Designing the Mind

OMNIVERSING

The Hidden Habit of Buddhist and Stoic Sages

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I recently took a trip to Patagonia at the southern tip of Chile, and let me tell you, it was a lot more intense than the one in Charlotte.

But some of the experiences and less desirable outcomes I had on this trip led me to a new philosophical tool I am eager to share and explore more deeply. It’s called omniversing, and it refers to an ongoing mental habit of identifying and aesthetically reframing many different future possibilities before they happen.

It is closely related to ideas from Stoicism like negative visualization, Nietzschean sentiments like amor fati, and processes in cognitive psychology like positive reappraisal. But it’s also new in some ways. I’m going to tell you what this practice is and how you can start putting it to use in your mind.

This being human is a guest house. Every morning a new arrival. A joy, a depression, a meanness, Some momentary awareness comes as an unexpected visitor. Welcome and entertain them all! . . .The dark thought, the shame, the malice, meet them at the door laughing, and invite them in. Be grateful for whoever comes, because each has been sent as a guide from beyond.

– Rumi

Psychitects – I am thrilled to say that my new book Become Who You Are is finally published, and that means I actually have a bit of free space in my brain to explore other ideas. One of those ideas that I have been looking forward to returning to is the psychotechnology I have called omniversing.

While I was in South America, one of the books I was reading was called On Being and Becoming, an existentialist work in which the author states:

For the world which withholds any ready-made meaning is also the world of your possibilities. You did not choose the conditions into which you’ve been “thrown,” as existentialists put it—you did not choose the laws that govern the physical world, the time and place of your birth, the already established meanings, language, culture, laws, and institutions that shape the social world around you, the position from which you start out in life. Within this given context, much about how your existence will unfold is up to you. This freedom of course comes with responsibility. Even if the way forward seems narrow, there is not a single path, but choices along the way. You may venture this way or that way, and you may change the trajectory, too. You recognize various possibilities of what you might do and you may become anxious or enthralled in light of what is possible.

– Jennifer Anna Gosetti-Ferencei, On Being and Becoming

When I read this section of the book, an image I had seen before quickly came to mind:

This was created by WaitButWhy’s Tim Urban, and it’s a striking reminder that the events that led us to this moment are fixed, but our possibilities from here are virtually endless.

We all understand that we can’t change the events of the past. We can’t go back and un-send that drunk text or un-commit crypto fraud.

But we are rarely conscious of the infinite paths before us at any moment.

Many parts of our backpacking trip failed to go according to plan, including some intense weather fluctuations, losing our “very important” Chilean migration receipts, and showing up at a bus “service station” instead of the actual bus station at our departure time.

But on day three, one of my fears for the Patagonia trip came true – my knee gave out in the middle of our hike. I have always had bad knees, but I took a risk on the long-distance trek and hoped for the best.

About an hour into this day’s hike, I started feeling intense pain anytime I bent my right knee. We couldn’t go back to the previous campsite, as we no longer had a spot there. And there was no other way forward – no place for a vehicle to come and pick me up.

My only option was to limp the remaining eight miles to our next campsite, avoiding bending my right knee almost entirely. This seemed like bad news, but as I hobbled along, I learned ways to manage the process.

I picked up and groomed two walking sticks to help support my weight as I hiked. I learned that putting weight on my bad leg was not a problem as long as I kept it straight. I found that going uphill was the easiest, and that I could use these sections to make up for the lost time on the downhills.

I also found a certain appeal to this more rugged way of trekking. Though discomfort and difficulty are often central parts of backpacking trips like this, there is also normally a pervasive sense of touristic luxury – that because we chose, and even paid to go on this difficult trek, the challenges somehow felt less valid.

But now I was bearing this ascetic discomfort out of necessity. It was almost a matter of survival that I find a way to hike to our next stay in spite of the accompanying pain.

My partner, and several passing hikers, were concerned about the pain I was in. They assumed that I must be suffering, and having a very bad day overall.

It wasn’t easy to explain that I was actually enjoying the struggle and pain, finding more beauty in this unique experience than I had in the incredible views we had seen so far.

As we finally arrived at our next campsite, I felt thankful that my knee had acted up and our trip had gained this extra bit of spice – that it hadn’t gone too smoothly. I loved my fate.

Now this idea of loving the seemingly unpleasant parts of life will not be new to those who are experienced in psychitecture and familiar with philosophies like Stoicism and Taoism.

And realistically, it’s not too uncommon to be able to find beauty in a difficult situation after it’s over and some time has passed. But I have always thought a kind of holy grail of practical philosophy was the ability to love a difficult fate as you are experiencing it.

Why was I able to embrace my difficult situation so instantly? What was going on in my mind that enabled me to appreciate the pain and struggle in the midst of it?

Omniversing

The answer is something I have now started calling omniversing. The concept of omniversing is an extension of several psychotechnologies I have studied before.

  • Positive reappraisal, or reframing, is the mental process of changing the meaning of a past or present event, altering your emotional trajectory.
  • Negative visualization is the process, usually attributed to the Stoics, but also found in Eastern philosophies, of reflecting on potential misfortunes before they occur, so as to lessen the blow if and when they do.
  • Amor fati, or the love of one’s fate, is the spirit of unconditional acceptance and embrace of one’s circumstances, even when they clash with one’s expectations and hopes.

But now we go a step further. Omniversing is the continual and preemptive process of identifying and positively reframing potential future outcomes. Not merely finding a way to embrace what happens to you, but envisioning and embracing many different possible realities before they happen.

The term omniverse, most commonly used in science fiction, refers to the preponderance of all possible universes. The idea is that for every different choice or outcome that may occur, there is a different universe or timeline that may take place. And the entire landscape of all possible outcomes is the omniverse.

When we talk about amor fati, we usually only refer to one timeline – the one we are already in. The problem is that every time reality differs from the one we anticipate or hope for, we are met with emotional pain until we’ve adjusted to our new reality and found a way to embrace it.

Omniversing eliminates the need to suffer when things don’t go according to plan, because you’ve already planned for it. It is a habit that few people have built. But I suspect that if we could study the brains of the most tranquil sages of philosophical history, we would find the process of omniversing continually at work in their minds.

Here is a walkthrough of how most people approach their plans and circumstances:

  1. Create a plan.

  1. Reality deviates from plan. Suffer.

  1. Begin gradual process of accepting and reframing reality.

  1. Eventually embrace reality. Repeat.

But this circuitous process isn’t the only way to go about navigating your world. Here is what this process looks like for an omniverser.

Instead of only planning for one universe, and then going through a reactive, narrative remodeling process, the individual who is omniversing has already thought of, and positively interpreted countless possible outcomes.

For those who haven’t heard Alan Watts’ story of the Chinese farmer, be sure to check out my video on amor fati. The question I would pose is, how does the farmer do it? Yes, we all know on some level that things aren’t always as “good” or “bad” as they appear. But what enables this seemingly enlightened sage to circumvent the suffering entirely and maintain tranquility at each moment?

Again, the answer is omniversing. The Chinese farmer has cultivated the habit of imagining, and positively interpreting, each possible outcome of his life. He doesn’t suffer when he hears his son has broken his leg, because he had already considered this possibility, and contemplated ways it may turn out to be a good thing.

I’m no enlightened sage, but in this case, I had already envisioned the possibility of my knee giving out before we arrived at the park. I had already decided that, should fate take that particular turn, there would be something compelling and beautiful about it. I didn’t have to suffer and adapt to the new situation, because I embraced it before it even happened.

I’m currently enjoying the fact that I’m in a fulfilling relationship, my parents are still alive and healthy, and I have, objectively, the best dog in the world. And while I’m grateful for all of these things, I have also actively anticipated the possible universes where these things change, and already found ways to paint them in a positive light.

I have already endeavored to embrace the fates in which my relationship ends, my dog dies prematurely, and my parents’ health declines sooner than expected. If you’re wondering how you could possibly embrace outcomes that seem so universally bad, think back to some of the bad experiences you’ve had in the past, and how you view them now.

Maybe losing your job ended up ultimately leading to greater levels of fulfillment. Maybe losing a loved one ended up shaping your character and leading to growth. Maybe a traumatic experience set you on a far more interesting or meaningful path in your life.

You have to think, not like a business person trying to maximize gain and minimize loss, but like an artist, trying to paint a beautiful, interesting, and poignant work of art. You can find beauty in that garage sale in your neighborhood that you got up early for and just has a bunch of old clothes. You can find the fascinating aspects of any experience, even a trip to Florida.

These potential paths need not consist only of butterflies and happy feelings – sorrow can be beautiful as well. But each should be fundamentally life-affirming.

Here is an example of a way we might develop an aesthetic appreciation for the painful parts of life. See, we often look at our lives as a single snapshot in time.

When things are good, we attempt to freeze them just as they are and make this moment last forever. When they are bad, we mourn the loss of the good – it is not uncommon for someone to say “my life is ruined” after a great loss.

At these times, it can be helpful to shift your perspective on your life. Instead of viewing your life as the present state of your circumstances to be preserved, shift to a view of your entire lifetime.

I remember seeing a trend a few years ago in which the colors of every frame of a film would be displayed in one big image (might need to rewatch the end of Finding Nemo).

You can think about your life in a similar way. We might call this our lifetime canvas:

 This image shows the entire collection of periods, relationships, and experiences you might accumulate throughout your life. The details could be filled out to look like this:

When displayed this way, a few things become clear about our lives.

For one thing, what feels like great loss in the moment looks different when added to your lifetime canvas. The experience you are mourning no longer seems to be lost – it’s right there in your collection. That experience, job, or person is a permanent part of your life’s painting, and no one can take it away from you.

Many such things will present themselves, not pleasing to every man, but only to him who has become truly familiar with nature and her works

– Marcus Aurelius, Meditations

Failure looks different too. Suddenly that risky venture you’re considering doesn’t seem so crazy after all. Though you might fail in your explicit aims, there is no real risk of failing to add the pigments of this venture to your personal painting.

In fact, one of the only ways to fail in your life given this perspective is to fail to seek out colorful experiences at all. In other words, to do exactly what most of us are unconsciously straining to do all the time. To live a life that looks like this:

Whether we think of it as a painting, a biography, or frames of a film, it seems rather bland. There’s no variety, no saturation, no conflict. And in many ways, this is what it would look like if we got what we wanted all the time.

When we resist change, we lose sight of the painting we are crafting and mistakenly think that keeping things just how they are forever would be ideal. Change is necessary for a great story. Variety is necessary for a great painting. Challenge is necessary for a great life.

There are heights of the soul from which even tragedy ceases to look tragic.

– Friedrich Nietzsche

And then there’s the inevitable. Though we can’t predict exactly how the future will unfold, we can be sure that some outcomes will occur. Inevitabilities are shown through circles, and the largest circle refers to our own life and eventual death.

Inevitabilities are the non-negotiable realities that have a ~100% chance of happening. These realities are the most necessary targets of omniversing, and our own death is the ultimate inevitable outcome for each of us to find a way to embrace.

If this is seeming pretty involved – it is. I think there is a reason why “enlightenment” has always been described as a fundamentally different way of being. A person like this has a set of elaborate ideation processes going through their mind at all times.

But it’s a habit I believe is deeply healthy to cultivate. Omniversing is like the habit of washing your dishes after you use them, instead of allowing them to pile up in the sink for days.

Yes, it’s a difficult habit to form at first. But it allows you to avoid the unpleasant, recurring process of dealing with a big mess all at once, and all the life-denying emotions that come along with it.

I want to encourage you to create an imagined future in which your relationship doesn’t work out. Paint the picture of losing your job, and make that picture beautiful.

Think about the way a trauma or challenge will help you to grow, before it even occurs. Think about how a difficult loss will help you develop virtues and build character that make your life fulfilling, before you even experience the loss.

Whether you are aware of it or not, you are always crafting your autobiography in real-time. You are living out the story of your only life with each decision you make. Instead of resisting your losses and failures, add them to your palette and keep crafting your masterpiece.

Think about the nearly infinite ways your life could go from here – the fractal landscape of the omniverse. If you can build this habit, you will eliminate much of the unnecessary disappointment you experience when unexpected situations occur, and much of the unnecessary worry when they don’t.

Do you have any experiences or insights related to this mental process?

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