It was a phenomenal exhibit of the intricacies of the human body! Those plastinated bodies of once-living people left Boston when Body World 2 closed its doors at the Museum of Science. How wondrous, strong and fragile these bodies we animate!
Billions of neurons work together to both initiate and inhibit actions that occur ongoing, waking or sleeping, maintaining heart, lung, digestive, and immune function. These galaxies of tiny interdependent cells comprise a brain that is still a marvel to our most dedicated researchers. And we’ve barely begun to plumb the depths of the nature of consciousness. Where do these thoughts come from? How are these beliefs held? Do we start with a blank slate, or is there something we come in with?
Another question lingers… closer to the bone, so to speak: why do we choose unhealthy activities? In the exhibit, diseased and blackened lungs mutely testified to the madness. Slices of bodies demonstrated the difference: one with lean muscle tissue, and another with an inch-and-a-half thick layer of fat surrounding it. What in the interplay of our physical bodies and consciousness leads us to do such self-damage? We do know, for instance, that eating unhealthy foods often satisfies a competing need for comfort or distraction, and that smoking cigarettes actually does lead to relaxation. But there must be more at play here, because evident in the display were the accumulated
consequences of lifetimes of apparently innocent behaviors. Examples of clogged arteries, diseased hearts, overloaded livers, and brains damaged by burst blood vessels lay preserved beneath glass.
The answers to these riddles were not on view at the exhibit. But they can be found here, in our own consciousness. This ‘insight’ requires a steady diet of silence, a healthy dose of attention, and the regular exercise of discipline to become aware of that which chooses action or counsels stillness. ‘Mindfulness’ is one way into this mystery: it is a well-developed practice of attending to this physical body and the consciousness that organizes its functions. It starts with the breath, a natural bridge between the autonomic and voluntary nervous systems.
Initially, attending to the breath as a neutral object of attention is analogous to playing scales on a musical instrument. Becoming more facile with the basic workings of an instrument allows the more creative music to sound. Similarly, we become more familiar with the workings of this basic and necessary bodily function, the breath, which by default is autonomic. It gives us an avenue in, offering up for observation more complex mechanisms that also appear to be automatic, eventually allowing access to the conditioning that influences processes that typically transpire below the surface of consciousness.
We have been conditioned by a lifetime of experiences and have adopted certain beliefs or frames of reference through which we perceive the world. In order to see these frames of reference for what they are, we can choose to focus not on the experiences, but rather the lenses through which we view these experiences. The ability to be aware of our own frames of reference gives us the opportunity to think outside the box, be open to more options, and to choose more deliberately our behaviors.
Beginning with the breath, paying attention on purpose to what is happening right now, we just breathe in and out. We witness without judgment as best we can, letting things be just as they are – letting the breath be just as it is – letting the breath breathe itself. It is a melding of the autonomic and the voluntary… This attitude of acceptance is integral to a process that, with practice, allows us to see the things to which we have habitually denied ourselves awareness, eventually opening the door to yet deeper insights.
It grows into an internal biofeedback mechanism which folds body and brain function in with consciousness. And as
mindfulness ripens with practice, a growing awareness of the heart, mind, body and soul can allow us be a little more skillful, and compassionate, in our interactions with this wonderful world. CHA
BY ADAM LISS, Spring 2007
Adam Liss offers mindfulness classes for stress reduction, as well as classes combining weight reduction with stress reduction. His web site is www.CapeStressReduction.com and he can be reached at 508-420-3300.