After a couple of stormy days the sea today looks calm and undisturbed. An expansive blue peacefully stretched to distances. Many contemplative wisdom traditions suggest that the natural/original state of our mind is similarly quiet, peaceful and undisturbed like an expansive blue sky or a calm sea.
Let’s do a little experiment. Close your eyes and rest your mind for the next minute or so. Don’t think about anything, let your mind be totally at ease and quiet.
If you are like most of us, perhaps instead of ease and quiet what you experienced was a rather busy mind taken up by the waves of thoughts and passing images about what happened today at work or at home, an upcoming meeting, the traffic, the lunch/dinner, the weekend … A noisy inner-commentator humming like an old air conditioner in the background.
So what happened to the natural quiet mind that wisdom traditions talk about?
Default Resting State of the Mind
Neuroscientists looking at the brain through FMRI have found that when we initially set our minds to rest – like you did in above – the brain actually gets more active and instead of going to sleep or quieting down many parts of the brain concurrently lit-up to produce the experience of the inner-chatter or mental-narrator. Neuroscientists call this the Default Resting State of the human mind that comes on-line anytime we are not particularly focused on a goal or activity, for example when we are driving, showering, brushing our teeth, eating, shaving, watching TV …
A Source of Unhappiness
Both science and wisdom traditions agree that this default state of the mind driven by mind wandering and mental-chatter is the source of many of our dissatisfactions and unhappiness. So while on one hand we are ceaselessly pursuing happiness: buying new things, meeting new people, joining new groups and clubs, shopping for new clothes, travelling to new destinations, attending self-improvement programs, moving to a new bigger house, having a new car, a new relationship … at the same time all along unbeknownst to ourselves we are accompanied by a mind that in its habitual state feeds the fire of distraction, dissatisfaction and unhappiness.
How the default/habitual state of the mind creates unhappiness?
There are a few mind-habits that our brains default to whenever it wanders away from the present moment or looses itself in the inner-commentator that leads to unhappiness:
Inner Dialogue/Adding-On. Default mind habitually adds-on or layers-on commentary on anything it sees, hears, or experiences and often with a fault-finding attitude.
“Why he arrives so late to the meeting? He should be on-time, he must say sorry”. “Why they call now? They should have called earlier, they must explain”. “Why is he wearing white socks? He should be wearing black socks, he must go shopping for new ones”. “Why she is taking so long to pay the cashier? She should be faster. She should have her change already in her hand”. “Why is he wearing a jacket in this heat? He should wear a t-shirt, someone must tell him that”. You can easily see how hard it would be to have any peace if our minds are constantly running around finding faults.
“I”-Making. Habitual mind likes to indulge in “I-making” or personalizing things and events by automatically attaching an “I” to experiences or happenings. Try these two similar sentences and pay very close attention to how you feel as you repeat them silently.
– “I” have headache
– There is headache
– “I” am really anger
– There is anger
Did you feel any difference? If yes, how?
Or try this
– “I” was made redundant
– My role was made redundant
Perhaps you can easily see when the mind unnecessarily personalises things or events it creates unhappiness.
An alternative mind state?
Going back to wisdom traditions claim about the natural state of the mind as being calm and spacious, they may be pointing to a capacity available to humanity rather than it being our mind’s default mode. Neuroscientists have also identified a similar state the “Experiencing-Self” in which the areas of the brain responsible for the processing of an experience in the present moment such as hearing, smelling, seeing, feeling and areas that control attention and focus (that save us from default commentary, past/future thinking and personalising) become more activated. They have further found that by training our mind it is possible for “Experiencing-Self” to become a new default mode.
Wisdom traditions suggest while in pursuit of happiness we mistakenly over-compensate by trying to change our outer circumstances (buying new this and new that …), it is instead the identification with the habitual mind that needs to be transformed.
Practice: Conscious Self- Experience Scanning
Here is a set of practices that facilitates self-awareness and take us out of the default mode into the experiencing-self by consciously scanning one’s experiences in the moment. You can choose to set aside a time to follow the complete cycle a few times from top to the bottom (for example during lunch break or while on a leisurely walk after work) or choose to do a mini version (focusing on one or two items from the list while attending a meeting or walking between meetings). With regular practice as self-awareness takes a stronger footing, we are more likely to see the default mode as it kicks into operation and may choose to not entertain it and instead save its energy. This is the same energy that we then make available to our professional or personal needs.
1. As you are walkings scan your mind, what thoughts are you thinking? Label them. (3 seconds)
2. What emotions are present? label them. (3 seconds)
3. Scan inside your physical body from head to toes, what sensations are there? A pulsation inside the head or the temples? Dry mouth? Tingling sensation in the throat? tightness in the jaws or may be back teeth pressing on each other? any tightness in the shoulders? The heart beating fast? Tightness or butterflies in the stomach? Discomfort in lower back? Simply note the sensations and move on. (5 seconds)
4. Scan the surface of your body: perspiration on the forehead? Feeling of breeze or the warmth of the sunshine on the face or arms? Weight of sunglasses on the nose or back of the ears? Feeling your shirt collar? The belt around the waist? Coins/car keys in the front pocket? Feeling your wallet in the back pocket? Shoes around the feet? …
5. Consciously scan the physical vicinity: the trees, the shops, sounds of the birds, any noise, any smell, other people passing by … (3 seconds)
6. Look for the farthest thing your eyes can see: the moon, the clouds, sunset, stars, blinking lights on a distant towers … (3 seconds)
7. Check your breath: How deep or shallow is it?
8. Then turn your attention to that which is witnessing or is aware of totality of all above experiences: ask yourself silently “Who/what is witnessing all these?”
9. You can choose to repeat the complete cycle from the start.
Any time you get distracted either begin from the top or continue with wherever you left off.
Like to share your experience in the comments area?