This is part 17 of 30 of Hammertime. Click here for the intro.
You know how they say we only use 10 percent of our brains? I think we only use 10 percent of our hearts.
~ Owen Wilson
It is with some trepidation that I venture into the “fuzzy System 1” side of instrumental rationality. I worry that these introspective techniques optimize too much for cathartic eureka moments, and that the resulting feelings far overstate their true value.
Nevertheless, there is a definite power to these methods. You have subconscious beliefs, values, and strategies that you’re unaware of, or at least can’t articulate. Gendlin’s Focusing is a starting point for plumbing these hidden depths.
Day 17: Focusing
Background: “Focusing” for skeptics.
tl;dr: your brain hallucinates sensory experiences that have no correspondence to reality. Noticing and articulating these “felt senses” gives you access to the deep wisdom of your soul.
I’ll start by explaining my most gears-like model for why focusing works, and then describe some exercises towards strengthening the Focusing muscle.
One of the predictions of my model is that felt senses are only one piece of the nonverbal puzzle – the patterns in our dreams and our tastes for fiction and mythology, for instance, serve the same function. This will be the content of a future post.
Left and Right Brain
Human beings are both predator and prey. This duality is so central to human evolution that the brain is divided left and right to serve the two different purposes separately.
The left brain is the predator brain, the center for “approach” mechanisms. It’s built for tracking a particular prey animal, articulating rules about behavior, and solving concrete problems. To fix your attention on a target is to activate your left brain and get ready to hunt it down. In the direction you look, there is clarity and legibility. Over that direction, you gain power and mastery.
“Sin” derives from the Greek word for missing the mark: human beings are aiming creatures.
The right brain is the prey brain, the center for “flight” mechanisms. It’s built for hypothesizing a venomous fog of worst-case scenarios: snakes in every tree, traps under every bramble. The right brain is constantly on edge, searching for subtle clues of being tracked by a clever predator or failure mode. It operates on the things you don’t know and cannot see: the space behind your head, the shadows in dark corners, the places and concepts you circumambulate.
With its higher level of clarity and certainty, the left brain is by far the more verbal of the two, and most of your articulated knowledge resides there. The right brain, on the other hand, may have access to the most important big-picture insights about your life. The trouble is to communicate them.
When the right brain has a message to send that won’t go directly through the corpus callosum, the message manifests in other ways. You feel a tightness in your chest or a glow in your belly. Unbidden images appear to you when you close your eyes. Recurring nightmares play out the last moments of your likely doom.
Focusing is about noticing these subtle clues and completing the communication between left and right brain.
The basic idea of Focusing is to notice and track your felt senses and learn to articulate them. The most exciting thing that happens during focusing is noticing a “felt shift,” a relief or change, in the sensation once you hit upon the right words to frame it. This response is your right brain confirming that you got the message.
I’ll start by listing a few felt senses I’ve had recently:
- When I solve a problem in a creative way (e.g. fix posture by turning in the shower), there’s a sensation of enlightenment at the back of my head which literally feels like my skull is opening up. The words to this feeling are “I’ve discovered a new dimension!”
- I sometimes sit slouched over in bed for hours at a time browsing Facebook or Reddit, playing video games, or binge-watch a season of a TV show. After getting up from the slouch, my whole body is enveloped in a haze of laziness and decay. The zombie haze is thickest inside my ribs. The words to this pressure are “Symptoms of the spreading corruption.”
- A piece of my social anxiety forms a hard barrier that pushes against the center of my chest. I learned the words to this feeling from a post by Zvi: “Conform! Every time you walk outside the norm, think about the implicit accusation you’re making against everyone who didn’t try it.”
Here’s Gendlin’s Focusing check from CFAR:
- Say aloud “Everything in my life is fine,” or “I’m on track with all of my goals.”
- Pay attention to the sensations in your belly, chest, and throat. If you’re like most people, something will catch or react weirdly to the statement.
- Try to get a sense of what the feeling “sees,” and write it down.
- Imagine setting that thing aside (like putting it next to you on a park bench), and try again: “Apart from that, everything in my life is fine.” See what catches this time.
- Continue until you reach a statement that doesn’t produce a reaction, and instead rings true (e.g. “Apart from A, B, C, D, my life is fine right now.”)
Set a Yoda Timer and try the Focusing check.
Share a felt sense and its True Name.