Open letter: Convening an Ontario meta-protocol jam

I wrote this addressed to a learning community of a few dozen people, based in Ontario, that evolved from the scene I used to be part of there before I left in late 2020. I’m about to visit for the first time in nearly 2 years, and I wanted to articulate how I’m understanding the purpose & nature of my visit. It’s also aimed to be a more general articulation of the kind of work I’m aiming to do over the coming years.

This writing is probably the densest, most complete distillation of my understandings that I’ve produced—so far! Each paragraph could easily be its own blog post, and some already are. My editing process also pruned 1700 words worth of tangents that were juicy but non-central to the point I’m seeking to make here, and there are many other tangents I didn’t even start down this week while writing this. Every answer births many new questions.

Convening an Ontario meta-protocol jam

To “jam” is to improvise without extensive preparation or predefined arrangements.
“Convening” means coming together, and Ontario is of course that region near the Great Lakes.
As for the “meta-protocol”…

It seems to me…

It seems to me that: consistent domain-general group flow is possible and achievable in our lifetimes. Such flow is ecstatic and also brilliant & wise. Getting to domain-general group flow momentarily is surprisingly straightforward given the right context-setting, but it seems to me that it usually involves a bit of compartmentalization and is thus unsustainable. It can be a beautiful and inspiring taste though. (By “domain-general” I mean group flow that isn’t just oriented towards a single goal (such as what a sports team has) but rather an experience of flow amongst the group members no matter what aspects of their lives or the world they turn their attention to.)

It seems to me that: profound non-naive trust is required for consistent domain-general group flow. This is partially self-trust and partially interpersonal trust.

It seems to me that: in order to achieve profound non-naive trust, people need to reconcile all relevant experiences of betrayal or interpersonal fuckery they’ve had in their life. This is a kind of relational due diligence, and it’s not optional. It’s literally the thing that non-naive trust is made out of. That is, in order for a group to trust each other deeply, they need to know that the members of that group aren’t going to betray each other in ways they’ve seen people betray each other before (or been betrayed before). Much of this is just on the level of trusting that we can interact with people without losing touch with what we know. So we either need to find a way to trust that the person in front of us won’t do something that has disturbed us before, or that we ourselves aren’t vulnerable to it like we were before, which involves building self-trust. It takes more than just time & experience to build trust—people need to feel on an embodied level why things go the way they’ve gone, and see a viable way for them to go differently.

It seems to me that: people attempt to do this naturally, whenever they’re relating, but understanding what’s going on and how to make it go smoothly can dramatically increase the chances of building trust rather than recapitulating dysfunctional dynamics by trying to escape them.

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In which I answer 6 questions from a friend about my Non-Naive Trust Dance framework. I’ve said a lot of this before, but kind of all over the place, so here it is collected together, as yet another starting point.

The questions:

  1. What is the non-naive trust dance, and when are people doing it? (Is it a practice? A worldview? An explanatory theory?)
  2. What is it not? How do I tell between NNTD and closely related things?
  3. What is it good for? What will it help me do?
  4. How do I know when I am doing it, or not doing it?
  5. How do I learn how to do it better?
  6. What is it not helpful for? When should I use something else?

My experience of writing this post has caused me to have a sort of meta-level answer to a question I see behind all of these questions, which is “why is the NNTD so important? should I care?” And my answer is that I don’t actually think NNTD is that significant on its own, and that most people should care if it intrigues them and seems useful and not otherwise. What makes the NNTD important is that it’s a new & necessary puzzle piece for doing world-class trust-building, which is necessary for making progress on collective consciousness, and that is important. But if you’re not working on that, and NNTD doesn’t interest you, then maybe you want to put your attention elsewhere!

1. What is the non-naive trust dance, and when are people doing it?
(Is it a practice? A worldview? An explanatory theory?)

It is, perhaps unfortunately, all 3 of those things. I would say that in some sense it’s mostly a worldview or a theory, and any practice that emerges out of that could ultimately be described as simply being what it is. Certain practices make more or less sense in light of the theory, but it’s descriptive rather than prescriptive.

So as a worldview, the NNTD view sees all beings as constantly engaged in trust-dancing. “Trust” and “truth” have the same root, and trust can be thought of as essentially subjective truth, so trust-dancing with reality is figuring out what seems true from your vantage point. Where naivety comes in is that humans have a tendency to try to interfere with each others’ sense of what’s true, resulting in apparent trust that’s actually layered on top of repressed distrust.

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Malcolm’s 100× vision (3 layers)

“There is almost a sensual longing for communion with others who have a large vision. The immense fulfillment of the friendship between those engaged in furthering the evolution of consciousness has a quality impossible to describe.”
— Pierre Teilhard de Chardin
Artwork by DALL·E 2 with my prompt: “illustration of a group of humans forming a collaborative ecstatic superorganism”.
I created the graphic with the Pierre Teilhard de Chardin quotation overlaid.

Last year, I was inspired by a fellow friend and consciousness-evolution-furtherer, who sent a screenshot of his “100× vision” in a newsletter. I replied “I feel dared by you doing that to do something similar myself.” A couple months later, I finally wrote something up. At the time it felt too big and scary to post anywhere, but perhaps I’ve grown, or just gotten more comfortable with it, or shared it with enough people who responded positively… because I now feel pretty easeful about posting it to my blog.

I’ve written some adjacent-possible visions. This one is about 10-15 years into the future—sometime in the 2030s—and is written as if I wrote it then, in the present tense, describing what I see when I look around at my life. It’s not a complete description of what I want—it’s actually very abstract and is designed to be a sort of generic placeholder vision that many people would also find themselves wanting. A friend recently challenged me to make an actual personal vision, so I’ve now done that too and it’s called “Malcolm’s bespoke personal selfish vision” but that I’m also not ready to publish. Wants can be very vulnerable!

Without further ado: here’s what I see from an imagined place in the 2030s:

I’m deeply embedded in beautiful, bountiful, brilliant collaborative human superintelligence on many scales, of which I’ll highlight 3 below. I’m not the leader on any of these scales – to some extent because there is no single leader but also because inasmuch as there is, that’s not what I’m called to do. But I was one of the major figures getting it all off the ground years ago, because I knew I needed all of this to exist in order to be thriving this much… I wouldn’t settle for anything less, and nobody else was already simply doing it in a way I could join, so I Sourced some of it.

Since precisely *what* we’re all working on at this point is highly contingent and path-dependent on both what else has happened and is happening in the world, as well as on who’s involved, and I’m writing this from a trans-timeline perspective that’s independent of those details, I can’t specify in detail what projects we’re working on, but I can describe the rough structure of things as they look right now in 2035.

inner scale: collective brain

I’m part of a slowly growing group of 10-20 people who are capable of getting profoundly in sync and are thus able to actually think as well as… it’s hard to put it but something like “as well as a single human could if it had 10-20x as many neurons”. Another analogy might be “a five year old is to an adult as an adult is to this collective brain”. We’re able to solve problems better than almost any individual could (except given specific expertise). Individual wisdom is integrated—the group is wise about anything that any individual in the group is wise about.

This group is one of several that are connected, and we’ve had some splittings and mergings over the years to find better configurations of people.

We have been and are ongoingly achieving this through a combination of…

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The meta-protocol for human trust-building

A protocol is a set of behaviors and expectations for interaction, whether explicit, such as Non-Violent Communication, or just the unspoken cultural norms of any social group. Shared protocols can dramatically increase people’s ability to collaborate and trust each other. But trying to get everyone to operate the same way is imperial, like trying to get everyone to speak the same language, and thus generates a ton of resistance if you try it.

The meta-protocol is the translation process, the dance by which trust is built between and within people. The meta-protocol is actually relevant even if two people think they’re already following the same protocol, because inasmuch as that protocol is inadequate… 

  • not able to be used for a particular situation
  • ambiguous and understood differently by each person
  • a person isn’t fully bought into the protocol as stated thus is unable to consistently use it

…the meta-protocol is what allows them to notice that and iteratively improve whatever they’re doing and patch those gaps. (Such patches might produce a new ongoing implicit or explicit protocol, or not.)

No matter how perfect a hypothetical protocol might be, it’s impossible to systematically address everything that arises in the complex experience of being human together. There will be gaps, including during the learning process for how people can come to use a protocol consistently. The meta-protocol is whatever fully and completely answers the question of “well, then what do you do in the meantime, or when those gaps occur?”

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thinking that rejects other thinking

I want to point at a style of thinking that I’ll call [[thinking that rejects other thinking]].

(not sure this is the right name but it’s what I’m going with for now)

It’s a hard thing to point at.

Many have tried to point at [[thinking that rejects other thinking]], in many ways (and with many terms for it) and most of the ways that people try to point at it end up resulting in people ending up engaging in [[thinking that rejects other thinking]] about the very concept of [[thinking that rejects other thinking]], despite attempting not to. Sometimes the original articulator isn’t doing this but almost always the people around them still are. Usually the original articulator is too, at least a little.

This is unfortunate, not because [[thinking that rejects other thinking]] is bad, but because then they miss all the wisdom hiding in whatever other thinking they’re dismissing or distrusting because they’re seeing it as [[thinking that rejects other thinking]]!

Symmetrically, this is also unfortunate because it makes their own wisdom less accessible to those whose thinking they’re dismissing or distrusting.

On a meta-level, this is furthermore unfortunate because it creates a bunch of muddle around the very thing they’re trying to point at, which is an important thing to point at. (I clearly think so since I’m here trying to point at it.)

Perhaps, instead of pointing at [[thinking that rejects other thinking]], I will point at what kind of thinking isn’t [[thinking that rejects other thinking]].

Huh—perhaps I already have, by how I wrote the above paragraphs.

(If you want, you can re-read the above and feel into how I feel satisfied with it as a way of pointing at this kind of thinking while doing something different than thinking that rejects thinking myself. I genuinely wasn’t sure, when I started writing this 10 minutes ago, how I’d find a way to do it, and I feel pretty satisfied with how it turned out.)

But hey, I’m a verbal dude, and while ineffability abounds, I think it’s worth spelling this pattern out way more explicitly, giving some examples, and talking about how to navigate more effectively. So keep reading for that.

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Non-Naive Trust Dance—why the name?

“If you can trust yourself when all men doubt you, but make allowance for their doubting too” —Rudyard Kipling

I’m intending to write a whole sequence of posts that express various elements of the Non-Naive Trust Dance framework I discovered last year, and thought that a good piece to write early on would be an introduction that talks about why it has the name it does, answering in brief these three questions:

  • What do I mean by “trust”?
  • What do I mean by “non-naive trust”?
  • Why “trust-dancing”?

I suppose it’s worth noting that I don’t remember choosing a name for this thing when I discovered it last year—this was just sort of the obvious thing to call it as I was seeing it from my perspective at the time.

a graphic of two people dancing, with those questions overlaid
drawing by Silvia Bastos at my commission

What do I mean by “trust”?

My context for thinking about trust comes from my longtime colleague Jean Robertson, who points out that all trust is fundamentally trust in one’s own experience, or “self-trust” for short. Trust also needs to be qualified as trust in something in particular. There’s no general “I trust you” (or not). As someone put it:

“I trust Alice to return a $10 loan but not a $10,000 loan, Bob to return a $10,000 loan but not to babysit an infant, Carol to babysit but not with my house key, Dave with my house key but not my intimate secrets, and Ellen with my intimate secrets but not to return a $10 loan. I trust Frank if a friend vouches for him, a taxi driver as long as he’s displaying his license, and Gail as long as she hasn’t been drinking.”

From Bruce Schneier, Liars and Outliers — via Kaj Sotala, “Don’t trust people, trust their components

Elaborating on this, what the person is saying here is “based on trusting my experience of these various folks, I have predictions of what they would do, that I’m prepared to base my decisions on.” If Alice wanted to borrow $10,000, or Bob offered to babysit, this person would then be faced with a situation where their friend would be making a bid to be trusted in a way that the person actually doesn’t trust them.

That’s a tough situation to be in, particularly if it doesn’t feel easy to talk about.

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NNTD pith instructions exploration

I keep mentioning this “Non-Naive Trust Dance” framework I’ve discovered/invented but I haven’t yet published a proper introduction to it (despite many half-finished drafts)—update: here’s one! A friend of mine recently wrote in a group chat:

Would/could you write pith instructions for NNTD? I’m curious but haven’t dived in, and would be more likely to if I could get a more concentrated sense of the flavor of it.

For those not familiar with the term “pith instructions”, it refers to condensed, direct, pithy core instructions, often for a meditation practice. Before I had the chance to reply, another friend linked my yearly review blog post 2020: Free to Dance, and the first friend replied:

Yeah that’s helpful! It definitely gets at the problem statement. I still feel like I’m missing something about what actually goes into doing NNTD.

It can be hard to give quick general instructions for various reasons, but fortunately I already had a tweet that I wrote in response to a prompt from my friend Romeo:

Challenge: make an elevator pitch for your current theory of healthy human relationships.

Hard mode: don’t reference existing popular theories or merely reword one of them.

@RomeoStevens76 on twitter

Here, with some tiny edits, is the elevator pitch I came up with for the NNTD (which is definitely a theory of healthy human relationships!)

  • respect that there are ways in which you can’t trust each other
    • and gently inquire into why that is
    • not trying to change behavior directly
  • trusting that new more workable behavior will emerge
    • when you can see why it makes sense to be doing what you’re doing
    • and see its impacts on others

I shared that in the group chat and offered to elaborate on anything listed in [[core principles of the [[NNTD]]]] and a discussion ensued between me and my friend. And so we hereby continue a trend of blog posts composed of lightly edited conversations, although this one is more theory than practice.

Friend: Ooh, this elevator pitch is really good! Interesting that there’s a meta-trust element too, in the process itself. I needed something like that, as opposed to the core principles page, which feels too big/complicated/rabbit-holey. It’s just very instantly practical.

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Lecturing & Learning: Emotional Coherence Case Study

This post is adapted from notes to myself plus a bit of context I added for some friends I shared the notes with. It’s a cool example of how gradually making an unconscious pattern more conscious can lead to transformational insight, and the specific pattern also seems like one that’s likely to resonate for a lot of other people with similar experiences to mine. I’m willing to bet that other people who’ve interacted with me a lot directly are familiar with this pattern as it shows up in me—and I’d be interested to hear about that!

For the last week or so, my partner Sarah and I have been doing a lot of active noticing a particular tone I sometimes have, which Sarah hates, and she described it as being lectured. It took many months of work on both our parts for her to be able to articulate the feeling so clearly as “lectured” and for me to be able to acknowledge that there’s something there even though I wasn’t sure what or why. While I could tell it didn’t work (because it made Sarah defensive) I didn’t initially have any intrinsic motivation to speak any differently. More on that work and on motivation to change, below.

Anyway, since we’ve gotten a better handle on that, I’ve gotten a lot better at noticing when I’m doing the Lecturing thing, often via Sarah making a 🤨 face at me, but sometimes from my own stance or tone. As I’ve been integrating that unconscious drive, I’ve started often interrupting myself midsentence, something like “So you see, it’s really important… (S: 🤨) …that I lecture you about this. You need a lecture.”

And speaking that explicitly defuses a lot of the tension, which has already been great. Yesterday some additional integration happened, via gentle prompting from Sarah. She was saying something and I was suddenly experiencing an immense urge. I had enough mental space to hold that urge, and I strained to speak: “It. Is. So. Hard. For. Me. To. Not. Lecture. You. Right now.” I started to try to convey something about my experience of that to her, and she very gently and groundedly suggested “is there something you might want to do for yourself, first?”

I tuned into that part of me and it voiced internally “why are you so fucking stupid?!?

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2020: Free to Dance

In my 2019 yearly review: Divided Brain Reconciled by Meaningful Sobbing, I experimented for the first time in a while with setting a theme for the upcoming year: Free to Dance. And lo, while I didn’t think about it that often, it’s proved remarkably relevant, in ways I couldn’t have anticipated.

The original concept of the phrase came in part from having just picked up Bruce Tift’s book Already Free: Buddhism Meets Psychotherapy on the Path of Liberation, which by early January I could tell would be a major book of my year. Another related dimension of it was something I realized in doing some of the emotional processing work last year, which was that parts of me sometimes still kind of think I’m trapped at school where I’m supposed to sit still at my desk, among other indignities.

The other main piece was observing at a couple of points that I sometimes seem to move through the world as if I’m dancing, and other times much more heavily. During an exercise at the Bio-Emotive retreat midsummer, we were asked to reflect on a question something like “how would I be if I were showing up most brilliantly/beautifully?” And what arose for me is something like “I think I’d always be dancing.”

So all of these layers mean that the social isolation of the pandemic didn’t put much of a specific damper on this life theme, even though I was hardly free to go to dance events (except some lovely outdoor bring-your-own-partner contact improv events that a friend hosted). I had been intending to travel the world a bit, to San Francisco, perhaps Austin, perhaps the UK, and none of those visits happened.

What did happen?

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Relationship Panarchy

“Relationship Panarchy” is a term that I coined to talk about a model of relationships, that can function both as a lens through which any relationship dynamic can be viewed (including retrospectively) or can function as an explicit intentional way-of-operating. Actually operating in accordance with this view is something that no humans I know are yet masters of, but there are an increasing number of us trying. So to some extent, at this phase it can function as a kind of placeholder, similar to how “Game B” is a placeholder for “whatever transcends and outcompetes the Game A cultural operating system that has been running the show for 10,000 years”. And, like Game B, we can say a few things about it even while it’s in the process of coming into view.

The one-sentence summary is “Relationship Panarchy is a model of relationships that’s like Relationship Anarchy, but instead of being individualist, it’s oriented to caring for the whole systems that support the relationships and people in them.”

So: there’s this concept “polyamory”. For some people, it tends to come with a bunch of structure implied, such as “primary partners” and terms like “metamour”. For others, it’s basically a synonym for “non-monogamy”.

“Non-monogamy” is able, by being a negation, to imply less structure, but it isn’t sufficiently general because:

  1. it doesn’t allow for Game B operating-system relationship configurations that read as monogamy on the old map because they involve two people being sexually exclusive
  2. it still over-emphasizes romantic relationships as primary, by negating them

One model that seems to be more open-ended is known as “Relationship Anarchy”. From Wikipedia:

Relationship anarchy (sometimes abbreviated RA) is the belief that relationships should not be bound by rules aside from what the people involved mutually agree upon. If a relationship anarchist has multiple intimate partners, it might be considered as a form of non-monogamy, but distinguishes itself by postulating that there need not be a formal distinction between sexual, romantic, or platonic relationships.

Relationship anarchists look at each relationship (romantic, platonic or otherwise) individually, as opposed to categorizing them according to societal norms such as ‘just friends’, ‘in a relationship’, or ‘in an open relationship’.

I really liked this idea for awhile, but eventually I realized that the imagery of anarchy as such evokes a rather individualist orientation to relationships, to a degree that from my perspective is not only undesirable but technically not even possible. Autonomy is important, and so is connectedness, and the two are not at odds but fundamentally made of each other. Each limit creates new freedoms and each freedom creates new limits.

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A portrait of Malcolm Ocean

I'm Malcolm Ocean.

I'm developing scalable solutions to coordination between parts of people as well as between people. More about me.

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