Quadraphonic Choices


I just discovered new depths to a technique I learned thirty years ago: creating a four-square grid to hold all the elements of a difficult decision. I’m writing about it here, in case I ever want to recommend it again – now with some updated spin. Back then, it was about intellectual, emotional, and social dilemmas. Now it’s proving useful for energy clearing, classic spiritual self-inquiry processes, and fiction-writing too (parsing character development and plots).

To develop a perspective for directing these theatricals, I offer a quote from Brenda Ueland (If You Want to Write). It was on a bookmark affixed to my refrigerator for years: “[W]e must try to find our True Conscience, our True Self, the very Center, for this is the only first-rate choice-making center.”

The four-square (quadraphonic) technique highlights that center, ironically by showing the scattering of hopes, fears, needs, and aversions that dance around it in the mundane world – all conditioned by the (mis)information we’ve accessed and the viewpoints and experiences from our environments. Very similar to a computer that’s been programmed (the ego being a self-upgrading computer with a prime directive: protect this person). The four-square begins with the surface areas of a choice, then sets up opportunities to go deep inside the possibilities – not only for the current moment, but also for realizations about old choices. Once the four-square pattern becomes ingrained, choices can flow from a point much closer to one’s own center and true conscience – more and more automatically.

Why Use the Four-Square?

The closer to the center, and the less fragmented the conflicting motives, the greater the potency of the choice – including the raw, innocent life-force that has always been energizing the movement of a life. Uncovering this life-force lets its energy flow back into the present moment, into the center. I first learned it as a training tool, intended to liberate people from the trap of believing there is/was always a purely good choice and a purely bad choice to be made.

This brings up the free-will debate. The four-square process is attuned to the band of consciousness where the mind can access its own knowledge and motivations. Higher and deeper dimensions do exert uncontrolled influences (animal instinct and subtle energies), but it’s not always helpful to punt everything into the Nobody Knows Anything zone or the Karmic Force Majeure zone. Even among those who prefer divine intervention as the source of all supposed choices, and, conversely, those who like to claim that everything that happens is the choice of each participant, it can be helpful to clear one’s own bodymind operating system of hidden distortions (which this process can help do). The four-square can be observed with the thinking mind and can harmonize all the dimensional octaves of a given choice. Once the sense of security and control is established, ancient unconscious material and brand-new imaginative movement can flow safely through the pattern and be heard, in distinct melodies and baselines first, and then in quadraphonic sound.

The four-square is also a way to exercise response-ability by becoming as aware as possible, by awakening insight. A lot of consciousness sources mention having “no regrets,” frequently misunderstood to mean having no conscience or moral responsibility. On the contrary, the four-square opens the cosmic self-inquiry “Where am I and how did I get here?” (or “Where was I and how did I get there?”) (or “Where do I want to be and how can I get there?”). This means not having to drag around the deforming weight of a disappointment or perceived failure, constantly compensating for or covering over, or reacting to, the burned parts.

How the Four-Square Fits in Other Contexts

Creating the four-square may seem too obvious at first. Most people are accustomed to risk-benefit calculations, lists of pros and cons, even corporate SWOT analyses (Strengths, Weaknesses, Opportunities, and Threats). The four-square goes deeper, with a little Non-Violent Communication in it: NVC teaches people to listen for “what’s alive” (activated) in the other person. This is a way to listen for what’s alive in oneself, on both sides of a conflict, so the whole contretemps doesn’t end up in painful paralysis or tangled coping mechanisms that have to be abandoned with the next wind-shift of change.

In the language of neuroscience, it’s a way to get the logical left brain and intuitive right brain to interact more harmoniously, fully, and fruitfully, a way to get the “three brains” in sync (cortical-mental, limbic-emotional, and reptilian-instinctual) – along with the “brains” in the heart and gut, linked by the vagus nerves, plus cellular memory. This is always a good idea. Yet a conflict between opposing drives, reflected in the tension of an important choice, can shake old patterns and make them available to awareness (and neuroplasticity), where they can be worked with, inside an organizing container.

Parts of it may look like the “hero’s journey,” outlining the stakes and risks in a venture, the cross-purposes at work, in launching forth (choosing) courageously. Within this structure, the four-square is more intimately highly charged than a regular adventure because it is for your eyes only, so it can go deep. It’s not show and tell, submitting your private self to other people’s opinions, or creating literature that critics will analyze (though the insights will enrich characters and plots you create).

As for fitting into a blog series title “divine nature,” an apt metaphor might form in experiencing your life as a seed (new life every moment), intent on flourishing. This means being carried on the best winds to get yourself to the most fertile earth (different for each kind of seed), with the right amounts of water and light (also different for different kinds of seeds). The four-square process clarifies the seed and tests its affinities with different kinds of weather and environment. The “tests” are the ways you feel, bodily, about the choices you consider. The results don’t necessarily mean moving or changing anything on the outside of your life. This is an inner seed. It may be that all the best resources have been at hand, but blocked. Clarity can dissolve the blocks.

The metaphor of testing the winds extends into setting the sails of a seacraft, or adjusting the attitude of an aircraft or spacecraft. I’ve always loved the “attitude” metaphor in ballet and aeronautics, where it means setting one’s vehicle toward a particular destination, requiring self-adjustment to direct the vehicle’s energy. On the sea and in the air and outer space, there’s an intended end-point (divine plan? karma? ego?). In each case, the energies of wind currents – plus the weight and design of the vehicle – determine how intense the struggle will be to reach the destination. You can do less about the winds and waves than you can about determining the importance of the destination vs the struggle to reach it, all while streamlining your vehicle and tweaking any automated instrumentation. This is part of the goal of the four-square, regardless of your beliefs about who the ultimate pilot truly is, regardless of the value you do or do not place on the struggle itself. You may even decide to ride the currents, wherever they may carry you, even into annihilation that comes more quickly than it otherwise will. Four-square can help discern whether such a laissez-faire approach is dissociative fear, veiled bravado, or genuine transcendence.

How to Approach the Four-Square

You might want to read the whole blog post first, since there’s material after the list of steps that answers questions that could arise while you’re creating your grid. The material isn’t presented now because it won’t make sense till you’ve started generating your grid and felt the energies and dilemmas bubbling up from it.

So, hypothetically, agreeing for the moment to experiment with a technique you’ve hypothetically requested – with the understanding that you’ll discard any aspect of it that doesn’t feel right to you, especially since I’m speaking as a fellow student of these phenomena, with mutable opinions, not arrogant enough to assume I’ve accessed ultimate truth or have authority to teach you anything (even though the voice in this writing might sound like that, since I actually do believe what I’m saying)….

The Steps to Create a Four-Square Grid

Step 1. Frame the dilemma as two opposing positive statements, with “but/and” between them. For example: “I want to be part of this group or relationship” but/and “I like having complete freedom to say and do what I like.” (Obviously this is a dilemma only when participation in a group or one-one will curtail freedom in a significant way. A no-brainer for many folks, although it could be good preparation if unexpectedly called upon to self-censor in a relationship. Find a conflict that’s real for you, and use that.) Even if there’s superficially only one desire or perceived obligation, and the other option is not to pursue it, convert the No option into a positive statement; e.g., “I want to stay home, safe, with what I already know and have.” Even this first step, highlighting the positive motives of an alternative that looked empty or negative before, can be transforming. (Make plans to keep anyone else from seeing what you write, so your psyche will be honest with you.)

Step 2. Draw a large square. Divide it into two rows and two columns, so you have four squares. Above the left column, write the first statement (A); above the right, the second (B). Label the top row as benefits/hopes, the bottom row as losses/risks. So the upper left box is all the good things you anticipate from Choice A; upper right is the expected good in Choice B; lower left is everything you’d feel bad about if A were chosen; and lower right is potential bad results from choosing B.

Step 3. Here’s the magic part. Cut the grid into pieces, so that each box is a separate piece of paper – or just create a new page for each box. Each of these four boxed enclosures has its own vibration, its own truth – and each, when contemplated in isolation, will stimulate other bits of motivations and information to come to the surface and be contained in the appropriate box.

The squares offer a gull’s-eye view of the gridlock that’s making the choice difficult. Underneath the gridlock is the oceanic unconscious, filled with creatures that usually crowd each other out and sink back to the ocean floor, where they still have a hidden influence. When these float to the surface, maybe even some zero-point or karmic information will emerge, if you’re so inclined. Or some insight into the “myths you’re living by” (which Carl Jung said was his own “task of tasks”).

Step 4: One page/topic at a time, let your imagination flow into all the desires, fantasies, feelings, ideas, considerations, philosophies, priorities, or memories that come to the surface in association with that single focus (the wish for A, the wish for B, the fear/loathing of A, the fear/loathing of B). While you’re doing that, material that belongs to one of the other four squares will probably pop up – so keep the other pages nearby to capture those quickly; then return immediately to the square being focused on, to keep the vibration intact. Writing them immediately encourages the unconscious, since it doesn’t feel thwarted or ignored.

Because this process is so new, and potentially so threatening to the self-protective psyche’s old ways, material might not flow immediately into the squares. You can try a technique like Enneagram patterns to stimulate your deeper responses. Using the Enneagram’s nine patterns to create questions for the hidden mind, you could listen for the answers to these: What does the judge in me feel about this? The one who’s proud of being generous? The one who likes looking like a winner? The artful martyr? The secretly smartest one? The scared one who’s so loyal to a cause? The thrill-seeking adventurer? The imperial controller? The fuzzy peacemaker? Or maybe bring in a little integral theory: What positive and negative impulses are coming from my spiritual experiences and aspirations? My raw talents? My friends and family? My cultures (local, national, global, personal, professional)? Maybe even a SWOT analysis of each choice would unlock some ideas.

Step 5. Set the project aside for a while and do something else. More ideas will pop over the next few hours, especially overnight – though the unconscious may solve the whole thing for you while you sleep, now that you’ve revved the engines. In some cases, just writing the four pages will resolve the issue at hand, but ideas and feelings related to other issues in the same vibration might keep percolating.

Step 6. Re-assemble the original large square, so that all the material is in a grid. I almost hesitate to mention this, since discovering it on your own can be a mini-revelation, but eventually you’ll notice a harmony, a consilience, in the diagonals: the upper left harmonizes with the lower right, and the upper right harmonizes with the lower left. You can almost feel a personal identity forming, a general essence of intent, when you consider the positive A and negative B together, a different one forming in the positive B and negative A. One diagonal will feel more genuine, wise, and satisfying than the other.

Steer clear of feeling you have to know every possible downside in advance. Unanticipated glitches turn up. At those points, the power and freedom come from being able to say Yes to the questions “Did I make the best decision I could, based on the information available to me at the time?” and “Is my innocent enthusiasm still available, to apply in some new way?”). Once that gate of self-kindness is opened and walked through, any less-attractive motivations might feel safe enough to come out of hiding, for resolution.

While your original draft is the most honest and revealing, in showing how much of your choice is between fear/loathing of competing evils (the extent to which the loss/risk boxes are more filled-in than the gains/hopes boxes), you can “positivize” your choice by converting all the negatives: if it’s a loss/risk you’re choosing to take on, you could listen for the feeling of greater confidence in knowing you have the strength or transcendence to lose/risk it; if it’s a loss/risk you’re avoiding by not picking that option, you could turn the sentence into a positive statement about what you’re smart and focused and honest enough to avoid. (Obviously, the wily ego might jump at these temptations and devolve into martyrdom or heroics, so it’s good to be wary when you’re “positivizing,” even if you appreciate the ego’s efforts on your behalf.)

Step 7. List the date and time on your grid. This can be only a snapshot, a draft, since things change. Even if a choice from years ago is being parsed, new insights about it can bubble up at any time. Putting the date on it makes it clear to the unconscious that the draft is time-limited, that more insight is always welcome: it’s not a closed book.

Four-Square Phenomena and Questions

The four-square can be exhausting at first, since the psyche has spent years developing its own self-protective ways that have generated blindness, helplessness, and gridlock. That’s why being doctrinaire or extreme or otherwise “branded” can be so attractive: all the decisions are pre-made, from outside the central self, so there’s no uncovering of unappealing motives, no exertion or doubt in making choices. Those abdications give sometimes too much authority to organizations and individuals who exercise control over others. Instead, the four-square idea is to become centered in the central dot where the squares meet, to retrieve all the scattered energies lost to conflicting drives and imperatives, to become clear.

The consilient power in the diagonals can also show how motives can be hidden: for example, while a choice looks like it’s all for A, there might truthfully be more compelling motives in avoiding the negatives of B.

Besides bringing up such previously unacknowledged impulses, another four-square benefit can materialize in applying it to current obligations – in literally “framing” in the grid an option to opt out, openly listing its possible losses and risks rather than let them drive you around on autopilot in the dark. This can create or revitalize the reality that the obligation is a continuing independent choice. In some cases, the strange comfort of feeling powerless, not responsible, can make something tremble deep down when the specter of choice arises. I found this out when I tried to convey these ideas to a couple of women, at different times, who were deeply immersed in their roles as housewives and mothers. The idea that they were choosing the ordeals of cooking, cleaning, obeying, and responding to crises was obviously destabilizing to the coping structures they’d developed, the roles that set them in certain relationships to their environments and the people in them, gave them a definable place in the world. Setting and updating these interactions is the fundamental job of the ego’s continual self-invention (as well as family and public cultures’ more or less conscious job of self-perpetuation, which can make participants unaware of their own inner choice-making machinery). The same would apply to men or athletes or executives or movie stars or astronauts or artists; the homemakers just happened to be the people I was close enough to, to talk of things like the foundation of their entire existence. Neither was happy with me, not surprisingly, no matter how much I celebrated and honored their choices.

So it may help to be prepared for some of these foundational supports to start dissolving, possibly by holding onto the idea that full awareness of choice is core to being fully alive in the world – even if activities on the surface remain the same. There’s no more “I have to” or “I can’t” in the decisional realm. It’s actually possible that developing inner knowledge of freedom to choose, with conscious acknowledgment of all the downsides (which are converted into more or less costly yet courageous investments), will transform routine activities and enliven interactions with all involved.

To enjoy the possibly unnerving freedom from old traps, the frisson of entering new territory and destabilizing relationships, the weirdness of becoming an unfamiliar self, it may also help to remember that the walls of old traps are made of the instinctive mind’s natural hostility to being challenged. Reactions abound in our culture, in dozens of clichéd ways to avoid inquiring into the foundations of choice: in a hundred years who’s gonna care, if I’d known then what I know now, it never entered my mind, I don’t know what possessed me, I didn’t sign up for this, you made your bed now lie in it, it seemed like a good idea at the time, I coulda-shoulda-woulda, on and on. These leave the decision points locked up, with all the life energy trapped in old boxes, all the insight and enthusiasm unavailable for new decisions. The four-square is never about rehashing in search of justification; it’s about clarity, which is a transcendent space, not a snarled one lost in darkness. It’s about developing genuine compassion for the innocent ignorance of the past and rediscovering the liveliness of the present moment.

Another application for all this new clarity might be in revisiting old choices after various forms of transformation have occurred. It’s possible to feel like a completely different person. A well-known tendency in such cases is to feel so much better about the expansive new you that you’re tempted to harshly judge the benighted previous you. That’s when compassion for innocent ignorance can help the most (“Did I make the best decision I could, based on the information available to me at the time?” and “Is my innocent enthusiasm still available, to apply in some new way?”), not only because it keeps those egotistical judgmental energies from poisoning your own shiny new self and splitting you off from your own deeper life-current, but also because it cultivates empathy with all other beings suffering inside traps so similar to your own. It reduces the instinct to hold them in contempt or push them away, which is the instinctive mind’s impulse to widen the separation between you and something you don’t want to be associated with (any more). You live free of anxiety about encountering your old self in the person or company of someone else.

This empathy is win-win, without having to squash your “opponent,” either your former self or someone else. And you get to keep the wisdom without feeling bad about it – although it can be helpful to allow old grief, rage, remorse, and other repressed shadow sensations to finally surface, now that there’s a compassionate container where they can be safely acknowledged, minus the fear of being overwhelmed or derailed or defined by them. They can be witnessed. The enthusiasm that was hiding under all those cloaking devices can then pour forth, fresh and alive – and it may be contagious, helping to free others when they feel their own autonomy being honored through your empathetic respect.

A Bigger Deeper Picture

As for present-moment choices, once the mind is comfortable calling up all the factors, much greater depth, integrity, and strength reveal optimal choices for writing one’s own life – as a character and as a narrative guided by intent. Choices define the main character (one’s own character as writer as well as actor) at a single moment in time: the word came from kharax, a pointed stake used to scratch symbols into the body. These marks can be dissolved and shed, rewritten, once they’ve been seen and the character becomes a witness to the symbols, no longer limited to a self-sense as one of the symbolic labels etched into the outer layers. Choices then originate from a deeper, clearer center filled with more expansive, unencumbered potential.

The depth dimension of the four-square process, which makes possible a life lived from a true core, not as a series of reactions, is analogous to what Ursula K. LeGuin said in The Wave in the Mind about finding the right words (choices and selves added in brackets here to highlight the metaphor):

“[T]he writer’s job is to go down deep enough to begin to feel that rhythm … to be moved by it, and let it move memory and imagination to find words … to recognize the wave, the silent swell, way out at sea, way out in the ocean of the mind, and follow it to shore, where it can turn or be turned into words [choices], unload its story, throw out its imagery, pour out its secrets [of past and present selves]. And ebb back into the ocean of story.”


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