Attempted Telekinesis

Re­lated to: Com­part­men­tal­iza­tion in epistemic and in­stru­men­tal ra­tio­nal­ity; That other kind of sta­tus.

Sum­mary: I’d like to share some tech­niques that made a large differ­ence for me, and for sev­eral other folks I shared them with. They are tech­niques for re­duc­ing stress, so­cial shame, and cer­tain other kinds of “wasted effort”. Th­ese tech­niques are less de­vel­oped and rigor­ous than the tech­niques that CFAR teaches in our work­shops—for ex­am­ple, they cur­rently only work for per­haps 1/​3rd of the dozen or so peo­ple I’ve shared them with—but they’ve made a large enough im­pact for that 1/​3rd that I wanted to share them with the larger group. I’ll share them through a se­quence of sto­ries and metaphors, be­cause, for now, that is what I have.
For me, these tech­niques came out of a stress­ful time pe­riod.
In Oc­to­ber 2012, CFAR was very new, and I was very new to be­ing its ex­ec­u­tive di­rec­tor.
I was faced with a task that I ba­si­cally didn’t know how to do—filling the first work­shop for which we charged “real” money (the $3900/​per­son that ac­tu­ally let CFAR run), and helping our team cre­ate our first de­cently pol­ished work­shop at the same time (which needed cur­ricu­lum, op­er­a­tions, etc.). But when­ever I sat down to try to work, my head would fill up with all the other tasks I “needed” to get done, in­stead of the par­tic­u­lar task I was try­ing to work on. Or my head would fill with stress and men­tal static. So, al­most be­cause of how badly I needed to work, I found my­self un­able to ac­com­plish much of any­thing.
The set of sto­ries and metaphors be­low is some­how what even­tu­ally gave me the abil­ity to work with full fo­cus in those con­di­tions (I found them part­way through that Oc­to­ber), and cured most of my decades-long so­cial shame at the same time.[1] (Though, again, this stuff isn’t rigor­ous yet. It worked for a few folk, but failed a few oth­ers; your mileage may vary. Do share your thoughts.)

At­tempted telekinesis

One morn­ing, that month, I was ly­ing in bed, half-asleep. And I wanted my lap­top. But my lap­top was a few feet away, so reach­ing it sounded hard (be­cause I was half-asleep).
After ly­ing there a while wish­ing, I fi­nally no­ticed what my brain was up to. And I no­ticed that what my brain was do­ing was vi­su­al­iz­ing my lap­top whoosh­ing to­ward me. Again and again. (Fix at­ten­tion on lap­top… vi­su­al­ize the woosh. Nope, lap­top isn’t here yet: re­peat!)[2]

I’m go­ing to call this pro­cess “At­tempted telekine­sis”.
It seems to me that some­thing like “at­tempted telekine­sis” un­der­lies a large set of stress /​ shame /​ worry /​ etc., and that learn­ing to van­ish it has been su­per-use­ful for me and sev­eral oth­ers. I’ll start with sev­eral ex­am­ples of what I’ll be call­ing “at­tempted telekine­sis”, and then go into some tech­niques for van­ish­ing it.

The case of the munch­ing noises

Later that day, I was sit­ting at the office try­ing to work, and some­one next to me was eat­ing. Noisily.
Now, I’m part of the siz­able minor­ity of the pop­u­la­tion that is driven ab­solutely bonkers by munch­ing noises. Munch­ing noises fill me with rage and make me want to punch some­one. But, like, I get that that’s petty of me.
So my in­ter­nal think­ing stream goes some­thing like this:
Coworker: [Munch. Munch.]
My sys­tem 1/​ in­tu­itive brain (silently, in my head): Argh! Stop it!
Me: [Type, type.] (While think­ing: “I don’t want to be petty; best not say any­thing, nor show an­noy­ance on my face in any way.”)
[1 minute later]
Coworker: [Munch. Munch.]
My sys­tem 1/​ in­tu­itive brain (silently, in my head): Didn’t you hear me?? Stop it!!
Me: [Type, type.] (… I don’t want to be petty; best not say any­thing, or show it on my face in any way.)
[and an­other minute later]
Coworker: [Munch. Munch.]
My sys­tem 1/​ in­tu­itive brain (silently, in my head): Argh!! Didn’t you hear me?? Stop it!! Why won’t it stop!! Clearly I need to use even more emo­tional force to make it stop!!
Me: [no longer typ­ing] (… Oh, huh, this is that “at­tempted telekine­sis” thing again, isn’t it. I’m not do­ing any­thing with my face or voice that would cause the eat­ing noises to cease. I’m in­ten­tion­ally not do­ing any­thing with my face or voice, be­cause I don’t want to be petty. And yet my in­tu­itive brain seems to feel like its “be up­set” ac­tion should’ve changed some­thing in the world...)

The ad copy writer who doesn’t know if she’s “good enough”

So, later on that day, I sit down to write some ad copy—some­thing I can email out to folks who might be in­ter­ested in the work­shop.
And I no­tice that a bunch of my thoughts aren’t about the de­tails of the ad word­ing at all—they’re about whether I’m good enough at writ­ing to write ad copy, and also about whether the whole work­shop is doomed and I’ll be cast des­o­late to the hye­nas while my en­tire tribe mocks me for hav­ing ru­ined CFAR.
So I stop and think through my fears for a mo­ment. And I agree that, in­deed, the work­shop might not work—but since it also might well work, it’d be pretty damn stupid to stop prepar­ing right then. And in fact, my use­ful “next ac­tions” from this mo­ment ba­si­cally in­volve do­ing what­ever’s most likely to make it work, and not wast­ing mo­tions on the op­po­site prospect.
Similarly, I might not be good enough at the writ­ing—maybe I should be get­ting some­one else to write it for me. But since I might well be able to, and since there’s no one good sit­ting right there to give the task to in­stead, it seems best to set a 1-hour timer, do the best writ­ing I can for 1 hour with­out dis­tract­ing my­self try­ing to eval­u­ate it—and then, when the timer rings, I can de­liber­ately eval­u­ate whether to write more my­self or to look for some­one else who can write it.
But even af­ter I think that through… my brain keeps on try­ing to waste these mo­tions. It’s like “write… pause… `what if I’m not good enough?’”. And I no­tice that it has the same feel as the lap­top and the munch­ing noises. As though some­thing in me hopes that if I just feel up­set about things, or if I just vi­su­al­ize that I need the world to be a cer­tain way or worry about how it isn’t, this will some­how magic the world into a bet­ter state.
A mu­si­cal artist once said: “You know, how good or bad you are [at mak­ing mu­sic] is re­ally none of your god­damn busi­ness.” And I get what he meant, now. My busi­ness this hour is to write, not to worry about how I’m not good enough at writ­ing.
But how to do it? How to get my brain to fo­cus on writ­ing, and to drop the at­tempted telekine­sis?[3]

Use­ful “telekine­sis”: Separat­ing ba­bies from bathwater

The “at­tempted telekine­sis” ex­am­ples above are all ex­am­ples of pointless be­hav­iors—the kinds of be­hav­iors a per­son is bet­ter off re­mov­ing. I’d like to take a mo­ment, now, to dis­t­in­guish pointless cases of “at­tempted telekine­sis” (where a per­son tries to change the world just by re­peat­edly stress­ing out about it) from their use­ful cous­ins.
Here’s a use­ful cousin:
The other morn­ing, I was ly­ing in bed, again. Think­ing that maybe I should get up. But feel­ing like bed was warm and get­ting up would be a lit­tle hard.
And then I thought about break­fast. I pic­tured it: nice, fried eggs; a sliced fresh tomato; a steam­ing cup of tea. I pic­tured bit­ing into the eggs, with the runny yolk on my tongue. And sud­denly, with­out any need of prompt­ing from con­scious-me, my body was in mo­tion—up and head­ing to­ward the eggs. (Per­haps, from the per­spec­tive of the sub­mod­ule of my brain that did the “wish­ing for eggs” manuever, wish­ing had in fact made it so! It wished, and my body re­sponded: telekinetic suc­cess.)
As in the above “pointless” cases, my sys­tem 1 brain had a thing that it wanted, and vi­su­al­ized a pic­ture of the de­sired end-state. But in the break­fast ex­am­ple, that vi­su­al­iza­tion was use­ful. The imag­ined fly­ing lap­top had just filled my head with re­peated wish­ing. The imag­ined van­ish­ing munch­ing noises had just filled my head with re­peated ag­gra­va­tion. The imag­ined “be­ing a bet­ter writer” state had only dis­tracted me from writ­ing. But the imag­ined ex­pe­rience of eat­ing break­fast… pul­led my sys­tem 1 into ac­tu­ally ob­tain­ing break­fast.
Similarly, when I imag­ine Archimedes in the clas­sic bath­tub story, I imag­ine him ob­sess­ing a bit about how to mea­sure the crown’s den­sity. “How can I mea­sure it? How can I mea­sure it?” his brain might re­peat… a lit­tle like re­peat­ing “Get my lap­top to whoosh to­ward me!“. Ob­sess­ing on prob­lems at CFAR cer­tainly seems to help me no­tice po­ten­tial solu­tions.
So, what’s the take-away? When is it use­ful to try to wish the world into a differ­ent state? What dis­t­in­guishes the kinds of “at­tempted telekine­sis” that one might like to re­move, from the kinds that fetch you break­fast or give you in­sights into the king’s crown?
This mat­ter seems to me to be a bit com­pli­cated, but also seems quite im­por­tant—if you get it wrong, you ei­ther stay un­nec­es­sar­ily dis­tracted and in­effec­tive (like me in the lead-up to CFAR’s first work­shop), or you end up a sort of par­ody of pop Bud­dhism, sit­ting there be­ing placid about your prob­lems in­stead of har­ness­ing your drives to solve them.

How to dis­t­in­guish?

In prac­tice, I tend to dis­t­in­guish be­tween use­ful and use­less at­tempted telekine­sis based on task type and emo­tional tone. (Im­prove­ments/​kib­b­itzes ap­pre­ci­ated.)

Task type:

Type 1: Prob­lems that Sys­tem 1 can solve by it­self:

Ex­am­ples: Mak­ing break­fast; caus­ing some­one to know you care about them.

Suggested re­sponse: This sort of wish­ing is healthy, and may prompt ac­tions that make a lot more sense than those sys­tem 2 would plan (e.g., your non­ver­bals as you apol­o­gize are likely to be far bet­ter if you viscer­ally care about your in­ter­locu­tor). Leave sys­tem 1 be.

Type 2: Prob­lems that are worth solv­ing, but that need help from Sys­tem 2:

Ex­am­ples: “There’s noth­ing good to eat” (situ­a­tion: you no­tice that sev­eral times, over the last hour, you’ve gone to the fridge, opened it, stared in­side, closed it… and then opened it again a few min­utes later—as though to see if some­thing good has mag­i­cally ma­te­ri­al­ized into the closed fridge); Feel­ing ‘stuck’ at one’s job (or in a re­la­tion­ship); Not hav­ing enough money. (The dis­t­in­guish­ing fea­ture here is that sys­tem 1 has been loop­ing on the prob­lem for a while to no effect, and that sys­tem 2 has not yet taken a good look at the prob­lem.)

Suggested re­sponse: Raise the prob­lem to con­scious at­ten­tion; then, try to figure out what is both­er­ing sys­tem 1; fi­nally, de­cide what to do about it. As you do this, parts of the wish­ing will nat­u­rally shift from the gen­eral prob­lem (“Some­how make work less stuck-feel­ing”) to the spe­cific strat­egy you’ve cho­sen (“Figure out how to rene­go­ti­ate with my man­ager”).[4]

Type 3: “Prob­lems” that should be given up on:

Ex­am­ples: “Make the munch­ing noises go away” (in a case where you’ve de­cided not to); “Make San Fran­cis­cans be bet­ter drivers”; “Let me van­ish into the floor.” (The dis­t­in­guish­ing fea­ture here is sim­ply that these are “prob­lems” that, on re­flec­tion, you do not wish to take ac­tion on.)

Suggested re­sponse: Find a way to let sys­tem 1 know that solv­ing this prob­lem isn’t worth the cost, or that keep­ing this prob­lem on your in­ter­nal “worry/​fume about” list is quite un­likely to have pos­i­tive effects. For ex­am­ple, you might:

  • Make a plan for what it would ac­tu­ally take to cause San Fran­cis­cans to be bet­ter drivers. Es­ti­mate the to­tal amount of work in­volved. Ask your emo­tional brain if it would, in fact, like you to carry out this plan.

  • Vi­su­al­ize a stressed-out/​fum­ing/​wor­ry­ing you get­ting cut off in traf­fic. Now vi­su­al­ize a calm you get­ting cut off in traf­fic. See if you ex­pect to see any­thing good hap­pen in the stressed-out case that doesn’t hap­pen in the calm case. (Be open to the fact that the an­swer might be “yes”.)[5]

  • No­tice, in de­tail, what sys­tem 1 is up­set about. Ac­knowl­edge that, yes, you may be late to your work meet­ing be­cause of the traf­fic. And that, in­deed, your per­sonal driv­ing habits are differ­ent from those of the driver who cut you off. And that some­day a driver like that may in fact kill you via ag­gres­sion or care­less­ness—it isn’t likely, but it’s pos­si­ble, and the life­time risk of death by traf­fic ac­ci­dent is dis­tinctly nonzero. Once you’ve no­ticed all the painful things, check again to see whether it’s worth tak­ing some sort of con­struc­tive ac­tion on some of them. Sys­tem 1 may trust your policy de­ci­sion more now that you’ve looked at all the down­sides (and may be more will­ing, there­fore, to stop try­ing to will the drivers into a differ­ent state).[6]

Type 4: Prob­lems that should be del­e­gated to a par­tic­u­lar fu­ture-you:

Ex­am­ples: The prob­lem of lo­cat­ing a work­shop venue (dur­ing the hour at which I was try­ing to write the work­shops ad, that Oc­to­ber); the situ­a­tion with your room­mates and the dishes (while you’re at work solv­ing a cod­ing prob­lem).

Suggested re­sponse: Des­ig­nate a par­tic­u­lar fu­ture-you to do the task. Dia­log with your “in­ner simu­la­tor” (your sys­tem 1 an­ti­ci­pa­tions) un­til both sys­tem 1 and sys­tem 2 are con­vinced that that spe­cific you will ac­tu­ally do the task, and that there is no ad­di­tional pos­i­tive effect to be gained via stay­ing pre­oc­cu­pied now.

Type 5: Prob­lems that Sys­tem 2 needs “shower-thoughts” help with:

Ex­am­ples: Archimedes’ prob­lem mea­sur­ing the king’s crown; “My re­la­tion­ship with Fred is bro­ken, and I can’t figure out what to do about it”; “How the heck can I solve that math rid­dle?” (The dis­t­in­guish­ing fea­ture here is that both: (1) the prob­lem has already been raised to con­scious at­ten­tion at some point (and sys­tem 2 failed to in­stantly solve it); and (2) the prob­lem is a wor­thy use of your shower-thoughts—ei­ther for what it’ll ac­com­plish di­rectly, or for the im­prove­ment it may give to your pat­tern of thought.))

Suggested re­sponse: This sort of wish­ing is healthy. Leave sys­tem 1 be.

Emo­tional tone:

Wishes of­ten seem to me to have emo­tional tones. Some tones are sim­ple de­sire (“Break­fast… mmm....”). Others have an over­layed hope­less­ness or bit­ter res­ig­na­tion about them (“I just always have to put up with how ev­ery­one else is in­com­pe­tent”); oth­ers, still, have a tone (at least in me) of hammed-up flailing, self-pity, or de­sire for out­side help—as though if I just feel hel­pless enough, some­how a grown-up will come to the res­cue (“Make the work­shop crisis not be in this state… Make the work­shop crisis not be in this state...“).

It seems to me that it’s worth in­stal­ling an “alert” that sounds, in your head, when­ever it hears ei­ther the hope­less/​bit­ter/​re­signed tone, or the flailing/​save-me tone. Both are of­ten signs of buggy “at­tempted telekine­sis” situ­a­tions that are worth con­scious de­bug­ging (a la the schema above). And the emo­tional tones can be eas­ier to au­to­mat­i­cally flag.

[1] A book called “Bonds that make us free” played a sub­stan­tial role in prompt­ing these thoughts and was ex­tremely helpful to me. It’s writ­ten from a Chris­tian wor­ld­view, but if you’re up for nav­i­gat­ing a for­eign ex­pos­i­tory style and sort­ing out for your­self which parts to keep, and if in ad­di­tion you are in­ter­ested in van­ish­ing so­cial shame or other forms of loopy thoughts, I’d recom­mend it.
[2] Thanks to Ali­corn for mak­ing the car­toon.
[3] Other than, you know, to re­peat­edly vi­su­al­ize my thought pat­terns whoosh­ing into the new state that I now wished them to be in? ;)
[4] The book “Fo­cus­ing” by Eu­gene Gendlin teaches one use­ful way to do this. If you de­cide to check it out, I’d strongly recom­mend the au­dio­book over the pa­per book, as it is abridged and far clearer.
[5] For ex­am­ple, per­haps, if you re­main stressed out, per­haps your boss will see how much you suffered in your at­tempt to be on time to work and will de­duce that you care about timeli­ness. (If you no­tice some good effect com­ing from the stress that doesn’t come from the calm, you might want to look for an al­ter­na­tive way to cause the effect. For ex­am­ple, you might up­date your heuris­tics to de­crease the chances of fu­ture late­ness; plan to ex­plain this to your boss and to offer a 1-sided $100 bet against this ever hap­pen­ing again; and then drive with your mind free to fo­cus fully on in­ter­est­ing prob­lems.)
[6] More gen­er­ally, when set­ting out to con­vince sys­tem 1 that X is true, it is best to be hon­estly cu­ri­ous as to whether X might in fact be false, and whether sys­tem 1 may have some good rea­son for sus­pect­ing this. It is much the same as when at­tempt­ing to con­vince an­other hu­man. Say­ing “Hey, look, you’re wrong and stupid and so your pro­posed office policy is re­ally bad” is usu­ally not very per­sua­sive; say­ing “huh; I’m con­fused; the office policy looks to me as though it’ll cost a lot of hours to lit­tle effect, but you usu­ally have good rea­sons for things; maybe you could tell me why you think it’s plau­si­ble?” is of­ten a bet­ter way to per­suade; one wishes to do the same thing for sys­tem 1.