The hard problem of ‘being’

I’ve just finished a session of meditation practice. Each Friday I meet with my fellow practitioners of Vajrayana Buddhism on Zoom: In the stage of Ngondro I am currently practicing, much of the two hour session is spent in visualisation of a deity – one that is said to reflect the true nature of mind. Through a process of ‘archetypal modelling’, the more I hang-out with the deity, the more I can find the confidence in that true nature. I share this with you because today I spent much of my practice playing with the mind and that reflection, in part because I was trying to figure out how to approach this blog post! Last week I set myself up for quite a task for this post. Hundreds of books** have been written by philosophers, neuroscientists, Buddhist masters trying to bring together a universal understanding of mind, brain, and consciousness. Who am I to think I can do it in a 1000 word or so blog post?!?!

But, it feels important to try.

“As a mental health professional, I’ve wondered how this lack of at least a working definition of what the mind might actually be could be limiting our effectiveness as clinicians”. These words from Dan Siegel have stayed with me since I read his text ‘Mind‘ back in 2016. Siegel goes on to say “A working definition would mean we could work with it, and change it as needed”. This is one aspect behind my motivation to discuss mind, brain, and consciousness – if we know what these mean to us, where they reside, how they work, and how they interact, then we can tailor our approach and interventions as ‘psyche’ therapists to optimise well-being. A second motivation is to introduce and translate some of what is known to a wider audience, including other therapists and trainees.  A third factor is my relish for the challenge to bring together what I come to understand (through study) and what I experience as a meditator when I look at my ‘mind’.

But what I do realise…this might take a few blog posts to unravel and explore the hard problem of ‘being’. I hope you will indulge me.

Maybe for now, we can define a few terms?

Brain. According to the John Hopkins medicine centre the brain “is a complex organ that controls thought, memory, emotion, touch, motor skills, vision, breathing, temperature, hunger and every process that regulates our body. The brain and spinal cord that extends from it make up the central nervous system”. The brain is the site therefore of information processing, dealing with the input from our senses – the five we commonly refer to (exteroceptive), but also proprioceptive (body’s ability to sense movement, action, and location) and interoceptive (a lesser-known sense that helps us monitor the internal state of the body).

Mind. Siegel offers a definition of mind “as the emergent, self-organizing, embodied, and relational process that regulates the flow of energy and information”. There is an error often made in thinking that the mind is what the brain does; indeed, very often the words are used interchangeably. But Siegel’s definition helps us see mind as a process, one emerging from the energy and information flow of a system that is not only brain but also body.

Consciousness. So, this is where the rubber hits the road! As above, the brain is the seat of information processing and behaviour control, and alongside that whir when we think and perceive as David Chalmers explains “when there is also a subjective aspect…there is something it is like to be a conscious organism. This subjective aspect is experience”. In other words, when we feel  ‘anger’, there is also the experience of ‘what it is like to feel anger’. Consciousness is the mind’s subjective experience. 

Let us pause, take a breath and re-group…

Brain is the structure

Mind its function, and

Consciousness is the nature of mind

Neuroscience continues to make huge steps in understanding the structure, chemistry and mechanisms of the brain. Cognitive science has helped us understand a great deal about information processing and the control of behaviour. However, what remains a puzzle in this domain is what Chalmers has coined in the phrase “the hard problem” of consciousness. How does consciousness actually ’emerge’?

This is where things get interesting for me. At one extreme, ‘materialism’ sees consciousness to be derived entirely from matter (e.g. from the brain and its processes); at the other,  ‘panpsychism’ sees consciousness as a fundamental property of the universe. As such it is intrinsic as space, time, matter, motion: every single particle in existence has an “unimaginably simple” form of consciousness. At first glance, this can seem a bit mystical (or downright crazy!), but panpsychism is NOT saying my computer keyboard has consciousness – there is not something to be like a computer keyboard (necessarily**). As Galen Strawson illustrates through another example…

“To think that the stuff of which it’s made involves consciousness … doesn’t entail that every piece of every particular clumping of it also is a subject of consciousness. That’s no more plausible than thinking that a football team is a subject of consciousness because it’s made of subjects of consciousness”

So, in the spirit of panpsychism may I re-work that ordering of above, and you can see how this lands with you?

Consciousness is the fundamental ground

Mind is a localisation of consciousness

Brain is the receptacle 

If (and it is a BIG if) this is actually the case, maybe some of you might start to get a sense of where I am coming from – and going to – in the context of psychotherapy and the path of healing. And, maybe those readers who have interest in Humanistic psychotherapy might recognise therefore how important a consideration of nature of mind is in working with ‘self’. 

Again, I beg your indulgence for this discussion to flow to another week. In the meantime, closing words from Daniel Siegel…

The perspective of the mind as a product of the brain alone leads us to an isolating sense of inhabiting a ‘separate self,’ which desensitizes us to our impact on each other and the planet.”

Merci à tous, a bientot

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*DISCLAIMER: I have not read ALL those hundreds of books and original papers…yet 🙂

** This is another topic – there is a whole conversation about Artificial Intelligence and consciousness.

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