by Christiane Baud
At any stage of our mediation practice, whether we are seasoned or just beginning – we may be shocked or dismayed by the fact that our mind will not easily stop its ongoing chatter. Our talking mind keeps churning. And this thinking, discursive mind is how we find ouselves spending most of our “quiet” time.
One of the very first steps in our meditation practice is to begin to see that the mind “secretes” thoughts continuously, in the same way as salivary glands secrete saliva.
Why does my mind not stop when I ask it to?
What is going on in our head when we try to sit quietly and do “nothing” and, instead, become engrossed in endless stories and mind meanderings? what does our mind and our brain do when we ask it to be “at rest”.
This is exactly what neuroscientists were trying to ascertain in the 1990’s when, in the early days of imaging brain activities, they would ask people in the scanner to do “nothing” with their mind so that they could get a good picture of the “baseline” brain activity.
They found to their surprise that a number of well-defined brain areas would become active together when people were asked to do nothing (no mental or physical task given or attempted). They were surprised at the level of brain activity and at the consistency of their location or organization in a kind of network.
Over time it became clear that there is indeed a coherent and consistent network of brain regions that seem to always become active when we are at rest and not engaging in a specific task.
This became known as the Default Mode Network (or DMN) – a network of brain regions that appeared to be consistently active when individuals were at rest, rather than engaged in specific tasks – a network that exists in all human brains.
So, what’s going on exactly when this default network activates itself spontaneously?
Later, scientists and psychologists tried to understand what kind of thoughts are going on in people’s mind when the DMN is activated. They found that the DMN is involved in various kinds of thoughts that can be broadly categorized as follows:
• there is often an ongoing COMMENTARY on whatever we are experiencing in the present moment – producing an opinion and seeming to prefer to criticize rather than to focus on the good, pointing out what’s wrong and provide alternatives crafting an alternate reality. So, we hace thoughts about What’s happening and What should be happening.
• Our mind also TRAVELS in TIME: remembering specific things that have occured in the past and imagining new scenarios that project us into the future of things that might happen to us. Much time is spend somewhere else than the present moment as we travel to past events and ahead to future happenings.
• All these thoughts are SELF-REFERENTIAL: all the things we are thinking about are constantly being referred to ourselves – how do all these things apply to “me” – and are incorporated into a sense of who “I” am and how these things make me who i am. thus creating a seemingly solid sense of self.
• Our thoughts are also largely about SOCIAL COGNITION: we think about other people, about what they think about us, we put them into categories, and we compare ourselves to others – how am i doing amongst the rest.
It is stunning to realize that all of these types of thoughts will start spontaneously – without us asking for any of it.
So if you find yourself rehashing a recent unpleasant event, or planning a weekend getaway, of wondering what your friends thought about you on that day – on and on – just remember that it’s your mind and brain doing their normal house-keeping function – moving into their natural “default mode”.
It’s not just you, it’s everyone, and it is by nature’s design. This human thinking discursive mind is a beautiful thing that makes everything we know possible. It can also make our lives miserable as it can create doubt – self doubt, doubts about others – distorted reality, stories of failures, endless worries. This can be the cause of a lot of stress and suffering because these are automatic thought patterns that arise without us “wanting to”.
Can mindfulness and meditation help?
So, we have to learn how to disengage from this default mode of our brain and mind. We learn to relax. And this is where the practices of mindfulness and meditation come in. Mindfulness and meditation provide ways to learn how to GET OUT of the default mode. The way we do that is by bringing ourselves into the present moment. This is the antidote to the default mode of our mind.
Many of the practices we learn help us reconnect to the present moment – whether we do it by focusing our attention on our breath, on a sound, or on a physical sensation in our own body. These are some of the many ways we can learn to redirect our attention to something that is physically present in the here and now – so that these pesky regions of our brains can get a rest.
We learn to notice and name these activities of the mind – and to let each thought float away and move on – at least for a little while. They are not “my” thoughts – they are just thoughts that are happening on their own.
With practice, we can learn to disentangle our attention from them whenever we want to.