Entering Illegible Domains

Over the past 5 years or so I’ve been slowly investigating and integrating spirituality into my life. Previous to this lustrum, I arrogantly and conceitedly conceived of spirituality as a thing people with lesser minds got swindled into when they didn’t understand math or science.

Oh how I was wrong.

Unfortunately, many people, including many of my friends, find spirituality equally opaque and nonsensical as I once did… although they are almost universally less arrogant than I was.

I finally feel capable of explaining what is going on.

So here it goes:

The best way I know of to conceive of spirituality is to think it of it as an additional sense organ or way of perceiving the world. I claim that for the most part, this way of perceiving is available to most everyone from a young age, but many people are directed by life to specialize in other ways of perceiving.

Just as the dancer specializes in physicality, the philosopher specializes in reason, and the musician specializes in hearing, so the mystic specializes in spirituality.

There is cross-linking between ways of perceiving, and a master of any has some competence in all, but there is without a doubt a “dominant domain”. This actually becomes a rabbit hole where crossed domains form new platforms from which to build upon… but never mind that for now.

The reason spirituality seems non-sensical from the perspective of reason is that spirituality isn’t trying to do the same thing as reason at all, it has a completely different function. Now if you’re spirituality muscles are significantly under-utilized they will of course atrophy. Your other senses will make attempts at compensating but will be woefully inadequate.

Trying to use reason to understand spirituality is as deficient as trying to use reason to understand physicality, emotion, or hearing. You have use reason to “make sense of it” but you first need to consciously perceive and use physicality, emotion, or hearing before you have an anything from which to make sense of.
In other words, if you cannot hear and feel within your soul the sounds of a trumpet, then music theory will always look like total nonsense. You would inevitably try to interpret A,B,C,D,E,F,G, minor, major, and so forth as “just letters”. So you would believe that musicians were trying to make words or perhaps mathematical statements when they said things like “This song is Ay-minor, Gee, Cee, Eff”, but this is of course fruitless.

There may be math in music and “words” making “phrases”, but those are really not the root of the thing. AmGCF is not a “word” in English. If you’re a very gracious mathematician you may begin to see patterns in their esoteric notation and scripts, but you still would not ultimately “get it”.

But if you actually hear and feel the notes, then it all starts to click. Not only does it click, but as long as the hearing/feeling of the music remains the dominant factor, then the analysis of music through other lenses (like reason) will strictly add beauty to the experience rather than subtract from it.

Spirituality is precisely like that. It’s simply a completely different way of perceiving. The core of it is wholly illegible from the perspective of any other way of perceiving. So if you hear “spiritual” people talking about “spiritual things” and it sounds like total nonsense, consider that you may not be having the same experiences they are from which to make sense of.

It is still fair to say that many spiritual people have poor reasoning skills. Of course that is the case. There is not only an incredibly wide range of skill, but the domain itself is not specialized in reason. So from the perspective of the mathematician, philosopher, or engineer, whose domains take reason as the most critical faculty, of course it seems like artists, priests, and dancers have “poor reasoning skills”… duh. But the reverse also applies. From the perspective of a dancer, most mathematicians have all but forgotten they have a body. When an engineer asks for more information on how to perform a handstand before even being able to feel their body, the acrobat internally is shaking their head.

So suppose you wanted to investigate an illegible domain. How do you proceed when you know ahead of time you are bound to over-compensate, misinterpret, and fail to make sense of a new domain with a different way of perceiving?

There is no direct answer but the most helpful things I could say are:

  • Treat others charitably.
  • Take the perspective that gives what they say or do the maximum possible coherence.
  • Do this even if it contradicts your own beliefs.

That doesn’t mean you have to take action or discard your own beliefs (including the ones which contradict). But it means setting aside for moments at a time the perceptions which are least helpful for really understanding their world. Over time this will develop the necessary muscles to make sense of their world.

Now once you feel like you “get it” deep down, then you are of course free to disagree or see things differently. That’s a conversation to be had. But you cannot have the conversation until you can speak the language. At least not productively.

Some concrete things which may also be helpful for entering a mostly illegible domain:

1) Find teachers who have experience in the domain you specialize in. If you are a highly rational type of person then:-looking to get into spirituality? Find a teacher who has a strong interest in science.-Looking to get more physical? Find a teacher interested in bio-mechanics.-Looking to get more into music? Find a teacher who really likes music theory.

2) As soon as you’ve found that teacher, try as quickly as you can to get away from the style of thinking your previous domain of expertise ingrained in you. Follow your interests, but recognize that if you don’t absolutely run for the hills with respect to your most dominant faculty, you will be trapped and frustrated. At the same time, you cannot force anything, but you can do the hard thing while following your heart.

3) Embrace the frustration of being highly skilled in some traits and extremely novice in others. This makes finding a good teacher even more necessary because in most group class settings you have skills way beyond that of most people in the beginner classes and are missing fundamentals for advanced classes. That’s just how it is. If you put all your character points in strength and then want to be an acrobat, you are bound to be frustrated as the moves in the beginner class are uninteresting because you can muscle your way through 1/2 of the moves in the advanced curriculum already, but by the same token the other 1/2 of moves presented in the advanced class are bound to be unreachable for you and likely to cause injury.

Throughout all of this, I am projecting my own past pains onto the experience of others, but it’s the best I can do. I hope this has been useful, and at least partially legible to some.

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It’s All A Game

I’m often confused by the seriousness by which people believe things. They believe things as if the world is a permanent, flat, understandable, and knowable structure. I’m flabbergasted, aw-struck, and just down right confused by this.

To me, it seems that everything we do, underneath all the pretenses, lies, and forgotten causes is nothing more or less than:

“a-do-ba-dah-ba dee-ba-dah-ba doo-ba-dah-ba-dee” as Sir Alan Watts would say.

When I try to explain this to people they get horribly confused and start asking me for details… as if details are going to get them to understand what I mean. Perhaps they will, but it seems awfully silly from my standpoint. From my standpoint, there is a background obviousness that everything we are doing, every choice we are making is the same as what an improvisational musician is doing.

In the case of the musician, what can be said about how they got to what they are making? How did their creation come to life? Here we will split into two parts:

#1 – The musician certainly didn’t think there was a correct thing to play, except to say that they played what came to them and that was what was correct. Now once they are playing, once the piece has started to gain some elegance and flow, it would seem from inside the piece that the number of things which are “correct” decreases.

The structure which has emerged makes some things which could have conceivably been correct before, no longer correct or at least not as beautiful, as sensical. I think it’s fair to say that if Mozart was improvising a sonata, it wouldn’t be very beautiful for a rubber duck to be squeaked next to a megaphone, a conversation about financial derivatives to loudly carried on, for a Skrillex bass to drop without a build up, or for my own God awful voice attempting to sing Humpty Dumpty to be roared loudly across the room. Are there ways we could fit each of these into a Mozart sonata? With some very crafty work I’m sure… but to just plop one in without any additional revision wouldn’t be very nice.

But it is of course not true that the number of options decreases, rather it is simply that we can see pieces which no longer make sense. From the starting point of an improvisation, every starting point we can conceive of is as good as the next (assuming we are singing to the great sky and not to our social brethren). But of course, there are equally many options that we do not see until we have built some structure!

Now if you understand that everything we are doing is in a sense an improvisation. If you understand it was improvisational for the child to become a musician, it was improvisational for them to pick piano, and it was improvisational for them to play the notes they did, then you can have a good laugh at each and every choice that was made! There is seriousness in my play… If it were the case that I could play a sonata, and it were the case that I was playing one, and as the music slowed down to take a breath, to rest but for a moment before the crescendo, you burst into the room, noticing the state of the music and of myself, and blurted out with your blubbity blub mouth “HERGLE BLERGER RHEEEEEEE RHEEE RHEEEEEEEEEE” it would be rather unfortunate for my sonata, destroying it’s structure and depending on my investment, my mood, and how much you had stored behind your bid for attention I would either be horribly frustrated, lowly and resigned, or hysterical.

If it were the case that this whole interaction was itself part of an improvisational comedy scene, it would make sense for it to be awfully funny. My beautiful creation destroyed by an out of control blub blub.

Of course it could be even funnier. It could be the case that we were collaborators. It could have been the case that Mrs.WigglesWorth, an unimaginably wealth huferl-kin was looking for a male escort of sorts. But everyone knows Mrs.WigglesWorth had the kerflunfkins, and let’s be honest… no one wants the kerflunfkins. But there was a lot of money at stake. So I accepted the offer to entertain her great Wigglienss. But of course I had no intention of consecrating the evening. Grom the beginning we had planned for me to play a beautiful Sonata in her bedroom which I pleaded would “get her in the most wiggly of mood”, so that we could guarantee that at this time she would have slipped me the payment, I’m sorry the donation. Once I had the donation and reached the most subtle piece of my playing, you would burst in which such a cacophony that the only reasonable response would be for me to chase you with a blood culling rage at the destruction of my soul’s expression! And thus Mrs.WiggleWorth would be stunned and too confused to scrabble together any sort of defenses before we made it off to Hawaii with the money.

Now then that would be pretty funny wouldn’t it? At least it would be for anyone who was a fly on the wall and saw what was coming, coming.

And so it always seems to be that while there may be time, perspectives, and contexts of seriousness there is always a playfulness holding it up along side. There is always an improvisation which is both legitimately beautiful and legitimately absurd. Douglas Adam was trying to brilliantly scream this from the top of his lungs as far as I can tell. And so when you ask for details about how or why I laugh or smile wryly, I feel lonely — I feel lost. How could it not be more obvious?

#2 Now suppose you are horribly stubborn. Suppose you are the kind of person who was bullied so badly in school that it was only through the use of far reaching logic, and structure building beliefs that you could escape the horrible torment bestowed upon you by sheer bad luck or old karma. Perhaps then you say to me “Well, it seems we may be quite close to understanding why a person plays a certain note. As neuroscience progresses, you and I will be able to predict with accuracy what note will be played. And anyhow even if we don’t get there within our lifetime it’s quite obvious that you and I are made of atoms and it’s just a chain of physical laws which determine which note anyone might play. The environment, if we knew it in detail would explain it all.”

Which is all fine and good, except that now I’m stuck here thinking to myself “oh great, another horribly brilliant dumbass! What great profanity have I spoken which caused this tragedy to be placed upon me”. What I really want to do is kick you in the nuts. But I’ve lived long enough to know the futilities of these desires and so I say “Yes yes, perhaps we will be able to predict it with high accuracy. But what happens when it doesn’t?”

You look at me confused, as if I’m drooling from the mouth at dinner with the Queen.

“Where did these laws of physics come from?”

EXPERIMENT!” you say. Happy for sanity to have come back into the conversation.

“No no, that’s how we came to see them, but where did they come from? How did those laws, those structures… how did they get the way they are?” I ask.

You start getting that wriggly little tension in yourself that a person gets when some small part of them realizes that what is being asked is neither what they were interested in nor easily interpretable.or maneuvered around.

And so maybe we fight, maybe I play along and sprinkle some breadcrumbs I hope to blossom into flowers one day. But I feel lonely none the less.

If you believe that absolutely anything is not subject to change, I think you’re full of yourself. I think you’ve got your head buried in a bucket of rocks and can’t tell which way is up. Is there pattern? Is there form? Of course! But it came from a void so incomprehensible that while I might be momentarily surprised that you came marching into my sonata singing Blergy Blergy Poop Poop, and I might be even more momentarily surprised when I realize I was part of a theatrical act where your marching was staged… I wouldn’t be surprised at all.

Because The Universe.

I’m sure your world is as beautiful as mine, but it is absolutely and fundamentally illegible to me if you do not see a process of free play and serious structure as a central polarity holding up absolutely everything we do.

Jesus was laughing in his grave, and the cosmic Jester knows his work.

And so I cry. I cry because I feel so lonely and I struggle to find friends who see and pay homage to the serious deep and beautiful inquiry of pursuit and discovery, while at the same time, see every single thing they could do and think of with gut wrenching hilarity so profound it feels as if your insides might spill out.

Nothing is sacred forever, everything is beautiful.

I love you.

PS: Can you see how serious I am?


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Setting Your Worldview Free

When the cage of everything that makes sense is not sufficient, perhaps it’s time to pick the lock.

Sometimes we just feel bad, off, bored, frustrated, or angsty and can’t seem to figure out why. Usually by this time we’ve already done all of the usual feel good techniques we know about, hopefully seen a doctor, talked to a therapist, checked to see if our friends are assholes and have given whatever it is some time in case it just fixes itself. In happy cases, just a little extra oomph and the problem resolves itself, but just as often it seems to make the problem worse. This is about those times.

1. Who Are We

In times of crisis, especially a melancholic-quarter-mid-meaning-existential-transition-life-crisis, what is often needed is a re-shifting of worldview. What I mean by worldview is the primary objects and relationships between those objects that we care about and use. The classifications, language, concepts and ways of valuing that we use as we go about our day. Our ontology.

To give you a taste of what I’m talking about here are some extremely caricatured examples of worldviews:

Activist Hippie – This person’s world is primarily filled with deep senses of emotion and interconnectedness. Their world has an intensity of feeling and embodiment. They see and architecturally understand current social systems and how they perpetually advantage some groups of people and disadvantage others. They have a felt if not cognitive sense of sustainability and eco-systems. Liberation is part of their telos. Rituals, mass gatherings, and vulnerability between friends are explicitly essential to their way of being. They are certainly able to add numbers and follow chains of reasoning, but it is always within a narrative structure.

Rationalist Techie – This person’s world is primarily filled with evaluation of logical argument and friendly debates. They take science as a quasi-religion, and are deeply interested in methodological rigor. They prefer well defined rules and systems which make predictions whose results have a high degree of accuracy. They understand physical technology and like to engineer things. Games allow them to exercise their cognitive capacity on simpler worlds and challenging debate between friends helps keep them honest. They may enjoy stories, but find emotion and narrative to lead to distortions of fact.

These descriptions are hyper simple, two word labels are gross stereotypes. The point is to notice that the subjective world they experience is radically different because the ‘things’, the primary objects, which their world consists of are quite different. This is true even when they seem to be talking about the same thing. Not only are their goals with that ‘same thing’ often subtly different, but the connections to other objects and frames through which they view it can be pretty diverse.

That doesn’t mean that all worldviews are equal, or that understanding each other well is impossible… that’s the postmodern nihilism trap. In any given context, some worldviews are simply better or more useful than others. They are not arbitrary. However, if we aren’t accustomed to testing out new worldviews then we are inherently stuck in the problem of evaluating one worldview from the perspective of another as opposed to evaluating worldviews between each other.

It’s not about “How rational are activist hippies? Do they even understand the technology” and it’s not “How is this technology perpetuating a world of depression or harming a minority class?”.

It’s about “In this context, in this situation, which lens would be most appropriate for the benefit of myself and the world at large?”. It’s about asking “What can one of these worlds learn from the other?”.

2. What’s In A World

When we think of a worldview it can be tempting to frame things as ‘correct vs incorrect’. But this is often mistaking the map for the territory. Think about how theories of the world come into existence. At some point, someone looks at a phenomena for a long time and thinks to themselves, “hmmm, maybe it’s X”, and then tries to see if X ‘fits’.

The problem comes when we equate passing experimental tests with equivalent to reality as opposed to seems works well for some domain.

Something like physics, in which the complexity is fairly low and the ability to isolate variables is high, allows for rigorous use of the scientific method. This along with the the boundary line for what physics makes claims about (i.e. all the components of material stuff) gives the ability to extrapolate expectations from a given theory which are fairly broad. So testing in this case means extrapolating what should also be the case if the theory is correct and experimenting to see if that’s the case.

Now it’s important to note that even in physics, theories are contingent, human drawn, and incomplete. Often times this distinction seems and is completely pedantic. 99.99999% of the time, the boundary and model of ‘atom’ works perfectly well and pointing out that it’s just a model just means you’re a snothead who should speak less, listen more, and do some work. The same is true for natural mesoscopic objects… like banana. It’s true that the boundary of ‘banana’ is in some sense created by us, but that boundary has been carved by millions of years of species survival as fucking useful. Not only is it useful, it’s almost certainly more beautiful and meaningful than other possible boundary lines. It carves the world in fundamentally more interesting ways.

Recognizing the constructedness of our ontology, the ways we carve our reality via models, becomes useful and non-pedantic when we encounter a problem or scenario that our current models are not useful for.

On the intra-domain side of things, that could be because it’s unable to or incorrectly predicts some observed phenomena that it should. So the atom becomes sub-atomic particles which become quantum field excitations… for the common peasant like myself, saying the world is made of ‘quantum field excitations’ is equivalent to telling me everything is made of magic soup, but as long as the magic soup builds nifty MRI machines I’m happy. It’s not clear to me personally if we should even expect this series of paradigm shifts to ‘bottom out’ to something that is as good as it’s going to get, but it doesn’t really matter for our purposes right now.

On the inter-domain side of things, which frankly I think is the more important of the two, we can very usefully talk about object boundaries when no field we know of seems to be able to usefully talk about the area of reality we are interested in. Physics is useless for talking about economics, gender norms, or adult attachment. Some might claim that particle physics could in theory be used to describe something like psychology. But there is no way to even come close to doing this and my guess is that there is actually some limit of computation such that it could be shown that it’s impossible to usefully model psychology with particle physics.

If it can’t be used to describe higher level phenomena, then it actually doesn’t describe higher level phenomena, even if they are ‘built’ or are emergent from some lower level phenomena. In other words, reductionism, the idea that higher level phenomena reduce to lower level phenomena is just not workable. I think our current society has a bit of a micro-fetish but maybe society is just trying to make up for some sort of insecurity. ¯\_(ツ)_/¯

Anyway, back to the point. We have to bundle reality into abstractions in order to make any progress on them, those abstractions are incomplete descriptions of reality, and they are only applicable to particular domains of reality at a certain scale.

This is also true of really complex things like psychology. Psychology models, similar to physics, comes from someone experiencing reality and asking “what if?” But the difference is that psychology has a whole shitstorm of factors, and it’s not clear what’s a component of a system, what’s a byproduct of societies current niche configuration, and what’s total poop. That’s not to say that we can’t or don’t make actual progress. I definitely think psychology is ahead of where it was 100 years ago. Attachment theory being a prime example of something that seems stably useful, but clearly only a very small part of the psychology puzzle.

3. Bad But Good

The real humdinger though is that a theory can be pretty shallow, have contradictions within itself if you look too closely, seem nonsensical, be inconsistent and even make claims contrary to well established experimental evidence but still be useful! How could this be?

There’s at least three ways (and some important warnings):

A. Good Practice Bad Explanation

It’s pretty easy for some model, however bad it may be, does manage to capture some pattern or aspect of reality better than your other models do. Of course it’s possible that the pattern it captures is completely unrelated to the pattern that it claims to capture. Which makes the theory aspect of it unstable, but may make whatever actions that theory lends itself to as very useful in the absence of an ontology that does carve out those sections of reality which the ‘bad’ theory is unknowingly operating on.

It’s pretty easy to get hung up on this one as understanding that a bad theory can be useful, but that it’s ‘not true’. But we also need to remember that classical physics is also ‘not true’ in the sense that quantum mechanics seems to describe reality better with less inconsistencies, but that it works well for many things. Again that doesn’t mean everything is equal, classical physics is higher quality than almost all theories, but the domains it operates on is limited. If some way of looking at the world seems to be beneficial and you don’t allow its benefit to happen because it’s a bad, illogical, contradictory theory… you’ll be missing out.

Warning on this one: Obviously the less ‘tight’ and consistent the results are from some way of looking at the world the quicker you should throw it away for another way of looking at the world. The two main dangers here are: One — Gathering too many shallow worldviews and getting massively confused, and Two — finding worldviews which give a lot of short term gain at the expense of long term wellbeing, A.K.A are essentially addicting.

B. State Based Usefulness

Some ways of looking at the world are useful because they put you in a different state of being or are illogical precisely because they aren’t talking through a logical lens. They make you more emotional, socially connected, or allow you to fantasize and be creative. Suffice to say that the state you’re in plays a big role both in how your body does it’s thing internally as well as how well you perform different kinds of actions externally. Everything from immune system functionality and blood flow to lateral thinking and interpersonal connectedness are affected by what state you’re in. I haven’t cracked the code on this one, but there’s some big mojo in it.

Warning on this one: Basically the same as the previous one. Easy to get confused trying to put yourself in a ideal state versus shutting up and doing what needs to be done. Easy to get addicted to absorbative states, and easy to be chanting naked with a djembe when you need to be doing your taxes.

C. In Over Our Heads

Another possibility is that the worldview is at a meta-level we don’t have experience with or understand. Spiritual and adult development folks will undoubtedly get a boner at this… I know I do. Basically if we haven’t taken the consistent things in our experience and taken them as objects, allowing us to notice the relationships between them, then anyone talking about those relationships will probably sound like they are spewing nonsense. (David Chapman is a canonical resource here, primarily targeting the limitations of cult rationality.)

If I talk about crossing paradigms to someone who is learning systematic thinking for the first time, at best they will understand a very distorted version of what I mean. The same is true if I’m talking about code architecture and they’re just learning how to code or if they’re a child that understands there’s a difference between what a mommy, brother, sister, and mailman is, but I’m trying to explain marxism to them. It’s important to remember this process of looking at the top level things in our ontological reality and seeing what’s going on with them happens repeatedly, and continues to happen even though we’ve become ‘adults’.

From my current perspective it seems like a lot of spirituality and adult development research converges although there is much I haven’t read and there’s many dimensions that can be conflated. In the spirituality realm there’s a just an unending amount of junk to wade through because of differing contexts, languages, and advances in material understanding. If we give the Buddha, Plato, Jesus, or Lao Tzu the benefit of the doubt and assume they had some genuine insight, you still have to fight against their language, world, and context being substantially different than ours. Not only that but the method of transmission from thoughts in their head to words in front of our face is muddy at best. Almost all of their contemporaries were illiterate peasants, the translators needed to understand their thought with limited distortions, stories are often used to convey principles making it difficult to distinguish what was principle and what was just incidental story, and even if they did grasp a ‘higher’ frame that does genuinely encompass more of reality… the world which they viewed through that frame still thought everything was made of earth, fire, wind, and water or something similar.

Warning on this one: The biggest thing here is that if you do catch the meta-bug it’s easy to chase empty holes that are actually just garbage hoping to reach some hidden vista from which it all makes sense. There’s also a tendency to chase enlightenment to cure your pains when you just need to be out of financial debt and make good life choices.

But also… there’s some juicy juicy juice down this path.

The real clusterfuck is of course that all three of these can be operating at the same time. It’s like if you’re trying to decide if Tai-Chi or physical therapy would make you feel better before diving in… good luck soldier, god speed. Maybe chi and meridian lines can’t be found in the body and there’s no scientific evidence for them, but maybe they are like emotions… you can’t cut someone open and find their anger. Of course meridian lines are pretty darn close to nerve lines, so maybe they’re just outdated theories of nerves kept around for tribal integrity. So maybe meridians are outdated nerves, and chi is a subjective thing which requires some training to grok and it comes on top of a complex language barrier. Maybe you could do statistical analysis to see which is more effective, but then you have to box what they’re effective for into a box that may or may not be a good box. Maybe Tai-Chi is only better if you put a year or ten into it. Maybe the vastly differing skillsets, understanding, and communication abilities of the respective practitioners is hard to capture rigorously. Tai-Chi may not target at the same level of specificity as physical therapy, but it will certainly manipulate your states of consciousness much more with it’s slower motions, poetic imaginary language, and breathing practices. It could be that you just needed a sense of safety, community, and permission to move which is really outside of both theories but one may give it more than the other. It could be that traditional Tai-Chi is really more of a spiritual practice with the language pointing at higher level principles which are difficult to comprehend, poorly translated, and often taught by bad teachers and just as a side effect happens to sometimes help with joint pain . It could be that actually it’s total junk, but the distortions it causes in peoples belief systems cause them to stick around and some of them become supple panthers because that’s what happens if you move slowly for hours a day for 30 years. It could be that physical therapy is actually an accretion of trying to scientize things to gain political credibility and in doing so their theory is ‘more consistent’ but mostly irrelevant and that all of it’s benefits come from side effect activities rather than the theory as such.

Like Jesus…

Given all of these things, it’s worth re-iterating that I do expect reality to be sensical. I do expect good worldviews to progress towards being deeper, farther reaching, more coherent, and consistent. But we aren’t there yet, and yet may never actually arrive. In the potentially infinite meantime, it’s worth being more aware of where things actually stand and of our own ignorance.

4. Turning The Cage Of Reason Into A Haberdashery

When we accept any worldview, we are accepting tradeoffs. We accept tradeoffs with respect to how, in what state, and to what end we view reality. No worldview is capable of perfectly understanding all of reality at once. So as we continue to operate with and within a worldview, those things which our worldview neglected cause stress which over time can spill over and become too much.

Sometimes ‘digging in’ with your existing worldview really does solve problems. If your boss is an asshole or there was some sort of catastrophe, and you just need enough gas to make a transition out of an obviously bad situation, then accepting the stress and trying harder isn’t always a bad idea. But the problem with digging in when we don’t feel right is that we’re just hammering the very same strategies that half-assedly got us to where we already are.

If we want to explore other ways of being, but only have one way of understanding… we are in a bit of a bind. Something feels bad, but our current way of understanding has blinded us to the necessary aspects of reality we need to feel better, or even worse, is able to talk about those aspects — often with a sense of superiority — such that instead of inhabiting another perspective we instead talk about that perspective from our current one. One way of overcoming this trap is by being confronted with experiences which our current worldview doesn’t seem to have any way to talk about meaningfully… essentially encountering impactful nonsense.

But the perfect piece of impactful nonsense is hard to find, and so we need to be aware of our defense mechanisms, especially social ones, which get in the way of visiting other worlds. Sometimes we flinch away from other perspectives because we want to quickly explain away as a triviality anything which we are woefully unprepared to discuss. Or because we actually have encountered something akin to whatever experience has knocked us and had a bad time. It could even be a tribal defense mechanism of not want to cede territory to what feels like the ‘other’. Regardless, it’s useful to recognize our own flinching or shoving under the rug something we didn’t fully grok.

To checkout another worldview you have to be willing to set your reasons aside and try on someone else’s set of reasons and see how they fit. Charitably.

As Thomas Kuhn of the infamous Structures of Scientific Revolutions puts it, you have to:

“… study the opinions of that group from the viewpoint — usually very different from that of modern science — that gives those opinions the maximum internal coherence and the closest possible fit to nature.” (from Page 3)

You have to actually try meditation, chakra yoga, proof based math, dance, storytelling, chemistry, religious prayer, computer programming, and cold showers if you want to figure out what’s going on there. In order to do so you must be prepared to accept that one worldview often doesn’t address the concerns of another. In fact that’s partly why it’s useful to be able to move between worldviews… some are more apt for particular concerns or contexts than others.

But the real beauty of moving between worldviews, aside the constant reminders of humility, is the enhance in interpersonal connection, communication, and understanding. We are all a gigantic jumbled mess of ontologies, beliefs, experiences, genetics, and social situations. Sometimes we share enough that we feel confident we’re talking about the same thing. But just as often in order to understand someone else you have to try, however futile it may be, to see through their eyes, and believe that you’re both human.

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Increasing The Size Of Your Paper

Learning to avidly journal was definitely one of the biggest upgrades to my life. I was always willing to bring pen to paper when facing a particularly tough problem, but the habit of consistently following my thoughts beyond my personal memory was not something I really did until my mid twenties. It wasn’t until my late twenties that I started experimenting with the memory limitations of the paper itself.

Part of this was introspective curiosity. Part of this was out of necessity.

In my early twenties I was dealing with some pretty nasty chronic pain (diagnosed as fibromyalgia, which I eventually figured out). For those of you who haven’t experienced chronic pain either directly or indirectly it may be difficult to understand what kind of a catastrophic clusterfuck it is. Outside of the fact that it’s a lot of suffering, it’s just a really hard problem. There’re feedback loops left and right. The medical system is about 20% helpful 20% harmful and 60% useless. Anything that was causing you stress before is now tripled, and our society basically hands up a crap basket of default beliefs for us to start with as far as figuring it out is concerned. Of course half the problem is that you’re never looking at any problem you’re dealing with strictly from the outside. You’re inside the storm trying to figure out atmospheric science while steering the boat.

When trying to figure out really hard problems, you’re going to go down many wrong, or at least partial paths, before you come to something satisfactory. Often times from the perspective you started with there is no correct path. It’s only by noticing the patterns between the many wrong paths you went down do you start to come to principles which are finally workable.

Sometimes this is because you need to enter a new domain and you don’t even know the language to begin intelligently attacking the problem with. Sometimes it’s because you started with fundamentally flawed beliefs that you based everything off of. Sometimes it’s because you need to make complex series of tradeoffs to rebalance the system, which means even if you get some wins initially you’re off chasing fires caused by whatever tradeoffs you made. Finally for you adult psychological development folks it’s because you actually need to grow beyond your current ways of understanding of the world, not just from an information standpoint but from a mental complexity standpoint.

In all of these cases what you actually need to do is see the forest for the trees. You don’t need a faster car, you need to understand how traffic works. You need to jump aboard the meta rocket ship and sail into the sweet sweet stars of unknowing. Forgetting what you thought was important to see an entirely different problem.

Unfortunately, you often don’t know when a meta-solution is needed, and even if you do know there’s only one way to find it. You need whatever things you are looking at en masse so that you can stating noticing the relationships between them.

Journaling in generally is pretty damn good for this. Even if you never re-read your thoughts, the simple act of having to explicate them can work wonders for increasing the clarity and depth of your understanding.

But journals can often become jumbled messes. Some pages are pure scratch, others are more fleshed out, and there are likely multiple different domains that are beneficial to help your brain out with.

I tried to solve this by using multi-subject notebooks. I had a section for scratch, a section for physical/health stuff, and a section for heady/phenomenology stuff. This certainly was a big improvement, but I would often find myself repeating a thought I had the month before and it was hard to see connections between things I wrote on different pages. When confronting unknown domains you’re frequently playing with completely different lenses or systems of putting things together until it’s clear which will be the most useful.

1. The Notebook

As an experiment, I wanted to see how beneficial it would be to work with a bigger landscape. I did two things. I got a much bigger journal and made a huge whiteboard.

Drawing pads like these are available at most art supply stores, but you can also find them on Amazon.

There are some definite pros and cons to this kind of notebook. The cons can be summed up pretty simply with “You can’t fit a journal this size in a backpack”. I enjoy working with friends and at coffee shops, so it’s a burden in that department. But it does have some big upsides.

The very obvious upside is that it makes it much easier to see the relationships between things.

The form factor itself is a big advantage because it changes how you interact with it. Now each domain gets divided into sections of 18″x24″ (or 18″x48″ if you open it and keep the left and right hand pages on the same subject) rather than 50 pages of smaller size in a multi-subject notebook. This is a big advantage because it forces you to draw reasonable boundaries while being big enough to draw connections that would otherwise be difficult to see.

A page I’m noodling on for a movement class I’m teaching in San Francisco.

With a standard notebook I’d end up with many half pages of scribble thoughts. I’d just start new pages instead of editing existing ones because new pages were cheap and there was always the possibility of coming back to those old scraps latter. Now those scribbles float on a massive sea of paper. By the time I need the space that those thoughts are occupying either they can be re-written and successfully incorporated into the larger picture or it’s time for those thoughts to die.

Instead of a slow rolling pile of pages, you get a beautiful thought painting that slowly grows, evolves. and matures over time. Your past learnings are always in front of you which makes it much easier to build an “architecture” of thought. This can really help reduce mental spaghetti code. As with any architecture… you can also get stuck it in, so it’s important to keep around a little bit of a trouble maker within your personality to start fires every once in a while.

2. The Whiteboard

Honestly, this has been one of the best experiments I’ve ever run. The whiteboard is 6’x7′ and covers the better half of a wall. Having a massive whiteboard in your room is fucking awesome. I can’t recommend one enough.

So much whiteboard…

When I first looked at getting a big whiteboard I was a little bit floored by how expensive they were. Cheap whiteboards this size are easily $200-$300, and they don’t usually come in the exact dimensions you want. I tried using the roll on white board paper, which did work well for a few months but kept producing air bubbles underneath. Reviews of whiteboard paint were pretty bad across the board, so I ended up going with melamine board which costs $20 for a 4’x8′ panel and erases cleanly if you use a Mr. Clean Magic Eraser.

Having a big whiteboard permanently attached to the wall has seriously been a bit life changing. There are just so many benefits of having your thoughts collect in front of you over time. You don’t really need to do anything. You don’t need to be in journaling mode for it to work its magic. Its just sitting there, offering a place to write and reminding you of what you’ve been thinking about.

What I found was that you build longer chains of thought, you have an immediate outlet for working out whatever is frustrating you whether it be intellectual or emotional, and you can plan out long spans of time to get a better sense of what is reasonable and figure out what your actual priorities are. If understanding context is important, this is like buying a context Ferrari for your life.

10/10 Would do again.

3. What Else?

This idea of specifically trying to see the forest for the trees is definitely one I plan to keep around and want to play more with. Some of the things that seem to be in this category include: recording yourself, meditation, psychedelics, and writing autobiographically. I’ve played with some of these more than others but haven’t found a form factor for any of them that I’m really satisfied with.

If I have one goal this year it’s to climb to the top of my life’s metaphorical mountain and sit there until the vista is burned into my soul.

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