On my writing table lies a selection of books of oddly juxtaposed topics that makes me question the relationship of my interests: Why Evolution Is True, by Jerry Coyne; The Diary of Virginia Woolf; The Blank Slate: the modern denial of human nature; The Diary of Anaïs Nin; and Touching a Nerve: the self as brain, by Patricia Churchland. At first glance I do not see the connection; I put these works into different categories in my head. I like to read diaries, especially of women, because I can relate to them and they always make me feel good. Journaling is a very natural process for me, I have kept diaries my whole life, and women share many of the same issues. I also have an academic propensity, of late being the fields that support the mindfulness work I write about. While presently working on my third book, which currently holds the title, Reality in Action: how we spend our time, the subjects I am researching are evolution, consciousness, cognitive science, neuroscience, determinism and neurophilosophy. Seeing books on my table that reflect these disciplines does not surprise me, it is the combination in the grouping that strikes me as discordant, even though they are all nonfiction.
But this morning I captured the link; it is psychology. Diaries are psychological, as they focus on how we feel about our behavior and that of others. Psychology has always interested me, not only because I have done a fair amount of therapy myself, but because I am an analytical person, especially about my personal life. I read a lot of Virginia Woolf in my earlier years and could never get enough, though some of her books I had less stamina for than others. I also read a very raw biography of her life which made a big impression on me. As a dancer/choreographer I even made and performed a piece on it called Her. And, I delight in May Sarton and keep one of her journals on my bedside stand.
For me, mindfulness is also about psychology as it has everything to do with action; it is my central focus in all my writings, not what we do but how it comes about. My interest in action is eastern in nature; I see it as something over which we have no choice or control. I have historically been drawn to Buddhist and Hindu principles of not believing thoughts, surrendering to what is, and nondualistic themes of oneness, even if my mind makes me feel differently. The specifics of my personal practice are based in these perspectives and are just spiced up by my experiences as a teacher of the Alexander Technique and having been a modern dancer, the latter which infused elements of body and space into my everyday awareness.
Thus, it is human behavior that interests me. Though at first sight an author’s diary does not seem related to evolution, its shared content is the behavior of humans. Whether a diary or a novel, I have always been moved by Virginia Woolf’s gorgeous and obsessive depictions of the people in her life, her extensive analyses of party goers and the contrasts between social classes, drawing as deeply as she could the reasons why people act the way they do. It was about how we think. People think, all the time, and cannot get away from their thoughts, which is why writing is so soothing to the mind of the writer as well as the reader. But, thinking, of course, is a brain function, a manifestation of nervous systems that date back to millions of years ago, if not to the neural activity of unicellular eukaryotes over 2 billion years ago. Herein lies the confused nexus of the mind and the brain. On the one hand, we think of the mind as something belonging to people at parties, while on the other, it indicates brains and neurons. This word “mind” gets tossed back and forth all the time, as something physical and nonphysical, causal and contra-causal.
Even as I articulate this I still get tricked when looking at the stack of books on the table. At first glance they seem worlds apart. Are those people in Anais Nïn’s entries the same humans that Jerry Coyne writes about in his hard determinist presentation of evolutionary creatures, or that Steven Pinker insists are not blank slates who can decide what they want to do just because they consciously want it? Now I see the common theme in the pile; it is the nonduality of humankind. The mind is the brain. People are physical beings who think, act and create.