Training the Mind – Dancing One Thought at a Time
Sharon Montes, MD
“You may return to heal me when you have learned to dance to the music in your heart.” — Ailing Native American healer speaking to a Harvard trained physician
I recently met a wise CFO of a large healthcare organization, who shared the above quote. This very intelligent Harvard trained physician had trained his mind to analyze information but not necessarily to listen to the messages shared by body and quality of presence. A western perspective of training the mind is the acquisition and application of information. A wisdom perspective would consider training the mind an integral part of developing a desired state of being. Many different practices facilitate the mind being guided by spirit… or remembering it’s alignment with the Dao. If I want to train my mind, where do I start – instinct? Emotions? Or words? Some place else?
To further explore perspectives on training the mind, I want to use the model of the three leveled brain – reptile, mammal and human. The reptile brain located in the brainstem provides an instinctive reflexive response to world. Events are processed as a matter of life or death. The mammal brain located in the midbrain/limbic system provides an emotional response. “I will survive this encounter. If I feel afraid I will respond by fleeing to avoid conflict or staying to fight the source of conflict. If I feel safe I will eat, play, rest and reproduce.” This human brain of consciousness uses logic and words for communication. The unconscious/instinctual and subconscious/emotional layers of connection give rise to conscious thought, word and action.
The mind training practice of meditation has served to develop my observing self. That is the “I” that observes “me” in action, rest, and relationship to the world. Through observation I cultivate the ability to be free in my response rather than react from instinct, to exercise my human capacity for choice. This observing self can redirect the direction of conscious thought.
For example, I observe myself while at work at the urgent care center. Sitting at the computer I hit the command to print a prescription and the computer screen freezes for five seconds. I observe – tight muscles in my shoulders and shallow breathing. I observe thoughts like: “Each second counts in the race to get patients in and out of the room,” and “I want to meet patient expectations for prompt service.” A gentle inner voice reminds me, “You have choice.”
I take a slow deep breath and internally repeat my mantra. Time passes and the printer churns out requested prescriptions and follow-up instructions. For this episode of mind training, which happens more than 20 times a day, I observe my physical sensations, emotions and thoughts and choose something different. I choose a slow deep belly breath and choose to shift my conscious thoughts with the sound of a mantra rather than a dialogue of frustration. I particularly like mantra based meditation and the imagery that the words serve as a banana for the chattering monkey mind. As the monkey is focused on the mantra, something else is happening at another level.
While shifting the direction of thought once it becomes conscious has value, another aspect of mind training is shifting the quality and direction of the thought before it rises to conscious awareness. Researchers write that by the time we are conscious of a single thought the body/mind unit has already processed and responded to thousands of bits of information. Reading the words on this page produces a relatively small portion of brain activity, yet it is the predominant activity of which we are consciously aware. Many years ago a teacher compared the process of training the mind to that of a driver sitting in a chariot guiding a strong willed horse. The horse represents the mind, the driver the spirit and the chariot was the body. The goal of mind training practice is to have a spirit that is housed in a healthy body and not led amuck by a mind that is running wild. Over the last several years, I have used a variety of practices to guide the wild horse of my mind.
Medical school was one path for training the mind… not only to absorb and process information but to deny the requests of the body for sleep and exercise; to place the well- being of another above my personal desires. Neurobiofeedback is used with selected metaphors to promote development of favorable nerve cell connections and electrical patterns – cultivating mean ratios in different frequencies in different parts of the brain; different forms of meditation sitting, standing, walking, focused on breath, or mantra based. I have done physical movements – qi gong, yoga, brain gym. I have received body work/massage and noted the effect of how happy I emerged. (My soul enjoys inhabiting a relaxed body ) I have practiced the Byron Katie process of The Work, the process of “Loving What Is”.
In studying the world wisdom traditions of health and spirituality a recurring theme is the presence of a “mind” in the heart. Ayruvedic medicine proposes that the soul attaches to the body in the region of the heart with a smaller connection in the brain. As a westerner I started with an orientation to the rational, verbal mind and honored the power of my thoughts and words.. As I have gained years I am more intrigued with the mind that lives in the heart. Research shows that the electromagnetic field created by the heart has much greater reach and power to create resonance in others than the brain. The wisdom traditions that cultivate the practice of kindness, compassion tolerance are supported by science.
For me training the mind now involves centering the observing self in my heart – observing not only thoughts but physical sensations and emotions and following a path of inspiration. One of the most useful mind training techniques is to consider all thoughts as part of a story. How do I use the “mind” of heart and brain to create a kinder more compassionate story? Having cultivated my “observer” has served me well with this practice. During a recent trip to Florida, airplane departure was delayed because of rain in the next city. Anticipating missing my connecting flight, I started calling colleagues with the story that I might not be able to open the clinic the next morning. Somewhat stressed, I stopped the steward and asked for connecting flight information. My words to the steward then triggered a conversation with the woman sitting next to me. Trained as a nurse practitioner, she is looking at redesigning the way she provides care. We had a lovely conversation about health care, parenting, and caring for the elders in our lives. What started as a conversation triggered by stress ended as a conversation of connection and caring.
I arrived in Charlotte, NC, to learn that the departure of my connecting flight had been delayed 45 minutes. I sprinted through four terminals to arrive at my gate with five minutes to spare. I then spent the next three hours watching red letters flash across the screen with different departure times. I listened to a neighbor traveler complain because all of her preferences and plans regarding arrival at a friend’s house had been altered by the thunder storm. I watched others varying responses to the delay that weather had created. My story became that because I was so tired, work was going to be difficult. Aware of creating a story about the future I pulled back to here and now, and reaffirmed my desire to stay centered and aligned with something greater than my personal mind.
From a focus on the mind in the brain, I am learning to focus on the mind in the heart. The mind is trained and nourished through meditation, dance/movement, music, time and nature. The thoughts that bubble up with words arise from a place of emotion and instincts. By observing the story they tell I can modify, change, or create a different story, a story that allows more room for life to unfold gracefully, a story that allows more room for dance and movement with others.
Wishing you joy in your “mind training.”
——————————————-[Dr Sharon Montes practiced and taught family medicine in medical schools for 17 years. She is committed to integrating science and world wisdom in her professional and personal life. She served for 5 years as the Medical Director for the University of Mary-land Center for Integrative Medicine. She has practiced meditation for 34 years and is an active and enthusiastic member of the tribe committed to integrating ancient wisdom and modern technology with the goal of creating health care and educational sys-tems that serve with greater joy and efficiency. You may contact The Dancing Doctor at firstname.lastname@example.org.]