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?

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