Seeing Past My Stories
Loyal reader Jon Polmar (the host of my May webinar) sent me a link to an article on Mindfulness
The basic point of the article is sort of two-fold -
- Mindfulness is a terrific technique, and is best divorced from Buddhism.
- Science (the Farb experiment is the basis for the article) has proven (using MRI! Oh my!) that there are two distinct brain states. One is day-to-day, base-line—the default. This is dubbed the narrative focus (NF) or narrative network. The other is the experiential focus (EF) or experiential network.)
Whoopee! Science has now, categorically and forever, using MRI! Oh MY! technology, proven the existence of two states, or two ways of perceiving.
Something the Buddha discovered 2,500 years ago, sitting under a tree.
Thank God for science, eh?
I’m really only slightly annoying myself here. I suppose, as the article suggests, it’s easier to teach mindfulness to business folk, and “ordinary citizens,” by removing the “taint of religion” from the equation—more will sign up for a secular “mindfulness course.” To quote the author:
“We don’t take well to learning new skills, especially in later life, and any reason to not focus on a new skill, like it being linked to a religion other than yours, doesn’t help.”
My annoyance, such as it is, is about how playing games like this throws the baby out with the bath water. Jack Kornfield’s new book, The Wise Heart: A Guide to the Universal Teachings of Buddhist Psychology, rightly points out that the Buddha was right on with his understanding of the workings of the human mind and heart. His lessons for understanding and focus are as accurate now as then.
In other words, they aren’t going to get “better” once we turn on the MRI! Oh my!
OK. Rant over.
Rather than get into comparisons, let me just say that Buddhism has long identified the two realms or perspectives regarding how we view our selves and that which is around us. We might think of them as “absolute” and “relative.” This are equivalent to the article’s experiential and narrative.
So, let’s just unpack them, using some of the stuff from the above article.
The Narrative Baseline
“When you experience the world using this narrative network, you take in information from the outside world, process it through a filter of what everything means, and add your interpretations. Sitting on the dock with your narrative circuit active, a cool breeze isn’t a cool breeze, it’s a sign than summer will be over soon, which starts you thinking about where to go skiing, and whether your ski suit needs a dry clean.”
The Experiential Experience
“When this direct experience network is activated, you are not thinking intently about the past or future, other people, or yourself, or considering much at all. Rather, you are experiencing information coming into your senses in real time. Sitting on the jetty, your attention is on the warmth of the sun on your skin, the cool breeze in your hair, and the cold beer in your hand.”
How This Works
“Stuff” comes in through our six senses: sight, hearing, smell, touch, taste, and ‘mind’ (as he sneaks in the Buddhist perspective…)
Thus, experience comes first, and is sort of a couplet: there is an organ and a function. Eye and vision, ear and hearing, etc. Mind is coupled with sense impressions, feelings, etc. and is actually the ‘thing’ that happens after each sense is triggered. i.e. Naming: “That smell my nose is smelling is baked bread.”
In other words, pure experience is “narrative free.” It’s one experience, and then the next, and then the next, never clinging to or attaching to any of them. That this is not the norm should be obvious.
No, typically an experience leads to our assigning a story or narrative to it.
Remember, the Narrative network is the norm! Therefore, almost instantaneously, the narrative network kicks in, and begins the process of telling you a story. We get so caught up in our story-telling that we lose contact with what is actually going on.
Let me quote the author’s recap:
“You can experience the world through your narrative circuitry, which will be useful for planning, goal setting, and strategizing. You can also experience the world more directly, which enables more sensory information to be perceived. Experiencing the world through the direct experience network allows you to get closer to the reality of any event. You perceive more information about events occurring around you, as well as more accurate information about these events. Noticing more real-time information makes you more flexible in how you respond to the world. You also become less imprisoned by the past, your habits, expectations or assumptions, and more able to respond to events as they unfold.”
Remember, mindfulness is typically taught through meditation.
Here’s where the author’s take gets, well, lazy. He pooh-poohs meditation as being the necessary approach to learning to be mindful. Instead, he posits taking time to notice sensory input. He reduces this further, to his practice of taking 10 seconds before a meal to take 3 mindful breaths. He writes:
“The key to practicing mindfulness is just to practice focusing your attention onto a direct sense, and to do so often. It helps to use a rich stream of data. You can hold your attention to the feeling of your foot on the floor easier than the feeling of your little toe on the floor: there’s more data to tap into. You can practice mindfulness while you are eating, walking, talking, doing just about anything…”
The problem here is that telling someone to be mindful, and then leaving it to chance and circumstance, typically means that nothing much changes, as people are lazy and don’t like change. (See the first quote from the article, above.) And… I would suggest that this half-assed approach is destined to give you a glimmer and a taste, but not to create what is required; the ability to distinguish between, and activate either state by directly shifting your focus. The author is catering to the masses, who want it “fast, easy, and now.”
The problem with this is that, without a discipline, we simply do not remember to focus in on the experiential state. He acknowledges this difficulty, and yet quotes the Farb experiment to provide the “science.”
“In the Farb experiment, people who regularly practiced noticing the narrative and direct experience paths, such as regular meditators, had stronger differentiation between the two paths. They knew which path they were on at any time, and could switch between them more easily. Whereas people who had not practiced noticing these paths were more likely to automatically take the narrative path.”
The Farb study is the basis for the article, and Farb used the traditional, 8-week Mindfulness training developed by Kabat-Zinn.
In other words, the people in the study were taught to meditate every day for 8 weeks. Kabat-Zinn’s approach is decidedly without Buddhist trappings, (being a Zen guy, I’m not much into the trappings anyway.)
The above quote gets it backwards. The Farb experiment involved meditators. Meditators were the group that was tested. The study does not simply prove the existence of two mind sets, nor does it simply demonstrate “noticing.” It demonstrates that meditators more easily differentiate the two states, and this is because they spend more time actually practicing. You can’t do this in 10 seconds, before a meal.
Learning to let go of your story, your narrative, is a moment-by-moment letting go of clinging.
We cling to stories about ourselves, about others, and about the
world—and none of the stories are true. Remember, the narrative approach is the default behaviour of our minds and egos. When bored, preoccupied, or out of touch with the percent moment, our minds concoct highly detailed, rich stories— out of nothing. And then, we fight, we argue, we demand, that others accept our fictions as true.
Mindfulness gives us the option to step away from the stories, into the direct experience of living.
More on this, using the senses to guide, starting next week.