“What are you doing?” my husband asked as he found me sitting in bed with a cup of tea last night. “Nothing” was my reply. He looked at me as if to investigate if I was either sick or hiding something. I had no laptop, phone or book in my lap, no head phones on – in fact there was no entertainment of any shape or form close by – and neither was I intending to go to sleep. I was literary not doing anything except being – looking out the window and enjoying the taste and warmth of my cup of tea and the softness of my duvet. The fact that both my husband and I found the situation unusual made me realise what a strange life we have created for ourselves in this Western world. We call ourselves human beings – but it seems like we have become human-doings.
This is not something that I do very often – doing nothing. The doing-mode is where most of us spend our time. Try looking at your day and ask yourself why are you doing the things you are doing? Most of us are doing something for a reason, there is a purpose or a goal to our doings. Don’t get me wrong, it is not a bad thing to be motivated by goals – that is what makes us humans and the reason why we get things done and have achieved so many great things as human-beings. But it is like we have forgotten a different kind of mode; the being-mode. This is the mode where you are able to see the scenery as it goes by without being obsessed with the destination. This is where you can enjoy the moment, rather than concerning yourself about the past or the future. This is also the mode where you allow yourself to feel whatever it is you feel in that particular moment; good, bad or neutral feelings – in the body or the mind. I think it is important to be aware of the two different modes – and able to switch between them. Most of our time we are not even aware of what we are doing – we are just doing things on autopilot. For instance, how often have you driven to and from work or school and not been aware of the time you spend in the car? There is very good neurological reason for this; our cognitive capacity is limited and so we make shortcuts whenever possible. This is a subject for another post – here I just want to point out that despite our innate cognitive limits we can actually step out of the autopilot – and choose to switch to the the being-mode from time to time.
Why should I do this, I hear you ask? After all – in our culture we are rarely encouraged to do nothing. Instead, we have to achieve something. Our status is commonly measured in our ability to earn money, create something, be great parents, look good etc – things that doesn’t come by by doing nothing – it requires a lot of work – a lot of doing. But as we all know there is major side-effect to our work-ethics; extremely high levels of stress and psychological distress. This is why you need to switch to the being-mode on a regular basis. Studies repeatedly shows that the more you are in the being-mode, the less stress you produce. The eight-week Mindfulness Based Stress Reduction Program (MBSR) started by Jon Kabat-Zinn at the University of Massachusetts Medical Center in 1979 for instance has been the subject of thousands of studies and have documented the physical and mental health benefits of mindfulness in general and MBSR in particular. It is now offered in over 200 medical centers, hospitals, and clinics around the world. Mindfulness is – in a nutshell – all about training your mind to switch between the doing- and the being-mode. It is about learning to pay attention to our current thoughts and feelings without judging them.
Depression is another negative side-effect to our preferred doing-mode. According to the World Health Organisation depression is currently ranked fourth among the 10 leading causes of the global burden of disease and it is predicted that by the year 2020, it will have jumped to second place. Several studies have shown that mindfulness – especially Mindfulness-based cognitive therapy (MBCT) is as good as medication as a way out of depression – and it is even more long-term as it gives people the tools – the ability to switch to being-mode – to avoid or combat relapses.
So how do you train your brain to make the switch between the two modes? You can start by taking three minute breaks from time to time during the day. Just sit down and close your eyes (go to the bathroom if you feel awkward doing it in a public space). Notice how your body feels right now. Which feelings and thoughts do you have? Don’t judge, label or analyse them – just notice them. And if you are ready for even more brain-training, start to meditate 10-20 minutes a day. Just like training for a marathon, you need to start slowly. Your brain will change physically the more you allow it to just be – gradually giving you more benefits. Studies have found that meditation increases the density of gray matter in brain regions associated with memory, stress, and empathy.