The Unreserved YES

(This post is much more stream-of-consciousness than many of my other posts. I’m working stuff out live.)

I was doing Focusing earlier today, and reflecting on a complex, challenging decision I’m starting to feel into. I found myself remembering a video I’d watched last night. I want to share it with you, so I’ve pulled out the snippet that’s really good. It’s literally 14 seconds, and you only really need the first 5. Click to watch:

Michael Franti and this girl Jocelin have just sung a song together, and he then asks her if she’d like to sing with him onstage. As she comprehends the proposal, her face lights up.

YES!” she says.

Not “yes.”

Not “yes?”

Not “…yes…”


When I saw that video last night, I shared it and wrote:

Interview at start, and the song… eh ¯\_(ツ)_/¯ , kinda cute.

Her utter unreserved enthusiasm at the end, both on her face and in her voice, when he’s like “Do you want to come and sing on stage with us?”…

…glorious. I’m not exaggerating.

I’ve forgotten how to say YES like that. Or maybe it’s that my desires have become complex and conflicted and so it’s never totally clear what I want. Or maybe I’m not putting myself into situations where the right question will even get asked. Or maybe I’m afraid.

I want to say YES like that. » read the rest of this entry »

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 and I can see why. » read the rest of this entry »

Towards being purpose-driven without fighting myself

Lots of more abstract writing in the works, but in the meantime, an update on my personal learning process: I’m currently working on shifting out of a meta-oscillation between being intensely purpose-driven but stressed & tense and being self-compassionate & internally aligned but aimless & disoriented.

Of course, an update on my personal learning process is still going to include some abstractions!

I sketched out a 2×2 to capture these dimensions. I’m not totally satisfied with the axes or the quadrants, but the overall structure feels clear and powerful, and I’ll refine it over time. I’m trying to get more comfortable putting out drafts of things:

The ideal state is the one in the top right, » read the rest of this entry »

Not Your Daddy’s Bystander Effect

Bystander Effect is a phenomenon where…

…individuals do not offer any means of help to a victim when other people are present. The probability of help is inversely related to the number of bystanders. In other words, the greater the number of bystanders, the less likely it is that any one of them will help. (source: Wikipedia)

This sounds kind of nuts, but welcome to being human. The reasons it happens are diffusion of responsibility (if others are around, maybe they’ll help… so maybe you don’t have to) and cohesiveness (if nobody else is jumping to action, maybe that’s the appropriate response…). Public Service Announcement: now that you know about the bystander effect, realize that in many emergency situations, nobody else will help. So you might as well be alone.

Anyway, I think that the bystander effect can be used as a fun metaphor or mental model to talk about some other common experiences people have, in CoZE (comfort-zone expansion) and with procrastination.

Reverse Bystander Effect: when you have to choose between people

Most of my experience with this sort of thing comes from doing social CoZE and Rejection Therapy exercises, but I think it shows up elsewhere too. So say I’m in an airport, and my challenge is to get a stranger to give me a hug. I look around, and there are a lot of strangers. Which means that my thoughts, by default, go something like this:

» read the rest of this entry »

9 Things I Relearned From Hugging 70 strangers in airports (in one day)

On Thursday evening, while I was packing for my flight home for christmas, my girlfriend announced “I took advantage of your trust and posted something to your facebook.” Based on what usually shows up in that kind of circumstance I was like “ack, better go delete it.” Instead, when I finally saw it, I was like “Damn. Why didn’t I think of this?” Fortunately, I could pretend I had thought of it.

A screenshot of my facebook status, reading "For every like I get on this status, I will give that many random strangers a hug tomorrow at the airport." The first comment is also me, and says, "Or offer to give, if they don't want a hug."

It already had a dozen likes.

By the time she dropped me off at the Billy Bishop Airport in downtown Toronto, it had over a hundred. In fact, it had exactly 101. The Bishop Airport was the perfect place to do this, as it has a great lounge that feels really friendly, along with free food I could make small-talk about.

1. CoZE is awesome

These are things I relearned. I basically already knew them, but the message got drilled in a lot deeper by the actual act of offering a hundred hugs.

CoZE, short for Comfort Zone Expansion, is the main lens that I used to understand what I was doing. I was expanding my comfort zone by offering a lot of hugs. Now, to some people, this would have been so far out of their comfort zones that it would have seemed way too daunting. For me, I knew it would be a challenge, but I figured I could do it if I really hustled.

So CoZE is great. I already knew that. One reason it’s great is because you deepen your experiential understanding of things. I’m sharing what I learned not because I think it’s things that you totally don’t know, but to try to tell the story of how this CoZE challenge taught me stuff. And because the stories herein are pretty great.

This was also a lot of fun. It’s fun to challenge yourself. Or can be, anyway.

It’s worth noting that while I definitely recommend that people try CoZE exercises, it’s important to make the world a better place in the process. When you’re offering or requesting something, do the best you can to make it easy for them to say no if they don’t want it, especially, especially something related to physical contact. Maybe even start just by holding up a free hugs sign as people walk by.

Now, without further ado, the other 8 things I relearned.

2. Phrasing and framing matter

With the first few people I asked, I tried showing them the facebook post on my phone, then saying “would you like a hug?” and they refused, kind of awkwardly. Then I tried to give a more meaningful reason:

“I’m going home for the holidays, and to get warmed up for the season I’m giving hugs to strangers on the way. Would you like one?”

This worked a fair bit better, but I was able to improve it even more to the following:

“I’m travelling home for Christmas, and I have this thing I like to do where I hug as many strangers as I can on the way… Do you want a hug?”

I would often preface that with “so this is kinda random, but…”

I think the Christmas thing really helped. I might be able to come up with an almost-as-good framing some other time of year, but it would be hard. Holiday season is easy mode for friendly stranger CoZE.

I can’t say for sure, but I think that smiling warmly and holding out my arms was also pretty key.

3. It’s not who you’d think

A bunch of people asked me, at various times yesterday, if I noticed whether any demographics seemed more or less likely to go for the hug. I can confirm that nope, it was everyone. I think I had a slightly higher acceptance rate among women with grey or white hair (80-90% compared to the overall 70%) but there was no other obvious group that was for or against.

In particular, I recall striking up a conversation with a group of 4 dudes who were eating the cookies in the kitchenette area. They were heading to Montréal to party. As they were about to walk, I said “wait!” and proposed hugs. They were like “totally, man!” Maybe 10 minutes later, I walked by them, and they were with like 5 other friends, and the guys I’d originally met were like:

“Yo, Jake, you need to hug this guy!”

They got all but one of their friends to hug me. Which brings us to…

4. People like to share experiences with their friends

I hugged one woman who I thought was alone, and just moments later, she called out to her friend who was behind me, “Tanya, he’s giving Christmas hugs!” So Tanya got one. And then their other friend, who was initially reluctant, also got one.

I had a few people say, “if I’m doing it, you can do it,” or something along those lines. One person took a picture of me. Not of the hug, just “this was the guy who hugged me.” I posed for it.

At one point, I walked past a woman I’d just hugged, as she sat back down with a ~7-year-old boy (presumably her son), and I overheard her say “…Christmas hugs…”, and I said to him, “do you want one?” and he said sure!

I offered some hugs to a couple people in an area, some sitting, some standing. Another guy on the far side of that cluster of people (not friends as far as I could tell) whom I hadn’t explicitly addressed, stood up and said “I’m getting in on those hugs!”

5. The current level of hugs is sub-optimal

Some people were really struck by delight at the prospect of a Christmas hug from a stranger in an airport, including quotes like, “Wow, that really brightened my day!”

The most touching moment of my hugs adventure happened in the Halifax Airport, after I landed. I was on my way from the plane to the baggage claim, offering hugs to people who looked huggable as I went. A woman with short white hair looked me in the eye and said:

“I’m a cancer survivor, so I always say yes to hugs…”

Ultimately I feel pretty confident that this effort had a net positive effect on the people I interacted with.

6. Different people have different needs

“Give ME a hug?! I’m gonna give YOU a hug!”

“I’m not gonna hug you. But you can hug me.”

(she was fine with being embraced, just didn’t want to put her arms around me herself)

“I can’t, I have a sore shoulder.”
“How about if I just put my arm around you?”

“Here, just squeeze my hand.” *smile* “That’s a hug.”

“What, do I have to get up?”

(he was down for a hug but refused to get up for a hug.)

7. Nobody was mad

The strongest negative reaction I got was when I offered hugs to a couple of women waiting to depart in Halifax, and they looked at me incredulously and said, “You’ve got the wrong crowd, man…”

I chatted up one of the pilots in the cockpit while the plane was refueling in Ottawa, and he said “so you’re going home for Christmas?” which I used to segue into my offer. He said no, which was probably for the best since he was all strapped in. But yeah, this challenge definitely made me a lot more social.

There were a few encounters that were a little bit awkward, but other than that almost all of over one hundred hug offers was totally friendly and pleasant.

…including when I tried my line on people I’d already hugged. (I’d been super freaked out about that one happening, and it was totally fine.)

8. Social support helps

Throughout the whole thing, I was posting my hug count (as a fraction of hugs/offers) to the facebook thread that started it all. It was really motivating to know that my friends around the world could see my progress live. And I mean, I needed to keep track somewhere. But it really helped to have the accountability.

I made sure to make the official count (what needed to get to 101) be something under my control—hug offers—rather than something someone else would need to consent to. That way I wasn’t trying to manipulate them into hugging me so I could get points. I got all of the important points just from trying.

But I wanted to get actual hugs too. In the end, I had 71 hugs out of 101 offers. Not bad! That ~70% was pretty consistent throughout the day, including exactly 7/10 and 35/50, as well as 50/70, which was how many I had before the plane took off.

I wish I’d made a prediction for how many I’d get, but I didn’t so I’m not going to pretend that “that’s how many I thought I’d get” or whatever. Retrodictions don’t count. I will say that at one point it was around 50% and I was thinking “I really hope I can get at least half,” which indicates I definitely wasn’t confident that I would.

9. People like social experiments, mostly

Malcolm hugging a stranger.

One of the coolest parts was that one guy started watching me and then when I would come back to the table he was at, he would ask me how it was going, what my success rate was like, and so on. At one point he said,

“I got some pictures of those hugs!”
“Lemme show you…”

He emailed me one of them, which is… here!

“What’s the catch?” asked someone. I also got some looks and remarks to the effect of “and then what?” or “so now what?” which I usually would just respond to with a happy shrug, “That’s it! Just a hug.”

I think my favourite remark, the whole day, was made by this guy at the baggage claim in Halifax. He would have been like person 93 or so. I said

“So I’m going home for christmas, and I’m trying to hug as many—”

and he just interrupted me and said

“Shuttup with your social experiment and get over here!”

A portrait of Malcolm Ocean

I'm Malcolm Ocean.

I'm trying to figure out how humans work so I can help make humanity work. More about me.

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