Tag Archives: mental health

If I Am Not My Body and I Am Not My Mind, Who Am I?

Sometimes I have difficulty with the more woo woo aspects of mindfulness practice. I tend to think about my meditation, for example, in pretty straight forward terms. I sit. I close my eyes. I breathe. I pay attention to the breath. If my mind wanders, I notice that, and then I try to bring my attention back to the breath. Sometimes, I notice the mind wandering and then I allow it to continue wandering. Sometimes, rather than focusing on the breath, I might instead meditate on a subject, a theme, a wish for the world or the day, a mantra, if you will. Generally, I find meditation restful, rejuvenating, leveling, grounding, motivating, a place for deep reflection, and I think for these reasons that it’s good for me. Certain philosophical or spiritual aspects of the work come to me with more difficulty. For example, this idea of consciousness somehow being not a part of or beyond my physical self. I kind of get the notion that we are not our thoughts, that thinking is a brain function that fluctuates from moment to moment, sometimes (often) without our control. While we may, from time to time, have an evil or a perverse thought, this does not make us evil or perverse. A healthy approach to the mind might be like a healthy approach to one’s art: that poem is NOT me; it is a moment moving through me. I am not attached to it. Similarly with the body. This meat and water sack I walk around in is NOT me; it’s only a vehicle, a vehicle on loan, one that is destined to break down. We try to take care of the vehicle and try not to wrap our identity too tightly around it. A difficult job, no doubt. But the body and the brain seem to me to be the responsible parties for all the stuff we feel and think, are inextricably connected to each other; when the mind is sick so will be the body. I guess, what I’m trying to put into words is the problem I have accepting mindfulness, awareness, consciousness, enlightenment as NOT the result of stuff that my body and brain are doing, as not a part of my biology. If I am not my body and I am not my mind, who am I? If I am not the one who thinks but the one that is aware of the thinking, who’s that guy? Is he really everywhere? Is he traveling in outer space? Is he connected to people all over the world, past, future and present, as part of something like Emerson’s Oversoul? Can he affect change by thinking thoughts and sending those thoughts out as waves across the planet? Is the top of my head really a glowing purple orb?

I don’t know about these things.

What I do know is that if I love myself I can love others. If I am happy or joyful I can spread happiness and joy. I think these things are part of the practice, but still, they are material, they have to do with the way my thinking effects my behavior and the way my behavior affects the people I encounter and the systems within which I operate. This stuff can spread, right, because if I make someone feel joy they might spread it around ad infinitum. I believe this, and I tell my students this stuff all of the time, that the way we think and what we believe determines the way we live our lives. What we put in, we get out. What we give, we get back. And I acknowledge that this is not a simple matter. Patterns form, some nearly impossible to break. Some of these patterns are not ours. And then there are chemicals and shit inside there that sometimes betray us. I don’t know that it would be helpful to tell a David Foster Wallace, a Phillip Seymore Hoffman, a Virginia Woolf to simply sit on a cushion for 20 minutes a day. I don’t believe that depression is a choice. I’ve had moments recently when I’ve experienced melancholy for no apparent reason, almost debilitatingly so, but it passes, and I am lucky. I have had the good fortune to be able to locate it, look at it, and, as Thich Nhat Hanh would advise, hold it, love it a little, whereby it might transform into something more life-giving and useful. So when we say, this body is not me, or these thoughts are not me, I get that. We are more  than our component parts and thoughts and emotions. We are not that guy cursing because he has to clean up after the puppy, AGAIN. And we share atoms with everybody and everything. I am the puppy. You are my other me. I get that, too. Mostly, though, what I get is presence. How am I present in the world? And it still seems to me that that presence comes out of some combination of body and brain, for better or worse.

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Final Exam: The Visitor

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Let’s say, you’re beginning class for your seniors in Creative Writing on the very last day of the school year, their final exam. Let’s say you have asked them to do this relatively simple but quite risky thing, to read a piece of their fiction out loud to the class. Okay. And let’s say that today, despite chronic absences all through the semester for this group of students, you have a full house. Are you with me so far?

Let’s say that at the beginning of the period, there is a student sitting at a desk that is not enrolled in this class, but rather, a recent graduate, apparently visiting. At first, you think how nice it is to see this particular kid, a kid you liked, a kid you had in class two years earlier, a kid who, despite his intelligence and capability, struggled nevertheless in his last years of high school, but for whom you have not a single negative or judgmental thought.

Let’s say that it appears that this former student wants to stay. He even says for all to hear that he is excited about experiencing your teaching today, again.  You say, because of the nature of this particular day’s plan, that if he does stay, he’ll be taught not by you, but by the students who will be reading their fiction. He seems perfectly happy about that as well. If this were a final in which kids were “testing” in the traditional sense, you probably would have simply said how glad you were to see this young man, and sent him on his merry way, but instead, you think, what’s the harm? If he wants to hear these kids read their fiction, he is most welcome. You even ask the students, your first mistake, does anyone object to a guest audience member? No one objects.

So as the class begins and the first readers volunteer to read, he sits there and listens. But quite early in the process, he starts commenting, raising his hand for questions, complimenting various readers, in short, becoming an active participant in the proceedings, which irks you, makes you uncomfortable, causes you at one point to say out loud that this student is not the student you remember, to which he replies in agreement, but ads that both students, this one and the one you remember, are equally present. You remember now asking him at this point to be quiet during the readings. Your second mistake is that you have not yet asked him to leave the room.

Strangely, you remember looking up at various points during the next few readings and noticing his absence and feeling some relief about that. Minutes later, however, he’s back in that seat. And now he’s commenting again, directly to students, as they finish their readings, about what he liked and appreciated and it’s getting kind of hard to tell whether he is being sincere or if he is mocking or something else. At this point, you remember saying out loud what everyone in the room is feeling, that you are a bit weirded out and becoming increasingly uncomfortable. Your third mistake: you still have not asked him to leave.

Another student volunteers to read. You have this thought: how nice it is that you haven’t had to call on anyone; they just keep volunteering. But then during this particular reading, the recent graduate, the visiting student starts to do some truly strange things. He gets up out of his seat. He starts to move about the room randomly picking up things like tape dispensers, staplers, and post-it pads, trinkets in front of students, and he’s rearranging them around the room and placing them in front of some students on the desks in front of them and making these strange little gestures with his hands as if he is casting spells while the student still reading finishes. And now this boy has a pair of scissors and you are scared. You remember saying (but at this point things get fuzzy in your brain because your adrenaline is pumping)–you say to him, you need to leave now. You are distracting us and you must leave. He is immediately and profoundly apologetic for “hurting you.” Those are his words, and he begs an opportunity to explain himself. You say, no. You need to go. And then you make your fourth mistake: You ask him before he leaves to put things back where they belong. Your students sit in absolute stunned silence while the boy franticly tries to return everything he moved to its rightful place or its rightful owner. And then he leaves.

The students are flabbergasted. You are embarrassed and ashamed. And the first thing you do, the second correct thing you do after the first correct thing of asking him to get out, is to apologize to your students for allowing that weirdness to go on and on and on.  Somehow, with 20 minutes left in the period, you manage to hear the remaining students read from their fiction. As soon as the bell has rung, you have called student management and asked them to find and remove this visitor from the building.

He comes back into the room almost immediately after that phone call. Apologizes again. Begs an opportunity to explain. Tries. Fails. Something about objects directed toward the students who were reading which created an optimum focus for attention, a reverential respect. He begins to cry. Asks you for a hug, which you give to him. The school’s plain clothes security guy is there to escort him away. The boy asks for still another hug, which you give to him. These hugs, perhaps, the third and fourth correct things you’ve done this morning. You say to him as he leaves, please, take care of yourself.

And as you sit here remembering these events of the morning, you allow yourself for the first time today to really feel something. If you had allowed it inside earlier, you would have lost yourself and you would not have been able to work through the day. But now you are safe to feel something, and mostly, it is not fear you feel for the safety of your students, because you know in your heart that they were never in physical danger. It is not disappointment that the security measures in the building did not prevent this unauthorized visitor from entering the school. That feeling did occur to you today, but it is not what you feel now. It is not anger toward this visitor who robbed attention that was due to your students in this final, potentially profound experience of reading their words out loud to their classmates. You felt that today as well but it is not what you feel now. It is not guilt you feel that you did not protect your students sooner from the vulnerability, the emotional danger of reading their work in the presence of an individual who was not operating at full faculty and was not part of their community. You felt that, too, today, but that is not what you feel now. No, what you feel now is sorrow for this boy, this graduate, this former student of yours, this visitor who is now a kind of lost soul who may very well be in serious trouble and needs more than anything else our compassion and our help. If you were a praying man, you would pray that he gets what he needs to live healthy and fulfilled. Instead, you weep for him now, and hope for him now, and you write this down so that you never forget, which is a kind of prayer after all, offered up to the universe for this boy and all others like him who are needful of something that our schools could not provide.

 

 

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