Is Engagement the Answer?

Tom Morgan
Oct 23, 2019 · 5 min read

The closest to a practical life philosophy I’ve found so far.

Engagement. Outdoors, family, hiking.

What happens when you give an obsessive reader and information addict an existential crisis? You get someone that tries to distill thousands of years of philosophy into 5 minute blog-sized morsels.

This one is about one of the most important things I’ve learned so far; the paramount importance of engagement.

I have recently been studying for a certificate in Existential Humanistic Therapy with one of the leading living experts on the topic, Kirk Schneider. The course requires digging into the big existential questions of life, death, freedom and meaning. What has really stood out for me is that so many of the great thinkers emerged with the same conclusion: engagement with life is both a cure for existential crisis and a key ingredient of happiness.

The final lines of Irvin Yalom’s intimidating book Existential Psychotherapy are among his most instructive: ‘when it comes to meaninglessness, the effective therapist must help patients to look away from the question: to embrace the solution of engagement rather than to plunge in and through the problem of meaninglessness. The question of meaning in life is, as the Buddha taught, not edifying. One must immerse oneself in the river of life and let the question drift away.’

In the suitably serious book Denial of Death, Ernest Becker too highlights the importance of engagement as treatment: ‘Hume’s antidote to the meaninglessness inherent in the cosmic perspective is engagement; and engagement is Sartre’s and Camus’s solution as well; a leap into commitment and action. Tolstoy chose that solution, too, when he said, “It is possible to live only as long as life intoxicates us” And engagement is the therapist’s most effective approach to meaninglessness.’

What does ‘engagement with life’ mean when it’s put into practice? One of the most important concepts I’ve encountered is that of ‘flow’, as pioneered by Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi. The basic idea is that ‘The best moments usually occur when a person’s body or mind is stretched to its limits in a voluntary effort to accomplish something difficult and worthwhile. Optimal experience is thus something we make happen.’ During periods of deep, embodied concentration, the self dissipates, time passes rapidly and we feel a profound sense of engagement with the task at hand. We all know when we’re ‘in the zone’.

It seems that deep concentration may act as a kind of efficiency exchange, temporarily shutting down the ‘ego’. In the book Stealing Fire, Neuroscientist Dr. Andrew Newberg describes the state of ‘unity’ or ‘the feeling of being one with everything’. ‘It’s a foundational notion in pretty much every religious tradition.’ Newberg discovered that ‘unity’ is associated with the shutdown of the part of the brain responsible for our sense of self. ‘Extreme concentration can cause the right parietal lobe to shut down. “It’s an efficiency exchange,” he explains. “During ecstatic prayer or meditation, energy normally used for drawing the boundary of self gets reallocated for attention. When this happens, we can no longer distinguish self from other. At that moment, as far as the brain can tell, you are one with everything.’

What’s the opposite of flow? For me personally, time spent in what neuroscientists call the ‘default mode network’ (DMN) can be torturous. Idle pursuits, rumination, just passing the time. I think of any interface where you’re scrolling a feed as anathema to flow. Rapid, shallow attentional switching, with no sense of engagement or challenge. Michael Pollan describes the DMN as ‘most active when our minds are least engaged in a task — hence “default mode.” It is where our minds go when they wander or ruminate.’ Mental illness can result from an excess of rumination: ‘depression, addiction, anxiety and obsession. All these disorders involve uncontrollable and endlessly repeating loops of rumination that gradually shade out reality and fray our connections to other people and the natural world.’

In the book Why Buddhism is True Robert Wright cites that studies that have shown ‘highly adept meditators, people who have meditated for tens of thousands of hours…..exhibit dramatically subdued default mode networks while meditating.’ The ‘ego’ is quieted, and with it all the worries, stories and negative self-talk. This sounds similar to the effect scientists have found when examining subjects on psychedelics. As Pollan writes: ‘scientists found that when volunteers reported an experience of ego dissolution, the fMRI scans of their brains showed a precipitous drop in activity in the default mode network, suggesting that this network may be the seat of the ego. One way to think about the ego is as a mental construct that performs certain functions on our behalf. Chief among these are maintaining the boundary between the conscious and unconscious realms of the mind as well as the boundary between self and other. So what happens when these boundaries fade or disappear under the influence of psychedelics? Our ego defenses relax, allowing unconscious material and emotions to enter our awareness and also for us to feel less separate and more connected — to other people, to nature or to the universe. And in fact a renewed sense of connection is precisely what volunteers in the various trials for addiction, depression and cancer anxiety trials have all reported.’ Psychedelics might introduce a dose of chaos into an overly ordered brain and allow new neural connections to flourish.

A perhaps even more interesting idea I’ve encountered is that flow evolves the self. This appears to have support from the finding that a subdued DMN allows for the formation of new neural pathways. But also by engaging in progressively challenging acts we pursue mastery; regularly cited as a key ingredient for true life satisfaction. How do we find flow and engagement? We pursue what is meaningful for us by following what holds our attention, and the direction of our attention signals the path of optimal personal growth. For me, I find flow in connecting disparate ideas in real time (hence the compulsion to learn and write). I also find flow from being involved in meaningful 1-on-1 conversations. On a more active basis, my dalliance with the physical chess of Brazilian jiu-jitsu illustrated to me the reasons behind its exploding popularity.

The conclusion seems to be: more time spent ruminating on the same thought loops can be bad for our mental health. Deep concentration dissolves the part of the brain doing the ruminating, allowing for the formation of new neural pathways. Finding our flow improves our moment-to-moment appreciation of life, and may even help us evolve as people.

If there’s an overriding practical philosophy of life I’ve found so far, this is it.

Tom Morgan

Written by

Trying to figure it out. Coach at www.personalbestnyc.com

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