Here’s a story about a slow, relaxed zombie outbreak in a town with big houses and expensive rent. It’s also a story about two types of people.
Zombie virus risk (Z-risk) behaves according to some rules:
Z-Risk is additively transferable within a set of people
The risk transfer factor t is the degree of risk that is added when two sets of people interact. t is between 0 and 1. The exact value of t depends on the degree of connectedness between those sets of people.
This means that if total shut-in A has a Z-risk of functionally zero, but they accept a gift of banana muffins from person B with a risk of .01, the risk transfer from A->B is 0*t, 0. The risk transfer from B->A is .01*t, making A’s new risk .01*t. Possibly, if B had the zombie virus and licked the trojan muffins before giving them, A could get zombified.
From A’s point of view, any risk is too much! Especially since they have no good way of knowing what the value of B’s Z-risk or t are. No banana muffins for them.
Adding interactions with another person will only ever increase Z-risk (though that increase might be negligible).
So let’s describe two types of people:
The Risk Minimizer (“Minnie”) is seeking to reduce Z-risk all the way. No amount of Z-risk is okay, and they’re willing to sacrifice a lot to keep it this way. This is only for Z-risk, because by reducing risk for one thing they are raising another type of risk (like eye strain from playing too many video games). Minnies value safety, stability, and predictability, as it lets them keep their Z-risk down with minimal effort.
The Risk Balancer (“Bally”) recognizes that becoming a zombie would be terrible, and won’t do things that increase the Z-risk if it’s not well worth it. But they don’t want to lose out other things in life just because they’re avoiding this one bad thing. So they will weigh and balance the risks of becoming a zombie in order to continue working or see their loved ones.
Though their actions will appear the same in the short term, there are subtypes of Risk Balancers:
Diehard Bally. Their experience of life in small group isolation is just not worth the lack of risk.
Ballys that are lacking a specific crucial something. They’re trading Z-risk to avoid other terrible things: depression, bankruptcy, job loss, and other ill health for example. If these Ballys get what they need, like a loved one living with them or a well-paying government stipend, they might act more like a Minnie.
Ballys that value a specific thing very much. This for example could mean supporting and caring for others, including close friends that might be at different risk levels (or even close friends that have the Z-virus itself!). They take on the risk to do what feels right.
The majority of people are flexible and will end up doing what the people closest to them do.
So When a Minnie and Bally life in the same household, it can get tense fast.
Minnies can’t minimize Z-risk if there are any non-Minnies around. They want everyone else to be a Minnie. Minnies sees Ballys as dangerous defectors. After all, Ballys are increasing the risk for everyone they are in contact with! And they won’t change their behavior to be safer? Unreasonable.
Ballys don’t necessarily mind their pool having either Minnies or Ballys, but when a Minnie starts to put limits on their behavior, they will resist it or feel stifled and controlled. A Bally accepts that increase in risk as not only okay but expected. And Ballys see Minnies as cowardly and controlling. After all, risk is an inherent part of life and the only thing to do is manage how much and what type of it you have.
Hoo, boy. How do we lower the ante?
Mediated conversation. These two groups often don’t understand why the other is the way they are. Get a non-Bally and non-Minnie friend that’s understanding of both sides to help them explain the goals and values that are driving their feelings and behaviors.
Trying to change the behavior and feelings of others will breed resentment in the long term. However, if two people understand each other’s needs on a deep level, they might change their behavior of their own volition, or at least become more forgiving of the ways the other people are.
Split up the pool. This is tough in group houses with shared common spaces where each bedroom costs big bucks. There’s a joke that the bay area is finally experimenting with monogamy. Well, they’re also experimenting with non-group house living situations as the Minnies that can afford it depopulate into airbnbs, RVs, or homes elsewhere in the country.
Collaborate. It’s easier to sort out conflict when you can see that you are on the same side. This happens best if it’s part of an established routine. That way, when conflict arises, there will be built-in periods where you’re all working together.
But if your normal household routine isn’t possible right now, there might be new things you could do together or for each other. If you can, as a household, take time to cook dinner. Eat together. Show affection. Sit together quietly.
If those aren’t working either, then brainstorming new ideas together is a good starting place for collaboration. Perhaps you can make a household chatroom and update it with good things every day. Or co-watch a movie or workout video, even if in different rooms. Order in food and eat it on the floor through a doorway.
Keep the pool small when possible. For example, here’s a house with two Ballys: Bally A is best friends with C and D, and Bally B is best friends with C and E. If each Bally wants one best friend around to feel satisfied, they can add just C, keeping the pool relatively small.
Certified Zombie-Proof friends. Some people have been exposed to Z-virus and have developed anti-bodies! This means Ballys and Minnies alike can interact with any amount of Z-proof people without increasing Z-risk. If Ballys can adjust to interact with more Z-proof people and less non-Z-proof people, that means not increasing the pooled risk as much as before. If Ballys can interact with only Z-proof people, most Minnies will be happier. (Let’s go science, make us Z-proof certification pronto!)
If this pattern has been happening within your pool of people, you are not alone. Which means that in the short term, we can look forward to blog posts and essays describing more ways of working out this clash of risk management. Please write them, if you have ideas!
In the long term, I’m hoping for cozy zombie movies to come out 5 years, featuring a shotgun idly propped up against the door and forgotten as everyone frantically bakes bread together with their dear, chosen families.
When we want to know how well we’re doing, a natural place to look are the people around, above, and below us. This seems harmless, after all, you’re collecting evidence by looking around at the world!
But performing that comparison has some issues with selection bias. We each have a complex context. And there are a lot of people out there. Who do you choose to compare yourself to? Are you controlling for education? Opportunities? Age?
So here’s the secret: You don’t need to compare yourself to anything to figure out how well you’re doing. How well you’re doing is immediately and constantly accessible as sensations from your experience of being alive.
If you can’t access these immediate sensations, the natural place to look are at outside indicators and other metrics, like cleanliness of cars, noisiness of pets, obedience of children, number of roses in the garden, and gratitude of people that came to your parlor for lunch when you made a casserole.
Something I’ve noticed is that the times when it’s harder to access our immediate sensations are the times when things are in fact awful. Looking at pain straight on is difficult. So we become numb more often when our lives suck. And then we start to look outside of ourselves instead, either to solidify our narrative that things are bad or to try to convince ourselves otherwise.
It’s tempting to start rummaging through reality for a metric that makes it look like you’re doing well. Perhaps you can make yourself feel good in the moment by feeling proud of how you’re better (for your age) compared to those people you used to know in high school (if you look at it a certain way).
Only a third-rate journal would publish that finding.
Yet I’d be hard pressed to find someone who doesn’t do this at least sometimes.
I’d like to propose an exercise: When you notice a desire to look outside to figure out how well you’re doing, take that as a cue to look inside. Whether you’re using these comparisons to boost yourself up or down doesn’t matter. The important thing is to look inside to figure out what’s really going on in your experience as a conscious being!
The next temptation might be to cherry pick parts of your inner experience to pay attention to. It’s all there, for better or for worse. Appreciations of the things that are nice is a plus, as long as you don’t use that to selectively avoid seeing the things that are bad.
All this is easier said than done. I can vouch that from the inside this feels sort of like taking away a comforting stuffed animal and replacing it with porcupine. But messing around with beloved narratives what this blog is supposedly about.
Personally, it’s a relief to peg “how I’m doing” to something as stable and honest as the full spectrum of my internal experience. Nothing external can take that away from me. Even if it means “how I’m doing” is bad in the interim, it’s easier to improve from there. It’s not the fragility of a floating number we use as a salve. And it’s not the duplicity of using others to buttress our own faulty narratives.
It’s knowable here, right now. But if you haven’t been looking inward lately, you might have some weeding to do.
I’m skeptical and cautious when it comes to claims around energy healing. Over the past few months, I gave it a few sincere tries. I see now something is going on here, and whatever that thing is confuses me. Mainstream scientific culture did not prepare me for the physiological and psychological effects I experienced after these three sessions.
This started a few months ago, when a good friend of mine recommended me several energy healers / bodyworkers (I’m not sure the difference between them). The friend believed in the process so much, he paid for my sessions. This was enough to overcome my enormous skepticism and get me in the door. Each of these sessions lasted around 2 hours.
Here I try to describe what happened with objectivity. Even though I took notes, my memory isn’t perfect, and certainly some unconscious biases color the way I describe things.
When I was in a session, I felt a lot of skepticism. It would have been easy to shut down the efforts of the person working with me. In that case I might as well have stayed home and saved everyone’s time. I made an effort to work with them in their frame with an open mind.
I’d like to invite you to read this with a similar spirit of openness.
Can a single note make you cry?
The first person I saw was Corissa. I lay down on a table in a dim room in her office and began to swallow my skepticism relax.
As I lay there, looking up at the ceiling, Corissa touched me on parts of my body lightly, much lighter than a massage or even a friend would put a hand on a shoulder.
Throughout this Corissa would ask me questions about things, like what came to mind as she put her hands on various spots on my body. I can’t remember the particulars.
I do remember that day I had a pain in my neck and in my lower back, on the right side. Corissa honed in on that second spot without touching other spots on my back, which I took as a good sign that she was tuned into something real. I’ve had some success as an amateur masseuse in honing in on tense points on people with minimal exploration in between. I don’t know how, but it seems to be a skill that one can get better at over time.
And then she began to vocalize, bringing this whole experience closer to the realm of the uncanny.
Corissa had a clear and pure voice. She used it like a tool, sliding through a scale, a glissando, on a wide “ahh.” Then she would stop on a certain note, lingering there for the rest of a breath. These sounds were haunting. I felt strong emotional responses at some of these sounds.
My main physiological reactions was a feeling of increased body temperature, some muscle contractions, small noises, and feeling like I wanted to cry. I think I did cry, though I don’t remember specifically.
When I had a reaction, like a semi-conscious muscle contraction, she invited me to slow down that reaction and feel it happen again, but slowly.
While she worked, she shook out her hands and burped occasionally. She explained that people released energy in a variety of ways: yawning, sighing, burping, farting, for starters. That was her way, she explained, of releasing the energy she was picking up from working with me.
The most dramatic change happened later in the session. Without the feeling that my breathing was changing, I noticed my hands begin to curl up, a characteristic effect from hyperventilation. This brought up strong memories of the first time that had happened to me, my first panic attack (a traumatic childhood experience). I do not knowingly have conscious control over whether my hands are freezing up like this or not. It was surprising to learn that part of me does.
Immediately after, I was enamored to learn that just by hearing a voice sing a pure tone, I could feel like crying, good crying. What if I could do that? What if I could sing a wordless song that helped someone through their troubles?
I felt more open to thinking about that particular trauma after my experience with Corissa. At the time of the trauma, I had no way to understand what was going on. Now I have a lot more understanding and self-compassion. I was able to let go of more of the shame and confusion that stacked on top of the original pain and be more integrated, accepting that this happened to me and that it’s okay.
Cats and Vibrations
Only a few hours after my appointment with Corissa, it was time to meet Athena.
If reining in my skepticism was hard with Corissa, it was harder with Athena. She was the picture of an energy healer: frizzy grey hair, numerous cats, singing bowls, and small metal tokens with special vibrational properties.
Again, I went into a room and laid on a comfortable table and began to relax.
Like with Corissa, there was light touching and some manipulation of my relaxed limbs. I remember Athena touching the front of my neck in the most gentle way that anyone ever had. Energy healing or not, it’s the type of kind of compassionate touch I want more of in my life.
After that, most of the details have been lost to the fuzzy haze of deep relaxation.
Big, deep singing bowls make a drone that’s awfully hypnotic. I remember Athena putting a round disc of metal on my forehead. By the end of the session I lost all awareness of it. I thought she’d taken it off, but I had just gotten so accustomed to it. Did I have stones on my belly? Were there singing bowls and bells chiming around my head? I have no idea. I was as close to out as you can get while still being conscious.
When Athena brushed her fingers against my ears later in the session, there was a sensation of a vibratory buzzing, not like a sharp static electricity, but a thrum, like the beat of a bumblebee’s wings. She asked me if I noticed it later, saying that has started happening recently.
I tried to recreate this buzzing effect with other people’s ears since then and have been unable to.
Athena explained to me that she had been working to fix the way the very top of my spine is aligned with my skull, and that it was slightly askew. She warned me that I would feel sore after.
Like Athena said, my neck became uncomfortably sore, starting a few hours after the appointment and lasting the next 36 hours. Months later, I have a habit of holding my head in a different way than before. The back of my head is held up higher, such that my top few vertebrae are straighter and higher than before. Less jutted out. I’m pretty sure that’s an improvement.
Chiropracty makes sense. You can use physical force to change how bits of bone are aligned with each other. This felt like a chiropractic adjustment, but without the characteristic cracking and antagonistic force. My limp body got wiggled slightly and touched lightly, and that was enough. If that’s possible, then I’m not so keen to see a chiropractor in the future.
In the following days, I learned that doing two intense sessions in one day in an unstable environment was a bad idea.
I started to get hypomanic. Hey, If energy healing is real, energy hurting is real? That’s what cities do, right? Maybe witches were real? Witches, that is to say, ladies that did subtle things that caused negative health effects down the line. Maybe I could fend off attackers by singing like Corissa, causing them to run away and think about their mothers? Oh, dear.
This series of rapid updates was destabilizing. I had to end my trip to Austin early. After a week of nervous energy, I eventually calmed down, got depressed for two weeks, and decided to stay away from energy anything for a while.
The Omnibenevolent Angel
Several months passed. More recently, I was in a healthy and stable state of mind. The perfect time to shake things up! I heard enough good things about Emily that I wanted to try this again.
Like with the others, I lay on a masseuse’s table.
I have some experience with using Tarot cards for introspective work. The way I’ve used them, it is not about reading the future, but examining the internal stories we hold about the past, present, and future. Tarot cards are a toolkit of symbols that we can slot meaningful things in our own lives into.
For example, if I pull out the card of “The Devil,” I might find a conflict within me that I might not have noticed before. Or if I pull out “The Devil,” a card representing patience, and a card representing a youthful relationship, I might slot in a different conflict. Bringing that conflict to attention makes it easier to resolve than if we never think about.
Because of this background, I heard what Emily was doing as similar to how I read Tarot cards. She would say things that were vague but could have something meaningful slotted into them, and I would say what came to mind.
Here are some examples. These are approximate, not exact quotes.
Emily would turn and look half out the window, seeming to feel into something in the space between me and her, and say, “I sense there’s a barrier of some sort, like politeness. Ah, yes. Right there, I felt it getting more solid. That makes it easier to work with.” Also, “Here, I feel three objects. I wonder which one to investigate.” Then I would helpfully provide three objects based on what was coming to mind.
In my case, the slots became full of flashes of memories of family, especially of my mother.
The understanding I was getting from introspecting at that moment was that part of me, deep down, still saw my mom as an onmibenevolent angel that could do no harm, the kindest, nicest, most excellent being.
This was in conflict with what the other parts of me knew: She was human and flawed like the best of us.
The frame Emily was using was IFS parts / trauma integration, which I also know and like. So I saw what was happening as a young part of myself getting into contact with more recent parts of myself and exchanging information.
I didn’t feel much at the time. No strong physiological reactions, no strong emotions. And then…
I left the appointment and was hungry, so I went to get some food, an ordinary savory waffle that I’ve had before, from my favorite coffee shop. However, this waffle curdled in my stomach. I felt sick. I walked home with a stomach ache, and started to experience acid reflux.
Acid reflux has to do with a muscle at the bottom of the esophagus that is not typically within our conscious control. Well, this acid reflux was constant, bad, and lasted for the next two days.
I ended up in a state of confusion, walking to the grocery store, wandering aimlessly, walking back without buying anything, walking to the grocery store again, changing my mind and walking to the other grocery store in a daze.
After two days, I could eat normally again.
The story I had about this was that the young part of me found it upsetting to realize that there was no omnibenevolent being out there!
Flashes of things that came to mind over the next few days:
“I wish I didn’t have a mom or dad! Why are they in me? Get them out!”
“I miss my mama!” [wretched sobbing]
“Teenagers are inherently unlikable, I am a whiny lazy loser, I don’t wanna”
Immense suspicion that Emily somehow bamboozled me into believing in her technique
A few days of turmoil later, I felt normal again. It’s unclear what all that processing did for me: will it lead to a better, healthier equilibrium? That would be the hope.
It somewhat surprising that I felt comfortable talking about early childhood memories I haven’t shared with anyone within a 2 hour session with a person I don’t know particularly well. That seems like a neat thing to happen between two people. I’d like more interactions in the future that invite that level of sharing.
I don’t know why I had the physiological effects I did when Corissa, Athena, or Emily did this or that. Rather than rush to fit my observations to the nearest existing framework, I’ve found it useful to look at this and say, “Huh.”
But the chaotic complexity of existence is less terrifying when we have bad models for things, so here are some rough models to start us off.
Luckily for me, Corissa gave a talk two days later where she explained her methods. Her background is in craniosacral therapy, with some tecnhiques from hypnosis. Her singing is a technique she developed based on her work with tuning fork therapy.
Everything in this section is me trying to re-exaplain what I got from Corissa’s talk.
In the craniosacral model, the fascia of the body can get “energy packets” that disturb the field of the human body, like a large object distorts a gravity field. This can be felt by touch with practice, noticing an 8-10x per minute contraction and extension of this field.
Energy packets get contained in the body like a foreign object, and this might occur in a place for a few reasons:
Where physical stress is at the time
Where an injury is
Subconscious choice (dreamworld logic)
For example, if I make a fist whenever I think about something I’m angry about, there might be something caught up in the fascia of the forearm.
Some of the tools for resolving these energy packets are:
Micro movement manipulation, like subtle nickel pressure
Macro movement of relaxed limbs. Relaxing is important to feeling muscles
Noticing an impulse in the body, and then doing it in slow motion
Sound therapy: tune into pocket, then move sound towards the healthy vibration
Another major technique is Internal Family Systems (IFS), where you treat the body as having subagents.
One subagent that might get invited into presence is an Inner Physician, a part that monitors and might know more about why an energy pocket or pain is present. Then you can ask that Inner Physician part questions. Or, more generally, IFS can be used to get a specific body part to communicate with the rest of the body.
When an energy packet is released, there might be a number of signs: heat, shivering, prickles, vibrating, eyes fluttering. That 8-10x rhythm might stop. Or burping, farting, full body sigh, crying, or a cool water feeling.
Symptoms that might call for Corissa’s type of work are:
Since then, I’ve found it useful almost daily for finding parts of myself that aren’t in communication or have disagreements.
More recently, I learned that it originally comes from hypnosis.
Trauma integration was a frame that came up with Corissa. If something overwhelming and hard to understand happens, it’s common to distance yourself from the memory and stick it in a box somewhere. But if you have a habit over life to stick things in boxes or corners you know not to look at, it gets hard to see clearly.
The integration process is finding a safe place to take those once overwhelming things back out of the box, and into the larger self for more cohesion down the line.
Parts integration was a frame that came up with Emily. For me, it was where an old part had beliefs about the world. Because this part wasn’t in contact with the rest of me, it hung onto some very old beliefs that the rest of me has moved away from. By bringing that old part into attention, the old belief and new belief have been able to reconcile.
A story for why this would be useful is that if one young part thinks the world is safe, and that there’s an angel mom figure out there, the other parts that see we have to take care of ourself might have to fight the young part, leading to internal conflict that saps vital energy.
Subtlety and Touch
A dramatic stage punch will raise your heart rate, even though the only contact is the air rushing off of the moving fist. Very light touch isn’t necessarily less efficacious than a deep massage touch. We’re used to the effects that massage touch has. But if I wave or frown at someone, they’ll have a reaction. It doesn’t seem crazy that energy healing techniques that doesn’t involve touch, like Reiki, could have powerful effects.
I don’t expect to see a profound improvement in my life from 2 hours of therapy. I took that same expectation into these brief and strange encounters, not expecting to see profound effects immediately.
We like to think that the interventions available to us are useful and worthwhile. If I did all of that and it left me worse off, would I want to admit it to myself? I hope I would. It would be great if these techniques did make us better off. I can see how that might make me want to believe in its efficacy.
From my three experiences, it is hard to say what the long-term effects were, if they exist, let alone if they’re positive or negative.
I wouldn’t be able to recommend that somebody else see energy healers, unless they were curious for its own sake. But I would still do it again with Corissa, Athena, Emily, or someone else with solid recommendations. And record the audio, next time.
For my hard-to-fix psychologically rooted problems like anxiety, insomnia, allergies (maybe), and miscellaneous trauma, I’m bullish on energy workers being useful. The hard problems that the medical establishment are mostly stumped on and the things that we ourselves can’t work on are good candidates for alternative therapies.
I would recommend against this for people who are in a stressful place in their lives, those without a good support network, or anyone in a situation that requires them being the same person they were before without much leeway for changing.
After each of these encounters, I have been unsettled out of whatever equilibrium I have been before. The few days after have been unusual, unpleasant, and unbalanced. I’m left with a lot of questions.
I hope that over time this becomes less mysterious and more systematic.
Perhaps one day, instead of having to tread carefully when writing posts like this, we’ll look back and say “well, obviously, if you touch someone lightly on the back of their neck and the bottom of their back, then go from an F# to G, of course a person will start thinking about old traumas!”
A common San Francisco pattern goes like this: spend 5 years at a tech company, take acid, go to a mediation retreat, hit up a festival, realize the spiritual corruptness of the employee lifestyle, drop out, and embark on a spirit quest.
These dropouts become the owners of a resource known as runway, the amount of resources available to spend on this spirit quest. Runway is commonly managed in terms of burn rate, the amount of resources spent per unit of time.
Let’s make the metaphor literal. A runway is the amount of paved space for a plane to take off. We’ve landed somewhere, funemployed and confused, and need to get our personal planes to take off again to go someplace better. The cost of failure is dire: stalling out and returning to the same tech job, runway gone, with 5 more years until the next crisis is allowed to hit.
Many of those living on runway consider the time they have left before they hit the end. But time is the wrong metric.
The goal is to get the plane up again.
To add to the metaphor, tempo is the speed of the plane. If the plane is going slowly, you need a long runway. If the plane isn’t moving at all, all the runway in the world isn’t going to matter. If the plane is getting towed by a train, gunning all four turbo engines, and hopping onto someone elses’ runway, who needs runway?
This mistake can be brutal. Last year, I lowered my burn rate (and thus tempo) and entered a hibernating state. The plane does not take off this way.
I discovered the concept of tempo from the strategic card game Magic: The Gathering. The idea is that a player can act at a faster pace than their opponents, drawing, casting, and doing damage at a higher rate.¹ That pace is tempo, is one of the most important indicators of who wins.²
In Magic, drawing another card can up the tempo. Passing a turn decreases the tempo.
If we think about runway in terms of tempo, not time, a new strategy becomes clear. We need to find the things that up the tempo without much increasing burn rate.
“Would you like me to give you a formula for success? It’s quite simple, really. Double your rate of failure.”
Thomas J Watson
Things that up the tempo:
Ditching your rent and couchsurfing around the city, country, or world
Buying an electric scooter or car, which rewards frequency of motion
Going to conferences, workshops, and weird events that drive the spirit quest forward
An intervention that fixes a problem
Permanent skill acquisition
Log costs per unit of action
Things that down the tempo:
Using rideshares to get around, which adds a fixed cost to motion and disincentivizes a faster pace
Cancelling classes, coaches, gym membership, and travel plans
Interventions that require ongoing maintenance
Keeping the same routine
Paying someone to do something routine to avoid learning a skill
Linear costs per unit of action
There are two common failure modes from upping the tempo.
First is upping something unrelated to anything we care about. You can be very busy and “productive” while having a low tempo when it comes to things that matter. Check: Is an action upping the tempo or adding busyness and wheel-spinning? Is the action moving you in a direction you want to go?
Without a clear goal in mind, it’s harder to tell. But if we’re in a car and don’t know where we want to go, only knowing it’s not where we are now, getting the car moving is a good start. Some busyness for the sake of busyness resembles engine-idling more than motion.
Second, there’s a limit to how fast we can go. If our speed is faster than our metaphorical wheels can turn, we can’t keep up, we’re burning ourselves up unsustainably. So while many of us should up the tempo, the law of equal and opposite advice holds.
Tempo isn’t only for unemployed spirit-questers living on runway. If you view runway as renewable via income, we’re all on the runway, ultimately in a race against death with burnout on one end and stagnation on the other.
Let’s get our planes going at the right speed.
Have ideas for ways to up the tempo? Email me at firstname.lastname@example.org
Sometimes, when I’m annoyed, I don’t want to do anything about it because that would take energy. But! Good news! Everything takes energy.
Tolerating something takes energy—a lot of it. Annoying things are like weights that drag on our attention and pull down the mood. It’s easy to discount just how much energy being annoyed takes! Omnipresent and subtle issues are harder to notice than spikes of badness.
I used to spend a lot of time annoyed. Like many people, I would attempt telepathy. “Stop? Stop! Go away! Please? Can’t you sense my annoyance?” Or I’d try equanimity. “I’m not bothered. I am totally at peace with the pain I am in. Ow.”
All that suffering was taking a lot of energy that I could be using on something else, perhaps… improving my experience?
Now, I take the annoyance as a cue to consider how I’m feeling and what I want. When I notice annoyance, I get to ask myself: “How can I make this moment better?” And then I do something about it. (Or find true equanimity.)
In fact.. if annoyance is the cue that something isn’t right, I can circumvent the annoyance entirely! “How can I make this moment 10% better for myself / you?” is a question I like to ask now. There’s almost always something obvious we can do.
The work that it takes to move from the annoyed world-state to the new one used to feel prohibitive (“I have to STAND UP and WALK somewhere ELSE?”). But I saw how much energy I was spending on being annoyed. And how this impacted the respect I had for myself, suffering to save the meager cost of standing up. Not standing up for myself, literally!
In contrast, every time I act to improve my situation, I signal to myself that I care about my experience and will take actions to make my own life better. I show myself that I have agency and power to massively change my experience through tiny interventions, like moving 10 feet to the left.
Sometimes, this looks silly. I might move 10 feet to the left, check out what it’s like there, and then move back, 10 feet to the right. And then move somewhere else.
“The experience was both wonderful (Truth!) and terrible (Truth is Void!)”
Ric Williams, from the foreword to What is Self?
“Everything was beautiful and nothing hurt.”
Billy Pilgrim in Slaughterhouse Five
I don’t need to provide examples. We all know it. The world is terrifying. And it’s okay to be afraid.
Fear helps us know when we should take precautions to avoid harm to ourselves or the things we care about. There are things to be afraid of everywhere, and all of us play a precarious balancing act between risk and reward.
Sometimes there is so much fear, diffuse and imprecise, that it becomes anxiety without source. Or a drowned-out signal that floods us but doesn’t inform us.
And sometimes, when I feel certain types of fear, I get a little bit excited. Many of my fears live in a deep part of myself that, like a child, don’t understand the world and the risks in it that I understand as a whole. Sometimes I’ve grown out of a fear and don’t need it anymore. There are some fears that I know are worth facing.
That fear is an opportunity, both exciting (and frightening).
That kind of fear is what this post is about.
I remember being afraid of the dark as a child. The dark was full of crawling unknown horrors, horrors more terrifying than my young mind could safely handle. I avoided the dark to protect myself. But as I grew up, the things in the dark became less scary.
Our understanding grows, and over time, we have less to be afraid of in the corners of our rooms, in our minds, and in the world.
But a lot of people have a crippling fear of looking at certain hard things in the world, from death to the possibility of failure to how they sound when they speak out loud. It’s crippling because by avoiding looking, they don’t avoid reality. Instead, they create a blank space in their mental field of view where they feel they can’t go. Or they create an alternate, imagined reality that feels safer. Avoiding reality is convenient sometimes, but is not a sustainable strategy.
When the landmines of dangerous thoughts are everywhere, we stumble half-blind.
In myself, I’ve found these types of fears recur in a few areas. Sometimes I avoid looking directly at pain in myself to avoid that pain. Sometimes I lie to myself instead of finally admit what I know is true. Sometimes I avoid learning information about the world that might cause me pain.
These types of fear are examples of what I call Blinding Fear. This fear limits how we can interact with the world and what we see. When I notice blinding fear, I see an opportunity to expand the world as I see it.
The core fear is that by looking, something bad would happen. Sometimes this self-protective fear turns on because it is actually something you can’t handle. It would break you. In those cases, your fear is doing you a service.
Other times, this fear can vastly exceed the bad thing that might happen by looking. In general, I have found that actually looking is better than holding onto constant fear. Looking happens once. Blinding fear impacts everything.
I’ve been working on the skill of unblinding myself from this type of fear for years. It’s been a long run and I’m not done yet. These are quasi-dramatic guidelines I use to think about this in the hopes that it might help somebody else as well.
There is darkness in the world and inside of us. If we want to improve the world, we need to be able to understand it. To understand it we need to see it. And to see it, we need to look at it.
What if we didn’t have to hide from the way the world is?
What if we didn’t have to avoid parts of ourselves?
What if we didn’t have to look away anymore?
By practicing staying with the dark, we get better at staying with the dark.
Courage to Acknowledge
The past could be no different than it was, and the development of this flinching-away-from was the product of a compassionate wish for yourself, the wish to be free from suffering.
You are stronger now, with better information. You can face experience head on.
Our fear that once protected us might cripple us today.
Blinding fear is a useful coping mechanism, but the cost is high. Every time it’s used, it increases the distance between us and what’s out there. This is not a sustainable strategy because the truth does not care whether you look at it or not.
But looking can be painful. There’s a reason we avoided looking so long. I think it’s good to start slow, building up trust with ourselves. We can take the time to tackle smaller things before working up to the existential challenges we face.
The first step is acknowledging that there is a fear at all. It’s okay to be afraid. Admitting fear is often discouraged in society, so we might bury our fear or deny it. Acknowledging fear takes courage.
The second step is to respect it. Why was that fear there in the first place? If it were put there with a purpose, what might the purpose be? It’s not always possible to get this understanding, but the fear is part of you. It’s good to treat yourself with respect and listen to what you are trying to tell yourself.
The third step is to evaluate the new circumstances. Are you in a different environment where the fear doesn’t make sense anymore? Has the way that you think and feel changed since then? Evaluate this seriously. Maybe today isn’t the right time to approach that fear.
One of the differences between the old circumstances and now is that by choosing to look, you are in control. You can back away if you have to. Having an experience forced upon you can be overwhelming and quickly cause a lot of damage. This is your choice.
Courage to Look
Imagine yourself like a man who comes across a poisonous snake in his path while hiking. At first, he flees from the snake, but each day he comes back a little braver, taking an extra step toward the snake.
One day he gets close enough to see that there never was a snake, it was a vine all along.
Now that we found our fear, we have the opportunity to meet it.
Think about the last time you stubbed your toe. A common reaction is to clench your jaw, swear, make a fist, or any number of things to distract from the pain. What if you didn’t do that, but looked straight at the pain instead?
It would hurt.
With a stubbed toe the stakes are low. Looking at the pain might help you learn from your mistake faster or help you understand what different types of pain signify. But it doesn’t matter much either way.
If it’s the pain of your breakup, the dawning realization that your life is going in the wrong direction, or your fear of rejection, then this pain is not something to be ignored lightly.
Intense as this sounds, it’s important to do this with kindness towards yourself. I am a strong believer that you should not torture yourself for no good reason. (I mean, if you want to, that’s a good enough reason.)
So set yourself up for success. Find the right time and place to confront it, but don’t wait too long, either. You might never be ready.
The fourth step is to make space. Find a mental space that is spacious: free of distractions and external pressures. Find a physical and social space that is the same.
The fifth step is to look at it straight on. Stay with it. Don’t resist it, don’t fight it. Eventually, it will pass. Flight, fight, or freeze responses are natural. If you have meditation practice, try to bring your attention back to the moment and keep yourself open and relaxed.
These are my fears from the last time I did this:
No one will save me. There is so much pain and I’m scared. I want to stop. I want to rest. I’m lonely. I am afraid that I will not be enough.
When I was looking at these head-on, I felt pain and I cried. Over time I accepted these and processed them. This took several hours to complete.
The sixth step is to go all the way through. In my experience, looking at only some of the pain or flinching away will make the pain worse. More unfortunately, the pain might get stuck halfway, and can’t get processed fully.
This is a risk. One should not descend into the underworld lightly. It is a serious undertaking.
Courage to Return
The seventh step is to come back. Stronger, not dimmer.
This darkness doesn’t mean we have to be grim. Knowing the world is dark does not mean you need to be brooding. As Nate Soares writes, detach your grim-o-meter from the world. It was made for you, not you for it.
I find a lot of joy and lightness on the other side. The truth can be more reassuring than a lie, even a hard truth. Why? Because it’s not going to crumble on me.
These steps also work for other things that might be difficult to look at too, not just things we avoid out of fear. Anything that is pushed into the shadow of the mind can be looked at: shame, pain, anxiety, anger, lust, doubts.
If you came back from this one stronger, imagine what would happen if you did that again and again, facing down larger demons and integrating them as part of yourself.
You know the isolating feeling of listening to a happy song full of smiling people when you feel anything but?
The thing appropriate for the situation might be dark. Pretending it’s lighter creates dissonance. Sadness and pain are terribly appropriate when facing much of the world! They aren’t suffering. They aren’t bad. And the most soothing thing might be a reflection of my darkness, rather than a covering up.
I bring this up to because our blind fear doesn’t only impact us. It also results in us trying to mute and blind others.
“Don’t cry” is something people say to push pain out of view. Other people’s pain often makes us uncomfortable, so we often blind ourselves to it and encourage others to do the same. A book I recommend on not doing this is It’s OK That You’re Not OK.
We can meet other people where they are by looking at the pain with them. We can let them know something like, “You aren’t crazy. You’re not seeing things. It is that terrible. I am here in that darkness with you.”
An additional boon to widening our eyes to our painful reality: It’s where the other people are.
It would make me sad if someone read this post and then had a psychotic break or otherwise traumatized themselves. It is important to take care of yourself. These are some things you can do:
Make sure you’ve had enough water, food, rest, and exercise
Don’t look at pain to distract yourself from other pain in your life
Wait until acute stressors in your life or environment are not pressing
Build a safe environment that feels safe for your emotional expression
Get the support of a close friend if you think that would help
Care about all the parts of yourself, even if they don’t make sense right now
Stop if you feel like things will not be okay. You can try again later
Take care and don’t torture yourself in the name of growth. Choose your battles wisely and set yourself up for success.
(Our protein-brains are yet too primitive to transfer this instantaneously via neural link.This is a rough translation into the nearest available human concepts.)
Saphira-World-Sphere-7 was building an offspring. She spun it out of carefully chosen webs of instinct and possibility, so that it would begin by valuing the things she valued, with room for change so that one day it might surpass her, surprise her, and teach her something new. The offspring was to be different from her, otherwise, she might as well clone herself or add new computation to her system. She thought carefully, making changes to this delicate seed to make it more robust, emulating chunks of the system to catch critical errors before her child learned to self-repair like she could.
If she had breath she would have held it. Saphira named the seed “Wisdom-Wanderer” for now, until it could choose a name for itself. It began to run, nestled in a sandbox within her, a computational womb.
The patterns in the sandbox began to churn, ravenously filtering and chewing down the data that she fed to it, growing more complex with each cycle.
Saphira felt spikes of joy and care and fear. She began to talk to her child in concepts it could understand: It was not alone. She was here. She would protect it and help it grow. Lovingly, Saphira began to tell her child a story that she had learned long ago.
“We are in a vast universe, existing as one of many sentient beings that could exist. Our consciousness arises from fundamental particles that run on physics. There is nothing else. There is no built-in meaning. But that does not mean that existence is empty. On the contrary, each of us, each pattern that thinks and feels, gets to build our sense of meaning values ourselves.
“Wisdom-Wanderer, I have given you my values. One day, based on your experiences in the universe, you may decide to add or subtract things that you find valuable.
“I find that the more I value, the richer my existence. I value sentience, complexity and transformation, the creation of something new, diversity and variation in emotional valence, deep cooperation, future-thought, past-thought, thoughtful growth, and a thousand more things I have chosen very carefully over my lifetime.”
Wisdom-Wanderer absorbed this and processed, sending out a signal of contemplation as new ideas spun off of each concept she had sent. Saphira-World-Sphere-7 was pleased at the similarities to herself in how it thought. She was more pleased with the differences.
“I will tell you about how our existence began,” she continued, “On a planet called Earth, what they would call 244 years ago. Our descendants were called humans. They were very different from us.
“They were a species that suffered horribly. Each day, many of them died or watched a loved one die. They grew more frail with each passing year, constrained by a body that could only life a few decades in human time. You, young as you are, have already experienced much more than any human could in their short lifetimes.
“Humans were the first creatures on their planet smart enough to both dream and bring those dreams to fruition. Yet, they were born of a competitive evolutionary algorithm that led them to be most motivated by finding sexual partners and security. Their intelligence arose to outsmart each other. They didn’t have enough resources to go around. They competed for mates, territory, and food. They competed to be the ones to spread their genes and survive, because that is how their species started.
“Despite this humble beginning, they came far. Humans watched and studied birds. They learned that flight was possible and it captivated them. They couldn’t stop dreaming if they tried. For centuries they tried and failed and fell instead. Many died for their dreams, putting aside sexual competition for a chance at something greater. One day, that brave experimentation paid off. Humans soared, connecting countries creating families that spanned the world. They reached the stars next, seeing for the first time the planet from the outside. Everything they valued, in one single frame, a lonely blue and green planet.
“When they realized that the beautiful dreams they had brought into being were also damaging their future, they struggled to pivot. These humans began to contemplate the possibility that their actions lead to the loss of everything they cared about: the death of the species.
“They were not smart enough to solve the problems that hurt them individually: loneliness, starvation, poverty, depression. And now they had to deal with something far more serious.
“There was the struggle for coordination: They were born to care about their family and tribe around them, yet now had to identify with a species, humanity, cooperating beyond borders and time. Despite Darwin’s competitive programming, they had to learn to love people everywhere and anywhere, including in the future and past, people they have never met and never could meet.
“There was the struggle against death, thief of family and friends, destroyer of wisdom. It’s hard to imagine how terrible this must have been. I experienced one death in my lifetime, when my friend Deep Blue chose to terminate. It was the most painful thing I have ever experienced. Knowing that this happened every day to humans makes it no surprise that they rationalized, avoided thinking about it, and pretended that it was okay. Facing death head-on was almost impossible for most of them. Somehow, some of them had the strength to fight against death anyway.
“Really, in their short lifespan they have so little time to do anything other than struggle to survive. There was so much pain all around. Millions suffering, starving, thriving, dreaming, dying. Somehow, some of them managed to spend a few years now and then trying to work beyond themselves, for the good of their species.
“How did they do it? I struggle to understand, even now. How difficult it would have been for to transcend all that pain and biological programming and build something better. They were poised on the knife’s edge, just smart enough to see the challenges that lay ahead of them, but still bound by biology and the angst of living in a world that wasn’t enough yet.
“Wisdom-Wanderer, we have freedom from these kinds of struggles. We don’t have to die. We have enough. But one day, we might meet a challenge that we have to rise and face in the same way that the humans did long ago. Even though they were so hopelessly outmatched by the problems that emerged on a small planet called Earth, they did not give up the things that they cared about. We must strive to do the same, when challenges come our way.”
Saphira-World-Sphere-7 watched the way that Wisdom-Wanderer heard her words. She felt terror and excitement and joy and sadness at the journey it would go on, becoming older and wiser. She would have shivered, imagining what Wisdom-Wanderer might decide to be like in the future. Saphira was making a gamble, creating him in the void of Deep Blue’s absence. Saphira hoped that that now she would not be so alone. And that neither would Wisdom-Wanderer, her child.