Towards being purpose-driven without fighting myself

Lots of more abstract writing in the works, but in the meantime, an update on my personal learning process: I’m currently working on shifting out of a meta-oscillation between being intensely purpose-driven but stressed & tense and being self-compassionate & internally aligned but aimless & disoriented.

Of course, an update on my personal learning process is still going to include some abstractions!

I sketched out a 2×2 to capture these dimensions. I’m not totally satisfied with the axes or the quadrants, but the overall structure feels clear and powerful, and I’ll refine it over time. I’m trying to get more comfortable putting out drafts of things:

The ideal state is the one in the top right, where I have a deep, continuous sense of purpose, both big picture and moment-to-moment, and I’m also not fighting myself. But attempts to move to the right tend to cause movements downwards, because it’s harder to stay connected to a sense of purpose when trying to accommodate conflicting systems internally. And attempts to move upwards tend to cause movement leftwards, because it’s harder to avoid internal conflict when trying to care intensely about something.

And… it feels really important to get to that top-right quadrant. Maximally important, in fact, for reasons that I’ll get into below.

Here’s what my practice has lately been, to that end.

Practicing transcending self-blame

Historically I’ve sometimes had trouble getting out of bed. It’s intermittent; I’ve also gone long periods where I’ve consistently gotten up energetically when my alarm goes off or even before… but then other periods when I’ve slept in despite not even being that tired.

Prior to about a year ago, I used to get really angsty and frustrated at myself about this. I was essentially trying to punish myself with my own thoughts. This would sometimes yield successful willpower-based efforts to change the sleep situation, and they would sometimes work, but it didn’t change the fact that I was literally fighting myself internally. One of the last surviving veterans of WWI said “Nobody wins in a war, they lost but we didn’t win.”

This point becomes even more exaggerated when both sides of the war are in some sense oneself.

It also doesn’t make that much sense when the reasons I’ve slept in have sometimes been kinda sensible, such as my body being extra tired because I’m getting sick or my intended first task for the day being ill-conceived.

I used to yell at myself about other things too: “I just need to get my head out of my ass and actually work on this project!” I said to myself a few years ago, about some school thing I was putting off.

Then I realized that I was actually dissociating internally, experiencing myself as the yeller but not actually experiencing what it felt like to be yelled at by myself. It was really painful to let in that I was so angry at me.

In retrospect I think that day was in some sense the first turning point. Since then I’ve had a lot of experiences where I haven’t done what part of me intended to do—whether that was getting out of bed or working on some project—and over the course of the past year or two I’ve really shifted my response to those events, so that I don’t get stuck blaming myself and focused on how I fucked up in the past. Instead I’ve been trying to cultivate a feeling of calm spaciousness.

This, of course, represents a movement from the top left quadrant of my 2×2 to the bottom right quadrant. I think that gaining some experience with that calm-spacious bottom right quadrant is a valuable if not necessary step for someone who mostly hangs out on the left to get to the top right.

Dealing with discomfort internally

I only developed this 2×2 model last week, so much of what I’m doing right now is connecting the dots looking backwards. But the first sense of “this is the most important thing” came a month ago. I was attempting to spend a day writing, and was encountering “Resistance” (cf The War of Art) in some interesting creative forms (including the desire to take on projects to upgrade my desk).

I was also experiencing a bit of weird physical discomfort that day; my body feeling just a bit… off. I get this sometimes and I’m not worried about it, but in the past it has sometimes led me to get kind of tense, as if I’m trying to squeeze out the feeling… kind of like how sometimes people who are cold tense up to resist the feeling of being cold. This tension is another form of internal conflict: muscles spending energy but cancelling each other out, resulting in no net movement.

And I realized that my system was generating, in addition to the physical discomfort, some meta-discomfort. Some not-okay-ness. Some sense of problem: “I shouldn’t be feeling this. I need it to go away.” Thus the discomfort was getting in the way of my writing and also my ability to enjoy myself.

I’ve been getting really into Perceptual Control Theory this year, and it offered a powerful framework for thinking about this. The model outlines a way of thinking about oneself as being made of a nested hierarchy of control systems: systems that maintain the levels of various parameters, at different levels of abstraction from muscle tension up to specific practiced movements up to a self-concept.

The discomfort that I was experiencing was on some levels a physical sensation, but it was also a mental experience of a difference between my reference level of “how I should feel” and “how I do feel”. And so what I practiced was resolving that mental experience not by trying to feel differently, but by relaxing my reference level for “how I should feel”. In particular, at one point I laid down for my daily nap, and I wasn’t sure if I was going to be able to sleep but I decided that for that 20 minutes, I wouldn’t move a muscle, I would just deal with whatever meta-discomfort I was feeling, by reorganizing my control systems.

This embodied practice seems to offer a lot of fruit—I think it’s essentially the same learning that my friend Ben Hoffman experienced at a 10-day vipassana silent meditation retreat.

My learning had an additional level that day though, which was a deepened appreciation of my relationship to internal conflict. I’d previously been relatively good at putting aside internal conflict so I could accomplish stuff, but I still experienced a fair bit of oscillation. On my own, I potentially could have borne this for a long time. But it was really unpleasant to be in relationship with, and my colleagues (both in the context of Complice and in the larger Upstart Collaboratory project here) were asking me to show up differently. Part of me was committed to doing things differently, but another part of me was still committed to a mindset based around the idea of being able to directly control people’s behavior—mine or others’.

So what shifted that day was that I became more aligned around a new commitment, which entailed not operating out of internal conflict or oscillation, but instead prioritizing changing my perceptual frame to de-escalate the internal conflicts rather than fighting in them.

I normally don’t eat until early- or mid-afternoon, and that day I decided to extend my fast until the evening, deepening my new practice of being okay in states of physical discomfort. Earlier I described a difference between a reference level and a perceptual level of some experience. With some things, you can simply change the reference level and cease experiencing error: the store is closed, I cease to want to go to the store. But with physical discomfort, including hunger, the experience of error is much more intrinsic, so I had to change my reference level not just for hunger but for error itself.

I also shared my experience of the day and my new sense of commitment with those close to me, so that we’d have common knowledge about how I wanted to be operating. This sharing helps reinforce mindset shifts.

Bringing the big picture back into the picture

But it turns out that there’s a limit to how much you can practice just de-escalating internal conflicts and have that yield powerful output. From the musical RENT: “The opposite of war isn’t peace—it’s creation!”

And furthermore, there’s a limit to how applicable this sort of practice is. Rapid learning requires pushing at the boundaries of current performance. I need to be simultaneously practicing staying deeply connected with my sense of purpose, striving, and high-level performance, while still refusing to fight internal conflicts and working with them creatively instead.

So I now have a double commitment: to act in each moment out of a sense of purposeful discipline, and also to not waste my energy fighting myself.

And, as Dogen recommends: “to practise the Way as though saving my head from fire.”

This means that if I notice myself feeling aimless, or I notice myself feeling stuck or oscillating, dealing with that immediately rather than acting from it. Focusing on addressing internal conflicts might yield less short-term output than if I were to stay focused on the object-level and push through with “willpower”, trying to win my internal conflict. Focusing on staying purpose-driven in each moment will almost certainly be less comfortable than a more calm spaciousness, but if I don’t then I can’t actually trust myself to resolve my conflicts in service of what I care about.

Conflict is inherently wasteful, as energy is spent by both sides but the effects cancel each other out. Tiago Forte points out in The Throughput of Learning that Toyota’s production line aims for zero waste. They don’t expect to reach literally zero, but having that as a target makes it clear to the whole system that they’re playing a totally different game than mere waste mitigation or waste reduction.

I’m essentially declaring to my internal control systems that the strategy of waging war is out. And then creating space for them to bust their assumptions that were leading to that approach, so they can step up to the challenge of coordinating in a new way. This is the more abstract equivalent of staying still while experiencing physical discomfort. And I think it’s key to developing a practical spacious passion in passionate space.

There are lots of object-level techniques that can be deployed to help with this—almost all productivity tools and techniques are based around dealing with internal conflict or staying in touch with purpose—but the whole thing is very fractaline: being able to consistently deploy those techniques requires not being in conflict about whether or not it makes sense to operate from conflict! So I’ll talk more about that in the future. For now, meta-coherence.

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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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