posttitle = Mindset choice 2: expanding awareness titleClass =title-long len =37

Mindset choice 2: expanding awareness

Another piece I wrote a year ago that I want to publish as a kind of snapshot rather than try to get it perfect. My ideas here keep evolving and any version that I come up with seems simultaneously confused and clarifying.

A sequel to “Mindset choice” is a confusion.

My Non-Naive Trust Dance framework and its clarity that mindset choice is confused was a huge source of relief for me, because I’d been feeling pressured to somehow make a choice that I couldn’t make, and which on some level I knew I couldn’t make.

However, I have also experienced a perspective from which it seemed to be true that in some sense your mindset is certainly a thing that only you can choose, and in another sense perhaps even the only thing you can choose. So how does that integrate with “mindset choice” being a confusion?

Here’s some thinking out loud on the topic. I’m aware of some limitations—this feels like it’s sort of dancing around the puzzle, not getting right to the heart of it.

One piece of the choice puzzle is: via expanding awareness.

This framing of expanding attention (awareness) as including both doing and not-doing is really interesting. One of the core skills of Alexander Technique is that of inhibition, the constructive noticing and not responding to stimuli. You may notice that you have the urge to yell at your boss, but you don’t.

But this is an active process, one that is continually renewing itself. You are aware of what you are doing in response to your boss (having a conversation) and what you’re not doing in your response to your boss (yelling). Through the skill of inhibition, your awareness includes both of these processes at once.

The expanded awareness is what allows this to happen. If your awareness were collapsed down to the yell response, you wouldn’t have any choice but to yell. By expanding out you are able to monitor a wider field of processes and choose the one you want.

— my friend Michael Ashcroft‘s newsletter. Emphasis mine in the last paragraph

And elsewhere:

First, I need to reiterate one of my main talking points, which is that you can’t make choices with respect to something if it lies outside your awareness.

My quotidian example is that of being in an hours-long flow state, when suddenly you ‘come back to yourself’ and realise you needed to use the bathroom some time ago. The sensations of pressure were there all along, but somehow you weren’t able to notice them or, therefore, to act on them.

That state of being unable to notice is critical and is overlooked as a fundamental and common part of our day to day experience. In general we are released from it by some outside influence, like the flow state ending on its own, being interrupted by a colleague or notification, or the biological necessity increasing to the extent that it becomes salient.

Only then are we able to relate to the thing in our awareness. Until the moment the spell is broken and our awareness expands, it’s impossible to do anything about it.

Consider that every time you make a choice — to move, to speak, to eat, even to think a particular thought — you must first be available to the idea that you could do any of these things. The expansion of awareness to include the notion — the idea that you might make a choice — always precedes the choice itself.

This writing was prompted by an experience I had of looking at a book called The Self-Centered Marriage, which talks about how the key to everything is becoming calm rather than reactive. I certainly agree from my experience that 100% of the time, engaging with my partner or friends nonreactively (perhaps still with intensity!) works better than engaging reactively. The question is, what good is that if you’re too reactive to notice you’re reactive and become calm? And what does “become calm” even mean?

I was previously encountering a paradox, where it seemed that in order to choose the collaborative mindset, I had to first be in the collaborative mindset in the first place. Every now and then something would seem to work anyway to make that shift, but maybe half the time this would leave out key knowings in my bodymind; a lateral shift, not an expanded one. And thus I’d end up in an open stance, no longer judging, but also no longer clearly in touch with whatever knowing had been expressing itself judgmentally.

Logan Strohl has a piece of writing about courage & defensiveness, which beautifully articulates a different way to approach this, by turning towards defensiveness rather than trying to push through it or just flip into a different mode.

But how do you choose to expand your awareness if in order to do so you first need enough awareness to notice that your awareness has collapsed?

As I see it, the collaborative mindset involves several elements. Perhaps most deeply is a perceptual shift or insight centered around the entire victim/blame game being fundamentally confused—seeing that the difference between a lot of blame and a little blame is miniscule compared to the difference between a little blame and zero blame. And that there’s no way to blame others without denying your own agency, and no way to blame yourself without denying others’ agency. It’s a doozy when you see it, and doesn’t generally integrate overnight.

Another element, whether built on top of that insight or just as a pragmatic toolkit: an actual conceptual and practical understanding of how reward & punishment and coercion more generally are very limiting and self-defeating ways to do behavior change (goodharting is part of this) and an embodied understanding of a different approach to take. This can be learned from systems thinking and reading parenting books like Punished by Rewards and How To Talk So Kids Will Listen & Listen So Kids Will Talk.

Now, in reference to either the insight or the non-coercive approach… knowing that that perspective sees clearer or method works better (not in an external moral sense but according to your own values) is insufficient if you don’t have the ability to use it in a given moment. And why would that be? Well, one reason is that parts of you still think that the other approach works or is necessary to keep you safe, and when you get into the heat of some emotional activation, your attention becomes narrowed down to that possibility. And then, as with the yelling example that Michael Ashcroft mentioned, you don’t have any other choices available.

Long-term, you want to do therapeutic reconsolidation on those emotional schemas, so that they don’t arise in the first place because the old knowings have been integrated with the new knowings and you’re no longer triggerable into those states in the first place. There are countless methods for this, from Coherence Therapy to Internal Trust-Dancing to IFS to Cycles to just having good introspective conversations with friends. Or, noticing and revealing patterns.

However, in the meantime, how can you best navigate given that you’ve got some old material regularly getting triggered, that you haven’t untangled yet? This is where expanding awareness comes in. Expanding awareness isn’t about suppressing the emotional activation, just about creating more space for it. It’s not about performing any particular action, or seeing the scene in any particular way, but about creating space to see other ways in general, and to have even the possibility of choosing between actions. From a space of expanded awareness, you’re more likely to be able to make choices in line with your highest principles, but the expanded awareness says relatively little about what those principles might be.

It is in general easier to abide in expanded awareness in the presence of other people who have expanded awareness (unless that itself triggers some threat response). And as the practice of hands-on Alexander Technique demonstrates vividly, it’s even possible to nudge (or jolt!) someone else momentarily into a state of expanded awareness by being in such a space yourself and then touching them in a particular way.

But I’m perhaps belying some confusion in the previous paragraph. Michael Ashcroft has indicated that you can’t actually stay in a “state” of expanded awareness. It’s something that needs to be accessed afresh in each moment (a moment lasts about 1-3 seconds).

I’m not actually sure what the implications of the “only for a moment” thing are—I’m only just starting to play with the expanded awareness stuff, though I’ve been increasingly recognizing that it’s important over the last year or so. If someone is in a fight with their spouse and they expand their awareness in one moment, does it often collapse back onto “why I’m right” a few seconds later? I think I’ve had this happen.

In “Mindset choice” is a confusion, I write that in some sense choosing between mindsets is always obvious. If you try to “make up your mind” then you’re ignoring some part of you that actually thinks something else makes sense, which means that whatever you’ve chosen is in some sense incomplete. Sometimes we need to make urgent pragmatic choices, eg about whether to run to catch the bus or wait to catch the next one, where there’s no best answer. But it matters whether you actually feel that the urgency is real and you understand it, or whether it feels fake or imposed. And in any case, “whatever, from my perspective, creates the most upward spiral dynamics with the least cost” is always better than everything else. So if you’re not choosing some action that would appear to be that, then some part of you knows about some cost that another part of you is ignoring.

And the reason you’re not seeing it is that your awareness has collapsed. So while you can’t, even in principle, choose the collaborative mindset, you can, if you know how, choose to expand your awareness! At which point, if you understand the collaborative mindset, then it may be obvious to you how to collaborate with the situation you’re in. Or more generally, someone who has just read a self-help or marriage book might have more capacity to put what they’ve just learned into practice. But that’s all particulars—the first step is zooming out.

(Huh, I’m noticing that another kind of “choosing a mindset” would be the “act as if” kind of choosing. This is totally a thing that people can sometimes do, and sometimes it yields profound results. You can try on some new assumptions and have some new experiences, which can then help you see what’s possible, which provides both motivation to learn & change as well as contradicting evidence for former generalizations. But my experience is that many people can’t quite fake it til they make it with this stuff. You have to actually unearth the old generalizations, with profound respect, and dialogue them with the new experiences without assuming either is more correct. Faking it til you make it is necessarily a form of compartmentalization because you’re inhibiting your usual assumptions whether by force or by context. This isn’t inherently harmful to development, but too much of it without enough integration will tend to be problematic.)

This kind of choice would definitely require expanded awareness, because otherwise you’d just be taking whichever assumptions activate first as a given. Although I guess if the context is powerful enough that it invokes new defaults, that might work too, temporarily. I think these elements are largely how the Living Room Weekend events hosted by Jean have functioned: act as if, with a powerful context for reminding & guiding & encouraging you to do so.

As for how to go about expanding awareness, Michael Ashcroft has a whole course on doing that from an Alexander Technique perspective (although different from classical AT in that it focuses directly on the awareness rather than having the awareness be a byproduct of a different way of holding your body).

I’m still not totally sure what it means to choose to expand your awareness. First, of course, you’d need to know what that action would be and how to do it, in a situation where that’s the main thing you’re attending to. For instance, you might go through Michael’s course and try the exercises he has in there. Maybe initially they only sort of work, some of the time, but after some practice you can expand your awareness most of the time when you’re not otherwise hooked by something. But you still get distracted by the internet a lot, perhaps.

Second, as he says, you need to be aware of a choice in order to make it, so obviously if you want to be able to expand your awareness in some tense-argumentative or internet-scrolling situation, your awareness needs to already not be so narrow that you can’t see the option of pausing to expand it. You might try installing a custom userstyle or extension that inserts a “take a moment and pause” block while you’re scrolling… and you might find yourself impatiently scrolling right past it. I’ve done this many times. This sort of thing seems to me to be a sign of internal conflict of some kind, not just narrowed awareness. It implies part of you actively does not want to expand your awareness, for whatever reason.

What does collapsed awareness imply? What is the relationship between collapsed awareness and coercion?

I’m really not sure about this. Very much thinking out loud here in this writing. For context on precisely what I mean by “coercion”, you may want to read coercion in terms of scarcity and perceptual control.

Insofar as collapsed awareness is strongly associated with the left hemisphere, and the left hemisphere treats everything as tools, obstacles, or irrelevant, then if someone is relating to other people from a place of collapsed awareness, coercion will tend to occur unless the people are sufficiently on the same page about what they want to happen that no actual conflict arises. Consider as an example of both possibilities a situation where someone is set on having sex with their partner. If the partner happens to be readily and happily seduceable, the person’s one-track mind can result in a mutually-satisfying interaction, even with one or both people just treating the other as a vehicle for gratification. If, however, the partner is busy or otherwise not in the mood, or if something interrupts the process, then unless the originally-grasped drive can be released and awareness expanded, then coercion or attempted coercion will occur. (And it’s possible that self-coercion will occur as an attempt to let go of the drive.) Relating with others from a space of collapsed awareness is thus somewhat risky but not inherently bad or doomed, depending on the situation. And there are totally some kinds of situations where it works most of the time: situations with clear scripts, like a grocery store checkout or some professional interactions.

Internally, if someone is simply doing an activity they know how to do and encountering no problems they don’t know how to tackle, their awareness can be collapsed on that with no internal coercion. This is maybe roughly what’s happening when someone’s in a flow state, which is very pleasurable and nearly the opposite of internal coercion although it can lead people to ignore physiological error signals like hunger or thirst! If someone is trying to perform an action and encounters a substantial internal conflict, they will need to shift their awareness from the level of their Perceptual Control Theory hierarchy where the conflict is occurring to the level above where the conflict is being generated arises, which will involve at least a little expanding of awareness though not necessarily very much if the conflict is simple.

So it seems collapsed awareness that doesn’t know how to expand implies coercion sooner or later.

Does expanded awareness imply collaboration?

As I think I’ve implied above, I think the answer is “no”.

Expanded awareness will tend to decrease internal coercion, I think, or at least mitigate negative effects of it, because someone is less likely to get stuck in a lower-level conflict. However, someone might expand their awareness then use force (a commitment contract or willpower or something) to commit to a particular course of action, disregarding the part of them that doesn’t want to (and whatever it knows or cares about). This is one solution to the conflict, but not a win-win one, so may create longer-term problems. These may be minimal though if the loser of the conflict is a part whose time horizon is very short eg “I’m comfy in my warm bed” and isn’t controlling for anything else in particular, so once out of bed the conflict dissolves (for today) in a similar way to how a conflict between two restaurants disappears if one turns out to be closed.

It seems to me that someone who is unconflicted about coercion being an appropriate way of organizing behavior and behavior change would engage in coercion of others while in expanded awareness, while perhaps justifying it as being for the benefit of those others or the benefit of some other noble principle. This might look like:

  • “This kid/student/criminal needs to be disciplined so they understand that what they did was wrong!”
  • <something about not letting people out of scarcity unless they earn it / people won’t work if we give them UBI >
  • <something about reinforcement/reward>
  • “Those sinners need to know they’ll burn in hell.”

If you actually think those approaches will work, expanding your awareness won’t keep you from using them. And they do kind of locally appear to work, so this is a common trap. There’s a small caveat here about how expanding awareness involves shifting consciousness towards the right hemisphere or something, which tends to be less inclined to try to force/control, but overall looking at historic memeplexes or my own journals from times when I was both expansive and still kind of pushy, this doesn’t seem to be sufficient.

Closing thoughts/fragments:

There’s also something relevant about my resistance to the IFS move of “step into Self” / “ask the part to step aside”. It’s like, no, I need to expand. And theoretically that’s what that move is about, but it hasn’t felt like it to me. Getting the part to move aside feels lateral, whereas changing my orientation to the space around it feels spacious.

In the againstness training, the intended move to make was one of expanding awareness, though in practice I think many of us functionally treated it as a lateral move—myself included.

Pomodoros on any fractal scale are about narrowing your awareness & intentionality to a particular scope for awhile, then expanding it again at the end.

Play is about safety, including safety to forget.

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About Malcolm

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.

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