Summer is all about playing a bit more – you might be slowing down from work to spend more time in your garden, or on the river, or in the woods.
Whatever you do, don’t mistake slowing down for flatlining.
My thesaurus does. For slow, it says Sluggish. Slack. Dim. Dumb. Bumper-to-bumper. But I say: Deliberate. Designed. Calculated. Conscious.
At the beginning of summer, my honey and I took off to meet with a collection of friends and their kids in a castle off the Portuguese coast. (Yep, you and 24 of your dearest friends can even rent a castle on Airbnb.) The excuse was 50: some of us having already turned that age and some of us having our half-century mark lurking in the corner.
As lovely as Portugal was – high bluffs, rugged wildflowers growing by the sea, steeped terraced valleys, mosaic-covered rail stations, a wizardly bookstore that inspired Harry Potter, wind turbines set against vast landscapes of undulating green slopes – a highlight for me was how leisurely we ate. Lunch was often a couple of hours, and most often included vinho verde. Dinners were extravagant group affairs that took up much of the evening until we went outside to play hide and seek by the old moat or dance in the grand room.
It’s amazing how slowing down on a vacation – or just because it’s too damn hot to move quickly – can remind us of how much we’ve been racing. Toward our death, as a teacher of mine used to say.
We race because, it’s cliché of course, we are completely uncomfortable with what surfaces in stillness. We race because we are proving that we are doing valuable work in the world. And especially when there is so much happening in our names that strikes at the core of fundamental values of dignity and responsibility, the urgency is real.
Still, our brains function much better with regular times of reptile-like velocity and utter lack of focus.
I once read that Einstein slept ten hours a night, and then spent another two staring at the elm trees outside his window in Princeton.
Your brain needs rest. And doing so may help lasso in your very determined pain-in-the-ass ego.
My summer reading has included Michael Pollan’s delicious new book “How to Change Your Mind: What the New Science of Psychedelics Teaches Us About Consciousness, Dying Addiction, Depression and Transcendence.”
I’m finding the brain’s default network compelling. This network, made up of different parts of your brain, is in charge of “metacognitive” processes, which includes reflection, autobiographical memory (which Pollan calls “mental time travel”), the ability to consider the perspective of others, to envision the future and “the generation of narratives about ourselves that help to create the sense of having a stable self over time.” (Isn’t that amazing? That there’s a storytelling self in the brain that makes sense of the world and our place within it? I’m reminded of the suggestion to remember that you’re the star in the movie about your life, or you’re the main character of the book about you. As is the case for everyone you know.)
Our minds go to the default network when it’s not super engaged in a task (helpfully located in the “task-positive network” of our brains) – whenever we’re engaging in a mental walkabout. A study at the Imperial College in London that Pollan writers about “found that when volunteers reported an experience of ego dissolution, the fMRI scans of their brains showed a precipitous drop in activity in the default mode network, suggesting that this network may be the seat of the ego.” Task positive network? Very efficient and effective for life, but not quite so helpful for ego dissolution.
Focusing on your breath, as we do in yoga and meditation practices, engages the default mode network. In fact, any state of “wakeful rest” does. Think back to the last wedding you went to and take a minute to let your mind wander and remember those details. What you wore. What music you danced to. What the best man said in his speech. Where it was held.
Then think back to your last vacation.
Or the last funeral you attended.
What have you learned since then?
Just letting your mind wander for a few minutes on any of these brings you into the default mode network.
And it’s this network, which is more active in creative people (hint: because they PLAY!!!!), which is also thought to help us release unresolved tensions in our lives. (Just like writing and storytelling can.)
Psychedelics take you immediately into default mode network. Again, from Michael Pollan: “Our ego defenses relax, allowing unconscious material and emotions to enter our awareness and also for us to feel less separate and more connected—to other people, to nature or to the universe. And in fact a renewed sense of connection is precisely what volunteers in the various trials for addiction, depression and cancer anxiety trials have all reported.”
So: yoga and meditation are like psychedelics. Psychedelics might take you there more quickly, but yoga and meditation are for most of us, easier to get and function daily with. (There is of course microdosing, but we can save that for another time.)
(How do scientists know this stuff? Fancy new medical toys/technologies and groovy volunteers like the Dalai Lama himself who let neuroscientists check out his cupola as he dedicated himself to science and meditated within an FMRI scanner.)
For the rest of the summer, give yourself the gift of spending some time every day letting your mind go wherever it wants. (I’m a big fan of wood walks without phones.) Or start your mornings focusing inwardly on your breath. Or take a yoga nidra class. Or safely explore some other avenue for disconnecting from your ego’s idea of who you should be. Do this and see what happens to your brain, and your sense of self and connection to something bigger than you — a community, nature, chi, God.
By the way, if you want to integrate in time for summer play during the winter, join me on a nature-infused breath-soaked fun-loving retreat to Belize in December I’m co-leading with my friend and fellow witchy-witch Amanda Rieger Green.