Acting by Activating Impulses

This entry is part 9 of 11 in the series Refocusing.

The Conventional and Refocusing Paradigms posit very different underlying realities; they explain the experience of living in and interacting with the world in very different ways. The Conventional Paradigm posits that the physical world really is as we experience it, made up of physical stuff with mass and density that responds to forces of various kinds in measurable and predictable ways. It explains my experience as being sourced in the external events I encounter and objects and forces I engage with during those events. If I find myself unable to move when Bob is holding me in place, or feel pain when he is twisting my arm, the Conventional Paradigm tells me that that is because of the physical characteristics of Bob, of me, and of our physical interaction.

The Refocusing Paradigm, on the other hand, suggests that our experience of physical events is at least partly illusory, created not by the physical causation to which we normally attribute it, but by automatic unconscious habits that create the illusion of that physical causation, in the same way that the programming rules in a video game create the illusion of physical causation within the game. At first glance, this sounds absurd, because the Conventional Paradigm seems so strongly validated by both personal experience and societal consensus. But if we look more carefully, cracks begin to emerge in the supporting evidence; it is not as rock-solid as it first seemed. Refocusing is a way of exploring those cracks, and the Refocusing Paradigm, as I am striving to articulate it, provides one plausible explanation.

I need a way of talking about movement and action that works in either paradigm, a heuristic that I can use to compare the two. One heuristic that Bob and I often found useful as we played together was the idea that we move and act through the activation of impulses. Imagine living in a sea of impulses, impulses of many different kinds. I act, in this sea, is by choosing an impulse and activating it. To raise my arm, for example, I activate an arm-raising impulse; to turn my head, I activate a head-turning impulse.

The outcome of an action I take in this way depends not only on the impulse I choose to activate, but on what other impulses interact with it as it becomes manifest. If I encounter a barrier of some kind, for example, the barrier will act as a counter-impulse opposing my action-impulse, and the outcome will depend on the relative strengths of these impulses. One way I understand how or why a particular outcome occurs, then, is by analyzing the collection of impulses that contributed to that outcome.

Consider the arm-raising exploration that we looked at earlier in Exploring the Cascade. Activating an elbow-bending impulse in my right arm will cause that arm to raise — at least if there’s nothing in the way. Using my left hand to stop the arm, though, introduces a physical block that acts as a counter-impulse, interfering with my first impulse and stopping my right arm from raising. If I want to continue moving, I can increase the intensity of my movement impulse. This may or may not work, depending on the intensity of the blocking impulse. At least that’s how it looks from the Conventional Perspective.

From a Refocusing Perspective, though, the situation appears a bit more complex. We discovered earlier that what stopped the movement of my right arm was not really the physical presence of my left, but the fact that I unconsciously react to that physical presence by unconsciously stopping my right arm and locking it in place, while consciously blaming my left arm for the stoppage. In “impulse” terms, the movement of my right arm is still being stopped by a blocking impulse, but I, and not the external impediment, am the source of that blocking impulse.

I perceive that I’m continuing to do the same thing — activating the same movement impulse — when I’m stuck as when I’m moving, but that perception is wrong. I get stuck because I insert another step into the cascade, in the form of the stopping impulse in my right arm. If I consciously inhibit that stoppage, my right arm will continue to move, and take the left along with it.

Doing the 2nd thing 1st

The following video plays with this storyline. It’s framed in somewhat different language, talking about the first thing and the second thing rather than about impulses, but the underlying experiences are the same. As I’ve said before, the language Bob and I used with each other emerged spontaneously from our play at the time, and we weren’t concerned with consistant language. In writing about those experiences now, I’m trying for greater consistency.

(If you want to open the video in a separate window so you can watch it as you read, use this link. If your browser opens that window as a separate tab, dragging it to your desktop should make it a separate window.)

I’ll lay out our thought processes in some detail, hoping that will help you to understand what we’re experiencing, and to engage in similar exploration yourself if you choose to pursue that, which I encourage you to do. Please notice particularly the frequent shifts in our explanatory model as we play. Refocusing is about exploring and discovering new ways of looking at action, not about practicing specific techniques.

Don’t try to figure out what’s happening as you watch the video; figuring out is a good way of doing some things, but it’s just not a good way of getting this stuff. Instead, sit back and relax, soften your visual focus and let the images flow in; tune in and see if you can resonate with our experience and make it your own.

The video begins with Bob twisting my arm behind my back, as I attempt to resist. Conventional resistance is futile, and I remain stuck when I try it. Examining the cascade of the action of resisting, we discover two impulses — a blocking impulse, which we call #1, followed by the movement impulse, which we call #2. We find that if I do them in sequence, I get stuck, but if I simply do #2 without doing #1 first, then I am free.

Further differentiating the #1 impulse, we see that it involves two separate phases. The first is a sensing phase; I send a sensation down my arm to test for the constraint created by Bob’s grip, to see if there’s something there for me to push against. When I find that there is, I then activate the block. Slowing down the sensing phase gives me more time before the block becomes active, during which I can activate the #2 movement impulse with having it blocked. This is the storyline we’re playing with from 8:15-8:16am.

At 8:17 Bob notices a another way of understanding what’s going on. He sees that he gets stuck when he makes the success of movement impulse #2 dependent on the outcome of sensing impulse #1. If he treats #2 as independent of #1, then whatever happens with #1 has no affect on the outcome of #2 and he can move freely. I find that this also works with spreading my fingers while Bob holds them together — seeing the role of impulse #1 as making my fingers solid, which turns out to be what keeps them stuck when I do it.

Shortly before 8:19am Bob suggests yet another way of looking at being constrained. He observes that when I am stuck, I repeat the cycle of activating the #1 sensing and blocking impulse followed by the #2 moving impulse, then feeling stuck when that impulse doesn’t work because it is blocked. I then go back and start with #1 again, getting the same result. It’s pretty stupid to keep doing something that doesn’t work over and over again, hoping for a different result, but that’s what I’m doing to stay stuck. Instead of going back again to #1, if I just continue to activate the movement impulse #2, I’ll be free. We explore this idea with finger spreading, a half-nelson, and arm-twisting, and walking  .

(Just an aside on our ad hoc use of language: Notice my use of “continuous” as a verb at about 8:20:50am, in the phrase “just continuous it.” That’s clearly non-standard usage;  I’ve probably never used that word that way in my life, before or since. But it flowed out at that moment because it seemed to capture the experience I wanted to communicate. A lot of our language as we play is like that.)

Try it yourself

Explore these experiences with a compatible friend, and see what experiences arise. Allow yourself to slip into a mindset similar to what you feel Bob and me doing, but don’t attempt to precisely replicate what we did. Instead, just let yourselves wander into the same territory. Switch between both roles, the Holder and the Mover, and if you find a different way of triggering non-ordinary experience than we used in this video, go with it. Wandering in the process of exploration is what’s important, not the particular path you take through that process.

Remember that it’s not a contest between Holder and Mover. If you make it one the Holder will always win, because when you’re new at this he will always be able to pull you back into conventional reality when you begin to step outside the lines. The role of the Holder here is not to control the Mover, but instead, to present a fairly constant and repeatable problem for which the Mover can look for a solution.

I know that I can create non-ordinary experiences like these for people I work with in person, but I don’t yet know if I can do it with writing and video excerpts. Please give me feedback by leaving your comments below. If you tried to replicate the experiences depicted in the video, let me know how that worked for you. If you just read the blog and watched the video, let me know if it made sense, or if I said things that you think require further clarification. And if it just left you with the feeling that I’m certifiably insane and should be locked up where I can’t do any harm, please let me know that as well.

What’s happening to the other guy?

One question that experiences like these often often bring up, is “What’s happening to the other guy, the Holder?” Why does he suddenly just let go and walk away? Why can’t he keep holding on? I’ve suggested that the answers have to do with don Juan’s description of reality as an agreement, and with the fact that that agreement falls apart when the Mover stops participating in it. I’ll explore that in greater depth next time, and more fully explain what I see as happening.

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2 thoughts on “Acting by Activating Impulses”

  1. hey Ralph, it’s really good to see this video and ready what you’ve written. Of course, having played this stuff a bit in person with you I think makes it easier… so for me it is like checking back in to a reality I know but have difficulty connecting to all the time – so I experience a sense of relief in watching listening and reading you. I feel like you’ve done a brilliant job in your writing following the video. Watching the video itself, I still found it hard to stay connected to it continuously – you guys are working on such an intimate and detailed level. But as I know the feeling, it was ok to follow. I wonder how it is for someone who hasn’t experienced it? Anyway for me it is just great, as also I can translate the movement and action exploration into an emotional world, and then it gets even more rich. More please!!

  2. Nikhila,

    Thanks for the feedback; it’s nice to know that the video connected for you. It’s really hard to write about this stuff, I find, and feel like I’m making any sense to people who haven’t experienced it. The experiences are so far from most people’s ordinary reality that it’s hard to find ways to describe them that will really make sense. So I have to hope that readers can see what’s happening in the video, and connect with it at the deeper levels where the experiences are really taking place.

    I’m at a campground in Yosemite this week, just getting booted out curtesy of our wonderfully thoughtful and rational Republican Congress. By a strange coincidence, this is my second time. I was in a campground at the Grand Canyon in 1995, when the Republicans did this the first time. Hopefully it won’t go on too long.

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