Monday, March 12, 2012

Look, Listen. . . and Learn

Four quotes: from a pedantic, 2000-year old zealot, a Minnesota poet, a French resistance fighter, blinded at age 8, and a teacher-composer.

When I was a child, I spoke as a child, I understood as a child, I thought as a child; but when I became a man, I put away childish things. For now we see in a mirror, dimly, but then face to face. Now I know in part, but then I shall know just as I also am known.
(1st Corinthians, 13).

I notice a caterpillar crawling over my sheet of ten-cent stamps. The head is black as a Chinese box. Nine soft accordions follow it around. . .skinny brushes used to clean pop bottles rise up from its shoulders. The caterpillar advances around and around the edge, and I see feet: three pairs under the head, four spongelike pairs under the middle body, and two final pairs at the tip, pink as a puppy's hind legs.
(Creatures glanced at briefly, from Robert Bly's What Have I Ever Lost By Dying)

Because of my blindness I had developed a new faculty. Strictly speaking, all men have it -- but almost all forget to use it. The faculty is attention. In order to live without eyes, it is necessary to be very attentive, to remain hour after hour in a state of wakefulness, or receptiveness, and activity. Indeed attention is not simply a virtue of intelligence or the result of education. It is a state of being. In its truest sense, it is the listening post of the universe.
(From Jacques Lusseyran's And There Was Light)

Listening is receptive. You allow something outside your body to come inside, into the deep brain. . .to be open and impressionable, to hear everything. . .the eyes are hungry. They eat brain energy. When you close your eyes, your brain opens to your ears; sound rushes in. Open your eyes and now the brain is crowded [again], and the bright screen of sound grows dim.
(From The Listening Book, W. A. Mathieu)

As we grow older and (ostensibly) more mature, conventional wisdom has it that we become 'more worldly', less naive. While this is most likely true in that we might grow more cynical or jaded, more tainted by the 'treasures' the world has to offer -- I would maintain that we may actually become less of the world. As Paul's letter to the Corinthians suggests, it is the child who engages the world fully and directly; the adult who, by stages, has his sight 'dimmed' -- has his experience of the world increasingly filtered by his own 'lens', becomes narrowed, selective, and capable only of seeing 'through a glass darkly'. We tend to withdraw into ourselves, increasingly 'derivative' and more out of touch with the full sensory experience of our surround.

Lusseyran, our French freedom fighter, makes a similar point. In his case, deprived of sight from middle childhood by a school-ground accident, his description of the figural importance of attention and what he characterizes as 'wakefulness' echoes, both in language and sentiment, the very teachings of mindfulness practice. Specifically, we all have the potential, the capability to 'pay attention' -- we simply fail to cultivate this faculty unless compelled by circumstance to do so. In his generous comment -- we 'forget' to attend. His vigilance, 'hour after hour', not only allowed him to survive, but to thrive; not only to hone his other senses, but to alter the way he experienced the world -- to change his 'state of being'.

Mathieu too, makes a compelling case against the exclusivity of vision as a preferred sense of awareness. He may be a bit too hard on the eyes, attributing to them an almost bullying sensibility, as they flood our brain with 'easy stimuli', quickly overpowering the ear and, in the process depriving us of the rich and nuanced subtlety available through our hearing the world. Frequently we choose to meditate with our eyes closed -- evidently, if Mathieu has his way, for good reason.

The words of our mid-western poet restore some legitimacy to our sight as a vehicle for sensory presence and immediate awareness. Bly's slim volume is at once a lament of that same 'sensory withdrawal' (alluded to in Paul's letter) and a celebration of the result when we resist the desire to 'pull each sturgeon and hollow tree' into ourselves. He makes a strong case for what happens when the writer is able to see an object or a creature -- without laying claim to it; without, in his beautiful prose, 'immersing it like a negative in one's [own] development tank of disappointment and desire'.

In a few weeks, our intrepid little group of meditators will once again 'make room' for the immediate experience of sensation, emotion, and thought -- in a silent space. A suggested preparation for this -- or indeed for mindfulness practice in general -- might be to cultivate what Lusseyran refers to as a more constant state of awareness and receptivity. In mindfulness terms, this translates into perhaps slowing oneself down, reminding oneself to return to the present moment -- when we notice that we're digging into a past experience and becoming stuck; or 'reliving' emotions with perhaps attendant anger or anxiety; or anticipating a moment before it's arrived.

For the 'listening' version of this blog click:

Monday, March 5, 2012

Altruism: The Right Action Choice

My old friend and teacher, John Heider, was a card-carrying member and proponent of the Human Potential Movement. Growing out of the seminal works of such psychological theorists as Fritz Perls, one of the cornerstones of HP is the taking of personal responsibility for one's actions. Put simplistically: 'you make your choices . . . and you take responsibility'. The consequences -- good, bad, or otherwise -- are yours. But what drives us to make responsible choices? Do we all have the same 'moral (or human) potential'? Are there (genetically) good folk . . . and bad?

I have long been fascinated by psychopathy. Defining this disorder as 'a pervasive pattern of disregard for, or violation of the rights of others. . . [characterized by] the lack of empathy or remorse, false emotions, selfishness, and deception' (online definition), it paints a lovely picture of depravity and moral bankruptcy. There is little question that such individuals exist -- and that many of them are in jail (or perhaps ought to be). The issue of whether this is the appropriate placement, however, has been debated a little more heatedly in recent times. The work of Bob Hare (the psychologist most often associated with advances in this area of study and identification), as well as advances in neuroscience and brain scanning, has determined that psychopaths are, in fact, as much born as made. That their brains work a little differently from those organs that the rest of us rely upon to direct our day . . . and our choices. (And God did not create all Amygdalas equal.) And so the question of whether it's fair to incarcerate someone who evidently has no choice but to behave in the way he (mostly males . . . sorry guys!) does, has begun to surface a little more often.

The above quandary, in part, is predicated of course on the larger question of free will versus determinism. If there's no choice, if our behavioural patterns are cast in genetic stone, then how can we put someone away for merely following his cerebral, pre-wired inclinations? Equally, we find ourselves more or less at the other pole from my mentor John's teachings -- I make my choices . . . but I don't have to take responsibility, because it's not my fault! I'm just the Adult Child of a (fill in the blank).

Fortunately for all you devoted followers of this weekly ramble, I'm able to direct you to some definitive answers on this ages old philosophical question. This weekend's Globe contains a review of an interesting (scientific) treatise (Who's In Charge? by Michael Gazzaniga) which, rather than trying to resolve the free choice / determinism debate, reframes the issue: what are the consequences of failing to make folk responsible for their choices? To quote: 'in the absence of punishment, cooperation [in society] cannot sustain itself. In the presence of free-riders, cooperation collapses. (Defining 'free riders' as those who cheat, lie, steal, kill, etc. for their own benefit, thereby taking advantage of everyone else's cooperation, without paying the price of cooperating themselves -- sound familiar?) And so it becomes an issue not of choice or no choice; but one of providing a little firm guidance to that subset of society that, for quite accepted reasons, is a bit responsibility-challenged!

A second piece that I ran across that speaks to the same question appeared in this week's New Yorker. Jonah Lehrer looks at the evolutionary origins and support for altruism -- historically considered, even by Darwin himself, as a flaw in his theory of natural selection. If we define this 'highest of human ideals' as one's readiness to sacrifice self for another, for a greater cultural good, how could individuals with 'large helpings of selflessness' continue to survive? Throwing oneself in front of the bus to save the little old lady crossing the street is not likely to extend one's lineage -- and so another altruist buys it, progeny-less. Lehrer's article, in considering the scientific evidence for altruism across species (i.e., not just in us great apes), manages to reconcile this apparent paradox. It seems that acting in ways that will benefit the greater good of the colony (at least amongst leaf-cutter ants!), is just as selfishly driven as opportunistically swiping the pie cooling on the window sill when aunt Milly isn't looking. The group survives, I survive; the colony dies, I die (if we can anthropomorphize Mr. Ant and his pals for the moment.) To return briefly to Mr. Gazzaniga, 'punishment by incapacitation [plunkin' the buggers in the slammer - ed. note] resulted in temperaments being selected [out] for that which makes us more cooperative'. . . and responsible.

Within the realm of mindfulness practice, Right Action, the fourth step of the Eight-fold Path in Buddhist tradition, informs us at these critical choice points. Sylvia Boorstein is quoted on the topic in the following:

"Codes of ethics are most often associated with prohibitions: Don't do this; don't do that. . . all the don'ts elaborate on the awareness that if we are not alert (or in jail -- ed note), our naturally arising impulses of greed and anger might lead us to do something exploitative or abusive. The fundamental rule is: 'Don't cause pain'. Right Action use[s] the terms 'moral shame' or 'moral dread' [conveying] the sense of awesome responsibility they are meant to convey. . .that every single act we do has the potential of causing pain, and every single thing we do has consequences that echo beyond what we imagine. It means we should act carefully. Everything matters".

And so allowing that 'we don't have a choice' . . . maybe we do. To cultivate a fully present awareness of the responsibility that attaches to 'every breath you take'.

Audio Version: Click here