Mind vs Matter: A False Battle

While growing up, we learned to divide the world into two parts: mind and matter. We learned that our minds were in our heads, showing up as our thoughts. And we learned that all the stuff we see around us is matter, including our own bodies.

Today, scientists, philosophers, and inquisitive people like you and I are finding ways to reconcile the worlds of mind and matter. Some say matter is primary, and it creates mind. The often-cited example is that the brain creates our conscious experience. Some say mind is primary and appears as matter, as dreams evince. (I generally take the latter stance in talking about this topic.) The two positions represent two different kinds of understanding.

In recent conversations with scientists and philosophers, I've seen that even using these two words, mind and matter, causes problems. One usually implies the existence of the other, and creates a rivalry. As long as I'm talking about the reality of mind, I'm also implicitly creating a division that makes matter real, even as I try to push it away. On the other hand, as long as I'm talking about the primacy of matter, I'm automatically giving credence to a separate kind of experience called mind. The point is that taking either of the two terms too seriously creates a schism in our experience. 

Another approach is to simply say that there are grades of experience--some are subtle and some are gross. Some seem less tangible (like thoughts or desires) while others seem very tangible (like a stone wall). Of course, the opposite can also be true depending on where our attention is. Thoughts can be very tangible (think of a time when you couldn't stop thinking about something), and the hard ground you've been walking on for the past several hours may have so far been intangible.

When we take the words mind and matter out of our vocabulary, the concrete line that divides mental and physical experiences starts to fade. Whatever it is that we are (I'm avoiding the word mind here) starts to integrate itself, extricating itself from a conceptualized, dichotomous world.

Experiences are, well, experiences.

Once this integration is in full swing and the polarized interpretation of the world wafts away, we are left with some interesting questions.

What are these experiences made of? Where do they originate? Where do they go?

Mind need not apply if matter has not been engaged. Matter need not apply if mind has not been engaged.

Maybe we don't need a word for what we are.

Anoop Kumar, MD, MM is board certified in Emergency Medicine and holds a Master’s degree in Management with a focus in Health Leadership. He practices in the Washington, DC metro area, where he also leads meditation gatherings for clinicians. He is the author of the book Michelangelo’s Medicine: How redefining the human body will transform health and healthcare. Follow him @DrAnoopKumar.