On “Being Grateful for the Opportunity to Train”

There’s a pattern that I’ve noticed in several areas of practice, that I want to highlight. I think it’s a core piece of the challenge I’ve been writing about, around how to get out of internal conflicts. As of this sentence, I’m not totally sure why, but I’m hoping to be more sure by the time I reach the end of this post, and at minimum to have framed a question that we can look at together.

The pattern can be expressed as a simply trigger-action plan: if experiencing discomfort or challenge, orient towards it as an opportunity to practice.

The first place I recall hearing this was from Valentine at CFAR, who taught it as a central component of what was then called “againstness training”. The aim of againstness training was to develop the ability to notice one’s stress response (SNS = sympathetic nervous system activation) and be able to shift towards a more relaxed state.

One powerful step for relaxing the stress you’re encountering, he said, is to be glad for it. This doesn’t have to come first—you can go straight to a breathing exercise, but it helps if it comes first. Part of why it helps is that it provides a frame within which doing those breathing exercises makes sense! If you’re relating to stress as something to learn from, you’re going to be much more inclined to trying to work with it consciously rather than acting from it.

This “with it” rather than “from it” seems to me like a kind of subject-object shift, which suggests that maybe the role played by “being grateful for the opportunity to train” (as Val canonically phrased it) is helping you to take the stress as object. That seems like a good first analysis of it.

Is that all? Let’s look at another example, then see what becomes apparent.

Entering the Heart of the Sun and Moon

I’m reading this book on tantra by Ngakpa Chogyam and Khandro Dechen. It was recommended by David Chapman of meaningness.com and I can see why.

In the second chapter, the authors are talking about the myriad of ways in which everyday experience reflects emptiness (which roughly maps onto what Chapman calls “nebulosity”) and how one can practice experiencing emptiness.

We begin by allowing ourselves to be uncertain. Rather than immediately attempting to consolidate our position with regard to people, events, and objects – we learn to relax with uncertainty.
This could be relatively painless: looking at an item of clothing in the wardrobe, and wondering whether it is still something to be valued. What do I feel when I look at this shirt or blouse? Someone asks me for my opinion. Do I have an opinion, or am I unsure what to think about the subject? Am I happy to have no opinion/ Am I content to suspend my judgment? Or do I feel impelled to move to one side or another on this issue?

They give numerous further concrete examples, then remark:

To most people these dichotomies and ambivalences are merely negative experiences – but to yogis and yoginis they are opportunities to realize nonduality.

One thing that is more explicit in this is description of the experience as negative. What does it mean for something to be negative, really?

This is a non-obvious question!

One might think that it means some kind of pushing-away, but in systems-language, negative feedback is actually feedback that causes a convergence. Negative feedback is core to how control systems work: they have a reference level, and deviations from the reference level cause negative feedback to occur, thereby (when the system is functioning) returning the perceptual signal to the reference level.

Perceptual Control Theory and negativity

Perceptual Control Theory (PCT) provides a model for understanding virtually all of human behavior as comprised of a hierarchy of control systems—or as my friend Romeo calls it, “a flock of thermostats”. Note that “flock” here isn’t just a playful word—the flocking behavior of birds has a complex emergent pattern to it, even though the rules that govern it are quite simple.

PCT defines the difference between the reference level (desired state) and the perception as “error”. This error produces some sort of effect on a lower-order control system to reduce the error—or, it does when the system is functioning.

Sometimes, however, the best way to eliminate the error is actually to change the reference level itself. This requires stepping out of the situation in a particular way.

At any rate, thinking in these terms about the notion of a “negative experience”, we could be considering any experience that produces an error signal on some level…

…but in practice this would fail. In basic cases, these experiences aren’t usually experienced as negative, because the error simply gets resolved. I desire to type the word “desire”, and my brain produces the appropriate reference levels for the letters of the word, which translate down to muscle movements.

The negative experience occurs when movement towards resolving the error is prevented, either from some internal conflict (such as some other control system setting a different, competing reference level) or from external conflict, such as when you try to keep the kitchen clean but your roomates have a different sense of order than you do.

Or… in many of the cases that these authors would be talking about, becvause the situation isn’t something you can resolve. If your body systems were to generate a reference level saying “the world should be flat”, then you can’t actually fix that. At best, you can maintain a delusion about it.

Or, if you’re grappling with embarrassment about something that happened… you can’t change what actually happened. Any system that experiences error in relation to that memory is going to have a bad time.

These are the moments when you need to go up a level or two in your hierarchy. If you and your roommate have different concepts of kitchen order, then you need to communicate about that until you’re aligned, or you need to accept the meta-order that is produced by the net effect of both of your efforts (sometimes this can be coherent and effective; often it’s extremely wasteful, as your efforts are cancelling each other out)

Dealing with discomfort internally, redux

In my blog post a few weeks ago, I wrote about muscle tension, which often shows up in relation to physical or mental discomfort. This muscle tension is the most basic level of wasteful conflict: two systems pulling in opposite directions: no movement, but the muscles get sore.

This is what happens when systems in conflict duke it out in the environment. Relaxing the muscles requires working with the control systems above the muscles themselves, to set a new, more relaxed reference level.

And again, as I was doing this practice, I found myself getting a lot of value from treating the uncomfortable experiences I was having as aresource for my learning—to the point that I experimented with fasting most of the day to give myself more training material (disclaimer: talk to your doctor before fasting every day).

Understood in this way, the discomfort was a resource. It 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.

The role that being grateful for the opportunity to train plays is that it totally relaxes this “how I should feel” reference level. It’s not a literal reversal: I should feel this discomfort; that would be a different kind of attachment, a kind that generates other tensions at other times. But nor is it begrudging acceptance!

Instead it creates a spaciousness within which what’s happening can be noticed and experienced without internal conflict. This provides a basis for discerning:

  • in the againstness case…
    • does it make sense to be speaking loudly right now?
    • am I in fact safe?
    • how stressed am I anyway?
  • in the ambiguity case…
    • how do I feel about this?
    • what feels at stake here?
    • how might I be oversimplifying things
  • in the muscle case…
    • what do I need to do to relax? to at least feel comfortable with what I am experiencing?

This discernment is done, as far as I can tell, by allowing one’s internal control systems to reorganize themselves so as to perceive things differently without having to act directly on the environment. This is therefore a powerful technique for dispelling illusions, shifting frames, and resolving internal conflicts!

Well. I feel pretty satisfied with where we got to! I know I’ve heard of this general pattern being deployed in several other places, but they’re not coming to mind at the moment. Can you think of any? Comment below with sources you know of, or with other areas that you think it would be effective in, even if you haven’t heard of it being used there before.

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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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