My experience with depersonalization/derealization

(This is a report, wrote today about what happened to me about 10 min. ago)

My sleep was terrible last night. I slept 3 hours then woke up and stayed up for 5:30 hours then got 3 more.

I then went out of the house.

I noticed that life felt way different: like everything had moved and I had stayed the same, like life was moving through me. Like the whole world went to bed and woke up and I’m just here having been awake all the time, there is no disconnection to yesterday. Everyday that I walk down the stairs of my building it feels different it feels like a new day but this felt the same. Like being on ground hog day.

Also I felt that I was gonna get found out. I could feel my facial expression. I was like an alien who had just took a body and was afraid of being found out. It’s not that my movement control was worse. Just that I was paranoid, afraid of being outed of *something*.

People were definitely picking up on this, staring a moment too long and turning their heads in a way they thought I didn’t notice in cafes.

Everyone felt like they were part of a movie, my movie. Sure they move and talk but they are just background figures to my movie, like trees, lifeless, except they aren’t still. Everything in my vision was just this huge mass. Not how I usually experience the world: I am a person in the world and these are other persons in the world. Now it was more like this is my life, and my life is a movie and you are all characters, no, props.

My speech was slurred as well. I knew what I wanted but I took a moment too long to say it, both because life felt so different and because I was trying to attend to the differences.

I have experienced this sense before, feeling not-like-myself, like this-isn’t-real-life. That is how it felt like. Like this is just a game and everything else is background and NPCs, like they aren’t real. Not that I am either, there is no *I* in the strong sense that there usually is always an  I. There is just stuff happening in my fields of vision mostly, and my field of awareness more broadly.

(Other phenomenological observations:

  • Usually it feels that decisions *happen* to me, but that I am the agent that is carrying them out. I feel responsible for the things I’m engaged in doing. Right now I feel like I make the decisions explicitly (which is strange, I usually get an urge to drink water I don’t feel like I *decide* to get a cup of water) but that them being carried out is done not by me but for me in an automatic-pilot sort of way.
  • My thinking feels different. Usually it is easy to be aware of what is happening. This is not the case now: I have to strain. Further (I usually think in words) for the most part I’m either getting fully-formed senses in my head or getting a sense that some thinking is being done in the background. Right now I am carving sentences and when I’m not doing that it feels like there is nothing happening, like there is only emptiness inside)

(This state is hella weird I attribute my ability to report it to having experienced one, in a much stronger way, and it going away just by sleeping)

(See this post by Mark for more on depersonalization/derealization and interventions surrounding it)

On Additive Meditation

In this essay I start by detailing my experience with additive meditation. I then connect it to a theory of emotionality that makes sense of my experience.

 

My Experience with Additive Meditation

About a month ago I unblocked the ability of playing around with meditation levers. For some reason – which I don’t fully grasp yet – I was blocked on even considering doing anything but mindfulness meditation. I am not anymore, and so it is time to push the new found levers.

I started with additive meditation last weekend. I sat and did my own thing: cleared up a space, and increased my feelings of warmth, of safety, of being held, of being loved, of being cared for over 10 minutes. As I did it I felt warmer and warmer and started to spontaneously smile.

My flatmate came in and we chatted for a bit. He was visibly enraged and I failed to get enraged. I wanted to, I wanted to sympathise, but I just couldn’t access that even though the situation described would usually make me enraged.

The next morning I talked to my flatmate again and had a very Focusing-like conversation. I felt brilliantly, acting as the resonator board my flatmate needed, and he at least made inner progress with the issues he was dealing with.

I went out of the house and went to the city center with a book. I read, and observed, and listened to street bands, and admired street dancers and interacted with people. People were notably more cheerful interacting with me. Reading was difficult because every single sentence would spring dozens of ideas. Observation was more acute: as if my field of vision was larger and more precise. I could take more pleasure out of listening and observing the street artists. This effect gradually disappeared as the day went by, having lasted for a (presumed) total of 36 hours.

It was extraordinary – one of the best days of my life in terms of how it was experience, despite their being no clear outer reason for that – , and thus I had to comprehend it.

Intellectual apprehending the experience

The Broaden-and-build theory of positive emotionality

The broaden-and-build theory of positive emotionality maintains that emotions trigger self-perpetuating cycles. For example, positive emotions lead to the building of resources, which leads to an increase in overall well-being, which leads to more positive emotions, which leads to higher resilience, which leads to increased well-being and so on. Thus, positive emotions lead to a broadening of outlook that leads to a building of resources.

In the same way you can get int downward spirals: spirals of negative emotionality which are pretty much the opposite of the one described above.

Says the author: “The varied good outcomes empirically linked with positive affect support the broaden-and-build theory, which asserts that positive emotions are evolved psychological adaptations that increased human ancestors’ odds of survival and reproduction (Fredrickson, 1998). The theory holds that unlike negative emotions, which narrow people’s behavioral urges toward specific actions that were life-preserving for human ancestors (e.g., fight, flight), positive emotions widen the array of thoughts and actions called forth (e.g., play, explore), facilitating generativity and behavioral flexibility. Laboratory experiments support these claims, showing that relative to neutral states, induced negative emotions narrow people’s momentary thought–action repertoires, whereas induced positive emotions broaden these same repertoires (Fredrickson & Branigan, 2005).”

The theory explains why I was more aware and precise, and why I had so many ideas: the broadened outlook that the positive emotionality gave me allowed me to shift attentions away from the here-and-now threats.

The theory also claims that you can have multiple spirals going on at the same time (that is multiple concurrent self-perpetuating systems acting in different directions) and that upward spirals counter downward spirals.

This general theory, of course, has added use in making sense of success spirals and the growth mindset as special cases of positive emotionality reinforcing itself.

(I am told that videogames have long discovered these spirals and call them “streak”s or “combo”s)

 

Conclusion

I am all for a varied emotional repertoire and adequate emotional responses. I hear the criticism of positive psychology for making one stuck in and fetishising a particular shade of emotionality. I am all for being fluid and recalibrating and dynamic equilibrium. And yet I think there is space, a lot of inner space, and if you can add positive emotionality there, all the better.

And if we take assume the broaden-and-build theory, then the use of additive meditation become clear. It works as a bootstrap into a positivity spiral, a reinforcer of ongoing positivity spirals – with all the benefits that brings: resources, wellbeing, resilience.

For some (like me?) who are by nature defaulting to the stress of the here-and-now focus additive meditation is very promising. Go try it.

My experience with Impro[v] (the book and the activity)

Back to the personal posts. It has recently come to my attention that historically I need to and excel at apprehending things in an intellectual fashion. (Part of the reason that I really value new concepts, they quite literally let me see more.)

In this essay I describe my recent experiences with improvisational theatre. The first, reading the book Impro, of which a review follows. The second, taking an Improv class,  of which a review follows. (The third, the intellectual apprehension is this essay.) Enjoy.

 

Impro review

Multiple authors I enjoy have praised Impro over the years. Also, two close friends who are enormously different recommended it. So after 2 years my brain decided to pay attention and I read it.

It wasn’t  mind blowing, which I expected from seeing various reviews over the years. In retrospect this seems an instance of the Seinfeld is unfunny effect: it is 40 years old, authors I like have read it a long time ago and so it has diffused through the worldview they espouse.

The book is divided into 5 parts: Notes on myself, Status, Spontaneity, Narrative Skills, and Masks and Trace.

The chapter on status was very, very rewarding although it hasn’t shaped my mind totally. (This is due to me having studied PUA analysis in the past and thus having some understanding of how to convey high status and what low status looks likes.)

Having said that , the book led me to *spontaneously* analyse interactions in status transactions terms a few times already. I would mentally translate every action into a status move. Including my own. This is incredible because I was blind to status moves I did in a non-purposeful fashion. Just for this the book is worth reading.

The chapter on Spontaneity was pretty good and all of it resonates at a very deep level.

Some meditation, a lot of therapy and introspection have led to various experiences of spontaneity that I identified. It has also led to dealing with “demons” of the obscene, psychotic, and religious tendencies, and after those have had their turn to show the vulnerable children. Yes, yes, yes, and yes, all that made perfect internal sense; even if Johnstone is describing it from the perspective of Improv and Theatre (None of which I had ever done then.).

The chapter on narrative skills was pretty great. He aims to explain that it seems that humans have some sort of story mechanism and you can take advantage of this to create stories. Things like reincorporation (reintegrating a piece, or closing an open end) activate the story mechanism. He also had several writing prompts. I tried one of them  and ended up with a short story I’m quite happy with.

I’m midway through trance masks and I got a much better understanding when I saw the videos. I assumed the masks were of the african tribal mask sort, but instead they are of the exaggerations of *human* faces sort. Keith uses the mask plus a mirror plus a person willing to take social responsibility to induce altered states of consciousness.

 

Screen Shot 2015-02-13 at 14.57.24

 

Fig 1. No and yes, respectively.

 

Having dabbled in those, and having once looked at a mirror to see a demon, or a goat (in a dream) I totally feel how powerful the experience can be and how it can create trance states.

(See this for a video of how trance masks work)

Overall the book is excellent, in addition to the content, Keith has a splendid author voice. (Which makes me empowered to treat him on a first name basis.) The book has a *treasurable* characteristic – it is by an expert that throws observations at you, not theory. If it is the case that you have little to no knowledge on the area (as it was for me) you can connect to the observations by linking them to your experience, and by the end you used your experiences as a scaffold to build out your map in an area you had nothing. This is very, very rewarding. I suspect this is why many people enjoy the book.

(Although there might be other reasons. The book also prompted me to try out the exercises, to think about what it said and attempt to link it for inordinate amounts of time and to go on youtube and search for videos. Some books just prompt me to “read one word after the other until I read them all”. This might be due to the style of writing. Unclear, don’t know enough about writing, but it seems reasonable that different styles imprint different states that lead to different action likelihoods.)

 

Improv review

The book pumped me up (raised my Emotional Energy) enough to actually take a workshop. This was 2 days, 3 hours each over a weekend. One of the best decisions I ever made.

The professor guiding the seminar was excellent. He was what Johnstone refers as a status specialist – he could raise and lower his (and others) statuses at will. If he wanted to say something he would slightly alter his posture and look down on everyone and the room would fall silent. If he wanted everyone to relax he would laugh too much, and become goofy and everyone relaxed and started interacting instead of standing still paying attention. This is tough to describe but the effect was very vivid.

Further, it was rare for him to talk. He seemed to be focused on praxis on doing over talking, over logos. And so he wouldn’t. He would do and you would have to understand from trial and error. He would set up the group in an ellipse and do a movement and a sound. And you copied it and tried variations, and if those were legal he would let you stay in the ellipse, and if not you would be sent out.

One of the games was Zip-Zap-Boing. In this game you either say Zip and turn and point right or let, say Zap and turn and point to anyone but the people on your right or left, or you jump and say Boing to whomever sent you a Zip or Zap to send it back.

In the beginning people were upset when they lost and so they would loudly moan. But this “stole the energy off the stage” and so they stopped doing it over time, and what happened was brilliant: you could see a logic developing in the game, a tempo, a symphony of Zip-Zip-Zap-Zip-Zip-Zap that would be broken with a Boing and someone would exit. But the break would be correct, if you were seeing it from the outside it made sense from the overall picture, if not to the person that was surprised by it.

There are two very cool things about this game:

  1. You never win. There is no end. You just keep playing, and getting better, better reactions, better tempo, better symphonies, but no end. It is an infinite game.
  2. You must be empty. If you are thinking about you are going to do, then you will flinch too soon or too late and you will lose and exit the ellipse.

This second point is precisely what spontaneity is about. It reminded me of Wu Wei, which I have felt a few times. It’s not flow, or inner freedom, but a sense that things happen and things get done by you, but not that you are doing things. I can imagine that if a group keeps playing this game, then a shared ritual consciousness emerges.

Another game was the predator. One person is a predator, and they have to touch the others. If you get touched, you die. But just before getting touched you can yell out someone’s name. If you do, then that person becomes the predator. What ended up happening is that in the frenzy of running away people would call out people that were dead already, multiple people would be called, and so on. And then the game was interrupted and you were asked what was wrong. It was seldom the case that someone knew, although over time our awareness got better.

And awareness was another thing distinguishing the professor. He would know what you were doing even if he had his back turned to you. This was very freaky in the first hour and then it became OK.

Back to his approach. At some points he would talk. After we had done the praxis, then he would explain it referring technical terms from Aristotle Poetics, or scenes from the Illiad and Odyssey. So he would force you to understand by trial-and-error and then explain it with drama theory. It was brilliant.

A third game was the gibberish game. At some point he started talking german sounding words to me and I replied back in german. They weren’t words it was gibberish. And so I replied in gibberish. And it made sense. From the context, the body language, the cadence, the repetition of words – it started making sense, you knew what was meant.

This game was used to do a improv scene at the end of the second day. The setup was two best friends meeting after not having seen each other for 10 years, discovering they were living in the same city, and then discovering they were fanatical extremists of opposite sides of a cause.

It was overwhelming. Literally. There was a point of quiet recognition, two points of extreme happiness, an uncomfortable tension, and then a realization. After the realization there was a fight, and at some point I made a closed fist. My improv partner started crying out of anger and I couldn’t handle it. I had to exit to the backstage where I was shaking for 1 or 2 full minutes. Still unsure of what happened.

A highly recommended experience, if you can, go and do an improv workshop.

 

Transformative practices and isolation

“How to get people in meditation?” Mark answers at 3:04: “The long game is sorta of… just to be like… so like fucking awesome and clearly so much fun and having such a great life… I think the best motivators are just sort of become one of the shiny happy people, become ridiculous successful so that people do whatever you do.”

I think meditation is awesome and totally incredible in a million ways. Same with therapy.

I have managed to get exactly 0 people into meditation and about 6 into therapy.

Mark’s answer is about letting them come, letting them see how much insanely better life can be, and reason themselves into doing what is unblocking that. Foot-in-the-door, over door-in-the-face.

I *fear* that this approach might fail. I hold this fear for 3 reasons:

  1. I don’t believe you can shift the position of many people through reason.
  2. Both of these proposals lead to a better life in expectation
  3. 2nd and further order effects

With regards to the first one, part of the blog is arguing for that, and I touched on it here.

The second is that at any particular point in time, and for any particular person they might actually get worse, or be going through a valley in search of the next local optimum, and thus it is not clear to the outsiders how this is not worse. (Related: dark night.)

To talk about the third one I want to cite a study from memory, with the promise I’ll find the original source later. The study had three people watching a movie at the same time, and alone. Two watched a shitty movie, one watched a good movie. Afterwards they got to sit around a coffee table and talk. Then they had their happiness measured. Take a moment to guess the outcomes and why.

The people that saw the shitty movie were happier – presumably because they could connect over the shitty movie. People bond over negative experiences. This explains a bunch of social practices. (Like hazing, which Cialdini to my recall in Influence said was only about commitment and consistency effects, I think this is what is going on.)

It is hard to take 2nd and further-order effects into account and not just quit. Being healthy for example. A noble enough goal: eat healthy, exercise. And so you figure out a healthy diet and exercise and focus on those and keep trying to keep on the mark.

And one year goes by and you realize that eating healthy is almost impossible because no one even know what that is and that focusing too much on it and on exercise damaged your social support network which happens to have an even bigger effect on your health. And you played by the rules and did the best you could and feel cheated on and torn and angry and rebellious.

It is not clear to me that just engaging in these practices – whilst everything around stays the same – ends up to be that beneficial in the long run. Part of it – for me – has to do with loneliness and connection.

Loneliness and Connection

I have, in the past, used two metaphors before to explain how the “bad side” of therapy and meditation (and a bunch more things) feels like: one is that I feel like I’m climbing a mountain and I have to climb and that the worst thing in the world is to one day be on my death bed and be thinking about how I could’ve climbed further and didn’t. The problem is that as I climb there are less and less fellow climbers.

The second one is through venn diagrams. The more I climb, the more circles delimit my area, the lonelier it gets. And I don’t want to be lonely, and showing only one part of myself at a time. I want to show all, at all times, and to have it belong and connect and to connect through it and to touch and feel touched in all the facets sequentially and in parallel.

I suspect that the partial emphasis I’ve had thus far on bridging communities and discourses and communicating is an attempt to work through this dialectic.

And I really care about all this, like, really care about it – it cuts to the bone. And I have no solution and no way to negotiate between these drives yet and it hurts. Like an impossible trade-off. How do you choose between your two children?