facilitating grace through the act of building the neural muscles of attention and empathy
The Goal: Non-Judgment
A challenge: go an entire day without assigning a qualitative judgment to any thought, emotion, image, sensation, or behavior by yourself or others. Maybe start with trying to go for just a few moments...
In this challenge, we must make a clear distinction between judgment and discernment. In my usage of the words here, a critical difference seems to be the qualitative value-assignment of a judgment (giving something the quality of "good" or "bad") as opposed to the observational recognition of what one is experiencing that characterizes discernment (allowing the mind to simply notice things as they are - before they are assigned with value).
An example could be illustrated by different responses to being late to work:
Response one (judging): "I hate this! I'm always late! I am so irresponsible; I wish my kids would have gone to bed on time... then I wouldn't have been so tired and I wouldn't have slept in. My boss is going to be so mad. I bet every time I come in late, everyone there thinks how terrible I am at my job. They probably think 'Oh, here he comes late again. Is he ever on time? I bet he never finishes his work'. They are right, too. I'm always behind everyone else. I'm so mad! I keep dropping stuff! I'm going to be even later! I wish it wasn't always like this! I wish I wasn't always like this!".
Response two (discerning): "Ok, I am 15 minutes late. I will definitely not make it there on time - I don't think anything I can do will change that. When this happens, I notice my muscles tighten up in my stomach. I think that happened last time too. I notice my thoughts running really fast. I also seem to be imagining what it will be like when I get there - how others will look at me when I walk in; what my boss might say to me. I am feeling like trying to find a reason why I am late. I am certainly breathing differently - much shallower and faster. My whole body feels sort of hyper-charged and slightly out of my control. There is a strong feeling of irresponsibility and inadequacy when I sleep in. Those feelings usually lead to feeling shame and anger at others during the day."
Reflect on these two responses and think if you resonate more with one over the other. Notice the pattern of assigning value to thoughts, feelings, sensations, images, and actions and then identification with that value in the first response while the second response simply witnesses the reactions that occur. In both cases, the reaction was the same (basically an activation of the sympathetic nervous system - the "gas pedal" of our bodies that is activate by stress); the difference came in the chosen response to the reaction. We can't help that our nervous system does its job, but we can make sense of it in more preferred ways.
Non-judgment is a skill because it takes practice. Before we even practice that, however, a couple of basic neural tools of observation must be available to us - namely: attention and empathy.
The Tools: Attention and Empathy
A primary center of cognitive control (also called executive control) is the prefrontal cortex (PFC). The PFC is an astonishing advancement in the development of the brain. It supposedly doesn't completely develop until we are in our 20's, and it can be used to shape and reshape parts of our brains throughout our lives [see my post, Play the Game for a quick rundown of neuroplasticity: the ability of the mind to change the brain through experience].
A couple of special areas in the PFC called the ventrolateral PFC (vlPFC) and dorsolateral PFC (dlPFC) handle our attention in different ways. The vlPFC tends to be used as the "what" system of attention, while the dlPFC takes the role of the "how" system of attention. The "what" system focuses on the attributes and features of the environment and the "how" system begins to seek solutions for problems and modulate behavior toward the completion of goals.
Taking advantage of the brain's ability to resolve attentional conflict by the dorsal portion of the anterior cingulate cortex (dACC), we can develop the "what" system of attention like a muscle. Just like building the strength of the biceps, for instance, by routinely doing curls with dumbbells, the capacity of the mind for focusing and sustaining attention on a given object will strengthen with continued, and discerning use. One of the most popular "exercises" for strengthening the focal attention is to place it on the breath. We will always have that object of attention to return to, so it makes it easy to access (it's like having a gym in your house!). It has been shown that a dedication to mindful meditation (wherein participants are trained to focus only on the breath and return to it when the attention begins to wander), actually GROWS portions of the brain that are activated during focused attention. A simplified version of this practice might include setting a timer for 10 minutes and attempting to only focus on the inhalation and exhalation of the breath (try to exercise non-judgment at this stage by not beating yourself up when your mind wanders - that's the point: attention is strengthened by repeatedly bringing focus back to the object after the mind wanders). Through this control and exercise of cognitive control, anyone can "strengthen" their "attention muscle".
Once we develop the "what" system through focused attention, we can begin to expand the "how" system to include new possible ways to see ourselves and others. One branch of this effort may include practicing empathy.
A rough definition for empathy might be to be able to come as close as possible to experience what another is experiencing; to walk in someone else's shoes. This is an interpersonal ("between persons") skill. Consider the possibility of turning that ability inward toward one's self - not only walking in one's own shoes, but really feeling what it is like to be one's self. My view is that this is an intrapersonal ("within the person") skill of empathy. Self-empathy, if you like; yet another term might be self-resonance. I would argue that the beginning of interpersonal empathy is self-attuned, self-resonant, self-empathy. [Another possible blog post topic could be why this is different from self-centeredness or ego-centrism. A discussion such as that would involve a thorough description of what the "self" is and what it is not. That being one of my favorite topics to ponder, I'm sure it will come up soon. For the time being, however, I will leave self-empathy as analogous to being on a plane and putting the oxygen mask on yourself before trying to help anyone else with theirs.]
When developing, children must be guided through the process of discovering ways to feel what it is like to be themselves. This is helped when caregivers and attachment figures mirror or reflect what the child seems to be experiencing. Sometimes a simple "You really felt scared when you fell. It looked like it hurt, and it seemed to help you feel better when I picked you up. You feel more calm now, don't you?" can transform an overwhelmingly chaotic event into a sensible difficulty in the eyes of a child. They have the capability; they just need a little demonstration. After a while of observing someone else reflect their inner world to them, children gradually begin to reflect it to themselves. This is where the seeds of self-resonance are planted; and once a child can successfully feel what it's like to be him/herself, the skill of sensing what it might be like to be someone else can emerge.
One main reason we can feel what it is like to be ourselves (inside and out) is because of a place in the brain called the insula. The insula is responsible for making a neural map of the body for the brain to use as a resource as it constantly assesses new situations and experiences. The thing is, the brain uses the posterior (toward the back of the skull) side of the insula to create a non-conscious map of the body. That means we don't really have access to that map - the brain reads it and responds to it automatically. With some practice, however, we can construct and gain access to a second map; a conscious, cortical map of the body.
The way this can occur can be seen by imagining the path of communication between the body and the brain. Information about the state of the body follows a passageway in the spine called the Lamina I up the spinal cord and into the brain. There is is transferred by the brain stem (consisting of the medulla, pons, and midbrain) to the limbic region. Lots of exciting things happen here as the limbic area uses the initial orientation of the brainstem to further appraise the situation and arouse the brain in different ways. In order for this arousal to happen, the map created by the posterior insula must be "read". This is where the story ends when we are not mindfully aware of the state of the body (incidentally, this is also where the story ends for arguably most all animals).
If we wish to develop a conscious map of the body to fully adapt to our state of being, we must utilize the anterior (toward the forehead) insula to communicate the picture our brain has made of our body to the medial prefrontal cortex (mPFC - the middle PFC). When the "image" of our bodily state makes its way to consciousness, we can then exercise our skill of focused attention to recognize, accept, investigate, and separate from the map of our own body. This may sound "out there", but in order to gain knowledge of anything, we must first be able to differentiate ourselves from it in order to link ourselves to it. This brings us back to "leaving room for choice". It is at this point - with the development of attention and the decoupling of the observer from the observed - that we can begin to both feel more fully what it is like to be ourselves and feel what it may be like to be someone else.
Synthesis: The Grace of Non-Judgment Through Attention and (Self)Empathy
IDENTIFICATION, PROXIMITY, AND CHOICE
In addition to the tools of attention and empathy, some key concepts when working on the skill of non-judgment include: identification (seeing oneself as identical to one's experience), proximity (the felt sense of "space" between oneself and one's experience), and choice (emergent openness and possibility).
Practice noticing when there is proximity between yourself and the external or internal stimuli that can take control of decision-making. The next time you go through an anxiety-provoking situation, for instance, look back and focus on your own response to it (attention). When doing this, try your best to really feel what is was like to go through it; spare no detail; become absorbed in all the subtleties of your own experience (self-empathy). Next, try to tell whether your experience was marked by a sense of "I am anxious" (identification) or something more like "I notice and feel the presence of anxiety; anxiety is impacting the way I feel right now" (proximity). When these elements are present, you are no longer locked into a way of responding; you place yourself in a state of openness and possibility (choice).
Left to its own devices, the body will choose automatically. The embodied brain (which extends throughout the entire body) is an expert at automaticity. So much happens automatically in our mental and physical worlds without our conscious knowledge of it. For some things - like the mechanisms of our immune system or kidney function, for example - automatic pilot is a true blessing. For other things - like a racing heart or smothering negative thoughts - running on automatic may not be the most beneficial way of handling (or not-handling) what we experience. And the key is this: we have a choice. Sure, we can't always change our body's reaction to stimuli (although, we can do more than we think... by modifying the way we breathe, we can lower our heart rate basically at will, for example!), but the way the body continues to react typically has little to do with any external stimulus. The body is triggered, then the mind continues the process. Often, after an external stimulus initiates a stressful bodily response, the workings of the automatic and non-conscious mind become an internal stimulus that sets into motion a stress-response feedback loop. It would take a super-human control of one's mental faculties to head every stressful moment off, but through practice, we can alter the trajectory of our body's stress-response system (and break the pattern of non-conscious feedback loops) by meeting the situation as it is and consciously deciding where to go next.
Utilizing the skill of non-judgment (the practice of avoiding placing qualitative value on things) does not mean that we do not have values. In fact, the values we choose to live by may be more clearly outlined as a result of mental discernment and acuity. What non-judgment gives us is a proximity between our awareness and the object being noticed - be it a bodily sensation, emotion, mental picture, etc. This "mental space" between observer and observed frees us to differentiate ourselves from and link us to our own experience. This connecting discernment allows us to feel the richness of lived experience while choosing what we want for ourselves; empathically "leaving room" for choices.
As you begin to feel skillful with non-judgment, try to throw some compassion in there too. Self-compassion (much like empathy) leads to compassion for others. It also promotes happiness and well-being. This post has been quite long enough, so I will leave compassion for discussion another day.
September 7, 2016