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Guide: Mind

A Guide to Mind in Meditation

How do science and meditation work together? Much of their intermingling has to do with understanding the concept of “mind.” If you are interested in a conceptual history, contemporary view, and possible future meaning of “mind,” this guide may help.

“Mind” is an abstract concept. Sometimes “mind” is used interchangeably with “brain”; however, while the brain is a physical part of animal, especially human, bodies, “mind” is more an abstract idea about what thinking, feeling, emotions, and similar activities involve. Sometimes “mind” refers to your type of mind, as in “she has the mind of a scientist” or “in his mind, he is an artist.” At other times, “mind” simply means the mechanism by which humans think.

 “Mind” also means, especially to psychologists and scientists, the place where unconscious activities (of which you are mostly or usually unaware or not in conscious control) take place: for example, your mind is the place of emotions that you often feel automatically, though you can, through meditation and other means, observe and even find sources for them, both internal and external; your mind also contains many autonomous (automatic) physical processes–for example, breathing, heart rate, sexual desire, et al.–which we can control if we wish by conscious will or by changing our thoughts.

Historical ideas of “mind”: “Mind” is a very important idea in psychology, sociology, religion, philosophy, and many other disciplines or great thinking systems of humanity. People have tried to explain the mind through centuries and even millennia, from some of the earliest writings about it in religious tracts telling us how to control or use your mind to reach higher states of consciousness, to more recent centuries with their nonreligious, psychological explanations of using and controlling your mind. In the most recent two thousand years and more, we have seen astrology systems that explain how people think by dividing individuals into types by birth signs; pre-A.D. Greek philosophies about the mind; the world’s major religions’ systems for appropriate thinking and self-understanding; secret renaissance alchemists’ systems for spiritual growth; and in our own modern ages, the beginnings of psychology.

Mystics’ definitions: Mystic definitions of mind usually consider it a simple, bare, fully conscious awareness. Thought, or at least individual, specific thoughts–whether verbal, subliminal, or sensory (visual, auditory, tactile, etc.)–are not part of the basic component of mind, according to mystics. They say there is an underlying awareness: Hindus call it the “Atman” or individual portion of God, and Buddhists refer to it as what is left in nirvana (see) after all thoughts and feelings are removed from the mind. Other mystics refer to it as the raw, basic, conscious awareness in oneself that receives mystical or spiritual content.

Psychologists’ definitions: Psychology and its cousins sociology and psychiatry are important disciplines in ideas and research about the mind. This is true especially if we consider early definitions of mind such as Freudian, Jungian, and Adlerian, along with early sociological and medical theories. This continues to be true historically as later offshoots of these groups, new groups, and new science continues to develop literally thousands of variations for defining “mind.”

Often, such groups use metaphors – symbols – for “mind” and its thinking. As prizewinning novelist Kim Stanley Robinson points out in Blue Mars, psychology and, with it, society, has gone through several ways during the past several hundred years of thinking of the human mind.

In the age of Descartes, for example, our minds were said to operate like clocks. In the age of the industrial revolution, says Robinson, Freud and his contemporaries thought of the mind in terms of steam engines, capitalism, and evolution: repression, sublimation, and mechanical misdirection, along with hierarchies of survival among the weak vs. the strong. In the last half of the 20th century, Robinson suggests, greater focus on pleasure, desire, and fun led to psychologists seeing in the mind a variety of physical, aesthetic, and sexual pleasure functions.

In the latter part of the 20th century and through the early decades of the 21st century, Robinson suggests, as computers became increasingly important, the mind (and brain functions) were often understood as supercomputers with millions of subtle mechanical interfacings too numerous to count or explain – but with the assumption that someday people would be able to invent a mechanical mind – a computer – that could meet or beat human minds for individuality and, in fact, a type of free and mechanical personhood that might make individual computers superior to all individual human beings.

What is a modern concept of “mind”? Robinson also suggests, however, that the mind may be much more than any of the above. It may be more like “an ecology…or else a jungle…populated by all manner of strange beasts.  Or a universe, filled with stars and quasars and black holes” (p. 56, Bantam, 1997).

This, the mind as universe, likely is much closer to the truth, especially as it is less limited–less of forcing “mind” into a smaller box–than any one age of humanity might suggest. “Mind,” just like “humanity” or other universal concepts, is always likely to be much more than we can define in any age, future or past, using just the cultural and scientific concepts of that particular age.

In fact, “mind” implies holistic or overall concepts related to “soul,” “being,” “spirit,” the ultimate meaning of the universe, and other seemingly unanswerable questions. But if we look at nature–at the physical universe–we may be able to start understanding what the structures of the mind might be.

The entire universe is, as scientists tell us, an unfolding symphony of structures repeated within structures. For example, the starfish-shaped pattern of the internal structure of some atoms is mirrored in starfish patterns in some molecules, in higher yet starfish-shaped seeds, flowers, and other plants, and they again in parts of animal physiology and functioning. At a higher level, they are similar to – and first originating in – starfish patterns in the universe and in each of its physical galaxies and solar systems.

In structure, then, what is above in the universe is below in the earth and in us. And what began in the universe’s rock, liquid, and air is continued in plant and animal life and in some of our highest human brain patterns.

This is true of many structural patterns in the universe and in plants, animals, and humans. For this reason, we can look to the universe–and to other forms of inorganic matter and organic life on earth–for the patterns that exist in our brains. Our brain structures in many ways mirror the stars, and the stars mirror our brain patterns. We can look to each to better understand the other.

The future of expanded “minds”: Similarly, science keeps finding new levels and ways that matter–and all life on earth–works. Every century, we discover a smaller, deeper, more basic part of matter and energy.

In recent decades, we also have been discovering ever more subtle electrical fields in the brain. We have reached the point at which we can not only control external machines by implanting electrical nodes inside the brain, as in the 20th century, but now in the early 21st century we can simply attach electrical nodes to the skull without surgery for brain thoughts to control machines.

Because the brain itself creates electrical fields that we can measure at least several inches from the skull, we can assume that our instruments will gradually be able to place nodes further from the skull to control machines, and we may also find these electrical fields much further out – many feet – and also be able to harness those using electrical devices, such that we will be able to control machines from a distance of several feet or more.

What does such external control do to our understanding of mind? At the very least, a mind must be something that extends inches, perhaps feet, around us. How do we also define mind when two people come together inches away from each other? Can their minds in some way read each other’s electrical fields?

Late 20th and early 21st century physics also has been playing with the concept of multiple universes, time travel (one type of atomic interaction seems actually to reverse cause and effect), and the idea instantaneous travel of atoms through warp holes from one part of a galaxy to another, resulting in cause and effect events with great physical distance between the cause and the instantaneous effect.

If such “travel” of material events is possible, what does this do to the concept of mind? Does it mean one mind can contact – or somehow affect – another mind instantaneously at a distance? Does it mean “mind” can be two minds, or many more, thinking the same thing at the same time? Does it mean group thinking about a specific or general subject can be a single “multi-mind” event with resulting effects in individuals or society?

Science is leading us to a much broader, deeper understanding of mind even as we understand better how matter – and thus the brain and its electrical fields – works. This is why the long held spiritual, meditation-oriented understandings of “mind,” “soul,” and and indivdual’s “being” should be taken seriously. Just as good philosophy and good religion describe a state of nature that science gradually discovers and confirms rationally, so do philosophy and religion describe “mind” and “soul” predictively, with science gradually discovering and confirming these descriptions.

And because the structures of nature – whether the universe or earthly matter and life – mirror each other,, we can assume that the structures of mind – as expressed by each – will continue to help us understand just what mind is and of what it is capable.



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Text © 2017-2020 by Richard Jewell

Images © 1994-2018 by Gabriel R. Jewell

First edition: 1 Sept. 2018. Second edition: 1 Sept. 2019. Free Use Policy

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