We are not our minds

In Western culture, we tend to not only view the mind, the body, and the spirit as separate parts of our being, but we also tend to place the highest value on the mind. I think this is slowly beginning to shift, but the priority we place on the value of our minds is something that is still an often unconscious assumption that underlies our choices, our behavior, and where we place our attention. Our body is often seen as just a housing for our minds. Likewise, western religion has shown a tendency to see the body as just the vessel that holds our spirit, with the spirit being given the greater value than the lowly vessel.

While most of us do acknowledge the obvious effects our bodies can have on our minds—like the fact that we may have a harder time concentrating when we are tired or have a harder time controlling our emotional responses when stressed—research continues to show us that these interconnections are more pervasive and more subtle than we often assume.

I read a fascinating post today in Scientific American online called A Brief Guide to Embodied Cognition: Why You Are Not Your Brain by Samuel McNerney that shares some history of the field of embodied cognition as well as some of the latest research findings. The entire article is absolutely fascinating! What they are finding is that our thoughts are much more strongly influenced by our physical experiences than we have previously realized.  Many of the metaphorical expressions we use every day are indicators of this connection.

For example, one study found that in a brief interaction with a stranger, a study participant who was holding warm cups of coffee was more likely to find the stranger trustworthy than a study participant holding cold cups of coffee. This impact of warmth on our perception of another person fits well with our expression of “warming up” to someone as we get to know them and develop a positive perception of them. This influence also works the other way. Another study showed that study participants who had just spent time remembering a situation in which they were socially accepted judged the temperature of the room to be about five degrees warmer than study participants who had just spent time remembering a situation in which they were snubbed.

These sorts of unconscious interplays between mind, body, and spirit are occurring every moment of every day of our lives. When we attempt to place our priority and our focus only on our “rational” minds, we lose sight of the fact that the mind is interconnected with our bodies and our spirits in a way that cannot be cleanly divided into separate areas.

For me, yoga has been one powerful way for me to become more aware of my full state of being. The development of a witness, or observer, consciousness through asana practice and meditation has allowed me to live with greater awareness of my body, my spirit, and my mind in any given moment so I can evaluate my thoughts and feelings with a more complete data set. It brings a greater mindfulness to all that I do.

In one of my coaching classes last night, we discussed how often we react to situations based on past experiences that have pre-conditioned us rather than responding in the present moment to the situation that is actually at hand. The most powerful way to break these pre-conditioned reactions (or what yoga calls samskara) is to take a moment to become aware of the information that our emotions and our body itself is giving us before we respond.

Not only has taking that time to notice helped me begin to change long-standing habits and make better decisions, it’s also helping me place a higher value on taking care of my body. I still have LOTS of room to grow in this area, but I am finding myself paying more attention to how much I sleep, what I eat, how much water I drink, my physical posture, and how much activity I am getting. I’m starting to make better decisions about my self-care, and I am learning to take the state of my body into account when I consider the messages my thoughts and feelings are telling me. It has truly broadened and enhanced my world.

How do you make these connections between your mind, your body, and your spirit? Do you give an equal priority to all of who you are? If not, can you think of one thing you can do today to start bringing better balance?

Meditation’s unexpected gift

The ancient yogis used meditation as a route to samadhi, the state of oneness with all things which is the yogic version of enlightenment. In fact, of the eight limbs of yoga according to Patanjali, four of them are steps along this route: pratyahara (withdrawing the senses from distractions around us), dharana (concentration on one object), dhyana (steadfast meditation), and samadhi (a state of oneness).

As I embarked on my own journey with meditation, I naturally set my goal as achieving samadhi. I did realize that this was a long, slow process that would require much practice, but that was my goal—that blissful state of oneness beyond thought, a place where I could just BE free of the chatter of my mind.

It didn’t take long for me to discover that meditation had an entirely different gift in store for me.

As I sit on my mat and focus on my breath, my monkey mind goes chattering off in a hundred different directions at once. I breathe and just watch this noisy parade of thoughts march by—not trying to stop the flow or change the nature of the thoughts—just observing them from a neutral, curious place. I’m slowly learning to not follow any of the thoughts, not grab them, not fight them, not judge them. This process produced two amazing discoveries for me.

First, I am not my thoughts. There is something that is ME that is observing those thoughts. This something—yoga calls it parusa, others may call it the higher self or the soul or the witness consciousness, I call it my curious observer-self—is unswayed by my thoughts. It simply IS.

Second, my thoughts are a jumble of chattering nonsense stemming from a whole crowd of personas that I commonly confuse as being my “self.” This stuff isn’t even coming from something real! And it’s definitely not objective truth that I need to listen to or believe. Who knew? (So much for Descartes’ “I think, therefore I am”!)

As someone who has spent so much of her life living in her head, this discovery that my thoughts are not only not ME, but they’re not even “real” is mindblowing. In fact, it’s been amazingly freeing…completely transformative even.

Someday I may reach samadhi if I keep coming back to my mat long enough. Then again, I may not. And, you know, that’s really ok with me. The joyful, amazing freedom I’ve found in discovering my curious observer-self and letting go of my slavery to my thoughts is worth every moment I ever have and ever will spend in meditation.

What a valuable gift!

Second darts

One powerful concept from Buddha’s Brain: The Practical Neuroscience of Happiness, Love, and Wisdom (affiliate link) that I have already made good use of is the concept of second darts. What is a second dart?

Authors Rick Hanson and Richard Mendius describe things that happen to us as the first dart. Our reactions to the first dart become the second darts, and these second darts are the ones that cause the most suffering. These second darts are usually the ways in which we begin to ascribe meaning to the first dart.

For example, let’s say that I was supposed to meet a friend for lunch, and my friend never showed up. Her non-appearance is a first dart; it is what happened. If I go on to tell myself things about this first dart like “she is so irresponsible” or “she must not value our friendship” or “she doesn’t care about me” or “she sure is rude to me,” these would all be second darts. These are all stories and meanings that I am creating in my thoughts to explain to myself why the first dart occurred. And it is these second darts that cause me the real suffering.

Even worse, we sometimes create second darts even when good things happen to us. Perhaps someone compliments us, and we automatically dismiss their praise thinking that they must not be seeing the situation accurately. “Surely if they really knew me, they wouldn’t say anything so nice,” we think. (Goodness knows how often I’ve done that!)

The book provides a good deal of detail about what happens in our brains when we do this. It’s fascinating stuff, but I won’t even try to cover all that here. They go on to talk about how we can change this pattern, which is enormously useful information.

So far, though, I am just noticing these second darts when they occur. Even just the noticing a second dart for what it is gives me enough distance from it to keep it from causing as much suffering. It gives me that space to consider whether it’s really worth holding onto the thought embedded in that second dart. Most of the time (perhaps all of the time?), it’s not.

Watch your thoughts this coming weekend. Where are you creating second darts?

Buddha’s Brain

This past weekend I had the opportunity to read Buddha’s Brain: The Practical Neuroscience of Happiness, Love, and Wisdom (affiliate link) by Rick Hanson and Richard Mendius. It’s a book that’s been on my “to read” list for quite some time, but it finally made it to the top of the list because a book club that I am in chose it for this month’s selection.

I am so glad they did! This is an easy-to-read book, but the amount of information packed in these pages will have me re-reading it multiple times over the coming months.

The book describes the ways that neuroscience is showing us how our flow of thoughts can actually change our brains, for better or for worse. Not only does the book share the results of a large number of scientific studies in easy to follow language (it’s also well footnoted in case you wish to read the actual studies), it goes on to use the results of these studies to suggest practical tips and skills to use to begin using your mind (your thoughts) to change your brain for the better.

Many of these scientific discoveries just confirm what Buddha and other spiritual teachers have been telling us for years (hence the title of the book). We have just now come to the point that we can scientifically explain how it works.

I was amazed to discover that my brain is so capable of change and to learn how much control I can achieve over its functioning. I am already using some of the tips from the book and finding them helpful in being more aware of why I think the way I think, why I react the way I do, and how I can change my thoughts and reactions in ways that make me happier.

I can’t recommend this book highly enough for anyone who is interested in how the mind works or is interested in making changes in their lives to create a happier life.

Focusing the mind with the breath

In yoga, it is commonly said that the breath links the body and the mind.

Our bodies are always in the present moment and in the present space. Our minds, on the other hand, spend most of the time somewhere other than the present moment and space. We spend so much time thinking about the past and the future, which automatically takes us out of this moment where our body is located.

The technique of training the mind to focus on the breath brings our mind back into the present moment to join our bodies as we place our attention on the feeling of the breath moving in and out of bodies.

Try it for a moment. Notice the feel of the cool air as it enters your nostrils. Notice the feel of the warm air on your nostrils as you exhale. Notice how your body expands to make room for each inhale and how it softens on each exhale. As your mind wanders, continue to gently bring your focus back to your breath and just be aware of each breath entering, filling, and leaving your  body.

This focus on the breath is often the first step in developing a meditation practice because it induces mindfulness through its awareness of the present moment.