I’ve been mulling over some thoughts about a specific idea for over a year now, and I think I’ve achieved enough coherence to start sharing them. The idea inhabits a complicated tangle of various domains such as language, theory of mind, artificial intelligence, prayer, meditation, and situationism, and since there are so many angles to approach it from, I’ve decided to expose the bare idea here in this post, and then explore the various angles more fully in ensuing posts.
The bare idea itself starts with this: imagine other people imagining you imagining them imagining you imagining them… You can read English, so I presume that you understood that sentence, but obviously understanding it is different from enacting the activity it describes. So let’s go back and break it down. Imagine somebody else—someone you know well, perhaps, or an individual in the abstract. Imagine them until they fill your mind’s eye or whatever your preferred imaginative metaphor. Seriously, stop reading and do it. … Ok start reading again. Now add one specific element to your imagination of them: imagine them imagining you. You’re imagining them, and they are imagining you, so it may seem to be the case that you’re both doing the same thing. Indeed it may even seem obvious. But that’s not quite right—you’re doing one more thing than they are: you’re imagining them imagining you back, whereas they are just imagining you. Let’s try to fix that: imagine them imagining you imagining them back.
Of course it didn’t get fixed. You’re still doing one more thing than they are. If you keep trying to chase equality, the reverberations of imagination will eventually exhaust your mental resources, and you’ll just stop somewhere knowing that theirs will also be exhausted. Perhaps then equality will be achieved, but that’s not the point, and as long as you’re just imagining all of this, there really isn’t much of a point regardless. The person you’re imagining isn’t real; they’re just in your head. So none of this matters. Or does it?
Consider the context of this post. Other people have read it. And if they haven’t, they will (I promise to shove it in at least one other person’s face). Consequently, other people have broken down the bare idea and carefully imagined other people imagining them imagining them back, etc. Thus, the person you were imagining was not just in your head. They are an actual living person—many of them, actually. If you’re still not convinced, repeat the exercise, but this time instead of imagining someone you know well or an individual in the abstract, imagine another reader of the post, and consider that many of them did go back and repeat the exercise after having gotten this far, and they were convinced.
This post is a catalyst, hopefully, to you and others thinking about each other. And we’re thinking about each other on a very deep level where we’re fully aware that we are fully aware of ourselves being fully aware of each other… all of this despite many of us being nowhere near each other in space nor possibly time. This is all well and good, but you might still be thinking to yourself “so what?” (Note: others are thinking that too!) Here’s a little example that might answer the question. Imagine that you feel alone. Life is difficult, friends are busy, work is alienating, family is rude. You feel alone. Easily, you can understand that other people have felt and will feel similarly, but now you can understand one more thing: some of these people are thinking about you. But they weren’t thinking about you until you started thinking about them. That is to say that some of these people aren’t necessarily thinking about other people who are alone per se, instead they are thinking specifically about other people who are alone and who are also thinking about other people who are alone and who are… They are thinking about the thinkers-back, and you are all no longer alone.
We began with an insular picture of you thinking about an imaginary thought partner, but we have ended with an expansive picture of many real people repeatedly contributing to a reservoir of empathetic thought. For the sake of a word-handle, let’s call this idea, this concerted activity, “othermindfulness.” I intend to show in future posts how othermindfulness connects with many other ideas and activities, and importantly how it might be an exciting foundation for an entire way of being. Stay tuned.