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There is a part of our brain called the Default Mode Network (DMN). It is a large-scale network that is activated during passive mental states. States such as self-referential processing, one’s awareness of his or her body, retrieval of autobiographical memories, or imaging of the future. It is, in a nutshell, active when we think about ourselves.

Important as this faculty is to normal life, this narrative-forming consciousness is also the constant, neurotic part of our ego, forever nagging with questions such as ‘how do I look?’, ‘did I say the right thing?’, and ‘do people love me?’.

Following this, it is making sense that an over-activated DMN correlates with excessive self-centered thoughts, and as such, it can lead to depression, procrastination, and a lack of a sense of meaning.

On the other side of the scale, when the DMN is deactivated, there is a mental state that lies on the boundary between the secular and the sacred. The state of ‘flow’. It is a state in which the loss of narrative-forming consciousness results in a tremendous state of unity with one’s environment. The world is vivid, experience is super salient, and there is a deep sense of effortlessness, both physical and mental.

The state of flow is reported to be an optimal experience. It is when one’s performance is at its best, yet it is distinct from pleasure (think of the focus required from a rock climber on a sheer cliff or for skiing down a steep slalom). It is the space where questions about meaning lose their meaning. The perfect now-ness.

The good news is that we can induce this state if we wish. It is done by applying our attention or concentration to a situation that is testing to our skills. According to cognitive science professor John Vervaeke invoking a flow state requires three things:

1. Clear information – you need to know exactly what you are doing. There is no ambiguity or vagueness about the task (think climbing a sheer cliff)

2. There is tightly coupled feedback between your actions and how the environment responds (think of navigating a kayak in white water rapids)

3. Failure must matter (cocking up the aforementioned activities will carry evident consequences)

Yeah I know, you probably read this and think that all these action-hero activities are not exactly what you do between your visit to the laundrette and shopping in Tesco, but when you think of it, the same conditions could be obtained by having a sitting practice in which you simply observe the breath for a length of time, managing a slightly slippery trail in the countryside, training in calligraphy, or my special favorite – colouring in. Just get yourself one of those mandala colouring-in booklets, choose your favorite type of paint, stick some sounds on, make a hot cuppa (…or even a wetter beverage), and enjoy the meanwhile!

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