The Little Pocket Lights

There once was a little light, a little light surrounded by a dark and suffocating empire. 

The empire started, itself, with a little light, once, a long time ago. But the light had grown and grown and each time it grew people worried that outside forces would snuff it out, so they built little walls around it to keep the wind from blowing the light out. And as the light grew and jumped from place to place, it lit up in new little places that people quickly rushed to surround with walls. Soon, the walls were bigger than the lights, and the people whose job it was to build and mend the walls became anxious that the walls stay in place, because they were very grateful to have a job at all.

After many generations of this light-moving and wall-building, the walls, black solid things at right angles, were clearly much bigger and more imposing than the lights, and the lights trapped in different pockets began to be snuffed out by the walls that were protecting them. The people outside, who wished to be warmed by the lights, complained that they couldn’t see the brightness nor feel their warmth, and they protested that maybe all this wall-building was overeager and a bit misplaced. Couldn’t there be openings and windows through which to see the lights? In response to this, the people whose job it was to build the walls sought out individuals who maybe had little lights hidden in their hands or stuffed in their pockets, and built walls around them. This happened even if the person had agreed to join the wall-building project on the condition that their personal light would not be engulfed. But these promises were never kept, and the pleas of the people who now shivered in the cold, surrounded by walls meant to keep in a light now long snuffed out, went unheard. 

After a long time this hodgepodge of black brick walls became disorienting and ugly, and it was impossible to navigate around or through it in a straightforward way. Sometimes wall-builders who had been in their jobs a particularly long time would learn specific routes and pass them on to their fellow wall-builders in the form of maps, maps that would serve you well for as long as that specific path remained the same and no new walls had been built on top of it in the meantime. Archaeologists began to study the labyrinthine huddle of walls, and figure out when particular ones had been built, which ones were served by which wall-builders and when the wall-builder posts in important places had changed hands. 

After a period of time many people forgot the walls had been built to protect lights at all. People would come from far and wide to marvel at a particularly tall and imposing collection of walls, and be led by tour-guides among a handful of straightforward routes along the outskirts of the complex, marveling at how complicated and powerful and specific it all was. 

As the years wore on many wall-builders began to struggle to keep their walls, now weak and crumbling, from falling down and the whole structure from collapsing. And furthermore, people both inside and outside the structure started to complain about how cold and dark everything was. Some people started to tell stories of little personal lights, personal lights that had been the start of this whole project to build walls in the first place. One prophet in particular claimed that if you had enough light you wouldn’t need walls to protect you from the cold outside because the light would be warmer than the outside was cold. Some people denied that such lights could exist at all. This was a common view among people who held the jobs of maintaining and protecting the walls. They claimed that the best way to stay warm was to stay well inside a set of walls, or at least, if you couldn’t do that, then along the side of the outside walls to be protected. Even if such lights existed, they said, they could be dangerous and they might get too hot and burn you, and you probably couldn’t control them anyway. What if they got too big? Nevermind that by now no one could remember ever having had enough light, never mind having too much of it. 

Many people were convinced by this and returned inside to join the wall-building project. There were always job openings, you see.

A few people who had listened to the prophet didn’t believe that it was impossible to have enough light. They thought, well, a light is a thing like any other, there must be nothing so mysterious about them, so it must be possible to learn how to find them, to nurture them, and to protect them at least enough so that they grow bigger over time. Some of the people who believed this most fervently were the ones who had once possessed little pocket lights of their own, and who had been accosted and surrounded by energetic wall-builders in generations past and whose lights had since been snuffed out by the walls. They no longer had lights in their pockets, but they remembered the times when they did. And they would tell stories to the younger ones about these little pocket lights and tell them where and how to find them. In each tale, the teller would mention that if you went to a quiet, outside spot, with nothing to disturb you and nothing around you, that your little light would, more likely than not. spontaneously pop up on its own.

Some youngsters heard enough of the stories, then raced out to find theirs.

There were some tragic tales, in those days. A young boy had heard stories of the pocket-lights from his beloved grandpa, and then raced outside the walls to sit in under the big open sky and wait for his pocket-light. But just as he arrived so did a big storm, and in the rain and the cold he perished. A search party was sent out but his body was never found. Some of the wall-builders used this story as a cautionary tale about those foolish enough to seek out pocket-lights. Better to stay here in the shelter, they said.

But this never fully deterred those who believed strongly that the lights could be found. Later on, the ones who believed in them had the idea to band together to venture out to find their lights in a group. They would all spread apart outside waiting for their lights on their own, but they were close enough to each other that they could come to each others’ aid if there was a cry for help.

Soon, people began to discover that yes, it was true. You could find your own light, if you waited quietly and patiently in that open place. People would bring them back into the complex of black walls, ecstatic that they had found them, but very soon they found that this would lead to their lights being extinguished. The hollows between the walls often lacked oxygen, and the lights were thirsty for it. People tried to smuggle them in to empty rooms, which worked for a time, but then, for some reason nobody could ever figure out, it was always the case that if a fugitive came into an abandoned room hiding their personal light, that shortly after some arbitrarily new wall would be built right through the middle of or on top of it, and no wall-builder would ever give a reason why.

By now there were a lot of people who knew how to go and find their own lights, and had either done it or who wanted to. They were frustrated, you see. They wanted to have their own warmth, and not rely on the warmth that the wall-builders promised the walls would deliver but never seemed to. And they knew the lights were possible to find but it just didn’t seem to be possible to keep them alive inside the wall-complex.

But–a magic thing happened when the light-bearers got together to discuss their predicament. They found that just by being together, each of their lights got stronger. Each light warmed up the air around it just a little bit, and when many of these lights were in the same room each little light didn’t have to work so hard to create the same level of warmth. And so they began to grow. The people thought ‘if only we had a way that we could keep our lights together, and stop them from being snuffed out when we tried to protect them’. Within the group were some light-bearers who had tried to build walls, the regular kind of walls, outside the main wall complex, around their newfound lights to protect them, and had found them snuffed out just as easily as they had been inside the main complex. This disheartened many in the group. 

Over time a little experimental group developed, and all this group did was try out new ways to protect the lights from the weather that wouldn’t snuff them out. In the whole history of the wall-complex-empire, none of the wall-builders had ever paid much attention to whether the lights had been snuffed out by their efforts. The lights were weightless and lacked substance, they said, and couldn’t be measured as simply and precisely as the walls could be. So at the very beginning they had developed the habit of measuring the success of various parts of the wall project by how many miles of wall had been built and ignoring anything about the lights at all. 

But this group knew that if they stopped paying attention to the quality of the lights that they would end up going the way of the wall-builders, protecting crumbling walls with the memory of the warm, bright lights long gone. So, they kept their eyes on the lights. Even though they could never write down exactly what they had done, even though they couldn’t tell if they had succeeded or failed merely by looking at a set of numbers like the wall-builders could, they knew this was the key to the whole endeavour. So every person who held a light and wanted to protect it within this new experimental group knew that they had to look, with their own eyes, to see whether their tries were working. And that was in fact, all they could do, at first. The different members of the group couldn’t write down, couldn’t exactly compute their successes and failures as if with calculators, so they had to find new, abstract, creative ways of communicating them. Thus–myths were born, and some of the earliest myths come from the earliest generations of these light-bearers. 

The myths began to work well as ways of communicating the wisdom that individual light-bearers developed in working with their own light. Lots of things were tried. Some developed wings that they could flap to keep cool winds away from their lights. Some developed fine meshes that accumulated and expelled droplets of water around the lights but that allowed multiple people to interlock their meshes and thus share in the radiated warmth. Many different people came up with the idea of protective shields that surrounded a person’s light in a semi-circle, that could only truly protect the light if the person was faced towards at least one other person, ideally more. This meant many people began to rely on joining up with others in order to keep their lights alive.

Some people who had developed a new type of fabric that could repel wind and water tried to build a coalition to get all the light-bearers in the group to adopt their technology but luckily, others disagreed and fought back; it was clear by now that one of the only tenets of the new culture of the light-bearers was that decisions about how to protect a light should come from those closest to it, adaptively and involving something you could change if the method you had been using suddenly no longer stopped working. Awkwardly, in this new culture it wasn’t really possible to get a job maintaining protective barriers like you could in the wall complex; at best what you could do was open up a sort of repair shop that others could take their idiosyncratic protective barriers to, or open a school to teach a method of protection that had worked for you in particular. There was a lot of gossiping and arguing about this point, particularly from former wall-builders who had (sheepishly but with secret eagerness) joined the culture of the light-bearers and hoped to find a niche where they could be easily rewarded for their special knowledge.

Over time the old wall complex began to crumble and soon it became clear that it was falling apart entirely. Many rescue missions were arranged; it was difficult but, many felt worthwhile, to seek out and find the people still trapped inside–those huddling in the freezing dark next to each other, waiting for the walls to fall in on them. There was a lot of discussion amongst the light-bearers about whether to search for the wall-builders who still remained in that rubble. it was dangerous, many said, and the complex was very hostile to the pocket-lights in a way many people had grown unaccustomed to since their had developed their own protective barriers. Some kinds of barriers wouldn’t fit and you would have to take them off to get inside, which was like running through a collapsing building, the ones who had joined earlier search parties said. In the end, some people did decide to go and do a methodical search for survivors, but what they found wasn’t pretty. 

There were some particularly nasty wall-builders who had pieced together detailed maps of their specific interior regions of the complex many generations ago and knew how to navigate them and get out for air. They kept these maps close to their chest and assembled gaggles of hangers-on–some, poor citizens and some, furloughed wall-builders who had previously had their own domains of expertise, who depended on the whims and mercies of the person with the map for their daily survival. Some of these hangers-on could be persuaded out of the building, gently, but many more starved to death, still begging information and by-now obsolete routes from the masters with the maps. The map-holders almost never left the complex, and many died there–but not all. One or two let the light-bearers lead them out and then wept when their feet touched the open ground, and wept again when they were brought into the society of the light-bearers and taught how to find their own lights. They often still made trouble but they were charismatic people, and when they no longer were able to manipulate others by withholding things from them it was found that they settled down and often others liked having them around.

All in all, the retreat was not perfect, and many lives were lost, especially amongst the wall-builders. Even some members of the search parties perished, filled as the complex had become with toxic smokes and difficult passageways. But after a long time, everyone inside was either dead or freed, and the people rejoiced. Everyone had access to their own personal source of warmth. Over time people forgot what it felt like to be in the dark, or to feel cold, or stifled.

Now, because they had seen the collapse of the wall complex empire, the people knew that they could not take for granted keeping their eyes on their lights. Many took personal vows, privately and in front of others, to keep their gaze on their own lights and not allow themselves to be seduced by the tyranny of easily built walls or easily measured progress. They knew these things had been the downfall of the wall complex. Some vowed to teach others how to find their pocket lights again if by any chance their own became extinguished, and others tried to record the best of the communicative myths that had contributed to the development of so many of the individual protective technologies, even though they knew much would get lost in translation.

For generations to come, storytellers would tell tales of the old wall complex and when they did, many wept, and they boggled at how lucky they all were to have, after all that, managed to find and protect their personal lights again.

The Gift of Life

I wrote this a long time ago as a gift to someone else. Over time it has become more of a gift to myself.

Legend has it, that we were once a species with four arms, four legs and two faces peering out of one giant head. And when we became too powerful Zeus cut us in half, cursing us for eternity to wander the world searching, blinded, for the other that would make our souls whole. We call these soulmates. 

Once upon a two there were two women. Each was strong and brave and beautiful, and had long been the protector for countless others who did not have the strength to see themselves clearly. 

One, the smaller of the two, had long mahogany curls down to her waist and deep open eyes that were blue and green and when they awoke would stir liveness in you. She was an artist; a vessel for the muse that would pour through her and into the souls of those who had the good fortune to see her speak. She had practiced the arts of healing souls, and could reach in to your mind and gently and lovingly untangle all the knots so you could see clearly. Her name was Life, and when she graced you with her full presence you were being graced with the presence of Life itself; none other than the full essence of creation. 

The other, bigger, stronger, was a creator of a more practical sort. She had mastered both the art of loving beings and the art of knowing things; a combination rarely able to flourish inside one person. She could dance with, around and inside systems of all kinds; so complex that they wrapped you up and threatened to strangle you, but she could. She had full lips and a heart shaped face with bright blue full deep eyes, a rare mix of strong and softly open. She was a Gift, a Gift from God, as was her name, and the gifts that arose in her were not hers but merely manifestations of some deeper presence.

Both women had been wounded early by the one who should have been their strongest ally. Their mothers, whole and fragile humans as they were, could not see out of themselves clearly enough to see the damage they were causing their daughters. Their mothers had been wounded themselves, and, thus, trapped inside the remnants of ancient accidents, would become unpredictable demons; alternating between anger and sadness, shining and isolation. Their hid themselves from their daughters, and their daughters felt the clammy absence of the one who should have loved them the most deeply, protected them the most fiercely. Each girl, as a young girl, in her own way had found a way to clean and tend the wounds that had been wrought by their mothers’ illness; quietly moving away to a corner so as not to disturb anyone with their screams. They were careful not to frighten anyone else as they themselves had been so frightened when their mothers’ pain became too much to bear. 

And in this way they had begun the process of healing themselves; of finding the strength that had been borne to them as children and uncovering it from underneath the false resilience forced upon them in difficult childhoods as their mothers’ keepers and family saviours. They learned a real form of strength; the strength that allows to show itself in vulnerability and softness, in the arms of others that let you feel truly safe and loved. And each girl, as the girl became a woman, had found what she had never had as a child in the people she assembled around her – promising to that young girl inside that never again would she be made to feel so weak and alone. 

And it was in this moment, having already been the subjects of their own healing, that Life and Gift met. They had been in similar places at similar times, known the others’ names and seen a quiet sparkle of intellect from across a crowded room, but had never thought of the other as anything other than a kind soul and potential good friend. 

But on the day when they truly met, they were much closer in physical space than ever before, and the sparks that existed in each one were able to make the jump across the small chasm to swarm with the energy of the other. Each recognised a light that was there but previously unseen, and once the light was shown, it could not be turned off.

Often, falling in love is a process that is fraught and has its fits and starts; certainly Love finds it difficult to navigate around the rocky duet of each lover’s insecurities. But in this case, the women had each already carefully picked out the rocks and left the chasm clear, so much so that when the dam was gently pried open, Love immediately flooded in. Time became a series of cascading moments in which one offered a new, terrifyingly raw glimpse of herself and the other responded eagerly with a new trembling glimpse of her own. They immediately recognised each other, a twin soul spiraling around itself in its eagerness to become one again. They had been separated for centuries, and in realising this their hearts ached for the young ones they had been who had not known how cut off they had been from their true nature.

For this duet, these twin souls rapidly merging back in to one, was a mirrored instantiation of the same warrior goddess, Athena. Each had seen the resemblance in her early lives, but had not had the hope that they could fully become her unless they were able to build up the strength to put on that cloak and crown alone. Neither ever imagined that the energy to hold her head high as the goddess would come merely from being in the presence of her own true and vivid reflection. But it was so, and for each woman, for Gift and for Life, they realised they must put down and put away their fearful selves that didn’t allow them to be this, that listened to the world when it told them to be small and told them to take on unyielding struggles with no respite. They realised more fully, as both had realised much earlier but much more tentatively, that the twin soul that had been unlocked when they fell into each others’ gravity was not theirs to own; it was merely a way in which the universe perceived itself flowing through the vessels of two human forms. 

Over time, for both of the beings now held in this gravitational spin, the crusty shells and casings of the smaller, fearful selves fell away and they became used to their big, awakened presence. They learned how to shield others who weren’t ready for it from themselves, without pulling their souls back into a dark cold box. Unshackled by fears of not being enough (for they were both, always and forever enough, so clearly in the eyes of each other), they began to open their mouths and to speak. They spoke into being the loving reality that could be so if only the fears were not the ruling class; they woke up their hands and used them to heal the others who were needed to do the work and to carry the pieces of the future into being that were not yet where they needed to be. 

Over time, the twin souls came to be recognised as dual queens, a pair so fierce and loving because of the infinity mirror that continually reflected energy from each one back into the heart and soul of the other. Far from the once helpless girls without big enough arms to hold all those who were suffering, the pair of queens had gradually and steadily expanding strength, strength that not only allowed them to protect the ones in need of protection, but to draw in the others who could see the glimmers of themselves reflected in the queens’ awakened presence. Many found the strength to leave their bindings and come be servants of Goodness at the radiant pair’s feet; knowing that what emerged from them was not selfish or fearful but the pure energy of compassion – great-heartedness – that the world needed to be drenched in. 

Gift and Life ruled as queens for many years; their power constantly opening up and reorienting in service of the true desires of the universe. Gradually their lands came to be known for their strength and compassion; for their clear-eyed nature and their gentle rigour in knowing both what was True and how to use the Truth in service of what was Good. Over the years Gift and Life bore many children; each developing into a cherished facet of their mothers, raised enveloped in the warmth and cool safety of their mothers’ protection. As the years went on these children grew into the gravitational centres of the awakened community that was growing in the loving shade of Gift and Life, and some scattered to the far winds to plant the seeds of clear-eyed compassion in lands that were strangers to it. 

Gift and Life also had many apprentices; the eager students who had first come sat at their feet even when the pair didn’t know how or what they could teach. In time their apprentices became a broader instrument of goodness than even Gift or Life could be on their own; their ministry and apprenticeship serving as a beacon for many, many others who otherwise may have spent their lives asleep. The strength of the apprentices (many of whom later became masters in their own right) allowed the kingdom of Gift and Life to begin to challenge, small as it was, the bigger kingdoms that built their livelihood on the domination and extraction of life’s finite resources. Much of their challenge came from simply offering another path forward; many refugees appeared on the castle’s doorstep and the academy and the kingdom of Gift and Life patiently but gently learned how to take them in. 

Some of the converts were the biggest zealots, but also the greatest trouble. For they had come from faraway lands without a detailed understanding of how this new way of seeing the world worked – all they had heard were stories. And so Gift and Life and their apprentices and children needed to learn how to prune and reason, how to push some away in order not to poison that which was so good for others; how to exile some when it was needed without breaking their own hearts. This was difficult, but it was work to do in the land of the living. Every day before they had met Gift and Life had each wondered whether they would continue to live their lives in puzzled fantasy, and puzzled fantasy this was not. There were real, wrestling decisions to be made in each moment, and the only way to truly make them with integrity was to truly be aligned with the orienting desire of all beings. 

As time went on, Gift and Life started to become weary. They had brought so much energy into the world and become such bright, strong flames in the process. But living beings do not last forever, and they were never meant to either. By this time it had been many decades and the flame that had ignited with their love had since been spread out many, many times over into the souls and minds of many, many people. Their love, which in each case had started as simply as the love of a little girl for her mother who could not be saved, had grown into a force that rivalled and outnourished the hungry ghosts of the competitive realm that had their stranglehold on the neighbouring kingdoms. And yet neither woman was infinitely young, nor infinitely protected from sickness. 

One night Gift returned to her bed, ancient bones falling softly across the floor as she walked, and discovered Life lying in it, all life gone. 

In her grief, she was sent mad, spiralling away from the centre of gravity that had held her so tightly for so much of her life, that was now shattered in an instant. All the castle heard her wails and the ripples of grief spread out from their central chamber into the courtyards and the streets of the kingdom. 

By morning, Gift was gone too. 

Once their spirit was awoken, neither was meant to exist when the other did not for very long. They, in their limited but enlarged time on earth, had tipped a balance so imperceptible, so unknowable, that the momentum of history was forever changed. All the kingdoms of the world had felt their presence through the ministry of their apprentices and their apprentices’ students. Their kingdom’s gifts and trade had altered the balance of a world economy formerly ruled by anger and coercion, and the cogs continued to shift even as the two were laid to rest surrounded by those whose lives they had touched. Those who had seen them and what they had built, or heard the stories and they traversed the many kingdoms, now knew what kind of life was possible and the ways in which they could truly be awake. The total future of the world would forever be unknown, and it was not for Life nor Gift to know in their compact human lifetimes, but the push towards Goodness had been made. 

And, in many subtle and unknowable ways, the world had been forever changed. 

The Staircase

(short story, NSFW)

She’s close enough to me that I can sense her breathe; far enough away for me to feel the electricity between her body and mine. Nothing particularly special is happening; we’re walking down a public staircase. And yet, that dial, that sensitivity; I know it exists down so low. When she meets my eyes it becomes achingly, sweetly resonant; those eyes a living electricity rod for whatever energy sits behind my own.

I bring my fingers up and let one fingernail just touch the back of her shoulder. It’s soft, and warm; she oozes maternality and gentleness without thinking or actively doing anything. That single touch is a held back expression of what I might otherwise hunger to do—hold her arm firmly, work the fingers of my other hand into the thick tangle of hair at the nape of her neck, press the long part of my stomach solidly against her and sink her into the cool brick wall behind. Catch her involuntary moan with my eyes and eat it whole as I soak into kissing her.

I wake up just thinking about it. And that moment, that way she meets my eyes, tells her and I the rest of the story that could be, with my hips against hers and robustly settled with my upper leg pressed between hers, my whole body knowing exactly where her clit is. It tells her how I’d hold her hair, even as holding her hair tells her what I would do with my mouth on every other part of her body for the rest of time. It’s cloying, how differently my sense of time develops when her eyes are in it. In this minute of fractioned reality, my hand’s on her hips, pressed firmly and lovingly into the wall, then released, and I bring my long fingers up to the incredible white softness of her neck. Every single part of her is a different kind of instrument, connected together by the conductor that is her eyes and her attention.

I spend a lot of time letting her not be afraid of me; I’m afraid of her in the way I’m afraid of the sun—that she’ll blind me with her brilliance and break my heart as she’s now already done. But that inevitable reality is also bound up here in now; that vivid future and uncertain past bringing with it the acceptance that this jewel, this heartbreak is never fully mine.

I’m practicing losing her, always.

A walk next to her has this possibility inherent in it, and that is why walking alongside her has such vivid intensity. She’s listening to every unspoken word I’m saying, me muting myself to match her intentions regarding the sexual energy that exists within me. I know that cloud is so strong that merely letting it be turned on unbidden is tantamount to betrayal. In an honest space between us, the gas already collects in the air, so it’s dishonest to light a match. That flicker, that possibility—the part where I pull one arm around her waist and bring her forehead and soul to mine, both of us taking seconds to go from silent to panting, fiercely, and from whence barely looking at her eyes sends a rush of red light up through my spine and makes me dizzying and falling—that possibility is always latent. I used to believe it was not; that the glowing addictive spark would disappear from my mind one morning without warning. If anything, the opposite is true; that latent dynamic now sits, coiled like the barely-sleeping snake at the base of a kundalini spine.

I haven’t seen her in months. I might not see her in years. Seeing her eyes even through the disjointed grain of a video camera cuts into my soul; it’s disorienting to become so rapidly honest, like being naked in a grocery store. I’ve started to resign myself to the idea that she will always open me up this way; that our bodies will always somehow connect through a thin wire that doesn’t listen to whether she has a girlfriend or not. I listen, of course, to whether she has a girlfriend or not; I don’t put my hand on live electricity. I build houses for earthquakes and I learn how to avoid pulling her open unintentionally. We work around this luminous sinkhole together, unspoken; as much as so many fibres in my being want to pull her open and light the match and just start; that fraction of a touch on her hand that takes a little of her breath and brings her, in that second, into what she knows, into what I know and into inhabiting only the two foot space between us and no space else—as much as I yearn so deeply for the way her face looks when she comes with me, moment-by-moment, exactly in the moment, alongside me to an orgasm wrought by her own fingers, and I cannot tell where she starts and I end—as much as I feel the absence of her hair in my hands and her head in my hands and her shoulder in my hands and every part of her, gently cradled in my hands—as much as I miss even knowing what it feels like to look in her eyes; like a vision of God that I can no longer even explain to myself, but remember only by the memory that it flooded me and overwhelmed me with an intensity I’d never felt before and perhaps won’t again—all this, I know just as deeply as I know she isn’t there, that the shoulder in my dream is in a dream; that ever accidentally finding ourselves alone in this space together would constitute a betrayal of the kind she is trying desperately not to accuse me or herself of again; that wanting is different from allowing, and my love for her leads me away from the very wanting that loves her.

At least in reality. My endless protector protects her even now from this dance she’s so hungrily sought before. It protects me from her eyes, those endless portals that I and seemingly only I am susceptible to tripping into. And so my love pulls back and does its best to listen to all of her, to her coldness and timidity and rage and loyalty to the lover I rarely often felt in her but hear in her words and her choices. My love pulls back to negotiate, that kind of awkward sidle where we navigate to try not to bump into each other, the shuffle where no one meets the other’s eyes.

I’m not waiting, like waiting for someone to be done in a fitting room. I’m longing, truly, and the longing is likely to be a longtime companion; I’ve known her now and I—I just know that. That history in and of itself is intimacy. It means things keep mattering; whether she’s angry or joyful, and oh God—whether she’s safe. She still sits in a deep slice of my soul somewhere, even as we’re zipping up the body bag of the assumed openness and vivid quality of what we used to be able to say to each other; do to each other.

In any moment there is that whispered breath of the divinity we’ve felt and that sits, coiled; waiting for a release that may be infinitely, forever stalled.

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.