A favorite saying that I repeat to myself so many times a week that it’s turning into a perpetual personal mantra is: “It’s not me, it’s my brain.” This is primarily me acknowledging one or another of the many ways that the basic organiza- tional and structural function of my brain is limited and quite vulnerable. For example, here’s some recent research from Texas A & M University that points out how we’re ALL susceptible to potentially becoming addicted to one or ano- ther person, place or thing. Researchers at the Salk Institute want to blame that vulnerability on patch and matrix neurons in your brain’s striatum! And this is only ONE vulnerability.
The Preoccupied Life
In Tibetan Buddhism there are concepts known as The Worldly Concerns or Worldly Preoccupations – four opposing pairs of life conditions that affect all of us. In no deliberate order they are:
- hope for happiness and fear of suffering
- hope for fame and fear of insignificance
- hope for praise and fear of blame
- hope for gain and fear of loss
What’s interesting about each of these concerns is that the four hopes we are drawn to mostly involve the reward systems of the brain’s mesolimbic pathways. Happiness, fame, praise and gain get those dopamine neurotransmitters afiring. The fear side of the ledger operates quite differently – what they mostly activate are liberal amounts of stress hormones like adrenaline and cortisol. Just picturing my mother pointing a finger, or a thought of my wife blaming me for forgetting half the items on the grocery list (I occasionally get my wife and my mother mixed up) is enough to get those adrenal glands running wild.
Moderation Makes It Happen
The aim, both in Buddhism and in neurobiology is not to deny all hope for happiness, fame, praise or gain. Nor is it to avoid fearful feelings involving suffering, insignificance, blame or loss. Rather, the work is to find skillful ways to navigate amidst these life realities, to not be pulled too far to one side or the other. My mother, the Axiom Queen, used to remind my sisters and me constantly as children, “All things in moderation.”
Moderation though, turns out to be more easily preached than practiced. We seem to need time and experience to grow the Self-Organizing Criticality (SOC) of a neural network possessing sufficient balance that we can pass The Stanford Marshmallow Test. The picture on the right shows how I most often manage the test.
What then, is a “network-deficient” aspirant to do? Assuming I don’t have the financial resources to hire a team of high-functioning monks, trainers or adults to re-parent me or turn me into a lifelong contemplative, here are three options (among tens of thousands, most likely) that I’m currently working with:
Patience Practice – remember, it’s not me, it’s my brain! I can be patient with the learning I struggle with. I can be forgiving when I make mistakes, learn super-slowly, fall off the wagon into the marshmallow vat (yet again). It doesn’t mean I’m not responsible for my short-comings and I don’t have to do what I can to address them. It just means I’m not to blame. Blame is an errant assignation that only retards progress by distracting me from thinking more deeply and creatively about possible alternative approaches to navigating the 8 concerns.
Minding My Environment – None of us lives our lives in a vacuum. Where we live and whom we live with matters. I currently spend a significant part of my week attempting to bring increasing order and beauty to my external environment, believing in the axiom – turned inside out – “As without, so within.” So far, 8 months in – I have daily managed to find one thing in the house that no longer brings me joy or I’ve simply outgrown, and deliver it to one of our local thrift stores. It turns out to be a much more challenging practice than I ever imagined. And that’s just one bit of care-taking the environment around me.
Contemplative Practice – I have a growing number of them. Every morning begins with Dog Walking Practice. I take our dog-park-banned-Berner, Olliebear, for a two-mile walk through the woods over an abandoned logging trail near our house. Spring, summer and fall mornings are a delight. Winter is when I really earn my stripes for this practice.
Writing Practice is another daily contemplation. Every day I read, research and write something. Often it’s for this blog, but I also have two books and several talks and presentations that I’m actively working on.
Contemplative Collab- oration – Some part of every day I spend paying attention to the wild and woolly machinations of my social mind – the thoughts my brain secretes, often of its own accord – as I interact with the people who populate my world.
Each of these activities I place into service as a means for attempting to organize my life around moderation in all things. My mother would be proud.