Years ago I attended a two-weekend seminar series called the est training. est was quite the rage at the time and I was curious to know what all the bombination was about. I thought a lot of their confrontational methods were actually damaging to people, especially those with a history of abuse, but I did get something of long-lasting benefit from those two weekends – a useful way of organizing a lot of teachings I already believed and understood from readings in psychology, Christian theology and zen Buddhism. est served an important integrating function for me at the time – it allowed me a way to put this assimilated knowledge constructively to work in the world.

One of the central tenets of est was: whether we understood it or believed it or not, each of us was responsible for everything that happened in our lives … and in the larger world. We were both writer and director.  Needless to say, this declaration met with a lot of confusion and resistance. How am I responsible for things like the Rwanda genocide or global warming or the mentally ill person who recently walked into a Lakewood, Washington coffee shop and gunned down four random police officers?

Much of the est training was devoted to tracing out exactly how I was responsible for each of these types of actions. I wasn’t to blame, and those acts weren’t my fault, but my actions – and equally important, my failures to act – made me responsible, i.e., a contributing cause. These days I imagine it as similar to the way a less-than-optimally functioning neuron contributes to a less-than-optimally functioning brain.

Choosing Personal Responsibility

Interestingly, assuming personal responsibility for our lives and for the state of the world turns out to be a useful, empowering stance to take from a creative, neurobiological perspective. Rather than some ego-driven, megalomaniacal, self-referencing, what est was trying to get me to do was make open, curious inquiry: by any manner I can imagine, how might I be responsible for such things? Considering this question is one way, I think, of leading an examined life.

Examining our lives – our actions in the world and the results they bring about – invariably works to “make the unconscious conscious.” This was one of the aims of psychoanalysis as originally envisioned by Freud. Doing that examination by imagining ourselves “at cause” as Werner Erhard, the est founder used to say, also works to empower neural connectivity in ways that control stress and help us overcome the learned helplessness often demonstrated by the “Whatever” generation. Assuming I am responsible – again, not at fault and not to blame – can be a very difficult distinction to hold and sustain. Nevertheless, it’s a critically important one, since fault and blame serve to inhibit creative action, while active response-ability frequently works to inspire exactly the opposite, growing and connecting up great tracts of neural real estate as we turn toward and embrace life events we might have previously dismissed.

Examining by Example

So, for example, if I’m summoned to my daughter’s school for an emergency parent-teacher conference because she’s been bullying other kids, the stance of responsibility might have me wondering what might be going on in the home that could be contributing to my daughter’s behavior. Might it be unexpressed and unresolved conflict between me and her mother? Might I be unwittingly bullying her (or her mother) without intending or realizing it? By assuming I am responsible, I can uncover and begin the necessary hard work of changing myself and my own behavior.

Looking at personal responsibility as part of the examined life, also gives me much greater freedom to mess up the way I’m invariably going to anyway. Neuroscientist Jonah Lehrer, writing in Wired Magazine on “The Neuroscience of Screwing Up,” advocates for failing fast and failing often. The anterior cingulate cortex (ACC) is the part of the brain that perceives errors and contradictions. It’s also known as the “Oh, shit” circuit. Which ACC do you think has the richer collection of neural connections: someone who’s tried 9999 different filaments for the electric light bulb and failed, or someone who’s tried ten? And who do you put your money on as someone who will ultimately succeed? Self-examination in the wake of failure is an important part of the process of learning and unlearning and increasing the complexity of our neural circuitry along the way.

Which Parts of Life Need to be Examined?

The short answer is … anything that disturbs us. I once took a zen writing seminar with Natalie Goldberg. She gave us the directive: “Write about what disturbs you.” I followed that instruction daily for two years – “two pages a day, come what may” – and I ended up writing a novel, The Icing of the Shooter. Both the content and the process of writing it resulted in uncovering and healing a number of significant ungrieved losses … and it won the Jack London prize for literature that year.

But it’s rarely fun to find ourselves emotionally disturbed, and even less fun to dig into that disturbance in order to get to its roots. It’s easier to turn away and distract ourselves with things that make us feel good. Like identifying all the politicians, partners and other miscreants who secretly really are to blame for the state of my world.  :-)

Be that as it may, I hope 2010 will be a year of deep examination, of opening ourselves to being wildly disturbed, resulting in ever-greater positive individual and collective action aimed at bettering the world for each and every one of us. Being mindful, of course, to be careful what I wish for.