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Friday, September 8th, 2017
3:50 pm - To save the world, make sure to go beyond academia

There were several interesting talks at the GoCAS workshop on existential risk to humanity. The one that was maybe the most thought-provoking was the last one, by Seth Baum, who discussed the difficulty of translating the results of academic research into something that actually does save the world.

He gave two examples. First, climate change: apparently in the economics literature, there has been an extended debate about the optimal level of a carbon tax; however, in the US, all of this debate and finding exactly the optimal level is kind of irrelevant, given that there is no carbon tax and there is considerable opposition to creating one. So the practical work that needs to be done, has been various organizations that are working to get support for politicians that care about climate change. Also valuable are some seemingly unrelated efforts like work to stop gerrymandering, because it turns out that if you didn’t have gerrymandering, it would be easier to elect politicians who are willing to implement things like a carbon tax.

His other example was nuclear disarmament. Academia has produced various models of nuclear winter and of how that might be an x-risk; however, in practice this isn’t very relevant, because the people who are in charge of nuclear weapons already know that nuclear war would be terribly bad. For them, the possibility of nuclear winter might make things slightly worse, but the possibility of nuclear war is already so bad that such smaller differences are irrelevant. This is a problem, because nuclear disarmament and reducing the size of the nuclear stockpile could help avert nuclear winter, but the decision-makers are thinking that nuclear war is so bad that we must be sure to prevent it, and one of the ways to prevent it is to have a sufficiently large nuclear arsenal to serve as a deterrent.

His suggestion was that the thing that would actually help in disarmament, would be to make various countries – particularly Russia – feel geopolitically more secure. The US basically doesn’t need a nuclear arsenal for anything else than deterring a nuclear strike by another power; for any other purpose, their conventional military is already strong enough to prevent any attacks. But Russia is a different case: they have a smaller military, smaller population, smaller economy, and they border several countries that they don’t have good relations with. For them, maintaining a nuclear arsenal is an actual guarantee for them not getting invaded. Similarly for Pakistan, maybe Israel. The key for actually getting these countries disarm would be to change their conditions so that they would feel safe in doing so.

He emphasized that he wasn’t saying that academic research was useless, just that the academic research should be focused and it should be used in a way that actually helps achieve change. I’ve been thinking about the usefulness of my x-risk/s-risk research for a while, so this was very thought-provoking, though I don’t yet know what actual updates I should do as a result of the talk.

Originally published at Kaj Sotala. You can comment here or there.

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Sunday, September 3rd, 2017
3:27 pm - Debiasing by rationalizing your own motives
 Some time back, I saw somebody express an opinion that I disagreed with. Next, my mind quickly came up with emotional motives the other person might have for holding such an opinion, that would let me safely justify dismissing that opinion.

Now, it’s certainly conceivable that they did have such a reason for holding the opinion. People do often have all kinds of psychological, non-truth-tracking reasons for believing in something. So I don’t know whether this guess was correct or not.

But then I recalled something that has stayed with me: a slide from a presentation that Stuart Armstrong held several years back, that showed the way that we tend to think of our own opinions as being based on evidence, reasoning, etc.. And at the same time, we don’t see any of the evidence that caused other people to form their opinion, so instead we think of the opinions of others as being only based on rationalizations and biases.

Yes, it was conceivable that this person I was disagreeing with, held their opinion because of some bias. But given how quickly I was tempted to dismiss their view, it was even more conceivable that I had some similar emotional bias making me want to hold on to my opinion.

And being able to imagine a plausible bias that could explain another person’s position, is a Fully General Counterargument. You can dismiss any position that way.

So I asked myself: okay, I have invented a plausible bias that would explain the person’s commitment to this view. Can I invent some plausible bias that would explain my own commitment to my view?

I could think of several, right there on the spot. And almost as soon as I could, I felt my dismissive attitude towards the other person’s view dissolve, letting me consider their arguments on their own merits.

So, I’ll have to remember this. New cognitive trigger-action plan: if I notice myself inventing a bias that would explain someone else’s view, spend a moment to invent a bias that would explain *my* opposing view, in order to consider both more objectively.

Originally published at Kaj Sotala. You can comment here or there.

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Thursday, August 24th, 2017
1:47 pm - The muted signal hypothesis of online outrage

Everyone, it sometimes seems, has their own pet theory of why social media and the Internet often seem like so unpleasant and toxic places. Let me add one more.

People want to feel respected, loved, appreciated, etc. When we interact physically, you can easily experience subtle forms of these feelings. For instance, even if you just hang out in the same physical space with a bunch of other people and don’t really interact with them, you often get some positive feelings regardless. Just the fact that other people are comfortable having you around, is a subtle signal that you belong and are accepted.

Similarly, if you’re physically in the same space with someone, there are a lot of subtle nonverbal things that people can do to signal interest and respect. Meeting each other’s gaze, nodding or making small encouraging noises when somebody is talking, generally giving people your attention. This kind of thing tends to happen automatically when we are in each other’s physical presence.

Online, most of these messages are gone: a thousand people might read your message, but if nobody reacts to it, then you don’t get any signal indicating that you were seen. Even getting a hundred likes and a bunch of comments on a status, can feel more abstract and less emotionally salient than just a single person nodding at you and giving you an approving look when you’re talking.

So there’s a combination of two things going on. First, many of the signals that make us feel good “in the physical world” are relatively subtle. Second, online interaction mutes the intensity of signals, so that subtle ones barely even register.

Depending on how sensitive you are, and how good you are generally feeling, you may still feel the positive signals online as well. But if your ability to feel good things is already muted, because of something like depression or just being generally in a bad mood, you may not experience the good things online at all. So if you want to consistently feel anything, you may need to ramp up the intensity of the signals.

Anger and outrage are emotional reactions with a very strong intensity, strong enough that you can actually feel them even in online interactions. They are signals that can consistently get similar-minded people rallied on your side. Anger can also cause people to make sufficiently strongly-worded comments supporting your anger that those comments will register emotionally. A shared sense of outrage isn’t the most pleasant way of getting a sense of belonging, but if you otherwise have none, it’s still better than nothing.

And if it’s the only way of getting that belonging, then the habit of getting enraged will keep reinforcing itself, as it will give all of the haters some of what they’re after: pleasant emotions to fill an emotional void.

So to recap:

When interacting physically, we don’t actually need to do or experience much in order to experience positive feelings. Someone nonverbally acknowledging our presence or indicating that they’re listening to us, already feels good. And we can earn the liking and respect of others, by doing things that are as small as giving them nonverbal signals of liking and respect.

Online, all of that is gone. While things such as “likes” or positive comments serve some of the same function, they often fail to produce much of a reaction. Only sufficiently strong signals can consistently break through and make us feel like others care about us, and outrage is one of the strongest emotional reactions around, so many people will learn to engage in more and more of it.

Originally published at Kaj Sotala. You can comment here or there.

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Tuesday, August 15th, 2017
2:03 pm - The parliamentary model as the correct ethical model

In 2009, Nick Bostrom brought up the possibility of dealing with moral uncertainty with a “parliamentary model” of morality. Suppose that you assign (say) 40% probability to some form particular of utilitarianism being correct, and 20% probability to some other form of utilitarianism being correct, and 20% probability to some form of deontology being true. Then in the parliamentary model, you imagine yourself as having a “parliament” that decides on what to do, with the first utilitarian theory having 40% of the delegates, the other form having 20% of the delegates, and the deontological theory having 20% of the delegates. The various delegates then bargain with each other and vote on different decisions. Bostrom explained:

The idea here is that moral theories get more influence the more probable they are; yet even a relatively weak theory can still get its way on some issues that the theory think are extremely important by sacrificing its influence on other issues that other theories deem more important. For example, suppose you assign 10% probability to total utilitarianism and 90% to moral egoism (just to illustrate the principle). Then the Parliament would mostly take actions that maximize egoistic satisfaction; however it would make some concessions to utilitarianism on issues that utilitarianism thinks is especially important. In this example, the person might donate some portion of their income to existential risks research and otherwise live completely selfishly.

As I noted, the model was proposed for dealing with a situation where you’re not sure of which ethical theory is correct. I view this somewhat differently. I lean towards the theory that the parliamentary model itself is the most correct ethical theory, as the brain seems to contain multiple different valuation systems that get activated in different situations, as well as multiple competing subsystems that feed inputs to these higher-level systems. (E.g. there exist both systems that tend to produce more deontological judgments, and systems that tend to produce more consequentialist judgments.)

Over time, I’ve settled upon something like a parliamentary model for my own decision-making. Different parts of me clearly tend towards different kinds of ethical frameworks, and rather than collapse into constant infighting, the best approach seems to go for a compromise where the most dominant parts get their desires most of the time, but less dominant parts also get their desires on issues that they care particularly strongly about. For example, a few days back I was considering the issue of whether I want to have children; several parts of my mind subscribed to various ethical theories which felt that the idea of having them felt a little iffy. But then a part of my mind piped up that clearly cared very strongly about the issue, and which had a strong position of “YES. KIDS”. Given that the remaining parts of my mind only had ambivalent or weak preferences on the issue, they decided to let the part with the strongest preference to have its way, in order to get its support on other issues.

There was a time when I had a strong utilitarian faction in my mind which did not want to follow a democratic process and tried to force its will on all the other factions. This did not work very well, and I’ve felt much better after it was eventually overthrown.

Originally published at Kaj Sotala. You can comment here or there.

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Thursday, August 3rd, 2017
9:34 pm - Confidence and patience don’t feel like anything in particular

After doing my self-concept work, I’ve been expecting to feel confident in social situations. And observing myself in them or after them, I have been more confident. But I haven’t felt particularly confident.

The thing is, being confident doesn’t feel like much in particular. I was pretty confident in my ability to open my laptop and write this post. I’m also confident in my ability to go to the shower and wash my hair, and I’m confident in my ability to go to the grocery store to buy stuff.

But writing this, or washing my hair, or going to the grocery store, aren’t things that would fill me with any particular “feeling of confidence”. They’re just things that I do, without thinking about them too much.

Similarly, being confident in a social situation doesn’t mean you’d actually have any strong feeling of confidence. It just means you don’t have any feeling of unconfidence.

Which is obvious when I think about it. So why did I expect otherwise?

I think the explanation is, the only times when I have previously paid conscious attention to my confidence, have been in situations where I’ve felt unconfident. And if you lack confidence, you try to psych yourself up. You try to summon some *other* emotion to flood your mind and push the feeling of unconfidence away.

If you are successfully suppressing your lack of confidence with some other emotion, you do “feel confident”. You are feeling whatever the other emotion is, that’s temporarily allowing you to be confident.

But if you don’t have any uncertainties that are actively surfacing, you don’t need to summon any other emotion to temporarily suppress them. Just those uncertainties not being around, is enough by itself. And something that’s just not around, doesn’t feel like anything.

Another similar thing is “patience”. If we feel impatient with someone, we might struggle to “try to be patient”. But if you actually are patient with someone, it usually doesn’t feel like anything in particular. You don’t have a glow of patience as you think about how badly the other person is getting on your nerves but how you withstand it anyway; rather the other person’s behavior just doesn’t bother you very much in the first place.

Edited to add: somebody pointed out that there exists good feeling of “you’ve got this” that one can feel. That’s true, and I agree that this could sensibly be called “confidence”. What I was trying to say was less “there’s no sensation that could reasonably be called confidence” but more “most everyday confidence doesn’t feel like anything in particular”. Paradoxically, even if confidence wouldn’t usually feel like anything, the lack of a feel can make you unconfident if you think that you should feel something to be confident. Somebody else mentioned that they do also have an actual feeling of patience; I’m not sure if I’ve experienced this myself, but the same thing applies.

Originally published at Kaj Sotala. You can comment here or there.

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Wednesday, July 26th, 2017
3:46 pm
http://kajsotala.fi/2017/07/how-i-found-fixed-the-root-problem-behind-my-depression-and-anxiety-after-20-years/

So, I haven't talked about this in public before because I wanted to wait and make sure that the changes would last, but...

I believe that I recently managed to find and fix what was the root problem of all of the depression and anxiety that I've had for the last 20+ years.

Concrete changes that this had led to over the last five weeks include:

* My experience of work has gone from "literally soul-crushing" to moderately enjoyable; my bank account balance looks better than it has done in years, and I'm for the first time confident in my ability to actually hold a job
* The pervasive sense of meaningless and pointlessness is gone
* My sexuality has changed: some paraphilias that used to be at the core of my sexuality have become more of a mild extra spice; many fantasies that were obsessive to the point of bothersome have completely lost their emotional appeal
* I'm feeling increasingly free to think about anything: there's no longer any secret fear of hitting upon a thought that would suddenly make me feel feel guilty or ashamed
* I'm increasingly shifting towards not intrinsically caring about what others think of me, and being fine with people disliking me (though of course I still see the practical value of being liked)

among other things. The link talks about all of this in more detail (my WordPress crossposting plugin hasn't worked for a while for some reason, and the post is too long for me to bother cross-posting it here manually, so you'll just have to read it at the original source).

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Thursday, July 20th, 2017
5:41 pm - Meditation insights: suffering and pleasure are intrinsically bound together
 A principle which I've been gradually been able to observe and internalize, thanks both to meditation and some other mind-hacking practices, is that suffering is never about the pain itself. There are conditions in which people report pain but do not mind it; pain is just an attention signal. Pain does not intrinsically cause suffering: what causes suffering is experiencing the pain, and desiring the relief that would come from the pain ceasing. One does not wish the pain to end, as such; one wishes to feel the pleasure that would come from the pain ending.

This may sound like a pure semantic distinction. It is not: it is a distinction with enormous practical value.

Some time back, Juha lent me his copy of The Mind Illuminated, a book on meditation. This is the best book on meditation that I have ever read. Among other practical instructions, it was the first time that a text really properly explained what the concrete goal of mindfulness practices are.

The goal (or at least a goal) of mindfulness is to train the mental processes responsible for maintaining your peripheral awareness - your background sense of everything that is going on around you, but which is not in the focus of your active attention - to observe not only your physical surroundings, but also the processes going on in your mind. By doing so, the mental processes responsible for habit formation start to get more information about what kinds of thought patterns produce pleasure and which kinds of thought patterns produce suffering. Over time this will start reshaping your mind, as patterns which only produce suffering will get dropped.

And part of the reason why this happens, is that you will start seeing thoughts with false promises of pleasure as what they are; rather than chasing promises of short-term pleasure, you will shift to sustainable thought patterns that produce long-term pleasure.

Suppose that you are meditating, and trying to maintain a focus on your breath. Over time this may start to feel boredom. A pleasant-feeling thought will arise, tempting you to get distracted with its promise of relief from the boredom. But if you do get distracted sufficiently many times, and pay attention to how you feel afterwards, you will notice that this didn't actually make you feel very good. Your concentration is in shambles and chasing random thoughts has just made you feel scatter-brained.

So the next time when that particular distraction arises, it may be slightly less tempting. And you begin to notice that it does feel good when you succeed at maintaining your concentration and ignoring the distractions. You had been suffering because your mind had been offering promises of pleasure which you felt you had to reject, but eventually you begin to internalize it's not a choice of pleasure versus concentration at all. Concentration is only boring, or otherwise unpleasant, if you buy into the illusion of needing to chase the pleasant thought in order to feel good. If the false promise of pleasure stops tempting you, then the suffering of not having that pleasure goes away.

The tempting, pleasant thought is kind of like a marketer who first makes you feel inadequate about something, and then offers to sell you a product that will make you feel better. Your problem was never the lack of product; your problem was the person who made you think you can only feel good once you have his product.

Over time you learn to transfer this to your everyday life, paying attention to tempting thought-patterns that cause you suffering there. You experience different kinds of suffering, and feel that this could be fixed, if only you had X. Maybe you are procrastinating on something, and you get distracted by the idea of playing video games instead. Your mind tells you that if you just played video games, they would feel so good, and that pleasure would take away the pain of procrastination.

But if you do start to play the game, you may eventually notice that the promised pleasure never really manifested. Procrastination didn't make you feel good, it just made you feel more miserable. And it's one thing to know this on an intellectual level, in the way that most of us know intellectually that we're going to regret procrastinating later; it's quite another to actually internalize that belief in such a way that you recognize the temptation itself as harmful, and your mind begins learning to just ignore the temptation, until it never arises in the first place.

And the same principle applies more widely. Social anxiety, frustration over having to participate in an event you wouldn't actually want to participate in, regrets over past mistakes: all are fundamentally about clinging to a thought which promises to offer pleasure, if only you (weren't around these people/could skip the event/could change what had happened in the past). It is when you internalize that thinking about this isn't actually going to deliver the pleasure and is actually causing you suffering, that reframe of the thought makes it easier to just automatically let go of it, with no need to struggle or expend willpower.

Originally published at 
Kaj Sotala. You can comment here or there.

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Sunday, May 28th, 2017
6:22 pm - Books that have had the biggest impact on my life/thought
In roughly chronological order:

1. J.R.R. Tolkien: The Hobbit / The Lord of the Rings
2. Eliezer Yudkowsky: The Less Wrong Sequences
3. Michele Boldrin & David K. Levine: Against Intellectual Monopoly
4. Olivia Fox Cabane: The Charisma Myth
5. Marshall Rosenberg: Non-Violent Communication
6. Eugene Gendlin: Focusing; Connirae Andreas & Tamara Andreas: Core Transformation

Tolkien, because he got me really into fantasy.

The Sequences woke me from a certain super-postmodern thought, where I basically felt that I could believe in anything as long as I came up with a sufficiently clever argument for it. They made me realize that there are actual mathematical laws regarding the kind of evidence I must have witnessed in order to start believing in something, if I wish to have correct beliefs. Also convinced me about AI being the biggest thing in the history of humanity, and got me on the career path that I'm still on.

Against Intellectual Monopoly bolted me from a very strong, principled "all online piracy is wrong" mindset to one where I later ended up as one of the founding members of the Finnish Pirate Party. It was also my first introduction to pro-market thinking and theories, with me having grown up in a climate that was very left economically.

The Charisma Myth got me to realize that one can be charismatic without being extroverted, and that being charismatic doesn't necessarily mean saying interesting things all the time. It made me understand that just being present and paying genuine attention to the other person were things that could already give you considerable charisma, and furthermore these were some skills that I already possessed. It meant the start of my conversations with people going from the constant question of "oh now what do I say next?!?" to actually being present in the moment and not worrying so much.

Non-Violent Communication started me on the path where I can actually usefully work with the underlying needs and beliefs behind my emotional reactions, instead of treating them as atomic reactions that I can do very little about.

I'm bunching Focusing and Core Transformation together, as I think of them as two books that discuss variants of what's fundamentally the same technique. I've found the Core Transformation version of it really powerful during some of the last few months, on the order of taking maybe half an hour to permanently cure psychological issues that had plagued me for decades. That said, I suspect I wouldn't have been able to properly use the technique had I not first read Focusing and practiced with the instructions there.

Honorable mentions:

* David Friedman: The Machinery of Freedom. The book which further shook my very leftist thought, and got me to realize that libertarians also have some pretty damn compelling arguments, and that I'm not really qualified to say who's right. Decided that I'd avoid taking any strong positions on economics from now, given how complicated the whole thing is. (have had varying levels of success with this decision)

* Pema Chödrön: The Wisdom of No Escape: How to love yourself and your world. Only read this book in the beginning of this year, but it has been very powerful in changing my thought and putting me on a path of greater self-compassion and self-acceptance.

* John Yates & Matthew Immergut & Jeremy Graves: The Mind Illuminated: A Complete Meditation Guide Integrating Buddhist Wisdom and Brain Science for Greater Mindfulness. The best book on meditation that I've ever read. This is also something I started reading *very* recently (many thanks, Juha!), but I'm already provisionally ready to nominate it for an honorable mention, because it's meditation instructions have been super-useful. They've helped install an automatic habit of my mind automatically dropping any lines of thought that will only be harmful (e.g. worrying about things that I have no control over); time will show whether that habit will last.

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Saturday, May 6th, 2017
12:11 pm - Cognitive Core Systems explaining intuitions behind belief in souls, free will, and creation myths

A book I’m currently reading, Cognitive Pluralism, cites research suggesting that human infants as well as many non-human animals (particularly primates) are born with four “hard-coded” core reasoning systems:

  • A Core Object System which identifies cohesive and continuous objects (as opposed to say liquids or heaps), enables tracking of such objects, and causes us to expect that objects will follow some specific properties: they will preserve their boundaries, move as a unit, interact with one another only through contact, and be set into motion only when acted on through direct contact. Has some signature limitations, such that we can only attend to about 3-4 objects at the same time.
  • A Core Number System which allows for numerical comparisons, such as by saying that a set with thirty stimuli is larger than a set with ten. Unlike the core object system, the core number system is nonmodal and not limited to contiguous objects; it can compare the number of e.g. sounds or actions.
  • A Core Agency System that causes us to intuitively treat humans, animals, and other things exhibiting signs of agency as being different from objects, liquids, or heaps. Things that are classified as agents are expected to exhibit autonomous, goal-directed behavior; and they will activate social behavior, such as when an infant imitates their actions.
  • A Core Geometric System which represents space and environment according to geometric properties such as distance and angle, while ignoring non-geometric properties such as color and smell. Does things such as constructing perspective-invariant representations of geometric layouts, or predicting how objects will appear when turned around or look at from a different perspective.

Now one particularly intriguing hypothesis which the book mentioned was that the intuitive human belief in souls or consciousness continuing after death, may come from the Agent and Object systems having different classification criteria. In particular, objects are assumed to only move when acted upon, while agents are assumed to exhibit independent, goal-directed motion.

Apparently the psychologist Paul Bloom has proposed that seeing or thinking about a human causes us to perceive there being two entities in the same space: a body (object) and a soul (agent). While the book did not explicitly mention this, this would also explain the origin of many intuitions about free will and mind-body dualism. Under this model, the object system would classify the body as something that only moves when being ordered to by an external force, requiring an agent in the form of a mind/soul being the “unmoved mover” that initiates the movement. One could also speculate on this being the intuition that motivated Aristotle’s unmoved movers in the celestial spheres, to say nothing about all the different creation myths, if we have an inborn intuition for movement requiring an agent to set it going.

Also, as a fun implication: if you were to design an AI to have the same core reasoning systems, then it might also have an intuitive belief in free will, souls, and creators.

Further reading: Cognitive Pluralism cites Spelke & Kinzler (2007), Core Knowledge, in Developmental Science 10:1, as well as Paul Bloom’s 2004 book Descartes’ Baby: How the Science of Child Development Explains What Makes Us Human, which based on its title sounds absolutely fascinating and which I probably want to read soon.

Originally published at Kaj Sotala. You can comment here or there.

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Saturday, April 29th, 2017
4:50 pm - Relationship compatibility as patterns of emotional associations

Much of relationship compatibility comes down to a fuzzy concept that’s variously referred to as “chemistry”, “clicking”, or just feeling good and comfortable in the other’s presence. This is infamously difficult to predict by any other means than actually spending time around the other. OKCupid-style dating sites, with their extensive batteries of questions about values and preferences, are good at predicting a match in values and preferences but almost useless at predicting this kind of compatibility.

What I think is largely going on is that it’s about compatible patterns of emotional association. Each of us has deep in them various patterns of emotional associations that are hard to predict by an outsider because they seem to follow little “sensible” logic: rather they are formed by a combination of a person’s life experiences and their inborn temperament. Somebody fears abandonment and will freak out whenever they hear an expression that their parent used when angry; for another person that very same expression was used as one of affection, and has the opposite meaning. (Or the same expression might be associated with both fighting an affection: there’s a possibly apocryphal tale about a couple who made sure that whenever they’d been fighting so that their children had witnessed it, they’d make sure to call each other “love” and “dear” to let the children know that they still cared about each other. This lasted until the day that their kids came running to them, complaining that “He called me ‘love’!” “She started it, she called me ‘dear’!”…)

These are relatively superficial examples: typically the patterns go deeper and subtler. In retrospect, I’ve noticed that some of the people with whom I’ve had mutual attraction have exhibited sub-clinical signs of something like avoidant personality disorder, and I feel like exhibiting sub-clinical signs of AvPD has also been the case for myself. There have been few obvious signs of this at the time, but whatever those subtle signs were, some intuitive part of each of us picked up on them, thought this person is like me, and felt attracted without the rest of our minds knowing more than I feel good around this person.

Many failed relationships can be explained as a pattern of emotional compatibility that was a match in one situation (such as when you were going out on dates) but a mismatch in another (such as when you tried living together). Sometimes exactly the same traits cause opposite emotional reactions in different situations. Someone who is hard-working and has lots of impressive achievements can feel like a very appealing partner when you’re just getting to know each other, but feel much less desirable when you realize that they will never have much time for you and that their work will always come first.

The discouraging implication – for those of us who are single or otherwise looking – is that even if you manage to hit off on a date, that’s no guarantee of long-term compatibility. The encouraging implication is that we may already happen to be friends with someone who could be our dream partner: we just haven’t realized it yet. The yet-again-discouraging implication is that it’s pretty hard to find out who that hidden dream partner might be, without spending a lot of time in their presence.

“Love” is a word with many meanings, but maybe the deepest form of love is when you come to genuinely care about the other, in the same way as you care about yourself. Not just caring about the other so that they’ll like you in return, but putting intrinsic value on their well-being, the same way you put intrinsic value on your own well-being.

You ultimately get here, I suspect, by having enough smoothly-going interactions to experience increasing synchrony. Situations where your patterns of emotional association are so compatible that each of you intuitively acts in a way that promotes positive feelings in the other. My guess is that you start caring about the other as much as you care about yourself because some part of your mind comes to actually believe, on a level of emotional logic if not fact, that the two of you are the same.

This feeling of two people becoming one may actually be correct in a very concrete sense, as studies of people who co-operate and like each other show that their behavioral patterns, body language and spoken language, and neural patterns tend to become synchronized with each other. I am once again reminded of this quote from Michael “Vassar” Arc:

> In real-time domains, one rapidly assesses the difficulty of a challenge. If the difficulty seems manageable, one simply does, with no holding back, reflecting, doubting, or trying to figure out how one does. Figuring out how something is done implicitly by a neurological process which is integrated with doing. […] People with whom you are interacting […] depend on the fact that you and they are in a flow-state together. In so far as they and you become an integrated process, your actions flow from their agency as well as your own[.]

The opposite of synchrony, when things get really bad, is described as “walking on eggshells” or “being constantly unsure of what the other wants”. It is when the other person’s emotional associations are so out of sync with yours that it feels like anything you say or do may trigger a negative response, or when they really crave from you some behavior that would trigger in them a specific positive response – but you don’t know what that desired behavior would be. Because your patterns of emotional association are dissimilar, you have no idea of what is expected of you, and have no way of intuitively simulating it. “Put yourself in the other’s shoes” does not work because the two of you have different-sized feet: the kinds of shoes that feel comfortably tight to you feel excruciatingly small for your partner, and vice versa.

If a situation gets described as walking on eggshells, it has likely to do with a pattern of mutual incompatibilities that has become self-reinforcing and spiraled out of control. He is expecting a bit of peace and quiet and time for himself; she does not realize this and seeks his company. He tries to make her back away but she doesn’t understand the signals, until he lashes out in frustration. She experiences this seemingly-out-of-nowhere reaction as inexplicable rejection and is shocked to silence for a while, until she can no longer hold it in and bursts out – at which point he is shocked by this seemingly inexplicable hostile reaction that to him came out of nowhere. Afterwards, she feels insecure about their relationship so she pursues mutual closeness more aggressively, while he feels like his independence is at risk so he tries to get more distance. The pattern repeats, getting worse each time.

It does not help that having a negative emotional association triggered is experienced as a threat: it is not actually a matter of life and death, but the way people often react, it might as well be. The ideal thing to do at this point would be for both to draw deep breaths, mutually work to dispel each other’s reactions of panic, and figure out what actually happened and what both meant. The thing that commonly happens instead that both are in too much pain to think clearly and do everything they can to just make it hurt less. This often includes blaming the other and trying to make them admit that they were in the wrong, so that the other would promise to never do anything like that again.

Besides the other obvious problems in using this as a persuasion tactic, there is the fact that even if one partner did manage to force such a promise out of the other, the other still does not know what exactly triggered the reaction in the other. In other words, one person has promised to avoid doing something, but they don’t actually know what it is that they’ve promised not to do. They may know some specific things that they should avoid, but not understanding the emotional logic behind that rule, they are likely to do something else – to them seemingly different – that will trigger the same reaction. And when that happens, their partner will be even more upset at them, because “they broke their promise”.

This is why some people feel that a relationship having explicit rules is a warning sign. Not because having rules would be a bad thing by itself, but because needing to have codified rules means that one of the partners doesn’t understand the other’s emotions well enough to be able to avoid trouble just on an intuitive basis. In the worst case, the number of rules will bloat and get out of hand, as more and more of them will need to be added to cover all the different eventualities.

On a more encouraging note, it’s not actually necessary to solve all the incompatibilities. It’s possible to get away with just accepting that in some situations you will always have incompatible emotional patterns, and then have both partners tacitly avoid getting into such situations. Successful couples don’t actually resolve all of their problems: rather they just get good at dealing with them. In the meanwhile, couples who feel that they should be able to agree on everything end up worse and worse off.

Many if not most people crave a feeling of being understood. They want to feel that their desires and emotions are both understood and also accepted by the people who are important for them. Possibly this desire is so strong in us because of everything above: mutual emotional understanding allows us to have relationships (romantic or otherwise) where things just work, and where each partner can trust the other to understand the emotional logic driving them and can trust the other not to accidentally set off any emotional landmines. It may also be the reason for the thing I mentioned at the beginning of the article, where I’ve experienced mutual attraction with people who share some of my psychological issues: an intuitive part of our minds looks for emotionally similar people.

Originally published at Kaj Sotala. You can comment here or there.

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Monday, April 3rd, 2017
7:17 am - Empowering the growth of others: an underutilized desire for game design?

There’s a human desire which is very emotionally powerful, and which I’m a little surprised to realize that very few video games seem to have tapped into. (That I know of? Please let me know about any counter-examples!)

The desire is for a specific way of helping others and seeing the consequences of that help. It’s when you help someone acquire a new skill or ability, see them absorb that new skill so that it becomes a part of them, and then start using it to do things under their own power, no longer dependent on you.

It’s when you stop giving the proverbial man fishes and teach him to fish instead, and then you come back later to find out that he’s now the head of a local fishing guild that he founded, and is now using the fish that he catches every day to support his family and kids.

It’s when you suggest someone a hobby she might like, and she later lets you know that she gave it a try, loved it, and has now reached an advanced level in it and has contributed several things to the further development of the hobby.

It’s when you teach your kid to draw simple pictures when they are four, support them throughout as they grow older, and then watch them become a famous and accomplished artist whose understanding of art is way more sophisticated than anything you’d ever hope you could reach.

There are lots of games that involve helping others, or managing something; but usually their focus is on making your actions significant, rather than empowering others.

In a typical CRPG, you might rescue someone from kidnappers, kill a swarm of monsters that were terrorizing a village, or retrieve a lost artifact to a scholar who wants to study it. All of these do benefit someone else, but what you’ve essentially done is to temporarily lend your power to them. You haven’t shown them how to rescue others, teach the villagers to defend themselves so that they won’t need the services of wandering adventurers in the future, or taught the scholar your own skills in a way that lets them build on those skills in their work.

In a typical management simulation, the city (or whatever it is that you are managing) does grow more prosperous and people get to live good lives thanks to you, but it’s only because you are doing a good job at being God. None of the city’s inhabitants is going to learn from the way you planned the city and then surpass you in setting up a city of their own.

Though there are elements in both genres that get kind of close. When a CRPG’s ending includes a sequence telling you what happened to the characters and places you influenced afterwards, it’s tapping to this desire. (Probably not coincidentally, the original Fallouts doing this was one of the things that I always found the most memorable and awesome about them.) When a management sim lets you imagine that because you’ve eliminated traffic congestion, the inhabitants of the city get to live less stressful lives and set up better business of their own, it’s kind of tapping into this desire.

Still, these feel more like incidental elements in the genres than they are design goals. You are only told about your long-term impact on the different communities when they game is already over; and for the most part the management sim leaves it up to you to imagine how exactly your actions are influencing the lives of your people on a more personal level.

There have also been some isolated examples of individual games getting close. The Princess Maker series probably draws a lot of its appeal from this impulse: you get to raise a daughter, teach her different skills, and then at the end, see what her life turned out to be like. But again, it’s only at the very end that you get to see what your daughter did once you were no longer around: the whole game before that is controlling her whole schedule yourself, choosing all of your actions for her.

And I heard of some series of educational games where the gimmick is that by solving math challenges, you are actually teaching your pet to be better at math and get to see how it does by itself. But – I suspect, not having actually played the games – that this rather models the bad old idea of a highly teacher pouring down knowledge into the head of a lowly student whose job is just to receive it. Your pet isn’t incorporating your lessons to its own existing knowledge and use it to further its own values; it’s just succeeding at exactly the tasks you taught it to succeed at, and no more.

What could a game look like if it actually had as an explicit design goal to focus on the fulfillment of this desire?

In a CRPG, you could go around the world beating challenges and learning new skills and abilities as usual. But rather than just accumulating skills for yourself, a major part of the game might be to then teach those skills to NPCs, and coming back after some time to see that they’ve done awesome stuff with their new skills. (Maybe that man who needed to be taught to fish was an NPC somewhere, and after you taught him to fish you could come back later and see him having accomplished all the stuff I described earlier.) Maybe some of the skills that you could acquire would have little direct benefit to you personally, but confer powerful benefits to the NPCs you taught them to. Maybe you could even develop an entirely new skill – say, be the first one to discover the principles of magic – and then see the understanding of that spread around the world like a wildfire after you’d set it loose. Mage guilds would start popping out everywhere and give back to you, as the million people who were researching magic could make progress a lot faster than you could alone, and you’d then get access to powerful new abilities that they taught back to you.

Or you could make a management sim where you were running a family business. The success of your business would depend on the skills that your character had, but alone you could only learn a small portion of the available skills. Another part of the game would be getting married and having kids. At first, as in real life, the kids would be a huge sink of time and resources as you’d need to spend a lot of time looking after them, but as you taught them some of your own skills they would eventually learn to develop those skills on their own. You would control their actions less and less, and they would increasingly make their own decisions of what they wanted to do – decisions that were influenced by your earlier interaction with them.

If you had done things well and developed a positive relationship with them, they could eventually join you in running your business and make it develop into entirely new directions with the broader skillset you now had available. Or, if you’d forced them help you when they were younger, they might just grow to resent you and your whole business and run away as soon as they got the chance. Giving the player the option to short-sightedly get some early additional help instead of taking a kinder and wiser route seems like it would also make it feel more rewarding when the player did make the sacrifice of taking the longer route, and then saw it eventually pay off.

Originally published at Kaj Sotala. You can comment here or there.

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Sunday, April 2nd, 2017
4:53 pm - Chapman, Kegan & sosiaalinen ja moraalinen kehitys

Luin vihdoin David Chapmanin tiivistelmän psykologi Robert Keganin sosiaalisen ja moraalisen kehityksen mallista, ja totesin että tämähän on yllättävän kiinnostava kuvaus monista nykypäivän yhteiskunnallisista dynamiikoista. (Ainakin mikäli pitää paikkansa.)

Mallin mukaan ihmisten moraalinen kehitys etenee viiden askeleen läpi. Askeleet 1-2 ovat relevantteja lähinnä vain lapsille, ja valtaosa ihmisistä saavuttaa tason 3 joskus murrosiän aikana.

Kehitystasolla 2 moraali on luonteeltaan itsekästä. Pohjimmiltaan vain omilla tarpeilla on väliä, ja ihmissuhteet ovat kaupankäyntiä jotka ovat “reiluja” jos kumpikin saa niistä yhtä paljon hyötyä.

Kehitystasolla 3 siirrytään hyvin itsekkäästä ajattelutapasta hyvin huomioonottavaan. Moraali on luonteeltaan tunnepohjaista. Oikeita toimintatapoja ovat ne, jotka eivät satuta kenenkään tunteita: moraalisen toiminnan tavoite on ylläpitää yhteisön harmoniaa. Toimiminen tavalla joka satuttaisi toisen tunteita on väärin. Ihmissuhteen ei enää tarvitse antaa molemmille yhtä paljoa hyötyä ollakseen reilu, koska tällä kehitystasolla ymmärretään, etteivät kaikkien tarpeet ole samoja.

Tämän kehitystason ongelma on, ettei se pysty ratkomaan vastuusuhteista syntyviä konflikteja. Jos kaksi ihmistä vaatii minulta vastakkaisia asioita, ja kumpikin satuttaa mielensä jos en anna heille mitä he haluavat, ei kehitystaso 3 osaa antaa tilanteeseen tyydyttävää vastausta. En pysty toimimaan aidosti itsenäisesti, vaan olen pohjimmiltani muiden tarpeiden armoilla.

Kehitystasolle 4 siirtyessä otetaan huomioon yhteiskunnallisista ja sosiaalisista rakenteista syntyvät vastuusuhteet ja muodolliset asemat. Jos olen luvannut seurustelukumppanilleni että lähdemme lomalle kahdestaan, ja äitini pahoittaa mielensä siitä ettei pääse mukaan, olisi kehitystason 3 ratkaisu välttää konfliktia ja päästää hänet mukaan. Kumppaniltani olisi itsekästä protestoida ja olla ottamatta äitini tunteita huomioon. Kehitystason 4 näkökulmasta tämä taas on väärä vastaus, koska suhteeni kumppaniini asettaa omat tarpeensa ja vaatimuksensa, ja *tässä* tilanteessa vastuuni suhteellemme saa isomman painon kuin vastuuni vanhemmilleni.

Kehitystaso 4 pyrkii ottamaan huomioon koko yhteiskunnan tarpeet ja rakentamaan monimutkaisen järjestelmän ihmisten välisiä rooleja ja niistä johdettuja vastuusuhteita. Oikeudenmukaisuuden kriteeri ei ole enää se, että kaikkien tunteet otetaan huomioon ja kaikille pyritään tuottamaan hyvää mieltä, vaan se että yksilöitä kohdellaan samanarvoisesti. Modernit yhteiskuntien periaatteet kuten tasaveroisuus lain edessä ovat kehitystason 4 periaatteita.

Tämänlaiset periaatteet ovat luonteeltaan abstrakteja ja vaativat älyllistä pohtimista. Siksi kehitystaso 4 vaatii rakenteekseen jonkinlaisen ideologisen järjestelmän, jonka valossa eri tilanteita pyritään tutkimaan ja jonka logiikasta johdetaan vastaukset joilla ratkoa eri konfliktitilanteet.

Tämän kehitystason ongelma on, että vaikka ideologiat myyvät itseään paketteina joista löytyy ratkaisut kaikkeen, ei mikään ideologia todellisuudessa pysty toteuttamaan lupaustaan. Tyytymättömyys yhteen ideologiaan voi johtaa tarpeeseen etsiä uutta ja parempaa, sellaista joka perustuisi joihinkin ultimaattisiin periaatteisiin joista oikeat ratkaisut voitaisiin johtaa. Mutta koska kaikki periaatteet ovat pohjimmiltaan mielivaltaisia, ei tämä tuota tyydyttävää tulosta. Kehitystasolla 4 ihminen pyrkii aina ajattelemaan asioita *jonkin* ideologian sisäisen logiikan kautta, ja etsii siten sellaista ideologiaa joka olisi se ainoa oikea.

Kehitystasolla 5 ihminen siirtyy näkemään ideologiat ja järjestelmät työkaluina, joista mikään ei ole absoluuttisesti oikea mutta joista jokainen voi tarjota hyödyllisiä näkemyksiä eri tilanteisiin. Kyky omaksua joustavasti erilaisten ideologioiden sisäinen logiikka ja liikkua niiden välillä avaa mahdollisuudet käydä rakentavaa dialogia niiden välillä.

Chapman kommentoi mielenkiintoisesti, että postmodernismin vaikutus yhteiskuntaan on vaikeuttaa ihmisten siirtymistä tasolta 3 tasolle 4, mutta toisaalta helpottaa ihmisten siirtymistä tasolta 4 tasolle 5. Postmodernismin olennainen kritiikki on, ettei ole mitään yhtä objektiivisesti oikeaa ajattelutapaa. Tämä on oikea reaktio ja oikea viesti jota tarjota ihmisille jotka ovat kehitystasolla 4 ja juuttuneet pitämään omaa ideologiaansa ainoana oikeana. Mutta se on haitallinen viesti antaa kehitystason 3 ihmisille, jotka tarvitsisivat *jonkun* ideologian antamaan rakennetta sosiaalisille vuorovaikutuksilleen ja tarjoamaan sosiaalisten konfliktien ratkaisemiseen jonkin muun kriteerin kuin sen, että kenenkään tunteita ei tulisi satuttaa. Chapman kokee, että postmodernismin alkuperäiset kehittäjät olivat saavuttaneet tason 4 ja kehittäessään ajatuksiaan etenivät tasolle 5; mutta kun ajatukset tulkitaan kehitystason 3 valossa niin ne ymmärretään väärin.

Originally published at Kaj Sotala. You can comment here or there.

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Tuesday, March 28th, 2017
5:55 am - Core Transformation

So I went to my head to ask myself: what is the one thing that I’ve been trying to get from all of my romantic relationships? What is the common theme that unites all of my fantasies? What is the thing that I desperately find myself craving for even now? That one “if only I could have that, then everything would be fine” thing?

Initial associations: Trust. Safety. Someone who wouldn’t abandon you.

That last one seemed to strike a chord. Let’s go with that one.

Someone who wouldn’t abandon you. Safety from abandonment. Is there something deeper?

Mental image: lying in each other’s arms, looking at each other in the eyes. A sense of knowing the other, being known.

Complete openness and vulnerability. Having no secrets, revealing everything about yourself to the other. Being completely accepted.

Not just one way. Complete mutual acceptance. Seeing the other exactly as they are, feeling only love and compassion. Seeing them as perfect, just as they are. And being judged perfect in return.

I stop here for a long time, enjoying.

Is there a yet deeper thing here? Is there something that I’m hoping that the mutual, complete acceptance will give me?

I ask my mind to assume that I have this beautiful fantasy, and to show me what’s the next thing, what’s the next craving it’s hoping this fantasy will fulfill?

Peace. Restfulness.

Just being completely at peace.

From here, it doesn’t look like I can go any deeper. It’s a Core State.

So I do mental tricks intended to reinforce this sense of peace, make it more lasting. I ask the part of me that wants it, the part that now has it, for its age. Newborn, it says. I ask if it wants to grow up, if it wants to live my entire life up to this point. It does, and I let it grow up. I ask it to fill my body. I imagine what it would have been if my grandparents would have had this sense of peace, if they would have transmitted it to my parents, if they would have transmitted it to me, surrounded me in this sense of peace since birth.

I let my mind rest in the peacefulness.

There’s something more, I notice. I want to take this feeling of peace, use it to build a relationship with someone. There’s something besides just the peacefulness that I’m craving, that I feel I could get from a relationship. A separate desire.

This one comes easily. It’s a desire to build a common future together with someone. To actively work together in putting it together, build something that is unique to us. Taking things that are just about us, weaving them into a beautiful tapestry. Have children, perhaps.

Is there something deeper to this desire? Almost certainly.

But I don’t go there, not at this stage. For now I’m happy to just rest in the peacefulness, rest in the mental image of building a common future with someone.

Originally published at Kaj Sotala. You can comment here or there.

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Thursday, March 16th, 2017
3:31 pm - Moving on

I expect this to be my last breakup post (about this particular breakup, at least :P).

After having processed all the pains I’ve discussed in previous posts, there was just a final one left, one that’s in a sense the simplest.

It’s that I have tremendous respect and admiration for my ex. She combines a brilliant intelligence, a fiery loyalty to her principles, and a stark determination to get through things no matter what. I’ve rarely encountered such a unique soul, and the pain on my mind was the question of whether I would encounter another again, let alone one who’d be interested in me.

But then I managed to flip the issue around in my head. To just focus on how amazing it is that she ever was interested in me in the first place, and how I’m honestly grateful and humbled that such a beautiful person held me in a high regard. To see the good moments that we had as a piece of validation that I can always remember and hold on to, trusting that if such a person saw something beautiful in me, then she couldn’t have been entirely wrong.

A few days ago I still felt some pain when I saw her name pop up anywhere online. Now I just feel happy to see her writing. Seeing that she’s still herself.

And unexpectedly, I feel some of that gratitude extend to my other former partners as well. Feeling happiness that we ever had any good moments, even if the relationships did not last.

And, if I tap into that feeling, I can extend it even further, to anyone who has ever displayed any liking towards me. Be grateful for that appreciation, for them seeing good things in me.

Thank you, everyone. And thank you again to everyone who has commented on or reacted to my previous breakup posts, for helping me get through this. I’m not going to say that I couldn’t have made it without you, but you people did make it a lot easier.

Thank you.

Originally published at Kaj Sotala. You can comment here or there.

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Sunday, March 12th, 2017
2:39 pm - Re-interpreting meanings
After I made my last breakup post, siderea left me with some excellent thoughts about it. While there were a lot of good points, these were the parts that resonated the most. She started by describing the reaction that many people have to her:
 
… a lot of people, male, female and otherwise, fall “in like” with me very quickly, because for a lot of them, I “make” them feel good – put more accurately, the way I comport myself in the world is more comfortable to be around than they usually find themselves feeling. They feel – like you describe feeling for the woman you fell for – safe from humiliation or rejection when self-disclosing to me, like they can be more authentically themselves, which is a delicious feeling.
 
Here’s the first confusion: confusing how they feel with me for how they feel about me. It is one of the commonest human errors to decide that because one feels good with someone that they are good.
 
This is problematic first and most obviously because it’s how serial predators of all sorts groom victims: making the victims feel good so that the victims trust the perp to be good. Not pertinent to your case, except to bear in mind how dangerous an error that can be.
 
Less obvious and more pertinent is how that conflation confuses the one doing the conflating as to how much they actually know about the one they are so judging. The confusion of one’s own good feelings for the goodness of the person one attributes those good feelings to obscures what is often a concommitant fact: one doesn’t actually know much about the person who makes one feel good, except that they make one feel good. […]
 
You say, “What was so special was the almost instant feeling of connection” as if that feeling existed independently of any one specific human to have it. Feelings aren’t facts: that feeling of connection was had by you. It was a feeling you were having. That doesn’t mean there “was a connection” in some objective way. Further, saying that the feeling you had was “of connection” is just a projection of a meaning those feelings had. The words “a feeling of connection” don’t actually have any meaning. They’re a handwave that posits that the feelings – which probably all have names, like “adoration”, “pleasure”, “affection”, “delight”, “surprise” – indicate this hazy concept, “connection”.
 
Some of the main lessons I took away from this comment:
 
Part of my pain was in the feeling that I’d had a unique, almost mystical “connection” with someone, that we’d then lost. But as siderea pointed out, “a connection” doesn’t actually mean anything: it was just a way how I interpreted the feelings I had in the presence of my ex, as well as the feelings that I thought she had in my presence.
 
Going from “there was a unique and magical connection” to “there was a person who happened to fall into some kind of mental schema of a ‘safe person’ based on relatively superficial information, and thus made me feel safe, and at some moments there seemed to be mutuality in this” changes one’s perspective a lot.
 
For one, I had been feeling like it was a personal failure, telling of some deeper fundamental flaw in me, that I had screwed things up and “ruined” that connection. With the new perspective, it’s more like… Well, there were some moments when those feelings arose and others when they didn’t, and that had more to do with the quirks of our individual psychologies than anything else.
 
And as several people commenting on my last post implied, my side of the “connection” being primarily an emotion that *I* had suggests that recapturing that feeling doesn’t necessarily require finding someone who’s magical and rare and unique in some sense. Rather, it may be much more useful to just work on myself and my own emotions, to make it easier for me to achieve that feeling around people in general. (to use psych terms, this is a major inwards shift of the locus of control)
 
In the few days after reading siderea’s comment, painful memories of various kinds about this relationship kept popping up. It wasn’t very pleasant, but at the same time there was a sense of… my mind pulling up those memories so that it could reinterpret the meaning it had given them, and to then reconsolidate the version of the memory with the updated meaning.
 
Yesterday evening I noticed that I was feeling much less of an urge to go back and “make things right again”, but I still had a compelling need to have my ex think well of me, to fix any respect that might have been lost.
 
I asked myself: why do I feel that this is so important? It made sense to have this desire back when there was still a chance to fix our relationship, but what would fulfilling that desire do now?
 
No answer came back. Instead, the feeling seemed to weaken.
 
This night I had a dream where I was hanging out with my ex, and completely forgetting to think about what she thought of me, just getting absorbed in whatever activity it was that we were doing together.
 
And today I’ve been feeling pretty okay about that whole relationship and breakup thing.

Originally published at Kaj Sotala. You can comment here or there.

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Tuesday, March 7th, 2017
1:38 pm - On perceived connections

Writing about this seems to be useful, both for me and some other people, so more on breakup pain:

The fact is that I don’t have very much experience of long relationships, and that I haven’t had many deep friendships either. At this moment I feel like I only have one really deep friendship, and I don’t get to see that person nearly as often as I’d like. I’ve long had a deep feeling of loneliness and being alone.

When I started hanging out with this person… she was unique. Now, of course when you get infatuated with someone new, they always seem unique and perfect and special. But even looking back at it with more objective eyes now, it still feels unique. Even before I’d really developed any strong crush, even when my attitude was still just “I like this person and they seem like there could be some potential”, on our first date there was already something magical.

We shared interests and values, but that’s true for a lot of people. What was so special was the almost instant feeling of connection. I can with confidence say that I have never in my life had any interaction with anyone go that smoothly and pleasantly.

On that first date, there was never a moment of awkwardness or being unsure of what to say; not the slightest feeling of unease. It felt completely, utterly, entirely safe; I confessed to some private things which I had intended to leave until later, because it felt entirely inconceivable to my intuition that she would react badly to them (and she didn’t). Conversation seemed to flow completely smoothly and naturally, the topics moving from sex to religion, from religion to the subjective nature of reality, from there to the academic study of gaming, from there to the probability of two people sharing a birthday.

I’ve never felt such a feeling of understanding and being understood, of everything just… clicking. And if this was just the first date, how deep and rich could our relationship yet become?

It – and several other early interactions – were enough that I was ready to move to an unfamiliar town and leave basically my entire existing social circle behind in order to have that on a regular basis. It was enough that, if there would have been any other incompatibilities, I would have been ready to put in practically any amount of work in order to smooth them out.

And I thought that this feeling of already being totally committed to it – despite how little time had passed – and being ready to invest practically anything in it to make it work and maintain that magic smoothness, was mutual.

That mistaken assumption on my part ended up shaping – and damaging – much of our interaction when things started going less well.

By the time the relationship was practically over already, I heard her characterize it as “a brief thing of a few months”, not worth putting inordinate amounts of energy into if it looked like things weren’t going very well.

Not that magic, unique thing that I – maybe foolishly – had thought it was.

And now the next pain and fear that I need to process is the fact that it took me 30 years to find a person with whom there seemed to be the potential for such a deep and rich friendship, even if just for an instant. How much longer will it take to find somebody else like that? Let alone someone with whom that feeling of a genuinely unique connection would be mutual?

And is there any reason to assume that the answer to that question isn’t “longer than my remaining lifetime”?

I genuinely don’t know.

Originally published at Kaj Sotala. You can comment here or there.

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Sunday, March 5th, 2017
2:23 pm - Letting go – but not *too* much

Dealing with breakup pain, part twenty million:

I mentioned in a previous post that dealing with loss seems to come in stages. Grief is not grieving after one thing: rather there are many different things one has to come to terms with, all tangled up with each other.

The most recent pain I had in the last few days involved repeatedly recalling various good moments we had. It felt unclear to me what it was that I needed to do in order to absorb and integrate this pain: accept the fact that those moments were gone? But that didn’t seem to be it, and besides that was something that I felt I had processed already.

It turned out that it was kind of the opposite.

It was as if previously some part of my mind had come to terms with the fact that I wouldn’t have these kinds of moments with this person again. Now another part was saying something like “these moments were precious to us; and even though we are not going to have them with this person again, we wish to remember how good they were, and make sure that one day we’ll find something similar with some other person”.

The thing that the pain was calling my attention to, was in effect a reminder to not go too far in accepting my loss. A reminder to keep to thinking about the good moments and cherish them, lest I abandon the hope of finding something similar again.

And now that particular pain seems to be gone, the lesson having been learned and its message integrated to the rest of my mind.

Originally published at Kaj Sotala. You can comment here or there.

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10:36 am - No, I don’t think we need more existential terror

There’s a popular narrative that goes roughly like this: most of human history has been dangerous and uncertain, and that’s the kind of environment our minds work the best in. The reason why so many people these days are bored and depressed is because we’ve made the world *too* safe, we would actually be healthier and happier if the world was somewhat more dangerous and not so regular and boring.

I think that this narrative is intuitive, convincing, and mostly wrong, though it does have *some* truth to it.

Here’s a comment I wrote in response to an article which was arguing the above narrative, talking about a need for “mild existential terror”:

I think it’s worth distinguishing between two different possibilities: one, that mild existential terror makes us better off by itself. Two, that mild existential terror doesn’t actually contribute to well-being, but our work to protect against it historically did, and it’s us not needing that work anymore that’s the real culprit.

To take as an example one important component of well-being: meaningful relationships (not necessarily romantic). Hunting that tiger required working closely together, and being able to trust others in your hunting party – literally trusting them with your life. This facilitated – forced – the creation of very deep and intense bonds.

In contrast, these days it’s all too easy to drift through life without *needing* to form a close bond with anyone, because there are few existential terrors that we need to protect ourselves against by bonding together. But it’s not the existential terror, by itself, that causes the bonding. Inject some existential terror to the life of someone lonely and all you’ve done is make them even more miserable. Psychological research on people’s well-being finds the number and quality of close relationships to be one of the most important factors in well-being, not the amount of fear in their lives.

People can form bonds even without that terror, even quickly like with the “fast friends protocol” of just going through a series of increasing personal questions. Arguably the fast friends protocol, too, evokes a *bit* of fear by making people vulnerable to each other. But this is a mild enough fear that I wouldn’t put it in the same category.

Also, look at children: kids raised in healthy, loving homes, who’ve experienced the least amount of fear in their lives, tend to be pretty happy and content until they start getting thrown in unhealthy social environments (e.g. school) where they start developing worries and reasons for self-censorship and feelings that they’ll need to conform in order to fit in.

It’s the sudden appearance of existential fear that makes them worse off, not the lack of it.

When I was the most depressed, the problem was never “boredom”. The problem was feeling like I’d never achieve anything I wanted to, like I’d live in constant financial stress, like I’d never have a place where I’d feel I’d belong, like nobody would want me as a romantic partner. Again it was various kinds of existential fear that were hurting me, not the lack of them.

As I’ve started to recover, I’ve grown increasingly convinced that “being bored about life” isn’t really about having too few challenges. If you find things interesting, you’ll always discover new fascinating challenges. Rather the problem is in demanding too much of yourself, thinking that you need to self-censor in order to fit in, feeling ashamed about parts of yourself and wanting to suppress them. All things which cause you to (consciously or subconsciously) suppress your natural urges and your natural motivation to do things, and then you end up bored because you are not letting yourself be interested in any of the things that you are actually authentically interested in.

That, too, comes from a form of mild existential terror, the terror of not belonging unless you fit the mold X.

See also some interesting discussion on this on Facebook.

Originally published at Kaj Sotala. You can comment here or there.

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Thursday, February 23rd, 2017
7:29 pm - On tangled and layered grief
A thing you’d think I’d already have figured way earlier, but only became obvious to me after this latest breakup, is that there are stages of grief (other than the anger-denial-etc. ones).
 
A number of times, I’ve felt like I’d already gotten through the pain… Only for it to come up again, with me getting increasingly frustrated – “didn’t I process this already?”
 
Fact is, I think I did. It’s just that the way we talk about grief is a little misleading. Grief is not one big monolithic block that you just “get over” as one; rather there may be a number of different issues that are painful. They are separate but tangled up with each other, and you aren’t truly “over it” until you have processed them *all*.
 
Things that I’ve processed so far are at least:
  • coming to accept that this would never work as the kind of idealized relationship I’d been imagining as
  • coming to accept that while it working out as a *different* kind of relationship wouldn’t have been impossible earlier, it’s too late for that now
  • coming to accept that there were some simple mistakes that I made during the relationship that would have been easy to avoid and which could have made a huge difference to how things turned out; but which are pointless to dwell on now
  • coming to accept the loss of all the concrete good moments we had before things went sour, and the loss of that shared hope and excitement for the future that we had (this is the one my mind seems to be focused on working on right now)
As well as a few others that I think I’ve mostly gotten over, but which feel too private to mention.
 
I don’t know whether there will still be more. But it’s comforting to realize that I’m at least making progress, even if it doesn’t always feel like it.

Originally published at Kaj Sotala. You can comment here or there.

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Thursday, February 9th, 2017
8:56 pm - Meditation instructions for self-compassion

I really liked, and have gotten a lot out of, the self-compassion advice in the book The Wisdom of No Escape and the Path of Loving-Kindness.

First, on the general attitude and approach:

When people start to meditate or to work with any kind of spiritual discipline, they often think that somehow they’re going to improve, which is a sort of subtle aggression against who they really are. It’s a bit like saying, ‘If I jog, I’ll be a much better person.’ ‘If I could only get a nicer house, I’d be a better person.’ ‘If I could meditate and calm down, I’d be a better person.’ Or the scenario may be that they find fault with others; they might say, ‘If it weren’t for my husband, I’d have a perfect marriage.’ ‘If it weren’t for the fact that my boss and I can’t get on, my job would be just great.’ And ‘If it weren’t for my mind, my meditation would be excellent.’

But loving-kindness – maitri – toward ourselves doesn’t mean getting rid of anything, Maitri means that we can still be crazy after all these years. We can still be angry after all these years. We can still be timid or jealous or full of feelings of unworthiness. The point is not to try to change ourselves. Meditation practice isn’t about trying to throw ourselves away and become something better. It’s about befriending who we are already. The ground of practice is you or me or whoever we are right now, just as we are. That’s the ground, that’s what we study, that’s what we come to know with tremendous curiosity and interest. […]

Sometimes among Buddhists the word ego is used in a derogatory sense, with a different connotation than the Freudian term. As Buddhists, we might say, ‘My ego causes me so many problems.’ Then we might think, ‘Well, then, we’re supposed to get rid of it, right? Then there’d be no problem.’ On the contrary, the idea isn’t to get rid of ego but actually to begin to take an interest in ourselves, to investigate and be inquisitive about ourselves. […]

This is not an improvement plan; it is not a situation in which you try to be better than you are now. If you have a bad temper and you feel that you harm yourself and others, you might think that sitting for a week or a month will make your bad temper go away – you will be that sweet person that you always wanted to be. Never again will a harsh word leave your lily-white lips, The problem is that the desire to change is fundamentally a form of aggression toward yourself. The other problem is that our hangups, unfortunately or fortunately, contain our wealth. Our neurosis and our wisdom are made out of the same material. If you throw out your neurosis, you also throw out your wisdom. Someone who is very angry also has a lot of energy; that energy is what’s so juicy about him or her. That’s the reason people love that person. The idea isn’t to try to get rid of your anger, but to make friends with it, to see it clearly with precision and honesty, and also to see it with gentleness. That means not judging yourself as a bad person, but also not bolstering yourself up by saying, ‘It’s good that I’m this way, it’s right that I’m this way. Other people are terrible, and I’m right to be so angry at them all the time.’ The gentleness involves not repressing the anger but also not acting it out. It is something much softer and more open-hearted than any of that. It involves learning how, once you have fully acknowledged the feeling of anger and the knowledge of who you are and what you do, to let it go. You can let go of the usual pitiful little story line that accompanies anger and begin to see clearly how you keep the whole thing going. So whether it’s anger or craving or jealousy or fear or depression – whatever it might be – the notion is not to try to get rid of it, but to make friends with it. That means getting to know it completely, with some kind of softness, and learning how, once you’ve experienced it fully, to let go.

And then on the specific instructions for self-compassionate meditation:

The technique is, first, to take good posture and, second, to become mindful of your out-breath. This is just your ordinary out-breath, not manipulated or controlled in any way. Be with the breath as it goes out, feel the breath go out, touch the breath as it goes out. Now, this seems simple, but to actually be with that breath and to be there for every breath requires a lot of precision. When you sit down and begin to meditate, the fact that you always come back to that breath brings out the precision, the clarity, and the accuracy of your mind. Just the fact that you always come back to this breath and that you try, in a gentle way, to be as fully with the breath as you can sharpens your mind.

The third part of the technique is that, when you realize that you’ve been thinking, you say to yourself, ‘Thinking.’ Now, that also requires a lot of precision. Even if you wake up as if from a dream and realize that you’ve been thinking, and you immediately go back to the breath and accidentally forget about the labeling, even then you should just pause a little bit and say to yourself, ‘Thinking.’ Use the label, because the label is so precise. Just acknowledge that you’ve been thinking, just that, no more, no less, just ‘thinking.’ Being with the out-breath cultivates the precision of your mind, and when you label, that too brings out the precision of your mind. Your mind becomes more clear and stabilized. As you sit, you might want to be aware of this.

If we emphasized only precision, our meditation might become quite harsh and militant. It might get too goal-oriented. So we also emphasize gentleness. One thing that is very helpful is to cultivate an overall sense of relaxation while you are doing the meditation. I think you’ll notice that as you become more mindful and more aware and awake, you begin to notice that your stomach tends to get very tense and your shoulders tend to get very tight. It helps a lot if you notice this and then purposely relax your stomach, relax your shoulders and your neck. If you find it difficult to relax, just gradually, patiently, gently work with it. […]

The moment when you label your thoughts ‘thinking’ is probably the key place in the technique where you cultivate gentleness, sympathy, and loving-kindness. Rinpoche used to say, ‘Notice your tone of voice when you say “thinking.”’ It might be really harsh, but actually it’s just a euphemism for ‘Drat! You were thinking again, gosh darn it, you dummy.’ You might really be saying, ‘You fool, you absolutely miserable meditator, you’re hopeless.’ But it’s not that at all. All that’s happened is that you’ve noticed. Good for you, you actually noticed! You’ve noticed that mind thinks continuously, and it’s wonderful that you’ve seen that. Having seen it, let the thoughts go. Say, ‘Thinking.’ If you notice that you’re being harsh, say it a second time just to cultivate the feeling that you could say it to yourself with gentleness and kindness, in other words, that you are cultivating a nonjudgmental attitude. You are not criticizing yourself, you are just seeing what is with precision and gentleness, seeing thinking as thinking. That is how this technique cultivates not only precision but also softness, gentleness, a sense of warmth toward oneself. The honesty of precision and the goodheartedness of gentleness are qualities of making friends with yourself. So during this period, along with being as precise as you can, really emphasize the softness. If you find your body tensing, relax it. If you find your mind tensing, relax it. Feel the expansiveness of the breath going out into the space. When thoughts come up, touch them very lightly, like a feather touching a bubble. Let the whole thing be soft and gentle, but at the same time precise. […]

You may have wondered why we are mindful of our out-breath and only our out-breath. Why don’t we pay attention to the out-breath and the in-breath? There are other excellent techniques that instruct the meditator to be mindful of the breath going out and mindful of the breath coming in. That definitely sharpens the mind and brings a sense of one-pointed, continuous mindfulness, with no break in it. But in this meditation technique, we are with the out-breath; there’s no particular instruction about what to do until the next out-breath. Inherent in this technique is the ability to let go at the end of the out-breath, to open at the end of the out-breath, because for a moment there’s actually no instruction about what to do. There’s a possibility of what Rinpoche used to call ‘gap’ at the end of the out-breath: you’re mindful of your breath as it goes out, and then there’s a pause as the breath comes in. It’s as if you … pause. It doesn’t help at all to say, ‘Don’t be mindful of the in-breath’ – that’s like saying, ‘Don’t think of a pink elephant.’ When you’re told not to be mindful of something, it becomes an obsession. Nevertheless, the mindfulness is on the out-breath, and there’s some sense of just waiting for the next out-breath, a sense of no project. One could just let go at the end of the out-breath. Breath goes out and dissolves, and there could be some sense of letting go completely. Nothing to hold on to until the next out-breath.

Even though it’s difficult to do, as you begin to work with mindfulness of the out-breath, then the pause, just waiting, and then mindfulness of the next out-breath, the sense of being able to let go gradually begins to dawn on you. So don’t have any high expectations – just do the technique. As the months and years go by, the way you regard the world will begin to change.

Originally published at Kaj Sotala. You can comment here or there.

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