Is there a solar system in the mind’s sky?
Our understanding of the human mind, including where it came from, it’s true nature, and how it works and evolves, is primitive. In the absence of scientific understanding, the lexicons for mindfulness and meditation are rich with evocative metaphors. We search for perfect images or words to describe or evoke various experiences and brain states that free us even for a few moments from the messiness of being human. Now pop stars are calling us in cool ways to calm and clear our minds: “it’s all about the breath,” “feel this moment.”
In mindfulness practices we sit in the here and now and gently watch the passing inside weather. Thought clouds or windy surges of emotions rush in and pass by. Unhooking from the inner weather leads to experiencing the moment fully. You may also get occasional glimpses of a stillness of being, resonating with the sky behind the clouds. Quantum biologists call this resting energy state, recently shown to be widely prevalent in biological molecules, “quantum criticality.” Daoists call it “Dao,” a pervasive stillness of the individual and collective consciousness.
While I cherish tuning into the moment and even an empty state of mind, I have always felt a nagging dissatisfaction with letting thoughts and emotions go. I am curious about the nature of the thought clouds, windy emotions, and the ever-changing emotional weather report. Judy Collins captures my sentiments in her song Both Sides Now:
I’ve looked at clouds from both sides now
From up and down and still somehow
It’s cloud’s illusions I recall
I really don’t know clouds at all
A yearning to understand the inner clouds and windy emotions led me on a journey four years ago to “turn the lights on” in my inner world, starting with study of internal family systems (IFS) practice developed by Dick Schwartz. In the IFS model, which is focused on healing, the mindful mind, or “self,” witnesses and orchestrates an internal family of “parts” or subpersonalities that are the source of thoughts, emotions, and behaviors, healthy and unhealthy.
As a biologist (17-year career in biotechnology), immersed in the awe-inspiring order of mother nature, I was certain that there is a strengths-based scaffolding for the internal family. Gradually I unpacked and organized my inner world. I found nine independent life forces or characters, now depicted as my personal emojis.
To convey this experience, I published a hypothesis paper: Coaching the Multiplicity of Mind: A Strengths-based Approach, followed by a new Harvard Health book, Organize Your Emotions, Optimize Your Life, co-authored with Harvard physician Eddie Phillips, and writer John Hanc. For four years I have done a daily roll call as my early morning mindfulness practice, which decodes my emotional weather report and brings some clarity and calm. I have taught the practice to hundreds of coaching clients, helping them tune into a “radio frequency” of each life force.
Now I use the metaphor of a solar system; I experience the psyche as having a sun at the “core” and eight planets, each in its own unique orbit. My mind seems like the energy field of a solar system. When I want to quiet my mind I ask my “planets” to go out to orbit, like sending kids out to play, so I can have a quiet moment.
In my flights of imagination, I wonder whether the solar system is the source of elements and energy forms and states that self-organized on earth into life forms, and four billion years later, populate our minds.
Now we are back to a metaphor and a question: Is there a solar system in the mind’s sky?