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MY MIND WANDERS. Truth be told, sometimes I have no idea how my mind could possibly stray so far from my body. My thoughts wander off in many directions: wondering, thinking, daydreaming, pondering, analyzing or worrying. It happens a lot. I hate to admit it, but sometimes it even happens when I’m talking with my wife. There I am, talking with the love of my life, and somehow my mind wanders. I know that every word she says is important but there is this chatter in my mind that steals away my attention.
Sometimes I think about what I want for lunch. Other times I think about checking my email. Occasionally, I wonder if I’m really from Mars and she’s really from Venus. I catch myself wondering what we’ll both look like when we’re 70. During those times, I find myself amazed at how good she looks when she’s 70. Sometimes I play out our future conversations word for word. Once in a while, I think about how to write an article on effective communication.
Even if my mind wanders, I still look her in the eyes. I give appropriate verbal cues to express interest in what she’s saying. Have you ever said “Uh huh” when you weren’t really listening? You know what I’m talking about. Isn’t this adequate communication? Does she feel heard when I repeat the last four words she said?
The short answer is no.
If you’ve spent a little time in Ubud, you’ve probably heard the word "presence" enough times to begin to lose track of what it really means. We hear about presence in yoga classes, see it advertised on flyers and talk about it in most workshops we attend in Ubud. I know this because I’m one of those people who teaches workshops on presence. By sheer repetition, the word begins to feel like a buzzword for some New Age, self-help panacea.
So what does presence mean? Simply put, presence is the state of being all here, right now. It’s being awake in the moment: fully attentive to thoughts, feelings and emotions. That sounds simple enough, right? Just be right here, completely feeling what I feel in this moment. I should be able to do that, especially if I’m communicating with the person I love. But why is it so hard to do?
The experience of presence involves your body, mind and spirit – and your brain. Often, when I talk about presence, I leave the brain out of the conversation. I love to talk about opening heart chakras and connecting energies at a subtle level. But today, I’d like to consider what neuroscience can teach us about presence and communication. The brain’s neural circuitry may help us better understand how we really communicate with those we love.
The Brain – Back in the Conversation
Let’s take a look at a simplified brain. If you place your thumb in your palm and curl your four fingers over it, you create a rough model of your brain. Your wrist represents the brain stem which connects your brain to the neural networks of your body.
Deep within your brain, just about where your thumb is in your hand, is the limbic system. The limbic system governs your emotions. Emotions motivate you to act, that’s why they’re called e-motions.
Now take a look at the fingertips that fold over your thumb. These represent the prefrontal cortex. The prefrontal cortex is located right behind your forehead. This is what you use when you focus and concentrate. It’s also the part of the brain that regulates brain stem activity (managing sensory information from your body) and enables you to have insight and empathy.
When there’s activity in a certain part of your brain, neurons in that area fire electrical currents through different pathways that link various parts of the brain. Your prefrontal cortex has the job of regulating the connection between awareness, emotions and sensory input from the body. But you aren’t just getting sensory input from your body.
Resonance Circuitry – The Key to Connection
In the 1900's, researchers in Italy connected a monkey’s brain to electrodes. They fed the monkey a peanut and observed which neuron fired in the monkey. Later on, when the monkey saw the researcher eat a peanut, the same neuron fired. This began to give scientists insight into what is known as mirror neurons. Your brain is wired to feel what others are experiencing.
Mirror neurons are connected to your limbic system (your emotional centers) and to your body through a series of nerves. When someone yawns, you yawn. When someone takes a drink, you get thirsty. When someone is sad, you might feel sad as well. Have you ever noticed that when you’re with someone who’s depressed, you begin to feel down?
If I’m feeling angry while talking to you, even if I’m not showing any obvious signs of anger, you might begin to feel angry too. Your resonance circuitry will pick up on my anger and send a signal from your brain down into your body where, if you’re paying attention, you’ll begin to feel the physical sensations of anger.
This is also true with joy, excitement and sadness. From an evolutionary standpoint, we’ve evolved in ways that help us connect on an emotional level with those around us. People can feel when you are present, and in return, they feel seen, heard and felt. They feel that you are resonating with them. This resonance takes place in the body and is mediated through the brain.
So what does this say about my conversations with my wife? What if I’m talking to her without really being there? Well, she can feel that. Her resonance circuitry picks up on the fact that I’m not resonating with her.
This doesn’t come as a big shock. You know when someone is really resonating with you. You can feel it. The real question is, how can we train ourselves to be present? Is it even possible?
Neuroplasticity and Meditation – The Coolest Part
Scientists used to believe that the brain was static, that brain cells could never be regenerated. They’ve since discovered this is not the case. The brain continues generating new neurons throughout life while strengthening neural connections. This constant reshaping of the brain is called neuroplasticity. New neurons are created where focused attention is being placed.
Mindfulness meditation has been shown to increase activity in the prefrontal cortex of your brain. This activity generates growth in the region, increasing your insight, focus and empathy. It also strengthens your connection to your emotions and to the physical sensations in your body.
Meditation literally changes the structure of your brain and increases your ability to be present to your bodily sensations and emotions. As you’re more present to what’s going on inside you, you also become more present to what’s going on inside of others.
Meditation is the key to communicating and resonating with people you love. It isn’t just about opening heart chakras, it’s about how the brain works.
Presence – This moment as an offering
As I look back on four years of living in Bali, the wisdom that stays with me is the Balinese outlook on life. Life is an offering. Each moment is an offering. Each moment is an opportunity to offer your gift, your presence. My wife will read this article and know that sometimes I’m thinking about far away planets when I’m half-listening to her. I don’t think I’m going out on a limb to suggest that I’m not the only one who sometimes treats communication in this way.
So here’s my approach to it: I accept that I’m human and I’m practicing. I set aside a little time every day to sit in stillness and watch what arises in my experience. When I catch my mind wandering when I’m talking with her, I soften my belly and notice my breath. This brings me back to the moment, back to the conversation and back to opening up fully.
“As you’re more present to what’s going on inside you, you also become more present to what’s going on inside of others”
This is the key to communicating. Truly connecting with anyone, from your intimate partner to the people you meet on the street, requires showing up fully. It means using your body, your mind and your brain.
Josh Wise is based in Bali and counsels couples all over the world. He teaches mindfulness-based relationship strategies that help couples bring more love and connection into every-day situations.
With a master's degree in Psychology and Alternative Education, Josh is currently writing his dissertation for his Ph.D. in Psychology. His research examines meditation, compassion, and relationships. He loves cycling and baseball.