It’s been said that a problem is like a pool of muddy water, the more that you stir it around in the mind, the cloudier it gets.
This rings true.
How many times have you tossed and turned at night ruminating about a difficulty in your life only to wake up the next day feeling even more agitated, tired and stressed?
How many times have you had a brief conflict with someone that perhaps lasted minutes, only to then continue to replay it in your mind for days, weeks or even months – causing you ongoing anxiety or distress?
And how many times have you not been truly present at a party, at the dinner table or at work because a problem was mentally weighing you down?
Recognising the ‘problem mind’ for what it is
This tendency for us to ruminate on problems is because of the way our minds evolved over the last 200,000 years. You see the human mind is a problem solving machine.
It detects dangers, analyses situations, predicts outcomes, and makes plans. This is what it is good at. This is what helped our ancestors stay alive in a difficult and dangerous world.
But the exact same abilities that led to our success and survival as a species also now lead to some of our greatest inner struggles.
Life is not a problem to be solved, it’s an experience to be lived
The challenge is that our problem solving skills work incredibly well when it comes to logical tasks in the external world, but when those same logical abilities run away on us and turn inward, everything can become a problem, something that isn’t good enough, isn’t as it should be, something that needs fixing, improving, changing.
Your work, your finances, your thighs, your relationship, your neighbour’s lawn, your child’s life choices. The mind can get caught in this fixation on problems to the degree that you end up relating to yourself as if you were a problem that needs fixing, and you never just let yourself be. It’s exhausting and sucks the joy out of life (been there).
And you can also end up relating to your life as if it was a problem to be solved… instead of experience to be lived.
It causes a lot of constriction and tension in the mind when we never just let ourselves be, when we never relax and let life be.
Office hours: A mindfulness practice to reclaim peace of mind
So I’m going to offer you a bit of a metaphor here. Professors at university hold office hours once or twice a week. They don’t give their students 24-7 access to them because if they did it would become totally overwhelming and debilitating. They would never be able to get any other work done.
Now likewise, if we give our worries and problems 24-7 access to our attention it will be just as debilitating and destructive. We can’t focus properly and we can’t relax and enjoy our lives.
Choosing constructive problem solving over rumination and stress
So what if, like those professors, we set up office hours for problem solving? What if we make a deal with ourselves to set aside a brief time every day or every week to do some focused thinking and constructive problem solving?
After office hours we let it go.
If we can do that, then whenever we start ruminating or worrying outside of ‘office hours’ we can give ourselves permission to leave it for now knowing that we have either already dealt with it yesterday, or that there is a designated time and space to deal with it later today or tomorrow.
This week’s invitation: Drop the problem, drop the stress
I invite you to take up office hours for the rest of this week and see how it goes for you. Remember, each time you find yourself ruminating on a problem simply remind yourself to come back to it in office hours when you’ll set aside deliberate time to work through your challenges in a deliberate and considered way.
By practicing office hours like this you can let go of the ‘problem mind’, let go of the struggle and stress and find more joy, clarity and peace of mind in everyday life. You can also deal with life’s challenges in a more focussed, calm and effective way.
Wishing you a wonderful practice with this and of course feel free to ask questions in the comments section below.