Perhaps this title does not convey the edgy, exciting heart-throb that gets most people’s attention. Yet, most human activity is focused on various ways of trying to feel better. In fact, it is the basis of most of our society’s work, and is the subject of our artistic expression.
To actualize means to make real, accomplish, to realize. Obviously what makes you feel good depends on your circumstances. Sadly, too many people on the planet are focused on meeting the simple needs of food, clothing, and shelter. That so many people have that level of need is a sad statement about money, power and control, which are simply extreme forms of the basic needs of security, identity, and connection.
Feeling secure, establishing our identity and finding our place under the sun, is part of “growing up”. These are the sequential stages of development that we all go through when we are born on the planet. When accomplished successfully, this can lead to a state of mind where we can not only function, but also can achieve great accomplishments, create inspiring art, develop healthy relationships and have an enhanced experience of the fullness of life. Unfortunately, chaos occurs in the lives of many youngsters, causing the interruption of their early development. For example, the happy security of snuggling in their mother’s arms can be abruptly interrupted, or never present. The sense of secure attachment that gifts the world of many babies, is not experienced by all. Too many children lack secure attachment, have poor identity formation, and feel disconnected. Fearing abandonment, they alternate between clinging and shutting down emotionally, also lacking empathy and having difficulty in later life with maintaining healthy relationships.
Many common themes in art and literature reflect problems of security, identity, and belonging that stem from interrupted early development. There are many reasons these problems have occurred, ranging from chaos in early life to more extreme situations. Sometimes a parent was emotionally or physically unavailable or physically neglectful. Other times there was abuse, traumatic adoption, warfare or natural disaster that caused even more devastating interruptions of early development.
Even then, there are ways to heal. Fortunately, there are many cases of people who thrive after overcoming almost insurmountable odds. They have learned to create happy lives for themselves in the face of devastating events. What can a person do to develop a sense of secure attachment, a sense of place and belonging, a sense of comfort within ones’ own skin, when they haven’t received the usual groundwork of healthy growth and development?
Dr. B. Alan Wallace, in his book, Embracing Mind writes, “the mystical traditions of the world converge upon a common reality that transcends words and thoughts: this is the ultimate ground of being… the truths they reveal must be the most important ones human beings could discover.” In another of his books, The Attention Revolution – Unlocking the Power of the Focused Mind, he concludes: “for these elements of a meaningful life – the pursuit of genuine happiness, truth, and virtue – mental balance is needed…There are dimensions of genuine happiness that can be fathomed only by means of self-discovery, there are truths that can be known experientially only within the context of a virtuous life, and there are virtues that may arise only as a result of gaining direct insight into the nature of reality. In a world in which the pursuits of happiness, truth and virtue often appear unrelated or even at odds with each other, this integrated path may help unite the ancient and modern wisdom heritages of the East and the West.”
Indeed, the image of the blind men each feeling a part of the elephant and describing their partial truth is similar to attempting to define the human experience according to scientific and mystical traditions. Each discipline experiences ‘the elephant’ from their own vantage point. A more integrated path can be developed and augmented by paying attention and sharing each others’ stories.
Dr. Daniel Siegal’s book: The Mindful Brain, Reflection and Attunement in the Cultivation of Well-Being offers a link between science and spiritually. In it he describes three interactive components that form a “triangle of well-being”. It entails: neural integration, empathic relationships, and a coherent mind.” He goes on to explain how the brain functions to regulate our biological systems, which in turn affects our experience. He explains how we can learn how to enhance our ability to bring these aspects of ourselves under greater control.
Our prefrontal cortex is wired to engage in activity that has also been described in various spiritual traditions as the path to greater well-being. Just like the silent metal tube that emits a beautiful sound when the wind causes it to be struck by the wood clapper, we also have within our own structure the ability, when stimulated, to generate creativity in ways we can hardly imagine.
We are “wired” for well-being, and for being connected to each other emotionally. The activities that help foster well-being are tasks of the brain’s prefrontal cortex. They include: bodily regulation, attuned communication, emotional balance, response flexibility, empathy, insight, fear modulation, intuition and morality. Research shows these functions are developed through secure parent-child attachment. The good news is that even in cases where secure attachment did not occur, these forms of mental activity can also be developed through mindful awareness. Siegel explains: “sharing mental states is the underlying experience within secure attachment between child and parent that promotes resilience.” He goes on to explain that even when those early experiences were lacking, “mindfulness can be seen as a way of developing a secure attachment within yourself,” thus also establishing the groundwork for building resilience.
Mindful awareness (also called mindfulness) is an ancient concept with over 2,500 years of history and development that is now making a huge impact on contemporary society. The Mindful Awareness Research Center [MARC] at the Semel Institute for Neuroscience and Human Behavior at UCLA defines mindfulness as “the moment-by-moment process of actively observing and drawing inferences from one’s physical, mental, and emotional experiences to help cope with the mounting stresses of daily urban life, and to become more self-aware and compassionate individuals.” Siegel calls it a “self-regulatory mind-monitoring process that ultimately is an awareness of awareness itself.”
So why do this? Siegel summarizes a variety of sources in order to answer this question: “To get a sense of the essential ‘you’ beneath narrative and memory, emotional reactivity and habit, to liberate your mind to achieve new levels of well-being.” Extensive research exploring the nature of attention, emotion, memory, meditation, prayer and mindfulness show “attentional processes, emotion regulation and the capacity to observe internally, introspection and reflection, are all trainable skills.”
In other words, we can do it if want to. So what is the payoff? Basically we are encouraged to learn these skills because throughout time they have been shown to be a path to well-being, a way to “change the structure and function of our brain throughout our lives.” Since many pharmaceutical medications are also shown to do this as a questionable side-effect, wouldn’t it be much more effective to be in control of the process, learning to do this in our own way?
Not only does the practice of mindfulness cause physiological changes in the neural connections in the brain, it creates a sense of belonging, allowing us to connect more with others. Another benefit of mindfulness is that it can help defuse frantic, anxious activity by changing the way we experience time. We can learn how to intentionally focus our attention so that we can experience things more directly, and avoid falling back to habituated patterns of responding. Rather than just reacting automatically, if we intentionally experience our sensations more fully, we can expand the subjective experience of time. Since time “shu fly away”, deciding to pay attention and value what we have in the moment is a way to fully receive and appreciate our true gifts.
Practicing mindfulness can also enhance empathy, emotional balance, and ‘response flexibility’. We know that secure attachment is promoted by the interpersonal attunement that occurs during parent-child bonding. Researchers are also showing that “internal attunement” can be achieved through mindfulness training. What they are finding is that both interpersonal attunement as well as internal attunement promotes well being. It actually leads to the “growth of the integrative fibers of the middle prefrontal areas that are a part of a larger resonance circuitry.” This growth of nerve fibers in the brain is called “neural plasticity”. According to Siegel, it is our brain’s ability “to activate and grow integrative fibers. The neural correlates of these functions become related and their contribution to well-being is made possible.” Neural integration is what creates the possibility of co-ordination and balance. Siegel points out “the interaction among these important regions creates a highly complex state that enables us to have potential for everything from bodily regulation and emotional balance to empathy and moral behavior.”
By learning to practice mindfulness we can learn to be tranquil when we are facing trauma. We can learn how to regulate our emotions, and avoid falling into our habits of mind, instead being aware of the unique aspects of each moment. By recognizing how often our “lived moments are enslaved by memory”, we can learn to recognize our habitual patterns of responding, and become open to experiencing life in new ways. Not only will this help us to be more willing to learn to understand, and enhance our communications with others, it can also enliven our expression of our art.
Thinking and interacting in this way is useful for creating connection, our sense of common needs, common experiences. This can definitely be a path to creating powerful art. Recognizing our connection can enhance and cause us to share more freely in our experience of being human. Mindfulness can help foster creative activity in various ways. For example, when I play my cello, I need to focus my consciousness and my physicality on what I am doing – in order to keep all my facilities primed to perform. The slightest mental distraction or lack of integration can cause a mis-cue, an unexpected sound or movement. When I paint, I find that a different aspect of mindfulness is useful. By being in the moment rather than succumbing to the enslavement of memory, it is possible to experience playful abandonment of the tried and true, which can evoke a new way of seeing, a visually pleasing moment that helps create a new interpretation.
And so, can we actualize well-being? Science and mystical traditions are showing us that each of the paths in the triangle of well-being can be developed through the practice of mindfulness. We can enhance each side of the triangle of well-being: neural integration, empathic relationships, and a coherent mind. Doing so can lead us to a more integrated state, which in turn leads to a deeper sense of well-being. Perhaps it will also stimulate the discovery of who we are and heighten what we can become.