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Personal ‘retreat’: fifth reflection – being, flow & ‘pure driving’

Yesterday I wrote a post on "Our sense of self".  Today the theme is more “Being & doing”.  My life at home is very busy.  I welcome this … and have made it happen … with work I love … living richly … but full of “doing”.  On this fourth full day here in Hampshire, I’ve started to slip through into allowing more “being” … and exploring, moving into that shift is one of the major reasons for taking this ten day “retreat”.  So in the sunshine just now, walking to the “Grove”, a delicious, mostly wild patch of trees, miniature daffodils, snowdrops.  Sitting on a bench, feeling vision clearing like dusting a surface, a mantelpiece maybe, that hasn’t been touched for a while.  The sunshine showing the difference (as it would on a dusty mantelpiece) … clean, clear, fresh … in contrast to a mind a bit clogged, a bit absent, caught in projects & responses & juggling.  And ‘juggling’ projects & responses can be great … but now feeling my body soften, relax, breathing more fully, eyes moist … this is so precious too.  “Seeing” the trees, limbs alive, almost moving in the sunlight … hearing the birds, sky decorated with sound.  Softening more.  Not so separate … not so caught in time.

And that was written yesterday after coming back from the Grove.  Walking again later, seeing clouds freshly, seeing the low evening sunlight coming through a thick line of trees to splash onto a great field of early wheat … like sea breakers, waves.  Precious.  Movement in my chest.  Softening again.  Simple.  “Being & doing”.  And awareness as connection, as something that feels physical.  Mind, thought, body, quietening.  Separate sense of self disappearing.  This doesn’t feel unusual, but it is unusual for me to see it this way, to notice how the “lens” of my self-sense is intermittent.  Almost like swimming through the world with no clothes on … with all the joy & laughter & childhoodness of that.  "Except ye ... become as little children, ye shall not enter into the kingdom of heaven".

Maybe the most common metaphor I share with clients who come to me for help is “The bus driver”.  Actually, it’s a collection of metaphors which can act as easy reminders to a series of important coping skills.  But I wonder if it would be possible to extend “The bus driver” image to include an awareness of this transient, variable sense of self as well?  Something maybe about the joy of “just driving”!  So the way I use the bus driver metaphor at the moment is to say something like “It can often be helpful to think of ourselves as bus drivers … but we’re not only the driver; we’re also the bus itself, and the passengers too.  Our job is to drive the bus of our life in the direction of our values & priorities.  However in the back of our buses are our thoughts & feelings.  Pretty much all of us have three particularly obstreperous passengers in the back of our buses.  They are Mr/Ms (I tend to vary the passengers’ gender to be the same as the gender of the person I’m sharing the metaphor with) … Mr/Ms Catastrophiser, Mr/Ms Ruminator/Worrier, and Mr/Ms Self-Blamer.  The Catastrophiser is constantly imagining the worst and shouting these fears out to the Driver … for example “Be careful, be careful, the road may look OK, but you never know … potholes, wandering children, other crazy drivers.  Oh my god, it’s all going to end so badly!”  Meanwhile Ruminator/Worrier is looking back and going “Oh why did it happen like this to me?  Nothing ever goes right … or if it does for a short while, it just increases the disappointment when it all goes pear-shaped again.  Oh why … the world is so bleak and no-one cares, or not so it makes any difference.”  Or maybe more “Heavens, when I look to the future, all I can see are acres of problems.  Acres … and I don’t have the resources, the energy, or the knowledge to fight back.  It’s a tangled great thorn thicket of hassles, problems, conflicts, difficulties all around us and it only gets even worse on ahead.  Even if I knew how to tackle some of this, I would become too exhausted long before I could solve all that needs solving.”  And then Self-Blamer can chip in “It’s all your fault too.  If you planned better, if you had more intelligence, more courage, an ounce of character, none of this would have happened.  Life would have been so much better.  Bluntly you reap what you sow.  You really don’t merit a better life than this … you’re getting what you deserve.” 

I talk to them about letting the passengers burble on … simply mindfully noting the internal mental racket and re-focusing on the road ahead, driving on directed by values & priorities.  I say that the “Passengers” will tend to lose heart & quieten as they realise the “Driver” isn’t giving them attention and is getting on with the job of value/priority-directed driving the bus.  So we have ‘Task focus’ and ‘Mindfulness’ coping skills here.  I also introduce a friendly “Bus conductor” who helps the “Driver” step back psychologically and develop a better perspective, more level, balance, optimistic & compassionate – the skill of ‘Reappraisal’.  I even toss in the option of having a word with particularly persistently difficult passengers at the occasional coffee stop (potential ‘Trauma processing’ is alluded to here).  If you want to, you can download handouts with fuller descriptions of these skills by clicking on The bus driver metaphor, "The bus driver is warm-blooded: integrating mindfulness & emotion" and Getting a better perspective

I wonder about adding a new “coping skill” or “way of being” to this package … the joy of “Just driving” or “Pure driving”.  One could say, classic mindfulness & priority-selected activity is often quite effortful … repeatedly, firmly, compassionately refocusing the attention on the road ahead … a hassled driver doing their best.  However, when we start noticing, we often find that surprisingly often the driver can slip into a state we could call “Pure driving” or “Flow” or “Engagement”.  In this state, there isn’t a separate driver steering down a separate road.  The ego, the sense of self, dissolves, the lens through which we’re seeing the world evaporates … there is just “Pure driving”.  We “sublime” (in chemistry, when a solid moves directly into a vapour with no intermediate liquid state, it is said to have “sublimed”).  The solid of our ego, our sense of self, with its meshwork of associated thoughts, images & feelings stretching way back into the past and right forward into the future, all this “sublimes” and there is “Pure driving” … easy, flowing, connected, with the bus, the road, the countryside … one is transparent, yet deeply alive & functioning.  This may seem a bit esoteric or mystical, but actually it isn’t.  We are in this state frequently, pretty much whenever we’re doing something that really engages us … talking with a good friend maybe, playing a sport, doing a job, really listening to music, or connecting to our surroundings in nature.  We may move into this “flow” state more easily when there is a present time challenge like playing a game (it’s a big reason why games can be so popular & enjoyable).  However, a more tricky possibility kicks in when we can move into this state, “sublime” into this ‘Pure driving” state, when we are simply walking down the street or eating a meal.  Like a camera, it can be narrow-angled, focused in on a particular task or something else we’re really engaging with, a challenge-responsive ‘flow state’.  Or the camera can be wide-angled taking in the richness of our surroundings – typically harder to do this when there isn’t associated challenge.  Either way, in ‘Pure driving’, we’re free from suffering, we’re not held in that familiar, ‘personal’ mesh of associations, fantasy, rumination, and worry.

And tomorrow's post is "Let's lose our heads and come to our senses".


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