A YOGI CHA BLOG
Healing the broken brain
One of the most distinctive memories of my childhood was my dad constantly whistling or singing. He’s a very musical person, sings well and loves playing the guitar. He would tell me that his whole life, he would always have a song in his head.
Do you ever get that tune stuck in your head? It’s your wandering mind at play.
I love taking the metaphors of the ancient texts to explain issues of today because it gives us some perspective on our problems. Quite clearly what we thought were “modern day issues” that new researchers had to find new solutions for, is not so much the case.
In the Bhagavad Gita, we get the analogy of the mind as the chariot with 5 wild horses needing to be tamed in order to steer the journey in the right direction. The horses are actually the 5 senses and it’s the intellect holding the reins. There is a passenger, only passively taking the journey and that is the soul. The awakening happens when the passenger takes control of the reins : when our true nature shines through. When we manage to control the wild horses of the senses so that we learn how to direct our intellect in the right direction.
Everything that is an issue of our mind, the chronic fatigue, the stress, the anxiety, depression, inflammation and the subject that will come next week of loneliness are all due to our intellect following the wild horses in all directions. We see this so clearly that it would seem the ancient Seers of India had the equipment to scan the brain. There is a network that gets activated when our mind does not have a clear task : when it’s in its wandering mode. It has been called the Default Mode Network (DMN) due to this : when there is not something to focus on specifically that catches our attention, this takes over and it is responsible for what we could call the sensation of “a sense of self”. But not the self with a capital S, not the expanded version of ourselves that feels a connection to everything in nature and the universe at large. No, it’s really the small self, the narrowed field of vision. More so, this mode has been associated with an experience of contracted mode as opposed to the relaxed or open mode. You know this state very well, it’s the “trying hard” to do something versus doing something without even needing to make an effort. So the area of the brain that is responsible for a sense of self is active when we feel a distinct awareness of separation from the rest. For the two things to make perfect sense to you : when we are scared as we walk through a dark alley at night, we become acutely aware of the potential risks around us in our imagination. We also feel contracted, we feel quite small. We are not relaxed, feeling the breeze on our skin, observing the way the moonlight falls on the buildings.
Ok so we can see why this network can be useful for us but what about when it’s not?
Well, this is the part of the brain that is active when we are in the wandering mode, not focused on one specific task so that it has the capacity to worry about the future and ruminate about the past. It is very much active when we indulge in a habit, when we ruminate and when we are in cravings.
What fires together, wires together is an expression that most of us have heard at this point. And what that means is that what we practise grows stronger. The more something feels familiar to us, the more we will go there. So when there are thought patterns of habits, cravings or rumination activated in our brain, it feels safe. Strangely enough. Not so strangely when you know that it’s the DMN in action and that it’s responsible for our sense of self.
This means that it feels like me. This is who I am.
And what happens is that deviating from that mode, feels uncomfortable, unfamiliar, even anxiety-provoking.
To resume what I’ve been saying so far : there is a set of structures in the brain that gets activated together when it does not have a specific task to focus on but when it could potentially wander off and daydream. This network allows the brain to think about the past and the future and it creates the sense of self. When active, this mode keeps us from being fully aware of what is in front of us since it’s caught up in the narrative of familiar thinking. When active, we are on autopilot, indulging in cravings, loops of habit and obsessive thinking. It really creates a separation between us, the thinking mind that we are in those moments, and the rest of the world. We feel a contraction, we are acutely aware of the isolation that living in our human bodies with the capacity of the prefrontal cortex brings and it’s really the opposite of feeling at ease and safe in the spot we are in. It’s the opposite mode of being fully absorbed in a task, the flow state. And it is of course why it is so darn hard to not believe our thoughts in that moment. It’s why we can’t reason our way out of anxiety and why “just calm down” isn’t helpful.
The world is very much narrowed down.
And to make matters worse, the more we are used to going there in our heads, the easier it will be to do it again and again.
So they did experiments in FMRI scans with people in order to see if there was a difference between those who get easily caught up and those who don’t.
Guess what? Experienced meditators had a much quieter DMN.
Hi, I’m Charlotte (Yogi Cha). I’m a yoga teacher with a degree in clinical psychology. I’ve always had a deep curiosity toward eastern and western approaches to understanding the mind, and the ming/body union. You’ll find me in the lovely Canggu Bali, nestled amongst coconuts, palm trees and sunshine 🥥🌴🌞
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