WHAT IS THE MIND?????

Much of the field of Neuroscience is about studying the brain. It is wonderful that there are so many advances in understanding the brain. But what about the mind? We each have a mind but were we taught what it means? What is it? Where is it? I am a fan of the work of Dan Siegel and have read a number of his books. He is challenging the notion that the mind is what the brain does. “For me, the view that mind is only a synonym for the activity of the brain is partially true—but embracing it as complete and literal is potentially lethal. Lethal? Similar to cancer, seeing the mind and self as separated from other people and other living beings creates a way of living that is isolating, incomplete, and illusory.”In his new book, Mind, he shares a working definition of the mind-“as a self-organizing emergent property of energy and information flow happening within you and between you, in your body, and in your connections with others and the world in which you live” (p. 50). Mind is not the same as the brain. Mind is not just within you-it is embodied, enacted, extended, and embedded. From this understanding of the mind it is extremely relevant to mindful communication in daily life because mind is happening between our communication with others. Dan proposes there are four facets of the mind.

1.The subjective experience-felt experience

2.Consciousness

3. Information processing-mental activities

4.Self organization

So how does knowing this support our ability to practice mindful communication. Siegel suggests integration as the key to health and well being. If the mind is a self-organizing system and a self organizing system has a block it moves towards either chaos or rigidity. In order for a self organizing system to be in harmony it needs to be flexible, adaptive, coherent, energized, and stabilized. Optimal self organization is achieved through differentiated elements of the system and linking these differentiated elements-integration (p.78). Integration is how to optimize self-organization, within and between-well being. And so a healthy mind creates integration within and between. Mindfulness also supports integration in cultivating an open awareness to whatever arises rather than being swept away by our habits, patterns, and judgments. An integrated identity might involve combining the importance and reality of Me with the importance and reality of We and Dan offers the concept of MWE. From this place, we can consider, perhaps our purpose is to create more integration, which leads to the natural emergence of kindness and compassion.

Jen Zehler

WHAT A REVELATION!!!

The accident on the highway and the ensuing traffic jam was out of my control and yet I was filled with anxiousness. I felt as if seltzer was coursing though my veins. The students at Breakthrough North were waiting for me. I had not seen them for two weeks and now I was going to be late! I could not let go of the thought of letting them down. When I arrived in the classroom,10 minutes late, I told them the whole story of the accident and why I was late. However, the anxious feeling stayed within me the rest of the morning. What was that about?

In office hours I discussed the experience with my Mindful Communication teacher Marianna. She helped me to dig a little deeper, in order to uncover what this was really about? I shared that this was not about me, it was about the children and not wanting to let them down. She suggested I go deeper and the more I investigated the more I realized perhaps it WAS about ME!

Later in the afternoon, I was reading an article by John Teasdale and Michael Chaskalson, How Does Mindfulness Transform Suffering? Perhaps this would help me to further uncover what exactly this was about. “The central problem is that we cannot let go—we cannot let go of our desire, our need for things to be a particular way, even though that very need is what is creating our suffering.” Hmmmm…now I was coming closer…ok letting go of what though?

Reading on there it was with flashing lights, “It is the subtle involvement of self view here that makes it so difficult to let go. The centrality of self in craving becomes even clearer as we turn to the remaining two types craving- the craving to be and the craving to not be. Attachment to the desire to be or to become has two aspects. The most basic is attachment to the desire to exist at all, to be alive, to continue to exist as this thing we call a self. There is also attachment to the desire to be or become particular selves—either at the very general level, such as the need to be or become a self that is loved, a self that is respected, a self that is kind, a self that does things well, a self that is a good meditator, a self that is successful, or to be or become particular selves that are related to these more general selves at a specific level—a self that has a calm meditation in this sitting; a self that has crossed off all items from the to-do list, a self that gives a talk that is well received. This is the realm of attainment, achievement and ambition.”

Aha! The problem was I was attaching to the desire to be known as a self that does not let people down-a self that does things well etc. I was sure I had read about this before but until I had connected to it experientially I had only understood it on the surface-on the intellectual level. What a revelation!

Lo and behold, the next day I had the opportunity to revisit this experience but with a new awareness and fresh eyes. Another accident, which created a traffic jam, and the possibility of arriving late, to another group of students. This time, with the awareness of reading, and Marianna’s advice tucked into my mind, body, and heart, I was able to detach myself from all that was out of my control. What was in my control was my response to it. Letting go of what was out of my control and the desire of being a particular self that is always on time. I texted the teacher to say I will be there in 5 minutes…no attaching a story to it... and once I arrived was able to be fully present to the students!

Jen Zehler

WHAT I LEARNED AT THE MOVIES

“LORENZO! You just let six people walk past the concession booth without asking them if they wanted anything. You have to pay attention!” This is what I heard as I was waiting in line to purchase tickets for the movie, The Zookeepers Wife. This command was spoken harshly and loudly by the older man at the first register. He was reprimanding a young Hispanic man at the third register. Lorenzo appeared anxious and hung his head as he prepared to wait on his next customer. I cringed inside. I was a witness to this public humiliation and I stood at the point between a stimulus and a response…in that space I waited.

I was glad that I had to purchase my ticket from the older gentleman because in that space I had decided I must take action and address this form of dehumanization. Freire’s readings from Pedagogy of the Oppressed were fresh on my mind, “dehumanization is not a given destiny but the result of an unjust order that engenders violence in the oppressors, which in turn dehumanizes the oppressed.” I wondered why the loss of a potential sale could cause this man to enter into this act of violence. Was money the seed of his distortion of the vocation of becoming fully human? This was my opportunity to Freire’s philosophy to praxis, “true solidarity with the oppressed mains fighting at their side to transform the objective reality which has made them beings for another…seeing them as persons who have been unjustly dealt with, deprived of their voice…risks an act of love…true solidarity is found only this act of love…in its praxis.” I also knew that I did not want to become an oppressor as I attempted to address my concerns.

My goal was not to cause more harm through harsh speech. I gently shared with the gentleman how unjustly I felt he had spoken to his employee. He quickly attempted to backpedal and repeated what he said adding in softer words such as please and added, “he knows I think he is a hard worker.” I held firm, refusing to feel intimidated by his defensiveness and said, “that is not what you said or how you spoke to him.” “Ok what did I say” he asked and I repeated what he had said. He listened and then look at me and said thank you for communicating that to me. I said I do hope later you say something to Lorenzo as well. As I passed Lorenzo I reached out and gave him a fist pump and thanked him for his hard work.

I sat down in my seat and turned to my friend Joe and said, "I am so glad I had the courage to say something." The woman sitting behind me leaned over and said, “thank you for saying something to that man, he is always so rude to his employees.” I wanted to ask her if she ever said anything but the movie was beginning. I wondered how can any of us ever be truly liberated when we are too fearful to ensure human dignity for all.

The readings of Freire lead me to explore the work of Hegel, Fromm, Marx, and Hooks…their work led me to Palmer, King, Merton, Kornfield, Nhat Hanh, and Salzburg. I kept coming back to love within all their work…is love the path to true liberation….to our vocation of becoming fully human?

In his essay, Love and Need, Thomas Merton shares, “love is, in fact an intensification of life, a completeness, a fullness, a wholeness of life…life curves upward to a peak of intensity, a high point of value and meaning, at which all its latent creative possibility go into action and the person transcends himself or herself in encounter, response, and communion with another. It is for this that we came into the world-this communion and self-transcendence. We do not become fully human until we give ourselves to each other in love.” Loving practice is the way we end domination and oppression…may it be so!

Jen Zehler

THE WORLD IN WHICH WE LIVE

Do you know how your brain works? Interestingly, it works much like the universe itself, though that probably shouldn’t surprise us, given that our brains evolved, straight out of the organizational dynamics of life in our solar system. And how does the universe work? Basically, it "computes" Information, in a very delicate balance between chaos and order, and so does your brain!

And what exactly does that mean? In simple terms, it means that everything we know about our universe, everything we can observe about our solar system, and everything we can discern about the evolution of life here on earth for the last 3.7 billion years, is all defined by probability. The universe computes Information into probabilities. From the interaction of the smallest (quantum) particles to the formation of galaxies and Black Holes, it’s all a matter of probabilities.

In some cases, we can measure those probabilities, as is true with the “laws” of Nature we have discovered over the years. (Even “laws” of Nature are probabilistic, albeit so highly probable as to be virtually axiomatic.) We know, for example, that “laws” of gravity will cause an object in space to follow a particular orbit around the earth, which can be calculated with a very high degree of probability. Most of the time, however, we struggle to calculate the probabilities of our universe. The random, chaotic, non-linear dynamics of our universe eventually give rise to many different manifestations of order, some of them quite ephemeral, so it can be challenging to calculate the probabilities associated with such events.

And so it is with our brains as well. Our brains fulfill so many different critical functions, from maintaining equilibrium within millions of bio-chemical systems throughout the entire body to formulating feelings and behavioral responses to them, that it would be impossible for them to accurately calculate all of the relevant probabilities related to these functions. Given these demands and constraints, our brains resort to approximating those probabilities, but that is not the end of the story. The human brain has amazing computational range, and over the years it has developed the capacity to invent and apply many different tools, like mathematics and statistical analysis. Accordingly, there are times when our brains—aided by these tools—are really good at calculating probabilities, some of them scientific (calculating satellite orbits), some of them less so (laying odds on sports bets).

But here is the rub. Because our brains are constantly approximating the millions of probability functions they encounter every day, we usually fail to consciously consider how much of life is governed by probability. For example, I doubt that anyone actually thinks about all the probability calculations his or her brain is making during a stroll down the sidewalk. As it turns out, even this simple a physical activity involves millions of dynamic calculations, beginning with all the sensory information that must be processed for relevancy and importance to the task. (Is the wind up enough to affect the process? What ground conditions should be taken into account? etc.) Feedback systems within the sensory-motor cortices and the cerebellum are continuously updating countless subcortical, subconscious probability calculations going on every millisecond (some approximated, some not), all of which are critical to retaining one’s balance and coordinating one’s steps along the sidewalk.

But does this really matter? I think it does. A lot. If we all came to a better understanding of how our brains work and concerned ourselves more with the dynamics of probability, we would recognize how critical it is for our brains to keep sourcing new, relevant data and information. And along the way, this might open up our minds and thinking a little, perhaps even change our behaviors. Might we interact differently with someone if we discovered that he or she had just acquired a knowledge base similar to our own, which increased the probability that he or she would understand certain vocabulary and concepts? I think so. More than ever, this is a time for open-mindedness and changing behaviors. Perhaps grasping how life is defined by probabilities could lead us down that path.

 

Peter Schuller

THE UNIVERSE COMPUTES

First the Bang, unimaginably hot;

After, in the cooling void, a sea of seething energy;

The universe begins its computation.

Quanta, dancing in and out of formless fields, not yet points in space;

Then, finally, from limitless possibility, a set of boundaries

Four dimensions of space and time, a platform for emergent order.

And in the never-ending waltz between chaos and order,

A time and place for life, evolution, humanity;

A time and place for the common experience

Of spiritual beings sharing the uniqueness of creative expression

The universe computes

Information, self-organization, networked communication

Endless creativity, within limitless possibility.

But not free—spirit bounded by self-organization still needs focus,

The discipline to understand and direct its energies,

The courage of its convictions, within the great well of mystery  

Peter A. Schuller

SPIRITUALITY AND EXISTENTIAL CHOICE

We are spiritual beings, which means we are capable of many different kinds of choices. It is true that our human brains, being complex adaptive systems, operate within a certain set of dynamics that define or constrain our choices. For example, our brain systems are geared to insuring survival, so they instinctively generate reactions of fear and anger in the presence of perceived threats, and that “default” mechanism may sometimes compromise our ability to choose how we might respond to a given situation. Our brain systems also have far more functions to fulfill than they have the energy to fully undertake, so they often default into an “overwhelm” mode, which we experience as such in our conscious minds as well. These, and many other similar systems constraints, often affect our abilities to make informed, thoughtful choices. 

By the same token, these ingenious brain systems are also responsible for generating “conscious minds”, which provide us with the capacity to become fully aware of our circumstances and to reflect thoroughly on who we are, what we want, how best to achieve that, and other similar considerations. In short, as humans, we have the unrestrained capacity to take stock of what is going on in our lives at any given moment, put aside all the habitual, unconscious behaviors that might have historically governed our responses to date, and choose a new, independently derived behavior.

Engaging in such “awareness” exercises also awakens our minds to the further possibilities that exist in consciously choosing how we might respond to others or specific challenges in our lives, what thoughts and feelings we might want to occupy our minds, or what new approach to life we still might like to try. This is what I call “existential choice”, because it represents the capacity to define—and continuously redefine—how we perceive ourselves and our lives, the people we encounter every day, and what we plan to do with the time we have left.

This type of existential choice eventually allows us to realize that there is no "external reality" that operates on us like some Newtonian system of action and reaction, but that instead it is the power of the human mind and the exercise of existential choice that creates our reality. Not only the “reality” that we experience in the dynamic interior of our minds, but also the larger “reality” that exists for all of humanity, within a “system” of life that is defined not by Newtonian physics but by the mysterious, ever-changing world of quantum mechanics, where systems are not even definable until they are measured or "observed". We are all "observers", charged with the responsibility of choosing well and fully exploring our spiritual nature in order to create a meaningful reality for all.  

Peter Schuller