If you haven’t tried mindfulness training, it can be hard to picture what exactly you’ll be able to do. Does it mean you’ll always be calm, unflappable in any situation? Will you float above the office with a blissful smile? Not exactly.
One way mindfulness researchers and trainers put it is this: they compare ‘doing mode’ with ‘being mode’.
You know ‘doing mode’. It’s when you’re rushing to get things done, with an anxious quiver in your throat that tells you you’ll never get it all done. Your mind, if not your body, is racing from one thing to another. At any given moment, you haven’t done all you need to do.
You get so used to living like this that when you do get a few minutes downtime, you whip out your phone and start ‘catching up’. Any longer stretches of downtime have to be filled with entertainment because it feels uncomfortable to be doing nothing.
It doesn’t always feel bad – sometimes it’s quite exhilarating. The speed, the efficiency, the ticked-off tasks, the good job done. It gets you through the day. It puts meals on the table. It brings you a little nearer to those distant goals, or it gets a nagging demand off your back. But all the time, it’s creating a foundation of low-level stress which, when something goes wrong, can explode into full-on panic.
There’s another mode – the ‘being mode’. If you’ve ever turned the corner and seen a beautiful view open out in front of you, and go ‘wow’, you’ve dropped into being mode. If you’ve looked at a loved one or a pet and been fascinated by their beauty, unable to look away, that’s being mode. If someone asks you for help and you know, almost without thinking, exactly what to say and how to say it to best meet their needs, that comes from being mode. If you’ve been drawing, cooking, writing code, and find an hour has passed and you haven’t noticed the time, it’s that. It’s a place of calm and focus but not a forced focus.
In mindfulness training we explore both modes in greater detail, by experiencing them both. We learn that, for example, the way we respond to our thoughts is different. The way we approach new suggestions and new challenges is different. We learn to appreciate both modes – nobody’s suggesting you try to live on a cushion of being mode for the whole day. We need doing mode, but more than that, we need to be able to switch from one mode to another. It’s like shifting gear. We can do it when we need to. Just as we can hear and feel the engine protest when we’re driving in too low a gear, we learn to recognise when we’re in doing mode, and we have the choice to change to being mode. We become more comfortable with downtime, with silence, with space. That brings the chance to build resilience.