The Emerging Neuroscience of the Wandering Mind
By Hsin-ya Chow, M.F.A. and Sat Bir Singh Khalsa, Ph.D.
Like an imaginary friend, mind wandering might keep us company when we're waiting for a bus or waiting in the doctor's office. However, it also pays us less welcome visits when we're trying to concentrate on reading or completing a time-sensitive task. This ubiquitous characteristic of the human mind has been well-known for centuries and was described in the ancient Upanishad scriptures: "…this mind of mine is extremely restless" and "It wanders from a cloth to a pot and thence to a big cart. The mind wanders among objects as a monkey does from tree to tree." (Annapurna Upanishad III-5 and Annapurna Upanishad III-6).
Human beings have a natural propensity for mind wandering. Mind wandering is what occurs when we are contemplating scenarios of our past or future such as last week's argument with the spouse or the outcome of an upcoming business meeting. There are some recent and ongoing studies that show the evolutionary advantages of mind wandering. Creative problem solving, future planning, and as a refresher or relief from tedium are some of the possible benefits. However, it is when we dwell, as we most often do, on more challenging or stressful topics, such as the past argument with the spouse or the upcoming business meeting, that a less friendly form of mind wandering occurs. This may progress further into a more pernicious activity known as rumination, in which there is a persisting continual loop, the chewing of thoughts over and over, and this comes with a price. Emotionally, it comes at the cost of one's happiness and sense of well-being. The study of mind wandering has now actually become a focus of scientific research to understand its consequences and underlying mechanisms. Most notably, a Harvard study on mind wandering in everyday activities, published in the prestigious journal Science, showed that people were less happy when their minds were wandering than when they were not and that, “The ability to think about what is not happening is a cognitive achievement that comes at an emotional cost.”
In the brain, mind wandering is primarily associated with a network of interacting brain regions called the default mode network (DMN), although recent research is suggesting that other brain regions are also involved. Some forms of activity in the DMN have been shown to have a direct link to mood disturbance and psychiatric conditions. The more one ruminates, the more the default mode network is strengthened. This phenomenon is known as brain plasticity and works very much like the way building a muscle might happen. The more time spent exercising the muscle, the more it grows, and the stronger it becomes. The more time spent in mind wandering and rumination, the more the brain is dominated by performing that activity, and the unhappier you become. Over time, too much DMN activation in rumination is associated with risk factors for mental health conditions such as depression, addictive behaviors, attention deficit disorders, and anxiety disorders.
On the flip side, there is a brain activity that is very different than mind wandering or rumination which is associated with task-oriented functions that require focus and control of attention. One of these activities is meditation, the relaxed focus of attention. Instead of the past or future thinking in mind wandering, this activity involves focus on the here-and-now and involves activation of the attention networks in the brain in the frontal lobe. Meditation is a proven mechanism for training the mind and there are two primary meditation forms. One is closed focus or concentrative meditation, in which one focuses attention on a single point or target such as the breath, an image, or a mantra. The other form is referred to as open focus, open monitoring, or mindfulness meditation in which one observes the flow of thought or sensation in consciousness. What is common to both forms of meditation is that mind wandering inevitably intervenes repeatedly, and the task is to redirect the mind to the object of attention in a relaxed manner.
This alternation between focus of attention and
mind wandering is a hallmark of the practice of
meditation. An elegant neuroimaging research
study of meditation in the fMRI brain scanner
(functional magnetic resonance imaging)
distinguished this pattern of activity during
meditation, revealing four distinct phases in a
repetitive sequence: mind wandering, awareness
of mind wandering, shifting of attention back to
the intended focus, and sustained attention or
focus. It was the DMN that was observed to
become active during the mind-wandering phase,
whereas the prefrontal cortex was activated
during the focus phase. In longer term
meditators, it was noted that these individuals
were able to more quickly return to the focus
phase of meditation, suggesting that there are
lasting changes in brain regions associated with
long-term practice of the task-focused attention
in meditation. Other research is indicating that
activation of the attention networks in the
prefrontal cortex has inhibitory effects on the
limbic system where emotions are regulated. This
is significant, because it means that the minds
of meditators, on the whole, are benefiting in a
Research is suggesting that individuals more prone to mind wandering and rumination are potentially more at risk for the development of mood disturbance and even psychiatric conditions. In long-term meditators, regions of the limbic system are actually structurally reduced in size compared with non-meditators and the risk for mood disorders is reduced. There is lowered emotional reactivity and an increased ease in decision-making. Increases in relaxation, improvements in focusing, and higher performance emerges. The more one meditates, the more one spends time activating the attention networks, and the less time one spends in DMN activity, and it is likely that structural changes follow the degree of activity in each network. Ultimately, with long-term meditation, the first known published description of the active control of attention in the act of meditation in the Upanishad scriptures is realized: "… the man who has a discriminating intellect as his driver, and a controlled-mind as the reins, reaches the end of the path--that supreme state of Vishnu." (Katha Upanishad 1-III-9).
40-day Global Sadhana
MEDITATION OF THE SOUL - AN EXPERIENCE OF JAP JI
This 40-day Global Sadhana is a truly incredible offering - and the first of its kind! Spirit Voyage is partnering with 3HO International, Kundalini Research Institute, Sikh Dharma International and SikhNet to offer a beautiful experience of Jap Ji to people all around the world.
If you have been longing to learn more about Jap Ji, but didn't know where to begin, this is the perfect place! This Global Sadhana is being translated into four different languages: Chinese, Spanish, Portuguese and German so that as many people as possible can experience it. Jap Ji is the song of the soul and you will fall in love with this beautiful and sacred practice.
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We Are KRI
Center of Kundalini Yoga and Humanology in Tallinn, Estonia
Sukhdev Kaur Khalsa
An adventurous and wild spirit brought me to Estonia in 2004, alone and away from my home country of Mexico. The first year was hell! It was impossible for me to understand this new culture and why people behaved in the way they did. How would I ever fit in here? Having no friends and living in a society that was so different from my own was difficult, yet by Guru’s Grace it was not impossible. There were moments of pure grace that helped me keep-up, such as the first time I joined group Sadhana; it was 6 km away from my home and I rode there by bicycle in the freezing dark morning, totally excited to meet another Kundalini Yoga teacher in Estonia!
The Tratakum picture was what got me through that first dark year. I kept0-up, kept going, and then everything started to flow. I met a few other Kundalini Yoga teachers, I made friends, and I met my future husband. Pretty soon I started teaching Kundalini Yoga regularly.
Now fast-forward eleven years and we have hundreds of Kundalini Yoga teachers in Estonia! We have a national yoga festival, international concerts, workshops of all kinds, a vibrant Teacher Training program, and hundreds of Kundalini Yoga classes taught all over the country.
My part in this process was just a tiny little seed that, together with many other seeds and by Guru’s Grace, would grow into a lush and prosperous garden of consciousness. As of today, there are so many fantastic teachers in Estonia sharing their inspiration on a daily basis, it is hard to name them all. In total, Kundalini Yoga teachers are about 0.01% of the population of Estonia!
Looking back at the beginning steps of creating this vibrant community of consciousness in Estonia, I still find it hard to point to how this was done. At the moment, it seems to me that the process was easy, when in reality it was definitely not! It all evolved by small, sometimes tiny, steps. But the Guru never gives us a task that is too big for us to handle. At first it may seem impossible, but from the moment we commit to our path, the Guru gives us as the tools to succeed: the people, the places, the capital, the settings, and all the surroundings are brought to us. We must keep in mind that Guru gives these in due time. Not when our mind wants it, but when it is ripe for us, and that is what we have experienced here in Estonia. There is a beautiful story of Yogi Bhajan meeting a Catholic priest, who after meditating for 65 years was distressed that he still had not realize God. Yogi Bhajan then guided him through a meditation into an awakening experience of God. He told the priest: "To cleanse yourself out it took you sixty-five years. But the best thing you do, and you have done, is that you have kept-up." So we Keep-Up!
The personal purification through yoga and meditation, the connection and experience of the Divine through our personal practice, is only the preparation ground for the experience in the Sangat where the real purification and meditation happens. When we are teachers, we become the doorsill where our students and future teachers step through to their destiny. We cannot even define where their destiny will bring them. Many of them will take the path of Kundalini Yoga as their lifestyle and become teachers full-time. But many of them will leave the path or take only some jewels and continue on another path. We cannot control or determine this; we can only awaken the light in students and inspire them with our example, live with excellence and grace, and remain humble and real.
Dharamsaal is the beautiful home of 3HO and Sikh Dharma in Estonia, a small and cozy place where we teach classes in Kundalini Yoga and Humanology. Anyone who is traveling around the Baltics is welcome to come and visit us or stay overnight. It is your home away from home. It might even happen that we have Gurdwara or some other inspiring event and we would welcome you. You can contact Sukhdev K Khalsa at email@example.com or www.dharamsaal.ee
Happy New Year From The Yogi Bhajan Library of Teachings®
A big thank you to the many of you who
participated in our Year End Winter Solstice
Fund Drive! Your gifts are what are growing this
incredible resource of Yogi Bhajan’s teachings.
We hope you are all having a wonderful start to your new year. For many of us, this time of year brings a renewed sense of commitment to our daily practice, focus on our health and wellness, and thinking about things we want to shift in our lives. In this lecture from January of 1988 Yogi Bhajan wishes his students a Happy New Year and reminds us about the importance of speaking with grace and the integrity of our word. He says;
“I wish you Happy New Year and a happy anniversary to 3HO on the 5th of January. We call it Healthy, Happy, and Holy Day. We want all people to follow; we served people openly, freely, and gracefully. Just remember, people without grace have no place in their own life, forget about having a place in the lives of their neighbors.
So remember your grace and values when you talk or speak; you deal or you commit; you mean something or not; the other person will not forget it if you are not graceful and you let the other person down. When you let someone down, whether he deserved it or not, you shall be down in his eyes or her eyes forever. Period. You can have twenty college degrees, you could have gone to three hundred and sixty universities, you can be a great and respectable religious person, you can be the biggest, richest, and smartest person, you can be the healthiest Mr. Body, or whatever; it all won’t work. These are the first attractions, but the real attraction is when you give somebody your word; when you say what to do and you do exactly that. Let everything fall apart but don’t lose your grace. Do you understand? That is the way to be.”
Read or watch the original lecture here on The Yogi Bhajan Library of Teachings® searchable database. What a beautiful reminder at the start of the New Year to be mindful of our words and our actions. Personally, this is just what I needed to hear! No matter what life brings it’s important to remember our grace and be true to our word.
May this year be one of abundance and grace for all of you. May we continue to grow this beautiful resource together and share these teachings with the world!
Shabd Simran Kaur Adeniji, Fundraising Coordinator
The Yogi Bhajan Library of Teachings™
Kundalini Research Institute
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A Note From Nirvair
Greetings from New Mexico!
I am looking forward to a great new year with all of you.
Speaking of greatness, KRI is honoring two outstanding individuals in 2016. The KRI Board has selected Shakti Parwha Kaur Khalsa, the Mother of 3HO, and Sukhdev Kaur Khalsa of Estonia for their years of service, steadiness, and dedication to Kundalini Yoga as taught by Yogi Bhajan®. Both of these beautiful souls are pioneers in their own right. They have worked hard, organized events, founded institutions, and inspired students and teachers alike. I am very happy that we can honor them on our web site for all of 2016. Read about them and their unique contributions at http://www.kundaliniresearchinstitute.org/KRI-Honors.htm
Buy someone you love a New Years present! We have two great new products. “Enlightened Bodies: Exploring Physical and Subtle Human Anatomy” by Nirmal Kaur and Japa Kaur . Enlightened Bodies demystifies the esoteric approaches to the body and its energy systems--chakras, meridians, and nadis--by merging them in the understanding and awareness of physical anatomy.
We also have the beautiful new edition or the Siri Ved Kaur’s classic vegetarian cookbook, “From Vegetables with Love”. Great tried and true recipes that you will enjoy making and serving to your family and friends. Buy them here: http://thesource.kriteachings.org
Have you visited The Yogi Bhajan Library of Teachings accessible online database lately? It has many new additions this year including, new lectures, new kriyas, new topic lectures, and new historical notes. http://www.libraryofteaching.org
Yogi Bhajan left a New Year’s message for us on December 30, 1990 in Florida. It is a timeless message and reminder to relate to our spirit, our infinite nature, and Self. He said,
“I'll leave you the message for you to understand, but basically I have only one thought at this moment to share with you. Just remember, you will have walked up to the finite limit of the last day of your life. That is your cruise. But you have to walk onto Infinity by the will of your spirit. For that, you have to prepare, so that the life in its ecstasy, joy, in its reality, truth, and its blossoming, will give you the spirit and the overwhelming capacity to deal with the problems through which we are going.”
Thanks again for a wonderful 2015! This New Year is an “8” ( Pranic Body) year. It is a time for all of us to energetically uplift our families, our Dharma, our planet, and ourselves. It is a year of fearless prosperity.
May we share our blessings and may your New Year be filled with good cheer, keep up spirit, and deep contented happiness.
In God I dwell,
Nirvair Singh Khalsa
January Recipe of the Month
Foods for Health & Healing
Remedies & Recipes
This is a very good male food. (Women enjoy
it also!) It is useful when you get headaches,
feel heaviness in your head, or when you feel
unnecessarily sleepy. It is very good for the
brain and can be eaten as a mono diet. For extra
energy, if you must work very hard, eat with
1 cup basmati rice
1 cup parsley
2 cups unskinned chopped potatoes
2 tsp. oregano seeds
1 tsp. ground red pepper (or add more to taste)
1 Tbsp. turmeric
1 tsp. black pepper
2 crushed bay leaves
1/2 cup ghee
Sauté onions in ghee. Add spices and cook until browned. Then add rice, potatoes and parsley and stir for a while. Add water (to steam the rice), cover, and cook for another 15 minutes.
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