Personal: Ongoing Investigations

January 2019

Cutting edge most days is either Re-Oberservation or maybe just barely into Low Equanimity.


Practice is currently about relaxing into the present, open and defenseless, and to then let go, be satisfied, damn it!, and remain—vulnerable, as-I-am, present, receptive.

At first I could hardly do this for even a moment without grasping at something, interrupting it out of fear or because it'd dredged up some unprocessed emotion. The "trick" was simple repetition, to ease into it again and again, until the state was familiar enough that I wasn't insta-flinching. This ate through the "emotional trauma" backlog enough, too, that I'm now not always hitting on something painful.

I found asking myself "Who am I" useful to create the initial gap in thought on-demand and then to ease into that, into this moment, with an emphasis on the sensations in the body. This has become wordless, like a mental blink and into presence.

Don't get the wrong idea. My personal best here is generously 20 minutes: I've managed two entire-ish conversations in this state, a feat I'm simultaneously proud of while also feeling, "stop procrastinating and work on going deeper." Most of the time I'm grabbing a few minutes here and there before being sucked back into the sort of mindless, reactive identity. The split is even enough that neither feels comfortably like a "default," although it sometimes feels as if I'm catching glimpses of the identity state seen from the perspective of "open presence." In those moments, "being" feels like a perceptual distortion, an attempt to bend experience as if to make it unintelligible, to hide from it.

I get this consistent sense when easing into the present that it's nearly the same movement as dropping yourself into a bathtub that's just a couple of degrees too warm. You're blasted with sensory data from each centimeter of fresh skin that's carefully submerged but it quickly adjusts, "the water's fine!", and now you've the aim to (tenderly, tenderly) sink in a bit further.

Unifying Vision & The Visual Field as One Object

For a brief but wonderful period, relaxing into the present went smoothly, unobstructed. Now, though, I routinely snag on distortion in the visual field. This manifests as either a portion of the vision vibrating or as if sections of it are out of sync with either the whole or each other. It's a bit like if you've ever pirated a television show where the audio was a few milliseconds off and (so, so maddeningly) the actors' lips do not quite match their speech. It's that but as if between the two hemispheres of the brain, split consciousness. Metaphorically, anyway. I doubt the actual physical analogue is simple.

These vibrations are dissonant in a such a way that it's easy to spiral off into a story about how it sucks, why did I ever embark on this meditation shit, I just want this to stop, etc., etc. if I'm not mindful. If I sort of remind myself not to do that and instead stay with the bare vibrations, it's not bad beyond the essential offness of it, and may be a needless overlay I'm projecting onto it rather than something fundamental to it.

The results of gazing into the vibrations are tantalizingly patterned. It seems like there is a structure to how they shift but I've not pinned down how, exactly. Observing the vibrating can result in:

There is also some sort of unclear relationship with "selfing." Letting go and non-doing sometimes serves to intensify the vibrating and other times soothe it, like the distortion was a manifestation of "me" and "my" movement. Confusing. Doesn't seem like it can be both.

I spent the better of one day and all of the night meditating on the dissonance, fed up, and determined to finish this movement. It ended with a really intense experience of a sort of fusion of this and this but it was while fasted, drug-addled, and sleep deprived. Three kinds of mind altering, I'd be a fool to make anything of it.

Anyway, the cycling seems aimed at dealing with two different sorts of separation in the visual field.

The first is taking the entire vision as one experiential object, knowing it all "at once" without ignoring either the focused center or the periphery. Attention sort of habitually constricts to a subset of the vision and ignores the rest. This is flawed: awareness has enough bandwidth for it all. Dream Walker from DhO has written an excellent map of perceptual shifts which describes it thus:

Look out into the distance and focus on the outside of the doughnut of the periphery of vision….wiggle your fingers at the edge of vision left and right and focus on opening to that. Once your comfortable holding the focus on the outside, notice you are ignoring the center of the donut. Let the center back in without losing the outside…this is tricky. Once you get it, its kinda like focusing a telescope, things will just kinda come into focus as the whole visual field as one thing. Intensify this by mentally leaning into the field or pulling back and kinda holding the whole field in a big hug….either works. Then drop the jaw literally and add a sense of awe to it as if you were seeing it for the first time. Practise this Panoramic vision until its easy to do. Then just hold it. All day…every day…until when you stop holding it, it just stays. Let it stay until it flips back then just flip it back on and hold it a little til it sticks again….eventually it wont flip back and you got it permanent. Soon after this the knowingness aspect will naturally move out into the field….awareness arises out there in the field of vision…Enjoy.

You probably also walk around with this feeling, "I'm looking out onto the world with two eyes," which, yes, is physically so but not experientially. The world appears as if it is seen from one eye. The exercises here help clarify.

The second kind of duality is the feeling of being separate from the vision, where it's as if I you are a little man inside of your head, apart from the experience, from the world, looking onto it as if through glass. This sense of separation can be removed:

It took me no time at all to notice that this nothing, this hole where a head should have been was no ordinary vacancy, no mere nothing. On the contrary, it was very much occupied. It was a vast emptiness vastly filled, a nothing that found room for everything—room for grass, trees, shadowy distant hills, and far above them snowpeaks like a row of angular clouds riding the blue sky. I had lost a head and gained a world.

It was all, quite literally, breathtaking. I seemed to stop breathing altogether, absorbed in the Given. Here it was, this superb scene, brightly shining in the clear air, alone and unsupported, mysteriously suspended in the void, and (and this was the real miracle, the wonder and delight) utterly free of "me", unstained by any observer. Its total presence was my total absence, body and soul. Lighter than air, clearer than glass, altogether released from myself, I was nowhere around.

Yet in spite of the magical and uncanny quality of this vision, it was no dream, no esoteric revelation. Quite the reverse: it felt like a sudden waking from the sleep of ordinary life, an end to dreaming. It was self-luminous reality for once swept clean of all obscuring mind.

—Douglas Harding's Moment of Discovery

I'm anticipating there's a good chance that excerpt means nothing to you: I was always sort of baffled by this kind of language until stumbling upon what it was pointing at.


Being as Twisting & Contorting Experience

Self-Reference, Who Needs It?

Undoing Ugh Fields

I don't like thinking about money. It brings up a bunch of negative, aversive emotions. This association is automatic, the rotten fruit of time spent using money-related insecurities as a stick to beat myself with.

The effect is pernicious: I avoid dealing with money-related issues in my life. They hurt. I procrastinate on bills, investments, income-related opportunities. This avoidance compounds the issue. Doubly so, as it both aggravates my money situation and each flinch further cements the experiential avoidance behavior.

Time doesn't heal every wound; sometimes they fester.

Recognize any of yourself in this? This is an "ugh field": some area of life that hurts to think about, so… you don't. Pressure builds. Suffering and suffering and suffering until: Enough! I don't care how much it hurts. I'm going to tear this arrow from my chest.

But how?

Attempt #1: Jay Earley's Self-Therapy

Jay Earley's book, Self-Therapy, is all about using the "internal family systems" model to work with psychological stuff.

The idea is, basically, you use a trigger to call up some part of yourself, and then you start to model that part explicitly as an agent. You ask it what it would like to be called and, once you have a handle for it, you basically have a conversation with it. How do you feel? Why do you act this way?, etc.

I was turned onto this book and approach by a recommendation on Mark Lippman's blog a couple of months ago. When I first tried it, I encountered a lot of resistance. The enterprise seemed absurd. I felt like a grown man trying to "play house" and invent a conversation between dolls, as little girls do, and then, the part that really got me, I was supposed to treat that conversation as somehow relevant, real insight and self-understanding.

Frustrated, I put the book aside.

I circled back around to this technique a couple of days ago and gave it another shot, setting aside doubt and just intending to give it a sincere go. I modelled (discovered?) two separate agents, The Unbent and The Generous, the idea being that The Unbent protected my other subselves from experiencing all of the pain absorbed by The Generous. Then, I brokered an internal agreement, hopeful I'd freed myself of this whole money issue. There was a distinct feeling that the agents had been re-integrated and absorbed into the "society of mind."

This took about an hour. Unfortunately, it was unsuccesful. Investigating my triggers again later that night, they were still there, though perhaps weaker.

Attempts #2 & #3: Gendlin's Focusing

Next, I tried using Gendlin's focusing protocol, which I've written about previously. The basic idea is to push one of your reactive buttons and then find the perfect descriptor for the fuzzily-sensed object that results. So, concretely, I'd ask myself, "How do I really feel about making money?" to which there'd be some sort of unclear, felt response. Then I'd try to describe that unclear, felt thing.

In some of my previous experimentation with focusing, I've had experiences where finding the "right" words triggered this sort of euphoric and compelling "ah, that's it!" along with the feeling that, now, somehow things were different. Did anything actually change as a result? I'm not sure. More data needed.

I spent about two or three hours working on this, split across two evenings. I found that, as I concentrated on the felt sense, my attention would gradually land on it earlier and earlier, as if I'd at first been seeing the leafy top of a tree and I was narrowing onto the root. I went from at first noticing primarily a stiffening in response to the trigger, then to noticing the sharp intake of breath and sense of danger that preceded this paralysis feeling, then to noticing that prior even to this there was a first movement of attention where it felt as if I was poking something wounded.

As I kept at this and became more aware of the earlier pieces of the movement, the latter bits started to fade out. Still, I was frustrated. I never seemed to hit on that perfect descriptor for what I was experiencing. Sometimes I felt like I was making progress and getting closer, only then to soon backtrack, realizing, "no, this is a dead end, too."

Attempt #4: Wake Up To Your Life

Ken McLeod's book Wake Up to Your Life deals a lot with undoing the patterns that pull one out of mindful presence. In his model, you maintain mindful awareness of the trigger and its habitual response (the pattern), and then it "dies to awareness", releasing its energy into mindfulness.

He describes this movement as being a lot like the stages of grief—one goes through denial, and anger, etc., before the trigger is fully uprooted. To me, what he is describing sounds a lot like the Progress of Insight map.

Anyway, I basically kept pressing "my buttons" along with paying strong attention to what followed. I experimented, too, with using attention and intention to "push on" and mold the felt response, experimenting with how much control I have over how it manifests. I tried intensifying it, encouraging it and allowing it to morph and change, and supressing and replacing it. I tried, too, to sort of incline toward a sense that its energy was feeding into and empowering attention.

The result has been that the response to the trigger has sort of gradually faded, becoming less and less solid and substantial but—maddeningly!—still evoking feelings of danger.

I have, however, noticed that this experiment (and the prior ones) have stripped off a decent bit of the tendency to avoid dealing with money-stuff. Over the past couple of days there have been many more good and productive thoughts and intentions around money, e.g. I proactively checked my bank account for the first time in a while this morning.

Still, the topic continues to sting and I'm not yet willing to consider it solved. A "feel the fear and do it anyway" strategy relies too much on ephemeral states of high-motivation. Unless I uproot this ugh field entirely, it'll grow back.

Attempt #5: Ongoing Contrasting

I no longer think this is fundamentally about money. Stripping off a few layers of aversion here has resulted in other patterns bubbling up into consciousness, in a way that feels like, "if you want to move forward on this money thing, first you have to deal with this other stuff."

It's mostly around something I've been thinking of as "social anticipation." Concretely, I first noticed that, whenever the "you've got a message" icon on Reddit was lit up, I'd experience a beat of dread. Digging into this further, I've found I habitually anticipate social. I expect to receive hostile responses. I expect to be misunderstood.

But none of this ever manifests! These predictions are, at best, wild distortions, more "worst case imaginable" than "likely actual outcome."

I'm still trying to figure out the best techniques for correcting perception and for removing this incorrect pattern of "I'm going to be attacked," but so far the most promising seem to be 1) mindful observation of what actually happens, 2) noticing the problematic pattern whenever it occurs, 3) contrasting what I thought would happen with what actually did happen, and noticing how silly my initial prediction was.

Thus far, the inaccurate anticipations persist (annoyingly), but they're noticed more frequently and taken less seriously. Sometimes I laugh at them. This noticing, though, does seem to dredge more and more of the pattern and its tendrils into conscious awareness, like how I have set up parts of my identity around a "heretic" archetype, in part because I've assumed that the hoi polloi will be incapable of seeing me as anything other than a witch.

I do feel sort of conflicted about letting go of this part of myself. It feels sort of fundamental. How will I operate without it?

If take one more step, it'll be the farthest away from home I've ever been.

—Samwise Gamgee, The Lord of the Rings

Well, of course you have no idea … let us be honest: we are fiddling with the levers and controls … with the basic wiring of the brain … the fundamentals of who you are. It is undermining … it is getting at what underpins everything. You say: 'Well let's pull out that pin … and we will pull out that pin … and we will shift that bit'. Of course, one wonders will the whole thing collapse? Will one become a gibbering wreck? Will one wind up in a psychiatric ward? Will one run amok in the streets? Will one do something anti-social? Will one wind up in jail? Will wonder become a vegetable? These are the 'black' things that we automatically think of when we face an unknown change.

—Actual Freedom Trust, "Something Has Definitely Changed In Me"

If you have questions, perspective, doubt, or a simple longing for general camraderie, you can communicate with me directly by emailing robert at 99theses dot com. Don't hesitate. Your correspondence is personally enriching.