The Sensemaking Companion - Section I
First Person Sensemaking
Welcome to The Sensemaking Companion. We’ve been working on this project for quite some time; a free resource bringing together the ideas, practices and frameworks we’ve found most useful in improving our ability to figure out what’s going on in the world, and how to respond.
We’ve divided it into three sections which correspond to the first, second and third person perspectives in sensemaking. As this project has grown, we’ve decided to release each section one at a time to give you time and headspace to explore it. The second person section will hit your inbox on January 19th, and the third person section will be released on February 2nd.
The entire first section of The Sensemaking Companion is contained within this email. Below, you’ll find an introduction, followed by a film, workbook, practices and an extensive list of useful links and resources. We hope you enjoy it, and would love to hear your feedback and suggestions.
Introduction to Section I: First Person
If the times we live in could be defined by a single feeling, it might be a sense of disorientation. Trying to make sense of reality right now is like being lost in the woods. And when we’re lost, the first thing we need to do is come to our senses. To pay attention to ourselves, and to the information we’re receiving from the environment. The creak of trees, the hoot of an owl. Only then can we can orient ourselves, make a decision and start moving.
But this isn’t as simple as it used to be. We aren’t just trying to find meaning and clarity in physical space, but within a digital forest overlaid onto almost every aspect of our lives. The online world and its explosion of narratives, data and tribalism presents us with a unique evolutionary problem. The environment we evolved in wasn’t carefully designed to capture our attention, hijack our biases and stoke our outrage. A physical forest doesn’t bombard us with an overwhelming amount of information and narrative warfare every minute of every day. We take camping trips to unwind in nature; nobody tries to have a relaxing holiday on Twitter.
And yet we are the same animals we were when we hunted and foraged in the woods forty thousand years ago. We have the same needs, the same capacity for imagination, the same innate ability to reflect on our own experience and cognition.
Thriving now means taking responsibility for using the cognitive tools we were all born with to make sense and find meaning. On a daily basis, we’re being asked to discern what’s fact, and what’s fiction. We have to decide whether the study linked to in that tweet is reliable, or whether it’s somebody’s propaganda. We have to navigate our confusion, hopes and fears whenever we try to make sense of climate change, an election, or AI.
It asks a lot of us; sometimes more than we can handle. The temptation to collapse all this complexity into a neat ideology is ever-present. But when the going gets tough, humans adapt. One of our core inquiries since the birth of Rebel Wisdom has been what that adaptation might look like on an individual and collective level.
What kind of people do we need to become to make sense of the world effectively? What are the practices, frameworks, theories and relational abilities that can help us? We believe the rewards of this adaptation far outweigh the benefits of checking out and outsourcing our sensemaking to a pre-packaged ideology. But it’s more than that; if we’re going to adapt and survive what is a time of significant transition, we’re going to need to develop new ways of seeing and being.
We don’t have a definitive answer to what those are, and probably never will. However, there are techniques and insights from the wisdom traditions, modern cognitive science and developmental theories that can radically change our view and help us to find direction, meaning and clarity. How to combine those practices together and how best to apply them is an ongoing inquiry, but The Sensemaking Companion brings together some of the best tools we’ve found.
One thing we’ve noticed more than anything else is that good sensemaking requires discernment, humility, clarity of thought and emotional regulation. And these aren’t things we do, or things we can buy. They’re capacities we develop over time through practice, which is why we place so much emphasis on doing the work.
In this first section of The Sensemaking Companion, you’ll find some models, ideas, resources and practices that might help you to develop your own personal sensemaking capacities. Ultimately, how you use them will be up to you and entirely unique.
In the introduction film to this section, we play some clips by some of the people whose ideas help us make sense in the first person - many of which we’ve never put out on the channel as they were either member films or sessions from Sensemaking 101. Please note that occasionally we refer to something ‘in the workbook’ in this film which has now moved from the PDF into the body of this email.
The workbook provides the intellectual scaffolding. Please note that we aren’t claiming that the content within it constitutes the ‘be all and end all’ of first-person sensemaking. Instead, it’s a curation of some of the models and practices we’ve come across and found most useful - just because something isn’t in there, doesn’t mean it might not be a good addition (if you can think of something, let us know). Our hope is that you use it to follow your own curiosity and delve deeper into the theories and practices we touch on.
Download the workbook below.
The Salience Meditation
This is a meditation created by Alexander Beiner specifically for the Sensemaking Companion. Inspired by John Vervaeke’s work on relevance realisation and the idea that what is salient to us (calling for our attention) is not always relevant to our goals. One of the key sensemaking traps we can fall into is confusing the two. We get tied up in knots thinking that just because something is being shouted from the rooftops it’s necessarily true or relevant - or that just because we can’t see something, it’s irrelevant. This meditation is designed to help you separate the signal from the noise.
You can download it here
The Surprise Journal
This is a technique developed by Julia Galef, who’s included in our intro film to this section and in the workbook. The Surprise Journal helps you stay mindful of everything in a day that surprises you, or shakes you out of a preconceived notion. It can lead to new insights and enhance your creativity. As we cover in the workbook, breaking fixed frames of reference and developing new, wider ones is crucial to good sensemaking. You can read a description and guide to this practice here.
Yes, this is a bit of a plug - our online course Sensemaking 101 is the best way we know of to practice many of the techniques we lay out in the Companion. With guest tuition from Daniel Schmachtenberger, John Vervaeke, Diane Musho Hamilton and Sara Ness, it has a 9/10 rating from over 1000 participants. More than just a course, it’s a collective journey with people from around the world making sense together. The early bird offer ends on Friday, 7 January and you can book here.
Being able to regulate our nervous system is key to staying present and calm enough to make sense well. Luckily, as human beings we have control over a key mechanism in this process; our breath. Working with the breath, either for personal transformation or for emotional regulation, is a practice we’ve found essential. We have our own breathwork course coming up on 25 January with Prema McKeever, and have also listed some other facilitators we’ve worked with and rate highly.
Prema McKeever - Breathwork and Growth
Nicola Price - Inspirational Breathing
Artur Paulins - The Breathwork Academy
Meditation and Personal Growth
There’s a direct link between the work we’ve done on ourselves and how effectively we make sense of reality. Below are some personal growth practices and retreats we’ve found useful.
Path Retreats run some of the best inner development processes in the world. Check them out here.
Check out David Treleaven’s Trauma Sensitive Mindfulness here
Get free guided meditations by Tara Brach here
Read about Radical Responsibility by Fleet Maull here
Learn more about the Focusing technique mentioned in the workbook here
The Rationalist community has some brilliant technology for helping us to navigate our own cognition. The Center of Applied Rationality runs regular workshops here and you’ll also find some relevant theory in the workbook.
Articles, Films and Other Resources
For an overview of the Schools of Sensemaking - including Weick, Dervin, Cynefin and beyond - see here.
See the Center for Applied Rationality’s 2021 Handbook for a thorough overview of everything rationality - including common cognitive biases, how to harmonise emotion and Spock rationality, tried-and-tested techniques, therapeutic approaches, personal games, etc.
For an overview of John Vervaeke’s Four Ways of Knowing, together with an embedded cultural analysis, see Rebel Wisdom’s Alexander Beiner’s article here.
Shauna Shapiro’s Intention, Attention, Attitude model of mindfulness is discussed in a lecture here.
A 2009 cognitive science paper in which John Vervake gives an academic primer on ‘relevance realisation’ theory and its relation to cognition. See here for a popular introduction authored by Gregg Henriques for Psychology Today.
Waking The Tiger by Somatic Experiencing inventor Peter Levine for a novel, embodied take on trauma and its transmission.
An introduction to Stephen Porges’ polyvagal theory, and its tripartite structure of social engagement, the neocortex, the limbic system and the reptilian brain.
An overview of Acceptance and Commitment Therapy by Dr Russ Harris, including its notion of ‘cognitive defusion’.
An introduction to Ken Wilber’s integral model of development. See Rebel Wisdom’s interview with Wilber here.
An introduction to Robert Kegan’s model of development. See Rebel Wisdom’s interview with Kegan here.
In this vein, facilitator and teacher Rafia Morgan’s interview with Rebel Wisdom on personal growth and development may be of interest for those after a deeper take.
An overview of Dr Iain McGilchrist’s The Master and His Emissary, which dives into the different ways of knowing attached to each brain hemisphere and their changing roles in culture. See McGilchrist in dialogue with John Vervaeke and discussing his new book The Matter with Things
For a deep dive into mindfulness and sensemaking, check out Rebel Wisdom’s interview with Jamie Bristow on Mindfulness in Urgent Times.
For those interested in sovereignty and sensemaking, the following films may be of interest:
For in-depth looks at rationality - based on recommendations by CFAR - check out:
Rationality: From AI to Zombies by Eliezer Yudkowsky
The Scout Mindset: Why Some People See Things Clearly and Others Don't by Julia Galef, who was interviewed on her book with Rebel Wisdom here
Thinking, Fast and Slow by Daniel Kahneman
Superforecasting: The Art and Science of Prediction by Phillip Tetlock
Focusing by Eugene Gendlin
Decisive: How to Make Better Choices in Life and Work by Chip Heath and Dan Heath
Thank you and we hope you’ve found this useful. Stay tuned for the second person section, which will hit your inbox on Wednesday, 19 January.