Mindfulness might sound simple - just be aware of what you're thinking, right? Mindfulness is more than that, but unfortunately there's no clear definition of "mind" in conventional medicine or western psychology to help us understand what we are trying to keep in our awareness. Brilliant people have tried to describe just exactly what the mind encompasses, but the subject is still up for grabs. What I know is that understanding the mind gives my clients a guide to where their own processes have developed problems and what they can do about it.
The author of Mindsight, Dan Siegel, MD, suggest that the mind "...can be defined as an embodied and relational process that regulates the flow of energy and information." In other words, our minds have a physical reality located in our brains (actually there is no location of mind), but they are something more than just that grey matter upstairs. The mind, according to Dr. Siegel, controls the ins and outs of our energy, our reactions and the vast amount of information that we process daily.
One scientist, Richard Davidson, PhD, researched exactly how negative qualities of the mind (fear, anger, shame) can actually change the neural pathways of the brain. He showed clearly that through practice, focus and attention we are capable of changing our brains, a process called neuroplasticity. Fortunately for us, the Dalai Lama suggested that Dr. Davidson turn his attention toward the positive qualities of mindfulness and peaceful inner strength. Just as you can change the biology of your mind (brain) with thought with fear, you can change your neurons with happiness or contentment.
In much the same way that a computer and software work together to accomplish goals, your brain and mind work cooperatively to understand, interpret and process the world around you. Computer hardware can work faster or slower depending on the kind of software used and your mind (the software within the hardware of your brain) can change how you understand the universe.
Why do software, hardware and mindfulness matter? I use this analogy as a tool to understanding how to work on basic problems with your world. Through study, meditation and mindfulness you can improve your understanding of how the software and hardware of your mind work together. This interaction of the brain and the mind is often the basis for many of the issues we experience.
Over time you can use neuroscience research, like that done by Richard Davidson, to update your own software. Mindfully change your processes to reflect the world you would like to inhabit rather than the world of your childhood or your fears. Changing thoughts can impact the pathways in your physical mind and allow you to more readily understand how a problem can be solved. You can improve how you interact with the world around you.
I've been reflecting a great deal -- on my upcoming conference, on my work with patients and on how we as health care providers decide how to merge what we learn at these educational events into our practice. The burgeoning field of neuroscience meeting eastern psychology (more specifically Buddhist Psychology) has been a long interest of mine and now there are whole conferences that merge East to West.
Of course my Integrative Medicine Fellowship merged alternative medicine with conventional medicine and that has influenced my practice significantly. To me it seems to be a perfect fit to bridge what is being understood from neuroscience with what we know in human sexuality. As I counsel individuals and couples in sexuality I am certain that this connection brings more to our possibility of growth and experience as whole people.
Over the next few blogs, I will discuss Eastern psychology, mindfulness, neuroscience, and how I see these influences shaping my practice in sexuality counseling and Integrative medicine. As a small introduction, let's evaluate what we call “problems” and how those “problems” affect our sex function and health. In the healthcare world we call this "sexual dysfunction."
To understand where these so called problems originate, we turn to the mind. But the question becomes what do we mean by the term "mind?" In Eastern Psychology, the mind is referenced in a broader sense as an integrated being (thoughts, feelings, sensations) verses what we may call our thinking brain in the West. In Western Psychology, there is no firm definition of “mind.” Yet, we commonly use the word in our everyday language. I hear this all the time. “Oh I changed my mind,” “What’s on your mind,” or “I can’t stop my mind from these crazy thoughts." Often, this kind of talk is about the thinking brain. Perhaps this "mind" isn't always the thinking brain we assume it might be. Understanding our problems means it is worth asking a few questions of ourselves to explore how each person defines "mind" for themselves.
If we understand how we (as individuals) use the term mind, we can begin to understand how to apply mindfulness to our daily lives. We can begin to learn how to label so-called “problems” from our minds that create distress to our sexual well-being and well-being in general.
So just take a moment and close your eyes. Take three long breathes -- in and out. With continued slow breaths, scan your body from head to toe and contemplate your mind. Keep the inquiry of "where is my mind" active in your thoughts? Ask yourself questions like: "Is it my heart, or my toes, or my belly, or my brain, or my eyes or my skin?" Notice how when you bring attention to each of these areas there is a sense of mind there.
This sense that there is a center in each of these areas is commonly know in science as proprioception or “sense of self.” Yet the ability to locate an exact area of this “knowingness” that is occurring with such a questioning thoughtfulness is not fully understood. When we look through the lens of Eastern Psychology we glean a better understanding and where mindfulness is touched. Enjoy this investigative contemplation and look for the upcoming blogs on integrating East and West into Mindful sexuality.
Sherri Aikin is a Fellow of Integrative Medicine, Nurse Practitioner, Sex Counselor, Mindfulness Facilitator, and Life Coach.
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