The Integrated Mind: A Place of Clarity and Knowing
The most powerful supercomputers known to man are those we are born with. We haven’t been able to replicate the capabilities of nature when we look at the processing power available in our minds. It’s a tool that never stops working — an intense process that consumes 20% of our body’s energy reserves, higher than any other physical function by far.
These data processing machines have produced literature, medicine, music, architecture, engineering and everything else we associate with human ingenuity. Before we could use it for such creations, it processed the environment and signaled survival cues for various species prior. These were fear responses for the most part, which preserved genetic lineages for billions of years. The same instrument which allowed us to scope, analyze, and ultimately survive in the savannah is the same we use in our current reality.
Our thinking helps us solve problems, plan for the future, learn from the past, make decisions, avoid trouble and create transformational innovations and art; all that with an underlying survival mechanism. The products of our mind are so personal to us, we can’t help but hold a strong sense of identity with it. We use the feedback in our head to make sense of what’s going on around us, and interpret the various circumstances that life presents.
Our brain delivers the voice that gives us our truths. However, unlike other tools at our disposal, it continues to work even when we don’t need it to.
Closely observing mental processes will reveal that it is an instrument gone rogue. You can wake up in the middle of the night in dialog with yourself. From the moment we arise from bed, the narrative begins — and one can’t help but wonder where those thoughts and ideas arose from. You could never predict what your next thought will be, nor could you hold onto one before it’s quickly replaced by another. No two moments will pass without this chatter. Consuming alcohol, caffeine, THC and other substances will dramatically alter its content. As the Buddhists would put it, we have a ‘monkey mind’ — uncontrollable and difficult to tame.
Not only is this a highly inefficient drain of our physical energy, it is downright dangerous when we derive a strong sense of identity from a voice inside of us that arises from biological and environmental factors beyond our control. We utilize antiquated machines to navigate a modern world.
We find ourselves drifting from thought to thought, in a state of constant distraction. When presented with factual data, objectivity is never a certainty. Our decisions will be tainted by fear responses, or even a dietary factor — you could be more likely to say ‘yes’ because you just took a large dose of a caffeine-like stimulant!
If this is the backdrop from which we must produce our creations, art or innovations, it is imperative to study it to harness its potential while taming its destructiveness.
This can only be achieved by training our mind for focus and attention.
“Watch your thoughts; they become words. Watch your words; they become actions. Watch your actions; they become habits. Watch your habits; they become character. Watch your character; for it becomes your destiny.” — The Upanishads
The Anatomy Producing Thoughts
In order to gain control over our mental constructs, we should first understand what our thoughts are. Dan Siegel, acclaimed psychiatrist focused on interpersonal neurobiology, segments the brain into four parts using the ‘hand model’. Imagine holding your hand upright, fingers closed over your thumb, creating a fist. Use this as a representation of your brain:
- Brain stem (300 million years old): This is the base of your brain, at the bottom of your skull. Picture this being your wrist. This area was the first to develop during our evolutionary process and therefore triggers our primal mode of survival: fight, flight, freeze and faint.
- Limbic system (200 million years old): This enclosed area is symbolized by the position of your thumb. It developed after the brain stem and controls arousal, emotions and the way we perceive relationships. It gives judgement on the importance or relative quality of things — whether a situation is good or bad.
- Cortex: The four remaining fingers represent this area which allows us to think things through, reason and perceive the world. It takes in various sound and visual cues to make its judgements.
- Prefrontal cortex: Shown by the bottom of our knuckles. This area was the latest addition to the modern human brain and gives us the ability to have empathy, mindfulness and a sense of morality. It integrates these three previous parts with the body and external world. It therefore delivers the most wholesome and accurate representation of reality.
Classic examples of our primitive brain taking over our judgment are when we act out of aggression, want to control others, prove our worth — by bullying, attacking, and hurting. This comes from a non-integrated brain, caught in the primal loop. Here, we believe things that are not true and have a limited sense of who we are and what we are capable of. It is a disjointed place to be and a waste of the mind’s potential.
The key is to maintain an understanding that all thoughts fueling anxiety, fear, or panic are from lower, base-level regions of the brain. By recognizing this and not believing those thoughts, you break the self propagating loop of primitive mind patterns. This opens up a clearer perspective that integrates all parts of your brain with the environment; allowing you to see things as they are, free from embellishments.
“I am not my thoughts, I don’t have to believe them.” — Tara Brach
Developing an Integrated Brain
For an orderly mind that integrates its entire physiology when perceiving the world, a mindfulness practice is crucial. The effort is not to quieten or suppress thoughts, but rather accept and observe them. When you take the time to truly listen to the dialog running in your head, a space is made from which you detach and free yourself from reacting to them. This is what it means to work out of the prefrontal cortex. It is the point of clarity.
I was fortunate enough to always have a form of meditation in my life since I was a child. This is my fifth year practicing Vipassana meditation and part of this method involves closely observing your breath — a technique called ‘Anapana’ meditation. It’s a simple exercise that is done in a comfortable sitting position, eyes closed and closely observing the breath going in and out of your nostrils. This brings you to a state of presence. If thoughts arise, observe their existence and let them go while returning to the observation of your breath.
This simple and effective process can be easily learned by listening to an instructional clip by S.N. Goenka — founder of the Vipassana organization.
I’ve found that maintaining a regular meditation practice allows me to detach my emotional wellbeing from the inevitable ups and downs of life. This stability produces clarity in judgment and perspective, allowing focused work to happen, free from distractions. It has made me more aware of my thoughts, allowing me to swiftly bat away any counterproductive patterns. It has been my secret weapon for the years I’ve spent as both an entrepreneur and investor.
The human brain has seemingly infinite capabilities. It evolved from delivering basic survival responses over billions of years to one that can produce all the innovations and art that define human progress. A key characteristic is that it never stops working. Our thoughts incessantly feed us with messages and interpretations of our environment whether we like it or not. We also identify ourselves to this voice and derive a sense of self from it, creating the narrative with which we define our lives and capabilities. By relying on such an ancient mechanism, we expose ourselves to the primal (fear based) instincts of survival and taint the judgements we hold so close to us.
In order to find clarity, focus, and inspiration to be effective creators, it is imperative to understand the mind’s functioning to finally take control of its capabilities. The first step in achieving this is by detaching ourselves from the thoughts it produces by simply observing their existence. By being in this place of detachment from the mental voice, you operate from the prefrontal cortex, the region of our brain that fully integrates the brain’s capabilities with the subject at hand, giving a clear view on the way things truly are. A mindfulness practice like Vipassana meditation is essential to achieve this state of an integrated mind.