Visualizing reactivity and freedom, part 2: how to improve

May 28, 2014 by Joshua
in Awareness, Creativity, Freedom, Nature, Tips

Emancipate yourself from mental slavery,
None but our self can free our mind.

— Bob Marley, Redemption Song


How do you move from living reactively, like in this graph, where you can’t help but react to any intense motivation:

Emotional Awareness Threshold 1

To living aware and non-reactively like this, where you are aware of many motivations but don’t feel compelled to react blindly to any?
Low Awareness Threshold 2

That change brings freedom. It comes from raising awareness and lowering compulsion to act on it.

How to raise awareness by increasing your sensitivity to your motivations

A motivation being subtle—that is, not intense—doesn’t mean it’s unimportant. On the contrary, often your most important motivations are subtle ones. How many people want to write books, paint, and so on, but never do because they’re always dealing with emergencies?

I believe our most important passions, dreams, and so on lie among the subtle motivations, not the intense ones. Finding your important motivations means increasing your sensitivity.

Let’s see what happens to many of us to understand how to change it.

Visualizing being a slave to your environment

Someone who hasn’t learned to differentiate between feeling a motivation and reacting to it has to react to the most intense motivations all the time. They can’t help it. They can’t get to the next most important motivation until they’ve handled the most intense. They have to jump every time a new email comes in. This pattern is pure reactivity, the opposite of leadership, though the person may feel important for always working on what feels so important all the time.

A person illustrated in this graph is always putting out fires, forever multitasking but probably rarely finishing things because something always pulls them away, probably feeling important, but never able to choose for themselves or discover what they consider important. Because their environment determines their priorities, they are a slave to their environment.

Varying thresholdsUntil they exit this mode, their awareness will never increase.

Visualizing separating awareness from compulsion to act

This graph shows someone who decoupled awareness from compulsion. It shows they still react to their most intense motivations, but at least they are aware of other motivations, at least ones above their awareness threshold. I illustrated their awareness threshold as stable, at about the level of the lowest level the most intense motivation over the period in this animation.

Varying Theshold 2

I wouldn’t yet call someone like this particularly free since they remain so reactive to their environment, but at least they have the awareness to see the possibility of an alternative.

Lowering your awareness threshold

How do you lower your awareness threshold or, in other words, raise your sensitivity?

There are probably many ways to do it, but the way I know best is to lower the intensity of your motivations, which I do by having fewer distractions in my environment. Decreasing your environment’s intensity in the long term will increase your sensitivity in the long term, but even doing it in the short term will give you experience in noticing subtle feelings.

Your goal is to move from an experience like this graph:

High intensity life

to one like this one, in which fewer things compete for your attention and those that do don’t feel as intense. As a result, you become more sensitive to all motivations, including the subtle, important ones.

Low intensity life

Intensity doesn’t only come from the environmental cue. Your perception and beliefs create intensity too. You’ll see in my book about beliefs and mental models that I’ve chosen to adopt beliefs and mental models that create calm, replacing ones that created intensity so that in an environment that used to feel intense, I now stay more calm. I run around less but finish more.

I find it difficult to train yourself to interpret things as less intense without experiencing a lower intensity environment. It’s like tasting nuances to food. They are hard to sense when you’re eating junk food overwhelmed with sugar and salt. Carrots will taste mild after eating Doritos. Stop eating junk food and you’ll notice the greater complexity and nuance in a carrot. Once you’ve experienced that complexity and nuance you can try harder to find it in junk food, though you’ll probably prefer to reduce how much junk food you eat since it overwhelms your senses rather than excites them.

Likewise with motivations, once you become sensitive to subtle motivations, where you’ll probably find more meaning, value, importance, and purpose than when you only sense intense ones, you’ll probably want to find ways to reduce the amount of high intensity motivations you feel by changing your environment and how you perceive it through your beliefs and mental models.

With experience you’ll keep the low threshold even at high intensity, as in a graph like this, illustrating someone with high awareness despite living in an intense environment.

High Intensity Low Threshold

You can think of other ways to increase your sensitivity. My goal in this post is to illustrate their effect and why you’d want to do them, not to give you a comprehensive list of activities, but I’ll mention a few anyway for context.

You already turning off your phone and disconnecting from the internet helps you focus. Diet helps too—decreasing coffee and eating healthily keeps your motivations calm. Keeping your finances in order, if you can, helps calm intense motivations about security.

In the short-term you can by getting away from it all—taking a vacation or time away from the distractions of other people, going for a hike in the woods, a walk along the beach, and so on. When you replace motivations like “boss yelling” and “kids yelling” with “pay attention to birds chirping” and “watch waves lap along the shore” you can imagine the overall intensity of your motivations dropping.

To get away from a very intense environment, leaving the room for a minute or, if nothing else is available, closing your eyes and counting to ten or breathing slowly for a few breaths will help lower your threshold to where you can be aware of other things than whatever intense motivation is drawing all of your attention, like when you’re arguing with someone you care about.

I happened to think of illustrating this way during a ten-day meditation retreat in as low intensity an environment as I could think of. During the period of no internet, phone, reading, writing, and talking, few things distracted us and we became sensitive to very subtle motivations. Meditating in the dim, quiet meditation hall gave us periods of even lower intensity. Your sensitivity stays low after the retreat, though I find it increases after.

How to lower compulsion by increasing your threshold to act

You’ve seen people who know what they’re doing stay calm when other people lose their composure. Their threshold to react is higher, making them less reactive.

How do you raise the threshold for things you have to respond to? It first helps to know what causes motivations to become intense. One cause of intense motivations is intense need: if you’re drowning, you feel intense motivation to save yourself. A second, more general, cause of intensity is not knowing what to do. No matter how intense a need, people who know what to do don’t panic, they get to work or do what it takes to address the need. People who don’t know what to do will try what technique they can, becoming more frantic with each technique that doesn’t work. If you think about it, the second category includes the first.

The best way I know is through challenging experience you learn from. Every challenge your don’t die from—or better, that you learn and grow from—teaches you something you can react more calmly to.

Consider someone with extensive martial arts training, for example. In situations where many people might feel physically threatened, they might feel calm and relaxed, knowing they can handle themselves, having trained, sparred, and experienced yet more challenging situations.

Consider champion athletes or experienced public performers. Their training enabled them to keep their composure under situations where others would fold.

You can train too, even if you don’t plan to become a champion athlete or performer. Consider someone who developed their social skills by practicing them in challenging situations, they might also keep calm in challenging social situations that would make others anxious or frantic. The meditation retreat I described above also had us sit as still as we could for an hour, meaning we had to face and not react to itches and feeling of pain. SIDCHAs (Self-Imposed Daily Challenging Healthy Activities) also help here, by having you develop and refine skills to face and overcome challenges—the more challenging the SIDCHA the greater the skills and the longer you’ve done it the more deeply ingrained.


Consider life for someone living like in the graph below. They are aware of nearly all the needs and motivations rising and falling in intensity, so they likely know what is important for them to act on, not just what is urgent, but they don’t feel compelled to act on anything blindly, so they can choose which needs and motivations to act on calmly, for maximum effectiveness in their life. They likely persevered and overcame great challenges, likely through directed training.

I call living like this mental freedom and I believe it comes through focused practice and experience and deliberately choosing appropriate beliefs and environments for yourself.

Mental Freedom

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1 response to “Visualizing reactivity and freedom, part 2: how to improve

  1. Pingback: Visualizing reactivity and freedom, part 1 » Joshua Spodek

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