Monday, February 18, 2013
What is it with the need to be seen for something we're not? Or at least aren't quite? In the political forum, it's called spin doctoring. Not outright lying. Just putting a bit of undeserved polish on last Fall's apple. I suppose it started with a chance encounter between my wife and an old acquaintance not seen in several years. Predictably 'catch up' was initially the order of the day's chat. Exchanges of who was doing what, where one now resided, how this member or that of family had managed. . . and so on. The talk for my wife, ever the good and modest listener, evolved into something of a monologue; the theme seemingly to persuade her or at least portray for her an intervening life of successive successes, fortuitous marriages, real estate and neighborhood upgrades, and . . . well, just a very shiny apple. As the conversation was shared and processed over dinner, we were left with a few abiding queries: what's this need to convince, to compare so favorably, to be seen as. . ?
Clearly that dinner time conversation had made its mark as a similar theme presented a few more times in my experience over the ensuing few days. Next up: Little Dorrit, the typically fascinating and (always) convoluted Dickensian tale of rags to riches to rags (depending on your moral compass) of this family. Midway thru' the story, patriarch, William Dorrit is released from debtor's prison where he has resided -- and held something of a fool's court -- for much of his later adult life. His fortunes have changed courtesy of the intervention of a family friend who has befriended his daughter, Amy and
unearthed the presence of the family's entitlement to a large fortune. The transformation is, however, one simply of fortune and residence. The patriarch's values remain unchanged, driven by a need to be seen as 'what he has ever been': a gentleman of great importance and influence, as he adopts (or rather maintains) his sense of superiority, need for deference and homage, and very (very) quickly dismisses his benefactor as of no further interest to him. Most repellant to him is to be reminded of his time in Marshalsea, the debtors' prison; his most constant reminder, daughter Amy and brother Frederick who are very content to portray their grounded constancy, eschewing of the 'airs' so speedily embraced by William. A sort of 649 winner set in the 19th century.
'Can you tell me what a philosophical psychologist might be?', my wife's query as she hit the back page of our local newspaper over the weekend. Curious, I scanned the column of this sometime 'writer and academic' -- and up popped the final entry in the ethically challenged sweepstakes for the week! To the lay person, adopting such a moniker is often no more than an easy shorthand or label, useful in conveying a sort of general concept or idea or suggestion of something or other. And therein lies the problem: the adopted title does indeed convey an 'idea of something'; in this instance credentialing that carries with it a certain expertise, a weightiness to one's words and opinions. The very reason such titles are protected under the law in Ontario. Which begs the question: 'why attach it to one's writing -- in the absence of entitlement to it?' Hmm, indeed. To be charitable, there's the outside possibility that said columnist is simply unaware of the protected status of said title. Bookkeepers refer to themselves as accountants, lay clergy as vicars, law clerks as lawyers. In ignorance of 'the rules', the forgiveness of 'no harm, no foul' obtains. We can only hope that our 'philosophical psychologist' is, indeed, ignorant. For if not. . .
In mindfulness tradition, the view of ego and its appetites may offer some measure of insight into the questions at the top of this piece. In our western culture, ego is a highly valued commodity. Possessing 'ego strength' is typically seen as a 'good thing'. It conveys a measure of self-confidence, certainty, poise; lacking it, suggests ambivalence, self-doubt, marginalization and functional invisibility.
Mindfulness teaching, however, takes a very different view of ego. In his chapter entitled 'Deconstructing the House That Ego Built', Lama Surya Das (Awakening the Buddha Within) associates ego-ism with what he calls the three poisons; the activities in which the ego needs to engage to feel vital and alive. Again, these activities are familiar to students of mindfulness practice: like and dislike, attachment and aversion, greed and hatred -- essentially the 'enemies' of equanimity, balance, non-judgment, letting go. The fear or anxiety of not being valued or liked, not being held in high esteem or worse, being hated or dismissed, of not having the power to influence outcomes, not being 'picked for the team' -- all sources of 'ego-angst' -- may underlie some of the compulsion to engage in what I'm calling the (a)morality of misrepresentation.
Images from Little Dorrit (2008) BBC production.
Images from Little Dorrit (2008) BBC production.
Monday, February 11, 2013
Maria Konnikova is the author of a new book on mindfulness: Mastermind: How to think like Sherlock Holmes. In it she explores, among other things, the apparent paradox contained in the title of this piece. Just how is it possible to see (and not make note); to hear (and not absorb any of what's being said)? Easier than you'd think! Ms. K. (in an excerpt from her book available at the link below) begins with a seminal quote from a Conan Doyle mystery wherein the long-suffering Watson is embarrassed yet again with Holmes pointing out something that Watson himself had 'seen' hundreds of times -- but had never 'registered'; something elementary, my dear Watson, in Holmes' oft repeated put down of his bright, loyal, well-educated partner in crime solution. Something that was right under his nose, yet never noticed.
At the very core of mindfulness practice is a cultivation of the observer self. This rather elusive aspect is very often overshadowed and out-muscled by his mindless sibling, the sensorially-deprived, participant self. The latter laddie, this would be Watson, quite blissfully, sometimes judgmentally, and most often obliviously engages in his daily routines, quite 'insensible' to what's going on in the present moment. He finds himself being carried along on long trains of thought, leap frogging free-associatively from one experience, opinion, plan, anxiety, regret, or fear to the next -- generally missing the immediate (and obvious, to Sherlock) content of the right now.
My wife and I had occasion to join my daughter and her partner for a Sunday brunch in London this past weekend. On the three-block walk from apartment to restaurant, pausing at a traffic signal, we all noticed the week's old lab puppy, none too patiently waiting across the intersection -- but fortunately held in check by his owner's leash. Light changes and we all proceed. In that brief crossing, I watched as the puppy was greeted and scratched by my daughter, sniffed at the pant leg of another pedestrian, attacked and subdued an errant piece of ice in the roadway, and was surprised by a puddle forming in gutter. I noticed as well that, each of these 'events' were followed by a gentle tug from the owner's lead, pulling our puppy back to present focus -- getting safely across the street in the time allowed by the signal.
I could readily see the 'participant puppy' (although at perhaps 8 weeks of age, he might be forgiven) being swept along by a sequence of, to him, random events, streaming into and out of his consciousness at mind-boggling speed. The tugs on his leash pulling him back (for the moment), before being carried off yet again. Noted meditation teacher and writer, Jack Kornfield devotes a section of his book, A Path With Heart, to training the puppy as follows:
Meditation is very much like training a puppy. You put the puppy down and say 'stay'. It gets up and runs away. You sit the puppy back down again. 'Stay'. And the puppy runs away over and over again. Sometimes it jumps up, runs over and pees in the corner. Our minds are much the same as the puppy, only they (can) create even bigger messes.
Mindfulness practice is just that -- a practice. We are, in the words of Mark Muesse, another meditation teacher and lecturer, typically in a default mode of mindlessness. Most of us, cruising along in participant mode, rarely have the 'Sherlock experience' of seeing what is before us. If we cultivate a regular practice, train the puppy, we have the capacity to become Sherlocks, to truly live mindfully.
Monday, February 4, 2013
The new BB has hit the market -- and, at least for the sake of RIM, hopefully not the deck. As expected, this newest version of the smart phone boasts all the usual bells and whistles -- faster surfing, more apps with quicker switching between same, speedier downloads with a bigger screen (??) on which to watch . . And on and on. Just the candy (again, hopefully) for this sugar-starved population. Slowing down, doing less at one time is becoming an increasingly hard sell in this world.
I had occasion to read John Allemang's editorial in this weekend's Globe and Mail, Psyched in the City, and was reminded, yet again, just how vulnerable we are to such appeals as the new BB Z10 and all its wonderful 'capability'. The column considers our essential neurological inclination to soak up as much information, input, stimulation as we can -- up to a point! The research he reviews suggests that, historically, this has been a good and adaptive thing. In past times, when things were so much simpler -- but arguably more precarious (no sabertooth tigers around the neighborhood last time I checked) -- it was important to be vigilant and to process as much information, central and peripheral, as possible. Our safety depended on it. Evidently not so much anymore -- and it's not just the drop off in the tiger population.
Allemang identifies another trend, the increased congregation of folks into more concentrated geographic pockets -- aka, cities. Our hungry little brains now have just lots and lots of stuff to absorb. So much so, that another evolutionary trend has been identified: our brains are also becoming rather selective -- once we hit info-max! In everyday talk, this translates into our innate ability to focus on a specific task, shutting out what the brain considers extraneous or irrelevant. Otherwise we'd all be reaching for the Ritalin and bouncing off the over-stimulated walls of the attention deficit disordered.
That's the good news. The bad news, to quote Mr. Allemang is that 'cities take distraction to a level undreamed of on the primeval savannah, to the point where the urban form itself can be blamed for messing with our minds'. In other words, an uncritical reliance on our own built in filters -- to shut out the irrelevant in the over-busy, over-stimulating environments that our urban environments increasingly represent -- is no longer sufficient. In fact, it can get us into serious trouble. He cites the almost cliched example of driving in city traffic while checking our incoming voicemail / texting. The brain, ever dutiful, is very likely to interpret the driving part of this scenario as the 'irrelevant' piece, the 'urgent' response to a changed lunch date in one's inbox as the more central, focal task. Oops.
And cultivating a multitasking skill set is not the answer. In fact, once again, this much touted (and now increasingly fueled with the advent of newer, faster, more multi-tentacled toys) capability simply does not exist. What does exist is our capacity to switch quickly between tasks -- provided the choices are contained to a reasonable number. Beyond that limit, it's ADHD time folks!
And so our choices. A place in the country. Perhaps. Or quite possibly a place in the city (actual or metaphoric) that gives the brain a rest. Additional research supports the view that breaks in low-stimulus zones -- I think we call them parks -- not only gives the brain a chance to relax and restore creativity, but it also is likely to improve our memories and equip us to pay more productive attention once we return to the war zone. The metaphoric equivalent of going to the local green space, of course is a regular mindfulness practice. Short of entering an immersion tank, the skill set that such a practice cultivates is exactly the ticket: one-pointed focus (in an environment where it won't lead to a close encounter with a telephone pole), reduced stimulation (only the breath), and a chance to turn off the smart phone.
John Allemang's article is available at the following link: http://www.theglobeandmail.com/technology/science/brain/how-our-brains-deal-with-the-chaos-of-city-life/article8122255/
Image from Globe and Mail, Mcleodwoodside.