Rewriting Our Operating Systems

Becoming Better at Being ourselves
by: Neil Keleher
Published: 2019 07 21
Categories/Tags:
habits

In Iain M. Bank's novel, "The Algebraist", part of the lifecycle of an AI, or Artificial Intelligence, involves re-writing its own operating system.

It might be the very rough equivalent of passing out of the teens into adulthood, but instead of being marked by a transition in age it's an internal transition from not really understanding yourself to understanding what you are here for.

This milestone encompasses the idea that the machine has had enough experience, that it knows what it wants to do with itself and so writes its operating software to suit.

In this case, the machines are intelligent enough to change themselves.

Trying to Change Others (And so Avoiding the Need to Change Ourselves)

As for ourselves, we tend to try to change in others what we actually should be changing in ourselves. It's something I noticed in myself when I first started teaching yoga. I'd be telling students to do something and I would have to ask myself, do I actually do this myself? In a lot of cases I wasn't and so I began to implement what I taught others into my own practice.

I helped to improve my own yoga practice as a result.

Noticing the Rough Spots

In other areas of life I find myself constantly, but not all the time, noticing and challenging my assumptions, ideas and habits. A lot of times, what drives these introspections are the cases where I don't flow or are forced out of it because I didn't notice or deal effectively with some environmental change.

So for example I could be driving, and someone would pull out suddenly in front of me. I'd get angry at that driver and be angry for a while after. But then I would realize it was my own lack of awareness which was at fault. I'd not been focused and had been caught unaware.

My anger was like a slap in the face to remind me to pay attention.

And so paying attention from that point onwards what I found was that I would notice when people might pull out ahead of me, and so have plenty of time and room to handle the change with hardly any effort on my part.

Fighting Stubbornness with Flexibility

A more recent example of this occurred when dealing with my daughter's mother.

I'm a single dad and my daughter lives with me most of the time. She went to stay with her mum for her (my daughter's) birthday, a day before Xmas. Here in Taiwan, they don't celebrate xmas. So she missed two days of school, both the day of her birthday, which is Christmas Eve, and Christmas day actual.

I phoned the mum on Christmas day to see when she was bringing our daughter back. She said she wanted to keep her another day. I was angry because this wasn't what we agreed to. No amount of shouting on my part made a difference.

In the end I asked myself why I was so bothered. (I was also reminded of something that someone a long time ago had suggested asking myself: "A year from now, will this make a difference?") One extra day wouldn't make a huge deal in our daughters education, and it was out of my hands anyway.

So I went to the gym that night, overate and did things that I couldn't do if my daughter had been home. And, big point here, I let the anger go.

Creating the Change that we Desire

Dealing with change effectively, to flow like water, means changing ourselves. Water constantly changes as it flows, so if we want to be like water then we have to be prepared to (and able to) change so that we can deal with change.

The reason for doing so is so that we can continue to do what it is that we are trying to do. In more general language, its so that we can continue to create the change that we want to create.

How can we learn to change ourselves a little more easily? It helps to understand why water flows in the first place.

Why Water Flows

First of all, water flows not just because of some innate ability. It flows because gravity pulls it towards the center of the earth.

So if we want to flow we need something to pull us. If we want to drive to the country side then that's the idea that drives us as we drive. It provides the pull. You could think of an "idea" as something that pulls you.

Having an idea to pull you is as simple as knowing what it is that you are trying to do. The simpler the definition, the clearer the definition, the easier it is to let it pull you.

Second of all, water flows because it has a channel to flow along. If there is no channel or passageway (or riverbed) then water just sits there.

To drive to the countryside you need a road to drive on. And ideally it isn't jammed with traffic.

But so that water can flow down a channel while filling its bottom completely, water itself has to be flexible and sensitive. It has to be sensitive so that it can sense the gaps. And it has to be flexible enough so that then it can fill those gaps once it has "sensed" them.

Because water is a liquid, lots of molecules that can move relative to each other but that are kept together by gravity, it can fill any container that it is poured into (provided air bubbles don't get in the way.) It senses the boundary of the container and so fills it.

Flow is a Lack of Lag

Another important quality of water is that its molecules repel each other even as gravity pulls them towards each other. This might be easier to understand in terms of the flow of electricity. Electrons push each other away. And it's because of this push that electricity flows instantaneously. In traffic, when a light turns green, the cars at the front move of straight away. But subsequent cars take a while to respond. There's no instantaneousness. With water flow (and electricity) there is less of a lag.

You could think of this as connectedness. Turn on a light switch and the light turns on immediately. Turn on a tap and water flows immediately. With connectedness there's responsiveness or a lack of lag.

How to Be Like Water

So to be like water we need an idea to drive us and we need to be sensitive so that we can sense where we can flow and we need to be flexible so that we can flow into the gaps provided and we need connectedness.

Habits are Like Functions (they do things)

Why do we have habits?

In programming, we can create functions that do repeated tasks. These functions take in a set of parameters and spit out an answer. The parameters and the answer it spits out are always the same.

Functions make coding a lot easier. Instead of writing lots of code, with functions we can reduce the amount of code required. It makes things a little more efficient.

Functions basically respond to an input with a type of output.

And that's basically what habits do.

In terms of change, habits respond to particular types of change in particular ways.

Why We Have Habits

Now with functions, it's possible to make them really big. But it's also possible to make them really small.

You could have one really big function that isn't very flexible. Or you could have lots of small functions that together do the same job, and in turn can be used in combination with other functions to do other jobs.

That's an important point and I'll come back to it later. But for now, what's the importance of habits? Why do we have them?

So that we don't have to think.

Upgrade Your Consciousness?

If you've ever worked with computers or mobile phones, or used them, you know that memory is important. The more memory we have in our devices the better they tend to function. In this case memory isn't the amount of storage space (which is another type of memory) its the memory used for storing a program and data it uses while the program or app is being used.

One consideration of programming is how to design an app or program so that it doesn't hog too much memory.

In terms of ourselves, I'll use the term Consciousness to describe the rough equivalent of this type of memory.

How Do You Spend Your Consciousness?

Our consciousness is limited. We only have so much of it to spare. And this idea was either first introduced to me or clarified for me after reading a Keith Code book called A Twist of the Wrist. He talks about a rider having only so much awareness. And he likened it to money in a bank account. You have to be aware of how you spend it.

As an example thinking is one way to spend consciousness. Another way to spend it is to notice what is happening around you. So for example, while doing a Keith Code course at the Laguna Sega racetrack, I crashed in a corner called the Corkscrew. I crashed because we'd been flagged to pull into the pitstop and because I was tired I thought only of how nice it was going to be to get off of the bike. Because I was thinking, I wasn't focused on the road and so when the road changed, I didn't take account of that change and as a result crashed.

It was a low speed crash so damage was minor. But it illustrated a key point. The more you think the less consciousness you have to spend on what you are doing.

In a similiar vein, when I was in a long distance relationship with a girl who lived in a different city, I used to talk with my girlfriend every night on the phone. On one occasion I could feel a drop in her level of attention. She was painting her toe nails. All of the previous times we'd talked we'd been fully engaged with each other. And so even in terms of doing things, if doing more than one thing at a time that means you have less consciousness to spend on each one versus doing only one thing at a time.

Freeing Up Your Consciousness

The point, again, is that consciousness is limited. We only have so much to spend. Habits are a way of freeing up consciousness. They automate things so that we don't have to think about those things in order to do them.

So for example, language is a massive set of habits that we call upon unconsciously or subconsciously whenever we write or speak. To make this example clearer, if you've ever tried learning a second language, maybe you carried a dictionary around with you. Having learned a language, you know longer need the dictionary because it's internalized into a database and a huge set of habits to extract data from that database whenever required.

Another example is driving. Driving lessons are simply a set of lessons designed to help us learn to operate the controls of a vehicle without having to think about how to use them. As a result we can slow down, speed up and or change direction in response to whatever is happening on the road around us.

Practicing Connectedness

Driving someplace is a really good example of how to flow.

You have a clear idea, of getting some place. And you have a channel to flow down, the road. You sense the road and what is on it and your habits enable you to adjust the controls so that you can get to where you want to go. You adjust controls to handle changes. Say you want to maintain a constant speed, as the gradient changes you adjust accelerator pressure as needed.

One thing that my dad taught me was to look ahead. Why? so that you could be ready for changes ahead of time. Seeing a hill coming up you could be ready to increase accelerator pressure as you go to the hill. You could be ready for change ahead of time.

Now this could be a habit itself, the habit of looking ahead. However, you don't always need to be looking ahead because you also have to be noticing things in close also. And so your habit needs to encompass changing view points.

But there's habits in the way that you use the brakes and accelerator. You could stomp on either resulting in a non-smooth ride, or you can learn to smoothly accelerate, break and steer.

The better you train your driving habits, the better you can drive, the better you can handle change.

In this case, the change you are learning to deal with effectively is change in what is happening on the road at any moment in time.

Different Types of Habits

Say you drive the same route everyday but there's changing road works. You could learn all of the different ways to get from a to b and back again.

You could think of your usual way to get to work as one habit. But suppose you experiment with all of the different ways to get to work (using different routes) so that you can use any of them without having to think along any point of any route, what turn you need to take in order to get to where you are going.

As a result, if there are roadworks, no matter what the condition of road works you can get to where you want easily. It's because of the habits you've built in.

Note the rather flexible definition of habit. In some cases it produces an action, in other cases it's just a stored bit of data. But in all cases, a habit allows you to respond without thinking. A name that you've memorized and can output without having to think is a habit. One that I'm not particularly good at.

So habits are basically tools for automating. Can we automate the process of creating habits? Can we build a habit for creating habits? Why might we want to do this?

Water is flexible

Water flows because it's made up of lots of tiny molecules and these molecules reposition themselves based on their overall container or channel that contains them. They also reposition themselves based on the other water molecules around them. Because these molecules are small water can fill the container it flows into. It can fill the nooks and crannies of the channel it flows along.

You could thus think of water as "being flexible".

The slower it flows, the better it fills the nooks and crannies.

Filling imaginary shapes with our body

How can we be more like water? By learning to feel and control our joints through a wide range of motion. The better we can feel and control our joints and the larger the range of motion, the more we can be like water.

We can't usefully break ourselves into molecules. But if we understand the basic parts of our body in terms of movement, we can learn to feel and control the relationships between those parts. And then, rather than filling an external shape like water flowing into the nooks and crannies of whatever it is poured into, we can fill an imaginary shape, whether it be a pose or an action.

(Note that this is largely in terms of movement and the physical body, but we can also apply it to the way that we think!)

Learning habits little bits at a time

When we learn to drive we learn that the fuel guage tells us how much fuel we have. The speedometer tells us how fast we are going. It seems kind of obvious to us now but at some point we had to learn these things. As a result, if we need to know if we need more gas or check to see if we need to slow down then we look at the fuel gauge or speedometer. As a result we know how much gas we have left of how fast we are going.

And in the same way we learn how to use the steering wheel to turn left or right, or how to operate the signals to indicate we are turning left or right. These are all habits and more than likely we learned these habits one at a time.

In the same way we can learn to sense and control our body little bits at a time. We can focus on joints or muscles or both, but each are clearly definable and feelable (or sensible). As a result, we can practice operating them and in the process, develop habits so that we don't have to think about how to feel and control these parts of our body.

Learning to drive our body

Note that while we can use something like yoga poses as a context for practicing these things, if we focus on feeling and controlling the parts of our body, that can then be applied to anything that we do.

With habits, the smaller we make our habits, the more adaptable we become.

Smaller habits can be easily summed into larger habits. However, unless larger habits have been broken down into smaller habits, it's harder to adapt larger habits to different situations. You have to learn new habits.

In addition a certain amount of awareness is required to see how you can use the same habits in different situations.

So for example, when I teach muscle control habits (both teaching students to feel and control particular muscles or joints), the first step is to learn to turn a particular muscle or set of muscles on and off in an easy pose. Once they have that, then we practice the same skill in increasingly more challenging positions or yoga poses.

Those habits can then be summed together for the equivalent of "driving" our body. (In this sense, driving is like driving a car or riding a motorbike.)

Now one of the biggest challenges we can have is overcoming old habits. A first step is realizing when we are using habits.

And this gets back to that question of "How we change ourselves."

Becoming aware of habits so that we can change them

As an example of becoming aware of habits, I used to swear a lot. I noticed this because I unconsciously swore in front of a favorite teacher and my friend had to tell me what I'd done. I realized I needed to get control of this habit. It involved first learning to recognize when I had sworn. Then it involved recognizing when I was about to swear. Eventually I was able to recognize when I was going to swear before I actually swore. Then I had the choice of not swearing.

I also practiced safe words, words I can substitute in for the swear like sugar or fudge. Note that I do still swear today, however I am aware of it and can control it. I can now choose to swear or not swear.

So a part of changing habits (or owning them) is becoming aware of them. A lot of that can come down to noticing what we think and when we think it. What are our habitual thinking patterns?

The better we are at noticing how we think and what we think, the more opportunities we have to change. That's basically how we reprogram ourselves.

Reprogramming physical habits

As for body habits, how do we deal with them? One of the best ways is to practice moving slowly and smoothly. Moving slowly and smoothly gives you the chance to notice what is happening, particularly if you repeat a movement over and over again. The repeated changes in sensation, particularly when doing asymmetrical movements, help you to notice differences in sides.

This same type of movement (slow, smooth, repeated) can be used to help feel and control parts of your body.

Habits are a double edged sword

Now then, with physical habits, we don't have to think. And that's a double edged sword. That's because we can devote the consciousness that is freed up to doing whatever we like. So for example, having learned the necessary habits for driving, we can tend to use the freed up consciousness to play with the radio or phone or daydream. Alternatively we can put it on what we are doing, driving.

Sharpening both edges

I mentioned that with consciousness we can either be thinking or doing. Habits allow us to think while we are doing. But they also allow us to focus our awareness on other things.

So for example, learning to drive, we generally learn in a car park or other environment so that we can focus on learning the necessary component habits of vehicle control. Once we've learned those things, we can drive on roads with gradually more traffic and at higher speeds. Now our focus is on what is around us. We then use habits to respond to what is around us.

What if we are back to driving on an empty road? There's nothing really to focus on but the road itself. However, we could devote awareness to our control habits, how we steer, how we accelerate and brake. Now instead of just using these controls we can choose to practice using them smoothly.

Likewise when using our body, as we learn different control habits, rather than letting our mind wonder, we can notice the way we use those habits, or we can notice how we use habits in combination. Or we can simply enjoy the sensations generated as we ride our own body.

Noticing ourselves and how we interact

Now this still hasn't gotten to how of changing ourselves. I mentioned how I learned to notice when I swore. And now I can swear or not swear. It's a choice or option.

So becoming aware of habits we can override them or choose whether they implement or not. And this is what can happen if you pay attention to how you operate your vehicle controls while driving. You can modify your habits or choose how you implement them.

If you also pay attention to how you interact with other people, or how you act in general, you can begin to notice the way you do things. As a result, you can notice the things that you would like to change and then go about changing them.

Noticing how we act (and think) so that we can change how we act (and think)

Note that one way of dealing with habits is to create or train optional habits. So for example, trying to stop myself from swearing I used substitute words. Initially I used the word after the swear but as I got better at noticing when I was going to swear I was able to substitute the word for the actual swear.

Eventually, I learned to simply stop myself from swearing.

Overall, if we want to change ourselves, then one way to go about it is to notice the habits we use. We can adjust those habits, we can develop new habits. By learning to create habits at will we can reprogram ourselves.

One reason for starting with the body, or focusing on it, is that it can be easier to notice physical habits. This can be an end in and of itself. Learning to feel and control your body. But it can also lead towards better control of your mind. We can notice the thoughts that accompany our exercises. As a result we can then change the way we think about various exercises. From there we can learn to change our thinking patterns.

And that's where we truly get into rewriting our operating system and reprogramming ourselves, by noticing our thoughts, the way we think, and changing those thoughts if we choose to.

If you enjoyed this article, or found it helpful, please share it!
Thanks, I really appreciate it!

Neil