Changing the way we speak can encourage new dimensions of understanding. In the light of this, I’d like to invite some fresh thinking about what we mean when we use the words ‘body’ and ‘mind’. Instead of treating them as nouns that describe seemingly familiar pre-existing objects, one being physical and the other non-physical, we could could explore the possibility that ‘body’ and ‘mind’ are referring to domains of dynamic evolving processes. It might help shift attention from thing to process, by turning them into verbs. We could speak of ’embodying’ or ‘minding’. If we insist on using nouns, at least we could refer to a mindful body or an embodied mind. In teaching, Humberto Maturana would sometimes allude to our “bodyhood” and Francisco Varela suggested the term “enactive mind”.
I can remember as a teenager in the 1960s, body and mind were commonly thought to be two distinctly separate, entities. If your body was malfunctioning you might consult a medical doctor but if your mind was malfunctioning you would go to a psychologist or psychiatrist. Things are different today and many people are comfortable using the composite ‘body/mind’, to indicate a seamlessly integrated psychosomatic process. Physiology-in-action (the somatic part) is affecting our experience of mental processes (the psycho part). At the same time our mental processes are influencing the physiology. Few people have trouble with this.
While body and mind are increasingly seen as two facets of an integrated body/mind, or if you prefer, embodied/minding, there is still a lot of writing, especially in popular books on neuroscience, that seem to make a fundamental distinction between the body and the brain. It is as if thinking or mental processes can be explained by brain function alone while the body is just a support vehicle, a mechanism for getting the brain around. Biologically the brain/nervous system is made of the same stuff as the body – (structurally coupling autopoietic cells). It functions in such a way that it co-ordinates the immense range of sensory/motor activities of this multi-celled, multi-organed, multi-tissued, organism in the act of responding to and relating with a constantly changing environment. It is true that without a sufficiently evolved and well functioning brain there is no thinking. But it is also true that without a functioning physiology there would also be no thinking. We could draw attention to the inseparable interbeingness of body, brain, and mental process by using the term ‘body/brain/mind’. As a phrase, it is a bit cumbersome but it might help us to view our living in a more integrated way.
There is however one further aspect that is worth addressing. This is the common tendency to regard oneself as a singularity, an individual unit, rather than as a collaborative community of living systems. How we view ourselves is important. As an independent unit, or singularity, I can easily imagine myself as a decision maker, a dictator – hopefully benevolent – deciding on the best course of action. This dictator/self could be wise, benign, or completely insane, but with the view that sees a world of fundamentally independent individuals, it is hard to imagine how we could function without a controller/boss.
Being a community carries very different implications. It implies that each participant appreciates and listens to the other contributing members of the community thus coming to a consensus of integrated action that is good for everyone. Each member of the community has a particular talent to contribute. Stomach, pancreas, this synapse, that neuronal grouping, this particular mother and that particular brother, this estuary, that temperate forest. To bring forth any world, or moment, every participant is necessary. In this sense we need each other. Treating myself as an independent singularity may be a useful device for the quick decisions often needed in daily living, but the deep ongoing biological basis of multi-cellular life involves consensual co-ordination on a grand scale; collaborations of communities of living systems within communities of living systems.
Reminding myself that none of these distinctions: body, brain, mind, or community, can be understood without reference to the other three, I find it useful to invoke all of them together. I am a body/brain/mind/community engaging with a body/brain/mind/community called you.
Body => involves the dynamic physiological structure of cells, tissues and organs which themselves are co-ordinated processes of molecular/chemical functioning. The brain is made of cells, so from this perspective, it is obviously a contributing aspect of the body.
Brain => involves all nervous tissues and neuronal groupings and associated chemical secretions that modulate the functioning of body and its responses to the ‘outer’ world. Although the brain is a massing of neural tissue in the head, the brain/nervous system extends throughout the body.
Mind => (or as Kalu Rinpoché would sometimes say, “that which knows”) involves a sense of experience, a sense of knowing-in-action – a sense of an agent engaging with objects. This field of knowing/experience seems to emerge out of the functioning of the body/brain in its course of living and its activity covers many domains of experience, for example: thinking, remembering, feeling, emotioning, planning, conceiving, imagining, evaluating and so forth. We refer to this expanse of knowing that we are with the word ‘mind’ or more often with the phrase ‘my mind’.
Community => involves activities of both structural and functional coupling giving rise to a complex multi-leveled symbiosis of living entities and processes. You may treat me as a singularity but biologically, I am a community composed of trillions of cells functioning together as organs and tissues, together forming this skin encapsulated organism you refer to as Tarchin. Even a single cell could be seen as an evolving community of molecular organelles. This community that I am is continuously interlinking and inter-responding with communities beyond my skin; communities of families and societies and the entire evolving ecosphere. We body/brain/ mind/communities are intimately engaged with myriad other body/brain/mind/communities – communities within communities within communities. We are a union or co-emergence of collaborative-diversity, and integrated wholeness.
In a mature human being these four are totally and seamlessly integrated in their functioning. Bodies, brains, minds and communities cannot exist in isolation. Considered separately, each of these four is continuously adjusting its collective functioning in response to the shifting functionings of the other three. Together they make a whole. Our sense of wholeness is somewhat arbitrary as it depends on our currently experienced frame of reference. For example, depending on circumstances, we can meaningfully refer to the whole cell, or the whole body, or the whole body/brain, or the whole body/brain/mind. We could speak of the whole body/brain/mind/ community, the whole person, the whole ecosystem, and so forth. From a Buddhist perspective the ultimate whole is an un-pin-downable, evolving fluidity of dynamic relating, which involves “the total field or expanse of all events and meanings”. In Sanskrit, this is called the dharmadhātu.
So . . . . .
In the light of these reflections, who is practicing dharma? Who is meditating? And perhaps even more to the point . . . What could it mean for all of me to be present with and for all of you? Take these questions into your practice as you playfully explore the possibilities of experiencing yourself and others as body/brain/mind/communities-in-action.