The Key To (just about) Everything

A teacher of mine once suggested to me, not to put too fine a point on it, that ‘insight, without action, is bullshit!’ This would have been one of those moments when I had become firmly mired in my head — unable, in his often inspired view, to translate all those tantalizingly tempting thoughts into experience of any kind. Thinking had pushed feeling well into background. He could have just as easily reversed the comment: acting, without awareness is . . . well you know the rest.
A breakfast table conversation recently had expanded — as they often do — to include chat about the ‘active ingredients’ in all manner of psychological interventions. My wife had encountered some material on attention deficit ‘treatments’ that seemed to be directed at the neurological bases of same. And had commented that, along with the usual medications, a whole whack of different kinds of therapies were being considered, including cognitive behavioral strategies (so much in vogue currently) and some mindfulness training as well. And it started me thinking . . . As I mulled over the sundry ‘stripes’ that therapies seemed to boast as ‘unique’ approaches to treating equally diverse issues, it occurred to me that many (dare I say, most) shared a key element: presence.
While it may seem like a statement of the obvious, if one isn’t fully engaged, present and accounted for, no intervention is going to be very effective. Take for example the aforementioned treat of the week (or month. . . or decade), CBT (aka cognitive behavioral therapy). This is a now half-century old — and very useful, I might add — method of helpfully modifying the ‘way people think’. Primarily directed at ‘distorted styles of thinking’ (personalizing, polarizing, catastrophizing, over-generalizing, filtering, etc.), the protocol is to divide one’s process into a series of progressive steps — often called the columnar method. Identify the trigger event, situation. Label the mood or feeling(s) attached to that situation. Highlight the ‘hot thoughts’ — these being the ‘faulty conclusions’ that tend to derail us. Catalogue the ‘evidence’ for and against these (often flawed) conclusions. Then finally, on the strength of this ‘balance sheet’, formulate a more ‘balanced experience’ of said situation.
Each progressive stage of this protocol requires that we fully and dispassionately (non-judgmentally) examine the ‘column’ that we presently occupy (be it situation, feeling, thought, or behavior). And secondly, most importantly, resist the compulsion to ‘jump to conclusions’ (another example of distorted thinking, btw), getting ahead of ourselves. For this process to ‘work’, the sine quo non (the ‘without which there is nothing’) is awareness, mindfulness.
My wife pulled me back with a very useful analogy. ‘All well and good — but you still have to do something with all that wonderful awareness’. The metaphor is that of driving down the highway in a nice, new, and electronically sophisticated car. Long before the zoned-out human occupants of said car tune into an impending flat tire, the on-board computer has detected a subtle decrease in pressure and illuminated the appropriate warning light for us to consider. That would be awareness. And that would also be the point at which myriad extraneous thoughts, choices, conclusions kick in for the human operator — and take us away from the present moment. Is it raining (avoidance)? Could it be ‘just a glitch’ (denial)? Do I have time to have a flat tire? (Hmm) When did I last check to see if I even have a spare? (guilt, anxiety). And so the light continues to glow, the tire continues to deflate, and finally, grudgingly, we pull over, compelled to actually address the issue at hand.
My wife’s point: we need team work. Awareness is a necessary — but not sufficient — condition for change, growth. Without it, we’re left with the sense that ‘we’ve been here before — with the same old outcome’. Repeating the same old mistakes, stuck in the same old tapes; and not even knowing it. With it, we’ve created the necessary forum or platform for change. But we still have to pull over and change the tire.
For many of us (evidently in the mind of my teacher, I would be among the ‘us’), sitting on a regular basis may be experienced as ‘not working‘. We don’t feel noticeably less anxious, our minds still wander all over the place, we still get depressed, have disturbed sleep, lose our tempers. What perhaps has shifted is our awareness of these processes (‘tuning in’ earlier in this process), a reduced emotional reactivity to same (acceptance, to a degree), an increased sensitivity to change in this process (not generalizing so much, a reduced compulsion to catastrophize) and a resolve to continue making room in our lives for this forum of awareness. But if we don’t notice the sensor light . . .


What better place to be reading L’Etranger than in a seedy hotel room in France. Hotel de la Renaissance, at the end of the Cours Mirabeau in Aix, 1968. The ‘window’ opened onto a closed stairwell through which, if you tilted your head at just the right angle, you might be graced with a sliver of natural light from two floors up. More an elevator shaft than anything. Smells collected and coalesced with no hope of escape. Sounds echoed with no particular point of identifiable origin. A place only to sleep, if you could; and read, if you couldn’t.  Speaking the language — but not really. Certainly not enough for it to form  a platform for communication of any depth. Disconnected from one’s surround: detached. Surrounded by life, vitality — with no mechanism to share it.
Seems like a very long time ago — but came back clear as a bell with the opening quote from Camus as I watched Detachment a few weeks ago.  The film explores the myriad ways in which, like Camus’ protagonist, we are isolated from our peers, our work, our families, our values. And the movie more than subtly suggests this posture to be a way of surviving in an uncaring world. One in which, if we allow ourselves to drop our guard and attempt a connection, we would quickly, certainly ultimately, be disappointed (at least), hurt and rejected (at worst). As you might imagine there are not a whole lot of redemptive moments to be found.
The shared theme in novel and film is that of detaching as a choice, as a necessity, as a survival strategy.  This is somehow still an oddly dysfunctional, emotionally bereft and unfulfilled life view.  And one that is certainly at odds with the mindfulness wisdom — which also details the risks of attachment, being ‘too much of the world’.  In an odd, ironic twist, mindfulness appears, on the surface, to be suggesting the same thing. If we become too attached, if we fail to ‘detach’ in some fashion, we become distracted, vulnerable to pride, jealousy, greed, avarice, anger, etc. — all the proteges of attachment.  What mindfulness practice adds, of course, are the balancing cautions against the ‘other polarity’: aversion (avoidance). Both film and novel lose sight of the middle ground which mindfulness advocates: living with equanimity, balance. This posture allows for maximum clarity, presence, and emotional stability. Living at ‘either edge’ (extreme) is a recipe for alienation, discontentment, distraction, unhappiness.
From a completely different perspective, a similar theme is explored in this week’s CBC Radio’s Tapestry podcast (available at, and addressing the issue of ‘Cosmic Loneliness’. Noreen Herzfeld, a professor of computer science and theology, looks at our fascination with and hopes for technology as a ‘fix’ for what she sees as our ‘existential loneliness’ (expressly the same issues Camus, Sartre, and the other existents wrestle with). In her view, our quest to create artificial intelligence (in computers, robots, etc.) is, in part, to address our need around perpetuating ‘our own images’ (sounds a bit God-like, doesn’t it) and our angst in coming to terms with a growing sense of isolation. Somewhat ironically (and despite the fact that she teaches the subject, i.e., computer science), she sees a wholesale ‘trust in the redemptive powers of technology’ as one of the elements that is progressively isolating us, one from another, even further.
In broad terms, she acknowledges that we just may be able to develop computer function to the point where it will (and in many cases, has already) be able to mimic a wide variety of aspects of ‘thinking’. Where it ultimately is capped, however, is in relational areas. Even instilled with ‘artificial emotion’, forming a ‘relationship’ with the most sophisticated of robots (complete with ‘face’, voice, and all the ‘human’ amenities), she sees a compelling need for direct, human connection. The point is underscored with an interesting reference to the Amish criteria for vetting the adoption or rejection of new technology. Three simple questions: 1) what will a new technology do to the individual — will it assist in his/her being a more complete person or will it cut them off from others; 2) what will a technology do to the relationships between individuals; and 3) what will a technology do to the integrity of the community as a whole. If one or more of these questions is not favorably answered, the technology is deemed unacceptable. 
Clearly, we are not about to become a population of Luddites; to suppress or discourage technological advancement. What Herzfeld is arguing, and I think quite compellingly, is that we at least consider these types of questions before we blindly, naively proceed in a direction toward which we are seduced by ‘what it can do for us’ — without considering what it might do to us! 
I was reminded of just such a ‘seduction’ while listening to the podcast. As a graduate student, the era of ‘personal computers’ was just beginning to surface (believe it or not!). In the psychology computer lab were a number of terminals (this was still a few years from the luxury of having one of these beauties in one’s own office); and resident on them was a very primitive, ‘interactive’ program, named Eliza, the algorithms of which were based on a ‘client-centered therapist’ and the responses one might expect to hear from such a practitioner. “I’m pretty upset”; to which Eliza might ‘type back’ “So, (fill in the name of the patient), you seem a little distressed this (fill in the time of day)”. And so on. . . The truly fascinating thing was that, as budding practitioners ourselves, we could spend an hour or more simply ‘talking with’ Eliza; knowing that little more than a parroting back of our own statements was happening and — get this — feeling better at the end! Were we ‘developing a relationship’; or was this just an early example of detaching from ‘real relationships’ and deluding ourselves.
With a mindfulness practice, then, it’s important to remember that the ‘solution’ to attachment is not detachment — whether it be ‘philosophically’ (as an existent) or technologically (by becoming enamored of ways of ‘being relationship’ that are less human, rather than more). Rather, it’s being aware of and engaging with our community in a fully conscious (vs. avoidant) fashion. Connecting equanimously.