Anatomy of a day of freedom

It paws at me this morning.

I’ve tried blanketing myself in books. Eventually they saturate my mind; the soggy attention not letting in one more grain of sugar; one more grain of someone else’s thoughts. Other peoples’ thoughts are a kind of sedative—they’ve already done the hard work of thinking them.

I shift so my hips are pressed flatly against the bed, one leg up at an angle for comfort. I think I’m pretending it will help me fall back asleep.

It would be easier if it were a specific task haunting me. Some actual animal buzzing around my ears, begging to be fed and cared for. But in this case every time I try to look at the thing out of the corner of my eye it turns back into a cloud and I feel woozy and still.

Once my bladder wakes up, the battle is lost, and here, I feel it stir. Climbing down from my haphazard nest almost completely assured that I won’t get back up there again.

This city practically boasts on your behalf; pitches tumble out of your mouth as fast as eager ears await to hear them. Three-quarters of convincing yourself you can get it done is convincing somebody else. You sell the story in order to define it in your own mind.

People certainly do walk around with a lot of arbitrary urgency here.

So I sit, in a room that I rented, with only a story I invented as the tenuous thread carrying yesterday’s (or last week’s) accomplishments into the milky sludge of today’s notebooks. ‘Why’ has been washed out of it, the stain rinsed by the water of books, Twitter, conversations—the tyranny of other people’s thoughts. Yet have you tried to have your own thoughts for a second? They’re boring as hell.

The timid caffeine is like the limp straining of a flipped turtle, struggling to right itself.

I’ve already opened the spiritual book, five others in hand in case of indecision; my subconscious refuses to take the question of whether to work at something today seriously.

I’m horizontal and an hour later I fall asleep.

Is there anything more pointless than a human mind in indecision? The story about work, about purpose; the story about space and contemplation and rest, the meta-story about habits and whether it is right to force oneself to do something that feels unnatural…

Anything can be used to justify anything, if you’re motivated enough to do it.

When you wake up the second time there’s a feeling of disgust the same as if you had eaten a whole pizza to yourself; hard to tell if prudence or internalised capitalist Puritanism.

I promised someone earlier I would go work with them, across the city; my faint excuse for being late already made but the opportunity to make something of the day and join him gets weaker and weaker every half hour. I run my hand across the three other books and pick up another; its colourful intellect tempting me with saturation. There’s more self-hatred in this than I thought.

My mind keeps time with an alternate reality version of my day where I was chipper and focused and efficient and by 3:30 I’ve already gotten so much done it feels like I’ve earned the right to live the whole day. This 3:30 comes by to check my work and all I’ve done is convinced myself that what I really needed was to contemplate the spiritual role of work, and not in fact to do any work at all. I could starve myself to death with navel-gazing.

We’re such little individuals, eating all this confusion up alone. Now the deadline I’m fighting—still alone and horizontal on a soft mattress in the living room—is that the store that might fix my laptop closes in two hours and if I don’t at least fix my laptop then I really would have lied to the guy I promised I was late to working with because I was fixing my laptop. I don’t want to lie to myself more than I want to feel flapping about hoping each next second of someone else’s thoughts will save me from the forcefulness of having to endure my own.

Sometimes I am a god—all seeing Atman—and sometimes I am a rat that you can train with pellets and tiny electric shocks. It really confuses my sense of self, this.

Standing up is a fight I have with myself—first to fight against the urge to sleep again, second to fight the urge to fall back down the second I succeed. I get dressed by continually revising down my expectations (this is where my previous efforts to rid my wardrobe of undesirable items and leave only things that leave me looking passably decent have saved me countless times). My bedroom is an abstract replica of my mental state—its tidiness or lack thereof neatly mirroring my own internal level of cohesion. I haven’t yet run out of clean clothes, but it’s all unfolded in a laundry basket so on a scale of executive function I’d assess that at maybe a four.

Finally, shirt pants jacket wallet phone—shit my phone’s at 19%—oh well, let it die, I’ll survive.

Once I’m outside everything takes too long. This is barely work anyways—I’m hardly cosmically justified—but it is the next thing in the way of getting work done; the bottleneck, seen oh so clinically. Really it’s something I could bear doing. As I walk through my neighbourhood’s streets and stop in to buy a snack and walk as fast or slow as I like, I marvel at how rare it is that my tempo is not set by others. Who knows if it would be better to give that control to someone else. But the five times I consider turning around and going home, I relax comforted that I can go as slowly as I want because nobody needs me to be anywhere.

Activity has its own momentum; this quality, I often resent because the work or the doing something feel so tragic and impossible on the side of inertia, and so simple and even joyful once they’re already going. Walking is the easiest thing in the world, once you’rs already there. Being in love carries itself with no sense of strain needed; writing and making something and any other sort of work—they all have this sort of already going quality that keeps the thing happening at all. Even for me, on this day when I feel so sorry for myself, sad unworkable sod; lump of clay.

I think what often paralyses me is the sheer number of things to be thought about and decided. And in reality any of the decision might work, or you could just decide lots of little times but faster and get to roughly the same place faster and with little thrashing. A pity then that my mind never informs me that that’s what I’m doing when I’m trapped by it; it only lets me in on the joke once it’s clear and obvious that I could in fact choose to do something and that what I chose to do at that moment didn’t matter too much at all.

Going anywhere at all feels good; the forward momentum so simple and assured. It is actually irrelevant how long it takes to get to the store; how much time I spend getting there has almost no bearing on the lived experience of getting to one place from another with my feet. Cities have so much to see, anyways, and thinking is just as easily done while moving.

Once I’m at the store it’s simple; someone else (the store designer, perhaps?) is making the decisions for me. Then I make some of my own (buying chargers and adapters and cables of various kinds) but even then it is a scoped, definite sort of choice. I’m not deciding between starting a company and seeing the world as an illusion (which is a kind of deciding-between that very much doesn’t lend itself to logical mental arithmetic).

We domesticated humans in part because society is less violent that way, but I suspect also because it is intensely calming; knowing every kind of decision you could make at any one moment is horrifying—like the backdrop of your lush virtual reality world suddenly flipping to the source code; even if it flips back immediately it’s profoundly disorienting and that knowledge stays with you forever.

Walking home is even simpler; it’s simply retracting the rubber band from its maximally stretched position. Like tidying up, it comes with the satisfaction of having beforehand a definite place to go in a way that deciding what to do or even why to do it does not. Before you decide what to do, almost every answer is wrong; once you have decided, it is generally very clear which way you need to go to get to your answer. Picking a mountain is way more ambiguous than climbing the one you’ve picked.

It is a sad fact of procrastinators that you very often accumulate any kind of useful momentum precisely when it feels most appropriate to be winding down. And so it is with me; not that I do anything that could be described as adhering to a plan, but I certainly get the burst of energy that allows me to write a totally unrelated little document that could have very much have been something I intended to do and thrashed about for hours if I told it that way later in a story to my friends. And then cleaning and tidying the kitchen and sewing that skirt that has been sitting intended for months and…

The curse of having intentions is seeing them whip by as you barrel along on the train studiously set on going somewhere else entirely. It is one thing to scrape together some motivation from somewhere; it is another thing entirely to have it move you down the path you thought you’d like to go down beforehand. Those of us with the gift of freedom are cursed to spend eternity wandering the back-paths where we never quite thought we would go.

But hey, at least you’re moving.

What I talk about when I talk about money

Two weeks ago, I handed in my notice at my stimulating, respectable six-figure job at a fast-growing Silicon Valley blockchain startup.

Somewhere in my mind I had, for a long time, the belief that earning money, particularly above and beyond what I needed to live, fundamentally involved scamming people. I believed (and still believe) that the financial system and the way money works in general is very unfair and naively constructed, and I’ve always had a strong desire to ‘fix’ this. However, this meant I also believed that in order to do my ‘real’ work, my life’s work, I had to already be permanently financially independent, and work with others that were too. My plan, in the meantime, was to earn as much money as I could as quickly as I could in whatever way was necessary, Mr Money Mustache-style, in order to save up the capital needed to never have to earn money again.

Except then I fell in love, had a near-religious experience, and that experience exploded any chance I had of hiding behind commitments and ‘things’ that were aligned with anything less than the deepest integrity I could muster. I could do nothing other than live with full integrity every day of the rest of my life.

Well shit, there goes the job then.

I realised that while I intended to dedicate my life to renewing and recreating the economic systems that trap and define us into something healthier and more sustainable, I certainly didn’t have a healthy relationship with money. Sure, I was saving 2/3 of my paycheck, but I was working for a company I believed *might* be net-bad for the world and working 9-5 in an office, something I’m very unsuited for, in order to acquire enough money to go earn literally none while I tried to fix the system. I was forcing myself to spend the majority of my quality time and attention on something I didn’t believe in, while my entrepreneurial creativity, artistic creations, and relationships suffered.

I realised that I could use this very predicament, that of ‘how can I create financial security for myself while living with integrity towards my values?’ as the ground upon which I explored not only my relationship with money, but that of other people and of society. I had been thinking in very black-and-white ways, ignoring the possibility that if parts of me objected to a plan to make more or less money, then maybe I could dialogue between those parts to find an answer (a la Internal Family Systems) rather than suppressing one side forcing myself into one direction or another.

So, as I completed my last day at this fulltime job the other week, I considered this next period of my life an experiment to answer the question of ‘how can I earn money honestly?’. I have, in my life, earned money by:

  • Planning and launching programs to engage developers and users for a new blockchain platform
  • Managing teams of software engineers to build speculative crypto projects
  • Helping launch a (somewhat scammy) crypto ICO
  • Painting childrens’ faces at tiny parties where hiring the facepainter was 100% of the budget
  • Sitting at a facepainting stall at soulless corporate events where no one cared that the facepainting budget was wasted
  • Painting performers for decadent and often superfluous parties
  • Presenting my own independent circus shows
  • Selling people phones and phone plans
  • Making and selling sandwiches and salads
  • Processing grocery orders at the checkout of a giant supermarket
  • Standing in the cold at 6am holding a sign advertising a drive-thru coffee stall on a major highway
  • Earning and then selling Ethereum at the right time
  • Being a reality TV contestant
  • Running an ecommerce store selling reusable straws online
  • Earning gains on assets, particularly shares and cash in a bank account

This work has paid in many different ways. Some has been full-time work commanding six-figure salaries and demanding all (or most) of my meaningful attention. Some of it has been niche work contracted at over $100 an hour, giving me ample time to live the rest of my life. Some of it has been work on my own businesses that, if I were to actually calculate an hourly rate, would end up valued at something like $2.50 an hour. Some has been standard entry-level minimum-wage work that I got by walking into a store and asking for a job. Some, like facepainting, I have done for years. Some, like selling straws, I did for only a few months before stopping. None of my previous jobs are things I got by submitting an application online. Some of it, like making gains on Ethereum, is hard to consider ‘work’ at all, and really what happened is that I just got lucky and was in the right place at the right time.

I have also done many, many kinds of work that were unpaid, either because there was no one willing to pay for them, because I wasn’t good enough to get paid yet, or because I enjoyed them so much I wanted to do them for free.

Sometimes while doing paid work, I felt overpaid, and felt guilty and like I owed my employer more and more of my attention, which trapped me in cycles of getting depressed about low productivity and then guilt about the depression. Sometimes, I felt underpaid, and felt resentful and trapped and daydreamed about doing something else. Sometimes, particularly when pursuing my own projects, I felt pretty aligned with the way I earned money (although often still guilty that other people had to pay for something). Most of the time, I felt like I was literally enslaving my attention and energy to someone else’s (generally misguided or greedy) goals. This actually became worse as I got jobs that were more strategic and less mundane, because in order to do them well I had to use important parts of my attention, creative thinking, and executive function, while ignoring or excluding from my attention the fact that I disagreed with the direction the project was aiming at or the methods used to get there.

I started, over time, to see earning money as a necessary evil, even for myself, someone with lots of skills and connections, living in a world-class city full to the brim with people willing to pay you or fund you or buy things from you. Seeing people throw money around like water in Silicon Valley made me both very uncomfortable and kind of greedy; I wanted to stand to the side with a bucket and lap some of it up with minimal risk. And I started to dislike these attitudes in myself; why did money turn me into such a glutton and a miser?

In this next, experimental period, I have a couple of aims:

Firstly, to earn money honestly – knowing, at a gut level, that I feel good with what I did, how working affected the rest of my life, what people received, how costly it was for them, and how much or how little money I received in the trade. We have so many subconscious neuroses, both individual and collective (me included) about making and spending money, and they are embedded in our negotiations, in the way we sell, in the way we decide what work to do, and this percolates through -everything-, and yet we never look clearly at it.

Secondly, to find ‘sustainability’, whatever that looks like. This means some way of approaching work and money so that a) my life feels as worth living as it can, with not too much and not too little of it given over to work, paid or otherwise and b) feeling relaxation and integrity about how much money I make and spend, how much I save, and how predictable all of that is – the plan is not to be or stay a starving artist. I have a strong commitment to a principle of minimising self-violence, and this process of learning how to work well is in large part in service to that.

Finally, to learn and start a conversation about relationships with money that gets into the nitty-gritty and the darker parts and taboos. I want to know how my friends make money, how it influences their work and living decisions, and how they feel about it. I want to survey lots of people to learn about their relationships with money, and I want to dive deep in intimate conversations with my friends and collaborators that start to make real plans for the future and understand how money fits into that. When I buy things from people or hire them, I want to learn how pricing, the process of negotiation, and our respective budgets influence how they feel about the work and the relationship, and how I feel.

Over the next little while (I don’t know how long a period, but at least a couple of months) I plan to write about this process of discovering my relationship to money, untangling it, learning where the limitations are, and hopefully learning more about the bigger economic systems I participate in and like to analyse in the process. I plan to experiment with different types of paid work, ways of earning money and amounts of income.

I invite you to start discussions either on Twitter or in the blog comments about your own relationship to money, how money works in your communities, and what money-related questions you are the most curious about.

Art as the Starting Point

Pretend you’re an Effective Altruist. Go put on some goggles and imagine what it would be like to evaluate every major life decision you make based on a utility calculation that assumes all beings are roughly equal in their importance to you. I’ll wait.

Are you still allowed to paint, or sing? How can you justify that when you, and maybe a handful of others, are the only ones who will ever see pleasure from it? At the very most, you could justify them as strategies for keeping yourself sane long enough to throw yourself back into optimising the distribution of malaria nets to people in developing countries or something. They aren’t allowed to be real, meaningful activities in their own right, of course.

‘All morality is aesthetics.’

Insufferable, yes, but this quote has something real to say.

How do you set goals? I don’t mean, how do you define the ones you think you already have, but how do you choose which ones to have or to consider at all? Do you, on New Year’s Day, get out a fresh white sheet of paper and empty onto it all of the things that feel important to you in that moment? Where does that feeling of importance come from? Who will notice if you achieve them?

What feeling would you get if you became the kind of person who either could achieve all those goals effortlessly, or for whom the act of even setting them at all became obsolete?

This has happened to me a few times in some ways. If I look back at old goal documents, things like ‘stop eating sugar’ and ‘wake up at 7am’ and ‘train 3x per week’ keep appearing over and over again. Like I had a little vial of willpower and I could squirt some onto each of these goals to water them and see them grow. For years I oscillated in how I ate sugar – ricocheting from eating quite a lot of sugar and feeling guilty about it, and eating no sugar at all, not even a tiny bit, and feeling sanctimonious about it. But that only ever lasted a month or two, then it would gradually fall back into the valley of guilt and make me feel guilty again.

Many things you want can be easy to get, but it requires going up a layer of abstraction and seeing what is holding the pendulum pattern in place. Like finding the one place you need to brace your straw bridge so that it won’t fall down, 90% of intelligent goal setting (of the ‘live a happy and healthy human life’ variety) involves working out what gets in the way of you ‘succeeding’ all the time by default, and then removing that specific part of the equation. Motivational acupuncture, rather than physiotherapy or weightlifting.

The funny thing about getting a handle on your relationship with sugar is that I actually eat sugar now. I ate a bunch of cupcakes yesterday when my housemate brought them home from work, because that was the thing that my whole body and soul felt was right in the moment. My diet right now doesn’t seem to make me gain weight and it mostly doesn’t make me lethargic.

It seems like the thing I wanted before, when I wanted to stop eating sugar, was actually relief from guilt. Turns out there are ways of getting that other than becoming a teetotaller and cutting a huge swathe of modern food out of your diet. Relaxed into a more sensible relationship with sugar and its after effects, I can actually pay way more attention to what is happening in my body before, during and after eating it, and all that information feeds back in to whatever loop in my brain triggers the desire or lack of desire to eat sugar. I can feel this loop working as intended – when I’m anxious and my body can’t deal with complex healthy foods with bitter flavours, eating something sweeter is actually a great option, and I endorse it wholeheartedly.

Nowadays, what I aim at is wholeheartedness – in the sense of having the whole of my heart pointing in roughly the same direction. So many of us are split and fragmented by our many allegiances and we never quite realise how fully this fucks over our ability to take any action at all. Being (or becoming) sane requires a constant and rapid re-knitting of new and upcoming parts of ourselves into something always approaching but never exactly becoming a coherent whole. And this brings me back to art.

For a long time art was the most splintered-off part of me. I had been an artist for a long time, but I couldn’t really understand why, and I felt kind of empty about it – about the idea of making art. I put off considering the question of why I did it at all, why I had spent so much of my life on it already for a few years by picking entirely different media – I started to write essays and poems, I learned to play instruments I never had before, and I studiously avoided picking up a paintbrush. I analysed the usefulness of painting with an idealistic lens, but every time I tried, I left with the feeling that the way I was approaching things was ridiculous.

Then, I connected deeply with someone who identified as an artist – who loved and valued art for its own sake as the core of their being. It triggered a wake up call to the fact that art -did- mean something important to me that I was ignoring and that part of me was cold and dying and maybe didn’t have to be any more.

At the same time I was struggling to find meaning in the work I was doing. Practical, slightly bullshit white collar work – the kind that only exists because some men somewhere have way more money than anyone else and want to pay you to work on their rocketship, like a giant distributed mechanical horse race between silver-spooned peers.

How could I know what work would feel meaningful to me? And how would I know how well the internal feeling of meaningfulness translated into actually meaningful work, or change, or ‘impact’ (to use the haughtily overused term)?

In a bookstore in the Haight, I picked up a book on a whim called ‘Art & Fear – Observations on the Perils (and Rewards) of Artmaking’. The authors took as a given – as an obvious and not-even-worth-questioning assumption – that you would direct your time and attention towards expressing what was most important and true for you, that that would likely happen through making art, and that this was at least -a- way of orienting a deeply meaningful life. This sounds obvious on the outside, but from nestled deep within the optimisatron techno-scale cult of the Bay Area, where people use spiritual practices as a way of improving their productivity to get better at their jobs, this orientation was one that in my life has been undervalued and sorely lacking.

And then, I kept reading, but everywhere I saw the word ‘art’, I replaced it in my mind with the word ‘work’.

Why was I so dissatisfied with my (paid, professional) work? Because it was misaligned with my values and sense of what needed to be put into the world. Why did I get disillusioned with my circus show? Many reasons, but the biggest, starkest one is that it felt like I wasn’t saying anything I wanted to say – it felt empty and meaningless.

This wasn’t about utility or ‘impact’. It was about me, and my sense of self, and how that tied in to what I wanted to make in the world.

There’s an underlying assumption in a lot of conversation about meaning and purpose in Western society that implies something like the highest good is service, or being selfless, and working for the good of other people. But this seems a little dysfunctional when you pull it out and stare at it like that, because if everyone did it, we would all kind of be standing around waiting for someone else to tell us what they wanted, but no one would, because they would all be selfless too. This stance negates how brutally interconnected we are naturally, without doing anything about it. A lover helping their lover or a mother serving her child are all in a pretty meaningful way being selfish – because they would personally feel the pain of not doing so.

Another book I’ve been reading (maybe one should pair books to read at the same time, the same way one pairs meals with wine) is called ‘The Guru Papers: Masks of Authoritarian Power’. One of the authors’ main arguments is that the authoritarianism of religious leaders is dangerous when they demand someone place higher trust outside of themselves than inside of them. Self-trust becomes replaced by ‘trust in X’ where X is a guru or deity or belief structure (like science). They argue that any sort of social structure that convinces people en masse that they are not fundamentally worthy of their own trust becomes easy pickings for corruption and abuse by those in power.

They also argue that such structures are embedded deeply into many broader aspects of our society than just explicit high-demand cults and fundamentalist religions, and that ’embedding in society’ takes the form of powerful beliefs in the minds of individuals who participate in that society.

It’s not too far of a jump (and it’s a jump the authors of the Guru Papers make) to see the tyranny of ‘selflessness as the highest good’ as a continuation of this embedded societal authoritarianism. This structure says ‘you do not care enough about others to trust your own desires in order to behave in a caring way towards them; you must submit to a demanding set of rules that defines how important different people should be to you and let that override what you personally know and feel’. I started to wonder would happen if we didn’t treat this structure as the automatic highest good anymore.

So how does this relate to art?

In Art & Fear, the authors frame the act of artistic creation as aligning with the deepest needs and desires of your self and who you are as a person, and then turning those desires into something manifested in the world. Humans have a lot of need and desire for beauty, and for connection, so it isn’t surprising that when we listen to this part of us that we want to make beautiful or loving things, and experience beauty and love.

But we also have needs we like to acknowledge less, and the one that I was ashamed to look at but that is probably a big driver of a lot of my so-called ‘altruism’ is power. This makes simple sense if we think about it from the perspective of an individual. If we trust ourselves and our view of the world, we think our worldview is basically good and we want to see it flourish. In order for our visions to flourish we need to have the ability to turn them into reality.

Beyond some baseline of safety, power allows us to demand that the world adhere to our idiosyncratic visions of how things should be. The fact that we want this is neither good or bad, although it invariably creates conflict (which in and of itself can be good or bad). But by wanting to create powerful things, or have power by creating things, we expand the scope of what artistic creation is much further than only explicit pieces of art. One could see a highly realised artist simply as someone who has a deep connection to their internal vision of the world, deep trust in that vision being good (that is borne out of experience and effort), and the power and fluency to transmit that vision into the external world via whatever media necessary.

At this point, the difference between an artist, or an entrepreneur, or an activist is kind of moot. They’re all really doing the same thing.

One of the more beautiful and simple points the authors of Art & Fear make about this relationship to vision/internal self is that most of the time what happens is that the vision gets corrupted by the process of making the envisioned thing. This is a failure of both the act of envisioning and the act of enacting or creating. The shortfall between the vision and reality is the thing that causes deep pain to the artist (or activist/entrepreneur), and was something I used to believe was deeply wrong, but in Art & Fear they understand it as literally just the price of admission of truly being alive. The act of envisioning always can and should outpace the ability you have to create – anything less is probably a failure of vision. Similarly, envisioning without creating at all is stunted, a form of intellectual masturbation that only acknowledges the optimistic, naive part of the process and ignores the part that takes the vision from empty to meaningful.

So how does one set goals then?

If altruism is mostly authoritarian selflessness plus a normal need for power plus a normal need for love and beauty, then acknowledging the deeply selfish origins of altruism is necessary and, to be honest, actually fine – and pursuing altruist projects is a fundamentally creative act. From this perspective, a totalising value-framework like EA or the modern cult of productivity is a hack that is likely both suppressing our innate, worthwhile desires and offering us security via some kind of ‘right answers’, that might be useful as training wheels, but not when we are courageous and trying to express the best and deepest parts of ourselves.

This gives us some pretty good guides to get a sense of when we might be going off the rails, AND gives us a way of balancing wildly divergent kinds of work and kinds of projects against each other. Potential guiding questions:

  • Is this the thing I most deeply, deeply want? Are there other ways of getting what I want that would be richer, more meaningful, or more straightforward?
  • If doing this thing were suddenly taboo or seen as immoral by others or ‘society’ would I still want to do it? How much of my desire to do ‘good things’ is driven by controlling forces outside of myself?
  • Am I actually implementing my visions? Am I actually making work? Or am I using envisioning better things as a pacifier to soothe myself from the pain of how life is right now?
  • Is the form of the work I’m doing the truest way to create what I want? Is this a painting but it should be a song? A company but it should be a manifesto?

Each of these are the kinds of questions you could ask yourself regularly for the rest of your life. They are guiding question, opening questions, not stopping questions. They open up directions and deepen certainly rather than coming to a ‘right answer’ that stops the asking from continuing.

As I wrestle with how I relate to things as diverse as singing a song, analysing an economic system and taking a job at a company, this is the kind of ship I consider myself steering now. Of course, you still need to do what you need to to survive (whatever that means to you) but if, like me, you’re one of the lucky ones, you don’t have to orient all of your attention focusing on that. You can look at what you pay attention to and what you make and be curious about what it is you’re really trying to express, and then become the person whose vision you would be excited to bring into the world, in whatever medium you choose.

(Incidentally, this wonderful essay by Joe Edelman tackles the same kind of idea but from a different frame, looking at it from the lens of values rather than self-expression.)

Rebuilding the operating system from the ground up

Our aim is to make sure life on this planet, and the human civilisation currently embedded in it, becomes self-sustaining and flourishing. Right now it is self-terminating, with increasing risks of catastrophe and extinction from the combination of powerful technologies and weak wisdom on how to wield them. Right now it is hegemonic, with simplifying and all-powerful cultural and technological structures preventing many humans and animals from living a full, fulfilling life.

This requires rewriting the human social code at every level, starting from the level each of us has the most power over – the individual.

Humans are highly social animals, so our next focus is small groups of 5 to 150 people, which, when wisely organised and cared for, give individuals the love, courage and motivation to make big and terrifying changes, and can accomplish many powerful things on their own. Families, work teams, classrooms, clubs, and parishes fit into this category.

The next level has two main components – countries and industries. One is the representation of power in a given physical location, and the way in which a group of citizens carry out their broader social contract. It is here that we can create collective cultural training (in schools), complex infrastructure networks for living (cities), healing (hospitals), discovery (science) and fighting (the military). The other component is industries or markets, groups that we participate in both through selling our labour and buying all sorts of goods. These two types of groups (which vary in size from around 1 million to 1 billion people) are the ways our society has created most of the experiences we associate with modernity – air travel, contract law and supermarkets, but also tax returns, divorce settlements, and spam emails.

The most all-encompassing level some call the world-system. This is the group that includes all humans, all markets, countries and groups, and the animals, plants, infrastructure and other matter that make up one giant ecosystem. It’s hard to even visualise something this big, but we can start by thinking about the relationships between the biggest other things – nations, industries and companies. At this level, many changes behave more like waves in an ocean than a group of people doing something or a bureaucratic organisation executing tasks. The flows of money in global finance, the flows of people in immigration, the in and out of different substances into the atmosphere and water, the weather systems that create storms, heatwaves and floods, the international treaties that countries abide by that let them cooperate on fighting cybercrime or sex trafficking – these are all phenomena that only really make sense to talk about on a global scale.

On this global scale we are facing increasing risks to humanity’s survival, almost all of which we have created on the country/industry scale and the global scale by creating sets of rules that reward doing too much of one thing and not enough of another. Too much weapons development, not enough collective disarmament. Too much pollution; not enough prudence and creative ways to use fewer resources. Too much competition, not enough care and protection of humanity as a whole.

There are new ways of acting, new sets of rules that we as one interconnected civilisation can put into place in order to take away the worst of these risks and improve our collective abilities to protect humanity from new risks that don’t even exist yet. But the current ways of doing things are powerful, and many peoples’ livelihoods have been built around defending those rulesets or profiting from them.

This doesn’t mean that it’s impossible to change them, just that in order to change them we must build communities, livelihoods and reward systems that can help people get the things they value from changing these systems for the better in order to outcompete the old ones. We need a big group of people, but probably smaller than we think. A group of 100,000 people, well-organised in many smaller groups, energised and focused, can probably tip the levers of enough of the systems at the lower levels to have a shot at tipping the levers in the big, world-system-level ones.

Tipping these levers is complex, because it involves two things:

– Changing the way things are done right now, in this context, well enough to avert or adapt to major catastrophes.
– Changing the way things change, so that as new problems come up, and people try to game the new systems, the system and the people who influence it are able to course correct and make the right changes to the right rulesets so that the system doesn’t veer off onto a dangerous course again.

This is a wickedly difficult quest, but in my opinion it’s the only thing worth seriously dedicating yourself to if you have the luck and privilege to be able to choose your course in life.

I mentioned the different levels earlier because we cannot fight to change the world system directly. Right now we are merely individuals, and it is too big and powerful for us to make any real difference. What we must do is take Gandhi’s timeless quote – ‘Be the change you wish to see in the world’ and expand it out, starting with ourselves.

We must turn ourselves into people capable of adapting; capable of healing rapidly, of building strong, loving connections with others, of changing our minds even when to do so strikes at the core of who we think we are. We must learn to train our attention, to decide what is meaningful, to do things that are hard and require courage. We must care for our physical bodies, root out and heal dysfunctional behaviours and thought patterns, and carve out space in our lives if they are too full to breathe, in order to make even more space, and to do meaningful work. We must build up financial savings so that we are no longer dependent on working in jobs that were created to serve the people and groups winning by the existing rules and defending them; we must build up friendships and loving relationships so we are resilient enough to endure terrible things and recover after loss and trauma. In the process of all this change we can learn the skill of change itself; we are born as self-changing organisms but some parts of us have forgotten that.

We must make ourselves whole again, and we must do this with others, and in doing so, rebuild the next layer of change.

Rebuilding the small group layer means re-prioritising local experiences over solitary, or global, or anonymous ones. For some this will mean seeking out your tribe; those you can truly, deeply show your soul to. Maybe this means moving cities or countries. For some this means reawakening sleeping relationships and pouring intention, vulnerability and love into them to bring them alive again. For some this means standing up in a group and simply announcing your intention to build deep, long-lasting commitments to one another, and asking people to join you. The configuration will look different for each of us, but the important thing is that we don’t just build up a series of individual friendships, but create and strengthen groups that all rely on one another and that celebrate, mourn, practice and pray together. In some cases this will revitalising existing traditions and in others it will involve prototyping new ones that better suit the real people who want to be a part of them. We need to practice building connections, protecting a community’s boundaries, values and its weakest members, and creating and performing rituals that turn a group into a single unit. The original purpose of the first part of a Catholic mass was to turn a congregation of individuals into the body of Christ; one unified body; and we need to re-learn practices and traditions for doing this. We also need to get good at accomplishing things in these groups, but with the thoughtfulness, wide viewpoint and care that is so often missing from our modern work communities. This means re-viewing the structures of our small communities keeping in mind how human relationships differ in groups of 3-7, 8-30, and 30-150, as well as experimenting with different styles of group decision-making that can adapt to new contexts and viewpoints, and that express the values the group wants to have.

Building groups of people who value making human civilisation self-sustaining is the perfect (and perhaps only) way to make inroads into rebuilding the systems at the next level up – the country/industry/market level. Many runaway problems and structural fragilities that appear at this level are actually maintained and reinforced at the world system level, but some can be adequately addressed one country or industry at a time, particularly when one or two of these groups are responsible for an entire given problem, or are early adopters that other countries or industries might follow. At this level building a powerful enough group within a country or industry to influence the way it changes is a difficult but not insurmountable problem. Part of the challenge at this level is that many of us currently depend on the very systems we would seek to dismantle or transform, and we are rarely able to act against our own interests like that without the buffer of resources and social support, and the small group culture of self-awareness that allows us to catch our self-serving patterns (both as individuals and as small groups) when they arise. Transforming a country to become self-adapting requires building connections in government, creating policy, shaping public opinion through media, and building simulations and prototypes to try out and persuade those who exist in positions of power. It may also involve being strategic about which countries are even possible to influence in this way. Changing industries involves similar strategies but also directing public pressure, starting influential companies, and developing social and machine technologies that make it easier for industries to make changes of their own accord.

In case it isn’t obvious by now, part of my strategy in setting this plan out is in the hopes that we will be able to seed groups that diversify; it is not only a nice idea for us to have some communities working on policymaking and some working on starting companies; it is completely necessary if we are to act with the speed necessary to outpace major disasters like algorithmically-induced social collapse and runaway climate change. Human civilisation, as a ship, has a certain inbuilt turning speed right now for correcting course; what we are doing is building much smaller scout boats and tugboats that can understand where we are better and pull the big hulking megalith onto a better course much faster than it could on its own. Because of this, speed, timing, strength, some distance from the dominant cultural stories we grew up in and a certain amount of risk-taking are necessary to do anything useful at all.

It is hard to see how we might upgrade the world-system from where we are standing as individuals right now. Once we have had some experience changing countries and industries and have created collective intelligence tools that help us know how and what to change, we might have a better idea of how to do it. There are some parts of the world system we can access already, like the algorithms and moods of social media, the cultural narratives of Hollywood and the global stock market. We can certainly do disaster preparation without much influence, and when done on a large enough scale that is an important component of an adaptive world-system. Creating global paradigm shifts is probably possible by changing the minds of many key individuals and communities, but there is still much to understand about how this works and what we might need to change about it.

As the people we are right now, with our stubborn beliefs and our fears and dependencies, we need to be wary of any speculative potshots lest we simply change course, but to another wrong direction. We don’t want to crash the operating system. But if we thoroughly become the people, communities, nations, industries and markets that can self-transform and are no longer driven by dangerously simple metrics, then we might have a chance of not only getting the leverage to make change but even knowing what to do once we get there.

Emotional waste collection: The care and feeding of relationship intimacy

I was asked recently on Twitter how to prevent the build-up of emotional blockages or waste in a relationship. I don’t do this perfectly, but in my primary relationship I do it consistently and man, has it allowed us to weather some heavy storms. A tutorial, as best I can.

First, an analogy:

Have you ever had myofascial release massage? The basic premise is that points of tension or soreness in your musculature are interconnected and have node points – places in your body where the tension or pain holds itself together and impacts parts of your body that seem unrelated. The massage therapist will search your body for trigger points, and then, upon finding one, press long and hard, but not to the point of overwhelming pain. Your job is to allow the muscles to relax under the pressure, and be present to the (often painful) sensations as they arise. Often addressing a single trigger point can unlock pain and tension in many disparate areas of the body.

And so it is with relationship tension. In any relationship, we build trust and belonging by asking for and expressing affection, attention and care. In relationship psychology they call the micro-expressions of these ‘bids’ and they happen dozens of times an hour when you’re with someone you care about. It’s worth reading John and Julie Gottman’s descriptions of bids within a relationship in the book ‘What Makes Love Last?’, to get a feel for what this looks like in your own life. Often you aren’t aware that you’re making them, seeing your partner make them, or accepting or rejecting your partner’s bids. Persistent problems that lead to incredible relationship tension often start with problems with bids, big or small.

What is a bid?

I sit on the bed next to my partner. I’m checking Slack for work, and he’s on Facebook, alternately messaging friends and clearing his email inbox (he multitasks way more contentedly than I do). He knows, based on experience and conversations we’ve had, that I prefer to work in focused chunks, interspersed with completely disconnected breaks. Nevertheless, he reaches out and rubs my leg soothingly, just to tell me he’s there. Depending on how focused my work is, I might move his hand (reject), ignore it (which can be a kind of rejection), or do something small like look down at his hand, rub his hand with mine, or look up at him, smile and make eye contact. Any of these last things is accepting the bid, and having enough bids accepted as opposed to rejected is important for feeling safe in a relationship. Rejecting any individual bid isn’t bad, particularly if you both learn over time what kinds of bids are wanted at what times. It’s when bids are persistently mismatched, you don’t realise your bids are being rejected, or you are afraid to make bids that problems build up.

Each of us, growing up had certain kinds of bids accepted and certain kinds rejected. We built up a set of expectations of what we could expect in love. In many cases, we learned that we need to accept never having whole classes of bids accepted, or that in order to get love we need to ignore bids and rejections and just take what we want from the other person. Often you will find yourself building a relationship with someone whose patterns of bids and responses matches that of your parents or some formative person like your first love. You may find yourself in an insecurely attached relationship, in which case you will tend to find that emotional gunk (patterns of misaligned bids) builds up very quickly over time and tends to form the same way every time. One of you always wanting more, one always giving less.

How you relate to having your bids accepted and rejected is important too. Based on your history of loving relationships, you could find that you are hyper-vigilant to being rejected or smothered. If someone accepts too many of your bids you might get scared or bored or annoyed and want them to stop giving you what you want so often. If someone rejects even a few bids you might immediately assume they hate you and are planning to leave. Go check out attachment theory.

But emotional build-up doesn’t always have to happen because of deep-rooted patterns (although they always contribute somehow). It can sometimes happen simply because of mismatched attention, or confusion, or hard things happening in non-relationship life. What do I even mean by emotional build up? This essay gives a good description of what a lot of emotional buildup can look like, but it can look quite subtle as well.

You get bored with your partner. You don’t want to spend time with them. You have fears and anxieties about them that you are too scared to share with them. One (or both) of you don’t want sex, or the sex feels lifeless and mundane. Yes, we ‘get used’ to our partners after spending years with them, but these things can be signs that you are upset in some way and are worried about it. Particularly ominous are the Gottmans’ Four Horsemen:

* Criticism
* Contempt
* Defensiveness
* Stonewalling

If you notice any of these in your relationship (either from you, or your partner) – THIS IS A BIG DEAL. Relationships are like gardens; they benefit from frequent, careful weeding, and regularly sowing new things. Any of the above four means you have a huge weed infestation and you need to deal with it NOW.

So, what does an ’emotional composting’ session look like?

First, the setting. It is important that both of you have the intention to care for the relationship at the time, and that you don’t feel distracted by other priorities or rushed to finish. Some people schedule ‘quality time’ for this reason, but I find that building a collaborative orientation towards growth and stewarding the relationship works too, and lets you do this as things come up. Either strategy might work for you. It’s important that both of you feel safe (at least from anything outside the relationship).

It is useful to sync up and share what you have experienced lately and what you are feeling right now at the start, so you both know what the other is dealing with (in hippy-speak: this is ‘checking-in’). Check that your body language and their seems open and warm – turned towards the other, sharing frequent eye contact, relaxed posture. If you don’t, check in with your body and find out what is going on. If they don’t, then gently ask them if there is something in the way of them feeling relaxed. You may not both get to completely relaxed but it’s good to try this first.

You or they may have something that has been bothering you, in which case, you can bring up the thing that is at the top of your mind. If you can’t work out what might be wrong for you, but you don’t feel relaxed, open and loving, check in with your body and see if you can work out what you are experiencing. Practicing Focusing is good for learning how to do this. You may need to take turns, or you can devote the entirety of a session to one person, but the aim is for both of you to feel good and connected by the end – don’t race to simply get all your own venting out at their expense. This is not a time for your partner (or you) to become a punching bag.

So, you’ve chosen a problem. Next you need to tell them about the problem. You may find it helpful to practice Non-Violent Communication, or some other formal paradigm for expressing yourself without hurting others. In my experience, many intellectual people have a hard time connecting to their emotions, so asking your partner to help you continually come back to your emotional experience and not get stuck in your head can be good. Remember, the aim is not to use your reason to solve these problems. Your aim is to show how you hurt, have this person you love see that and accept that hurt, and, if there is broken trust, start to work out how to trust each other again. This is often way more physical than we expect it to be. Whether you are touching, making eye contact, facing towards each other, mirroring each others’ emotions; all of these things make a big difference in how much you feel ‘seen’.

Some problems may not be about the relationship. If your mother is dying, this will still stress your relationship and make it harder to give and accept bids and it has nothing to do with how your partner behaves. In this case, part of what you might need to hear is acceptance for maybe not behaving perfectly, empathy for your pain, and love even while you aren’t able to be perfectly loving all the time.

Sometimes, however, the problem is between the two of you, and here it can take some practice. ‘Having arguments’ is a skill, which is fundamentally the art of resolving your disparate views of the world and forgiving each other for the hurt you may have incurred on the way to that resolution. Many opinions never get resolved, and that’s fine; it just means you will continually need to weed this part of the garden.

If you are the listener, and you can see that your partner is showing you something vulnerable, remember to hold that gently. It is a gift for them to show you something so raw and intimate, even if it hurts to hear because what is raw is anger or pain that you have caused. If the problem is big or overwhelming, you may find yourself (or they might find themselves) slipping out of sovereignty – unable to thoughtfully navigate your actions and experience to make sure you aren’t lashing out and acting from an intention to wound. If this is the case, your relationship may benefit from agreements about taking time out – so you can move away, experience emotions you may not yet feel safe to show them, or control emotions that are overwhelming you. Depending on your respective emotional skill, you may need to use these kinds of tools incessantly, and that is totally ok.

You may come across the opposite problem, which is a lack of emotion about things that should be highly emotional, and in this case there are skills you can practice (check out The Body Keeps the Score and again, Focusing) but in this case intimate partners can actually be wonderful, for noticing and showing you lovingly the moment when you tend to shut down in these conversations.

Your collective stamina, and your collective backlog, will determine how much of this work you can do at any one time and over any time period. If either of you needs to stop, you should stop, and if either of you needs to add something to the backlog, you add it to the backlog.

Yes, you may have noticed that these lists get long. Over time, you can get to a point where both of you have the stamina and willingness that you can process issues as they come up, but it’s ok too to not be there yet. The important thing is to keep coming back to it.

Some practical notes: Don’t try and do this over a nice dinner out. Ideally, no one else should be around, or at least no one you feel uncomfortable bearing your soul to. If you don’t feel comfortable taking your clothes off it may not be private enough for this kind of conversation

Lastly, what might come of this? Often, in a period of extensive, thoughtful, patient sharing, listening and responding, one or both of you will experience a breakthrough. You may realise a reason something felt so painful, or feel the urge to forgive them, or feel the urge to change some behaviour you previously didn’t care about. Feel is the operative word here – breakthroughs of this kind are fundamentally emotional things. I have ended many a session like this holding my partner in my arms with both of us crying. Sometimes, actionable things will come out of it (changing a plan that was thoughtlessly scheduled, sending a message to organise something forgotten), but sometimes just knowing that your partner didn’t intend to hurt you and still loves you makes the hurt dissolve. The dissolution may be smaller and less explosive, but the distinctive shift you are looking for is from a feeling of separateness to a feeling of unity – you should feel closer to them at the end than the beginning.

It is a very good sign if you both want to make love (not fuck) immediately afterwards.

What is this for?

Put simply, a committed relationship is a connection of love, trust and intimacy between two or more people. Between our emotional patterns from childhood, our other priorities, and stressors in our lives, there are many ways in which we can inadvertently hurt our partners that inevitably build up over time. Deeply connected conversations that involve seeing your partners’ pain, accepting it, and giving and receiving forgiveness are the ‘gutter-cleaning’ of our emotional lives. The better you and your partner can get at them, the easier it will be to avoid a pileup of emotional issues that stop you from feeling connected to each other. When avoided or done wrong we end up with piles of hurt and resentment that we are unwilling to share, and we start hating or feeling indifferent to our partner; like trigger point massage, patient, loving attention can start to break up tensions and heal hurts that may have separated you two and help the relationship weather myriad crises.

Spoiler alert: this is great for any relationship, as long as all parties want it!

Leaving our bodies behind

‘Oh, yeah, I used to run a circus.’

Generally, introductory smalltalk conversations with me take an abrupt turn at this point.

My life looks much less weird on the outside than it used to, but the past still creeps in and weirds the place up sometimes (this and the bodypainter thing are a big part of that). This bit about my previous life as a circus director is normally followed by jokes about running away from the circus, and I normally gloss over the running away part by jumping into how I got into working in tech (which seems like a weird leap to most people). But the part I’m glossing over (the running away from the circus part) is a several-months long saga that has partially built who I am today. There were practical considerations, to do with relationships within the company, and money, and family obligations, but the real, hulking reason I shut the circus down was a blaring existential crisis.

(I had one of those a year, every year, like clockwork, for a while. Highly recommend it.)

At the time I was running a fairly successful, if esoteric, independent touring circus show. Directing, writing, performing, and running the production company with my business partner. At the same time, I had found Effective Altruism(TM) and finished a degree in economics and was chomping at the bit to Have An Impact On the World. These two endeavours (Having An Impact and running a circus) seemed pretty fucking incompatible. This paradox is what led me to a miserable mid-tour breakdown where I basically just ate, slept, and performed, and was a psychological zombie to everyone (except the Swedish magician I picked up at the artists’ bar and proceeded to have a weeklong fling with).

Hearing ‘Oh, it must be so wonderful to be able to follow your passion!’ from strangers at the artists’ bar felt excruciating.

Creating a live production is very much a physical endeavour. You make things with your hands; people move their bodies; you put physical bodies in a specific physical space in realtime. And in this respect it is both very alive and very limited. You can only fit so many people in a theatre before they can’t see the stage, or their experience of the show is so crappy they may as well have watched it on a smartphone.

And you are only impacting them so much. I interned with a famous circus director in Brisbane once, and on a rare chance I had to have a 1-on-1 conversation with him over lunch, I asked what was, for me, my burning question at the time:

‘Do you ever stop loving circus? And what do you do when that happens?’

(Me hoping he would spout sage platitudes about the inherent meaningfulness of physical art.)

‘Well, you have to be realistic. You are gonna pour your heart and soul into a show for months, and the acrobats will sweat blood over it. And then the audience will come in and be entertained for two hours, and then leave. You just don’t affect their lives that much. You have to really love the craft, otherwise there is no point.’

(At this point I should have done the sensible thing and not subsequently started a career as a circus director, but I apparently took four years to get that memo.)

I remember bodypainting acrobats for four hours every night, having them destroy the bodypaint as part of the show, and then showing up the next evening to paint the same thing again. Like the archetypal Soviet worker stacking and unstacking boxes for no reason other than employment, I felt the nihilism seeping in through my pores. I not only didn’t love the craft, I was in a borderline abusive relationship with the craft and it kept trying to convince me to stay. What even was the point?

Months of depression, several breakthroughs and a move to a new city and a new industry later, I found the point.

Surprising no one, meaningfulness has predictable characteristics. Something will be more meaningful to you, all else being equal, if it has more impact – affects more people, more strongly, for a longer period of time. All of the limits I found with circus (artistic form, time limit, scale of the production versus effort) evaporated when I started writing and making software. Meaning, but scalable! My sense of meaning and purpose did go up, and predictably so.

Working on improving the way humans collaborate has always felt more meaningful than working out how to entertain an audience with essentially a live performance Avatar-knock-off. Every part of my soul feels more aligned in the direction I am heading now.

Except one. And it’s a pretty important one.

My body has been left behind.

All of the activities I consider the most meaningful, impactful, and contributing require sitting or standing looking at a 15 inch glowing screen and typing on a keyboard. I’m not even that good at typing, and my posture is terribly un-ergonomic, but leaving those factors aside, there’s just not much demanded of my body when working on a computer. Other meaningful activities include emotional and spiritual practices (which use my body slightly), sex (which uses my body quite a bit), and things like networking and public speaking (which use it, but demand barely anything at all). Engaging in meaning-making or meaningful activities feels like it pushes my soul and mind to their limits, and leaves my body agitated like a dog kept inside on a rainy day. And as hard as I try, I can’t incorporate it into my conception of meaningful action without playing some funky mental jiujitsu and making myself believe something that feels useless and untrue.

This has manifested itself most strongly when thinking about the idea of ‘exercise’. Exercise is the systematisation of movement into a predictable input for specific abstract end goals. The actual movements aren’t meaningful; their specificity just doesn’t matter that much. Unless you’re particularly oriented around competing in zero-sum competitions of physical aesthetics, you generally just need to find something to do to keep your body healthy.

Yes, I should get some ‘exercise’. But what? I cycle most places, which is some exercise, but in the city it challenges my traffic navigation and self-preservation abilities more than my muscles. It’s the bare minimum. I picked up jiu-jitsu and boxing for a year in the hope that learning to defend myself would feel meaningful, but if I were to honestly assess physical self-defense in a hierarchy of meaningness it would not rate highly at all. I tried rockclimbing (for socialising with all the friends who enjoy it), hiking (for communing with nature), and aerial silks (for doing something I’m good at, and creating beauty). Entering competitions of arbitrary physical prowess is fun, but no one competition is intrinsically more meaningful than any other, really. And none of these would realistically rate in power or importance against activities like coding, writing, organising events or meditating in terms of meaningfulness bang for their buck.

I believe this is a symptom of a wider societal meaning-body dilemma. As our social imaginaries get expanded, and we concern ourselves as individuals with nation states, cultures, markets, and giant forces that we believe we can have some influence over during the course of our lives, on the human level we contract away from the embodied intelligence of engaging directly with our environment, and into a much more limited-bandwidth sphere dominated by the thinking mind. And the body is left out.

I have been in a long-distance relationship with my partner ever since I moved away from my hometown, and after a recent trip home one of the things we noticed was how low resolution modern communication methods are. Even in video calling, the highest resolution mechanism available, we still miss out on the temperature of their bodies, feeling subtle movements like shakes and a sharp intake of breath. You can’t communicate using relative stance, or full body posture, or use your sense of smell. Bodies aren’t well-served in this information economy – they’re used mostly as vehicles for brains.

It seems like with every type of abstraction, there is this trade-off of resolution for abstraction, and in modern abstractions, at least in this moment in history, the body is losing out. If your sense of meaning is connected with society- or humanity- level abstractions, unless you have a very niche profession like a performer or an online physical coach, you cannot challenge your body in the process of meaning-making in the same way you can challenge your mind or your soul. In the same way that womens’ work has been less valued in part because it is less scalable, manual labour of all kinds is devalued because of its limited reach.

And this leads to the absurd commodification of physical challenge, to things like Tough Mudders, as you pay a company a lot of money to make you suffer and create a body-level hero’s journey for you. Apart from perhaps the military or performing arts, no other modern or post-modern institution creates this for you. Why climb a mountain? No one else cares if you do, so you develop absurd tautological reasons like ‘to inspire others’ and ‘to push myself’. It may be practicing the values and character traits that allow you to succeed in ‘real life’, but it isn’t real life, it’s just a simulacrum.

I wish I had a better answer to this dilemma. I’m unwilling to give up the scaleability of the way I make meaning. So prosthetic physical meaningfulness (like the made-up meaning of Tough Mudders) seems like the next best solution right now.

Still, it feels hollow.

Acceptance as a superpower

I suspect that when people get older, they become creatures of habit, and my Dad is no different. Since moving to a town near the ocean he has developed a daily morning habit. Every morning, he puts on his towelette poncho and sandals and trundles down to the ocean baths in front of his house. He gets in, swims a few laps, says hello to the same three other guys who swim at exactly the same time he does ever day, gets out, walks home, and has breakfast with his wife.

When I’m staying with him I try to join him, more as an exercise in sensation tolerance than anything. Because at 6:30 in the morning, the Pacific Ocean is fucking cold.

There are a few ways you could approach getting into the water. The first is to jump in, shiver, and refuse to pay attention to the sensation until it becomes reasonable enough to handle (or you realise you’re never going to be able to feel your feet). This is my Dad’s preferred option, and more power to him; he certainly gets in the water faster, and he’s generally swum a few laps before I’ve even been able to dock my head under.

But my approach is different. I use entering the water each morning as an opportunity to practice my approach to extreme discomfort. And because of this, I don’t want to be shut off from sensation. I want to dial it up as much as possible.

When I enter the water I do so very slowly, and I bring my attention to my feet as I wade down the steps. My instinct is to tense up and push the feeling away; to distract myself. The game is to relax into that feeling; the feeling of extreme discomfort. As I take each step I get another opportunity to face the icy pain of the cold water, the muscle twitches, and the ripples of the felt-sense of suffering.

Practicing not flinching away turns acceptance into a superpower.

In western cultures, so many of our social problems come from an unwillingness to touch our emotional responses directly. We have been conditioned (and have conditioned ourselves) to hide emotional responses away for fear of them having an impact on others. The stereotype of this, the avoidant-attached type, infests social environments in the Bay Area and so many other cities. Everyone buzzes around flinching away from their own emotions and everyone else’s.

And yet, having an impact on others is precisely what emotions are for. So why don’t we trust them enough to let them speak?

A friend asked me what my favourite tools were for addressing conflict, and I realised that by far my most powerful strategies had to do with the same kind of acceptance of discomfort I had been developing in the ocean baths at 6:30am. Mediating conflict requires first seeing it.

And being able to fully feel your emotions requires not running away from them.

Over the last few years I’ve been developing the following personal growth heuristic – Do what scares me. And not in the cutesy ‘go pet a spider’ way, but finding growth areas by systematically inventorying my fears, and then devising and enabling situations in which I can run headlong into them.

I would find the people who annoyed me, and deliberately spend time with them. They were likely a reflection of my shadow self, as what I despised in others was truly a reflection of what I hated about myself. I sought out situations where I had to adopt the kind of mundane normality I was afraid of – working in an office, researching health insurance, having people rely on me.

But this heuristic turned into a powerful compass direction when turned towards my emotional reactions. First while journalling, then while doing a somatic meditation practice, then in arguments with people I trusted, then finally in all high-stakes situations. I would tune into the experience of fear and investigate the feelings hidden behind it even more, much to the chagrin of the part of me that was doing the deflecting.

Everyone has their own menagerie of emotional defense mechanisms. Some of mine: bragging or demonstrating my knowledge of something, making the other person seem unreasonable, shutting down and becoming small and quiet, and occasionally, falling asleep.

Learning what these were, what it looked like when my personality was trying to protect itself from pain or attack, gave me a cheat sheet for finding the things I was afraid of. Suddenly become sleepy in the middle of a tense conversation? Whatever you were talking about just before the sleepiness – time to poke at that!

It has become a game to notice the defensive shells the moment they arise, and before they harden, in an attempt to tunnel underneath them into the squishy bits.

Recently I spent nine months without seeing my partner. When I finally returned to his city, I felt cold, and distant, and wanting him to go away all the time. There’s one way of looking at this that would see this as a sign that the relationship was over. I saw this as a sign that something was wrong, but that I didn’t yet know what it was.

For the first two weeks I was with him again, I did nothing except commit to being open to what I was experiencing, and refuse to let myself do something I didn’t want to because I thought it would make things less awkward. No papering over feelings with politeness, white lies, or people-pleasing – doing what he wanted at the expense of what I wanted. But also, no running away, ‘cutting people out of my life’ that don’t serve me, or trying to figure everything out alone.

And man, were things awkward.

I looked at his face and it seemed old and grey. Everything he did irritated me. I didn’t like the way he smelled. All of this was new and weird, and instead of moving away or ignoring the feelings, I simply experienced them again and again and accepted them the same way I accepted the pain of the cold water in the ocean baths. And, as I explained what I was choosing to do and why, something happened that I’m eternally grateful for – he did too.

And slowly, the feelings started to tumble out. The anger, that he hadn’t come to see me when he promised to visit. Even though my logical brain knew he was being reasonable; even though at the time I had agreed to the plan because I knew how important it was that he stay home for his work. The resentment that we had let some many niggling problems build up and yet on Skype papered them over with smalltalk. Many of the feelings I felt were things I felt I wasn’t ‘allowed’ to feel – and yet the person forbidding them; suppressing them, was myself.

As each previously closed-off emotion tumbled out, and as I accepted it like icy shooting pains in cold water, I found my perceptions literally change in front of me. The most striking change happened in such a short time it blew my mind. Over the course of less than half an hour, I released months of pent up resentment about the abandoned trip, and he accepted it, adding his own sorrow and fear. And in a few minutes I watched my physical senses change.

Smells suddenly became sweet. His mouth, which had seemed crooked and jagged, suddenly seemed warm and inviting and I wanted to kiss him for the first time. His face seemed a decade younger, and much healthier than it had just minutes before.

In each moment, I had a set of choices. If I felt an emotional defense arise, I could let it overtake me, I could rebel against it, or I could renew my desire for connection and openness and trust that the shell would fall away. And when I felt an emotion I was scared of, I could let the fear carry me away to somewhere safer, or I could, with his safe and open support, open it up and unravel the knots of sensation inside. It felt a lot like I imagine an exorcism might. Many times I felt myself grow silent, only to feel into it deeper and discover a new layer of pain.

Eventually, after weeks, it all shook out, and I was left with openness, presence, and love. So much love and gratitude for the soul who had come with me, scared as he was at the time.

This process changed him irrevocably too, and a handful of defense mechanisms that were previously fundamental to his identity became permanently loosened and dropped away. It didn’t create a personality change overnight, but it was abrupt enough that others noticed, and from that seed of defenselessness he uncovered with me, he was able to let his new, unadorned self grow.

Over the space of a few weeks we dropped into a relationship that was so much deeper than it had ever been previously, backed by deeply entwined layers of mutual trust. And we’ve stayed there, even through more time apart and some hardcore external challenges. We know, at a gut instinct level, that we have the capacity to heal even very deep rifts – because each chance to practice gives us further evidence it’s possible.

Having been recently through this destructive metamorphosis, I now have a keen eye for the flinching defenses of others. I see where one person’s shell butts up against another person’s, and it pains me to watch conflicts unfold that are created entirely by the combatants’ respective mechatronic selves. When you are able to be truly present with your emotions, your feelings and lived experience in the moment with someone, and they are able to be present to theirs with you, you cannot be in stupid conflict with them. Even yelling at them in anger is done with extreme compassion.

This takes more than just acceptance and the courage to run towards fears; it also takes trust, and ideally trust that is earned. It’s misguided to try and build this kind of connection with everyone. It is definitely worth building with yourself. It is probably worth seeking out people who you trust enough to build it with. But it is possible, it is glorious, and it is oh so worth trying to build.

Even just once.