"We have this strong idea, in the culture and in the language, that emotion and touch are deeply linked, and I think the neuroanatomy bears this out."
~ David Linden
"Verbalizing is not the only way our lives speak, of course. They speak through our actions and reactions, our intuitions and instincts, our feelings and bodily states of being, perhaps more profoundly than through our words. We are like plants, full of tropisms that draw us toward certain experiences and repel us from others. If we can learn to read our own responses to our own experiences — a text we are writing unconsciously every day we spend on earth — we will receive the guidance we need to live more authentic lives."
~ Parker J. Palmer, from Let Your Life Speak: Listening for the Voice of Vocation
Reading silently – stories, histories, explanations – we learn to move in a separate system. The habit is congenial, compulsive. The words speed up. The eye streaks ahead. The page turns while our sense of what came before is still falling into place. Other perceptions – a distant lawnmower, a smell of pastry – are crowded out. Soon the solid world is left behind. A spinning word machine has lifted off from the heavy surfaces of soil, cement and skin. Mind and body part company.
The damage begins.
"Creativity" is an accomplice. If everything we see in the world has its word, its name, we can also invent words for things we can't see: angels, souls, spirits, ghosts, God, paradise. This other realm exists, in words.
One of the words we invented was "self".
Using the words we know, insistently, in our heads, we create an entity and call it "self"; a creature with a past and a future, in much the same way that the sentences and stories we read have a beginning and an end. To reassure ourselves that it is really there we invented another word, identity. And another, character. And another, personality. The more words, the more it exists.
Self is a story existing in a web of words spun out of the mind.
Some people exploit this state of affairs to invent stories, writing down thousands on thousands of soundless signs, mimicking the way people construct their lives. Written narrative is intimately connected with the reader's mental construction of self. The more we think of life as narrative the more we dig our own plot. Narrative is self regarding...
...Foreign languages are unsettling. They remind us how arbitrary the mental world we live in is. Silence is worse. When we try to imagine consciousness without words, when we think of a day, even an hour, without any words in the head, we are overcome by a kind of vertigo. As when we think of death.
A chatter of books is an excellent thing. It reinforces the self, which is bound for the paradise we have invented for it, with words...
But inevitably, from time to time, it happens: some spoilsport grows dissatisfied with words. Words won't say what at some wordless level he feels. Words don't correspond to reality, for him. A writer who finds himself in this distress starts to interrupt the sacred sequences on which our language depends.
"Geb nodrap" apologises Beckett's Watt. "Nodrap, geb nodrap."
It is dangerous to do this kind of thing. Suddenly we see how precarious our world view is. We had been progressing nicely inside our word map; but the map wasn't the territory.
Why do writers do such antisocial things? Don't they have an investment in keeping the word machine in the air?
It can be a question of health. Using words so much, the writer begins to find them oppressive; not any word in particular, but the compulsive onward movement of words in the mind. He begins to fear that for all his ability, he is not in control.
Off it goes on, says the Unnameable.
...In 2005, I ran into a health problem that seemed to be walling me in for a life sentence of chronic pain. It took me two years to realise that at the heart of it, behind all the symptoms and treatments, was a collision between word and world. Now, like a fool, I've returned to my old word habit and told the story.
The self in Western psychology is viewed as that function of the mind that helps us to organize our experiences. It takes raw sense data, memories, and other cognitive functions and turns them into recognizable narratives. It is critical for everything that we do. Without a strong sense of self, we literally could not make sense of anything that happens to us.
What is fascinating is that in the western psychological view, the “self” or the “executive function” is actually a process and not really a thing. It waxes and wanes all the time, goes into the foreground and background of awareness depending on how much we need it, disappears when we sleep, is not the same as it was when we were little, much less the same as it was last year, and is even subtly different than it was last week.
So far, this should make a lot of sense to both psychologists and meditators. But here is where things get interesting: we all know that processes are not solid and change all the time, yet in this particular process there is a nagging sense that there is a solid permanent “me” hiding in that process somewhere. As if the process itself were a real solid thing in the same way that a table or chair is.
It is this unshakable sense of a solid “me” in the midst of this process that is the “self” that is referred to in the Dharma. When we talk about “no-self” in Buddhism, we are pointing to this sense of a solid self in and calling it an illusion. The process of “selfing” is real, the belief that it is somehow a permanent “me” is not.
To help understand how important this illusion is imagine that another mental process had this same illusion tied to it. Take memory for example. When we experience a memory we know that it isn’t “real” in the sense that it does not have a reality outside or our mental functioning. We know that memories come and go, are subject to change and can be forgotten. But what if every time you remembered something you assumed that the memory itself was “real” in the same way that a table or chair is real. That it was substantial and lasting. Even though you could not literally see or experience the memory with your five senses, you still had the unshakable belief that it was a real and solid thing that is supposed to last. Wouldn’t this be a set-up for frustration? Memories slip and slide out of consciousness and like every other mental function they are subject to dramatic change. If we expected them to never go away and always be there, we would constantly be in distress. This is exactly what is happening with us in terms of the self-process.
While the self-process creates narratives that organize our experiences into something recognizable, the illusion of self is inserted as a main character into all these narratives. We expect the character to be the same all the time, to never change or go away, to be “real.” And yet each moment we are running into a stark reality: the self is not as real as we believe it to be, and it certainly does not last. Over time this sense of solid “me” becomes the most salient feature of all of our experience and our greatest source of anxiety. The fact that we see this constantly changing process as a solid “me” creates endless problems for us because it sets up a never-ending fight between us and reality (and reality never loses).
What is odd is that according to psychology, this sense of a solid self is not an issue. In fact it is not really addressed at all. One part of the psychological literature explains that the self is a cognitive process like any other, and then another part of the literature goes on about protecting and promoting a healthy “self.” The fact that we are taking a process and turning it into a solid thing in our minds is simply not addressed.
In psychology, this point may have been missed because of the bias to study and theorize about pathology rather than health. The illusions and problems inherent in a “normally” functioning mind just don’t get a lot of research lab-time. So most theory in psychology works to get damaged selves back to “normal functioning.” Buddhism on the other hand, starts with the assumption that normal functioning is full of suffering caused by a false sense of self, and works to get people from a state of “normal” to enlightened.
I was completely surprised to discover that Danny Boyle’s 127 Hours is much deeper than just a movie about someone who has to cut his arm off to survive. It’s also a brilliant account of being pinned to a de facto meditation cushion for an involuntary 5-day mindfulness intensive on the nature of thinking, feeling, the self, loving-kindness, and the liberation that can come from yielding to impersonal forces. The boulder deserves an Oscar nomination for a supporting role as both antagonist and teacher. I expected to feel uneasy, but instead I was completely absorbed in the clever depiction of an excruciating subjective experience of one person's suffering.
Aron Ralston said in one interview, "The entrapment created such an appreciation for the frolicking I had been doing until it happened and there was the euphoric feeling of being free and getting my life back again. Because of what happened, I understand what life is. I'm hopeful that people will see something inside of themselves, as well. I was in an extraordinary circumstance and it fundamentally came down to wanting to live and get back to my family. It is about survival, love and freedom — and those things are common in all of us."
The good news is that the profound yet practical insights Ralston carried out of Blue John Canyon can also be gradually cultivated through the consistent development of attentional skills over time. I enthusiastically recommend both the film and the effort required to experience high levels of concentration, sensory clarity, and equanimity without waiting for the conditions to become so extreme.
You Suspect This Could Be Yours
by Rumi, translated by Daniel Liebert
you suspect this could be yours
with a little contrivance
only death to contrivance
will avail you
something good or bad
always comes out of you
it is agony to be still;
the spool turns
when mind pulls the thread
let the water settle;
you will see moon and stars
mirrored in your being
when the kettle boils
fire is revealed
when the millstone turns
the river shows its power
put the lid on the kettle
and be filled
with the boiling of love.
Our children do, more than ever, grow up in a virtual reality: video games and TV and computers and texting. Leaving the body’s very reinforced by the culture.
In spiritual-religious communities there’s a mistrust of the body. Especially where there’s a real imprint of the kind of shadow-masculine of controlling the body and not getting seduced by pleasure. You see this in the monastic communities.
Ulysses and the Sirens, John William Waterhouse (1891)
And of course we know, in this culture, there’s a mistrust of the body with pain, that pain is wrong, it’s bad, it’s to be controlled. And again, it’s totally wise and compassionate to use medication when appropriate, and we so overdo it. We’re so afraid of pain. We think that aging and death are kind of an embarrassment, an insult in some way. We anesthetize births and way over-interfere with dying.
So it’s a split. We get split from our bodies in this culture and it gets very much amplified with emotional wounding. If you really consider that the pain of our emotion lives in our bodies, when that emotional feels like too much, especially when we’re traumatized early, we have to leave. We have no other way to handle it. Emotional trauma makes us leave our bodies. The more emotional wounding there’s been, the more we’ve left our bodies. It’s pretty directly correlated.
So we push away the immediate experience of the pain in our body because we’re designed to try to anesthetize that much pain. The point, again, is not that we should avoid what comforts. It’s not even that we should stick with something that’s overwhelming.
The truth is our lives get very organized around avoiding unease and unpleasantness. It becomes important to recognize our flinch responses, our intolerance to physical discomfort or to difficult emotional weather. Because the habit is so quickly—without even be conscious of it—to leave our body and go into what I sometimes think of as the mental control tower, where we try to work things and maneuver things to feel better. We don’t stay. One of the best phrases I know, in terms of describing meditation, is learning to stay. Not in a way that’s uncompassionate. Not when it’s too much. But gradually getting the knack of noticing we’ve left, noticing we’re off in thoughts, and reconnecting with this aliveness.
Excerpts from Antony Gormley (Contemporary Artists) by John Hutchinson, E.H. Gombrich, and Lela B. Njatin:
To Meister Eckhart, art was religion and religion art. Artistic form, in his view, was a revelation of essence, a kind of revelation that is both living and active. “Work,” he wrote, “comes from the outward and from the inner man, but the innermost man takes no part in it. In making a thing the very innermost self of a man comes into outwardness.”
Much of Antony Gormley’s art is based on his understanding of Western and Eastern spiritual traditions, and his work resonates when it is placed in this context. Like Eckhart — or, indeed like Joseph Beuys — Gormley believes that the artist is not a special kind of man, but that every man is a special kind of artist…He works with “types,” with universals, and yet he roots his work in subjective experience…But what concerns Gormley more than anything else, is the paradoxical manner in which man, while containing infinite space, is also contained by it…His sculpture deals with what he sees as the “deep space” of the interior body, yet he is also concerned with “touch as gravity” and “gravity as the attraction that binds us to the earth.” Its key strength, perhaps, lies in the artist’s determination to accept nothing until is has been lived and internalized. Gormley’s work is structured and methodical, preconceived to a certain point, and then realized in the process of making.
To Gormley, the body has a relation to the external space within which it exists as well as to the inner space it contains. And in a  installation made for “Places with a Past,” an exhibition of site-specific art at Charleston, South Carolina, Gormley combined a series of works — Host, Field, Three Bodies, Learning to Think, Fruit and Cord — in order to explore that relationship.
The Old City Jail, which contained and became part of the installation, could be described as having the shape of a body: the original rectangular structure is rather like a torso; its later octagonal addition, like a head. And in order to emphasize its parallels with his body cases, which are sometimes connected to the outside world through orifices, Gormley removed the boards and glazing that had sealed up the prison’s doors and windows.
This allowed light and sound to enter the prison, to enliven what had hitherto been dark and dormant, and to engage time as an active element in the installation. In the artist’s words, “the building became a catalyst for reflection on liberty and incarceration.”
On the second floor, Field, a set of terracotta figurines, faced a similar vast space that contained only Three Bodies—large metal spheres, made of steel and air, which the aritst has described as “like celestial bodies fallen from the sky.”
Above Field was Learning to Think, five headless lead body cases that were suspended from the ceiling, in a contradictory evocation of both lynching and ascension. The corresponding space held Host, a room containing mud and sea water — “The surface of the earth described in Genesis…the unformed, the place of possibility, a place waiting for the seed,” according to Gormley.
Learning to Think, Antony Gormley (1991)
In the octagonal extension, two related organic forms, Fruit, were hung on either side of a wall. Only one was visible at a time in order “to reconcile opposites not in terms of differentiation but by mirroring,” Hidden from view, and at the center of each sculpture, was a space once occupied by the artist’s own body, linked to the other side, though mouth and genitals, by steel pipes. The final piece was Cord, made of many tubes inside one another — a kind of umbilical lifeline between the “seen” and “unseen.”
Body & Fruit, Antony Gormley (1991/93)
In this installation, one of great richness and complexity, Gormley brought into play the full panoply of his ambition. Working with lead and clay, as well as with the four elements, Gormley alluded to physical and spiritual containment, body and mind, outer and inner worlds, feeling and thinking, birth and death, growth and decay.
And if the contradictions inherent in Learning to See give strength to the artist’s conception of inner vision, the dualities evoked by the installation at Charleston are subservient to a sense of passage towards expansiveness. The emotional depth of the work can be ascribed to its refusal to exclude either the particular or the universal: it encompasses both historical specificity and a sense of shared human experience. In formal terms, this is achieved by the undermining of the Modernist notion of the self-referential object. While each of the elements of the installation can be separately contemplated, they are most meaningful when perceived as parts of a larger whole. In that sense, they are like parts of a body.
The brain is an incredibly complicated machine whose function is to generate feelings and sensations that help us communicate with the world. When it works correctly, it’s easy to assume that “it is me.” But when the brain starts sending false messages that you cannot readily recognize as false, as happens with OCD, havoc can ensue.
This is where mindful awareness, the ability to recognize these messages as false, can help. [We’ve] learned from OCD patients that everyone has the capacity to use the power of observation to make behavioral corrections in the face of the brain’s false and misleading messages. It’s like listening to a radio station that’s jammed with static. If you don’t listen closely, you may hear things that are misleading or make no sense. But if you make an effort to listen closely, you’ll hear things the casual listener misses entirely—especially if you’ve been trained to listen. Properly instructed in what to do in the face of confusing messages, you can find reality in the midst of chaos.
I like to say, “It’s not how you feel, but what you do, that counts.” Because when you do the right things. feelings tend to improve as a matter of course. But spend too much time being overly concerned about uncomfortable feelings, and you may never get around to doing what it takes to actually improve. Focus your attention on the mental and physical actions that will improve your life.
I dare say belief in mind-body duality may not be “accidental” in the least.
In the wider world, there are two sorts of “illusion”—accidental and contrived. There are cases where we get things wrong as the result of bad luck, and cases where we are the victims of deliberate trickery. When, for example, we see a stick in water as being bent, or when we think we are moving as the train beside us pulls away, it is a matter of bad luck. We are applying rules of inference in situations where our information is inaccurate or incomplete. But no one is trying to delude us.
When, however, we see a stage magician bending a metal spoon without touching it, or when we feel the table at a spiritualist seance lifting off the ground, it is a matter of intentional trickery. We may, again, be applying rules of inference in situations where our information is inaccurate or incomplete. But this time there is an illusionist who wants us to get it wrong.
Now, with belief in mind-body duality, which kind of illusion is it? The general view among materialist philosophers has always been that it is an illusion of the first kind, an honest—if regrettable—error. But how about if it is an illusion of the second kind, a deliberate trick!
Could it be? Only of course if there were to be an active agency behind it, playing the role of the illusionist. But who or what could possibly be doing this? And what interest could they have in encouraging individual humans to believe in a non-physical world?
The immediate, but unhelpful answer, might be that, since it is a case of self-delusion, the illusionist must lie within the subject’s own brain. The more interesting answer might be that, insofar as the brain is designed by genes, the illusionist is the subject’s own genes. But in that case, the ultimate answer must surely be that the illusionist is Nature herself, working through natural selection.
“Could not the age-old rift between spirit/mind and matter, soul and body, freedom and necessity, etc. be an expression of no more than a basic dualism which seems to be universally present in the structure of human language, i.e. the separation of noun and verb (or subject and predicate) in which the description of a unified natural process or phenomenon entails its verbal division into static and process aspects respectively? The manner in which this descriptive procedure may make us see double as it were, becomes more apparent with sentences such as ‘The wind is blowing’ or ‘The fire is burning,’ where it is easy to see that the blowing is the wind, and that the burning is the fire. Is it not possible that the epiphenomenon of mind may have arisen in a way similar to the ‘wind’ and ‘fire,’ to stand above thoughts, feelings, memories, actions and experiences? If so this linguistic illusion has had the profoundest consequences for [mankind] and for the history of this planet.”
It turns out that when a complex system moves across time, it has something called a self-organizing process that tends to move it toward what is called maximizing complexity...If you imagine a choir where you have everybody sing the note the exact same way, it has this kind of dullness and rigidity to it. There is no differentiation. They are totally linked, the singers, but not differentiated. Then you have them close their ears, where they belt out a song as loudly as they can but they’d hear each other sing. The song is random. They pick whatever they feel like. There is total differentiation and zero linkage. It is cacophony. It is chaos. Then you have them open their ears, get together, and say to them, sing whatever you want. And amazingly, they will pick a song that they sing in harmony, where there will be intervals that each of the individual singers is expressing his or her identity, yet they are linking together in this familiar common song. And everyone has their inner singer and listener alike. And there is a feeling of incredible vitality, of fluidity and flexibility...
So in terms of integration, this differentiation of parts that then become linked, the linkage of specialized parts of a system, that is what allows you to move in a harmonious path. In complexity terms, you maximize complexity, but we can drop that term because it doesn’t make intuitive sense and just use the word harmony. So when a complex system is linking differentiated parts, it becomes harmonious and adaptive. So the interpersonal neurobiology view of health is basically integration. It is that simple. And it is that profound.
Because when you have learned to monitor energy and information flow, you can then take the pulse of where your life has rigidity in it, like when you have repeated habits that you feel imprisoned by or thoughts that keep on going over and over in your head, that is an example of rigidity. Or you keep on getting romantic partners that are bad for you because they hate you. But you want to be with someone who hates you, that is an example of a rigid pattern.
Or on the other extreme chaos, where you interact with people and suddenly you burst into this emotional chaotic storm that floods you and you don’t have any kind of balance in your life. And you are saying things to loved ones that you don’t want to say. Or you are beating up in yourself in these, what I call “low-road outbursts.” You know, all those chaotic ways our life creates suffering for us. Those are all examples of impaired integration. And we could go through in detail what that looks like, and in my book Mindsight I do. But it is basically any opportunity you can see to feel rigidity in your life. It is an opportunity to look deeply at what is not differentiated in your relationships, what is not differentiated in your nervous system.
[Thanks Kit !]
Excerpt from “Mindful Meditation, Shared Dialogues Reduce Physician Burnout,” News Room - University of Rochester Medical Center (September 22, 2009):
Training in mindfulness meditation and communication can alleviate the psychological distress and burnout experienced by many physicians and can improve their well-being, University of Rochester Medical Center researchers report in this week’s issue of the Journal of the American Medical Association (JAMA).
The training also can expand a physician’s capacity to relate to patients and enhance patient-centered care, according to the researchers, who were led by Michael S. Krasner, M.D., associate professor of Clinical Medicine.
“From the patient’s perspective, we hear all too often of dissatisfaction in the quality of presence from their physician. From the practitioner’s perspective, the opportunity for deeper connection is all too often missed in the stressful, complex, and chaotic reality of medical practice,” Krasner said. “Enhancing the already inherent capacity of the physician to experience fully the clinical encounter—not only its pleasant but also its most unpleasant aspects—without judgment but with a sense of curiosity and adventure seems to have had a profound effect on the experience of stress and burnout. It also seems to enhance the physician’s ability to connect with the patient as a unique human being and to center care around that uniqueness.
“Cultivating these qualities of mindful communication with colleagues, anectodotally, had an unexpected benefit of combating the practitioners’ sense of isolation and brought forth the very experiences that are such a rich source of meaning in the life of the clinician,” he said.
my mind is
a big hunk of irrevocable nothing which touch and
taste and smell and hearing and sight keep hitting and
chipping with sharp fatal tools
in an agony of sensual chisels i perform squirms of
chrome and execute strides of cobalt
feel that i cleverly am being altered that i slightly am
becoming something a little different, in fact
Hereupon helpless i utter lilac shrieks and
E.E. Cummings, Portraits, VII
Just as a road atlas is full of maps that represent real-world locations, your brain is full of maps that represent all aspects of your physical self, inside and out. Your brain is teeming with maps that underlie your ability to touch things, move about, act freely, feel emotion, and interact with others. But unlike road maps, your body maps are dynamic: They grow, shrink, and morph to suit your needs.
Each of your body parts is faithfully mapped based on the touch receptors embedded throughout your skin. This is your primary touch map. You also have a primary motor map, for making movements. Instead of receiving information from your skin, this map sends signals from your brain out to your muscles. Together, these two primary maps are the foundation of your mind-body interface.
Elsewhere in your brain you have maps of the space around your body, out to the end of your fingertips. These personal space maps can extend even further, morphing like an amoeba's pseudopod to include any physical tool you pick up, any item of clothing or sporting equipment you put on, or even any virtual extension of yourself that you control with a mouse or a joystick, into your own bodily self-representation.
Some of your most amazing body maps are made up of special brain cells called mirror neurons. These cells fire when you observe someone doing an action—say, scratching their chin—and when you scratch your own chin. As a result, you may feel a desire to scratch your chin, or even develop a genuine itch there. Mirror neurons map the actions, intentions and emotions of others directly into your own system of body maps, creating as close to a telepathic link as the known laws of nature allow. They allow you to understand and empathize with the minds of others, not through conceptual reasoning, but through direct simulation via your own body maps. They reveal how children learn, why you respond to certain types of sports, dance, music and art, why media and video game violence can be harmful, the appeal of pornography, and may even help explain homophobia.
Your brain also has a set of maps of your internal organs. Present in all mammals, these visceral maps are uniquely super- developed in the human brain. Evolution has extended these maps' functions far beyond their original purpose of just letting you know you are hungry, thirsty, horny, or need air. These maps afford you a level of access to the ebb and flow of your internal sensations unrivaled anywhere else in the animal kingdom, and they are fundamental to the uniquely rich emotional inner life of our species. They are important in empathy, moral judgment, social intercourse, and many aspects of mental and physical health.
All these body maps are profoundly plastic—capable of significant reorganization in response to damage, experience or practice. Concert pianists have enlarged hand maps. Veteran meditators have enlarged visceral maps. Golfers with the yips and musicians with musician's cramp have blurred body maps. Autistic people have scrambled body maps.
...It comes down to the body maps in your brain. As science would have it, the mind is what the brain does. And the brain is intimately connected to the body, as studies of its sprawling network of body maps are revealing in ever greater detail. All your emotions, feelings, and your sense of individual selfhood stem from the interaction of these maps in your brain, the body in your brain, your embodied brain.
Dr. Esther Sternberg discussing new insights into the molecular level of the mind-body connection on Speaking of Faith with Krista Tippett:
Scientists need evidence. We need measurable proof. That started with Descartes in the 1600s. And at that time, 400 or 500 years ago, science didn't have the tools to measure something as ephemeral and not concrete as abstract as an emotion.
You can measure disease. Disease is an abnormality of anatomy. So with the anatomists of the 16th century, when they started to dissect the human body, they discovered that when there was a pneumonia, there was a hole in the lung. You know, there was a problem in the liver, there was an anatomical problem in the liver. So the assumption became that disease is associated with an abnormality of anatomy, which allowed huge advances in medicine. You know, Laennec, in the 19th century, when he developed the stethoscope, developed it so that you could hear problems in the lung. Without seeing them, you could actually hear them. And so that's concrete; that's easy to understand.
But we didn't have the tools until now, until very recently, to see the living human brain at work with neuroimaging. We didn't have the tools to see into how the nerve cells function, the biochemistry, the chemicals that change, the nerve chemicals that are released, the electrical activity that changes. We couldn't see into the genes that make these cells function until very, very recently.
And here is a quote from the book:
"Emotions are always with us but constantly shifting. They change the way we see the world and the way we see ourselves. Diseases come and go but on a different time scale. And if they change the way we see the world, they do it through emotions. Could something as vague and fleeting as an emotion actually affect something as tangible as a disease? Can depression cause arthritis? Can laughing and a positive attitude ameliorate, even help to cure disease? We all suspect that the answers to these questions are yes, yet we can't say why and certainly not how. Indeed, entire self-cure industries have been built on this underlying assumption. But physicians and scientists, until recently, dismissed such ideas as nonsense because there did not appear to be a plausible biological mechanism to explain the link. Part of the reason for this is that scientists and lay people speak different languages. But so do emotions and disease. Poetry and song are the language of emotions. Scientific precision, logic, and deductive reasoning are the language of disease."