I learned a game at Burning Man this year that was about connecting to people and reading their nonverbal signals, called the "open-closed" game (h/t Minda Myers). There are two people in the game, and one is trying to approach the other and place a hand on their shoulder. No words can be exchanged, except that person who is being approached can announce their emotional state as "open" or "closed". When they say "closed", the approacher may not get any closer until they say "open" again. The approachee monitors themselves for any internal discomfort associated with the other person, and says "closed" if that is the case. The approacher tries to keep the other person comfortable through their body language and eye contact, to get them to remain "open".

I have recently started playing this game with myself, with "open" representing openness to experience or being in the moment, and "closed" representing tunnel vision or discomfort with the way things are going. In a way, I imagine being "approached" by whatever situation I'm in, or whatever sequence of experiences is happening, instead of a person. I ask myself whether I am in the open or closed state, and try to shift to the open state whenever I notice being in the closed state.

There are a couple of reasons to try to do this. In the open state, I tend to be happier, more curious and observant and have more new thoughts. From a week of tracking my mental states and thought status using TagTime, I can make a preliminary conclusion that while old thoughts do occur in the open state, new thoughts never occur in the closed state. While the closed state makes me more efficient at doing straightforward tasks (e.g. by making me less distractable), it makes me less efficient at doing less straightforward tasks (e.g. by increasing my tendency to optimize locally rather than globally).

This is related to the concept of "againstness" taught by Valentine Smith at CFAR, which is a sense of resisting something about the situation at hand. Learning to notice this sense more quickly is a valuable thing I learned at CFAR and through my meditation practice. Redirecting attention to body sensations is supposed to be helpful for dissipating againstness, but I have found it difficult to get myself to do this in the moment, and not particularly reliable. Following the driving principle of "focusing on the road and not the curb", I find it easier to shift to a mental state with a simple salient label like "open" instead of a clunky label like "non-againsty". It also feels less judgmental to ask myself "what am I closed to right now, what experience am I not letting in?" than "what am I against right now?".

The againstness approach seems to be about relaxing the mind by relaxing the body first, while for some people relaxing the mind first comes more naturally - I actually find myself automatically breathing deeper when shifting into the open state. For both approaches, the goal is the same - to let go of mental and physical tension before proceeding with what you are doing. The rule of thumb, like in the game, is to first get into the open state and then approach the situation at hand.

(Cross-posted from my blog).


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7 comments, sorted by Click to highlight new comments since: Today at 3:26 AM

I've been collecting other analogues of open mode vs. closed mode. I have a strong suspicion that they're all facets of the same underlying mental stance.

  • In brainstorming, generating vs. filtering seem to be open and closed, respectively.
  • In writing, drafting vs. editing.
  • The believing game vs. the doubting game.
  • In social settings, vulnerability vs. filtered interaction
  • In improv acting, "yes and" vs. rejecting ideas

And maybe even relaxed vs. tensed muscles, though this seems more tenuous to me. On the other hand, dancing in closed mode is just kind of embarrassing, while dancing in open mode is really fun.

This keeps coming up in creative and performance settings, and they often need reinforcement and extra explanation. The analogue of open mode makes new ideas more possible, and the analogue of closed mode makes checking ideas more possible. Both are generally valuable, but they seem to interfere with each other. (For instance, in brainstorming, it's always tempting to generate and critically assess ideas at the same time, but it just doesn't work!)

Newbies at almost anything are tempted to stay in the closed mode, because they're afraid that they're going to mess up somehow; but only in open mode are you likely to make new mistakes to learn from. Improvisation is nearly impossible in closed mode.

In all of these cases, I find the analogue of open mode to be much more fun, though often hard to maintain.

Since you specifically use the term "open" and "closed" mental states, I have to wonder about the relation to "open mode" and "closed mode" as discussed e.g. here or here. (The actual John Cleese video these are referring to seems to be no longer publically available -- or at least, the part that talks about "open" and "closed", anyway.)

Thanks for the links! I think my definition is essentially the same as John Cleese's in the first article. I somewhat disagree with Blackshaw in the second article about the relation to productivity. Open mode is compatible with having a goal, as long as you are not overfocused on a particular approach to that goal, so it's not necessarily unstructured playful exploration. Closed mode can make you less productive if it results in obsessiveness, e.g. repeatedly checking email for updates, or skipping breaks and thus getting unnecessarily tired.

Hey Vika, props for writing this. Putting myself in the open state seems to be my personal fully general argument for doing things I've been putting off (e.g. aversive phone calls). I like to think of myself as being open to new experiences, so once I can frame the decision to do the aversive thing as deciding between being open or being closed, well, of course I've got to be open :)

Engaging the "openness to experience" identity makes a lot of sense, and being open to potentially negative experiences is certainly a part of that. Have you tried doing things that are too aversive for you to be open towards them, or does this approach work in full generality?

Hmm, I generalized from the one example of aversive phone calls. Let me try a few different examples and get back to you :)

I tried it for a couple of weeks and found that it's most useful to me in social situations for communicating in "hazardous situations" e.g. talking to a stranger at a party, or holding an unpleasant conversation while still being empathetic.

I didn't really try it for general hard-things-to-do since I have different mental tools for those.

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