The Upper Limit Of Understanding

Walking down the yellow-brick road of everything being storytelling, I stumbled into a handy metaphor of system models. If my Self is a complex adaptive system and the reality outside is also such a system, my lifelong process of meaning-making could be viewed as asymptotically constructing a more accurate model of reality. Let’s unpack that.

This is a story of interaction between two systems: the Self and the Context. The Self is well, me. The Context is the reality. The Self is receiving signals from the Context as the Input, and the Context is receiving Signals from the Self as the Output.

A diagram showing Context and Self, connected with arrows, labeled Input and Output.

For example, there could be some sensory Input (seeing an apple), and then some action as an Output (reaching for an apple). This interaction of two systems is continuous, with many inputs and outputs happening in parallel, like a river.

Some Inputs are nourishing to Self, and some are harmful or even fatal, a SIGKILL of sorts. Given no other recourse, the Self makes a significant assumption: that it can influence the Context by varying its Output. Having this influence motivates Self to learn to predict the Input based on the Output. Thus, from the perspective of Self, the name of the game is Understanding, or learning how the Context works.

To excel at this game, the Self constructs a meaning-making device: a Context Model. It’s an internal proxy for the Context and is used to evaluate the Input and discern an Output. It’s the vehicle for answering the question: “What is the meaning of this Input within this Context, and what is the appropriate Output that influences the Context most effectively?”

A diagram showing Context and Self, where Self contains a Context model, which takes Input and produces Output.

For example, I hear a driver behind me honking. The Context Model helps me make meaning of what might be happening (“they want me to hurry up and move”), and select an appropriate action (“curse them under my breath”).

With such a setup, the accuracy of the Context Model becomes paramount, and the Self is highly motivated to continuously improve upon it. Thus, the Context Model is constantly developing. The inputs that are congruent with the model’s current structure are used to reinforce it. The inputs that aren’t congruent challenge it and eventually spur a structural change within the Context Model: a transformation.  I say “eventually” because I notice that the model is naturally resistant to change. I see that often, the incongruent inputs are being re-fed back into the model from memories, appearing in consciousness as fretful relitigations of past conversations or actions, beating myself up, etc. These are useful signals indicating that the model as it exists today is due for re-structuring.

Each transformation brings more complexity to the model. The model becomes more subtle, more attuned to, more representative of Context. What used to be a matter of primitive impulses becomes connected through causal chains. What used to be concrete becomes abstract. What used to be a strict taxonomy becomes a cross-categorical cloud. The Model’s complexity grows over time.

Because the Self contains the Context Model, the complexity of the Self increases as the model transforms. From this perspective, in its process of continuous development of the Context Model, the Self strives to at least match the complexity of Context. Within the Game of Understanding is the drive to grow and develop, based on this fundamental assumption: if the Self becomes as complex as the Context, it will be capable of containing an accurate Context Model, which produces perfectly effective Outputs and predicts every Input.

To put it in more dramatic terms, understanding the meaning of life becomes possible when I completely understand the world around me.

An important insight hides in those last three words: “world around me”. The two systems in this story, the Context and the Self, are not peers. The Context includes and transcends the Self.

A diagram, showing that Context includes Self.

In this arrangement, the Context Model also necessarily includes the Model of Self. I can observe this clearly by looking at my archaeology of self effort. And look! It’s a recursion: within that Model of Self is a Context Model, and so on.

A diagram of Context including Self, showing the recursion: within Self, there is a Model, which then includes an smaller Context and Self, and so on.

This shift in perspective reveals the Upper Limit of Understanding. At least in this story, the inner system can never match the complexity of the system that includes and transcends it. The Context Model can never be an accurate model of the Context. The Game of Understanding is an infinite game, and the meaning of life is forever a mystery.

When I first arrived to this point, I felt this weird combination of joy, relief and a twinge of disappointment. Seeing the upper limit for the first time was a profound experience, a sense of connecting to something impossibly large, yet somehow familiar. I’d read how “life is a journey, not a destination” in multitudes of different ways, and in that moment, I truly felt it. And in disappointment, I saw a small part of me that still wished for the possibility of “winning” the game of life.

Everything is storytelling

Everything is storytelling. It’s all a little bit of a lie, a little bit of truth, all in the quest for meaning. It’s all storytelling. This post is storytelling. History is storytelling. Governments and money are storytelling. Leadership is storytelling. Relationships are storytelling. It’s all about creating meaning through the approximation of reality.

When I see a lemon and say “This lemon is yellow”, it’s a bit of a lie. I may see something as yellow, but “I see this lemon as yellow” is also too simple. What happens in my optical pathways that then becomes a concept of “yellow” in my mind is so much more. And even that’s just a story. It’s all an approximation of reality and there’s never a way to fully understand it, just like in quantum physics. The instruments I have are not capable of fully comprehending reality. This is really what the study of complex systems is about. It’s about admitting to ourselves that in order to influence a system, we need to let go of the myth that we can fully understand it. Because if we don’t, we will be doomed to suffer, trying to asymptotically create a more accurate model. But it will remain just a model, producing results that are subtly different from reality, when we least expect it.

And that’s the root of the Fear of Destruction. It is the fear of complexity, the Fear of the Abyss, my fear of realizing that I will never fully comprehend or understand how the world works and I will never be truly safe from the outside world. Reality’s expanse of the challenge in front of me is infinite. 

So I create stories. I create them to simplify, to make a good-enough model of the world in which I can be safe. I reduce the size of my challenge to be not so overwhelming. I look for signs of support. If I am lucky, my story will frame a combination of Challenge and Support in a way that is compelling and engaging, and I get to live my life joyously. If I am less lucky, I may create a story where that combination is way off, and I suffer interminably. But all of these are just stories. They are just my storytelling.

The System of Self

Here’s a checkpoint for Archeology of Self, a marker of where I’ve been, and a sense of where I am going.

Best I can tell, my Self is a complex adaptive system. There does not seem to be a central authority or a clear method to how my Self operates. It’s a marvel of emergent behaviors, spurred by independent agents of forces. It’s not to say that there’s nobody home, but I am just not seeing a degree of order or organization that I would typically attribute to a logic-driven device. My Self looks more like weather than a computer.

In this system of Self, I can discern four forces. In examining how I am in the world, from feelings to actions, I inevitably end up finding these four forces at the root. I call these forces the Fundamental Needs, since they seem to be at the core of all of my Self. These four Fundamental Needs are:

  • The need for Integration, to be part of a larger whole, in harmony with others, to feel a sense of belonging.
  • The need for Differentiation, to be my own unique self who is apart from others, to feel a sense of agency.
  • The need for Safety, to feel comfortable, safe, at ease. I use the phrase feeling at home as a handy moniker for when this need is satisfied.
  • The need for Fulfillment, to self-realize and fulfill my potential, to feel a sense of life lived with a purpose.

These needs are in pairwise, orthogonal tensions. The Integration is in tension with Differentiation, and the Fulfillment is in tension with Safety.

A diagram showing two orthogonal (in a shape of a cross) Fundamental Polarities. Vertically: Fulfillment and Safety. Horizontally: Differentiation and Integration

These pairwise tensions form the Fundamental Polarities. As far as I can see, the entirety of my Self is the outcome of the incremental learning process to manage these Fundamental Polarities. What I consider “Self” is a product of participating in this beautiful paradox, the Riddle of Existence. Though outside the scope of this exploration, my intuition is that this riddle is not unique to my Self. I see glimpses of it in the writings of Csikszentmihalyi, Hollis, Kegan, Wilber, and others. Wilber sketches out something very similar at the beginning of the Brief History of Everything.

I also notice that there are agents that emerged as a result of these forces being applied to the system of Self. These agents embody each Need. The way I understand it today, the incremental nature of learning led these agents to be rooted in the unconscious mind, using fear as a signalling mechanism. Each agent acts as a defender of the Need and perceives a threat when its Need is not being satisfied. Since the Needs are indeed always in tension, these agents perceive the Fundamental Polarities as an unresolvable conflict, a constant threat to my existence.

Thus, I call these agents the Existential Fears, one for each Need. Each Fear catastrophizes the outcome of the Need not being satisfied, as a brute-force method to exert the influence in the system. Each Fear has a go-to response that is embodied by the unconscious mind:

  • The fear of Annihilation, coming from me perceiving my need for Integration under threat from my need for Differentiation. The catastrophic outcome is that of becoming a completely disconnected, invisible to others, and thus removed from existence. The go-to response for Annihilation is to conform.
  • The fear of Dissolution, perceiving my need for Differentiation under threat from Integration. As the catastrophic outcome, it is about losing my own sense of self and ceasing to exist through dissolving into the shapeless mass of others. Dissolution’s go-to response is to stand out.
  • The fear of Destruction, perceiving Safety under threat from Fulfillment. The catastrophic outcome is me being physically destroyed. The go-to response for Destruction is to hide.
  • A fear of Decay, perceiving Fulfillment under threat from Decay. The catastrophic outcome here is rotting alive, gradually decomposing. Decay’s response is to act. It’s my DO SOMETHING! agent.

Existential Fears form the same pairwise polarities, the Existential Struggles,  laid over the corresponding Fundamental Needs:

A diagram showing two orthogonal Existential Struggles. Vertically: Fear of Decay (Act) and Fear of Destruction (Hide). Horizontally: Fear of Dissolution (Stand out) and Fear of Annihilation (Conform).

These agents are the origin of my suffering. Because they are so radical (the outcome they predict is the literal ceasing of existence), embodied (operating in the unconscious mind), and in conflict with each other, the struggle appears as hopeless and impossible to ever resolve. Each agent operates on a mission to satisfy a fundamental Need, which is difficult to argue with. However, each is independent and doesn’t consider the larger system at play, and is unaware of the Fundamental Polarities.

The Fears constantly compete for attention, and the center of conflict is always in motion, in an unending tug-of-war: first, the Decay is predicting that I will rot alive if I don’t act now, then Destruction immediately pipes in with certainty of doom if I do act now, then Decay gets in a “nuh-uh”, and the melee continues. There is an intense, internal conflict that goes on among the agents. Without the ability to see this conflict, my consciousness only captures a tiny fraction of the full perspective, showing up as boredom, anger, depression, anxiety, shame, etc.

This suffering is nearly constant, fluctuating from big upheavals where I am conscious of it–like actively feeling angry–to unconscious micro-suffering where I don’t even realize it’s happening, manifesting as unease or tension. In this system, the moments of peace are rare and unlikely.

One of my intentions for self-work is to influence the system of Self by discerning more signs of suffering and providing more evidence to the unconscious mind about the nature of polarity. Because the Fears are so well-entrenched, it’s been challenging. But I am already seeing signs that the system is pliable. I recently realized that I no longer find myself suffering consciously. When I detect a micro-suffering, I am able to eventually not believe the Fears and get back to center. And I know that every one of those exercises evolves my system of Self. I am curious to see how.

My Self-work Routine

I started intentionally working on myself a year ago today, writing my first journal entry. Since then, I’ve iterated  to the point where I am settling down into a bit of a routine.

When I began,  I made the commitment to invest at least 30 minutes on self-work every day. The way it looks today is a nightly four-part exercise, taking about that much time. In addition to this practice, I read and talk to wise people. I’ve learned that many, many people have traveled along this path. I use their insights as path markers, holding them lightly. It was their path. I have my own to find.

I usually begin with journaling what I am currently feeling, listening to my body, looking for signs of somatic responses to stress. At first, this was a dubious activity (“uhm… feeling… fine?”), but I soon recognized that I have a few consistent somatic patterns, whether it’s a tension in shoulders or a knot in my stomach. I then trace these back to the emotions that caused them.

This leads to the second part, the archaeology of self. Here, I focus on understanding why I am experiencing these emotions. My goal is to surface the underlying wrinkle, the “thing that creates the suffering”. I’d found that looking for cognitive distortion patterns helps me as a good first pass. Sometimes it takes a few days (or weeks), but I usually arrive at some key assumption that was hiding in plain sight. I’ve grown to rely on David Burns’ vertical development and on Kegan/Lahey’s immunity to change techniques. This is also where I document what I learned in my experiments and design new safe-to-fail experiments to try.

Next, I move to the third part, letting my Purpose find me. I shift my focus from where I’ve been to where I am going. In the beginning, I struggled quite a bit with even discerning the pull of the Purpose. I was really trapped in “duty”, “supposed to”, and “have to”. Seeking clarity, I ask myself what I actually want out of life and whether my actions lead to that. I study how I instinctively frame my actions and whether the framing or the actions themselves need to change. Through this process, I keep sketching and refining the bigger resonant whole, the thing that moves my spirit, the larger Purpose.

I conclude my day with the riverbank. Early this year, I was introduced to meditation and it has been a gift. Thank you, Search Inside Yourself and folks who taught it as a class. Meditation serves as my closure for the day, putting back all the pieces that I may have dislodged, making me whole. It’s a blissful touch of serenity, a glimpse of what’s possible, however brief.

I am not sharing my routine because I believe that you should follow it or that it is somehow a solution that works for everyone. I can’t even guarantee that it works for me. YMMV.

I am sharing it here because if you feel overwhelmed, lonely, and lost, I hope to spur your curiosity to give intentional self-work at try and maybe come up with the routine of your own. I am but a data point, a tiny bit of evidence of making tiny steps toward inner peace and seeing my own Self more fully and embracing its beauty.

Letting My Purpose Find Me

In my own clock, I spoke metaphorically about learning to listen to my own Self, learning to discern what I want from what I believe I am supposed to want. As this process continues, I am becoming more aware of the distinction between the two. In exploring this distinction, an interesting question arises: what is it that I actually want?

I am realizing that my desire to answer to this question is animated by a force that is much like gravity: subtle, yet unyielding. Like gravity, it manifests whether I want it or not. Like gravity, I can only pretend to ignore it. I’ve come to see it as the fundamental need for Fulfillment, the need to do something more than just surviving and living out my life.

I’ve also begun recognizing that this need for Fulfillment, this force is directed. There’s a definite sense of “more-of-that” and “less-of-that” when I make my own choices. And when there’s a direction, there’s a destination. There is a Purpose, my own sense of meaning that is clearly there, present within me.

I am neither used to looking for it, nor it is easy to see. With other forces pulling in their own directions, it’s easy for me to get distracted and disoriented. Did I act in a certain way because I was stumbling toward my Purpose, or was because I was trying to protect myself in some way?

I’d found that the direction is most easily seen when I sit down at the end of the day and spend a few minutes reflecting on what is happening within me, and how the day felt as a whole. This does not need to take a long time: I usually just set my fingertips to the keyboard and let them go. More often than not, exhaustion and angst of the day gives way to curiosity and wonder. That’s when I start seeing a bit more. I start tracing outlines of what is meaningful to me, what’s important, what’s purposeful.

It’s almost like my Purpose is always there. I am just blocking with the whirlwind of the mundane. In the moments when I can stop and let go, I am able to let it find me.

A Classroom for Humanity

Why is it that some people are unable to see a different perspective? Why is it that when I try to introduce them to that perspective, I get an angry, hateful response, and often, trigger them holding more firmly onto their current perspective? What is happening here?

To gain more insights around these questions, I’ve been looking into the constructive-developmental theories, and they open some very intriguing possibilities.

They posit that we all have a meaning-making device, something that helps us take external inputs from the world and turn it into meaning, constructing a coherent reality in our minds. Through grounded theory methodology, they’ve found that our meaning-making devices are in the process of continuous evolution, rapidly and massively transformative in the young age, eventually slowing down, becoming more rare and far in-between for adults. Unlike children, who upgrade their meaning-making device every few years, we grown-ups are typically stuck with the one we acquired as young adults.

They also identified distinct stages of these transformations, the plateaus where people situate. According to the research, the current center of gravity for adults in our world seems to be in the Socialized Mind stage. (As an aside, different theories assign different names for the stages and I will use the ones from Kegan’s work.) When my meaning-making device is at the Socialized Mind plateau, my sense of rightness and wrongness is defined by those around me. I seek the principles and values from my leaders, and good and bad is what everyone in my “tribe” says it is. I tend to strongly identify with my tribe, and thus experience severe injured identity pain when I perceive that this identity is threatened. When I encounter ideas or perspectives that aren’t aligned with those of my tribe, I unconsciously feel the fear of the abyss and also react to it as a threat.

It is not a huge leap from here to see that the frictionless global interconnectedness of the modern world would leave a Socialized Mind reeling, feeling as if it’s under constant attack from the overwhelming, unbearable threat of the entire meaning to come undone, made incoherent. If I am constructing my reality using a Socialized Mind, I see it as the world coming apart, with The End fast-approaching. I am not having a good time, prone to polarization, further entrenchment in the ideology of my tribe, and blame, pointing fingers at others. And in doing so, along with others in the same state, I am acting out the fulfillment of my own prophecy. Trapped in this vicious cycle, we appear to be doomed.

The constructive-developmentalists suggest that there is another perspective. They reframe the bleak picture as a developmental environment, a classroom of sorts. This struggle of the Socialized Mind is actually a challenge, a tough assignment that is presented to the humanity in that classroom. And the goal of this assignment is transformational learning, the evolution of our meaning-making devices to the next plateau, the Self-authoring Mind. This next plateau offers me the capacity to hold my own perspective, seeing it as one of many, no longer viewing others’ differences as threats to core identity. Thus, the graduation looks like shifting humanity’s center of gravity toward to the Self-authoring Mind.

This learning continues. A graduation is just a milestone in this classroom of humanity. The next plateau over, the Self-transforming Mind is even more equipped to thrive in the modern world: with this meaning-making device, I learn to appreciate and cherish the multitude of perspectives, holding mine lightly.

Just like in any effective classroom, the challenge in itself is not sufficient to foster transformational learning. The support, the sense of safety and grounding is a fundamental part of the process. My best teachers weren’t those who took it easy on me. They were those who, while presenting a seemingly impossible challenge, made it clear that they were with me, empathetic and steady, supporting me as I flailed and struggled. They weren’t paternalistic or over-protective, but they coached me, and guided me back to the path when I was going in circles. They created an environment where I learned to thrive.

This framing creates a fairly clear–and frankly, more positive–way to view humanity’s current predicament. Shifting away from apocalyptic lamentations, I can now focus on exploring this question: what would it take to create an effective developmental learning environment for humanity?

Fear of the abyss

I’ve been thinking about how I experience the fear of the unknown in the context of constructive-developmental theory, this fear of what’s beyond the edge of my current capacity to make meaning, the fear of the abyss.

This fear pops up when I am experiencing something that is incongruent with the reality I construct, something that I can’t reconcile and make coherent according to my current understanding of the world. I may experience it as something that is grabbing at me, trying to “get me”, something to be feared.

The subject-object shift in constructive-developmental theory refers to a developmental transformation of how I make meaning, where invisible is made visible. I see this shift as me improving my capacity to make meaning, to see an ever-increasing context. With each jump to a larger context, I start seeing things that were driving me, invisibly influencing me, being part of me, or part of the unknown become things that I see and have the capacity to hold apart, things about which I can reason. 

For example, let’s suppose that I am subject to some principle and value-making device. That is, I accept my principles and values as “things that are”, rather than something I can author. When I see that someone else has different principles and values, I experience the fear of the abyss: how can it be that someone else has different “things that are?”. In that moment, I may also be subject to the fear itself, and thus be subject to cognitive distortions (I am guessing those are an outcome of being subject to fear),  experiencing anxiety, shame, depression, anger, etc.

Once my meaning-making capacity grows to see a principle and value-authoring device in myself, I am no longer seeing principles and values as “things that are”, but rather things that people have. I can see how they can be different across people and the fear of the abyss no longer overcomes me when I encounter someone with a different set of principles and values. With the subject-object shift, the fear of the abyss has moved on to the next frontier of my meaning-making.