Returned from the river

August 15, 2006

I just returned from 16 days of vacation in northern California. The second week of this trip was spent kayaking down the Klamath River. I’ve never spent an extended period of time on a river before and it had a profound effect on my mindset. So many things now seem to be understood within the metaphor of the river.

Most of the river is hidden. The surface of the river might seem calm and happy, while just underneath a powerful current pushes and pulls. We slide effortlessly down the river most of the time, but every once in a while the hidden power of the river will surge up in a wave or pull you down into a hole.

Navigating the river is about knowing when to trust it, and when to direct it. The power of the river is so strong that you can never directly oppose it. It’s much better to use arms, legs, and oars to bend your course in the river, than to use them to try to go against it. The former will let you borrow from the strength of the river while the latter will only tire you out.

I also read a great book while on this trip called The Wisdom of Insecurity. It was incredibly applicable to the trip as a whole. The gist of it is that it’s often fear of insecurity that drives one to seek security in life. However, the true nature of insecurity is what leads to surprise, wonder, gratitude, and love. Being comfortable with insecurity became familiar to me, and seemed to be connected with the real nature of nature. Kayaking the river wouldn’t have been as much fun if every twist and turn was known beforehand. Sure, it’s a cliché revelation, but it’s always nice when you can experience a cliché firsthand rather than simply letting them slide meaninglessly over you. For, what is a cliché other than a piece of wisdom that has ceased to have meaning due to simplified repetition? Both the river and the book were good tools for me to crack the meaning back out of the phrase.

I’m looking forward to getting back on my feet over here.

This is the tendency to compare two things based on one dimension rather than taking all dimensions into consideration.  For example, if you currently dislike your job because it has a terrible commute and someone offers you a job that’s within walking distance of your house, you may be susceptible to thinking the second job is therefore better.

At first glance, it appears that the thing you hate about your current job doesn’t exist in the new one, and therefore you would be happier there.  Of course, there are many other things that could contribute to the second job being better or worse than the first one.  We tend to conduct comparisons along one axis and assume that all other things are equal.  This is obviously a silly tactic.

If you tend to focus on the negative, the focusing effect can create a downward spiral of negative thinking.  By focusing on a negative aspect of your current situation, many other things that you don’t have will always look like they’re better… from which the term “the grass is always greener on the other side of the fence” is coined.  You begin to see yourself as an unlucky or lower person than others.

If you tend to focus on the positive, the focusing effect can create an attitude of complacency and stability.  Everything will seem worse (or potentially worse) than your current situation, so you will never change jobs, never move to a new city, never meet new people, simply because you imagine the rest of the world’s experiences to be slightly or drastically worse than your own.

Which of these two sides of the focusing effect bias coin do you land on?  I think I’m probably more on the negative side, thinking things could always be better… but at the same time I’m optimistic that I could reach those better things if I simply focused more.

Persuasion and Brainwashing Techniques Being Used on the Public Today is a fascinating article by Dick Sutphen about, well, how persuasion and brainwashing techniques are being used on the public today by religious organizations, the military, human-potential organizations, and the media.

It’s a long article so I’ll paraphrase the six techniques here:

  1. Isolation: the meeting or training takes place in a place where participants are cut off from the outside world. This often involves making a public commitment to stay during the training. When training takes place in isolation like this, there is usually a quick follow-up session to ensure that the technique has really taken hold.
  2. Fatigue: a schedule is maintained that ensures physical and mental fatigue. This means long hours, few breaks, and very little time for relaxing or reflection.
  3. Tension: techniques are used to increase tension in the group. For example, perhaps there are a few truisms thrown around that might make you feel like you are doing something wrong. Or that you are a sinner, or depressed, or generally unhappy.
  4. Uncertainty: people are randomly put on the spot. Forced to withdraw into anger, fear, or awe. Revivalist churches and human-potential seminars include asking people to come on stage and talk about humiliating or weak moments in their lives. This withdrawn, fearful, state, makes you many times more susceptible to suggestions as your guard is down and you are looking for safety and reassurance in whatever form it takes.
  5. Jargon: new language to talk about what’s going on. It could help label the “enemy”, whether it be ignorant people, people who aren’t yet enlightened, or evil people. Also, new language to talk about people who are “fixed”: either enlightened, saved, or healed.
  6. Humorlessness: there’s no humor involved until the process is complete. The humor then serves as a way to celebrate and seal the deal.

A couple other techniques can be used in addition to help the effects become more pronounced. These three steps are called the “decognition process” as they help slow down and eventually stop thinking altogether.

  1. Alertness Reduction: one part of this is to force participants to keep a poor diet: either lots of sugar, or very bland foods. Sugar throws your nervous system off. A very bland diet (usually fruits and vegetables and no dairy or meat) will make you more spacey. Another part is inadequate sleep after long hours of intense discomfort or strenuous physical activity.
  2. Programmed Confusion: a deluge of new information, combined with questions, discussion groups, and one-to-one create a sense of jumbled-ness that make it easier to insert crazy ideas.
  3. Thought Stopping: most of these brainwashing techniques encourage stopping your thoughts in one of three ways. All three processes can be very helpful if you are controlling the process. The only danger comes when you allow someone else who you don’t fully know the motives of to take you through these steps and slowly alter deep beliefs about yourself and the world.
    1. Marching to a beat, usually at around 1 or 1.5 steps per second, is particularly useful. Both the military and Hitler used this to great effect. The beat puts you in a slightly altered state of awareness that is close to hypnosis and makes you more susceptible to suggestions.
    2. Meditation is the second form of thought stopping. An hour to an hour and a half of meditation a day for several weeks is enough to keep you in a constant “slow” state that is more focused and susceptible to suggestions (both good and bad).
    3. Chanting is the third form of thought stopping, and has the same general technique as marching. The beat helps put you in a slightly different state of awareness.

The full article really is pretty interesting, and goes more in depth about things like persuasion, misuses in the media and by the government, and some cautions.

Link to the full article [via Omni Brain]

One of the best ways to change habitual behavior is to commit to it.  This is obvious to us, and is often why we don’t commit to changing behaviors.  If you’re a smoker and you want to quit, make a list of the 10 people in your life that you are most concerned with keeping a high reputation with, and give each one of them a written statement that says, “I promise you that I will never smoke another cigarette.”  Simply thinking about that will let you know just how powerful the force of public commitment is… more powerful than internal commitment, more powerful than the patch, and more powerful than any plan to slowly wean yourself off cigarettes.

If smoking isn’t the main thing you’d like to change, choose something else.  Make a promise about an absolute thing like never doing something again or completing something by an exact date.  Immediate and drastic change that you can’t wimp out on.  Write them down on note cards or blank business cards and hand them out to 10 (or more) people that you desperately want to respect you.  No need to even include an “or else”… that way there’s no way out.

This is the tendency for people to value something more as soon as they own it. For example, if you own a certain t-shirt, you will place a higher price on it than a tshirt that you don’t own. Most economists believe that you will be willing to sell something for the same price you paid to receive it, but if this bias is real (and there is some debate), then the simple act of owning an object will inflate the price. Perhaps because the cost of choosing is valuable in itself. Perhaps because of the effort involved in finding it in the first place, and having to find it again if you wanted it again. Perhaps because of a sense of scarcity (what if you can’t repurchase the item you just sold for the same price). Whatever the cause, it seems like a bias that encourages inflation… and therefore rewards buying early, and holding on to what you have.

There’s a hidden cost in the things we don’t like about ourselves.  In addition to the fact that the things are usually undesirable traits in the first place, what is usually neglected is the cost of thinking about the undesirable trait over and over again.  In most cases, we are slowly changing creatures and things we don’t like will stick around for years, sometimes decades.  It’s a good idea to check in occassionally with a few of the most costly of these traits and make sure we’re not letting them use up more of our energy, time, and self-esteem than it would take to fix them.

Make a list of the top 3 things you don’t like about yourself.

The important thing here is to find the things that bother us the most.  Sure, you might like to be a foot taller, to have the bone structure of a hummingbird, and have a turtle shell to allow easy sleeping on sidewalks, but does it truly bother you to your core that you don’t have these qualities?  In my experience, the things that bother me most, the things that most encourage the slow and steady buildup of self hate, are the things that I know I could change about myself, but only lack the energy and motivation to do so.  It’s the ability to blame yourself for the undesirable trait that stabs deepest.  So, think hard… what do you really dislike about yourself, name two or three.

How long have you disliked each thing?

Sometimes we rationalize undesirable traits by thinking one of two things: either they are not really THAT nagging, or they are too difficult to change.  Losing 20 pounds, or improving conversational skills, or reinventing your career path are not simple tasks.  However, if you can think back to the first time you considered this trait it becomes more clear how costly keeping them around can be.  Thinking about something once or twice a week, each time with self-criticism and disgust, for years or even decades can really bring you down.  It also brings home the point that it’s possible that this trait is going to stick around for as long as it wants to… sometimes they magically disappear but most of the time they only go away with concerted effort.  When framed like that, imagining yourself having this same conversation with yourself 10 years from now, it becomes easier to motivate yourself to make changes now so that you can save yourself all of those years.

Imagine life without the trait.

Imagine that through some miracle the thing you hated most about yourself was gone.  You would wake up each morning and not have that same thought.  You would be in other situations and not have that insecurity.  How much relief would it bring?  It might help to think about other traits you have had in the past (maybe something like childhood awkwardness or acne or harmful relationships) and how liberating the day was when you found that that particular burden had come to an end.

Write out steps for removing each undesired trait.

What would it take to get fix the thing you hated most about yourself.  Exactly how much effort would it take, how much money, how much of a lifestyle change?  What is the cost of reaching that point?  Compare this cost to the real cost of keeping it around.

Strongly consider changing the top-most undesirable trait.

Really think about it.  Why not do it?  Why not double down on fixing one major source of unhappiness… and give it everything it takes until it’s resolved?  Not only would it remove a self-sabotaging source of self-hate, but it would build up confidence in your ability to make positive changes in your life and give you momentum for more changes.  In my case, the appeal is also to simply have a new project… one that has a real benefit.  You can research the problem, consult friends, and make it a thing.  As a thing, you can rise to the challenge and keep yourself interested in a subject for the duration of its resolution.  Good luck!

I’m back…

July 11, 2006

I forgot to mention here that I was going to spend 10 days at a silent retreat.  Well, I just got back and have lots of new ideas for ways to take mutual-improvement to the next level.  Stay tuned.