Friday, May 14, 2021

Staying Grounded

I struggle a lot with mornings. If I'm not very careful about what I do in the hour or two after I first wake up, I become extremely stressed and anxious. It's as though my mind has to take some time to put itself together into a solid structure, or else it gets obliterated by the first obstacle it encounters.

I've been thinking lately about how to design a morning routine that optimizes for building that solid structure efficiently. There are a lot of things that help. For example: being alone, moving to familiar music, watching a candle flame, lifting moderately heavy weights, and drinking chamomile tea.

Things that tend to slow or reverse the solidification process include interacting with humans, reading sentences, doing things in a different order than I'm used to, being near anything loud and fast (such as cars), and planning (the farther out, the worse it is).

What do the helpful activities have in common, and how are they different from the unhelpful ones? Mainly, I think the important thing they have in common is that they're grounding.

But why are they grounding, and what does that mean?

In early 2019, after a month of studying groundedness with Jacob and Nora, I wrote that "groundedness is what happens when your thought patterns are in feedback loops with things that aren't thought patterns."

And I mostly like that. But it doesn't really say what, exactly, is happening with groundedness. It only says when groundedness happens, or where you should look if you want to find it. It also doesn't account for a what I might call "abstract groundedness", of which "staying grounded in what you care about" is an example.

I've developed a feeling, while designing morning routines, that groundedness involves certainty and uncertainty, and especially movement between the two.

What is most difficult for me in the morning is uncertainty. Humans are harder to deal with than a cup of tea or a pair of dumbbells, because unlike tea and dumbbells, humans are intelligent agents. Their behaviors depend on complex and opaque algorithms. When the behavior of other humans is an input to my perceptions, it's very hard to predict what perceptions I will have. Will they walk across the room? How loudly will they speak? Will they ask something of me? Similarly, fast-moving cars produce huge waves of sound and visual experience at hard-to-predict times, from the perspective of someone on a sidewalk.

Tea does none of that. (Nor, notably, does the literal ground.) Tea just sits there being tea. I am extremely certain about the effect tea will have on my perceptions: the air in my nose will be more humid, my mouth and hands will be warm, I will taste a certain flavor.

But predictable things are not grounding in themselves. Blank white walls afford a lot of certainty, but rarely are they particularly grounding. Groundedness is an activity; it exists in the relationship between minds and their objects of attention. Blank walls are so predictable that it's a bit hard to maintain any relationship with them at all.

I think that perhaps groundedness is engagement with uncertainty by a mind that rests on something certain.

It is easy to drift into a state of ungroundedness while thinking about such topics as AI timelines, social dynamics, or possible career changes, because to get anywhere with those topics, you have to spend a lot of time thinking deeply amidst extreme uncertainty. The more attention you devote to something, the less attention you have left for other parts of your experience; so the more attention you devote to predicting uncertain outcomes of uncertain circumstances, the less grounded you become.

It is possible, and usually preferable, to engage with uncertainty in a grounded way.

The trick to doing so is to find something extremely certain and make it a central structural component of your experience. Not only should a fraction of your attention remain with your anchor at all times, but you should return the majority of your attention to the anchor at regular intervals.

Moving to rhythmic music is so effective for me because as I move, and thus engagedly experience novel sensory inputs that I cannot perfectly predict, the music encourages a regular returning of my attention to the anchor point of sonic rhythm. I move deliberately toward uncertainty, but a piece of my attention is always on the certainty of musical sound, and most of it returns often to the downbeat of a cycling musical phrase.

This model suggests that if you're concerned you'll become ungrounded during a conversation or activity, you should begin by identifying three things:

  1. a certainty you'd like to use as an anchor and a beacon
  2. a strategy for keeping some part your attention on it at all times
  3. a strategy for returning most of your attention to it at regular intervals

Since most of this is still armchair philosophizing, I don't expect my suggestions for how to identify those three things will be very good. But I do have some guesses, things I plan to try out myself in the near future.

  1. Anchors are most effective when they are emotionally powerful, but not emotionally fraught. They should be certain, but not entirely inert (since engagement with the anchor is crucial). The best ones probably involve properties of the non-social external world. In a conversation, I expect the two of you should choose something you're both certain about, something you agree on in the same way you agree that many birds have wings, or that Mount Everest is taller than your mailbox.

  2. Keeping a piece of your attention on something feels TAPs-shaped. You'll need to recognize when your attention has completely left the anchor; therefore, begin by imagining what it would feel like to leave the anchor behind. That's your trigger. The action will be cognitively cheapest if you have an external symbol to draw you back toward the anchor. So your TAP might go, "If I notice [that I've left the anchor behind], then I'll [look at the phrase I've written down]."

  3. Returning most of your attention to the anchor will require increased engagement. In more challenging activities, you'll probably need to start by disengaging from whatever uncertainty-focused pattern you've been spinning up, perhaps at the prompting of an alarm that goes off every n minutes. Space-making activities are likely appropriate: getting a snack, taking a walk, five minutes of yoga, that sort of thing. Once you've created a little space for other kinds of thoughts, you can then engage on purpose with your anchor. I would expect one to three pre-designed questions would work well, questions to which the anchor itself is an answer. For example, you might ask yourself, "What matters to me here?", and the act of answering that question anew will remind you of the answer in a way that draws a lot of your mind into the shape of it.

But like I said, these are just my intuitions. I haven't tried these things yet in a deliberate or systematic way, and I haven't walked anyone else through this process either. If you experiment with this yourself, I'd love to hear about whatever happens.