I woke up this morning feeling a mixture of negative emotions: stress from the pressures of business; anxious to get a good deal on some flights I wanted to book; sad about the loss of a rescue dog we had had living with us and concerned about some uncomfortable calls I had to make that day. I could see myself caught up in these different emotions, unable to separate myself from their grip.
I was in what neuroscientists call the ‘Default Mode Network’. This is the place our brains naturally go to when they are in idle. When we are not specifically focused on, or involved with, a task. It is that mental chatter that we engage in when we are seemingly doing nothing. Through the use of brain imaging scanners, scientists can see this neural activity lights up a network of centres in the brain and draws considerably on our oxygenated blood.
According to researcher Kelly McGonigal, the Default Mode Network has a very habitual way of thinking. It is:
a) focused on our problems, worries and concerns and how to solve them
b) judgemental of ourselves, our environment and other people
c) self-absorbed with our faults, failures and painful memories
d) obsessed with ourselves in relation to others, how we fit in and how we compare
e) past or future oriented
With its bias towards negative story-telling about our life experiences, the default mode is not a good place to be! And when anxiety, depression, pain or trauma are added on top of the default mode, it can become like quicksand, sucking us into a downward spiral fast.
The good news is that mindfulness training is proven to relax the grip this quicksand has on our psyches. Studies show that people who practice mindfulness, even for a short time, start to gradually loosen the neural connections to this default state. Also, these practices start to reduce the activation of the regions in the brain that are specifically associated with suffering. This means that instead of being drawn into this demoralising place without any seeming choice, meditators can learn the capacity to choose to stay present instead.
Added to this, the brains of long-term meditators gradually start to take on a different default mode all together: one that is simply present to the body and the emotions and able to notice “this is what is happening now” with no destructive story attached to it. This highlights the idea behind all attention practices: that we are teaching our brains what to do while we are meditating so that they utilise the same skills through the challenges of our daily lives.
There is one key distinction that is worth highlighting for these benefits to be of value: if you come to mindfulness to use purely as a tool for rest and relaxation, the benefits I have described above will not be achieved. Done effectively, mindfulness is sustained, present moment awareness that is non-judgemental, regardless of the meaning your mind want to place on things.
As you become aware of ‘default moding’ and try using mindfulness techniques to help pull you out of it. I suggest placing your attention on the sensations of the breath, or the repetition of a single word or thought utilised as a mantra or do something physical in a mindful way. Sometimes too we have to engage with life or go for a walk to free ourselves from the default mode patterning.
Also consider that when you are listening to people in the default mode, perhaps as a close friend or family member, it is important not to join them in their default mode story or try to argue against it. It is more beneficial to draw them out of it with questions such as ‘how long have you felt this way?’, ‘are these feeling familiar to you?’, ‘what are the facts of the situation?’, ‘how do you feel when you think people are more successful/happy/better than you?’, ‘how does this affect the way you engage with others and with life?’. These types of questions still ‘hear’ people fully and allow them to leave the Default Mode Network behind.
How did I get over the feelings I had when I woke up? I gradually came to an awareness of them and the recognition that I was just ‘default moding’. This is what brains do when left to their own devices. And there was nothing inherently wrong with me for feeling that way. I just have the same bias towards negativity that kept my stone age ancestors alive all those thousands of years ago. They needed to worry persistently to keep themselves safe. Luckily, I don’t have to!