Mental Health and Mindfulness
Process Thought and Relational Neurobiology
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by Daniel Siegel, MD
Practicing Process Thought
"How can process thought be practiced?"
The questioner was a child psychologist from Sechuan Province in mainland China. She was drawn to process thinking because it encourages a constructively postmodern way of living in the world. It is constructive because it promotes mental health, and it is postmodern because it seeks to unite the best of Western psychology with the best of Asian psychology.
As she raised the question, I thought of the work of Daniel Siegel in the video below. He has developed a way of understanding the mind and mental health that is deeply resonant with process ways of thinking, and along the way he recommends two practices that can be adopted by those who want to practice process thought: concrete acts of lovingkindness and mindful meditation.
While influenced by Asian traditions, including Buddhism, one value of his approach is that it is not religiously-defined. This means that it can be adopted by people all over the world: religious and non-religious. Christians and Muslims, Buddhists and Hindus, Atheists and Free-Spirits -- all can adopt a process outlook on the world and enter into the daily practices of kindness and mindfulness.
The Mind and Mental Health
Siegel is clinical professor of psychiatry at the UCLA School of Medicine, where he is on the faculty of the Center for Culture, Brain, and Development and the Co-Director of the Mindful Awareness Research Center.
Here are some points he makes in the video, all of which resonate deeply with Whiteheadian or "constructively postmodern" points of view.
1. Mental health is about harmony. It is a creative integration of nine activities that are related to middle prefrontal cortex of our brains: bodily regulation, communication with others, emotional balance, flexibility, self-awareness, empathy for others, service to the common good, and insight.
2. Our minds are not nouns but verbs. They are activities or processes which regulate (monitory and modify) energy and information we receive from our brains and from our relations with the surrounding world.
3. Our minds continually receive information and energy from two sources: (1) our extended nervous system as distributed throughout our bodies, which is localized in the brain and (2) our felt relations with other people and the surrounding world.
4. Our felt relations with other people and the surrounding world influence the very structure of our brains. Neurobiology is relational.
5. Our brains and minds overlap but not identical. Our brains are mechanisms by which our minds regulate (monitory and manage) our relations with the world. Our brains and minds and relationships form a triangle of reciprocal influences, each affecting the other.
6. With help from mindfulness practices, we can gain insight into our minds, watch they work, and find some degree of freedom from unhealthy attachments, thus finding freedom for healthy attachments.
7. Mindfulness practices are available to people of all ages, not simply adults. They can be done in school.
8. Mindfulness practices are rightly complemented by acts of love and by moral concerns. Psychological health involves and requires harmonious relations with society and the planet as well as with oneself. Helping to build s harmonious society can be one important way of finding mental health.
If you are influenced by process or constructive postmodern thinking, each of these eight points makes good sense. What Whitehead offers is a cosmology which lends support to each of the eight ideas. What Siegel offers is plenty of evidence, from science itself, to support the ideas. Together they make the case for what Siegel calls a relational neurobiology.
What about Religion?
Moreover, for the religiously-minded, Whitehead offers a way of thinking about God, wherein God is understood as an inwardly felt lure toward harmony within each person, and thus a lure toward mental health. And Whiteheadian thinkers add that this lure is also a lure toward justice for the marginalized and vulnerable of the world, including animals.
Indeed, from a Whiteheadian point of view, animals are minds, too. They, too, can enjoy mental health in their way, unique to their own bodily and social needs. The very God who is a lure toward mental health in people is in other animals, too.
There are many and differentiated forms of harmony toward which living beings are drawn, all beautiful, all worthy of respect, all contained within the deep Mind of the universe, who is forever in process, too. Whitehead spoke of this deep Mind as the very soul of the Universe, who shares in the joys and sufferings of all, healthy and unhealthy alike.
MIndfulness and lovingkindness are two ways of being in touch with this Mind.
This video is a TED talk lasting about 20 minutes. It includes helpful graphics.
This video is a Google talk, lasting about an hour, but with good English subtitles. Good for readers for whom English is a second language.