delusion of me

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,


4 thoughts on “delusion of me

  1. Thanks Lynette,

    It would be interesting to do more of these experiments on experienced meditators, particularly their ability to let go of emotional states. I was experimenting a bit with that myself recently – experiencing anxiety and seeing it manifest in the body as faster heartbeats etc. – and then observing the difference between wanting to fix it by repeating reassuring thoughts (“everything’s going to be OK” etc.) vs. just observing the experience and not doing anything about it.

    The paradox of course is that trying to fix it doesn’t work and not trying to fix it does. And then you end up trying to not try to fix it and then it doesn’t work again…. :-).

    • Thanks for reading, Andre!

      Davidson’s lab has conducted many studies comparing novice with experienced meditators (operationalized as persons with 10,000 – 45,000 hours of practice). Some of the results were interesting! Diving off your example dealing with awareness of physiological sensations versus the narrative, their data showed there was no difference between novice and experienced practitioners in their ability to be aware of physiological sensations or the physiological response to intense stimuli (sound, pictures). What the experienced meditators were able to do however was to disengage from the narrative about the stimulus – evidenced by cortical area responses. IOW, our implicit emotional system (memories, reactivities) are ‘normal’ responses and may not be as amenable to practice. However, our explicit systems (interpretation, culturally/psychologically trained responses) are plastic and change with long term practice.

      In terms of personal practice, it points me in the direction of returning to the breath following awareness of the arising of sensation and not becoming engaged in the discourse that I think is going to fix the beliefs about the conceptual label I’ve applied to the sensations – ‘anxiety’, ‘depression’, etc. Perhaps this is “self-compassion”?

      If you get a chance to go through a couple of Davidson papers on his site, I’d love to hear your take on what it means for us as practitioners!

  2. I’ve spent zero time thinking about this, but . . . there’s a nice dance occurring between meditation as a subjective, experiential activity and meditation as a quantifiable, experimental activity. Most likely, neither approach fully gets what happens when we sit on a cushion, nor do they capture the linger aroma of the activity.

    What is the “middle way” between objectivity and subjectivity? How do we encourage ourselves without clinging to either?

    • Perhaps the middle way simply emerges between objectivity and subjectivity. As in the Sandokai, the dark is in the light, the light in the dark.

      thank you for clinging to encouraging me!

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