The young bride and I have been going to an exercise physiologist recently in order to improve our overall strength and posture - it’s a thing you do when you approach three score years and ten! Over the decades, we’ve been pretty good at staying fit and eating the right foods, and we just saw this as another health related issue we could work on to stave off bodily decrepitude. The strange thing is that we’ve discovered a whole host of muscles which have lain dormant for over half a century, and we know that because every one of them are now aching!!
From a medical point of view, I know that the long term benefits of keeping up such exercises are going to be significant, and so we’re worrying too much about the short term pain. But becoming re-acquainted with all those muscles that I learned about in Med school is not the only thing I’ve been learning about the human body recently.
A part of our daily routine has been to make space for a short meditation - apparently it’s good for you although the changes are not as obvious as aching muscles. The challenge with meditation is “stilling the mind”. For me this is not easy and recently I’ve discovered why. Apparently there’s a neurological pathway in the brain which hadn’t been discovered way back when I was a wet-behind-the-ear junior Doctor. It’s called the Default Mode Network and was only discovered, almost by accident, in 2001.
It was noted that when patients undergoing MRI of their brains whilst waiting for the tests to begin - in other words, they were just lying there doing nothing - there was a part of the brain which remained active. Scientists believe that this is the part of the brain where we “self talk” - the time when all those thoughts float through our mind - others call it our Ego.
By learning to turn this pathway off, or at least to turn it down, our brain has the opportunity to experience consciousness on other levels, which is why trained meditators can experience almost mystical experiences. When MRIs are done on highly trained meditators, this area of the brain remains ‘quiet’ when they’re meditating. There are other ways in which this Network can be “switched off’ and these are currently being researched by major medical institutions in America and Europe. Researchers are now looking at how psychedelic drugs such as LSD and Psylocibin can have dramatically beneficial effects for patients with major depression, end of life anxiety issues and addiction. Preliminary results suggest that we need to change our attitude towards these drugs as, when used in controlled circumstances, not only do they appear to work better than any other medications currently being used, they are also safe and non addictive.
Neither the young bride or I intend rushing out to look for little brown mushrooms and “take a trip”, but this latest information has made us aware that our Egos can act as a sort of wheel clamp on our understanding of consiousness, and that through practices such as meditation and mindfulness, we can free our thinking and maybe achieve a greater understanding of what it really means to be fully human and fully alive.