Relational mindfulness: The felt experience of interaction
What is going on in the mind of the sunflower as it moves with the sun? Not much, if we think of mind as intellect and willpower. And yet, it moves.
It orients to the sun without needing a ‘mind’ in the anthropomorphic sense. There is no intellect, and no willpower to make this happen. It is all ‘bottom up’.
The responses of more complex life forms are, of course, more sophisticated. But the increased sophistication is essentially a build-up on the same basic functionality: how an organism responds to its situation.
In the case of the sunflower, as in more complex life forms, the response is a ‘whole organism’ response. The ‘organism’ is ‘re-organizing’ to respond appropriately to the situation.
In this context, the word ‘organism’ conveys the sense that life forms can be more usefully understood as a process than as a thing. Understanding the process helps us understand how things are the way they are, and gives us clues on how we may possibly make changes.
So, with this ‘Sunflower Mind’ analogy, we are not separating ‘mind’ from ‘body’, or ‘relationality’ from ’embodiment’. We are observing a constantly unfolding process, that of orienting and re-organizing moment by moment. Much of this process is implicit, as is much of life itself.
The phrase "Sunflower Mind" puts human relationality in a broader context: Relationality is not a unique characteristic of human beings, or even animals, but it is a basic function of all life. The difference is that, in this as in many other areas, our human physical and mental capabilities allow us to extend this function beyond what simpler life forms can do. And we can be mindful of these processes.
The Sunflower Mind model is as follows:
- As human beings, just like all other living things, we naturally respond to situations from the bottom up. Our brain is not a computer that gathers data, and then processes them. The gathering of information is at the same time a processing of information. For instance, take the case of somebody who perceives a presence behind their back. They start tensing their shoulders. There is no conscious perception and there's no conscious decision to brace. In fact, the person may not even be aware that they're bracing.
- Given that we already have the information in our body, we get access to it by mindfully paying attention to what is happening inside, as opposed to analyzing the situation from the outside. So this involves turning the attention to sensation, as opposed to mental processes.
- As we do this, we experience what Gene Gendlin called the felt sense, or bodily felt sense. Within this model, the felt sense is simply the experience of the way our nervous system and muscular system have oriented to respond to the situation. So the felt sense is an awareness of what is essentially a movement. This movement may be manifested in our muscles and our posture, or it may just be in the nervous system as an incipient movement.
- As we become aware of the felt sense, and of the underlying orientating response of our body, we become more aware of what it is we're reacting to: the situation, and the way we perceive it (i.e. we are not necessarily responding objectively). As we become aware of it, it becomes possible for us to modulate our response.
- As we become aware of the implicit response, it is possible for us to allow it to unfold in a safe, controlled way. As we let it unfold, the underlying movement is completed. As we have the experience of completion, we also have the sense of what it means, in a concrete way as opposed to an abstract way. This is how we find meaning in an experiential, embodied way.
The thread that binds all of this together is the felt experience of relationality, of life as interaction.
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