Repost: Mind Wandering: Wondering With Purpose

Repost: Mind Wandering: Wondering With Purpose

This post originally appeared in The Jewish Week

Have you ever lost your train of thought and found it elsewhere? How about “spaced-out” while reading, listening to a lecture, watching a show or even driving?

This could be your mind, wandering.

Mind Wandering refers to the phenomenon of being unable to focus on any single topic for a long period of time. As it turns out, it is very common. There is even evidence that indicates that mind wandering may constitute a psychological baseline; research shows that our brains’ daydream so easily and effortlessly that it appears to be our default mode of thought (https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/17188554).

MindWandering_PicIn a culture obsessed with efficiency, a wandering mind is often derided as a lazy habit, and a threat to happiness. In fact, Freud regarded mind wandering as an example of “infantile” thinking, a sign of procrastination, the very opposite of productivity. In a similar vein, in 2010, Killingsworth and Gilbert wrote in Sciencemag.org that: “A human mind is a wandering mind, and a wandering mind is an unhappy mind (http://greatergood.berkeley.edu/images/application_uploads/KILLINGSWORTH-WanderingMind.pdf) .”

Yet, on the flip side, a study from the University of British Columbia found that while mind wandering is usually associated with “laziness or inattentiveness,” the human brain is actually very active while daydreaming. (https://www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2009/05/090511180702.htm).

In that study, psychologists used brain scans to study participants as they performed easy, mindless assignments and found that their brains did indeed wander – but it was also during that period that the section of the brain known as the “executive network” was the most active.

This executive network, incidentally, is what we turn to when confronted with a high-level, complex problem. So daydreaming, according to this study, could help us solve some of our most pressing problems.

This suggests that mind wandering isn’t quite as mindless as it was previously considered. A daydream seems to produce parallel processing in two supposedly oppositional neural networks: the active executive part and the resting default.

How do we resolve this apparent contradiction? Let’s consider that the explanation resides in the fact that it’s not enough to simply daydream. Letting the mind drift off is the easy part. What’s much more difficult (and more important) is maintaining a touch of meta-awareness, so that if you happen to come up with a useful new idea while in the shower or sitting in traffic, you’re able to take note of it. In other words, “zoning out” might not be such a bad thing, as long as there is a conscious ability to hone and nurture what happens during that time.

To take this even further, research suggests that if we are somewhat mindful of where our minds are, without judgment, of course, the act of mind wandering might be essential to conjuring deep thoughts essential to living a connected and balanced life.

So, in an ironic riff on the idea that mindfulness is rooted in being “here and now”, when we are mindful of our mind wandering, it becomes functional.

I can’t help but realize how apropos this idea is during the time of the Jewish festival of Sukkot (“Huts”). This holiday is literally the quintessential WANDERING holiday! It commemorates the time that the Israelites spent wandering (yep, wandering) in the desert. The only shelter that they had at that time was from the temporary huts, or dwellings, that they erected during their 40-year journey.

What makes the journey distinctive is that while traveling in the desert, the Israelites were not wandering aimlessly from place to place, though it might have appeared that way.  They were consciously connected to something greater than themselves. In the desert, for the first time in their history, they truly grew into one nation connected to their ancestry and progeny, to their culture and religion, and to a “higher power.”

In today’s day and age, The flimsy sukkah structure returns those who observe the holiday to this time in Jewish history, while also catapulting us into our future as we make new memories for the next generation.

In addition to this generational interconnectedness, dwelling in this transient “home” also connects us to the tenuous nature of life. Just as our thoughts come and go, so does life. The temporary sukkah reflects our impermanence. Yet, sitting in the sukkah symbolizes at once the fragility of life, and also all that is at our fingertips to celebrate, if we choose to be mindful of it. This is the real beauty of the sukkah; that in the midst of the transience, there is the opportunity to experience joy and hope.

In honoring the nomadic, wandering lifestyle and in building our literal and metaphorical “sukkah,” we are allowing ourselves to continue to connect ourselves with our past, present, and fruitful future.

So go ahead, I dare you…wander.

Let’s wander toward thriving, together,

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Dr. Jen/Jennifer Wolkin, PhD

Repost: Zen and The Art of Dissertation Writing: A journey towards mindful-living through yoga and metaphor

Repost: Zen and The Art of Dissertation Writing: A journey towards mindful-living through yoga and metaphor

This blog post originally appeared on YogaCity.

Trying to write my dissertation jolted me into a realm of self-blame and self-criticism.  I procrastinated because it was a burden, a dragon whose fiery mouth I wanted to avoid at all cost.  I was anxious and I struggled with that internal voice of doubt that whispered, “are you sure you are good enough for this?”

Early on, immersing myself didn’t feel good.  I definitely did not expect it to be easy. Nothing worth doing gets done without hard work ever is – but I certainly couldn’t have predicted the negative energy that I allowed the dissertation to create.

So I avoided it in an attempt to make all the negativity disappear. Of course, the more I avoided it, the bigger it became.

Then I began to devote myself to a modest practice of yoga to find more tranquility, focus, and calm. At first it was nearly impossible. My mind raced with thoughts: thoughts of fear, uncertainty, worthlessness, inability to succeed, and even thoughts about thoughts.

My initial poses were haphazard, pretzel-like and ungraceful.  My breath pattern was  quick and shallow, reflecting my difficulty holding the asanas as my mind strayed in all directions.  “At least,” I kept telling myself, “I was coming to the mat.”

As long as I carved out my space, a little rectangular niche of my neon green rubber yoga mat, I was going to be okay.  By the time savasana approached I could at least surrender my self-deprecating thoughts to some indescribable energy created by the convergent effects of movement and breath.

Yoga gave me perspective, which I craved, and I began to practice up to four days a week. Soon, the natural progression of my day became a yoga practice and then hours of writing.  The energy generated through yoga was evident in the organization of my thought and ability for my thought to be transferred coherently into words.  To do yoga and then write was a logical pattern I fell into.

Ultimately, I chose to bring my journey both off the mat, and out from behind my computer. I let go of the striving to finish it, and the attitude of just “needing to get this done and over with.”  Slowly but steadily learned to reinforce the small steps, as I remembered my practice and the way my once quick and shallow breath slowed down and became more melodic, deep, and visceral, to the little baby steps I made with my balance until my physical core and my spiritual core became stronger.

In this way, the yoga was an organic foray into learning about mindfulness and how to engage any process through a more mindful lens. As I cultivated my ability to focus on the breath as I moved in and out of asana, my mind wandered less; instead, I became present to the moment as it was unfolding.   Being present, it turned out, was more enjoyable and fulfilling than remaining on autopilot, and, at the whim of my wandering mind.  With the same practice off the mat, the dissertation no longer became something I just did, but became a journey, which I appreciated and sometimes even savored, at every stage.

Yoga practice fostered a lens by which I could see my dissertation as a metaphor for living life in general.  That is, as Jon Kabat-Zinn says, “on purpose.”

In the end, neither yoga nor mindfulness will eliminate life’s pressures.  Yet, take it from me: embracing life as a journey of poignant moments to be lived fully over the course of a lifetime makes me feel like I’m thriving.