Thinking Toys #6 — Tonglen

Look back on your past week and see if you can find a feeling or emotion that you had trouble with. Perhaps a scenario where you reacted in a way that you later regretted. It could be in a particular situation, like anger in an argument, or a recurring pattern, like a regular desire to check your email. Try to call up the state again. Imagine yourself in the situation that triggered it last. Put yourself in that moment and recreate the sensations within your body. Once you are re-experiencing the unpleasantness, ask two questions:

  • What do I want to be feeling instead of the unpleasantness?
  • How would I like to be or act differently in this situation?

You may find that you want another person, or the world around you, to change. This may be totally reasonable but also out of your control. Given that, try to identify what feeling you’d rather experience instead.

Earlier this week I was working on a blog post and kept running into a strong desire to seek distraction. I run into this often and use some simple coping strategies, such as putting my devices into airplane mode while working. Even without the ability to access the internet, I am not immune. I’m often triggered by an initial feeling of stuckness or hesitation. I will be cruising along doing work and stumble into a need to look out the window or to get a glass of water. I find myself experiencing stuckness and distraction-seeking. I’d like to be experiencing a feeling of flow and generativity.

Once you’ve identified the unpleasant feeling along with what you desire in its place, you can try a simple practice. Invite in what you are resisting and give out what you desire. We do this through breathing. On each in breath, pretend like you are breathing into yourself more of the feeling you are trying to avoid. With each out breath, pretend like you are breathing out into the world the feeling that you desire. In my example, I breathe in the stuckness and breath out generativity and flow. After a minute or two, you may start noticing a difference. A different attitude will start developing towards the triggering situations. Also, you can try this technique for a few seconds in the moment when you encounter the reactive state. Often when I’m writing and notice stuckness, I will stop and breath that in while breathing out a desire for flow. This is becoming more and more effective at snapping me back into the state I desire.

How could this work? What’s going on here?

First off, there’s no need to get magical. Rearranging our experience in this way will not directly change the world around us. But, by changing our patterns of reactivity we can learn to act more skillfully. In time, this makes us more capable of getting the results we desire. Patterns of reactivity are just that: patterns. We can change our patterns by overriding them with new ones. We begin this process by vividly imagining the state we wish to avoid and pairing it with the new one we’d like to embody. The association starts off weak and, well, imaginary. With practice, it begins to strengthen. Eventually, we become better prepared to react differently when triggered in the future.

This thinking toy is called Tonglen because it’s a simple version of the Tantric meditation practice. In traditional practice, Tonglen allows us to engage with suffering. This can be for a single interaction or across all living beings. By breathing in suffering and breathing out love, we can train ourselves to be more compassionate. Of course, there’s nothing stopping us from using the method to redesign any pattern of reactivity. Is Tonglen Truly Awesome? expands on this idea and my writing above borrows heavily from it. I strongly recommend reading the whole post!

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Developing Self-Efficacy with Minimum Viable Habits

We often experience knowing what we “need to do” yet feeling unable to actually do it. We often feel like we won’t succeed at the action or that it’s “something that only others can do”. This is the feeling of insufficient self-efficacy. Self-efficacy is one’s belief in ability to succeed at carrying out some set of actions.


To succeed at a particular challenge, we need two things. First, knowledge of the action which is likely to lead to success — knowing what to do. Second, before we bother trying, we need to believe that we can actually succeed at taking the action. Self-efficacy is this second part. It has powerful effects on our ability to actually do the thing. Even better, we can change our self-efficacy!


The theory of self-efficacy was introduced by Albert Bandura in the 1970s. His main finding was that self-efficacy significantly impacts the actions a person takes. Higher self-efficacy causes people to put in greater effort when faced with challenges. It also encourages taking on more challenging tasks in the first place. One begins to view obstacles to success as stimulating rather than discouraging. Finally, greater self-efficacy allows taking a wider view on challenges. One is more able to zoom out to see the big picture and be more creative when problem-solving.


Unfortunately, higher self-efficacy is not a panacea. It can lead to overconfidence. This can show up through failing to sufficiently prepare for tasks. This is also visible as reduced curiosity. Feelings of mastery in a domain can discourage further learning! Also, the tendency towards putting in more effort can cause one to put in too much effort. This takes the form of not quitting when it becomes clear to others that more effort is futile.


Even so, it seems many people would be better off with higher self-efficacy. The ideal amount seems to be slightly above one’s objective level of competence or skill. This encourages taking on challenges and enables growth. Bandura identified four general factors affecting self-efficacy, in decreasing order of impact: personal experience, modeling (vicarious experience), persuasion (verbal feedback), and physiological or emotive states. The most powerful influence on self-efficacy is experience obtained through enactive attainment. In other words, the process of mastery and achievement — trying to do things and succeeding. This is hard to fake. Easy wins don’t continue to build self-efficacy. Rather, one must experience consistent recognition of difficult accomplishment that has cultural relevance. The accomplishment has to feel important within the context of one’s social world. Bandura also found that building self-efficacy through experience helped develop general capacity. Overcoming challenge in one domain enabled individuals to take on unrelated challenges.


Given what we know, how can we best embark on a project of enhancing our own self-efficacy?


I’ve identified four factors that help:


1. Do something daily

2. Start small

3. Incrementally increase difficulty

4. Optimize for greater energy levels


I find daily diet and exercise habits to be an excellent training ground. Developing a feeling of mastery requires repetitive success at increasingly difficult challenges. Daily habits are especially fruitful because of their high frequency. You get to grapple with them at least once a day. This quick repetition exposes yourself to success over and over. As you succeed you can ratchet up the difficulty to keep it meaningful. The other major benefit is seeing social or cultural value in the skill. We live in a world that idolizes looking good and feeling good. Finally, improving diet and exercise habits comes with physiological benefits. We get an immediate boost to our energy levels. Over time, this helps build capacity in endurance and willpower.


I’ve found two guidelines which have helped me to a felt sense of mastery in these domains. The first is incrementalism — start small and slowly increase the challenge. When I first started, I didn’t think of myself as a “person who exercises daily”. Nor did I know the “best way” to do it. After a few false starts, I settled on a small win: doing a handful of jumping jacks after waking up. This was so easy that I felt I could succeed every day. All that remained was getting used to doing it first thing in the morning, every day. Once established, I began slowly pushing myself to do more: extra jumping jacks, some pushups, etc. Similarly, I began not knowing the “best way” to eat. I had a vague sense that too much sugar was bad, so I started by eating a bit less every day.


You start by constructing Minimum Viable Habits and then iterating from there.


The second guideline is to optimize for energy levels. Scott Adams is big on this in How to Fail at Almost Everything and Still Win Big. After any action, check back over the next few minutes or hours to see how your energy has changed. The goal is to maximize your energy levels. Simple as that. I’ve found this to be far more effective than trying to keep up with the latest in nutritional advice. Listen to your body and you can find out what works for you.


I built a foundation of diet and exercise habits that once felt “not me”. As a result, I noticed my ability to succeed was not constrained to domains where I already felt skilled. I am now more aware that I can perform any pattern of action that I see someone else doing. I no longer feel constrained to “who I am” but feel empowered to build the skills I see as valuable. With increased self-efficacy, I am more equipped to take on any challenges along the way.

Thinking Toys #5 — Focusing

One of the most powerful and easy to learn introspection techniques is Eugene Gendlin’s Focusing. The basic structure can be broken down into six steps, although he encourages experimentation and breaking the rules once you learn the basics. You can perform these steps slowly, over 30 minutes to an hour, or quickly, often in just a few seconds once you’ve learned the moves. You can perform these on your own or with a partner. Here is a short form of the instructions from his website:



1. Clear a space

How are you? What’s between you and feeling fine?

Don’t answer; let what comes in your body do the answering.

Don’t go into anything.

Greet each concern that comes. Put each aside for a while, next to you.

Except for that, are you fine?


2. Felt Sense

Pick one problem to focus on.

Don’t go into the problem.

What do you sense in your body when you sense the whole of that problem?

Sense all of that, the sense of the whole thing, the murky discomfort or the unclear body-sense of it.


3. Get a handle

What is the quality of the felt sense?

What one word, phrase, or image comes out of this felt sense?

What quality-word would fit it best?


4. Resonate

Go back and forth between word (or image) and the felt sense.

Is that right?

If they match, have the sensation of matching several times.

If the felt sense changes, follow it with your attention.

When you get a perfect match, the words (images) being just right for this feeling, let yourself feel that for a minute.


5. Ask

“What is it, about the whole problem, that makes me so _________?

When stuck, ask questions:

What is the worst of this feeling?

What’s really so bad about this?

What does it need?

What should happen?

Don’t answer; wait for the feeling to stir and give you an answer.

What would it feel like if it was all OK?

Let the body answer

What is in the way of that?


6. Receive

Welcome what came. Be glad it spoke.

It is only one step on this problem, not the last.

Now that you know where it is, you can leave it and come back to it later.

Protect it from critical voices that interrupt.

Does your body want another round of focusing, or is this a good stopping place?



An example of what this process looks like may be helpful. Every morning after meditation I spend about 5-20 minutes practicing Focusing. Today I explored my feelings around my relationship with one of my Grandmothers. I find our interactions aversive and stressful — one of the rare instances in my life when I regularly have this experience. To start, I called to mind the act of interacting with her, and memories of previous interactions. I tried to sit in that for 15-30 seconds. This is longer than it seems, try timing yourself! After a few seconds, a distinct felt sense started developing. You can also think of this as a gut feel. The important thing is to focus on the lower level sensations and emotions. I then began generating a list of words or phrases and checking to see how well they resonated with the felt sense. Hot, weak, small, heavy, tired, pity, muted. Some of these caused more of a jolt of recognition than others. After a moment, I converged on the handle of “heavy muting, unseen unrecognized”. I checked back with the felt sense to confirm a correspondence. Then I started asking it questions: “What is in this feeling? What is the worst part? What does it need?” Right away, I noticed an overwhelming sense of being taunted. It’s not that I have a strong urge to be heard and seen here, but rather that I was being invited to be heard and seen but then being denied the experience! Instead, I was having something else imposed upon me — the something else being her fantasy of what she wants me to be. This was an especially interesting realization for me because I pride myself on my ability to create my identity and experience. And here was an example, staring me in the face, of how I was allowing someone else to get in the way of this! If I was as good as I thought at constructing my experience, I surely would not be sensitive to the “silly” projections of my Grandmother! Having this insight provided some relief but the work is not done yet. The next step would be to explore how to help resolve the situation through action — a job for next time.



What happens when we introspect? We are often trying to better understand something about ourselves or our experience. Ideally, this understanding can correspond to the implicit beliefs causing our emotional reactions. This helps identify the sorts of interventions which can transform our emotional state. These are not always logical nor do they always make rational sense! 

Focusing is one framework for connecting with this implicit belief structure. By breaking complex feelings into parts and finding language that fits, we can understand them bit by bit. With understanding, some of the more unpleasant feelings seem to begin to dissolve. Alternatively, the understanding can help point to actions that you can take to resolve them.

For a more comprehensive introduction to focusing, I highly recommend the short audio book narrated by Eugene Gendlin.

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Thinking Toys #4 — Falsifiability

What’s something that you’re worried about or that is giving you anxiety? It may be a specific event that you fear may come to pass — losing your job! Alternatively, it can be a general sense of discontent or fear about some state of the world — Trump is President! This feeling is uncomfortable but it may also be useful. Some part of you is trying to raise a concern — something is wrong here and we need to pay attention!


But what? how do we figure it out, and how do we resolve it rather than just suppress it? One way is to seek falsifiability — what would it take to prove yourself wrong? Try to construct an easily testable claim related to the worry or anxiety that feels predictive of the thing you’re worried about. Construct different statements and ask your gut: if I see evidence X, Y, and Z, will that persuade? The mere discovery of such a falsifiable claim can cause anxiety to dissolve. Failing that, now you have something testable for which you can seek evidence. Of course, constructing these statements will often leave some part of your anxiety still there. We can’t always quite capture the whole thing with a statement or two. This is likely unavoidable but often a trade off worth making, anyway.


I had some anxiety over starting this newsletter. How would I know if it was good or useful? It’s a vague, hard thing to measure and I expect mixed signals. With some effort, I was able to construct a falsifiable claim that my gut was comfortable with. If I could organically get at least 100 subscribers within a month, then it would feel “good enough”. By finding that statement, I was able to dissolve most of the related anxiety.


I find two other good uses for seeking falsifiability: exposing crony beliefs and improving our models of ourselves.


Kevin Simler wrote a great essay on the concept of “crony beliefs”. We hold these for their social value — sustaining relationships and giving us status. This is in contrast to “merit beliefs” which seek correspondence with events in shared reality — “objective” predictive power. Canonical examples of crony beliefs are eternalistic in nature: religion, politics, and ideas like the limitless power of science. Crony beliefs are not “bad” — they are often useful — but it can be handy to know where ours are hiding. One of the most glaring signs is a resistance to seek falsifiability in some domain. If you are defensive about making claims that could disprove something, it may be a crony belief. Consider: how high is your bar for changing your mind about your current political stances?


Improving our models of ourselves is another way seeking falsifiability can help us. This improves our ability to calibrate expectations. In Building a Second BrainTiago suggests defining projects by a set of associated SMART goals — even (especially!) for open-ended creative work. We often don’t have a clear idea of where an interest is heading and especially fear to constrain it. However, by making testable predictions about where you may end up, you give yourself way points to orient by. These way points can help you calibrate your ability to predict yourself! You get concrete feedback on your ability to know what you’re capable of. Consider a newfound love for oil painting. If you predicted that you would paint 3 canvases within 3 months and end up with only 1, you learn a little something about yourself free of charge.


Our minds are so drawn to falsifiability — seeing whether something is true or false — because it works. We survive by projecting and reifying boundaries onto a nebulous world. With repeated prediction and feedback, we are able to improve our models of how our actions relate to our ability to survive and thrive. A gnawing sense of anxiety is often a sign that we have failed to make something falsifiable enough for our lizard brain.


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