Saturday, 5 August 2017

Self-regulation - why bother?

Doing what you intend turns out to be harder in the moment than at the time you make the decision

You’re sitting in a chair reading or writing and the thought comes to you that there’s a packet of chocolate biscuits (cookies to some of you) on a shelf in the kitchen. But you had already decided to save those biscuits for later.

Any chance that you are not going to go on reading or writing for some time, then with that particular inner sensation, you get up, go into the kitchen, take down the packet of biscuits, decant the contents into a jar, put out maybe five on plate, make some tea and return to reading/writing.

After some time you might wander back to the kitchen, eat a couple more while you’re there and take a handful back to reading/writing without too much thought. You don't finish the packet, maybe get halfway, quite moderate really. But… you had decided save those biscuits for later. The biscuits are very satisfying but that contradiction somewhere in the sensibility is not. This is the nature of self regulation. And as we normally understand it in some/many/most cases - you decide - it turns out to be a contradiction and doesn’t work.

Take a look around

Any time, for example, the banking sector is involved in a scandal where something has gone seriously wrong and measures are put in place which are supposed to be self-regulating, you should hear the laughter all the way to the bank so to speak.

In the banking sector - briefly and in a cavalier fashion - one side of a bank lends money to try to make money on investment. The other side of the same bank analyses the market and is supposed to give a neutral forecast to the general public of whether investments are likely to move up or down in the market. Now here’s the thing, these two parts of the same bank are not supposed to confer - if they do it’s called insider trading.

Most banking scandals involve some kind of insider trading - in short, people doing what they know they shouldn’t. And in applying these rules the whole business is supposed to be self regulating. Which is really just biscuits-you’re-not-going-to-have-until-later on a majestically grand scale.

There are repercussions

So if you decide not to have the biscuits and then have them anyway, what kind of, admittedly very minor, repercussions does this set up? First of all there are things in life which are pretty harmless, like tea and biscuits, and then there are things in life you really shouldn’t do, like insider trading. And there’s a crossover point, where one becomes the other and we may find ourselves tested when we come to that point, where is the line of acceptability.

For example, do you do something just because you can, or when no-one is looking, which you wouldn’t do in front of others? Just for example, the wallet you find on the street, is it yours now or is it the time to try to find the owner? If you scratch a car and no-one’s around, do you leave a note or drive on? Well, you know the answers of course, but you get the point.

Anyone who practices meditation regularly knows that any inconsistency stays and will eventually prey on the mind. It is very difficult to be completely honest with oneself, which is where the trouble begins, and that becomes a cause of subtle conflict; we know we are not perfect and struggling to find the right way at every turn. They call it cognitive dissonance. It will help to look at this from two perspectives: how we relate to others in outer life, and how we relate to ourselves in the inner life.

Outer life

In outer life with any negative quality it is best to try to find and cultivate its opposite. Take anger for example. When anger rises some may say that anger should be expressed, but to express your anger outwardly at another possibly innocent person everyone knows is not acceptable.

There is real profit in considering the anger, the cause of the anger, the target of the anger, and then actively trying to realign the situation and consider the anger itself in a more positive light, by finding and consciously expressing an opposite quality, like tolerance if the other party is wrong, or perhaps humility if they’re right.

What goes around comes around
Anything that is fired out in the moment, no matter how justified it seems, does have a repercussion in the inner environment, possibly in hypertension for example, or after the anger has passed unpleasant sensations of guilt or regret, or just a lowering of the capacity to be happy. Or more subtly, what goes around comes around, like if you put anger out there you tend to attract it and it comes back at you another way. Any way you lose.

So taking the opposite, if you put out equanimity, by the same logic, that would be what is more likely to come back at you. This is pretty much obvious and well known, but in the heat of the moment, how easy is it to recall the intention to bring the opposite positive tendency to the fore and express that? But it is said that if we make the effort and try and even just imitate positive qualities then eventually, maybe by seeing the effect and our own response to them, those qualities tend to rub off on us. In any event there is more harmony within and around us.

Inner life

In dealing with a negative tendency in the inner life things tend to get more interesting but less certain. What happens when, in a quiet moment of meditation, out of the calm you're enjoying, you feel this force rising up inside, which you know is something strong, something challenging, but here it comes, there it is, what to do?

Do you suppress it? I don’t think so. Do you negotiate, If I do this, change that, will that deal with it? Will that work? I don’t think so. Do you turn away, stop practicing, and maybe find something better than meditation? You decide. Or do you accept it? And just let it happen? And how do you do that? What are the consequences?

Forget the mantra, forget the focus. You find you have no choice, as this will impose itself as the focus, like it or not. So make it real and fully present, let it be seen, known, understood. We’ve noted that there should be a way to manage in the outer life, but here in the inner life the rules are different. Expression must take place. Anyone can see that. If you squeeze a balloon here it bulges there, but the pressure doesn’t go away; similarly with a volcano, if there is no outlet for the magma from the core there will be an explosion.

Expression first

That force that is rising up must be allowed to be there, to be expressed and be experienced. But it’s not easy. Just as restraint in the market place may not be easy, so allowing total expression in the inner world, that’s not easy either. Just as there is discipline on the outside, on the inside it must be allowed to take place naturally. No suppression, no control - anarchy if you like - but at the same time being fully present and closely and constantly observed.

Then the fear is that I might lose control and be overtaken by the force of it, then what? The temptation to control and then suppress can become very strong when things get hot. But if the expression is allowed to take place without interfering in any way, you learn the nature of the anger, you discover the cause of the anger, and the more you know of the anger the less you are under its control and the less influence it has, under the constant watchful eye of awareness it eventually exonerates itself. And here’s the payoff, in the outer life the tendency to erupt diminishes by relieving the pressure from the inside.

As you know, it takes the presence of that one particular quality to be effective: awareness. You have to be fully present, to be there, to have the experience, and you have to remain the constant observer of your own experience all the while. Those are the conditions. It takes time, patience and perseverance, to see it all through and not fall short with the self-fulfilling prophesy that it doesn't work. Because sometimes it does appear to get worse before it gets better. But that's just experiencing more directly what is already there. It's what is unknown that causes all the problems.

Summary - two wings to fly

So self-regulation is of two types: in the outer life, management, discipline and control; and in the inner, expression, freedom, even anarchy, closely observed without reaction. They are like two wings to fly - both are needed; just one doesn't do it. It’s knowing what you need to control and what you need to set free. Because if the mind doesn't discriminate accurately there’s going to be confusion, even chaos - like when the idea of allowing the fullness of expression in the inner life crosses over as justification in the outer, or control in the outer leads to suppression in the inner.

The two should never be confused, letting one be a reason for behaviour in the other. If the two get mixed up and there is unrestrained expression in the outer life and/or control and suppression in the inner life, there will be trouble, ongoing trouble, and seemingly no way out of it. And we are usually more predisposed to one than the other, so we have to watch out for that. Overall there does seem to be a tendency to express more with less control externally, and deny and suppress more internally. Just look around.

But if you get it right they become like the two wings that help to fly above and beyond what we have become so accustomed to accept as who we take ourselves to be, as distinct from who we really are. Who’s that? you ask. That’s another question, but one everyone has the opportunity to ask and search for themselves - once we realise that such a question has power.

And a bit extra

That moment of collapse, when you go back on your decision about the 'cookies', has an inner sensation, however small, what happens to it? Is it completely missed in the moment; is it there as a kind of fuzzy presence, but quickly overlooked; is it known and recognised, but you look away because it's easier not to know; or justifications set in; or does it register, but is then denied in the interest of convenience? The sensation itself is actually kind of unpleasant, which is why these different reactions. But it’s the going for cookies which is going to relieve the sensation, which is why they're so hard to resist.

Continual honest self-observation and balanced self-regulation is really quite difficult, or in banking even impossible. Which is why a bank needs a set of controls monitored from outside to curb what we have to accept as natural human behaviour. And why getting away from it all for the discipline of a retreat, or yoga or meditation course from time to time helps to recognise assumptions and reorganise priorities that have been made in the name of convenience.

If you do find yourself heading for the kitchen for the cookies so to speak, powerless to stop yourself in spite of the earlier decision, observe closely every aspect of the action: the mind reshaping to adjust the decision, the emotions and any conflict there, however small, and the action itself down to every movement following thought and feeling. (If you feel like it, and you’re absolutely sure there’s no-one around, you could even talk yourself through it.)

All this adds up to bringing the Outer into connection with the Inner, which is ultimately what we’re aiming for, so that thought, emotion and action are all in sync with each other. We have to go through stuff to get there, but this is the way. Same goes for everything, every moment if possible.

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