published on in quarantined thoughts

Flipping the Optimism Switch

I’ve been perennially tantalized by how a string of words or a sudden insight can cause a massive shift in perception and perspective. This has shift in perception happened to me a few times, twice on account of psychedelics, and a few times on account of introspective discussions. In my experience, a few simple words can supplant all of one’s previously held biases and radically shift the way the world looks to oneself. It seems that once these insights are comprehended and clarified into precise language, they are universally transmissible.

Would it be possible to build a dictionary of the most concisely phrased perspective and perception-shifting strings of words that are out there? Perhaps humanity has unconsciously been working on this problem through experimentation in the Petri dish of culture. Culture is a perfect realm of experimentation for the emersion of precise language, and different cultures offer different variables with which to experiment: different beliefs, languages (grammars, vocabularies and syntaxes), and different situational characteristics.

Perhaps the grand plan of human conscious experimentation with culture and language is to perfect the observations gathered in individual cultures, such that each culture can produce language-encoded insights specific to the situations encountered in said culture. Once each culture has perfected its insights into their quintessential forms, these insights can be shared across culture. In a society of truly global information sharing, we may reach a point where we have distilled the most important insights of each culture, at which point we can begin to fuse cultural values to form a more perfect and complete observational value system.

Before I hypothesize any further, let me give you an example of insights which I have come across in my own life, both small and big, which have radically shifted my worldview and my behavior.

For an example of a small worldview shift with slight impact, I was doing pull-ups today. After my usual max round of pull-ups, I was struggling to continue, but something popped into my head: what I was doing as I was performing the pull-up was not meaninglessly pulling my own body weight up a bar; I was fighting the gravitational pull of the earth in order to pull myself further away from the ground and deeper into space. The act suddenly became profound. A piffling “discovery”, yes, but this shift in perspective allowed me to complete a full round of pull-ups more — twice as much as usual.

A more drastic shift in worldview and behavior came one time after using 4-AcO-DMT (psilacetin), which led me into a terribly hellish trip for the first 2 hours, from which I slowly climbed my way to heaven for the remainder of the trip. A string of words popped into my head while I was coming down, a variation on the Matthew principle:

From those who have nothing everything will be taken, and to those who have everything more will be given

I repeated this phrase continuously for the next 3 hours, as I climbed my way to psychedelic heaven. As I climbed further up the “steps of life”, my perspective became clearer and clearer. The words were true. I began to clean my living quarters — mopping the floor, folding my clothes, doing the laundry, etc. — which led to subsequent revelations. For example, I found that if I stopped splitting my attention into many small beams of attention focused on different problems (which were never solved because the power of my attention wasn’t great enough to solve them), I could instead build one giant laser beam of attention. I began to hone this ability of single-minded laser-like attention for the next weeks, which radically changed my life for the better.

Perhaps I’m unique, and not all people are affected by the power of conceptual ideas expressed through language. But in my case, I believe the ability of language to radically shift perspectives and alter perception shows that if molded properly, language can be magic. Powerful formulations of language are spells. They can be cast via transmission to the listener, who is then bewitched by the spell-caster’s formulation of language.

Religions and cults have observed the power of language for a long time, as have great leaders and dictators. They have used this power to write books and give sermons which mix magic phrases in with agenda-driven speech, often in search of eliciting some response from the reader or listener. As a result, most of the profundity of language has unfortunately been “co-opted” to serve outside agendas, and very little “raw magic” exists — language which is free of any agenda but its own. I think we need people to develop more “raw magic”; our world is in dire need of it. That’s why I propose to you today that the first bit of lost linguistic magic we should search for: the optimism switch.

There are a few kinds of optimism.

  • The naive kind, which lives in ignorant bliss of the true state of reality.
  • The irrational kind, which takes into account the true state of reality but dismisses it as unimportant when compared to the transcendent (many religions and spiritual paths are irrationally optimistic).
  • The rational kind, which finds positive things to rejoice about and then argues that:
    1. The bad things aren’t so bad, and
    2. We can solve the bad things if we keep doing the good things.
  • The unadulterated kind — an attitude of always looking on the bright side of life — which can take any problem and see it as a problem to be solved, which therefore imbues every problem with hopeful opportunity for the resourceful.

Naive optimism cohabitates the same circles as naive nihilism, irrational optimism is widespread due to its religious affiliation, and rational optimism can be taught through careful education and fancy books from Harvard professors like Steven Pinker. Unadulterated optimism seems to be far more rare, but, unlike the other forms of optimism, it requires no input from external sources. Rational optimism can be understood and practiced on a purely meditative basis — no research or reading or transcendent belief in a higher power needed. All that’s needed to be an unadulterated optimist is to see every problem as the match for a solution.

The problem is that I don’t have the magic language needed to communicate the premise of unadulterated optimism simply, without resorting to a long lecture on the taxonomy of optimism. The closest I’ve come so far is to say that:

Every problem is a missing puzzle piece. There is always a corresponding solution. Upon finding a problem, your job is to find that puzzle piece. Venture to find it, and be grateful. This will lead you to your next step.

This is a terribly crude formulation of the idea, and it is clearly not final. I’ll continue my work on finding the best formulation, and I would appreciate your help in this. Of course, other fragments of magic language are appreciated as well.

Be well.

~ Hugo