posttitle = Releasing myself from a confused self-contradictory commitment titleClass =title-long len =62

Releasing myself from a confused self-contradictory commitment

I have a commitment that I made pretty strongly nearly 7 years ago, and then 3.5 years ago I sort of released it for myself, and even though I don’t particularly think anybody is holding me to it, it feels wise to formally release it. I would say I released it for myself in 2020 the moment I had my non-naive trust dance insight, but since it was a social commitment it feels right to withdraw it from the social sphere too. It’s good, in general, to follow through with commitments; it’s bad to keep pretending to be committed if it’s no longer alive. In this case I would say I realized that the commitment was both self-defeating (as in I could serve its purpose better by dropping it than by keeping it) and in some sense impossible as stated.

In 2021, I published “Mindset choice” is a confusion, which is precisely about this. In it, I describe how while committing to a project can make sense, committing to a way of seeing the world (except as a very bounded temporary experiment) has within it some basic confusion or commitment to not looking and not listening to things that might counter that way of seeing the world. It may be a useful stepping stone, but that doesn’t make it not a confusion.

In 2017, I had a taste of a new experience of easeful flow, that I tried somewhat unsuccessfully to point at in Towards being purpose-driven without fighting myself. The same day I had that experience, I tried to distill my clarity into something that would help me keep it, and wrote up a commitment that I then performed as a small ritual that evening with my learning community as witnesses (I also ritually repeated it daily for months while donning some rings and a necklace, as an attempt to enact it). I still stand by the spirit of the content of the commitment, but the tone of how I approached committing now strikes me as entirely antithetical to everything that was precious about the experience I tasted and loved so deeply.

This blog post is both a formal renouncement of that commitment, as well as a case study in the whole “Mindset choice” is a confusion insight.

The text of the 2017 commitment read:

I hereby commit (and hereby act on the basis of such commitment)
• to take myself and all others I am in relationship with seriously
as centers of experience, understanding, and agency, and from there
• to take response-ability for generatively re-interpreting
oscillating tensions into creative tensions &
double-binds into opportunities for shared laughter, and thereby
• to be access-able as a resource to collaborators
towards caring for the ongoing survival and thrival of humanity

I hereby uncommit to that, not because it’s not a good way to live, but because it’s the sort of thing that a commitment is not a good way to approach (as far as I can tell). Keep reading for more of my thoughts on this.

Goodself & badself

The context for how I got here today was that I was re-reading The Guru Papers—one of my all-time favorite books, which interestingly I would have first read in late 2016, relatively shortly before the experience of freedom/liberation in 2017 that plugged into this commitment. Specifically, today I was reading the chapter on addiction, which describes the inner struggle for control between some sense-of-self-that-is-good-in-terms-of-social-uprightness/superegos and some sense-of-self-that-seems-selfish-or-self-centered. The “goodself” and “badself”, although these names are tongue-in-cheek and more refer to what they tend to call themselves; in fact, both have both wholesome desires and self-destructive patterns.

And I was reading about their take on Alcoholics Anonymous…

The A.A. model not only programs people not to trust themselves, self-mistrust is essential for it to work. Its litany is “The 12 Steps work—don’t question them.” When someone does drop out, sure enough, the addiction (the badself) resurfaces—as warned. On returning to A.A., the “We told you so” smug reproof further lots in the belief of being powerless. The group acts like a chorus of goodselves whose refrain is “You’ll always lose control on your own.” A.A. interprets its ability to predict relapses as a verification of its ideology (rather than of its ineffectiveness), using this to tighten authoritarian control over its members. But the model of a divided self explains far better why even after years of sobriety the siren-song of excess lurks beneath the surface, leaving no choice but to “take it [sobriety] one day at a time.”

[…] The strongest argument for such programs is that they work […] A key question is how is “work” defined?

My wife (who also loves the book) suggested we re-read that chapter this week because of a recent experience we both had in parallel, of having a few really lovely focused intentional work days, then something of a “relapse” into patterns of fixated internetting. Which prompted a recognition on our parts that our seemingly lovely work days weren’t actually sustainable; while they may have been fruitful and relatively enjoyable, they were still a bit of a goodself-driven mode, not a fully integrated mode. Thus producing an oscillation! She and I want to challenge each other to high standards of excellence, but the excellence we seek is that of fluid wholesome integration and welcoming all aspects of ourselves as ourselves—not an excellence based on negating the supposedly-non-excellent.

Anyway, this morning, after reading that section, I wrote the following in my journal:

I was reflecting last night and this morning that I really haven’t been listening to my inner voices and parallaxing, when it comes to my workflows. [by contrast with in situations of interpersonal tension]

I’ve confused the smoothness of the goodself’s control with the underlying smoothness that’s always there at the ground of being whenever one notices it.

I’m struck by how when I had my first taste of a particular quality of this smoothness, this flowing-mood / integration, in 2017… the thing I did with it was try to turn it into a commitment to empower the goodself!!

Then I wrote out the commitment from memory—almost verbatim:

I hereby commit, and hereby act on the basis of such commitment
to take myself and all others I am in relationship with seriously
as centers of experience, understanding, and agency
to transform oscillating tensions into creative tensions
and double-binds into opportunities for shared laughter
in order to be available as a resource to collaborators
in service of the ongoing survival and thrival of humanity

…and then I sort of stared at it, and felt how I felt when I stared at it. I felt kinda weird and bad. I noticed there were a few things I wanted to do at that point, and I wrote them out:

  • self-apology
  • paraphrase to show subtext/authoritarian vibes
  • write an articulation of my insight that day that doesn’t have those vibes
  • tweet/post about renouncing this commitment

The absurd contradiction in this commitment

I ended up starting with the paraphrase. It’s not really a paraphrase, but more of it’s an attempt to capture the nature of the speech act I was undertaking, and how it’s confused:

I have an image of how is best to act, and I don’t trust myself to enact that image because I don’t trust that parts of me aren’t opposed to it, so I am trying to make myself socially accountable for enacting that image, so that others will like me and by surrendering to their moral context I can absolve myself of needing to know what I want, or making my own choices when I can’t get on the same page with others.

In other words, I’m showing up to the figurative AA meeting of the other people who want to live in this way, and asking them to hold me accountable to living this way.

In Towards being purpose-driven without fighting myself, where I wrote up a story of that day, here’s how I talked about the commitment:

Part of me was committed to doing things differently [collaboratively], 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 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.

Uhhh… it helps reinforce internal division and self-coercion. Which was supposedly exactly the opposite of the mindset shift we were all about! But you can see the paradox right there in what I wrote: Part of me was committed to X, and part of me was committed to Y, and these parts are fighting. So clearly the solution is to choose X to win, because X is better, because X is all about not fighting.

that’s just more fighting! I mean, arguably not if it’s an immediate decisive victory (which is what I tried to get at in Building self-trust with Self-Referential Motivation, another post from the same era that was also inspired by The Guru Papers) but in any case it’s still NOT a victory for transcending internal conflicts. In a sense, as I describe in thinking that rejects other thinking, I was trying to adopt the kind of thinking that does not reject other thinking, but I was trying to do so through rejecting thinking that does! Which is self-defeating.

I feel almost embarrassed looking at this now, at how obvious it all could have been, right there. I still have some introspection to do to understand exactly why it made sense to me to do exactly what I did. There are emotional & social reasons—I was part of cool group, and they thought commitment was cool (and was the path) and so I was trying to follow that both for belonging reasons and because I legit thought it would work. But I was in part rationalizing that it would work because if I concluded that commitment was an unworkable approach, that would have put me at odds with the group! (as it later did, 3 years later)

In terms of coherence psychology, it seems to me that we were trying to take a counteractive approach, rather than a transformational approach. A temporary commitment can be a useful device for bootstrapping a little self-trust, but sustained self-trust comes from listening to everything that arises in oneself and bringing it into contact with everything else, not by helping one win against another. And if part of you doesn’t want to listen to another part of you, listening to that and finding out why not! And seeing if there’s another way to do it.

Recognition, not commitment

Anyway, then I rewrote those lines from a commitment into a statement of recognition. A pointing-out instruction, for myself or perhaps others. An acknowledgment. Not something I can readily schism myself on.

I presently observe, though I may lose sight of:
the reality that people have their own experience, understanding, desire, & agency,
that is actually what it is, and makes sense to them
and insofar as I see this, I see broadly how to transform:
• oscillating tensions into creative tensions, &
• double-binds into opportunities for shared laughter
(while recognizing that this may not be possible without changing the form of the relationship)

by seeing the above, I am empowered to make social dynamics around me be more wholesome and delightful, and to serve the larger wholes I am part of to the extent that serving them serves me and what I care about

I would like to see the above more: collectively with others, and more fully, deeply, and from more of my own inner perspectives, because it feels really good when I do.

…a bit wordier but way truer and less full of justification & bullshit.

Self-apology unwind Original Spin

I started slowly reading the page I’d written out loud… “I really haven’t been listening to my inner voices and parallaxing, when it comes to my workflows”. I noticed a subtle impulse towards a flinch, a shame, an apology to some superego: “ah man I was supposed to be listening & juxtaposing and I haven’t been listening”. But that’s a distraction, I’ve come to recognize—and the thing to do is not to dismiss the shame, it’s to recognize that before the shame & flinch is my own pain. It hurts to not feel listened to. It sucks to be operating out of inner conflict. It feels bad. Ow. And I felt this pain and disappointment, in my body, and I teared up a bit, and I held myself in that experience, and something relaxed.

The next line… “I’ve confused the smoothness of the goodself’s control with…” Once again, a subtle habitual response of “man I’m such an idiot, making this absurd confusion.” Not even in so many words, merely a stance towards myself. And once again, underneath the judgment is my own pain. This confusion was really frustrating and disorienting! I really have been confused here! I’m probably still confused! I don’t like that! Ow. And I felt this pain and confusion, too, in my body, and something lifted.

So in the end what I thought was going to be “self-apology” turned out to be unwinding Original Spin. That’s the name for these moves I made here, of feeling the pain under my shoulds or shames or judgments or whatever. You can read about Original Spin here, or watch a video exploring the concept here.

Ring of Responsibility? No, Ring of I Can Tell For Myself

While I’m going about renouncing former blog posts… 😆😤

One of the rings I used in the daily ritual where I recited this commitment was my Engineering Iron Ring, which I put on while saying the words “to be access-able as a resource to collaborators, towards caring for the ongoing survival and thrival of humanity”. This was in part a reference to my blog post The Iron Ring and Heroic Responsibility, where I talked about interpreting the Ritual of the Calling of an Engineer in such a way that the ring on my finger was supposed to be not just about honoring my engineering training if a superior asked me to cut some corners on safety… but about taking responsibility for the entire future of the entire human race and cosmos, in every moment.

This… was crazy-making, and it definitely had a goodself-badself quality to it. I’ve written a bit about the thinking that led me there in confronting & forgiving the people who instilled fear in my heart. For a few weeks after putting the ring on it would cause me to flinch randomly if I saw the ring while I was doing something that was clearly not helping save the world. Then I (necessarily for my own sanity) let it fade into the background, except for a period in 2016 (starting a few months prior to the commitment mentioned above) where I started taking it off each night and putting it on again each day and trying to really think about existential risks etc.

Anyway, I wrote my post about the iron ring, I wrote:

The iron ring is to remind engineers to care more about human welfare than following orders or doing what’s convenient.

I’m intending to frame it personally as being about heroic responsibility. Which is, I think, the natural extension of the ritual.

And today it occurred to me that this is just basically incorrect. Or at least, I’m giving up that old interpretation, and embracing a new one. Sure, the ritual talks about the responsibility to the public to not make bridges that fall down. But let’s face it—no engineer wants to build a bridge that falls down. The reason an engineer would sign off on an unsafe design is because of social pressure overriding the wisdom of their math & physics calculations. The iron ring is about standing in “I can tell for myself [that this girder needs to be thicker to hold all this weight]” and not putting up with bullshit.

Interestingly, in 2023 I wrote up art is choosing what to breathe life into, which was likewise a reflection on an experience of tapping this quality of remarkable spacious flowing freedom, but is dissimilar in being more an attempt to evoke what it felt like than an attempt to explain it or even describe it, let alone commit to it.

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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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