Everyday Spark

Find your spark. Live well. Everyday.

Truly Experiencing Life

An interesting and concise description of the effects of mindfulness on our everyday experiences by Dr. David Rock appears in the June 2011 Psychology Today. While the ideas described in the article weren’t new to me, the way that they were tied to one another made it a fascinating read.

In short, Rock explains that there are two modes your brain can be in at any time: narrative (or default) mode and direct experience mode. The former is the mode most people exist in most of the time, and it is when “you are thinking about your history and future and all the people you know, including yourself, and how this giant tapestry of information weaves together” while taking in information from your experience. The other mode, a.k.a. direct experience, is just as it sounds:

When the direct experience network is active, several different brain regions become more active. This includes the insula, a region that relates to perceiving bodily sensations. The anterior cingulate cortex is also activated, which is a region central to switching your attention. When this direct experience network is activated, you are not thinking intently about the past or future, other people, or yourself, or considering much at all. Rather, you are experiencing information coming into your senses in real time.

Rock goes on to explain that recent studies have shown that the two modes of thinking/experiencing are inversely correlated, which makes sense. You can’t be processing experiences directly AND filtering them through your meaning-making circuitry simultaneously. The two ways of being are mutually exclusive. Anyway, the most exciting connection for me is the following:

…people who regularly practiced noticing the narrative and direct experience paths, such as regular meditators, had stronger differentiation between the two paths. They knew which path they were on at any time, and could switch between them more easily. Whereas people who had not practiced noticing these paths were more likely to automatically take the narrative path.

Now, I knew that we were finally beginning to scientifically show and measure how meditative practices physically change the brain, but I had not read or heard much about what this might mean for everyday living. Does meditation induce the relaxation response in the body and mind? Yep. Does it ameliorate the effects of stress on the body? Looks like it. But the idea that meditative practices might simply remind a person that he or she has a choice about how to experience their life is pretty radical to me. When you consciously (and eventually habitually) choose to take the time to be quiet and still your mental chatter (chita vritti in yogi-talk!), this practice truly becomes practice for every other experience you’ll have that day.

I will never hear the phrase “meditative practice” the same way again.

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