Have you ever had that moment when you can feel, in that one moment, that it ALL is working? It is a wave of peace and happiness deep within that rolls through your body like a magnificent wave. You notice details about where you are and who you are with, in minute detail and it feels as if life is lit, in that moment, by a beautiful sparkler. It is those moments of pure joy that we hold on to dearly, in the tiny pockets of our memories.
What if we knew how to make more of these moments, to be in that wave and that light more often and spend less time in the scary rapids of distractions? Is that even possible?
This is a question that keeps me awake at night. It prompts my exploration and experimentation of many things. It prompts my ever-expanding library of books and articles about how our brain works. Many of these books share cool facts and the science of the brain yet few translate it back to how it can help in everyday life.
This past week I looped back to review one of my all-time favorite books, The Brain@Work, by David Rock. Rock caught my interest initially because his organization is based on the neuroscience of leadership. When I first saw that term I was bit stumped. The term is what it alludes to, the study of how our brains work and how we can use that knowledge to work better with others. But this work is about so much more.
In our Brain@Work Wholebeing Workshop, I ask people what do they want more of from their brain and what do they want less of. Consistently group after group shares they want more focus and fewer distractions. I know that feeling and we’re on this journey together. I have found some tools that work, which is awesome, yet Rock and his neuroscience were able to reveal why they work.
Two maps and the neuroscience of mindfulness
Rock and his array of metaphors make the functions of the brain understandable. I understand the metaphor of a map and using one at a time. (Have you ever tried to use Waze and Google maps at the same time?) It was Norm Farb at the University of Toronto and six other scientists in a study of the neuroscience of mindfulness who broke new ground in 2007 when they looked at how people experience their lives moment to moment. What was happening in their brains and their thoughts? It seems that at any given moment our brains are using one of two maps and continually shifting back and forth between these two.
Map #1 Narrative Circuitry
This is your default and it becomes active when not much else is going on and you are thinking about yourself as you plan, ruminate and daydream. It holds the story of your life and your cast of characters interacting with each other, past and future and the rich tapestry of information around all of that. You add meaning and interpretations and this becomes your narrative map. It’s also worth noting this is the default map and that on occasion, actually on many occasions, the “facts” of these narratives might be faulty. Hmmmm…that explains a few things.
This map is what turns the experience of a cool breeze on a summer day into a message that summer will be over soon and you need to plan your ski vacation. It has lots of stories to tell and can be a significant internal distraction. They say we have both external distractions, phone buzzing, and internal distractions, thoughts and feelings. (Often the internal distractions can be the really hard ones!)
Map #2 Direct Experience
This map is about the cool breeze, the actual experience of your senses. It is the sensation of how that breeze feels on your skin in real time. This is the map of your senses, what you see, hear, smell, feel and taste. It is coming back to the breath, this moment and to your real-time life. This map is needed for you to detect errors and switch your attention to what is the best response, not a reaction to what is happening and a split second execution of a past script that the narrative map might offer.
The interesting fact is that if you are using Map#2, the direct experience, you can’t be using Map #1, the narrative. This explains the phrase that we learned in yoga that when you are taking long deep breaths, you cannot have a spinning, chaotic mind.
With an overactive, worrying, distracted mind, your narrative map is in full swing. When you take a deep breath and experience the sensations of that physical experience, your senses come alive. You’ve switched to your direct experience map. You’ve come back to the present moment and a clearer perspective of what is.
When you spend more time using the direct experience map, you have much more real-time data coming in which helps you perceive more information to help you make better decisions.
People who practice mindfulness notice which map they are using at any given moment and can switch back and forth as they choose, depending on what they need.
That is the opposite of a mind of chaos. Are you willing to do a bit of mindfulness practice to spend more time using the direct experience map and possess that hone map switching skill?
And what about joy?
So the real hidden treasure here for me is that the direct experience map is the place of joy. We do not have five senses as an extra feature of the human body. The senses are what make life feel good. As you spend more time using this direct experience map, coming to the breath you begin to reawaken the senses. As you stop to savor a beautiful view, or walk along the beach hearing and feeling the waves at your feet, you are filling your body with rich sensory experiences, as if it was a boost of joy vitamins. Extending and infusing positive emotions is similar to dietary displacement.
When you eat good foods there is not more room for the not-so-healthy stuff. When you fill your body and mind with the making of this direct experience map there is less time for the default mind and its often apocalyptic and negative stories and fears.
I love going for a walk because I can’t resist nature. The colors, textures, smells, sounds, feel of the air on my skin, zaps me back into my body and this moment. Maybe it is music for you, or singing, or a particular taste of dark chocolate. Yet, the fastest way, that is always available is the breath.
Coming back to the breath, again and again and again. It is always there for you…will you use it?