I first learned about the Default Mode Network (DMN) through my Mindful Self-Compassion training. The DMN is that brain process that kicks in when we are not actively engaged in a particular activity that requires our attention. It’s the process that leads us to worry about the future, ruminate about the past, generally feel the uneasiness that comes with establishing ourselves as a distinct “self” in the continuum of our life. So, in the context of learning meditation in order to turn off the DMN (which was what I believed was the purpose of meditation), I came to believe that the DMN was something desirable to turn off. Research shows that experienced meditators have less DMN activity both while meditating and while going about their daily activities, and I thought this was a goal to work toward.
But since my early training I have learned a bit more about the DMN and I have also observed my own experience of the DMN. In addition to being the “seat of the sense of self” the DMN is also the launch pad for creativity and problem-solving. One of my favorite things to do is lay in bed in the wee hours of the morning and let my DMN run and play. Sure, in anxious times there’s less play and more rumination, but at those times when there isn’t a pressing problem that is weighing on me, my DMN surely does run and play. It can clearly identify – and delights in working through – priorities for the day, so I keep my iPhone by my bed so that I can make notes to remind myself of how my DMN is prioritizing tasks. And it lays out concepts and lines of reasoning that grow into blog pieces that are typed out with a cup of coffee first thing in the morning. Not only are these mind processes going on while the DMN is playing, there is a corresponding feeling of joy, delight, freedom, purpose and accomplishment – the endless possibilities available from that vast, mostly untapped pool of unconscious material.
I remember hearing a poet talk about how inspiration comes at him like a fleeting gust of wind, and the best he can do is to find a piece of paper and pen quickly enough to catch it before it moves away again as quickly as it rushed in.
There are a few other times in my day when I commune with the DMN. I walk at least 2 miles every day, generally in the afternoon when my brain is exhausted from emails. Something lovely happens when I move from “exhausted, engaged brain” to the freedom of moving my body and letting my mind move freely with it. It’s as if my stream of consciousness is finally let out of its cage, and once again my brain goes toward mapping out lines of reasoning which spontaneously become potential pieces of writing or the beginnings of creative adventures. I’ve taken to using the voice memo function on my iPhone to record myself speaking as a concept for a writing piece unfolds. I remember hearing a poet talk about how inspiration comes at him like a fleeting gust of wind, and the best he can do is to find a piece of paper and pen quickly enough to catch it before it moves away again as quickly as it rushed in. The iPhone is perfect for catching these gusts before they move out of reach. And as a colleague pointed out when I told her about this, these days we can get away with talking into a small shiny box as we power walk without being perceived as being totally crazy.
Another time that I really enjoy hanging with the DMN is, once again after being mentally exhausted, when I take the time to simply sit on the couch and allow my brain to stop. The contrast between heavy duty thinking and problem solving to giving myself permission to not think and problem solve can feel like bathing sore muscles in a hot shower. Pure bliss. I actually feel the sensation of joy from the simple act of sitting on the couch. I allow my DMN out of its cage again, and it comes on line immediately (no coaxing required!). It’s as if a switch has been flicked. Often in this state there is alternating stunned brain silence and wafts of thoughts which I allow to come and go without hanging on or trying to change them. In fact I know that to hang on to any of these thoughts would be an act of cruelty on a brain that has already worked so hard – it would be like giving myself permission to go on holiday and then seeking out work on my computer that I didn’t need to do at all while my soul aches to lay on the beach in the sun. Every brain deserves a good holiday!
This state of “numb brain” with wafts of thoughts lasts for a distinct period of time, usually less than an hour. It’s sort of like resting after a long run – there’s a distinct period of time needed to recharge and to be ready for the next thing. And the next thing for my brain tends to be either a desire to move my body, or a move into that excitable state of creativity and problem solving.
…my concern with concentration mediation is that, while relaxing, it might be a way for me to engage in spiritual bypassing – ignoring my experience in the pursuit of single pointed awareness.
A final observation about the DMN is my relationship with it during meditation. There are ways of meditating (mostly concentration mediation) where the meditator practices emptying the mind of thought by concentrating on a single point of focus (the breath, a candle flame, the tip of the nostrils etc) but my concern with concentration mediation is that, while relaxing, it might be a way for me to engage in spiritual bypassing – ignoring my experience in the pursuit of single pointed awareness. So my meditation is mostly open awareness meditation, with the breath as an occasional anchor point. The DMN need not be an enemy in open awareness meditation, and where I might have once longed for my open awareness to be aware that I’d suddenly become very concentrated (!) I am now very content to sit and watch the fruits of my DMN, once again without grabbing any of those thoughts in an effort to manipulate them or own them. This feels more natural than training my attention specifically on a single object, and means that my meditation, rather than being a chore (which unfortunately it has felt like in the past) is now a spontaneously arising desire. I remember reading about Dipa Ma who would duck off to meditate at apparently random times in the day – I’m guessing that she was simply feeling this spontaneously arising desire to meditate, as natural as the desire to get a drink or water or stretch.
So, Default Mode Network, I think we’ve patched our differences and I no longer am trying to quieten you down. Sure, when you’re attached to regret and worry it’s not a walk in the park, but you make up for it in creativity and problem-solving. I’m glad we’re friends!
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- The Neurochemistry Behind Our Meditation Practice - April 15, 2017