Friday, October 24, 2014

Simulating Confusion

For many of the kinds of techniques I've been working with recently, I begin by meditating on a mental state I want to notice, modify, or bring about. 

For example, if I wanted to get better at noticing and addressing confusion, I would probably meditate on "confusion" before I begin to practice noticing it in real time. That way I have a much clearer idea of what it is I want to notice, and I can install a trigger-action plan like, "When I notice 'confusion' [that thing I just meditated on], I will snap my fingers [or some other action]." "Meditate on confusion" is a terrible instruction, but when I say it to myself, I mean something very specific by it. 

I want to try showing you exactly what I mean. I'm going to actually go through the exercise I tend to call "meditating on [mental state]", and I will type everything that I notice is happening in my mind as I go. 

3 2 1 go.

At first, there's a lot of mental clutter. I feel a little tired and unfocused, and I'm aware of thoughts about later sections of this post, the louder details of my physical environment such as the barking dog and the colorful painting of the girl with a balloon on the wall. I grope around a little for "confusion", but it doesn't come to me easily. 

I close my eyes to limit external inputs. I take a deep breath and relax as I exhale. I'm still far from simulating confusion.

I need to find the capacity for imagination. I know it's in here somewhere. What does it feel like to imagine something? Let's imagine something easier, like a teddy bear. Ok, I'm imagining a teddy bear. I can feel its fur and its weight in my hands, and I can see its shape and its color. 

What has changed about my experience? The other thoughts I was aware of have drifted off into the background, and I am focused now on this single simulated teddy bear. Good, I've gained some control over my experience. I take another deep breath and relax, focusing more intensely on the teddy bear as the surrounding thoughts melt further away. 

Now, staying concrete, I will let go of the teddy bear and imagine a time when I was confused. Preferably very confused. Ah, good, here is one where I was so confused I feared I was going crazy. I am holding two blue credit cards. It later turns out that I've found a credit card I simply forgot I ever lost and replaced, but at the moment there is a completely unexplained extra credit card, identical to my own credit card but for the number, and bearing my name. It is finals week, and I am terribly tired. 

Oh, excellent, that was the next step and I'm already filling it in. What is the internal experience of this simulated past self who is confused about the credit cards? She is exasperated and frightened. Simulate it. Good. It feels like there is something very wrong with the world, like reality has torn, and I'm staring at the gap. I'm searching impatiently, desperately for an explanation. I don't even remember why this was such an intense experience, but it was. I try out a few explanations I've managed to dig up. I think, "Maybe Chase gave me a copy of my credit card when I opened an account with them?" but I know that the numbers on the cards are different, and a copy of my credit card would not have different numbers, so I discard that attempted explanation and dig around some more. 

Good, I've now got a fairly vivid simulation of the actual sensation of confusion going on. It is a jolt like a missed step, followed by a search and a sharpness in my chest, a feeling that something about the world is broken and I want it to go back to the way it was, I yearn for it to be fixed. 

Now I let the sensory details of the concrete scenario fade away, and I make the sensation of confusion itself the center of my attention. I relax with my eyes closed, just letting that yearning for reconciliation between my observations and my model of the world wash over me, letting it be as much of my experience as I an make it. 

After a minute or two, I bring back the concrete scenario, and I rewind to the beginning, looking for that first jolt of surprise that preceded more developed confusion. I am digging through a drawer in search of my credit card, and I find it--but it is too thick. There is actually another card behind it, but all I notice at first is that something is strange about the card. I feel surprised before I even recognize what specifically is wrong about the card. It's a tiny feeling. Like the next square of sidewalk changing elevation ever so slightly, so that your foot meets the ground just a little sooner than you meant for it to. 

I again let the concrete scenario fade, and I focus on the sensation of surprise itself. I do that for maybe thirty seconds. It's difficult to simulate just the surprise all on its own, because surprise is fleeting, and it keeps developing immediately into either resolution or investigation, and from there to resolution or extended confusion. But I can do it, as long as I keep returning to the feeling whenever I fall off the edge of it. I wait to find my balance. 

Next I focus on the moment when I've begun to accept an unsatisfactory explanation. This is the key moment. There is so much pressure, a heavy weight, from the exhaustion and the discomfort of the dissonance, to choose an explanation and let it rest. To force a resolution. I don't, though. I can't. With every explanation that comes to mind, as I try to accept it, there is a sense of something missing hanging above it. Even if the "explanation" is true, something is still not right. There is something still out of place, something I'm still stumbling over. I can feel it now, high up in my chest and throat, a tightness resisting resolution. I set the concrete scenario aside again, and I simulate the something-wrong-hanging-above-attempted-acceptance-making-my-chest-tight. I let my mind become that feeling for a little while.

I now play through the sequence of abstract sensations a few times: Surprise, investigation, the emergence of a feeling of wrongness--almost of betrayal, then intensified investigation, yearning and impatience for resolution, the pressure of attempted acceptance failing, frustration, and that feeling of wrongness remaining throughout.

All right, I think that took about fifteen minutes, but putting it all into words slowed me down a lot. Usually when I do this for a new mental state, it takes between five and ten minutes. I went all the way through the sequence this time both because I felt distracted and because I wanted to demonstrate. 

Once I've performed this exercise for a given state, though, I can usually simulate the emotion at least weakly in just a few seconds. So for example, starting at the end of this sentence, I'm going to time how long it takes for me to simulate the abstract version of "curiosity", since I've been working with that recently. Yep, five seconds when I'm tired and not using any particular trigger. Handy trick in a lot of contexts, but I'll tell you about that later.

To help me improve my posts, you can answer this question in the box beside the stars if you want: "What was this post about?"

1 comment:

Rhaidot said...

When I read "One hundred years of solitude" a particular thought got pasted in my mind: people only lose theirs things when they do something different from their routine. If I lose any item, I try to focus and remember what I did that was unusual for me. I also apply this mantra for confusion. I got very good at this, and I am the best finding objects in my home, only defeated by my mom, who must have some kind of natural witchcraft to find everything anytime.

RATE: 5 (Loved every part)