compass thinking

In a world wrought with complexity and uncertainty, the human nature to simplify our thinking into binaries has never been stronger. Conjuring neat frameworks and orderly containers to “bucket” things helps reduce mental strain, so why wouldn't we always do this? But something that I've been noodling on is that our complex human systems can't really be collapsed into two dimensions without losing a lot of truth and depth in the process. Stuffing people's behaviour into dichotomies, like whether you're fulfilled or not fulfilled, seems to betray the nuance and beauty of our multi-coloured selves.

Instead, I'm trying to broaden my viewpoint, pivoting to a different peak on the mountain. Scientifically, my hypothesis is that increasing “dimensionality” from 2D to 4D helps us achieve greater clarity in decision making and self development. At a first pass, I'd shape these dimensions as: mode of thinking, mode of feeling, mode of body, mode of spirit. This captures the main states we experience: mental, emotional, physical, and spiritual. The potential problem is if we keep this model static, we'd fall under the same trap of miscategorizing or oversimplifying the model, i.e. you predominantly “fit” into one category. That would be only a slight sidestep from binary trees to the equally-notorious 2x2 matrices, so how do we resist our temptation to classify messy chaos into organized chunks?

Let's add a true spatial element then: orientation. Think of the traditional analog compass with its four points: North, East, South, West. While the compass can point at exactly one of these distances, this is significantly rarer than having a hybrid orientation: 45 degrees north-west, 65 degrees south-east, etc. These vector quantities break the cycle of binary thought and unlock what I'm framing as compass thinking. Every step and every movement, no matter how slight, changes your orientation. These paths might be randomly assorted, but ultimately you retain ownership over your motion.

I think the most comforting thing worth repeating is that slightness compounds: if you pivot your orientation even 1 degree to any cardinal direction and keep walking, you'll be in a completely new territory over enough time. In other words, anyone can alter the arrow of their destiny, one step at a time.

For logical types like myself, the parallel of North always defaults to Logic: the mode of thinking. It's the direction that achievers in higher education gravitate towards the most — how to solve problems logically, how to structure things, how to converse intellectually, how to dissect arguments, etc. You could say that for the majority of my life, I was fully content with only holding my compass in this direction, not bothering to stray from this intellectual path because each forward motion in this wild forest brought me more learnings, gains, results. The thing is, why reorient yourself when you seem to be going the correct way?

But ignoring the other three points of the compass would be a fatal mistake in the long-term. Blindly going North does not lead you into some promised land. On the contrary, you miss out on the vibrant wildlife and sensory backdrops that come when you're receptive to open space, to the unbounded possibility of emergent change that no rigid Google Maps navigation could ever capture.

So we set our sights South instead, which can be equated to the mode of feeling. One of my biggest realizations over the past year is that “feeling your feelings” is a massive superpower. There's been an evolution in the way I process emotions. Before it was suppression. Before it was banishment. Before it was reductive. Before it was one-sided.

But I'm a different beast now, one who is more tender than the monstrous, external-facing mask can express. I think my emotional capacity to feel has been elevated by a variety of cast members: cognitive-behavioural therapy, cultural immersion, weekly writing, active empathy, intimate conversations. As I articulated in my first ever (!) blog post, titled "feeling more":

The truth is that romanticizing your life to some extent is a powerful force to spur curiosity and action. But you can only view life with this freeing lens if you open up to consciously feeling. As much as I'm currently facing a backdrop of impending change and stormy transitions about to rock my lifeboat, I'm warming up to the idea that "just feeling" is the antidote to conquer these ambiguities.

I want to continue making feeling a lifelong practice. My emotions now dance with my logic, culminating in an energetic tango of expression, a vibration frequency previously hidden and dormant within this four-dimensional world.

While I'll continue to prioritize feeling for the long-term, my comfort level with wandering in this direction has steadily risen. Yet we still have the most interesting orientations to discuss, the two that classically mirror the sunrise and sunset patterns of Earth. In a compass thinking world, East is the mode of body while West becomes the mode of spirit. To be honest, these two directions are the least explored because I haven't committed enough attention to deeply consider their roles, in ways that stretch beyond cursory studies of physiology and spirituality.

The idea of physical energy is not just about exercising well and staying healthy. There's something underlying, something about bodily “resonance”. The center of thinking is experienced in the body, which has a borderless affinity with the world around it and attuning to the world in every moment. We can already see how the orientations of thinking and feeling interface with the body — the ability to attach and identify reactions at a somatic level is another peak of self-development. Knowing our bodies well to that degree would mean we are way quicker to intervene in case something bad happens: e.g. "I'm feeling my chest tense up in X moment. I wonder what kind of thought and/or feeling is causing this resistance."

I'm reminded of an old friend who used to compete in a very particular sport: orienteering. The way she described it: a blend of intensive terrain parkour with nothing but a map, a compass, and your wits. I think it's such a fascinating hobby. Not only because of its niche status but also because it is literally a grounding exercise. A world where spatial awareness, analytical horsepower, honed intuition, and self belief are all equally embraced. A world where being present is the deciding factor whether you succeed or not.

I'm so grateful that my own compass is well-calibrated to suit this phase of my life, as a different version of orienteering. If I continue to acknowledge my full range of modes and lean into the orientations with the loudest cry (i.e. the most discomfort, the most recurring, the most neglected), I think I can unlock so many blocked doors in my mind. Put differently, internal compass thinking has substantial benefits — I'm now able to connect with others on a totally different spectrum, guided by a timeless technology that needs no outward power.

Here's to experiencing a multi-dimensional life :)

Published by Sam (samwong) 3 months ago on Tuesday the 1st of March 2022.

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