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Introduction to Mindfulness and Cognitive Sub-systems

There are two modes of mind that influence your behaviour. This course focuses on training the 'being mode' of mind. Watch Kitty explain more.
MUSIC PLAYING The simplest way into understanding what mindfulness is and how it’s important for self care and wellbeing is to start to notice how, in any given moment, our sense of wellbeing, mental health, and happiness depends on where we place our attention. Awareness is like a broad perceptual field, and your focus is drawn to the most intense stimulus in that field. Right now, that could be the sound of my voice. It could be that you’re hungry or thirsty. It could be that, even though you’re sitting here and your body is here, your mind is actually going over something that happened this morning or something yet to come.
As human beings, this is where our attention is typically drawn– to thoughts and thinking. We have this remarkable capacity to prelive the future and relive the past. And we tend to bounce around between the two without ever spending much time in the moment in between– the present. Moreover, for good survival-based reasons, when our attention is drawn to thinking, it tends to be pulled to whatever feels difficult or problematic– the problem of the task unfinished at work, or the difficulty of a frustrating project.
This makes a lot of sense from an evolutionary perspective - we want to be vigilant for whatever might eat us - but it means we spend most of our perceptual lives being pulled from one difficult thing to another, without much respite in between. Mindfulness at its very simplest is a counterpoint to this– rather than thinking about our lives, sensing them directly– the sense of your seat on the chair and the soles of the feet on the floor. So, if much of the time our experience looks a lot like this, mindfulness is about dropping into the part of experience which is like this.
Now, what’s interesting about these two activities of mind, thinking and sensing, is that they seem to be portals into two distinct modes of mind. This comes from research on cognitive sub-systems, and we call them ‘doing mode’, or ‘driven doing mode’, and ‘being mode’. They have some distinctive characteristics. Doing mode is this past and future-oriented mode of mind. It’s conceptual, narrative-based. It’s the story of me, where I’m going, and everything I have to do to get there. Being mode, by contrast, is this present-moment mode of mind, and it’s embodied– the felt sense of me, being a body, sitting on a chair. Doing mode is habitual.
It runs on old habits which have been maintained and solidified over time, and this makes it very reactive. It can kick in very quickly, almost before you’ve noticed. In being mode, by contrast, there’s a sense of more intentionality and space around a given stimulus, so that you can choose how you respond. And at the root of these two modes is the way that they tap into very different parts of the nervous system. Driven doing mode activates the threat and drive nervous system responses. It prepares you to fight or flee, and can tip you over into freeze. Most of us are here much of the time. Being mode, by contrast, activates the self-soothing, rest and digest response.
Most of us need a little bit more of this. This is not to say that thinking and doing are not important. Of course they are. We need this mode of mind to manage information and to get things done. But it becomes less useful when it gets stuck, and we find ourselves in constant fight, flight, or freeze. We may find that we can’t switch off, even when we want to. We find ourselves commentating on our lives, rather than actually living them, and we may be permanently physically tense or agitated.
If you find yourself rushing through activities without being attentive to them, being preoccupied with the future or past, or only noticing physical tension when it really grabs your attention, you may be spending much of your life in driven doing mode. From a cognitive perspective, what we know about depression, anxiety, and chronic stress is that the key maintaining factor is overuse of thinking doing mode. What does this look like? Typically it looks like rumination and, interestingly, attempts to stop rumination. The more we try to stop it, telling ourselves off, reminding ourselves how much time we’re wasting worrying about how to fix it, the worse we feel, and the more entrenched doing mode becomes.
What the evidence shows is that, in these moments, we need to call on another mode of mind altogether. Mindfulness involves paying attention, on purpose, in the present moment, with curiosity and kindness to things as they are– not things through the lens of how we wish they were or think they should be, but how they actually are. So, if we return to our thinking and sensing model of experience, much of the time our experience looks a lot like this– we are preoccupied with thought. You’ll notice here that the strongest sensory information gets through. We notice when we’re tired, in pain, eating a delicious pizza at the end of a long shift, but we may not notice much more than that.
With mindfulness training, we’re not looking to get rid of thought, but rather allow the peripheral chatter– planning, worrying, commentating– to fall away so the important thoughts emerge more clearly. I don’t think it’s just coincidence that Archimedes had his Eureka moment in the bath, rather than puzzling away at his books. So, to sum up, mindfulness for self care and wellbeing is about two key things. First, it’s about getting in touch with that embodied present-moment being mode of mind, which we all have, no matter how far down it’s been forced by life.
And second, it’s about using that being mode of mind to become more familiar with patterns of thought and reactivity as they arise, so that we have more choice about what we do next.

In this video, we’ll explore the two modes of mind:

  • Doing / Driven doing mode – activates the threat and drive nervous system responses: it prepares you to fight or flee, and can tip you over into freeze. Most of us are here, much of the time.
  • Being mode – activates the self-soothing, rest and digest response. Most of us need a little bit more of this.

The practices we’ll explore together over the next three weeks will be about training the ‘being mode’ of mind, as well as using it to become more aware of thoughts as they arise. And it is really about practice, because we’re working with habitual and well-entrenched patterns of mind.

About 80% of the work of this course happens in the time you’ll spend daily, practising the 3-step Breathing Space, Mindfulness of Body and Breath, and the Gratitude Diary.

See what happens, and enjoy.

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Self Care and Wellbeing: A Practical Guide for Health and Social Care

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