Oh, the stories I tell myself. As do you. As does everybody. We wouldn't be human if we weren't story tellers.
I wake up in the morning. Almost immediately I recollect the basic narrative of my life.
I live in Oregon. I'm married to the woman in bed next to me. I need to get up, raise the thermostat to 69 degrees, and let our dog out of the downstairs room where she spends the night. Then... make coffee, take the dog outside, get the newspapers.
If I simply was aware of what my senses were telling me, I'd be unable to function. Even if I remembered my past, without being able to envision a plot-line for how the morning would go I'd be pretty much stuck in a meaningless present moment.
So what neuroscientists call the "narrative network" is vital, important, and essential. It's easy, though, to let all those narratives rambling through the brain in a monkey mind fashion overwhelm another way of being in the world: experiencing it sensorily.
I first learned about these brain networks in Jon Kabat-Zinn's "Mindfulness for Beginners."
It turns out that a recent scientific study from the University of Toronto has shown that there are different networks in the brain for different kinds of self-referencing of experience. One network, termed the Narrative Focus (NF), is active when we build a story based on our experience. It involves a great deal of thinking, often coupled with rumination and worry.
A second network, termed the Experiential Focus (EF), is active when we are grounded in what is being experienced in the present moment, when we are very much in the body and in unfolding sensory experience -- without all the evaluation of the narrative network.
Religions, of course, are almost entirely about the Narrative Focus. So are organized spiritual faiths and mystical teachings. They all involve stories about the purpose of life, God, supernatural entities, salvation, enlightenment, and so much more.
Thinking, praying, meditating, contemplating, introspection, self-improvement, devotion, rituals -- these are dependent on narratives. "If I do X, then Y will happen." "I came from here, and my goal is to reach there." "There's a plan for my life."
But it doesn't take religion to get our minds rocking and rolling to the almost non-stop music of Story, which tends to play inside our heads whenever there's some silence. David Rock talks about this in an interesting Psychology Today piece about the narrative and experiential networks.
One network for experiencing your experience involves what is called the "default network," which includes regions of the medial prefrontal cortex, along with memory regions such as the hippocampus. This network is called default because it becomes active when not much else is happening, and you think about yourself.
If you are sitting on the edge of a jetty in summer, a nice breeze blowing in your hair and a cold beer in your hand, instead of taking in the beautiful day you might find yourself thinking about what to cook for dinner tonight, and whether you will make a mess of the meal to the amusement of your partner. This is your default network in action. It's the network involved in planning, daydreaming and ruminating.
This default network also become active when you think about yourself or other people, it holds together a "narrative". A narrative is a story line with characters interacting with each other over time. The brain holds vast stores of information about your own and other people's history. When the default network is active, you are thinking about your history and future and all the people you know, including yourself, and how this giant tapestry of information weaves together. In this way, in the Farb study they like to call the default network the ‘narrative' circuitry.
Like I said, this is the foundation of almost all religiosity, spirituality, and mysticism. A rose isn't just a rose. A chance meeting isn't just a chance meeting. Finding a parking spot on a busy street isn't just finding a parking spot on a busy street.
To a follower of Jesus, or a devotee of a guru (as I was for many years), events in everyday life aren't simply as they seem. They're filled with meaning, deep significance, cosmic import. Our lives are being guided. There's a story arc, a plot line, leading to a super-happy ending.
Salvation! Enlightenment! God-realization!
True believers, even more than other people, have their minds filled with narratives about the past and future. Every action, every happening, every encounter -- they're potentially acts of God, messages from the divine. Life supposedly is to be lived in accord with the oft-cited adage: "We aren't human beings having spiritual experiences; we are spiritual beings having human experiences."
This attitude feeds the brain's narrative network, leaving the experiential side of us deprived. Yes, we need stories. But we also need to be in touch with, well, touch. Along with sight, hearing, taste, and smell.
Our senses ground us. Sensuality connects us with the world of not-us, thereby naturally bringing about the ego-loss and humility that organized forms of spirituality artificially strive for, yet typically fail to achieve. Rock goes on to say:
When you experience the world using this narrative network, you take in information from the outside world, process it through a filter of what everything means, and add your interpretations. Sitting on the dock with your narrative circuit active, a cool breeze isn't a cool breeze, it's a sign than summer will be over soon, which starts you thinking about where to go skiing, and whether your ski suit needs a dry clean.
...The Farb study shows there is a whole other way of experiencing experience. Scientists call this type of experience one of direct experience.
...When this direct experience network is activated, you are not thinking intently about the past or future, other people, or yourself, or considering much at all. Rather, you are experiencing information coming into your senses in real time. Sitting on the jetty, your attention is on the warmth of the sun on your skin, the cool breeze in your hair, and the cold beer in your hand.
...Experiencing the world through the direct experience network allows you to get closer to the reality of any event. You perceive more information about events occurring around you, as well as more accurate information about these events. Noticing more real-time information makes you more flexible in how you respond to the world. You also become less imprisoned by the past, your habits, expectations or assumptions, and more able to respond to events as they unfold.
Here we are. Where else could we be?
Unfortunately, often we're somewhere else: within the stories we tell inside our heads. At every moment we have a choice. Be here in directly experienced reality, or drift off into a mental realm of our own making.
There's a balance to be struck between narrative and experiential living. Both are important. Both are essential. We just should be aware when we've gotten stuck in the plot-lines of our stories.
Taking a deep breath. Feeling the grass between the toes of bare feet. Patting the fur of a family pet. There are lots of ways to bring ourselves back into direct experience, leaving our stories behind.
Including, especially including, our religious story-telling.
[Here's a link to the 2007 study that forms the basis for popularized accounts of the research. It's fairly heavy reading, but, hey, it's science.]