During the evolution of the human species, we appear to have lost the ability to rely on instinctive behavior as we developed extraordinary abilities to learn and adapt to the conditions facing us in our environment. In addition, we can pass on that learning to other members of our social group. This is the basis for culture, and the success of the human species is a testament to the advantages of this approach to survival. However, this transition from instinct to learning and culture has not resulted in the elimination of biological influences on our behavior. Certain groups of people, usually a minority of the population, retain biological predispositions to behave and react in certain distinct ways. To a lesser extent, all of us have some degree of these biological predispositions.
The purpose of the first half of this chapter is to examine those biological predispositions that are directly reflected in aspects of individual personality. In the second half of the chapter, we will examine the connection between the mind and the body, and some of the ways in which individuals train the mind/body connection in order to achieve a more balanced and healthy lifestyle.
Over 2,500 years ago, Gotama Buddha came to a fascinating understanding of the human mind. The Buddha taught a series of mindfulness exercises to train the mind, and these mindfulness exercises form the basis for many styles of meditations. Today, cutting-edge neurobiologists are using functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) and other brain imaging techniques to examine brain activity during deep meditation. The goal of these studies is to understand the nature of the human mind, and to examine whether the Buddha (as well as the Rishis and Yogis of ancient India) had discovered a way to actually alter the state of the mind. However, too much time spent in meditation can lead to a weak body. So, the founder of Zen Buddhism, Bodhidharma, when he arrived at the Shao-Lin temple, developed techniques of physical training to strengthen the monks and to help them both defend themselves from bandits and prepare for extended periods of meditation. This was the legendary beginning of the martial arts, formal techniques to train the body and mind. Since the martial arts were developed with noble goals, they have throughout their history had a reputation for developing strong, admirable character traits. In other words, those who practice martial arts with proper discipline also train themselves to conform to a personality style marked by a calm, humble, yet confident demeanor.
Placing Biological and Mind/Body Theories of Personality in Context: Testing Personality Theories Across the Full Range of Human History
This chapter has the broadest context of any chapter in this book. Some 2,500 years ago, Gotama Buddha presented what can be considered the first psychological theory, a theory on the nature of the human mind and how one can work to control it in a mindful way. Doing so can help to lead one toward a more peaceful life, both individually and in relation to others. Today, neurobiologists using cutting edge technology are trying to determine what actually happens to the state of the human mind during the techniques of meditation taught by the Buddha. In addition, the usefulness of meditation and mindfulness in psychotherapy is a popular area of clinical practice and research, as well as a means toward enhancing the cross-cultural perspectives of psychology in general.
Wilhelm Reich, a student and highly respected colleague of Sigmund Freud, was one of the first Western psychologists to consider the connection between body and mind as essential for psychology health. According to Reich, we can be psychologically healthy only if we are able to fully express and satisfy our biological, sexual needs. Reich devoted his career to helping individuals do just that, and in recognizing the role of the body, he anticipated the field of sociobiology. Sociobiology addresses the ways in which our behavior might have been shaped by evolution. In other words, behaviors are naturally selected if they provide an advantage for our genetic reproduction (having children, grandchildren, etc.).
Whereas Reich and the sociobiologists focus on the expression and pursuit of our biological desires, Eastern tradition taught ways to train the body and mind to control these desires. Indeed, the Buddha taught that through mindfulness training we could detach ourselves from these needs, and live a life in which we acknowledge desires, but feel no attachment to them. Such mental discipline, however, requires practice. As monks became physically weak from spending all their time meditating, the founder of Zen Buddhism, Bodhidharma, developed the first formal techniques of Kung Fu. Since the martial arts arose out of the desire to remain healthy during meditation practice, they have always been associated with a spirituality devoted to nonviolence and mental discipline.
The popularity of martial arts, meditation, Yoga, and a variety of Eastern philosophies and practices in the United States today tells us that there is a strong interest in combing the traditions of East and West. The interest of cognitive neuroscientists in the brain’s changes during meditation shows us that Eastern philosophy need not stand in opposition to our tradition of formal scientific inquiry in the West. And so, Buddhist mindfulness, somatic psychology, behavior genetics, sociobiology, evolutionary psychology, and the martial arts all seem to fit together as a grand theory of the nature of body and mind and their inherent connection.