Unlike monkeys, humans also use mirror neurons to directly imitate actions and understand their meanings. … Gallese and Rizzolatti found that when people listened to sentences describing actions, the same mirror neurons fired as would have had the subjects performed the actions themselves or witnessed them being performed. — David Dobbs 
The first thing mindfulness practice teaches us is that our thoughts, if we just watch them without judgement, decision, or comment, come and go in much the same way as organisms arise and pass away in an ecosystem. Further along on this journey we’ll look at the ways our thoughts might even be said to ‘evolve’ like organisms — into new ‘behavioural species’ and newly in-formed ‘mental ecosystems’ — but for now let’s ask the smoldering question: How can we be like ecosystems if ecosystems aren’t programed to die, like the bodies which make them up are? Like our bodies are.
I think we can all agree that ecosystems are conditionally ‘immortal’. And we must say, “conditionally”, because we know ecosystems can collapse in the face of geologically ‘occasional’ global or cosmic catastrophes (an extended volcanic episode, a comet impact, or human caused global warming for instance). Despite this caveat however, and quite unlike the bodies that make them up, ecosystems maintain a recognizable ‘character’ over indefinite normal-time periods, and this ‘evolving continuity’ happens as a direct result of their constituent bodies being programmed to die. So, in what sense can we say this is also true of every-body’s ‘thoughts’?
In keeping with my commitment to maintain awareness of the body, to engage intimacy, with every attempt to think through the current global warming and extinction ‘disease’, let’s begin the discussion of mortality and immortality by ‘grounding’ it in this way. Here are a few more selections from my journal of meditations on the bodymind.
Wed. June 13/07 Whose Memory This?
As I read Rumi,
How he watches his words
Waft like straw
Down the slopes of the roof,
I smell the straw,
See the tiles,
Hear the words.
They say that memory’s all reworked
If Rumi’s dead
Why do I have his memory?
Fri. July 20/07 No Rider Each mood, another existence. Another agenda Tugging at the reigns of my thought, Steering them along some deeply rutted path. Where would the beast move to, What wide open fields might beckon, Or would it just stand by the side of the road And look over the fence, Perhaps nibble on the grass, If there was no rider? Just a mood, Sitting. Transforming, As the world transforms.
Sun. Aug. 19/07 The Understanding
The windows are closed tonight,
Sounds outside and sounds inside
Have different characters:
Muffled, or intimate.
The house is an extension
Of this human body.
I built it myself;
The house, not this body:
This was given for a little while
Unto my care,
With the understanding I would know when
To open the windows.
Mon. Aug. 20/07 Swept Away
At Polly’s funeral
We were awash in tears.
As if we were all sailors
Who'd become accustomed to a balance
Of stepping to and fro,
Side by side,
Upon a heaving deck;
And, looking into each other’s eyes,
We hardly noticed the waves
Until we were swept away
From one and other
Into our common deep.
In what sense are we, like ecosystems rather than like their constituent organisms or like our own ‘personal organisms’, immortal? We are conditioned to believe we are attached to our bodies in such a way that when our bodies die, whatever ‘we’ are dies with them. In the post-hunter-gatherer world, especially with the advent of writing and print, we tend to be out of ‘touch’ with our bodies and their ‘sense’ of reality; and so it shouldn’t be surprising then that, in a disembodied mind’s existential desperation, it will often grasp at some version of Descartes’ “I think therefore I am”. Despite the thinking brain’s connections to the world through a long progression of technological media, all built upon an even longer evolution of biological ‘media’ such as language, mirror neurons, and various sense organs (which are progressively more ancient connections without which discursive thinking cannot exist), we conclude: “I will die when my thoughts are extinguished”.
Let’s start to deconstruct this out-of-body-angst phenomenon (mostly symptomatic of ‘civilization’?) by trying to embody the message at the beginning of this post: Dobbs writes: “Unlike monkeys, humans also use mirror neurons to directly imitate actions and understand their meanings. … Gallese and Rizzolatti found that when people listened to sentences describing actions, the same mirror neurons fired as would have had the subjects performed the actions themselves or witnessed them being performed.”
Mirror neurons were discovered by the scientific community in the early nineties, but the implications of humans and other animals having special cells in our nervous systems that cause us to automatically imitate, at a pre-motor pre-cognitive level, the activities we witness in other beings, and especially the implications of using this covert imitation to “understand meaning”, have not, as of this writing, caught the attention of a wider public. Is this because our civilized object-ivity requires that ‘others’ be re-presented passively as cause-and-effect in-form-ation to a disconnected ‘self’, rather than be experienced intimately (and im-media-tely in the technological or even the linguistic sense) as momentary and yet timeless meaning? I think we can all agree this disconnect lies pretty close to the heart of our fear of death.
But what if the ‘self’ is, in my body, nothing but a piece of word-behaviour I use to complete the sentence structure that holds together my immediate or longer-term object-ives? (The idea that sexual selection can be viewed as a kind of evolutionary language that ‘defines’ species — i.e. biological ‘conceptions’ — is explored here: https://www.extremophilechoice.com/2019/12/08/the-real-language-of-nature/ ) Can my subjective ‘reality’ manifest in any other way but as my body’s moment-to-moment behaviour? What if what I am calling ‘thoughts’ are really the explorative, manipulative or imitative moment-to-moment behaviours that are always covertly puddling away behind the words — in my body? What if all my ‘overt and intentional’ behaviours are enactments of covert ‘rehearsals’, which are themselves reactions to and reflections of the overt behaviours I see, hear and feel in the ‘world beyond’ a skin-deep porous membrane? What if these strings of impulses in my body, borning and dying and borning again — perhaps with slight discrepancies that are always being tested for fitness within a vastly extended flow of interpersonal activity — are just the moment-to-moment, and intimate, experiences of an ‘ever evolving’ humanity?
Ever evolving? Well, let’s say ‘conditionally’ then.
Once again we return to the question we asked in the last post: Who is it we suppose, or ‘assume’, is watching all this?
I suppose you could say The Watcher represents awareness of all this moment-to-moment borning and dying of discursive thoughts and reflected ‘images’. But this supposition is also just a thought; and if The Watcher is intimacy, and in the moment all there is to watch is borning and dying, then intimacy is the experience of mortality. So it’s this that goes on and on! The ‘next moment’ does not exist in the ‘first place’. Intimacy is all and only borning and dying.
Or, on a more helpful note, we can say worrying about death, about the non-existence of a next moment, is not intimacy.
- Dobbs, David. April/May 2006. A Revealing Reflection. Scientific American Mind, vol. 17, no. 2, pp. 22-27.