“It’s Okay”, Instructions, Focusing, Experiencing and Frames

Epistemic Status: Interpreting someone else’s work will always be speculative

Valentine has described his experience of a Kenshō (or moment of understanding) from which he took away a lesson that could roughly be summarised by “It’s okay”. I’ve read that post and the follow up comments far many times as there were elements of it that I struggled to understand. Kaj Sotala has already written a quite good explication, but I still feel there is more to explore there. If you have time, I strongly recommend reading Valentine’s post first, even though you might be able to understand it quicker by just reading this post. I think there’s value in grappling with confusion as you’ll learn more about how to deal with confusion in the future.

Valentine describes his insight more fully as:

“I’m okay. You’re okay. Everything is fundamentally okay. Whatever happens, it will be fine and good. Even our worry and pain is okay. There is something deeply sad about someone dying… and their death is okay. Obliteration of humanity would be tragic, but the universe will go on, and it’s okay.”

He then highlights two possible misunderstandings:

1) Some thought I was saying that nothing matters and that all outcomes are equally good.

2) Some thought I was claiming that you’ll feel good no matter what if you’re enlightened.

Both these misunderstandings were propositional claims, but Valentine clarifies that he meant this as an instruction for practise. He instructs:

The world is real in your immediate experience before you think about it. Set aside your interpretations and just look.

However, even having said all these words, he still worries that “people’s thinking systems can grab statements like this and try to interpret them”. He states that we have misunderstood if we simply understand him to be saying that the map is not the territory; ie. that our mental model of the world doesn’t necessarily directly respond to reality. He also clarifies that it isn’t the same as Seeing with Fresh Eyes, which is thinking through an idea as though you are hearing it for the first time, without any assumptions that you’ve attached to it along the way.

Valentine repeatedly worries that people will misunderstand him by taking what he is saying and squeezing it into the closest conceptual bucket that they have (this corresponds to his refrain: “you are still looking at your phone”). Since they will now believe they understand his point, it’ll be much harder to explain the concept to them.

Instructions vs. Epistemic Claims

There’s quite a few challenges with understanding Valentine’s post. Valentine a) doesn’t clarify that he is talking about an instruction rather than a propositional belief until late in the piece b) doesn’t provide an example of an instruction c) uses an analogy where someone provides an instruction and it is misunderstood as another instruction. To avoid falling into these traps, we’ll begin by talking about instructions, making sure that we provide an example and our example will also exhibit a better analogy.

We’ll start with an example that is so simple that it is almost boring, telling someone to “be confident”. If we really tried we could misinterpret that as an epistemic statement telling someone that their level of confidence is too low given their level of ability. But of course, we aren’t telling someone what to believe, but what to do. Maybe their level of confidence is properly calibrated with their level of ability, so that increasing their confidence would make them miscalibrated, but it might be good advice to tell them to be confident anyway. This might help them achieve the right mental state for optimal performance.

Another way to misinterpret this would be to take it as a claim that they’d perform better if they were confident. This is implied, but “be confident” is a command, not a mere statement of fact. It’s one thing to think that confidence would make you perform better and quite another to actually have this confidence. It would also be a mistake to take it as a command to just think a proposition like, “It would be correct for me to be more confident” or “I would perform better if I have more confidence” really, really hard. Merely thinking these thoughts won’t necessarily bring along any additional confidence. This seems to be the same kind of mistake Valentine identifies when he explains that he doesn’t mean things are neither good nor bad.

Focusing vs Forcing

Hopefully, it should be clear by now what it means for “Be Confident” or “It’s Okay” to be instructions, even if they are seen as too vague to be useful. The former is discussed more in the appendix, but for the later, we are fortunate in that Valentine provides more detail:

The world is real in your immediate experience before you think about it. Set aside your interpretations and just look.

The clear implication is that if we just look, we’ll see that “It’s okay”, but not in a propositional sense. We’ll get to that in a minute. But first notice, that he hasn’t said that your interpretations of the world are wrong and that they should be discarded, just that we should put them to the side for the moment and pay attention to what the world looks like without them. I suspect this is a key part why his phone analogy involves trying to explain how to “Look Up”.

It’s very common for optimists to suggest that we focus on the positives. Some people may interpret this to mean intentionally biasing ourselves to believe that good thing happen and althogh this may occur as a result, I wouldn’t say that’s what’s being suggested at all. Instead, we’re just been told that the more time we think about the positive aspects of a situation, the more happiness we’ll experience and the more time we focus on the negative aspects, the more sadness we’ll experience.

Of course, there are complexities here. Merely repeating, “Everything is Awesome, Everything is Cool” again and again won’t make you any happier. You need to actually focus on things that make you feel good and avoid focusing on things that make you feel bad and thoughts that are nominally good may make you feel bad if you know they aren’t true. The strategy isn’t to try force yourself to think positive thoughts, but rather to just pay attention to the positives that come naturally to you.

When Valentine talks about setting aside interpretations, I assume he is referring to the medative practise of non-judgement. It’s a shame that he didn’t mention it explicitly, as mentioning judgements would have turned our attention more toward interpretations of value. The technique of setting aside interpretations or judgements is also a shift in focus, but less likely to bias us than positive thinking. Instead of focusing on interpretations, we focus on the raw sensations and often realise that suffering which we thought was a result of the sensations was a result of our interpretations. Again, we aren’t forcing ourselves to think that everything is equally good, but rather shifting our thoughts away from the judgements.

I should clarify that I don’t mean that judgements are necessarily bad. On the contrary, they often provide useful information, but once we are aware of this information, spending more time focusing on them often just hurts us.

Experiencing vs. Spotting

Let’s examine this instruction further:

The world is real in your immediate experience before you think about it. Set aside your interpretations and just look.

Part of what is confusing is that we haven’t been told what to look for, which suggests that it must be something hard to describe.

Suppose someone tells you to look at a tree. You ask why, but they just tell you to look. Maybe eventually after a while you see a brown snake that is camoflaged due to its color. We will call this spotting.

Suppose instead you look at the tree, as as far as you can tell, it looks normal. You can’t see any snakes, or carved messages, or hidden jaguars or anything else unusual. Eventually you give up on finding it and just look at the tree as a whole. You notice that the tree is creepy, but you didn’t notice it because you thought you were looking for a thing, not a feeling or experience. If you’d seen a picture of a tree in an art gallery instead, you would have noticed it, since it is generally understood that paintings are in galleries to trigger emotions.

Bringing it back, it is easy to assume that we need to spot some thing or combination in what is immediately accessible that we haven’t notcied before, when what we actually need to do is undergo the experience of focusing on what is immediately present and compare it to the experience of focusing on our judgements. If my interpretations is correct, then the reason why Valentine can’t describe what to Look for is that what is important isn’t what we are Looking at, but the experience of Looking itself.

Frames vs. Frameworks

One reason why Valentine might have found this hard to explain was that he was thinking of explaining it terms of Fake Frameworks (hacky epistemic models) rather than Frames (a much broader concept covering differences in thinking, seeing, feeling, intuiting or communicating.

If he had said it was a Fake Framework, people might have assumed that he was making an epistemic proposition. On the other hand, “It’s Okay” and Being Confident seems to be way of existing in the world. You go for a job interview and you know you aren’t as qualified as you’d like for the position, but you don’t get caught worrying about it and just focus on doing the best you can. Or your girlfriend breaks up with you, but at the moment you just need to make dinner, so you focus on that. It’s still the case that you probably won’t have a job or that you’ll experience significantly less happiness over the coming months, it’s just that you aren’t letting your awareness of this led you down certain thought paths that aren’t productive. So frameworks are about how you model the world, while frames also include all aspects of your response to the world, including how you respond internally.

The confusing thing about the more emotional frames is that thoughts can often play a role, but without being the most crucial part. For example, why think “It’s okay” if it’s not meant to be taken as a literal statement of truth? Well, even if the proposition itself isn’t the active component and can still be the trigger in adopting a partcular state where you are focused on the present, instead of something that is causing you suffering.

Further Reading:

Appendix 1: Always Already Here

When describing “It’s okay” Valentine claims “it’s already always here“. This is confusing because it makes it sound like you’ve already been taught what to do when you haven’t. So what does he mean then?

One additional detail he provides is that the already know is “that small quiet part of us that nudges us to notice that we’re wrong while in a fight with a loved one”. So rather than meaning that we’ve already been taught it, he seems to be suggesting that we already have the appropriate instinct and that we just have to notice it and follow what it tells us to do. I haven’t experience it so I don’t know what he is talking about.

Appendix 2: How useful are commands like Be Confident?

An obvious retort to an instruction like “Be confident” is that it is far too vague to be of any use. It tells you the end goal, but not how to get there. These critiques are valid, but that doesn’t mean that the statement is necessarily useless by itself. We’ll distinguish four different ways of filling this out. First, sometimes a person will already know techniques for shifting their mental state and only need a reminder to make use of them. Second, sometimes merely knowing that you want to inhabit a particular mental state opens up the opportunity to shift more into it. Third, sometimes a person simply needs social permission in order to feel confident being confident. Fourth, sometimes simply thinking “Be confident” or “I am confident” is enough, although it can also backfire and as we’ve already noted, he isn’t thinking about this technique. Fifth, sometimes it’s useful to know what the goal is, even if you don’t have techniques to get there yet. Sixth, someone may just be providing you with a high level description of what you should do and be able to provide you with further instructions.

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