Expanding our Minds
Continuing with what I learned taking theatre classes at NU 57–61, I remind us that the approach was Method, meaning inhabiting the character we portrayed by finding the equivalent in ourselves, both what our minds and our bodies were doing. The next step was understanding the mental logic and structure of the play, even how it came from the time, place, and experience of the playwright.
After that, we went to Malvina Hoffman’s “Hall of Man” at the Field Museum of Natural History, chose a character from the “races” portrayed from all points of the planet, and tried our Method by assuming the stance of the statue and researching the anthropology of the person’s place.
When I returned to school at the U of Chicago 78–82, I was extending that technique to include “comparative religion” — a formal field of study. I went to researching the place and person of philosophers and theologians — what they thought was the meaning of human life and why. From the less scholarly context at Meadville/Lombard, came questions about how people handle all these things.
One persistent question was whether the Holy Spirit could be called, as epiphanies are stunning but happen by surprise. One subject I’ve been pursuing is exactly that. It seems clear that these intense moments that change lives appear in every culture but are felt in the being of individuals. What is it that happens? Some think it is an organic brain state and claim they can induce it with magnetism or electrical waves or drugs. But maybe that’s not it. It’s perceived but unaccounted for, like the ability to sense the Holy in the Eliade sense. He claimed that even standing at a point of transition as humble as a doorway can feel holy, which is one of the sources of the idea of the “liminal” or threshold.
It was not until I retired in 1999 that I began to read the science that has exploded our world. My resulting mysterium tremendum et fascinans is shared by many and pre-existed modern culture by a few millennia at least. But it has never been this overwhelming. The elegant increase in our finely detailed knowledge of the world reveals that we’re destroying it and, in turn, it is destroying us.
My response to the problem is to admit we are participants in the world — not controllers of it — and to admit the human Rule of Law, but also the dominant Rule of Nature. We are as we are built in and by the time and place we occupy, connected to everything else, dead or alive, past present or future. It seems to respond to a time and place but to happen in us, not just our brain but our whole self.
Then I come to a definition of a human being that Dan Siegel, a professor of psychiatry at UCLA School of Medicine claims was developed twenty years ago by a meeting of 40 scientists working across disciplines to define the mind. This is what they agreed upon as the nature of a human: “the emergent self-organizing process, both embodied and relational that regulates energy and information flow within and among us.”
This definition relates to the ideas that people are gathering under the heading “embodiment” as our entire bodies are a perceiving and responding point, some ways conscious and others not. But also it puts the emphasis on relationship as a reality “between” the actual and the perceiver. I proposed this in terms of a play or a sermon existing not in the speaker or the audience, but as a thing of the moment between the two. Siegel uses the idea that a shoreline exists between the sea and the beach. Either one alone is not a shore. And it is not static.
These virtual concepts with their potential for guiding — even controlling — our lives are processes, always moving and changing. They are better described grammatically in the participle mode — ing or ed — than in our subject-verb-object way of thinking about phenomena.
Then Siegel throws me a real curve: mathematics. To me it’s a black box. I’ll just quote the paragraph:
“In math, complex systems are self-organizing, and Siegel believes this idea is the foundation of mental health. (Certainly it is basis of the self-organization of the universe.) Again borrowing from the mathematics, optimal self-organization is flexible, adaptive, coherent, energized and stable. This means that without optimal self-organization, you arrive at either chaos or rigidity. . .”
When I googled, it appears that Siegel has gone on to develop a mental health franchise that doesn’t interest me. Enough with the genius systems already. I did those in the Seventies. Franchises are often rigid.
Dr. Matt Kreinheder has another franchise, but he remarks helpfully, “Siegel realized the mind meets the mathematical definition of a complex system in that it’s open (can influence things outside itself), chaos capable (which simply means it’s roughly randomly distributed), and non-linear (which means a small input leads to large and difficult to predict result).” https://www.drmattk.com/the-mind-outside-the-brain/?r_done=1 (His well-being franchise is interested in the mystic. I avoid woo-woo stuff.)
He says, “In anthropology and sociology it is easy to see how mind is something that would move not just in us but also between us. This consensus pulls science out of the aforementioned 400-year-old reductionistic rut.
Its important to understand that the post-rational views are not suggesting that the mind is not in the brain, its just that its not only in the brain. All good developmental models of understanding systems create a “transcend and include” framework to inclusively incorporate what has come before and avoid the “throwing the baby out with the bathwater” that can so often happen as new theories are posited. . .” I agree with this. I’m conscious of the “400-year-old reductionist rut.” It has brought us where we are.
The provable actuality that the planet “rings like a bell” and that waves of cosmic space energy wash over us and through us, that we struggle to overcome our inheritance as mammals without rejecting it, that the teeny bacterial genomes in our guts can change our functioning, and that our existence as the last of maybe a hundred hominin “rough drafts”, doesn’t seem any more preposterous than the beliefs of the big institutional religions we know.
Humans will always reach out for the mysterium tremendum et fascinans but cannot know everything — just how to dance with it, trying to hear the music. I’m listening. Perhaps I am swaying.