The Mind

Meditation and Achieving Timelessness

About a decade ago, I read in a magazine that if you want to lose weight, buy a full-length mirror.  Then again, a few years ago, I was at a musicians' workshop, and the guy at the front said, "if you want to improve as a musician, the

How Big a Container

Yesterday I wrote about having a "container" for your child's psychic energy.  Or whomever's. Your dad's, your employees', your own.  The leader in the room is the one with the biggest container.  Actually, let's back up a bit.  As Russ Hudson brilliantly said Oct. 2014, "The leader is just the first person to become present."  Another quote that has changed my life in a big way.  How do you develop leadership skills?  Develop your practice of presence.

Which should provide a clue as to how exactly a person would go about "creating a container" for others.  Create it for yourself first with your practice of presence and it will be there for others.

Basically, what I mean is developping a self-observation practice.  By turning the flashlight of your mind back in on itself and observing your breathing (is it shallow or deep, quick or slow), your thoughts (how they float -- or zoom-- by like clouds), the muscle tension in your body (can you feel tension in your neck?  Your jaw?  your buttocks?), you deepen your quality of presence, thereby creating a container for others.

 Kids can be a prompt for reminding us to breathe.

Kids can be a prompt for reminding us to breathe.

How long do you do this for?  One second?  One second is good- it's a long time by meditative standards, but I prefer to use the metronome of my breathing because my attention is on my body anyway, might as well keep it there instead of going back and forth between my body and my watch.  A deep, mindful breath can feel like a very long time.  It's difficult to stay with the awareness of your body for an entire breath, but it's a good goal to aim for when you're in the throes of your job and you want to create a little island of mindfulness in the hecticness of the pace of business.  If you can't stay with yourself for an entire breath, that's fine, a half a breath, or even a quarter breath has been known to change the course of events.  Two breaths is audacious.  The people around you will wonder what you're doing.  Three, you're off your rocker according to non-practitioners.  Three mindful breaths creates not only an island, but a retreat centre on the island and a rent-a-car establishment so you can drive to the retreat centre.

But let me go back to high-energy kids, because that's what prompted me to write about this in the first place.  When high -energy kids become annoying or draining, the best thing to do when you feel reactive is to take a mindful breath and "land" in your body.  When you spend some time sensing into your body, noticing how the annoyance feels (do you feel annoyance in your throat?  Your stomach?  Your face?  Your feet?  I notice it in my nose quite a bit) you've landed in that moment, and you've essentially created a little container for your child's energy.  The next time you practice this, you might notice a little bit more tension, like maybe you didn't notice before, but you've got tension in your hands.  That second time, your container grew a bit. 

The third time you practice this, you might notice tension in your jaw as well as your hands, and maybe if you stay with the mindfulness a bit longer, you notice the arches of your feet are tensed up.  "Wow", you say, and you let go of the tension and relax.  Your container has grown a little bit. 

And then you forget for a couple months and when you remember again, you're back to only being able to do mindful half breaths, and the tendency is to beat yourself up and say, "Gah!  Why didn't I sustain my practice??!"  But then you notice the tension in your body as self-condemnation arises, and you take a deep, mindful breath and notice how tight your neck is, or how you're clenching a body part.  Eventually you're back on the horse, back to being audacious again.  And after getting on and off the horse more times that you would like, you decide to have a sitting practice, and set an alarm that rings gently after 20 minutes.  You love it that much.  Over the years, the love grows.  You get on and off the horse, don't worry, it happens to everyone, but the smart mindfulness practitioner uses prompts to turn the flashlight of their mind back in on itself, like it used to be turning on the bathroom taps for me.  But you could just as easily use the tension that comes with self-condemnation as your first prompt to start the journey back onto the horse.

 

Memorizing Poetry

About three years ago, I read The Great Work of Your Life by Stephen Cope, a read so savory you tend to inhale it in one gulp, but a few words of wisdom have stayed with me, among them, to copy other writers.  Basically, Cope says, if you're wanting to find your own voice, copy someone else's for a while.  Pick a writer you admire and write out their speeches and poems over and over again.  Commit their works to memory.  Eventually, their understanding of the universe, their way of working with language and sentence construction, the rhythm of their prose will inform your own mental patterns down to the cellular level, practically, and you'll be able to build off that foundation with your own style.  I've done that once before- I was so intimidated when I heard a recording of Don Riso and Russ Hudson giving an introductory talk on the Enneagram that I wrote the entire hour-long talk out by hand to get the clarity of their thought process embedded into my brain.  I'm pretty sure modern-day composers would corroborate the idea that playing the works of the great composers like Mozart and Beethoven calibrates an orientation to different styles and structures, helping them write their own unique pieces.

This morning I decided to finally act on this injunction and memorize actual poetry.  The poem I chose isn't a poem at all, but I have a bit of an aversion to the genre, so I just lump all thughtfully-worded literature into one big category.  It's actually an essay by Aldous Huxley that I came across in the dear Maria Popova's popular weekly digest of beautiful images, literature and philosophy, Brain Pickings.  Upon opening it, I fell upon the most irrisistable piece of writing and said to myself, "This is it.  It starts today."

For a couple years now, I've been noticing that my mind doesn't have the same clarity and focus as it did in my twenties.  The combination of stress over the last five years and the fact that I now own a laptop, an ipad, and a cell phone has contributed to a new scattered way of thinking that has me hopping from one task to the next, and clicking from one window to the next without completing anything in one sitting.  My job also has me interrupted every three minutes to the point that lately, I can't sit down and read one full page of a book, let alone an entire paragraph without checking my phone or making muffins because the clanging in my head is so much louder and busier than it used to be. That quality of concentration I had before internet 2.0 (2007-ish) is just gone.  I read differently now; I scan instead of letting myself sink into the experience.  I've had enough, but what can you do?  Do you get rid of your technology?  I've started meditating, I've resisted having my banking apps "remember" my account numbers so I have to practice retrieving them from my memory bank, and the other day, I bought a combination lock for the gym instead of one with a key specifically so I'd have another set of numbers to remember.  My next step is to bring back my old alarm clock instead of using the alarm on my phone.  When I wake up to my cell phone, I inevitably get stuck in reactions of all kinds to my e-mails, the news, and texts that I got (or didn't get) during the night that I lose that precious, ethereal opportunity at the beginning of the day to take the reins in hand and rationally plan my day.

I imagine that not only does the process of memorization improve focus, but I'm sure it also strengthens the hippcampus, the long-term memory processing centre of the brain.  When you create a new neuron connection, you have to maintain it in order to keep it, and the constant repetition of what you've memorized would help the neuron stick around and create connections with other neurons.  When I was at a brain workshop recently, the facilitator asked us to turn to our neighbor and tell them what our most valuable possession was.  Of course a lot of us said our house, our car, or whatever, and he interrupted with, "WRONG!!  It's your BRAIN!"  I was reflecting on that last week as I was driving down Albert Street and I realized it was really true.  Some of us have been blessed with parents who not only activated our brains, but showed us how to do it for ourselves, and we have a certain set of chances at success in life.  Others of us have had to do the activation ourselves because our parents weren't in a position to do so.  The almost incomprehensible mystery of being human is having the capacity to reflect our thoughts back on our own minds and improve how our very brain thinks, all for the cost of the occasional late fee at the library, to quote Will from Good Will Hunting.

Not only would it be good for your brain, but from the few times it's happened to me, it's nice being able to impress people at a dinner party by quoting a famous line or two that contributes in some way to the conversation.  I used to read the Aubrey-Maturin series (off which Russell Crowe's Master and Commander 2003 movie is based), and one observation from pre-modern life struck me: conversation skills are truly an art.  The series is about people riding ships between the old world and the new, and when you're on a ship, you're stuck with the same people every single day, and you have to eat in the same dining room with them three times a day, sometimes for months, and you want to be on a ship with interesting people who can carry a conversation.  The more well-read you are and the better your memory, the more weight you can carry in a conversation to take it on new and interesting turns, acting as a connector between ideas and leveraging them to lead the conversation into stimulating thought-territory.   Having the confidence to guide a conversation is pretty empowering- not to mention pretty important for your career.

 Aldous Huxley, British author of  Brave New World  and other works (July 26, 1894 to November 22, 1963). 

Aldous Huxley, British author of Brave New World and other works (July 26, 1894 to November 22, 1963). 

So here we go with the first few lines to Huxley's Music at Night, the title essay in a collection of essays published in 1931, a pristine treatise on the transcendental nature of music to connect people to emotional states in a way that words cannot.

Music at Night

Moonless, this June night is all the more alive with stars.  Its darkness is perfumed with faint gusts from the blossoming lime trees, with the smell of wetted earth and the invisible greenness of the vines.  There is silence, but a silence that breathes with the soft breathing of the sea, and, in the thin shrill noise of a cricket, insistently, incessantly, harps on the fact of its own deep perfection.  Far away, the passage of a train is like a long caress, moving gently, with an inexorable gentleness, across the warm living body of the night.  Music, you say, it would be a good night for music. [...]"

I know someone who grew up in Africa, and he checks his phone so infrequently, and when he does, it's very thoughtfully done.  When I observe him working on a task, I notice a deep quality of concentration and a clarity of focus that I've lost over the last decade- probably most of us Westerners have as technology insinuates its way into our lives.  Here's hoping we can work our way back to that level with a little intention and a little practice.

 

 

Why learning neuroscience is so hard

   
  
 
  
    
  
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    Thirty-three year-old artist Yarun Steinburg built a  model  of how he imagines his brain to be using cardboard boxes, Christmas lights, and TVs with film reels from his life.  From the back, you can see that the inside is modeled after a small city, the tightly-packed and highly detailed "neighborhoods", inviting viewers to pause and reflect on what the inside of their own brain might look like.

Thirty-three year-old artist Yarun Steinburg built a model of how he imagines his brain to be using cardboard boxes, Christmas lights, and TVs with film reels from his life.  From the back, you can see that the inside is modeled after a small city, the tightly-packed and highly detailed "neighborhoods", inviting viewers to pause and reflect on what the inside of their own brain might look like.

I've been reading about neuroscience these last four months, and I've really been struggling to integrate the material into my own words, hence the dearth of blog posts.

I decided to google why neuroscience is so hard, and while it's in part because only long-time meditators and intellectual heavyweights- of which I am neither- really comprehend neurophenomenlology enough to verbalize the subtle and complex processes in a way that laypeople can understand, there are few other reasons.

First of all, there is still so much even neurobiologists don't know about the brain, and parts we don't understand the function of.  There are 100 billion neurons- or nerve cells- and endless combinations they can connect with each other.  The connections between the neurons, called synapses- are shaped by both genes and life experience, but we don't know to what extent genes shape connections, and experience shapes connections.

  Nerve cell.   Image from bbc.co.uk. 

Nerve cell.  Image from bbc.co.uk. 

Moreover, neuroscience requires both objectivity and subjectivity.  If we're going to understand the phenomena of consciousness, on the one hand, we need scientifically valid observations of the brain; on the other, first person subjective accounts of peoples' internal experiences.  Because both the brain and the mind come together to form consciousness, scientists need to get creative and develop tests that measure and scientifically quantify mental phenomena. 

There is a complicated interplay between the brain and the mind: the mind and its attendant concepts and meanings is rooted in the activity of the brain, and the brain- due to its plasticity- is constructed itself by the mind.  As a result, the brain is turning its social circuits that normally attunes to others, inside out and is interacting with itself.  However, we know from the famous double-slit experiment (on the interference pattern of electrons being shot through a double-slit apparatus) that the mere act of observing electrons changes their behavior; just the same, mindfulness research has demonstrated a similar conclusion- that the mere act of becoming aware of your own awareness alters the form and function of your brain.  Your awareness is goes back on itself in a re-entry loop where the emergent process takes on a life of its own, improving memory, focus, and empathy.

The mind can be defined as an embodied process that regulates the flow of energy and information. Regulation is at the heart of mental life, and helping others with this regulatory balance is central to understanding how the mind can change. The brain has self-regulatory circuits that may directly contribute to enhancing how the mind regulates the flow of its two elements, energy and information.
— Dr. Daniel Siegel

Some philosophers would say our consciousness is simply reducible to the chemical and electrical firings of our neurons, while others prefer to hold out for the discovery of the "self node" tucked away somewhere in the folds of our gyri like a pearl in an oyster shell that can answer for each and every one of our thoughts and decisions. 

To make things even more difficult, up until a few years ago, neither the field of psychology or neurobiology had a working, agreed-upon definition of the mind. 

Dr. Siegel, whom I mention a lot, only because I'm reading his book right now (The Mindful Brain), recounts how he has gone around the world speaking to mental health practictioners, and at every event, asked for a show of hands of who had ever had a lecture at any time in their training that defined what the mind was.  His finding- out of the 100,000 mental health professionals that he's taught- was that less than 2% had.  While it's true that philosophers and psychologists have been trying to answer that question since the ancient Greeks at least, what's cool is that we're actually at a unique time in history where we know enough to cobble a rough definition together.  Here is Siegel's own working definition:

The mind can be defined as an embodied process that regulates the flow of energy and information. Regulation is at the heart of mental life, and helping others with this regulatory balance is central to understanding how the mind can change. The brain has self-regulatory circuits that may directly contribute to enhancing how the mind regulates the flow of its two elements, energy and information.

But there are other concepts that are still undefined.  Think about it.  Can you define consciousness?  Neither can psychologists.  What about self, or identity?

The next challenge is that the brain consists of more than just the pinky-brown organ in the head.  As the control centre of the entire central nervous system, the brain's nerves are routed through the spine and spread all the way to the soles of the feet.  The fact that this complex system works in concert to keep our bodies in homeostasis is nothing less than jaw-dropping.  As one scientist wrote, "If given the choice between having to pilot a plane without knowing anything about how to work any of the controls, and sitting at the dashboard of my central nervous system, coordinating the millions of outgoing and incoming processes happening every second, I'd choose the pilot job in a heartbeat."

Finally, because my purpose in studying the brain is to understand how brain form and function relates to different personality types, and that research is still in its infancy, there is little that can be said with objective certainty, although Dario Nardi (among others) have been doing some interesting research at UCLA, mapping the brain patterns of Carl Jung's legendary MBTI types, and is now starting to work with Enneagram types.  I'm sure more research funding will be forthcoming the more it becomes clear how brain research is important to our collective health, but in the meantime, we rely on anecdotal observations.  For example, during an informal study of brain activity and Enneagram types, Dr. Daniel Siegel noted in an interview with Russ Hudson and Jessica Dibb that Type Two's (one of the Enneagram's three image types) "have a lot of mirror neurons".  There is no book yet out there detailing what these observations could mean, but hopefully someone bright will pen the first one soon. 

 

mentorship- giving and receiving

 image from leap.utah.edu

image from leap.utah.edu

I've always had a hunger for a mentor relationship- I always felt I could do more than what I was doing- and every once in a while you want someone to come along and give you a push.

On the other hand, I've been fortunate to get what is the next best thing, if not better: great teachers. 

Growing up, my dad was always harping on us kids to stretch ourselves intellectually, and it didn't take much- a few years of university- before we crossed the line of what, to him, was acceptable bounds for intellectual roaming.  He's still religious, and I am no longer.  He doesn't understand why I couldn't stay intellectually rigorous yet stay within the confines of our faith, and I don't understand how I could have. 

In high school, our church had a great youth leader named Cory who was really passionate about theology and made it cool for us.  We would look at Greek and Hebrew passages and dissect what they meant in different translations.  It was one of his passions to teach us how to debate (and win) with Jehovah's Witnesses and Mormons, and it was where my head was at at the time, so I soaked it up.  I ended up attending a liberal-leaning Christian college to get my degree, and when I reconnected with him years later on Facebook, we sadly had very little in common anymore.  Doesn't mean I don't look back on those three years fondly, though.

In university, my sister introduced me to an equally intellectually vigorous, but left-leaning Bible Study group, and our leader was very passionate about pushing us to think critically about what our faith meant in today's day.  We read some great books that had a big effect on all our lives.  I'm eternally grateful to him.  I've since left that way of thinking altogether, but again, those were some great, fertile years.

One of the university classes I took was with Dr. Ward who taught American Political Thought.  His classes were super exciting because he made questions about Benjamin Franklin, race and gender really relevant, and there were always good discussions.  We always left the classes buzzing.  In case it isn't obvious, the big narrative in my life is the trajectory from a conservative religious household with a limited understanding of my faith to an agnostic liberal point of view.  Over time, a new problem emerged, though.  I ended up having to drop out of university (I already had a degree anyway) because I couldn't get out of the head space and couldn't finish my assignments on time because I kept on thinking about more and more things to include in my essays.  Not good.  I had to get out of there.

The big shift started in 2010 when I learned about the Enneagram and how my personality type needed to DO instead of FEEL and THINK all the time, which was actually new territory for me.  It still is- I'm at the beginning of a new trajectory and I feel like I'm still very much taking baby steps.  I have a mentor now named Sam with whom I speak once a month, and she is so positive even when I don't know what I'm doing.  I also have a coach too, and he introduced me to a mindfulness practice where I've gotten more acquainted with the gut space.  For my type, action means a loss of identity which is like floating untethered in space kind of territory- if you ever want to understand why some people are absolutely terrified of success, learn the Enneagram- you can ask me what my type is. 

While I was working on my business, I worked as a secretary at an elementary school this past year, and there was a grade 8 student who would come into the office when she was done with her homework and chat.  I loved talking to her- I found out she was really bright, taking online classes at a university, and studying Greek history, medicine, and psychology in her spare time.  She wants to go to Harvard, so I said, "you know what? Come work for me for this summer and I'll get you doing research assistant stuff."  We're going for tea tomorrow so I'm excited to see what comes out of that.

We all know this- people slip through the cracks really easily.  We all have these big dreams, and then as we grow up, we get weighed down with having to pay bills, and we go work somewhere and get comfortable.  Even if you just challenge someone for a small window of time and get them thinking in a way they haven't thought before, or doing things they didn't think they could do before, it makes a huge difference- you don't have to be a mentor for life.  I'm grateful for everyone who cared enough to challenge me, and I hope I can give back to the same measure and more.

Thankfulness for Doors

A couple months ago, I was running errands on my lunch hour, and one of my stops was picking up Kimchi at the Korean grocery store.  I was clamped on to this goal of making three stops in 55 minutes, and if I didn't get them accomplished, my control hold over the day would slip, and not only would my afternoon crumble beneath me, but I'd have to make it up tomorrow, wasting extra gas and mileage.  So although I was aiming to be as efficient as possible, I wasn't focussed and clear-headed- I was clinging and distracted, leaning into my errand-run with a breathlessness reserved for Tarzan-swinging through the jungle.

"Point of view of a person Tarzan swinging dangerously through the jungle in Monteverde, Costa Rica."  Image from Shutterstock.

To my great satisfaction, I found a good parking spot by the store on the first go-round, and as I approached the entrance, I suddenly alit on reassuring thought- there was a door!  Exactly what I needed- brakes!  Something to make me slow down!  And I knew that in about 15 steps I'd get a chance to decelerate as I pulled the door toward me.  With that widening bracing step, my mind, which had a train of thoughts screaming through it, would have a chance to get back in sync with the rhythm of my body and I could have a "moment" in the present.  Relief!

It was a bit of a funny revelation, I thought afterwards.  I wondered why I couldn't just stop on my own accord and take a couple breaths while I was in the car.  Could it be costlier to my ego, which feeds off my busyness, to stop completely than to depend on outside solid objects to keep my mental activity in check?  No wonder spiritual teachers call us "robots".

Between the Brain and the Mind: Knowing (or SOCK)

Fluorescent image, obtained using multiphoton excitation (MPE) microscopy, showing the brain neurons of a live mouse expressing GFP (Green Fluorescent Protein). Image courtesy of Carlos Portera-Cailliau, UCLA and Coherent.

We know that the brain's neural firing generates activity in the mind, but in the past 15 to 20 years, we've come to understand that the opposite is also true, that the mind can influence the structure of the brain. The discovery of neuroplasticity showed that instead of the previous scientifically-held belief that the brain stopped developing after the age of two, and thereafter only experienced the decline in the number of neurons in the brain, we are actually capable of activating and even creating new neurons into our senior years. (Kabat-Zinn, 2013). 

In this way, we see that the brain and the mind create each other.  Before embarking on how their functions correlate, it would be useful to distinguish their roles and capacities.

Obviously, the brain is the organ, and the mind is something generated out of the brain's processes, but a little more ethereal because aside from just knowing, we can know that we know- something unique to the human brain. Daniel Siegel defines the mind as the process that regulates the flow of energy and information. 

The mind comes up with concepts through SOCK- sensation, observation, conceptions- they all lead to knowing.  The energy and information that comes in through the S- Sensations is experienced on two levels: internal sensations (travelling from the visceral organs to the Pre-frontal cortex in the forehead region) and external sensations (travelling from the peripheral nervous system to the sensory area of the cortex at the top of the head). 

We have energy and information coming in through the O: Observation, as well.  Siegel describes observation as the key that unlocks the doors to sensation.  You're talking to a friend or relative and you're really present, and you notice something about them you hadn't noticed before- perhaps a smile line, or the worry they seem to be carrying, which leads to a sensation of tenderness arising from the chest area, or you feel tightness because your mirror neurons are picking up on their worries.  Observation keeps us from careening from moment to moment on automatic pilot.

There is energy and information coming in through the C: Conception.  Our mental concepts can keep us from direct sensation, sure, but mindfulness teachers remind us not to play favorites among what arises- sensations, observations, and concepts- are all to be treated like a welcome guest and allowed to pass through.  Conception can in fact integrate what we've picked up through sensations and observation into a deeper kind of wisdom than had we been operating out of the prison of ordinary living.

Finally, when each of these three streams-- sensation, observation, and conceptializing-- converge, they reach the headwaters of K: Knowing.  The S, O, and C allow us to Know the present moment, "a knowing paradoxically without words, without concepts, without sensations.  This knowing is a kind of subterranean stream, beneath this valley of the present moment, a formless Knowing" (Siegel, 2007).

Practicing mindfulness over a period of time has shown to have an effect on the structure of the brain- thickening affected areas of the brain, or creating new neuropathways- even new neurons.  The mind and the brain work hand-in hand to build and shape each other.

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