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More than twenty years ago, Jon Kabat-Zinn showed us the value of cultivating greater awareness in everyday life with his now-classic introduction to mindfulness, Wherever You Go, There You Are. Now, in TheHealing Power of Mindfulness, he shares a cornucopia of specificexamples as to how the cultivation of mindfulness can reshape your relationship with your own body and mind–explaining what we’re learning about neuroplasticity and the brain, how meditation can affect our biology and our health, and what mindfulness can teach us about coming to terms with all sorts of life challenges, including our own mortality, so we can make the most of the moments that we have.
Originally published in 2005 as part of a larger book titled Coming to Our Senses, The Healing Power of Mindfulness features a new foreword by the author and timely updates throughout the text. If you are interested in learning more about how mindfulness as a way of being can help us to heal, physically and emotionally, look no further than this deeply personal and also “deeply optimistic book, grounded in good science and filled with practical recommendations for moving in the right direction” (Andrew Weil, MD), from one of the pioneers of the worldwide mindfulness movement.
The Realm of Mind and Body
[People] ought to know that from the brain, and from the brain only, arise our pleasures, joys, laughter and jests, as well as our sorrows, pains, griefs and tears. Through it, in particular, we think, see, hear, and distinguish the ugly from the beautiful, the bad from the good, the pleasant from the unpleasant…. It is the same thing which makes us mad or delirious, inspires us with dread and fear, whether by night or by day, brings sleeplessness, inopportune mistakes, aimless anxieties, absent-mindedness, and acts that are contrary to habit. These things that we suffer all come from the brain, when it is not healthy, but becomes abnormally hot, cold, moist, or dry, or suffers any other unnatural affection to which it was not accustomed. Madness comes from its moisture. When the brain is abnormally moist, of necessity it moves, and when it moves, neither sight nor hearing are still, but we see or hear now one thing and now another, and the tongue speaks in accordance with the things seen and heard on any occasion. But all the time the brain is still, a man can think properly.
Attributed to HIPPOCRATES,
Fifth century BC
From Eric Kandel and James Schwartz,
Principles of Neural Science, 2nd ed., 1985
Sentient: 1. having sense perception; conscious 2. experiencing sensation or feeling [Latin: present participle of sentire, to feel. Root sent—to head for, to go (i.e., to go mentally)]
AMERICAN HERITAGE DICTIONARY OF THE
Have you ever noticed that everything about you is perfect, in the sense of being perfectly as and what it already is? Consider for a moment: like everybody else, you are born, you develop, you grow up, you live your life, make your choices, have the things that happen to you happen to you for better or for worse. Ultimately, if your life is not abruptly foreshortened, or even if it is, you have dealt with what you could. You have done your work, contributed in one way or another, left your legacy. You have been in relationships with others and with the world, and perhaps tasted or bathed in love and shared yours with the world. Inexorably, you age and, if you are lucky, grow older—with the emphasis on the growing—continuing to share your being with others and with the world in any number of ways, satisfying or not. And finally, you die.
It has happened to everybody who has ever lived on this planet. It will happen to me. It will happen to you. This is the human condition.
But it is not all of it.
The bird’s-eye, boiled-down view I have just sketched out is woefully incomplete, although it is not meant to be a caricature. For there is another invisible element that is co-extensive with our life and critical to its unfolding yet so woven into the fabric of all our moments, so obvious, that we hardly ever consider it. All the same, it is that essence that makes us not only what we are, but bestows upon us a largeness of capacity we so infrequently even sense, never mind honor and develop to its full expression. I am speaking, of course, about awareness, about what is called sentience, our ability to know; our consciousness; our subjective experience.
For we have, after all, named our very species and genus Homo sapiens sapiens (a double dose of the present participle of sapere, to taste; to perceive; to know; to be wise). The implication is quite clear. What we think differentiates us from other species is our ability to be wise in our perceiving, to be knowing, and to be aware of our knowing. But this characteristic is also so taken for granted by us in our ordinary everyday lives that it remains virtually unseen, unknown, or at best, only vaguely appreciated. We don’t make maximum advantage of our sentience when, in fact, it defines us in virtually every moment of our waking and dreaming lives.
It is sentience that animates us. It is the ultimate mystery, that which makes us more than a mere mechanism that thinks and feels. We are perceivers, yes, like all beings, yet we are capable of a discerning and discriminating wisdom beyond mere perception, a gift that may be uniquely ours on this small world. Our sentience defines our possibilities but in no way delimits the boundaries of the possible for us. We are the species that grows into itself. We are creatures who are forever learning and, as a consequence, modulating both ourselves and the world. And as a developing species, we have come to all this in a remarkably short period of time.
At the moment, neuroscientists know a lot about the brain and the mind, and more every day. Still, they have no understanding whatsoever of sentience and how it comes about. It is a huge conundrum, a mystery that seems unfathomable. Matter arranged in a complex enough way can evidently hold the world “in mind” as we say, and know it. Mind appears. Consciousness arises. And we have no idea how. In cognitive neuroscience, this is known as “the hard problem.”
It is one thing to have upside-down two-dimensional images on the backs of our retinas. It is quite another to see: to have a vivid experience of a world existing “out there” in three dimensions, beyond our own body, a world that seems real, and that we can sense, move in, and be conscious of, and even conjure up in the mind in great detail with our eyes closed. And within this conjuring, somehow, a sense of personhood is generated as well, a sense of a seer who is doing the seeing and perceiving what is to be seen, a knower who is knowing what is here to be known, at least to a degree. Yet it is all a conjuring, a construct of the mind, literally a fabrication, a synthesizing of a world out of sensory input, a synthesis based at least in part on processing vast arrays of sensory information through complex networks in the brain, the whole of the nervous system, and indeed, the whole of the body. This is truly a phenomenal accomplishment. It is a huge mystery, and an extraordinary, if usually entirely taken for granted, inheritance for each of us.
Sir Francis Crick, neurobiologist and co-discoverer of the double helical structure of DNA, observed that “… in spite of all this work [in the psychology, physiology, molecular and cell biology of vision], we really have no clear idea how we see anything.” Even the color blue (or any other color) does not exist either in the photons that make up the light of that particular wavelength nor anywhere in the eye or brain. Yet we look up at a cloudless sky on a sunny day and know that it is blue. And if we have no clear idea how we see anything, that is even more the case for understanding, physiologically speaking, how we know anything.
Steven Pinker, linguist and evolutionary neuropsychologist, in his book, How the Mind Works, writes about sentience as a phenomenon apart, in a class by itself:
In the study of mind, sentience floats in its own plane, high above the causal chains of physiology and neuroscience…. we cannot banish sentience from our discourse or reduce it to information access, because moral reasoning depends on it. The concept of sentience underlies our certainty that torture is wrong, and that disabling a robot is the destruction of property but disabling a person is murder. It is the reason that the death of a loved one does not impart to us just self-pity at our loss but the uncomprehending pain of knowing that the person’s thoughts and pleasures have vanished forever.
Yet Crick asserts that, whatever it is, sentience, and the sense of agency we link to the pronouns “I” and “me,” like every other quality, phenomenon, and experience we associate with mind, is ultimately due to the activity of neurons, an emergent phenomenon of brain structure and activity behind which there is no agent, only neuro-electrical and neuro-chemical impulses:
The mental picture most of us have is that there is a little man (or woman) somewhere inside our brain who is following (or, at least, trying hard to follow) what is going on. I shall call this the Fallacy of the Homunculus (homunculus is Latin for “little man”). Many people do indeed feel this way—and that fact, in due course will itself need an explanation—but our Astonishing Hypothesis states that this is not the case. Loosely speaking, it says that “it’s all done by neurons…. ” There must be structures or operations in the brain that, in some mysterious way, behave as if they correspond somewhat to the mental picture of the homunculus.
To which the philosopher John Searle responds: “How is it possible for physical, objective, quantitatively describable neuron firings to cause qualitative, private, subjective experiences?” This is a big challenge in the field of robotics, where researchers are attempting to make machines that do things, such as mowing the lawn when it needs mowing, or putting away the dishes when they are clean, things that we can do without a moment’s thought (we say) but are incredibly difficult problems for robots to solve. And beyond that, as we have seen, in the exploding field of AI (artificial intelligence), machines designed by us are now designing and constructing (or at least contributing to the construction of) the next generations of machines. With each iteration, the newly designed machines increase their complexity and “learn” as they go along. At some point it begins to look and feel as if the machines themselves have feelings and are actually thinking, accomplishing this with integrated circuits rather than with neurons but all the same, at least seeming to mimic or simulate what we would say looks and feels a lot like agency, intelligence, and emotion. And of course, in some sense it may be that we ourselves could actually be elaborate “receivers,” tuning in because of our neurons, to a much higher-order non-local “mind” that is a property of the universe. Some people think that possibility cannot be entirely ruled out at present.
Our challenge here is not to wander too far afield into various explanations for sentience and the scientific and philosophical controversies presently surrounding it, fascinating as this inquiry and the scientific and philosophical domains that concern themselves with such questions, such as cognitive neuroscience, phenomenology, artificial intelligence, and so-called neuro-phenomenology, are. Rather, our challenge is more basic and closer to home, namely to recognize our sentience as fundamental and to ponder whether it might serve us individually and collectively to develop this extraordinary capacity for knowing which, remarkably and importantly, includes of course innumerable occasions for knowing that we don’t know. Knowing that we don’t know is just as important, if not more so, than anything else we might know. Here lies the domain of discernment and wisdom, in a sense we might say, the quintessence of being human.
At the end of a retreat for psychologists training in mindfulness-based cognitive therapy, one therapist, who of course works with people and their emotions and thoughts all day long, said: “I wall myself off from people. It was something I didn’t know I didn’t know.”
Our lives are all too often lived out under the constraints of habits and conditioning that we are entirely unaware of but which shape our moments and our choices, our experiences, and our emotional responses to them, even when we think we know better, or should know better. This alone suggests some of the practical limitations of thinking.
Yet amazingly, awareness itself, the whole domain of sentience and multiple intelligences, is continually available to us to counter that conditioning and expand our feeling for things, allowing us to be more in touch with them and with our capacity for actually understanding what the neuroscientist Antonio Damasio calls “the feeling of what happens.”
Sentience is closer than close. Awareness is our nature and is in our nature. It is in our bodies, in our species. It could be said, as the Tibetans do, that cognizance, the non-conceptual knowing quality, is the essence of what we call mind, along with emptiness and boundlessness, which Tibetan Buddhism sees as complementary aspects of the very same essence.
The capacity for awareness appears to be built into us. We can’t help but be aware. It is the defining characteristic of our species. Grounded in our biology, it extends far beyond the merely biological. It is what and who we actually are. Yet, if not cultivated and refined, and in some ways even protected, our capacity for sentience tends to get covered over by tangles of vines and underbrush and remain weak and undeveloped, in some ways merely a potential. We can become relatively insensate, insensitive, more asleep than awake when it comes to drawing on our ability to know beyond the limitations of self-serving thought—and which would include the recognizing of thoughts that are self-serving and therefore knowing that they may be limited and potentially unwise in the very moments in which they arise. Cultivated and strengthened, sentience lights up our lives and it lights up the world, and grants us degrees of freedom we could scarcely imagine even though our imagination itself stems from it.
It also grants us a wisdom that, developed, can steer us clear of our tendencies to cause harm, wittingly or unwittingly, and instead, can soothe the wounds and honor the sovereignty and the sanctity of fellow sentient beings everywhere.
NOTHING PERSONAL, BUT, EXCUSE ME… ARE WE WHO WE THINK WE ARE?
The true value of a human being is determined primarily by the measure and the sense in which he has attained liberation from the self.
As biology students, it was hammered into us (this is one of a number of metaphors that are not uncommon within higher education) that life obeys the laws of physics and chemistry and that biological phenomena are merely an extension of those same natural laws; that while life is complex, and the molecules of life far more elaborate than the simpler atomic and molecular structures of inanimate nature and in more dynamic relationship to one another, there is no reason to suspect that there is some extra special animating or “vital” force that is “causing” the whole system to be alive; nothing special, that is, beyond the mix of fairly sensitive conditions that permit the components and structures of living systems to act in concert somehow to allow the properties of the whole to emerge as, say, a living, growing, dividing cell. By extension, the same principle would apply throughout the web of increasingly complex life forms branching out into the plant and animal kingdoms including, in our mammalian lineage, the emergence of increasingly complex nervous systems, and, in time, the advent of ourselves.
Said another way, this view affirms that while we do not fully understand what we call “life” even at the level of one single cell, even at the level of a very “simple,” single-cell organism such as a bacterium, there is no inherent reason that this could not be done, and indeed, an entirely synthetic bacterium was created in 2010. Earlier, in a similar breakthrough, researchers synthesized the polio virus from scratch out of simple chemicals and information about the virus’s genetic sequence obtained off the Internet. Once made, it was shown to be infectious and able to replicate and make more virus in a living cell, thereby demonstrating that no “extra” vital force was necessary. Of course, ethical issues associated with such work are huge.
This perspective, that there is no “extra” nonmaterial animating element to living systems, stands in biology as a revered bulwark against what used to be called vitalism, the belief that some special energy other than natural processes explainable through physics, chemistry, biology, natural selection, and a huge amount of time, is required to give life its unique properties. And that would include sentience. Vitalism was seen as mystical, irrational, anti-scientific, and just plain wrong. And in the historical record, of course, it was and is just plain wrong. But that doesn’t mean that a reductionist and purely materialist perspective is necessarily right. There are multiple ways of exploring and understanding the mystery of life through scientific inquiry, ways that take into account and respect higher orders of phenomena, and their emergent properties.
From the biological perspective, there is nothing but impersonal mechanism at the very base of living systems, including us. It sees the emergence of life itself as an extension of a larger emergence, the evolution of the entire universe and all the ordered structures and processes that unfold within it. At some point, perhaps around three billion years ago, when the conditions were right on the young planet Earth—which had formed out of the interstellar dust cloud surrounding the nascent star we call our sun, that dust itself being the result of the colossal disintegration via gravitational collapse of earlier stars in which the very atoms, the atomic elements, except for hydrogen, that constitute our bodies and everything else on this planet were forged—biomolecules couldn’t help but be synthesized by naturally occurring inorganic processes in warm pools and oceans over millions and millions of years, perhaps catalyzed by lightning, by clays, and other inanimate microenvironments that could contribute in various ways to such processes. Given enough time, these various ingredients found ways to interact according to the laws of chemistry to give rise to rudimentary polymer chains of nucleotides (the stuff of DNA and RNA) and amino acids that had particular properties.
By their very nature, polynucleotide chains have the capacity to store huge amounts of information in the sequence of their four constituent bases, to self-replicate with high precision to conserve that information, and to change slightly under various conditions and thus produce variants, known as mutations that may, rarely, have a selective advantage in competing for natural resources. This information in the polynucleotide chains is translated into the linear sequence of amino acids that constitute poly-amino acid chains that, when they fold up, are known as proteins, the workhorses of the cell that perform all its thousands of chemical reactions, in which case they are called enzymes, and that provide a myriad of key structural building blocks out of which cells are made, in which case they are known as structural proteins.
How it all came about to give rise to an organized cell in the first place, even an exceedingly primitive one, is not understood. But from the perspective of biology, in principle it can and will be understood, and all that will be necessary to understand it will be deeper insight into complex systems of such molecules that themselves have no vital force other than the capacity, under the right conditions and in concert with many other such molecules, for the unpredictable emergence of novel phenomena, including, importantly, the stabilizing, storing, and retrieval of information and the modulation of its flow. In this sense, life is a natural extension of the evolution of the universe, once stars and planets are created that allow the conditions necessary for chemistry-based living systems to emerge. And consciousness, which emerges within living systems following those same laws of physics and chemistry when the conditions are friendly to it and there is enough time and selective pressure for that level of complexity to develop, is also therefore seen as a natural, if highly improbable, emergence from a biological evolutionary process that is empty of a driving force, empty of teleology, not at all mystical.
If consciousness, at least chemistry-based consciousness, is built in as potentially possible or even inevitable in an evolving universe given the correct initial conditions and enough time, one might say, as we have noted already, that consciousness in living organisms is a way for the universe to know itself, to see itself, even to understand itself. We could say that in this local neighborhood of the vastness of it all, that gift has fallen to us, to Homo sapiens sapiens, apparently more so than to any other species on this infinitesimally small speck we inhabit in the unimaginable vastness of the expanding universe, where our kind of matter, that makes up our bodies and the planets and even all the stars, seems to account for only a tiny percentage of the substance and energy of the universe.* In this view, our capacity for consciousness has fallen to us not because of any particular moral virtue but purely by accident, by the vagaries of evolutionary selection pressures on tree-dwelling primate species, some of which evolved to stand erect as they moved onto the savannah and freed up the use of their arms and hands and gave their brains a greater range of challenges to deal with. These, of course, were our direct ancestors.
How we understand our inherited sentience and what we do with it individually and collectively as a species is clearly the defining issue of our time. The impersonal nature of the biological view of living systems is worth emphasizing, because it says very clearly that there is no intrinsically mystical dimension to the unfolding of life. It says that consciousness does not direct the process but emerges out of the process, even though the potential for its emergence was latent all the time. Nevertheless, once consciousness emerges and is refined, it can have a profound influence on all aspects of life, through the choices that we make about how to live and where to place our energies, and how to appreciate our impact in and on the world we inhabit. Sentience could only emerge given the right causes and conditions, which are not guaranteed to happen. Of course, if they hadn’t, there wouldn’t have been any of us around to comment on its absence in any event.
If we ourselves are the product of impersonal causes and conditions following on the laws of physics and chemistry, however complex, and if there is no “vital force” behind it all, then we can see why the anti-vitalism of science, especially biology, would lead to the declaring that there is no such thing as a soul, a vital center within a sentient being that is following laws other than the laws of physics and chemistry. In the seventeenth century, Descartes declared the seat of the soul to be in the pineal gland deep in the brain. Modern neurobiologists would say that the pineal gland may do many things but it does not generate a soul because there is no reason to postulate an enduring entity or energy that is immaterial and that inhabits or interfaces with the organism in some way and guides its trajectory through life. That doesn’t mean that life and sentience are not hugely mysterious to us, or for that matter, sacred, just as the universe itself is hugely mysterious. Nor does it mean that we can’t speak of the soul, meaning what moves deeply in the psyche and in the heart, nor of the source of uplift and transfiguration we call spirit. It also does not imply that one’s personal feelings and personal well-being are not important, or that there is no basis for ethical or moral action, or for that matter, a sense of the numinous. In fact, we could say that it is our nature and calling as sentient beings to regard our situation with awe and wonder, and to wonder deeply about the potential for exploring and refining our sentience and placing it in the service of the well-being of others, and of what is most beautiful and indeed most sacred in this living world—so sacred that we would guard ourselves much more effectively than we have so far from causing it—the world that is—to be disregarded or perhaps even destroyed by our own precocity.
Buddhists hold a similar view of the fundamentally impersonal nature of phenomena. As we encountered in the Heart Sutra (see Book 1, Meditation Is Not What You Think, “Emptiness”), the Buddha taught, based on his own personal investigations and experience, that the entire world that can be experienced—what he termed the five skandas (heaps): forms, feelings, perceptions, impulses, and consciousness—is empty of any enduring self-existing characteristic; that try as one might, one will not be able to locate a permanent, unchanging self-ness inside or underneath any phenomenon, living or inanimate, including ourselves, because everything is interconnected and each manifestation of form or process depends on a constantly changing web of causes and conditions for its individual emergence and its particular properties. He challenges us to look and see for ourselves and investigate whether or not it is so, whether or not the self is merely a fabrication, a construct, just as in some way our senses combine to construct both the world that appears to be “out there” and the sense of the person “in here” that perceives it.
Well, if it is not so, then how is it that we feel that there is a self, that we are a self, that what happens happens to a me, that what I do is initiated by me, what I feel is felt by me, that when I wake up in the morning, it is the same me waking up and recognizing myself in the mirror? Both modern biology (cognitive neuroscience) and Buddhism would say that it is something of a mis-perception that has built itself into an enduring individual and cultural habit. Nevertheless, if you go through the process of systematically searching for it, they hold that you will not find a permanent, independent, enduring self, whether you look for it in “your” body, including its cells, specialized glands, nervous system, brain, and so forth, in “your” emotions, “your” beliefs, “your” thoughts, “your” relationships, or anyplace else. And the reason you will not be able to locate anywhere a permanent, isolated, self-existing self that is “you” is that it is a mirage, a holographic emergence, a phantom, a product of the habit-bound, emotionally turbulent, thinking mind. It is being constructed and deconstructed continually, moment by moment. It is continually subject to change, and therefore not permanent or enduring or real, in the sense of identifiable and isolatable. It is more virtual than solid, akin at least metaphorically to virtual elementary particles that appear to emerge out of nothing for a brief moment in the quantum foam of empty space and then dissolve back into the nothing. Or what we call the self could also be described as a “strange attractor” in the world of chaos theory, a dynamical pattern that is continually changing but is always self-similar. You are who you were yesterday, more or less, but not exactly.
- On Sale
- Nov 20, 2018
- Page Count
- 256 pages
- Hachette Books