How to soften your inner drive system in times of crisis

"For the voice of wanting, what is here now is never enough"
Jack Kornfield

With the tightening of public health restrictions these days, I immediately feel my inner alarm system getting triggered. And I feel the need for a break – even a momentary one – from the whole pandemic; the crisis, sorrow and pain that it still entails for so many people; the weight for our society. I'm longing for freedom and ease, and hope for the end of suffering, while we are far away from seeing the light at the end of the tunnel.

And while I try to find some rest, my mind has a life of its own and constantly reminds me what – according to its own views – is going wrong and should be handled in a different way. When I'm walking on the street for example, it makes me nervous to see people not caring about social distancing rules. I'm still thinking about a supervisor at school talking to children in the courtyard without having a mask on his face. I'm constantly questioning political decisions, as some of them do not seem to make sense at all. In short, the "negativity bias" which makes us focus on the difficult, annoying or stressful circumstances is on full throttle – and ruminating starts when things around me are not exactly as I want them to be. Recognize anything in these patterns?

Now some might say: "well, it's a global health crisis." And the article could end right here. But I'm not sure whether this is a satisfying conclusion. I believe that our thinking patterns haven't changed tremendously since the beginning of Corona. The crisis rather acts as a magnifying glass and brings to light – in a much clearer way – how our brain works.

Understanding the inner drive system

When we urgently "want" something or when we aim to achieve a goal, our inner drive system activates the nervous system; and for its part, the nervous system releases stress hormones. In short, our brain provides us with the energy we need to keep going, as the German psychiatrist, psychotherapist and mindfulness teacher Jörg Mangold points out.

Saturation is the aim of the inner drive system and that made perfect sense for our ancestors living in caves, when they had to get water and food. The drive helped to ensure the survival of our human species. It is still a good tool in today's world. However, our aims have changed quite a bit since the times of cavemen: Today, we don't have to go hunting anymore, but we "want" success and constant (positive) development, our society is performance- and consumption oriented; we have material goals. Often, what is here right now, is not good enough, and sometimes we can't switch off the inner drive system anymore. We are constantly looking for ever more saturation.

Becoming aware of our inner drive system is the first step to understand that we often want things to be different than they are, and we project ourselves into a supposedly better future. The "wanting mind", as psychologist and Buddhist teacher Jack Kornfield describes it, has a positive aspect and can be beneficial, for instance when we work for the well-being of others or when we realize our own longings or dreams. But when we are clinging onto the "wanting" and search for immediate results, hunting for ever more saturation, our mind becomes "grasping" and we become rigid and dogged. We get stuck.

Opening our eyes for what is here right now

In formal mindfulness meditations, we learn that there is a way to let go of this behaviour and thinking pattern, to give space to what is here right now. Observing what is here at this moment creates distance. We can see much more clearly what really matters for us and whether there is something we could let go of. And maybe most importantly, it allows us to explore how we actually feel right now. Often, there is a reason behind a thinking pattern, that we can uncover step by step. There might be expectations we want to fulfill, there might be tiredness, or maybe even fear.

When times are difficult, as they are now, mindfulness invites us to acknowledge difficulties as they are, and – at the same time – try to take care of ourselves. A first concrete step could be to establish mini breaks, stepping out of the busy doing and reconnect to our body and mind. A 3-minute breathing space helps to practice that. We can also try to bring more kindness and self-compassion towards ourselves in difficult moments, instead of focusing on what is going wrong. And we can counterbalance the inner drive system and use the magnifying glass to explore instead what we tend to overlook in our daily life; appreciating small details, events or things that can nurture us in this very moment. Do you spot something?