Relax and float downstream…
For the purposes of this article I am going to suggest a separation of the mind from the brain. The mind, in this context is the seat of our thoughts whereas the brain receives stimuli from many other inputs: the eyes, ears, nose, mouth, skin and nervous system. Every sight, sound, smell, taste, feeling and sensation is fed back to the brain for it to take whatever action may be required to deal with it. That is not all, the brain is also monitoring the function our organs and other vital systems so they perform as they should from one second to the next, ensuring all is well whilst doing what it can to minimise damage if problems are detected.
The brain does all of this whilst simultaneously recalling who starred opposite Meryl Streep in The French Lieutenant’s Woman (Jeremy Irons) or selecting which shirt you should wear or worrying about the joke you told the other night at the pub that didn’t elicit quite the laugh you thought it might. That in itself is fairly amazing but what is truly staggering is that we imagine that the film trivia, clothing dilema or mild social embarrassment are all more important and should get most of the brains attention.
In short, we think more importantly than we do. We consider the output from our minds is more significant and far outweighs that of our other senses. Thoughts dictate our mood and our actions in a wholly disproportionate way to how they should. Why is this?
“I can’t believe what I just heard”. “You won’t believe your eyes”. Yet ‘I’ actually heard it and ‘you’ will see it. But it won’t fit into the idea you have of how ‘things’ should be so you will deny it happened, or that it happened in the way you witnessed. This is odd behaviour for a couple of reasons. The first one is that we know how unreliable our minds can be. Who has forgotten something that they really shouldn’t have? The name of your neighbour or your bank card PIN number? Everyone has done it, we have a saying for it – ‘mind like a sieve’. The mind is a container full of holes through which memories and ideas slip through in a way we have no control over. Still, we re-watch the film and we would have sworn that the hero didn’t die like that, like the way we are seeing. So certain are we that we might even check if this is a remake.
My examples here are trivial. However offended my neighbour (Paul) might be that I have forgotten his name, in the overall scheme of things it really doesn’t matter very much. It could be argued that we have much more to remember than we previously had as a species. Indeed, in evolutionary terms, our other senses would have been even more important than they are now. Our very survival would have depended on hearing the approach of a predator – paying attention to all our senses was the difference between life and death. There was other significant stuff about who we were and how we came to be where we were that it was worth us bearing in mind and so we told stories that would enable us to retain this information and we passed those stories on through the generations. These myths dealt in universal, shared experiences that all might benefit from knowing but recalling them as the lion pounced would not have been nearly as useful as hearing the beast approach and getting the hell out of its way.
The change came about over thousands of years but was accelerated by the philosopher Rene Descartes who, along with other thinkers of the Enlightenment, helped to define what we refer to as the ‘self’. He did this with his most famous assertion – ‘I think therefore I am’. Leaving aside the dualistic separation of mind and body, which is more an extension of earlier Platonic thinking, what this statement does is to put the mind firmly at the centre of who we are. Seventeenth century Europe was a different place to the one in which we now live and life was still a much more communal experience than it is today. The impact and importance of a significantly increased subjectivity has grown in the years since and has led us to elevate our thoughts and ideas to the pedestal on which they now sit.
The Enlightenment is also referred to as the Age of Reason and philosophers and scientists came forth to lead us through it. ‘Dare to think’ suggested Kant as a sort of motto for the time. It seems that today this has been taken to its extremes and we do little else, all the more reason to kick back a little, to turn off our minds, relax and…. meditate?
I am a recent convert to meditation and my chosen guide is Sam Harris. The approach, in his ‘Waking Up’ course, is not too dissimilar to many other methods I expect. We are told to find a comfortable, preferably seated, position. Sometimes we start with eyes closed, other times with them open. He might then suggest we focus on our breath and pay attention to a point at which we are most aware of it – nose, throat, chest etc. – and to focus on that. Generally this will last a minute or so and we are then encouraged to become aware of things we might hear or sensations in our bodies. Of course, like everyone who has ever meditated, at this point my mind wanders and I start to day dream. To counter this Harris’s approach is to treat the thought in the same way as we might a sound or bodily sensation or anything else that appears unbidden into our realm of consciousness. We are to focus attention on the thought itself until it passes away as a sound would. That is we are not to ‘think’ about it but pay it attention, observe it. This might seem pedantic but with practice it works. In meditation we cannot predict what thoughts will appear – they just pop their way in – the same as in the rest of our lives. However, what we tend to do in ‘reality’ is to assimilate and develop the thoughts into our story of who we are in an attempt to convince ourselves that we are somehow in control of them.
The manner in which the thoughts arrive and develop (or not depending on your meditative skills) during a meditation session mirrors the basic structure of the universe – deterministic and random. Most of the thoughts we have arise because of something else in our life and are therefore determined by that former cause. However, whether we can explain their origin or not, we cannot determine precisely which thought will enter our minds at any given point. They arrive and we deal with them (or, more often, don’t) in a random fashion and we can no more control that process than we can the next noise we hear or sight see.
This lack of control does not necessarily imply a lack of responsibility, we still make choices and we must be held to account in some way for them. But an acceptance that the last thought that entered our mind did just that and should therefore have no greater influence over us than the next itch or smell.
I will leave that there but reserve the right to revisit this topic again. What I will add as a sort of postscript is a conversation I had the other night with some friends. We are a group that gather every Tuesday from the UK, US and Europe to chat about the state of the world and each other. Last Tuesday John shared a story about how he was puzzled by the overwhelming sensation of being a small child whenever he entered a Mexican food takeaway. He shared this with his mother who told him he when he was about 10 he was obsessed with a particular mexican drink and it was the smell of this that he got from the takeaways that transported him to his past. What’s notable here is that John had no specific recollection of his behaviour but his senses were aroused sufficiently to trigger some vague recognition inside his brain. This demonstration of both the sense of smell and the power of the brain is further enhanced by the understanding that the construction of who we are is the work of all the people with whom we have a shared past. We are the built both in and out of relationships and we rely on them continually throughout our lives.
I know I rely on my Tuesday night Zoom sessions with John and Katie and Amy and James and Chris (others do drop in but they are the stalwarts) and long may they continue.
I am because we are and since we are I am.