The techniques you learn in this workshop can help you acquire the following Skills, among others:
- [Meditative] Core I
- [Meditative] Core II
- [Meditative] Self Alignment I
Review [5 minutes]
While people are still filtering into the workshop meeting, take five minutes to discuss the previous workshop and how you applied it in your life over the past week.
Meditation on Curiosity [45 minutes]
Something you'll hear if you hang around the rationalist community — or even the Guild — is that it's important to question one's beliefs. A noble norm, one that encourages a spirit of truthseeking. In fact, you might even go so far as to say that, as a rationalist, you are obligated to criticize yourself and question your beliefs... right?
As flawed minds running on flawed substrate, the obligation to investigate is handled differently from the desire to investigate. You can see echoes of this in the connotations each phrase conjures up. Obligation evokes thoughts of duty and resignation and doing what's expected. A desire, on the other hand, comes from within. You might reject it, or you might act on it, but it's not something you do because it's what others want.
An investigation carried out in a sense of duty is an investigation that wants to stop as quickly as it can. It is the detective who glances around a murder scene and, seeing nothing immediately, decides that there's no point looking further. In your mind, this manifests as stopping at the first explanation you encounter, accepting flimsy evidence as hard proof, or deciding that it's probably fine if you don't investigate at all.
Curiosity does not bother with such excuses. Curiosity is only satisfied when it has the answer — the full answer, with no missing gaps and no unexplained anomalies. As a result, curiosity is a far more useful motivating emotion than obligation. An investigation fueled by curiosity will go deeper, range further, and avoid many of the basic cognitive biases.
This pattern generalizes to more than just truthseeking. An intrinsic desire to achieve something is far more potent than an oppressive sense of duty.
Instructions [45 minutes]
Take turns going around the cohort. Complete each of the steps below for each person before going to the next one.
Choose a Goal
Choose a long-term goal that you have, or a habit that you're trying to form. Try to pick something that you're struggling with or haven't made much progress with, especially if you're not sure why things aren't working out.
State your goal to your cohort and spend the next two minutes explaining your goal and why you're pursuing it. Don't let your cohort interrupt you — this time is for you to set the stage and explain your thoughts.
Example. My goal is to write a 1 million word web serial epic. I don't expect to ever make any money from it, but the web serials of other authors changed my life and I want to do something similar. In particular, I feel like the world doesn't have enough stories with positive trans or plural representation, and I'm unusually well qualified to do something about that.
Despite this, I never seem to make much progress. I'm not really sure why. My writing skills have certainly improved, as have my worldbuilding, plotting, characterization, etc. And yet... somehow I find myself never working on the serial anymore, turning my attention to other things. When I do work on it, progress is at a snail's pace. Of the 1 million goal, I've written perhaps 7%.
While group discussion is not a panacea, it is often much easier for other people to notice anomalies in our thoughts than it is for us to do so.
As a group, discuss your goal. How accurate do the stated motivations seem? Consider the questions below as a starting point:
- Do you want the end result of the goal? (Example: Having written a serial.)
- Do you enjoy the process of working on the goal? (Example: The day-to-day drudgery of writing and editing.)
- Do you want to want the goal?
- Do you think it's good to want the goal?
Example. I do want the end result of having written a serial, but, while I enjoy the editing part of writing, I find the initial drafting stage extremely tedious and frustrating.
I don't particularly want to want to write a serial, nor do I think that it's an especially noble goal. Yes, some of my motivation derives from the idea of making the world a better place, but I don't think that makes me a good person or that everyone should write a serial.
Some of my motivation was built on the idea of recognition — even if it was only in my own small corner of the world, writing a serial epic would be a huge accomplishment. However, with the advent of LLMs such as ChatGPT, that's no longer true. By the time I finish the serial, it will be a meaningless achievement that anyone could do.
Consider Losing Hope
Not every goal is worth pursuing — and not due to their difficulty. Sometimes, we have goals that we no longer want, but we've invested so much in that it feels crazy to just stop. After all, that would mean giving up, and it would mean admitting that you had wasted all that time and energy.
Reflect on whether you truly want to continue pursuing your goal. Is the goal something you intrinsically want, or is it a zombified mental pattern that stubbornly refuses to die?
By the time you complete the previous step, the answer to this will probably be pretty clear. If it's not, talk it over with your cohort.
Example. Although I don't regret the time invested, I don't really want to pursue the serial writing anymore. Between LLMs destroying any hope of recognition and my dislike of the initial writing phase, my desire to write is at an all-time low.
The purpose of this step is not to necessarily abandon the goal. It's okay for cohort members to push each other a bit, but don't overdo it. Beware of other optimization.
Leave a Line of Retreat
If you decided you want to keep your goal — or if you're simply unwilling to admit defeat right now — then it's important to leave a line of retreat. With your cohort's help, reflect on what this goal has cost you already. What might it cost you in the future, assuming that things continue as they have?
How can you prevent those losses from snowballing? What criteria might you use to decide when it's time to give up and focus your attention on more worthwhile pursuits?
Even valuable goals can be expensive (in time, money, energy, etc). Your goal may be worth pursuing despite these costs, but if so, you should at least be aware of its true price. This will let you make your decisions with a clear head, instead of getting lost in the weeds.
Example. Writing has cost me countless hours, but even though I don't have a finished serial, I do have exemplary writing skills. These skills are useful and well worth the time I spent to learn them, even after the advent of LLMs.
Continuing the pursue the serial will likely consume at least another five hundred hours or so, if I see it through to its completion.
Break [5 minutes]
Take a five-minute break.
Something to Protect [30 minutes]
Having something to protect — a goal beyond mere "self improvement" — is amazingly useful at keeping you grounded and focused. Without this goal, it's all too easy to get lost in your own head, distracted, or to simply put off the next step in the plan forever.
Your goal doesn't have to be a literal "thing to protect". It also doesn't need to be something outside yourself — a selfish goal can still provide an anchoring focus. The important thing is that the goal feel essential. It should be something where failure feels unacceptable, where success is more important than preserving the web of lies you tell yourself.
Example. My first experience of the transformative power of something to protect was when I was trying to decide whether I was transgender or not. The thought of getting it wrong wasn't something I was willing to tolerate, and the need to know pushed me to use advanced rationality techniques for the first time in my life.
Your something to protect will likely be less dramatic and life-changing, but even a small goal can be a potent force in your quest.
Finding Something to Protect [30 minutes]
We model people — and ourselves — as a unified whole, but this is an illusion. Reality is much messier. Beneath the mask, people are made up of many smaller shards, each one pushing in a different direction.
One shard demands that you eat, another wants to talk to your friends, a third would rather be alone. These shards are the source of conflicting emotions and desires, as well as "akrasia". By understanding the shards that make up your mind, you can acquire a limited measure of control over them.
Chances are, you're a singlet — that is, you don't have another person in your head who you can talk to. That's okay.
Shards are much lower level than people. Think of them as distilled desires, a vector pushing endlessly in a single direction. A person is what you get when you bind together many different shards in a narrative web.
If this sounds abstract or confusing, don't worry about it too much. The important thing is that the shard framework applies to you whether you're one alter of a plural system or just a singlet alone in their head.
Knowing what your shards — your goals — are and how they interact allows you to tap into the burning need to know. It's that need that lets you sweep away the lies and half-truths we trap ourselves in. You will only look into the abyss when you have a clear reason to. Until then, the temptation to flinch and let the antimemetic thought slip away will be overwhelming.
Finding your shards is the first step towards being able to see clearly.
The part of you that is reading this sentence and thinks of themself as you is probably not your entirety. You may find that your mind contains shards that you would rather did not exist, or that advocate for things you do not endorse.
Do not try to destroy these shards. Shards cannot be killed. Attempting to do so will only drive them deeper, where they will manipulate your actions from the shadows. It's always better to be aware of your totality than to be ignorant of it — at least when you're aware, you can direct your darker shards into less harmful directions.
Take turns going around your cohort.
Reflect on your mind. What shards can you identify in yourself? This is a difficult exercise, and you will almost certainly not be able to completely finish it today (unless you've done this sort of thing before). However, with your cohort's help, you can probably get a decent start and identify at least a few of the more obvious shards.
Share your shards with your cohort, and work with them to help dig deeper. Shards can vary wildly in how complex their desires are — try to find at least three that are further towards the complex end.
Some questions to consider:
- What is the long-term trajectory of your actions?
- If you look at your past, what clusters of behavior emerge?
- How do you behave differently in different circumstances?
- What happens when you "lose control" of yourself?
- When you envision a perfect future, what do you see? What sort of desires are implicit in that future?
Example. Three of my core shards are:
- Safety: the desire to build an impenetrable fortress around myself
- Loyalty: the desire to find my people and stick with them
- Vengeance: the desire to hurt or destroy those who have harmed us, such that they can never do so again
Regroup in general and share anything interesting you learned with the other cohorts.