There are two main modes of the mind. Like the gears of a car, each mode serves a different purpose. And as a car driving through a busy street undergoes a series of continuous gear shifts, so too does our mind change modes as it progresses through life. These modes can be prompted either manually (consciously) or automatically (subconsciously). However, we can never be in more than one mode at a same time. The gears of our mind can only ever be arranged in one particular sequence at one particular point in time.
The modes are ‘doing’ and ‘being’.
The ‘doing’ mode is activated when “the mind registers discrepancies between an idea of how things are (or of how they are expected to become) and an idea of how things are wished to be, or of how things ought to be”. This triggers habitual and often deeply ingrained patterns of thought that seek to reconcile the discrepancy. This can be a helpful motivation when we know we must take a particular course of action. But when there’s no obvious answer as to what can be done to ameliorate the gap, the mind gets stuck in this ‘doing’ mode – going around and around in circles, “dwelling on the discrepancy and rehearsing possible ways to reduce it”.
When the ‘doing’ mode is stuck on loop there’s a pervading sense of discontent because we are constantly aware of the difference between where we are and where we would prefer to be. We constantly monitor and evaluate our progress towards our goal. And because there’s no immediate action we can take, the mind resorts to manipulating its representations of our situation in the hope of finding a way to reduce the gap between them.
When in this mode, the mind is not in tune with the actuality of the present experience because it is so preoccupied with ruminations about the past or future. Think about what happens when someone notices that they feel sad and want to feel better. They start thinking about the previous times they were sad, and become anxious because they do not want to have to undergo these experiences in the future. They focus so intently on this goal of ‘feeling better’ that the only time they notice the present moment is when they use it to gauge their progress on their goal. There’s a constant comparison between the actual and the desired state of affairs, the disparity between the two only serving to further perpetuate the sadness, increasing the desire for happiness, and the vicious cycle continues.
The ‘being’ mode is not motivated to achieve any particular goal, but rather to just observe the present moment. Thus, there is no need for discrepancy-based processing and the mind is not stuck in the loop of constant monitoring and evaluation of “how am I doing in meeting my goals?”. ‘Being’ mode is centred upon acceptance and allowing what is, rather than trying to change it. In accepting our reality for what it is we lose the desire for things to be different from how they are, and thus we take ourselves outside the realm of the self-perpetuating discrepancy circle.
The ‘being’ mind has “nothing to do, nowhere to go”. It’s fully absorbed and present in the now. The resources of the mind are dedicated exclusively to processing moment-by-moment experience, reducing the capacity for rumination about the past or future. We are emerged in a direct, immediate and intimate experience of the present.
Think back to the person who notices they feel sad. If in the ‘being’ mode, there would be no evaluation of the emotion as a “good thing” or a “bad thing” and therefore no desire to attain or prevent one or the other. The ‘being’ mind’s relation to thoughts is like a cloud in the sky; something that comes, exists, and then passes. The being mind does not seek to grasp the cloud or make it continue or cease. Rather, it rests in awareness of the presence of the cloud (the emotion). This type of relation allows the individual to decentre in the sense that they no longer have to identify with their emotions – “I am sad” instead becomes “there is sadness”. We no longer see ourselves as possessing a certain persisting quality, but rather observing the movement of something ephemeral within our psyche.
Consider the difference between ‘doing’ and ‘being’ in this example: “If you do the dishes with the aim of finishing them as quickly as possible to get on to the next activity and are then interrupted, there will be frustration, since your goal has been thwarted. But if you accept that the dishes have to be done and approach the activity in being mode, then the activity exists for its own sake in its own time. An interruption is simply treated as something that presents a choice about what to do at a certain moment, rather than as a source of frustration.”
The difficulty with implementing this type of consciousness is that our attempt to do so is often paradoxical. We want to get rid of a desire to change the way things are – but this is just a desire not to desire, which is a desire, and now we are having an existential crisis about the infinite regress of it all. This is the wrong approach. Activating ‘being’ mode requires nothing other than letting go. Letting go of our beliefs about how things (or ourselves) should be, letting go of our investment in an end goal, letting go of constant comparison between the two. And most importantly, when you find that you’ve slipped back into ‘doing’ mode, which is inevitable, simply smile and notice it. In noticing the gear shift you’ve already brought your awareness back to the present moment – you are now in ‘being’ mode.
Information and analysis from Segal et al, Mindfulness-Based Cognitive Therapy for Depression: A new approach to preventing relapse