Falsely Enchanted

posted Nov 2, 2016, 5:10 PM by Scot Casey   [ updated Nov 5, 2016, 1:25 PM ]
I've been obsessed with Mindfulness Practice. It's the most significant change in my life since Memory Practice. Of course, the two are intimately intertwined. As far as memory is concerned, I have been coming up against some obstacles recently. I appear to have plateaued. I am still able to memorize as efficiently as I have before. I can memorize a sonnet in about 20 minutes. My retention and recall of these intentionally memorized poems is still strong. Perhaps it's my Memory Paranoia, but I have noticed my casual, every day memory failing me more often than usual.

For instance, I was trying to remember the name of the singer, Neko Case, the other day. And it was as if there were a box which had previously held her name. When I went to it, it was empty. I could remember names of songs, the quality of her voice, her physical appearance, but her name escaped me; it wasn't in the box. And so on. I could cite dozens of the instances of casual memory lapse, And certainly, most of them are ordinary and not the cause of concern.
When I returned to the Sonnets after an absence of a few weeks, I noted that many of the new ones I had been working on - between 90 and 125 - were hazy phantoms at best. They didn't feel as if they had been impressed upon the tablets of my memory as deeply as earlier sonnets. I grant some of this effect to the sheer fatigue of memorizing 154 sonnets. But I don't entirely believe this. It should be easy to memorize and keep in the memory thousands of poems, songs and prose passages. I do not believe the human mind has many of the limitations we place on it out of culturally inherited habits of assumption. We are capable of much much more than we realize.
I believe it's my body, my flesh that's holding me back. Since returning from my travels, my diet has been horrible. I have gained too much weight. I have been drinking too much alcohol. I haven't been sleeping enough. I haven't been exercising enough. My blood pressure has been dangerously high. So much so that I have had to take medication to lower it. Medication that affects my ability to concentrate and clouds my memory.
Obviously, something had to give. Most likely, my heart or a blood vessel in my brain.
While driving down to Seattle to make deliveries for Honey Moon, I was listening to the TED Radio Hour. The episode was called Nudge. It was was about how a tiny "nudge", a small change in behavior, can break us out of our habitual patterns and start a real process of change. I found particularly fascinating the section where Judson Brewer speaks about Mindfulness and addiction. My emphasis.
Now, with mindfulness training, we dropped the bit about forcing and instead focused on being curious. In fact, we even told them to smoke. What? Yeah, we said, "Go ahead and smoke, just be really curious about what it's like when you do."

And what did they notice? Well here's an example from one of our smokers. She said, "Mindful smoking: smells like stinky cheese and tastes like chemicals, YUCK!" Now, she knew, cognitively that smoking was bad for her, that's why she joined our program. What she discovered just by being curiously aware when she smoked was that smoking tastes like shit.

Now, she moved from knowledge to wisdom. She moved from knowing in her head that smoking was bad for her to knowing it in her bones, and the spell of smoking was broken. She started to become disenchanted with her behavior.

Now, the prefrontal cortex, that youngest part of our brain from an evolutionary perspective, it understands on an intellectual level that we shouldn't smoke. And it tries its hardest to help us change our behavior, to help us stop smoking, to help us stop eating that second, that third, that fourth cookie. We call this cognitive control. We're using cognition to control our behavior. Unfortunately, this is also the first part of our brain that goes offline when we get stressed out, which isn't that helpful.

Now, we can all relate to this in our own experience. We're much more likely to do things like yell at our spouse or kids when we're stressed out or tired, even though we know it's not going to be helpful. We just can't help ourselves.

When the prefrontal cortex goes offline, we fall back into our old habits, which is why this disenchantment is so important. Seeing what we get from our habits helps us understand them at a deeper level -- to know it in our bones so we don't have to force ourselves to hold back or restrain ourselves from behavior. We're just less interested in doing it in the first place.

And this is what mindfulness is all about: Seeing really clearly what we get when we get caught up in our behaviors, becoming disenchanted on a visceral level and from this disenchanted stance, naturally letting go.

This isn't to say that, poof, magically we quit smoking. But over time, as we learn to see more and more clearly the results of our actions, we let go of old habits and form new ones.

The paradox here is that mindfulness is just about being really interested in getting close and personal with what's actually happening in our bodies and minds from moment to moment. This willingness to turn toward our experience rather than trying to make unpleasant cravings go away as quickly as possible. And this willingness to turn toward our experience is supported by curiosity, which is naturally rewarding.

What does curiosity feel like? It feels good. And what happens when we get curious? We start to notice that cravings are simply made up of body sensations -- oh, there's tightness, there's tension, there's restlessness -- and that these body sensations come and go. These are bite-size pieces of experiences that we can manage from moment to moment rather than getting clobbered by this huge, scary craving that we choke on.

In other words, when we get curious, we step out of our old, fear-based, reactive habit patterns, and we step into being. We become this inner scientist where we're eagerly awaiting that next data point.

Now, there was something about the simplicity, the obviousness, of his talk that struck me. I knew it was critical to the process of memorization to be mindful, to be present. But not entirely so. It is always shocking to me to realize how much the "robot consciousness" is willing to take over from the mindful consciousness. Often I am surprised to realize that I have memorized a poem robotically, while my mind was thinking of other things. Imagine saying, "The expense of spirit in a waste of shame is lust in action", over and over, almost like a mantra. You drift in and out of being aware of the meaning of it. At times, it is merely a series of sounds similar to when you say your name over and over, knowing that those sounds are the sounds you are known as, but they become strange with each new iteration. All of this is part of the process of Mantra Work. 

And the realization that you have memorized a a beautiful and profound sonnet without entirely thinking about it is unsettling. Of course, the memorization doesn't stick. The sonnet slides down the exponential line of Ebbinghouse's Forgetting Curve. Without Mindfulness, presence, disciplined intentionality, without absorbing the meaning of the sonnet, of entering into the interior architecture or the poem, everything is forgotten. It was never given name and place in the three-dimensional architectural of the Memory Cathedral. 

Allowing bad and unhealthy habits to control my behavior, even the supposedly sacred behavior of my Memory Practice, led to a life-threatening decay of my physical being and a shocking diminishment of my mental being. And I became falsely enchanted, believing the static and noise were part of the music and silence. It has been a familiar vicious cycle. 

Taking to heart the TED talk and with Milo of Croton in mind, I worked to be just a little more mindful and present about my day. Having a Memory Practice helped tremendously. As I re-initiated my Memory Work, I watched for the distractions: a pang of hunger, a slight headache, being out of breath as I walked, a drowsiness before practice, etc. The thousand natural aches, pains and shocks of the flesh. At times, I felt an almost oppressive weight upon my will whispering with insistent voice: stay asleep, what good will it do to memorize a poem, it's cold out, eat more, get drunk, start tomorrow, give up, nothing is worth doing, resign yourself to death. I have felt like this so many times in my life, it is laughable almost to write. It's my peculiar clown dance. 

After Memory Practice, I started logging in an online application everything I ate. It's been a revelation. I had thought I was doing well with sodium intake and was shocked to learn how much sodium was in my normal diet. Then, I started tracking body metrics during day: blood pressure, heart rate, weight, etc. Logging in sleep. Also started tracking income and expenses. Being mindful has led to being in control of diet and health. Which leads to a richer practice of memory. Instead of the negative feedback loop, it is a positive one. What is always amazing / horrifying to me is how it all hinges on an incremental nudges, an internal tipping point from being awake to asleep. And the levels of each: how awake am I? Right now: how aware. More. But not enough. Not yet. Mephistopheles is still Faust's servant. 

If ever I to the moment shall say:
Beautiful moment, do not pass away!
Then you may forge your chains to bind me.