The Default Mode

During the course of our daily lives the vast majority of us spend almost all of our time in what is called the Default Mode, activated by the Default Mode Network of the brain. It’s the DMN that gives us our very selves, constructed from memories of the past, observations during the present, and projections into the future.

This way of existing  is so utterly familiar that we don’t even notice it unless we are forced to pay attention—if, for example, we are overwhelmed by ruminating on something embarrassing we did, or on someone’s slighting us. Even then we have no idea what we’re doing or why, and are helpless to stop it. And so we thrash around with various attempts at an explanation (“I’m so stupid! Why did I do that?!” “That person is such a jerk! I hate her!”).  These thoughts may be painful, but they appear to point to a solution. If I’m stupid, maybe I can figure out a way to wise up, or if I can identify another person as a hateful jerk, maybe I can undermine them in some way.

We need the Default Mode Network to get through the day. It’s what keeps us on track, helps us know what to do next, and makes it possible for us to learn from our mistakes.  Alzheimer’s patients are progressively hampered in their functioning by the erosion of the DMN. Unfortunately, the DMN can drive us crazy when it is overstimulated. People suffering from depression have an overactive DMN. The symboliste poet Charles Baudelaire describes this condition in Spleen II from the Fleurs du Mal: “J’ai plus de souvenirs que si j’avais milles ans”—

I have more memories than if I’d lived a thousand years.

A heavy chest of drawers cluttered with balance-sheets,
Processes, love-letters, verses, ballads,
And heavy locks of hair enveloped in receipts,
Hides fewer secrets than my gloomy brain.
It is a pyramid, a vast burial vault
Which contains more corpses than potter’s field.
— I am a cemetery abhorred by the moon,
In which long worms crawl like remorse
And constantly harass my dearest dead.
I am an old boudoir full of withered roses,
Where lies a whole litter of old-fashioned dresses,
Where the plaintive pastels and the pale Bouchers,
Alone, breathe in the fragrance from an opened phial.

Even without running amok, the DMN is behind what causes ordinary dukkha, dissatisfaction and unhappiness. I’ll give an example from this morning when I took the dog out for his first walk of the day. Just as I stepped out the door I was immediately struck by the warm, humid air and the breezes. “It feels like swimming,” I thought, as the dog urged me forward from the driveway to the sidewalk. There was something delicious about the breezes, about the way they caressed my neck and entire body, as well as the smells of vegetation and the sounds of the morning. I saw the leaves of the trees rustling gently in a delicate dance.

Meanwhile, my dog was sniffing along the walkway for information about what other dogs might have passed the house and when, adding his scent at strategic points. My mind began to wander, thinking about the day ahead, wondering what I would try to do with my time, and evaluating my level of physical energy. I stopped being aware of what was going on around me as I became absorbed by pictures in my head. I saw myself doing laundry, doing dishes, sitting in meditation. Imaginary conversations popped up.

Later, as I was digging up a few weeds, I began talking to some image of a younger person—maybe my childhood self?—about the kinds of weeds I was seeing. “That big sprawling grass is actually pretty easy to yank out, but the taproot thistles are the worst! And those smaller grasses have networks of roots, and if you break them off and leave a piece, they just come right back.” Maybe I wanted to share my knowledge with someone. I used to be a teacher, and had a young child once who is now 17 and doesn’t listen to anything I say. Who knows.

We live with stories about ourselves, some of them helpful, others not so much. Some are paralyzing. At different times in our lives, different stories capture our interest. Sometimes we go to therapy, where we can learn to identify disabling stories and substitute positive ones. When stories become dominant over a culture or subculture they can harden into ideologies or belief systems. The work of historians is to make sense out of data and turn it into a narrative, an explanation, an account.

These activities are our defense against chaos, but underlying the stories about who we are is a noise machine in the brain that we scarcely notice, spouting random thoughts and images without letup. I sometimes play a game of trying to trace back a chain of thought to its origin. The mind leapfrogs from one idea to another, based on associations, puns, or resemblances, beginning its journey with an input, something we see or hear that strikes our notice, and ending far, far, away. In the meantime the leaves are shimmering with a light breeze, and the body is alive with a play of sensations, and we aware of none of it.

In the Default Mode we sleepwalk through our life, dreaming our dreams while life goes on in and around us. The consequences of not paying attention can be tragic and deadly. The work of spiritual practice is to open our minds to awareness, to move us in the direction of waking up from our enchanted sleep.

The Four Noble Truths

There is a word in the Buddha’s language (Pali, a cousin of Sanskrit) that is usually translated as “suffering.” That word is dukkha. In order to understand its meaning better, we might consider its opposite and counterpart, sukkha. Sukka sounds something like the word “sugar,” to which it is related. We can imagine an experience of sweetness, of bliss, of pleasantness, and then turn to the opposite of these things to recognize dukkha as bitterness, bad feelings, or unpleasantness. The first of the Four Noble Truths asserts that there is a component of dukkha in all human experience. This is as true for the healthy, beautiful, privileged, rich, and famous as it is for those whose lives are full of obvious misery.

Imagine your most delectable experience, maybe sex with the partner of your dreams, or eating a slice of chocolate cake, or feeling a pleasant breeze on a summer day at the beach. No matter how delightful, these experiences don’t last forever, and when they are over, we are on to something else. “Yes,” you may say, “but it was wonderful while it lasted.” It was indeed. Yet if you look closely at each pleasurable experience, you may find that it wasn’t entirely wonderful. Perhaps a touch of performance anxiety accompanied the sex, or maybe there was a sense of frustration that the chocolate cake was gone so soon, or there was an annoying sound of nearby construction marring the beach scene. Maybe after the fact the partner showed too much attention to someone else, prompting jealousy, or the chocolate cake ended up causing a stab of concern about gaining weight, or the return to office work after the trip to the beach was all the more frustrating in comparison with what you were leaving behind.

I am not trying to accentuate the negative here so much as to unpack what the Buddha asserted as a simple fact: that suffering is universal. All of us are subject to sickness, old age, and death, and all of us, most of the time, want things to be other than they are. One thing we do in response is to try to pack our lives with as many pleasant, rewarding experiences as possible. When our efforts are unsuccessful, we tune out the things we don’t like and distract ourselves, finding ways of not being completely present. If we undergo too much trauma we may find ourselves unable to feel much at all, good or bad, or we may find ourselves acting out in a variety of ways.

The Buddha further taught that the root of universal dukkha is tanha, translated as “craving.” This is the Second Noble Truth. We crave not only this or that self-gratifying thing, but existence itself (we can even crave non-existence at times). Craving is part of a sequence called Dependent Origination, a highly complex process through which we become who and what we perceive ourselves to be. This is a convoluted sentence for the sake of expressing a difficult concept, that we are the orchestrators of our own identities. The most debilitating suffering, underlying any other, is the effort we make to hold ourselves together, because in truth there is nothing to hold onto. Craving and its next stage, clinging, mark our overwhelming need to be someone and something, literally to make something of ourselves.

The fruit of these efforts shows up in suffering. Returning to our examples, at the same time we are enjoying a sexual experience with someone, we also are creating a self that is sexy and desirable. When we are rejected or when we fail to perform, that image is shattered, and we suffer humiliation. Even if we are mature enough to handle such setbacks with ease, there is disappointment and a need to move on to better things. When we bite into a delicious piece of cake, we have an underlying personal narrative about food that accompanies the pleasure; for example, “What am I doing? What about my resolve to avoid sugar and eat healthy? Why do I do these things? What the hell is wrong with me anyway?!” Or maybe it’s more like, “That’s okay, I can do this if I want to, I am not a child, I don’t have to worry.” The self-talk serves the need to make sense of the experience within the context of our picture of who we are. Finally, as we enjoy the ocean breezes, we may be thinking, “I just love the ocean! I wish I lived here. Maybe when I retire I can come move to this town,” or else, “This is nice. I want to make a family tradition of coming here every year.” Then we become The Person Who Loves the Ocean.

The Buddha doesn’t leave us hanging on the edge of a cliff with our suffering, but rather gives us the Third Noble Truth, which is nirodha, cessation, the end of suffering. When we understand what is happening we are able to let go of craving, clinging, and everything that goes with it, especially the delusion of the separate, unconditioned self. We drop our defenses, stop propping up our image, and allow things to be as they are. Developing the insight to do this is difficult, but it is also possible. The Fourth Noble Truth is the means of doing this, the Noble Eightfold Path: right view, right resolve, right speech, right conduct, right livelihood, right effort, right mindfulness, and right concentration. It’s a tall order, but it’s also the key to liberation from suffering.

The Three Poisons: Aversion

I am going to admit one thing right here: I am an aversive type. Figuring out one’s type tends to resemble reading about symptoms of various diseases on the Internet, in that a person can easily imagine being afflicted with all of them. Still, when I face up to my most basic reactions to the world, the answer is clear.

Aversion, or hatred, is the flip side of desire. People have a strong response to something, but instead of wanting to draw it close, the impulse is to push it away. Aversive types walk into a room and find the one jarring note, the flaw that ruins everything around it, while greed types find themselves wanting everything they see.

Each of us flavors our aversion in our own way. When I was younger, I hated noise: the sounds of other people eating, chewing gum (especially bubble gum!), laughing loudly, snoring, just living their lives. I was the annoying neighbor who would pound on your door and demand you turn the music down, or track down a radio outdoors and tell the malefactor to turn it off. I was the silly person who would come outside in her bathrobe at 7:00 a.m. and tell the guy to quit mowing the grass while I was trying to sleep. You get the picture, I’m sure. On and on it went. Barking dogs, crying babies, children playing, weekend parties, the folks in the apartment downstairs making love, everything. I say I used to do this because for the most part I’ve stopped. Until that happened, though, my life was always just one intrusive sound away from being bloody hell.

Then there were the quarrels. For pretty much all of my life I’ve had at least one person in my immediate surroundings who would drive me crazy. Usually, but not always, these people have been women. I’ve journaled about them, talked endlessly about them, carried on interior monologues about them, dreamed about them, and ground my teeth when around them. Exposure would mean fresh fodder for rumination, although absence brought scant relief. The only way of getting rid of an obsession would be to find another one to drive it out.

Typically, the objects of my wrath were colleagues, peers, co-workers. Often they were rivals. In most cases, the adversary would either initiate or at least participate in the hostilities, out of jealousy or a desire to gain dominance. Seminars and department meetings were excellent venues for carrying on a passive aggressive campaign, finding just the right weapons to inflict pain without anyone else knowing what was going on. For an academic, this would mean introducing subtle notes of disagreement to discredit the other’s point, undermining without appearing to do so deliberately. At parties and social gatherings, hostilities might escalate through subtle flirting with another woman’s husband.

After hours, I engaged in countless phone calls and coffee breaks with allies, in which we’d rehash the person’s misdeeds, stupidity, bad hair, or whatever. I tried bringing these things up with my husband, but he was not a satisfying sounding board because he almost always would signal either boredom or disapproval, precipitating a fight between the two of us. All I can say is, Stephen, I’m sorry, and I am eternally grateful to you for sticking by me through all this tedious nonsense!

Aversion frequently drives people to embrace causes, which in turn leads to admiration from like-minded people. I have an award plaque from our local AAUP chapter for having advanced the cause of academic freedom. What that amounted to in reality was declaring all-out war on the college administration, standing up in faculty meetings, sending out all-faculty emails, participating in a grievance procedure, and ruminating day and night on the wrongs perpetuated by the evildoers. I had a tight-knit group around me keeping the fire alive, all of us assuring one another that we were fighting the good fight.

My actions actually helped both individuals and the college as a whole, but underneath all of it I knew that something was off. I was exhilarated, but I was also miserable, for I had no peace. It took me years to understand what it means for seemingly virtuous actions to come from a dark place. I am grateful beyond words to have learned this lesson.

Dreams of my Mother

I dreamed about her last night, my mother. It was a pleasant, warm, sunny day, and I was going to someone’s funeral, at a nice venue. There were a lot of women there, well-dressed, older. We entered a pretty room where tables were set up for lunch. My mother was with me, saying, “I’d like you to arrange my funeral here, Jane.” “But mother,” I replied, “I already had two funerals for you, a funeral and a committal service,” and thought, no, I can’t go through all that again. And it occurred to me that people don’t typically attend their own funeral services in the flesh.

Now we are sitting at a round table, more or less across from each other, with other women we might have known. I look at her closely, studying her face, her hair, her smile. I know every inch of her face, down to the small beauty spot on her nose. How wonderful that we can be together again! Yes, I think, dreaming is a way I can still be with her, even though she’s gone. I leave my seat and walk over to her, burying my face in her hair, breathing in her scent. My lips brush the soft, papery skin of her cheek, all just as I’d remembered.

On the morning of her death day a hospice worker arrived to give her a sponge bath in her bed. I saw the curve of her thigh, so beautiful, and said, “She did a lot of dancing on those legs.” Later, just before she was prepared to be wheeled out of the room by the funeral director, I uncovered her foot for one last look. Her feet were narrow, and the second toe was longer than her big toe, making it hard for her to find shoes that would fit. I touched the toe and smiled.