Mind is the world the brain creates. Mind is the world we inhabit. Sure, if you prick me I will indeed bleed, but my world is a product of my mind which is a product of my brain. Following on, the brain is an organ and part of a larger system we call the body. This dualism of body and mind is fundamental to Western culture, but I’m not interested in that. I’m interested in integration, a body/mind synthesis much like the space/time synthesis that Einstein pulled off. Science fiction is always giving us disembodied brains and downloaded consciousnesses and whatnot, but they are strictly for fun. A mind can’t be separated from its brain. The purpose of the stomach and guts is to digest the food; the purpose of the brain is to produce the mind.
The brain is not a simple organ, it has lots of parts, it should really be thought of as a system, too. And we know our bodies are composed of borrowed parts, parasitic remnants, invasive colonies, evolutionary weirdness, and other good stuff, not to mention that we turn over our cells in many places with astonishing rapidity, it’s hard to fix bodies in time and space. They are dynamic entities, immersed in a sea of gases and depending on a constant input of energy to survive. And so much of what happens to us each day is autonomic—you breathe and digest and excrete and regulate your body temperature and on and on without thinking. Of course you can think about all those things, but they are all done for you whether you care or not. No one has a fucking clue about how that shit works, but all agree it’s way cool.
So here we are in the overfed and over-stimulated US of A and we talk about health. All the time. We run, we eat kale, we detoxify, we go to spas, we get a bike, we quit smoking, you know the drill. But it’s all focused on the body part of body-mind. What about the mind part of body-mind? What sorts of workouts do we need for modern times?
I think we have to characterize modern times as distinct from previous eras in human history. I date modern times from the atom bomb and the nuclear age. Humans actually created a true doomsday weapon, it was no longer theoretical, it was real. It ended the war, and no conflict on that scale has happened since. The other characteristic of modern times is the global communications network. War, or the threat of war, invented or accelerated existing technologies so that things like supercomputers and satellite constellations are everyday phenomena. The pace of change has changed: it has gotten faster.
We know this. We see it expressed in politics where society changes faster than the legislatures can keep up with. They are still debating things from the 70s, fer chrissakes. People can see further than their elected representatives who by design represent blocs of voters and thus are constrained by group-think. Clearly, the modern mind has to be flexible and adaptable. Change is inevitable. It’s growth, that is our mental growth, that is optional. We have to choose it. We can feel dismay at the pace of change, that’s natural. But we have to avoid the nostalgia trap. It’s easy to think things were better back in the day, that people were better, too, but it really doesn’t hold up. It’s just a comforting bias, and it gets harder to shake as you get older. But if we recognize this bias, and know that it is perfectly normal, we can allow our minds to see again, with fresh eyes, not jaded by memory, which as we know is a most imperfect thing.
Certainly we can reminisce, look back fondly, remember the past and all that. I don’t mean to say that we should not. Just that we live NOW and that if we view everything through the lens of how it was, or how we think it was, we will miss the now, or at least see less of it. You want your heart to be strong, to beat smoothly, right? You want your organs to function as optimally as they can, right? How about the brain-organ? If you do all the other things your mother told you to do (eat your vegetables, don’t drink or smoke too much, watch the sweets and red meat, etc.) your brain-organ is probably OK. But your mind, the product of your brain, has to help itself. To look at things anew is the key to adaptability and flexibility. The mind benefits from fresh-seeing. The poet knows this, as does the mathematician. When they face knotty problems they try to look at them from a different place, and in a different way, in order to be creative and generate new possibilities.
The modern world is full of challenges and mental fitness is just as important to the body-mind as physical fitness. Looking at things in a new light is one of those mental fitness things. It has to be in the toolbox, so to speak. We do it all the time, but it might be worth it to be more aware of it, and to work that muscle and build it up. I think the times demand it.