1 Sep 2016

Mindfulness and the ‘Drive’ state


What matters most must never come at the cost of what matters least

The biggest challenge for many of us is to change or adopt new habits.  Even if we know that these habits will make us much happier and healthier, it is likely that we just don’t do them.  And so it is with Mindfulness.  In all the years I have been facilitating mindfulness, the biggest challenge without a doubt is to keep up the practice. Everyone who comes on a program or retreat can see the enormous potential in practicing mindfulness and yet find it hard to maintain a practice.

I cannot say that I have perfected it. I am just lucky that through my work I practice mindfulness every day.  It is an ongoing journey of coming back to the stepping stones of healthy change.  Certainly retreats help, so immediately after our Bali retreat I am now attending a seven day silent retreat with much meditation.  This deepens the practice and also the appreciation of it, making it more likely that we don’t want the ‘poorer’ life without it.

One of the clear challenges we face is that we tend to live in the ‘Drive’ state.  The Drive state, as defined by Paul Gilbert, is one of the emotional regulations systems (the others are the Threat system and the Contented system).  When we are in Drive we are focused on moving towards perceived resources, towards what we think is going to feel good or not bad.  From here other humans are either in our way or helping us get to where we want to get to!  It is all about doing tasks and getting things done.  We are more a human doing than a human being when in Drive.  The Drive state is antagonistic to the contented state.  In Drive it is be very hard to prioritise meditation, mind-training or a gratitude practice.

I often hear this sort of thing, “I haven’t practiced as life just gets in the way”.  Life is not just a thing out there.

It is our experience and our experience is that other things become more important than mind-training, and part of the reason for that is because we are in the Drive state.

The other thing that makes mind-training or other healthy habits hard to stick to is that we very easily give in to what will feel good right now, and as a result, out goes the longer term investments that might not have as high an immediate feel good factor. The more stressed we are the truer this becomes.


When we are stressed we do not care about being ‘good’ we just want to feel good NOW!

In other words, when we are stressed it is hard for us to access the bigger picture, we become reactive and impulsive. What we pay attention to forms and sculpts our brain, so the likely outcomes from giving into instant gratification is not going to lead us to inner peace and calm and more wisdom, on the contrary.

“Every journey begins with the first step of articulating the intention, and then becoming the intention.”

Bryant McGill, Voice of Reason

Intention precedes all of our behavior and the intention in the Drive state is to get things done, often in the hope, that it will rid us of underlying anxiety.  We believe that once we have it all done we will feel great, relaxed and at peace.  The mostly unconscious intention in the stressed state is always about avoiding feeling bad and hoping to feel good right now.


There is a chicken and egg scenario at play; the more in the Drive and stress state we are, the more we need mindfulness but the less likely it is that we do it.

Naturally some do manage to do it, but in my experience, it is when they have been in a lot of pain in their lives and they have found that mindfulness has given them substantial relief.  This is when they are ready to practice. It is as if the experience of intense pain shakes us out of autopilot; we realize that the way we have been living causes us pain and we don’t want that, so we make changes.


So the motto is: ‘Snap out of autopilot!’  This way we can set a wholesome intention, as intention runs as an undercurrent to autopilot unless we interrupt it.

A quick way to do this is the ‘Five Magic Breaths’.  This simple practice changes your physiology from a potentially stressed state to a calm state.  You simply pay attention to the breath and then allow the outbreath to become longer than the in-breath, about twice as long.  This is an invitation to let the out breath drop deeper into the body, it is not to be forced.  After the ‘Five Magic Breaths’ your system will be in Contented or the rest and digest state and from here you can access better choices.

An element of mindfulness is ‘Choicefulness’.  From Choicefulness you can set a conscious serving intention.  You have done this many times.  One of the intentions you set early on was to try to keep your teeth clean to avoid decay.  This intention makes you brush your teeth twice a day and aren’t you glad you have done that continuously from that small early intention.

How did that intention come about?  Did you imagine yourself with rotten teeth?  Did you think of all the visits to the dentist?  Did you want to have lovely teeth? So what is the difference between this and wanting not to end up with a negative miserable mind or having to visit counselors to help you get back on track or wanting to have a clear, generous, loving and wise mind?

Once your intention is clear then remind yourself that change happens in small steps, one little step at a time.  When we stop taking the steps rather than berate ourselves, we can be curious and kind in investigating what happened and how we can best get back onto the healthier stepping stones again.

Promise or Pay has created a system of accountability that might work for you making it easier for you to stick to your intentions to mind train.  We know that after the retreats what seems to work for people is to have this accountability with a buddy, but if you don’t have this you could try Promise or Pay.

Small steps while keeping in mind big picture.

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