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Want to be happy? Stop doing and start being!

One of the most powerful ways to make yourself happier is to step out of ruminative mind. You can do that by learning about the different modes of mind and using them wisely.

The activities of the mind are related to patterns of brain activity. Different mental activities, such as reading a book, painting a picture, or talking to a loved one, each involve different patterns of interaction between networks of nerve cells in the brain. The networks involved in one activity are often different from those involved in another activity. Networks can also be linked together in different patterns. If we looked into the brain, we would see shifting patterns in the activity of networks and in their connections with each other as the mind moves from one task to another. Over time, we would see the different activities of the mind reflected in continually shifting and evolving patterns of interaction between brain networks.

If we looked long enough, we would see that a limited number of core patterns of brain activity and interaction seem to crop up as recurring features in a wide variety of different mental activities. These core patterns reflect some basic “modes of mind.”

We can think of these modes of mind as loosely analogous to the gears of a car. Just as each gear has a particular use (starting, accelerating, cruising, etc.), so each mode of mind has its own particular characteristics and functions. Over the course of a day, as the mind switches from one kind of activity to another, the underlying mode of mind changes—a little like the way that a car, driven through a busy city, there will be a continuous series of changes from one gear to another. And in much the same way a car can only be in one gear at a time, when the mind is in certain modes, it will not be in other modes at the same time.

The fact that a limited number of fundamental modes of mind underpin a wide variety of mental activities has important implications. It opens a way for us to use aspects of everyday experience to learn new ways to relate to the kind of mind states that lead to rumination. We can think of mindfulness training as a way to learn how to become more aware of your mode of mind (“mental gear”) at any moment, and the skills to disengage from unhelpful modes of mind and to engage more helpful modes. We might describe this as learning to shift mental gears. In practice, this task often comes down to recognizing two main modes in which the mind operates, and learning the skills to move from one to the other. These two modes are known as “doing” and “being.”

The “Doing” Mode

The ruminative state of mind is actually a variant of a much more general mode of mind that has been called the doing mode. The job of this mode of mind is to get things done —to achieve particular goals that the mind has set. These goals could relate to the external world—to make a meal, build a house, or travel to the moon—or to the internal world of self—to feel happy, not make mistakes, never be depressed again, or be a good person. The basic strategy to achieve such goals involves something we call the “discrepancy monitor”: a process that continually monitors and evaluates our current situation against a model or standard—an idea of what is desired, required, expected, or feared. Once this discrepancy monitor is switched on, it will find mismatches between how things are and how we think they should be. That is its job. Registering these mismatches motivates further attempts to reduce these discrepancies. But, crucially, dwelling on how things are not as we want them to be can, naturally enough, create further negative mood. In this way, our attempts to solve a “problem” by endlessly thinking about it can keep us locked into the state of mind from which we are doing our best to escape.

How the Discrepancy Monitor Works:

  1. First we create an idea of how we want things to be, or how we think they should be.
  2. Next, we compare that with our idea of how things are right now.
  3. If there is a difference between how things are and how we want them to be, then we generate thoughts and actions to try to close the gap.
  4. We monitor progress to see whether the gap is increasing or decreasing, and adjust our actions accordingly.
  5. We know we have reached our goal when our idea of how things are coincides with our idea of how we want them to be.

There is nothing inherently wrong with this doing mode. In fact, quite the reverse: This approach has worked brilliantly as a general strategy for solving problems and achieving goals in the impersonal, external world—whether those goals be as humble as buying all the items on our weekly shopping list or as lofty as building a pyramid. It is natural, then, that we should turn to this same doing mode when things are not as we would like them to be in our person, internal worlds —our feelings and thoughts, or the kind of person we see ourselves to be. And this is where things can go terribly wrong.

But before we go on to describe how, it is important to forestall any possible misunderstanding. We are in no way suggesting that the doing mode necessarily causes problems—it does not. It is only when, doing mode “volunteers for a job it can’t do” that problems arise. In many, many, areas of our lives, doing mode volunteers for a job it can do, and our lives are the better for it. To make the distinction clearer, we call problematic applications of this mode driven–doing, as opposed to the more general doing.

In being mode, the mind has “nothing to do, nowhere to go” and can focus fully on moment-by-moment experience, allowing us to be fully present and aware of whatever is here, right now.

If action can be taken straightaway to reduce a discrepancy, and the action is successful, there is no problem. But what if we cannot find any effective actions, and our attempts to think up possible solutions get nowhere? With an external problem we might simply give up and get on with some other aspect of our lives. But once the self becomes involved, it is much more difficult simply to let go of the goals we have set.

The mind continues to process information in doing mode going round and round, dwelling on the discrepancy and rehearsing possible ways to reduce it. And our continued dwelling on how we are not as we would like to be just makes us feel worse, taking us even further from our desired goal. This, in turn only serves to confirm our view that we are not the kind of person we feel we need to be in order to be happy.

The mind will continue to focus in this way until the discrepancy is reduced or some more immediately urgent task takes the focus of the mind elsewhere, only to return to the unresolved discrepancy once one has dealt with the other task.

How might we recognize the driven–doing mode subjectively? Its most common feature is a recurring sense of unsatisfactoriness, reflecting the fact that the mind is focused on processing mismatches between how we need things to be and how they actually are. The doing mode also involves a sense of continuously monitoring and checking up on progress toward reducing the gap between these two states (“How well am I doing?”). Why? Because where no immediate action can be taken to reduce discrepancies, the only thing the mind can do is continue to work on its ideas about how things are and how they should be, in the hope of finding a way to reduce the gap between them. This it will do over and over again.

THE “BEING” MODE

The full richness of the mode of “being” is not easily conveyed in words—its flavor is best appreciated directly, experientially. In many ways, it is the opposite of the doing mode. The doing mode is goal-oriented, motivated to reduce the gap between how things are and how we think we need them to be; our attention is narrowly focused on these discrepancies between actual and desired states. By contrast, the being mode is not devoted to achieving particular goals. In this mode, there is no need to emphasize discrepancy-based processing or constantly to monitor and evaluate (“How am I doing in meeting my goals?”). Instead, the focus of the being mode is “accepting” and “allowing” what is, without any immediate pressure to change it.  

“Allowing” arises naturally when there is no goal or standard to be reached, and no need to evaluate experience in order to reduce discrepancies between actual and desired states. This also means that attention is no longer focused narrowly on only those aspects of the present that are directly related to goal achievement; in being mode, the experience of the moment can be processed in its full depth, width, and richness.

The being mode involves a shift in our relation to thoughts and feelings. In doing mode, conceptual thinking is a core vehicle through which the mind seeks to achieve the goals to which this mode of mind is dedicated. This means, as we have seen, that thoughts are seen as a valid and accurate reflection of reality and are closely linked to action. In doing mode, the relationship to feelings is primarily one of evaluating them as “good things” to hang on to or “bad things” to get rid of. Making feelings into goal-related objects in this way effectively crystallizes the view that they have an independent and enduring reality.

By contrast, in being mode, the relation to thoughts and feelings is much the same as that to sounds or other aspects of moment-by-moment experience. Thoughts and feelings are seen as simply passing events in the mind that arise, become objects of awareness, and then pass away. In the being mode, feelings do not so immediately trigger old habits of action in the mind or body directed at hanging on to pleasant feelings or getting rid of unpleasant feelings. There is a greater ability to tolerate uncomfortable emotional states. In the same way, thoughts such as “do this, do that” do not necessarily automatically link to related actions, but we can relate to them simply as events in the mind.

In being mode, there is a sense of freedom and freshness as experience unfolds in new ways. We can be responsive to the richness and complexity of the unique patterns that each moment presents.

Clearly, doing and being are fundamentally different modes of mind. Before drawing out the implications of this difference, it is important that we be very clear on one point: Being mode is not a special state in which all activity has to stop. Doing or being are both modes of mind that can accompany any activity or lack of activity.

For example, it is possible for one to try to meditate with so much focus on being someone who gets into a deeply relaxed state that if anything interrupts it, one feels angry and frustrated. That would be meditating in a doing mode rather than a being mode because the meditation is “driven” by the need to become a relaxed person.

Just as it is possible to be in the midst of your working day and make important decisions in the ‘being-mode’ – this would mean that you are fully aware of the realities of the moment, the stressors that are around, the stakes of the decisions that need to be made, the time pressures, and you are able to allow all that to be and take action (if needed) based on a wider, more spacious mind – that does not react automatically and in the usual habitual way, but responds wisely.

Training the being mode is important, as in our lives and societies, we have not often had training or exposure to this state of mind – even though we all have access to it in, it is already part of our skillset. This training can be done through formal mindfulness meditation and through informal mindfulness practices during the day.

This article was adapted from Mindfulness Based Cognitive Therapy for Depression, by Mark Williams, Zindel V. Segal and John Teasdale.