This article is about a foundational psychological skill: awareness of your body. What’s interesting is that this skill is also fundamental to most contemplative practices.
Awareness of the body has been a fundamental practice within most contemplative traditions. The body as a temple, the body as a source of beauty, the body as repulsive, the body as transitory—all of these concepts have had their place in spiritual practices.
In steadying the mind in concentration, developing mindfulness of moment-by-moment experience, fostering compassion for ourselves and others, and nurturing equanimity in the face of impermanence, old age, sickness, and death, we start with the bodily experiences of right now/right here.
In the Christian tradition, the phrase that comes to mind is “the Kingdom of God is within.” In the Buddhist tradition, the Arahant, or Bodhisattva, is one who is awake and aware. That is what the practices aim for, the awakened and aware heart/mind, fully present in the Present and Presence.
To that end, here we will talk about some of the underlying neuroanatomy and neurophysiology of the experience of the moment, beginning with some basic, well-known anatomic diagrams, and moving on to basic principles of how the nervous system constructs an electrical representation of the external and internal world.
Fundamentally, the sensory systems differentiate sensations, and the brain then integrates those signals again into what it is set up to “see” as useful percepts and successful behaviors.
You are a Dynamic and Ephemeral Coalition of Neurons
What we hope to give you is security in the knowledge that you are a dynamic and ephemeral coalition of neurons—there truly is no “There” there. Sometimes that knowledge is uncomfortable, because we like security and stability (“I need to trust you will be there for me!”).
But if you stop and think about it, you’ve operated for most of your life with the illusion of “There” being there. And maybe that’s a major reason for what has been less than happy or successful in your life!