These days I’m more than a little surprised to find myself as a “systems thinker.” I tend more and more to look at people, places and organizations and respond through the filter, WWIBD? – What Would an Integrated Brain Do?
It turns out that an optimally integrated brain continually seeks neural synchrony, and it apparently does a lot of things differently than I normally do; and differently than many parents, organizations, states and countries do. Dan Siegel, the king of the neuro-acronym, suggests in The Mindful Brain that an integrated brain often produces attunement with and within people, states, countries and organizations. Which is nice, but I like it best when synchrony produces attunement in me. Attunement results in COHERENCE: Connection, Openness, Harmony, Engagement, Receptivity, Emergence (freshness and newness), Noesis (deep, authentic knowing), Compassion and Empathy (p. 193). Nice things to carry through my day. Not a limbic hijacker in the bunch!
Even a Stone Can Still a Mind
Contemplative practices seem to lie at the root of optimal integration and coherence, working as they do in support of enhanced Executive Functioning. And the research seems to suggest that such practices can span the gamut of things from formal prayer and meditation to walking or running in the woods to knitting or quilting or gardening. I remember being struck by a story told by Natalie Goldberg a number of years ago. When she hesitantly confessed to her meditation teacher, Katagiri Roshi, that she was a terrible meditator, his response to her was, “Well, what do you LIKE to do?” It turned out to be writing. “Make that your practice then,” was Roshi’s response. This was a revelation to me – you mean I can do something I actually enjoy and make it a regular contemplative activity and obtain many of the same benefits of formal spiritual practice? Who knew? My best guess would be that the specific activity we choose – flower arranging, tea preparing, serving and drinking – doesn’t matter so much. What matters most is simply that we practice with a kind of mindful, ritual regularity – a minimum of 10,000 hours worth in order to attain some degree of proficient ease and integration.
Notice those two C’s in COHERENCE – connection and compassion. Throw in the three E’s – emergence, engagement and empathy and we have what a lot of people consider a profound “heart” connection. There’s considerable neuro-disagreement about whether the heart is actually involved in such operations. My suspicion is that it is and that we simply don’t have tools sufficiently refined enough to accurately measure its involvement. But once again we have Executive Function and Seven Brains to provide us with clues. I know how it feels to spend a lot of time stuck in my head – not all that splibby. Too much language rooted in literalness, logic, and linearity. My emotional life appears to reside in the right hemisphere along with the two C’s and the three E’s. And I know how those things feel as well. And they feel different. Ideally, both sides need to operate with some degree of harmonic balance. Too many right brain actions without left brain discernment and I end up with faux-connections and what Pema Chodron calls “Idiot Compassion” – offering up what eases my own discomfort rather than what is of true benefit to others. Not optimal.
Never Can Tell What an Integrated Heart-Brain Might Do
So, regular, consistent practice is something that my integrated brain would do at least once, and preferably more each and every day. What’s my practice? Turns out it’s WWIBD! I spend a great part of each day observing all the instances when I’m not operating COHERENCE-ly. For example, when I feel withdrawn, disconnected and closed. Or distracted, self-absorbed and isolated. By first of all knowing how my brain works, and then knowing many of the ways it might work better, I’m able to step back and observe it, and then deliberately decide to move things toward better integration. That ability to observe neuro-self, it turns out, is Executive Function hard at work. And it appears to be working right down at the heart of the matter.