A ritual to upgrade my Face

One of the easiest times to change your personality (to become less shy, for instance) is when you move somewhere new. Personalities are interfaces, so those who are familiar with you will have expectations of how to interface with you—some of which they may cherish; others may be frustrating.

But at any rate, the ways that they’ll interact with you will be designed to interface with the personality they know. Which means that it’ll tend to reinforce the older patterns in you, since those will be easiest and most comfortable. (There’s an additional element related to the logic of appropriateness, too)

I recently found myself wanting to upgrade my personality, without an obvious context change like moving.

And, since I had been talking with my friend Brent about chaos magick, ritual-work and my behaviour change desires, he suggested creating a ritual for myself.

I liked the idea: a ritual would…

  • help the less-verbal parts of my brain (hint: this is a large fraction) understand what I was trying to do,
  • give me space to practice the new mental motions
  • demonstrate to myself and others that I was serious about making this change.

As I said above, if you want to have dramatic change, there usually has to be a moment when it happens. Otherwise you’re going to tend to assume that the way to interact is the same as it was before.

What I wanted to change

I’d been building up a bunch of bug reports on how I was interacting with people, and they started turning into a somewhat coherent system of behaviour and thought patterns that I felt I could shift. I’ll try to point at these here… it’s not exactly a list of distinct items, so much as multiple perspectives that each highlight different features, à la blind-men-and-elephant.

One major model I’ve been using to understand myself is from a book about difficult people, which outlines a model of four quadrants of motivations, all of which are valuable but can become dysfunctional when overexpressed. The particular one that often goes haywire in me is the Get Seen or Get Appreciated intent. In its dysfunctional form, the Get Seen pattern doesn’t actually get the person appreciated deeply, and also blocks them from seeing other people clearly. When in a healthy state, it can be very powerful for seeing others.

More recently, I read the book Crystal Society, a superlative novel whose protagonist is an AI that has multiple distinct “goal-threads” that all have different values and goals. One of the parts (the narrator, not incidentally) is called Face, and wants “nothing more than to know and be known”. (This is all at the very beginning, so it’s not spoilery). Anyway, I had done some IFS (Internal Family Systems) and tried relating to the analogous part of myself to understand how it had become so central to my way of being.

Another piece is that several people have observed me to enter into a room with other people in it, and abruptly take over the conversation and the social space. This is… a neat skill, but can naturally be pretty annoying and is something that I want to be able to wield deliberately when it’s important, not to have as a habit I can’t control, resulting from an implicit sense of the world revolving around me. My intentional community sometimes calls this “Eco-Assessing” or “Eco-Awareness

The flipside of the previous item is not noticing when someone I’m already talking with doesn’t want to be talking to me right now (or not about this topic). On reflection, I have lots of evidence for this, but I didn’t notice it super clearly until one of my friends laid out really bluntly that that was “the main way that I take up space”.

A different model I got from reading Prometheus Rising at Brent’s suggestion. The book talks about different neural circuits that compose human cognition, and it seemed that two of mine were out of whack:

  • the emotional-territorial circuit, where I feel a need to show up in situations with a certain amount of dominance, that doesn’t always make sense
  • the socio-sexual circuit, where I tend to flout various norms, and sometimes have trouble respecting them even if I try

A fifth thing is something like, in a desire for self-expression and having a big personality, I created such a grand, flamboyant persona for myself that it is now actually kind of hard for me to be small or subdued in a social space (especially since, as I mentioned above, it’s not what people expect of me). A few weeks ago, I made the monumentous decision to buy a plain white t-shirt. For years I’ve been collecting colorful, outlandish clothing, and… I love it! And, I also have a new desire to be able to walk into a room without becoming the center of attention. (It turns out the white shirt doesn’t actually achieve this yet, since my friends say “OMG Malcolm you’re dressed so normal!” We shall see.)

Relatedly, I want to be able to put aside my felt need to have things be about me, and just achieve my goals. To a large degree, I’ve managed to make these overlap, or I’ve found goals that involve enough flow-states that I can work on them relatively easily. But I don’t have the kind of diligence I will need to do great things. To see the world as it is, even when it hurts. To spend months, years, or even mere hours mastering a skill that nobody will ever laud me for. (This item was a lesser priority with respect to the ritual, but still seemed related to the imbalance I’d identified.)

One last little piece was realizing that part of me seemed to be holding back from caring passionately about anyone or anything. I had seemingly misplaced my ability to fall in love. Maybe this made sense at the time, but I want it back! (I know I used to have it, like… a decade ago.)

I managed to summarize this into:

Getting out of my own way so I can see other people and the world more clearly.

Setting the stage and mindset

I didn’t do a ton of specific preparation, but I did spend a lot of time (6-12h) in the weeks prior thinking about it, reading books (notably Prometheus Rising) and talking to people I trusted about what I was trying to accomplish with it.

On the day itself, I got up, showered, and attempted to enter a calm, present, and even low-energy state of mind. I met up with Brienne Yudkowsky with the intention of doing something like the unselfconsciousness training exercise I blogged about last summer. In the end, that didn’t quite make sense, but she helped me do a final clarification to my thoughts and intentions, and the conversation was good for surfacing the kind of self I was wanting to cultivate. Or part of it, at least.

One particular part we settled on was whether I would try to upgrade my Face-part, or to try to install a new goal-thread that would tug against it. Brienne and I agreed that things would be a lot more internally harmonious if I did the former. I figured also that it would be the only way that I could really meet both demands (eg to see and be seen) creatively, rather than constantly feeling like I was compromising.

Following this, I spent a few minutes sitting with some friends, just sitting there. Not try to be social, or to really have a personality at all. One friend was playing with my hair, and the other drew a few shapes on my arms with acrylic paint.

This was really interesting, because I found that what I was experiencing felt kind of like permission to relax and not try to perform. It was kind of like being offstage, or being backstage. This was cool, because instead of like, pressuring myself to change my behaviour, I was noticing ways in which I really valued the change.

I took some markers and sheets of paper and created a few symbols to take with me into the ritual space.

Then I went upstairs, where I had some space for myself. I wanted to do a bit of solo play to see what parts of my self would emerge. I had some music on, a mix of ambient tracks called Interstellar. I did some dancing, then played with a few masks that happened to be in the space. I was trying to see if I could become these other characters, as Keith Johnstone talks about in Impro. The masks weren’t really optimized for staying on one’s face though, so this didn’t work too well. I watched myself eat strawberries in front of a mirror, and noticed the ways in which I seemed to be performing for myself.

This seemed like a good step, since the part of my psyche that I’m tweaking has to do with social performance and a sensed necessity for it.

May you be your kind of well

Based on what I wanted, in particular the part about seeing other people better and in more detail, both Brent and Brienne independently suggested doing lovingkindness meditation. Lovingkindness, also known as Metta, is a meditation where you wish well upon the world, at 5 different scopes: yourself, someone you care about deeply, someone you feel neutral about, someone you find difficult to relate to, and all sentient life.

By default, though, lovingkindness doesn’t engage quite the skill I’d want to practice. I already feel lots of goodwill towards people… the problem is that it’s too abstract. So instead, I did a modified exercise: instead of just calling the person to mind then saying, “May you be well. May you have peace, and ease of being…” I actually spent several minutes per person trying to simulate them, and what being “well” would mean to them (as I saw it). Initially I spent 5 minutes on each of those two steps, then after I’d done a few I shortened it.

I used a guided lovingkindness meditation track to get myself in the right headspace for the exercise, and I stayed with that for the stage on myself… but when it got to “now… think of someone you care deeply about…” I turned off the audio track and improvised.

One thing that made it easier to improvise was that a few years ago when I’d learned lovingkindness meditation, I had put the words of the meditation to song. By singing aloud, it helped me stay keenly focused on what I was intending to point my attention at, and also really helped me get in tune with my sense of the person, emotionally/viscerally. I would draw out certain words as I sang, focusing on that particular aspect. What does “peace” mean to this person? What does “ease of being” mean? “Healthy”? “Free from suffering”?

For a few of the care-about people, I did an additional symbolic act to connect to my sense of them.

I also had the chance to do a similar exercise with a real person: I invited one of my friends to join me for a little bit, and they shared a bit of what was going on for them at the time, and what suffering was there for them, and then I sang them the song.

Then I did the exercise for a few acquaintances, one difficult person, and for all sentient life, the final one more for closure on the official form than because it seemed particularly relevant to my practice.

I spent nearly 2h on this in total, taking a 3-5 minute break between each 10-15 minute cycle. Throughout it I kept in mind my desire to see things clearly: I wasn’t trying to invoke strong emotions, but to accurately simulate my friends and their well-being. And, if that produced tears or facial tension, that was fine too.

Invoking of Ceremony and Powers

The final thing I felt I wanted to do was to ceremoniously mark the significance of what I had done that day, and to formally designate part of my psyche as the part responsible for modelling other people and caring about them in this sense. This ritual had the aesthetic of being very formal and paced, but was basically entirely improvised.

I sat myself in front of a mirror with marker drawings I’d made earlier, representing:

  • the four-quadrants model of motivations, with the get-seen quadrant emphasized
  • the world (both in the sense of cherished earth and in the sense of “the territory, not the map”)
  • eco-awareness
  • love-passion-obsession-caring

A candle surrounded by four sheets of paper. On the first is a grid with an eye in the bottom right. Below that is a hand clutching a heart. Top right is an image of the earth in space. On the bottom right is an eye with leaves and gears inside, representing eco-awareness.

I had a rainbow-wax candle I’d purchased for the occasion, and a few other special items. Of particular note were:

I burnt the sticker, while reflecting on how my social patterns and identity have made it hard for me to deeply see others. Spontaneously, I picked up the candle and started singing Who Am I?, a song I wrote in 2009 that contains the lyric:

When you are standing, facing me…
am I the eyes, or the one who is seen?
When I’m trying so hard to look inside,
will I miss what’s in plain sight?
Can I really see you,
while I’m trying to see me, too?

I then burnt the necklace token, which for reasons I won’t go into had symbolic significance with respect to what kind of positive impact I thought I might make on the world. I put my iron ring in that fire, wanting to imbue some of the psychological effect of the ritual into this artifact I put on every morning. (The ring is in fact made of stainless steel, not iron, so it was remarkably untarnished by this.)

Then I picked up the candle again, and spontaneously started singing I Won’t Give Up by Jason Mraz. It was probably written as a love song to a single person, but it works quite well as a song about not giving up on humanity as a whole.

The final piece of the ritual was the formal enacting of my intention to get out of my own way and see others and the world more clearly.

I dialogued with my Crystal-Society-Face part and formally entrusted it with the new responsibility of paying attention to what other people seem to be feeling or paying attention to. I did this by casting my gaze downwards, speaking aloud as the unified Malcolm, and then looking in the mirror and letting Face respond to me as if Face were the Malcolm in the mirror. This worked remarkably well. It’s not necessary, but pretty cool, especially for a self-part whose shtick is very social and about being seen.

I then had a pretty calm evening. In the week or so since the experience, I’ve noticed lots of ways in which I feel larger, as though I’ve indeed transcended my old way of being. One part of this, I expressed to a friend as: if I were an anime character… I would now I have a grey glint in my otherwise rainbow-colored eyes.

Closing: why I wrote this post

As I wrote in the opening, personalities are interfaces, which makes them hard to change. One main reason I wrote this was so that I could share it with my friends and they could get a sense that I might be different in some ways now, making it easier for me to cultivate the new patterns. Note of course that I’m not ditching my old personality. I’m just learning new additional ways to be, socially.

This also makes it feel more possible for people to give me feedback, because now it can feel like a bug report, which is easier than a feature suggestion because you know I’ve bought into the change.

Another impetus for sharing is that self-authored personality/behaviour change rituals aren’t that well-documented, and I figured that it would be cool to give people a sense of how they might work, even if most peoples’ would be very different from mine.

It’s worth noting, I think, that I wasn’t planning to blog about this. I wasn’t explicitly planning not to, but yeah. I think this is relevant because it let me be more present during the event, rather than thinking about how I might articulate what was happening later, or whether I should keep a given part secret. It wasn’t until the third or fourth time that I told someone about it in person that it felt clear enough to blog about.

Okay! That was a long post. I hope it was worthwhile 🙂

(PS: go read Crystal Society!)

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About Malcolm

Constantly consciously expanding the boundaries of thoughtspace and actionspace. Creator of Complice, a system for achieving your important goals.

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4 Comments

Elo » 31 Mar 2016 » Reply

> I appreciate you taking the time to engage with this exposition.

I don’t mean to be deliberately skeptical but it seems like the last line of your post was literally the thing you are trying to change. In pointing this out I hope to say; “maybe this is buried deeper than you realise”. Where I can imagine I would be hoping different things like, “I hope that you got something useful out of this comment” – not the words you expressed – that link back to yourself and your own expectation that people value your words…

    Malcolm » 9 Apr 2016 » Reply

    That’s a good point. I definitely don’t think I’m on the other side of this particular bit of learning. I think that the particular thing you’re pointing to may be a pattern that goes something like “I don’t know/care if you’re interested in what I’m about to say but here I go saying it!” It’s a bit different online, of course, where I get to say the thing and if someone isn’t interested it’s very easy for them to just close out the post.

    But yeah, I think what happened was something like “man, I just ranted about myself for two thousand words… better say something at the end to acknowledge the reader having read all the way to the end” (not that I said this quite so clearly).

    So kind of the opposite of me expecting them to value my words?

    Anyway, I’m glad you called it out! I’ve now edited the post, but I’ll leave these comments here so it won’t exactly be a secret 😛

クリス » 5 Apr 2016 » Reply

A great post, thanks! [edit: I just noticed that some lt and gt characters got eaten, so pasting a fixed version of my comment]

I resonate a lot with the problems you described, and I think they might be common among people who are naturally individualists.

1.

Some typos: “enough enough”, “to the imbalanced”, also [link] is not a link

2.

Recently I successfully approached the problem of “face” change from the opposite end:

I rolled out a bunch of upgrades to my people-interface and behavior, without telling anyone;

however I made a point of exaggerating it initially, so that my friends noticed it by themselves, and they joked that I was a new [my name], who is a different from the [my name] they knew.

I’ve run with the joke and have henceforth been referring to my old interface as “old [my name]” as if it was someone I didn’t know.

This approach had the benefit that it gave my validation of my efforts immediately, when my friends noticed the changes.

3.

OK, so here goes a rant about “happy brain modelling”.

System 1 has no voice in which it would acknowledge or disagree with our conscious thoughts.

It also cannot complain about bad models we have of it.

So what happens when we have a model of System 1 that is not *entirely* off the mark?

Hint: there’s no message that pops up in our mind saying “I, your System 1, refuse to communicate until you fix your model of me”.

What happens is that some information is exchanged between S1 and S2, and even if the process is impaired by the conscious model not being quite right, it’s still a net gain.

Conscious attempts to exchange more information between S1 and S2 are rare enough, that there’s a lot of low-hanging fruit to pick.

So *hypothetically speaking*, what happens to a person who comes up with IFS or something similar?

They find their new model helps them a lot, and they become convinced of its usefulness and its validity.

To them I can only say, I hope you are having lots of fun with your modelling!

It’s better to have any model, rather than no model, and some conscious attempts to coordinate S1 and S2, rather than none.

But it does not justify staying with IFS, and not aiming to do better.

End of rant.

[Note that I’m not arguing against you, Malcolm, and I know you never said a word about IFS or any of the things mentioned in the post being accurate or the best option or anything. I just wanted to convey what I consider an insanely important warning about how easy it is to become complacent about models that are only validated by self-introspection.]

    Malcolm » 9 Apr 2016 » Reply

    1: fixed!
    2: huh, that sounds really clever! I may try that sometime too… I don’t know if it would have worked here since part of what I was trying to do was be less exaggerated, in some senses.
    3: Haha yeah this kind of reminds me of Amateur Sociology Considered Harmful. I don’t feel too worried about this. I think that paying attention to feedback—both verbal feedback, from other people, as well as just “what impact do my actions have, and is that what I want?” is a decent way to not get too mired in models. I think I’m with you here: the models are a tool to change whatever needs to be changed. The point isn’t to achieve perfection by the standards of a given model.

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