From mind wandering to compassion
Words by Parneet Pal

Through the lens of an fMRI (functional magnetic resonance imaging) machine, a novice meditator’s brain shows stark contrast to that of an expert (someone who has hundreds or thousands of hours of meditation under their belt).

Sitting still, in silence, not focused on any task, you might expect the brain to reflect this state of ‘rest’. Instead, the novice brain lights up with abandon, activated by thoughts of past and future; anxiety and fantasy; comparison and moral judgment racing through effortlessly, consistently.

The expert’s brain, on the other hand, paints a different picture. It gets busy predominantly in areas associated with focus and attention. Self-referential thought activity – like in the novice brain – does show up here as well, but it is less and far between.

This effect is exaggerated when both the novice and expert are asked to meditate – to attend to just one thing, like their breath. Mind wandering is the norm for the novice with short moments of focus; the reverse is true for the expert. So what?

As a long-time meditator and physician, I’ve been following the recent explosion in mindfulness and meditation research with great curiosity and fascination. Growing up in India, surrounded by a culture that meditates often, I didn’t need any convincing of its benefits. What better proof than the effects the practice has had on my life? The scientist and teacher in me, on the other hand, relentlessly looks for the next piece of evidence explaining the machinations of the brain with even more depth.

When it comes to sitting still, there is great consequence to the goings-on in our brain. Recent research tells us that on average, our minds wander 47% of the time in any moment. In fact, this is the ‘default’ state of the resting mind (and the neural circuits activated are called, appropriately, the default mode network).

A certain kind and amount of mind wandering is good and necessary for us to function as humans. This is the space where we daydream, plan, create, and imagine. The self-referential processing in this mode gives rise to our ‘narrative self’ – our life story, likes and dislikes, and sense of identity that helps us move through the world.

Where we get into trouble is if our minds stay stuck in the default mode, especially when we should be focused on the task in front of us in any given moment. Default mode thinking on overdrive results in ruminative loops, a precariously slippery slope to anxious and depressive states.

In fact, studies show that the more our minds wander, the less happy we are. Conversely, our ability to stay focused in the present moment (associated with activation of a different circuit, the dorsal attention network) creates a different ‘experiential self’ - a focused, calm, in-the-moment sense of task agency. No stories, no narrative, no drama. Not lost in past or future thought, we are more likely to report feeling happy. This is the essence and promise of attention training – of sitting still, mindfully. Easier said than done. Anyone who has tried to sit still and focus on their breath is only too familiar with the battlefield of emotions that magically emerges. (Thanks, default mode network.) Not to mention the myriad times during a regular day when something or someone sets us off on a path of anger, frustration, shame, guilt, sadness or worse.

How might we turn towards, rather than turn away from whatever arises in stillness? How might we embrace and relate to the vicissitudes of our lives wholeheartedly? (And what the heck does that even mean?)

This is where the overlap of science and practice gets really interesting. Over millennia, our brains evolved to help us fulfill three basic needs for survival: safety, reward and connection. We are physiologically wired to quickly, unconsciously, sound our emotional alarm bell at the slightest hint of a real or perceived threat to those basic needs. And respond by fighting, fleeing or freezing. (Think of any stress in your life: it all comes down to one or more of those three needs not being met.)

This wiring enabled our ancestors to move away from danger, reproduce successfully and form strong bonds with tribe members – so that together they lived another day to pass on their genes and raise their offspring.

In the 21st century, we are no longer being chased by predators, but the stresses and strains of ordinary life – job, family, health, relationships, our Facebook account – evoke the same primal impulses and emotions. Someone says or does something, and before we know it, we’re hot and bothered, and immersed in a default mode ruminative spiral, holding on to our carefully constructed narrative self for dear life.

We cling to our desire for some sense of security in a world that is constantly changing and beyond our control. How might we face this uncertainty, this groundlessness, and the “ambiguity of being human,” as Buddhist teacher Pema Chodron so eloquently puts it?

Turns out our physiology came wired to handle this challenge. In a world of distraction, overwhelm and emotion, the brain is also equipped for attention and compassion. Full and direct attention to our present moment experience as an impartial spectator starts training the mind to stay right here, with the good, bad and the ugly. The instruction in meditation is to become a ‘neutral observer’ and simply watch the pain and emotion arising, free of interpretation.

Over time, this radical act of raw experience starts to weaken the neuronal circuits, extinguishing and dissolving the associations between emotional triggers and automatic knee-jerk reactions. The dorsal attention network grows stronger, the rumination in the default mode network starts to quiet down. In stillness or during our regular day, we are less likely to be lost in thought or latched on to our narrative self. The outer circumstances do not change, but our ability to relate to them with greater calm and clarity improves.

By no means is this easy or enjoyable. It takes effort, discipline and courage. But it doesn’t have to be dull or dreary. This is where the ‘wholeheartedness’ kicks in. Millennia of evolution gifted us another ace in our brain circuitry: the physiology of compassion – our innate ability to notice suffering (in this case our own) along with the desire to alleviate that suffering.

Engaging our compassion – our hearts – in moments of stress provides the fuel for its transformation to resilience. Being compassionate towards ourselves is a conscious choice we learn to make in each moment of suffering. We choose kindness over self-criticism, patience over frustration. We stay mindful i.e. noticing and accepting the pain that is present without clinging to our default mode narrative or desire to fix the problem. We connect with our humanity – recognizing that no matter what we are going through, we are not alone. Many before us, and several after us will experience similar circumstances – it is part and parcel of the ephemeral, impermanent, human condition.

As we stay put in this still battlefield of suffering – gently, fully embracing what is, with all our heart – our body responds miraculously to our compassion. Our heart rate slows down, our blood pressure drops, we breathe easy. Circuits associated with warmth, concern, love and caregiving light up in the brain and hormones like oxytocin, dopamine and serotonin swing into action.

Our fear dissolves as courage comes on, we are motivated to take action, and we have more square footage of our wise thinking available than when we are lost in a ruminative spiral.

We gain new perspective. We can then take the next step mindfully, freely, wholeheartedly.

“This world – absolutely pure
As is. Behind the fear,
Vulnerability. Behind that,

Sadness, then compassion
And behind that the vast sky.”
Rick Fields

Parneet is a Physician and lifestyle medicine consultant. Visit for more information or follow her on twitter @parneet_pal.

Created by Duncan Woods & Seb Camilleri