Recent studies indicate that a typical person spends around half the time with their mind wandering from the present moment and the task at hand, and that it is a source of unhappiness and unease. I would like to know the details of the brain imaging and how they interpreted their data. I am also surprised it is not more frequent. Do we really only waste half of our waking hours lost in thought? Of course I am thinking of five things as I write this. Yes, distraction is real. One of the many purposes of mindfulness meditation is to tame the unruly mind by noticing what thoughts flow through, and gently directing our attention back to the present moment.
Certain areas of the brain light up when we are “not doing anything else”. The interesting part is to examine, through meditation, what the actual content is of our default mode. We have an endless stream of wandering thoughts – about what? For most of us, we weave many of our distracted thoughts out of the same three things: criticism of self and others; worries about the future; and regrets about the past. So it is worth examining the specifics of what engages us in our default moments. What stories are we telling ourselves? What are our personal myths? Did somebody do us wrong? Or have we let ourselves down? Do we waste time regretting how much time we have wasted? Are we stuck in a rut of repeated thoughts that serve no purpose but to nail us to the floor? Perhaps it is time to change our stories, and give ourselves some relief. One practice is to give ourselves the same kindness and encouragement and support that we give to our friends.
In addition to consciously changing the quality of our wandering thoughts, research indicates that we can also limit the time spent in default mode. Just as we cannot breathe in and out at the same time, we cannot stay in the default mode network of our brain once we engage the task positive network. They are mutually exclusive. As we focus on our breath and become fully present and aware, we can observe our thoughts and even (according to research again!) come to smile at them, rather than have them distress us. Almost all distress comes from past or future thoughts – we are usually judging something we think is wrong (someone’s past behavior) or worried about things that haven’t actually happened (future catastrophes). Right now, things are good. I am sitting comfortably in a chair writing to you. As you read it, you have taken a moment to relax.
Through practice and repetition, we can hold our attention with a gentle hand, and guide ourselves back to the present moment, over and over again. We can train our mind to be here, in the present, embodied and connected. Meditation has even been shown to develop and thicken the areas of the brain related to attention and emotional awareness. So this sense of being more connected is not just imagination. What we practice gets stronger, not only muscles, but mental habits. If we are destined by neurobiology to keep “playing back the same movie” on a loop, we may as well learn to turn it off more easily, and make it a better movie while we are at it. Letting our old superhighways of negative patterns dwindle away as we steer away from them. Creating more life-affirming and soothing thought patterns. We may need a machete to break though the first few times, but as we practice we can make ourselves some sweet little paths and forest trails to wander along, when our minds choose to wander.