Doing vs being
The octopus has no real central nervous system, no real terminals or stations for the subway network of its nerves. Its nervous system is dispersed throughout its body and a severed octopus arm will go about merrily hunting and swimming until it runs out of food. Nevertheless, an octopus is capable of complex problem solving, tool use, communication, intricate and clever camouflage, and recognizing and remembering people and places. All without any centralized brain to speak of. To me, this suggests the intriguing possibility that “self” is not required for the activities of daily living.
Leonardo de Vinci, passionate about anatomic accuracy, dissected enough criminal cadavers to prove that all nerves in the human body terminated in the brain instead of the heart as was commonly believed. In the same way that Copernicus astounded and offended people with his notion that the earth may not be the center of the universe, de Vinci abruptly realigned the map of our consciousness and demoted the heart to a mere pump, instead of body’s center of being.
However, in the same way Newton’s laws have been shown to be only mostly true thanks to quantum and relativistic physics, the idea that our consciousness “resides” anywhere in particular has come under increasing skepticism. Carl Jung made a strong case for the existence of the collective unconscious, a deep well of common experience that we can only appreciate one bucket full at a time. Modern cardiology has shown that it is possible to die of a broken heart. In Takotsubo cardiomyopathy, a psychological stressor such as grief triggers a spasmodic blockage of the coronary arteries, leading to myocardial infarction. Neuroscience has shown that we are capable of extending our proprioceptive sense to our environment and to others. A basic example is athletes who are capable of using sports equipment as an extension of their body. Based on neuroimaging, an accomplished skier’s brain treats the skis as large feet. A more fascinating example is members of military units demonstrably extending their awareness of self to other members of the team. We can find strong evidence that our sense of self is fluid, habitual, and trainable.
Recently, I read a book about a bunch of odd things, one of which was the idea of using neurofeedback to do meditation. The premise being that “accomplished meditators” produced characteristic readings on electroencephalograms (EEGs) and that, using neurofeedback, you could train novice mediators (meditater tots?) to reproduce these readings and learn how to meditate more quickly. Curiosity being a biscuit that I have to butter, I wanted to find out a bit more.
A friend pointed me to a neurofeedback specialist in the flatiron building, downtown. It’s the only building I’m aware that has an elevator attendant. Not for poshness or fanciness, but because the elevator is old enough that it needs a real live human to work the doors and switches.
In a corner office made trapezoidal by the peculiar shape of the building, Stephen welcomed to me to sit down in a large comfortable red chair amidst intricate and indecipherable equipment and eye-catching abstract needlepoint art made by his wife. He explained his use of neurofeedback as a component of treating depression, anxiety, attention disorders, etc. and was kind enough to lend me a headset to try for the sake of improving meditation.
Looking like a pair of headphones that you wear with the band on your forehead, the device monitors your brainwaves and is purportedly capable of distinguishing the unfocused stream of default consciousness from the awareness specific to the meditative state. The brain being an organ that steadily secretes thought, meditation is like a brain kegel exercise that helps prevent unwanted incontinence of internal dialogue.
In practice, you sit comfortably and close your eyes while wearing the headset and some headphones. If, calm and focused on the sound of your breath, you hear the gentle lapping sound of water. If you lose focus, the sound of wind gradually picks up. There is also an ambient music version. Hook it up to the home stereo and it gets a little freaky. (“I’m controlling the music with my mind!” he cackled). After a session you get a graph of calmness versus time.
I find it interesting to see when he headset likes my brain the best. After mountain biking, I’m zen savvy and my tracings look like ripples on stream. After 3 cups of coffee while answering email and making phone calls, the readings look like lightning’s drunk cousin walking on uneven ground.
My impression is that meditation offers some insight to who's in charge in the brain room. My brain is typically a cacophony of competing voices who are only capable of working together in incredibly stressful or blissful conditions. Like children who grow quarrelsome when forced to sit still for too long, the thoughts in my head seem to increase in volume and attention seeking behavior the longer I am in an environment that does not demand focus or provide stimulus.
There are a lot of different version of meditation and I’m an expert on none of them. My reading on the subject has been scattered and largely informed by Alan Watts’ “Still the Mind”, Chuang Tzu’s writings, and some peak performance research that showed up on an emergency medicine podcast.
Meditation is a practice of strengthening your awareness of the myriad thoughts that drive your choices and behaviors. By taking 15-20 minutes and choosing what to think about my whether it’s a mantra, your breath, or the sound of a running stream, you practice being aware of the thoughts your brain produces involuntarily. You also become aware of the difficulty of choosing what you wish to think about or focus on. Alan Watts suggests sitting comfortably and thinking about your breath. When you find yourself thinking about something else, return to thinking about your breath. The idea is that easy, the practice is much harder.
My experience has been that since making meditation a regular practice, I more often remember to pay attention to the moment I’m in. I’m better at resetting my mood when the day has tortured me with emails, dog puke, and broken plumbing. I’m a little better at not reacting with impatience and defensiveness to other humans, even when they may deserve an open manhole cover in their day.
The Polynesians believe that the octopus is the last remaining species from a prior incarnation of the earth. With the octopus’ ability to change both the color and texture of their skin to match their surroundings and a nervous system so uniquely designed that researchers are still trying to figure out how to even test their intelligence, there may be something to be learned about this current version of earth's existence where the existence of self is taken for granted and imagined to be necessary. Maybe there’s some value to just drifting with the current, reflecting the shape and color of our surrounding, and snacking on shellfish.
Although Stillwater Medicine is focused on the medical uses of cannabis, our approach to doing so is based on our belief that wellness is only possible when mindfulness, diet, exercise, and community have been attended to. We know that humans require all of these things to experience life fully and joyfully. Medical marijuana has its role in this recipe for many people as finding a safe way to address pain and illness. Depending on the strain and dose, it's cognitive and perceptual effects may also provide a useful perspective or a respite from anxiety and depression. Our doctors treat medical marijuana with the respect it deserves and understand it's role in the broader creation of wellness.