Mind the Gap

Our brains are amazing - truly amazing - and we’re only beginning to understand how they work. But our brains can sometimes be too helpful. We can think of them as good friends who are very well intended, but sometimes do harm when trying to do good.

For instance, our brains have evolved to very quickly fill in gaps for us, and to fill in those gaps with worst-case scenarios. All of this is done so quickly we don’t even realize it’s happening. The result is that we take as reality something that is merely a possibility. Often the following example is used: in order to survive, our brains got very good at alerting us to the possibility of danger. If there were a large beige object off on the horizon, our brain told us that there might be a lion. And this worked great because if you mistook a rock for a lion, nothing really bad happened, but if you mistook a lion for a rock, well, you weren’t going to be around to pass along your genes.

The downside to this inherent pessimism (technically called “negativity bias”) is that it can put us in a state of constant, prolonged stress, which is highly taxing on our physical, mental and emotional well-being. How do we counteract millenia of evolution? We practice paying close attention to what is really happening, we learn to notice where the brain is filling in gaps, and we begin to be able to pause before reaction.

So how does this all tie in to Body Scan meditation? In Body Scan, we systematically move the focus of our attention through our body, noticing only what we can directly sense. We don’t picture our left big toe or our left foot, we just notice, perhaps, a very subtle throbbing, or sense where it is making contact with the surface below it, or whether it is warm or cold. We may begin to notice that even though we believe ourselves to be riddled with aches and pains, large swaths of our body feels just fine. We may notice that a part of our body that has been injured, and that we believe still be a source of pain, is actually pain-free, at least at that moment. We may feel an uncomfortable sensation and catch our minds taking us straight to a worst-case scenario, in which case we can smile and practice just knowing what we know in that moment.