Joseph Cramer, M.D.: Mindful attention increases agency

Published: Tuesday, Oct. 2 2012 5:00 p.m. MDT

Wars, both in heaven and on earth, are waged for power and glory. It is the constant challenge of the lust of one against the agency of many. While facing the gravity of spiritual fatalities and the terrestrial terrors of armed conflict, we must never underestimate the criticality of agency.

Yet, if agency is of such import that dictators and devils seek to crush it while angels and armies rush to defend it, why do we, the victors, fail to make better use of it in our lives?

Far too often we react automatically to emotions or memories. This autopilot life saves our brain from being overworked. We have all done it. We get in our car and the next thing we know we are home or at work without any memory of the trip. It reduces the need to think.

Relying on mental or emotional autopilots saves us the bother of having to examine issues below the surface. We see something and automatically toss it into a convenient hole. The distinction between friend and foe is expedited. If anything is different it is a foe. There is no middle.

Our autopilot is fast and more sensitive to threats than to specific individual concerns. Things that are big and furry are not necessarily bears. But often, our autopilot fails to discern differences and we find ourselves fearing a friendly sheep dog because it has four legs, is big and is furry. That is close enough to a bear to evoke anxieties.

When we are stressed in the fast lane of life, the gain on our automatic thoughts is turned up so high that we rely more and more on our subconscious reactions to get us by. People come and go in our lives, but we don’t notice. Flowers bloom and wither as we walk blindly through the garden.

With various people, our biases surface because of mindlessness. If the person is different in any way, he cannot be a kinsman. If others are of different genetic makeup, they must not be trusted. In our protective thoughtlessness, if something about them is new or peculiar, we must be on our guard. If they have a different accent, language or dress, we reject them without thinking. Our fear of their religion, custom or name stops us from learning more.

All of this automatic, robotic living limits our use of agency. We exist in a complex world. Complex systems are characterized as too complicated to predict outcome, but there can be agents that react in ways not directed by the system.

An example of an extremely complicated non-complex system is a rocket. Although it is made of of intricate parts, computer programs and propulsion mechanisms that must operate in sync with each other, the outcome of their use can generally be predicted with precision. Not so with a bird. It too has the ability to fly upward, but where it will come down is anyone’s guess. It is an agent of its own free will. We have similar agency available to us to make decisions as we move through this complex world.

The most complex creation in the universe is the human mind. Inside, somewhere between the ears and amongst the neurons in our brain, we have the power of choice. While there are some who argue that there are individuals who appear destined by nature to act a certain way, we have to be careful lest anyone claim there is no agency.

This is the power and role of mindfulness. Mindfulness as a psychological construct is relatively new to the occidental world but has been practiced for centuries in the Orient.

Mediation, more recognized in Buddhist and Islamic traditions, has also been a part of Christianity. There are numerous accounts of prophets and even a king seeking solace, which facilitated their mindfulness. Over the centuries, monks and saints and pilgrims have trekked up high mountains or into their own sacred groves to practice pensive prayer.

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