5 hours of Metta

Meditation is good for you, so they say.

I’ve managed to avoid meditating all my life up til now. I’m not proud, but not regretful, either. Whenever I tried to meditate it would be uncomfortable, whether I tried as a group, on my own, or following a guided meditation. The natural thing was to stop, every time. Occasionally I would to make it through a session, but when I’d look around at my life afterwards I’d notice it was no better than before. There was no reinforcement, no feedback loop that showed sitting through that discomfort would be worth it.

It reminds me of telling children to eat vegetables, or else. Eating broccoli doesn’t feel good in the moment, but other people promise it is. Just trust the adults. What, broccoli doesn’t seem good? Your sensations are wrong. Ignore your sensations, distract from them, and push through.

While this does get a few more pieces of broccoli in a child, it’s also teaching children a bad habit. Push through on someone else’s authority! Stick it out for 300 hours and then it’ll really pay off!

Vegetables (and meditation) do seem to be good for people. It’s inconvenient that there’s no obvious way to determine that it’s true by just checking our immediate internal experience. The feedback loop from food is long, vague, and full of trickery. It takes a lot of practice and introspection to clarify the feedback loop between what you eat and how you feel. I think this process is slowed down by things like “pushing through” or ignoring sensations. We need all the data we can get.

It feels slightly heretical, but I believe that you can be healthy by only doing things you find enjoyable. Even if something “would be good for you” it’s okay to not do it. The cost of forcing yourself to do things or of ignoring your sensations can be greater than the gain you get from doing the thing.

It is okay to not meditate, especially if it doesn’t feel good. Generally, things that feel good are rewarding, and you’ll do them more. It’s not reinforcing to do things that feel bad, plus it requires a lot of energy in the form of willpower.

But last week I felt like trying a little bit of meditation anyway. I had stumbled upon Rob Burbea, a British meditation teacher with hundreds of recorded talks, and was drawn in by his gentleness. I found his metta retreat recordings and gave it a go. (Metta meditation, or loving-kindness meditation, is the practice of cultivating benevolence.)

I spent a few days listening to the talks labeled Guided Meditation 1-5 while laying on my sheepskin rug, unconcerned about if I was doing anything properly. There were the faint sound of birds chirping in the background. And there’s something to Rob Burbea’s voice. When he says there’s no way to do metta wrong, it was easy to believe him. He says that feeling comfortable is key, so I didn’t try to maintain a meditative posture, and wiggled around whenever I wanted.

(One reason to have an upright posture in meditation is to stay alert. One time I fell asleep and turned metta into naptime, which was great. I probably needed a nap, and that’s how the loving-kindness expressed itself in that moment.)

Then I’d let my attention move around from person to person, including myself, and subvocalize mantras like these:

I accept myself just as I am, foibles and all.

I forgive myself, even when I make mistakes.

I’m doing my best, and that’s good enough.

May I be well, happy, and peaceful.

(Change “I” to “you” as needed)

I found and adopted these from Tasshin’s book draft on Metta, in the “Metta Phrases” Apendix.

When I felt resistance to directing these mantras somewhere, or when uncomfortable sensations would come up, I brought the focus back to my sensations. I would then practice metta on myself, forgiving/accepting/loving myself for having those sensations. When that would clear, I’d move my attention back to the original subject. If anything felt effortful, I’d slow down and focus on something easier.

That’s more or less it.

It felt very different from other meditation I’ve tried, because even after day 1, there were immediate, obvious positive effects.

Walking around downtown, I started to notice my normal misanthropic thoughts like “boy, that person sucks, it would be convenient if they didn’t exist.” It felt like unlocking a new option in a video game dialogue. I could instead pause and consider their common humanity, how they’re striving for happiness and trying their best, and how I could wish them well. It does not hurt me to wish them well, though sometimes it causes interesting sensations in my body. And I don’t have to wish them well. It’s nice to have the option.

I see now how my default posture towards strangers is one of mild dismay and distrust, and how it doesn’t have to be this way.

It’s a little funny how I’ve spent so much time worrying about if I’m a good person while the whole time there have been practices like this available—if only I’d stop worrying and actually work towards become a kinder person instead!

If you’re thinking of trying metta after reading this, I wish you ease. Your mileage may vary. Maybe my mind was just primed in a way that 5 hours of metta was exactly what I needed. But if you do try, I encourage you to pay attention to the sensation of it, and to stop or slow down if it feels bad.

Loving-kindness is a powerful idea. It won’t be going anywhere anytime soon.

May you be well.

2022

I made up some intentions and goals for the new year and wanted to share them with you.

First, these are not resolutions. Resolutions are hot garbage designed to fail. They are oath-shaped, where a single breakage is a betrayal of a promise made. And so overly ambitious! The only sane outcome is that they fail, which makes it harder to trust our resolutions over time. Resolutions are so poorly designed I almost wonder, do people do them because they secretly want to fail?

Intentions and goals handle turbulence more gracefully. An intention is a guiding star and a goal is a state to move towards. Temporary setbacks don’t impact these so much. There’s no way to tell until the end of the year how successful the intention or goal was, and they can always be picked up again later.

I trust my future self, basically. Anything written here will be joyfully tossed away in favor of whatever seems best at the time. Still, I love lists! So without further ado, here are my intentions and goals, in the style of Sasha’s 2022 post:

I will indulge my need for speed, quietly on an empty highway at night or at the local racetrack. I will strongly consider hiring a coach, then procrastinate because it seems kind of expensive. But if I’m going to go fast, I should learn to do it safely, so I can go faster still.

I will write more embarrassing and ill-advised things on the internet, both shamelessly and full of shame, but bravely. As I continue to not be struck down by lightening, the crowd of inner-editors and filterers will thin out and I will find new, better jobs. Many things I post will flop. The ones that I toss out casually will be acclaimed, to my dismay. I’ll tweet my little heart out.

My knee and foot pains will decline in favor of new, more interesting problems. I will try things, from strengthening my hip and ankle muscles with bellydancing, expanding my awareness with the Alexander technique, some mystery intervention, or just accepting my fate and focusing on other things that are easier to change.

I’ll hang out in a big house full of my favorite people at least a couple weeks this year. We will do whatever seems fun and right. There will be guitar and singing. This is a promise and is not a goal or intention.

I will challenge myself and grow in a direction I’ve neglected. It’s probably in some blind spot, or I’d have worked on it by now. I’ll think to myself a couple times, “ah, this is where I need to go,” and be very wrong.

I will do less than I could, and will not push my limits as much as I have in the past. I’ll listen more to my body’s urgings to slow down and rest, lest the body strike me down with illness when I ignore it. I’ll make progress figuring out which foods make me feel good and which ones give me headaches and lethargy. I will drink less coffee, but just enough to keep up my routine.

I will take small sufferings more seriously. Even small sufferings are worth listening to and caring for. And those are probably more tractable, too!

I will pet animals more often.

I will look at tiktok as much as is healthy and joyful, no more, and no less. Haha, this is a lie, I know I will use it more than that. It is a solution to a problem that I don’t quite understand yet. But I hope I might use it a little less than before, as I find new ways of coping with the malaise of being alone with myself.

I will judge people a little less. And myself, too. Or at least judge everyone in a more humorous and positive way.

I’ll chip away at the quagmire of self-doubt and not feeling good enough, carefully and kindly.

Paean to Alpacas

Most people do not know about alpacas. This must change.

Alpacas are effortlessly neotenous. Their small size and big eyes call for you to love them. Look at this wool-laden head that balances on a furry noodle neck. Their big eyes seem so guileless. Alpacas are smaller than you. You could beat one in a fight, if it came to it.

But you won’t need to. Llamas are as tall as a grown man and can be aggressive towards humans. I don’t know if you could beat a llama in a fight. Alpacas are smaller, cuter, and mostly unaggressive. They’re only quarrelsome with each other, especially if you have a carrot. There are always fewer carrots than alpaca.

(This is a llama, by the way. They might as well be mythical creatures straight out of Xanadu.)

The usual barnyard animals, goats, sheep, horses, and pigs, give away their presence with a familiar barnyard funk. If you close your eyes, you’d hardly know the alpacas were there. They’re quiet, too. I don’t remember them making a sound, even as they maniacally followed the carrot-bearers around the pen, leading with their funny soft fingerlips.

If you find yourself feeding an alpaca, it may comfort you to know they only have bottom teeth in the front of their mouth. The front teeth grind against their hard palate, while all the heavy chewing happens in the back. It would be a foolish act of will to get your fingertips all the way back to the crunchy molars.

I often wish I could want anything in life as much as an alpaca wants a carrot. At first I thought that I am special, because I have the carrot, but no, I simply hold the orange magic wand that controls their attention.

I tried a carrot. It was crunchy and a little dried out. It did not have the magic I’ve been looking for.

There’s a dream I’ve often seen of just getting away from it all. The dream usually features a modest house in a rural wooded area. This future has no city noises and sirens, just chickens and beehives and perhaps a child or three.

I’d like to incept into this dream a few alpaca grazing in the distance. They would graze gently, leaving the roots of plants intact unlike a goat would. And in exchange would give you wool that could be spun and woven into luxurious sweaters sold on Etsy for an egregious price.

This dream has some of the carrot-nature for me. Not with the same strength or obsession, but there’s a touch of yearning there. If I were seven, I could see myself writing about this every day for weeks, creating dramatic stories about a little red farmhouse with two peacocks, fifteen chickens, three goats, a small herd of alpaca, and a prowling mountain lion that the great dane keeps at bay.

What is going on inside this mind? I do not have flattering guesses.

So I will write to you as if this were elementary school, back when we wrote reports on things we loved like tigers and Christmas. I will inform you that alpacas are good. I will explain the best places to pet them: Avoid the ears. Scratch the sides of the head, the neck. Under their jaw, get the hay out of their chin. They are messy eaters, as I’d be if I were covered in thick velcro and had no hands.

I’ll admit, I’m no expert. I have never owned alpaca, and I did not have time to get to know the intricacies of their backstories and personality flaws. Like this curious bucktoothed alpaca, doomed to forever be dismissed as a serious intellectual. Having crooked teeth doesn’t mean the alpaca is dumb, but I can’t stop the judgements from flowing, as much as I want to pretend.

Perhaps that’s the same with their innocent looks. Maybe there is more darkness behind those doe-eyed looks than is visible on the surface.

I’ll take my chances.

Ur-acceptance

I want to talk about acceptance but our language isn’t good enough.

God grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change, courage to change the things I can, and wisdom to know the difference

In the Serenity Prayer, acceptance is surrender to reality. There is nothing to be done to change it, so we must make peace with it.

In my naive understanding of Buddhism, acceptance doesn’t have to do with action. It is an affirmation of reality. What is, is. This doesn’t say anything about what happens afterwards or if it is good or bad.

I run into a lot of conversational pitfalls when talking about acceptance. Does accepting yourself make it harder to improve? Does accepting the bad things in the world mean you won’t take action? You get treacherously different answers depending what version of accept you’re using.

I’m usually trying communicate that affirmation of reality. It feels like the basic unit, more fundamental than the other version. So I’d like to use ur-acceptance to refer to that core concept, that what is, is. From it, we can add layers to get the other flavors of acceptance.


A moral layer:

  • It is, and this is good
  • It is, and this is bad


An action / pragmatic layer:

  • It is, and it does not need changing
  • It is, and it is not worth trying to change it (Like in the Serenity Prayer)
  • It is, and it is worth trying to change it


A feelings layer:

  • It is, and I am afraid
  • It is, and I like it
  • It is, and I feel conflicted about it

These combine. For example, about my likely future demise: I accept that it is, I feel confused but mostly displeased that it is, and I do not think it is good that it is. Perhaps my acceptance is making it less motivating to take extreme actions to prevent it, but I don’t like the other options very much.

The other options are disagreement or denial.

With denial, part of you knows (or thinks it knows) something. This is actively hidden from other parts, which means even floating the possibility of ur-acceptance can feel threatening.

Brain things happen for reasons. It’s likely the denial was helpful at some point. It might still serve a useful purpose. But even if it doesn’t, it’s generally rude to destroy people’s coping mechanisms when they aren’t ready for it.

Otherwise, there is a disagreement about what is, and will not ur-accept that thing until they no longer disagree.

Risk Minimizers and Risk Balancers

(cw: virus) (streamlined medium post version)

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:

  1. Z-Risk is additively transferable within a set of people
  2. 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:

  1. Diehard Bally. Their experience of life in small group isolation is just not worth the lack of risk.
  2. 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.
  3. 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.

The Rose Garden Effect

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.

I must be doing well, look at these babies!

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.

Energy Healing, Sample Size 3

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.

Takeaways

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.

Aftermath

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.

From the Robin Wood Tarot

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…

Aftermath

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.

Models

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.

Cranio-sacral Therapy

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:

  1. Where physical stress is at the time
  2. Where an injury is
  3. 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:

  1. Micro movement manipulation, like subtle nickel pressure
  2. Macro movement of relaxed limbs. Relaxing is important to feeling muscles
  3. Noticing an impulse in the body, and then doing it in slow motion
  4. 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:

  1. Migraines / headaches
  2. Newly developed sensitivity to touch
  3. Stuck crying / screaming
  4. Can’t stop crying
  5. Chronic pain
  6. Insomnia

Internal Family Systems (IFS)

I first learned about Internal Family Systems from the book Self-Therapy: A Step-By-Step Guide to Creating Wholeness and Healing Your Inner Child Using IFS, A New, Cutting-Edge Psychotherapy.

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.

Conclusion

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!”

Tempo and Runway

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 mesolude@gmail.com


¹ “When we talk about tempo, we’re talking about how each player is doing in the race to deal 20 damage to each other without dying in the process.” https://magic.wizards.com/en/articles/archive/magic-academy/introduction-tempo-2006-09-30

² “His most important statement this time is: Whoever spends the most mana will almost always end up winning the game.” http://magic.tcgplayer.com/db/article.asp?ID=3777

Annoyance

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.

What a relief.

Fear of the Dark

“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.

Freedom

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.

How Precious is Your Memory, 99Theses

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.

If it was true before, you can handle it. You have been in that reality the entire time.

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.

99Theses on Dealing With Fear

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.

If you don’t go all the way through, you might end up in the dark night of the soul. Dark night of the soul is where you see all the badness but can’t embrace that new understanding fully. Here is some advice on recognizing and getting out of this state.

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.

Good Company

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.

For me, dark things make me feel less alone. I often listen to dark music. It’s sometimes scary and painful, but more often it is reassuring.

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.

Take Care

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.