Jan 18, 2009

retreat part 2: your own personal monster

You know how, when you have an important conversation coming up, or an important meeting, or a special moment, you rehearse in your head exactly how it will go? You plan what you'll say, and how you'll act, and even what the response will be? Well, I do that, anyway. All the time, as it turns out. And... it NEVER works. I mean, sure, sometimes you get half-way through what you were going to say before the situation throws something unexpected at you, but oftentimes, you get 2 seconds in and things are already different. I don't think I had ever noticed before just how ineffective my planning is. In fact, this is what I thought was happening: I'd rehearse obsessively for some moment. Then the moment would arrive, and unfold completely differently. I'd feel very relieved that the moment was OK. I'd attribute its OK-ness to my rehearsing. Huh? That makes no sense!

At first, I was sort of terrified by the idea that no matter how carefully I prepare, my own life - even the words out of my own mouth - seems to be out of my control. All my care and concern isn't helping! I'm some monster that will just say ANYTHING! Oh no! But then I realized - I don't do that, either. I never just say any old thing. No one does. I say things that are in line with my intention, which is usually to be caring and kind or whatever. Somehow the monster that does all my speaking for me has a pretty good idea of what I want to say, but it never reads my note cards. It just ad-libs on a theme.

Have you ever had the experience of driving somewhere, and arriving at your destination only to realize you have no memory of the last 5 minutes or so? It can cause a panic - are you really sure you stopped at those stoplights? I think most people have had this experience one way or another. I have always been very unsettled by the possibility that I am not actually in control of my actions. I recently wrote about a study that showed that a brain scan can predict which of two simple options a person will choose before he or she is aware of having made a choice. I was seriously upset by that study. I even tried to talk to a few professors about it, who didn't quite understand how unsettled I was. Isn't it a horrible thought? To think that even when you think you're in charge of your choices, and you put your heart in to doing the right thing, you're powerless?

That study still makes me uncomfortable, but less so. One thing you do on retreat is establish the intention to keep paying attention to every moment as it is happening. You decide that you want to be paying attention. Invariably, your mind will wander and do things that are out of your control, including make decisions like "itch your left foot" and "time to take another bite of food" or "time to turn around and walk the other way". But somehow, your attention returns, over and over, out of that thicket, spontaneously. The direct experience of that attention returning gives me confidence that something I am doing, something deeper than fine control, is influencing my life.

It's kind of like realizing that you've never been a very good driver. For years, you've been priding yourself on your lack of accidents, for staying on the road in icy conditions, for not running over that cat, for avoiding those potholes. But then all of a sudden you realize that if you take your hands off the wheel, actually, the car drives itself. You can un-clutch your hands and lean back a little. As long as you've got your eyes on the road, the car takes care of the details.

The catch is, if you fall asleep, the car still crashes. Don't get too cocky - the AI isn't all that great. Somehow, it all depends on your attention...

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