Sunday, December 26, 2021

The Cycle

Excerpt from book proposal for the second book I'd like to get people thoughts on:

There are four stages or steps to what I will call the Cycle. The first stage is seeing things as they currently are. Step 1 is an observing, perceiving, or discerning step in which we learn to see and acknowledge reality as it is, not as we wish or fear it to be. The second stage is one of action, either we are the ones acting or we are being acted upon. Step 2 encompasses most of human experience because most of the time something is happening, moving or developing. Third is a self-reflection and re-evaluation step. It’s noticing the difference between how we experienced ourself and the world in Step 2 versus what we thought they were in Step 1. Fourth, there is a turning outwards to re-enter the world as a different person or in a different way. Step 4 is outwards facing. We engage with the world in a deeper or more nuanced way because we are different or our understanding of the world is different. Step 4 is where we feel the sensation of flourishing: having achieved success or improvement at something, we operate on a higher level than we did before. We have leveled up. 

You can see the Cycle in the macro structure of our lives: (1) we are born with our genetics and into a particular environment that makes certain things easier or less easy for us (“things as they are”); (2) we become an actor in our own environment but are also acted upon, getting psychologically and physically bumped and bruised along the way; (3) we reflect on how through our choices and experiences we have become different or our beliefs about the nature of reality are different/more expansive; and (4) turning outwards with our changed perspectives and self-conception, we re-enter the world a changed person or in a different way. 

The Cycle is how we learn from experience

The Cycle is how we learn anything. The scientific method is the Cycle: we start with a collection of prior beliefs, test those beliefs, assess the results of testing and how those results reflect on our prior beliefs, and finally update our prior beliefs (and ourselves) and re-enter the world with an increased understanding of ourselves and the nature of our reality. The Cycle is also how we grow and develop; it’s how we change to become a better, more informed or clear-thinking and clear-seeing person. The Cycle is how we learn from experience if we actually do learn from experience. 

One of my favorite examples of the Cycle being the way we learn from experience and become a new person or re-enter the world in a new way is the Christmas Carol progression of Ebenezer Scrooge. Charles Dickens starts out with a clear statement of reality as it is: “Marley was dead: to begin with. There is no doubt whatever about that.” And after many adventures and learning to see things with new eyes it ends with Scrooge announcing, “I am not the man I was.” The Cycle is how we get from here to there, wherever here and there are. 

Getting stuck = we’ve skipped a step

If the Cycle is how we learn and grow as humans, then if we feel like we’re no longer learning and growing like we’d like to, it stands to reason that we’re skipping at least one step in the Cycle. When we skip a step we don’t level up. Think of the Cycle as the threads on a screw. As long as those threads are intact, turning the screw (like turning the Cycle) will result in advancing the screw forward. But sometimes the threads are not intact. If the threads are damaged enough, you can turn and turn a screw but it will not go forward. Similarly, if you skip a step in the Cycle, you won’t level up on this issue; you will not move forward. At least for that issue, you will be the living embodiment of the Sisyphus legend rolling the ball up the mountain only to have it roll back down, repeat ad infinitum. That’s what it means to be stuck: to do the same thing but fail to learn from experience or move forward. 

Skipping Step 3 by failing to acknowledge shortcomings

The most common step for normal people and certainly psychopaths to skip is Step 3. Step 3 is internalizing what we learned from Step 2. Step 3 can be a positive thing, like learning some new truth or skill. But it often comes from having believed or done something not quite right and the self-reflection and re-calibration of our beliefs necessary to re-orient ourselves with reality. (“Not right” in this context doesn’t mean morally wrong, it just means out of sync with reality, like taking a wrong turn while driving.) Sometimes Step 3 is just recognizing that something has changed, for instancing reconciling ourselves to a loss. In her book The Grieving Brain, clinical psychologist Mary-Frances O'Connor argues that grieving is a form of learning. Grieving is Step 3 because it is the process of reconciling ourselves to the ramifications of what it means to live in the world without someone we love in it. 

A lot of people don’t like Step 3 because it can hard to acknowledge we’ve made a mistake, or didn’t know everything about everything, or didn’t act or perform perfectly at some task, or have lost something that can never be righted again. I’ve noticed people skipping this step particularly in online or public debates, but I also see it regularly in my interpersonal relationships. People often have a hard time conceding that they’re wrong or saying they’re sorry. If caught red-handed in an error, they often posture in the hope that everyone will just move on and forget the error with the 24-hour news cycle. Maybe they are concerned that they’ll lose face or some sense of authority, but what they don’t realize is that skipping Step 3’s reconciliation and re-calibration undermines their moral or logical authority with others. And at least for me, one of the most disturbing things to watch is somebody or some group memory-holing an unpleasant fact or event out of existence rather than take the trouble to process it through Step 3. 

But the worst part of skipping the third step is that it prevents the proper operation of the fourth step, the flourishing part: they fail to become a different person so they’re never able to re-enter life in a new way. We’re probably all familiar with the phrase if you don’t learn from history, you’re destined to repeat it. Skipping Step 3 of the Cycle is the underlying mechanics of why this phrase is true. National Geographic photographer Diana Markosian said something similar in an interview about being reunited with her Russian birth father after decades of living apart and how learning that her father had never stopped looking for her felt: “It’s this feeling of this ability to go back in time, to understand something for yourself and bring it back to the present. I think that has been the biggest gift photography has given me, is a second chance to really understand my place in the world and how I relate to it—and how I can do that for those that I photograph as well.” 

You don’t just automatically learn and grow from your experiences. A good example of this are psychopaths, who are known for a poor ability to learn from their own experiences. Like people who have short term memory issues, they will make the same mistakes over and over again. My own working theory, as we’ll keep exploring throughout this book, is that psychopaths can’t properly go through Step 3 for anything but knowledge or skill acquisition because they have such a weak sense of self. As one psychopath told me about his life pre-therapy: “I did not see life as a journey because I did not really change over time.” Because a healthy sense of self is necessary for Step 3, this book will devote many chapters to establishing and/or strengthening our sense of self. 

Psychopaths aren’t the only ones who make the same mistake over and over again, though. Can you think of someone you know who is like this? Maybe it’s you? The truth is, it can be all of us if we if we fail to properly process our experiences and feelings in Step 3.  

Skipping Step 2 by playing it safe

Some of us are skipping Step 2 by not taking enough chances. Remember Step 2 is about movement and direction. It often comes in the form of us trying to do something in the world. For instance, Joan Didion advised the UC Riverside graduating class of 1975 that they should truly live in the world, not just endure it: “To take chances. To make your own work and take pride in it. To seize the moment.” But if you are daily living below your potential (perhaps even far below your potential), if you regularly shirk from challenge or potential difficulties, or if you spend most of your energy burying your talents and ambition instead of acting on them, you are likely skipping Step 2. 

My own personal theory is many people shirk Step 2 for fear of confronting their missteps and personal insufficiencies in Step 3. We’ll address this type of perfectionism and fear of being wrong or making mistakes later in the book. 

I’ve also seen people do a half-assed Step 2 for fear of its implications about Step 1. Remember Step 1 is about where you are now, including who you are now. Let’s take the example of music, since this is where I personally see it most. People who play music often want to think of themselves as being a competent musician (i.e. their Step 1 includes a competence at performing music). Because they’re so afraid of acting in a way that is inconsistent with this self belief, they will intentionally sabotage their Step 2, most frequently by not practicing adequately for a performance. Then they can tell themselves “pretty good for not practicing!” Because they never gave a true Step 2 effort, they skip Steps 3 and 4 and stay bouncing back and forth between Step 1 and a half-assed Step 2, at least as it pertains to their musicianship. 

Skipping Step 1 by ignoring reality

A few of us are struggling seeing things as they really are in Step 1. I regularly see people experience this in their relationships. Red flags are missed or people start fearing that what is there is not enough. In fact, I think much of how we relate to people comes from a fear of reality. We may fear that someone will change, or we may fear that someone will not change. We feel like we need things to be a particular way. We may fear that we’ll never be happy with the way things are, so feel a need to try to push someone or something towards what we think will make us happy. But we can be comfortable no matter what our situation. We can find balance in our connections commensurate with our needs and learn to love and accept the people around us without needing them to be anything but what they are.  

Step 1 would apply to people with mental health disorders, anxiety, depression, etc. that distort our perception of reality. It also includes any insecurities we may feel about ourselves, our background, our level of education, our natural preferences, etc. Finally, it includes our biases, our prejudices, our hasty ill-informed judgments, our seeing through a glass darkly.

Flourishing comes from giving all steps in the Cycle their due

We all want to flourish in life. But when we get stuck on something, we languish. Our lives turn boring because we are doing the same thing over and over again without the personal growth and renewal we crave. 



  1. (remembering that most forms of humility are basically
    double checking step 3)

  2. Hi ME,

    (2) we become an actor in our own environment but are also acted upon, getting psychologically and physically bumped and bruised along the way;

    Regarding this stage, if you've not already, you might like to consider how our identities are socially constructed. Alan Watts describes the process and I'll very roughly paraphrase because I have no idea where it is:

    I play something, then you play something back to me.

    My understanding is that Watts posits that social identity emerges from that interplay.

    For myself, I limited that interplay growing up so I didn't know my social self. Instead, I relied on my own capabilities as much as possible.

    With sociopaths, I've wondered, when done of them have called themselves a monster, for example, whether they'd been called a monster and decided "I'll show you a monster" - or perhaps if they'd learned to interpret themselves that way. As you know, I've always thought the underlying behaviours are more nuanced than that: self-protection, pre-emptive strikes etc.

    As I raise my kids - and I guess most parents do this - I play back to them what I see as their traits and strengths. As I notice those things, I encourage them. I think this gives them a basis for self-awareness and self-confidence. But I know this is an active and essential process. If I didn't do it, I think their internal realities would be a little amorphous. If course, their peer groups play a big role in this too.

    Trust is essential for this process to take place as it requires vulnerability. Some of us minimised the chance of being hurt growing up and missed out on this social development of self. In my case, a lot of work went into opening up to having a social identity (ie being less "indifferent to praise and criticism")

    - acting in the environment can be bruising but also edifying.
    - building an identity is a social process requiring vulnerability and trust.

    1. I would also suggest a bit more nuance to the following:

      "But we can be comfortable no matter what our situation"

      Paul Scanlon says two things in particular that are very useful:

      1. Love is unconditional; relationships aren't
      2. Boundaries are the distance by which I can love you and me simultaneously

      This is essential to understand.

      There's a huge gulf between accepting someone for who they are and being in a relationship configuration that works for both.

      For example, I struggled with **-*'s "complications" because I couldn't understand them. He didn't explain and I was scared he was simply being controlling.

      Could I have let go of my need for understanding? Could he have explained it to me without showing me?

      I don't think so.

      That doesn't mean I don't accept him for who he is.

      We learn each other over time.

      In this case, the boundaries meant the end of the relationship.


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