… it would be reorganizing it in one specific way. That way would allow me to more mindfully enact The Three Noble Principles in my daily unfolding world. It is this bit of disorganized neural network that seems to underlie much of the suffering that I have experienced over the years; and it is something that I see others having to unwittingly endure in their own lives as well.
The Three Noble Principles were first introduced to America by Tibetan Buddhist teacher Chogyam Trungpa in the mid-1970s. They’re essentially mindfulness practices intended to go with us as we move throughout our day. Whatever we happen to be engaged in, we attempt to frame it in three parts – a beginning, a middle and an end. The Three Noble Principles simply advise doing our best to make the beginning, middle and end … all good. Buddhists have a prescribed way, a working definition of “good”, but as a neuroscience educator knowing how unique and complex each of our brains are, I advocate for creatively constructing our own definition of good as part of a doctrine-free creativity practice. I suspect that simply setting this kind of mindful intention has significant neural integrative benefits, all by itself.
To illustrate: I try to practice The Three Noble Principles when I write this blog. As part of Good at the Beginning, I usually craft the first drafts early in the morning upon awakening (as I’m typing this sentence it’s 4:03 AM). I start by taking a few minutes to relax by breathing a few mindful breaths. I might use a “settling mechanism” like this one. Or a stimulating message/encounter like Tripping the Light. Then I simply write “what wants to be written” with little regard for anything but what my fingers actually do with the motor movement they produce courtesy of my motor cortex and my cerebellum. That’s a first draft. When that’s complete for the moment, I consider that to be the middle. I pause, rest for a bit, find the place of appreciation in me for the fact that my brain and fingers still work and then hang in that internal space for a bit. Next comes the cleanup draft where I read back through what I’ve written, correct for typos and grammar and check to see that what I’ve written actually makes beginning sense. If it’s clear that what I’ve written might actually serve a few readers out there, I consider it “Good at the End.” For this part of the writing process. Any number of additional edits will follow (this blog’s already up to Edit 16).
Research shows that one of the results of this kind of mindful activity is increasing numbers of cells and connections in the brain, especially in the area of the prefrontal cortex. Those added connections seem to result in an increase in Attentional Intelligence. Attentional Intelligence is the ability to place my attention where I want it, when I want it, for as long as I want it. Attentional Intelligence seems to be a problem in the world: this research suggests that as many as 94% of human beings struggles with it. Being recurringly mindful to make things good at the beginning, good at the middle and good at the end, can serve as a great way to keep my mind from wandering back and forth to the future and forth and back to the past. It’s a great way to curb dissociation and to keep me focused on what’s right in front of me, right here, right now. The more I’m able to focus on right here, right now, the less my Word Brain is able to vomit up anxiety-generating fear thoughts. Which at my advancing age, is pretty easy to do: I have daily reminders in the form of aches and pains in this joint or that muscle or such and such a spot, lump or bump, that I’m moving towards my body’s eventual end. I want that end to be as good as it can be.
Historically, what has been most difficult for me to manage has been “good at the end.” Growing up I was famous for my Irish Goodbyes. For those of you who don’t know what Irish Goodbyes are, they’re the opposite of Jewish Goodbyes, which tend to go on interminably. Irish Goodbyes are best characterized as “now you see me, now you don’t.” At some point in a gathering I would simply head off into the sunset without letting anyone know I was leaving. The primary reason for this kind of exit was essentially because it was the only tool available to me to use to manage the vulnerability and hyper-arousal too often triggered by groups of people. Having to seek someone out and say goodbye would only add to the stress load. In other words, my adrenals were the boss of me.
But of course, I’m not the only one who struggles with Good at the End. Bad at the End happens every day all over the world. Most often our unskillfulness and unpracticed engagement with it shows up when we are faced with someone (especially ourselves) on the end-of-life trajectory. All kinds of unskillful, disorganized behaviors can find their way into the mix at the end of life. A telling example from my own life: when my mother was dying, I never made it to the hospital as she was taking her last breath (in my defense, she lived on the other side of the Diablo Range and she and I had a lot of unfinished business that her brain – severely compromised by early and lifelong trauma – made it impossible for her and me to do in each others presence). For her memorial service, I conscripted a friend to help me get to the service and insure I would show up. We ended up getting lost on the way for over four hours! Unskillful, unmindful, unconscious, disorganized behavior clearly doing what it does to perpetuate suffering for myself and others. That’s one thing I would change about my brain if I could.
Dream a Little Dream of You: I’ve put together a new online offering. It’s about dreamwork and human development designed to help make more of our unconscious conscious. Click HERE to check it out: Dreaming with the Brain in Mind. We actually can begin to discover what some of the unconscious processes are that drive our lives and start to provide a bit of surprising, deliberate direction.