The secret to co-gnosis

Ninth and final (for now) post in “I can tell for myself” sequence.

I know the secret to co-gnosis, aka “we can tell for ourselves”. In a sentence the secret is:

Nobody and everybody knows the secret to co-gnosis.

Nobody knows the secret, in the sense that nobody can simply say “I know how it works and this is it and if you’re not doing it then well idk what to tell you but it isn’t gonna work.” There is no once-and-for-all secret, articulable or ineffable.

Everybody knows the secret, in the sense that everybody is acutely sensitive to what it feels like for their sense of “I can tell for myself” to be respected in a dialogue, and so if you’re in a dialogue with them, then the secret of how to have “we can tell for ourselves” is right there inside the “I can tell for myself” and “you can tell for yourself”. It’s whatever satisfies both.

I’ve been having trouble finishing my “I can tell for myself” / gnosis sequence, and part of why it’s been hard is that my answer to the problem I spend the sequence framing is the same thing I’m already trying to point at in most of my posts. This is the meta-protocol all over again.

And so every time I went to write the conclusion to this sequence, it felt like it was just another post I’d been meaning to write for awhile and which might stand better on its own. Having said that, since we’ve built up some new ways of talking, let’s see if I can give some reflections on the meta-protocol puzzle in terms of “I can tell for myself” and “we can tell for ourself”.

I wrote in the previous post: merely getting everybody in touch with their own knowing isn’t enough. When multiple people are both operating from a grounded sense of what they know, they tend to avoid each other because they see things differently and either don’t know how or don’t want to bother sorting out those differences. It’s HARD. But it’s possible.

Bridging between what I can tell for myself and what you can tell for yourself is an additional skill beyond each of us being in touch with our respective knowings in the first place.

On further thought… it’s a bunch of skills.

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Merely getting everybody in touch with their own knowing isn’t enough

Part 8 of “I can tell for myself” sequence. Previously: The eyes-open student: “I can see things my teacher can’t acknowledge”.

The fundamental cause of the trouble is that in the modern world the stupid are cocksure while the intelligent are full of doubt. Even those of the intelligent who believe that they have a nostrum are too individualistic to combine with other intelligent men from whom they differ on minor points.

— Bertrand Russell

Unfortunately, as far as I can tell, the messes wouldn’t end if we could just somehow get everybody (within some context) to have grounded confidence in their sense of “I can tell for myself” even when others say something that seems to contradict it (or find enough people who already have it and herd them into the same room).

Instead we get new messes!

If I can tell for myself that “X”, and you can tell for yourself that “Y”, and it seems to us that it’s not possible for both X and Y to be true at the same time, then we’re going to be pretty stuck! The resulting communicational impasses can be pretty intense, depending on what’s at stake (and how emotionally resilient participants are, such that physical stakes feel more or less gripping). I described above how it tends to play out when there’s a major power imbalance on some relevant axis. What happens when there’s not?

When the conflict isn’t too central, what happens is: they have relationships that work out. This is pretty good! They have enough overlap in what they each want, and how they each already see the world, that they’re able to found a company together or get married and have kids, or co-run a community or some other kind of project, or just be lifelong friends. There may be other arenas where they don’t see eye-to-eye, and can’t figure out how to bridge, but those arenas are sufficiently inconsequential to the relationship that they can be ignored (or periodically explored in a low-stakes way, as friends sometimes do with philosophical questions).

But when the conflict is at the core of their identity and/or purpose and/or worldview (which is broadly the case when we’re talking about spiritual teachers and/or those who are aiming to discover and embody pragmatically & philosophically workable answers to life’s big questions (I count myself as one of these))… well, I may be missing something, but as far as I can tell what usually happens is, oddly: “nothing”. The really high-self-trust people just don’t interact that much. They keep to their own contexts where nobody is self-trustfully challenging their worldviews that are based on generalizations of their direct-knowings. They run their training center, or monastery, or company, or online community, or whatever, where their wisdom can flow and so can others’… to the extent it doesn’t contradict theirs. These contradictions may not even be on the level of “what’s so”; they can even just be “what’s relevant”.

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Guru dynamics: “I can show you how to trust yourself”

Sixth post in “I can tell for myself” sequence. On the last episode… Reality distortion: “I can tell, but you can’t”, which opened up our exploration of interactions between one person who is in touch with their own direct-knowing and another person who is more just taking others’ word for it. With this post we’re finally reaching some of the core ideas that the other posts have been a foundation for.

(I left “guru” in the title of this part, because “guru dynamics” are what I call this phenomenon, but I decided not to use the word “guru” in the body of the text. It’s a loanword that originally means “teacher” but of course in English has the connotations associated both with spiritual teaching in particular and thus also with the dynamics I want to talk about here, some of which are well-documented in The Guru Papers. To be clear, I don’t think guru’ing, as a role, is necessarily bad—it’s just extraordinarily hard to do well. But “guru” as a frame… the roles are probably best not thought of as a student-teacher relationship at all. Instead, perhaps, “one who’s remembering” and “one who’s reminding”: ancient wisdom tradition words for this like “sati”, and “aletheia” mean “remembering” or “unforgetting”. Those are awkward though.)

Things get weird when a person who has consistent access to their sense of “I can tell for myself” across many domains—especially spiritual, interpersonal, esoteric, subtle, ineffable., ones—finds their way into a position where they’re trying to help others develop this capacity for themselves.

This happens remarkably often! There are many factors that contribute to this, of which here are six:

The many reasonable roads into this attractor

  1. Lots of people want to learn how to trust their own experience more, and will gladly sign up for (and in many cases pay quite a lot for) instruction in it. They may even demand it from someone who clearly has some wisdom but was uncertain if they wanted to teach it or would prefer not to be in an authority role for whatever reason, who then reluctantly assents.
  2. Many spiritual knowings are only grokkable via direct-knowing (and taking someone’s word for it is not just irrelevant but a distraction — “the dao that can be named is not the dao”) so reminding people how to tell for themselves emerges as either a precondition or a byproduct of pointing out some other spiritual knowing.
  3. Having fluent access to one’s own knowing is obviously very precious and beautiful, so a kind person would want to share the experience with others!
  4. It seems pretty apparent to many people who are in touch with their own knowing that there are forms of social organization that only work when everybody involved also is, so since there aren’t a lot of such people, it becomes a practical project to train more of them.
  5. It can feel lonely to be the only one in a room (or community) who is experiencing contact with one’s own “I can tell for myself”, so there’s a natural desire to help others develop this same capacity! In addition to being lonely, it can also be risky for one’s own sanity, as the following bullet illustrates:
  6. Getting to be the massive one who gets to exert a lot of pull on the conversation can satisfy many shadowed desires, whether for control or attention or just to have their experience repeatedly validated in regions that they don’t know how to do for themselves. (For most kind people, this is not how they get into the situation in the first place, but it can be something that inadvertently keeps them in it because they’re able to meet certain needs in this social context that they can’t meet outside of it.)

So it’s very common for someone who has developed their sense of self-authored direct-knowing to find themselves surrounded by a bunch of people who also want to develop this capacity. (We’ll explore in a later post why there’s often precisely one teacher per learning context; the previous post also hints at it.)

The paradox of teaching self-trust

But attempting to teach “I can tell for myself” (or self-trust, or whatever you call it) leads to what is nearly a paradox:

  • How do I tell you how to tell for yourself?
  • If I tell you how to not take my word for it, will you take my word for it?
  • Of what relevance is my trust in my own experience to your trust in your own experience?

Suppose that when someone says something you don’t understand or resonate with, your two available moves are either to reject what they’re saying or “take their word for it”—a condition which is tautologically the starting point for someone who has learned to not trust themselves in the face of what someone else is saying, and is wanting to develop that self-trust—then if I’m trying to convey “how to tell for yourself”, you’ll either… reject what I’m saying as senseless, or… take my word for it that this is in fact how to tell for yourself and you just need to do it exactly as I say yessirree!

…which is not “I can tell for myself”. Or is it?

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“I can tell for myself”

There’s a capacity for knowing, that every human being has, that as a society we’re out of touch with in many important domains. It’s the knowing that comes from trusting our own experience and understanding. It’s not incidental that we’re out of touch with it—our societies are largely organized around this fact. But we could organize a different kind of society where everyone is in touch with it. It’s not easy or straightforward, but it seems to me to be both possible and worthwhile.

There are various fancy terms for this kind of direct-knowing—eg “self-trust” or “trust in one’s own experience” or “wise knowing” or “gnosis”—but in this piece of writing I will speak of it in plain language: “I can tell for myself”. This phrasing is cumbersome but concrete, and forces me to be very clear about what I’m talking about rather than letting the idea float off into some vague attribute one “has” or “doesn’t have”, or some accomplishment or attainment, like “awakeness”. It’s also particularly useful for contrasting it with a different kind of knowing we can call “taking someone’s word for it”. It could also be “received knowing”. I’m particularly interested in what happens when what we can tell for ourselves seems in conflict with what someone else says, and problems that occur when we override what we can tell for ourselves by taking someone else’s word, which I’ll get into in a future piece.

All of this is part of a project you could refer to as “descriptivist epistemology”. Epistemology is the study of how we know things. Much of epistemology is sort of external and prescriptivist: it is the study of “how people should go about knowing things”. Descriptivist Epistemology instead asks: how do we actually go about knowing things? There’s a thing it feels like to know something. Where does that come from? Sometimes we discover that things we knew before, we would now consider incorrect, not because the world has changed but because we’ve learned something or matured in some way. When and why does that happen? And when someone’s very way of knowing evolves, how does it evolve? In what sense did we nonetheless “know” something that was in some sense untrue? How is this different from simply “being misled” or “being confused”?

In order to explore all of those questions, let’s first, explore, concretely and intuitively, the kinds of things that we can know for ourselves, where we don’t have to take someone’s word for it.

Examples of situations where “I can tell for myself”

Here’s a wide sampling but still totally incomplete list of some examples of different kinds of direct-knowing:

» read the rest of this entry »

Malcolm, explain the Non-Naive Trust Dance right fucking now, in one breath, standing on one foot

My friend Visa challenged his friends to explain their thing rapid-fire style, and specifically DM’d me to ask me to do one on my Non-Naive Trust Dance framework. So I’ll write a 6th introduction or whatever this is now, and try to get all the way through the basics to the depths in about 15 minutes of nonstop writing.

  • trust sure is important. it would be nice* if we knew the laws of trust-physics: in general what works and what doesn’t work for building trust. (* tbh it might be necessary for humanity’s survival)
  • it’s tempting to try to build perpetual motion machines w/ trust (assuming trust in order to build trust) but this is impossible with the laws of trust-physics. but it seems possible (& awesome) to build engines!
  • obviously trust-building is contextual. eg, in a tense meeting in Dune, a desert-dweller spits as a sign of respect (releasing precious water) and nearly gets killed when that’s interpreted as a sign of disrespect.
  • so what can be said about trust-building in general? well, one of the most important things that CAN be said is that it’s extremely contextual!! and a remarkable amount follows from this, eg:
    • the only way to build trust with someone is by doing something that builds trust with them. however, they may seem to want you to do something that’s abhorrent or senseless to you, which you refuse to do. somehow what needs to be found is something that works for both/all parties. there is a remarkable open space of possibilities here if we can get out of the trap of being frustrated that our first attempts didn’t work as we’d hoped
  • notice that the bolded line above is a self-evident statement; a tautology; something that’s true by definition. this is not a coincidence, because self-evident statements are another basis for building trust since anyone can confirm them for themselves (although of course we may have different interpretations of what the implications are, and that can get tricky)
  • the central tautology to NNTD is “you can’t trust what you can’t trust” (this is kind of the same one as the previous). inherent to this idea is the reality, not quite a tautology but also pretty self-evident once you consider it, that different people trust differently. (different parts of people trust differently too).
  • thus [me trusting something] and [you not trusting something] is not a contradiction in the slightest.
  • what do I even mean by trust? a few lenses:
    • trust as an unquestioning attitude (from C. Thi Nguyen’s paper of that title)
    • trust as “what truth feels like in first person”
  • we could describe naive trust as being an unquestioning attitude that comes from ignoring some sort of warning signs in order to deliberately adopt an unquestioning stance, and non-naive trust as an unquestioning attitude that comes from an absence of any warning signs, or having investigated the warning signs and discerned to one’s own integrated relaxed satisfaction that they’re not a big deal (or that one could handle the situation if the issue did occur)
  • when I use “trust” I’m generally referring to non-naive trust, since naive trust is fake & flimsy
  • I generally think in terms of trusting situations more than trusting “people”
  • there is a logic to (non-naive) trust and how it scales up:
    • if I trust a situation (eg this salesperson to not be scamming us) and you don’t trust it, then we don’t trust it
    • if I trust it and you trust it, but we don’t trust that each other trusts it, then we still don’t trust it
    • if we have common-knowledge of our trust, then we trust it
  • there’s a thing it feels like for this sync-up to occur
    • as an example, have you ever made a decision and there’s a clear sense of “yes this is obviously what we want”?
    • by contrast, have you ever made a decision and you’re left feeling either that something you care about wasn’t adequately incorporated into the tradeoff process, OR you feel like someone else isn’t actually totally satisfied with it?
  • in general, trust-building works via respecting that distrust contains the wisdom that allows trust to be non-naive (ie sane & robust) and finding a way to respect & dance with it, vs trying to bypass it. quoth Aurelius: “The impediment to action advances action. What stands in the way becomes the way.”
  • since trust ~= subjective truth, this process is literally perceiving the world together

Whew! Not quite one breath or one foot, but it was all in one go and it did fit on one page. It took more like 20 minutes though.

For slightly more uhhh edited introductions to NNTD or elaborations, you can check out these posts:

alpha-test my template: How To Gently Blindly Touch the Elephant In the Room Together

Or more straightforwardly:

“how to give feedback to somebody about something that you’re noticing going on for them, where you suspect that if you try to acknowledge it they’ll get defensive/evasive & deny it”

One of the core principles of my Non-Naive Trust Dance framework is that it’s impossible to codify loving communication—that any attempt to do so, taken too seriously, will end up getting weaponized.

Having said that, maybe if we don’t take ourselves too seriously, it would be helpful to have a template for a particularly difficult kind of conversation: broaching the subject about something you’re noticing, where you expect that by default what will happen is that you won’t even be able to get acknowledgement that the something exists. This can be crazy-making. I often call it “blindspot feedback” although for most people that phrase carries connotations that usually make people extra defensive rather than more able to orient and listen carefully.

To see more about how I think about this, you can read this twitter thread:

But I want the template to stand alone, so I’m not going to give much more preamble before offering it to you. The intent is that this template will help people bridge that very first tricky step of even managing to acknowledge that one person is seeing something that the other person might not be seeing, and having that be okay.

Why “alpha-testing”?

I’m calling this alpha-testing not beta-testing because while I know the principles underlying this template are sound, and I’ve tested the moves in my own tough conversations and while facilitating for others… as of this initial publication the template itself has been used zero times, so I don’t want to pretend that it itself is well-honed.

So I’d like to collect lots of perspectives, of what people think of the template just from looking at it, and of how conversations go when you try to use the template for them.

The template

Without further ado, here’s a link to the template.

I’d love if you gave me your thoughts while you read it. To do that, make a copy, name it “Yourname’s copy of Template” then highlight sections and leave comments on them, then give comment access to me (use my gmail if you have it, or malcolm @ this domain). That would be very helpful. Even just little things like “ohhhh, cool” or “I don’t get why you’d say this” or “would it work to rephrase this like X, or would that be missing something important?”

To try it out, make a copy, then fill it out, and do what you want with it. Then, if you’d like to help me iterate on it or would otherwise like your experience of using it seen by me, fill out this form and let me know how it worked for you (or didn’t).

confronting & forgiving the people who instilled fear in my heart

I’m back in the bay area for the first time in awhile

this has involved seeing some folks that I haven’t seen in a long time (4-6 years)

in a few cases, these were people that I was quite close to years ago (more like 7-8 years)

well, when I say close, I don’t necessarily mean emotionally close. but we had conversations, worked on projects together, and talked about important things

important things like the end of the world

important things like what we were supposed to do about the end of the world, and how to think about the end of the world, and how we were supposed to feel very scared and very determined to do something about it

and there were two people who, in order to be honest in encountering them again, I had to acknowledge that we had some reconciliation to do. it was scary but utterly necessary to say. any change of heart unacknowledged produces subtle weirdness. distrust unacknowledged makes it harder to get shared reality

as I wrote in 2021: Catching my Breath, I’ve done a bunch of healing over the past years about ways in which I was applying a kind of pressure on myself that made it hard to rest. physiologically I had a sense that there was something not right, something I needed to fix, something not okay about the world.

and I feel like my internal pressure has largely eased off. not that there isn’t more to untangle—I’m sure there is—but overall it feels quite integrated

thus in encountering these old acquaintances, I didn’t have a sense of needing something from them, for my own wholeness. but I needed to have a conversation about it in order to for the two of us to have wholeness, and by extension, for the larger community we’re part of to have wholeness.

I’ve been practicing confronting people, to acknowledge past boundaries crossed, even when there’s nothing to be done about it at this point. It’s really profound, just to have my anger heard and received—to have the loop closed. something laid to rest. I did a bit of that with my parents last fall.

1…

in the first case, you arrive midafternoon, and you see me in the co-what-now corner and come over to talk. you start to just dive in with me about something interesting and timely and quite personal, and I’m finding myself needing to just slow down and acknowledge the tension from years past. you seem disappointed locally by the interruption, but overall appreciative that I’m naming it, and unsurprised to hear that it’s there. we agree to talk about it later. you ask if it’s okay that I don’t trust you, observing that in some sense it seems it might not be, and I say I’ll ponder that. I muse to myself that maybe there’s something in you that feels not okay with it, that is splitting and afraid of being tarred as plain bad.

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art is choosing what to breathe life into

note to self: art is choosing what to breathe life into

a whiteboard with some sketches, including the phrases 'I am free to be decisive insofar as I am willing and able to listen', 'what matteringness is...', 'art is choosing what to breathe life into', and a big 'THIS' and 'NOT THIS'. an egg is depicted being fertilized by a sperm, who calls to the other sperm behind him 'I win! I'm sure yours would have been beautiful.'

art is choosing what to breathe life into

this?

not this

this? not this. not this. this?

this.

this!

sometimes I get stuck because I have more urges than I know how to handle

“I want to write”

“no I want to take a shower”

“but before I take a shower I want to work out”

“but I’m still partway through writing”

“wait but I’m kinda hungry”

“wait no but I don’t want to eat if I’m about to work out”

…and on. and on.

so many urges. so many things to take care of. I can’t do all of them, not all at once. I can maybe take care of all of them eventually… but by then there will be more.

I can probably take care of what needs taking care of eventually, on some level of abstraction, somewhere up in my perceptual control hierarchy

even thinking a thought is sort of an urge

hi urge

you’re tryna take care of something

these urges are helpful

while it may be challenging when they’re all tugging in different directions

…these urges are all really helpful

honestly, they’re kinda… made of helpfulness

» read the rest of this entry »

The choice to open, the choice to allow

Another sequel to “Mindset choice” is a confusion. Here’s the first, which I wrote a year ago and published earlier this week: Mindset choice 2: expanding awareness.

I started exploring the implications of a simple question: what is within my power to choose?

This is something that we have to learn as infants and toddlers and kids—oh, I can choose to clench my fist… but I can’t choose to clench yours. Ooh… I can choose to look at something, but I can’t choose to make you look at something. Ah! I can choose to point at the thing, and maybe you’ll look, but I can’t directly steer your gaze or attention. In some sense, this is precisely where the boundary of self and other is located! And it’s also connected to how when we’re wielding a tool that works for us and it fades into the background, it becomes part of ourselves.

I can’t directly control you, although I might be able to invite or persuade or coerce you. And while I can’t quite control you, I can be trying to control you. Or I can be allowing you to be you and honoring the obvious-once-you-look-at-it reality that my choice ends at the edges of me. Society has historically involved a lot of the former, at great cost but also with meaningful results: lots of civilization was built by someone telling someone else what to do, on some level.

Then I considered that same structure, but applied internally to my own mind, and I realized that I have different parts that have different wills, and these parts also can’t control each other. They each have their own choice-making faculty, in this sense. To be clear, this line of thinking doesn’t require reifying these parts as persistent named entities as one might in IFS (Internal Family Systems). That’s an option, and might be helpful, but most fundamentally we’re just talking about some sort of subsystem that in a given moment is doing some perceiving, some wanting, some steering, etc.

And if those subsystems want something that’s compatible, I simply do it—no choice required.

But if one subsystem wants one thing and one wants another, and on a given level both aren’t possible—suppose part of me wants to keep writing and another part wants to go eat dinner—then neither system can simply enact its will since the other will oppose it. If one urge is particularly strong, eg because of a deadline or the smell of pizza in the oven, then that urge might overpower the other—it seems there are systems that track the size of urges as part of prioritizing and preventing such inner gridlock. Anyway, at that point, if the overpowered part releases and allows the first thing to happen, I’ll have full energy to do whatever it is I’ve found myself doing; if not, then I’ll experience friction and distraction—thoughts of food while trying to write, or thoughts of my blog post while eating. Or some more subtle indigestion of the mind and/or body.

What choice do each of these parts have, while in a conflict?

» read the rest of this entry »

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:

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A portrait of Malcolm Ocean

I'm Malcolm Ocean.

I'm developing scalable solutions to fractal coordination challenges (between parts of people as well as between people) based on non-naive trust and intentionality. More about me.

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