Sunday, October 15, 2017

Reset your defaults

There were some intensely emotional moments last week when I heard the news that loved ones were involved in a serious car accident. There were moments when I was caught up in "how did they survive"! There is horror and trauma in that thought,  it might so easily have been a different story. But it wasn't. I have been watching and welcoming  all the emotions that the events have unleashed, and the thoughts that accompany them. There truly is nothing that is not a messenger with a valuable message to deliver.

Immediately upon hearing the news I recognised feelings of anxiety and distress in my body and then the presence of immense gratitude.

Yes, along with tumultuous other feelings there is gratitude - has to be, my loved ones did survive, and that is a miracle. Concern for them remains, there are injuries to body and spirit to be navigated, but oh so much gratitude.

I am also experiencing deep gratitude for the guidance of my teachers who have shown me the way to welcome my feelings, emotions and thoughts, all as sensations in the body, and the lessons that become available through lived experience of the deep wisdom of the teachings.

This week I have been doing the practices and proving them to myself. I don't pretend to be a saint and it is not always so easy to live the teachings, my feathers are often ruffled. I am ordinary like that - we all are. But I am glad I have been doing my yoga practices daily and that they can step up and help me to navigate difficult times.

What yoga practices are they that have been so useful?

Well it has not had a lot to do with a well executed, nicely aligned trikonasana, although I still advocate asana practice to keep the body healthy, and a lovely asana practice can also be a moving meditation. However in my experience, love it though I do, yogasana practice alone is not what builds resilience in the face of what life throws at me.

I am most grateful (there's that word again) for the practices of iRest®.  Of all the yoga sadhana (practices) I have learnt in 40 odd years of exploration in yoga and meditation, iRest has provided me with the tools that work, for me, working in meditation daily and then taking the same practices into daily life where we really meet "stuff". And my tumultuous week has focused my understanding of how well it works.

The brain's default positions and how to change them 

The default position of the mind is to wander all over the place, to ruminate. This is the factory default if you like, and it serves a purpose. The mind in Default Mode Network is scanning the internal environment and in so doing may make new connections, make plans, analyse events and so on. That can be useful, until it takes over and gets us into an overthinking loop.

Another default position is our Negative bias. We are preset to see the worst, just like the A. A. Milne character Eeyore. Again this is protective. Better to get out of the way of a stick thinking it to be a snake than to get bitten by a snake you saw as a stick.

You can see where this leads us.  When the Default Network and Negative Bias get going together we have discursive negative thoughts, and everything is doom and gloom, just like poor Eeyore!

"The Default Network and Negative bias together lead to discursive negative thoughts ... but you can change the default settings."

Just as on your computer you can change default settings to something that will serve you better, it is possible to change your mental defaults as well.

Meditation techniques often get us out of this loop by focusing the mind, which moves us into another network called the Attention Network (sometimes called "Task Positive Network"). In the Attention Mode we can focus and learn. It is possible to stay in Attention Network for a sustained period of time, such as when performing a creative task that becomes all consuming and we completely lose track of time and whatever other responsibilities we may have. It is not possible to be in the Attention Network and the Default Mode simultaneously. "Best to stay busy" is often a response to difficult times, but all too often we can turn off the Discursive default mode during the day by staying busy, but the moment we stop being busy and try to sleep it rushes back online.

Meditation techniques that use points of focus, such as breath awareness, mandala visualisation, chanting, or that set tasks like rotating awareness through points in the body, are switching on the Attention Network. And studies do show that the more we switch on the Attention Network, the less discursive is the Default Network and the more we are able to concentrate. 

In iRest we employ such techniques for example when we sense the body and attend to the breath. 

But it is not a complete reset of the defaults.

Resetting the defaults - the alternative

Research has shown that if we utilise meditations on the feelings of the heart, loving kindness, compassion, gratitude as examples, we begin to reset the Negative bias. I have long had a daily practice of gratitude which I often share in class - think of just three things today that you could be grateful for. There is always something to be grateful for. Build this practice into everyday life and we literally change our brain, taking a more positive outlook.

And yes, we can also change our default network away from the discursive Default Mode Network.

There is another network which we can call the Present Centered Network. We learn to step into this network in our iRest practice, for example when we work with opposites. We utilise the Attention Network first. Try this:

Sense the left hand. Feel it fully. Let go of visualising it and just feel the left hand.

Shift to the right hand. Feel it fully, without visualising, just feel the right hand.

Go backwards and forwards between hands, attending to sensing just that one hand while you are there, and then to just the other.

When the time is right sense both hands at the same time.

While sensing one hand or the other we are utilising the Attention Network, but the moment we sense both at the same time we open into Present Centeredness. With consistent practice in various situations as we encounter in a regular iRest Yoga Nidra practice (by regular I mean daily), Present Centered becomes our new default that we can carry into everyday living, it becomes our Default Present Centered Network.

I offer gratitude to those who gave me reminders this week as I drifted back into the old Default Mode and Negative bias - you may not have even known that you were reminding me but at various times the messages came and helped me to keep finding my way back to the Present centered. 

My deepest gratitude I offer to my teachers, especially to Richard Miller who took the ancient teachings and tweaked them for our modern lives, infusing them with his knowledge of psychology that joins in him with an amazing and deep knowledge of yoga traditions. And others who have also learnt from him and who have helped along the way to illuminate my path, including Anne Douglas, Fuyuko Toyota, Jennifer Carbanero, Kirsten Guest, Molly Birkholm, Ford Peck and Stephanie Lopez.

Learn iRest Yoga Nidra with me - find the next 6 week course.