Open and closed mental states

I learned a game at Burning Man this year that was about connecting to people and reading their nonverbal signals, called the “open-closed” game (h/t Minda Myers). There are two people in the game, and one is trying to approach the other and place a hand on their shoulder. No words can be exchanged, except that person who is being approached can announce their emotional state as “open” or “closed”. When they say “closed”, the approacher may not get any closer until they say “open” again. The approachee monitors themselves for any internal discomfort associated with the other person, and says “closed” if that is the case. The approacher tries to keep the other person comfortable through their body language and eye contact, to get them to remain “open”.

I have recently started playing this game with myself, with “open” representing openness to experience or being in the moment, and “closed” representing tunnel vision or discomfort with the way things are going. In a way, I imagine being “approached” by whatever situation I’m in, or whatever sequence of experiences is happening, instead of a person. I ask myself whether I am in the open or closed state, and try to shift to the open state whenever I notice being in the closed state.

There are a couple of reasons to try to do this. In the open state, I tend to be happier, more curious and observant and have more new thoughts. From a week of tracking my mental states and thought status using TagTime, I can make a preliminary conclusion that while old thoughts do occur in the open state, new thoughts never occur in the closed state. While the closed state makes me more efficient at doing straightforward tasks (e.g. by making me less distractable), it makes me less efficient at doing less straightforward tasks (e.g. by increasing my tendency to optimize locally rather than globally).

This is related to the concept of “againstness” taught by Valentine Smith at the Center for Applied Rationality, which is a sense of resisting something about the situation at hand. Learning to notice this sense more quickly is a valuable thing I learned at CFAR and through my meditation practice. Redirecting attention to body sensations is supposed to be helpful for dissipating againstness, but I have found it difficult to get myself to do this in the moment, and not particularly reliable. Following the driving principle of “focusing on the road and not the curb”, I find it easier to shift to a mental state with a simple salient label like “open” instead of a clunky label like “non-againsty”. It also feels less judgmental to ask myself “what am I closed to right now, what experience am I not letting in?” than “what am I against right now?”.

The againstness approach seems to be about relaxing the mind by relaxing the body first, while for some people relaxing the mind first comes more naturally – I actually find myself automatically breathing deeper when shifting into the open state. For both approaches, the goal is the same – to let go of mental and physical tension before proceeding with what you are doing. The rule of thumb, like in the game, is to first get into the open state and then approach the situation at hand.

(Cross-posted to LessWrong.)

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