Mind, Body and Soul

When we think of the mind, we often first think about our thoughts, feelings, beliefs and decisions. When our mind wanders, our thoughts jump from one topic to another. When we change our mind, we have decided to think of something in a different way than we used to or decided to do things in a different way.

The mind is usually seen as being not of the body and to be a different concept than the soul. Our body is the physical machine which keeps us alive; our organs, bones, blood vessels. This body, specifically our brain, enables our mind. Our mind, in turn, enables our soul; the soul which I define as the part of us which is of spiritual value, whereby spiritual denotes the dimension in which higher level thinking and our most pure and wholesome emotions fuse.

Rather than seeing mind, body and soul as separate things, we should see them as interwoven. Without our body, there can be no mind; without our mind, there can be no soul. (I am not aware of any evidence that we possess something like a soul disconnected from our body and it altogether seems to make little sense; so much of what we are, what we feel, what we think is deeply rooted within our brain, and measurably so; so how should a version of us exist without our brain?)

Notwithstanding this hierarchy, from body to mind to soul, we shouldn’t think of the body as being inferior to the mind, and the mind being inferior to the soul. Each is a wonder on its own, and in combination they are a wonder beyond comprehension.

It should be no secret to any of us that our mind is a big mess. Our thoughts, emotions, decisions and believes are not static, clearly structured or well organised. They are fluid and difficult to formalise. Thus we often ‘cannot make up our mind’. To complicate matters, we are designed to feel the illusion of control over our mind. We feel like we are making conscious decisions using thoughtful considerations; when in reality most of our decisions are made in the ‘subconscious’, a mysterious space which bridges our body and mind.

The subconscious may encompass the vast majority of our brain activity. It controls our body to keep us alive; by keeping the heart beating, filling our lungs with air, and by controlling a million different other things happening in our body. It also has been theorised that it is in the subconscious where our greatest capacity for creativity and many other higher functions of our brain lies.

As with many things in the biological and even more so in the psychological world there are no clear boundaries between the body, subconscious and mind. Take breathing for example: usually the subconscious and body take care of this routine activity. But we have the capability to take over with our conscious mind and control our rate and depth of breathing (to a degree). Many things we learn and master, like driving a bicycle or the grammar of a foreign language, will first occupy our conscious mind while slowly drifting into our subconscious as we gain mastery of the task.

“I think, therefore I am.” is an untrue statement. You are far more than the sum of our thoughts. However, you may say: “I think, therefore my mind is.” This, I think, is the closest we can come to a definition of our mind; it is our conscious thinking and those aspects of our memories and feelings which we can grasp with our conscious thinking. The mind is enabled by the body and the bridge between body and soul, the subconscious. Our mind is free of value; it just is the way it is made. Our soul is the potential or the realisation of our potential to become more than our body and mind would naturally become; to adopt good and wholesome values and follow through on them with our thoughts, words and actions.

Picture credit: ivanovgood

Velvety Chains: Social Values That Bind

Today I came across an article by Steve Biddulph and one paragraph therein really struck a chord with me:

There is something happening, in the new century, to the way we live, which again is harming our basic humanity. Every economy tends to enslave, and ours is the most effective of all, since the chains are invisible, velvety soft against our wrists and necks. We are induced to work, long hours, all of us, without respite for parenthood, or for anything like a natural rhythm in our days, and rewarded with shiny toys and the ability to cross the globe at will for shallow, glitzy experiences of pseudo-wealth. Then back onto the treadmill. We trade away our lives, and we don’t even question if this has to be so.

I have mentioned before that social systems tend to ‘brainwash’ us. In effect, they make us adopt values which are not intrinsically our own and often not in our best interests. Some social rules are enforced through violence or strong obvious incentives; think of capital punishments or tax breaks for home ownership. However, such rules are not as dangerous to our well-being as tacit, implicit rules which we adopt without being fully aware. Biddulph pointedly describes these as invisible, velvety chains.

Using the word ‘chains’ implies that this is something intrinsically bad, and to some degree it is, but not all the social rules we are adopting in this way (without us being fully aware that we adopt them) are bad for our individual and collective well-being. For instance, if we get into a heated argument with someone else, we more often than not refrain from punching our adversary in the face. Often, this option doesn’t even occur to us; although it is arguably one of our natural ways to resolve conflict. We don’t do so because we have a strong set of social rules (not just laws) which guide us to avoid violence.

However, it is in any case better for us to be aware of the rules which we adopt, be they beneficial for us or not. The particular velvety chains Biddulph focuses on though are at the heart of what is wrong with our world today. Our desire for wealth, material consumption and economic growth brings untold misery into the everyday lives of billions of people. It makes those miserable which are poor, but it also makes those miserable which are rich. Biddulph mentions for instance “the astonishing decline of mental health as even the most affluent and secure kids melt down over homework stress and exam results or perfection of looks or achievement.” Our reward for our struggles is “pseudo-wealth”. Why pseudo-wealth? Well, if we can buy an expensive car, it gives the appearance of us being wealthy. But real wealth lies within our body, mind and soul; and to increase this real wealth requires deep contemplation, fostering human connection and community; none of which are aided by a car purchase. This purchase instead only makes us move the treadmill of the self-reinforcing cycle of work hard, spend, work harder, spend more.

We need to become aware of the forces that drive our lives and which bring misery to us and others. Biddulph suggests that “it might be time to quietly, carefully, walk away”. I disagree. We don’t have to walk away quietly. We should shackle our chains with a roar. A roar of anger over what was done to us, and a roar of newfound freedom; a roar which hopefully those around us will hear and join our emancipation.

However we must also do so while preserving some of the best parts of the economic system which drives our world today. In order to house, feed and care for the huge population currently living requires intricate interaction between many different industries and countries. If this system is broken in the wrong way, misery on a global scale will likely follow.

Breathing

Without a doubt, our body and mind are connected. Without our body, our mind cannot be. If we strive for a strong and enlightened mind, we must also strive for a strong and healthy body. Of course, it is still possible to achieve an enlightened mind even in a body stricken by sickness but it is just so much easier to achieve this if our body is strong.

One of the most effective ways to use our body to strengthen our mind is by controlling our breath. Thankfully our depth and speed of breathing is something we can control easily. We can make ourselves breathe slow and deep. This in turn has a positive effect on our body and on our mind. Our heart rate reduces and our mind becomes calmer. In that state, it is easier for us to be strong and pursue positive thoughts.

The health of our body and mind are linked closely. If our mind becomes healthier, so does our body and vice averse. It is a great gift given to us that we can start a process of positive reinforcement by such a simple and easy to do thing such as just taking a few deep breaths!

If you are looking for further directions on how to breath in a stress reducing way, the article Breath, Exhale, Repeat from Lesley Alderman provides a few good exercises:

Coherent Breathing

Coherent breathing simply requires to go into a comfortable position where your belly can easily expand (such as lying on your back or sitting upright). Place your hands on your belly. Then breathe in while counting slowly to four or six, then exhale to the same slow count to four or six. You should aim to complete around five breath per minute which might require some practice. The article recommends to do this for 10 to 20 minutes a day but I think much less time spent on this, even a minute or two, can already yield noticeable results.

Breathing for Stress Reduction

This exercise is designed to combat acute stress. Sit upright and place our hand on your belly. As you inhale straighten to sit upright. As you exhale, lower your head towards the floor and curl around your belly. Upon inhaling, straighten up again.

Energising Breathing

This exercise is designed to achieve the opposite effect of the previous two exercises; rather than calming us down, it is supposed to make us more awake and energised. You can achieve this by standing with a straight back and keeping your arms bend at a 90 degree angle with your upper arms next to your torso and your palms facing up. As you breath in, you pull your elbows backwards. Breath out quickly while saying ‘Ha!’ and as you breath out, thrust your arms forward and turn your palms downward.

Further Reading

The Healing Power of Breath by Dr. Richard Brown

Breathe by Belisa Vranich

Image credit: 4144132

Practice: Gratitude

Positive psychology is a branch of psychology which focuses on what makes people happy and well. Gratitude has featured prominently in many studies in the field of positive psychology (see chapter Gratitude and the Science of Positive Psychology) since it has been shown that being grateful has many benefits for our emotional well-being.

Many world religions feature gratitude as an essential component to faith. One should express gratitude towards a higher being for all the good things experienced. Anyone who has felt gratitude can appreciate that it has a deep, spiritual quality just like forgiveness. Gratitude washes over us and gives us a glimpse of a higher, happier and more balanced state of being.

As such, practising gratitude is a prudent exercise to undertake in order to become more mindful and enlightened. The following simple practice aids with that:

  1. Take a deep breath in, then slowly exhale. Repeat for three times.
  2. Think about what a wonder it is that you are alive. Be grateful for the ability to think and feel and just be.

Many gratitude exercises suggested by positive psychology focus on identifying persons or events for which we should be grateful for. I do not doubt that this will help us to foster more virtuous emotions within ourselves and improve our relationships. However, I think that contemplating the very nature of our existence and finding within us gratefulness for the miracle of our being helps us become grateful in a deeper and more meaningful way. If we embrace this kind of gratitude, we are on the way to truly become more wise and enlightened.

If in contrast we would be grateful for particular things in our life, the question arises how to react if these are taken from us. For instance, one might be grateful for the good health of ones children – but what do we do if a child falls sick?

Buddhist teachings recognise this difficulty and instead encourage us to seek detachment and equanimity. This gratitude practise is somewhat in alignment with this strive for equanimity since we are less likely to focus on ephemeral situations in our lives. However we need to keep in mind that being grateful for being alive should not turn into an unhealthy attachment to our continued existence. To achieve true enlightenment, we must not be attached to being alive but accept in full that our lives are transient.

Image Credit: johnhain

Practice: Thought Mindfulness

Although our thoughts are arguably very important for who we are, we are often unaware of what is occupying our mind at any given moment. In this post, I describe a simple practice which helps in increasing awareness of our mind and thoughts.

These are the two simple steps to follow:

  1. Become aware of your breathing. Notice how the air passes through your nose or mouth. Notice how your belly and chest contract and expand.
  2. Observe your thoughts; whatever naturally comes to your mind if your thoughts are given free reign. Do not judge your thoughts. Do not try to direct them. Simply observe and accept them as they are.

This practice is based on mindfulness meditation. Mindfulness meditation has been shown to provide significant benefits to physiological and psychological health. Most mindfulness meditation practices are a bit more directed than the practice described here. This practice attempts to isolate a core tenant of mindfulness – which is to be aware of ones own thoughts – and provide a simple guide for achieving that. Trained mediators may later want to work on directing their thoughts during the meditation. However, just becoming aware of ones thoughts – without judging oneself of constantly drifting ‘off topic’ already provides great benefits toward a better understanding of ourselves and our place in the world.

The above practice is simplified to a degree that it may almost seem superfluous to write it down here. However I still think there is value in keeping this practice as a reference. If it doesn’t consist of a sequence of dozens of steps; all the better, so it should be easy for us to remember and we have little excuse not to practice it from time to time.

Image: Activedia

Practice: Body Mindfulness

With all the distractions in our life, we often forget what is most fundamental to our existence: our own bodies. We should take time to be mindful of how our body feels. Do we have pain somewhere? Do we feel relaxed or tense?

This is the first post of a series in which I will discuss various practices which may help in reaching a happier, more satisfied and more enlightened state of mind. The practice I describe here may help us to become more mindful of our bodies, the temple from which we must utter all our prayers.

These are the steps to follow:

  1. Breathe in until your lungs are completely filled with air, then slowly exhale until all air is gone. Repeat for three times, then breathe naturally, simply observing your breath.
  2. Become mindful of every part of your body starting with your left arm and moving counter-clockwise first to your left leg, then right leg, right arm, then head and finally core by going through the following steps for each body part:
    1. Become aware of how that part of your body feels. Are you relaxed or tense? Is there any pain?
    2. Focus on the body part and make it feel heavier. Don’t press the part downward. Leave it as relaxed as possible, just let your thoughts flow towards it and feel how it slowly becomes heavier. Repeat the words ‘My right arm is heavy’, replacing right arm with the body part you are currently focusing on.
    3. Next direct your thoughts to make the body part feel warmer and even more relaxed. Repeat the words ‘My right arm is warm’. You may speak this softly or just verbalise it in your mind.
    4. Once you feel the body part being relaxed, warm and heavy, move on to the next part.

If your mind wanders during this practice to other issues, gently redirect your thoughts to your body and the steps of this practice.

This simple practice is grounded in a number of foundations. Firstly, controlling breathing is a known way to use our body to calm our mind. Just being mindful of our breath, even without trying to breathe slowly and regularly, will help us to become more relaxed, happy and aware.

Focusing on various body parts and channelling concentration on making them feel warm and heavy is based on the ideas of Autogenic training which has been proven to treat various disorders. This kind of approach is also know as body scan meditation and is popular as part of the Vipassana tradition. Generally mindfulness meditation has been shown to provide a number of health and mind benefits.

Resources

A Guide to Psychology and Its Practice – Autogenics Training

Featured Image: Vitruvian Man by Leonardo da Vinci

Six Virtues according to Positive Psychology

I have long been an avid follower of the positive psychology movement. Be it justified or not, I am a bit skeptical about psychology as a discipline in general since I got the impression that a lot of established facts and practices in psychology are based on poorly executed studies.

It seems likely that positive psychology is plagued by the same fundamental problems as the general discipline; notwithstanding, the core ideas of positive psychology seem far more appealing to me than those of general psychology: to focus on our strength and what makes us happy instead of what is wrong with our minds.

I am writing this particular post since today I rediscovered an interesting article I found a while ago: Positive Psychology Progress. What particularly struck me in this article was a table which lists six virtues which are generally recognised in many cultures across the globe and character strengths which enable these virtues.

The six virtues identified in the article along with the strength which support them are more or less the following:

  1. Being wise and knowledgeable
    • enabled by Creativity, Curiosity, Open-mindedness, Love of learning, Finding new perspectives
  2. Being courageous
    • enabled by Authenticity, Bravery, Persistence, Zest
  3. Being kind, loving and understanding
    • enabled by Kindness, Love, Social intelligence
  4. Being just
    • enabled by Fairness, Leadership, Teamwork
  5. Being temperate
    • enabled by Forgiveness, Modesty, Prudence, Self-regulation
  6. Seeking deeper meaning
    • enabled by Appreciation of beauty and excellence, Gratitude, Hope, Humor, Religiousness

Maybe it is my Prussian upbringing but I cannot fail to notice that the virtue of working hard for the benefit of others is not included in this list. To be fair, this is somewhat included under the virtue of courage as the character strength ‘Zest’ and ‘Persistence’ but to me personally this is not emphasised enough. Also I think there is a lot of good to be found in being courageous, and from reading some of Seligman’s books I gathered that he did a lot of work for the US military, so an emphasis on this virtue might have been derived from this. However, I find that courage is often closely associated with foolishness; and I have a feeling we would have far fewer armed conflicts if people happened to be less courageous.

Featured Image: Wikimedia