Don’t you just love that holiday feeling? Wouldn't it be great if life could be like that all the time?
Daily grind flies out the window; life is your own. You can do whatever you want. The air smells fresher, birds sound sweeter. Life is full of possibilities.
Instead of rushing out the door to work, we go outside and stretch, look at the sky. Hello sky. Instead of plonking down at our desk we gallop headlong into the surf. Instead of being wound up tight, we unwind and breathe more freely. We release a happy holiday sigh…. ahhhh.
One Mind, Two Circuits
It feels good when all our senses come alive and bring us powerfully into the moment, into the immediate physical world.
Researchers Norman Farb and colleagues from the University of Toronto have a term for it: “Direct Experience”. Their 2007 study broke new ground in understanding the brain from a mindfulness perspective.
Farb and colleagues examined the alternating states of distraction and focus that punctuate our lives. They used the opposing term ‘narrative network’ for the long intervals between ‘direct experience’. In neuroscience terms, we humans have two distinct ways of interacting with the world: through either narrative or direct circuitry.
‘Narrative’ meaning tuned-out to the world while mind-wandering and ‘Direct’ meaning tuned-in to real life in real time.
Narrative circuitry is our usual mode of operating. It’s when our brain is ticking away, thinking about ourselves, other people or the future, and weaving it into one big tapestry of personal meaning. As we do.
It’s our usual way of operating, our default mode. It describes how we experience much of our life through the filter of our ideas, preconceptions, fears and projections. For example, we’re at the beach, but instead of being alive to the natural world around us we are immersed in our plans for the evening.
Direct experience, unlike the immersed automatic-pilot nature of narrative mode, is fresh and alive. It’s experiencing life directly through the senses, not through the filter of our ideas.
It’s being at the beach and really being there. Not lost in space or our inner storylines. We hear the waves breaking, watch the frilly white water spreading onto shore, smell the salty flavour of the sea. We notice the big sky overhead, smell the sunscreen, feel the warm sun on our skin.
And because we are present, we taste the experience in a manner superior to when we’re only half there. Life feels richer because life really does become richer.
Switch it On to Switch it Off
What’s more, living life in real time through our senses switches off the circuitry of the opposing and less rewarding Narrative system. The implications are huge: it means we can use the practice of deliberately connecting to our senses to shake off unwanted mental overload.
We can switch off worry by connecting to our senses. We can switch off all manner of unwanted headspaces by inhabiting our physical reality. When direct experience mode is active, all the busy, neurotic, chaotic, confused and anxious contortions of mind stop.
By switching off narrative mode and switching on to direct experience more often, brain regions associated with switching attention and perceiving bodily sensations become more developed. These are the anterior cingulate cortex and the insula, respectively. Researcher Kirk Brown found that people trained in mindfulness have a greater ability to switch networks.
Sadly, the Narrative Network in turn switches off the pleasurable circuitry of direct sensory experience.
Of course, we move constantly between the two networks. There’s nothing wrong per se with default mode. But it’s helpful to have agility and choice. Constant rumination (narrative mode) can entrap us during stressful times.
It’s helpful to be able to shake off rumination, because the thoughts we don’t see are the ones that control us. Mindfulness is the king-pin circuit-breaker. With deliberate application, mindful awareness ejects us from our head-trips by anchoring us in the body and in the moment.
Into direct experience, minus the narrative.
Extend the Happy Holiday High
Mindfulness is the action of deliberately rebooting our direct experience of reality on a regular basis. It’s up to us to interrupt narrative mode. The method is to savour the incoming data from the senses more often and thereby refrain from being sucked into our repetitive inner stories and commentaries.
By deliberately favouring being present more often, we can infect our busy humdrum workaday moments with freshness and presence. Then the happy holiday high can be ours more often.
“When your mind is not clouded by unnecessary things:
That is the best season of your life”.
- Zen master Wu-Men
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