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.
Making a decision is hard work. Normally, we act out of habit or on the spur of the moment, or simply do things without thinking about it.
I have a story about making a decision. It’s about a bag of cheesy-bad-snack.
That day, I felt like a slug: slow moving, passive, and mildly uncomfortable with existence. I munched on a snack that reminded me of the glorious superstimulus of cheesy-bad-snack. Which meant that now I couldn’t stop thinking about cheesy-bad-snack. Yum. Oh no.
Why? Well. I haven’t had it in a year. Part of me remembers that every time I had it, I felt sick in my stomach afterwards. But that was a year ago! Maybe things were different now. And I already felt bad, so I might as well do more things that would make me feel bad. Bad feelings don’t stack linearly.
I checked in with myself. My stomach said ‘no’, my mouth said ‘yes’, and my mind felt weak.
I walked to the store. I stared at the bag of cheesy-bad-snack. My mouth began to water. I considered both futures, one with cheesy-bad-snack and one without. I grabbed it off of the shelf and walked around the store. I set it back down, considering what I really wanted. And then I left the store without the cheesy-bad-snack.
Well, you can always turn back. At any point and in either direction. And there is no shame in turning around. I walked out of the store and halfway down the block before I began to feel regret. Sitting on a bench, I thought for a minute.
I turned around and went to buy some cheesy-bad-snack after all.
I ate it.
I paid a lot of attention to how it tasted. It didn’t taste like guilt this time.
Making this decision was difficult. It took more than twice as long as just buying the snack and getting it over with, or just sitting in my house and doing nothing about that urge. It took a lot of energy to introspect rather than run on heuristics.
I felt mostly content with my decision, especially in how I chose to make it. By taking my time, I avoided the counterproductive impulse to buy the cheesy-bad-snack quickly while hoping the rest of me doesn’t notice as I slam it down my gullet. It’s a shame when that happens. Then I neither enjoy it nor avoid the nutritional hit.
While walking up and down the street and in the store, I didn’t stop paying attention to how I was feeling. I kept collecting data within myself. And I was open to the decision going either way. Honestly, I couldn’t have predicted the outcome.
Part of me still wishes I hadn’t ended up buying it. It was a close vote. But the important thing is that I gave myself time to look at all of the voting blocks within myself, rather than forcing a decision through or being sneaky with myself. I didn’t dissociate with any part of myself in that decision. I sat with the conflict until it resolved. I wasn’t afraid of the answer.
I know someone with a penchant for dissociation who described himself watching as he took one step after another towards a goal he knew he “shouldn’t” have. He felt like a passive rider, denying that he was making a choice but observing it happen at the same time. What is “I” mean, if it’s so small that it doesn’t include your body?
I didn’t quite want to take the opinions of my mouth as seriously as I did. Much of me thinks my tongue is stupid and easily tricked. But my mouth is part of me, and it can get wiser over time by getting included in the decision-making and feedback process.
In making a true decision, there must be an actual openness to the dial moving either way. One might hope that when all the votes come in, we go one way over another. But if we don’t, that means that “I” isn’t actually counting all of us, and that we should work to become more integrated.
Sometimes I stumble upon music with voices that have a particular sound to them. Don’t worry about listening to these unless you have the time. They deserve at least half of your attention.
I probably don’t have to tell you this. You’ve all heard a violinist play their instrument like a lover or seen a dancer give themselves to the music completely. Intuitively, we know what a disingenuous speech sounds like versus when someone believes in what they’re saying. It’s almost a caricature to hear how sarcastic and disingenuous the Chairman sounds in comparison.
Think about the difference between an honest plea from someone who needs help versus a sideways request that they choke out in after some distracting small talk. It doesn’t mean they’re lying to you, but it does show that there is dissonance in them. Parts of themselves that aren’t on board.
It’s not just passion. It’s also determination, confidence, an unwavering gaze. It’s chilling and powerful. There’s a way of sounding that you get when there is complete alignment. You’re hearing that what they singing is what they feel the truth is. Somewhere inside of you, it resonates the same thing in yourself somewhere in a way that’s very hard to ignore.
This isn’t just for music or creative acts. It’s important to know what this sounds like in yourself in others. Learning this is important. It’s how you can tell if you’re telling the truth.
This is how you tell if you’re speaking the truth or not.
Truth meaning what you actually believe, not what is objectively true out there. We’re not oracles for the world, but we can get closer to one when it comes to ourselves.
Mentally, this manifests as lack of energy or motivation. Procrastination, internal resistance, dragging yourself along. Shouldn’ts and Shoulds.
Physically, this manifests as a lack of smoothness, stopping and starting. Hesitancy and lack of confidence in movement. Tightness and aimlessness. Literally, spinal alignment.
Voices will sound shriller, shakier, quieter, hesitant, with more vocal fry, or just plain strung out in some direction. Sarcastic side comments, falsely inflected cheery small talk. Not being able to speak at all.
We’re a shadow of ourselves when our internal part are holding each other back, a confused collection of vectors that don’t fully line up with our speech and action.
When I’m in resonant alignment, moving forward isn’t tiring. Action isn’t costly. It’s flowing into the future. The words write themselves and my speech comes out clear. When all of those parts are in order—all of them, from our toes to our heart to our thoughts—is my working hypothesis for what a soul is.
I have an exercise that I find both painful and incredibly cathartic.
Look into the mirror and don’t break eye contact with yourself. Say something you believe. Listen to how it sounds. Say something that you don’t believe. Listen to how that sounds.
If you try to say it with feeling, are you convincing yourself? Be very careful to avoid learning how to better convince yourself of things you don’t believe, or you’ll risk jeopardizing your relationship with the truth. If you’re in a situation where you need to lie to yourself, maybe this exercise isn’t for you. If so, I hope you can move towards a situation that doesn’t make you do that to your soul.
Internal resonances isn’t a binary. It’s a matter of degree, and it takes a while to find the words that resonate the most. When I do find the right words, my chest will literally resonate more. And it often makes me cry when I do find them.
To sum up: There is a way of sounding when in alignment. Find the things that bring that voice out of you. Do that.
I got Lasik eye surgery a month ago, early May 2019. Since then, my vision has been between 20/20 and 20/15. It is somewhat baffling to me that my vision never stops being good. Contacts get dry and the world clouds up as the day goes on. Glasses get dirty. My imagination was underprepared for the reality where my vision is excellent from when I wake up to when I go to bed, full stop.
Making the decision
Making the decision took several months. I knew for years that I wanted Lasik when I was old enough, and at age 23 I was taking the decision seriously. I had stable -1.50 vision in both eyes, bad enough that I couldn’t drive but not bad enough that I needed to wear contacts or glasses all the time.
The main questions were:
Would it be worth it if my vision isn’t that bad to begin with?
PRK or Lasik?
Are negative side effects likely? (Dry eyes, poorer night vision)
Is my age an issue?
Which surgeon should I go with?
The people who tend to say that Lasik is worth it start with terrible vision. Mine was only mediocre, so it was less clear up front.
“Going from -1.5 to 0 means you lose about an inch of sharpness at maximum closeness (2 inches from your eyeball) and you gain the entire world from 2 feet to infinity.”
Mars Van Voorden
The consensus I found from talking to friends who had gotten Lasik was that I had more to gain, especially with modern techniques and a good surgeon.
PRK vs Lasik: I considered PRK as an alternative to Lasik. The benefit of PRK is that it does not create a flap in the cornea, so the flap can’t be dislodged. In my first consultation, I found out that there is a lot more pain and risk of infection from PRK. Also, surgeons are less experienced at doing PRK. In hindsight, the pain of Lasik was enough for me. PRK sounds miserable.
If I did a lot of martial arts or contact sports or thought I would in the future, that may have tipped the balance. But even then, the corneal flap heals to around 90% of original strength within a few months (according to one consultation). One reason the flap is less of an issue is that a blade is no longer used to cut the corneal flap. A laser is used instead, which promotes healing better than the smooth knife cut.
Age: I’m in my early 20s. My optometrist was concerned about my age, since my prescription might still change in the future. Both consultations that seemed to think this was a non-issue. I knew for myself that my vision had been consistent for the past 10 years, so I judged that it was okay. If it does change within the next few years, I can get a corrective Lasik surgery. I hope I don’t have to. One thing that reassured me is that my mother and grandmother both got Lasik to great success.
Dry Eyes and Night vision: Most friends I knew with Lasik didn’t have problem, and the ones who did still felt it was worth it. I felt confident about the machines and skill of the surgeon I went with, and feel like this reduced my risk of side effects.
I was concerned about halos and worse night vision, but at the second consultation they explained that the new state of the art in Lasik could actually improve night vision.
One of my very trusted friends said this about night vision: “It got more like I was on acid all of the time. Lights are just brighter and more dominant than they used to be and finding things in true darkness is harder. I was also one of the last to get hand cut eye flaps, night vision is supposed to be improved in current generation all laser Lasik.”
Which surgeon: Two friends of mine had gotten Lasik from the same surgeon. A benefit was that it was cheaper than average in the area, which to me implied that the surgeon did more surgeries and thus had more practice. The machines they used in that office seemed to be the state of the art, the same ones used at the Lasik center at Stanford. The two friends also had no meaningful side effects.
Other considerations: With a low prescription like mine, there was a higher chance of having better than 20/20 vision.
I asked a lot of friends about this to see if I was missing anything big. Someone explained diopters, and how I would lose some ability to focus close up and need reading glasses sooner than otherwise. There were some stories of knowing someone where things went wrong, but many more personal anecdotes of Lasik being worth it.
Something I didn’t take into account was safety. I am much less likely to get hit by a car now, and feel a lot safer walking around city streets.
There are some downsides that might show up later on, but so far, Lasik seems very worth it.
Timeline of Subjective Experiences
The first four hours were incredibly uncomfortable. The eye numbing drops wore off around 20 minutes after the surgery. Opening my eyes was too bright. Even with my eyes closed, everything was too bright. This pain lasted for around 4 hours. During that time, all I could do was sit with my eyes closed while my body focused on healing.
The rest of day one, I was zoned out from Valium but was able to keep my eyes open enough to barely participate in my weekly Dungeons and Dragons game. After I could get my eye open, I could see things clearly, including screens and things up close. I did have to blow my nose every 15 minutes from the constant tearing.
On day two, it shouldn’t have been a surprise then that I got a cold. The valium, stress, and the constant tearing of my eyes at first led to a week-long feeling of clogged sinuses. I was pretty relaxed about it. Valium lasts a while.
Day three, I bought a pair of sunglasses. I found the darkest ones I could that would also block out UVA. Even then, the world was too damn bright. I was worried that I would be overwhelmed by people on the street and making eye contact with them, but this is entirely solved by wearing sunglasses. Also, I can see people from further off and avoid them more effectively. This isn’t an ideal strategy, but it’s how I cope with living in a city right now.
My eyes were no longer tearing. They were dry sometimes and uncomfortable, but not what I would call pain.
Later that day, I got bitten by a small dog. It was a small bite that didn’t break the skin but left a bruise. I broke down completely, barely able to speak and still hold back my tears. This was confusing! I knew that I didn’t care that much about minor pain. It wasn’t about the dog. I retreated somewhere private and sobbed for around 10 minutes before being able to interact with people again.
Something about that minor physical pain triggered a release of all of the numbed discomfort from the surgery. I had felt grief or loss about my old eyes since the surgery. My eyes had been trying very hard, and they weren’t good enough for me? That feeling of grief went away after crying.
This was also around when the Valium wore off. A thing I had to keep in mind was that Valium would interact with alcohol, making each drink dangerously more potent.
A week later, my eyes no longer felt like I had left contacts in them for several days. I thought “dry eyes” would feel dry, but really, it means itchy. I feel strong urges to rub my eyes every other day or so, and when I do, I put in eye drops.
One strange thing I noticed was that my hearing seemed to be better. The spatial cues in my environment or subtle lip-reading made some sounds feel louder. This could also be from freeing up processing power in my brain, now that interpreting my visual environment is so much easier than the interpolation and guessing from before.
Three weeks in, I’m still slightly sensitive to light but not in discomfort in the same way. Up until 2.5 weeks, I was wearing sunglasses outside every day, rain or shine. I no longer feel the need to when it’s overcast, but I think that sunglasses will be a larger part of my life now.
One nice thing about sunglasses I bought is that my vision is so clear that I can use the sides of my sunglasses as rear-view mirrors, and get a sense of what’s behind me without turning my head. This gives me a huge amount of extra spatial awareness I’m still learning to integrate, and when I don’t wear sunglasses I sometimes miss it!
I used to get headaches often. Getting Lasik reduced the amount of headaches I get. I now can pinpoint headaches down to more specific things, like reading in low light or looking at my phone in a car.
I also think this is helping my social skills significantly. I’m picking up and responding to a lot more cues from people. I have had less social anxiety since, and I hope it stays that way.
My depth perception and spatial awareness is a lot better, and this makes me feel less anxiety in general.
I feel freer in a way that is hard to pinpoint. If I were sent back in time, I wouldn’t have to worry about my vision. In the zombie apocalypse, I’d be able to spot them coming from afar. If I wanted to be a dirtbag traveling the world, I could do that all while seeing clearly. At festivals, I no longer will have to choose between seeing clearly and experiencing the pain of dust and sunblock that came from putting on contacts in a camping environment.
I’m a little disappointed that at no point did I get a feeling of euphoria from seeing clearly. No joyous “you’re free now,” or “this is so beautiful.” Instead, I get a few pings a day like “That’s convenient. You can see that person’s expression,” or “I guess it is kind of cool that you can see all of those nice rocks and trees right now.” I’m holding out some hope that my neurochemistry will change and that I’ll get a moment of euphoria when I look out at clear stars in a wide night sky.
Many parts of the world are not beautiful. Still, I am not looking away. I feel safer, and brave in choosing to experience the world more fully.
I wasn’t lonely around the trees. I found two basking in some sunlight. Dead trees. No branches. Still stolid and present. They were my friends for a minute. I stood between them and imagined being a tree. It would be nice, I think.
There were windy ghosts creaking in the tops of the eucalyptus. I was scared. The ghosts didn’t know me, and I didn’t know them. What if a tree fell on me? Would I scream? Would I die instantly? If I screamed, would that attract predators or friends?
I didn’t bring my backpack with water, since I thought I’d be going on a short walk. But I couldn’t help but consider what would happen if I just kept walking. Walking past the sunset. Staying on the trail but with no sense of direction. I would become dehydrated first. Hunger would register second. My lips would crack and my gums would dry. I could keep walking, still. My limbs would grow tired, and I would eventually collapse in the dirt. But that wasn’t important—the important thing was that I could keep walking.
These thoughts make me feel isolated. I came back from that walk feeling much better about life. Perhaps part of me thought it wasn’t safe to have thoughts like that around other people. But we all do, sometimes, and that is okay.
I’ve played a lot of video games and RPGs, and the way characters in them pursue goals feels so compelling. I’ve been writing up goals as quests and self-improvement tasks as ways to increase stats, and my meaning-maker loves this. Being productive is awesome.
I don’t force my perception of life to line up with the system, but rather try to make the system match my real life—while adding a good dose of dramatic and whimsical flair.
The RPG sheet is for me, not me for the RPG sheet. Sometimes my overall path changes out from under me, and none of the quests are applicable anymore. Then it’s time to find new goals that are compelling and write those up.
The framework is highly inspired by Mage: The Ascension.
In general, stats go up by an order of magnitude. 0 is below average, 1 is average for a human adult, 2 is average for someone who has put in a good amount of deliberate effort, 3 is the level of someone who has dedicated their life to this, and so on. 5 is incredibly rare. 0, Unskilled: No training in the ability; rely on natural talent.
So for something like reputation, being well-regarded by 1000 people might be Reputation 1. The next level would be at least 10,000 and so on.
Traits are mostly for flavor. Next up, quests:
For quests, the difficulty of them is related to the Impact Level. I can comfortably do Level 0 and 1 quests, maybe taking a month for the hard ones. Doing a Level 2 quest might take me half a year or longer or a lot of resources I don’t have yet. One day I’ll get to Level 3. Like with Skills, the difficulty goes up approximately an order of magnitude with each increase in number.