Jun 22 2011

Do Animals Have Spirits and Do They Go to Heaven?

Human beings are of course animals, but animals that have evolved in body, mind, spirit and other powers so as to be distinct from the rest of the animal kingdom. The evolution of the human mind, evidenced in self-awareness, speech and language, signs and symbols, the depth of the unconscious mind and the technological heights of the scientific mind, all contribute to expanding the gap between the human person and other animals. In fact, the distinctive aspect is that of personhood itself.

What is a person? We know from experience the difference between a human being with whom we are familiar and a dog, that qualitatively while we may love both, there is a marked difference in the way we relate to each. We may cynically say we would prefer the undivided camaraderie of a dog to a lover, but most of us really desire the complexity of communion that only another human being can bring. The human is a unique combination of body, mind and spirit that is different in quality from that of a canine.
The difference in quality seems to be distinctively centered on the spiritual aspect of the human. The mark of spirituality is personification itself, which is rooted in consciousness, both of others and of one’s self. The Greek word for “person” means mask or face, and its meaning infers the idea that we derive our personhood through the awareness of others and a relationship to others that demands we “interface” with them. This face is our humanness, and it is the chief quality of the human spirit, manifest in the soul and produced through the complexities of the human mind.

Other animals do not share this attribute. They do not put on a “face” in order to commune with each other, develop layers of conscious thought, and plough through the unconscious mind to root out psychopathologies, or develop a scientific mind in the pursuit of progress or deeper understanding of themselves or the world around them. Animals have souls (if a soul is body, mind, but not spirit), but they are not spiritual creatures precisely because they are not personal creatures. Their interaction with us and with each other is governed by instinct and other genetic or innate qualities.

Other animals are nevertheless valuable because as living organisms they have an experience of mind, but one that is unlike the human mind. They have no unconscious mind. They have no scientific mind. But they suffer, they foster various emotions, they are privy to desire. As sentient entities, they have intrinsic value even if they are not spiritual beings. The human spirit – an evolutionary addition – marks our species as one that can summon the idea of God, and as persons that have the opportunity to relate face to face with divinity, contemplate an afterlife, paradise, and eternality; and it is that attribute that may carry us forward into such realities. This is not the case for other animals, which seem to manifest essence absent individual personhood.

Mar 9 2011

Have You Ever Been Killed in A Dream?

In the murky netherworld of sleep, you may find yourself falling to an inexplicable demise, shot by a stranger, strangled, hit by a car, suffocated, knifed, blown to pieces, beheaded, disemboweled or otherwise disembodied; in other words, you may dream that you die. So what does it mean?

Despite the urban legend turned into Hollywood myth that if you die in your dream you will die in real life, death in dreams is a fairly common phenomena and it doesn’t always portend negative omens.  Practitioners of dream interpretation, ranging from Freud and Jung to more recent do-it-yourself gurus, indicate that waking from a dream in which you have died is the usual outcome; in fact, one hundred percent of those who have reported dying in their dreams  also woke up to find themselves among the living.

To understand what dying in your dream means, however, is a matter of dream interpretation, not of popular legend or cinematic mythology.  The answer to the question, however, may depend on who is doing the dream interpretation.

Early psychoanalytic thought beginning with Freud was revolutionary in its symbolic use of dream interpretation in understanding the psychology of the human person. For Freud, death in dreams was a direct route to understanding the sexual impetus that for him subsides in the unconscious, where it is repressed during waking hours.  So for Freud, dying in your own dream might be a sign that one is disgusted with oneself, or of shame for some act one has committed. He thought that usually death in dreams is derived from the natural desire that boys have to murder their fathers, and take their places beside their mothers, a desire strongly repressed in adult life.

Jung, on the other hand, had a more complex theory of dream interpretation that was not nearly so dependent upon Freud’s preoccupation with sexual desire.  Jung saw his own death in his dreams on one occasion to be representative of the shadow self, the ego, which had to be killed before he would ever truly reach a point of authentic self-awareness.

The art of dream interpretation, sprouting from early psychoanalysis, has lately taken a back stage to more prominent methods of therapy and self-discovery. There remains, however, some use of dream interpretation in psychoanalysis, but it is especially prominent among those who follow new age teaching, shamanic experiences, claims by psychics or practitioners of the occult, or among those who follow a drug-induced method for seeking meaningful experiences. Of these, a very popular dream interpretation of the death of oneself is the idea that it signifies an impending change. According to this popular view, the person who dreams of his own death is expressing an awareness of a new stage of development, or an impending, important change about to take place in his life.

Some who are faced with terminal illness have also reported having very pleasant and comforting dreams of their own death, which may be the psyche’s way of preparing the individual for the inevitability of that permanent change.

Mar 2 2011

The Flexible Mind

Have you ever noticed how easy it is for the mind to dwell on negative thoughts, or how hard it is for the mind to be grateful? Thoughts tend to enter the mind unbidden and to control one’s mood, and therefore one’s behavior. Anyone who has ever suffered from insomnia, or who struggles with depression, or who has to fight various addictions, knows the difficulty of controlling the influence of thoughts that enter the mind, and that in some cases seem to exert control over the whole person.

For a long time scientists, including cognitive behaviorists and others, have believed that the mind is controlled by external circumstances, or the environment.  The idea is that the way you were raised more or less totally shapes the way you think. What is happening around you controls what happens in the mind. Others assert that the mind creates various thoughts and emotions completely based on chemical processes that occur in certain sections of the brain.

More recent theories, however, suggest that the mind and the brain are far more flexible than anyone had imagined.  While both environment and genetic or chemical processes certainly are involved in the way the mind operates, or the way the brain functions, it may be that the brain is more than the passive object in the way the mind actually works. Rather than understanding the way we experience life through the mind as a direct result of what is happening in the brain, recent discoveries have shown that it is possible that the mind can influence the way the brain itself is hardwired.

In the late 1990s a scientist at Princeton named Elizabeth Gould found that the brain is more malleable than previously thought, and that new neurons and new connections could be created through learning new behaviors. In other words, rather than the mind influencing the way we act (for instance, negative thoughts creating foul moods and bad behaviors), actions could also influence the connections the brain makes, and therefore the way the mind thinks.

Another scientist named Richard Davidson from the University of Wisconsin built upon this discovery and found that changing the way one thinks can rewire the way the brain works. In other words, the traditional assumptions had it wrong: the brain does not, through genetics or chemical processes, have absolute control over the mind and therefore over the way we think and feel, but the mind can actually change the way the brain is wired, so that we can be less reactive to intrusive thoughts and more stable in the way we live and behave.

One of the primary methods Davidson used in his inquiry into the way the mind and brain function together was through mindfulness meditation. He discovered that the monks of the Dalai Lama generated far more gamma waves than other, average, healthy people. Those who practice meditation tend to use the mind to physically change the hardwiring in the brain in such a way that far more positive thoughts and emotions are generated than negative ones.  The implications are extraordinary. Not only is there a potential for naturally overcoming intrusive thoughts, which sometimes result in mental disorders, but also for healing Alzheimer disease and other afflictions that are rooted in brain functions.

Jun 17 2010

How your mind can make you fat

Nature is Against You

Nature is Against You

While your mind can be your biggest ally in your struggle to lose weight, it can also sabotage your efforts in ways you might not even know about. It can be quietly working in the background subconsciously, undoing all the good you do consciously. There are a lot of physiological and psychological factors that make us want to eat, and understanding these, and learning how to counteract them are paramount to losing weight.

Before you try any diet, consider the following:

  • Your body is designed to process food efficiently. That means that your body naturally regulates your metabolism to be quick when you have a lot of food, and slow when you don’t have as much.
  • No amount of willpower will make you not want fatty and refined foods. The mind is hardwired by evolution to want these things, because they translate into easy, quick energy. Celery, on the other hand, requires a lot more work for the body to get nutrients from.
  • It’s common to resist physical activity. The mind is telling you not to work out, because it means you will be using up energy to no purpose. Your brain is trying to tell you to save that energy in case you need to hunt, or run from a predator.
  • Cleanse and Flush diets aren’t doing anything that your body is not doing already. We have a liver, kidneys, and a pancreas to flush out toxins for us.
  • The mind closely associates food with comfort, because plentiful food is an indicator of security. It’s common to eat food in order to feel safe and comfortable.
The mind gets its cues from your genes

The mind gets its cues from your genes

Your mind also tends to trick you into eating with hormones and chemicals. A diet high in fatty and highly processed foods works in much the same way a drug might. An injection of, for example, highly refined flours and sugars in a piece of cake will cause your blood sugar to spike, and will also cause a release of Dopamine, which your body translates as a small high. When you come down from that high, you become depressed, which will cause you to want to eat more fatty processed foods in order to get that feeling again. To fight this kind of cycle, willpower alone just won’t cut it. Find a way to remove yourself from these situations. Don’t keep these foods at home, or make it difficult to go get them (for example, by parking your bike behind you car, so that going out to grab fast food will require moving it, or just taking the bike.) You can also fight this by keeping yourself distracted in an activity, like playing a video game, or working on a hobby project.

The mind can tempt you to eat when you don’t need to in several ways. One of the biggest self-defeating culprits is rationalization. It’s that voice in your head that says, “This one piece of candy won’t hurt; you’ve been working out so regularly!” or “Go ahead and have that extra serving of dinner…you did an extra half mile on the treadmill this morning!” And the worst part of rationalization is, that it usually works. Your mind is making you fat, and you don’t even know it.

One way to avoid the rationalization pitfalls (and the guilt that usually accompanies it) is to set more realistic goals for yourself. If you’ve put yourself on a strict diet and exercise regime, for instance, go ahead and build in a few rewards for yourself. Having a predetermined reward as a goal to shoot for sets your mind up to build up towards the end game, to not have to “cheat” to get what it wants anyway. Say you’re on the treadmill for an hour a day, with a limited calorie diet to look forward to every day for the next few months. Try working in a day a month where you get to go off-diet, even just a little, as a reward for the consistent effort you have put in all the other days. If your mind doesn’t feel like it’s cheating, you’ll avoid the guilt that might also be making you fat. Guilty eating as a result of bad work/rewards ratios is as difficult a problem to overcome as the overeating in general. No matter what is at work in your brain putting food in your mouth that is not healthy for you or is making you fat, you can counteract the effects by making more positive decisions on goal-making.

Another hurdle to fairly easily overcome is that of “self-talk.” That’s where you tell yourself negative things like, “You’ll never lose the weight; you’re too fat” or “You can’t do this because you’re worthless.” The mind trick here is to stop the talk in its tracks. If you hear negative talking in your head, you say to yourself, “I would not let a stranger say these things to me, therefore, I do not have permission to say them to myself.” It is positive reinforcement towards your self-image that can play an important role in not only helping you to keep working at your weight loss, but at life in general. A positive mental attitude will help with your confidence and ability to make more healthy decisions for you. If you think that you deserve to feel better and look better, then your chances of making exactly that happen are greatly improved.

Remember, forgive yourself for mistakes, set more realistic goals and don’t let your mind sabotage your good intentions.