- Meditation shuts down the default mode network, the seat of our inner monologue.
- Other activities can create this same change in the brain.
When I talk to people about meditation, there is always an underlying guilt. “I know I should, but…”
A common complaint is that there is never enough time. We have too much to do, and when we finally get a few minutes to ourselves, we would rather spend it doing something enjoyable.
Luckily, research shows us how meditation works. Meditation shuts down the default mode network (DMN), which produces our self-directed, automatic thoughts. This is our inner monologue. It also activates the central executive network (CEN), from where our deliberate, focused attention comes.
Over time, meditation reconfigures the brain: The CEN becomes stronger, making it easier to inhibit mind-wandering and focus on the things that matter. This creates a cascade of benefits, from reduced negative emotions to improved interpersonal relationships.
To experience the effects of meditating in everyday life, start with a mindset shift. Your inner monologue is unimportant. Unnecessary. It not only doesn’t provide value, but it also makes normal activities feel worse. It stands in the way of peace, calm, and being really present in your life.
When a valuable thought does arise, whether it is a to-do or a creative idea, write it down. Knowing what you will do with the occasional important thought helps you forget the rest.
Then, try out these solutions:
- Simplify your everyday activities. Forty-three percent of the time, we are doing everyday activities while thinking about something else, aka, listening to our DMN (Wood et al., 2002). When doing daily things, actively silence the brain by turning your focus elsewhere. Focus on the sensation of the warm water in the shower, the taste of your turkey sandwich, or the color of the sky. Mindfulness is a struggle when we value our thoughts. When we devalue our thoughts, mindfulness is the natural result.
- Focus on what’s in front of you. Too often, we half listen to the people around us. We hear them, but we also hear the DMN rambling. When you speak with someone, make a conscious effort to go mentally silent. Focus on them. This will activate your CEN, turn off your DMN, and create a more fulfilling interaction in the process.
- Choose flow. A flow state, when we are so absorbed in an activity that nothing else seems to matter, deactivates the DMN. Take time to do the activities you love—the ones that make you lose track of time and space. Sustained attention builds the CEN, creating the same effect that meditation does. If you don’t have a flow activity, take one you like, from tennis to knitting, and talk through the steps. “Knit one, purl one,” or, “Bounce, bounce, hit.” As W. Timothy Gallwey, the author of The Inner Game of Tennis, writes, “It’s hard to be saying “bounce-hit” and at the same time overinstructing yourself, trying too hard or worrying about the score.”
In short, meditation is a powerhouse at shutting down the default mode network. Luckily, that is something you can do whether you’re in a yoga studio or the grocery store.