“Your Brain is Not Confined to the Skull”
The brain is vastly complex. There are 1.1 million cells and 80 to 90 billion neurons, each firing 5 to 50 times per second — even while we are asleep. There are tens of thousands of interconnections between the neurons and trillions of neuronal synapses, thousands of which could fit on the width of a single human hair.
The “flow” is constant and can be regulated but not stopped (not for very long, at least). And it is also true that the brain is not confined to the skull. Neurons are brain cells and wherever there is a neuron there is the brain.
Wherever there is the brain, there the ‘mind’ can operate.”
Yes, this is complicated, but important to know. So when my patients tell me they can’t do mindfulness because they cannot get their minds to quiet down, I tell them, “But I never told you to quiet your mind. That’s impossible.”
They usually look at me bewildered, and then have to agree that this idea came out of their own misconceptions. One misconception out the window.
So in the brain/body there is a continuous flow of information in the form of thoughts, images, feelings and sensations — via chemical, biological and electrical pathways — and the energy required for all of it to occur in the first place. It cannot be stopped entirely, but it can (over time) become more quiet. We have a lot of chatter going on in brain and body.
The “mind”, a philosophical and scientific mystery to this very day, has a function most scientists can agree on that is important for us practically1:
One factor of mind is that it is ‘an embodied and relational process that regulates the flow of information and energy.’”
So “mind” can direct and regulate the flow of continuous information and energy going on in our brains/bodies and what we do with it. In this way we can begin to rewire or restructure neuronal pathways and the brain itself.
To do this you need a more stable mind, and mindfulness is a prime way to stabilize the mind so that it an perform this function more freely and move us along toward personal goals. All of us can certainly agree that an “unstable mind” leads to unstable thoughts, feelings and behaviors. None of us want that.
How to Stabilize the Mind Through Mindfulness
So what does it mean to have a stable mind and how does mindfulness produce it? Perhaps it would be helpful to consider an “unstable” mind. Let’s use a common metaphor for both.
The activity of the brain (the “inner world” as it is sometimes called) is similar to the ocean. All of the dynamic activity in the brain is like the currents and waves of the sea. Sometimes it is turbulent and we need either to steer or ride it out and sometimes it is calmer but the dynamics behind the scenes are always present and they can change very quickly.
So it is with the brain.
The dynamics are out of awareness for the most part but powerfully create turbulence, calm and every “state” in between. More often than not, there are many “states” occurring at once and the vast majority of these are not consciously directed at all like the currents and waves of the ocean.
These represent unconscious or automatic reactions to some stimuli either internal (a feeling or thought or sensation and often all three) or to an external event (e.g. an accident or reward for good behavior) interpreted by us using our histories of similar events and interpretations of them.
For example, harsh words from a friend in the present signals a mental process of evaluation and feelings are produced to prompt action based on previous similar experiences. It’s efficient so we don’t have to think too much in its automaticity but we may over-react based on a flawed assessment, too.
Acting too quickly based on impulses that arise automatically can save us if a truck is barreling down on us but it may damage a relationship for ever.”
This could be seen as instability; being tossed about by the waves, impulses based on unconscious/automatic thoughts, feelings, sensations without using our oars to steer or simply riding it out. In this case we are ruled by impulses and we act on them without much consideration for the consequences for self and others.
A mind that is stable and produces stability acts differently.
First, the stable mind accepts that the inner world is full of dynamics outside of awareness and that neither it nor the forces going on in the world including other people and their inner worlds and outer behaviors can be (entirely) controlled.
Second, it realizes that difficulties inside and out come and go and does not get apoplectic when they arise. After all, what has just happened cannot have been any different.
Third, the stable mind observes and decides the best course of action. Do I do something now, later or at all? Or do I simply ride this out. What goes up does come down … eventually.
Fourth, the stable mind does not identify with any impulse or set of impulses as if they constituted “who I am.” The human person is capable of millions of different impulses and actions. It would be foolish to limit myself to any set of them. Even if someone pulls a gun on me and says your money or your life I still have a choice.
Or we can be like a bull with a ring in its nose and act on every impulse that arises. And then we would all likely be in prison and some of us are in “prisons,” if not literally, figuratively, of feelings, beliefs and behaviors. Depression, anxiety, anger, shame, guilt and addictions.
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This article came from the great minds at
Thriveworks Therapy, Knoxville.
What are these if not internal prisons?
Mindfulness develops stability of mind.
First, by developing awareness of what actually “is” rather than living in a world of narrative fantasies (things either should or shouldn’t be as they are this moment).
Second, by developing acceptance for things as they are right now. If you think about it the reason we become distressed most often is because we insist that things NOT be as they ARE.
Third, by developing the freedom to observe something happening without having to do anything about it. By developing the ability to have thoughts, feelings and behaviors but not react to them we free the “self’ from the prison of automaticity. And then to act constructively if we so choose.
The brain/body changes with new practices and new beliefs but not one without the other.”
Without good beliefs we may steer somewhere we will be sorry we went. As I heard it said, “If you don’t know where you’re going, any road will take you there.”
Without practices teaching us how to direct ourselves, we will likely spin in our usual circles. Or, as George Bernard Shaw once said, “To be in hell is to drift; to be in heaven is to steer.”
Steering is stability.
What practices and beliefs keep your hands on the steering wheel? Tell us in the comments section below.
1. Daniel Siegel, Pocket Guide to Interpersonal Neurobiology: An Integrative Handbook of the Mind, page 25.