Wednesday, July 6, 2016

Frame of Mind

Hello friends. Been awhile.

In Melee, one of my biggest struggles recently has been with my mindset. Well, that's always been difficult for me, and it's the reason I created a blog in the first place, but it's definitely flared up a lot again lately. I’m going to share some personal information about how I think and feel about the world, how it’s influenced my play, and why it’s made competing so hard for me lately.

Recently a friend helped me frame an attitude that seems to have resolved a lot of internal conflicts I’ve been having. It is the fusion of a lot of different thought processes, and I hope it will allow me to compete at full capacity, so I am also going to talk about that. I hope you find this interesting.

Depression

The first thing to know about me is that I have very serious depression. Many people don’t quite know what clinical depression entails, so I’ll give you the basic rundown.

Depression is not the same thing as sadness. Many times, we say “I’m really depressed” to mean “I’m really sad,” but the condition of depression is something else. Depression, as a condition, can probably be summed up most effectively as “a chronic lack of motivation, reward, and positive reinforcement.”

Basically, you don’t want to do things. When you do things, you rarely feel good about them. Over time, this creates a feeling of pointlessness, hopelessness, and despair, because it seems like no matter what you do, nothing ever makes you happy. It’s easy to feel sad or upset, because things never seem to work. When they do work, you don’t feel good about it, so it becomes harder and harder to care.

You lose interest in your hobbies. You lose the desire to start things, you lose the desire to finish them. The same chemicals that govern sleep and appetite are also involved in joy and reward, so your sleeping patterns and appetite can get messed with.

“Getting over it” doesn’t work, because there is nothing on the other side of the hill. It’s just another valley of depression. That feeling that a non-depressed person gets from succeeding at something? That feeling of success, of joy, of sustained interest and effort? That feeling that yes,  I know I don’t want to get out of bed, but if I get moving I will feel better? Being depressed means not having that. There is a wall of frustration and sadness and difficulty in front of you, and if you break through it, there is nothing on the other side.

To make up for this, you will probably find yourself turning to external generators of reward and positive feeling to make up for it. Those hits can come from gambling, drinking, abusing drugs, eating certain types of foods or just eating lots of food. If it’s a vice, it probably has some way of temporarily plugging the depression.

But why? Why does this happen? Why would a person not feel success, reward, and achievement?

This can result from your habits of thought. You can have absurdly high standards that you never meet, or you can have an internal voice that trashes you constantly. No matter what has happened, nothing ever feels like a success, nothing ever gives you that emotional hit that comes from reaching a goal or finishing a task. You rarely think “I succeeded” because you set your standards of success so high, and so your brain responds by denying you the chemicals that give you that positive feeling.

Or perhaps you don’t have high standards, just extremely skewed judgments of yourself. It’s not that things are that difficult or hard, you just always fail. If you always fail, why try? Over time, you can convince yourself to avoid doing anything, and you can think your way out of every positive experience.

It can also be biological. Our brain is an incredibly complicated network of… stuff. Lots of stuff. Screw with any piece of the machinery, and weird things happen. We know this, because you give somebody a medication to help with one problem, and it creates five others. I’m not a neurologist or a psychiatrist, and even if I were, I doubt I’d have the exact explanation for why and how it happens. However, if you are willing to accept that a substance can change the way you feel (like a drink or a drug) then you automatically accept that chemicals have an influence on how you think and feel, and that your emotions have some biological basis.

Likewise, if you’re willing to accept that people can vary across different physical attributes, or even be born without attributes that you’re “supposed” to have (like arms, or hearing, or the ability to see certain colors), then you should be willing to accept that people can differ in their brains in such a way that it affects how they feel and experience the world.

Your environment can also constantly deny you rewards, and if you spend enough time in such an environment, then you may develop depression. If you have something very important to you and you lose it, you might develop depression, because everything served that important goal, and without it, what’s the point?

And of course, there’s no reason it can’t just be a mixture of the three. In fact, one may cause or feed into another.

All of that is a prelude to this basic statement: I have a tough time finding reward and joy in anything. Most things are not fun for me. Most jokes do not make me laugh. Most things do not make me smile. I struggle, on a daily basis, to find a reason to get up and exist. I have serious depression, and I have had it for a long, long time.

I’ve got several workarounds for this. One is soda (I love soda) and it’s pretty much because it’s chock full of sugar. Another is video games. After all, games constantly funnel achievement into you: defeat an enemy, gain a level, find an item, everything is a pseudo-concrete thing you can point to and say “I did that” and then feel good about. In case you ever wondered why some games are so addictive, it’s not that they are super fun. It’s that they find ways to funnel lots of tiny achievements to keep you going while dangling the big ones just out of reach. The little stuff sustains you while the promise of the big stuff keeps your brain salivating, chomping at the bit for more.

Most things happening in real life? You sink effort into them, you complete them, you feel a sense of reward, and the circuit is complete. If you don’t feel reward? You stop pursuing them. What’s the point? Why care? Why bother? You won’t feel good. You won’t care.

That’s me. Most things do not matter to me, because I sink my mental energy and effort into them, and feel nothing afterwards but fatigue. I started feeling this way when I was pretty young (the trigger, as best I can recall, was adolescence), and I also developed thought habits of perfectionism and low-self esteem that compounded it.

I also became incredibly unhappy if I did have a source of satisfaction and reward (like winning a game) and had it denied to me. I don’t feel much positive payout from my life, so when somebody or something inhibits that payout, I get angry. The more I’m expecting it and counting on it, the worse the backlash.

Nowadays I take medications that help a lot with this, and they let me get up and do things I enjoy. Or rather, they let me enjoy things that aren’t digital or sugary (God help me the day I find a way to eat digital sugar). I still fall into depressive spells, but knowing that I will emerge from them mediates the effect a lot.

I also have always found that teaching people has a unique way of circumventing my depressive feelings. When somebody else achieves something, I feel happy for them. Each person is unique, and explaining and teaching them something is its own challenge. The whole system feels quite rewarding, so even when I have trouble doing something for my own sake, helping somebody else has actually given me satisfaction. That’s important to keep in mind for later.

However, I still have a lot of traces of my depression within me. You never really “beat” depression, especially if there’s a biological component; you find your workarounds, you find your solutions, you get support from others (who keep helping, even when you try your best to ignore them), and ideally you carry on.

I still have perfectionist tendencies. I still beat myself up for mistakes. I still get these sinking feelings that everybody else is better than me at everything and that I am a constant failure. If I’m not paying attention, these thoughts creep up on me, they shift my mood, and sometimes it takes a lot of work to shift back. I have to monitor my thoughts and how I evaluate situations, or I set myself up for a lot of emotional backlash.

It is much better now than it has historically been. It’s never truly gone, but it’s improving.

Novelty

Another element of who I am is my craving for novelty. It might be related to the same things that make me feel low achievement and success.

I don’t have a problem grinding the same task over and over again. I will keep at it over and over again until I have succeeded. I can spend hours doing the same level or boss in a video game, practicing the same tech. I think the main force behind achievement is not brilliance, but erosion.

That is… until I achieve it. Once I know I have achieved it, I stop caring about it almost instantly. I care about proving to myself that I can do it. Once I have done it, it’s not interesting to me.

This is why Melee has held me in its grip for so long. It is ruthless and there are many strong players to defeat, so I always feel tested. The tech is difficult, so I never feel like I’ve “made it” and that holds my interest. The tech and skillsets of the game keep changing, so the game rarely feels stale. Somebody is always improving with a new character or adding a new tool to their game, and learning to deal with it has provided me a constant source of novelty.

There is another side to this coin, however. If I am in a strong position that gives me a big advantage, I don’t want to use that big advantage. I want to try something else. If I have a combo that I will work, I quickly tire of using it (unless it’s really hard and flashy). I constantly seek out different positions that I haven’t practiced, areas where I’m weak, and try to win from those situations instead.

If I know that camping under a platform will net me victory, then I don’t want to do it anymore. I know I will win if that happens, so what is there to explore? I would rather attack, put myself at a disadvantage, and try to win from that disadvantage, just to see if I can. I will intentionally do something I’m not very good at to try and improve it.

This puts me in positions where I’m more likely to lose, and a part of me demands that--why would I play a game that I know I’m going to win? The uncertainty and the novelty hold my interest, and this shapes a lot of how I play the game nowadays.

The positive is that I keep pushing and exploring and learning. I keep finding things that are new and fun and wacky. The downside is that I’m deliberately setting myself up to have higher odds of losing, and as somebody who hates losing on a deep emotional level, I’m not doing myself a favor.

Playing To Win

So lately I’ve been saddled with a huge dilemma.

--If I play to win, then that means I deprive myself of novelty. I focus only on the things that will get me to victory, and if I don’t achieve victory, then I lose out on my designated source of satisfaction. It also means that any mistakes I make are detracting from my target, which upsets me, and makes me more prone to tilting and raging.
--If I play for fun and novelty, then that means I throw away opportunities and wins on purpose to satisfy my own novelty craving. If I lose doing this, part of me is dissatisfied.
--If I play for fun and novelty, but the other guy plays to win in a boring fashion, then I am restricted in terms of how I can play, and I lose out on the fun factor. If I win, it’s boring. If I lose, it’s boring. If the opponent is predictable, I get bored of playing them, because the “correct” method is repetitive and dull, but the “fun” method might afford me no advantages and make me lose… so I quickly shift back into “play to win mode” without being ready, and I tilt myself again.

Basically, it’s becoming harder and harder for me to enjoy myself when I play the game. But I can’t walk up to my opponent and ask them “hey could you purposely do stupid combos and weird stuff so I can have a better time?” That’s pretty irrational. Pretty much nobody is going to do that for me.

In fact, the more they know that I will be playing inefficiently, the more they can maximize the likelihood of their victory by being boring, because I’m more likely to tilt and overextend and fall for the same stuff. If I play to win, then I risk boring myself, the win is less fun, losses hurt more, and errors upset me more. I can end up winning and hating it. Then nobody wins.

I haven’t even touched on issues of reputation or the expectations on my performance from others and myself, but I don’t think I have to; I think we’ve got enough to deal with as is.

Framing

I think that how you frame a situation changes a lot about it. The best solution for dealing with pressure is approach the situation in a way that reduces pressure from the beginning. Getting yourself out of emotional states is actually quite tough; you’re going to think in a way that perpetuates it. Depressed minds think depressed thoughts. Angry minds think angry thoughts.

In this case, my goal is simple: find a way to approach the game so that I can try my hardest to win, using the best tools I know, without getting bored or pissed.

I said simple, not easy.

I was recently at a small tournament at a local player’s house, and I was getting incredibly upset. I had to deal with matchups I didn’t like, almost losing to another player while tryharding, making dumb mistakes, and I had no idea what to do. A friend of mine talked with me for awhile to help me sort through my feelings, and by the end of the tournament I felt much better, played much better, and I feel deeply satisfied with this way of framing the game for myself. It lets me feel like I win no matter what, takes pressure off my mistakes, reduces expectations on myself, and lets me feel satisfaction from a situation even when my opponent outplays me. It lets me deal with potentially boring opponents, and it lets me feel like every match is meaningful.

It is rooted in a philosophy I have about competition: your opponent is your teacher, your student, and your test, all in one. They show you where you are weak, and teach you how to be stronger. They try to learn from what you throw at them so they can defeat you. They test your skills and try to match yours. With that in mind, the things that I really enjoy doing are all present.

I like teaching people things and seeing them succeed. When teaching people Smash, I am perfectly content to sit there and f-smash their shield a hundred times while waiting for them to master their wavedash out of shield. So in this regard, it is perfectly fine for me to play as optimally as I know how, because in doing so, I’m teaching my opponent the matchup and testing their ability to deal with it. If they beat me and it stops working, I can take satisfaction in knowing my student learned. If they lose and I advance, I can take satisfaction in knowing that my best play has withstood another test.

I like learning new skills, and I am content to work on the same puzzle or problem for a long time while I grind away at an answer. In this regard, if my opponent is better or using an abusable strategy on me, they are giving me the opportunity to practice dealing with it. If my opponent is strong and I don’t know how to beat them, then I feel no qualms about throwing my absolute best at them to try and win, because the outcome is uncertain, and that’s exactly how I like it.

I like showing people that I’m skilled. If I win, I have done so, and I can feel satisfaction. If I lose, I’ve shown myself what I need to work on, and now I have something to practice and study, and can feel satisfaction.

Moving Forward

I am going to try and hold this frame of mind in my head as clearly and squarely as possible while going forward. I will still do my best to explore and test and try new things, particularly in friendly matches, but from now on I want to be the best possible teacher and student in tournament as I can be. My hope is to be able to use my strongest knowledge and strongest techniques in matches without losing the satisfaction that comes from learning and having fun.

This means that when you watch me play seriously, it is going to be less wild and less wacky than the playstyle you’re probably accustomed to watching. I also am determined to see satisfaction in every situation, even if I play poorly or lose when I am putting everything forward to win, and keep focused on being a source of positivity in the game and the tournament scene.

I believe that when you compete earnestly in something you love, in a community that shares your passion, you are able to find ways to always win, even if you lose the game, even if you make mistakes, even if you feel like you failed. It’s hard to keep focus on that, but hopefully this frame of my mind lets me do that.

I’ll see you guys at Evo! Take care.

Thursday, February 25, 2016

Local Maxima

It’s weird when I feel those bursts of inspiration to improve at Melee again. Also weirder when I write about them in a blog.

I just came back to America from my first international tournament, BEAST6, in Sweden. It was a wonderful time, and I’ve had the chance to reflect on a lot of things. One of those things is that I got 7th place, and I would much rather have won. Another is where I’m trying to take my training and development in the game.

When I tell people that I am trying to win and get better, their first response is usually “start wobbling again.” Normally, my response has been “but it’s boring” or “I don’t like playing like that anymore.” I’m starting to take something of a different attitude right now; this newer attitude is based on looking back at my thoughts and emotions while playing, as well as the fruits of my different playstyle.

*

You are blindfolded, standing on a hill. You can feel wind whipping around your face, and you gingerly put your foot out, trying to find ground to walk on. After spinning around a bit, you find a direction that is sloping upward, and you start to climb the hill.

It’s slow going, but you poke around and feel with your hands and eventually it feels like you have climbed a fair distance. Finally, you reach a point where nothing leads up, and you are at the peak of the hill. Happy, you take off your blindfold and look around to survey your progress.

It turns out that you are actually at the base of a massive mountain, and its peaks are soaring high into the clouds. Your hill, by comparison, is incredibly tiny.

Your hill can be called a “local maximum.” It’s the highest point in its immediate vicinity. Every change from your current location would be a downgrade. But if you ever want to climb the mountain, you will have to leave the hill, and you will have to go downward. If you want to go up, you have to go down.

This is, funnily enough, a problem in machine learning. A program will learn how to do something, and improve its results, and then get stuck doing something “optimal.” Because any immediate change will reduce its results, it never changes, repeating itself. However, it only found an “okay” strategy or idea and perfected it; it has to go in a much different direction to achieve truly great results. When you want a computer to do the learning for you, you need algorithms that don’t get it caught up in local maxima.

(Recent book: The Master Algorithm by Pedro Domingos. It’s really good!)

Though there are very bright people who have found ways to handle that problem, many non-machine learners get stuck in it as well. Currently, this is the problem I’ve been thinking about in Melee with regards to my character.

Right now, most ICs will use the infinite to secure kills. They will also use styles that emphasize the grab game, to get as many of those infinites as possible. This works pretty well against a lot of people, and consequently, Ice Climbers that wobble a lot will win a lot.

Unfortunately, it seems like we’ve hit a peak. When somebody is skilled at avoiding that grab… what do we do? Well, generally speaking, we lose. Our answer is typically “we have to get better at grabbing somehow,” and despite that we are not getting that much better. In fact, certain players absolutely eviscerate us, leaving our sad eskimo entrails spilling all over loser’s bracket.

We have pretty much reached the peak of that hill, but the real mountain is sitting right next to us, tall and imposing as ever before. It also makes people think that the character lacks the potential to succeed. You just have to look at how badly the best players destroy us.

The real answer, I think, is to start climbing down, so we can start climbing up.

*

Originally, I just wanted to avoid wobbling so I could do crazier, sillier things with my character and have more fun. Now I am actively trying to avoid thinking about it because I want to attain the skills that other players have, and apply them to my character.

One problem is that our infinite is just *too rewarding.* It skews your thoughts towards getting that next grab. Even if it doesn’t, it can make you complacent, letting you ignore certain mistakes because you’re still winning by a fair amount. It also causes you to avoid certain difficult situations, because they won’t lead to grabs, so why bother? Especially when those positions are risky!

However, this means we are ignoring facets of the game that every other player has to master. We aren’t focusing on our defensive smash DI. We aren’t focusing on the close-quarters scuffling that every Fox learns because he has a Falco for a training partner. We make lots of little technical mistakes, or simply fail to optimize them, because those don’t necessarily pertain to our grab game, and then they cost us.

In short, we are falling behind. We are falling below. Other people are climbing up the other peaks, and we are idly shuffling around, trying to find the best spot on our hill to watch them.

Another problem our character has is that… well, our character is very very different from the others. We have a different neutral, one that is heavily based on the wavedash, like Luigi, rather than dashes or air mobility. ICs are also the only puppet character, which involves desyncs, understanding the other Climber’s AI, and playing miniature 2v1s constantly during matches. We have a group of skills to master that no other character worries about, which spreads our attention. Lest I sound like I'm ragging on other ICs too much, that isn't our fault at all, and it's part of why we're struggling.

Again, this means that while other players are using smash DI on jab-resets to avoid guaranteed followups, or practicing reaction tech-chases, or mastering invincible wavelands, we are still trying to figure out the mystery of how Nana knows the exact worst time to taunt every match.

We are playing a different game. Our emphasis on grabs (with a character that itself is bad at grabbing skilled players) is making it a much smaller game. The infinite also tricks us by giving that small game a huge payout, making us think the hill is the peak of the mountain. But it’s not.

*

So enough about us, let’s talk about me.

One of my current weaknesses is that I’m trying to play extremely fast all the time. I am currently trying to push my technical skill and eke out every frame from every situation I can. I am trying to use invincible wavelands (and SD’ing). I am trying to master pivots for the small benefit they give in close quarters microspacing. I am also trying to add this to quicker reactions, particularly in scuffles (those situations where two players are on each other in close range, hitting lots of buttons).

The result is that I’m making a lot more errors. These errors are costing me games and sets, and I’m just going to have to deal with that. You have to go down the smaller hill to start climbing the bigger mountain. Other players are using these kinds of advanced tools and using them consistently, so I have no excuse for not integrating them.

I am also trying to avoid wobbling as much as possible. If I get a grab, I intentionally convert it into a different scenario. Originally this was just for funsies, but now I think that it is, in fact, the right thing to do if I want to improve. Mind you, there is no point in truly forsaking such a strong punish game. It kills people dead. As far as punishment strategies go, it is pretty much the peak for my character, whenever it’s available. That is why this past weekend, I tried to use it as often as I could, especially in my (super close) top 8 set against Professor Pro. I am still highly competitive. I would like to win!

However, if I use it every time, particularly in tournaments and pressure situations, I’m depriving myself of the opportunity to train other skills in those situations. If I keep doing that, the result will look a bit like this:

“Okay, tourney time, I’m going to use the stuff that’s consistent and not give away any openings.”
“Oh shoot, I just flubbed that pivot.”
“Uh oh, my smash DI and CCs are pretty bad, I should probably play on the outside more.”
“I can’t seem to get these autocancel u-airs right now, I’ll stay grounded.”
“Well, at least my wobbling still works, I’ll just focus on that.”

I will just end up doing what I'm most comfortable with, which is my old stuff. And it will keep happening, because if I don't train the new stuff under pressure, I will botch it under pressure. I will only incentivize myself to keep doing the same old thing, the same old strategy that will not keep working as my opponents improve. As they get better, I will become more and more paranoid about taking a few steps down my little hill.

Somewhere in here is a happy medium for pushing myself without sandbagging pointlessly and developing lazy habits with regards to my grab game. I'll let you know when I find it.

Finally, this is a list of some things I’m trying to work on. You will notice that this list is actually kind of long. Most of the stuff is also hard.

--Invincible ledgedashes
--Smash DI’ing small hits into counter hits, or to escape
--Shield angling to avoid pokes
--Shield impact DI to guarantee punishes or evade followups
--Tighter on-shield actions to stay safe, like aerial->jab
--Tighter control over aerial drift, for staying safer, dodging hits, and placing aerials better
--Better reactions in tech-chase scenarios
--Implementing effective desyncs in neutral
--Implementing faster desyncs in neutral so I don’t lose my setups under enemy pressure; also using hit-stun and shield-stun desyncs on purpose to generate advantages out of nowhere.
--Smarter CC’ing--making it intentional so I don’t DI wrong, but implementing it intelligently to score counter hits and earn respect for my space
--Tighter dash dance game, especially around get-up attacks and landing aerials.
--Intentionally clinking with moves to force my way into range or prevent enemy dominance over the footsies game
--Accounting for enemy hitstop on Nana and avoiding those extended hitboxes when counterpoking
--Tracking Nana’s AI in fast-paced situations and remembering her various methods of getting me into trouble
--Avoiding extended shield-based play, since it’s mostly just bait for shield-grabs, but it increases the odds of getting shield-poked.
--Not getting into crummy situations in the first place so I don’t need to use risky tech-skill to bail myself out constantly

I could probably think of a few others but those are the ones that came to mind off the top of my head. This is aside from simply trying to up the consistency on other skills I already have. If it seems ridiculous, that’s probably just because our game is ridiculous. More importantly, the best players also use all of those skills (well, the non-IC-specific ones) and use them consistently because that’s what gives them an edge. If I want to step into their realm and keep ascending with them, then I need to gain access to those skills as well.

The downside is that it means willfully entering situations when using tools I lack experience with. This means more errors, more free losses, and sometimes throwing away things that I know will work in favor of stuff that I hope will pay off. It means losing matches I might have won if I’d played safer, more within my comfort zone. It also means more frustration as I commit unforced errors, but that’s just another weight to carry up the mountain with me.

Those are some of my thoughts lately. I am very determined to start training a lot more and try to achieve some of these in my game, and hopefully show people we’ve still got a long way to climb. Thanks for reading.

Wednesday, October 21, 2015

Mindfulness

If there’s a tool to becoming a more successful anything, it’s probably mindfulness.

I’m not 100% sure if there’s a universally agreed-upon definition for it, but I kind of like Wikipedia’s. From the mindfulness article: “the practice of mindfulness involves being aware, moment-to-moment, of one’s subjective conscious experience from a first-person perspective.”

There’s a lot to that concept! However, it’s a tremendously handy process, one I’m surprised I haven’t really explicitly written on. I touch on it, but I haven’t explored this specifically. In many ways it’s the cornerstone of self-improvement in all areas! Let’s get cracking.

Listening to yourself


Maybe you’ve heard somebody being a hypocrite, or saying something exceptionally stupid or ignorant, and you thought “if only you could hear yourself right now!” That is, essentially, mindfulness.

The hearing part, not the stupid hypocrite part.

It means taking an active awareness of your thoughts, feelings, and behaviors right now. Usually, it also means doing so while withholding judgments about them. However, if you do have judgments, you also observe those.

I find the most passive, observer-oriented phrase to use is “I notice that…” and then I follow it with what I notice. “I notice that I’m feeling angry.” “I notice that my jaw is tense.” “I notice that I want nothing more than to go home and play video games.”

I just notice. That’s it. No other big gameplan in mind other than to quiet down, listen, and collect some data.

There is a form of meditation called “mindfulness meditation” (surprise surprise) based on this. Rather than attempting to clear your mind, you attempt to observe your mind. You sit still, somewhere quiet and comfortable, and you just listen to your thoughts. Often they will run away with you, but eventually you notice that, and you bring it back. You wait patiently for the thoughts to come through, and then you just watch them go by without forcing anything.

It’s actually a lot harder than it sounds. Especially for me, since my thoughts really like to rev up and take off without my say-so. After awhile, however, you do start getting the hang of it, and you bring yourself back to noticing rather quickly.

With practice and time, you will become more skilled at doing it in everyday life. It’s an internal process, so while you’re standing in line somewhere, you can stop for a moment, and honestly listen to your own thoughts as if you were an outsider. You can listen to your body as well, being mindful of the tension in your limbs, or maybe the pains and aches you’ve blocked out because you’re so used to them.

The skill of mindfulness is a nuanced one that takes time to cultivate. Over the time I have spent practicing it, I have become more and more aware of automatic, formerly unconscious processes in my head. It was almost like getting to “see” my thoughts in higher and higher resolutions, noticing gaps and shifts where I hadn’t before. Our motives, our thoughts, our beliefs, our wants, our desires, they can take on fractal degrees of complexity. And even though I knew that consciously for a long time, it amazes me how many little zigs and zags are inside my mind. I have always been an introvert, but mindfulness has an entirely different flavor to it.

Why do this, again?


There are a few objectives with mindfulness.

One of them is to avoid getting carried away with long trains of thought. Like I said, I struggle with that in general. It gets worse for me when I’m in competitions, when I’m nervous and anxious, when I’m trying to sleep, when I’m bored in school, things like that.

In many ways, writing has been a mindfulness tool for me, because it displays my thoughts on screen or paper, and that forces me to confront them as an outsider, to structure them, challenge them, understand them. It doesn’t seem like we should have trouble understanding our own thoughts, but if you just observe them, you will quickly confront how illogical and paradoxical your own mind can be. You will wonder, “why did I think that?” Then you will notice that you wondered...

And you will stop. You won’t get whisked away on that bullet train of the associative stream of consciousness; you will watch it from the hillside, noting its turns, its hooks, and places where the tracks could probably use some repair. Which is the second reason you do it.

When you work on a math problem (which I seem to spend a lot of time doing nowadays), you may spend a lot of time trying to figure out why you’re constantly getting a wrong answer. It seems like everything is going right, but you’re just not getting the answer from the book, or that the teacher has given you, or whatever.

Usually this happens because you have a faulty interpretation of how to solve the problem, or a faulty interpretation of the tools that you use to solve it. Sometimes you’re just going too fast and making a mistake without noticing. So the simplest thing is to become mindful of your thought process, and in this regard, you might describe it to yourself, noticing every component of it, one at a time.

Then you realize that, somewhere in the problem, you were hastily zipping over the part where you calculated “six squared,” and you kept getting “forty-eight,” and it was ruining everything.

With mindfulness, you turn your gaze onto your thought processes. You don’t judge it, you just observe it. You watch the train go by, you don’t necessarily get on it.

And that’s the third big reason. Noticing something, like a stressed or anxious thought, can help you get a bit of distance and perspective. Have you ever given great advice and then noticed just how bad you are at using it? Happens to me all the time.

When I am mindful, I see my problems or my thoughts from an outsider’s view; because they don’t carry me away, I also don’t receive the emotional components of them. At least, I don’t receive them to the same degree. This relieves that pressure, which lets me give myself the advice I would give somebody else.

The improvement part


“What gets measured, gets managed.” -- Peter Drucker

I dial you up and ask you to help me fix my computer. You ask me what’s wrong with it, and I hang up instantly, disgusted that the problem isn’t fixed.

You stare at the receiver, confused. Why on earth would I ask for help fixing something, but not give you any information on how it works, on how it’s malfunctioning? No description? Nothing? How can you fix what you have no information on?

“How do I get to the restaurant from where I am?”

I don’t know. Where are you?

“I hardly see how that’s relevant.”

Uhh……..

Mindfulness means you can measure your thoughts. You can collect data on the mind. With data comes patterns, shape, and structure. You can see flaws in your thought processes, dysfunctions, the places where you are causing yourself issues. This, however, is where it’s important to withhold judgment on your own thoughts.

There is a bias in psychology called the “social desirability bias.” Basically it means, if I ask you a personal question on a survey, you might not answer it accurately because you don’t want to look bad. This sucks for me, the survey collector, because I don’t want data that makes you look good, I want accurate data. Otherwise I’m not measuring things right. I’m certainly not going to manage well.

For instance, if I bring a box of bagels to my office, and then I have a jar for payment or donations or whatever, and I ask people how much they give on average, they might try to say a higher number than is true. I’ll compare the averages, and notice that I should be walking out of that office with $200 because my co-workers are apparently just that generous. Well bad news, I know you’re not that generous, and now I know you’re all liars, too. Not that I’m judging, of course.

If we are too judgmental of our internal thoughts, we can easily trigger that bias, even when we’re completely alone! It can be painful to confront a negative truth about ourselves, to accept that we have acted irrationally, or out of line with some value we hold dear. We may try to be more desirable and good in our own heads, because we don’t want to feel negatively towards ourselves. Even when it means lying to ourselves, making things up, or completely avoiding certain thoughts. This is the root of the cognitive dissonance model (look it up!), which explains so much goofy human behavior it’s kind of scary.

So you must not judge. You can’t say, “I notice that I’m angry and that’s bad because i’m not supposed to be an angry person oh god what happened to me I’m just like my father.” If you do judge, you must notice the judgments (and don’t judge them either!). You may want to (don’t judge that either), but resist. Because if you don’t measure it, you can’t manage it, and if it’s your thoughts causing a bunch of your own problems, that is going to cost you dearly down the line. The line they carried you down.

However… if you become mindful, if you start noticing your thoughts in a calm and dispassionate manner, you start getting real data. You also reduce your own tension and anxiety about the thoughts (since the judgments often trigger those things), which will help you be more accurate and useful with your assessments.

Being here, now


“There was a tale he had read once, long ago, as a small boy: the story of a traveler who had slipped down a cliff, with man-eating tigers above him and a lethal fall below him, who managed to stop his fall halfway down the side of the cliff, holding on for dear life. There was a clump of strawberries beside him, and certain death above him and below. What should he do? went the question.
And the reply was, Eat the strawberries.
Neil Gaiman, American Gods (taken from goodreads.com)

I thought I understood that quote, but its weight actually hit me hard recently.

I was walking through my campus, immediately after a class, headed back to my car. I was stressed out thinking about the homework I had coming up, and then I was stressed because I know that stress just destroys my ability to focus and study. When I’m stressed, I have this tendency to bail on the stressful situation, and do something comforting instead, especially if I can convince myself I have enough time to take care of it later, when I feel better.

Procrastination! The absolute best. Best best best.

Anyhow, I wanted to cut down the stress, and I mentally began cataloging the methods I had at my disposal. Listening to music helps me a lot. Going for walks helps. Deep breathing. I started to wonder when I was going to do that. Maybe I could do all that once I got home? Pop in headphones, go for a nice slow walk (it was good weather), and…

That’s when I realized that I was walking across my college campus in lovely, mild weather, and my headphones were already in.

I was so stressed about becoming stressed that I didn’t realize I was already doing the thing that fixed it. Because I wasn’t paying any attention to my relaxation methods, I wasn’t receiving the benefits. Without noticing the breeze on my face, without hearing the playlist that always gives me energy and motivation and confidence, I was completely wasting my own time. It was worse than waste! I was receiving no benefit and adding stress to it by dwelling!

To bring it back to that quote, I had my metaphorical strawberries, and I wasn’t eating them.

Actually... to talk about that quote a bit, it’s important not to oversimplify the idea. You don’t just give up when you’re in a stressful situation and look for the nearest serotonin/dopamine pump to distract you from real problems. Hey, we’re all gonna die, we’re surrounded by tigers and spikes and cliffs. Eat the cocaine infused strawberries.

No. Not quite.

The point is be here, where you are, right now. Do not get sucked away into thinking about things in the past you can’t change, or into future stuff you can’t impact by worrying. Don’t meta-worry by stressing out about the stress. Don’t become anxious about the anxiety. Don’t get nervous about your nervousness.

Look at where you are, right now. Do something productive based on that. In my case, it was “focus on my walk, and enjoy my music on the walk to my car.” That was the stress reducer that would help me focus more when I needed it. It was exactly what I wanted, so I did just that.

This is one of the applications of mindfulness. You hear and observe your own thoughts, you become aware of your feelings, your behaviors… but you also become more aware of where you are right now. That lets you act more productively! It can even save your life, like when you get into your car but you’re so busy thinking about something else that you drive like crap.

If you observe, calmly and without judgment, you can also avoid over-focusing on the things that just aren’t helping. You notice them. You notice they aren’t giving you solutions, so you look elsewhere. You can start to see things you didn’t before.

You might see strawberries, but you also might see a handy ladder. These are the things you might be too panicked to notice because you were imagining your fall, or you were still staring at the tigers above you.

If we generalize this to competition, we begin to notice thoughts like “oh god I hope I don’t lose,” and realize we aren’t using the tools that normally calm us down instead. We notice that we are just standing there fumbling with our controller, that we’re just tapping an empty energy drink on a nearby counter nervously when we could be warming up or stretching.

We notice that we’re obsessing on the crowd, and we ask “well, does focusing on the crowd help me play better?” I repeat, I repeat, I repeat; judgment needs to be turned off for this. Otherwise you get sucked into a different thought current. Things like, “ugh, I shouldn’t be so distracted by the crowd I’ve been playing for eight years now, why can’t I just learn to deal with it, why do I always do this right before I play…” Stop!

Sorry for yelling.

Take that moment to notice without judging. Take that moment to observe yourself, to be mindful. The advice you might give somebody else might come to mind, things like “take some deep breaths, stretch those hands, and start warming up, it’ll help you take your mind off that crowd.”

You may also realize that because you’re focusing on the thought as its own object, rather than what the thought represents, its emotional association is already weaker. You are already calming down. You are already asserting a control you didn’t have before. That lets you get to business.

When to turn it off


There is definitely a weakness with mindfulness and introspection and stuff like that. Rather than a weakness, we’ll call it a danger.

I mean, it sounds really awesome. I’m examining my thoughts! I’m being productive and being more “right” more of the time. It’s better than getting lost in the moment and not realizing what I’m doing, right?

Rrrrright…. wrong? Rightwrong?

If the goal of mindfulness is to keep yourself centered on your current moment, to be accurate and productive and notice where you are… then you do want to be in the moment. Just not lost in the moment. Immersed is a better word. Immersed, but not lost.

The inside of your head is not always the moment you need to be in. Sometimes the moment is laughing with your friends and having an amazing time. Sometimes the moment is focusing hard on this test, right now. Sometimes the moment is feeling badly about a wrong you have done, because if you don’t feel badly, you might not feel motivated to do things differently next time. Sometimes the moment is feeling nervous, because nervousness gives you the adrenaline to focus harder, to react faster, and deal with the situation as it is.

Mindfulness, as a tool, is not about constantly exerting tight control on your mind. It’s about being able to step outside and see where you are, so you can re-orient and continue. It’s about figuring out which moment you’re in so you can immerse yourself in that, rather than in something that isn’t useful or productive.

A comparison might be riding a horse. You are the rider, your mind/brain/emotions/body/whatever is the animal. The rider does not get down and start moving the horse’s legs for it. It doesn’t jerk the reins around crazily to make sure the horse does exactly what it wants all the time. The rider wants a light and delicate touch that keeps the horse on the path, then it lets the horse actually do its job. The rider might let the horse know it needs to pick up the pace or slow down, it might stop the horse completely to check and make sure it’s healthy. It keeps an eye out for things the horse might not notice, but also trusts the horse will be aware of things it’s not. In an ideal situation, the rider and the horse are working together.

The rider also wants a horse that actually listens to it when it really does know what’s best, which is why they train and ride together. No rider is quite the same, no horse is quite the same; with time and understanding, they figure each other out and get used to each other.

Most of us are not that rider, and our bodies/minds/brains are not that horse. We can get by, but it’s a little bit of a struggle. Or a huge one, depending.

But that’s mindfulness. You quiet down listen to yourself. You don’t judge and deny or distort the observations with other preferences. You just notice.

You learn the patterns, you learn to manage yourself, to keep yourself calm, and you figure out how to keep yourself on the path. You measure yourself so you can manage. But when you’ve put yourself in the right place, pointed in the right direction, you don’t keep trying to steal control. You just ride.

Thanks for reading. See you next time.