whereas those who do not seek it do. Clinging, grasping, trying to force our will on reality causes only unhappiness.

Nirvana is a semi-mystical concept, but the metaphor used by the Buddha is that of a fire going out. If suffering is a fire, and you stop throwing logs on the fire, it will eventually extinguish. Stop doing the things that cause suffering and eventually it will have nothing to feed on. Whether you want to read this as an end of reincarnation or simply breaking the cycle of bad habits is up to you. The fundamental idea is the same.

The eightfold path you can look up if you're curious. Many elements are moral and ethical in nature, which are doubtlessly important, because Silicon Valley is full of Buddhists who don't seem to follow any ethical precepts whatsoever. But you won't be learning anything new if I tell you that killing people, lying, stealing etc might rebound on you and cause you to suffer. I want to focus on the Buddha's more novel and confusing contributions.

No Self, No Problem

Listening to a lecture by Mark Muesse he said instead of referring to "the Buddhist doctrine of no-self" he preferred "the practice of no-self". Because whether you believe the self doesn't exist or not, acting as if it doesn't can relieve a great deal of psychic pressure. The need to maintain a true, authentic, consistent personal identity is a lot of psychic and social labor that only restricts you. In the Buddha's telling, a person is composed of five aggregates or bundles (which is the term David Hume used when he also dismissed the existence of a self).

The five bundles are:

1. form - this means matter. This is your body. Is your body your self?

2. feelings - this doesn't mean emotion. This is a part of perception. This is the instant positive or negative or neutral feeling you feel when you encounter something. Seeing Kristen Stewart on a magazine gives me a positive feeling tone. Seeing a cockroach gives me a negative feeling tone. Seeing the corner of the bookshelf between the magazine and the cockroach gives me a neutral feeling tone- it barely arose to my awareness. You kneejerk preferences are also not your true self.

3. Perceptions - this is the next stage of awareness. Now I see what Kristen Stewart is wearing and how her hair is cut. I see the cockroach start to scurry away. My kneejerk perception is filled in with sensory detail, usually to help justify why my feelings were right. Are your perceptions your self?

4. Mental formations - this gets into habitual thinking patterns, volitions, mental constructs. Seeing the magazine I might think "I should buy this magazine," or the roach I might thing "I should kill the roach," because in both cases that's what I usually do. Are my habits my self?

5. Consciousness - This is where we come in as the perception fully registers. I would say in the West that this is the part we might recognize most with the self. But our consciousness is always changing, subject to environmental pressures, always in flux. Is your work "self" the same as your home "self"? Which is the actual true you?

The Buddha would argue that identifying any of the aggregates, or all of them, as an inherent, reified, constant self is mistaken, and most importantly, unhelpful. People identify with some factor of their being and try and make that a permanent self. But as we've already noticed, nothing is permanent. Trying to fix a permanent self in an impermanent world is clinging that only leads to suffering.

Someone who tries to identify with their form, say someone who is attractive or athletic, will despair as they age and lose vitality. Someone identified with their feelings and their perceptions, like a writer or an artist, can be wounded if their art is rejected. Someone identified with their habits and thoughts, like a gamer or a movie buff (cough) can take mild criticism too far. And someone absorbed in their mind can take their mental abstractions and logic too far.

The Buddha suggests that these aggregates aren't present, but that they are empty. Empty of an inherent self. The tireless maintenance of a permanent self is labor you can give up, and it is a great relief.

How Does Meditation Fit In?

So how does meditation help? Scientifically, it helps to quiet the Default Mode Network, the part of your brain that turns on when you're not doing anything else. When you're busy or "in the zone" this part of your brain is silent. But when you sit quietly, it springs to life, nattering, thinking about bad things you did in the past and how you should have done them better if they weren't such a failure, or worrying about things in the future and how you're doing everything all wrong. The Default Mode Network is the voice of your depression, your anxiety, and your obsessive compulsive thinking. It is completely self-obsessed and will critically analyze everything you're doing if you let it. So don't let it. Weaken it. And meditation is how.

The official way the Buddha reached enlightenment according to the sutras is breath meditation, one of the most popular kind, and it is endorsed by the big guy himself. Focusing on the breath always keeps you in the present moment, rather than being depressed about the past or worried about the future. You can count breaths, or just feel breaths as your lungs expand. The idea is to be present and embodied. Open yourself up to neutral feeling tones, those sensations you ignore because they are neither pleasant or unpleasant. What do your hands feel like when they're not doing anything and there's just a neutral feeling?

Inevitably, a thought will arise. At this point, it's absolutely important to keep Final Fantasy IV and Persona 4 in mind.


At one point in the game the main character Cecil transforms from a Dark Knight to a Paladin, but as he does so he is attacked by his lower, evil self. If you fight back, the battle will never end. Cecil does not react, does not return blows. He defends and heals himself as necessary.

Similarly, do not let the thought lead you astray, if it does, the moment you realize that you are not focused on your breath, return to your breath. The point is not to engage with your thoughts, it's just to return to what you are doing. Let them rise and fall on their own accord. Eventually the shadow of the Dark Knight disappears.


Everyone is familiar with the famous Persona 4 "you're not me!" trope. But it's also very important that you do not judge the thoughts when they arise. Judging thoughts is getting entangled. Even thinking "I can't even meditate right! I'm thinking about this," is a distraction from the breath. Observe the thought, and let it go away. Do not engage, do not fight.

Let thoughts arise, and fall. See how thoughts think themselves and that thoughts have no claim on your self-identity. In a certain sense, Yukiko is right: The thoughts aren't her. They aren't her at all. But she's reacting against them violently, trying to preserve her own self image. Only after the boss fight, when the thoughts are calmly accepted, judgement free, do the powers of her other persona become her own.

Scientific papers have shown that repeated meditation actually does change the sizes of areas in your brain related to self control and anxiety for the better. This is basically all it is, you just have to do it regularly.

Later Buddhism was very big on the idea of upaya, or skillful means. Basically, the Buddha was willing to use any ethical method that was tailored to his audience to help them reach their goals. I can think of no dorkier upaya than using JRPGS to explain enlightenment.

This is only the tip of the iceberg, if you're interested in more I would recommend Robert Wright's Why Buddhism Is True, my starting point, as your own. He goes into much more scientific detail that a modern Western rationalist would want to be convinced of Buddhism's utility.

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