Last night’s meditation was a playful sit toying with self as object and self as subject. In the end it amounted to a mental version of Ernst Mach’s drawing “Self-Regarding Ego” which introduced his Analysis of Sensations. The drawing is a portrait of Mach sitting on his couch, drawing what he sees with one eye closed – a decapitated self. As bizarre as the drawing may be it serves a purpose in reminding me that this is what I see of myself each day. And perhaps that’s not a bad thing because practice is all about losing one’s head, that repository of the imagined self.
Some of the research Richie Davidson referenced in his Zen Brain talk included studies that showed “no unique circuit in the brain for self-processing.” In other words, there is no part of the brain that is exclusive in conceptualizing, designing or managing “self” as we know it. How freeing! If the concept of self is not dependent on one thing, not localized in one place, everything is possible. By extension this implies that there is no singular practice which will confer insight, enlightenment or liberation. It also provides a powerful antidote to the posessiveness of identity.
The delusion of self-identification arises when I identify with something rather than identify it as something. When a thought arises and I lay claim to it as “my” thought, I’m trapped in the net of self-identification. When I release it as “a” thought, I release concepts of my Self as well. Davidson described an interesting experiment in which training in meditation skills broke through the “attentional blink” previously thought to be hardwired and therefore not amenable to change. The attentional blink is the period between two targets presented in close succession so that the second target is not detectable. This failure in detecting the second target is thought to be because the observer gets locked or over-invested in the first target. After a 3-month meditation retreat at IMS in Barre MA, observers were able to identify the second target more successfully. The explanation is that the meditators have cultivated the capacity to not take ownership of the first target. This allocates more attentional resources to sustain the nonclinging state and an openness to new incoming information.
The final tantalizing information Davidson presented was that intention, aspiration and vow are members of the same family of mental processes which can be strengthened by meditation practice. Unfortunately it was a broad brushed segment of his presentation and I’m hoping there will be more in the future on the sustaining of vow when it is in moments of conflict. This has such powerful implications for understanding what creates sustainable behaviours from folding the laundry to honouring our commitment to each other.
In the final analysis, neurological studies may have little to do with whether or not I practice. Delusions are numberless and I’m quite good at finding that single powerful one to distract me. However, neurological studies with their message of infinite possibilities do provide us a way of encouraging ourselves and our companion practitioners who may feel they are not made for meditation or who feel discouraged by the sticky periods in a life of practice.
Thank you for practicing,