Friday, December 28, 2012

Losing an I; Finding my Raisin d'Etre

The list of books I'm part way through or 'spozed to read (e.g. for my book group or because I'm still borrowing that book... Sorry, Penny) seems to grow daily. The last thing I needed was to start another, but this one was short and called to me; it promised to satisfy a craving. It was also a 99 p download for my kindle, so what the heck?

The book was The Freedom of Self Forgetfulness by Timothy Keller. The Amazon blurb that tempted me:
...the Apostle Paul calls us to find true rest in blessed self forgetfulness. In this short and punchy book, best selling author Timothy Keller, shows that gospel humility means we can stop connecting every experience, every conversation with ourselves and can thus be free from self condemnation. A truly gospel humble person is not a self hating person or a self loving person, but a self forgetful person.
Now, I'm no great fan of Paul. And I'm no great fan of prescriptions for 21st Century life based on 1st Century sensibilities. But being self-forgetful sounds appealing. Probably like everyone else, at times in my life I have felt my world to be populated with self-preoccupied people. Children and teenagers, for example. Complainers. Egotists. Braggarts. The depressed--I know it's brain chemistry and the depressed can't help it--but what's most irritating about depression is its total self-preoccupation.

But enough about everyone else. My real beef is with my own self-preoccupation.

I long to shuck off self-focus in favor of the fuller, happier life that both spiritual experts and psychological experts say comes from caring less about self and more about the world and other people in it. I want to stop being status-conscious; stop fretting about whether I am wasting my life. I want to end my sulking and worry over perceived slights.  I would gladly give up comparison of myself with others in favor of vulnerable, honest friendship and understanding. So that was why I had high hopes for  The Freedom of Self Forgetfulness.

I would summarize Keller's essay -- or maybe long sermon: it's too short to be called a book, really -- with this quote from it:
the essence of gospel-humility is not thinking more of myself or thinking less of myself, it is thinking of myself less.
Keller draws upon Apostle Paul's admonition about boasting and worrying about what others think of you or even what you think of yourself. Keller refers to the neverending, unsatisfying pursuit of success, wealth, prestige, beauty, popularity, etc.  as you try to fulfil the expectations of parents, family,  spouse, boss, society, or even yourself. He quotes Madonna's ongoing feeling that she's just one lazy day away from being a failure. He says that in Paul's times, people stressed the error of thinking too highly of themselves. In contrast, today society stresses the problem of low self-esteem.

Keller goes on to say that because Jesus came to Earth and died for us, however, we can give up both of the related problems--inflated self-esteem and low self-esteem. Christian believers have already been judged by God and found worthy of His love, thanks to Jesus' death on the cross. This means we can all stop being self-preoccupied and just get on with forgetting ourselves and giving up inflated egos, low self-esteem, and unhealthy responses to ever-rising expectations for the enhancement of our curriculum vitae.

Leaving aside my general incomprehension of how Jesus' death purchased God's love for believers, there's a problem with the book: Keller doesn't actually say how you go about forgetting yourself. It's like not thinking about a purple elephant. Keep telling yourself not to think about that elephant or yourself, and those are precisely the things you will stay focused on! The bottom line is that Keller's essay was not helpful to me. I already knew what I wanted to do, and why I wanted to do it, just not how to do it.

This blog retraces some of my thoughts from my June blog entry. I say there that it is understandable why it's so hard and so rare to forget yourself. I think it's our natural state, our animal nature. In the "Way of Nature vs Way of Grace" dichotomy that I wrote about on the first page of this blog, this would be the Way of Nature--human striving to maintain a place in the pecking order. Is there anything that pumps out the happy-brain neurotransmitters like respect from people we admire? Is there anything that makes us feel worse than being treated like dogdirt by people who count?

Research published last summer by Cameron Anderson of the Haas School of Business and colleagues at the University of California, Berkeley supports this. Their abstract summarizes:
Using correlational, experimental, and longitudinal methodologies, four studies found consistent evidence for a local-ladder effect: Sociometric status [i.e. respect and admiration in your face-to-face groups, such as your friendship network, your neighborhood, your co-workers, or your athletic team] significantly predicted satisfaction with life and the experience of positive and negative emotions. Longitudinally, as sociometric status rose or fell, subjective well-being rose or fell accordingly. Furthermore, these effects were driven by feelings of power and social acceptance. Overall, individuals’ sociometric status matters more to their subjective well-being than does their socioeconomic status.

With happiness and satisfaction in life strongly linked to our social standing, how can we possibly forget ourselves, stop craving approval, stop caring about what others think of us? Keller doesn't tell us.

Years ago my partiality to Macintosh computers led to my being branded a "MacEvangelist." Now the world is coming around to Apples and I've moved on to a new cause: My Dear Husband accuses me of becoming a Mindfulness Evangelist. He says it seems like I prescribe Mindfulness as the cure-all for every problem and every person. I don't think I'm quite that bad, but I do think Mindfulness has been helpful to me and have seen the studies showing how it has helped others with a variety of problems (insomnia, PTSD, depression, and anxiety, for example.)

So if Keller's book can't tell me how to forget myself, could Mindfulness? Does it say how to replace concern over one's own status with a focus on the world from other people's perspectives?

Unfortunately my 8-week mindfulness course didn't specifically give any instruction on relationships. We covered dealing with stressful situations. And we learned techniques for reining in a rampaging, worried, anxious brain. This typically involves bringing your attention to heel over and over again, focusing and refocusing on the here and now -- on your breathing for example, or on observation of your thoughts in a gentle and compassionate way. "Those are just thoughts," you tell yourself as you imagine your thoughts drifting past like clouds.

I think these sorts of techniques could help in a general way -- for example, recovering from an upsetting encounter. But mindfulness at my beginner's level seems too clunky and indirect to help much in real-time relationships. In the midst of an intense face-to-face conversation, you can't really stop and say, "Excuse me while I do a 20 minute body scan meditation."

I expect the experts would say that with time and disciplined practice, the focus and compassion from  mindfulness spill over from Self to the rest of the world. Perhaps the best mindfulness exercise toward this end is the Raisin. As I described earlier in my blog, one of our first mindfulness exercises was focusing our attention on one raisin for maybe 10 minutes... how it looked, how it felt, what it sounded like when you squish it in your fingers, how it felt in your mouth, how it tasted...

With practice, could I start treating the people I meet like that raisin -- bringing "gentle, compassionate attention" to each encounter? Could that help me be more fully present to others, just as it helps me put my thoughts and feelings in perspective?

The roots of Mindfulness lie in ancient Buddhist practices, but I can see how Jesus' prescription -- the Way of Grace-- would tie in here. He said, "Love your neighbor as yourself." If the Mindful way to love myself is to via focused, compassionate attention, perhaps that would also be the way to love my neighbor. My image of Jesus is of a man with extraordinary -- maybe supernatural -- powers of perception of others. The Bible says he seemed to know everything about people he encountered, before they uttered a word.

What would life be like if I could forget my self in favor of  compassionate focus like that? Would it be the end of fun and games (as the zen-ish meme I found on facebook said)?

I'm not sure I'm yet ready, able, or willing to part permanently and completely with an I, but compassionate attention balanced between neighbor and self might be just the ticket.

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