Will Power and Me: Ego Depletion and Mindfulness Practice
An interesting area of research on willpower in psychology involves what has been termed "ego depletion." The paradoxical notion is that the more we resist an object, like a brownie, the more depleted our ability to resist becomes, such that we are more inclined to end up "caving" on our impulse, either in the same domain or in another that pops up while we are in a depleted state. Hence, a few hours later we each a bunch of brownies or are less adept at navigating another challenging situation, like being patient.
Interestingly, the theory's main proponent, Roy Baumeister, suggests that the depletion is the result of a drop in glucose levels in the brain--and its executive functioning that keeps the impasse at bay. Accordingly, the loss of will power can be attenuated by consuming glucose which, the theory posits, essentially powers the brain's capacity to resist the tempting object. While neuroscientists debate this, there is a great deal of research supporting the theory and it is in the mainstream.
In this blog, I share how mindfulness practice may well offer us another vehicle to skillfully navigate through this terrain by shifting the tension between who is resisting (i.e., "ME") and what is being resisted (i.e., the "Brownie"). This battle--which most of us regard as THE battle--may not in fact be the true battle. Seeing more clearly the battle at play (if it even is a battle) offers an avenue of response to those challenging moments of "will" that can not only attenuate the impulse/urge but transform our relationship to the object.
Mindfulness practice offers greater insight into the resistance arising in those moments. Rather than a battle between ME and the Brownie, rather than a lawsuit titled "Me v. Brownie," we more clearly appreciate that it is "Me" (and perhaps not even that) relating to the thoughts, feelings, and sensations arising when we are in the midst (physical or imagined) of the brownie. After all, it brownies are your "weakness" the fact that many are not the least bit challenged by a brownie suggests it has more to do with something you are experiencing than it does the object being experienced.
So, what is the true nature of resistance arising in those moments, if not the brownie or the pizza? Mindfulness practices offers us a greater glimpse into this reality, and that glimpse, over time, blossoms into a deeper insight, which now or in time offers us a greater facility in working with this resistance.
What we are resisting, if not the quite visible and apparent cooked amalgam of cacao, dairy, sugar, and and flour, is an invisible collection of thoughts, feelings, and sensations arising alongside the brownie. The desire is, for example, manifests as a shift in our physiology. We begin to salivate, our eyes lock onto the object, we sense the potential release of a chronic angst, we imagine the "happy" and satisfied state that will follow from eating the brownie. They may be a subtle inclination of our body toward the brownie; our arms and hands poised and inspired toward the sweet. The mind posits with great confidence, "That looks so good," and "Don't I deserve a little treat now and again."
All these interior experience are the data that inclines us toward the brownie. The brownie is, after all, inert and mindless. It has no agenda and nothing to gain one way or the other.
So, the mindfulness opportunity is to pay attention to the true source of our desire, and not have the majesty and richness of our interior experience collapse into and be projected on a dark clump. This leaves us lost and confused. When that happens, AND THIS IS THE KEY INSIGHT, we begin fighting a foe that doesn't even exist. Hence, we deplete ourselves in the process because we wild have to fight that fight forever and not get very far.
In contrast, our capacity to notice and attend to our inner experience, especially if we can notice the arising sooner than later (i.e. before it builds within us so much that it is almost too difficult to see and experience clearly) is something that gets us somewhere. Noticing the arising of the sensations of salivation--and not getting lost in the brownie itself--offers the opportunity to meet the impulse in a more even playing field and make decisions more in keeping with our intentions.
It may well be that the brownie is ripe for the taking and enjoying it is a mindful and meaningful response. And oh what a difference it is to be able to tell the difference.
Mindfulness offers a path to navigate these life experiences with wisdom and compassion--and the practice of mindfulness offers the the capacity to do so with increasing ease and acumen as we journey through life.
Me Being . . .
In these moments, "me" is calling the shots and we can forget there is much more to who we are than "me," and we have the capacity to make decisions driven by more than "me's" momentary impulses and needs.
It can be helpful during such time to remind ourselves that "me" is assuming center stage trying to get what it wants.
You may find calling on the phrase "That's just ME being . . . ." to be helpful.
So the next time you are feeling jealous and its its affecting not only your connection with another person, but perhaps even your wellbeing, note to yourself
"That's just ME being jealous."
When you're feeling angry . . .
"That's just ME being angry."
When you're feeling frustrated . . .
"That's just ME being frustrated."
Doing so can help to place a wedge of awareness between you and the part of you that is caught and needy in the moment.
It can free you to see more clearly what is taking place and respond more effectively to what's called for in the moment.
Me Wandering and the Mind's Meandering
WelcoME and Entertain Them All
In it, Rumi offers us a poignant insight on the value of "welcoming" momentary thoughts, feelings, and sensations that visit us throughout our lives.
This being human is a guest house
Every morning a new arrival
A joy, a meanness, a depression
Some momentary awareness comes as an unexpected visitor
Welcome and entertain them all
Though he makes reference to pleasant emotional experiences, like "joy," he focuses mainly on the unpleasant ones--on the visitors we rather not let in.
Focusing on "sorrow" he writes,
Even if they are a crowd of sorrows
Who violently sweep your house
Empty of its furniture
Still treat each guest honorably
He may be clearing you out for a new delight.
While the poem is powerful and the insight keen--and ripe for mindfulness discussion--the ultimate question is raises for many is . . .
How do I welcome them?
How to I entertain them all?
How, especially if they are a crowd of sorrows?
In today's blog I offer a suggestion for taking on this seemingly daunting mission. I draw on something explicit in the poem, but generally not explored.
A hint can be found at the end of the word, "welcome." ME
There is much more to ME than the more salient affective state. We embody them all.
The invitation is a simple and straightforward one--Welcome and entertain "THEM ALL"
Often we open ourselves to more directly noticing and experiencing the challenging emotion--anger, fear, sorrow, doubt.
But arising alongside these emotions, in a softer voice and more subtly form is its complement--affection, courage, joy, confidence.
But because these more subtle forms are less noticeable we tend not to notice them or to welcome them.
So, the next time you are visited by a "momentary" visitor and you are able to bring awareness to this happening, invite not just the more palpable emotion, but look around for its complement, and welcome them all.
The Mirror and the "Me Roar"
It's the Me, feeling worried that if something doesn't change, if you don't say or do something soon--maybe even NOW!--a once in a lifetime opportunity will be missed and ruin will follow.
In fact, all we have are "once in a moment opportunities" and we do wish to take advantage of them, bringing our better selves to the fore.
And while there is a part of us ready, willing, and able to do so, this pesky ego can get into away sometimes. It's not that the ego doesn't have a role to play, it surely does. It can be very helpful at noticing opportunities, and energizing ourselves to do something. But, often, it takes over the show. And because it is a little biased in its concern for "ME," when it calls most of the shots, outcomes can feel shallow and less than satisfying.
This is where the Mirror comes in. And because the ego is a somewhat complicated aspect of ourselves and the mirror is not so complicated, the rest of this blog will be short and leave you to experience what it is to be a mirror, rather than try to explain it.
Awareness--allowing, receptive, open, engaged--has nothing to say. It notices and in the noticing, our capacity to be present and respond with wisdom and compassion to the needs of the moment flows effortlessly.
A mirror doesn't speak.
Often there is much less to say or do than we believe. We can learn a great deal by engaging with others and responding the the call of events with fewer words and less doing.
A mirror doesn't move.
Just as when we sit in meditation, we do not speak or act in the face of myriad thoughts, feelings, and sensations--and in doing so, we learn a great deal about ourselves--spend a little time practicing in the sam manner when out and about.
A mirror reflects the beauty of each person who pass before it.
A mirror reflect the beauty of the world, as it is.
Befriending the Beleaguered Ego
But to optimize it taking seriously the charge of sustaining us day in and day out, the ego becomes terribly overreactive. It does not do a particularly good job distinguishing serious and consequential threats from those that are of modest concern, if any at all.
Mindfulness practice offers us the opportunity to notice when the ego is feeling threatened and, through that noticing, create the space with which to better apportion the threat. Much has been written about this--and here is a spontaneous practice you can bring to those moments--borne out of mindful awareness and engaged through compassionate understanding.
A few posts ago, we connected EGO with AMIGO. During times of fear and worry, the ego can feel all alone and can use a friend. Who better than you.
The next time you begin to notice yourself moving into a scared or worried place, bring awareness to your breathing--perhaps even nudge it gently into a slower rhythm--and remind yourself:
"Everything will be okay, Mi Amigo."
Doing so, several wonderful things happen. First, you become aware that you are feeling worried. Second, you recognize you have a choice of what to do next. And third you choose to offer yourself a wise and compassionate embrace.
By befriending a beleaguered ego, you wake up a little bit to a truer sense of the moment.
Time: Learning to "Be Me"
Of course, these all stem from thoughts ("this is taking forever"), feelings ("I feel antsy") and body sensations ("restlessness") that the insight of mindfulness regards as the very objects to which we pay attention.
Because we may not yet be adept at noticing these experiences and sitting with them, we turn our attention outward in the hopes of finding "a more immediate" relief. Ready solutions include: getting up, jotting down a reminder, getting something to eat, deciding to find a better time to sit later in the day--and so on.
Often, and somewhat interestingly, we imagine we would sit just fine if the experience went faster. And "on good days" we might marvel over "how fast it went." But of course when we sit on a cushion or chair and meditate, we are living life--perhaps more fully than we do much of the day when our minds are caught in distraction--and what does it suggest to us that we wish it went faster, or are pleased when it does?
So, rather than force our way through a sitting--impatiently wanting it to go faster-let's rejoice in the time that it takes, whatever that may be. And it will feel different each time we sit. Just as the breath changes, so to does our perception of the passing of time.
And just as the breath can be the object of our attention, so to can our perception of the passage of time. Sometimes is it slow, sometimes it is fast. Sometimes it is smooth, and sometimes it is choppy.
If we would like our life to proceed at a comfortable pace (let's call this its natural pace, unencumbered by the distracted mind and restless body), so that we are less likely to look back and wonder where did the time go and how did it go so fast, let's bring into our practice an interest and appreciation for the passage of time--and perhaps a joyful embrace of its sometimes slow pace.
We might think of the coming together of our perception of the passage of time with the passage of time (whatever that means) as "right time."
Finally, as a reminder of this insight, notice that the word time ends in "me." Notice also, that the beginning of the word, "ti" is the seventh note of the major scale (remember "Sound of Music") and the seventh note is "B."
Notice time, embrace its passage, and learn to "Be Me."
Am Ego or Amigo: Cultivating Sympathetic Joy
Often, the challenge and opportunity of sympathetic joy (i.e., finding joy in another's success) arise alongside the mixed feelings we experience. We are happy for our friend or colleague and jealous at the same time. This simultaneous arising offered a rich opportunity for transformation and growth.
At the heart of the matter resides the ego's yearning to be appreciated and valued in the midst of a circumstance that it interprets as threatening to these very needs. Often these interpretations are overreactions--but we believe them to be true, and subscribe to the implications we sense will follow.
Mindfulness and other meditative practices offer us a keener glimpse at the inner processes at play. With awareness, we are able to see more clearly a penultimate choice of picking between I "Am Ego" and my "Amigo" Do I turn my friend into a foe? Or do I share in my friends pleasure?
By paying attention to the thoughts, feelings and body sensations arising when we fall into the grips of discomfort, we can come to know ourselves more deeply, learn lessons, and experience an opening of the heart.
Mindful.Me Insight and Exploration: As you practice sitting and noticing your inner experience during these moments, you may glimpse a penetrating insight--the realization that the discomfort hints at at . . . the fear of annihilation.
It's a strange paradox that we spend so much time satisfying "me," and so little coming to really know "me."
It's like watching television. There are many channels--drama, sports, comedy, nature, history, food--that we can spend a great deal of time watching, effortlessly.
And there is one channel that gets very little attention. Channel ME.
It's often regarded as "the boring channel," or the channel that doesn't have a lot going on.
When you turn to it, it can appear empty for a bit or have random dots or snow.
And so we'd rather shift out attention to where the action is--on another channel.
But if we hang out on this channel for a while (which is challenging given how terrific the other programming seems to be), this dynamic begins to change.
More on this in the next post.
My "I" Made Me Do it.
Having begun to notice our use of "I" and Me" and experiment with not using it at times, we now bring the "awareness" we are cultivating in our mindfulness practice into the conversation. . . literally.
When we practice mindfulness, whether while sitting, or engaged in daily interactions and situations, we notice the rumblings of the ego. We can feel urged to act in ways that we sense are not kind or helpful, but nonetheless have a satisfying quality, or soothe an irritated and agitated self.
At times, we will utter "I" or "Me" as part of the exchange. When you do, in your mind (or verbally if you feel comfortable doing so) replace "I" with "My I."
Doing so, "I need to get this done" becomes "My 'I' needs to get this done."
"I think you're acting irresponsible" becomes "My 'I' thinks you're acting irresponsible."
"I am so sad" becomes "My 'I' is so sad."
"I can't believe this is happening" becomes "My 'I' can't believe this is happening."
If you find that the use of "my" imparts its own egoic grab (though one step removed and offering a measure of perspective), you can reframe the way you hear the word "I" in the first place. Pause after saying "I" so that it stands apart. That subtle and simple shift can also change the experience.
Copyright 2012. Institute for Mindfulness Studies. All Rights Reserved.