I was just reading from Rob McNamara's The Elegant Self, which I have been chewing through off-and-on for a few years. His "Dialectical Elegance" chapter dives into a bunch of polarities, one of which stuck out at me today.

First an aside on the word "dialectic". It's not a commonly-used word in my experience, but had come at me recently via Sengstock & Vervaeke, and McNamara uses it as well. It's defined as a discourse that is a dialogue (two-way conversation, not teaching) seeking to come together (from different positions) at truth without being a debate or dispute. Started with the Greek philosophers, then Hegel used it to represent his [thesis, antithesis, synthesis] process. Seems like a useful word.

I don't quite follow McNamara from "dialectic" to "polarities" via "dialectic perception" but can appreciate that there's some connection, a commonality of "opposing things becoming unified". I do also like his usage of the ∞ symbol as the connector between the two poles of a polarity. Firstly, it's not "vs" or "or" (which is the opposite of the polarity perspective), and it's not "and" either because there is a tension/conflict/paradox in unifying them. Second, the technique of polarity mapping I learned uses exactly that sideways-figure-eight shape! So I don't think of it as "infinity symbol" as much as "the polarity dance motion".

Whew. With all that intro over, the polarity that caught my eye today is:

Comfort ∞ Experiential Intensity
  • On one side, comfort and stability and integrity and habituation.
  • On one side, pleasure and pain (and, McNamara points out, the integration of both pain and pleasure) and excitement and adventure.

So yeah - pretty easy to see the tension there. It seems pretty close to the polarity of "Habit ∞ Novelty" as well. The word "comfort", though, flashed me back to agile software customs, where team formation is modeled as "forming, storming, norming, performing" - which I just this minute learned should properly be called Tuckman's stages of group development. But it's just cultural lore in Agile world: coming together, having conflict in the process of developing a team-ness, progressing into shared norms and expectations, and then that's all supposed to unlock the magical high performance mode where the team just cranks out lots of work.

It struck me that the Tuckman model really makes comfort normative - the thing that should happen, the ideal and the prerequisite. And yes, there are many benefits to comfort, especially since safety is so important and those two things feel quite connected to most people. But here it is in this polarity, so what are the downsides? Well, those are so common that the phrase "stuck in a rut" is a universal English aphorism to represent them!

It's interesting to me to think of "experiential intensity" as the other pole: feeling pain, feeling pleasure, feeling alive-ness. We say, "getting out of your comfort zone" to represent this, right? There's risk there (you're uncomfortable because bad things might happen), but also reward (which is why you take the risk).

Is there such a thing as comfort in experiential intensity? There are definitely two related physical sensations that are different: low and high arousal, in the fight-or-flight safety-oriented sense. "All is well" is the calm and placid low arousal, while "red alert!" is the amped-up heightened-awareness high arousal. But what can we see if we pull apart low arousal from comfort? Comfort, after all, is a feeling we have - the meaningful label we put on top of the emotional bodily sensations

So my shift would be that while we must manage the polarity of:

Comfort Low Experiential Intensity ∞ High Experiential Intensity

...that we can play with experiencing comfort and intensity together. Wrap a environmental frame/container of safety around an encounter with something full of emotional charge, and wonderful things can happen! I've seen this in AR myself, where it's a large part of the magic there IMHO. This brings us back to trauma processing, memory reconsolidation, and the developmental subject-object move of perspective-taking, to create the conditions for moving outside of the state of being triggered by some experience, bringing some comfort into that space of intensity!