Published February 17, 2023; follow-up added at the end of the text on March 12, 2023
By Simon Knutsson

Roger Thisdell is a meditation teacher and was in a master’s programme in Epistemology, Ethics and Philosophy of Mind at The University of Edinburgh.

This text is an edited write-up of a call between Roger and Simon that took place on February 1, 2023. Both had a chance to edit and approved the text before publication. The conversation wasn’t planned to be written up and published, but here it is.

One topic was Simon’s draft “Undisturbedness as the hedonic ceiling”, which Roger read before the call. Simon was familiar with Roger’s videos and some related texts.

Simon: First a clarification. When we are talking about hedonic levels, I am not interested in what is preferable, choiceworthy, better (as in axiology and value theory), or more valuable. And the subject is not what I would choose. It’s rather how unpleasant something is. And I assume more of a quality theory of unpleasantness. There are at least two kinds of theories. One is that unpleasantness is a quality of an experience. The other theory is that there is a relation between you and the experience; say, that an experience is pleasant if you like it or if you have a certain attitude towards it. On that account, it’s something like: an experience is unpleasant if you have an aversion or some kind of negative attitude to it.

Roger: So, on this account, there is nothing inherently negative about the experience itself. It’s always a matter of how you confront it, whatever that would mean.

Simon: Yeah. It is a matter of the kind of attitude you have to your experience when you have it. But, anyway, that is not what I have in mind. I have more in mind the phenomenology, the flavour, the quality, and that kind of thing. I am not trying to talk about whether we like certain experiences or whether we have an aversion to them. I am trying to get at how they feel; their quality. That’s what I will be asking about.

Roger: Could another way of phrasing it be that there is an objective quality to the experience?

Simon: Sure. It just feels a certain way.

Roger: Yeah, but a component of that feeling is the valence factor.

Simon: Yeah, I guess valence would be what I call ‘hedonic level’. If you would say ‘negative valence’, that would be unpleasantness; hedonically negative; it feels bad.

Roger: Yeah, I like the word ‘disturbance’. It’s a soft enough word that it can track many experiences.

Simon: When you pay attention to your current experience, do you always notice some disturbance? Disturbances are all those that I listed: discomfort, tension that feels unpleasant, worry, tiredness, thirst, bothersome want, and so on. I guess you saw that very long list of disturbances.

Roger: Yeah. My view after having really examined my experience is that any moment of experience, if there is ever some phenomenal representation, it comes with an element of contraction, and the contraction is tantamount to an aspect of disturbance or negative valence. In different quantities, that’s always the case. And it could be such minimal levels that you wouldn’t complain about it.

I can compare to what I call ‘cessation events’, where consciousness blips out, and then experience comes back online. There is an obvious night and day difference.

Simon: It sounds like you are saying that, in your experience, every conscious experience, every experience with phenomenology, has something unpleasant about it. It feels unpleasant to some extent.

Roger: Yes. I think valence is a core feature of all experiences. Yeah, unpleasantness, disturbance, is a factor of all experience, to more or less degrees. But it is always a quality baked into experience. And how you are going to judge this is relative to what you have experienced; depending on which hedonic levels you have experienced in the past. Once we start talking about this at a higher abstract level, which we have to invoke when we use language, you can’t help make these sorts of comparative judgments.

Simon: So you might call an experience ‘unpleasant’ and someone else with different life experiences might call it ‘very pleasant’, depending on what they are comparing it to.

Roger: Yeah.

Simon: You would be comparing it to cessation or your most undisturbed experience ever or something like that.

This sounds like Anaxagoras. I have read about Anaxagoras saying roughly that every sensation involves distress, discomfort, suffering, or pain. It sounds like you are saying something similar. Every experience contains something that feels bad; that is hedonically negative.

Roger: There is a point where you deconstruct perception to basic experiences by not feeding certain mental processes with your attention, they fade out. If I’m not paying attention to thought, the experience and comprehension of concepts and language fade out of experience. You can get to states of mind where there is no high-level conceptual thinking going on. It’s just vague pressures, releases, and contortions. You can have experiences of just vast airy space. For instance, the sense of the body schema, that you have a unified body, can vanish when you haven’t been paying attention to it for a long time and you’ve kept your eyes closed, so you are not updating the perception of the body with new visual stimuli. The body schema as a model falls out of the mind. But you still have awareness of gaseous somatic sensations and in all that there is a subtle contraction. Yeah, I’m saying that. It comes with a disturbance from an ultimate peace of that which is before/beyond concept and phenomenological representation.

Simon: You speak of contraction and expansion. That’s not something I am familiar with from my studies or my academic field. I guess you mean that contraction is negatively valenced or is unpleasant; it is hedonically negative.

Roger: Yeah. Do you want me to describe contraction more?

Simon: Sure. Or, I guess, I am curious whether you mean something different by it. So that if you would say “here is contraction but it’s not unpleasant at all; it’s not negatively valenced at all; it’s not hedonically negative”. Then if you say that we always experience contraction, that doesn’t mean that we always experience disturbance.

Roger: I’m welding those two together, yeah. They entail each other. Contraction entails negative valence. You can’t have negative valence without contraction, and vice versa.

Simon: So if you have contraction, you have negative valence.

Roger: Yes.

Simon: Okay. Do you think there are experiences with a positive hedonic level?

Roger: Do you want to define what you mean?

Simon: Some would say: “Of course, there are pleasant experiences. There can be more intense pleasures. And you can go upwards on the hedonic scale. You can feel better and better. And below all that, you can feel neutral: neither pain nor pleasure; neither unpleasantness nor pleasantness. Below that, you can feel bad, feel minor disturbances, feel horrible, and so on.” So if we have different degrees of disturbances and suffering, then my question is whether there are experiences that are above undisturbedness; the absence of negative valence. I guess, based on your videos and writings, that you would say no; that there are no such experiences.

Roger: Yeah. I think “no”. I think there is a way in which suffering and pleasure don’t exist at the same level of abstraction. Pleasure is at a more abstract layer. The label “pleasure” comes from an assessment after the fact of an experience. Once there was a build-up of pressure and then a release, there is a judgment “I am glad for the release”, but it was just the contractive pressure that you wanted to go away. Now it’s gone so you make the comparative judgment after the fact: “That was a good thing that happened”. But had the pressure never built up, had the contraction never been binding and causing you suffering, then you can’t even begin to make that assessment that it was something good to do.

Simon: Someone might object to that by giving the example of someone who walks in the city on a beautiful evening, sees a beautiful view with some trees, and in that moment also thinks: “This is really pleasant; this is certainly a positive experience (hedonically). This is not merely less negative valence”. But I guess you would say: “No, that’s not a hedonically positive experience. That’s just maybe the absence of stress, worry, or maybe longing for something, or you feel unconstrained”.

Roger: There is something subtle to get into with the phenomenology to the words that are evoked. It could be that you are walking down the street and you don’t realise the ways in which you are suffering. And then you see a beautiful sunset, it removes some of that suffering, and comparatively now you are in a better state. There are certain words that we use that on the surface sound neutral, but, actually, there is a connotation of negative valence in them. A lot of the wording we are using, on some surface level, construes something as good but, actually, it’s not. An example in English is when you ask people how they are doing, and they say “I’m okay” or “I’m fine”. The dictionary definitions of ‘okay’ and ‘fine’ sound positive, but if someone says “I’m fine” or “I’m okay” they are really saying “I’m not quite okay” (i.e., not perfectly undisturbed). That’s a way in which the surface level of our meaning is not what we are really getting at.

Simon: If someone says: “When I saw this sunset, it felt great and really pleasant. It’s not something I’m reacting to afterwards. I’m now looking at the sunset and I really enjoy it and it feels great”. I gather you would say: “That’s in contrast to what you were experiencing before when you were just walking there and perhaps you were bored, saw ugly things, or wished for something more. Compared to that previous state you feel much better now but still, it is not hedonically positive in the sense of feeling better than undisturbedness.”

Roger: Yes. Well put. You can feel a rush of energy and motivation. Maybe you’re tired and walking home from work, then you see the sunset and suddenly feel uplifted and more awake because the colours are captivating and perhaps provide dopamine and you feel a sense of meaning or something. But you are just energised, say, by the sunlight.

Simon: Okay. Here is a separate line of thought. When I talk about completely undisturbed experiences or undisturbed experiences, I mean that we are not, say, dead. We have experiences with phenomenology. Because if we don’t, it becomes an issue of how to put being unconscious on a hedonic scale. There is no experience. It’s not neutral. In a coma, we perhaps don’t know if you have an experience, but I’m trying to talk about experiences that have a hedonic level. Maybe you would say that at cessation you stop having any phenomenology. Then it becomes unclear what the hedonic level is since you are not experiencing anything. Based on what I have read and your videos, when you meditate, it sounds like you can experience less and less until you get to cessation where there is no subjective experience. You said that any experience contains contraction. So when you feel less and less in your meditation, it feels better and better.

Roger: Well, I feel less and less bad hahaha.

Simon: You feel less and less bad. You feel less disturbances: ache, worry, discomfort, loneliness, meaninglessness, troubles. You feel less and less such things until you get to a point where it drops off the chart where there is no experience at all. I would like to ask you if you are ever in complete undisturbedness, and I guess your reply would be: “When I reach peak meditation”.

Roger: But I wouldn’t call that an experience. It’s a complicated conversation. Unless you want to say that experience remains but that you have no memory of it; that your short-term memory stops working and you can’t remember the undisturbed moment or something like that. People could come back with that.

Simon: So for you, I understand it would be that when there is qualia, there is always negative valence, but sometimes in your life you have reached a point where experience, phenomenology ceases. And you call that ‘cessation’. You remove disturbances until you get there. So you never get to undisturbed phenomenology because undisturbedness only occurs when phenomenology and experience cease. Is that correct?

Roger: Yes. You’re laying it out well.

Simon:  And I guess at that time you don’t think “Now I’m not feeling anything”. That would ruin it.

Roger: Right hahaha that would pop you out.

Simon: So one question is what we notice when we pay attention to our experiences. I’m essentially talking about introspection. When you say that all experiences have negative valence, and when you meditate you feel less and less bad (if it goes well). One question is whether you paid attention to your experiences at the time or whether that’s your recollection afterwards. Some would say introspection is a problematic tool because if you pay attention to your experiences and think “my back hurts a bit”, some might say “maybe that’s just because you paid attention to your back, but before you paid attention to your back, you didn’t feel any pain in your back”. So when you talk about what you notice and your own experiences, how do you know that they are always negatively valenced? When you were meditating, did you pay attention to whether you felt negative valence? Or how do you know?

Roger: Off the bat, I would say yes, haha I pay a lot of attention to negative valence. One thing is a radical scepticism can always be levelled at this. It could be said that we only have access to our current experience and that all memories of past experiences could be false (if I were, say, a brain in a vat). But if we do not want to go with radical scepticism: People have a range of experiences that they can rank. And you have a working memory. You can remember detail and understand the experience with more detail depending on how recently it occurred.

We need a more sophisticated model of how attention works. A particularly good one: you have a bulls-eye centre where what’s in attention is particularly high fidelity with detail. Your focused attention centre. And you can only pay attention to one thing at a time. But there is a lot more happening in peripheral awareness. Except it’s in less detail; it’s fuzzy, blurry. The saturation level decreases. And another element I want to add is amodal perception. Amodal perception, real quick, is like that you can see the front face of a phone but not the back, but there is still some register, some information, it’s so subtle. There is something in your mind filling in the blanks that there is a back of the phone. This is an incredibly subtle form of perception. It’s almost like a thought but not even as stark as a voice in your head or a mental image. We can draw a range of information flooding into consciousness becoming richer, more detailed, and stark from unconscious content, amodal perception, to peripheral awareness, into focused attention.

Also to add to this framework of how well you understand your experience: You can train yourself to pay attention to experience more. You have to make certain presumptions here. Imagine it is a kind of training like doing sports training; that you can get better at introspection; get better at phenomenology. And if you believe that there is something to that, then you might think “who are the people who are better at this?” There might be something to say about why my opinion might have some value—not ultimate value and I’m not the best phenomenologist at all—but I have done a lot of mental training on this and if you ask me, I can describe in more detail down to fractions of a second, moment-to-moment changes in experiences. Whereas others might talk broadly and abstractly, like “I’m eating a cake and I’m enjoying it”. Well, you can break down that experience into subtler and subtler components. I might respond with that.

Simon: Another question: I’m thinking about, based on your introspection and memory, whether there is some kind of positive quality to experience. There is this literature on pleasure. Assuming that for things that are pleasant, there is some kind of quality to those experiences. People talk about a warm hum, a sweet sensation, or that we all know what we are talking about; it feels good. Magnus Vinding argues, including using introspection, that there is no positive counterpart to suffering. I wonder what your experience of that is based on your introspection and recollection. I guess you would say that there is no such part or aspect of experience.

Roger: I can understand what people talk about with warm fuzzy feelings. And I can have the experience they are talking about. Depending on what you have experienced, particular experiences are contextualised within a broader or less broad framework.

For example, the jhanas are a series of highly concentrated states in which you defabricate your experience more and more. The first jhana is warm fuzzy feelings all over the body. That’s the first one out of eight. People describe each one as more preferable.

Let me talk about the fuzzy feelings in isolation rather than doing a comparison. How to do that without making a comparison?

Simon: If I may interrupt. I think comparisons are easy to accept. If someone says: “I feel better now than I did before”, It doesn’t mean it feels positive, good, or above neutral. Just: earlier I felt worse, now I feel better, I have moved up the hedonic scale. It doesn’t mean I’m above zero. It can mean less bad.

Roger: When we talk about introspection, people might think about closing one’s eyes and focusing on the experience in one’s head. But what is around you, the whole room, is also in the framing of your experience. And warm fuzzy feelings are like the temperature in a room reaching equilibrium where there might be energetic pulses and energy, particularly in somatic sensations. But the part of experience that is in front of the body, the air: If you could get that experience happening in the location of the head as well, I guarantee you would rank it better than the warm fuzzy feelings. I am making a comparison and I am not sure how to talk about warm fuzzy feelings in isolation. How do you make a value judgment without comparison?

Simon: I think it is sensible what you said about ranking it. Or maybe you would even say: “It just feels better. The air feeling feels better than the fuzzy feelings.” Have I understood you correctly if I say that in your experience, there is no positive quality to experience, no positive hedonic tone, nothing “this is pleasure above neutral”. People would commonly say there are such things, but I guess you would say no.

Roger: One question is: is there such an experience that you could have it and it would be okay or nice or desirable but you could also not care to have it? If the warm fuzzy feelings are good in themselves, would that suggest that you need or want more of it and that longing has a bothersome aspect to it? What would that say about needing to spread warm fuzzy feelings across the universe?

Simon: I don’t think we need to get into feelings being good or what should be experienced more. I have a hard time understanding the idea of positive hedonic feelings myself, so perhaps I’m doing a poor job of explaining what I am trying to get at.

Roger: There is something to this process of deconstructing the mind. You see complex structures in consciousness and then states where there is less going on. We can speak at different levels here. I understand the language. I understand why people say: “I love this ice cream; it tastes so good”. They are speaking at a certain level of abstraction. Maybe they haven’t broken it down and experienced something else that would contextualise what they mean when they talk like that.

To me, pleasure is an abstract idea. We can think about ideas that are evolutionarily beneficial, that act as motivation to, for example, eat. But if you pay attention to the actual eating of, say, a supposedly pleasurable Dorito chip, you can’t find any good in it. The idea would be that there can be a delusion that there is something good to achieve because it’s evolutionarily beneficial. As long as you are under the spell of this delusion that there are good things to chase, you will keep chasing them, but that doesn’t mean you ever have to arrive at a real reward. You just need the perception that a reward is coming.

Simon: Interesting. In my field, the standard approach is to say that certain experiences are pleasant, they feel good, and they are hedonically positive. And to further say that there are neutral experiences when you don’t feel good and you don’t feel bad; there is no pleasantness and no unpleasantness. My question is that if we pay attention to our experiences, is there anything suggesting that there are those hedonically positive experiences? And just to conclude: It sounds like you would say that in your experience there is no hedonically positive quality to experiences.

Roger: Yeah. A part of the irony is that I would argue that I have some of the highest well-being among almost anyone I meet. It’s because I am suffering way less than most people.

Here’s another thought: People can make the argument: “What if there is a symmetry between pleasure and suffering (disturbance)?”. When you ask people to elaborate on “What’s the phenomenology? Pay attention to the moments of pleasure, what do they consist of?” People don’t have concrete answers. Pleasure is abstract like this. Couldn’t people say “Isn’t suffering abstract in the same way?” It actually seems not to be. It seems you can get into the detail. There are these moments of subtle contraction that you can pinpoint. You can pinpoint pain in a way that you can’t pinpoint pleasure. There is an asymmetry there.

Simon: And just to be clear, I think it makes sense when you say that you have high well-being relative to other people. Maybe it is even almost perfect.

Roger: Hahaha I wouldn’t go that far.

Simon: Even if it is almost perfect, we are just comparing: less suffering, disturbance, contraction than other people’s experience.

Roger: Here is an example. The high well-being comes from something like this: Imagine you had a chronic pain your whole life and then you get release from that chronic pain, how elated you would feel. “The pain that was there my whole life is gone.” It is similar to this experience of there being a single epistemic agent at the heart of experience that is now unbound, seen through, and has released a tremendous amount of what was psychological chronic pain that is now gone. And if you were without this centre of knowing at the heart of experience your whole life, you might not realise how relatively free from disturbance you have it. You just might think that it is normal.

Simon: I see. Here’s a new question about comparing experiences. Some would say: “I have meditated and I don’t notice any disturbance at all. And then I have these other experiences, maybe when I’m dancing or doing my favourite thing, and they feel much better. So I can compare.” I assume that you would say that no, the closer, in your experience, you have gotten to undisturbedness, to complete absence of negative valence, the closest you have gotten to that, there are no hedonically superior experiences. For example, partying or you talk about drugs such as 5-MeO-DMT in another conversation. Hedonically speaking, I guess you would say that it doesn’t feel better than the closest you have gotten to undisturbedness.

Roger: Yeah. My thought is to go empirical. I have a reference range of experiences. Others have a certain reference range of experiences. For example, someone has gone scuba diving and I haven’t. Someone might say you don’t understand because you have never done it. Empirically, we can ask: Have you done everything that I have done? Have you experienced close to all the states that I have experienced? And maybe you have experienced more and now you have a new reference point. And you just ask people: What would you prefer? For example, ego death or having tea with your grandmother?

Simon: Not prefer but which feels better.

Roger: Yeah. Someone might say: “it’s just your opinion”. But we could ask more people. If people have had cessations as well and have experienced the jhanas, they tend to understand my opinion more, and why I say what I say.

Simon: That’s also interesting. If we continue to go beyond you and me, do you know others who would say the following? “I have experienced or been in a state of complete undisturbedness and that’s the hedonic peak that I have experienced. There is nothing higher that I have experienced”. (Or if undisturbedness only occurs when there is no experience, that the experience of theirs that was closest to undisturbedness was their hedonic peak.)

Roger: Yes, I do. I have a good friend Shawn at who would agree. He has had cessations and he has done the jhanas and such. It would be really interesting if someone had done this and disagreed: “I’ve had undisturbedness but going to a rock concert or something else feels better”. Then I would want to get more specific. At what resolution are you isolating or understanding the experience? You could say that during cessation, you can’t do anything in that state and it doesn’t last very long, so you might not value it. And despite the fact that I am ranking undisturbedness as the top hedonic state, why am I not constantly trying to experience that all the time?

Simon: That makes sense and that is a separate topic, right, because you can say that it feels best but you don’t only care about what feels best for you. You want to do other things and consider other beings.

Roger: Yeah.

Simon: The question is more just comparing the hedonic levels. How does it feel to be in this state close to undisturbedness (as close as possible) versus taking drugs, having romantic feelings, achieving success, or whatever? Some people, many I guess, would say “no, these experiences—rock concerts, partying, drugs, love, all these things—they feel better than undisturbedness”, and I guess you would say “no, they don’t” and that the closest you have gotten to undisturbedness is the top hedonic experience for you that you have had; and for Shawn. Do you know of others who talk about or have written about this?

Roger: There is this whole meditation world and people you could find. I don’t know if you want to reach out to someone like Daniel Ingram at the EPRC.

A lot of people may be more silent on the matter than me coming out and saying that there is no pleasure. And even if others might agree, they might just have a more cheery vocabulary than me, and they don’t emphasise this sort of thing. There is a wisdom in letting people find out for themselves and not telling them.

Simon: That makes sense. And I don’t think it sounds gloomy if someone says they have experienced this meditative tranquillity and they just judge that it was the best feeling they have had hedonically; that it just felt best. Is it common for people to say that (among those that have come close to undisturbedness)?

Roger: Actually, in Buddhism, I think it is common. But if you talk to more traditional Buddhists who don’t have a Western analytical mindset or education, they might not frame things as I do. They have a different background of how they relate to pleasure and such. There are many schools of thought. You are generating craving and attachment by desiring sensorily pleasurable hedonistic experiences. I don’t know anyone personally who is being quite as blunt as I am, but I’m definitely not the only one.

Simon: When asking about this being common or not, I didn’t really mean the idea that there is no pleasure or that every experience has negative valence. I meant when people compare what feels better, is it common for people who have come close to undisturbedness to often talk about it as being the highest hedonic feeling they have had or that it feels the best?

Roger: It depends on who you are asking. Most people wouldn’t talk about ranking their experiences like that. It depends on what subset of the population you are getting at. It’s common among people who do the jhanas. Let’s think of the jhanas as states of mind filtering down to tiers of more and more undisturbedness. People report that, yeah, getting to the higher jhanas (the jhanas go from one to eight), it is very common that people say that the seventh (the state of ‘no-thingness’) and the eighth (the state of neither perception nor non-perception) jhana are better than the first jhana, and the first jhana is the warm fuzzy feelings all over the body.

Follow-up published March 12, 2023

Simon: In your video “Pleasure does not exist how you think it does” and in our write-up of our conversation, you talk about your well-being. For example, in our write-up, it says “I would argue that I have some of the highest well-being among almost anyone I meet.” A philosopher might say that this statement of yours is open to different interpretations depending on what theory/notion of well-being is assumed. For example, on a notion of well-being in which well-being consists in being moral, having friends, and getting what one wants, it is possible for someone to say the following and be correct: “I have some of the highest well-being among almost anyone I meet. I am so moral, I have good friends, and almost all of my wishes are satisfied. However, I feel pretty bad (below average) as a matter of hedonic level, phenomenology, and the quality of my subjective experience, but well-being doesn’t consist in having certain experiences; hedonic levels are fairly irrelevant to well-being”. Of course, I don’t think you mean that. When you say “I would argue that I have some of the highest well-being among almost anyone I meet” and, in the video, “I classify myself as someone who has exceptionally high well-being”, I think you are speaking of your phenomenology; how you feel; your hedonic levels; what it is like to be you; your subjective experiences (I intend all these alternative phrasings to be essentially synonymous). Is it correct that when you speak about your well-being in the quotes “I would argue that I have some of the highest well-being among almost anyone I meet” and “I classify myself as someone who has exceptionally high well-being”, you are talking about your phenomenology; how you feel; your hedonic levels; what it is like to be you; your subjective experiences?

Roger: Yes, this is not about moral behaviour. I am not claiming to be more moral than most people.

I mean something to the effect of the following: If you could assign a number to people’s subjective felt/lived/conscious experience in each moment, and that number be a reading of their hedonic level in each moment.* Then if you could tally up a person’s numbers over the course of a year and take an average, I think my score would be relatively less negative, closer to 0, than most people’s.

*I would use a negative scale {0, -1, -2, … , -n} with zero as the upper limit, and representing complete undisturbedness, because it seems to me there is a hedonic ceiling, but potentially no hedonic floor.

For the record, I don’t think such quantifying of people’s hedonic levels is currently anywhere near feasible, and I remain agnostic as to whether it ever could be. Nor do I believe in distinct mind moments, but experience being a continuous flow (except for when cessation occurs).

Hope this clarifies some things.

Roger Thisdell on undisturbedness, positive experiences, and the hedonic peak