In the past month I have been getting caught up in my problem-solving mind. I noticed that it tried hard to convince me that if I only try hard enough I will at some point ‘have it all sorted’ and it will be ‘smooth sailing’ from there. I have noticed myself giving in to its empty promises of lasting organization and peace of mind “once everything is done”. And so I have worked hard at holding all the strings, juggling all the balls and waiting for that moment when it will be enough and I can take a rest. Not surprisingly that moment has not come. There was always more to do. I have found myself rushing from one task to the next to ‘get everything done’ and in the process forgotten to ‘smell the cheese’ as they sing on a kiddies CD that plays in my car at the moment.
There is a part of me that knows that what my problem-solving mind tells me is not true or realistic or achievable. Yet, I still get caught up with it over and over again. Steven Hayes (2009) co-founder of Acceptance and Commitment Therapy (ACT) states that our brains are hard wired to fix problems, compare and plan. This ability is very useful. However, we often overuse these skills and miss the ‘off switch’ for this problem solving function of our brain. He states that if we don’t rein this problem-solving function of our mind in it can become a problem in itself. We find ourselves problem solving everything, including the people we love and ourselves.
This problem solving approach to life is further fueled by the fact that life always changes. As soon as we feel we have it figured out things change and we have to start from scratch. Pema Chodron (2005) writes that there are three truths of our existence: impermanence, suffering and egolessness. Impermanence means that naturally nothing is made to last. Everything changes all the time. Nothing ever stays the same.
Given that we have a ‘problem solving’ mind and that the impermanence of life is providing our brain with ever new problems to solve it makes sense that our whole life sometimes turns into a big puzzle that we need to finish before we can relax and enjoy life.
According to Pema Chodron (2005) humans (at least in the western culture) find it very difficult to deal with impermanence and she state that a lot of our suffering is based on our fear of impermanence and an unrealistic expectation that things will last and stay the same.
Pema Chodron (2005) suggests that we can learn to develop a better relationship with impermanence by first of all just noticing it mindfully for what it is and also noticing our reaction to it, rather than trying to fix it or problem solve it away. She invites us to view our reaction to impermanence with curiosity. Similar to Pema Chordon’s suggestion to view impermanence and suffering with curiosity and an open attitude, Steven Hayes invites us to view ourselves and others with a ‘sunset state of mind’.
Imagine for a moment a sunset. Really try to view it in your minds eye. How does it feel to imagine this sunset? Do you find yourself leaning back and enjoying and appreciating the experience?
Most of the time this is how we view a sunset. We don’t try to change it, make it a bit pinker, a bit more orange. We just sit and watch and take it in with an open mind and heart. We allow it to be as it is.
This way of being is usually what our problem solving mind promises us is the reward once we get it all done. However, Pema Chodron and Steven Hayes suggest that we can be in this sunset state of mind even in difficult times. They suggest that we can look at ourselves and others and our ever changing world from this point of view rather than a problem solving approach. They suggest that we can curiously and with openness look at our response to difficulties in our life and find out more about our reactions to our difficulties rather than trying to fix them.
This month I want to challenge myself to accept Pema Chodron’s and Steven Hays’ invitation to practice curiosity and openneness to my experiences no matter if they are comfortable or uncomfortable. I would also like to extend this invitation to you by asking you to practice using a sunset state of mind. Notice your attitude, your body as you imagine a sunset or even watch a real one. Notice fully how you experience the sunset. Notice how you just take it as it is without trying to fix it or judge it. Then try to apply the same attitude towards yourself and others as much as you can.
Chodron, P. (2005). When things fall apart. Heart advice for difficult times. Element, Great Britain.
Hayes, S. C. (2009). A Sunset state of mind. https://www.psychologytoday.com/blog/get-out-your-mind/200902/sunset-mode-mind, retrieved 19/05/2016
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