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.