In his book Mindsight, Dr. Dan Siegel tells the story of when he began trying to understand the mind in a serious way. As he approached experts in various disciplines, he soon encountered a fundamental problem: there was no agreed-upon definition of what the mind is. As Siegel convened an interdepartmental working group at UCLA, he discovered that
. . . there was no shared view of the mind, and no common vocabulary for discussing it. A computer scientist referred to it as “an operating system.” A neurobiologist said that “the mind is just the activity of the brain.” An anthropologist sope of “a shared social process passed across the generations.” A psychologist said that “mind is our thoughts and feelings.” And so it went, until I became worried that the tension from these differing perspectives in the group might lead to its dissolution.
Siegel felt he had to propose a tentative definition of mind that could be the basis of shared understanding and conversation. This is the one he came up with, and that he still uses today:
The human mind is a relational and embodied process that regulates the flow of energy and information.
I find this definition interesting in several ways. First off, note that mind is not a stable entity of some kind, not a self, but a process. It is a process that is both embodied – it requires a living human organism to be manifest – and it is also relational, involving the interpersonal and the social. And that it involves regulating energy and information. If we accept this definition, then as we observe the mind in action, we ought to be able to experience each mental event as some confluence of energy and information.
Energy here is not some mystical plasma or a metaphor of some type, but the kind that physics can explore. Our consciousness manifests from the biochemical energy of our nervous system, which interacts with the exchange of energy in our cells, and further with the energy exchange between our bodies and our environment.
We feel radiant energy when we sit in the sun, we use kinetic energy when we walk on the beach or go for a swim, we utilize neural energy when we think, when we talk, when we listen, when we read.
Information, Siegel says, “is anything that symbolizes something other than itself.” Through that system of symbols, the mind makes sense of the energy it experiences.
Energy and information go hand in hand in the movement of our minds. We can have direct experience in the moment – for example, being aware of the sensations in our stomach when we’re hungry, the flood of emotions when we’re upset. We can also build on these energy-filled sensations and feelings by mapping them in the higher areas of our brain. We can “know” that stomach gurgling means we “should” eat, then look at the clock and tell ourselves to wait another half hour for lunch. We can interpret the meaning of an emotion– understanding an eruption of sadness in our heart as a response to the loss of a loved one, becoming aware of a resulting sense of isolation and loneliness – and then be motivated to do something about it, perhaps by seeking comfort from a friend. This is how our minds create information from the flow of energy and how information then leads to motivation and the exertion of energy in new and adaptive ways.
It occurred to me that it would be possible in meditation to observe each arising experience and note how it manifests as both energy and information. Doing so would be a process much like the classic Buddhist exploration of the Five Aggregates. Observing how the basic sensations of our physical contact with the world arrive in consciousness already shaped by “mental formations” and how that leads to further mental proliferation helps us see our experience as it really is and recognize how reactive patterns shape our feelings and thoughts. Watching our mental experience in terms of energy and information can help us arrive at the same insight, in a way that is a bit simpler and doesn’t require an understanding of Buddhist doctrine.
So on Sunday, February 8, Practice Circle will experiment with this form of meditation. If you can’t join us and want to give it a try, here are some basic instructions.
Begin by relaxing the body and settling the mind using whatever techniques help you to do that. When your mind monkey has quieted and your mindfulness has been established, examine anything in your awareness that seems to be calling for attention. It might be anything – a sensation in your body, the sense of your sitting posture or the position of your hands, arms and torso, warmth or coolness, an emotion, a thought, a sound. Work with it as long as it presents itself to you, and if it fades and something else calls, shift your awareness there.
You might start by noticing the sensation as energy. What is the raw sense of that experience? Can you notice that sensation beneath any thoughts and descriptions, even ones like “tightness” or “tingling”? As you do so, you might already start to notice how the experience manifests as information. How the raw sensation is perceived as “tightness in my belly.” Or how that tingling is locating your hands on your lap in three dimensional space. Or how the sound so quickly becomes “a bird outside the window.” You don’t need to force yourself to concentrate on either the energy or the information – just observe both aspects of the sensation as they occur to you, and notice how they arise and interact.
Thoughts will arise. It’s easy to notice the information that thoughts carry, but can you also observe them manifesting as energy? What do your thoughts feel like or sound like? What happens to your thoughts as you observe them as sensations?
Another phenomenon to observe is how information both arises from energy and generates new energy. Notice how a sensation becomes “my nose itches” and observe the energy of the desire to scratch. Notice how “I’m bored” gives rise to the restless energy to open your eyes and get up.
Explore your sensations this way for as long as you like, and then let the practice go and just let the mind and body rest for a few minutes before you conclude your meditation session. Afterward, you might try the journaling practice we’ve been doing the past few weeks, as a way to further process your experience. What did you learn? Did anything surprise you?
As I’ve been working with this practice, I’ve found it a good way to notice how my view of the world generates itself, and how deeply ingrained certain patterns can be. Once I see that, it’s a little easier not to take those patterns quite as seriously, and not to be quite so quick to mistake them for “reality.”
I look forward to exploring with you on Sunday night! You can learn more about Practice Circle and how to register here.