WHERE IS MY MIND?
Updated: Dec 12, 2022
Back in the 1990s, when I was a somewhat disillusioned teenager, I loved the band, "The
Pixies." Their grinding beats and alternative style captured my attention. While I left most of their
songs with my high school self, I have come back over and over again to “Where is My Mind?”
Long before I was studying or practicing mindfulness, I loved this song. It can be interpreted many
ways, but for me the song is an anthem for attention and presence and an inquiry into the root of
our awareness and consciousness.
As a college student, long hours with scholarly articles and academic books left me feeling
stuck in my head. My body was merely a necessary functional form to allow my brain and its
consciousness to continue its cerebral pursuits. Medical school and residency followed this form:
training the brain while indoctrinating the body to silence its signals of stress. Grueling hours and
difficult cases left me exhausted, hollow, and disconnected. Sound familiar? Many of us are trained
to silence our bodies and pay attention to only our thoughts.
Around this same time, I saw a flyer in a coffee shop for a meditation group that met in a
church basement on Monday nights and I thought I’d give it a try. I knew I needed a way to ground
myself and have space to reflect. I learned to follow my breath, notice my thoughts, and surf the
waves of emotions that ebb and flow. It was incredibly valuable to me and was the first step on the
path of mindfulness that I still follow.
Over the years, my practice has gone through many phases. Sometimes it is robust and
inspired, while at other times it's non-existent. I have gone on retreats and taken courses and
workshops. I have read stacks of books and strived to integrate mindful practice into my
professional and personal lives. As part of a mindfulness-based stress reduction (MBSR) course, I
was challenged to do a 45-minute body scan every day for many weeks. This is a practice
in which you sequentially bring awareness to each part of your body and notice if it feels pleasant,
unpleasant, or neutral. In truth, I found this degree of body scanning fairly agonizing and
discovered that it is not my favorite mindfulness practice. However, I am indebted to it as it brought
me back to this fundamental question: “Where is my mind?”
Up to this point, I would have said that I confidently knew the answer. It seemed like a
rhetorical question. Too simple. My mind is in my head, of course. But somewhere between
bringing awareness to my right ankle and my right knee during all of those body scans, I realized that
my assumption (like most assumptions) was flawed. My awareness or mind is not located in any
one part of my body, but is a felt sense of being whole.
Meditation teacher and writer Sebene Selassie hits on this exactly. “Many think meditation
centers on the mind. Actually, meditation integrates the body. The problem with mindfulness is we
put the word “mind” right in it. We conflate “mind” with brain, the head, thoughts. We tend to think
of the brain as separate from the body (and in need of connection).” She proposes using
“embodied awareness” as a holistic term for mindfulness. “Embodied denotes that mind and body
are fundamentally not separate. Awareness is the capacity to know both physical and
mental/emotional experiences,” Selassie writes. “Our consciousness is not limited to the body or
mind; it is a knowing that encompasses both of those and more.”
So, mindfulness is a misnomer; a linguistic flaw that gives the brain, or the mind, more
credit than is due. A kind of brain-centric naming. In our society which devotes so much energy and
value to thinking pursuits, it makes perfect sense that we would attribute our most powerful tool,
our awareness, to the brain. This separation of thought and the brain from our body is foundational
for Western philosophy. Recall Descartes famous statement: “I think, therefore I am.”
Looking back before Western philosophy, before human beings, and even before there
were brains, we see that there were bodies doing complex things. Neuroscientists have
suggested that nervous systems and brains were developed in pre-historic beings as a system for
regulation of a complex being. Antonio Demasio writes, “So contrary to the usual idea in which you
think of the brain as being the royal organ system that is running things and producing minds, think
instead of bodies, with all their complex biology. We need to realize that we do not have brains
served by the body; it’s the other way around. Once you see the nervous system as the servants of
life and not the other way around, things being to make a bit more sense.”
These days, I bring the intention of embodied awareness to my meditation and mindfulness
practice. It allows me to be more aware and accepting of what my body is communicating to me,
and opens me up to a tender vulnerability that the brain alone is likely to wall off. It allows me to
more fully experience my sensory field of awareness and connect with a felt sense of integration.
Demasio, Antonio. The Stranger Order of Things. New York, Pantheon, 2018.
Selassie, Sebene. You Belong. New York, HarperCollins, 2020.