I don’t think about my mind, much. I think about thinking, yes. I am obsessed with thinking, particularly the thinking of white people that intentionally or inadvertently contributes to racism. But my mind itself? Not so much. I take it for granted.
The workings of my mind are the background hum that’s always there, whirring unawares unless something or someone causes me to become aware of my self. Buddhists seem to have done some of the more interesting thinking about minds and our relationships with them. I kick and sputter periodically at the task of trying to embrace some Buddhist tenets in the midst of my mostly Christian religion: I’m still on the bottom rung, though, practicing awareness. Maybe more about that later.
But my mind as a physiological entity has my attention these days. A couple of weeks ago I traveled to a conference. It was the first time I had traveled since figuring out the gluten intolerance I have developed. I didn’t really think about the challenge of eating safely while traveling; I just avoided gluten-y foods. Except for not.
On the day of travel, I had a salad at the airport between flights, and then another salad at dinner with friends, avoiding breads and pastas. I forgot to avoid the salad dressing. Maybe that was not much of a problem, though, because I felt fine that night and the next morning. Which is when I had coffee with powdered non-dairy creamer, something I never have in my real life … and something I should never have again.
By mid-morning, I felt fuzzy-headed. By midday, I had a pounding headache to go with the brain fog, like a steel bar across my forehead. Did I mention I was presenting a paper at this conference?
Fortunately, by the time I presented, mid-afternoon, the pain had eased a bit, aided by the ibuprofen offered by one of my fellow panelists. I did my best to be personable in the presentation, and coherent in the Q&A that followed, when I really just wanted to crawl in a hole, moan and feel stupid.
My travel home the next day was uneventful, and I felt mostly back to normal by the next day. I was back to the research on gluten-containing products; sure enough, non-dairy-creamer is on the unsafe list, because some creamers have gluten by-products of some kind in them. I was amazed such a small amount of something could so wreck my body and mind.
I reacted with a mixture of irony, humor and fear.
Irony … after years of proposing for these conferences, I finally get a proposal accepted, struggle like hell to get some critical thinking into a paper worth hearing (yeah, probably some gluten-fogged work sessions involved), and then on the day of presenting, misplace my faculties.
Humor … this felt like showing up at a skiing workshop with a broken leg in a cast. But in this case, the cast was invisible. And frankly inadmissible. I was trying to laugh at the situation … but mostly I was holding back fear.
This mind … I’m not saying it’s all that, but it’s what I’ve got. It’s my stock in trade. I’m in the knowledge business, for what it’s worth (judging by adjunct salaries, not much). Whether I’m writing, teaching, speaking, preaching … whatever I’m doing, I need my mind to do it. It was scary to think about not being able to think at the level I felt I needed to, to do the kind of work I want to do. And to know I was living in the sludge lane … and not be able to climb out of it? Scary.
Which tells me how much I have wrapped up in a certain image of myself. An able image.
I have – I think – a grateful appreciation for my physical health, and pretty clear awareness of my physical limitations. But I have relied without much appreciation or awareness on my mind and its ability to function. I am in a field where the leaders of the various packs are scary-smart; they have always felt way beyond me. I don’t think of myself as one of the originators in the field; I think my skills are more oriented toward learning from the leading lights, and helping to translate that learning into useful and productive knowledge for people in and particularly outside the academic world. Happily, that’s what I like to do, too.
What if I wasn’t able to, any more?
I didn’t spiral too far into that pity party. Whether from injustice, injury, or illness, most of us are dealing with societal or personal limitations, and doing the best we can, some of us with more grace, or humor, or consideration for others. In the face of this little question of what my mind can or cannot do, it quickly became apparent that the functioning of my mind is not the only limitation I am dealing with, and probably not the most important one.
Isn’t the quality of my loving far more important than the quality of my thinking? Isn’t improving the quality of loving what my thinking is mostly for, anyway? The apostle Paul seemed to think so: “And if I have prophetic powers, and understand all mysteries and all knowledge, and if I have all faith, so as to remove mountains, but do not have love, I am nothing.” (1 Cor 13:2)
Gluten may hinder my brain’s workings … but what are the substances that keep my heart from loving as I should? Attachment to ideas about myself and others and my ability to choose how to perceive … attachment to things and my ability to acquire things … attachment to the way things are and my ability to control the way things are.
The Buddhists have something to say about that, too, that attachment demon. That is another struggle worth having … and a topic for another day.
For now, my goals are far simpler, and yet still in need of some clarity and commitment.
One, I need to become more-mindful-yet about eating. This challenge seems to present itself to me over and over in different guises. Here it is again.
In these first couple of months of gluten-avoidance, it has not been too hard to eliminate wheat-, barley, and rye-based grains, breads, and pastas from my diet. Avoiding the gluten I can see is not that hard. It’s the ways it hides in processed foods that is a problem. Processed foods don’t help any of us, really; the epidemics of diabetes and obesity prove that.
Two, I am realizing through the process of writing this reflection that I need to become more-mindful-yet about loving. My family members are changing before my eyes; new communities are forming near me; new works are calling to me. Can I remember to let love lead, and deepen, through all of these turns of the potter’s wheel?