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The Art of Being Alert 

(Aaron Burden/Unsplash)
(Aaron Burden/Unsplash)

I recently returned from a brief vacation to the Pacific Northwest. Though not always beautiful, the landscape was consistently interesting — snow-capped mountains ringing fields of hops and grapes and corn, ambling streams and racing rivers, forests scarred by burn marks that mapped out the path of both controlled and uncontrolled fires, pristine lakes in calderas, the sides of ancient mountains draped in lava flows frozen in time.

Just as intriguing were the micro-wonders surrounding us. Littering some valleys were shards and chunks of razor sharp obsidian, glittering among the debris of pumice rocks that had been ejected from past volcanoes. Darting across fallen branches were tiny, red fox-like rodents — Siskiyou chipmunks, we learned — who inhabit only a small swath of northern California and central Oregon. And the aromas wafting through the air went hand-in-hand with the micro-climates we passed through: fresh pine, beer, sulphurous hot springs, and the not-quite enticing scent of cannabis and cat urine emitted by a hemp field in bloom.

But as varied and gorgeous as the scenery was, the real pleasure of this and most vacations came from the act of looking, sniffing, listening — from the intrinsic pleasure of being alert.

Alertness signifies a kind of opening enabled only by softening of boundaries between “me” and “not me.”

By “alert” I don’t mean the watchful, vigilant state that most of us are in as we ride the T (“If you see something, say something,”) cross busy streets or attend to what explicit or implicit messages our boss is delivering. Vigilance is inherently defensive. Alertness signifies a kind of opening enabled only by softening of boundaries between “me” and “not me.”

In my experience, that’s what characterizes the best, most refreshing vacations — not self-indulgence, but self-abandonment, not activity so much as receptivity.

Think back to early childhood. In that blissful, demand-free stage of life, you could be endlessly fascinated by watching dust mites dance in a ray of sunlight. That immediate, external stimulus was simply more immediate and engrossing than your own relatively sparse set of thoughts, worries, memories and projections.

This may be true in part because what neuroscientists refer to as the default mode network (DMN) — the neural network responsible for self-referential thinking and mind wandering, and active when we are not focused on the outside world — doesn’t develop until late childhood. Suppression of the DMN is seen in skilled meditators and, interestingly, in people under the influence of psilocybin and LSD, who report a sense of feeling at one with their environment.

As Michael Pollan explains in “How to Change your Mind,” his book about psychedelics:

“The default network stands in a kind of seesaw relationship with the attentional networks that wake up whenever the outside world demands our attention; when one is active, the other goes quiet, and vice versa.”

Silencing the default mode network — something that meditation, hallucinogenics, and in my experience, vacation all do quite effectively — lets us take in the world around us, anchoring us in the present rather than ruminating about past events and future possibilities that occupy so much of our consciousness.

“The default mode network appears to play a role in the creation of mental constructs or projections, the most important of which is the construct we call the self, or ego,” Pollan explains. “This is why some neuroscientists call it ‘the me network.’ If a researcher gives you a list of adjectives and asks you to consider how they apply to you, it is your default mode network that leaps into action. (It also lights up when we receive 'likes' on our social media feeds.)”

Silencing the default mode network ... lets us take in the world around us

Being away from bosses and peers and performance evaluations, being largely unplugged from social media (though I sheepishly confess that I was pleased with all the “likes” my vacation videos got on Facebook), and yes, being in a new and often spectacular landscape — all of these ingredients made it easier to cast my gaze outward.

Now that I’m back, the glow has largely worn off. But for a few days, in my short-lived, post-vacation state of attentiveness, I found myself attending to the snatches of conversation I overheard as I walked down the street.

“OMG, it’s the only DCU ATM in town!” enthused one middle-aged woman to her friend.

“… they have no military,” said the young Japanese guy to the two other students walking behind him, “And when you’ve got a population of disaffected, angry young men…” That’s all I got to hear, but it was enough to make me wish I could have stopped him in his tracks and pursued a conversation.

Here in the real world, I’m bombarded by pleas and exhortations and tweets I can’t stand but lack the will to turn away from. Still, that cat in heat in the alley outside my window, the car alarm competing with its yowl, the animated conversations that travel from strangers’ mouths to my ears — they are every bit as interesting as glaciers and volcanoes 2,000 miles away.

And noticing them while silencing myself turns out to be a portable gift.

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Julie Wittes Schlack Twitter Cognoscenti contributor
Julie Wittes Schlack writes essays, short stories and book reviews for various publications, including WBUR's Cognoscenti and The ARTery, and is the author of “This All-at-Onceness” (Pact Press, 2019).

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