Unwitting cult leaders

An insight that I’d kind of already had, but which this interview with Michael Taft (relevant section starts at about 32 minutes) helped crystallize:

We tend to think of a “cult leader” as someone who intentionally sets out to create a cult. But most cult-like things probably don’t form like that. A lot of people feel a strong innate desire to be in a cult.

In the podcast, Taft suggests that it’s rooted in an infant’s need to attach to a caregiver, and to treat them as a fully dependable authority to fix all problems – a desire which doesn’t necessarily ever go fully away. Once someone becomes a teacher of some sort, even if they had absolutely no desire to create a cult, they will regardless attract people who want to be their cultists.

There are people who want to find a fully dependable authority figure to look up to, and are just looking for someone who feels like a good fit for the role. (I should note that I have definitely not been immune to feeling this yearning myself.) To avoid having cultists, “not intending to create a cult” isn’t enough; you have to actively fight against people’s tendency to idealize you, by doing things that force them to confront the fact that you are actually just a human.

I’m reminded of something I recall Eliezer Yudkowsky once saying: “if you tell your doting followers not to form a cult, they will go around saying ‘We Must Not Form A Cult, Great Leader Mundo Said So’.”

Once people do start pulling you towards a cult leader role, it’s going to feel very appealing. What it feels like from the inside is “all of these people like me and say that I’ve done a lot of good for them, so clearly I must be doing things right, and since they also listen to me, I can use my position to help them out even more”.

It’s not just that the cultists are getting “brainwashed” by their leader; it’s also that the leader is getting brainwashed by their cultists to take the role that they want the leader to take. Cults are said to use “love bombing” to attract new recruits, but in at least some cases, it probably also happens that the cult leader is getting love bombed by their followers.

And the temptation to take on that role is powerful not only because it feels nice personally, but also because it does allow you to use your power for good. One definition for a hypnotic trance that I’ve heard is that it’s a state in which a person’s critical faculty is bypassed, which allows the hypnotist to directly make changes in the mind of the person being hypnotized. And you can do a lot of good that way, such as by implanting suggestions that help people overcome their addictions or phobias.

Being someone’s cultist (in this sense) is kind of like them having you in a hypnotic trance. It is possible for to use that power in a way that’s beneficial, because the critical faculty that might normally reject or modulate the leader’s suggestions gets partially bypassed.

But that same power makes it extremely dangerous, since people are not going to think critically about what you say, and may take your words far more literally than you intended, when you didn’t think of adding the obvious-to-you caveats about how it shouldn’t be interpreted.

I’ve been feeling this myself. I’ve written various things that people like. And I’ve been having a definite sense of some of my social environment trying to tug me more towards a role as a teacher and as an authority, getting the sense that some people are idealizing me. (And again, yes, there have been several times when I’ve had the cult follower energy myself, too – both towards online writers and in some of my romantic relationships.)

I’m reminded here again of Valentine’s essay on the “Intelligent Social Web” and of how people tend to take the kinds of roles that their social environment recognizes and rewards… and how people try to tug others into the kinds of roles that they can recognize and know how to interact with, and the collective power of everyone doing this causes the social web as a whole to try to pull people into recognizable roles – including the role of “charismatic leader”.

Here we come back to Taft’s suggestion that many people have an instinctive desire to get someone into a role that they recognize as a “trustworthy caretaker” one, because the “child” role is one that feels very easy to play – just surrender your judgment to the other person and do everything the way (you think that) they want you to.

And I’m also reminded of siderea’s analysis of kingship in Watership Down, and of how Hazel never thought of himself as a leader originally in the novel, until the characters around him started treating him as one – and how that might not be as good of a deal as our society makes “kingship” sound like:

If you demonstrate a concern for the wellbeing of the people in your people, they will start seeing their wellbeing as your concern. Start taking responsibility for how things go in a group, and people will start seeing you as responsible for how things go in a group.

This, right here, is what causes many people to back away from Kingship. Which is their right, of course. It’s totally legitimate to look at that deal and say, “Oh, hell no.”

Our society tells us that being King is awesome and everyone – well, everyone normal – wants to be one. “Every body wants to rule the world.” No, actually, they don’t. My experience tells me that most people are very reluctant to step into the job of King, and this consequence of the role is a primary reason why.

I don’t know, but it strikes me at least plausible that prospective leaders themselves getting partially deluded about what it is that they are up for, is what enables them to actually step into the role rather than just saying “oh hell no”.

November 10-day virtual meditation retreat

So yesterday I finished a 10-day virtual meditation retreat taught by Tucker Peck and Upasaka Upali.

Several people have asked me what it was like, so here are some highlights.

First, a “virtual” retreat means that you spend 10 days doing pretty much nothing but meditation, and also don’t talk to anyone except the teachers, who hold daily lectures and once-every-two-days personal interviews over Zoom. Also, when you sit down to meditate, you are encouraged to do it in front of a camera, so that you can see everyone else who is meditating and they can also see you.

At times it was great, such as when I was mostly just doing concentration meditation and focusing on my breath, and then suddenly memories of playing XCOM: Enemy Unknown together with a friend came up and I just felt a strong sense of connectedness and loving-kindness towards her, even though I hadn’t even been doing loving-kindness practice.

At other times I was figuratively clawing my eyes out of boredom and a desire to just be back on social media and able to talk to people.

In retrospect, it feels odd that the boredom was sometimes so strong as to make it impossible to meditate, since if I hadn’t been bored I could simply have meditated, and I was bored because I couldn’t get the meditation to work… it now feels like what was actually going was some desire to be in control, and that clinging onto the desire to be on social media and check my messages was a way of asserting a sense of control. Or something like that. Something to look into, anyway. In any case, it was a good opportunity to investigate the nature of discomfort, and I got quite a bit of that done.

Things that felt like significant shifts, or at least interesting experiences:

* I went into the retreat with the thought of wanting to give The Mind Illuminated -style concentration meditation another try, since it had worked well for me before, but I had eventually ran into various roadblocks with it. Over the last few years, every now and then I have tried it for a bit, maybe gotten a bit of initial success, and then had it stop working again.

What I noticed this time was that following the breath felt hard because it would bring up unpleasant sensations in my belly – sensations which pretty much only pop up when I’m doing meditation, so have to be psychogenic. So this time I decided to investigate those sensations. Shifting my attention on them caused various kinds of material to come up (including the previously mentioned example of playing XCOM), which eventually led to…

* There was a moment when I heard a voice in my head saying “it is safe to feel loved”. I was a little surprised by that, since I had not thought of myself as someone who finds it unsafe to feel loved, but it felt significant.

* Afterwards there were lots of long-forgotten memories and experiences returning to mind; much of it had apparently been blocked either to keep negative memories out (which also had the effect of blocking positive memories), or because they were positive in the “I feel loved” sense, and that was experienced as unsafe.

Either way, lots of various happy, neutral, and unhappy memories coming up, with an emphasis on the happy ones. And it’s worth noting that the threshold for what my brain considered a “happy” memory was set ridiculously low. There were things like:

  • being picked up by my mom after school and feeling happy to be hanging out with her
  • that time when I was a kid and playing a Nintendo game that wasn’t even one of my favorites, it was kinda hard and I never got very far, but it was still kinda cool and neat even if not the very best
  • that time when I was reading Nintendo magazine and it had this four-page guide to a game which I didn’t even get to play until much later, but from reading the guide I got to *imagine* what it would feel like to play the game and it felt awesome
  • in my hometown there was a particular bus line that would take you from the center of the city to my home, and it departed from a particular stop at the central marketplace, and that one bus stop felt like “my” bus stop because it was the one that took me home and being able to go about town and then ride the bus home gave me a sense of independence and agency and now I just recalled that one bus stop and that memory made me happy

At one point there were so many of these that it became outright painful to feel that happy. Then suddenly some dark and unpleasant thoughts started coming up, which surprised me at first, since I hadn’t expected them to show up when I was feeling so good. But then I got it since

* I had had a bunch of weird uncomfortable thoughts and fantasies that seemed to have at their core a desire to feel loved, while simultaneously finding unsafe to feel loved, and then trying to satisfy the constraints of “feel loved but also do not feel loved” at the same time. At least, that would explain why they seemed to come up at that particular moment, then have the thought of “it’s safe to feel loved” somehow… penetrate through them… for the uncomfortable thoughts to then disappear. For now, at least.

* As I mentioned, we had 15-minute interviews with the teachers every two days. For most of the early part of the retreat, I would spend a lot of time thinking about what I wanted to say in the interviews, making detailed mental notes of what had happened in my meditation that I could report on, etc. Whenever this happened, it would always feel like I “fell out of mindfulness” – I identified so strongly with the experience of thinking about what to say that I couldn’t maintain any kind of mindful observer stance at the same time. Thinking about it just felt like something that “I” did – and I kept doing it to an annoyingly frequent extent. (This had also been true before the retreat – “thinking about what to say to people” is the kind of thing that has always caused a lot of identification.)

But over the course of this retreat, it felt like the “shape” of the mental subprocess doing this was starting to become more distinct – as if I could start carving out its boundaries, making it more visible against the backdrop of my mind. When I got it clear enough, I switched to an Internal Family Systems stance and asked it what it was trying to accomplish and why it felt it was so important. As a result, it started giving me lots of memories of times I hadn’t known what to say to people and that had felt like it’d had negative consequences.

I gradually worked on it over some days, eventually managing to drop the process so that it wasn’t as preoccupied with making such plans all the time. As a result, I went into my final interview without much that I’d have had prepared – and I think mostly managed to not embarrass myself anyway. After the interview, I reviewed the conversation, and concluded that I could have said a few things differently in order to make myself appear more impressive or cool, but overall it wasn’t a major difference and probably not worth all the energy that would have been spent on those “minor optimizations”.

Now it feels more that – for the first time in my life that I can recall – I can actually let that planning process work in the background while experiencing myself as separate from it, and for the most part it doesn’t feel the need to pre-plan so many things anyway. (This feels like it saves a lot of mental energy!)

The actual experience of speaking to people also feels different now. “I feel more present” is a boring cliché but also feels somewhat apt; I’m less focused on what I should say next and more aware of what I did just say. This includes being more aware of the “physical” details of my own voice, such as the cadence, volume, and how the individual phonemes and words… “hang together”, for lack of a better description.

The analogy that comes to mind is that previously, most of my focus was on processing the informational level of what I was saying or about to say. Now that I feel more relaxed about what the informational level should contain, there’s spare processing capacity to also pay attention to the “lower levels”, such as the physical properties of my voice.

* Besides TMI-style concentration meditation, my other practice on the retreat was some variety of “do nothing“-style meditation – which in my case felt more like “do anything“, as in “whatever my mind wants to do or think, I let it do or think”. It was this practice that felt most interrupted by the intention to think about what I was about to say, because it did not feel like I was letting my mind do what it wanted, rather I (as opposed to “my mind”) was actively deciding what to think.

There were a few enjoyable experiences where this kicked in pretty strongly. On a few times when I sat down to meditate, it felt like I wasn’t doing anything at all, and rather just letting all intentions to do anything relax and fall away on their own. Then I would become aware of some tensions or discomforts in the body… and it would start feeling like those tensions were also maintained by some kind of an intention, as if my mind was actively creating the tension/discomfort because it wanted to feel discomfort. Then my attention would be drawn closer to the tension, some psychological content would come up, it would either resolve or the timer I’d set for my sit would ring… and gradually the process would continue, until it would run into some obstacle that changed the nature of it.

* I felt like I would get brief glimpses of what you might call the ego – there was a sense of just doing nothing and letting the mind relax, and then a feeling of there still being something that was acting as an active doer, guiding how the meditation process should go or which intention to relax next or even just the fact that this was a process of relaxing intentions… as for on many occasions before, there would be small flashes of it, some of which would bring up some additional content or emotion, but never quite enough to see it clearly.

Overall, I feel pretty good and happy now, on the day after the retreat.

For now at least, that experience of “it’s safe to feel loved” seems to have rekindled something of a core state of love – that is, an experience of love which is not tied to being loved by any particular person, but rather feels like a happy comfortable background state which easily turns into warmth towards people who I think of or interact with. Similarly, some of those feelings of competence and agency that I found in the memories that I connected with, seem to be more naturally accessible now.

Some of Buddhist psychology suggests there are some basic discomforts that sit inside you, and which appear to be caused by external circumstances, when they’re actually internal processes that just happen to grab onto whatever happens to be available in the environment. So if you are feeling mistrustful and run into someone, your mind may grab onto whatever features that the other person has that seem like they could be used to justify the mistrust, and act as if that person had caused it. (This has some interesting parallels to predictive processing models of mind, which I have compared to Buddhist psychology before; you could think of this as there being a high-level prior for “I feel mistrustful”, with any incoming sense data being adjusted to fit.)

The NLP concept of core states seem like they act in a somewhat similar way, but for more wholesome experiences. So if you have a sense of agency or a sense of love as a core state, then the mind’s background assumption is that you are going to experience agency or love, and it will grab onto any opportunity in the internal or external environment – even the memory of a bus stop if it doesn’t find anything else – in order to do so. PJ Eby has suggested (and I previously made a similar suggestion in the context of the IFS concept of “self”) that experiencing those core states is the mind’s basic tendency, and that we only learn not to experience them because we find them unsafe:

… what CT [Core Transformation] calls “core states” are also accessible by simply not activating the parts of the brain that shut off those states. (e.g. by telling us we don’t deserve love)

So if, for example, we don’t see ourselves as worthless, then experiencing ourselves as “being” or love or okayness is a natural, automatic consequence. Thus I ended up pursing methods that let us switch off the negatives and deal directly with what CT and IFS represent as objecting parts, since these objections are the constraint on us accessing CT’s “core states” or IFS’s self-leadership and self-compassion.

Possibly some of those objections are now a little lessened again. At least, for today. :-)

Memory reconsolidation for self-affection

Last Thursday, I realized that none of the people who ever hurt me did it because there was anything fundamentally wrong with me.

I don’t mean that as in “realized intellectually”, I mean as in “realized emotionally so that in any shame-tinged memory that I could think of, the other person decomposed to their inner pain and what they did to me in reaction to that pain and then it became apparent that it wasn’t really about me”.

The way this happened, I had been doing a lot of meditation / parts work and came to an early experience where I thought someone didn’t care about how he made me feel. Then that got juxtaposed with later memories of how he obviously did care and OH at that moment he just didn’t realize how I felt.

Then later I ended up at the memory an unrelated incident where a close friend said something that hurt and then I realized that wait, her words had nothing to do with anything that I’d said in the first place, she was obviously just projecting an unrelated trauma on me.

And then when I saw see her inner pain and words come apart, something clicked and suddenly I could see everyone’s inner pain and words come apart and then that generalized to everything and all kinds of memories started coming up to get reinterpreted.

The process was significantly aided by seeing Nick Cammarata post the following on Twitter:

… unconditional self love is about editing every single memory you have one by one going as far back as you remember to have affection as the principal component. Once you’ve done this, integrating affection into every moment of life going forward becomes effortless. After all, your brain thinks it’s already been doing that for every moment of its life. Why stop now?

It feels like being able to project compassion towards the me in the memories is an important part of the process: first I remember a shameful memory, then I project compassion at the me in the memory, then that kind of shifts into a third-person perspective where it becomes apparent what happened and I can kind of see people’s motivations in my mind’s eye.

And for that, having spent time with children seems to help. There’s a memory that comes up of me as a child or young adult, where it feels like I’m fundamentally bad. And then I kind of ask myself, if this was [some kid that I know and have spent time playing with], would I think of them as fundamentally bad for having screwed this up? Well of course not, I’d just want to comfort them and tell them that it’s alright and they’ll do better next time. And then I just apply that same feeling of affection and compassion towards myself in the memory. And if I’m older and no longer a child in the memory, then I can just think of some adult I care about and don’t feel judgmental towards.

Right now it feels like this particular move – of going into that space where I can see everyone’s motivations in that way, and forgive myself of past shame – isn’t automatic, but neither was it just a one-time thing. I got back to it this morning and worked on some further memories. It requires me to find the original incident that gave rise to the shame, which I haven’t yet managed to do with every variety of shame that I have. But on the flipside, once I started doing this, several incidents that I had previously totally forgotten about came up for reprocessing spontaneously.

I think there’s something really powerful in that “go through all of your memories until you can feel love and affection towards yourself in every single memory” frame. I had previously been doing memory reconsolidation on the model of “seek past sources of trauma and do what you can to heal the trauma”, but the mindset of “change the emotional framing of your memories so that you are no longer traumatized” doesn’t go anywhere near as far as “change the emotional framing of your memories so as to feel unconditional affection towards yourself at all times”.

Things are allowed to be good and bad at the same time

I’ve found it useful to sometimes remind myself that things are allowed to be good and bad at the same time.

Suppose that there was a particular job that I wanted but didn’t get. Afterwards, I find myself thinking:

“Damnit, some of the stuff in that job would have been so cool.”
“But the commute would have killed me, it wouldn’t have been a good fit for me anyway.”
“But some of that stuff would have been so cool!”
“Still, the commute would have killed me.”
“Yeah but…”

It’s as if my mind is trying to decide whether I should be upset at not getting the job, or happy at having dodged a bullet.

And if I pay close attention to what’s happening in my head, I might notice something.

It’s as if my mind is acting in such a way that only one of these options might be true:

Either some of the stuff in the job would been really cool, or the commute would have killed me. When one consideration is brought up, it’s as if it “cancels” the other.

Now if I were trying to decide whether I want the job or not, then this might make some sense: either the work is cool enough to overwhelm the badness of the commute, or the commute is bad enough to overwhelm the coolness.

But I already know that I didn’t get the job, so I don’t need to make a binary decision. And even if I did need to make a binary decision, realistically it’s not that one of the considerations makes the other completely irrelevant. My mind is trying to persuade me that the job is either all good or all bad, and neither of those assumptions is likely to be a healthy basis for a decision.

So there’s a thing where I… let my mind accept that both the good and the bad can be true at the same time, and that that’s all there is to say about it.

Yes, that stuff would have been really cool. And yes, the commute would have killed me. And there doesn’t need to be an “overall goodness” of the job that would be anything else than just the combination of those two facts.

This can feel a bit like there’s an electrifying zap in my mind, the two facts merging together into an overall judgment, and then there’s nothing more to consider. It doesn’t exactly feel good, the way it would have if I’d concluded that I never should have wanted the job anyway. But it also doesn’t feel bad, the way it would if I’d concluded that I actually really would have wanted it.

It just is what it is: a job that would’ve had some really cool aspects, where the commute would have killed me.

And then there’s so obviously nothing else to say about it, and I can move on.

Other uses of the principle:

My friend Marras describes finding relief from chronic pain through a similar dual acceptance: “Yes, my shoulder is in pain. Other parts are not. I can enjoy the other parts while I suffer from the small but upsetting bad aspect. I don’t need to argue for or against either.”

Anders Sandberg notes that this is also a good way for thinking about the state of the world in general: “a lot of things are going really well and a lot of other things are going badly.”