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…

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3 Loops of Expressing Feelings

By request, a published resource elaborating slightly on my response to a question a friend asked in a groupchat:

A lot of advice is some variation on “express your feelings to not be haunted by them forever,” but what do people mean by ‘express’ here? On one end there is being alone in a room and naming the feeling silently in your head, on the other end is telling your married boss you’re crushing on them, in between is stuff like journaling or going into the woods to scream and writhe or talking it out with a friend.

One model is that the key is to “let yourself fully feel the feeling” and the relevant sense of expression is whatever moves you towards that. Another is that feelings are for taking action in the world so apply appropriate thoughtfulness and discernment to avoid being rash and stupid but ultimately figure out what this trying to make you do and do it, and that will be the relevant expression. Does anybody find this advice helpful and wanna try to convey what it actually means for me?

From my perspective, there’s:

  • a loop that just involves yourself
  • a loop that involves a third party
  • and a loop that involves the person who the thing is about (eg the boss you have a crush on)

I’m calling these loops because they all have a kind of feedback loop quality to them, even though the feedback is quite subtle. There’s a sense of something landing.

AI art by me, generated as 3 separate images that I then composed

I mean what I mean

The first loop is about cultivating the sense of “I mean what mean“. Articulating something. Modifying it if it isn’t quite right. Trying again. Saying it out loud and feeling if it resonates. Getting to the point where you’re like “Yeah! THAT!”

Think of a time when you try to explain something to somebody, and they didn’t get it. Whether that was a model or a framework, or some emotional or relational thing or whatever.

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2023: Allowing Diligence

My 2023 was unequivocally awesome.

It’s a testament to the ways in which having a few key things go right makes any other mistakes or problems or challenges feel navigable.

Themes & dual meanings

I started 2023 with a theme in mind, which was Allowing Diligence. Coincidentally, like my friend’s year theme “Play With Responsibility”, this has a dual meaning:

  1. allowing myself to have diligence
  2. having diligence about allowing

One of the things I had in mind when I oriented to allowing myself to have diligence was that I’d get more on top of my email inbox, which for the past few years has been more like a stream I’d dip into every couple of days to glance for possibly-relevant-and-actionable items, and a repository of things I might search for. I’ve had a few alerts for specific kinds of emails, including any replies to messages I’ve sent, but otherwise… ¯\_(ツ)_/¯ And last year for some reason I felt like it was a good time to get on top of stuff. I intended to be diligent, set up some new systems, have consistent routines or habits…

I failed at this. I’m as on top of my email as I was a year ago. And… I’m okay with that. Maybe at some point I’ll get inspired to rejigger my email system, but it doesn’t feel like something I want to make a point of doing.

Part of why I’m okay with my distant relationship to email was that I had the experience a few times of telling people about it and hearing them get hugely envious. Somehow I’m getting away with not checking my email. I feel it too, when I say it: a bit cheeky. High status, like Christopher Nolan, who famously does not have an email address (obviously somehow he has an assistant or something). Sometimes I drop balls, but on the whole this has been worth it for me in order to not be addicted to inbox zero, which has happened to me many times in the past. It’s compelling, but a to-do list that anybody can put stuff on is a distraction from proactive intentionality. Obviously there could be better solutions, but for now, this is mine. If you want to reach me, DM me on twitter or text.

Part of me is tempted to say that this conclusion was a win by the other meaning of Allowing Diligence: having diligence about allowing. But it’s not really the main point in that direction either! But I did perhaps get better last year at allowing the reality that I can fail at stuff.

I figured it would be appropriate to make this year’s post image using an AI image generator, since those really took off this year. This is an image I generated sometime in December, not for something but just as part of moodboarding & envisioning something about the vibe I want my life to have, and it’s apt for this post. Regarding images, you’ll see various photos below, many of which are contextualized by the adjacent paragraphs but some aren’t. They’re all basically in chrono order though. Think of it as a way I’m saving a few thousand words.

generated by DALL-E with the prompt 'a regal beam of light shining down onto a single eye of awareness, suspended in the air above waters that are tranquil in the middle and stormy further out'

The story of 2023, starting with the end of 2022

In my yearly review last year (2022: Deepening in a Different Direction) I noted how the editorializing process leaves out details for various reasons, and how that had historically included any of my struggles that I hadn’t figured out how to frame (read: rationalize) in a positive optimistic light. And before I can talk about what happened last year in anything resembling chronological order, I need to fill you in on something that happened in 2022 but which I left out of the blog post, that shaped the arc of my entire 2023:

» read the rest of this entry »

The eyes-open student: “I can see things my teacher can’t acknowledge”

Part 7 of the “I can tell for myself” sequence, picking up where Guru dynamics: “I can show you how to trust yourself” left off:

To the extent that the person in the more student-like role is able to stay in touch with their own direct-knowing even though it conflicts with what they’re hearing from the teacher-role person… now what?

I’ve studied in depth a handful of cases of this (firsthand and secondhand) which is more than most people but not a lot, so I may be missing something major here. These situations can come from the situation described in the previous post, where the student develops self-trust while already inside a container that they had previously been more naïvely surrendered to… or it can involve someone who already has sufficient self-trust to listen to themselves consciously stepping into a learning environment with someone else who also has a lot of self-trust.

In these contexts, where one person is the official or de facto authority in the space, what I’ve seen has tended to involve what-the-authority-knows being the sort of dominant view, with the other person’s knowings (where they contradict, which won’t be everywhere) getting a lot of questioning and suspicion, or treated as irrelevant. This is functionally a form of “oppressive culture”, even if it’s actively intending to be a welcoming culture.

And it turns out that the main approaches are basically the same: stay & pretend, say the unsayable, or leave. But they look a bit different in learning community than in a kind of default societal context.

  1. Stay & pretend to go along with the authority’s worldview, so that they get to stick around. I said in the “oppressive cultures” section that it’s best to leave, but that was intended to be more referring to a situation where someone doesn’t have enough self-trust to be able to hold their own worldview even in the face of outside pressure. But if someone has that, and has enough time & freedom to journal or talk to people outside the context of this dynamic, then it can make sense to stick around at least for a little while.

    Someone’s reasons for sticking around might include one or more of:
    1. wanting to learn from the person’s wisdom (“yeah he’s belligerently confused but he still knows stuff I don’t, and I trust myself to learn safely in this context”)
    2. wanting to learn from interacting with the person’s confusions (“I’m honestly just trying to understand how someone can be so wise and so foolish at the same time”)
    3. wanting to reconcile the relationship and the viewpoints (“I want to get to the bottom of why that rift years ago originally happened, and have more ease”)
    4. wanting something out of the relationship or context, whether material or social or whatever (“people keep ignoring the obvious, but on the whole this is still a better place to live than any of my other options, for the time being”)
    5. wanting to keep an eye on the person and their context and make sure others are okay (“this former student of mine is getting into risky territory in her container, but if I say everything I’m seeing she’ll just kick me out and then I won’t be able to advise her at all”)
  2. Say the unsayable. Speak to what you can tell for yourself, ideally in ways that also make space for what the blindspots are protecting. This is usually an unstable approach; eventually it converts to pretending or leaving, although with enough trust-dancing/bridging skill I think it can theoretically result in insight and healing.
  3. Leave the context. Sometimes this happens with a lot of anger and resentment, from pressure built up from months or years of pretending not to notice what one notices—particularly if someone had years of being unconsciously in this culture where they repeatedly denied their own knowings—in the name of learning how to trust themselves!

I did a mix of all three of these when I had my own self-trust breakthrough in 2020, as I wrote about somewhat hotly just after I moved out and more spaciously 2 years later. That’s a great example of a context that was attempting to be welcoming everything but in practice didn’t know how to welcome many things. And there were many aspects of me that could tell they were uniquely welcome there, which is part of what made it all so confusing. And when I tried saying the unsayable there, it was difficult of course, but we were able to sincerely approach the challenge together to some degree. There was no “you can’t say this”, just a “you can only say this if it also accounts for this other thing that’s really important” which was around the edge of my ability.

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The primacy of knowing-for-oneself

Fourth in a sequence:

  1. “I can tell for myself”
  2. How did you forget how to tell for yourself?
  3. Oppressive cultures: you don’t get to know what you know

In the first piece, I distinguish between two kinds of knowing, one that I call “I can tell for myself” and the other that I call “taking someone’s word for it”. These are my approach to speaking in plain language about what’s sometimes called gnosis (as contrasted with perhaps “received knowing”).

In the second, I explore the many pressures from childhood, teenagerhood, and spiritual communities, that lead to people taking someone’s word for it even when it contradicts what they can tell for themselves, and how that leads to habitual ignoring of being able to tell for oneself. In the third, I explore the systemic double-binds of culture that shear peoples’ knowing from their honesty.

This post, the primacy of knowing-for-oneself, is more technical: to investigate the relationship between these different kinds of knowing, and make it clear how while words can be used to guide people into being able to tell for themselves, telling for oneself goes back further in evolutionary history, and that without it we wouldn’t even be able to take someone’s word for it.

This section is a response to this comment by a draft reader (who was not my wife when she wrote this comment but is now) on the earlier posts:

My theory: taking other people’s word for it is the default way of knowing things (that we have to rely on when we’re children) and developing the capacity to know for ourselves (and to know when to trust our own knowing) takes more development.

Insofar as it might seem like “taking someone’s word for it” is the default, my guess is that it’s because the phrase “I can tell for myself” is already contrasting itself with something else. And it is the case that we aren’t born knowing how to deal with conflicts between what we can tell for ourselves and what others tell us. That’s something we have to learn, whether by cultivating it the whole time or by having a sudden waking-up experience as an adult where we realize we’ve been ignoring ourselves.

It seems overwhelmingly obvious to me that knowing for ourselves is the functional default way of knowing, and prior to taking others’ word for it in all ways: evolutionarily, developmentally, and experientially/ontologically. (However, in the same way that someone can have an unnatural and unhealthy habit that is nonetheless a default in some sense, people can develop a “default” way of knowing that involves taking others’ words for it).

First, about words. Since this is an essay, everything I’m saying is expressed in words. However, the knowing is not in the words. “I can tell for myself” knowings can be referred to by a proposition (eg “I can ride a bike”, “it is raining outside”, “my mom loves me”) but they are grounded in the other kinds of knowing: procedural, perspectival & participatory, to use Vervaeke’s model. And the ability to be able to tell if a given proposition is true/relevant is part of the sense of “I can tell for myself”, and is not itself made out of propositions, even in domains of logic or mathematics.

Second, about defaults. Consider animals. They can tell for themselves nearly everything they need to know. They periodically do some interpretation, perhaps of a mating call or a warning call, but it seems to me that this is still better understood not as “taking someone’s word for it” but simply “acting on the basis of what is implied by the sound”. They’re not forming generalizations or having “beliefs” about things elsewhere and elsewhen, on the basis of these sounds. But when the animals are direct-knowing, they aren’t thinking “I can tell for myself”, they’re simply knowing. They don’t have a “taking someone’s word for it” to contrast this more basic kind of knowing with.

Baby humans start to discern for themselves that they can move their limbs and see stuff, and that they’re hungry, well before they can understand language and be told anything true or false. They can tell for themselves that faces are important. They can tell for themselves that boobs are great. They can tell for themselves that having a dirty diaper sucks. And they can tell for themselves a lot of subtle stuff about the attention and vibe of the people around them—more than most give them credit for.

Third, about meaning. The only way we can take someone’s word for it is on the basis of what they appear to us to mean, which is a kind of knowing that is much more like the “I can tell for myself”. It’s just that we often take this part for granted. We usually don’t realize the active interpretive role that we are playing in being able to know anything on the basis of someone else making mouth sounds.

Having said all of this, yes, as humans we do need to rely a lot on taking other people’s word for it. Humans live in cultures, and there is no default human behavior absent a culture, nor a default culture for humans to live in. And in particular, our sense of social expectations comes in large part from the words of others, whether that’s an adult enculturating a kid or an employer enculturating a new hire. Sometimes this is benign. What I want to highlight is that every time we take other people’s word for something in a way that (seemingly) contradicts what we can tell for ourselves, we introduce a confusion into not just what we know but into the very means by which we go about knowing things and trusting ourselves.

It seems to me that even though we do need to tell kids a bunch of stuff and have them use those knowings even though they can’t yet tell for themselves, we could also do so in a way that 100% respects their experiential frames—not trying to force an override. We can point things out to people (kids or otherwise) and we can guide them into having experiences that will allow them to tell for themselves, and this is different from trying to force them to see something a particular way. (This is adjacent to how in coercion in terms of scarcity and perceptual control I talk of coercion as trying to force a certain behavior.) We can do this by acknowledging uncertainty, different perspectives, and where we missed things… and by supporting kids to back their own knowings when they differ from ours, even if we say “and right now I have to make the decision as the parent/teacher/etc, and this is the call I’m making”. However, attempting to form such a pocket of sanity in a larger culture that’s oppressive can have additional challenges. Somehow a kid would still need to learn in which contexts they can safely be honest about what they’re seeing.

As I said at the top, insofar as it might seem like “taking someone’s word for it” is the default, my guess is that it’s because the phrase “I can tell for myself” is already contrasting itself with something else. To some extent I chose it for that purpose, because a lot of the adult quest of developing and refining one’s knowing involves rejecting a bunch of stuff someone else told us when we were more impressionable but which we can now tell doesn’t hold up. Because while animals and newborns can tell for themselves, newborns have no idea how to integrate what they can know directly with what others tell them. This must be learned. How do I generalize what I can tell for myself, while acknowledging that it also seems to contradict what you’re telling me?

In any case, our societies currently mostly teach the opposite of that, in the way that they go about teaching us the cultural knowledge we’re supposed to have. And it’s important to convey this knowledge to people—that’s utterly central to what it means to be human. But at this point in history, it’s possible to convey most of the key cultural knowledge while also conveying how to sanely relate it to your own knowing. It’s not about the overt messages but about the relationship we’re trained to adopt between what we’re told and what we can tell for ourselves.

There are some pitfalls, however, when trying to create learning environments for people to develop this new capacity…

Next post in sequence: Reality distortion: “I can tell, but you can’t”

Evolution of Consciousness one-pager

Another “explain what you’re on about right now, in one breath, standing on one foot“. See the NNTD one here.

  • I’ve been getting increasingly excited about conceiving of a field of study called “the evolution of consciousness”. I’ve seen a lot of people writing and thinking into this field, some of whom seem to be aware of the larger field and others who are just exploring a piece of it. As I see it, it’s necessarily also the study of evolution in general—not just biological evolution but:
    • cultural/memetic evolution
    • pre-biological physical evolution
    • thinking as an evolutionary process (which can be framed in terms of relevance realization)
    • evolution as a tautology: the fact that wherever you look you’ll tend to see mostly the sorts of things that are better at sticking around and/or making more things like themselves
  • It’s also necessarily the study of what happens when evolution becomes aware of itself. As Tom Atlee’s Co-Intelligence Institute puts it:
    • > we are evolution — or at least one significant facet of it — becoming conscious of itself. Across many domains of society, life and spirituality, we are in the process of birthing ourselves as conscious evolution.
  • The field draws on cogsci and other “scientific” sources, on history & religious texts, philosophy, and also draws from wisdom traditions like Buddhism and Christian mysticism.
  • Necessarily, as a study of consciousness, most research in this field is aware that it’s not just third-person research but first-person: the study not of how things are but of how they seem, and the study of the “seeming” process itself and our relationship to it (and how changes in our relationship to it change it, as part of that evolution). There is no place outside consciousness from which we can study consciousness.
    • My particular research (the “Non-Naive Trust Dance”) focuses on inter/co-seeming; on the process by which things that seem one way to me and seem a different way to you can come to be seen in some shared way by us, together… and what gets in the way of that.
  • Anyway, a rough sketch of the evolution of consciousness (so far!) as I see it:
    • at some point in the past, our ancestors were not consciousness of their own consciousness. they lived as much in flow with the dao as cats and lizards
    • then they developed language and memes, but (I suspect) these memes were at first entirely un-self-conscious and there were no double-binds (and perhaps in some sense no lies)
    • then, perhaps through biological evolution but more likely through transformational ritual that may have involved snake venom and apples, we developed recursive self-awareness
    • thus, from previous unquestioned oneness emerged dualism: the ego, which was previously a mediating layer between the id (animal urges) and superego (social expectations) became aware of itself and started identifying with itself and seeing itself as separate from others, and became aware of its choices and of the option to “be selfish” or “be altruistic”
    • at this point, a new kind of evolution started occurring among the superegos/memeplexes, to incorporate deception, shame, & blame to control large groups into behaving in coordinated ways (outcompeting groups that were unable to do this). “anti-rational memes” in DD’s terms
    • in parallel, various mystical traditions emerged for helping people re-access an experience of nonduality, but they were never able to be mainstream as they were too in conflict with the societal structures of the day. also some tried/try to go back to pre-consciousness modes.
    • phenomena like the scientific revolution shifted peoples’ relationships to their memes, creating an attitude of “we can figure it out for ourselves rather than take things from authority” (though modernity threw many babies out with bathwater in rejecting traditional wisdom)
    • at present, many people from many angles are exploring how to live in conscious relationship to memes/superegos, and build a new recursively-self-aware yet ALSO nondual society 

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:

Partswork doesn’t require reifying or naming parts

“Partswork” (usually “parts work” but it’s on its way to being one word like “cupboard”) is sort of a catch-all term for therapeutic or introspection approaches that involve orienting to yourself as having different parts, that have different desires, wants, needs, beliefs, experiences, perspectives, etc.

Speaking in terms of “part of me” is very common. I would be surprised to find a reader of this post who has never used a phrase like “part of me wants to go out tonight, but part of me wants to stay in” or “part of me distrusts him” or “part of me really just wants to finish this right now” or “part of me wants to do nothing but eat chocolate all day” or “part of me thinks nobody will ever love me”.

And this was the origin of Internal Family Systems therapy, the most famous form of partswork. When Dick Schwartz was working with his clients, he noticed them saying phrases like that, and started developing a theory of these “parts”. The term “parts” came from the common language of his clients. He then developed a powerful taxonomy of different types of parts (exiles & protectors (subtypes: managers & firefighters)) which relate in particular ways and have specific types of relationships with each other. In IFS sessions, it’s common for the parts to be given names (perhaps by asking the part what to call it) and to have fairly stable identities across different sessions over weeks or months.

People have different models of what’s going on there, and whether these parts truly “exist” or whether they’re just a useful interface or metaphor for relating with oneself. I don’t have a particular take on that—in fact, I’m not even entirely certain that those two views refer to a different world (Don Hoffman posits that all perception is interface). The parts obviously aren’t discrete in the way car parts are; they’re much more organic and intertwingled.

What I do have a take on is that you don’t need to reify or name parts in order to do partswork. You can—for big issues this can be really helpful. The IFS model is good and seems to track for a lot of people.

But it can also add unnecessary overhead, and make it hard to notice that the same principles of internal conflict apply on other scales as well.

This is particularly salient to me since my introduction to the importance of inner conflict wasn’t IFS, it was Perceptual Control Theory, whose parts are very tiny and in some ways ephemeral.

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Coercion in terms of scarcity & perceptual control

The following is a piece I wrote a year ago. A few months back I started editing it for publication and it started evolving and inverting and changing so dramatically that I found myself just wanting to publish the original as a snapshot of where my thinking was at about a year ago when I first drafted this. I realized today that attempts to write canonical pieces are daunting because there’s a feeling of having to answer all questions for all time, and that instead I want to just focus on sharing multiple perspectives on things, which can be remixed and refined later and more in public. So, with some minor edits but no deep rethinking, here’s one take on what coercion is. And you might see more pieces here soon that I let go of trying to perfect first.

Coercion = “the exploitation of the scarcity of another, to force the other to behave in a way that you want”

The word “behave” is very important in the above definition. Shooting someone and taking their wallet isn’t coercion, as bad as it is. Neither is picking their pocket when they’re not paying attention. But threatening someone at gunpoint and telling them to hand over their wallet (or stand still while you take it) is coercion. This matches commonly accepted understandings of the word, as far as I know.

A major inspiration for this piece is Perceptual Control Theory, a cybernetic model of cognition and action, which talks about behavior as the control of perception. I’m also mostly going to talk about interpersonal coercion here—self-coercion is similar but subtler.


If someone has a scarcity of food, you can coerce them by feeding them conditional on them doing what you want. This is usually called slavery. One important thing to note is that it requires you physically prevent them from feeding themselves any other way! Which in practice usually also involves the threat of violence if they attempt to flee and find a better arrangement.

In general, a strategy built on the use of coercion means preferring that the coerced agent continue to be generally in a state of scarcity, because otherwise you would be unable to continue to control them! (Because they could just get their need met some other way and therefore wouldn’t have to do what you say!)

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Respect people by letting them make their own mistakes

Letting other people make their own mistakes is a very basic and underappreciated form of respect.

The main cause of failing to do this afaict is having an overzealous self-other boundary that includes the other person and then says “I would never make a mistake like that!” and then tries to correct their behavior with our own principle bruh, they’re not you!

Letting people have their actual understandings (even when they’re misunderstanding you)

Letting people try an approach (even if you know/think it won’t work)

Letting people have their triggers & neuroses (even if they make no sense to you)

= all forms of acceptance & respect

» read the rest of this entry »
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