Sunday, June 15, 2008

Quieting The Self

A couple of weeks ago I wrote a few articles about how grieving is a feeling process not a thinking process. Tonight I'd like to revisit this concept a little bit and tie it in with a fascinating book called Beyond The Conscious Mind. The author, Thomas Blakeslee, describes a consciousness model in which a number of specialized modules in our brains are responsible for different aspects of our daily living. There's a module for driving a car, for example, and different modules for other physical activities, such as climbing the stairs. Our consciousness is made up of many of these different modules, but there's a central module which takes most of the limelight: the "self" module.

The weird thing about the self module is that it is not related to physical activities. It also doesn't have direct access to any of the other modules that do pertain to physical activities. You can prove this to yourself by asking yourself to describe any physical task that you perform automatically, like riding a bike. How exactly do you balance on two wheels? Try to describe how you shift your body weight around to keep upright. If you're like me, about the only way I can begin to describe such a task is by imitating the posture of riding a bike and trying to describe what I'm feeling. My self module has no direct access to my "bike riding" module and therefore can't explain exactly which muscle groups move in exactly what way. Those details are known only to the bike riding module. The self module can really only guess.

Why is this important to know when grieving? We have a tendency, men especially, to intellectualize our grief. We imagine that if we just think long and hard enough about our dead spouse, that somehow the pain will go away. But we miss the forest for the trees by doing this. Here's a clue: pain is something we feel, it is not something we think! And there's lots of physical pain in grief, as you're well aware. We have to feel our way through grief, not think our way through.

So this brings us back to our conscious mind, and why we would want to quiet our self module. Our self module is the thinking module. But, as we already know, it doesn't have access to the physical modules — it can only guess at what is going on in there. And grieving is something we do physically, not something we do mentally. So, if we think really, really hard about grieving, about the only thing our self module is accomplishing is some guesswork as to what our physical activity modules are doing and why they hurt. Thinking about grief is not a help — it is a hindrance. We need to learn how to quiet the thinking self module and let the other feeling, physical modules feel their way through this desert of grief.

OK, so how do we quiet the self? I'll let Thomas Blakeslee explain:

[from pages 62-3 of Beyond The Conscious Mind]:

If you try hard to quiet your mind and think about nothing you will find that there is always something — a noise, a breeze, a memory image, or a random thought. The problem is, the effort not to think always engages your self module. Willpower is the domain of the self, so the harder you try not to think, the less chance you have of succeeding. There is a way to quiet the self module, but it does not involve willpower: If you do any task that firmly engages another module of thought, the self module will instantly fall silent.

Skill activities that require concentration, such as art, music, sports, dancing, or nonroutine work, can put you in a flow state where the self module is quiet and time seems to stand still. When you have been in a flow state for an extended period of time and your self module reasserts itself, you may feel that there is a time gap in your memory where you don't even know what happened. You may look at the clock and remark about how time flies. The activities that will make this happen always require skills in which the self module is not proficient. This guarantees that the self module will lose the competition for control. While the gap in consciousness is noticeable after such extended periods, normal day-to-day existence contains occasional brief bursts of self-consciousness.

Since the self module is often nagging us with what we should do, it can feel quite refreshing to have this nagging silenced for extended periods...

One reason people develop hobbies is that they can quiet the nagging self module by putting themselves in a pleasant flow state for extended periods of time. The quieting of the self module and living in a continual flow state are common goals in Eastern religions. Meditation is a regular exercise directed at quieting the self. It could be very useful for Westerners, but it is often made very difficult by our strong habit of using self-control to accomplish things. When we try to use willpower, it engages the self module, which defeats the whole purpose of meditation. Learning to accomplish things by letting go takes a lot of practice, but the payoff is considerable.

... And that nicely explains why I, as a widower, attended a free 10-day silent meditation course ;-)

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