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

The Secret-Box

Some information needs to be kept silent, siloed. Most information in that category is of no importance. There’s no desire to pass it on. But some information are secrets that burn hot in the stomach, like toad swallowed whole and ready to push its way back up, flinging itself wide into the world at a moment’s notice.

When I have these types of secrets, I clench my jaw shut and swallow it down again and again, becoming exhausted from the weight of it. It’s not sustainable. It would not scale if I became the keeper of more secrets.

Some secrets can be refused, and it is often wise to refuse those heavy gifts courteously.

But sometimes secrets happen, and part of being a good ally is to keep them safe.

How do we get better at carrying them?

I had such a burden recently. I accepted it without understanding exactly how heavy it would feel. After a week of struggling, I realized I had to do something about it.

This seemed like a good time to visit my memory palace, the house on the hill. I sat down on the couch, closed my eyes, and began to space out hard. My friend was in the room too, co-working. Yep, I looked weird, flopped back, limbs limp.

The climb up to the house had was easy enough, scrambling up some mossy granite. No wind that day, just scattered wispy clouds in the sky leaving a slightly grayed-out sunlight. In the cabin the fireplace was burning like always, with the mantle full of pointers to the memories I wanted to keep safe.

The first step was to make a container for the secret. The secret deserved a beautiful box. I spun up an image of an intricate and extraordinary box with a large cutout of a keyhole. Really, the box itself represented the secret so fully, it itself was a part of the secret. This would serve well as a link to and from the memories I needed to put away.

The next step was to watch for pieces of secret and gently guide them into the box, one by one. Wait, find another, and put that one in too. The secret was an extensive tangle of feelings and information. It was made of fear, joy, confusion, facts, physical objects, and a memory. Some of the tendrils were tied to things in the physical world, and I carefully pruned those associations to something manageable. The ones that were necessary parts of the secret went in the box.

What it felt like I was doing was experiencing a relevant sensation, memory, association, or anything else that related to the secret. I’d have a sense of that feeling in physical space, and would visualize guiding it into the box. This part of the technique requires visual imagery, but creating a very strong association with words other sensations might suffice. It was important to know that I was respecting every bit of the secret, and that it would actually be safe in this box. I avoid compartmentalizing if I’m going to forget that the compartment is there. The memory palace would keep that compartment safe.

The box, closed, needed a hiding place within my memory palace. I went to the fireplace, the heart of my house-on-the-hill, with the mantle full of memories. A specific blueish stone near the hearth became free of its mortar, revealing a hollow pocket. I put the box in that pocket and replaced the stone.

As I turned to go, a wave of sadness arose. Parts of this secret were beautiful, after all. But it would be safe here, and I could visit it at any time. I put the stone back in place and returned to reality, blinking into awareness on my couch in late afternoon sunlight, lighter.

It worked. I no longer have urges to relieve myself from that informational burden. I can carry it.

Overall, this process took around 15 minutes. With practice, I think this process could go faster. But that hopefully won’t be necessary. My memory palace isn’t a junkyard for secrets foolishly accepted.

This technique is precise and self-aware compartmentalization, with a recoverable compartment. In general, compartmentalization is a powerful tool, but I avoid using it except when necessary. Overuse can lead to weird memory problems, personality shifts, dissociation, and general disintegration as a person.

Instead, I try to use it consciously and carefully, with the smallest viable chunk of experience. The information should be recoverable, so we can come back to it, and temporary, so that it can get reintegrated later.

The other way this seems to work is the slightly placebo magic of “Oh, I dealt with that already. It’s not a problem now, because it’s dealt with.”

Really, this is all damage control. The more important technique to making secret-keeping sustainable business is to refuse all but the ones that matter. If information would cause you to have to compromise your values or sacrifice your honesty, it is better refused as the weighty gift it is.

The next thing to learn is how to tell the difference.


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.

Babies in Supersuits

I’m looking around me and all I can see are babies wearing supersuits!

The lady next to me with pink and blue hair and big earrings? The man with the fidgety hands and expressive eyes? The lady behind the counter with a black apron? Myself, spacing out with headphones and staring at this computer screen? Yes! Everyone!

Our supersuits are incredible feats of engineering. They’ve been created out of necessity, sometimes built hastily in a time of need, or constructed carefully in conjunction with the people around you. Some of them are clunky and haven’t been upgraded in years. Some of them have awesomecool gadgets or can morph instantly in response to the environment. These supersuits protect us from getting overwhelmed or hurt by the world, allowing us maneuver freely and confidently and safely.

Sometimes, the baby chooses to poke its little head out. The younger the person, the less thick and multi-layered the supersuit tends to be. Imagine a cute lyrca superhero outfit vs an ancient tortoise built like a battle tank.

Sometimes, less gently, the supersuit fails dramatically, leaving the baby to rear its ugly head as it rolls around on the ground screeching.

Our babies in supersuits are awesome! We’re tough, powerful! We made these suits for a reason. And we can gain awareness of what our supersuit is. Then we can think about how to make them even better.

Supersuits in Action!

Imagine you’re at a baby party. There’s a cute baby in a supersuit talking to your cute baby in a supersuit. But then you say something, and a faint wince crosses their baby face. VROOOM. A face shield comes down. It has holes for its tiny baby eyes, but the rest of the face is a painted-on polite smile.

This baby has mastered the art of decoys and sleight of hand. When you weren’t looking, it snuck off. You’re talking to a puppet, and anything you say impacts the puppet first.

If the baby is a talented actor, they can create an entire new baby illusion in a different place. Phew. That would feel safe, when the other babies don’t know exactly where you are. If something comes swinging, it knows that it can’t hit the real baby!

You leave that baby alone to recover and wander off to find something else to do at this party. You walk towards a baby standing in the corner, morose. The conversation seems to be going well, and you get the feeling that your babies are getting along. But no sooner do you ask an especially personal question, all of a sudden, you see something activate, a metal shell growing and enveloping the baby. Aww. All you can see now is a very round, very hard sphere. That’s a hell of a wall. You wonder if it’s suffocating in there.

Across the room, two babies are duking it out. They’ve set down their cups of supersuit-disabling juice, because this is serious business.


The baby wearing the “Energetically sensitive, empathetic healer” suit has a lovely placebo energy shield. “I have a shield of energy that is protecting me from all toxic energy. It’s pink.” The baby’s soft faceplate smiles peacefully. It projects ‘not bothered.’ You think you can see the baby inside clenching its fists, though it’s hard to tell.

The other baby wears an impressive suit like a frog wears bright red. “I’m dignified and important. Don’t mess with me. I’m more powerful than you.”

You know how when people are defensive, they start attacking ideas that come their way? Some babies have figured out that the best defense is a good offense! Using emotions as weapons. The narcissistic complex is one example of this. “By not being bothered by this, that shows how YOU’RE a bad person!”

The baby with the pink energy shield takes the blow on one of their outer shields, using their hurt expression to lash back at the suited baby. The suited baby scoffs, sliding the shield between them and their emotions. Nice try.

You bump into a table. They turn to look at you. The suited one begins to say something, and—

Your supersuit freezes up. A faint whirring activates, and before you could blink, your supersuit suddenly sprouts tensed grasshopper legs. “You thought I was here? BYEEE.”

You spring far into the distance, leaving the rest of the babies to fend for their crazy selves.

Our suits got stuck. Oh no.

Supersuit Design

A supersuit can be mediocre in countless different ways. One example is knight’s armor. It works well if there are only swords and other sharp-tipped metal weapons around. It’s not great against much else, plus it takes forever to put on and take off. Iron Man’s suits, on the other hand, assemble quickly when needed and fly off when they would otherwise get in the way.

What would a great supersuit look like? Here are a few ideas.

  • A good supersuit is easy to put on and take off quickly. Many defense mechanisms are always on, and it’s required they be that way given the way they were designed.
  • A good shield activates when needed and doesn’t come on when it isn’t needed.
  • Focused. Yelling or screaming influences everyone on the street. A dirty look does not.
  • Effective at actually protecting you. Some defenses do nothing more than hide the fact that you’ve been damaged. Some defenses work by hitting yourself first, to take you out of the fight. My baby loves to give me a headache or activate the feeling of sleepiness. “I’m tired. I have a headache. Can I go now?”
  • Adaptable and flexible. Works well in unusual circumstances and fails gracefully.
  • Something you’re aware of. It’s good to know when your defenses are on, even if you don’t share that fact with anyone.
  • Doesn’t take a lot of energy to power. Works automatically, doesn’t require stress or adrenaline or complicated thinking.
  • Sustainably manages and heals any pain that gets absorbed.

What should we know about our own supersuits?

  • What are we protecting ourselves from? How can we tell if we’re in danger from that source or not? Is the thing we’re blocking primarily physical, emotional, or social?
  • What happens if we don’t block it?
  • Where does the redirected pain or energy get stored? Are your shields blocking, neutralizing, or just redirecting energy and storing it somewhere else inside of you?
  • What powers it? If you’ve ever said something like, “But if I didn’t feel shame / happiness / anger / fear all the time, then ALL OF THIS would fall apart,” you know one thing your defenses are powered by.
  • How does it work in unexpected circumstances? In another country? Around your family? When you’re tired? When you’re drunk (aka supersuit disabling juice)? If you’re afraid of losing control to the point of not trying new things, you might have a system that has low robustness.

Rewiring Defenses

One of the first shields we learn when young is “NO!”, the first stage of the effective supersuit. It’s a violent blast of “GO AWAY!” Like FUS RO DAH from Skyrim.

This is stage one. Things get more complicated from there.

Some of the defenses we build do protect us, but boy do they cause unnecessary extra damage.

I took some time to list out my protective strategies, what they do for me, and ideas for how to upgrade them.

Shield: Noise Cancelling Headphones

Problem: Overwhelmed by city sounds and people sounds in crowded places. Can lead to critical failure of an anxious spiral meltdown. When untreated, causes avoidance of all overwhelming places.

+ Very fast to put on and take off. I always have them on me, easy to carry. Usually stops strangers from talking to me.

– Lessens situational awareness somewhat. Might overuse.

Overall, this is a defense of mine that I think is excellent. This shield gives me more agency to go places in the world, actually blocks the energy that might overwhelm me, and doesn’t much limit or burden me. It might make me more sensitive to my environment when I’m not using it, so I can mindfully try using it less to investigate non-headphone ways of shielding, and also practice using it less when it’s not necessary.

Missing defense: Constant boundaries

Problem: When I have to constantly enforce my boundaries, be it with a pushy suitor or an enthusiastic dog that loves you very much, it is exhausting. I feel uncomfortable and drained afterwards. This can be physical or emotional. A very strong wind has a similar effect.

The main issue is that my current strategy requires active attention and energy on my part, plus an action that is tiring.

One idea is to leave the area or situation entirely. This could be avoidant, or limit my agency in the world. For this to work, I would have to get better at identifying this situation, and remembering that I can leave.

Another is to get a perverse feeling of fun out of enforcing my boundaries, even if that seems “mean” or might make someone uncomfortable. Seeing boundary enforcement as a fun practice that makes me stronger might be a helpful reframe. I feel resistance to this strategy, so it probably won’t fit me well long term without major changes.

Counter-attack: Energy Blast NO

Problem: Sometimes I feel like I’ve just had someone’s baby desperately thrown at me with the expectation that I hold it and take care of it. What I do is that I fling the baby away, freak out, and avoid that person forevermore. Sensibly, they avoid me as well. This happens roughly once a year.

+ Well, it does keep me from taking on Other People’s Problems when I can’t do so in a healthy way. Sometimes I don’t want that relationship to persist.

– What a mess! I damage the relationship and feel guilty afterwards. It interferes with my self-concept as empathetic and caring.

This aspect of my supersuit could use some work.

One idea is to practice saying no in the mirror, in many different ways, in order to feel more comfortable with No. “No” is simple enough that a 2-year old can do it with a lot of gusto, so I have hope that it can work even in adverse circumstances.

“Marie! I need your help right now!” -> “Hmm. Why do you think I need to help you with this?” “I need space to think about what you said. I can’t say yes or no honestly right now.” “No. I can’t help you with that.” “When you say that, I feel like pushing you away as fast as possible.”

It’s a place to start. Supersuit design isn’t easy. But one thing cool is that most of our defenses were built without conscious thought. If we add our intelligence to the design process, we might be able to get way further.

Taking Apart the Supersuit

Sometimes it seems like we shouldn’t need our supersuit. Our lover might ask for us to take it off, or we might decide that the limitations aren’t worth it.

There’s isn’t necessarily a “real you” under all of the layers of supersuit. The supersuit is part of you. But maybe the supersuit doesn’t play well with the people that want to get close to you. Or maybe things are different now, and aspects of that supersuit might not be necessary. An astronaut that needed a helmet to breathe probably should take off their helmet when they get back to Earth.

If that astronaut has needed a helmet to breathe for as long as they remember, that first breath without it will be terrifying.

If the goal is to reduce the supersuit to only what’s necessary, it’s important to ask the question of “Am I sunburning the baby, or am I giving it a tan?” Toughening up requires taking care of yourself in the process and being realistic about your capacities.

Letting your defenses down and accepting a hit can be powerful. It’s good for connecting with a person sometimes, especially if you can let them know how their actions honestly impacted you. You can learn that some situations that you thought needed a shield are actually okay, and become more calibrated. We can practice putting up shields and taking them down.

Back at the Baby Party

… The baby in the suit takes off his elaborate professionalism mask, and looks at the baby with the pink energy shield, hurt in his eyes. That baby softens, and you can see the shield tilt downwards and become a little more transparent.

Your grasshopper legs took you far away, but not too far. You can still see the two of them and you know you can still bounce back if you feel like it. But it’s comfortable here, watching them from afar.

(This post is inspired by Jordan M. Allen)

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.


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.

The Birth of Wisdom-Wanderer

(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.

Silent Eye Contact

Related: Eye Gazing

I went traveling for a month. Not for fun, exactly. Not for fun at all, actually. My life was in desperate need of some change. Extended solo travel would be a challenge and a change, and that’s what I wanted.

The trip began with a week of hitchhiking in Ireland before relaxing in the museums of London and parks of Berlin. Then there was a blitz of couchsurfing in Prague, Vienna, Budapest, and Ljubljana. I spent time with scant old friends during that time and was fighting language barriers and matching problems to make new friends along the way.

Around one month in, I returned to Berlin. I was feeling so deeply isolated and lonely that I did something never thought I’d do: I went to a nightclub. And not just any nightclub. I went to go to the infamous, clothing-optional, sex-party atmosphere of KitKatClub.

KitKatClub is run by an Austrian couple in the porn industry, starting in 1994. It’s well known for having little clothing and a lot of sex, kink, and gay culture. Whenever I mentioned that I wanted to go, I was warned that it was more or less an intense sex party. Fine, but that wasn’t why I was going. I was going because KitKat was weird enough that I thought I could fit in my own weird experience.

I took a sharpie to some printer paper and cardboard. I made a simple sign that read “Silent Eye Contact.”

Signs are powerful. It is possible to get what you want, if you know what it is.

Where else was weird enough that my sign would be welcome?

By researching on forums, it seemed like the way to get in was to be scantily dressed. Preferably in black leather. Speaking English near the doormen was discouraged. I went with the expectation that I’d get turned away at the door for not being naked enough or German enough so that I couldn’t be disappointed by reality.

I was disappointed by reality. The hours on Google were wrong. They were closed that night, and I went home sad, tired, and defeated.

The next night rolled around and I tried again, arriving a bit after midnight. The doormen spoke only German to me, which I must have nodded along to convincingly enough. I got in, paid a cover, and got my bearings. It was scantily peopled so early on a Wednesday night.

I was surprised by a few things. First, all phones were banned, creating an oasis free of the panopticon of social media and the zombification of people on phones. Second, there were two cigarette vending machines in-house. My life expectancy politely asks, “Why? Why would you do that?”

This, but with more half-naked people.

After poking around, I was as mentally prepared as I could be. I sat down. Putting down my sign and hoping that people would take me up on it was terrifying. Yet… it wasn’t as terrifying as sticking out my thumb and hoping someone would give me a ride. I had successfully increased my comfort zone, or, at least, my not-literally-running-away-screaming zone.

After 10 uncomfortable minutes of waiting in a corner with only a sign for company, somebody bit. And then it didn’t stop.

1. The Auto-Smiler.

  • When I smiled, he was sure to reflexively smile back, his stretchy grin flicking out sideways. It felt very fake. I smiled less.
  • The most psychedelic experience. Something about how I was looking at his eyes made the rest of his face bend and morph disconcertingly. The disco ball lighting might have helped.

From the halo of our intense connection, the room began to notice!

2. The Innocent Beauty

  • He didn’t blink at all. This is bad for your eyes, honey. Please blink.
  • The entire time, I felt like I was getting held by the endearing eyes of a wonderstruck kitten.

And then a line formed. Now, several people were waiting to have eye contact with me rather than with the other people waiting. They all have eyes, didn’t they? Maybe it was because I had the sign. Maybe because I was female. But I think it was that I was the one creating and holding the space.

My rules for others was simple:

  • No talking
  • No smoking
  • This is not a staring contest (a few people thought it was!)

I also had guidelines for myself:

  • Be honest with my facial expressions. Try keepin my face relaxed by default.
  • Be present with the person I’m with. Keep bringing my attention back to them.

3. The Stoic One

  • He stared the longest and the strongest. I felt like a weakling. At first, he seemed dull and dissociated, like he only knew how to hide. By the end, I had respect for his undeniable strength.

At this point, I realized that I was not invincible. I imagined that each person would break off contact with me first, but as the night went on and each round of staring lasted an eternity, I found myself needing to break the space due to attentional exhaustion and strong need to rest my eyes. Next time I did this, I thought, I would bring along eye-drops.

One petite woman was ogling me from across the floor. She wanted to make eye contact with me, said her boyfriend, acting as her liaison. She wasn’t around at the right time and we missed out on that connection. Disappointingly. I think it would have been good for her. I wanted to make eye contact with at least one woman.

4. The Thinker

  • Every once in a while, his eyebrows would go up! Despite my fatigue, this contact was comfortable. We had unspoken conversation while staring, projections on projections, and a real conversation afterwards.
  • “Thank you. I came here to explore and find sex to fill my desire for connection, and this is what I wanted. But.. now what? How could I go back to the shallow thing after this?”

When Thinker and I were talking, a very uncomfortable man came over. His entire soul was twitching.

5. The Scared Man

  • He couldn’t bear to sit still and stop talking. He kept fleeing and coming back.
  • When he finally settled down, I was so angry! I glared at him, and he withered. I would have softened over time, but it was too much for him.

I took a break and tried dancing to the most repetitive oontz. It felt isolating in contrast. I feared that making eye contact in the rest of the nightclub would lead to men assuming I was flirting with them. I didn’t feel like turning down a bunch of random men, so I kept my eyes down.

I returned to my sign, tired and almost ready to call it quits. But I also couldn’t turn down the last person to come along.

6. The Newbie

  • After about 2 minutes, he asked me what I saw in him. I scoffed. I told him that I am not a mirror. After 5 more minutes, he asked again. “Someone shallow and absorbed in being seen by others with no regards for seeing the other person!”
  • It was hard to feel empathetic for him. I felt emptiness and lack of caring behind his eyes. It helped when we talked, and I realized that he was very young (19).

People liked watching this connection. I was angry and unhappy towards Newbie most of this time, but they didn’t see that. They saw connection between two “Lovebirds,” and were so touched by what they saw that they spontaneously brought over drinks and water. I’ve never gotten so many offers for free drinks before. I brought something valuable to the table, and wow! People wanted to reward that!

I learned some things that night. When eye contact began, I tended to have judgmental thoughts about the other person. As time went on, my thoughts tended to become more empathetic without trying. There’s more to be learned here about how judgment and empathy work.

Now I’m more conscious of the false polite smiles that I use to hide my feelings. It’s not easy to relax the jaw and cheek muscles that power our reflexive smiles, especially those of us from America, land of the eternally cheerful. I’m trying to make authenticity with my face my new default.

Around 5:30 am I left KitKat, heading back my AirBnB in Kruezberg to snag a few cycles of sleep. I took the U-bahn through a dusty sunrise with the shady company of a few winos and the lost souls of the early morning.

I slept well. I had been lonely, and I got what I was looking for.