Mindful Consumption and Our Extended Brain

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Dear Still Water Friends,

This Thursday evening, after our meditation period, we will recite together the Five Mindfulness Trainings and focus our discussion on the 5th training on mindfulness consumption.

As I was reflecting on the training, I read an article about Andy Clark, a philosopher and cognitive scientist. In the 1990s he and a colleague, David Chalmers, wrote a paper,  The Extended Mind, which became the most cited philosophy paper of the decade.

The paper’s thesis was simple and challenging: What we call our mind is not limited by our skin and skull. A simple example is long division. In order to divide 3175 by 17 most of us use pencil and paper or a computer. Since these technologies are necessary for the mental process, they are part of our mind. Similarly pencil, paper, and computers are for most of us critical for composing a long document. And, if that is the case, the same is true for the house that shelters us, the books that inform us, the communities that support us.

After the paper was published, Clark continued to develop the idea:

Clark began thinking that the extended mind had ethical dimensions as well. If a person’s thought was intimately linked to her surroundings, then destroying a person’s surroundings could be as damaging and reprehensible as a bodily attack. If certain kinds of thought required devices like paper and pens, then the kind of poverty that precluded them looked as debilitating as a brain lesion. Moreover, by emphasizing how thoroughly everyone was dependent on the structure of his or her world, it showed how disabled people who were dependent on things like ramps were no different from anybody else. Some theorists had argued that disability was often a feature less of a person than of a built environment that failed to take some needs into account; the extended-mind thesis showed how clearly this was so. (from The Mind-Expanding Ideas of Andy Clark, a New Yorker article by Larissa MacFarquhar.)

While the Extended Mind appeared to be something new and novel to cognitive scientists, it is an old idea. Since the time of the Buddha, it has been taught that the notion of a self separate from the world is a conventional truth, but not the deepest truth. Thich Nhat Hanh explains that one of the four key teaching of the Diamond Sutra is that we should let go of the notion of self:

There is the idea that I am this body, this body is me or, this body is mine and it belongs to me. We say these things based on the notion that “I am.” But a better statement would be, “I inter-am.” It’s closer to the truth in the light of interconnectedness; we see there is no separate self that can exist by itself. You cannot exist without your parents, your ancestors, food, water, air, earth, and everything else in the cosmos. By looking deeply into the nature of reality, we can throw away the notion “I am.”

Returning to the Fifth Mindfulness Training, Nourishment and Healing, Thich Nhat Hanh’s emphasis is on what we consume, what we allow to have great influence in our bodies and our minds.

Aware of the suffering caused by unmindful consumption, I am committed to cultivating good health, both physical and mental, for myself, my family, and my society by practicing mindful eating, drinking, and consuming. I will practice looking deeply into how I consume the Four Kinds of Nutriments, namely edible foods, sense impressions, volition, and consciousness. I am determined not to gamble, or to use alcohol, drugs, or any other products which contain toxins, such as certain websites, electronic games, TV programs, films, magazines, books, and conversations. I will practice coming back to the present moment to be in touch with the refreshing, healing and nourishing elements in me and around me, not letting regrets and sorrow drag me back into the past nor letting anxieties, fear, or craving pull me out of the present moment. I am determined not to try to cover up loneliness, anxiety, or other suffering by losing myself in consumption. I will contemplate interbeing and consume in a way that preserves peace, joy, and well-being in my body and consciousness, and in the collective body and consciousness of my family, my society and the Earth.

In Touching Peace Thich Nhat Hanh suggests writing down three things that may help us transform the 5th training from an idea (or ideal) into a meaningful daily practice:

First, what kind of toxins do you already have in your body, and what kind of toxins do you already have in your psyche, your consciousness? What makes you suffer now? . . . Recognizing these toxins and listing them on a sheet of paper is meditation — looking deeply in order to call things by their true names.

Second, what kind of poisons am I putting into my body and my consciousness every day?” What am I ingesting every day that is toxic to my body and my consciousness? . . . What kinds of poisons do we ingest every day in our families, our cities, and our nation? This is a collective meditation.    

Third, write down a prescription that arises from your insight. For example, “I vow that from today I will not ingest more of this, this, and this. I vow only to use this, this, and this to nourish my body and my consciousness.” This is the foundation of practice — the practice of loving kindness to yourself. You cannot love someone else unless you love and take care of yourself. Practicing in this way is to practice peace, love, and insight.

During our Dharma sharing we will focus on our answers to these three questions.

You are invited to join us.

Many blessings,

Mitchell Ratner

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