A famous mindfulness teacher once said that everybody should meditate for an hour a day. Unless they were busy, in which case two hours would be necessary. He was talking about the need to step out of the mode of constant striving and problem-solving that can seem to take over our lives when there is a lot going on.
In our culture meditation may not be the answer. In a busy world it would be tempting to use it, like other strategies, to solve our problems. Perhaps we notice our mind racing, a sense of unease, worry, bad habits creeping in, problems sleeping or other signs that we are approaching our personal limit. it would be tempting to look for a solution to solve these problems. But within this frame of reference anything that we might try is likely
to become one more demand on our time and one more thing to feel bad about not achieving.
So what's happening when we are feeling the effects of stress, and what can we do to help ourselves? Paul Gilbert, the founder of compassion focused therapy explains that our emotional systems are loosely organised around three important functions - to deal with threats, support productive activity and allow time to rest and connect with others. An equal balance between the activity of these systems promotes good health. However, our brains evolved for very different environments to those we encounter in modern times. Human minds have evolved to survive not thrive and modern environments constantly stimulate the threat system, which will also recruit the drive system for its problem-solving capabilities. The natural consequence of this is that our focus will be drawn to threats or problems that need to be solved – an important survival mechanism in environments full of physical dangers. In modern times threats are more frequent, less urgent and less likely to have a defined end point. The constant activation of the threat response starts to cause strain. Certain thoughts and feelings or habits that are automatically triggered seem to become problems in their own right and further trigger the threat and drive dyad. Our automatic response system does not understand that thoughts and feelings are not external events and therefore are not problems that can be solved with the same strategies.
The dilemma of a busy life is that the very energy that has helped us to thrive and excel in work environments can so easily be recruited to a battle against ourselves that we can never win. Instead of fighting how we feel we need to find a way of taking a step sideways and stimulating the third system on a regular basis. The attitude that we bring to this is important. Self-care that we ‘do’ as a way to solve our problems, feel different or stop thinking too much becomes just another problem-solving strategy and is therefore unlikely to be fully recuperative. We need to practise stepping out of this mindset into a space where we don’t need to put conditions on how we should feel so that we can genuinely allow the mind to rest. Sometimes this won’t feel great and it doesn’t need to. In fact sometimes we especially need time for self-care when things don’t feel great. We are just looking after ourselves, because we need to and we don’t need to try to feel any different. That will happen on it’s own if we don’t block it with our efforts to continually control or micro-manage our own experience.
Much of mindfulness practice is a journey towards this way of being. In everyday life it can be helpful to remember that we can focus on things that we find calming and soothing without needing to get rid of unwanted thoughts and feelings. For example we could focus (and refocus) mainly on sensations in the body while walking even while feeling agitated. They key is that we keep doing the things that we know are good for us and stop putting conditions on how they should make us feel. It can be tricky because it comes from a philosophy which is the opposite of the one we usually operate from. Although it feels counterintuitive many people have found it immensely beneficial. Taking time to do nothing aimed at solving our problems tends ultimately to lead to improved productivity and engagement in the things that are genuinely important in life.