Our practice realization and neuroscience come together to show that the sense of a permanent and integral self is constructed but is also needed to function.
Notes from Zen Brain talk by Al Kaszniak.
Harkening back to John Dunne’s talk, in the five skandhas, we have a built-in systematic map of our lived experience out of which we create a sense of self. Evan Thompson called this a process of “I-ing”, a continuous integration of external and internal perceptions that forms a feedback loop. Under all the nuances and variations of developmental theories is an inescapable truth: without an Other, there is no I that can be created. What is perhaps not so explicitly stated is that the creative process is one of discerning what is most useful to integrate and what is not required; in other words, it is a process of grasping and rejecting relational offerings.
Without this discernment, we can be overwhelmed by our perceptual experiences or take inappropriate ownership of things that are in proximity to us. There’s fascinating phenomenon called the Rubber Hand Illusion – a disruption of the sense of body ownership in which we can feel as though a disembodied hand is actually ours:
Growing up is not that different. We develop a belief of ownership by proximity to the object of our perception and the simultaneous stimulation that is called relationship. That’s not all bad. Love works that way. So does caring, empathy, compassion, and the feeling of community. It only causes suffering when reification and inflexibility set in. When we are deluded in the belief that things not connected to us define us or are defined by us, we create the conditions of suffering.
At the Q&A of the Zen Brain talks, I asked about research that explored neurological changes related to the relational aspects of our experience. I was surprised by the way I constructed my question. Prefacing it briefly with the facts of my mother’s dementia, I noted that as I was watching her deconstruct herself, I was also deconstructing myself. We were rapidly becoming no-mother and no-daughter, falling to signlessness. In as much as the trajectory of the relationship for her was a natural course of neural deterioration, it was also crucial, in my mind, that I met it as a process of practice realization. I had to let go of the belief I owned the Rubber Hand of our developmental relationship.
When she and I were able to meet as two beings whose shared history could not longer be acted out, something shifted. There were no past stories to live out, guard against, or correct. There is only the moment of sitting, eating, holding, feeling. Don’t get me wrong. I also feel sadness – but not for the woman she was who would have been devastated to see herself now. There is sadness that this is way in which she attains liberation. For me anyway. Perhaps you see it differently.
Thank you for practicing,