Brains, those masses of tissue and blood in our heads, I can grok. I’ve held one in my hands* and I understand them from biological and anatomical perspectives. What I have difficulty grasping is how we interact with our own brains, that is, how our minds work.
The mind is an extraordinary and sometimes baffling place. Mine allows me to remember all twenty lines of Frost’s “The Road Not Taken” which I learned for a class in 1986 . That same mind steadfastly refuses to recall where I parked my car twenty minutes before at the shopping center. As I said, extraordinary and baffling… with dashes of wonderment and annoyance thrown in for good measure.
Our minds can create entire universes within our skull cases. Some would argue that those universes aren’t created in our minds, but exist independently in reality and are merely perceived by our minds if we open ourselves to them. We could talk about astral spaces, about inner spaces, about travelling or journeying in our heads, about telepathy, about dreams, about nightmares, about hallucinations, about visions and visitations. We could talk about those things, because all have to do with how our mind works (or possibly doesn’t work). Instead, though, I’d rather focus on these questions: How much weight do we give to what goes on in our own heads? Should we believe what our minds tell us, particular when we are talking about realities and worlds that may not exist outside our skull cases?
My Perspective (YMMV)
For me, I find that it’s necessary to do a lot of mental filtering and fact-checking before I accept anything as a truth or reality. It isn’t that I’m closed-minded about extraordinary/paranormal/mystical/etc. experiences, just the opposite, in fact. The problem is that I have far too much going on in my head and only part of it even vaguely resembles ‘truth’ or ‘reality’. Ever heard the saying “Don’t believe everything you think”? I’m pretty sure that one was created for people like me.
It’s almost embarrassing the amount of garbage that goes through my head. First of all, I have a vivid imagination, so that a single thing or event can trigger an entire fictional story in my head. A leaf drifting slowly to the ground becomes an airship for a family of tiny refugees driven from their arboreal home by an invasion of an ant army. A shoe abandoned in an odd place warps itself into the story of a kidnapping by time-travellers seeking to stop a future catastrophe. It’s a great tool when I have my writer’s hat on, but proves not so useful when I need to look at something objectively.
Second, there are the issues – my issues – with anxiety and depression. My brain spouts some very nasty and negative things. These are messages that, if I choose to believe them, would leave me completely unable to cope with life. If you have no idea what I mean, imagine that you have someone in your life who constantly verbally abuses and berates you. Now imagine that this abusive person spews abuse and negativity in a voice that sounds just like your own. Imagine further, that you have no option to walk away, that this person is with you 24/7 and can speak at any time both in your waking hours and in your dreams. Got all that? Then you understand, at least theoretically, what depression and anxiety are like for me. What goes through my head as a result of these illnesses is utter and complete garbage and I have learned to recognize it as such. Still, it’s there and must be dealt with if it tries to assert itself as reality.
Third, I simply think too much, about too many things. If someone directs me to clear my mind, they might as well tell me to pluck the stars from the sky (and just using that turn of a phrase led to this whole stream of thought that involved Gaiman’s Stardust, MIB, and interstellar travel – see what I mean?!?!). There are always thoughts, big and small, streaming through my brain. What I’ve learned about it is this: Not everything that goes through my head is valid, believable or worthy of the time and energy that it occupies.
That last bit lies at the heart of how this whole rambling relates to spiritual paths, so I’m going to say it again for good measure:
Not everything that goes through my head is valid, believable or worthy of the time and energy that it occupies.
One of the hardest learning curves in my life has been grasping this concept. I’ve come to recognize that many of the difficulties along my spiritual path have centered around this particular struggle to discern what in my head is worthy of belief and what is worthy of the rubbish bin. Somehow, I think that this will always be a challenge for me.
A Broader Perspective
For most of us following an eclectic pagan path, we don’t recognize any single book or teaching as our ‘gospel truth’. We do recognize however that there are some fairly extraordinary things that happen in our universe and that some of those things happen within our own head.
However, it’s important to realize that the human mind is capable of hallucinations, deceptions and lies, just as much as it is capable of revealing universal truths. We have a responsibility to ourselves, and to the gods that we follow, to attempt to discern between the ramblings of our own minds and what is important, valuable, and true. If our eclecticism is to be useful to us, we must be able to make those distinctions, lest we end up with an unmanageable and conflicting hodge-podge of beliefs.
*In case anyone gets too worried about the holding a brain comment: I am not an aspiring Frankenstein conducting experiments in my laboratory. Instead, I am merely over-educated, squandering part of my undergrad years with human anatomy, physiology, and forensics coursework.