Neuroscientist Dr. Karolien Notebaert has a wonderful talk on the Insight Timer app that beautifully describes the difference between the default mode network (DMN) and the direct experience network (DEN). You can find it here: https://insig.ht/tz48w6Rowob.
In short, the default mode network shows up when the brain is not engaged in a task. It roams through your memories, opinions, stories of yourself, opinions of others, future concerns, judgments, and comparisons of yourself to others. In yoga and meditation circles it is often referred to as the Monkey Mind. The direct experience network can appear unbidden or conjured up. It occurs when your five senses are engaged in the present moment. For example, when you’re enjoying a massage, eating something delicious, watching a sunset, listening to music, or lying in a warm bath.
If you listen to the talk, you will quickly realize that using all five senses is the path to quieting the default mode network. It’s also important to note that actively trying to suppress your thoughts is as useful as telling yourself not to think of a pink elephant. What we consciously resist persists. It’s simply the way the brain works.
Here are a number of ways you can engage your five senses to re-ground in the body and activate the direct experience network. This is not to repress the default mode network, but to allow it to quiet down naturally.
Almost every meditation teacher extols the value of focusing on the breath, and it can be amazingly helpful; however, for some people, focusing on the breath actually has a paradoxical effect and increases their anxiety. If you notice yourself reacting that way, using other techniques may be more beneficial.
If breath awareness is beneficial to you, one of the best things you can do is lengthen your exhalations. Even if you simply lengthen them by one second, it can activate the calming portion of your nervous system, the parasympathetic branch. I would also encourage you to check out other breathing techniques here: https://holisticdivorcecounseling.com/breath-work-relaxation-techniques/
If you happen to have an essential oil, especially one known for its calming properties, like lavender, cedar, pine, or chamomile, simply putting a drop or two on a tissue and smelling it can refocus your brain and reset your nervous system. Perhaps, there is a scent that you associate with positive memories? If you can find it in an essential oil, I encourage you to seek it out. Real estate agents have been using this technique for decades, which is why they often ask homeowners to bake some chocolate chip cookies or put a pan of cinnamon and clove scented water on the stove. These calming aromas help people feel relaxed, safe, and at home.
While there are many grounding techniques that can also engage your senses (see them here: https://holisticdivorcecounseling.com/grounding-techniques/) an easy and always available one, if you are sighted, is to visually scan your environment for everything you see that’s blue. Once you’ve exhausted that color, you can start noticing everything that is green, red, orange, etc.
A classic grounding technique is exploring where your body feels supported. If your feet are on the floor, feel grounded through the soles of your feet, held by the earth. If you’re lying down, allow the whole length of your back body to feel grounded and supported. If you’re sitting in a chair, feel your back and the back of your thighs held and supported.
I am a big fan of simultaneously grounding in the body and breath through qigong. You can find out how that helps here: https://holisticdivorcecounseling.com/qigong-for-trauma-stability-strength-flexibility-and-emotional-balance/ I especially like Jeff Chand’s qigong YouTube videos.
Walking meditation can also be very grounding. Try this wonderful 10 minute guided version: https://insig.ht/6ttaw7OnLob
Many people find nature sounds and music wonderful ways to shift the focus from the default mode network to the direct experience network. Using music or sounds with embedded binaural beats can activate theta brain waves that naturally calm and soothe the mind. These can easily be found on the free Insight Timer app.
Another audible option is to listen to a meditation that routinely takes your mind in a different direction. If you have a favorite spoken word meditation that reliably reorients your thinking, use it. Again, the Insight Timer offers a cornucopia of choices. ( As there are over 130,000 meditations on that site, you can find a list of my favorite teachers here: https://holisticdivorcecounseling.com/insight-timer-my-curated-list-of-best-meditations/)
Similarly, depending on where you are, you can focus on whatever sounds you hear. For yoga practitioners, the audible ujjayi breath is a good anchor in both breath and sound.
Using taste is another wonderful way to shift body-mind awareness. A cup of plain hot water or tea gives you something to sip and focus on. Drinking a hot liquid has also been found to activate both the vagus nerve and parasympathetic nervous system. If there is another flavor that routinely focuses your mind on something delicious, like mint or chocolate, you may want to try that.
Those are all examples of how to use your five senses to encourage your direct experience network when your mind is racing, you’re feeling anxious, or life is overwhelming. The more you practice them the more they can become your own default mechanism.
Copyright Nicole S. Urdang