To be mindful suggests being a participant in a vast arena of mind where you are audience, actor, background chorus, producer, creative director, scriptwriter and stage manager in the drama of your own life. It is the play of you, as a conscious subject, unceasingly seeking to flourish, a never-ending moving between, partnering with, coming together then going apart of your living mental images, your feelings, as they pulsatingly flash across the screen of your mind, changing constantly, gripping you with their companions “pain” and “pleasure,” and arousing your loyal escorts and advisors, imagination, reason, creativity and decision-making, consideration and heedfulness to join the throng of actors.
Michelle was feeling anxious as she rushed to have lunch ready in time for her friend. Time seemed to be short but she still needed to do a few things for her business also. She felt spaced out, as if her mind was blank, her fingers were fumbling as she set the table, her breathing short and fast, and her cheeks were hot and tingly. She told herself she was being ridiculous – there was still sufficient time but even her reasoning didn’t help. Her body continued to respond in these erratic, uncomfortable ways. It all felt so unpleasant. She just wanted this all to go away. If only she could just escape from this horrible experience and get on with things peacefully. Look forward to her friend’s visit instead of feeling incompetent. “What’s going on?” She thought. “Instead of anticipating my friend’s visit with pleasure, I am in such an unpleasant, horrible state!”
But then, she recalled that she could actually do something about this. She stopped what she was doing, and took several long, deep breaths and her body began to settle down. Her thoughts slowed down. She stopped imagining her friend’s displeasure. This felt pleasant. She thought about her situation again. Now that she felt more comfortable and settled in her body and mind, she was able to think more clearly.
It felt important to Michelle to consider her friend but also to appreciate her own situation and needs. By being heedful of the state of her body and the pointlessness of her earlier thoughts and by settling her body down, she was now able to come up with a few helpful solutions in her mind. She was able to experience a new attitude to it all. “I don’t need to have absolutely everything ready when she comes – we can chat while I complete what still needs to be done. I can tell her that I needed to attend to a few urgent business needs also. I can tell her I’ve been looking forward to our meeting. I’m sure she’ll be reasonable. She’ll understand.” Humming quietly under her breath, Michelle felt relaxed as she swiftly continued her preparations.
Mindful is “mind” plus the suffix –ful, from “full”. “–ful” means full of, or notable of, and expresses an attribute of mind. “Full” means characterized by fullness, having, containing all that is normal or possible, complete in every particular, entire, whole – including all components without exception.
At first sight, the word “mindful” is remarkable enough but as I explored it’s meaning, as I peeled away the layers, I found a shimmering jewel. Surprising, yet, at the same time it had a feeling of familiarity – I hadn’t noticed what had been there all the time.
In this essay, I propose an added extension in meaning to the current definitions and understanding of the concept, “mindful.” As the reader will come to see, my proposal will be rooted in a view of “mind” as elucidated by one of the foremost, current authors and researchers of emotions and mind, Professor Antonio Damasio.
If you look up the word “mindful” on the Internet, most dictionary entries and the majority of articles refer to it ubiquitously as a practice, which entails focusing on the present moment. It includes meditation, wherein one attempts to detach from any thoughts, emotions and physical sensations, seeing them as mere objects, while remaining in the moment. It is called Mindfulness. It is a practice that attempts to access pure being. For this reason, the practice of Mindfulness meditation requires the capacity for attention, but does not include some of the mind’s other mental capacities such as logical reasoning, pondering or thinking about something in order to make a decision.
If we turn to the definitions of “mindful” in dictionaries they include that it is the capacity for conscious beings to use their minds in order to be attentive, heedful, observant, aware, to bear in mind, to be thoughtful and appreciative. It is also a way of functioning that is based on perception of and approval for the worth of a person or thing. It is to think of or consider in a particular way and to have due regard for something considered important. It also means to contemplate, ponder or think carefully about something, someone, or a situation, especially in order to make a decision, as well as to avoid interfering with or intruding upon, and to avoid violating.
These definitions uncover something of the splendour of this word. But something is missing, which means we need to step off the well-trodden pathways. We need to go deeper. We need to head toward the underbrush because … despite all these definitions, “using your “mind” does not tell you what mind is. To understand the “mind” in mind-ful means we need to examine what mind it is.
Returning to our dictionaries, we read that the definitions of mind are that it is, a philosophical, psychological, and general term for the centre of all mental activity, as contrasted with the body and the spirit: Mind is commonly defined as the process humans or conscious beings have to reason, think, will, perceive and judge. It is intellect or understanding, as distinguished from the faculties of feeling and willing; it is intention, conscious or intelligent agency and applying oneself or attending to. In some disciplines of psychology the mind is the totality of conscious and unconscious mental processes and activities. Finally, mind is defined as a process of a state of awareness or remembrance, opinion or view, purpose, intention and to take notice, observe, or understand. These definitions of mind refer us to specific and vitally important kinds of mental activity. But, is this all there is to mind?
At this point, we have reached a clearing in the underbrush. A small meadow lies before us, lush, with dew lying lightly on it. Rays of sunlight bounce off these tiny drops of water – each drop a perfect sphere. Tantalizing, it draws us in compelling invitation to spread a thin blanket down, to linger for a while. Invites us to sit here, looking further at our enquiry, “But is this all there is to mind?” The question we first raise is … what does the phrase “the capacity for conscious beings to use their minds” mean? In his book, Self Comes to Mind, Antonio Damasio says this about consciousness, “Without consciousness – that is, a mind endowed with subjectivity – you would have no way of knowing that you exist, let alone know who you are and what you think.” Mind and subjectivity and consciousness are thus irrevocably tied together. According to him, mind or mental contents are made up of every kind of abstract and concrete pattern one could think of, in the form of neural images. He poetically describes the unique feature of your consciousness as “the very felt thought of you.” What does he mean by this statement?
ANTONIO DAMASIO AND MIND
Damasio leads his readers on a fascinating journey, solidly based on neuroscientific studies, telling the story that grounds the mind as a function that is “nested” in, and inseparable from, the living processes in the internal worlds of our emotions, bodies and brains also representing our external environment of people, relationships and objects “out there.”
Professor Damasio writes that mind includes the conscious awareness of feelings. In his view consciousness systems evolved because they are crucial to our survival and supply us with competitive advantages. But, what does he mean by feelings?
Having tarried for a while, we now join Damasio on a bold, adventurous journey toward an exciting understanding of mind that will fulfill our search for the “mind” in “mindful.”
He starts off by telling us that although feelings and emotions are often used interchangeably, they are not the same.
Emotions he explains are a group of alterations in the state or condition of your body, which have been triggered by the brain when it responds to perceptions of incidents, whether they are real, in the present, remembered, or imagined in the future and, when your external environment has triggered them.
Emotions, he says, are thus the internal actions of muscles, nerves, organs, hormones, the endocrine system and so on, whereby your physiological state and certain functions of your body are changed. For example, these changes may include increased heart beat, shallow breathing and so on. Only you are aware of these inner changes. However, you are able to observe these physiological changes externally in others such as in their facial expressions and in their fight or flight responses.
What are feelings then? Feelings, he tells us, are the signals of your body changes that are mapped as neural images in your brain, which then result in your conscious, perceived mental experience of your body changes – in your mind. In order for you to experience your emotions of fear, anger or joy, your physical bodily actions and changes (emotions) have to be converted into feelings, which he writes, “is the same as saying that [your emotions] had to acquire a mental face, which is the same as saying that the mental face had to be owned by the organism in which it occurred, thereby becoming subjective, in brief, conscious.”
Feelings in this sense are thus the mental images of the actions of emotions, which then comprise a part of your mind. But he points out that our mental images are not “pictures” they are all “processes in time” that involve the interactions of both your body and your nervous system that is, your body and brain structures communicate with each other by means of interactions and blendings of those very structures. As his words reverberate in your conscious mind, you might perhaps begin to shift an age-old view that has teased at the greatest minds. Body and brain structures are not separate; they are blendings. Suddenly, we have an image of wholeness.
But this is not the whole story. Damasio adds that your feelings comprise more than just the mental images of your emotions. They are the awareness of the whole narrative of what is going on in your life – in your entire organism. For example, he adds, they include mental images of the experiences of well-being, tiredness, unease, heartburn, the tightening of the throat during fear, breathlessness during an asthma attack, and even the effects of molecules on certain parts of the body when we experience this as nervousness or excitement or tremors – all represented in your mind as mental images. Their messages are always about your body experiences, your body states. In this way, he says, conscious mental images enable us to translate the nonverbal language of the body and its processes into the language of words, telling us about what’s going on.
Your feeling images in your mind are also not “mere” neutral, neural images. You are not watching, or “sitting across from,” the images as if they were part of a television show. If you observe them for a moment you will become aware that they are three-dimensional, just as your body is. They are faithful representations of each flutter in your abdomen …the exact location, the strength or weakness of fluttering – the fluttering is alive in your mind. An exact report by your body-alive of your living inner processes – the living you. Not only in your mind, it is part of your mind. It is mind.
But, Damasio tells us, although feelings are different to your other mental experiences such as reasoning or imagining, they dwell within your mind as equal mental inhabitants, enjoying the same privilege of being represented in your consciousness. In fact, he says, it is your feelings that drive your intellect and creative processes. What might the purpose be for having your body’s processes and states represented in your mind – as a part of mind? In Damasio’s words, “Feelings work as motives to respond to a problem and as monitors of the success of the response or lack thereof.”
These interactive communications and blendings that eventually manifest as mental awareness illustrate why mind cannot only be conceptual; mind is an inseparable function of body and brain. As Damasio notes, these blendings are the body-brain aspect of unity.
But viewed from a different perspective, he adds that body-brain duality also exists simultaneously. For example, when the external world elicits emotions and then mental feelings, we can distinguish between the inner sensory neural images for example, those that are visual and auditory which map the exterior world and separately, the neural images of the spatial positions and changes of the organs that characterize our emotions. Here, we meet up with Scott Kelso’s complementary nature of the strange, yet real world, of both/and~either/or … the world of multiple interpretations and behaviours. One moment, complementary aspects can seem to be discernable and the next, they merge, one moment they exist as opposites, the next as complementary. They are tendencies that are revealed, depending on how you look at them, depending on the contexts and constraints that act upon them.
Feelings also include a certain kind, a certain mode of thinking – thoughts, which complement your emotions. But by this, Damasio does not mean that if we feel fear that we begin to think of all the fearful experiences we have experienced in our lives. What he is saying is that when something you have learned that resulted in fear, such as having an alcoholic parent unexpectedly lash out at you frequently so that you were in fear of your life, or something that could innately constellate fear such as a snake, triggers an emotion, thoughts linked to the actual current, or a recalled memory, or a future hypothetically imagined situation. Your memories and thoughts are about that very situation that triggered the emotion and those very emotions you experienced.
For example, if the memory is about your alcoholic father, your thoughts will revolve around that past situation. If you are imagining your boss’ reaction in a hypothetical future situation and she also has a tendency to unexpectedly lash out at you, such that you fear you might lose your job and thus, your livelihood, your thoughts will revolve around this imagined situation and may include an imagined image of her firing you. Damasio tells us that your mental feelings will now include conscious, layered images that represent the state of your body and all of its changes. These might include, the experience of tightness in your abdomen, your hot, tingling cheeks, a mental representation of “fear”, a representation of “unpleasantness” together with images of your thoughts as they revolve around your fear situation – all of these are mental feelings in your mind. But, he adds, they start functioning in a circular fashion, emotions triggering thoughts, thoughts triggering emotions, and so on, over and over again. You are now on a revolving wheel of suffering. This ongoing suffering and distress compels you to do something about it. It irresistibly obliges you to return to a state of physical thriving. An evolutionary development. It will not let go until you do.
Following on from this, there is still more to feelings. Damasio tells us that feelings have the capacity to grasp you and have an impact on you, because they inform you about the “goodness” or “badness” of the state of your body, that is, of its homeostasis, which you experience as a feeling of well-being (pleasantness) or pain, malaise (unpleasantness), which force your attention. But, he tells us; homeostasis is not just a steady, balanced or stable state. Instead, he brings to it a powerful, moving image when he tells us; it is a specific kind of steady state – one that leads to flourishing. He adds that homeostasis is also not merely an unconscious, automatic function because minds are able to interfere with automatic self-regulation by creatively finding new and different kinds of ways of regulation. By extension, self-regulation includes managing the effects that social and external situations have on your body. What would this look like in a real-life example?
Jeremy was trying to focus on an important presentation for work, but his thoughts kept returning to his friend Chris. Chris had been a good friend for a long time, but now, Jeremy had heard via the grapevine that Chris was having a birthday dinner at his apartment that weekend. But he hadn’t invited him. “Why not?” Jeremy wondered. Yes, they’d had a bit of an altercation about two weeks ago but surely that wasn’t enough to not invite him? Was their friendship not as strong as he’d imagined it? He’d sent a message to Chris at the time, which he’d thought would clear the air. But now that he thought about it, Chris hadn’t replied. Jeremy pushed his thoughts away and tried to continue with his presentation – to no avail. His thoughts kept on intruding. Now he was angry. “How could someone hold a grudge about something so insignificant? It doesn’t say much about his character!” Jeremy thought about his own views. “At least I’m not that small-minded,” he concluded. He got up to make some coffee. He was aware of a feeling of disappointment and sadness. His chest felt heavy. His body felt out of sync. He started feeling guilty. He’d actually gone for Chris quite aggressively. But the worst feeling was how his circling thoughts and emotions all felt so bad. He didn’t like feeling this way. It nagged at him – feeling like this was exceedingly disagreeable. He desperately wondered what he could do to feel at peace again so that he could get on with his presentation.
Jeremy sat on his balcony drinking his steaming cup of coffee, trying to get some perspective on this situation. The fresh air and the warm coffee felt good. As he reflected he realized that not going to a birthday dinner was not the end of the world and didn’t have to represent the end of their friendship. He resolved to wait until after the weekend and then to meet up with Chris. Perhaps they could resolve the issue? He could own his part in their altercation. If it was not possible to resolve, it could mean that they were moving in different directions, growing apart – that can happen. As Jeremy pondered on this, he began to settle down more. His desire to lash out at Chris settled down. His thoughts and feelings were now attended by a matching feeling of agreeableness. His body was more relaxed – his tension dissipating, his thoughts more easy, less intrusive. In fact, his thoughts were now turning toward his presentation. Jeremy got up. He felt that his reflections had not only brought him some peace but, he’d learned a lot by devoting some thought to what friendships are and what it could mean if they possibly start coming apart. He felt energized, he was already creatively thinking about what to write, even before he’d got back to his desk. This was going to be a great presentation!
As one can see, conscious regulation draws on and partners with mental capacities that include deliberation, reason, the capacity to reason beyond what we perceive in the present, the ability to understand and diagnose situations and their causes and effects. This in turn enables new responses to come into existence. Each and every one of these mental functions and also the mental activities of their dynamic interactions are consciously represented in concert, as neural images, to a subject, to you as a being that is aware of them and who owns them. Damasio tells us that mental feelings with their positive and negative valences (that is, the experience of pleasantness and unpleasantness that are the close comrades of every feeling) enable the intellect to expand and focus and provide it with purpose. The drive toward flourishing, the state of your entire organism with respect to meeting this evolutionary need, together with the dynamics of diagnosis and finding solutions toward flourishing will thus also be conscious mental components of your mind and thus, constitute mind.
How might you have so much going on at virtually the same time in your mind, you might ask by now? How could you possibly keep track of it all? Would it not just be a discordant mixture of competing, indistinct noise – a cacophony of the worst kind? Indeed, it would, were it not that your mind also functions like an exquisite, coordinated ensemble. Think of a musical, an orchestra, an opera, a band, or a jazz group. For example, at certain points in an opera there might be 10 singers singing at the same time – sometimes at cross purposes, sometimes about the same event. Their words are not the same, the melodies they sing are different, some may be singing comical lines, some may be complaining, some entreating – all at the same time – sometimes one voice or another group of voices rising above the rest – portraying a complex situation, then another, perhaps a condemnation, and another, expressing sorrow, then judgment, then receding into the background of the whole sound. But, this performance – the voices … soprano, tenor, baritone, alto, the different melodies and the different words sung, are interwoven and held together musically to produce a harmony that is spellbinding to your ears. In the same way, your conscious mind is the playground of an elegant harmonic composition of you – and yet, just as the story in the opera moves us forward – onwards and onwards, one action at a time, one phrase at a time, one note at a time, so our feelings, in like manner, move across our minds as processes in time.
But what about those past, recalled memories you might ask? Surely in these times where a number of systems of thought consider the “past” redundant, positing the present as the all-important consideration – what about this? Damasio has something to say about this also. Namely, he tells us from a neuroscientific perspective that a normal function of humans is that our brains operate in the present. Recalled memories are alive in the present. Your brain doesn’t function in the past. What does Damasio mean by this?
This can be illustrated by an example. You recall a holiday with friends and family at the coast. Now, your brain reconstitutes stored mental images from different brain locations which include memories of good and bad moments, the emotions you experienced, images of the people involved – your mother, aunt Annabelle your fun friend Lulu, your grumbling uncle Max. You remember visual images such as aunt Annabelle’s ever-smiling face, smells such as your mother’s cooking, drawing you faster and faster to your holiday cabin after swimming in the surf, scenes of where an interaction took place, the relevant conversations – the words used and their inflections, and so on. All vivid, recalled images. But Damasio tells us that these are not the construction of whole mental images – your brain has not reconstituted actual, whole pictures. Instead, your past memory comprises many different images from many different parts of your brain. This is an awe-inspiring process. For example, the image of grumbling uncle Max’s face will be partly reconstituted by the visual parts of the brain – they will be made up of, and include aspects such as vertical and horizontal lines and colours from different parts of your visual cortex. The sound of his voice will come from the auditory cortex but also from other parts and regions of your brain. These are just small examples of a myriad of processes being activated in the many different parts of your brain as you re-member him. Damasio tells us that it’s all happening now, in the present moment in your brain, multiple parts and regions of your brain constructing your apparent whole image, which, is actually a presentation of many bits and pieces. The empowering outcome for you is that because your brain presents the past as current images, you can change and transform former old, worn out views about yourself and your previous dynamics, by bringing a new understanding to them in the now – one of the striking and critical evolutionary endowments that enable us to develop, grow, change and thus, thrive.
But further to this, the past doesn’t only affect the present; it also has a bearing on your future. With respect to this, Damasio and others, have shown by means of brain studies of people who have suffered certain kinds of brain damage that, without the capacity to recall the past, people repeatedly make disadvantageous decisions for the future that lead to financial losses, social problems, loss of relationships and job losses – despite their retention of many other faculties of intelligence. A typical example is that if you are unable to remember the pain you experienced when you first touched a hot stove, you will not have the benefit of your past experience, memories and emotions to stop you from touching it again. But recalling this experience will stop you from getting burnt in the future. What Damasio is telling us here is that how you have experienced and lived your past – in pleasant or in painful terms – has a bearing on how you are able to imagine and transform your future.
Thus, because feelings are always experienced in the present, and because we are able to experience that they matter, because they inform us about whether a situation and thus, the state of our bodies is problematic or not – our subjectivity means we can consciously invent new and different possibilities to creatively come up with a different approach, which can in turn change the course of our lives. Damasio tells us that our feelings can motivate imagination, our creative intellect, and can arouse our reasoning processes and then, working together, they can result in different behaviours. He expresses this both scientifically and poetically as, “Feelings and reason are involved in an inseparable, looping, reflective embrace.” From his perspective, one could interpret this as mind in an interactive dance with the body, brain and environment.
One last aspect needs to be addressed here. Although, as conscious beings, we are attentive, and take much into thought when we make decisions, several decades of studies by many notable researchers such as Antonio Damasio, Antoine Bechara and Jennifer Lerner’s review of 35 years of research on decision making, have illustrated that decisions are not always taken consciously. Our emotions also have a say by affecting the kind of decision we make. This is one reason why some outcomes are advantageous and others are not. This has a bearing on being mindful – there is more at play than merely acting from a perspective of a conscious subject with awareness.
In conclusion Damasio paints a canvas that illustrates the immense vastness of your mind. It includes the awareness of what is happening in your entire organism. This includes the effects that your experiences with your external world, with people and situations, with culture and society have on your body and thus, your mind. All of this is represented in your mind in the form of the play of a myriad of mental images changing from moment to moment, moving towards the foreground and then receding, dynamically, as a subject; playing with them as you manage the state of your living existence. Most of all, Damasio’s view is one of mind as a function of wholeness, having the attributes of containing all that is possible, and complete in every particular
Returning then to being mind-ful, it now includes a mind that is “full and complete,” that is, it includes your entire organism, the external environment of people and things and also the common understanding of mindful as a conscious, aware person functioning in attentive, heedful, thoughtful and appreciative ways, having due regard for what you consider to be important, the capacity for contemplation, thinking carefully in order to make decisions and to avoid violating or intruding – all of this mentally represented, all of these aspects stakeholders, and all of this resident in mind to a conscious subject who has a say and to whom it all matters.
To be mindful in this sense suggests being a participant in this vast arena of mind where you are audience, actor, background chorus, producer, creative director, scriptwriter and stage manager in the drama of your own life. It is the play of you, as a conscious subject, unceasingly seeking to flourish, a never-ending moving between, partnering with, coming together then going apart of your living mental images, your feelings, as they pulsatingly flash across the screen of your mind, changing constantly, gripping you with their companions “pain” and “pleasure,” and arousing your loyal escorts and advisors, imagination, reason, creativity and decision-making, consideration and heedfulness to join the throng of actors. In a word, to be mindful is the collaboration of the complete display of your mental images presented in your mind by your entire organism as body and brain blend, together with your mental functions of thought and reason. This is the ground from which you, as a conscious subject in your own life, have the capacity to be attentive, thoughtful, appreciative, ponder and make advantageous decisions for yourself, in your relationships and in society. This is possible because evolution had a say in how we can prosper and flourish. This is possible because we have consciousness, which enables us to perceive this entire range. This is possible because we experience ourselves as a subject, as an agent in our lives. This is what Damasio means by “the very felt thought of you.” This is what I propose being mindful is in its fullest sense.
Bring some magic into your life! Ideas developed by Leslie Zimmermann.
MA in Research Psychology, Cum Laude (Witwatersrand University, South Africa),
Post-graduate Diplomate, Accredited Analytical Psychologist (Switzerland)
Member: SAPC (South African Psychoanalytic Confederation)
Member: IAAP (International Association for Analytical Psychology
Member: SAAJA South Africa
Leslie Zimmermann is an accredited Jungian Analyst trained in the philosophy and psychology of C.G. Jung in Zürich and is based in Johannesburg. She offers a range of services, which she integrates, to meet the needs and aspirations of people. In a word, her work is in the service of wholeness. Wholeness includes both our vulnerabilities and our strengths, becoming conscious of our own unique mix of these, honoring our own unique way of functioning and with this knowledge and confidence, contributing as only we each can in our own way, to this evolving world we find ourselves to be a part of.
Besides having a Diplomate qualification in Analytical psychology, which qualifies me to write about the theory and practice of dream interpretation, I also have an Honours degree in Applied Psychology and a Masters degree in Research psychology, which qualify me to write about theories of human development, personality, abnormal psychology, social psychology, neuropsychology, sociology and ethics. Also, theories and knowledge pertaining to sleep and dreams from a symbolic perspective including neuropsychological and biological systems.