building muscle

Now this is interesting:

Self-Regulation and Depletion of Limited Resources:  Dose self-control resemble a muscle?
Mark Muraven & Roy Baumeister, Psychological Bulletin (2000) No. 2, 247-259

Abstract: The authors review evidence that self-control may consume a limited resource.  Exerting self-control may consume self-control strength, reducing the amount of strength available for subsequent self-control efforts.  Coping with stress, regulating negative affect, and resisting temptations require self-control, and after such self-control efforts, subsequent attempts at self-control are more likely to fail.  Continuous self-control efforts, such as vigilance, also degrade over time.  These decrements in self-control are probably not due to negative moods or learned helplessness produced by the initial self-control attempt.  These decrements appear to be specific to behaviors that involve self-control: behaviors that do not require self-control neither consume nor require self-control strength.  It is concluded that the executive component of the self- in particular, inhibition – relies on a limited, consumable resource.

So… some situations extract a cost in self-control resources.  If that cost is high, the next event requiring self-control can’t be “purchased.”  More important, not being aware of the cost, I may not gauge accurately my ability to be skillful in engaging with the next event.  Others authors/researchers have talked about mindfulness as a muscle that supports awareness in the service of self-control (not getting hung up here on the self-non-self issue).  In essence, it’s about how seamlessly we can re-set from one exertion to the next and, I think, only practice will strengthen that particular muscle and replenish that well.

Time to log more hours on the cushion.

Thank you for practicing,


is there an app for this?

I’m crunched for time.  In two days we leave for Upaya and the Zen Brain retreat.  It promises to be another intense set of rounds with neuropsychology’s heavy hitters: Al Kazniak, James Austin, Amishi Jha.  Retreat participants received a set of articles via email by many of the  presenters and I’ve muddled through them.  It’s not that the topic is overly difficult; probably the most valuable skill my education gave me was the ability to scan a research paper, get the gist of it, and ear-mark it for future reference if it was applicable.

Now, that’s the sticky point: applicability.  The further I get into practice, the more my romance with research on meditation has faded.  It’s not that I have lost respect for the researchers and philosophers who try ever so hard to connect the practice of mindfulness/meditation to something substantive that may lead to good health via new interventions.  But there you have it: the convolution and expanse in that sentence alone makes me take a deep breath and ask: how is this helping me understand and live Dharma?

Of course, some of these folks – Evan Thompson, John Dunne, Al Kazniak – could expound on the telephone book backwards and I would defend that as Dharma.  But I’m partial to brilliant minds with charming smiles.  Hence my very successful 30-year marriage to He-Who-Tolerates-All-Things-Genju.

After Zen Brain and a three-day excursion around Santa Fe, I dive into the second retreat of the Chaplaincy with Fleet Maull and Jimmy Santiago Baca teaching us to live “Dharma at the Edge.”  Last week, I met with a hospital Chaplain and we discussed the intensity of being with those who are dying.  For two hours we dug into what it means for a family member to not look away from the suffering of a loved one, to make life-and-death decisions on their behalf, and what being a supportive advocate means in that context.  I was infected with her enthusiasm and her commitment to living her livelihood.  I’m glad I met her before I set out on this second phase because I am having a hard time folding aspects of this process into my practice.  Again the question arises: how is this helping me understand and live Dharma?

Yesterday, the answers was to download my garden as an app.  Over the next 10 days, who knows?

Thank you for practicing,


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,


owning self

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,


disowning self

We have a commonsense notion of self.  Self is thought of as a given, unique, agentic, independent, integrated, cohesive source that is permanent, underlying the flow of our conscious experience.  We experience self as the independent cause of voluntary action.

Al Kaszniak, Neuropsychologist

from Notes on Zen Brain: Contributions to an understanding of self-awareness from the study of neurological illness

Al’s research examines how the constructions of self are dismantled through a disease process that we call Dementia which means “deprived of mind.”  Alzheimer’s disease is the most common one we identify as a Dementia and is the major cause of Dementia.  Memory loss, changes in behaviour, transposed timelines and relationships, and reduced intellectual function create a flowing parody of the Three Doors of Liberation: selflessness, signlessness and aimlessness.  Age is not protective, nor are accomplishments, intellectual prowess, wealth, fame, or any of the legacies of our actions.  And in its initial stages, it’s hard to discern the development of the disease from the assertion of personality.

The most read post on this blog is losing and letting go, an exploration of my relationship with my mother who was diagnosed with vascular dementia three years ago.  I can only think that the popularity of the entry is because so many of us are trying to cope with the transformations this disease brings not just to the self of the person afflicted but to our own identification with the Other.  In our commonsense understanding of Self, we hold to the belief that under the expression of wild words and bizarre behaviours there is a solidity that will re-assert itself – given time, rational discourse, and a good night’s sleep.

It was easy for friends and family to lionize my mother.  She was certainly larger than most lives, passionate, fierce, and dominantly generous.  Her independence was legendary and there were few who returned for forgiveness after encountering her cold rage.  She and my father walked from Rangoon to Mandalay, a distance of some 400 miles, to escape the occupation of Japanese forces.  There are stories told from that period that cast her as an avenging protector, a trait that did not serve her well when transplanted to the West twenty years later.  In an environment that conceptualized relationships differently, she entrenched, refusing to reconstruct herself.  Or perhaps, there were no pathways, never had been any, that allowed a perception of experience as relational.

As she lost the world she understood, she had little choice but to disavow the world she had.  Having watched this from childhood to adulthood, I wonder why I pushed back against her unravelling self when the dementia began to flourish.  In the first few visits with medical personnel, I took great pains to explain that “this” was who she was: the rage, the lack of tolerance for not getting what she wanted immediately, the blaming, and the shaming.  They tried to explain that “this” was involuntary, a dismembering of neural networks that left her blameless and a candidate for equanimity and compassion.  I watched her put together the fragments of her identity, like a kaleidoscope, creating new combinations yet only ever arriving at the same place of desiring, rejecting, and confusion.  All observers agreed on the impact of her behaviours.  Yet I went home each night from the hospital where she lived for three months feeling like I had been transported into a strange universe where I knew everyone was finally seeing what I saw but were not bearing witness to it.

As she became disconnected from the concepts and ideas about her I had built for decades, she said as much about me in that way she had of highlighting my deficiency in making the world easier for her to cope with.  We were responding involuntarily to who we were to each other but remained unaware of it.  It reminded me of a phenomenon called Alien Limb in which the person afflicted claims their limb (an arm usually) is not their own.  The arm acts in various ways that are often embarrassing or oppositional to the person’s wishes or intentions yet the person will insist it was not their actions.  Combine this with a phenomenon called anosgnosia (an unawareness of having a deficit) and we had a pithy metaphoric recapitulation of what our mother-daughter relationship had become.

There is Dharma in this if we can get past the drama.  It raises for me the question of how to drop under the surface of losing identities and see, feel, realize the selflessness, the interbeing, the interconnectedness that is the mystery of relationship.  There is nothing lost.  There is only an observation of what is letting go.

Thank you for practicing,


no honey but ecstasy

….I entered the life of the brown forest,
And the great life of the ancient peaks, the patience of stone, I felt the
changes in the veins
In the throat of the mountain…and, I was the stream
Draining the mountain wood; and I the stag drinking: and I was the stars
Boiling with light, wandering alone, each one lord of his own summit;
and I was the darkness
Outside the stars, I included them, they were a part of me.  I was mankind
also, a moving lichen
On the cheek of the round stone…
…how can I express the excellence I have found,
that has no color but clearness;
No honey but ecstasy …

Robinson Jeffers, The Tower Beyond Tragedy ( quoted in Coming Back to Life: Practices to reconnect our lives, our world by Joanna Macy)