Inner peace can be found not in our thoughts and emotions, but beyond them in the automatic and subconscious processes of our brain.
This week, there’s been a meeting of the General Assembly of the United Nations. Leaders from around the world have been discussing how to work together to make the world healthier and more peaceful. The International Day of Peace also passed. While many serious issues need to be tackled on a global scale, each of us can work on our own peace. If more of us carry peace within us, it will become easier to make that peace extend to our families, communities, and the world.
I think the key to peace lies in our brain, specifically in our brain stem. Think about it. When you feel less than peaceful, what is going on? It usually means our thoughts and emotions are turbulent. We may also feel unsettled or uncertain of who we are or where we’re going. Or we may find ourselves jealous of others or resistant to change.
Emotions involve the domain of the paleocortex in the brain, an evolutionarily older layer of the cerebral cortex that includes the amygdala. Thoughts arise from the neocortex, a newer, outer layer of the cerebral cortex involved in higher-order brain functions such as cognition and language. The brain stem, on the other hand, is not part of the cerebral cortex. Arising just above the spinal cord, it evolved before many other parts of the brain and helps regulate the automatic processes of the body such as heartrate and breathing. The brain stem may be called the seat of our subconscious mind.
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When we are faced with a situation, emotions of like or dislike or a response of anger or fear may arise in the paleocortex, often triggered by remembered information from the past. When that happens, we could either just act on those emotions, or we could control our own behavior with our thoughts, telling ourselves, “Don’t do it, even if you’d like to,” or, “You have to do it, even if you don’t want to.” That control arises in the neocortex.
Many people live trapped in a ping pong game of control between the paleocortex and neocortex. We have no inner peace as long as the paleocortex and neocortex are confronting each other. But we can escape from this tug of war if we engage the brain stem.
How to Use the Brain Stem
Action is one of the easiest ways for our consciousness to enter the brain stem. If we make a choice that goes against old habits and beliefs, we experience resistance from our emotions and the circuits in our brain formed by our past habits. But if we continue to act according to that choice, at first by using our thoughts and our will, we can overcome our resistant emotions. Then that choice enters into the brain stem. At that point, the brain moves itself instead of being constantly and deliberately being forced to move by thought.
The thoughts of the neocortex can control a brain already moved by emotion and desire, but that is after those feelings have developed. That’s why, when we work to change our habits using our thoughts, it seems to work for a while, but then our old habits come back when we’re not focusing.
Brain stem choices, though, move the brain. They rally all of our automatic and subconscious processes in service of such choices without our realizing and before we can react emotionally. When we are “in the flow” and feel at peace and as one with everything, then we are moving in accordance with our brain stem choices.
Take this simple example of the power of taking action. Say we choose to rub our hands together and take action; that is the neocortex stage. Then, when we feel our hands growing warmer, we’re passing through the paleocortex. If we keep rubbing, overcoming any desire to stop, we may find ourselves just rubbing our hands without thinking about it at all. At this point, our consciousness has reached the brain stem. In the instant we think, “I’ve reached the brain stem,” we have come out again to the neocortex.
This sequence is also the process of going into a deep meditative state. This state of being can exist in stillness or it can exist in movement. A qigong master can move without thought. An athlete who is “in the zone” moves with their brain stem as well. Such a state of no thoughts, no emotions is a state of peace, as well as a state of moment-by-moment manifestation.
A Meditation for Peace
Try what I’ve named the Chunmun (Heaven’s Gate) Meditation to get a deeper sense of your brain and gain a sense of groundedness and peace.
- First, find a small but heavy-feeling flat stone or other unbreakable object.
- Sit in a chair or on the floor and straighten your back.
- Place the rock at the top of your head.
- Rest your hands comfortably on your knees or let them hang naturally at your sides.
- Maintaining this posture, close your eyes and concentrate on your brain and body.
- Feel the weight of the object coming down from your head, passing your chest, and sinking into your lower abdomen.
- Straighten your body and spine as you concentrate on your breathing.
- Feel your attention, previously focused outward or on your thoughts, gradually coming into your body. Feel your mind growing calm and tranquil, your mouth filling with saliva, your breathing deepening. Try to feel your brain state. Is it more peaceful now?
- When you get the feeling that your sense for peace and equilibrium has been restored, take the rock from on top of your head and place it on the floor.
- With your eyes closed, breathe as you concentrate on maintaining your posture. Try to feel how you are changed, comparing your present state with how you felt before you did Chunmun Meditation.
Once you place the object on your head, all your senses and nerves will focus to keep the rock from dropping; our brains are that sensitive and agile. The more all of your brain is engaged, the more your consciousness can drop into your brain stem.
Inner peace cannot be found in our thoughts or emotions. It’s only when we go beyond them that we escape from their turbulence and become one with the essence of life.
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