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.

Saturday, September 29, 2018

Person-Framing Language

Starting last weekend and going until March, I’ll be spending every other weekend in yoga teacher training, learning how to be a yoga instructor.

I have a lot of reasons for doing this, one of which is that I would in fact like to teach yoga from time to time. But the reason that really convinced me to finally do it is this: My own yoga practice suggests that yoga relies a lot on original seeing, and I have a strong hunch that yoga instructors are largely in the business of inducing original seeing in their students. I’ve recently been pretty focused on questions like, “What are the most efficient tactics for helping other people see what’s actually in front of them?”. So I’m hoping to mine this teacher training program for pedagogical content knowledge about original seeing.

I think I encountered a real gem in the PCK department last weekend, and I’d like to share it with you.

As yoga instructors, we’re encouraged to avoid pronouns during classes. For example, instead of saying “step your left foot forward”, we should say something like, “step the left foot forward”, or just “step left foot forward”.

The meta-teacher gave a few reasons for this, but one of them felt really shiny to me. He said that part of our job as yoga instructors is to “take students out of their stories”. He didn’t elaborate on this, but I think it reveals a lot about what he thinks it’s like to practice yoga and to teach it.

He seems to think that if a yoga instructor says “your foot”, you’re enabling story-telling (whatever that is) in the student, when the target mental state is something counter to story-telling.

I wanted to investigate this, so I invented and tried the following exercise (which you could try too, if you felt like it).

Choose a topic, and write about it for at least five minutes. Avoid person-framing language: Do not use words like “I”, “my”, “mine”, “he”, “they” or “one”.

Further (optional) instructions:

  • Begin with a concrete non-social topic like “the breakfast I’m eating right now”.
  • If you want to do more, move to some innocuous social thing like “last time I saw my friend Jeff”.
  • Then, if you have the hang of it and really want to apply this as a tool, choose a fraught social topic like “the turmoil going on in my community this past week”.

I noticed some interesting things when I did this.

The first thing I noticed was that merely avoiding specific words wasn’t enough to really sink into it (unsurprisingly). For example, I originally failed to include “one” in my list of words to avoid, and had to recognize in the middle of the exercise that using “one” was cheating. So if you do this, you’ll need to seek the spirit of the thing as you go, and notice when you’re falling out of step with it.

I also noticed that I spoke a lot, at first, in terms of bodies, as though watching from the outside. I said “The body writing is finishing breakfast.” And I perceived a sort of trap there. It’s well and good to write about bodies, but I was aware of a searching-for-my-keys-beneath-the-lamp-post feeling. I would begin to form a sentence like “I am finishing my breakfast,” realize the sentence didn’t follow the rules, and then slide toward describing an entirely different observation that would be easier to express in a rules-adhering way.

Following the spirit of the exercise lead me to directly confront the parts of the world I tend to describe person-ly. When I leaned into that, there was a lot that sounded like Focusing a la Gendlin: “there is tightness in this chest, and a searching sensation”.

When I leaned into it more, the words seemed to reveal a lot about how I implicitly believe human minds work. Instead of “the body writing,” I began to say things like “the agency and composition processes currently active”. I wrote, “It seems as though attention in this brain has drifted toward an association region that involves memories, imaginings, and expectations about restaurants and headaches”.

I also noticed that the more I did this, the more I tended to choose phenomenological terminology. Lots of words like “seem”, “expect”, and “a perception of”, things that only speak of the world in terms of immediate experience.

I shied away from statements that bundled together observation, inference, and claim. For instance, just to test it, I wrote, “How strange this is!”, and indeed that statement felt out of sync with everything else I had written. The claim that “the exercise is strange” is such a high-level summary. Reflecting on this, I wrote, “A claim of strangeness follows an assessment of strangeness, which follows a perception of strangeness, which follows small observations, each accompanied by feelings of non-expectation, or dissonance, or other things that together might be summarized as ‘strange’.”

The exercise as stated didn’t actually require adherence to phenomenological terminology, or careful separation of mental motions. A phrase like “How strange this is!” ought to be permitted. It doesn’t obviously presuppose personhood. But for whatever reason, avoiding person-reifying language led me to write like a phenomenologist.

Writing about other people was stifling, but also liberating. It was terribly difficult to write about “the turmoil in my community” without talking in terms of people. But what I did actually manage to write down was quite satisfying. I asked, “What is the current hoping of the active processes guiding composition about which phrases near-by bodies will emit in a week when the brains piloting them attend to association regions involving concepts of ‘community policy’ and ‘consent’?”

There’s a crisp-ness to that question, though its phrasing be cumbersome. The thoughts summoned by that question needn’t pass through complex social filters. Or at least if they do, it’s not the fault of the question itself. It’s a spacious question. It gives about as much room as possible to think about humans as I think about shingles, or music, or any other thing that exists in the universe and doesn’t carry a giant perception-warping story around with it all the time.

And I know there are good reasons to think about people in terms of those big stories we all help each other carry. That’s part of what I like about this exercise: I became much more aware of what work pershonhood stories are doing. Everyone is sort of naked and exposed without them, and perhaps crippled when it comes to complex multi-human relationships. It’s rude to think about people the same way you think of shingles. And “rude” is an extraordinarily person-reifying word.

I also think that social frames may be the greatest obstacle to original seeing.

“One of the things yoga has given me,” said my meta-teacher last weekend, “is clarity to see the truth of the present moment.” I think it gives me the same, and the way yoga teachers talk is probably part of how. A rare and precious clarity is available when I can move, at any time, to a mental space where it would just never occur to me that “I” could step “my” left foot forward.

Wednesday, August 22, 2018

Photo Studies

When I was in Indiana, I took dozens of snapshots of a slide. This slide.

It was out in a field with a whole collection of elderly playground equipment, and I found it visually interesting. So I did a study of it.

In painting, a “study” is a sketch (or multiple sketches) done in preparation for the final painting. It’s an exploration of a subject, with attention to the problems you’ll likely encounter while rendering it. If you’re drawn to the way an article of clothing drapes, for example, but you’re not familiar with the fabric, maybe you try a few ways of painting the fabric, to see what happens. You also experiment with design elements like like color, lighting, and composition. You might learn that to illuminate the flower you want to feature, you’ll need the light to come in at a different angle than you first imagined.

The idea is the same in photography, but the execution’s different. In photography, you can’t use a brush stroke to change the shape of the subject. There are filters and focus tricks and so forth, but film is more like a mirror than a canvas. What you see is what you get. If you want a different picture of the same subject, you’ll have to find a new way of seeing it.

I’m not sure how the professionals do it, but my study of the slide was pretty methodical, at least at first.

I began at a distance. I chose a starting position that filled my frame with the subject, focused, and took a picture. Then I moved a few steps to the left, focused, and took another picture. I did this until I’d moved 360 degrees around the slide.

Then I repeated the same procedure, but from my knees instead of my feet, and I started moving closer.

Next I began to explore the visual experiences of playing on the slide. Walking under it, climbing on it, sliding down it.

By the time I was done with that part, my state of mind had shifted considerably. I felt much less like “I want to take a good picture of a slide”, and more like “I want to know this object’s every mode of being”. It was almost like I was in love with the slide.

I started to take photos that had nothing to do with my concept of slides, and everything to do with this particular slide. Photos from unlikely angles, photos of details that don’t suggest a slide at all, photos of unique opportunities this slide presents for perceiving the environment.

I did a few photo studies on my trip, and they all felt to me like a gradual spiraling inward. They always began with a concept called “slide” (or whatever) and a vague interest. They ended with a fountain of fascination, intimacy, and love for something that meant almost nothing to me before I started.

And I bring this up because the approach I take to photo studies seems like the very same approach I take to solving vague problems, or training new skills when there’s nobody to tell me how to do it.

I think the photo study is a ritual for inducing Original Seeing. It can work with any sort of medium, including introspective. The trick is to build the right kind of camera.

Tuesday, August 7, 2018

How To Smell

Most of the ideas in this post come from the book Being A Dog: Following the Dog Into a World of Smell by Alexandra Horowitz, which is my favorite nonfiction book I’ve read in a long time. She, in turn, took much of what I discuss from Kate McClean, an artist who makes sensory maps of urban environments. But this is certainly my own take, and the instructions as I present them are at times in conflict with what I think each of those people would suggest.

Smelling is a skill. Unless you make perfume for a living, you probably don’t know how to smell. Here are what I consider to be the basics of good olfactory practice.

  1. Assume that everything has an odor. Assume that every single physical object around you emits volatile compounds that you, personally, can detect. This may not be true, but that doesn’t matter. Pretend, for now, that it is. You’ll learn faster this way.

  2. Practice good sniffing. First and foremost, good sniffing means putting your nose right up against the object you want to sniff. Maybe you’re more comfortable picking things up with your hands and holding them a few inches from your face — most of us are — but that’s poor form. Most odorous compounds are heavier than air, and your nose needs to be where the molecules are to ingest them. Plus, when you pick something up, especially a small bit of something, you’re going to be smelling your hand. So pretend you’re a dog. Get down on your hands and knees, if you have to, and bring your muzzle right to the object, until you can feel its surface with the tip of your nose. Then close your eyes, and sniff.

  3. To dislodge more of the smelly snuff, try a sharp exhalation through your nostrils right before you sniff. If you watch dogs sniffing, you’ll see that they do this all the time. It makes a surprisingly large difference.

  4. You’ll also find more smells by scratching things first, rubbing them, or otherwise disturbing their surfaces.

  5. Associate with what you smell. I recommend narrating your thoughts, either by speaking or by writing them down. Let your mind wander, and don’t worry about making any sense. Nouns, verbs, and adjectives are all fair game. So are images, sounds, and dance moves. Treat the smell like an inkblot test. Take a sniff, and say whatever comes to mind. Give it at least ten seconds, but thirty is better. If you haven’t named five things the smell reminds you of, you’re not done smelling it yet.

  6. Maybe it’s not clear to you that you’re smelling anything at all. Doesn’t matter. Everything has an odor, remember? You’re having an olfactory experience of some kind, even if you haven’t recognized it yet, so just start associating. You’ll learn about what you smell as you go.

  7. “Good” and “bad” are not smells. They’re mostly predictions about whether something is safe to eat. When you judge that something smells “good”, just pass right by that thought, and keep on associating. Same for anything that smells “bad”. If you get stuck at this step, reach for the specific (un)pleasant associations that come to mind while you’re smelling the object.

  8. Don’t worry so much about which things smell like which other things. For example, maybe you’ve just sniffed unwashed socks, and thereby invited a familiar compound into your olfactory system. During its stay, you happened upon an association with parmesan cheese. There really is a chemical similarity between your socks and parmesan cheese — namely butyric acid — but what matters is not that the two items smell similar. What matters is that the experience reminds you of parmesan cheese. If you’re always searching for the known relative of a smell, you’ll miss all the scents you’ve never named before. Recognize that “parmesan cheese” has come to mind while smelling, and leave it at that.

Smell Walks

Now that you know the basics, try going for a smell walk. A smell walk is just a walk, but instead of looking at stuff all the time, you relate to your environment primarily through scent. Here are a few more tips for smell walks in particular.

  1. When you arrive at a new location, take note of the background smells.
  2. Elicit three smells per location.
  3. While moving, watch out for momentary smells.
  4. Bring a bottle of water. Your nasal passages need to be a little damp to catch the particles.
  5. Bring tissues. Some of the particles will irritate your nose.
  6. Bring friends!
  7. When there’s an especially interesting smell, invite others to share it with you.

I really enjoy smell walks. They feel indulgent and exciting to me, and I love watching the constant discovery and surprise of my friends when I bring others along. There’s a lot of intimacy in smelling.

I’ve done enough smell walks in my neighborhood that I think I can probably estimate my location to the nearest street corner (maybe better) just by smell, if I’m within a few blocks of my house. I think my nose is about as good as average, based on my experiences taking people on smell walks. If that sounds unlikely to you, you’re probably drastically underestimating how good you are at smelling. Humans have much better noses than they tend to think.

Scent is so neglected in human experience. I think it’s largely because we walk on two legs, and use our hands to examine things. We just don’t spend much time down where the smells are.

It makes me sad, because there’s a whole world of olfactory experience that’s never instantiated. If I ask someone about their day, people will tell me what they saw, and maybe what they heard, but almost nobody tells me what they smelled.

And if someone does mention smell, it’s almost always because something smelled either disgusting or delicious. The world is so full of smells, of so many kinds, but hardly anybody notices. I’d like it if more people engaged with the world through scent.