Enlightenment Now
Published: 2024-01-01 . Back to ≈
I want to talk about the type of insight which happens when the way that we frame a problem shifts or opens up, disclosing a solution which was not permitted by the previous frame (we could say that the solution was outside or beyond the existing frame, to follow the metaphor).

I began listening to John Vervaeke’s “Awakening From the Meaning Crisis” (AFTMC) a few months ago. His discussions of frame-breaking and insight have greatly impacted the way that I’ve come to think about enlightenment from a personal standpoint. I’ve been wanting to write down some personalized reflections on these topics which are inspired by the podcast and some of the resonances that I’ve found in my own life.

Epistemic status: I hope to look back on this in a year and find much to add, refine, or perhaps correct.


I want to talk about the type of insight which happens when the way that we frame a problem shifts or opens up, disclosing a solution which was not permitted by the previous frame (we could say that the solution was outside or beyond the existing frame, to follow the metaphor).

Can you think of the last time that this happened for you?

Reframing problems became an experience that was familiar to me during the years of working on my (unfinished) PhD, and has remained a important part of my current work as a protocol engineer.

We’ll do without a formal definition of a “frame” or “frame shift” for now, as finding such a satisfactory definition threatens to be its own project. Instead, we’ll rely on examples which will hopefully articulate a coherent picture. It does seem likely that if we were to specialize to some concrete context like reinforcement learning, “framing” would correspond to something like “feature selection”, which seems to align with ways that John Vervaeke talks about frames in AFTMC.

A simple “textbook” example of a frame shift (one that can be found in textbooks, though not labeled as such) might be where reparametrizing an optimization problem suddenly renders it convex or otherwise tractable. This is the sort of trick that one might grow somewhat accustomed to seeking out in the context of an optimization class. But in the wild, when a problem hasn’t been hand-tailored, it might take some subtle tinkering with the semantics of the problem itself in order for the new parametrization to make sense. This sort of shift can be overlooked for great lengths (more than a year, in a recent instance).

In protocol design, I’ve seen frame shifts happen when someone properly distinguishes an existing solution component which has come to be more or less “canonical” from the problem it is meant to solve: “We need to have solution A because of problem B” transforms into merely “we need to solve problem B (and A is one possible solution).” This might seem like the sort of simple hang-up that shouldn’t be getting in anyone’s way; and perhaps it shouldn’t. But below I’ll make the case the frame shifting is more difficult than it seems like it should be. Relatedly, frame shifts might happen when something that was taken as a requirement resolves into one or two smaller constraints which don’t necessarily imply the original requirement. These examples might roughly correspond to the “Chunk decomposition and constraint relaxation” mentioned by Vervaeke in AFTMC.

When a frame shift leads to the resolution of a previously unsolved problem, it is always an occasion of excitement. Given an existing frame, a great many people will be able to explore the solution space, find the pain points, and see where things break down. But frame shifts are rare. They come intermittently, and generally from within a smaller group. When they happen, there is usually a stir as everyone who has seriously engaged with the problem comes to grips with the fact that what previously looked like a solid boundary was merely a frame. Finally, there is admiration as people sit back to enjoy the enlightened view.

So why is frame shifting so difficult?

Frames are themselves a tool for managing the complexity of the world. Inside of the frame, we know who or what are the important entities, what are the important relationships among them, and what are the main problems to be solved. Questioning a frame is to venture beyond this well-definedness and into the full-blown complexity of the unframed world. Navigating the world without a frame isn’t something that the conscious, reasoning part of our minds does well. The world “out there” is too large, too flexible, too combinatorially explosive for our slow modes of thinking. A person can become lost mind wandering for days, endlessly questioning every boundary or construct. You could say that a frame provides a kind of rigidity which allows our problem-solving machinery to do its best work.

When frame shifts happen, it is seldom via a direct, brute-force process of wrestling with the framing and searching for alternatives, though this may play an important “primer” role. Rather, frame shifts generally stem from a more intuitive part of us—a part which notices a pattern or regularity which the current frame fails to exploit, for instance.

Frames are also, almost by definition, just out of focus or outside of our awareness. Sometimes the most difficult part of achieving a frame shift is just noticing that the frame is there (as it invariably is) and coming to understand it. As we shall see, below, this isn’t always as simple as it sounds.

Interpersonal frames.

Life sometimes resembles a wicked protocol design problem. The demands of work, relationships, social norms, various responsibilities, and our own personal needs or aspirations can come into profound conflict. Each piece of our lives exerts its own constraints on our action space, and upon inspection it sometimes looks like there is no avenue where one or more constraints is not violated.

[Actually, I hope you never find yourself in this sort of situation. A difficult protocol design problem might stymie an engineer for months; impassible interpersonal situations can linger for years. FWIW, I don’t think such situations are that difficult to avoid; but it’s also not difficult to stumble into them, as many of us aren’t paying attention to the biases, poor influences, or mere carelessness which lead into such situations until it’s too late.]

For me, the moments when the clouds have parted and a piece of a solution has been suddenly disclosed have felt a lot like frame shifts:

  • I realize that thing A which I think that I want is actually sub-things B, C, and D, which I have always equated with A.
  • I’m suddenly able to call into question something that has previously felt like an immutable constraint.

As my own examples are somewhat personal, I’ll point to what seems like a concrete and contemporary example of frame-breaking in relationships: Polyamory relaxes a constraint that had been elevated to a nearly unquestionable status—monogamy—and employs tools such as attachment theory in an attempt to unbundle the set of physical, emotional, and psychological needs which had been contained by the relational category of a monogamous romantic relationship. I haven’t personally found the polyamorous frame to be approachable so far in my life, but I can appreciate the ambition of the frame-shifting project at its core.

We should note here that frame-shifting is not the same thing as ignoring a constraint that exists for generally valid reasons; for those who treat polyamory this way, it often seems to violently implode. Frame-shifting is usually more subtle.

Intrapersonal frames.

Interpersonal frame shifts are powerful, but insofar as they operate within a frame of something like “relationships as protocols” they may yet still be not powerful enough to help us truly understand our relationships or break out of gridlocks. The most powerful frame shifts are not interpersonal, but intrapersonal.

Intrapersonal frame shifts happen when we attend to parts within our psyche whose presence and operation had previously been outside of our conscious attention or awareness. In particular, intrapersonal frame-shifts require us to accept that the composite operation of our mental apparatus is constructing a frame which powerfully affects the way that we experience the world, and then to begin to understand in some detail the ways in which this is happening.

An example of an intrapersonal frame shift might involve how we model our satisfaction with a relationship. I’m prone to imagine that my happiness within a relationship derives directly from whether my needs are being fulfilled by the relationship (satisfying conversations, intimacy, and so on):

(Whether my needs are fulfilled) –> (Whether I’m happy in the relationship)

It’s taken me a long time to understand that this model is leaving out an important intrapersonal layer—one which is obvious in a way but somehow easy for me to overlook. This is the layer of feelings and emotions. Whether I’m happy in the relationship is itself a feeling, and it seems to interact with a set of other feelings, such as how I am feeling about my partner, long before ever touching more object-level questions like whether my partner cleans up her messes.

(Whether my needs are fulfilled) –> (How I feel about my partner) –> (Whether I’m happy in the relationship)

At first blush, this may not look like such a radical difference. We might imagine that “how I feel about my partner” is largely downstream of “whether my needs are being fulfilled”, so that the original model is still coarsely accurate. But I think this is to not take emotions seriously enough (speaking as someone who has often committed this error). Our feelings have a life of their own; they’re stateful, are impacted by moods, and generally can shift rapidly due to far removed factors. Importantly, feelings also impact how we relate to other people, which in turn impacts whether our needs end up being met. A better model looks like this:

(Whether my needs are fulfilled) <–> (How I feel about my partner) –> (Whether I’m happy in the relationship)

Clearly, to ignore the role of feelings when trying to understand a relationship is to commit a grave error. But there’s something even more to be said: Even if I am not consciously attending to the way that feelings are impacting my relationship, the feelings are still there. What are they doing? They are shaping the frame through which I view the relationship in ways of which I am at best dimly aware: if I am not examining my feelings directly, it probably means that I’m seeing the world through them.

This last point powerfully illustrates the frame shift at play: previously, the emotions were behind the scenes, influencing (with great leverage) the implicit frame through which we view something. Once we expand the frame to encompass feelings and emotions, we can attend to them, understand them, and evaluate what role they might play in solving our broader problem (which problem itself we might understand more deeply in light of the frame shift).

Enlightenment now.

Frame shifting is abstract and difficult. The problems or suffering that we face in life are real, here and now, and pressing. So what are we to do?

One answer, if we are stuck in some kind of suffering at one “level” (e.g. the interpersonal), is to move to a frame which encompasses a “deeper” level (e.g. feelings and what lies beneath) and to hope that some associated frame shift can help to alleviate our suffering. Listening to John Vervaeke has helped me to understand Enlightenment teachings somewhat in these terms. In particular, Enlightenment ideas put forward the promise that the human situation is generally amenable to a stable set of frame shifts with the power to awake us from suffering; and moreover that these shifts are widely accessible to many who engage in a set of practices.

When many books, accounts, or acquaintances have relayed the benefits of practices such as meditation to me, those benefits have often come across as something like “free dopamine.” As an agent wired for the pursuit of goals rather than the pursuit of raw feeling or “reward” (see, e.g., Reward is not the optimization target), this representation hasn’t been especially compelling for me.

I now envision Enlightenment as a sort of generalization or perfection of the frame-shifts which I’ve come to seek in order to alleviate my own interpersonal suffering. In this light (or, under this framing, if you will), the notion of Enlightenment feels tantalizing. I can even crave it… Enlightenment Now.