Welcome to Week 2
Awareness of the Body
This week is a ll about . . .
The Mind and Body Connection
The Mind/Body Connection
Beliefs and philosophies throughout our history and culture (principally western culture) have resulted in a significant disconnection between the human mind and the body. Organised religion and the introduction of professionalised medicine have over the centuries introduced and embedded the idea that the mind is superior to the body. The mind is esteemed as a logical, reasonable, spiritual entity, whereas the body is considered to be inferior with its more animistic urges, emotions and desires.
Neuroscientists are now starting to uncover the extent to which the mind and body are interdependent. They are discovering that the mind and body are of equal importance when it comes to health and wellbeing and our bodies are actually an integral part of our mind. Research has found that the ‘mind’ is not located just in the brain, as previously thought, but in the whole of our body, specifically the nervous system, the heart and the gut. Surprisingly, there are more messages being passed up to the brain via the nervous system, than there are from the brain to the rest of the body.
The Impact of Mind and Body Separation
This separation of mind and body is clearly not great for our sense of wellbeing and could go some way in explaining the rise in mental ill health. In living this way we are forgetting to tend to the needs of the whole person and this can lead to problems with mental and physical health and wellbeing.
Conflict within the mind often leads to conflict (dis-ease/disease) within the body. Have you ever noticed that if you are feeling low, anxious or stressed that you are more likely to get a cold or the sniffles or perhaps that when you are very angry you feel like you want to be sick? These are physical, bodily sensations that follow a mental disturbance.
It works the other way too if our body is ill or physically tired because we have been working too hard we may find it difficult to concentrate, we may become more forgetful or start to struggle with our emotions. Children in particular can struggle often becoming tearful, aggressive or clingy when they are very tired.
Humans can recover fairly quickly from experiencing brief amounts of mild stress, indeed, it can sometimes even function as a motivator, i.e. deadlines can spur you on to achieve. However, there can be consequences for health and wellbeing when experiencing a prolonged period of stress or when constantly living in a fearful state. This can impact the body and mind both physically and mentally and may even go on to cause long term illness. For example, the digestive system might start to react to long term stress, causing stomach ulcers or irritable bowel syndrome.
It is essential then, for our wellbeing, that we maintain a strong connection between our mind and body so that we can hear when our bodies telling us they need rest, food, water, love and then respond appropriately. Conversely, we can also tune into and respond when our mind when it is calling out for peace and calm.
The Automatic Pilot
Humans spend an awful lot of time rushing around. We are always ‘doing’, we rarely just ‘be’. Our culture impresses upon us from a young age that unless we are busy we are not productive human beings. Just think of the amount of extracurricular activities that children are encouraged to engage with now as opposed to 30 years ago. They are afforded very little time to ‘just be’.
As a result humans have learnt to live in our heads and pay very little attention to our bodies, to physical sensations or our thoughts and feelings. We simply regard our bodies as a transport system for our heads.
We have learnt to act on autopilot and tend to operate without thinking much of the time. How many times have you left the house only halfway down the road to think, ‘Did I lock the front door’? How many times have you started to take the route to your workplace on your day off instead of where you intended to go? This is because you are acting on autopilot.
When acting on autopilot we are not in control, the unconscious mind has control and we are no longer present in the moment. Rather than living our lives we find ourselves reacting to it. We are so busy analysing what has happened in the past or thinking about what we have to do in the future, we are forgetting to be present here and now and this causes us to feel unhappy and stressed. Mindfulness practice can help us to train our brains to bring our attention back to the present moment, to live in awareness. There are great benefits to living in a more awakened state that we will explore shortly.
You can dramatically extend your life – not by multiplying the numbers of years but by expanding the fullness of your moments.”
Shinzen Young, The Science of Enlightenment: How Meditation Works (2016)
The 9 Attitudes of Mindfulness
Jon Kabat Zinn describes a number of attitudes that the mindfulness practitioner should attempt to cultivate in order to deepen not only the experience of meditation, but also the experience of everyday life, interactions and relationships.
· The Beginner’s Mind - This refers to the practice of seeing our experiences through ‘fresh eyes’. Mindfulness practitioners should aim not to carry their past knowledge, opinions and experience to a situation but to look at it again with a new ‘gaze’, creating space for novelty, possibility and new experiences.
· Patience - Modern life has created conditions in which humans have developed a lack of patience and it is this impatience that means that we are always thinking of what’s ahead, rather than cultivating an awareness of the present moment. Kabat Zinn suggests we should allow things and events to ‘unfold in their own time’ rather than trying to rush them along. In doing so, we achieve a greater sense of calm and a deeper understanding of our experiences.
· Non- Striving - Sometimes referred to as ‘non-doing’. In terms of mindfulness practice, Kabat Zinn recommends that we do not attempt, or indeed have expectations, of achieving a specific state of mind during meditation, but simply to allow things to be as they are without judgement. He suggests that by just observing our breath, thoughts and feelings with curiosity we learn recognise that the present moment is ‘good enough’.
· Non-Judging - As human we are constantly making judgements and expressing our opinions. Kabat Zinn argues that by merely noticing when we are doing this we can free ourselves of a dualistic view of the world that can inhibit the clarity of our experiences, i.e. this is good and that is bad. We can then begin to view our experiences with greater discernment and understanding. He stresses that we should try to, also, not judge our judgements as this too is a perfectly human trait.
· Acceptance - A recognition of how things are, even if we don’t like the way they are. This does not mean we passively resign ourselves to ‘how things are’, but rather we increase our awareness of how things are – whether it be good or bad, rather than ignoring it. Through acceptance we are able to obtain a greater clarity of our situation and consequently are able to take appropriate action in response to it.
· Trust - We tend to trust that our bodies will work for us and therefore pay very little attention to them much of the time. However, we don’t always trust our own mind, heart and ‘gut instinct’, in the same way. Kabat Zinn encourages us to question why we don’t trust our minds in the same way. He argues that by cultivating a trust in our own minds we ourselves become more trustworthy and trusting. This in turn can enable us to make a more positive contribution to our experiences, relationships and challenges we might face in the world.
· Letting Go - Humans tend to cling to experiences, this is principally an innate response to danger and pain. This habit was originally a form of learning and self preservation at a time when humans were more physically vulnerable in their environment. The practice of mindfulness enables us to cultivate a wider field of awareness where we are able see things as they really are and allow us to ‘unattach’ ourselves to outdated and ‘unuseful’ objects, thoughts and beliefs. In developing this awareness we can free ourselves of any unnecessary desires, pain and fear.
· Gratitude - By noticing the positive, however seemingly mundane it maybe, e.g. wow the sun is shining today, we consciously move to a more positive mindset. We take so much for granted and by taking time to focus the positive aspects of our life we begin to cultivate an increased sense of wellbeing. This then can also help us to support others more effectively.
· Generosity - Not necessarily the practice of sharing your material possessions (although this can be the case for some) but more a willingness to share your spirit, your enthusiasm, openness and your best self with not only yourself but also with the rest of world.