May 19, 2008
Emo Philips: “I used to think that the brain was the most wonderful organ in my body. Then I realized who was telling me this.”
Given that it’s the mind that makes up the stories with which we try to make sense of the world, perhaps it’s not surprising that the mind tells us the story that it is the most important part of ourselves.
We think of ourselves as distinguished from other animals by our thinking. When we think about what makes us uniquely us (as opposed to another individual human being) we often point to our memories — another brain function. And that’s all, in some sense, true. Our thinking faculties are well-developed compared to other animals. But often we seem to over-privilege our thinking, and even lose touch with other aspects of ourselves. People often confuse, for example, experiencing the breath in meditation with thinking about the breath. And often we get so much caught up in thinking, and identify so strongly with our thinking, that we lose touch with how we’re feeling.
In Buddhist teachings what we call head and heart are seen as being so closely connected that they are in fact one faculty, the heart-mind, or citta (pronounced “chitta”), and so there has been less of a tendency to privilege either the mind or the heart, reason or emotion, as has happened in the west. The essential unity of the heart and mind has been observed by hundreds of generations of meditators, and is also being recognized by modern neuroscience. The pathways in the brain that process emotion also process thought — the two seem (as Buddhism has always pointed out) to be inseperable.
Thoughts exist interdependently with feelings and emotions. The next time you’re in an irritable mood, notice how your thoughts arise from that mood. An irritable emotional state conditions the mind to look for things to criticize. We’ll even find fault with things or people that a short while before were praising as being wonderful. When you’re in a good mood your thoughts are bright, appreciative, and optimistic. So our thoughts are conditioned by our emotions.
It’s no accident that we talk about a leader as being “the head” of his or her organization
Similarly, our emotions are conditioned by our thoughts. For example, if we allow ourselves to be drawn into a conversation with a very critical person – say someone who is good at finding fault with others – we might well find that through speaking in a critical way (and speech after all is just an externalized form of thought) we start to experience a negative state of mind. Our words — our thoughts — have given rise to an emotion.
Of course this works for positive emotions and constructive thoughts as well. If we encourage ourselves to look for things to appreciate we’ll cultivate a more positive emotional state, while a positive emotion will tend to give birth to constructive and appreciative thoughts.
This in fact is the mechanism for the metta bhavana, or development of lovingkindness, practice. In this meditation we consciously call to mind thoughts such as “May I be well, May I be happy, May I be at peace,” repeating them mindfully. What tends to happen is that over time a shift in our emotions takes place. Thoughts such as these evoke a positive emotional response from the heart.
And emotions (and the thoughts that are bound with them) are deeply conditioned by the body. You can usually tell when someone is depressed just by looking at their posture. The chin is down, the chest is slumped, the movements are slow. Similarly with fear or aggression, the physical manifestations are obvious. Change your posture and you change how you feel. When we begin to relax tensions in the body, as we often do at the start of a session of meditation — taking our awareness around the body and letting go of unnecessary effort — the mind becomes calmer and the emotions more positive.
Children can solve math problems better if they are told to use their hands while thinking
The link between the body and citta is now being studied by neuro-scientists. It’s been shown, for example, that children can solve math problems better if they are told to use their hands while thinking, and if you learn something while sitting at a desk it’s easier to remember the information when you’re once again behind a desk. Actors find it easier to memorize lines while they’re walking around.
We have a peculiar tendency to see parts of an interconnected whole (the mind/heart/body) as separate (the mind, the heart, and the body) and then, moreover, to play the game of “which is most important.” For most of in the west, the head (thought, rationality) is seen as top dog (it’s no accident that we talk about a leader as being “the head” of his or her organization).
But those of us who meditate often come to realize that the intellect cannot be relied upon alone. While the mind has a wonderful ability to construct opinions, to imagine the outcomes of actions, and to speculate about the past, we need to check out our thoughts against the more physical and emotional faculties of feeling, instinct, and intuition. It’s through testing our thoughts in this holistic way that deeper insights emerge. Feelings in turn should be subjected to analysis. We may feel rage, for example, and consider acting upon that emotion, but our thinking faculty can imagine the potential consequences of our actions, helping to dampen our ire.
One of the functions of meditation is for us to pay attention to all of our experience and to see how it all interrelates (thoughts and feelings, body and emotions, thoughts, and body). It’s fascinating to notice how, as we start to notice and value this interconnectedness, we begin to appreciate ourselves as a whole, rather than as a collection of disparate parts. Through mindfulness we become more integrated and more complete, and more balanced. We become more intuitive. We even become more wise. And while the brain may still tell us it’s the most wonderful organ in the body, it will also recognize that it’s just one wonderful organ amongst many.
Bodhipaksa is a Buddhist practitioner, writer, and teacher, and is also the founder of Wildmind. He lives in New Hampshire with his wife and daughter, and has a particular interest in teaching prison inmates.
As well as teaching behind bars, Bodhipaksa also conducts classes at Aryaloka Buddhist Center in Newmarket, New Hampshire. He muses, rants, and shares random aspects of his life on his blog at bodhipaksa.com