Tuesday, October 30, 2018

The Spider

The spider is a wonderful creature.
She weaves such a regular web
which has such regular features
all plotted in her tiny head.

The spokes meet in the middle
the net runs round and round.
How they get there seems a riddle,
tiny miles above the ground.

The spider swings across vast spaces
she plunges unimaginable depths
without a hint of fear on her faces
or the slightest thought of death.

Her limbs are slim and busy,
her touch, subtle as the wind.
Weaving and leaving her monuments
wherever she has been

When her work is done she sleeps
for day after day in her home
content that her work will reap her
the fruits of what she has sewn.

May my house be open to host her
may her wonders always be near
Let us raise a happy toast to her -
nature's engineer.

Sunday, September 2, 2018

Four Things I Wish I Had Learned in School

When I was a kid I was good at school. That turned out to be way less important than I thought it would be. The basic school skills of memorization, arithmetic, and essay writing are fine things to develop. But this narrow range of training omitted many important skills that I would need in life. And worse, this curriculum left me squarely in middle of my comfort zone for 13 years, so I never had to develop the meta-skills of skill acquisition. I was cocky and complacent.

When I hit the adult world, the adult world hit back. I was terribly unprepared to navigate its complexity. I found myself needing to develop, on the fly, a different skill-set from the one I had been taught. I needed to work on sensing opportunities, communicating my desires, detecting and removing fantasy from my world-model, attention management, making friends, letting go of resentment, and effective problem selection.

11 years navigating the turbulent currents of independent adult life is long enough that I’ve started piecing together some of the skills I need to survive and thrive. Along the way, I’ve found some specific practices that make life easier and better. When I run into one of these, I have the thought “I wish someone told me about this earlier!”.

To save you from the same trouble, I’m going to tell you about them now.

1. Improv

Image result for impro book

Practicing improvisational acting puts you into relationship with your subconscious genius. Your conscious mind learns that there is another entity sharing the head, or many. You learn the subconscious self’s habits and desires, and you learn how to harness its creative power for your own purposes.

The tao of improv is the experience of effortless creativity. When you are in the flow, you surprise even yourself by saying and doing things you didn’t know you knew how to do.

The greater tao of improv is flowing with others, effortless creativity in community. You learn how to trust and give and receive.

Improv in front of an audience is terrifying. There is no way to completely prepare. You must learn to accept failure, and to focus on the process. Are you flowing, permeable yet present, receiving and giving? That’s the thing you can control. There is so much else that you can’t control, including the audience’s mood and reaction.

I started learning about improv from a book, Impro: Improvisation and the Art of the Theatre by Keith Johnstone. I found the writing provocative, and then I just had to try some of the exercises with my romantic partner at the time. It’s a great place to start.

I found that the skills of improv bled over into other areas of my life. Having had the experience of telling improv fictional stories, I found it much easier to present in front of an audience for business reasons. I grew to trust in that my subconscious mind could come up with appropriate words for the situation, as long as I know the material.

I also have the confidence that I can teach anything I know. Lecturing is not so different from telling an improv story, and add in some hands-on pedagogy and you have an effective workshop.

Improv is a fantastic personal growth practice. But it is also very fun and worth doing for its own sake. One of my catchphrases is, “Improv is the most fun you can legally have as an adult”.

2. Power Lifting

There’s a motivational poster on the wall of my lifting gym that says, “the old that is strong does not whither”. That’s what I want for myself. As I’ve gotten older, I find myself plagued by little injuries here and there. Had I been stronger, some of those injuries could have been prevented. And I believe that getting stronger now will help prevent injuries in the future.

When I’m 80, I want to be like those old guys on youtube with the coke-bottle glasses that can still deadlift and squat a few hundred pounds. I want to bench-press my grandkids.

Lifting heavy things improperly is a major cause of injuries in life and at work. Powerlifting not only strengthens your muscles, joints, tendons, and bones, but will teach you the theory and practice of how to lift things without injury.

Now, powerlifting can also cause injury, especially if you dive in recklessly without proper training and theory. I’m paying for supervised small-group classes where a coach watches me lift and corrects my form. Not everybody has that available.

Starting Strength is a classic manual for getting started on strength training. If you start with that book and a buddy and post videos of your lifts to reddit for form review, that’s a way to get started on a budget.

Lifting makes me feel great. It feels good to be strong. It must generate endorphins or something. It takes away stress and brightens my mood. As someone who tends towards depression, that’s very important that I stay physically active.

I started powerlifting because I hoped that deadlifts would rehab a lower back injury that is keeping me out of Jiu Jitsu class. As I’ve done it, I’ve fallen in love with lifting for its own sake. I fantasize about my next lifting day. And when I get back to Jiu Jitsu, not only will it keep my back safe, but I’m going to be a stronger and more dangerous competitor.

Finally, the constant feeling of progress that lifting provides is a good backbone to my life. It is gamified by default, and there’s nothing like hitting new personal best lifts and new milestones. If I’m struggling in other parts of my life, seeing the weights move up give me comfort and motivation.

3. Authentic Relating/ Intentional Relating
Image result for authentic relating

Probably the single area where my life is going the best is in relationship. I am rich in friendship and connection.

This hasn’t always been the case. I used to struggle to connect to people. I grew up socially isolated and I was a stereotypical nerd.

I credit the practice of intentional relating with the biggest piece of that change. Intentional or authentic relating is an umbrella term that encompasses a family of practices including eye contact, asking deepening questions, noticing and communicating emotions, and reciprocal vulnerability.

Intentional relating is mindfulness applied to relationship. It creates a safe container to practice talking about real emotion that might normally feel too embarrassing. It also provides a great container for practicing healthy conflict.

The main effects this practice has had on me less is to make me less afraid of people and make me like other people more. It’s hard to overstate how important that is. It’s qualitatively changed my experience of life. I get what I want more than I used to. I turned from an introvert to an extrovert. My social life is great. Because I like people more, I like myself more.

The world is full of people, so the more comfortable you are with people the better your life will be. For a long time, I didn’t realize this was a thing I could practice and learn.

Here’s a list of relating methodologies I have practiced. Some of these might be more accessible to you where you live than others.

  • Intentional questions, such as the 36 questions to fall in love, or conversation card decks you can buy on Amazon
  • Circling is my current favorite thing. I practice with the Circling Institute which runs classes in the San Francisco Bay Area and Asheville, NC. There are other circling groups throughout the world with their own take on the practice.
  • T-Group is a practice made famous by the Stanford Business School. It involves sitting with a leaderless small group of people and experimenting with interacting with each other. Focused is kept on the present-moment emotions and desires of the participants. There’s often some conceptual curriculum before a session, such as Nonviolent Communication (NVC) which is a useful methodology for becoming mindful of your inner emotional landscape. There’s a group that meets in Berkeley that is NVC-heavy.
  • I took a year-long peer-counseling program heavily influenced by humanist psychology. Learning to hold space for others is a very good way to turbo-boost your EQ growth.
  • Compassion meditation or praying for people, depending on which spiritual tradition you prefer
  • There are a bunch of neat intentional relating games out there. Sometimes they go under the brand name of “Relating Games”.
  • The books “Nonviolent Communication” and “Radical Honesty” are good places to start if you don’t have access to training courses where you live. Practice some of the techniques with friends. Note: take Radical Honesty slowly. The book can push you to go too far, too fast.
I think everyone who works with people, which is almost everybody, would benefit tremendously from this curriculum. I wish hands-on training was available in more locations.

On a practical level, I’m available to lead intentional relating games and workshops for your group, and I can refer other people who can also do so.

4. Meditation
Image result for meditation

I almost didn’t include this on the list because of my perception that this piece of advice would be too popular. You’ve probably heard people telling you to meditate before. It can feel like a chore. And I am no expert meditator. There are many levels to it beyond where I’ve gone.

However, the exploration of meditation carries with it a philosophical payload that is invaluable. The most important for me is the difference between conception and perception. Concepts are the mental models of our mind. Perception is what comes in through the senses, what is actually happening.

The perceptual world is more peaceful and stable than our conceptual world. It is a haven. When my mind is turbulent and out of control, I can touch in with the world of my senses. My mind might be thinking something like “my life is over!”, but in the world of my senses the sun is shining, the wind is blowing, my breath is rising and falling. Much of the distress I experience is due to my mind ruminating over concepts and my perceived place in social hierarchies, and not due to my actual experience.

Once you’ve developed the meditative practice of mindfulness, of “seeing what is really there”, it can be applied to many different activities: art, dancing, relating. Mindfulness is like salt. It can season almost any dish.

Another thing that meditation gives me is awareness of my mental and emotional state. When I sit down to meditate, I can tell if I am agitated or calm, distracted or focused. I get used to noticing my mental state and I target calmer, more peaceful mental states as a life goal, like other people might target weight loss.

There are probably other reasons to meditate. As I said, I am no expert on the topic. But the habits of mind I have developed from the time I have spent meditating are invaluable.


If I take a moment to fantasize about going to school that includes improv, powerlifting, authentic relating, and meditation, that sounds awesome. I think younger me would have enjoyed that and been challenged by it. What about you? What practices have served you best to navigate life? What do you wish you had learned years ago? Leave a comment.

Monday, August 20, 2018

Surviving in the Alaskan Wilderness

“It is extremely challenging and some students WILL quit. Expect to suffer.”

The marketing materials appealed to me. At the time of signing up for the one-week survival course in January, I was in the early days of recovering from a crushing romantic breakup. I wanted to be lost, obliterated, remade. I wanted physical suffering, perhaps as some kind of penance, perhaps to take my mind off the spiritual pain. The survival course sounded perfect. I pulled out my credit card.

By the time the course actually rolled around in July, I was a different person. I had a new home and a new routine. My emotions had stabilized. But nevertheless, the Alaskan Field Course approached, a foreboding presence on my Google calendar. It was a wall or moat, dividing the calendar into distinct before times and after times. July Jacob had to find new motivations for following through on the commitment of January Jacob. I found four reasons for doing it:

(1) I wanted to test my will. Life is hard and I am soft. There seems to be a lot of obstacles between me and the life I want to live. I wanted a difficult experience that forced me to go beyond my previous limits, an experience that not everybody made it through. It functioned as a symbol to me that I would be able to conquer difficulties elsewhere. 

It's not quite that I want to be a hero. But I want to know that I'm capable of being a hero. I have this fantasy that if there were something difficult and important to do, that I would have the will power to step up and do it. But if my will is untested, it's just a fantasy. By doing hard things, I gain some confidence that I am the person I imagine myself to be. 

(2) I love comfort too much. On the big 5 personality model, I score above average in neuroticism, loosely defined as sensitivity to negative emotions. I like to have my home environment arranged to be comfortable and quiet and I feel distressed if I can’t accomplish that. I try to fight this. In the woods - starving, sleeping on leaves, being cold and wet when it rained, doing hard labor - I knew that comfort would not be an option. I would be forced to learn how to be comfortable with discomfort. I might still instinctively seek comfort, but I want to have the knowledge that I can handle discomfort when it is necessary. 

(3) I wanted to have the knowledge that I could survive wherever I was in the world. I wanted nature to seem less hostile and more like home. 

(4) In the intervening 7 months, I had told a lot of friends that I was going to do the course, so I didn’t want to look weak by backing out or quitting. This might have been a stronger motivation than I like.

The Alaskan Field Course involves surviving under instructor supervision for a week in the Alaskan wilderness with minimal equipment - just clothes, a canteen, backpack, knife, and a small length of cord. No sleeping bags, food, tents, or water purification tech. 

Both my January self and my July self got their desires met. I can’t remember ever suffering so much physically. I was starving and sleep deprived most of the time. Food is not a top 2 priority in a survival situation (#1 temperature control and #2 clean water), so we made do with a few hundred calories of foraged berries that were bitter and sour for the most part. And, lacking sleeping bags, we needed to tend a fire all night to prevent hypothermia which made for broken sleep through the mercifully short Alaskan nighttime. 

Work was the lifeline tethering me to sanity. On the second day in the field, our instructor showed us how to make the A-frame structures that are in my pictures. His method of motivational speaking involved a lot of dark humor. “Results are mandatory”, he reminded us. The pressure of needing to get my shelter raised and water-proofed lit a (figurative) fire under my ass. I haven’t worked that hard in a long time. I hustled for about 12 hours in the long Alaskan daylight to build my shelter, gathering sticks and moss and grass. I spent more hours on it in the following days, haunted by the nightmare of my hut leaking in the rain and being forced to spend a night doing survival calisthenics to ward off hypothermia. That was the miserable alternative available if shelter or fire failed and the weather took an unlucky turn. 

I kept surprisingly busy in the course. There always seemed to be something to do to mitigate risk or make ourselves more comfortable. I partnered up with another student to share a shelter. Once our shelter was established, we built another one for our firewood so we would have some dry wood if it rained. Gathering firewood was the single largest use of time. 

Two-a-day courses in survival skills kept our lives interesting and added an extra layer of difficulty. For example, on the day of building the shelters, we had a hands-on course in how to safely cross swift rivers. This resulted in all of our shoes being wet. Other days, we learned how to carry injured hikers, wrap a bandage, make birch-bark bowls to enhance the efficiency of foraging, use a compass for navigation, and to trap animals and fish. 

There was a lot of misery. My will was sapped early in the week from caffeine withdrawal and later in the week from starvation and an accumulation of small injuries. My body did bizarre things. At night, it would tingle all over. I think it was a response to the starvation. My guts felt things they had never felt before. 

But there was also much that was pleasant about the experience. As my eyes adapted to the work, I began to see the forest as a store of resources. I knew that tree had analgesic compounds in its bark, that tree had sap that was a great fire starter, these leafy plants were good to eat and had protein. I learned how to sleep on the ground and I learned that moss is nature’s upholstery. My hands developed comfort and intelligence with the knife. I was turning into a bit of a wood-elf. 

Other highlights of the trip included the Alaskan scenery. We were surrounded by gorgeous mountains and camped on the banks of a clear wide stream with jumping fish. The monkey parts of my brain loved living in scenery that normally I would politely admire from a respected distance. I loved climbing over and under logs, chopping branches, eating berries fresh off the vine, and sleeping on the ground. It was a physically stimulating sort of life. 

The fellowship with other students was pleasant. In rare moments of downtime, we would lounge about on the moss and drink some boiled nettles or chaga, discussing which McDonald's food we would consume when we returned to civilization. 

The pace of work slackened in the last few days. With the extra free time, our minds turned to fishing. A variety of methods were attempted to catch them: traps, baskets woven out of green sticks or roots, hand-fishing, spears, and makeshift fishing rods. Most of the methods caught at least one fish, but the fishing rod was the most successful. It was just a string baited with guts and tied around a stick. It worked surprisingly well. 

I was disappointed not to catch any fish myself, but I did manage to barter for a small trout. I spit roasted it over a campfire. It was deliciously warm and fatty. 

From one perspective, the Alaskan Field Course is a wonderfully ridiculous thing. I’m surprised that you can buy such a real and dangerous experience in this age of regulated capitalism. The safety net exists, but it’s minimal. The nearest road was a treacherous 9 mile hike away. And we took risks. 16 adults, some of them brand new to the outdoors, spent the week running around with knives, climbing logs, foraging, hunting, and bushwhacking. We were constantly one wrong step away from needing a helicopter evac, or else spending a grueling day carrying a peer to safety. I loved that nobody stopped us for our own safety. It felt like freedom. 

The week passed by in a blur. Much of the time I was just focused on surviving. As I returned to civilization, I was left with a ghost of the forest experience. The ubiquitous smoke of campfires haunted the corners of my vision for several days. Each itch I instinctively assumed to be the probing of a mosquito.

In the end, I found what I wanted in the Alaskan wilderness. I feel harder, tougher. I lost my addiction to caffeine and sleeping with ear plugs. I've never been backpacking, but it sounds easy to me now. You get to carry food with you! And a sleeping bag! Lots of things sound easier to me now. At least temporarily, the course lowered my expected level of comfort. I’m happy I did it. I survived. 

Sunday, July 29, 2018

Psychedelic Christianity: a Review of “His Life is Mine”

I don’t want to reduce this book to only my musings on the similarity between Christian mystical experience and psychedelic experience. However, that is the piece that is most fascinating to me, and that I most want to get out before I go wandering in the wilderness for 7 days. Perhaps I will write a more thorough review later.

Archimandrite Sophrony is a Christian mystic. Through contemplative practice in the Orthodox Christian tradition, he seeks direct experience and knowledge of God. This book is partly the Orthodox mystic doctrine, and part diary. It’s a very personal account, describing the first-person experience of emotional swings between agony and ecstasy as Sophrony pursues his inquiry into the divine.

I was hesitant to read the book, worrying that the account of a man of faith would not speak to such a heterodox person as myself and that I would be overwhelmed with boredom or skepticism. When people ask me about my religion, I admit to being strongly influenced by Buddhism, Christianity, and psychedelics. And of course I spent some years as an atheist scientific materialist which is a viewpoint I often find useful, though I am not limited by it. But my interest was piqued upon learning that Sophrony himself was a worldly, cosmopolitan person before becoming a man of faith. As a young man in Russia, he became fascinated with Eastern religions and meditation. He fled his native Russia after the Bolshevik Revolution and took up residence in Paris, where he became a painter. It was only after a time that he returned to the Orthodox religious tradition of his youth and became a Christian monk of the monastery on the holy Mount Athos.

Perhaps there is something about Sophrony’s own cosmopolitan spirit that speaks to me, a kind of spiritual kinship between those who must wander. The book was gifted me by an abbot in the high desert of New Mexico on my own wanderings. He had also led a colorful life, living as a Hari Krisna and a hippie in San Francisco before adopting the black robes of the Orthodox monk. I think he sensed an echo of similarity between our three souls. And indeed, sensing the curious spirit of both Sophrony and that abbot allowed me to trust their honesty and to more deeply enter dialog with them. I don’t trust a man who hasn’t done a certain amount of exploration.

Sophrony’s account of Christianity is the most attractive that I have seen. There are religions that are more about questions and religions that are more about answers. The questioning, questing religions are the better ones. Sophrony is on a quest to know God through imitation of Christ. He is led by his bold, open heart and a humbleness of spirit

There are many surprising and touching passages that I would like to share with you. But I don’t have time to do so before I am shipped out on my adventure. So I will try to share one particular insight for now.

There is a resonance between Sophrony’s description of Trinitarian doctrine and the psychedelic experience. I am interested in the bridges between two of my three favorite religions: Christianity and psychedelics. Although I am interested in both, there is mutual enmity between the two traditions.

A common psychedelic theme is the oneness of existence. This can be an impersonal oneness, or it can be more pantheistic in which the participant stays aware of some sense of identity. Psychedelics tear down the boundaries between things. But there can be a tension. There can be a part of the mind that holds onto distinction, to the duality between self and other, subject and object. Sometimes this can cause distress, as the person fears losing track of his identity in the current pushing him towards oneness. The dualist and monist view of reality go to war.

Sophrony’s description of the Trinity perhaps offer a way to reconcile the unreconcialable. Referring to the biblical assertion that “God is love”, Sophrony writes:

“If God, the First and the Last, were [one person], then He would not be love”.

Yet he also writes

“To love is to live for and in the beloved whose life becomes our life. Love leads to singleness of being”

Thus, in the mystery and paradox of the triune Godhead, we see the true nature of love demonstrated, requiring both duality and oneness. It is as if both perspectives must be seen and held simultaneously in order to see reality’s true nature. The paradox is accepted, without attempt to resolve it. And this true nature, the proper understanding of one’s relationship to existence, is love. Love unites self and other, subjective and objective, without annihilating either.

It is this mysterious, paradoxical nature that we are invited to participate in through the communion of the faithful. Sophrony says that according to ancient Orthodox tradition, man is one-in-many, just as the trinity is one-in-three. This brings to mind the words of Jesus in John chapter 17:

“My prayer is not for them alone. I pray also for those who will believe in me through their message, 21 that all of them may be one, Father, just as you are in me and I am in you. May they also be in us so that the world may believe that you have sent me. 22 I have given them the glory that you gave me, that they may be one as we are one— 23 I in them and you in me—so that they may be brought to complete unity. Then the world will know that you sent me and have loved them even as you have loved me.”

I hope that some brave Christian psychonaut explores this connection further.

Besides these things, there are many surprising, touching, and heart-rending passages in Sophrony’s book. It is not a popular book, but it is a powerful one. I highly recommend it to anyone interested in Christianity but jaded by the shallow conversation they hear in the mainstream churches. Sophrony’s Christianity is Christianity with some meat on it. It is challenging and deep, engaging the whole heart and mind, an infinite experience in pursuit of knowledge of fundamental reality.

Friday, July 6, 2018

Getting over relationship FOMO

When I was younger, I didn’t know what I wanted in relationship. To be honest, I was driven by FOMO. There was this fantasy world in my mind full of perfect sex, perfect relationships, and perfect women. It was impossible to commit to the merely good when the perfect might pop up at any moment. My fear of missing out became manifest in dabbling with open relationships.

But I discovered that FOMO was the cause of missing out on some of the very best features of relationship: intimacy, closeness, and stability. You only get to have those qualities if you can go all-in on loving someone, without keeping one eye on the lookout for better opportunities

At 35 years of age, I know what I want in relationship. I know that I want emotional intimacy and a partner in life. I want to play long-term games with long-term people. And I know I want to be a father. My father is one of the people I love most in the world, despite his flaws. I want to live up to his example and surpass it where I can.

I practice by being a cat-father and an uncle. I like to think I’m pretty good at it. It feels good to live into my loving and nurturing side.

I’m ready to say “enough!” to that infinite adolescence that is the signature lifestyle of urban post-modern capitalism, to exit from the FOMO-contest, and to build something that lasts. I'm ready to let other people travel more than me, have more sex than me, go to better parties than me, make more money than me, be more successful than me, and have better Instagram photos than me. Because those sacrifices leave space for the life that I *really* want.

When my relationship ended last year, it was terribly painful. But its dissolution was the mirror by which I was able to see myself, to learn what was most valuable, and to see the mistakes I was making that got in the way. There is no pain quite like the pain of becoming aware of your own flaws, and the certain knowledge that you are what held you back from getting what you most want. It is an absolute horror, a consuming flame. The self-knowledge feels like a treasure whose great value is in proportion to that terrible pain.

That hardest of experiences changed me for the better. I like myself more. I find myself more emotionally awake, both to the joy and the pain of existence. I cry easily. Having suffered, I care about the suffering of others. Suffering can function as a call to empathy. It was a kick in the pants to finally get involved in the volunteer work I had always wanted to do, providing emotional support to people in their darkest hours.

I am hoping to continue to grow, and I'm hoping to find ways to grow that aren't quite so traumatic. I am not the person I was a year ago. The world looks different to me. I'm seeing it through a lens made of different concepts and experiences. I'm grateful for it.

Thursday, April 5, 2018

The Death of Interchange: A conservative critique of Radical Gurus

0. Introduction

If you haven’t heard, the Interchange Counseling Institute has imploded in a slow motion version of the classic guru-sex scandal. Operations have ceased and the incoming class of 2017/2018 has been cancelled. This a common way that guru-dominated organizations come to an end. I suggest anyone involved in building an organization for personal development familiarize themselves with some of the historical examples.

For most students at Interchange, including myself, the Interchange experience was an intensely positive one. But flaws in the edifice were obvious. Many of us saw the end coming, though I was surprised by how quickly it came.

While there is plenty of individual blame to be placed, particularly on Steve the guru/founder, I claim that Interchange was *institutionally* flawed by design. It was not built to last. There are specific flaws in its moral outlook, its curriculum, and its organizational structure that made it particularly likely to end in a mess of sexual impropriety and emotional pain. I present three criticisms:

  1. By overthrowing social rules, revolutionary/progressive movements can devolve into monkey status competitions that benefit the powerful and harm the vulnerable
  2. Deconstruction is a dangerous technique prone to abuse, and wisdom must be used when teaching it
  3. The male guru-led organization is dangerous for reasons of evolutionary psychology

As a brief aside, the criticisms I present come from an evolutionary/conservative point of view, nearly the opposite viewpoint of Interchange and its founder. I believe a diversity of viewpoints in a group is vital for purposes of self-criticism, course correction, and group longevity. This point is widely under-appreciated and seldom acted upon.

1. By overthrowing social rules, revolutionary/progressive movements can devolve into monkey status competitions that benefit the powerful and harm the vulnerable

The Interchange organization wasn’t just offering a counseling training program. It also sought to build a community of radical praxis, liberated from the rules of society. This included social rules about sex.

A person with a revolutionary mind judges existing social rules to be oppressive. You might expect me to disagree with them, as I sometimes claim the “conservative” label for myself. But I actually think their criticisms are correct.

Social rules *are* oppressive. All social structures are an evolved, negotiated compromise developed over time between sets of conflicting interests. They prevent some people from getting what they want or getting what is best for them. In exchange, these limits on individual behavior hopefully enable a society to achieve some larger social good.

Wisdom lies in finding good trade-offs between individual oppression and social good. Existing social structures should be challenged. We are free, each generation, to renegotiate them to better serve us.

Though it is tempting for revolutionaries to move as close as possible to total sexual freedom, throwing out all the sexual rules is a foolish move to make. Without rules, human society devolves into monkey-status games where social power reigns.

This total freedom benefits the powerful, who still pursue their self-interest, but now without the the rules that might serve as a check on their behavior. The powerless often suffer under existing social rules, but they suffer more without the rules’ protection. In the new order, “The strong do what they can and the weak suffer what they must”. Modern revolutionists are aware of abstract power differences between groups in society, but they are seldom hip to the concrete reality of individual power differences within their community.

Rules prevent abuse by the powerful. They are necessary for the long-term thriving of the community, especially rules governing sexual conduct. I’m not saying that a group needs to follow society's rules, though I encourage you to consider that they may contain more wisdom than you expect. Rather each group should develop their own. The rules can and should be renegotiated, but slowly and conservatively, and never on a case-by-case basis or in the heat of the moment.

The few rules that Interchange had about sex were wise, such as a ban on first-year students having sex with other students. But the rules weren’t taken very seriously. And ultimately it was the behavior of the leadership, not the students, which needed to be more carefully regulated.

2. Deconstruction is a dangerous technique prone to abuse, and wisdom must be used when teaching it

Interchange teaches deconstruction as a therapeutic technique. Some teaching is dangerous because it is wrong, but deconstruction is dangerous because it is true. Our social rules and concepts *are* arbitrary. And they could be different. But while deconstruction frees us from our limiting beliefs, it also frees us from our limiting morality, and that can be a problem.

Deconstruction is prone to abuse and manipulation. It brings our focus onto the present moment, where future consequences of our actions are discounted. After all, the future is an abstract idea that doesn’t really exist. This is a great formula for talking people into sex that they will later regret.

It’s also dangerous for people in existing relationships. The guru teaches you how to “end jealousy permanently”, then convinces you that relationships don’t really exist, and then he sleeps with your wife. Maybe in the midst of the spell of deconstruction everybody is on board and nobody feels guilty. But in the aftermath, hurt feelings and resentments grow, and resentment is the poison that will destroy a community.

Deconstruction is not just a potent tool for manipulating others. It can be a dangerous tool for manipulating ourselves. Once internalized, deconstruction can be used to excuse any bad behavior and keep a clear conscience. What’s “bad behavior” mean, anyway? If there existed a guidebook for training oneself into becoming a sociopath, deconstruction would be a prominent technique within it.

Deconstruction requires wisdom to wield properly, a wisdom that Steve lacked and so could not teach.

I’m currently reading a lot by David Chapman, Robert Kegan, and Jordan Peterson, all of whom talk about the danger and promise inherent in deconstruction, either from a Buddhist or postmodern perspective. Chapman, summarizing Kegan, is a particularly important read.

Kegan sees deconstruction as acid dissolving and undermining the social rules of modernity. If used poorly, we sink back into monkey status games. If used wisely, we use our newfound freedom to mold the rules to better suit us. Building good societies in the presence of the knowledge of deconstruction is an unsolved problem [1]. According to Kegan, it’s the most important challenge of our times.

My best guess at a rule for using deconstruction wisely is "keep an eye on the long game". You can live perfectly well with either the belief that relationships do or don't "really" exist. But where do those beliefs lead you in 5, 10, or 20 years?

In some Buddhist monasteries they also teach dangerous-but-useful mental techniques, some of which are very similar to deconstruction. But these techniques are taught to students who follow a strict moral code in order to minimize the danger of teaching them. The students also have a close relationship with a mentor, who might decide that they are not ready for a particular set of practices.

3. The male guru-led organization is dangerous for reasons of evolutionary psychology

I leave this part for last because I am least confident in it. I haven’t read much on evolutionary psychology, and I’m working on concepts I’ve picked up second-hand from bloggers and friends.

Guru-led organizations are especially dangerous when they’re headed by men. As men get turned on by youth, clear skin and feminine body proportions, women are more attracted to men at the top of a status hierarchy. A man at the center of attention will find that he has far more sex appeal than he is used to. This is similar to what happens to successful rock stars.

But a guru is not a rock star, in that the guru has a responsibility to the spiritual growth of his students and his community. A guru that uses his position to maximize his sexual conquests is demonstrating short-sighted, adolescent behavior and he will likely fail to fulfill the trust placed in him by his students. Within a small amount of time, sleeping with students and sleeping with women in committed relationships causes the growth of resentment that blows up the community.

There is a second, darker power that the guru gains on top of the status hierarchy. Women he comes on to may feel pressured to say yes to his advances for fear of causing conflict or risking their status within the community. The power differential between guru and student has a coercive flavor, and it increases the odds that the student will acquiesce to sex that she will later regret.

Sexual dynamics between leaders and followers are especially dangerous in spiritual/personal growth organizations where the guru will have access to students in an emotionally vulnerable state, sometimes literally out of their minds. The founders of the Christian church recognized this risk 2,000 years ago, which is why they instituted conservative sexual norms for leaders. In the Bible we find the Apostle Paul exhorting early Christian church leaders to be sober, monogamous married men. This safeguard hasn't always worked, but it shows that organizations have struggled with this problem for a long time.

Sexual liberation + male leadership is a dangerous mix everywhere, and not just in spirituality. It’s the formula at the root of the tech VC sexual harassment scandals that hit the news lately. Being a successful leader requires sacrifice of some sexual freedom for the good of the group.

In addition to the dangers of male gurus and sex, the guru-led model is fragile because the health and reputation of the group depends on the personal morality of one imperfect individual. For any institution to outlive its founder, new leaders must be trained up and power must be shared with them. Sharing the limelight requires some humility and far-sightedness on the guru's part. Interchange did some of this, but it was still probably too guru-dominated to survive Steve's departure.

4. Conclusion 

I’ve said a lot of good things about Interchange over the years. I still mean them. Interchange permanently increased my EQ and lowered my anxiety around other people. And it made me a better counselor. These are powerful, life-altering results. I owe personal gratitude to everyone who built Interchange, especially Steve.

But I’ve also encouraged lots of people to join. I regret that I didn’t more loudly voice my discomfort with the program along with my praise of it. While I was confident in my own abilities to weather the shitty parts of Interchange, I should have recognized that as a man I was in much less danger than a woman would be.

I want to live in a world where people more deeply encounter each other, where we live with an awareness of our shared humanity, and where we let go of unnecessary fear. I want there to exist training programs where people can boost their social skills through practice. I want there to be safe spaces to learn how to navigate edgy, intense, and potentially dangerous emotions. Interchange was a unique example of this.

I hope the good parts of Interchange can be separated from the short-sightedness and immaturity that Steve brought to the program. The fact that rest of the leadership team was empowered and confident enough to speak up and put a stop to the program speaks well of them and of the training they received. I believe that Steve genuinely cared about empowering people and he was successful in doing so. In some other organizations suffering from sexual impropriety, the violations continued for decades.

As Steve was the student of earlier programs of study, I hope the students of Interchange bring the next evolution of human emotional development into the world.

[1] Kegan has a numbered system of 5 stages of identity formation where each is an improvement on the last. These can be applied to individuals or societies. In part, they go:

(3) unstructured -> (4) structured -> (5) flexibly structured

Deconstruction helps us get from (4) to (5). But if we haven't fully mastered stage 4, deconstruction can cause us to fall back to stage 3. It can be really hard to tell the difference between (3) and (5).

Saturday, March 31, 2018

Pro-Civilization and the New Right

I. Introduction

Political blogging is a dead genre. Its corpse is kept animated by ancient thirty-somethings left behind by a snapchat world. It’s fine whisky in an age of vodka and gatorade. 

Yet I have the stubborn impulse to keep alive this tradition of my people. I can’t help myself. Left idle, my hands start typing up new political ideologies. Blogspot.com: it’s a gen X thing.

The purpose of this post is to identify and define a new ideology: Pro-Civilization.  “Pro-Civilization” is an adjective I’ve been hearing lately in right-wing tech circles, and I find it evocative. Let’s uncork a bottle of #ProCiv, swirl it around the tongue, and see what impression it leaves. For me, it is one of the most intriguing vintages to come out of the modern Right. So I want to define it, examine it, and signal-boost it. 

By no means do I want to be on the hook for defending the whole of the political Right. Lord knows it has its share of bathtub swill. The question “why bother with the Right at all?” is a fair one. If you’re reading this, then you probably live in a place where the Right is not exactly the winning team. You aren’t going to win yourself any friends or social status by sticking around. Your local dominance hierarchy is best climbed by clicking the “x” button at the top of this browser tab. 

But if you’re the type of curious individual that just can’t help but poke around in dusty, overlooked corners seeking nuggets of insight, then stick around. 

Image result for whisky glass

II. What is it

Let’s start with a thousand foot overview. 

If the #ProCiv faction had a mission statement, it would be something like “create a great civilization that endures for a very long time”. It’s not defined by a set of policies or cultural practices, but rather it’s defined by a way of judging them. Each new innovation is asked the question: “does this increase the chances of our long-term thriving and survival?”. 

Pro-Civilization is characterized by a low time preference. It supports systematic and long-term thinking. It is downright bloodless compared to activist strands of Left and Right. It is also pragmatic; policy discussions are outcome-focused rather than morality-focused. 

I find political debate within ProCiv groups to be refreshing. Is immigration good or bad? Gun control? Abortion? Within a ProCiv group, one side of these questions may be more popular than another, but there is no moral stigma associated with arguing the less popular side. Debate proceeds by arguing that one policy is better suited than another for building and maintaining a good society over a long time horizon. Historical analogies are commonly employed as supporting evidence, and someone who is well-versed in a large range of historical periods and data sets gains social status. To be ProCiv leads to having interesting and brainy conversations ranging over the Byzantine Empire, Malthusian population models, superorganisms, science fiction, and evolutionary psychology.

This style of debate is in sharp contrast to that mainstream left and right-wing groups that have “Politically Correct” answers to every question - if you’re on the Left, then immigration is good, guns are bad, and abortion is good. If you’re on the Right, then your opinions are flipped. From what I have seen, there isn’t much debate. Moral feelings are the primary way that policy positions are solidified. To have the correct opinion is morally good, to argue for the unpopular opinion is to be morally suspect. Homogeneity is maintained through threat of punishment or ostracism. The rare appeals to evidence are one-sided - partisans seem unaware of evidence that would be offered to support the opposing point of view. 

The Pro-Civilization view fits in comfortably within Arnold Kling’s “Three Languages of Politics” model (there’s now a book). He argues that libertarians, the liberal/left, and the conservative/right often cannot understand each other in debates because they are using three different moral languages. For libertarians, the primary moral concern is about freedom vs. coercion. For the Left, it’s oppressors vs. the oppressed. And for the Right, it’s Civilization vs. Barbarism. ProCiv is an unapologetic and enthusiastic embrace of civilization as the primary moral concern of political systems. 

III. Details

Now that we have introduced this rare whisky, it’s time to get closer to examine its flavor and scent. Does it taste sweet on the tip of the tongue? Does it leave a hint of charcoal in the back? Is there an aroma of honey, gasoline, or some mix of both? 

(For the Jacob superfans out there, yes, this is the second time that I’ve used the whisky metaphor to describe a freshly minted political ideology. But it’s been nine years since the last time, so I’m giving myself permission to double-dip.) 

I should note that much of what follows comes from my own head. Some of it comes from conversations I have been part of or overheard. But what I’m describing is a tiny cultural trend. There is no ProCiv Institute with an official 20 point platform. I’ve had to use my own powers of extrapolation to fill in the gaps. 

The sets of policies and cultural attitudes favored by #ProCiv don’t fit neatly on the Left/Right American political spectrum. For example, it favors both large amounts of economic libertarianism (an American right-wing position) and environmentalism (an American left-wing position). Libertarian economics are needed because the wealth and power of a society largely come from productive market activities. In the long run a nation is either pro-market or prey for those who are. Environmentalism is needed both because destruction of the natural world threatens human civilization, and also because the natural world is part of humanity’s artistic and spiritual heritage. ProCiv is not interested in merely preserving human life for the long run, but also some amount of cultural continuity. 

Pro-Civilization has a complex attitude towards risk. It supports taking more finite short-term risks and putting more resources towards reducing long-term, unbounded risks. It’s a big proponent of projects that reduce existential risks to humanity, such as Elon Musk’s attempts to plant human civilization on Mars. A multiplanetary society is much more likely to survive than a single planet one. You can’t build a long-lasting civilization if you get sent back to the stone age or worse by getting unlucky on some existential risk. 

As for short-term risks, ProCiv takes a bolder approach than mainstream political movements. In democracies, lawmakers are incentivized to favor policies with short-run payouts and long-run costs, especially if they represent competitive districts. Voters are impatient for benefits and long-run costs seem fictional. Pro-Civilization has exactly the opposite bias. It prefers to pay costs in the present in order to reap future benefits. 

For example, ProCiv probably favors a daring approach to institutional reform. Institutions like governments, universities, and the health care system represent society’s collective intelligence. When they are operating well, society is effective, productive, and nimble in addressing crises. When they are operating poorly, they can suck up infinite money while producing less and less benefit, a process sometimes referred to as “institutional sclerosis”. There is good evidence that American institutions are quite sclerotic. Infrastructure is slow to build and expensive compared to the past. Education and medicine are skyrocketing in price while most of that extra money goes to hiring administrators and regulatory compliance. A ProCiv point of view advocates for paying the cost to make bold reforms now in exchange for upgrading our collective intelligence to manage the challenges of the coming decades. 

Culturally, Pro-Civilization favors getting married and having children, for two reasons. First, having children lowers an adult’s time preference and ties his plans to the world that continues after his death. Second, the well-raised children of the present, and especially the children of the current elite, are going to be the people responsible for navigating the ship of humanity along a precipice of destruction as our technology gets more and more powerful in the coming decades. The crises of the future will be decided by the well-prepared, competent humans we create now. 

Pro-Civilization is skeptical of romantic innovations that are justified by appeals to the pleasure and utility of the current generation of adults at the cost of family stability and child-rearing. It’s critical of the hedonistic infinite-adolescence of adult culture in many modern urban environments. It seconds Jordan Peterson in believing that the meaning in life comes not from the pleasures one enjoys, but from the responsibilities one carries. A 40-year-old should be doing something to contribute to the next generation, not bouncing from music festival to music festival. Doing both may be a fine option, as long as the responsibilities are prioritized first. 

To avoid writing more than my audience will be willing to read on pro-civilization tendencies, beliefs, and positions, I finish this section with a list of things that get the #ProCiv seal of approval:

  • The Hoover Dam
  • Chesterton’s Fence
  • Tokyo
  • Yosemite National Park
  • Meritocracy
  • Switzerland
  • Space elevators
  • Cathedrals
  • Ancient Hindu temples
  • Capitalism
  • Marriage and babies
  • Classical art and music
  • Oxford libraries
  • Dense urban cores
  • City skylines
  • The evolutionary mindset
  • The Long Now Foundation
  • Religion (especially old religions)
  • Philosophy (especially old philosophy)
  • Preparing for Black Swan events
  • Self-sufficiency
  • Transhumanism

Pro-Civilization aesthetics tend to be a mix of the new and the old. Its ideal is high civilization in harmony with nature, as if Chinese economic dynamism were mixed with Western environmental ideals. Perhaps Singapore does it best. The ProCiv vision is that 10,000 years from now, cyborg teenagers will be playing a Bach chamber music recital on a green school lawn on a terraformed planet in a nearby solar system. Or in a simulated uploaded colony ship. Or in whatever form human civilization will take. 

IV. Where it goes wrong

As a creature of the Right, pro-civilization suffers from the problems that right-wing ideologies have. I wrote about the generic Left-Right axis and the pros and cons of each side in this previous post

In short, the great problem of the Left is changing too fast and throwing out lots of traditions and institutions that work in pursuit of some imagined utopia. 

The great problem of the Right is changing too slowly, stagnating and failing to address changing conditions. Chesterton's fences crowd the landscape and you can't really drive anywhere. The Right procrastinates on overthrowing unnecessary oppression and is slow to adopt neutral or positive social changes. Whereas on the Left change is assumed to be good with little thought of the consequences, on the Right change can be rejected even when the expected value is positive. 

On the order-chaos spectrum, the failure of the Left is too much chaos and the failure of the Right is too much order. The Left might institute a terrible dystopia, but its philosophy of permanent revolution includes the seeds of its own undermining. The Right might make a terrible dystopia that really lasts. 

Personally, some of the people I know on the pro-civilization Right seem like real squares. I think they’d be more creative and productive if they allowed a little chaos into their lives. 

V. Relation to other things

I’m calling ProCiv an ideology of the political Right because that’s where it’s coming from currently. But as with all ideas that one favors, I hope it grows in popularity enough to transcend the eternal Left/Right hellmatch and thrive on both sides of the spectrum. It has enough deviance from the rest of the Right that it does not seem impossible for a Left faction to adopt it. In the past, when the foundations of the modern world were being laid, the Pro-Civilization mindset would have been on the progressive/left side of the spectrum. 

VI. Conclusion

I’m a political Taoist. I don’t hold any particular political position, but rather a meta-position that goes something like this: conflicting ideologies support different often-conflicting human values. Picking one over the other is a losing move. Rather, the right thing to do is to try to find the happy balance between them, allowing that balance to change in an ineffable dance with the circumstances of existence. 

So I’m not suggesting anybody adopt #ProCiv wholesale. But its variety of bloodless, long-term thinking is definitely of value. For me, it represents the best flavor of the Right. It’s the reason for not completely ignoring the Right half of the spectrum altogether. Let it be in balance with your other political values, and I think it will lead you to a better place.