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Lions Roar : July 2011
SHAMBHALA SUN JULY 2011 85 starts the storytelling areas of the brain. In the study, participants were asked to employ different types of focus, cor- responding to the two distinct modes of self-reference. “Narrative focus” calls for elaborating mental constructs within our minds, weaving a story as it were, which reduces attention toward sensory objects available in our immediate experience. By contrast, “experiential focus” calls for inhibiting our elaboration on any given mental event in favor of broadly attend- ing to the objects in our experience and “canvassing thoughts, feelings, and physi- cal sensations without selecting any one sensory object.” Narrative focus is associated with ruminative thoughts about the self, while experiential focus avoids rumination. It disengages the brain networks that lead to self-referential story-making. The re- searchers noted that while a focus that cen- ters on experience in the present includes a strong component of paying attention to bodily sensations, meditation practice is associated with developing moment-to- moment awareness of all available stimuli. Accordingly, when participants were in- structed to maintain an experiential focus, they were encouraged to include “internal thoughts, emotions, and external sensory events, in addition to bodily sensations.” A mindfulness-trained group was compared with a novice group in how they performed in working with these different types of focus and, by extension, the two different neural regions: the one associated with story-making about the self and the other associated with immediate experience. The Toronto group demonstrated that meditation practice enhances the ability to disconnect these two regions and engage more robustly in experiential focus. As a result, the likelihood that an experience of present-moment awareness will auto- matically be followed by a self-centered monologue is reduced. Even the habitual patterns that are deeply built into the body can be changed with practice. Norman Farb, the lead investigator of the study, says that the work demonstrates how “mindful- ness changes the very ground of the way that we experience the self.” ♦