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Archive for April, 2010

I read this fascinating fact in Scientific American recently –

Of the virtually unlimited information available in the world around us, the equivalent of 10 billion bits per second arrives on the retina at the back of the eye. Because the optic nerve attached to the retina has only a million output connections, just six million bits per second can leave the retina, and only 10,000 bits per second make it to the visual cortex. After processing, visual information feeds into the brain regions responsible for forming our conscious perception. Surprisingly, the amount of information constituting that conscious perception is less than 100 bits per second.

Wow! The first part of that whole story is startling enough, and one we don’t routinely consider. There is a vast amount of information surrounding us, but we can only pick up the limited amounts which our sensory organs are capable of handling. For example, we don’t see the same spectrum of colours as other creatures – a flower won’t appear to a bee, the way it does to a human! But, then when you consider the rest of this story, look at just how much “data loss” occurs between what the sensory organ can detect and what we can consciously appreciate!

Funnily enough, I’d just recently read the following in “The Renewal of Generosity” by Arthur Frank (ISBN 978-0226260174) –

Dialogue suggests that the world is co-experienced by two of more people. Each one’s perspective is necessarily partial, and each needs to gain a more adequate sense of the world by sharing perspectives.

Wouldn’t it make more sense to respect each others’ perspectives and enter into dialogue, than to assume that our personal (limited) view is THE right one? (I’m just thinking of the way the politicians are acting in this current election month in the UK)

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I’ve long held that a way of thinking about health is to use the concept of flow. When the various different aspects of our selves and our lives integrate in a coherent way we experience flow – good energy, good vitality, strength, the feeling of being alive (there are many ways to describe it)

waterfall

I recently came across an interesting expansion of this idea when I read “Mindsight” by Dan Siegel (ISBN 978-0553804706).
He describes health as being like a flowing river and he says the river has two banks, either of which we tend to drift towards as we become unwell.
One bank is rigidity, and the other is chaos.

It’s true. We can see that in some illnesses we are stuck, caught in loops, trapped in ever decreasing circles which shrink our world. What should be flowing has become solidified, sluggish, frozen, or blocked.
In complexity terms, this kind of pattern exists around “point attractors”. You’ll be familiar with point attractors in the universe; they are the black holes which suck everything into them. Nothing escapes.
In other illnesses everything seems to fall to pieces, life itself falls apart and we find ourselves lost, or overwhelmed with confusion. We don’t know who we are, or where we are, and we don’t know how to find a way out.
In complexity terms, this kind of patterns exists as a “chaos attractor”, a zone of chaos where there are no clear patterns but which somehow maintains itself.

Which of the patterns are most familiar to you?

Rigidity?

icicles

or Chaos?

sea path

Healing involves a release from these states – from rigidity, or chaos, to flow.

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sun's rays

Attention is like the sun’s rays. Whatever we shine it on looks clearer and brighter. Whatever it lands on increases.

Attention is a kind of focus. It’s a way of allocating energy and resources. Whatever we pay attention to receives more of our energy, and as a result, it grows.

Have you ever stopped to wonder what it is you pay most attention to? A lot of people pay attention to the future. Their minds are full of what ifs and if onlys. They experience anxiety and fear of the unknown. If you’ve got a good imagination it’s easy to spend a lot of time thinking about what hasn’t happened yet (and what might never happen!). Other people pay a lot of attention to the past. Their minds are full of memories of the past…..the bad times, the hurts, the wounds…..or the good times (which are now gone). The interesting thing is that you only live in the present. The past is in memory, and the future is in imagination, the present is reality.

If you focus your attention on past bad times, they loom larger in your life. If you focus on future fears, they also loom larger in your life. If you focus on the present, you experience more of the here and now. And whatever you choose to pay attention to in the present is what you’ll experience most strongly.

Meditation practices are ways of training your attention, so that it doesn’t get pulled this way and that by habits or the demands of others.

Morning pages are another interesting way to explore where your attention is hanging out! (that’s a habit I need to re-establish!)

Becoming aware of what we’re focusing on gives us choices – the choices to decide whether or not to focus on that as much as we are doing, or to focus on something else instead.

Whatever it is we pay attention to increases, colours our whole life, becomes our whole world.

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The ocean of the mind

ripples

waves

The wheel of awareness

big wheel

rose window

I’ve recorded a guided mindfulness meditation practice here.

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Dan Siegel who has created an area of understanding known as Interpersonal Neurobiology makes the point that most mental health professionals have not been taught a definition of the mind, and, often, aren’t clear about what good mental health looks like.

He answers these issues as follows –

His definition of mind is that –

mind is an embodied, inter-relational process of regulation of the flow of energy and information

His definition of well-being is the integrated flow of energy and information. He explains that health is like a free flowing river with two banks, one of which is rigidity, and the other, chaos. We veer towards one or other of the two banks as we make our way through life.

He uses a three-aspect model of well-being to explore this, the three aspects being the mind, the brain and relationships.

I like this definition. What do you think? Is this an interesting way to think about the mind?

In some ways, this builds on the ideas of embodied and extended minds by writers such as Varela, OgleClark and others.

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Is meditation about stopping the mind?

Is it about emptying the mind?

I used to think it was one of those, and I couldn’t for the life of me manage to ever stop my mind. In fact, I couldn’t even figure out how I’d know if my mind had stopped! The same applied to emptying. My mind might often be full of trivia or nonsense, but that’s not the same as it being empty. Seemed too difficult to me.

Then I learned that it wasn’t about emptying the mind at all. It was about noticing what was going on, and letting it pass right on. I learned it wasn’t about stopping the mind at all. It was about enabling it to flow.

As Dan Siegel says, a healthy mind is an integrated mind. Like a river, it flows. He uses the metaphor of a river with two banks, one of which is rigidity, and the other is chaos. We veer towards one or other bank as we travel through life. When we’re well, we are neither stuck in a narrow, trapped place, nor are we falling to pieces, into disintegration. Rather, we’re flowing.

How do we do that? Well, one useful technique is to meditate regularly. I meditate twice a day, for 20 minutes each time, but there’s no strict rule about that. If you can, take a few minutes, at least once every single day, and quietly try a meditation exercise. There are many ways to practice mindfulness meditation. Essentially, it’s a method which allows you to become aware of the content of your mind. Dan Siegel in his “The Mindful Brain” (ISBN 978-0393704709) includes a script he uses with his patients to introduce them to a couple of ways to begin meditation. I’ve recorded his script here.

Just click on the link to hear it.

The basic technique is to become aware of breathing in, and breathing out, and to return the focus of your attention to your breathing every time you become aware that your mind has drifted off to consider something else.

Dan includes two great metaphors. The metaphor of the sea of the mind, where below the surface your awareness lies, calm and peaceful, and from where you can observe all the activities of the mind up there on the surface, coming and going and like the waves. The other is a “wheel of awareness”, with your awareness as the hub of a wheel, the spokes of the wheel being the direction of attention you send towards the rim, and the rim being made up of the five senses which bring the outside world into your mind, the sixth sense, which is the inner state of your body and its component parts, the seventh sense, which is the content of your mind, and even the eighth sense, which is your attunement to others.

I hope you find some of this helpful.

If you’d like to know more about Dan Siegel, and his understanding of the mind, I’d recommend you read “Mindsight”, or download it as an audiobook. (ISBN 978-0553804706)

You’ll never see things the same old way again.

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