Saturday, January 30, 2021

Catching the Spark

Linkpost: I've got a new essay about curiosity and naturalism over at LessWrong!

Monday, August 24, 2020

Hey Brienne, what do you think of freeverse?

Great question, thanks for asking! I've been wondering that for a while myself. In short, I think that it’s wonderful, and I’m worried it’s ruining everything.

What is free verse?

Actually, let’s back up even further. What is “verse”?

The English word “verse” comes from the Latin word “versus”, which means “turned around or turned back”. Poetry is written with deliberate line breaks, which usually occur with great enough frequency that each line occupies a single row on a normal-sized page. Thus, when you read a poem, your attention is continually “turned back” to the left margin as you begin each line.

“Verse” is a bit of a folksy term that refers to poetry written in meter. There are a lot of kinds of meter, most of which have something to do with stress, syllable count, or both. In metered poetry, sounds are measured out into little parcels that combine to form complex but regular structures.

In some languages (such as English), these larger structures often include rhyme, usually of the final syllable in a line. Some also include a fixed number of lines. Some include double line breaks, resulting in collections of lines called “stanzas”. When the line number is fixed, there are often standard conceptual patterns hung on these structures. Some verse forms even dictate the repetition of entire words or phrases. An example of a form with all of these features at once is the villanelle.

Accentual-syllabic poetry was by far the dominant type of English language poetry from the 1500s through the 1800s. In the 1900s, though, something changed. I guess people got fed up with the rigidity, or maybe literacy rates rose to a point where it was no longer necessary to hear line breaks with your ears in order to recognize them. Whatever the reason, people started writing poetry that conforms to none of the metered poetic structures, at any level, save the continual turning back at the end of each line. This became the dominant type of English language poetry, and it remains so today. It’s called “free verse”.

To understand how I feel about free verse, you have to understand how I feel about metered poetry: At its best, and even at its not-amazing-but-still-pretty-good, I feel that metered poetry is incantatory.

One of my favorite illustrations of poetic incantation is “Ode to the West Wind” by Percy Shelley, which speaks to this quite directly. In the poem, Shelley’s all, “I’d really rather be alive forever, and for the whole world to be that way also. How about I use written words to become like the wind that blows around everywhere in gusts and storms and breathes life into all things forever.” He has some interesting content to convey, but he doesn’t just throw it out there. He conveys it through the meter. It has this inexorable rocking rhythm, and if you give yourself over to it, the spell penetrates and takes hold of you as no bit of mere rhetoric could.

And, by the incantation of this verse,
Scatter, as from an unextinguish'd hearth
Ashes and sparks, my words among mankind!

Different verse forms cast different kinds of spells. They incline us to be more receptive to certain kinds of thoughts and feelings: their rhythms, like the call of a coxswain, line up the pieces of our minds to move all at once toward whatever mental posture the poet has choreographed. Sestinas move us into dream-like spiraling rumination. Ballads move us to look again and again from many angles. Sonnets move us to feel three times the force of a single thought.

Consider "Recuerdo" by Edna Saint Vincent Millay, the first stanza of which goes

We were very tired, we were very merry—
We had gone back and forth all night on the ferry.
It was bare and bright, and smelled like a stable—
But we looked into a fire, we leaned across a table,
We lay on a hill-top underneath the moon;
And the whistles kept blowing, and the dawn came soon.

The imagery in this is at most half of how the poem does what it does. If I were to replace the words with nonsense sounds in the same rhythm, I think it would still make me giddy; I'd be ready to skip, to fall against someone's shoulder in helpless laughter, or to fall in love.

There’s something very basic about how human minds interact with certain rhythms of language. Over the years metered poetry has learned the shape of it and built the keys that turn our thoughts. There is little more I could ask of an art form.

And yet, in a way free verse does offer more. Without losing access to any particular tool from metered poetry, it gains indefinite potential for precision. At its best, free verse finds a new prosodic key for every thought.

Take these two lines from “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock”, for instance

Streets that follow like a tedious argument
Of insidious intent

To my ear that’s three troches followed by a double dactyl; then an iamb, a dactyl, and a troche. As far as I know, I’ve never heard that rhythm before, and it doesn't recur anywhere else in the poem.

But I think it's exactly the right rhythm for that exact thought. Starting with three trochees in a row (STREETS that / FO-llow / LIKE a), it feels like following. It feels like walking on a sidewalk down an ordinary quiet street. Then the two dactyls hit you at the end of a line, knocking you down, but in a way that is unexpectedly drawn out. TE-di-ous / AR-gu-ment. There are just more syllables there than you were ready for. Then the next line kicks you around a bit while you’re down. of in-SI-di-ous in-TENT Maybe even without the context of the poem, it’s masterfully done, and it couldn’t happen in accentual syllabic verse without breaking the form.

The thing is, nearly all of free verse is prosodically abysmal.

Which honestly seems kind of inevitable, ya know? When an only moderately skilled person writes in one of the standard verse forms, they’re using a pattern that basically works, and they may manage to cast a decent spell with little more than that.

But casting a spell in free verse, the kind that only poetry can cast, takes extraordinary prosodic sensitivity. I’d be pretty shocked to hear that anyone truly successful at it had not studied verse forms from before the 1900s (or verse forms descended from those). It’s called “free verse”, but in fact you are constrained at every moment to choose exactly the rhythm that fits your precise thought. Otherwise there’s no poetry at all, just pretentious clattering prose with way too many line breaks.

this is not
a poem.
introducing obnoxiously frequent line breaks
some prose does
not make
thing poetry and
this fucking style
die in a fire.

My favorite poetry is written in free verse. I certainly don’t want it to go away. I just worry that over time, if there isn’t a resurgence of accentual syllabic poetry in the next few decades, English will move so far from the best examples of its most hypnotic rhythms that poets will lose the ability to cast powerful prosodic spells at all.

Sunday, December 29, 2019

Shame Processing

I wrote up my shame processing method. I think it comes from some combination of Max (inspired by NVC maybe?), Anna (mostly indirectly), and a lot of trial and error. I've been using it for a couple of years (in various forms), but I don't have much PCK on it yet. If you'd like to try it out, I'd love for you to report back on how it went! Please also ask me questions. (My favorite way of interacting about it is this thread on Lesswrong Shortform.

What's up with shame?

According to me, shame is for keeping your actions in line with what you care about. It happens when you feel motivated to do something that you believe might damage what is valuable (whether or not you actually do the thing).

Shame indicates a particular kind of internal conflict. There's something in favor of the motivation, and something else against it. Both parts are fighting for things that matter to you.

What is this shame processing method supposed to do?

This shame processing method is supposed to aid in the goal of shame itself: staying in contact with what you care about as you act. It's also supposed to develop a clearer awareness of what is at stake in the conflict so you can use your full intelligence to solve the problem.

What is the method?

The method is basically a series of statements with blanks to fill in. The statements guide you a little at a time toward a more direct way of seeing your conflict. Here's a template; it's meant to be filled out in order.

  • I notice that I feel ashamed.
  • I think I first started feeling it while ___.
  • I care about ___(X).
  • I'm not allowed to want ___(Y).
  • I worry that if I want Y, ___.
  • What's good about Y is ___(Z).
  • I care about Z, and I also care about X.


I notice that I feel ashamed. I think I first started feeling it while reading the first paragraph of a Lesswrong post. I care about being creative. I'm not allowed to want to move at a comfortable pace. I worry that if I move at a comfortable pace, my thoughts will slow down more and more over time and I'll become a vegetable. What's good about moving at a comfortable pace is that there's no external pressure, so I get to think and act with more freedom. I care about freedom, and I also care about creativity.

On using the template:

The first statement, "I notice that I feel ashamed," should feel a lot like noticing confusion. To master this method, you'll need to study experiences of shame until you can reliably recognize them.

The second statement, "I think I first started feeling it while _," should feel like giving a police report. You don't tell stories about what it all means, you just say what happened.

The rest should feel like Focusing. Wait for a felt shift before moving to the next statement.

Tuesday, November 26, 2019


What It’s Like

While remembering a recent discussion with a friend, I find myself feeling grateful.

There’s warmth in my chest. I have an image of watery light radiating out of my upper torso and wrapping around me. My mind flits about across memories of his facial expressions, his posture, the arrangement of the other people in the room. I imagine how he felt as he spoke (self-conscious, a little vulnerable, a searching feeling as he narrowed in on what he wanted to say).

Permeating all of that is a diffuse recognition that he is good. I like what he did, it made my life better, and I am glad to be in a world where he exists and is willing to say those things. Then, after a few moments, there’s a subtle pulling sensation. I have an impulse to find him and to say “thank you”.

Deciding to become grateful on purpose, I choose the narrow bookcase in my living room. I imagine the book case, first its general shape and then in increasing detail, eventually attending to the individual books. A weighing feeling begins. What is the weighing? I seem to be contrasting this world with counterfactual worlds where there is not a bookcase in my living room. Then I feel a broadening, and a growing coherence. I’m telling myself a story.

It’s the story of my life in relation to the bookcase: I have a house to keep the bookcase in, where I and the books and the wood that holds them are all warm and dry. I stay in one place most of the time; I don’t have to haul all my belongings around with me. I grew up surrounded by books instead of by war and famine, and I have a brain that can learn and remember. I have time to read my books, to sit on the couch wrapped in a blanket, letting some author guide my imagination just for fun. I’m literate; it’s effortless for me to decipher English text, which is amazing. I can receive the thoughts of people who have been dead for centuries, learn poetry that no one I’ll ever meet could have written.

I feel excitement, and joy, and love. I feel warmth and light and a solid foundation to stand on. But most of all, I feel that this world is good, because I have a bookcase in my living room. I feel grateful.

Later, I choose a garden as I pass by it on my morning walk. The gratitude does not come so easily this time.

I feel a gap, distance, a lack of connection. This is not my garden. This garden has nothing to do with me. We are two totally separate entities.

I search for another perspective. A more intimate perspective, one where I am not so clearly an independent being separated from everything by a pane of glass.

I stand in front of the garden. For a while, I just watch. I see what I see, and think what I think. The sprinklers are going. They hiss and splash on the leaves. Though it’s November, tomatoes are ripe on the trellis. Nasturtium rambles, but not as much as it would without someone to prune it. The basil’s been allowed to flower in a tidy row with rosemary, thyme, and sage.

There is love here. Care. Someone weeds and prunes and feeds these plants almost every day. Nothing is overcrowded. Nothing is out of place.

Everything in this garden could be purchased cheaply at the store just a few blocks away, and by the size of the house it’s clear this gardener can afford groceries. They don’t need the harvest to live. They just know the satisfaction of black dirt in their hands. They feel life expanding when their seedlings drink the water they pour. They smile when their family eats the squash they harvested earlier that day. This garden is a place where the chaos of the universe is gradually shaped into human joy.

I know this feeling. It is appreciation. I see the garden more directly than when it was simply “not mine”, and I recognize its goodness.

But I can feel that a turn is needed here, one more step to find gratitude. The glass is gone, but I’m still at a distance. Where am I? Why am I glad to be in the world with this garden?

My gladness has something to do with this stage of civilization, in my little corner of the world. There’s so much abundance, so much wealth. Not all gardens are like this. This garden is a sanctuary, like my own garden. Like calligraphy and libraries and music. We don’t burn all our resources just trying to feed ourselves. There’s space here for beauty. I walk by this sanctuary every day, and I always feel a moment of peace when I do.

A golden lake pours over me and the tomatoes and the whole neighborhood surrounding us. I am glad to be in the world with this garden. I am grateful.

What’s Up With Gratitude

My understanding of emotion says that emotions tend to be for things. Anger is for action. Fear is for finding safety. Shame is for protecting the interests of disenfranchised factions in internal conflicts. So what is gratitude for?

I claim that gratitude is for plugging yourself into the world. Specifically, it finds the supportive places in the world, then sets your feet on them in an athletic sort of stance. We are grateful for things we can push off of toward action. The time we spend feeling grateful improves our contact with those supportive surfaces, and establishes contact with new ones.

Consider my gratitude toward the garden. There was at least one supportive surface to be found there — awareness of sanctuaries — but I had to spend some time looking for it. It took a while to plug myself in. The garden still is not mine, but it’s part of my world now in a way it previously was not.

What does my conjecture suggest about social gratitude?

Before I began investigating, I think I implicitly believed that social gratitude was just part of how people track debts and reciprocity. If you make me dinner, I feel grateful so that I will be motivated to fix your car in the future, and the great communal books stay balanced. This way, communities can experience gains from trade in the long run.

My new theory say otherwise. It says that when you make me dinner and I feel grateful, I’ve recognized a supportive surface, and I’ve set my weight there. You are now part of my world in a way that you previously were not.

On the other hand, if you make me dinner and I feel guilty, then I am indeed hoping to balance the books. Guilt is something else, and we’ll get to that shortly.

But if I feel grateful for dinner while I’m offering to fix your car, then I’m trying to plug into the part of the world that is you. I am breaking the glass barrier that makes “me” and “you” totally distinct entities who have nothing to do with each other. Instead of floating in a sky bubble with no opportunities for traction or even direct observation, I’m improving my contact with a part of the world I can push off of toward action.

If you do the same, then we can push off of each other.

Which means, it seems to me, that gratitude expands the self into that larger and more powerful entity known as community.


Appreciation shares a lot with gratitude, but they’re distinct.

When I appreciate the new curtains I put up in my bedroom yesterday, I look at them and notice the way their calming color is appropriate to their surroundings. I notice how well they block the light from outside. I think they do a good job as curtains. I recognize their quality, and I’m glad that they exist.

Appreciation is recognition of quality. It’s awareness of what one perceives to be excellent in an object. If I say, “Curtains, I appreciate the way that you harmonize with your surroundings,” I’m telling the curtains that I see something good in them. I’m over here, and they’re over there, and I recognize their quality.

Appreciation is necessary for gratitude, but gratitude goes further. In gratitude, I am glad not only that the curtains exist, but that I share a world with them. When I am grateful to my new curtains, I look at them and think about the effect their color has on me as I relax in my room. When I express gratitude to my curtains, I say, “Thank you, curtains, for contributing to the calming atmosphere I sink into when I enter my room.” In gratitude, I am part of the picture, and my connection with the object is central.

I think appreciation leads to some of the same good outcomes as gratitude, but not all of them. If someone were to practice appreciation deliberately, I expect that they would improve their discernment, or their awareness of their own sense of taste.

They wouldn’t plug themselves into the world, though. They wouldn’t have gumption. That would take gratitude. If someone were to practice gratitude deliberately, I think they’d improve not only their discernment, but also their ability to apply the resources around them.


When I first started gratitude journaling, one of the most common obstacles was guilt. I’d write “Today I’m grateful for,” then pause. When nothing immediately came to mind, I started feeling guilty. “I’m absurdly privileged, and yet totally ungrateful?! The boomers are right about us. D:” This was strongest when thinking of things I’m supposed to be grateful for, like the fact that I never have to worry about whether I can afford to eat.

There’s something very direct about gratitude. If you want to be grateful, you have to begin by seeing real things with the eyes you have now. Looking at stories about things with other people’s eyes, or with yesterday’s eyes, doesn’t work. Original seeing is part of how gratitude plugs you into the world. It makes contact.

When I feel guilty, it’s very hard to see directly and originally. Guilt is for correcting your own mistakes; it sees through the eyes of the past, and weighs all perceptions against loftier concepts. Whatever I’m doing while guilty, I’m cutting off the vast majority of my experience and only keeping the parts I can compare to “supposed to”. It’s a valuable perspective, but it doesn’t set your feet on the ground.

So when I find myself feeling guilty while trying to practice gratitude, I stop trying to be grateful, and I do original seeing for a while instead.

For example, instead of trying to be grateful for my lack of hunger, I start naming the foods in my fridge. Eventually, I’ll notice some kind of happiness about the yogurt or the eggs. And from that mental state, I move toward gratitude.

Guilt is also super dualistic. “Is this what I’m supposed to do? Is that what I’m supposed to do? Am I doing it wrong?” Whatever It is, It is over there, while I am over here. Guilt does not encourage the “part of one thing” perspective that gratitude relies on.


The “part of one thing” perspective is, I think, much of why I have more trouble feeling grateful toward people than toward inanimate objects. There’s something a little rude about gratitude, if you’re used to NVC-style socialization.

Imagine saying to someone, “Thank you for making me feel safe.” That sure blurs the two of your together! Did they “make” you feel safe? Maybe they weren’t even thinking of you at all. You’re the one who felt safe, all on your own, in response to events that may or may not have had anything to do with you, right?

This line of thinking can lead to gratitude journal entries like, “When I heard Jason talking softly at the meeting today, I noticed that I felt safer.” By the time I’m done writing a sentence like this, I feel robbed of whatever gratitude I started with. It’s hissed out through the autonomy valve.

It seems to me that gratitude and violence come from pretty similar places. They’re both brash, intimate, and authentic. They both involve being enmeshed in a world. They both set you up to act. It’s not too surprising if the careful self-pronouncing distance that undermines violence also undermines gratitude.

I’m not sure how to navigate this yet. For now, my rule is that I can thank others as Non-Violently as I feel appropriate, while in my own private journal, I write, “I’m grateful to Jason for making me feel safe.”

How To Be Grateful

In the Moment

I usually don’t try to be grateful all at once. There’s a progression. If I move too fast or try to force it, I might get stuck, or I might just get less out of it.

Suppose I’ve chosen the walls of my house. I start by saying hello to them.

Then I just observe them for a while. I try to see them originally, noticing whatever I personally experience of the walls in that moment. They’re cream-colored. There are horizontal indentations in the paint, as though someone held the roller straight up and down. The surface feels firm and cool to the touch. And so on.

I start to pay attention to feelings of affinity, satisfaction, or pleasure in these observations. I ask myself what I like about the walls of my house. I like their solidity. Their tallness. Their color. I appreciate them.

I move toward gratitude when I ask myself, “Why am I glad to share a world with these walls?” The aspects I appreciated are clues or prompts, and I run with them. The walls are solid even in strong winds, even when the ground shakes, even when I feel like I’ve shattered into a thousand pieces and then melted. When I am surrounded by the walls of my house I don’t have to be so solid all the time myself, because the walls surround and protect me. I’m glad to share a world with these walls because they make me stronger just by being there.

I do that part for as long as I want, considering as many aspects as I want. When I am done, I say, “Thank you.”


I keep a gratitude journal, of course. I add two or three entries each evening. That’s a good place to start.

I did the Marie Kondo thing a while back, imagining how I want to live, tidying all of the objects in my house and keeping only the ones that spark joy. Whenever you come across an object that doesn’t spark joy, that you don’t want to carry forward into the next part of your life, you’re supposed to thank it and send it on its way. I considered and discarded a whole lot of stuff, and so I thanked a whole lot of items in quick succession. I think that’s when I really started to get a handle on gratitude.

I also took Kondo’s suggestion to thank my possessions whenever I put them away. I still do it often. “Thank you, cup, for holding my coffee.” “Thank you, jacket, for keeping me warm.”

I frequently use appreciation as a trigger for gratitude. When I feel the sun and enjoy its warmth, I think, “Thank you, sun, for warming my skin, and for powering all the life on this planet.” Not in words, necessarily. But I spend a moment in gratitude.

I thank people for things. Not as often as I’d like, because it’s still a little scary for me. I’m never worried about how a tea cup might respond, while people are so complicated. But I often feel grateful to people when I appreciate them.

Even when I’m uncomfortable saying “thank you” directly, I let gratitude flow into my actions. I bake cookies and share them. I wonder how people are feeling, and do what I think might help them. I try to show them in concrete ways that we are part of the same world.

Every morning when I wake up, I drink a bottle of water. Then I sit on my couch saying good morning to everything I think of, and being grateful:

Good morning, crow on the roof. I like your caw. Thank you for the song. Good morning, carpet. I like your squish. Thank you for protecting my bare feet from the cold ground. Good morning, person jogging in the dark. I like your dedication. Thank you for reminding me that progress can happen a little at a time.

It’s a wonderful way to start the day. When I get up from that, I always know that there’s ground to stand on. I feel like whatever I choose to do, the whole world will be there to help me face it.

Receiving Gratitude

I’ve noticed that since I started practicing gratitude deliberately, I’ve sometimes felt more comfortable receiving gratitude as well.

It used to be that when someone thanked me, I felt some combination of happy, guilty, scared, and confused, depending on the situation. I think this happened because I really didn’t understand what gratitude was about. I tended to think (not very consciously) things like, “What does this person want from me? Will they expect me to do something in the future?”, “Are they trying to appease me? Do they think I’m upset with them?”, and, “But I didn’t do it for you!” I’d say, “No problem,” or whatever, and try to act like things were fine. But I didn’t really get it.

Here’s what I didn’t get.

“Thank you” is neither a request nor an imposition. It’s an invitation to a certain vantage point. “Thank you” means, “I have noticed that we live in the same world, and I am glad that we do. I’ll go on noticing this and being glad about it even if you float in a glass sky bubble. But you don’t have to float in a glass sky bubble if you don’t want to. You could see us as people in a world together, both of us with feet, both of us able to walk on the ground. There is abundance here. Can you see it?”

When I recognize “thank you” as an invitation to share a world, receiving gratitude feels a whole lot like being grateful myself. It causes warmth in my chest, rather than tightness in my solar plexus. It feels like grounding and connection, rather than uneasiness and distance.

And when I say “You’re welcome” in such moments, I don’t mean, “I agree that I did something nice for you,” nor, “Here are the polite words one says at times like these.” What I mean is, “I welcome you into my world. I welcome this awareness. I walk with you on the same ground, and we both know it.”

Dark Though It Is

Gratitude is properly a Winter emotion.

It can happen in the Summer, when things look warm and bright, when I tend to feel that I am powerful all on my own. But I need it more in the Winter. I need it when I might not survive if I fail to recognize a single one of the resources around me.

This is why gratitude should be trained as a skill. Anyone can be grateful with their mouth full of food. It is important to be grateful in times of abundance; it sends that abundance into the future. But to engage gratitude’s power, you have to be grateful when you’re hungry. That’s when every point of contact with the world matters most.

It isn’t hope, or optimism. It’s not about the possibility that food will show up soon, or about pretending you’re full when in fact you’re starving to death.

It’s about going hunting even then. Especially then. It sets you deep in the world, with other people who share your problems, where things can be learned and solutions can be found. When you’re inclined to shiver silently in a ball by yourself, gratitude keeps you moving.


by W. S. Merwin from Migration: New and Selected Poems

with the night falling we are saying thank you
we are stopping on the bridges to bow from the railings
we are running out of the glass rooms
with our mouths full of food to look at the sky
and say thank you
we are standing by the water thanking it
standing by the windows looking out
in our directions

back from a series of hospitals back from a mugging
after funerals we are saying thank you
after the news of the dead
whether or not we knew them we are saying thank you

over telephones we are saying thank you
in doorways and in the backs of cars and in elevators
remembering wars and the police at the door
and the beatings on stairs we are saying thank you
in the banks we are saying thank you
in the faces of the officials and the rich
and of all who will never change
we go on saying thank you thank you

with the animals dying around us
taking our feelings we are saying thank you
with the forests falling faster than the minutes
of our lives we are saying thank you
with the words going out like cells of a brain
with the cities growing over us
we are saying thank you faster and faster
with nobody listening we are saying thank you
thank you we are saying and waving
dark though it is

Saturday, July 13, 2019

Learn the Author's Taste

One of the best things I've added to my repertoire of study tools is trying to learn the aesthetic taste of the author. When I feel something in the vicinity of disagreement with X, I write a little essay in which I describe the world from a perspective where X feels good/obvious/beautiful, trying to capture what things taste like at that vantage point.

For example, toward the beginning of the (excellent, highly recommended) prosody textbook The Poem's Heartbeat, Alfred Corn writes, "In no way should the inclusion of stress conferred purely by meter be considered a compositional failing. In the best examples, the slight (incantatory?) departure from ordinary speech patterns afforded by metrical stress makes for a useful rhythmic reinforcement of the content..."

He's talking about the fact that some poetry is meant to be read in a slightly artificial way. He gives the example of a line from "Ode to the West Wind" by Percy Shelley:

And by the incantation of this verse

If that string of words were spoken in conversation, the word "of" would likely receive the same stress as the last syllable of "incantation", or possibly a little less. But the poem is in iambic pentameter, so for the line to fit the surrounding meter, the word "of" needs to receive more stress.

When I read that section, I noticed a discomfort I'd been feeling almost constantly while reading, one that had previously prevented me from focusing on stress patterns in poetry. At that point, I did indeed consider purely metrical stress a compositional failing. I felt that poetry ought to take advantage of the rhythms of natural speech, without asking the reader to modify anything. Doing otherwise was cheating.

But when I read a textbook, it's because I want to gain access to the author's view of the world. I want to augment myself with their perceptions and understanding, to get their models and mine into the same mind so they can talk and work out their differences. In other words, I want to learn from them.

My favorite way of getting someone else's perceptions into my own head is to try to see things as they do, and to pay attention to the details of how the world seems and feels and tastes from that perspective. So I wrote a little essay for myself, trying to do that with what I imagined might be Corn's perspective on metrical stress, stepping into the world where it feels good to stress that "of" just a little more strongly:

Metrical stress is just another tool in the poet's toolbox of prosody.

It's just as legitimate as is musical pitch in the sacred chants of shamans or Gregorian monks, and serves nearly the same purpose. Singing a prayer creates a very different kind of experience than speaking a prayer; in song, more of the mind is recruited to move in a single direction, like a flock of sea birds diving all at once for their fish. Verse with strong meter does the same, but is even more hypnotic.

The more eager you are to give yourself over to the inexorable rocking rhythm of Ode to the West Wind, the more thoroughly Shelley succeeds. His spell penetrates and takes hold of you as no bit of mere rhetoric could. Resisting, insisting that 'that's not really how those phrases sound', is much like claiming you 'can't be hypnotized' while trying to not be hypnotized. It prevents you from receiving the enchantment in full.

I kept this incantatory invitation with me as I read new poems, re-examined old poems, and read the rest of the textbook. As a result, I'm much more aware, now, of the relationship between poet and reader. I think about what experience the poet designed for me, but also about how to be a more fertile soil for the artistic experience.

In fact, I'm inclined to re-learn all the poems I've ever loved, because of how much more they might have to offer if I offer myself as a more cooperative reader.

Ode to the West Wind


O wild West Wind, thou breath of Autumn's being,
Thou, from whose unseen presence the leaves dead
Are driven, like ghosts from an enchanter fleeing,

Yellow, and black, and pale, and hectic red,
Pestilence-stricken multitudes: O thou,
Who chariotest to their dark wintry bed

The winged seeds, where they lie cold and low,
Each like a corpse within its grave, until
Thine azure sister of the Spring shall blow

Her clarion o'er the dreaming earth, and fill
(Driving sweet buds like flocks to feed in air)
With living hues and odours plain and hill:

Wild Spirit, which art moving everywhere;
Destroyer and preserver; hear, oh hear!


Thou on whose stream, mid the steep sky's commotion,
Loose clouds like earth's decaying leaves are shed,
Shook from the tangled boughs of Heaven and Ocean,

Angels of rain and lightning: there are spread
On the blue surface of thine aƫry surge,
Like the bright hair uplifted from the head

Of some fierce Maenad, even from the dim verge
Of the horizon to the zenith's height,
The locks of the approaching storm. Thou dirge

Of the dying year, to which this closing night
Will be the dome of a vast sepulchre,
Vaulted with all thy congregated might

Of vapours, from whose solid atmosphere
Black rain, and fire, and hail will burst: oh hear!


Thou who didst waken from his summer dreams
The blue Mediterranean, where he lay,
Lull'd by the coil of his crystalline streams,

Beside a pumice isle in Baiae's bay,
And saw in sleep old palaces and towers
Quivering within the wave's intenser day,

All overgrown with azure moss and flowers
So sweet, the sense faints picturing them! Thou
For whose path the Atlantic's level powers

Cleave themselves into chasms, while far below
The sea-blooms and the oozy woods which wear
The sapless foliage of the ocean, know

Thy voice, and suddenly grow gray with fear,
And tremble and despoil themselves: oh hear!


If I were a dead leaf thou mightest bear;
If I were a swift cloud to fly with thee;
A wave to pant beneath thy power, and share

The impulse of thy strength, only less free
Than thou, O uncontrollable! If even
I were as in my boyhood, and could be

The comrade of thy wanderings over Heaven,
As then, when to outstrip thy skiey speed
Scarce seem'd a vision; I would ne'er have striven

As thus with thee in prayer in my sore need.
Oh, lift me as a wave, a leaf, a cloud!
I fall upon the thorns of life! I bleed!

A heavy weight of hours has chain'd and bow'd
One too like thee: tameless, and swift, and proud.


Make me thy lyre, even as the forest is:
What if my leaves are falling like its own!
The tumult of thy mighty harmonies

Will take from both a deep, autumnal tone,
Sweet though in sadness. Be thou, Spirit fierce,
My spirit! Be thou me, impetuous one!

Drive my dead thoughts over the universe
Like wither'd leaves to quicken a new birth!
And, by the incantation of this verse,

Scatter, as from an unextinguish'd hearth
Ashes and sparks, my words among mankind!
Be through my lips to unawaken'd earth

The trumpet of a prophecy! O Wind,
If Winter comes, can Spring be far behind?

--Percy Shelley

Sunday, July 7, 2019

Discomfort During Exercise

A friend who is interested in building muscle told me, “I’m curious how you relate to the pain of doing exercise.” I asked them what they meant by “pain” in this case, and they seemed unclear on it.

How to relate to discomfort in exercise is a great question, and it’s one of the reasons I’d recommend most people do regular yoga for at least a month before they get serious about weight lifting. Exercise involves discomfort. Recognizing and understanding what various bodily sensations mean is key to getting stronger without hurting yourself.

In response, I made three mindfulness exercises that might help distinguish types of discomfort during physical exercise, and weight lifting in particular. You might want to do them in the middle of a meditation session, so you’re already in the right state of mind.

Exercise One

Get a sharp pencil, a paper clip, a key, or something similarly pointy. Gently press the pointy thing to the meaty part of your palm, near your thumb. Stopping well before you break the skin, gradually increase the pressure, and pay attention to the details of the sensations at the pressure point.

This is a kind of “sharp pain”. You should associate it with “danger” in exercise. It usually indicates that something is going wrong, and ignoring it will likely lead to injury.

I experienced “sharp pain” similar to this when I lifted too much weight in a squat and damaged a groin muscle (an acute muscle strain). It’s also similar to the pain I’ve recently been feeling in the front of my shoulder when doing front raises and certain other motions, which a doctor confirmed for me is caused by an inflamed shoulder bursa (an overuse injury). I felt it in my feet when my plantar fascia degraded from increasing my running mileage too quickly (another overuse injury).

If you feel a sharp pain while exercising, especially if you seem to feel it where you’d expect a bone to be or where something might connect to a bone, back off right away. Try to understand what’s going on, then re-evaluate.

If a sharp pain doesn’t stop when you stop the exercise, do a little first aid, and if it’s not noticeably better in a day, see a doctor. First aid for muscle and connective tissue injury is RICE: Rest, Ice, Compression, Elevation. You can also take an anti-inflammatory like ibuprofen, which will lesson pain and reduce swelling.

Exercise Two

Hold up two fingers of your left hand in a peace sign. Using your right hand, grip both peace-sign fingers and press the middle knuckles together, so the insides of the knuckles are touching. Gradually increase the pressure, and pay attention to the details of the sensations at your left knuckles.

This is a kind of “pinching” or “joint compression”. It usually indicates danger to joints. Somewhere, your bones are pressing on some intervening tissue with more force than that intervening tissue is designed to take. You should find it a bit less concerning than “sharp pain”, but you shouldn’t ignore it. When you feel it, back off by reducing weight or intensity, or by changing position, until the pinching goes away.

If you’re feeling pinching very frequently in most of your lifts even at very low weight, it might be a good idea to focus for a while on stabilization and range of motion exercises. Do things like yoga and pilates for a while, then come back to lifting. You may find that the little muscles around your joints are better able to take the load off of the joint itself.

Exercise Three

Find something that’s about the size and shape of a can of beans or a water bottle. Set a three minute timer. Hold the can at your left side with your arm straight, then raise the left arm out to the side until the can is at shoulder height, palm facing down. Stay in this position for a full three minutes, and pay attention to the details of the sensations in the muscles of your left shoulder and upper arm.

Most likely, these are the sensations of healthy muscle exertion and muscle fatigue. (This is a static version of a “lateral raise”, an exercise that works the lateral deltoid muscles.) For me, it feels a little like burning deep in the muscle.

If I do it long enough (about six minutes in my case), my arm starts to shake, and the burning becomes intense. My heart-rate increases and my breathing gets deeper and faster. My arm starts to feel like it’s a metal rod that’s on fire during an earth quake. Eventually the water bottle begins to lower, and there’s nothing I can do to stop it short of lifting it up with my other arm.

The experiences that occur toward the end of this exercise are things you want to happen in weight lifting. As I understand it, the physiological processes these sensations correspond to have something to do with the lactic acid produced when glycogen is drawn directly from the muscle tissue to fuel contraction. You don’t feel those sensations in the beginning of the exercise because there’s still local oxygen available to combine with carbohydrates for fuel, which doesn’t produce lactic acid.

I don’t have a satisfactory gears-level model about why, but for some reason, you have to get your muscles to burn through almost all of the fuel stored in them before the magic thing happens that causes them to get bigger and stronger in the future. (I’m aware of some common hypotheses, I’m just not satisfied by them.) That means the immediate sensations of lactic acid and muscle exhaustion, in the absence of sharp or pinching pain, are your best indications of successful muscle building.

On My Relationship With Discomfort In Exercise

I want to insert a disclaimer here. It’s common among people who exercise a lot, and who have done so for a long time, to describe the sensations associated with successful exercise as enjoyable. Maybe those people stuck with something unpleasant until it became pleasant, for whatever reason. (Most of us like to think so.) OR maybe they’re predisposed to enjoy exercise-related discomfort, and are thus more likely to continue exercising just because it’s easier for them.

If the latter, I am definitely such a person. I started gymnastics in pre-school and haven’t stopped moving since. It only took about three months of consistent distance running for running to become just about my favorite activity ever. I lift four times a week, do at least half an hour of cardio three times a week, and do at least an hour of yoga once a week, with many a sun salutation in between. My little brother is similarly active. So I think you should take with a grain of salt anything I say about learning to enjoy exercise. It seems likely that I just don’t have the same obstacles as more sedentary people.

But my experiences talking with others, and completing a yoga teacher training program, suggest you can probably change your perceptions of exercise by at least some amount.

I think it takes some time and/or some skill in internal double crux to develop a happy relationship with sensations of muscle exertion. A foundation of differentiation between types of discomfort is probably important; if you just try to ignore discomfort without knowing what it means, you’ll stay stuck in an internal conflict that saps your energy (and keeps your body safe, if physically weak). I’ve learned to perceive and understand many small details of physical sensation during exercise, so I trust myself to move safely at full power. My mind and body feel aligned most of the time. I don’t have a little voice saying “You need to stop or something bad will happen” unless I really am doing something harmful.

But there’s also something about appreciating the feeling of exertion in itself. Lifting heavy weights until I can’t anymore makes me feel alive and powerful, like a summer storm. It makes me feel on fire.

Becoming stronger, in all senses, is one of my central values. Fully enjoying weight lifting for me involves being in touch with that value, and with the relationship between it and the physical sensations. It’s the pleasure of striving, of overcoming obstacles and finding out what’s on the other side. It’s beginning as a candle and becoming a sun. It’s always difficult and uncomfortable, but I love it.

Tuesday, October 2, 2018

Creative Focusing


This post will make no sense at all if you don’t know what “Focusing” is. Focusing is a method of making info from squishy automatic cognitive processes accessible to deliberate reasoning processes. Here’s an official brief summary of the full procedure as taught by Gendlin. Here’s a post by Duncan I like a bunch, which describes the Focusing-ish thing he does.


Lauren taught a class at an alumni workshop (last year? I think?) called “Creative Focusing”. It resulted in me using Focusing, or something like it, way more often. I didn’t memorize her class, but here’s how I think of creative focusing myself.

Pick an expressive medium. Could be sketching, poetry, music, whatever.

Then, get in touch with a felt sense. You don’t have to name it. But try to get inside of it.

What is “get inside of it”? Right now there’s a tightness in my solar plexus. I can describe it “from the outside” like so: It’s the bottom of a sort of hot, slightly vibrating rod of sensation that goes from my solar plexus to the middle of my throat. The sensation responds to awareness of my immediate auditory environment (I’m in a coffee shop); the solar plexus tightness gets tighter when I pay attention to the tapping of a metal spoon against a metal jar, and starts to wobble a little when I pay attention to the music in the background.

Rather than describing it from the outside, I can also let the felt sense express itself “from the inside”. This is a kind of attentional trick, I think, which seems to involve setting down my personhood story and letting the felt sense consume awareness.

Then, while “inside” of the felt sense, I can begin to act on my creative medium. If I choose (just a few) words, the solar plexus felt sense types this:

wobble siren sharp and hot fight for warming Persian music hold ready parking alarm to protect changing changing changing nothing safe

If I choose to sketch, the solar plexus felt sense draws this:

I resonate as I go, noticing when a word or line or movement feels dissonant, as though it’s coming from somewhere else, and adjusting to stay true to the felt sense.

Lauren claimed during the class, and I agree, that this is what artists are actually doing when they create things. They’re doing additional stuff too, because what I’ve described is merely expression, and art is a kind of communication. Communication is a refined form of expression that usually involves design and editing in addition to expression. But I think the unrefined expression is at the core of art.

Without any further modifications, I’ve found this approach to focusing (if that’s even what it is?) valuable for its purity.

By “purity” here, I mean purity of observation, as in “observe first, infer later”. I mean that the product of the process — the drawing or the poem-like thing or whatever — retains a lot of info that’s super intimate with what I’m actually feeling, and is relatively uncontaminated by my concepts of emotions or my stories about why I’m feeling a thing.

There’s a lot of room for me to go back afterward to examine my drawing “from the outside”, and perhaps reason about the experiences it expresses, without compromising my original sight of the experience. For example, I can step out of the felt sense, look at the drawing, and recognize “ah yes, this looks like my mind marshaling defenses to protect the soft round parts from the sharp chaos of the outside world”. I didn’t need to boot up anything resembling a hypothesis to make the drawing, so my perceptions weren’t (as) warped by the hypothesis while I drew. Now that the drawing exists, I can look back and reason about it, like having a transcript of an important conversation that happened six months ago.


My use of this method has evolved over time.

I no longer draw stuff on paper very often, or make words or move my body. I do all of that sometimes, especially when I'm having trouble concentrating. But mostly I use my imagination. I go inside of a felt sense, then let it “sketch” on my imagination, using whatever imagined medium it likes. I get images, sounds, other bodily sensations, dance moves, scents, and even concepts and stories.

Doing this with the chest tightness (which is now more in the center of my chest and a bit less in my solar plexus): There’s a cold iron vice squeezing something like mochi, a bee hive with visual imagery and sound of bees, and a fairy woman dressed in blue with her hair in a messy bun and longing body language, who splits into two people, one of whom shifts to resignation and slumps over a table and the other of whom flies upward into warm sunlight.

I also use this at different times than I used to. Originally I mainly used it when I felt “something’s wrong”, and wanted to know what. Now I use it as a very general tool for original seeing, any time I expect my stories and concepts are limiting me. I used it to get much better at smelling, for instance, following the guess that food-concept orientation drastically limited my ability to perceive scents.

But my favorite use is when I “find the felt sense of the ground of a proposition”. For example, the coffee shop I’m in right now is a 501(c)3 non-profit that (somehow) helps refugees. So this proposition has been floating around in my head the whole time I’ve been here: “a non-profit coffee shop must be terribly altruistically inefficient”.

To do (something like) creative focusing on this proposition, I first need to find the “ground” of the proposition. It’s sort of a summary of the proposition that contains nearly all of the oomph. In this case, if I articulate it in words, it’s something like “altruistic coffee shop dumb”.

The ground of a proposition is half-way between a System 2 representation of a belief, and the squishy System 1 stuff where expectations live. This kind of “ground” of a proposition is usually associated with a bodily felt sense. Once I find that felt sense, I can get inside of it. (I’ve found that propositions aren’t always in my body. They’re often near my body but outside of it, especially ones I think are false.)

“Altruistic coffee shop dumb” lives in the back of my head where my skull meets my spine. It’s warm and buzzy with a little pinching. When I go inside of it and let it express itself in my imagination, I get a crab with pinching claws, a bunch of pennies pouring through a sieve, a hot lava flow moving outward from the back of my head in all directions, and a mob of dusty yelling people having a giant fist-fight and trying to climb on top of each other.

I can now ask myself, “what about each of these images feels somehow related to expectations?” For instance, the crab with claws involves precision and uncompromisingness and the ruthless reality of supply and demand.

I also use approximately this method, sometimes, when someone asks me a question and I don’t know how to answer. I’ll often find myself scrabbling for a coherent response that I don’t necessarily believe. When I notice this happening, I stop myself, and instead I say, “When I consider that, I imagine [some crazy imagery].” From there I start analyzing the imagery, and drawing conclusions.

The conclusions may or may not make sense, but at least they have more to do with my genuine thoughts on the subject than with some story I want to tell about how my model of the world is coherent and my mind is unified and consistent.

What is "original seeing"? I'm not sure, but when I consider it right now, I imagine falling apart into a million particles of dust that seep into the crevices of the world.