Leggo My Eg(g)o!

Whoever it was that penned that inane (but obviously catchy), 1970’s commercial for Kellogg’s waffles, I’d wager mindfulness practice might have been one of the more remote sources of inspiration for them. As the pedantic and whiny father makes his case, attempting to guilt his eight-year old (but unbending) son into surrendering his frozen bit of dimpled cardboard, how prophetic is the framing of the classic clash of ego’s (over Eggo’s, trivially enough in this case).

With my wife away for the weekend not so very long ago, the ‘window of opportunity’ opened on watching a movie or two that were let’s say not at the top of her viewing list. Harry Brown and Avatar found their way into the DVD player and with them the shared theme, among others, of the tension and its ‘resolution’ between the Us(es) and the Them(s). For Harry, the aging pensioner, living out his declining years on a housing estate in a rough section of London in the UK, the opposition comes clad as a group of older adolescents, largely treating the estate environs as their personal playground, content to bully and terrify residents who had the misfortune to be in the wrong place at the wrong time. The defining moment in this case is the assault and killing of Harry’s longtime friend bent on challenging the young toughs and refusing to live in fear of them. The event catalyzes Harry, long since content to have put aside a lethal skill set developed during his war years in favour of an attempt at a life of tolerant coexistence, when he too is confronted and threatened. His systematic, vigilante-style, ‘elimination’ of the gang’s members escalates with the predictable tragedies mounting on all sides.

Avatar too explores the consequences of (in this case, literally) alien agendas played out in an insular and self-serving fashion in the absence of understanding of ‘the other’s’ position – or even any interest in determining what that might be. As with Mr. Brown, it’s not hard to generate sympathy for the ‘victim’ – never a challenge distinguishing the white hats from the black – cheering each unlikely ‘victory’; but never quite losing sight of an ominous truth behind, that (much less trivially this time round) the issue is once again a clash of ego and all that that implies – with no clear good guys, only (temporary) winners and losers.

Mindfulness practice is sometimes described as developing a state of egoless awareness. Buddhist wisdom identifies two classic impediments (sometimes benignly referred to as ‘hindrances’) to this process: greed (attachment) and hatred (rejection or avoidance of relationship) – directly attaching both these barriers to relationship unity to the ego of the individual. Both are clearly played out in the two films above. For the ‘human colonizers’ in Avatar, the primary interest is in securing a supply of a valuable mineral – the impact on the indigenous population be damned. For Harry, it’s avenging his friend’s death and ‘sanitizing’ the estate of a hated blight.

Our inclination, when desirous of or challenged by a person, group, or situation, is to first wash it through the filter of the ego. Is this something that will enhance my state? Is this a threat to my security, prestige, position? Then, more often than not, have that circumstance become the focus of our action; almost invariably at the cost of relationship. The defense of the ego becomes the distancing act of separating me from the other. The I want what he/she has or I want to prevail and force my will on him/her become our prime directives. Most meditative traditions endorse a ‘letting go of’ as a substrate for a more peaceful and fulfilling life, less absorbed with acquisitive or adversarial goals. Nevertheless our culture seems bent on endorsing the opposite: ‘he who dies with the most toys wins’ is replete with the cultural values of both acquiring and competing/dominating. Evidence of our increasingly litigious natures is seen everywhere, with the knee-jerk response being the evaluating of almost any situation first through its potential for a ‘successful suit’.

Laurence Freeman, a meditation teacher in the Christian tradition, examines this plight from the standpoint of our approaching relationship as an essential duality, more bent on maintaining our individuality, our uniqueness, our ‘difference from’ – than on fostering, in his words, a ‘oneness’ or unity in relationship. James Cameron’s cinematic conceit for this same concept is a literal joining with, an empathy for all organic entities. For those who haven’t seen the film, the ‘crippled’ human hero is made whole by taking on Pandoran form (the indigenous residents) – quite literally ‘walking a mile in his shoes’; with the extended metaphor of peaceful coexistence centering on one’s awareness of, respect for, and sensitivity to the needs and wishes of all beings from other humanoids to trees.

Mindfulness teaching then provides a vehicle for a much more positive spin on the ‘leggo my eggo’ jingle of some 40 years ago – far from it being a challenge, a throwing down of the gauntlet, an ‘I want what you got’, they advocate a ‘letting go of my ego’. Just how practice suggests we do this is the subject of next week’s blog.

[For those sports fans amongst us, the answer does not involve tossing one’s waffles onto the ice at the Air Canada Centre in protest over the Maple Leaf’s abysmal season!)

The Trouble with Change

As a recent psychology graduate and newly minted employee of our local hospital, I was called upon frequently to present to all manner of groups; often asked to expound upon stress, it symptoms, sources, and to offer some presumed solutions and management strategies. The tack I came to adopt most often was to define stress as our natural response to change. I would dutifully outline Hans Selye’s General Adaptation Syndrome as the process through which organisms, human and animal alike, struggle to restore order, to return to what ‘was’ in their lives, once this familiar comfort zone had been upset in some fashion. His language, while biologically precise, inadvertently pathologized ‘change’, incorporating it as the villain setting in motion a ‘syndrome’, variously defined as a disease, disorder, or set of symptoms. His labels, too, of stages of coping within this syndrome, as one gradually decompensates over time, convey the pejorative, perfidious nature of change: respectively, the Alarm, the Resistant, and finally, the Exhausted stage.

A second favourite inclusion of mine was a table sometimes referred to as the ‘Life Change Scale’, presuming to attach a value to each of 30 or so ‘life events’ ranging, depending on the version of the scale, from ‘death of a spouse’ (98 points) through ‘getting married’ (26) to ‘going on vacation’(5). The ‘values’ of events one had experienced within the past year are totaled and purport to provide an estimate of how ‘stress vulnerable’ one might be – less than 150 = OK; 150-300 – better watch your change meter; greater than 300 – you’re euchred! The message is similar – change, regardless of its presumed ‘goodness’ or ‘badness’, will get you. And the ‘solution’, to the extent one is able to make such choices, it to limit change; thereby minimizing one’s stress levels.

Lovely! As I reflect on this now thirty-plus year old ‘wisdom’, I marvel at how many ways the assessment and attendant prescription got it wrong. No question that Dr. Selye’s mice, swimming helplessly and hopelessly (if we can anthropomorphize rodents for the moment) in their inescapable pond, gradually succumbed to their ‘stress’. And equally, no doubt, events like moving house, getting downsized from one’s long-term employment, or having a close friend become pregnant (although it mystifies me as to why this event shares equal stress value with starting to date again in adulthood – I suppose it depends upon how close a friend that now fecund acquaintance might be!) are indeed likely to amp up one’s stress-o-meter. Where the impassioned plea to ‘control your stress by controlling change’ leaves the tracks is in its identification of change as the root of this evil. Rather like blaming a highway for causing auto accidents. Not to mention the fool’s errand and arrogance of presuming to ‘solve’ this state by controlling anything as unpredictable as change!

Three decades later and in a decidedly less certain and more contemplative headspace, I am prepared to let change off the hook. Like the 401’s of our lives, it appears much more likely that it’s how we approach and utilize this ‘highway’ than it is something inherent in the ‘tarmac’ of change itself that requires our attention. Two pillars (essential truths) of Buddhist teaching are often translated as ‘impermanence’ and ‘unsatisfactoriness’. For better or worse (often the latter), we continue to struggle with and deny these ‘truths’, generally being quite unhappy ‘when things fall apart’ (to borrow Pema Chodron’s book title) – when enjoyable, desirable states metamorphose into something less so, underscoring both the inherent transitory (read, changeable) nature of all things and (to quote the controversial Richard Dawkins) the dominant tendency for such mutated states to less functional (appealing and desirable) than their immediate predecessor. We neither want the good times to stop rolling (attachment); nor their less attractive replacements to hang around (avoidance). We become frustrated, disappointed, resentful, even cynical over our ‘loss’, (obsessively) clambering (like those little ‘Selyean’ mice) to return to what was (dry land) and fearing the alternative – what is (a deep, dark puddle).

How mindfulness practice prepares us for a much more adaptive (and less neurotic, blame-casting, and fearful) way of dealing with the inevitability of change is contained in the practice itself. (Sadly, reading about it isn’t enough!) A prime directive (if you will) in formal, meditative practice instructs us, as we are inevitably drawn away, distracted from our focus (the rhythm of our breathing, our mantra, etc.), to notice this departure; then letting go of whatever has distracted us, to return to our focus once again. This simple cycle holds the very seeds of dealing adaptively and acceptingly with the ‘impermanence’ of, in this case, our focus – no one expects to hold that concentrated anchor for more than a few moments at a time. Despite our best resolve, we will ‘change’, evolve away from; this is what is. It’s neither bad, nor undisciplined, nor avoidable; it just is. Far from ‘controlling’ ourselves, we accept, even embrace change; far from regretting, judging, being disturbed or frustrated by the place to which we’ve ‘mutated’, we simply note it – and return to the breath.

So change happens – as the (slightly sanitized) saying goes. To villainize and resent it; to (superstitiously) prepare ourselves for it by becoming so constricted in our hopes (lest we be saddened and disappointed when they too vaporize, as they must) that we dampen our enthusiasms and celebration of what’s (happily) happening right now, is to revert to what I might have prescribed in those early years: control what you can, then duck. Sitting with, observant and non-judgmental as the river flows on, seems a more sustainable, reality-based script.

Mindfulness Basics

So what exactly is meditation, anyway? What is going on when ‘nothing is going on’? And, always assuming I have answers to the first two questions, what does this process look like when I move it out of that half-hour meditational period and into the day to day? What are the mechanics – in plain language, if you please?

Consider first of all that the human condition is to be distracted and distractible. And the 25-minute sit is not exempt from that normal, predictable, relentless process. The practice of mindfulness is, at core, the practitioner’s coming to accept this most human of activities and his/her cultivation of a simple strategy through which he/she may return to a more ‘unified’ state of mind – only to be distracted once again.

My wife presented me with a lovely metaphor for this process. Consider one’s ‘desirable’ state of mind (both in and out of one’s formal practice period) as consisting of a committee of ‘individuals’, all happily working together around a shared centre or focus; but all with quite unique agendas: management by committee. Let’s call this the ‘syntonic’ state – centered and grounded. In my wife’s example, I had been dispatched to find dining table accessories for a larger than usual (for us) dinner party scheduled for an evening on the weekend. No problem so far – my wife’s ‘committee’ had a clear expectation of the product with which I’d hopefully return. Her creative side saw ‘matched and blue’; her time manager was comfortable that all would be in place with time to spare; her chef was well-prepared (and didn’t really care about the niceties anyway – as long as the menu worked); and her ‘how do I compare’, socially conscious committee member was aware that one of our guests was a consultant for an interior design magazine – and, as yet, she (my wife’s committee member, not the guest) wasn’t squawking too loudly. Enter David with red and green napkins and place mats, a bouquet of flowers more suited to the floor beside a pulpit than the dining table – and powdered (vs. block) parmesan to boot.

Quite suddenly the harmony of the ‘management committee’ is fractured. An outlier had been pulled from the centre – by a distraction (I’ve been called many things, but rarely a distraction), leaving the rest of the group more or less in tact – but with the attention now on the outlier. (For the sake of illustration, let’s make the outlier the ‘creative’ committee member.) In the example, the issue / challenge to the group is not so much its source (aka: me), but the outlier. They notice the fragmenting behaviour of the outlier. Her focus, however is more likely on the source – ‘he should have called’; ‘he could exchange (but there’s no time)’; ‘my table will look like a Christmas tree’ – and the need to have the source fix the problem and restore harmony. The result, further contributing to the disruption, is to more fully engage ‘the source’, pulling herself even farther from harmony – as voices rise, explanations flow, anxiety and urgency build. Syntonia has become dystonia, wherein the environment has become very ‘noisy’ courtesy of the distraction.

The essential element at this point is for the outlier to notice, become aware of the process that she’s (dangerously) engaging. Then to allow the situation as it is comprised – not as she would have it or needs it to be; loosening the grip on her ideal. This acceptance (not resignation or capitulation, mind you) serves both to remove her from ‘battle ready’ status and to free her up to address the ‘real issue’ – not the source’s cock up and all the judging and negative evaluation that that might include – the circumstance in which she now finds herself and finding a solution within it.

If one is actively meditating, this ‘notice and accept’ phase might look something like ‘there, I’ve become caught up in that distracting sound or sensation or thought’; then, allowing it to recede, to ebb or flow – as they usually do – and return to one’s breath / focus. If one is outside the sit, it’s sometimes necessary to push a ‘pause button’ – I went and shoveled snow; my wife reframed the ‘Christmas tree’, cutting flower stems down and minimizing the volume of observable red and green – to allow our ‘lizard brain’ (our very old and instinctive chemistry that readies us to fight or flee), and the activating messages it’s sending to the body, to catch up with our consciousness. When the body is ready – defused and less inclined to work against our efforts to rejoin the rest of the committee – we can successfully return to the task at hand. It’s important to note that the ‘old brain’ and the body are just doing their job (granted, one that was defined 30,000 years ago) – which is to address the ‘distraction’, be it a wooly mammoth or an irritating spouse; they must be allowed their due – not judged. It should also be noted that breathing is a very potent mechanism for ‘calming’ the side of our nervous system that prepares us to act, to engage. So whether you’re sitting and meditating or facing your neighbourhood mammoth, breathing is a good thing, working equally well in both cases.

And so to summarize. Mindfulness practice is a four step process: NOTICE – observe that the outlier has removed himself from the core committee; ACCEPT – as the outlier, allow the situation as it is, not needing to control it, wishing it were otherwise (and further entrenching in the distraction); PAUSE – as needed, to allow the energized body to stand down from its (natural) preparation to act; and BREATHE – returning to the committee with a calming breath, rejoining the rhythm.

By the way, the driveway got cleared, the napkins got rolled, the flowers are still in bloom – and the Bourguignon was marvelous!