We know from neuroscience that sense organs like the eye pick up light information and turn it into electrical signals? Parts of our brain, like the visual cortex, construct these signals into an image of the world that we can make sense of. There are similar systems that we have for hearing, touch, taste, and smell. Neuroscientists have also identified systems in our brain that engage our attention called the Default Mode Network and the Direct Experience Network.
The default mode becomes active when our brain assumes that not much is going on and automatically switches our attention to the internal narrative that runs through unfinished business, imaginings, difficulties, or memories that happen to be near the surface. These unintended thoughts are often about the past or future and can be driven by emotions. As soon as we enter one of these streams of thought, we’ve disconnected from the here-and-now reality of direct experience. Our body and senses may be in the present, but our attention is somewhere else. For example, we could be walking on a beautiful coastal path, but rather than enjoying it, we find that our attention is drawn to a particular unresolved problem that distracts us from the walk.
The direct experience mode is the opposite of the default mode. When the direct experience network is activated in our brain, we are much more aware of our body and senses and experience a more direct connection with the world around us. We are no longer time-traveling in the internal narrative in our heads but connected into the here-and-now of the present moment.
On the same coastal walk, we notice that our mind has been working through that problem, so switch our attention outwards to our body and senses; to the sound of the waves brushing the shore, the squawk of seagulls overhead, the beautiful, rugged coastline that dips into the sea, and the sun glinting across the water. We feel connected, peaceful and relaxed. The problem may not have gone away, but we feel in a calmer mood to sit down and properly explore a creative solution later that day.
One of the key steps in developing a more mindful approach is to begin noticing the difference between the indirect world of our thoughts and the reality of direct experience.
These modes can be described as:
- Indirectly drifting off into the past or future in our minds. This is more like virtual reality, where we lose touch with the here and now.
- Indirectly engaging in the present where thoughts provide an interpretive overlay, which is similar to augmented reality, like a mobile phone app that overlays pictures or information on a live image.
- Directly connecting with the present flow of experience through our body and senses
As we go about our lives, we don’t generally make this distinction, but experience everything together in a vague sense of who we are that includes indirect, mind-made “realities”, as well as the actual connected and embodied reality of direct experience in the present moment.
Although the mind is an amazing and powerful resource, it can sometimes also limit who we are and what we experience. By being more mindful we can make sure our mind serves us well and experience the full potential of what it means to be human.
Suggested weekly practice
- Remember to connect into direct experience which is only ever in the present moment, when your attention is on what you are doing.
- Notice when you slip into indirect experience and use curiosity to become more aware of how your attention is distracted in thoughts about the past and future.
- Also use curiosity to explore how we overlay or experience of the present-moment with perceptions, judgements, and thoughts.
Find somewhere undisturbed and sit in a comfortable, dignified and upright posture, where you can remain alert and aware.
There are two guided practices for this session. You can close your eyes, or lower your gaze while the meditations play.
- Play the first settling practice, then read through the session content, which you can print off if that helps.
- Then play the second practice to explore direct and indirect experience.