This entry is a personal note reflecting on some of the events, experiences, and lessons I have learned this year that have affected me.
I have always felt confident in my rational thinking abilities — solving problems in a computer science sense — but I have never felt comfortable working through my own or other’s emotional problems. I still have plenty of emotional and communicative issues to work through, but I have made incredible progress on these issues this year.
These new developments are all rooted in understanding and accepting myself. But they have been enabled by external experiences and communicating with other people. It’s the same way that thinking about a two-dimensional world helps us understand what it means to live in a three-dimensional world, and dimensions in general. Understanding my relationships with others has helped me understand myself.
For me, the triggers of this growth have been two studies. One in dance, particularly contact improvisation and to a lesser extent gaga and capoeira. The second in a set of books by Don Miguel Ruiz which appeared at a particularly appropriate time in my life. These studies have been further integrated into my being through the sharing of life with close friends and several psychedelic experiences.
I am constantly looking for metaphors to connect my disparate life experiences. Patterns of patterns to give insight into the higher meaning of my existence. This year, all of these deep insights have originated in contact improvisation and my other dance explorations. They are physically-rooted lessons; I can describe them in words but much of their power comes from my physical, non-cerebral understanding of them.
I will share one example. At the start of every contact class I have attended, we begin with an exercise to root ourselves, to bring our attention to the present. This is especially important coming in to a class from the streets of NYC which is full of distractions. Often this exercise will involve becoming aware of our breathing and closing our eyes to bring awareness to our other sensations, the sound of a quiet room, the feeling of the air on our skin, the muscles that we’ve tensed unnecessarily. In this particular class, we were asked to bring our awareness to how we were standing. When you stand, you’re not standing still, you’re constantly making minute adjustments in your muscles based on input from your vestibular senses. Balance in an unstable equilibrium like standing is not inactive, it is a feedback-based control system. The same way we can relax our tensed muscles, we can relax this control system. We can let our body lean, and see how far off from center we can let our body fall before correcting it and still be standing. This is the start of the small dance, listening to the infinitesimal impulse which breaks an unstable equilibrium and moving with it.
The small dance, after experiencing it physically, found its way metaphorically into many aspects of my life at all scales. I remember describing it to my friend James and connecting it with the Interplanetary Transport Network which is a strategy for traveling the solar system using theoretically infinitesimal energy. Essentially you position yourself between two large bodies, say the earth and the sun, so that your gravitational attraction to each cancel each other out. This is an unstable equilibrium. If you were to minutely push yourself in any direction, gravity would pull you off into a winding, chaotic pathway. If you’re clever and push yourself in just the right direction at just the right time, this winding pathway can lead you to another point between two bodies and you can repeat as necessary. This strategy really works, although it’s a very slow way of traveling. It has been used by several space probes.
The small dance also applies to my mental modes. I’m normally in a stable mental mode, not allowing myself to think thoughts that are too “crazy”, too off center. But by building my confidence exploring the small dance physically, I’m able to apply this practice to my thinking, allowing myself to go off on a thought knowing that I’ll be able to bring myself back.
Don Miguel Ruiz
Living is easy with eyes closed, misunderstanding all you see…
– John Lennon
I found these books through Yoko Ono’s recommended book list. I had been following Yoko Ono’s twitter feed pretty closely and I wanted to learn more about the philosophy she uses to create such simple and small but affecting works.
I started reading The Four Agreements. The book begins by explaining Ruiz’s outlook, that we each live in our own dream, our own frame of being. Our shared experience is a bigger, collective dream that encompasses us but is not truly reality. It’s just a set of agreements that humans (before us) have made so that we can live in a world together. That is, our framework for understanding the world — our ontology of things both physical and societal — is taught to us. By being aware of this setup, we become more capable of choosing when to accept society’s agreements and what it means to express our own dream.
This outlook is quite compatible with my own. However I had never consciously used this perspective to guide my way through life.
In the book, Ruiz describes four “agreements”, concepts which can be integrated into our being which can help us master our attention and express our own dream. I’ll describe them in terms of how I relate to them. The first is to be aware of the power of our words, thoughts, and actions, and to not use this power against ourselves. The second is to not believe that everything that happens around us is because of us; specifically to not take what people say personally, because the people around us are living in their own dream. The third is to not assume that we understand someone else’s dream, instead to ask questions and listen. The fourth is to do our best and be aware that our best will fluctuate and change with time.
Your experience may be different than mine, but I have found this book very useful in working through my own thoughts and feelings, I recommend it.
I’ve also read two of his other books. The Fifth Agreement goes into more depth about how our individual and collective dreams relate to each other and how we let beliefs transfer between the dreams. The Mastery of Love, perhaps my favorite, is ostensibly about how relationships between two people can be co-created but is at root about one’s relationship with oneself. The allegories in it are beautifully written.
I was halfway through The Four Agreements when I had my first experience in an isolation tank. The isolation tank was invented by John Lilly, who also researched dolphins and psychedelic drugs. It is completely light proof and sound proof. You float on your back on salt water. The air and water within have been prepared to be human skin surface temperature. At first you can hear the sloshing of the water and your own movements — the sound of moving your tongue is particularly loud — but eventually you stop moving and the water and air immediately surrounding you reach equilibrium with your skin temperature. As the name suggests, the idea is to remove all sensory input so that you are left alone with your mind.
I had been rereading some Lilly books and decided to find an isolation tank in NYC. I found Blue Light Floatation, which I recommend.
My own experience had two phases during the hour-long session. The first phase was settling my body and mind. I tried different positions (arms by my side or hands behind my head) and had to figure out how to physically center myself in the water so I didn’t drift to one side. Though it was completely dark and silent, I was still aware that I was in the tank, in a building, in the city. I was thinking about my expectations for what I should be experiencing in the tank. I was thinking about how I would describe the experience in the future. Ruiz calls this constant chattering the mitote, the sound of 1,000 voices talking and nobody listening. Eventually I managed to calm my body and mind and take the experience for what it was. I have not done a lot of meditation but I reached what I believe to be a very deep meditative state.
The insight I took out of the experience concerned the gradient of my self.
I am not just my body. My body is just a machine that is controlled by my intent. It’s the same way when you’re driving a car and the low-latency feedback system between your intent and the car’s movements temporarily extends your body to the entire vehicle.
But I am not just my conscious self either. I have always suspected that I have a variety of selves which are present at different times. Each has different desires and thought processes. In the tank I was able to see each of these conscious selves as temporary programs which I switch between. Like my body machinery, they appeared as satellites around my center, the phantom captain. Like my body, my conscious selves are tools through which my center can express its intent. I was able to see in my life when this true intent was expressed most clearly, most directly. I remembered a frisbee game a few days before, when fully immersed in play, this inner intent would express itself in the simple decision of who to throw the frisbee to next.
I resolved to express my true intent whenever possible. I still recall this feeling whenever my conscious selves are battling over what to do next. Focusing on this feeling has gotten me through what would previously have been difficult situations.
I’ll close on a lighter note and briefly describe my most playful experience of the year. Inspired by my friend Mark’s idea for a no-talking party and encouraged by Amit, my Games & Art professor, I held a small gathering at my apartment where no speaking was permitted. About half a dozen close friends showed up over the course of the evening. I had stocked my apartment with wine, cheese, and art materials, but had no planned activities and was curious to see how the evening would play out.
We were all quite active and wanted to express ourselves to each other. But with no talking, we had to lead by example or just start something with some sort of action. Another person would interpret this action in her own way and respond with another action. This went back and forth and all sorts of playful games evolved. It reminded me of tripping in a group — when everyone’s so far out that you can only communicate non-verbally — except that we were all entirely lucid.
A consequence of the evening was that I was much more relaxed and trusting. For example, at one point my friend Sofy grabbed my camera away from me and started drawing on it with a sharpie. In ordinary circumstances this would have made me anxious. I would stress over whether I should say “Hey! Don’t do that!” or just let her express her dream. But with no talking I felt no anxiety. With no talking you can’t try to control people, you can only trust people to be responsible for their own actions. Due to the good energy in this circle of friends, this trust was very relaxing. I believe we all bonded in a deep way that evening.