Let me first warn you, dear reader, or perhaps excite you: This is a longer piece, one to read with leisure and time to reflect. Don’t try to start between two bites of a hamburger – we will lose each other. Have a seat, join me for a cup of tea, if possible next to a fireplace with a crackling fire, and let’s begin together a fascinating, hopefully for you, as it is for me, deeply meaningful journey.
Once upon a time, a very long time, a time so long that suddenly time vanished, chances may have been that you have sought both medical and psychological help of one sort or another in and beyond your lifetime. You may have dealt with doctors trying to help you with chronic pain, seen human resources professionals, guidance counselors, personal coaches, counselors, social workers, psychotherapists, psychologists or psychiatrists, visited medicine men or women, gurus, Reiki masters, clairvoyants, psychics, Tarot readers, astrologists and more, and you have likely downloaded meditation recordings, work books and other self-help materials of all sorts. Have you ever asked yourself what you were actually doing by reaching out like that? To put the question differently, what do all these professionals have in common? What and who are you actually trying to understand? My thesis in this article is that in all these cases you were curious about, and seeking help and guidance in dealing with your mind. As you may have noticed however, doing so efficiently is easier said than done, and the mind is vexingly complex and difficult to get a grasp on.
Imagine I asked you as part of a group of people to assemble 4-word sentences from sets of 5 scrambled words, and half the scrambled sentences contained words like forgetful, bald, RRSP, Florida, gray, wrinkle, bald, healthcare, golfing, cane, etc., and then I would ask you to walk down a hall to another examination room to do another task. In a similar fashion I would also ask someone else as part of another group of people to do the same, except that the list of words would be seedling, forest, sunshine, computer, hockey, rocket etc., and they, too, would walk down the same hall to the same examination room. Do you know that you and your group would walk down the hall at a significantly slower pace than the other group? This was an actual piece of research at New York University by John Bargh, showing how we are constantly influenced by forces in the mind we do not have the faintest idea exist. In this case, the first set of words your group was exposed to all have a relationship to old age, while the second set doesn’t. The simple unconscious suggestion of old age influences your thinking and actions in what you can see is a significant and measurable way. This is called priming. The moral of the story?
You cannot approach your mind as if you knew much about it, and as for your senses, don’t trust them unless you are trained to properly work with them. As pretentious as this may sound, the mind as this most personal, private and intimate of phenomena you seem to own, is more foreign than the most distant of galaxies. What makes it so treacherous is that the mind is brilliant in its ways of making you believe that you are in charge, that it belongs to you and that therefore you know it well. Based on this assumption it can become your worst enemy and you don’t even notice it. It is like having a mole in your midst, getting repeatedly betrayed by life and not having the faintest clue that your worst enemy is the one you see in the mirror each morning. Like the drunk who at night searches for his lost key under a streetlamp, because that is where he can see, we believe that what we consciously see is reality, when in fact it is deeply constructed, molded and manipulated, and the reality we don’t see is so much vaster than the one we see.
What we are conscious of is a fraction of what determines our lives, our behaviors, decisions, actions and aspirations. Most processes that influence who we are and how we act in life are not conscious in one form or another: Either they once were conscious and went underground, they did not yet surface into consciousness or they never will. The brain has a way of filling the blanks of ignorance with made-up content so that we don’t even realize what we don’t know and we can blissfully rest in our ignorance, believing we know it all or best. After all, are you not the boss of you? No, you are not, by a very long stretch not. The clue that this is so can be found in the universal human complaint when, barring unexpected external events, despite all our efforts life does not unfold the way we wanted, hoped for or planned. We thought we paddled south and end up at the north pole – how can that be? Easily – there are other much more powerful bosses in your mind than who you believe is you. Without serious study and exploration you will not have the faintest chance to release yourself from the Kafkaesque conundrum of being ruled by invisible masters like in Kafka’s novel ‘The Castle’.
In keeping with a long tradition until Daniel Siegel came along about 10 years ago, notice how I have been talking about the mind without defining what it is. Because we believe to be so familiar with this most intimate of ‘things’ we call the mind, we don’t even bother defining it, assuming that we all must instinctively know what it is. At the same time, if we start trying to define it, we are likely to get embroiled like the builders of the tower of Babel in messy arguments without commonalities to ground ourselves in, and we will begin to argue about minds, intellects, souls, spirits, psyches, consciousnesses, true selves, true natures, and more. I am thus grateful to Daniel Siegel for his attempt at a definition of mind, which he based on a consilient view of the human condition that takes into account what commonalities there are in the energy and information flow (EIF) of being human across different ways of knowing reality. As grateful as I am to Dan for teaching me how to think about the mind, to mention the definition here would make no real embodied sense to anyone who has not explored these realms in depth, and besides, someone will for sure argue with me about the definition and want to define it differently. Now, that’s OK, and the exploration of the mind is exactly about inviting such questioning and dissent. Not only that, but as you will see the mind is not ‘a thing’, an object, but rather a process, a moment-to-moment unfolding that is always in flux, changing itself as it arises in a recursive way. Don’t shudder at the word ‘recursive’, as I will explain it to you in due course. In order for me to define the mind, more a verb than a noun, in a way that makes sense to you, I first have to take you on a tour of discovery into energy and information flow (EIF). Follow me please in this unfolding story, the purpose of which is to not only tell you a story you can receptively enjoy, but also change your thinking about the mind in the process. You will change your mind about the mind forever, and never again underestimate its far-reaching tentacles that can ultimately reveal to us the vast unfathomable mystery of unknowable reality.
The work to get to know your mind is not only huge and lasts a life time, but also the most difficult task you will ever take on. Count a good 10 years and 10 thousand hours of training and practice to begin to feel some sort of consistent mastery in your acquainting the mind and its nature. To study the mind you need to study both science and sentience, what science tells you about the objectively knowable, externally observable and quantifiable world, as well as what your private subjective experience tells you about the personally knowable, externally non-observable, unquantifiable inner world. So on we now go to energy and information flow.
The universe can be seen to fundamentally consist of change. Look around and as far as you can see, everything changes. Even the apparently most rock solid mountains change and there will not be anything you will ever find that does not change. If you examine more deeply what ‘everything’ is that changes, you will find that it comes down to energy. According to Einstein’s famous equation E=mc2, all the ‘stuff’ or matter you see is energy. So energy in a constant state of change is fundamental to reality.
The brain is a mapping device. With its immensely complex neurocircuitry, energy that flows from the outside world through our external senses and from inside the body through our internal senses into the brain, gets spun around many brain cell networks (both neurons and glia). This spinning of energy through successive layers of increasing complexity is a process akin to mapping. One spin cycle leads to a map of the original energy flow. An additional spin cycle creates a map of that first map, called a first-level meta-map. And so it goes on through levels and levels of meta-mapping until the original energy flow has changed so much and has become so complex that it turns into a new phenomenon, a new kind of energy flow with a new quality that the original energy flow did not have. In the brain’s case this new quality is the fact that the original energy flow now points beyond its own flow. It has suddenly acquired a content, a meaning, and such transformed energy flow we call thoughts, which flow like energy, but also mean something else than what they are. Nobody has any idea how that occurs, and how physical firing patterns in the neurons, consisting of electrical currents and neurotransmitter releases within and between neurons, become thoughts, even conscious thoughts, and the whole world of subjective experience. Coming back to our energy flow, both the sensations of heat in your palms and a thought about your grandmother are energy flow, only that the heat in your palm is just what it is, heat, while your thought, also energy flow of a new sort, points to something other than itself, your grandmother. It has a meaning, a content, and energy flow with content we call information. To lovingly complicate things for you a bit, I should mention here that scientists have quite generally differing opinions on what is more fundamental in the universe, energy or information. Some consider energy the carrier of information, others say information is fundamental and energy results from that. Be this as it may, to satisfy our need for precision (and my obsessive nature), I will be talking about energy and information, always keeping in mind that information is a form of energy, and possibly vice versa. Since energy and information as mentioned above are always subject to change, we will be talking about energy and information flow, or short EIF, as a fundamental aspect of reality.
One way to define energy is to say that it is the potential to do something. It moves and combines in many different patterns and forms, such as particles, light, sounds, molecules, organisms, galaxies, mind and consciousness. Energy waves arise in patterns or changes of energy flow that emerge moment-by-moment. When I say ’emerge’ I mean more than just ‘arise’. What I mean is that some EIF patterns have a way to combine into larger wholes, such as the human organism. In other words, individual energy patterns get linked together, forming a certain balance between keeping their individual uniqueness, yet linking with other patterns to form a pattern network. The pattern network that is created from the coming together of all these smaller patterns emerges as a whole that is larger than the sum of its parts. Because it is larger than the sum of its parts, it has characteristics that the individual parts don’t have, and those characteristics are called emergent properties. This means that to study this grater whole, we have to use laws and principles that govern such greater wholes, and we cannot use the same laws and principles we used to study its parts. Moreover, this greater whole with its emergent properties recursively regulates its own emergence. In other words, as the greater whole emerges, it immediately has an effect backward down into the dance between its individual parts and regulates this dance in accordance with what it requires on the level of the greater whole. Of course, this greater whole is also in relationship with its environment, exchanging energy flows with it. The word we use to define this whole cha bang, greater wholes that function like that, is ‘open complex system‘ (OCS). The human organism, the brain, the mind, our relationships, all are open complex systems. The state of an OCS depends on how balanced the linkage is between its parts. If its parts retain too much of their uniqueness and are not linked enough to each other, which means they are too differentiated (cancer cells), chaos ensues and the whole system becomes dysfunctional (illness). If on the other hand its parts lose their uniqueness and become too much linked (arteriosclerosis), rigidity ensues and the whole system again becomes dysfunctional (disease). If however there is a nice balance between differentiation and linkage, the system is optimally functional and integrated (health), meaning that it becomes flexible, adaptive, coherent, freely emergent and stable.
Coming back to our beloved EIF, just keep in mind that OCS are EIF combined in many layered patterns. We said earlier that energy is the potential to do something. Of course, it follows that as OCS emerge, they follow the law of energy being the potential to do something. The question arises, whether we can measure or even experience this potential, and how we would do that? Here it is: Say your energy flow in this moment is to watch TV and be engrossed in a fascinating movie. The potential for a change of your energy flow towards standing up and going to take the garbage out is very low, maybe 2%. In fact, because the thought of garbage is not in your consciousness at all, the probability that you are going to empty the garbage at that moment is even 0%. However, imagine that while you watch the movie you suddenly hear the garbage truck arriving and you remember that you have forgotten to take out the garbage. Immediately you think of the garbage and the fact that you could possibly take it out for it to be taken away by the garbage truck, and the probability for you to do that jumps to say 50%. The possibility that you might do other things, including watching the movie, is still there, but the probability of staying to watch the movie has now decreased from 100% to 50%. You then realize that you haven’t taken the garbage out in a long time and you really have to get it out. Suddenly the probability that you will interrupt what you are doing to take out the garbage may skyrocket and you quickly get up to do that. In this case the probability of the take-out-the-garbage EIF has risen from 0% to 50% at first, and now to 95%. Why only 95%? Because between the moment you decide to take the garbage out and the moment you actually get up and do it you may die of a heart attack. So now the open possibility to do anything else is still there, but its probability has decreased to almost zero. The moment you actually get up, the probability of the EIF to take out the garbage is 100%, and the possibility for other things has now morphed into the actuality of taking out the garbage. This long story tries to explain to you how we measure the EIF’s potential to actualize: The potential of any EIF to move into a particular direction is measured as its movement between possibility and actuality along a spectrum of probabilities. As I am writing these lines the probability of me getting up and driving to the airport is almost 0%, meaning that the EIF of getting to the airport remains only an open possibility, since I just came back from vacation. If however I get tired of the winter and while writing these lines I intend to call my travel agent tomorrow to book a southern vacation, the probability of me getting to the airport has now increased to say 30%. If I then write my last lines before the taxi picks me up to go to the airport, the probability has jumped to 95% and within a few minutes will be 100% as the ‘getting-to-the-airport’ energy flow becomes actuality.
Since our organism is EIF like anything else in the universe, we can make a few statements about how energy and information flow in the form of our human organism. First of all, the energy flows in the form of organs, including a brain, an extended nervous system throughout the body and a body. So the energy flows within the organism and we can say that the physical body is the mechanism by which energy and information flow. The EIF of our bodies is also in EIF exchanges with other human organisms, our environment and the universe at large. In other words, the EIF of our organism is also in relationship with the world around it and thus between organisms. Finally, these two forms of EIF that we are as human organisms, a mechanism within in the form of a body and relationships between organisms, combine to give rise to a third form of EIF, a third OCS that defines who we are, and this is called the mind.
Since everything is energy and information flow, there is thus no reason to exclude the mind from also being based in energy and information flow. I will now just repeat what I have already said above, but in this new context of mind. The mind is based on a system of energy and information flow that happens to be very curious about itself and the world, and capable of examining itself. We call this kind of EIF system an open complex system. What that means among other things is that the interactions of the different parts of the system of the mind, such as the organs, the body and our relationships as we saw above, give rise to a new level of EIF, a new OCS called mind. This mind is not reducible to its parts, meaning that the whole (in this case the mind) is larger than the sum of its parts and has to be understood on its own terms, the same way that you cannot study traffic by examining how its components, the cars and drivers, are built. This phenomenon is called emergence. The whole then (in this case the mind), recursively influences and modifies the processes by which its parts interact to give rise to the mind, and that is called self-regulation. In other words, self-regulation refers to a process whereby the mind changes the very processes that lead to its own becoming.
We have now shown how the mind is self-regulating as it emerges from the interactions of its parts and recursively influences the very way it emerges. Its main parts, the body and relationships, are also open complex systems in themselves, the body being the mechanism by which energy and information flows, and relationships the way we share energy and information flow. So the mind emerges from a mechanism of EIF being shared in relationships as the regulator of EIF. Arisen from both within the body and between bodies in relationships, the mind is both within and between. Within it gives rise to our internal mindscapes (inner subjective experiences with thoughts, emotions, memories, dreams etc.), between to our social mindspheres (shared cultural contents). However, mindscapes and mindspheres are not really separate, because unlike the body, which is bounded by the skin, the mind is both internal and relational at the same time, thus marking a space that is the one location of mind. Siegel calls that location ‘withinbetween’.
EIF has one more peculiar characteristic. Being at the foundation of the universe, energy and information changes within 4 dimensions known as width, length, height and time. In this 4-dimensional space-time continuum, energy and information can flow in the form of microstates on the level of the tiniest particle dimension that follow the laws of quantum mechanics, or it can flow in the form of macrostates such as all the ‘things’ we can see, following the laws of classical or relativity physics. Here comes what’s peculiar: On the quantum level, the fourth dimension, time, is bidirectional and reversible, which means that the notion of time as we know it is not applicable and we may well be able to replace it by the experiential notion of timelessness. On the level of classical physics, however, time is unidirectional and irreversible as it follows the second law of thermodynamic that says that the universe evolves to ever greater levels of disorder and chaos (entropy). Now even that is strictly speaking not quite correct: The business with entropy is correct, but even in our macrostate world time is a brain/mind construction to deal with change. You can say that the sense of time is the way the mind makes sense of change across probability patterns, or the way it makes sense of probability patterns of occurrence across change. Yesterday has a 100% probability as it has happened and is actualized. Tomorrow, and the further you go into the future, has almost 0% to 0% probability as it is wide open as infinite possibility. Today, now, is always emerging as we speak and has a very high probability on its way to being actualized. So that was a bit of an aside, but if we want to stick to our familiar experience of flowing time, entropy is one of the reasons why we as our bodies are mortal, folks, and how we experience our embodied time-bound existence! It stands to reason that given the mind’s essence as regulator of EIF, and EIF having both feet in different worlds so to speak, the timeless micro-world and the time-bound macro-world, the mind has both qualities of time-bound and timeless EIF. Therefore, we might not be as mortal as we think, and able to partake in a timeless mystery of existence beyond our views that are limited by the time-bound nature of our embodiment.
We have now enough background on the mind to venture into defining it. This definition as you will see encapsulates all the facets of its elements as we have explored them above. So here it is: The mind can be defined as a process of EIF that is embodied and relational, emergent and self-organizing, and that regulates (meaning monitors and modifies) EIF both within and between in a world that spans the time-bound limitation of an embodied existence and the unimaginable spaciousness of timeless vastness. This process of mind can be seen as having four aspects we can detect through direct experience and we use in our work with the mind: (1) Self-organization: There is no director inside us that controls the workings of the mind. (2) Information processing in the form of subjectively felt, therefore conscious experience that is both personal/internal and relational/external, such as conscious thoughts, memories, emotions, sensations, perceptions, beliefs, hopes, dreams, longings, attitudes, intentions, and relations. (3) Consciousness, i.e. the fact that we are aware, including the knower and the knowing. (4) General non-conscious information processing in the form of non-conscious thoughts, memories, emotions, sensations, perceptions, beliefs, hopes, dreams, longings, attitudes, intentions, and relations.
To summarize and circumambulate the mind again, here is what we can say: (1) The first aspect of mind is that mind emerges from energy and information flow. (2) This EIF in the form of mind not only correlates with EIF in the form of neurofirings in the brain, but also EIF in the form of energy and information exchanges between people in our relationships and with the world and the universe at large. This means that mind is not limited by either skull or skin, but is both fully embodied inside you and relational between you, others and the world around you. Keeping this embodied and relational nature of mind in mind, always remember that when I mention the mind, it is not just about an intellectual faculty, but a whole organismic human experience that includes all levels of neuroprocessing, the body, emotions, thoughts and relationships. Your mind is in your head, in your heart, in your guts, in your toes, in your children’s neurofirings, in everyone you ever met, in your cat and your dog, in everyone you never met, and likely even farther than that. (3) Most of the EIF of mind arises as non-conscious information processing, a fact we are largely unaware of because we quite literally never know what we don’t know. This means that the brain and the mind have sophisticated ways of filling cracks, gaps and ignorance with internal constructions that have nothing to do with reality – illusions and delusions so to speak, which we then mistake as reality. (4) In ways we do not yet understand, the arising EIF becomes known as subjectively felt, therefore conscious experience that is both personal/internal and relational/external. These are the contents of the mind, such as perceptions, sensations, imaginations, feelings and thoughts. (5) EIF in the form of the actual knower, as different from the known content of subjectively felt experience, is an integral aspect of mind that can be explored separately, and the combination of the knower with the known is the knowing we call consciousness, also an aspect of mind in its own right. (6) This whole energy and information unfolds in an orderly way through successive stages of complexity to constitute what we call mind, which means that the mind is a regulated and regulating EIF that ensures at least the survival, if not the wellbeing of the human organism. From complexity theory we know that this regulation is not somehow imposed by an external factor, but that the mind, like the whole human organism, is a self-regulating open complex system. What that means is that the EIF that arises as mind directly regulates in a recurrent feedback loop the very processes of EIF that give rise to mind. (7) Last but not least, given the roots of EIF in both the timeless world of microstates and the time-bound world of macrostates, we can use our mind’s regulating function to help us navigate our painful mortality by accessing our timeless and immortal essence that transcends not only our embodiment, but also our time-bound left-brain imaginative capacity. This we do through our practices of integration, which include mindfulness meditation and mindfulness-based psychotherapies.
Did I say ‘integration‘? You may wonder what that is – or not after having read so far. Seemingly redundant perhaps, I will go over this aspect one more time in a different way. Self-regulation is typical of an open complex system such as the mind. Its characteristic is that its overall state depends on the way its individual parts relate to each other. Like all open complex systems, the mind has many components that all have their own individual characteristics, but are also meaningfully linked with each other. In other words, the components of mind are like the players in an orchestra simultaneously differentiated from and linked to each other. If there is a balance between differentiation, the part’s ability to maintain its own uniqueness, and linkage, the part’s ability to collaborate with other parts, we have what is called integration, and when the mind experiences integration, we subjectively experience that as health and wellbeing. If some parts are not able to collaborate well, holding on too fast to their own uniqueness, such as you could imagine in an orchestra the first violins wanting to play what they want without considering what the rest of the orchestra plays, then we have too much differentiation, which manifests as chaos within the system. On the other hand, if the parts lose their identity and connect too much with other parts, such as in an orchestra you could imagine the first violins, the flutes and the cellos deciding to play the same notes, then you have too much linkage, which results in rigidity. Both chaos and rigidity are subjectively experienced as painful, and all the diseases you find in medicine and psychology can be assigned to one of those states of the open complex system that we all are, chaotic, rigid or a combination of both.
The point of all this is that we can actually learn to use our mind to rewire and integrate the brain, harmonize and integrate our relationships, and contextualize and integrate our existence. That is what mindsight is all about, which we can for example develop through both meditation and psychotherapy, keeping in mind that meditation and psychotherapy integrate different aspects of our minds. Mindsight is the ability to have (1) insight into our own internal subjective experience, (2) insight into other people’s inner subjective experience, called empathy, and (3) the ability to consciously regulate EIF away from chaos and rigidity towards integration and harmony. The way we regulate is by first learning to monitor the EIF of mind, which includes monitoring (1) the five main categories of subjective experience (external perceptions, internal sensations, emotions, thoughts and relationships), (2) awareness itself and (3) the way self-regulation unfolds; then we modify the monitored EIF towards integration, and there are many ways to do that I cannot get into right now. Both processes of monitoring and modifying are complex and require training and skill, but when earnestly pursued with patience and perseverance, lead to the most unexpected and unimaginable insights into this wonderful reality that keeps eluding us as long as we do not mind our minds. I would like to finish with Buddha’s words, or at least paraphrasing him: The unexamined and untrained mind is your worst enemy, the examined and trained mind your best friend.
I wish, dear reader, that you may now have become curious about the mind, your mind, our mind, no mind, and hopefully meet me again on the journey of minds into timelessness.
Copyright © 2017 by Dr. Stéphane Treyvaud. All rights reserved.