ego-centrism


Not Back to School Camp comes right before my birthday, so I often use our closing intention circles to make public goals for my personal new year. In 2010, I announced that I would sit and meditate for 30 minutes each day, every day, all year. I chose this goal for two reasons, one completely practical, and one speculative.

The practical reason was diligent self-care during my last year of grad school. I knew I would be working long hours, and wanted to remain as clear-headed and stress-free as possible, so that I could learn, write, and support my clients at the best of my ability. There is a sizable body of evidence that a regular mindfulness meditation practice could help. I also imagined that succeeding at this goal would help make this kind of self-care a permanent part of my lifestyle.

The more speculative reason came from reading meditation advocates like Ken Wilber, who claim that a mindfulness practice can be an engine of personal development. They conceptualize growing up as a process of continually refining one’s sense of self, becoming less egocentric and more compassionate. While practicing a mindfulness meditation you are learning to make objects of observation out of the contents of your consciousness that you normally inhabit with your identity. The sensations, emotions, and thoughts that you are become objects that you notice, distinct from your self. You can move, for example, from being anger about a certain injustice to having and observing that anger. This increase in perspective should be extremely helpful for family therapists like me–we need to be able to see all sides of the story: How does each person’s perspective on this problem make sense?

The only way I can present the results of my year-long experience in a clear-cut fashion is by the numbers, and in that way I failed in my goal. I meditated 30 minutes on 254 out of 365 days in that year. That’s 111 days of not meditating. Most of those days were during the summer that Reanna moved in with me. I found it hard to prioritize alone-time after two years of a long distance relationship.

The other way I failed by the numbers was that I did not sit for 125 of those 254 days. When I said I would sit and meditate every day, I meant it. Pretty soon, though, I had a day when I was so tired that I really, really did not want to sit up. I decided that on the rare days like these, I would lay down and do a relaxation-meditation called yoga nidra that my friend Guyatri Janine had recorded. It turned out that days like that were not rare at all. (When I did sit, by the way,  I sat Vipassana as taught by S. N. Goenka from my birthday in September to the new year (42 days), and then zazen (79 days) as taught by my friend Debra Seido).

The third failure is that I have not continued meditating after my year was over–less than 30 times in the last four months. It’s easy to imagine this says something about the results I experienced from meditating. I apparently did not value what I got from meditating enough to continue prioritizing it when I had my fiance’s attention available, starting last summer, and even less after my official commitment to meditating was up in September.

But what I got from my meditation practice is by far the most difficult thing to be clear about. I can say that without exception I felt better afterwards than I did before I sat down to meditate. Sometimes it also seemed like I was “getting better” at meditating, that I was indeed training my mind at this very difficult task. I can’t say, though, how much it lowered my stress or changed my ego-centrism or compassion levels. I have no control group to compare myself to. I can say that I was fairly stressed out in grad school and that I did a good job with it–the writing, the learning, and serving my clients. I think I can also say that I am more compassionate than I was before that year, but more I’m inclined to credit the connections I made with my clients than my meditation practice.

The problem with evaluating this kind of program is more than just not having a personal control group. It’s also that the program advocated by Wilber and meditation teachers is very long term. “Don’t just sit a year and expect to know what’s going on,” I imagine them saying. “Try 20 years. That’s more like it.”

The skeptic in me replies, “That’s a very convenient way to make testing all this out extremely expensive.” The researcher in me says, “Well, let’s get to it! This could be important. Who’s going to design a huge longitudinal experiment, fund it, and run it? You can still get it done before I die!” The idealist in me says, “20 years, huh? I am strongly considering it.”

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This is a question I’ve come back to many times in my life, and it’s a tough one. As a kid, there seems such a difference between kids and adults that it appears dichotomous; first you are a kid, then you are an adult. The actual transition is so gradual, though, it’s confusing.

The rituals our culture provides are pathetic and seem more and more pathetic in retrospect as I get older: graduating from high school, registering for the draft, being able to purchase pornography, being able to drink. Even graduating from college is pathetic in terms of an adulthood ritual. I just watched a bunch of people graduate from UO and they sure seemed like kids to me–certainly not children, but still dependent on parents, still at best vaguely aware of what they would do with their life, still without anyone depending on them.

There are biological markers, but no one I know was an adult at sexual maturity, even if they did manage to have sex or even conceive. Physical maturity doesn’t seem to correlate with emotional maturity at all. And brain scientists keep pushing back the age at which our brains are fully mature–lately I’ve been hearing 25 or 26, but fifty years ago it was 7, so in another fifty will we not have mature brains until we’re 45?

We could use financial independence, but what does that really mean? That we only ask our parents for help when we get into really expensive trouble? We could wait to say we’re adults when we are supporting our parents, but that’s tough for us Gen-Xers, whose parents will mostly die richer than us for social and political reasons.

I imagine the “real” answer is a combination of a bunch of factors, not amenable to a simple scheme, but I have come up with two, simple, adult-identifying schemes to offer. They are pretty subjective and fail to provide a distinct moment in which adulthood occurs, but they are my favorite ideas about this so far.

1) Gratitude for parents: We gradually become capable of understanding what our parents have done for us. Perhaps we are adults when we are able to, without idealizing them, fully appreciate our parents. This could be a good indication that we have moved past egocentricity.

2) The ability to distinguish threat from non-threat: A bus bearing down on us is a threat. Someone disagreeing with our opinion is not a threat, even if the disagreement is strongly worded and about religion, politics, or contentious-topic-of-your-choice. Perhaps we are adults when we can easily respond in an appropriate manner to the reality we are presented with–when we can consistently use reality testing.

Tomorrow, March 27, 2010, hundreds of millions of people on all seven continents will use no electricity between 8:30 and 9:30 pm, their time. “Earth Hour,”  is an annual “action against global warming” event that started in Australia, four years ago.

At first I thought it was silly–a drop in the bucket–but I’ve decided I’m going to do it. This is why:

1) I think it will be nice to turn everything off for an hour. I always love it when the power goes out. It’s relaxing.

2) I like that it is a global event. I like things that encourage people to think globally. Yes, this event could be a bit of an ego-stoker or guilt-assuager, but overall I imagine it stands to reduce ego-centrism in participants, a little less focused on ourselves, a little more focused on everything else.

3) There is good evidence in social psychology that token acts like this can be a gateway to real political action. People who participate may come to think of themselves as someone who takes action about global warming, like voting or spending money differently.

4) I think that global climate change may well be the biggest challenge humans face in the next several generations. The people I know who think the most about it are divided into two camps. One group prioritizes amelioration: If we act quickly and dramatically, we can keep things from getting out of control. The second prioritizes adaptation. These folks say that we’re just now experiencing the effects of the beginning of the industrial revolution, over a hundred years ago, and anything we do now may help our ancestors, should they come to exist, but not us. They say it’s time to start figuring out how at least some of us can survive the coming incredibly harsh conditions. There is a third group, of course, who are ideologically immune to the idea of catastrophic climate change. If they are right, hooray! I’ve yet to come across one who seemed knowledgeable about complex-system behavior, though. (Can anyone point me to one?)

While I’m on the topic of climate change, my favorite lectures on the subject are two of the Long Now Foundation’s Seminars About Long Term Thinking: John Baez’ “Zooming Out In Time” and Saul Griffith’s “Climate Change Recalculated.” They are worth checking out.