from BARDO

The stars are in our belly; the Milky Way our umbilicus.

Is it a consolation that the stuff of which we’re made

is star-stuff too?

– That wherever you go you can never fully disappear –

dispersal only: carbon, hydrogen, nitrogen, oxygen.

Tree, rain, coal, glow-worm, horse, gnat, rock.

Roselle Angwin

Tuesday, 11 June 2013

the difference between brain and mind

It seems to me that we make a fundamental mistake in the West, and have been doing so for millennia – at least since Greco-Roman times, reinforced by mainstream Christianity after that, and now the prevailing paradigm since Descartes: thinking, and therefore acting, out of dualism.

I've written whole articles on this elsewhere, as of course have many many others, most of them better qualified than myself. The point is that this view, in my opinion, underpins and reinforces the mindset that allows us as individuals but also collectively as a society to see ourselves as separate from (and, at least in relation to non-human species, in the arrogant western reductionist mindset superior to) all other beings. 'Me' versus 'you'.

This 'us and them' view is supremely dangerous, and I would argue is what allows us to exploit and/or harm the planet and her other inhabitants. It's also diametrically opposed to the Eastern perspective; and in fact even Jesus Christ said 'Whatever you do to another you do to yourself', or words to that effect.

Much of my writing is predicated on picking apart this dualistic view, so I won't continue it here except to say that seeing the one in the all and the all in the one is the holistic view that also encourages compassion, and means that we take a very different attitude to the universe.

I've written before on my blog about the Indra's Net model; and I was thinking of it again as I watched the woodpeckers and greenfinches at the feeder in the garden, and the rain opening the flowers to which a damp bumblebee or two were paying attention, and the pumpkin seeds germinating at last and my heart lifting at it all and seeing almost visible lines of connection between us all: the ecosystem manifest on so many levels.

Where I'm going this morning though is somewhere more defined, and actually brief and simple. I woke thinking of the difference between brain and mind (as you do), and I want to write a few words here about this, as this too is fundamental.

In the reductionist materialist viewpoint that characterises contemporary Western thought, we tend to see brain and mind as interchangeable, synonymous, and basically all 'in here'.

I was at a talk the other day where the speaker, a professor of consciousness studies, seemed to me to be making the fundamental mistake of conflating the two (it's possible that, in a limited time slot, he was simply being a little careless, but it struck me quite forcibly). This view suggests that there is 'me' locked in here in my brain, where 'mind' is, and there is the world, outside and separate.

Of course, on one level, the reductionist model's level (the purely material model of reality), that view is, or seems to be, true. The speaker, however, is aware of both the Eastern model and the holistic paradigm, but still seemed to be falling into the narrow materialistic perspective, which is, of course, what we're all steeped in here in the Western world. But this view seems to be flawed, to me; and being unable to keep my mouth shut I raised this point.

I should add that my views below are informed not only by the Eastern perspective but also by psychology which, other than in its laboratory-rat-study manifestation, also puts forward the view that 'the other' is not merely a being outside of us but also very much coloured, as we respond to that other, by our own projections; to this extent we are also shaping that being, at least in our own perception/imagination, in some way, and cannot therefore easily declare that he or she or it is entirely separate from us. ('We don't see others as they are, but as we are', as someone famously declared.) Then there is the Jungian notion of the collective unconscious to be taken into account, too.

The brain, I suggest, is the physical organ, located in the human body; basically a collection of flesh and neural impulses, used to receive and transmit.

The mind, however, is something altogether different: it is consciousness itself. It is the what that is received and transmitted, where the brain is the how.

Mind inhabits us and we inhabit mind, and our 'portion', by which I mean the particular collection of experiences, perceptions, thoughts, feelings, sense of meaning, etc, that makes me call myself 'Roselle', is that portion of Universal Mind to which, in this incarnation, we (I) have access. However, on a supraconscious and subconscious level, I have access to so much more than I am consciously aware – all the time.

And if 'my' mind is connected to universal mind, and everything is interconnected, while my brain as an organ might degrade at physical death, that has little to do with mind.

This view of mind is a participatory model, and it is both inclusive and co-creative. This is a really significant point. This is one way of looking at Indra's Net, the web of being of which we are each a node; and in this model a tug anywhere on the net affects the whole.

Jai Lakhani, a Hindu scholar, who also spoke a year or two back in the same forum, invited by said professor, expressed it brilliantly: 'Thinking that consciousness resides in the brain is like thinking that electricity is generated in the light switch.'

That says it all.


  1. Beatrice: How admirably clear you phrased this absolutely convincing fact, not philosophy, Roselle! Topped only by the Hindu scholar’s comparison! Thank you and congratulation on your perception!

  2. Beatrice, thank you! I'm so glad! I couldn't 'see the trees for the wood' when I was writing it, and afterwards I also thought it was muddy.

    It's a perspective I take for granted, but for someone coming from eg a scientific reductionist background I thought it might be woolly. I'm glad that you at least didn't think so!

    I had an interesting response from a scientist as a personal message on facebook; am hoping she'll post it here.

    Trouble is, what I say isn't easy to 'prove' in scientific terms to a sceptic, although of course plenty of cutting-edge scientists such as Bohm, Capra, Sheldrake and physicists such as the Buddhist Allan B Wallace (think that's his name) start from the holistic take.

    Quantum physics means we have to adopt a new paradigm, thank goodness; and the notion of an ecosystem that vibrates on more planes than purely the physical does seem to raise questions that mainstream science has to accept as valid...

    I appreciate your commenting, as you know. Rx

  3. This is such an interesting subject. I guess the first thing to say is that there are so many mind/body theories that it is impossible to take them all into account in one comment. In modern parlance mind and brain are often used interchangeably and scientists postulate that the mind will eventually be understood in purely physical terms, as neuroscience, brain mapping and genetic techniques continue to be developed. Recent studies using neuro-imaging appear to indicate that there may be a direct correlation between neural activity (brain) and mental functioning (mind). Personally, I believe this is such exciting research which offers enormous insights, but maybe it won’t contain the whole answer.
    Many modern philosophers also take the view that the mind is not something separate from the physical body but, equally, others argue that it isn’t merely a physical construct, with some going so far as to posit that the mind is all that exists and individual ‘reality’ is its illusory creation. I had a lecturer at university who was fascinated by this concept of alternative realities. It intrigues me too, but the idea that I may be alone in a very complex, sometimes frightening, world that my own mind has created, freaks me out. I like my theories to be more comforting and inclusive – or maybe I have a timid mind hiding behind the settee while the horror movie is on?
    You write, in my opinion quite rightly:
    “The brain, I suggest, is the physical organ, located in the human body; basically a collection of flesh and neural impulses, used to receive and transmit.

    The mind, however, is something altogether different: it is consciousness itself. It is the what that is received and transmitted, where the brain is the how. “
    I guess to be utterly simplistic, I could say that you can open the skull and remove the brain and hold it in your hand. Pickle it in a bottle if you will. You can do none of these things with the mind and yet we know it is there, that we all have a ‘mind’. Neuroscientific models tend to focus on cognition, rational choice, memory, decision making etc., whilst those of a more artistic or spiritual nature are informed by the complex inner life of the unconscious mind.
    My knowledge of Eastern philosophies is sketchy, to say the least, but from what I understand, most seem to make a much clearer differential between that which is material and that which is not – i.e. brain v mind/soul – than Western philosophies. (I know that’s horribly sweeping, but I haven’t properly studied the former and I’m very out of date with the latter!) The ones I have briefly dipped into seem to embrace the view that the material is mortal and will perish while the mind/soul goes on forever in a cycle of death and re-birth.
    I’m not familiar with Indra’s Net (will have to Google it when I have a moment) but the notion of a universal consciousness, collective memory, a connectedness which does not die or diminish with the flesh, is a significant one. It’s rather a coincidence, I feel, that I was already thinking about this subject as a result of an article I read about a week ago regarding the 100th Monkey theory. This claimed that a sort of ‘group consciousness’ had inexplicably developed amongst a monkey population, spread across disparate islands, after a critical mass had been reached (‘100’monkeys) regarding a copied/inherited behaviour of washing sweet potatoes before eating. The theory has since been debunked ( but it got me thinking again about collected consciousness and then I saw your brilliant article. Thanks Roselle. Lesley xx

  4. Lesley, I so appreciated your taking the time to write this, and especially since you have a scientific background so you will know stuff I don't.

    I've lots to say in response, but am a bit pushed for time; however, as you'll have guessed, I start from the non-materialist viewpoint that the dense physical plane is 'merely' the materialisation of deeper subtler energies, which of course mainstream science doesn't accept, though the work of the scientists I mention above, Bohm, Capra, Sheldrake et al, has 'converted' not a few scientists to a more holistic perspective.

    In these fields the 100th monkey syndrome is accepted, as in fact critical mass can be shown to have an impact on/be an explanation for behaviours that cannot be simply mimicked; and there are plenty of other examples of synchronicities that cannot be explained by the usual reductionist methods of current scientific thought.

    There are numerous papers and books on these subjects, and quantum physics of course has implications that some mainstream scientists are dubious about, but that are perfectly accepted in more left-field research areas. If you are interested and haven't yet read them (you probably have), then the 3 scientists mentioned above, though their work is now quite old, are worth reading!

    There's also a title by a Buddhist and physicist on the meeting points between Eastern philosophy and quantum mechanics; can't remember the book name, but it's Allan (or Alan) B Wallace, I think, as I mentioned above, too - will check that out. Perhaps you have also read The Dancing Wu Li Masters? Also quite an old one now, but again in this field - but there are many many more. Ken Wilber has written a lot of really interesting stuff on the philosophy/psychology behind this, and is well-informed on the science side, too.

    Anyway, thanks for your contribution. x


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