2012-11-16

You Post Facto Fabricator, You!

There is no central ego, no “I,” that generates intentions that then generate actions. Rather, a lot of different unconscious brain processes are working out what to do, moment by moment. It’s like a cacophonous parliament of competing impulses in there. When a sufficient coalition of unconscious impulses forms in support of a given action, out comes that action.

Your conscious awareness likes to pretend it’s the monarch in charge, and to protect that illusion of being in charge, it stays very busy taking in the data of what you have already decided to do, and weaving a made-up narrative about how that’s just what you intended to do. It is that fabricated story that is the source of the illusion of self.

The post facto fabricated story is a tale of a hero – you – venturing out and dealing with this and that – deciding what to do, and carrying out those intentions, confronting obstacles and heroically overcoming them, or sometimes tragically falling to them. It’s the grand drama of our lives – presented to us streaming live as it is concocted by the very talented master narrator.

Here’s the thing: the master narrator is only the court storyteller, not the queen, not the king, not the one who makes things happen. There is no unified self: there’s just a constantly shifting coalition of competing impulses.

Our brain does us wrong – it overstresses us, it runs two different operating systems at once, it has memories that are unreliable, forms beliefs that unreliable, it gives us more pain than we need – and it lies to us about who is in control.

What can you do? It might help to remember you’re not alone. Whenever your spouse, or your boss, or your child or your coworker – or the chair of a church committee you’re on – is getting on your last nerve – remember, they, too, are doing the best they can with a brain built solely for the purpose of keeping paleolithic hunter-gatherers alive and reproducing.

You can’t take over and reassert control – because, after all, the very idea that there is a unified “you” who could do that is itself a brain fabrication. What you can do – what the un-unified, highly disparate collection of impulses and misconceptions that goes by your name can do – is watch. Be present to all the mess of your life and all life around us. You can’t make it what you want, but it can be trained to love what it is.

To love what is. This is the spiritual task.

The popular word for it these days is mindfulness:
“Mindfulness is being purposefully aware. It is noticing what we are experiencing and our response to those experiences. It isn’t simply knowing we are eating an apple. It is paying precise yet relaxed attention to the sweet smell and to the crunch between our teeth; it is paying attention to the glossy red skin and the bruise near the stem.” (Andrea Miller, Shambala Sun, 2008 Sept)

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This is part 4 of 5 of "Making Peace with Your Brain"
Next: Part 5: "The Inevitable and the Optional"
Previous: Part 3: "I Meant to Do That"
Beginning: Part 1: "Your Brain Is Out to Get You"