Posted by: Harold Knight | 02/27/2011

Thoughts on a Bad Brain Day

‘‘What is the nature of my mind?’’ ‘What advantage is there in cultivating kind thoughts?’ What can we gain from harmful thoughts? Never stop asking yourself these questions. Reflecting on these points will show you just how much of a spoilsport your mind is, and how necessary it is to tame it. (His Holiness, The XIV Dalai Lama)

Yesterday I intended to participate in a seminar I’d had on my calendar for several weeks. A seminar in communicating with others, especially one’s partner. Even not having a partner, I thought I might learn something about communicating (with you?), and I wanted to support my friends who organized the seminar. So I trundled over to the church hall, paid my $10 registration fee, found a couple of friends, and took my seat.

If you have ever looked through a telescope from the wrong end, you can approximate how I was feeling. When I am having this strangeness in my brain, I don’t see things small and far away. The world looks proper-sized. But it “feels” small and far away. And everything is so clearly and sharply outlined that I miss few detail. Conversations across the room. The exact number of people in the room (when I first entered there were twenty-six; when I left I was so hell-bent on getting out of there I forgot to count—and worried about it all the way home).

I could not imagine (think of) staying at the seminar. Everything was too weird—or I might say everything was too intensely normal for me. This “feeling” “reality” “sensation” “conception” is the way I see the world much of the time.

At the root of life’s suffering is the realisation of impermanence (anicca). Even though we perceive reality and our own very selves as substantial, the truth is that existence is in constant flux. Through practicing mindfulness, one embodies the transitory nature of experience. The first physical stirring of emotions, automatic thoughts or physical events such as an itch are observed as passing phenomena to which we may choose to respond or not to respond (1).

You will notice, please, I didn’t say I was suffering yesterday. But I do know when I will be physically (or is it mentally—“Aye! There’s the rub”) unable to stay where I am because it’s just too weird. So I left, drove to the pharmacy to pick up a prescription, continued home, and went to bed. I don’t know anything at all about mindfulness—but I do understand the “transitory nature of experience.” This, too, shall pass. And whether what shall pass is  Temporal Lobe Epilepsy, cantankerousness, or participating in the normal experiences of human beings and simply not liking it, I do not know.

This is not going to be a cute attempt to show how my experience models the Four Noble Truths (of Buddhism) as Marina Claessens outlines them. And I’m not sure why I began with “suffering.” Especially when I have reached a place in my own consciousness that I no longer always experience my “seizure activity” (or whatever it is) as suffering. I’ve almost reached it.

Trying to capture the experience of my day yesterday, I wrote on Facebook,

A slightly difficult day. Brainwise. Look through a telescope the wrong way. The bad brain day feeling—everything is far off. But perhaps I’ve been wrong about it all these years. Bad brain days are my opportunity to see the world as it is, transient, amorphous, and mysterious. And I’m the lucky one who sees it.

Notice I didn’t say a difficult day. I said a slightly difficult day. And then I said I’m the lucky one. Perhaps it’s just the weariness of incipient old age that has given me the ability to relax into these experiences. I haven’t, as Claessens describes, learned that I may respond to bad brain days or not, but I am beginning to understand that I have a choice how to respond. Anger and depression are no longer my knee-jerk responses.

Claessens describes the goal of Buddhism, the Middle Path, as lying between

the suppression and the venting of emotions. It lies in the knowing of the emotions and of the thoughts associated with them, in simply observing, acknowledging without being overwhelmed by the need to react. By watching the different facets of one’s self-construct interact with one’s environment without identifying with them it is possible to attain the degree of non-self-centredness necessary. . . (2).

The goal, she says, is to reach the point where “the boundary between self and others is no longer felt, when there is no distinction between my predicament and the other’s.” I’m sure anyone who has studied Buddhism or Zen meditation, or any of those paths to enlightenment (as usual, I have to hasten to say I am not being sarcastic) already knows these things—they are not some cabalistic secret.

It seems to me understanding the “transitory nature of experience” is the clue to not “being overwhelmed by the need to react.” John Shotter, in his recent article on Wittgenstein says

it is especially in our spontaneously expressed inclinations, in our expectations and anticipations as to what will happen next in the situation before us, that we most clearly exhibit the influence in our behaviour of what we talk of as our feelings (3).

Learning simply to observe and acknowledge my feelings without being overwhelmed by the need to react, I’ve come to believe, will stand me in better stead than all I know about the neurological misfirings (if that’s what happens) that bring about looking through the telescope backwards. Stop reacting to those feelings of weirdness and helplessness. How, I’ve begun to ask myself, do I know those feeling are weird? These

‘tendencies’ are not only descriptions from without, but they are among the objects of the stream, which is thus aware of them from within, and must be described as in very large measure constituted of feelings of tendency, often so vague that we are unable to name them at all (4).

I spend so much time thinking about the “descriptions from without,” the descriptions I give myself of “normal” experience, that I can’t “observe and acknowledge” the directions my own strange and wonderful experiences are “tending” in order to accept them without reacting. It’s time to understand that

human beings are called away from their absorption in everyday concerns and summoned to contact their fluid nature and inescapable mortal destiny. Inauthenticity, on the other hand, results “from the self-concealment of being” from regarding the self as an entity, a subject separate from the external world (5).

I am not a subject separate from the external world with special experience, simply another subject trying to contact my “fluid nature and inescapable mortal nature.” Like everyone else. It doesn’t have to be suffering.
(1) Claessens, Marina. “Mindfulness and Existential Therapy.” Existential Analysis 20.1 (January 2009): 109-119.
(2) Claessens, Ibid.
(3) Shotter, John. “Wittgenstein and our talk of feelings in inquiries into the dynamics of language use.” Critical Psychology: International Journal of Critical Psychology 21 (2007): 119-143.
(4) William James, Principles of Psychology. Quoted in Shotter, ibid.
(5) Claessens, Ibid. Quoting Heidegger, Being and Time.


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