I’m excited, because it’s working.
I’ve been trying for years to develop my sense of mindfulness and mental control, and I’m starting now to get a very direct taste of what that feels like.
And it’s thrilling.
So here’s what happened: last night, I was having a conversation with Jean (my friend, housemate, mentor and project partner) and the subject of epistemological arguments came up. I’ve had some conflict with some of my other housemates in this area, and while part of it is theoretical there is also a practical concern, because ultimately we base our decisions on what we (think we) know, and so has felt threatening to the relationships to be unable to use certain ways of communicating information. Threatening, I think, for both sides.
I want to note that this conflict isn’t a shallow one. I wrote last year about how I overcame some of my stress around the subject of astrology. It had been a hot topic for me for several years due to heated arguments with girlfriends-at-the-time-of-the-arguments. At my first CFAR workshop, I brought up some of this stress, in a controlled environment and then worked to calm myself down, and it gave me a strong sense of what this concept of againstness feels like. (The relevant post contains a video, if you want to see it in action.)
Have you ever been talking with someone, and the two of you essentially agree about the topic at hand, but you still find yourself arguing your point violently? You know what that feels like? That feeling is againstness. And it takes mental skill to extricate yourself from the mode of vehemently asserting the thing you believe so strongly, and to instead have a productive conversation about it. And that’s the skill I’m learning.
Jean wasn’t remotely interested in listening to me deliver an ineffective argument that wasn’t directed at her in the first place. But, as we sat there talking about my desire to bridge the gaps in epistemology so that we can soften the defensiveness and better learn from each other, I found myself continually feeling drawn towards hashing out this argument, either in my head or aloud. And each time, between the impulse and the act of arguing, I was able to interrupt the process and either go back to what we were saying or talk on a meta-level with Jean about my experience of being pulled towards the content of the argument.
And the experience that I had when I was sitting there and trying to push away from the content-level argument feels like the most clear sense I’ve ever had of doing a mental workout—rewiring my own neurons in real time! I had the sense of being at a mental crossroads: like two roads diverged in my head and I took the one less traveled… and then I took it again.
I’ve now seen that fork in the road many times. And you know, I used to drive the other route several times daily, so if I’m not paying attention, that’s where I’ll go. But the new one is becoming more and more familiar, and it’s no longer at all challenging to imagine a different future, in which it’s effortless and habitual.
While it’s easy to imagine that it will be effortless, it’s kind of mind-blowing to imagine how it will feel and how it will look to others.
Living in a learning community is tremendously helpful for this kind of thing. The social mind loves to adapt its behaviour so that it makes sense for the social context you spend time in. Also, constant contact with a group of people with whom you share a personal growth-related vocabulary makes those concepts easier to notice and easier to think about in their presence.
There’s a concept from linguistics called code-switching, which refers to how people instinctively adapt not only their word use but also their mannerisms and other speech patterns, depending on the group of people they’re interacting with. So how does this help?
Well, a few weeks ago, a different housemate of mine and I started co-working on the project of having more comfortable conversation. I can be loud and overbearing, especially when I get excited, and she’s also experienced various patterns that make her feel like I haven’t listened to what she’s said. I wrote about this during weeks 7 and 8 of my habit-a-week challenge.
Anyway, she’s also been really interested in the againstness training. So when, during a random conversation, I found myself getting a bit worked up as I went to say something, I cut myself off and said, “hang on, I need to PSNS.” (PSNS = parasympathetic nervous system, the kind of mental activity that’s opposite from againstness/SNS) I closed my eyes, took a deep breath, turned my forearms out vulnerably, and released some muscle tension. I would guess that other mental shifts took place at the time, but they’re much harder to describe.
Then I started to speak again, this time much more calmly.
A large part of what made this possible was my sense of her interest in againstness, and her desire to engage with me around that. She said later that day that she really appreciated both that I centered myself before speaking and also her experience of watching me centering myself.
Mindfulness is the skill of observing your thoughts without getting lost in them. While it’s often practiced sitting on a meditation cushion, many people also do mindful walking, or mindful dishwashing, etc. For most people, this kind of meditation is not associated with anything supernatural, but simply with gaining more control over your own mind. I’ve long been aware of the benefits of meditation, but I’ve had trouble keeping up a regular practice.
However, it seems to me that once you’ve reached a certain skill level with mindfulness, you can engage in new forms of it that involve practicing it as part of other mental shifts you’re endeavoring to make. During a recent CFAR alumni video chat, someone asked me what I did to get rid of filler words. I found myself thinking, “well, I just paid a lot of attention to them.” I think the word “just” there contains a massive step, which is “learn to direct your attention.” But I haven’t done hundreds or thousands of hours of mindfulness meditation. Maybe 50 hours total, over the last 6 years? That’s not a lot. So I think you can hack this. How? Conscious selective attention.
The person who had asked me the question said she was part of a toastmaster’s group. “Great!” I said, “Count everyone else’s umms and uhhs.” By paying more attention to specific behaviour patterns when observing others, you increase your ability to notice them in yourself.
There’s more to it than that, but I think that’s a start. If you’re doing something specific like umms and uhhs, set aside some time (perhaps a week, like me) when that’s going to be your primary focus on your own behaviour.
If you’re doing something more social, like the againstness training, then my biggest advice is to find or form a community around it. Ideally, you want a generalized learning community, so that people can help you with everything, not just one specific shift you’re looking to make.
I’ve found that some shifts happen more effectively when they’re focused on, like the filler words, but others seem to happen naturally and gradually, as a result of being in an environment where those behaviours are gently encouraged through consistent feedback loops.
Either way, practicing mental control live is way more intense training than just sitting on a mat. Sure, that’s important too. Just like if you’re learning tennis you’ll want to drill serves. But sometimes you need to practice with a live opponent to get the richest growth.
EDIT: I’ve written a follow-up to this post here.
Constantly consciously expanding the boundaries of thoughtspace and actionspace. Creator of Intend, a system for improvisationally & creatively staying in touch with what's most important to you, and taking action towards it.