I have a love-hate relationship with gardening. On some days, the garden is a timeless realm, where the sight of a suckling bee or a dragon-fly over the pond brings joy. At other times, the whole 'project' feels like a chore that I will never be on top of. Stressful thoughts crowd in: "It only seems like yesterday that I last mowed the lawn and weeded those beds and now they need doing again! !" So what is the difference between gardening-as-joy and gardening-as-stress? It strikes me that the main factor is the state of mind in which it is approached.
Dr Mark Williams from the Oxford Mindfulness Centre describes three modes of mind: 'being mode', 'doing mode' and 'driven-doing mode'.
Being mode is focused in the present moment and in the senses - my 'dragon-fly moment' would be a good example. Being mode is nourishing and leads feeling refreshed and energised.
Doing mode is all about setting and achieving goals - small or large - and is more based in thinking, often relating to past and future, than in the senses. Doing mode is an important function as we go through our lives, allowing us to plan and solve problems, for example as planning and implementing a garden design. It can bring a sense of achievement and satisfaction.
Williams' third category – driven-doing mode - is what happens when we are unable to switch off doing mode and relax into being mode. Driven-doing mode is associated with stress, burnout & low mood and is characterised by excessive over-thinking and relating to everyday issues as problems. One example of driven-doing mode is those occasions at night when we’d like to be asleep but cannot turn off repetitive planning, worries or ‘action re-plays’ of things that have happened during the day. Another example would be me on a bad day in my garden, forcefully pushing through a 'huge list of chores' while becoming increasingly tired and grumpy! If we habitually find tasks draining and push ourselves to 'just get it done', we may be in driven-doing mode.
What can we practically do to shift out of driven-doing mode? Firstly, take a break when we are tired or need refreshment. Research shows that taking breaks makes us more productive and more creative in work tasks and reduces tress and burn-out (see study reported in Forbes, May 29 2018). This fact may seem obvious, but when we are in driven-doing mode, the tendency is often to 'push on through'. It is also recommended that we shift our focus into our immediate sense-experience - in other words, that we approach whatever we are doing mindfully.
The intention to be mindful encourages us to value moments of pleasure or connection simply for themselves: nothing is achieved by watching a bee among the flowers or a visit from a local robin while digging. Being-mode can shift a bad mood in moments and change our whole mind-set. Instead or hurrying to get that job finished, we can enjoy all manner of little moments along the way.
Formal mindfulness practices such as focusing on the breath or body are designed to lead us into being mode and, temporarily at least, away from doing and driven-doing modes. For example, the 'three-step breathing space' we learn on 8-week mindfulness courses only takes a few minutes and can be used in the midst of everyday tasks.
Will mindfulness practice convert our lives into a seamless string of happy moments? Probably not! There are always difficulties along the way. But consciously appreciating the little things, here and now - rather than simply trying to get through tasks as quickly as possible - will almost certainly put us in a better mood!