Default Mind: Four modes to dissatisfaction

A few weeks ago, I met four psychologist friends in New Mexico to reconnect, soak in the mineral hot springs of Ojo Cliente, and do what psychologists do when we get together....psychoanalyze ourselves. Group therapy for the brave. I have been yearning to get away for a while. When battling my toddler to take a nap or folding endless superhero underpants, I fantasized about reading People magazine on an airplane ALONE.

So, I found myself on that fantasized airplane, with that very magazine, and...I WAS MISERABLE. My mind launched into the familiar dialogue of negative commentary and dissatisfaction. Different content, but same process.

Default Mind

Kelly McGonigol describes this pattern of default mind in her Sounds True series: The Neuroscience of Change. She explains that when left to wander, our minds fall into one or more of four unhelpful modes. In the post below I will describe each mode and give a personal example.

1) Commentary about the present moment: The mind negatively critiques the present and designs an alternate reality of the way things "should be." 

My Mind: "This magazine is not what I was hoping for. I should have gotten Real Simple." We don't get a moment's peace because our mind focuses on what is wrong or missing.

2) Time travel: When the mind is at rest, areas of the brain are activated that remember past events and make predictions about our future (usually negative). The brain's "default network" involves multiple interacting subsystems including the medial prefrontal cortex, posterior cingulate, and lateral parietal cortex. Together these systems form memories and make self relevant mental simulations (Buckner et al. 2008).

My Mind: "Last time I was on a trip I didn't sleep well. I probably won't be able to sleep tonight. I can see myself tossing and turning now."  When we time travel, we miss out on our current experience an instead suffer in a mental creation. 

3) Self-referential processing: The brain organizes around creating a sense of self. It seeks ways to define who we are as a fixed self.

My Mind "I am not the type of person who is good at directions. I will never find this place." We suffer when we cannot see ourselves as multidimensional and contextual.

4) Social cognition: We compare ourselves to other people, put them in categories, and judge ourselves in relationship to them.

Greeting my friends at the springs: "These women are doing more, have more prestigious jobs, better shoes...." When we compare ourselves to others, we become separate and miss chances for connection and common humanity.

Fortunately, my focus on this trip was to intentionally shift out of my monkey mind misery. In order to do so, I turned toward another less familiar mode of mind: Present moment awareness.

1) I NOTICED MY MODE OF MIND

2) I FOCUSED ON THE PRESENT

3) I ALLOWED WHAT IS

4) I DID IT AGAIN AND AGAIN

With some practice I found moments of the deep restorative peace I was craving...at least until my return flight.