with Spencer Greenberg
the podcast about ideas that matter

Episode 215: Raising our happiness baseline (with Sasha Chapin)

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June 20, 2024

How easy is it to shift our baseline level of happiness? What sorts of things can most effectively shift that baseline? And are they highly specific to each individual or generalizable to most people? What are the differences between conceptual and phenomenal self-love? Why might it be useful to view shame as a kink? How does self-love or self-acceptance differ from indulging or even just tolerating the worst parts of yourself? What's the best way to think about "woo"? How genuine is the stereotypical guru demeanor of serenity, graciousness, and attentiveness? Is it possible for people with aphantasia to learn visualization? What's so interesting about perfume? What can people do to become better writers?

Sasha Chapin is a writer currently living in California. Most of his recent writing is on his Substack. His most popular posts there are "What the humans like is responsiveness" and "50 Things I Know". He also wrote a book called All the Wrong Moves: A Memoir About Chess, Love, and Ruining Everything. Learn more about him at his website,, or follow him on Twitter / X at @sashachapin.

Further reading:

SPENCER: Sasha, welcome.

SASHA: Thank you so much, Spencer.

SPENCER: A lot of people believe that you're kind of stuck with the happiness you were dealt, this idea of your happiness set point, that you can make all these changes to your life, but eventually you'll get used to them, and then you'll end up just as happy as you were. And there were some studies back in the day, where they looked at lotto winners and looked at how happy they were, and they looked at people that got injured and looked at how happy they were, and they found that, at least to some extent, they would feel really happy if a good thing happened, or really sad if a bad thing happened, but then, to at least some extent, they would return to their baseline level of happiness. I think you have quite a different perspective on this, so my first question for you is: do you believe in happiness set points?

SASHA: To a certain extent, for sure. I do think there's a large temperamental factor in how happy people are as well. Some people are more temperamentally inclined towards the kind of versatility that can help them find lifestyle interventions to make themselves happier. But at the same time, I think happiness is significantly more plastic than the idea of happiness set points implies.

SPENCER: And what do you base this on? Where'd you come to view it that way?

SASHA: This began with my personal experience. I really bought into this idea that happiness set points were pretty rigid, that you're going to be about the same level of happy across your life. Moreover, I bought into a kind of miserabilism, the idea that life is inherently really tragic; not just that it contains tragedy, but that it is essentially tragic in character. I was really influenced by literature like Samuel Beckett, existentialism, just work that foregrounded the bleakness of existence. And then things started changing for me quite a bit personally. I went through a period of psychological work, after which I was much happier than I was before every day, to a degree that was kind of confusing for me. And then I got into serious meditation practice, and then it did that again. My happiness was categorically different than before, multiple times.

SPENCER: So on your happiness journey, what was that first unlock? What gave you the first step change in your happiness levels?

SASHA: First of all, there were a lot of little incremental things that did genuinely help quite a bit. Like, I started weightlifting; that was really helpful. I started doing combat sports and that was really helpful; Jiu Jitsu, I found it really healthy psychologically. But those were all little changes. The first step change came when I read, embarrassingly enough, this New Agey self-help book called "Existential King." I recommend this book to people all the time, but with the caveat that it is written in a New Age vernacular that lots of my peers find distasteful. In it, there's a meditation exercise that's a kind of loving kindness, where you focus on behaviors and emotions that you find shameful and try to embrace them. And the first time I did this exercise, I experienced a really (again) confusing inner shift — this inner change that I didn't really have a precedent for, that changed my ideas of what is psychologically possible forever.

SPENCER: It's totally fine if you're not comfortable talking about it, but are you comfortable sharing what it was you felt shame around and what you did in that exercise?

SASHA: There were a lot of things I felt shame around, and I did the exercise multiple times. But the first time was focused on my attitude towards creative expression. I was stuck in this funny cycle where I would publish stuff on the internet or in magazines, and then feel like an idiot, feel like everything I had done was stupid, and then I would retreat from the world, and then I would slowly creep my way back as my need for affirmation built up. I would publish something again, and it was the cycle, and the cycle consumed years of my life. I looked at the shame around that in a loving way, and it was both very psychologically revealing, but also it changed the texture of my reality in a way that I was unprepared for.

SPENCER: Could you walk us through the steps of the exercise in more detail, and then I'll be interested to hear what you can say about how it changed your reality.

SASHA: Yeah, sure. I will say the exercise is probably significantly underpowered unless you read the philosophy behind it. But just to sum it up, basically, you imagine the behavior or cycle or emotion that you're ashamed of. You try to imagine it in a really curious way, like a kid playing with an interesting rock, or like looking at a painting rather than judging something from a moralistic perspective. And then, you try to embrace the sensations that go along with it. The interesting thing about this sort of sensory exercise when you're working with aversive emotions is that aversive emotions aren't that bad if you try to experience them aesthetically. It's been noted by many people that fear and excitement are pretty close somatically. They both have an elevated heart rate, they're both associated with a certain amount of sweatiness. Feelings of shame are sort of warm and tingly and interesting, if you can just remove that 'this-is-bad' tag from your experience of the feeling of shame. And so in this exercise, you try to experience the feelings that way, and try to find them thrilling, like you kind of try to get off on them, to find them really interesting. And that can profoundly change the way you view your experience of these emotions that you might flinch away from. Typically, you might feel a moment of shame and then flinch away from it really fast, which tends to make the emotion less pleasant. But encountering the emotion fully makes it more pleasant and more interesting, and allows you to stay with it for longer, see what it's really composed of and how it functions.

SPENCER: What was it precisely that you were actually ashamed of? Was it something about the nature of what you put out in the world?

SASHA: Here is the core dynamic that undergirded lots of my behavior at the time and probably still undergirds some of my behavior today. I had this fundamental feeling of "not good enough," and so all of the stuff I was doing in the world — writing and making music and just existing — was designed to get affirmation. But at the same time, it reinforced the cycle, which is easy to imagine. If you have an inner belief like "I'm not smart enough," and you try to counter that belief by getting a degree in physics and becoming a prominent scientist. Sure, it's going to work to some extent, but there's always going to be someone smarter than you. And even if there's no one smarter than you alive, you're not going to compete with John von Neumann, right? So you're playing this losing game of trying to prove something with everything you do. And I just really noticed and had compassion for that cycle for the first time, and really also perceived the corny but true fact that the love you want can only really finally come from inside; you have to decide that you're worthwhile. You can't just get that from writing in a magazine. Or I couldn't, anyway.

SPENCER: Did you get a glimmer of self-love on that first day? Or was that something that took time to come?

SASHA: Yeah, I did. And the funny thing is, if you had asked me, "Do you love yourself? Do you accept yourself?" I would have said, "Yeah." And in a sense, I did. I thought I was a competent writer. I still think I was a competent writer. At that time, I had objectively achieved lots of things. My childhood dream was to write a book and get published by Penguin affiliate, and then I did that. My teenage dream was to live in LA, and I was living in LA. I'd done all these things correctly. But my experience was that there is conceptual self-love where you're like, "Yeah, I'm good enough." And then there's phenomenal self-love where you have a loving and accepting relationship with what it is actually like to be you and all of your emotions moment-to-moment. And that is completely different. That's what felt different, and that came into view as of that experience.

SPENCER: Could you unpack that a little bit? What does that mean? What is that distinction?

SASHA: Let's say you love yourself, in that, you basically think, "Okay, I am worthy of love, and I perform well at work, and people seem to like me and things are going okay." We could call that conceptual self-love. Is that clear?

SPENCER: Yeah, it's so funny to me, because that's so divorced from what I would call love. You don't love someone for their performance at work. [laughs]

SASHA: Right, but I think when you ask somebody, "Hey, do you accept yourself?" A lot of the time, it's like, "Yeah, I do well enough. I perform well enough according to the metrics by which I am evaluating myself."

SPENCER: Right. It's some external evaluation, as though you were a boss or manager or something, but applied to yourself.

SASHA: Right, and I think for a lot of people, their minds actually do function that way. They have this inner manager that's like, "Hmm, what does a person do? Am I doing those things? Cool, I sign off on myself." So if you're living that kind of life, it is extremely possible to have a large number of emotions and thoughts that you consider inappropriate. They shouldn't be what you were experiencing. They're not things that belong in the mind of a good person or a valuable person. And so there's this consistent flinching away from those facets of experience. People flinch away in all sorts of ways. They dissociate, they get lost in thought, they get distracted, or maybe they just experience feelings of self-revulsion that serve as negative reinforcement. And there's a real cost to that. I've experienced what it's like to have that and to not have that. And that kind of inner filtration where you split off parts of yourself actually makes reality just feel less good — you feel phenomenologically more stuck in your head, more separated from the world, as if there's this membrane between you and other people, and you and your life.

SPENCER: So why do you think this exercise of viewing the shame through the lens of a kink — as though you were doing it on purpose because you enjoyed the shame — why do you think that that's useful or unlocked something for you?

SASHA: I am not very well-equipped to discuss how this might function neurologically, so I'm just gonna tell you how it seems like it's set up to me. And I don't know why it is this way, but it seems like something in your ego structure tells you what is safe to experience and what is not safe to experience. The sort of trauma-informed or psychodynamic lens that assumes that your life experiences inform this might say that, in your childhood, it was unsafe for you to openly express sadness or loneliness or to talk about your sexuality. And then, that stuff gets marked as, "No, no, no. Don't touch." And then opening to those experiences — experiencing them fully and mindfully — sort of marks them as safe. Something in your system recognizes, "Oh, I can go over here and touch this part of my mind, feel this part of who I am and nothing bad appears to happen. In fact, it is more pleasant to do that." And it's really fascinating because those areas can be marked as off-limits for years and years, but then experiencing them safely in the right context once or twice, can overwrite that psychological rule, which is what I experienced.

SPENCER: It's interesting because that suggests that the premise of the book you mentioned, Existential Kink, that by taking on this kink perspective on your shame, that could be just one of many ways to unlock the same idea. And I've heard people talk about psychedelics from the same perspective that, on certain psychedelics, people are able to think about things that they would never allow themselves to think about, maybe it's too painful, or your mind would just immediately move away as soon as you thought about it. And then on the psychedelics, suddenly you're able to actually engage with that thought, and then that unlocks something for you. Do you think that's similar?

SASHA: Yeah, I totally think it's similar. I think it's something about lowering your global ego defenses. Existential Kink just offers a really powerful frame, or frame that's occasionally really powerful. You look at your own behavior for years and years, and you're like, "Why am I doing this? Why do I do this even though it makes me ashamed?" But then instead, in the Existential Kink frame, you look at it, and you say to yourself, "What if I'm doing this because I want to, and I just try to enjoy this behavior that I seem to be perpetuating?"

SPENCER: You mentioned that after this, your reality was shifted in some fundamental way. How would you describe that?

SASHA: I would say being less in my head, broadly speaking, more in the world, less being over here and sort of judging and evaluating my thoughts, and more being immersed in experience and whoever I was talking to. My sensory clarity also went up, like colors got a little brighter. It might sound outlandish, but when you're depressed or anxious, your phenomenal experience changes. The world is drained of color to some extent. And the opposite happened to me, which was really striking. And at the time, I was with my first wife, and she noticed it right away. She was like, "Wow, you seem really comfortable in yourself today. What's going on?" And I explained what had happened. But I think historically, I had come across as somebody very, very self-conscious, very in his head. That registered in my body language and the way I conducted myself in conversation. And a lot of that just stopped overnight.

SPENCER: One thing this conversation reminds me of is, we did some research where we asked people many different questions about their happiness. It was about 80 questions, all about different aspects of happiness. And then we queried our data with a question which was, "Suppose you could only ask people one question about their happiness, but you wanted to predict their answers to all 80. What is that one question that best predicts all 80?" I'd encourage the listener to think for a moment about what you think might be the predictor. And imagine we ask anything you can imagine about someone's happiness, any question you could ask, what do you think is the number one predictor? Well, it turned out, the question that best predicted all the others was, "I feel confident and positive about myself." And that really surprised me, that it was a self-oriented question. But it reminds me of this conversation, because it sounds like this happiness unlock for you was fundamentally a shift in how you viewed yourself. Does that seem accurate?

SASHA: Yeah, totally. It was a shift from "I am good because I am proving myself to be good," which is a lot of work, to "Maybe it's just all right to think and feel as I really do."

SPENCER: As a writer who is seeking validation through your writing, did this suddenly change the way that you write?

SASHA: I think it did significantly. If I read my old work, I put a lot more effort into making effortful-sounding prose. I wanted to sound like a really smart guy. [laughs] I look back at it, and sometimes it was more or less successful. The opulence of my prose works, but a lot of the time, looking back, it seems hollow, or it seems very gestural, like I'm trying to manage the reader's impression. Now, I think I'm much more concerned with just getting something across, the idea or emotion that is bothering me enough that I want to write about it.

SPENCER: I have to say, I so much more enjoy writing that just feels like the writer really wants to tell you something, than writing that gives the impression that it cares about how it's saying it. Obviously, if it's done sufficiently skillfully, maybe you can't tell the difference.

SASHA: Yeah, for sure. I think the optimal number of writing tricks is not zero, but I had uploaded too many tricks. I think you would not enjoy my old writing very much. It just made me so curious about my psychology. That became my favorite subject because I had spent my adult life to that point, writing essays about myself. That was a major activity of mine. And apparently, I just didn't know my own mind. I wrote a whole book about my experiences that I thought described me pretty well, and I just sat down and did this one fuckin' exercise, and I was like, "Wow, I don't know anything." [laughs]

SPENCER: That one weird trick that actually works for you.

SASHA: Yeah, for sure.

SPENCER: Do you think that it is just a crapshoot? Like 100 people can do that exercise and five of them will get the result you got, and the other 95 will be like, "What the hell?"

SASHA: I think self-alienation, specifically alienation from certain emotions, is incredibly common. I see it so much in my peers, and I see people shrug it off. The effects are immense. I think what works is frustratingly individual, and when it works is frustratingly individual. It's not easy to loosen your ego structures. That exercise happened to work for me at that very particular time. Because of what I've written about this stuff, I think hundreds to maybe thousands of people have bought Existential Kink. Some people send me emails and say, "Hey, that book is life-changing." And then some people get frustrated at me because I recommended a stupid book that they didn't like.

SPENCER: I have to say, it's incredibly refreshing to talk to someone who doesn't say that the thing that really worked for them will work for everyone. Because I just constantly encounter that, of people saying, "This thing changed my life. Everyone has to do it," and they become evangelists.

SASHA: Yeah, no, that's not me. There is so much tinkering I've done with different techniques to find what worked for me, and I've just noticed that stuff doesn't work for everyone. Another thing I would say is, I don't even necessarily recommend becoming comfortable with your emotions for everyone at all times, because there are some people in situations where dissociating from your emotions is really, really adaptive. I had a rough time growing up. I survived severe bullying, I think, by dissociating from my emotions and my body and getting really in my head. And if you were just like, "Hey, young Sasha, now you have non-dual consciousness, you are fully in contact with all of the sensations of your life, and you don't have the ability to disown any of them," I would have had a much worse time, I think, overall. [laughs]

SPENCER: Well, that speaks to the idea that sometimes the problems we have are solutions that we developed.

SASHA: Yeah, definitely. I think that's right.

SPENCER: One thing you mentioned that I want to explore further is, you had this change in your happiness, and it was unlocked in this kind of way that surprised you. And you started thinking, "Man, how do I not know myself better," especially given that you've written a lot about yourself. What do you attribute that to? Is it that you were flinching away from certain thoughts and emotions? What was preventing you from actually knowing yourself?

SASHA: I think flinching away from thoughts and emotions was a big part of it. I do also think I had inherited a certain distaste for anything that seemed 'woo' and New Agey. So if you had told me that some somatic self-love technique is really going to change my mind and the way I live my life, I would have just found that culturally completely unacceptable. Also, I think everyone's defense mechanisms are kind of anti-fragile. Often, somebody in my life would tell me, "It seems like you're really hard on yourself," or, "It seems like you're uncomfortable with your emotions." Not often, but often enough — it happened more than once — and I just really reacted negatively to any suggestion like that. I don't know how this works from a design perspective, but from a practical perspective, if your psychological defense mechanisms just fell apart the moment they were pointed at, they would be pretty bad defense mechanisms. Trauma works; trauma makes it so anything around the traumatic sensation is negatively reinforced so you avoid anything that looks like that, including suggestions that try to get you to look at that thing.

SPENCER: An example that comes to mind is that the way some people get themselves to be productive is by essentially being a really mean, uncaring boss to themselves. And then you might say, "Hey, it seems like you're making yourself really stressed out and unhappy by treating yourself this way. Have you considered being more compassionate to yourself?" And I think that sometimes what goes on implicitly for them is that their model is, "Well, I am a hopeless slob unless I'm really mean to myself, and that actually gets me to do things." And so then the suggestion that, "Oh, you just have self compassion" is actually suggesting to them that they become a hopeless slob.

SASHA: Yeah, I think that's right. And I think also, in those circumstances, I would suspect that for them, for one reason or another, displaying love for themselves is tabooed. And it is for a lot of people, I think.

SPENCER: What do you mean by that?

SASHA: I can just think of many circumstances in my life where, if I had said things like, "I love myself," or, "I feel compassion towards myself," I would have been ridiculed even gently. It's interesting. There are some cultures — I would say Californian liberal culture — where this kind of thing is totally accepted and even expected, and there are other cultures where it is really, really frowned upon: the idea that you should have love and patience and compassion for yourself, and operate from a place of positive reinforcement, rather than burying your feelings or acting in spite of your feelings or being a harsh manager to yourself.

SPENCER: It's really funny that you mentioned that because I just happened to run a Twitter poll the other day where I asked people, is it healthy or unhealthy to love yourself? And I was actually really surprised by the results. I always try to register predictions of my Twitter polls before I run them, and I expected it to actually be pretty divided, like some people would think it's healthy to love yourself, some people would think it's unhealthy, some people would say neutral. And actually, 78% of people said it's healthy. Only 4.3% said it's unhealthy. I think that I had that perception because I think I had a perception a little bit like you're saying, that people kind of look down on the idea of loving yourself, or would view it as maybe narcissistic or immature, or it's the kind of thing that would be ridiculed. So I wonder, is it just my Twitter audience, or are we wrong about the way people perceive loving yourself?

SASHA: I think it might be your Twitter audience in part. I'm also reminded of the conceptual phenomenological self-love distinction. In my past, I would have said, "Yeah, I love myself. I think self-love is healthy," but I loved myself, asterisk. I loved myself, dot, dot, dot, except for that thing. And I think a lot of people are there.

SPENCER: Where there's something about themselves that they think undermines their ability to love themselves?

SASHA: No, where they think, "Oh, I love myself, except that part of me. I love myself, except that emotion," where they sort of live in a censorious condition, where they're constantly trying to ignore some part of themselves. I think that's very, very common, even amongst people who say, "Yes, I would like to love myself completely."

SPENCER: It's funny. It's different than how I think about love working. To me, when you love a person deeply, it doesn't mean that you love every single part of them. It's like you love them in their totality, but it doesn't mean you love every single annoying habit they have.

SASHA: This is where language is hard. There's a kind of love where you're like, "I love this. It is great. It is my favorite. I completely approve of it. This is the way things should be if I had my choice." And then I think there's the kind of love that I think is what Martin Buber is talking about in the concept of I and Thou. It's not a kind of love where you're like, "I'm judging this thing as very, very positive." It's more of a frame of receptivity, where you're entering into a surrender to the way things are with some other entity. You're just like, "Well, yeah, as you say, in the Gestalt, I accept it. But more than in the Gestalt, in all of its subtle particularities, you're willing to be with the way it is and not object to it." And that's more of the frame of self I'm talking about. And I found, funnily enough, that when you accept all of the particularities of yourself in that very detailed way, in that very non-judgmental receptive way, you also can change yourself more effectively because you are perceiving the conditions on the ground more clearly. There's not this distortion that judgment creates right at the outset.

SPENCER: It's a funny dichotomy, because you might think that if you are not judgmental of aspects of yourself, if you accept yourself as you are, then wouldn't that reduce your motivation to change these things?

SASHA: Yeah, I think it reduces some kinds of motivation, but it also increases other kinds of motivation. I had this period of time after all of this negative self-reinforcement went away when I was like, "What do I even do with myself now that I'm not constantly searching for affirmation?" I still like affirmation, but now that it's not the fundamental element of my psychology, what do I do? And that took some time to figure out. The answer was, mostly the same things just in a slightly different way, coming from a slightly different place.

SPENCER: But it's disorienting, right? Your motivation was driven by one thing, and then, with that thing gone, it's like, "Well, what is my motivation now?"

SASHA: Yeah, totally. It was very disorienting.


SPENCER: I feel like this conversation almost reproduced the Carl Rogers quote, "The curious paradox is that when I accept myself just as I am, then I change."

SASHA: Yeah, I found that. I found that I was constantly screaming at myself to change for a long period of time to little effect, and then I was like, "I can calm down and be the way I am." And since then, the mutation rate on my life has gone up a lot. I learn things faster. I am more adaptable and more flexible.

SPENCER: This also makes me think about how, if you don't have a path, that can be very scary, and you can prefer a bad path to no path. So you might realize that things are not working well the way you're doing them, or something about your motivation system is really bad, but then you're like, "Well, but if I didn't have that???" and that just seems like, "Well, of course, I'm not going to take that option." So yeah, I'm wondering if there was an aspect of that for you, or whether that wasn't a barrier for your own change.

SASHA: Yeah, I think that's totally true. I think living in ambiguity is really hard. It's still really hard for me. If I look at a week of my life and there's nothing scheduled, there is this anxiety of, how do I evaluate that period of time? What are the metrics? I think it really helped me that it came at a time in my life when I published my book, and I assumed that this would begin my meteoric ascent into the heights of literary stardom, and then that didn't really happen. My book was a critical success, but not a commercial success, and it wasn't clear what I should do. And so, I had this whole future, and then I had a question mark in the future instead. So, psychological change was less scary in that specific circumstance.

SPENCER: Because you know it was gonna happen anyway so there's more openness in front of you?

SASHA: Yeah, yeah, for sure. I notice ever since I started writing about this, a lot of people talk to me about when psychological change happens for them. And for a lot of them, it's when they got seriously ill so they had to quit their job, or someone close to them died, or their marriage fell apart, or they had this whole story about how their life was supposed to go, and then it broke down, and in the absence of that story which guided them, but was also oppressive at times, they were able to see themselves in a new way.

SPENCER: Another thing you mentioned earlier that I wanted to dig into more is this resistance you had to New Age or woo ideas. For someone who's very analytical and cares about evidence, I think it's very natural to build up that sense of New Age or woo stuff being bullshit because there certainly is a lot of bullshit. But then there's also this element of real value there, too. Some of the things are actually just genuinely super valuable. And then there's this navigation question of, "How do you pick out the good stuff and not get sucked into the pointless stuff, or even worse, stuff that's actually harmful?" And so I'm wondering, was that how you came at it, where you had this skepticism that had to break down?

SASHA: Yeah, completely. I wouldn't have started doing this stuff unless I'd had that tremendously positive experience with the first exercise I tried in that book. It was very lucky. I had a ton of skepticism around woo stuff. It's just that it worked so well, I couldn't argue with it. I'd been to a bunch of psychiatrists. I tried therapy techniques like CBT and stuff. A book about like magic with a 'K' did more for my psychology than anything else. [laughs] You can't really argue with that.

SPENCER: So how did that change your view on New Age and woo stuff? And I'm curious where it's gotten you today. Do you still see it as having a lot of bullshit like I do, but just that there's some real value there as well, and you have to sift through it? Or do you actually think a lot of it is actually correct, but maybe the way it's framed is misleading?

SASHA: I think there's different categories of woo where I think different things. I think I am still more on the team 'there's a lot of bullshit, but the good stuff is really good.' Also, often, the good stuff is really hard to find because it sounds kind of similar to the bullshit stuff. I think a lot of the time, the woo practices that work are not good at explaining why they work or why the mind should be set up that way. They're just instructions to interact with the phenomenology of experience that can have very positive results. When you're learning to deadlift, there's a common cue that people give you, which is, "Push your heels through the floor." And your heels aren't actually going to go through the floor. Everybody knows this. But it's a cue, and it works. And so, if people are telling you things about your bodily energy and your energy body, all bets are off whether there's some particle you can actually measure that's actually moving through your body that is being interacted with via practices like that. But there's an experiential truth to that that works if you act as if it is true. And that's a really interesting distinction that I think lots of people who are more attached to CBT and psychodynamic therapy don't quite get.

SPENCER: Yeah, that's a really good point. And I think that's partly what sucks people into woo stuff, and then can take them too far, where they have some really good experience, and then they're like, "Oh, wow, this works. Science is a lie." And they just go all in and think everything works. And especially because science often struggles to explain why that element of woo works. An example I think about as an extremely amateur martial arts person is Qi. A lot of uses of the word Qi, I'm sure, are bullshit. But when you punch enough, you start eventually feeling like you can actually perceive energy flowing through your body — at least, that's my experience — and it makes your punches way stronger. And I think what's actually happening, at least for me, is I think I'm beginning to create some visualization of kinetic energy as it flows through me and, by focusing on it, I can do a better job of moving the kinetic energy from my leg and through my rotation and through the end of my punch. And it's actually just helpful. But if I had a different frame, I'd just be like, "Maybe I'm channeling magic," or something.

SASHA: I think that is an amazing example. I've had experiences with skilled woo practitioners where, in practical terms, it seems like they have magic powers or psychic abilities, or they have energy healing abilities. And I can come up with plausible sounding mechanisms that are non-magical, but from a functional level, they can do magic.

SPENCER: And when you say they can do magic, is it just because the perception you have is that "there's just no explanation I can give to what just happened to me, but clearly, that thing worked or did something important"?

SASHA: Yeah. In particular, there's a meditation tradition, I think, that's really interesting, called realization process. Teachers who do the realization process are particularly skilled at understanding where in your body you are focusing on or where you are feeling energy in your body. I think what's happening is, we transmit a lot of information through body language, and if someone is, to begin with, very talented at picking up on that information, and then they just refine their pattern matching skills for decades, they can have insight into your internal experience that is very shocking. But from the other side, you just feel like, "Wow, you are in my mind right now. You are picking up on the fact that I am focusing on my armpit instead of my sternum," or something.

SPENCER: What does that practice look like when they're actually doing it with you?

SASHA: That looks like them gazing into your eyes as you sit on a sofa with them, and you feeling really weird and intense. That's different from the solo practice of realization process, which just involves inquiring deeply into your body sensations, feeling that your consciousness is pervading your body, rather than looking at your body.

SPENCER: And so when they stare into your eyes, they then comment on what they think you're experiencing internally?

SASHA: Sometimes, yeah, depending on the teacher. There are a couple of teachers who do this kind of thing. We pick up an amazing amount of information about people. You can sort of just see somebody walking a little bit erratically half a mile away, pretty far away, and just think, "Oh, that person might be a threat." If you think about that amount of information transfer, it's not totally hard to believe that people would be able to hone that to a surprising extent, but actually experiencing it is another thing. Then you're like, "Oh, I see why people believe in psychics."

SPENCER: I think we see this with magicians, where they become so good at doing some simple thing that your brain literally can't believe that it was possible, like it literally seems to violate the laws of physics. And yet, for magicians, it doesn't shock us in the same way, because we know there's a trick. I don't know what the trick is. I don't see how this could possibly occur, but I know there's a trick. But one time, I was at a magic show, and the magician was doing a seance, and did some very impressive things at the seance. And afterwards, people were going up to the magician and talking to them — I was listening to what people were asking — and one person completely believed that this magician had talked to the dead. And the magician was like, "No, no, I didn't talk to the dead." And the person's like, "No, you did." And this person starts arguing with the magician about the fact that they were talking to the dead. [laughs] I was like, "Oh my God, the trick was too good." They just couldn't see any other explanation for what happened.

SASHA: I think that's such a good example because the basic skills of magic are a very refined version of picking up and putting down an object. If you get incredible, like PhD-level, at picking up an object, you could do it in ways that are hard to believe if you're looking at it. In the same way, perceiving that somebody is angry is a very simple skill. If you get good enough at perceiving that somebody is angry, you can probably perceive levels of subtle irritation that they might have not even consciously acknowledged. And then, congratulations, you're a psychic.

SPENCER: There's some really recent machine learning work, where they train machine learning models on people's photos to try to predict their political affiliation. And they found that it was decently better than chance. And that's a machine learning algorithm that's definitely not as smart as your brain. And that was just looking at one photo, and there was some signal there of like, "Is this person Democrat or Republican?" which is mind-blowing. It's not stuff that you can obviously pick up on. It's super subtle information. Who knows, maybe it's the hairstyle or the way that their collar is tilted or whatever, but your brain is just doing this at a more sophisticated level than that machine learning algorithm all the time.

SASHA: Yeah, totally. And I think in good training environments for the woo art, what is happening is a lot of calibration of intuition. Person A is like, "Oh, I have intuition B about you." And then the second person's like, "Oh, that's close, but not quite." And there's a good learning environment. I think if you set up a learning environment like that, people's intuition can get really good really fast.

SPENCER: That's an excellent point because you also see the exact same thing happen, but with a bad learning environment, and it goes completely haywire. For example, you'll see people that believe that they have psychic powers, and they just never test them in any kind of rigorous environment. And then, as soon as they get tested in a rigorous environment — which almost never happens, but occasionally happens — they just completely fail. Like, you know, James Randi famously would test psychics who seem completely convinced their psychic power is going to work. Otherwise, why on earth would they agree to do the experiment with him on TV? And they would just bomb every time. If they had had that tight feedback loop, okay, maybe they wouldn't be able to predict the future, but maybe they would be able to predict subtle things that other people wouldn't notice. But instead, they had a shitty feedback loop, and so they just convinced themselves that they could see things even though it was all noise.

SASHA: Yeah, absolutely. I've definitely seen examples of this, and I'm now ankle-deep in the woo community. I have some woo contacts and woo friends. And there is a lot of discussion about who's legit and who isn't. And the legitimate people tend to have a big following, and they tend to be really hard to book. This is another thing. I am very sympathetic to people who don't have good impressions of woo stuff, because from the outside, you are much likelier to encounter incompetent woo people than competent woo people, just like anything. Like if you Google a random lawyer, they're likely to not be the best lawyer.

SPENCER: It also raises a question: where's the limit of this? Because there's some things that I think you and I would agree are just not scientifically possible to do. We can pick up on really subtle information about people based on the way they behave, based on their face, all kinds of stuff in their voice. But a lot of woo stuff claims things that seem to eventually violate the laws of physics as we know them.

SASHA: I will say that I don't have a fixed position on this. My Overton window for woo stuff is perhaps now too wide, because the scientific, materialist-flavored psychology stuff I had heard my whole life was proved to be radically incomplete. So to borrow a Slate Star Codex term, I have learned epistemic helplessness around woo stuff. I am not willing to disbelieve most things unless I have personally interacted with them.

SPENCER: So have there been woo stuff you've explored where you're like, "I know that one actually is really bullshit."

SASHA: Yeah, I haven't had my big astrology moment yet. [laughs] I've interacted with some astrology people who seem very insightful and intelligent and like they have real insights into human psychology, but the whole edifice hasn't really come together for me yet. There must be some other ones. I haven't been maximalist about my exploration. It's more like when people tell me, "Oh, somebody is really good at something," I try to go do that something. And most of my experiences have been pretty positive.

SPENCER: What's another area of exploration here where you found a lot of value to unlock?

SASHA: I think the biggest one is nondual meditation. I know you've had Michael Taft on the show before, and Loch Kelly, so you're no stranger to this subject. But that's an area where the whole premise of nondual meditation is that there are barriers you place in existence between yourself and the world around you that you can break down. That would have once sounded like nonsense to me, like you can actually walk around feeling that, in some important way, you are one with everything. But that just turns out to be literally true with a certain amount of practice. A younger me would find that incredibly irritating. Now, I just find it surprising.

SPENCER: Why would you have found it irritating?

SASHA: Again, I think this is just something they don't teach you in Psychology 101. If you come from an academic background, you have this perception that within the mainstream field of clinical psychology, they've basically figured out what the human mind is about. And then you hear some pretty radical-sounding statements, like the idea that the divide between you and the world is in some sense illusory. That just sounds like hippie nonsense until you try it out. You have to try it out with some degree of vigor, but you can verify these things experientially.

SPENCER: So did nondual meditation create a permanent change in you? And if so, what is that permanent change?

SASHA: More or less. I think I would say the permanent change, to put it in a very analytical way, is that I have lots more optionality around the identity function. For a lot of people, the self is this little bubble that exists in your head somewhere. You perceive that, in consciousness, you are a camera looking out at the world. And it is just true that everything you experience is, in some sense, your conscious existence. Like color, as we perceive it, is a creation of the mind. So in some sense, it is just true that we are surrounded by mind stuff and we're not separate from our conscious experience, but the perception is that we're separate. Now it doesn't feel like I'm very separate from my conscious experience. It just doesn't feel like there's a huge difference between the world and me. Obviously, in some sense there is, like I can move my arm, I can't move your arm. But my consciousness feels more dilated, almost like it's a distributed property.

SPENCER: And you don't have to do something to get back into that? It's just there all the time now?

SASHA: As a baseline, it's pretty solid. It varies. A totally normal phenomenon is that, when you are anxious or distracted, your consciousness feels smaller and feels more contracted. And when you're in a state of tranquility, your consciousness feels more open. I think my home base on that distribution has just moved quite a bit.

SPENCER: Does it ever become small again for a long period like days or weeks?

SASHA: Days would be really rare now. I think hours, if I'm really freaked out about something. The finding of a lot of practitioners of serious meditation, that there are certain things that are one-way doors, like certain things you see and then you don't really unsee it. For me, the divide between self and others being somewhat illusory was one of those. I saw it, and I just couldn't perceive the world the same way anymore.

SPENCER: Did it happen in a moment for you, that change?

SASHA: There was a lot of buildup. As I mentioned, there are states of consciousness that are more expanded and more contracted, and I had a lot of moments of a surprising degree of expansion. But then one day, as I was driving after a long time spent meditating — I had this long drive I had to take, a drive from the desert in California to Arizona and back to buy something for my house, and I just meditated for the whole drive. — And then suddenly, at one point, my feeling of, 'I am in the center of the field of consciousness, and the rest of the field of consciousness is not me,' just popped out of existence. It was a very, very surprising moment. In world historical terms, it's kind of mundane. Many, many meditators have reported the same experience, or even non-meditators. Sometimes people just have mystical experiences walking around. Byron Katie, who's a well-known writer, she just woke up one night and was like, "Oh, me and the universe, same thing. That's cool."

SPENCER: Do you believe that you're perceiving things more accurately this way? Or do you think accuracy is not the right way to think about this?

SASHA: This is a funny conversation because my wife, Cate, who has been on this podcast, asked me the same question recently. She's very into meditation, and she's on the side of, 'It seems good.' But she was like, "Are you sure that this isn't just some interesting, self-inflicted mental disease?" And I was like, "No, I can't be sure of that at all. I can just say it feels much nicer this way." The vast majority of people who shift towards a less dualistic frame of mind feel the same way, and it doesn't appear to have had any side effects in my functioning.

SPENCER: By the way, my episode with Cate was one of my favorite episodes I've done, so I encourage people to check that out.

SASHA: Great, great episode, and the best person there is. So there appears to be this interesting unitive factor where, when people are more contracted, they tend to be more reactive. Think of someone who's going through a panic attack, and they have a really hard time handling stuff. Their emotional reactivity is very high, obviously. And if you think of somebody who is walking in nature or tranquil, it would probably be easier for them to encounter difficult emotions or make difficult decisions. And it appears that the less contracted your consciousness becomes, the less reactive you are in general. I think among people, I am pretty unusually chill and unreactive, but compared to myself ten years ago, I am much less reactive, and that seems to roughly map onto how expanded or contracted my consciousness feels in general.

SPENCER: Yeah, I was gonna ask what you see as the benefits. That sounds like one. Are there other things that you see as big benefits to this change you've undergone?

SASHA: Life just feels much, much, much better, to some significant multiple. A lot of people — and I'm included in this — find that, once they see through the boundary between self and other, they realize that that boundary's existence was a painful contraction, like a muscle that was flexed all the time. When it relaxes, in general, your mind feels a lot more relaxed. One other interesting thing is that my state of expansion seems to translate into a sense of acceptance and affection that is transmitted to other people. I think when somebody is really nervous about you and their interaction with you, it comes across as kind of manage-y or grabby. They really care about what you're going to say. They really care about what you think of them, and that registers as a constraint on your agency. By contrast, if somebody is very open and chill, you feel like anything goes, "I can just be how I want to be." And so, I think I relax other people to a certain extent, not all the time, but some of the time.

SPENCER: Because somehow they sense that the way you're looking at them is different?

SASHA: Yeah, and just the way your nervous system is. I'm just less jittery. I'm at an undergrad level with this stuff. Pretty often, I interact with meditation teachers who have had decades of experience. And not all of them, but some of them radiate a kind of stillness and comfort with self and comfort with the world that feels psychoactive. And this isn't just me. Sam Harris talks about how he had this one meditation teacher where he would just talk to this teacher for a couple of minutes and feel like he had been on a meditation retreat. Something about that person's stillness and comfort with the world was transitive, which is really cool.

SPENCER: Yeah, it's interesting, because there's this stereotyped vibe that gurus have, and some of that maybe can be a negative thing, like smarmy or whatever. But there's also an element of it that feels positive. People being around the Dalai Lama, I think, often report this, just this sense of peace and stillness and maybe pure positive intention, or something like that, that seems to come off of him that they perceive. Do you think that's what you're getting at?

SASHA: Yeah, I think that's pretty similar or the same. And I think this is another example of something not particularly exotic that, if honed, becomes magic. Like, you are calmer around calm people. You are more irritated around irritated people. Emotions just are transferable. And one way you can think of a kind of meditation is just practicing the art of relaxing a lot of mental contractions. So if you assume that moods anchor other people then, when they are around you, their mental contractions will also be relaxed to a certain extent.

SPENCER: One thing I've been playing with, which I want to continue improving at, is just paying way more attention when I'm talking to someone. So if I'm hanging out with a friend, normally what I would call paying attention to them is not 100% attention, if that makes sense. And I think that's probably true for a lot of people, that what you think of as paying attention to a thing is not your maximum limit of how much attention you're paying. And that there's something that seems to unlock to some extent when I give it that extra oomph of really all my attention, and it actually seems to make the conversation better. And I suspect that they can perceive it on their end as well.

SASHA: Yeah, definitely. I think that's really true. And I think a lot of people go through their lives without being paid a lot of attention. If you pay attention to people with an unusual depth and resolution, they can really feel that; it's really an alive thing. It's really shocking how much it can change just day-to-day interaction, I think.

SPENCER: I also notice that I pick up on things that I think I normally would miss, subtle things. Often, it's stuff around, okay, we're talking about X, but there's something else here that's not X that is also being discussed, and then I'll become aware of that thing suddenly,

SASHA: Yeah, emotional undercurrents, which are often the most interesting things to pick up on.

SPENCER: Yeah, I suspect I react to them intuitively, normally, but maybe I don't. I'm not so explicitly aware of them, until I get into this hyperattention state, and then I start picking up more explicitly on undercurrents.

SASHA: Yeah, so you're developing psychic powers is what you're telling me?

SPENCER: Uh, no. [laughs] But maybe with some training, I could have pseudo psychic powers. Suppose you're talking to a younger version of yourself, and the younger version of yourself is like, "I want to get to that thing that you're in now, that permanent state change." What steps would you advise them to take?

SASHA: One thing is that, through a number of psychological changes, it has become hard for me to fully reconstruct the state of being I used to be in. I can remember that it was much lower quality, and I can remember some of the habitual mental contractions, but my understanding of them is not what it once was. I think to people with that kind of mental condition in general, I would say something like, "One thing you're aware of is that, when you are anxious, it feels like your mind is contracting against the world and flinching against the world. What you don't know is that you're doing a lot of that already habitually. And if you notice those contractions, you can relax them. In some sense, they are the lens through which you perceive the world, so they're not designed to be looked at. But you can turn the lens on itself, see yourself contracting, and then start to relax them. And often, a lot of people have habitual contractions around their emotions — they reject certain feelings. So, you might want to look at that. Go through your day and see when you're flinching away from emotions. Just go around your life and look at, 'What's causing me to seize up? What am I looking away from? Where are these subtle moments in life where I'm going, 'No, no, no, I can't feel that.' And if you look at that a lot and gently but insistently probe that, see how you can relax it a little bit. See how you can bring a loving patient awareness to all of these unexamined facets. See how your experience changes. It might change a lot."


SPENCER: You mentioned that, when you had this permanent change, you were doing a particular meditation technique. Do you think that technique in particular caused it, and you may not have achieved it without that technique?

SASHA: This discussion is so hard for a few reasons. One is that minds are particular. The technique I was using was, I was looking at my whole field of awareness, and I was looking at sensations that, for me, comprised the self, because I had taken on this idea that we have an illusory perception of a solid self, and you can defamiliarize yourself from it. So I was trying to look at all of the sensations that comprised me as if they were strange sensations like the touch of a stranger. I was trying to see them as if they were novel, and just mentally labeling them like, "That's not my real self, that's not me, that's not mine," in traditional Buddhist language. I get a lot of that. And then I was listening to this meditation tape at the same time, and the teacher on the tape said something like, "Imagine yourself as radiant and empty," and that just worked for me. I imagined myself as radiant and empty, and the me I once knew popped out of existence for a moment. I think labeling self sensations as not me can be really powerful and interesting. It can bring you into a state of enchantment and wonder and curiosity about yourself. At the same time, it doesn't work for everybody. I think the other thing that makes this really hard — it's hard to recommend things — is that meditation instruction is a terrible game of broken telephone. Techniques are sort of fake. A traditional meditation instruction in a lot of traditions is something like surrender to the flow of existence. What is here when there is no problem to solve? Don't disturb the mind. But it turns out that 'Don't disturb the mind, surrender to the flow of existence' describes a whole territory of ways of being, and it might be that some subtle shift from one part of that territory to another part of the territory makes all the difference for you. And that is a shift that might not be communicable at all. I think, in general, for this reason, people have to experiment keenly to find stuff that really works for them.

SPENCER: Going back to the martial arts and Qi thing, imagine someone just started martial arts and you're like, "Yeah, just channel the Qi through from the floor and through your punch." And they'd be like, "What the hell are you talking about?" Because you have to get to some point where that instruction actually maps onto the correct thing for it to make any sense.

SASHA: Yeah, precisely. That's precisely it.

SPENCER: Do you think that there's something about the way your mind works that explains why that kind of instruction worked for you, or some way that you're different than (say) the average person that might make it easier for you to unlock it through certain channels?

SASHA: Though my inner monologue has become quieter over time as I've done this meditative stuff, I'm still quite verbal, and I think verbal cues like that have been really helpful to me. Whereas, I'm not so good at visualizing. I've never been a super visual person. And there are a lot of meditation techniques that rely on visualization, and those have never really clicked for me. One frame for the kind of deconstructive meditation we're talking about here is that you are breaking down your default ways of sense-making. You're, again, looking at the lens of the camera that you normally don't see. And cues like "Imagine yourself as radiant and empty," or Zen koans like, "Imagine your original face before your parent was born," they use your normal sense-making apparatuses in a way that confuses them. You're kind of using the machine to deconstruct itself. And so since my machine was so verbal, then the verbal stuff was especially potent.

SPENCER: Do you have aphantasia where you can't form mental images?

SASHA: Funny story. I used to, and then I taught myself to visualize in the past couple of years.

SPENCER: No way! Tell us about that. Tell us what aphantasia was like for you, if you are able to describe that. And then, how did you actually learn to visualize?

SASHA: Well, it's hard to describe a mental state defined by negative things, like things not being there.

SPENCER: Was it more like you had no mental imagery? Or if you tried to imagine an apple, did you get some kind of glimmer but it was just extremely vague?

SASHA: I got no glimmer, nothing. I had spatial memory, which is funny, but it sort of mapped on like a texture. So if you asked me to imagine the layout of a building I had been in a lot, I could trace it with my hand, but it wasn't a picture. It was more like a set of directions.

SPENCER: Yeah, for me, if you ask me to imagine (let's say) an apple, I can imagine it in my mind. I can see it as though it's there in front of me. In fact, even with my eyes open, I can almost see it. I can make it appear in my visual field. But it's kind of fuzzy; it doesn't have the details filled in. But then I can zoom in and start filling in details. But by default, I know it's an apple; I kind of see it, but it doesn't have the crispness of reality. Anyway, that's my experience, which I think is more typical, more the average experience people have.

SASHA: I couldn't do any of that, and then I trained myself to do it. This is another example of where the woo suspension of disbelief helps, because I learned how to do this on the website of a guy who advertised himself as being good at two things: training people to not have aphantasia, and training people to have psychic powers. I still don't know if I believe in his ability to train psychic powers, but his aphantasia course really worked for me.

SPENCER: What were the exercises he had you do?

SASHA: There were a lot of things. His basic idea was that aphantasia was — I'm gonna botch this explanation. I'm not even sure that it's a good explanation — but that aphantasia is a broken connection between different areas of the brain and that you can rewire them by reassociating the verbal part of your brain and the visual part of your brain. There are lots of different exercises, like opening your eyes, looking around a room and verbally describing all the different parts of it, and then closing your eyes and trying to do the same thing immediately thereafter, the rationale being, there's some area of your brain that wants to have a visual impression of it, but your speech centers are much more well-developed, and you're trying to connect them up intentionally. Who knows whether that maps onto how the exercise actually works. I have a coach I work with sometimes who is a really great independent psychology researcher. He has lots of interesting beliefs about the mind, and he told me that he thought my aphantasia had an emotional component, that somehow I was emotionally estranged from the part of my mind that imagines and fantasizes. And again, I don't know how true it is, but I tried to act as if this was true. And I noticed that, in my life history, when I was really young, I was very imaginative. I would come up with imaginary friends and imaginary characters and imaginary places. And this was one of many things that I was bullied about. And so I tried to connect to that younger part of myself and say, "Hey, actually imagining things is fine. Nobody's going to make fun of you for this." That might have contributed to the project. It might not have, but that was another part of the thing.

SPENCER: Did you always have aphantasia, even as a child?

SASHA: As far as I know. Although I'm not sure. Sometimes I look back at my youth and think I must have been imagining things. This seems very hard to reconstruct.

SPENCER: And how vivid are your visualizations now?

SASHA: I don't know how to compare them, but the zero to one has been made. If I'm imagining an apple with you, I can imagine a red one, and then I can imagine a blotch of green. So things can get multicolored. If I'm trying to get the little freckles on the skin that apples sometimes have, I'm not quite getting them overall shape. Is that giving you something? Am I psychically transmitting an image to you?

SPENCER: [laughs] Yeah, I think so. One thing that I think a lot of people don't realize is that, much the same way you can visualize — which is essentially generating a sensory input that's not there, the input from sight — you can do the same with any sense, in theory, at least. So if I go through the different senses, I can hear a sound that's not there, like I can imagine a symphony. I can imagine a touch sensation that's not there, like I can imagine touching the peel of a lemon. I can imagine other things that are other senses, too, like heat sense. I can imagine the glow of a fire on my face when you're sitting by the fire. I can imagine the feeling of hunger. And you can go through all the different senses. I think a lot of people don't really think about that, that actually you can, in theory, generate any sensation. And then, you can start to explore, "Well, what about sensations I felt only a few times in my life? Can I generate those?" So there's a specific memory from my childhood where I felt this interesting sensation, and sometimes I go and I just regenerate it in my mind, because I just find it to be an interesting sensation. And so it's a fun exploration I think people can get something out of.

SASHA: Yeah, I totally agree. And it can be a creative place.You can compose music in your head or you can doodle. There's lots of fun stuff to do when you're just sitting around, is what the real message of this podcast is.

SPENCER: Definitely. That's the main thing we're going for here on this show. Out of curiosity, you weren't able to visualize, but could you do those other things, or are you blocked in other senses as well?

SASHA: I think I was unusually strong in a lot of them. My verbal recall used to be stunning, and now it is fine, but I used to be able to read a poem a few times and then recite most of it, or bits of it if it was a super long poem. I'm really good at reconstructing smells and tastes in my head, and I am the co-founder of a perfume company. I've been a bartender, and I'm a pretty good cook, and so that is a real skill of relevance in my life. If I've been somewhere one time, I can imagine how it smelled in particular. Smell is really mapped to geography for me. Sometimes I'm like, "Oh, the smell of that neighborhood in Bangkok I used to live in was really interesting. I miss that smell."

SPENCER: Oh, wow, yeah. I feel like, for most people, smell is their least acute of the major senses. People enjoy smells, but they don't necessarily think about them as often.

SASHA: Yeah, I agree.

SPENCER: So how many hours of training did it take to get your visualization powers?

SASHA: Not long at all. I think one thing that was also going on was, I had a misconception about what visualization is. So I had tried to tackle this problem before, but I didn't understand that mental sight isn't actually seeing, if you know what I mean. It's not like a photograph of an apple is superimposed over the world in the same way that you're seeing the world. There are some people with that ability, but it's very rare.

SPENCER: In my mind, I can imagine things, but I can also superimpose them in my sight if I want.

SASHA: Oh, that's rare.

SPENCER: Ah, okay. I didn't know that was rare. That's interesting. It's not perfect but I can definitely put that thing in my visual field to some extent.

SASHA: Congratulations. You have a rare mental ability. How does it feel?

SPENCER: No, I had no idea it was rare. I didn't think about that. [laughs] I just assumed that people who could visualize in their mind could also visualize in that way?

SASHA: Nope, nope. Most people just visualize in their mind, which I was also unable to do. I couldn't do any of that.

SPENCER: That's super interesting. I'll put a link in the show notes to the course in case people want to learn to visualize. Are there any drawbacks? Is there a warning you want to give people about visualizing? Or is it all just upside?

SASHA: I don't think so. I had this impression that I was harder to traumatize because I couldn't picture things. Some people talk about being shocked by visual memories of things, and as far as I can tell, I don't have an extra surface area for horror in my mind. I think it's just nice. I can't say that it's proven to be very useful. It's just fun.

SPENCER: I just realized something. This might be a reason I don't like horror films, because after I watch horror films, for the next five hours, I will, physically in my space, for moments, see the creatures. Especially in low-light situations where there's a lot of ambiguity in what you're perceiving, my brain, for a moment, will be like, "Is that the creature I just saw in that movie?" And I'm like, "No, that's not that creature." But I see it superimposed, and it only usually lasts for a few hours, but it's very annoying. And I think it's my brain being paranoid that maybe that thing is actually there, and then resolving ambiguity to that creature.

SASHA: That's totally, totally wild. I think one differentiation in human psychology that is not discussed a lot, but that I think is super interesting, is how visionary people are. By visionary I mean the extent to which they can imagine parallel realities and how vivid their dreams are in certain respects. Some people have mystical experiences, and their mystical experiences look like talking to God or angels and demons. Some people have mystical experiences like me, and it's just like a sense of absorption in the world. I am very low on the visionary spectrum, but this is a real difference between people.

SPENCER: So what does your side of the spectrum look like?

SASHA: I have a hard time visualizing. My dreams don't seem especially notable, and I certainly don't have a lot of presence in them. My mystical experiences have all been ones of imminence after a particularly deep meditation, feeling very absorbed in the world and very one with the flow of the universe. But I'm always here on this plane. I don't feel like I'm going to other planes or seeing creatures. There are some meditation teachers who talk about, "Seeing creatures is something that will happen in your meditation sometimes, and you can just ignore it. That's just a visual artifact on the way to enlightenment." That's never been my experience.

SPENCER: It feels like we just understand so little about some of these psychological differences. I don't even know; is there even a scale for this kind of thing?

SASHA: For visionary-ness? No, I don't know. I haven't thought much about this.

SPENCER: Yeah, this is also making me think about how, as a child, I would make these imaginary worlds, and I would just spend hours exploring them in my mind. It had all these characters and stories. I think it actually has become less vivid as I've aged but, at the time, it was so vivid. It was incredibly entertaining. It was like inventing a video game, and then living inside it, almost. Sometimes I'd spend the whole day just doing that. And, yeah, it just was a really, really fun time as a ten-year-old.

SASHA: Yeah, interesting. And I think this evidences a psychological difference between us, because I did that sort of thing, but the plot lines were really thin and the characters were not well-developed, and it certainly wasn't as absorbing as a video game. I chose Mortal Kombat over my inner world pretty reliably.

SPENCER: Yeah, well, I was seeing my inner world, and yours was maybe a verbal world? It was like a story?

SASHA: Yeah, a spectral, conceptual world.

SPENCER: Sasha, before we wrap up, how about I ask you a few difficult questions and you see if you can give short answers to them?

SASHA: Sure.

SPENCER: Why do you care so much about perfume?

SASHA: Couple of things. First of all, I think it is the developed art form about which most smart people know the least. It is a mature art form with classics and riffs on themes and interesting artists that shape different eras. But most people just think, "Oh, it's girls' stuff, or it's something that guys put on when they go to the club." The possibility space and the amount of sophistication is much larger than I think many listeners of this podcast would think. It is simply wonderful. It is tremendously esthetically pleasing. It also has really interesting emotional effects. Like an outfit can change the way that you perceive yourself and others perceive you, perfume is sort of an invisible outfit that changes the texture of your experience and the way other people encounter you.

SPENCER: Way back in the beginning of this conversation, you mentioned that you felt jiu-jitsu is healthy for your psychology. I assume you mean Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu? Can you tell us why that was healthy for you?

SASHA: First of all, I got into Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu because there was a guy I really, really wanted to fight. One of my partners had an abusive ex, and I, for entirely ego driven reasons, wanted to commit violence against him. I was never close to carrying this out, but it was a recurring fantasy I had. And I found that when I did some Jiu-Jitsu, those fantasies went away. A lot of people experience that they have a craving for violence until they experience real violence. Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu is pretty close to real violence when you're sparring hard. The actual thing is more complicated and less glamorous, and also more interesting than you would think. The other thing is, I don't think I was very comfortable with my body. I don't think I was very comfortable with same-sex touch. I don't think I was comfortable with feelings of physical danger. And getting comfortable with all of those things at once made a difference in how comfortable I felt being alive. It's also just really fucking good exercise.

SPENCER: It's true. I feel like a turning point for me in doing Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu was, at some point, when I was being choked and realizing that I wasn't gonna get choked out, I was like, "Oh, this is great. I can rest here and regain some energy while I'm being choked." [ laughs] I was like, "Oh, wow. That is a really different way of looking at being choked than when I started."

SASHA: Yeah, that moment is amazing when you can be playful on the edge of consciousness, or when one of your limbs is about to be broken. It's really cool how that can develop. It's also, I should say, really good for the ego when you think you're hot shit and you think maybe you would be good in a fight, maybe you're tough. You're 25, 26 and you go into a jiu-jitsu academy, and some guy who's 47 with a beer gut, who's been doing it for a year, who's not athletic, just dismantles you. And you have no idea why. You are so humbled so often. It's very healthy for men, especially, I think.

SPENCER: Yeah, not just beaten. No, this person actually could have killed you if they chose.

SASHA: Yes, yes, and then they give you a hug and you're friends. It's wild.

SPENCER: What do you think good advice is for someone who wants to become a better writer?

SASHA: I think for most people I have worked on writing with, the real bottleneck around writing isn't verbal skill; it is emotional self-tolerance. Writing about things you care about involves a certain amount of anxiety, and writing about things that you're not sure about makes you feel a little stupid. Writing about personal things makes you feel exposed. And I think often, writer's block is a failure of sincerity. You don't really want to look at and transmit the actual thing that you are, so you try to transmit some closely related thing, which is sort of like lying. And also, lying is more cognitively expensive than just saying the thing. I've taught people writing. And when I started teaching people writing, I thought I would be teaching them about alliteration, or how to open a paragraph nicely. And what I ended up teaching them was often just how to be honest with themselves. When you're honest with yourself and you are motivated to communicate well, the rest of it takes care of itself. You can just look at writers who you admire, and then pattern-match some of their tricks and find the ones that work for you, and get editing on your writing from people you trust. It's not that hard. The hard thing is facing who you are.

SPENCER: Alright, last two questions for you. What would you say to a skeptical listener who thinks, "Okay, this guy's claiming he cured his aphantasia, and then permanently his consciousness is spread out, and that woo actually has all this valuable stuff in it. What would your response to that be, this skepticism towards these claims?

SASHA: I am not at all invested in whether anyone believes me specifically. I am very happy that a number of people seem to believe me. It would be weird if nobody believed me, but for any particular listener of this podcast, I don't really care whether I sound crazy. What I would say is, mystical experience has been discussed as a part of human life for as long as there have been humans, and it would be really strange if there were no signal there. If people had talked about experiences of transcendence and inner peace and changes in their psychology for millennia, and then we were the first people to figure out that that's all bullshit, and that everyone was just hallucinating the whole time.

SPENCER: Last question: we've talked about how what works for different people can be quite different. And so, if someone wants to be happy, I don't think you're giving them the advice to just go try the things you tried. Where would you suggest someone start, if they feel chronically unhappy and they know they need to do something?

SASHA: Can I give ten resources?

SPENCER: Sure, yeah.

SASHA: Well, first, I would say exercise, sunlight, and less refined sugar are probably a good idea for nearly anyone. [laughs] And shortening your commute time and spending more time with your friends and just the basic happiness maintenance stuff is really meaningful, and it's much easier to do the heavy psychological lifting once you've taken care of some of the basics. I would say, if you're interested in inner work, the resources that are least likely to lead you astray and that might have a positive effect: I think Byron Katie's work is really good. Loving What Is is a book she has. It's a good introduction to that. I think the work of Loch Kelly, who's been on this podcast, is a good intro to nondual meditation. I have a friend, Michael Ashcroft, who has a course on expanded awareness that I think is really good at teaching awareness-based practices that can be really tricky to explain. I think often, the final frontier of emotional work is having awkward conversations that you've been putting off, and in the service of that, the book Difficult Conversations is totally excellent.

SPENCER: Sasha, thanks so much for coming on. This was a great conversation.

SASHA: Thanks for having me.


JOSH: A listener asks: "What is your essay writing process like from idea formation to publish?"

SPENCER: Generally, my approach to writing essays is that I think about the thing for months or years; and when I have ideas, I try to always record any ideas I have. So I use Thought Saver to record a lot of my ideas. So whenever I have an idea, I email it to Thought Saver and it will ingest it for me automatically, or I go on the app or website and put it in there. And so these ideas I have for essays are often stewing for a very long time and I'm jotting notes and so on.




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