By Ron Scopelliti
It often amazes me how tenuous the connection is between the brain and the rest of the body. It’s strange that our most important organ is stuck up on the end of a stalk in a position so easily subject to injury.
If there really were an intelligent designer, I would have thought he’d tuck the brain into a more central location with more protection around it, guarding it like a good running back guards the football. Any running back who treated the football in the way that accident or design has treated our brains wouldn’t need to stage an anthem protest to get fired.
As it turns out, the head that set me off on this train of thought has been separated from its body for close to 200 years and stored in a safe place. But University College in London recently brought the head of Jeremy Bentham out of storage for the first time in decades, as part of an exhibit that will run until February.
Bentham was the English philosopher and social reformer who pioneered the ethical concept of utilitarianism. According to Bentham, the morality of an action was determined by the consequence of the action, with the ideal consequence being the one that provides the most happiness for the greatest number of people.
When he died in 1832, he asked for his body to be preserved and placed in a display cabinet as an “auto-icon.” But the mummifying process went wrong when it came to Bentham’s head, so they decided to take off the real head and replace it with a wax replica. But now they’ve got the real head out of storage for a special exhibit, and to test its DNA for signs that Bentham may have had some level of autism.
This caught my attention because Bentham has always been one of my favorite philosophers. But it also caught my attention because lately my own mind seems to be living a life of its own – wandering off without my permission and going off on tangents that sometimes make for interesting columns, but can get in the way of practical things, like remembering to buy milk or return my library books. The way my mind wanders these days, I’m sure that if it had the physical ability it would walk off on its own, leaving me as headless as the late Mr. Bentham.
I feel like I used to have more control over my brain than I do now. I used to put an emphasis on mindful awareness – being in the moment; being in touch with the world around me. Seeing the news release about Bentham’s head inspired me to try to recapture this.
I figured a good first step would be digging out one of my favorite books on mindfulness – a short book by Buddhist monk Thich Nhat Hanh, called You Are Here. Unfortunately, and as a possible unconscious affront to the title, I couldn’t remember where it was. Was it in the basement? Did I loan it to someone? Should I just buy a new copy?
I actually did try to buy a new copy, but I got distracted in the bookstore and bought a DVD of The Wicker Man – the original, not the crappy remake. Sometime after that, I was planning to watch a show about mindfulness on PBS, but I fell asleep before it came on.
Maybe it’s just as well, because some of my best lessons in mindfulness have come not from books or lectures, but from real life experiences.
Several years ago, for instance, I was at the stoplight at Apple Valley Mall, looking west toward the two stoplights ahead. There was a thick layer of fog at the bottom of the hill, near the second intersection, but I could see the lights of a police car flashing in the fog. I knew a lane was blocked off, but I couldn’t tell which lane it was. As I was squinting, trying to decide whether I should switch lanes, I was interrupted by someone blasting their horn behind me. While I had been worrying about what was going on two lights ahead, the light I was at had turned green.
It seemed like a perfect illustration of a bad habit I have of unnecessarily speculating about the future at the expense of the present. At the time, I thought I’d learned a lesson on mindfulness from that experience, and that I’d integrate that wisdom into my life forever. Obviously I didn’t.
Maybe I never was as Zen-like and mindfully aware as I like to think. Maybe I should accept that my mind has a mind of its own. Someday I’ll wake up to find my head has gone off to London to hang out with Jeremy Bentham’s head, leaving me a goodbye note that I can’t read because I’ve got no head. You’d think my mind would have considered that, but I’ve found it can be thoughtless that way.