Sunday, October 23, 2011

Minding the Indigenous Mind - Brain Spirits

Mindful greetings friends and relatives,

In this entry I share a short personal narrative called, “Brain Spirits,” that I wrote some time ago that features some fiction and real life experiences. I’ve added material that shows how the mind and brain are involved in the story. I hope you enjoy it.

Brain Spirits

As a teenager I often felt compelling urges to isolate myself so I could deeply contemplate the world, the cosmos, and the varied challenges that life and death presented before me. My meditation of choice was a journey through the rolling hills, lonely buttes, and lush valleys in our part of the reservation. In seeking my place of solitude and insight, I would mindfully move through these landscapes, sitting down from time to time, immersing myself in the sounds, smells, and sights to find an acceptable pitch of spiritual resonation.

As I soaked in the sensations of each place, I imagined who or what had been there before me or what or who was there now, that I was not aware of. I closed my eyes and allowed the sun and wind to touch my face. My mind and body relaxed, enjoying these sensations, and my reward-seeking dopamine (brain neurotransmitter) levels began a steady unimpeded rise. The right side of my brain, the creative side, opened up and my imagination became a conduit for communicating with those spirits that had passed this way long, long ago. Entelechy (perfect realization), however, remained elusive.

On one particular calm summer morning, feeling the call of the wild, I packed for a journey. My pilgrimage was no doubt driven by the late night conversations that I had had with my mother about the direction of my life, the meaning of God, the force of the Devil, and good and evil; nothing too heavy. My mother is such a serene, philosophical spirit that harbors gentle doctrines of truth that she imparts with the love and generosity of a warm, summer rain. Her placid dogma, however, can be overridden by her intuitive intelligence and cognitive flexibility when she is offered meaningful insights.

Following our long talk that evening I went to bed, my brain circuits noisy with the aftermath of our conversation. Through the open window near my bed a gentle breeze entered, bringing the sweet, earthy scent of an approaching summer rainstorm. As I listened to its low rumbles and watched the accompanying flashes of lighting far off in the distance, I begin to feel warm and drowsy. My brain waves soon began descending from the high beta waves I was using to converse with my mother, to a lower relaxed alpha, then to a very relaxed, calm theta, and finally into a deep, cosmic, no dreaming delta sleep.

I was suddenly awakened by a loud crash of thunder. The rain was falling heavy and I could hear the crack of the water as it fell from the roof onto the hard, black earth. The lightning flashed constantly. In my sleepy, dreamy theta state I saw the saintly spirit that visited our house during those nightly, crashing and flashing summer thunderstorms. She floated through the house sprinkling holy water in each room, stopping to whisper a prayer, before moving on.

I awoke the next morning to the smell of coffee brewing and the gentle murmurs of my mom and dad visiting about the day that lay before them. At daybreak my three youngest brothers and sister were still in bed, leaving me the first servings of a breakfast of fried potatoes, deer meat, toast, and canned USDA orange juice. If I ate too much of this feast my little sibs would be forced to savor the taste of hot USDA cornmeal mush with powdered milk, sweetened with white commodity corn syrup; I paced myself taking only a single serving.

As my mother moved away from the stove and sat down at the table to butter more toast, I saw the first streaks of white in her thick, wavy, coal-black hair that was tightly held together underneath a white doo rag style cotton diaper that she wore on her head. Without looking at me she asked me how I slept and if I remembered to say my prayers before going to bed. Between bites and drinks I answered “good” and “yes.” Remembering my dream I said, “Mom. I dreamed about that spirit lady again last night when it was storming out. I could see her moving around the house each time there was a flash of lightning. Before she could respond, my right temporal brain lobe (the God spot in the brain) mildly seizured and found myself sitting on a high hill, at night, watching as lightening cast jagged spears into the horizon and the thunders rumbled toward me from the southwest. I could smell the fragrances of sage, purple cone flower, little blue stem grass, and earth as I sat in my silent world. As my parietal brain lobe quieted down the separation between the plants and I faded. I became the flowers, the stems, the leaves, and fragrances. As I looked about I felt the warm night winds suddenly replaced by a cool airstream as the storm moved closer. A bright flash of lightening suddenly transported me from this place back to the breakfast table.

My Dad looked at me, quietly sipping his coffee; his brain’s mirror neurons were well aware of what had gone on in my mind and that I had visited this place. My mom didn’t notice and continued talking: “it’s good you prayed last night; maybe your prayers helped bring that spirit lady here to help watch over us.” My dad smiled ever so slightly, knowing she was the secret spirit lady. Something caught his hunter’s eye and he looked away from us out the window. My mirror neurons picked up on his shift in emotion and body tension. I followed his gaze just in time to see a large white dog cautiously trotting across the road in front of our house carrying a box of USDA commodity powered milk. My mother who was also watching said, “Now, there’s a good mom; taking extra milk to her babies.” My dad relaxed his gaze, sipped his coffee, and then replied, “Yeah, and it looks like she shops at all the right places.”

The dog slowed and stopped. Looking to the side it suddenly loped over the road out of sight. Moments later car lights appeared, speeding toward our house. It was my older brother coming home after a long night out. We watched as he braked hard and slid in the graveled driveway, creating his own little pig pen cloud of dust. In silence we wondered if he was drunk and incoherently obnoxious or half-shot and full of drunkard jokes.

My mom stood up and tensed like a mother lion watching a cape buffalo. She looked out the window at him for any sign of stumble or weakness. He smoothly exited his car, closed the door, looked up and saw her. He made a funny face, waved and smiled, and then walked up to the front door. Her body relaxed and she smiled saying, “He’s sober. I think.”

As he sat down at the table my mother poured him a cup of coffee and fixed him a plate of food and then asked him where he had been. Before he could answer, she said, “I suppose you were out drinking last night.” She waited for his answer; again watching for any signs of weakness or stumble.

A trickle of blood ran out of the deer meat as my brother cut into it. “I was with Willie and Sam,” he answered. “We were down by the river last night, just talking; they were drinking. I wasn’t. I told them that I quit. I’m giving it up; at least the hard stuff,” he laughed. “Both of them say they’re going to enlist in the army and go to Vietnam. Neither want go to college so they’re pretty sure they’re going to get drafted.”

Now my dad tenses. My mother stares at my brother watching him salt his food. With a faraway look she answers saying, “I hope they don’t go. They’re both their mother’s oldest children. The first born are always the hardest for a mother to let go. They’re the ones that open the way for the other brothers and sisters to come from the spirit world to this world.”

Upon hearing the word spirit, my brother suddenly looked up and said, “Mom. As I was driving up to the house just now I saw a white figure crossing the road. I saw its glowing eyes but couldn’t make out its shape. I thought it was a deer but as I got closer it disappeared. I think it was a spirit.” By now my little sister and three little brothers had entered the room, eyes open wide saying, “We could hear you talking about spirits.” My mom smiled as they sat down at the table. My dad, listening to all of the commotion, took his last drink of coffee, set down his cup, and stood up. He walked to the front door and grabbed his car keys and leather work gloves that were sitting on the TV. As he walked out the door he said, “I’m going to work before you ghost busters have me seeing spirits.”

Michael Yellow Bird, MSW, Ph.D., is an enrolled member of the Three Affiliated Tribes and a professor and the director of graduate education in the Department of Social Work at Humboldt State University, Arcata, CA. His teaching, writing, research, and community work focuses on social work with Indigenous Peoples, neurodecolonization, neurosci-ence and social work, and employing mainstream and traditional Indigenous mindfulness practices in tribal communities to promote health and well being. He can be reached by email at:

No comments: