"Better not to begin. Once begun, better to finish!"
Is it literally advising that people shouldn't start contemplative practice?
Is it aiming to provide some solace and vim to folks hitting a rough patch in their practice?
Is it pointing to the "You are already awake" / "There is nothing you need to do to wake you" meme?
Some Straussian combination of these meanings and others?
A correspondent replied:
Short version of my interpretation: As always with these kinds of pithy sayings, be aware of the embedded language tricks. You are doing something that will change your utility function (technically it will teach you that the idea of having a fixed and knowable utility function is a painful delusion). The 'better not to begin' is implicitly addressed to those who have not yet begun. It is certainly true that, whatever (you imagine) your utility function is at the start, that utility function will claim that your life is worse after you start meditating. You throw away most of what it valued, seeing it as worthless. You will be less effective at accomplishing your previously held goals, and derive less utility from things you previously loved.
And of course, it is impossible to ever prove that one view is better than the other. If pre-starting you wouldn't want to be what you are now, but post-starting you wouldn't want to go back, you cannot say that one state is actually better than the other. In math speak, if w is your 'worldling' utility function and existence, and m is your meditator perception and existence then Uw(w) > Uw(m) even though Um(m) > Um(w).
Also, as others have pointed out, sometimes it sucks. But even if it does not, in the middle, you are still dealing with the ghosts or echos of wanting all that stuff, so you can watch your brain generate desires that you now know cannot ever be satisfied. Plus lots of other things happen that not-started-you would not approve of. So basically, no reason or goal or desire that you can currently conceive of will, if properly aware of the consequences, tell you that this is a good idea.
Long version (I didn't write this up just for this post, the bulk of it was in my pile of dictated notes as something potentially worth sharing and this seems like a good context):
My practice is very chill and low-intensity: spending a couple hours a day alternating between walking meditation / forest bathing, and reclining meditation. I rarely do long sits because it is uncomfortable and I don't want to hurt anything. Also my concentration isn't good enough to do hardcore jhana. Possibly as a consequence of this, I never had any intense negative experiences, aside from a few seconds every couple of years of utter terror as a new perspective of reality blows apart a core-identity delusion in a way that feels like something is dying. (i.e. "No seriously free will does not and cannot exist and you will never control anything, not even the contents of your thoughts.")
(to use conventional language) I absolutely love my life now, who I am and what I feel. Everything is so much better, and so much stupid monkey-mind self-generated suffering is simply gone. Everything about my existence before a couple years ago feels like some half-remembered nightmare where you are stumbling around just reacting stupidly to things in a state of obsession or panic. Aside from that I can't say much about where I am, exept that, in MCTB terminology, I've probably experienced at least two A&P events and have probably attained stream entry and possibly finished second path. I used to care about the maps and path and making progress, but now I just don't. I know I am not 'there' yet, because I often recognize symptoms of bring 'not there', but I really don't care if or when I 'get there'; it either happens (in its own time) or it does not.
I definitely feel that practice should be gently encouraged in those who it is right for, even though it would be unskillful to try to force or change most people. But there are - consequences - to having your brain rearranged to be different than everyone around you, even if it is done in a gentle way that does not have any obvious 'Dark Night' symptoms and otherwise feels a lot like growing up or waking up. And one of the big ones is how you relate to people:
On the one hand, attaining stream entry / kensho / ataraxia makes it much easier to have productive professional and collegial relationships with people. Once you've liberated yourself from the delusions that your own identity and desires have any meaning, your own personal issues are much less likely to get in the way of collaboration. It's much easier to gain a true insight into the situation of what people want and how they're approaching things. And when you realize how much your perception of reality is affected by the labels that your subconscious attaches to things, it's much easier to approach any situation with a sense of intellectual charity and humility that helps you figure out where the other person is coming from.
However, it becomes extremely difficult to have any kind of deep or real relationship with anyone who hasn't attained this. (Well, maybe I should clarify. Usually, when two people who haven't attained it are in a relationship, it's never actually going to be deep or meaningful than any sense, but they both deluded themselves into thinking that it was. In the cases where it's real or it works, that happens because their delusions are aligned, i.e. they share the same mental model and associations about the world.)
Once you've attained any level of realization or liberation or deprogramming, and you look around at the world around you with new eyes, it becomes immediately obvious that everybody is causing themselves intense amounts of suffering through their delusions. They spend huge amounts of time and energy desperately trying to do things that simply don't matter at all, partly because they won't have any effects but mostly because they're not real in any sense. You see that everyone around you has behaviour patterns that resemble a dog chasing a car, just blind instinctive reactions based on desire or clinging without any skillful relationship to the world as it is.
And this hurts. If you form emotional connections with these people, you're going to feel sympathetic pain to their hopeless struggles. You try to help, you try to explain that they're never going to be happy or satisfied as long as they're clinging to certain delusions. And what generally happens is your words just bounce right off their impenetrable shell of a deluded worldview. At best, they interpret your attempts to help as a kind of optimistic pop mindfulness attempt at cheering them up.
But what often happens is they think you're cold and unfeeling. They think you don't care about their struggles, when in fact the opposite is true. You feel their pain, you feel the utter hopeless futility of their clinging and striving and you desperately want to help them, but you know that the only way is to do this is by helping them achieve the same path that you've walked. But they don't want to, unless the right kind of seed has been planted in their head, they're just not going to see it and aren't going to be driven to follow the path.
So, in order to preserve your own sanity, you are forced to develop a kind of monastic detachment from the world. You treat everybody with politeness and pleasantness, making life run smoothly and productively, helping people accomplish what they think they want even though you know that it is all "vanity and striving after wind". Your entire life starts to feel like working as a hospice nurse. Everyone around you is suffering from a fatal condition that's impossible for you to cure, so all you can do is make things temporarily more pleasant for them. You have to learn to let go of any idea that the world can or should be any different than it is, or that it's actually possible to fix or cure them in any way.
Or maybe a better analogy would be an elementary school teacher. You're surrounded by people who randomly have emotional freakouts over utterly insignificant things, while blundering around and hurting themselves through their own ignorant deluded failure to understand basic facts about reality. But in your case, instead of toddlers you can manage, they're powerful adults whom you have zero physical or emotional control over, and they don't recognize any kind of wisdom or authority in you, so there's very little hope of actually helping them grow up. You have this incredible treasure that they don't want, and that you can't make them want.
And of course, it's easy to see the temporary insignificant nature of your own instinctive desires for connection and companionship. You fundamentally know that there's no way a relationship would ever actually satisfy you or make you feel better or fix anything, because those desires are just another kind of delusion that's easy to see through. And even if I did have the desire to have a relationship with a normal person, it seems like it would be morally wrong somehow, like a therapist seeing their patient. But I also feel like I should be trying to form real human connections with people, both because such connections are intrinsically good and because it might help me share this treasure with others.
So yeah. This can happen. Has anyone else felt similar things?
I can kind of see the endgame, where I just react hopefully-skillfully to whatever pops up, with my mind generating whatever feelings it will in response to the causes and conditions I am exposed to, but without those feelings 'sticking' to anything, and an active engagement reasserts itself and pushes me to be in the world as a human living its life, aware of the full delicious paradox of everything. But that might take a while, if it ever happens, and if the idea of the existence I just described freaks you out, and you have not already started, then, well, 'better not to start'.