I am shattered. It’s been a long and busy week. It’s a different type of tiredness to the usual routine that involves using my grey (and white) matter. I have been renovating a boat, getting my hands dirty. Long, hard hours of good honest graft! Such work can be exhausting, back-breaking, frustrating at times. More and more little (and large) jobs emerge as you scrape the paint off and probe below the deck. But slowly, surely, with application of good old elbow grease, results start to become evident. A transformation takes place, and pride is restored along with the paintwork. And all is vindicated when neighbours and passers by remark on the improvement!
When one is focused on a goal such as this, and consumed with the list of tasks that need to be accomplished, once head down and ‘stuck in’, there is little room for self-recrimination, rumination, ‘default mode’ thinking that threatens to capsize your own mental boat! This is a both goal-directed and task-focused state. The rewards come with the effort expended, the outcomes achieved, and the inevitable break from ‘self’ that might otherwise take precedence. Manual skills are employed, attention is vested in the external environment, in fact refreshed, purposefully directed to the details that sequentially accumulate until the whole is realised!
This is not only a metaphor for how we can enhance our own sense of direction, and mitigate self-doubt, anxiety, lack of purpose, it is also a pragmatic and practical template for gaining control over our own mental states, and the mechanisms that take hold and enslave us. That is, actions and tasks that we can engage in to ease the cognitive load that comes with being weighed down by the draining self.
As I have explained, the default mode holds sway when given nothing to occupy the task-centric drivers in the brain. But by looking at what needs to be done and tackling jobs one at a time, with this underlying goal towards holistic end improvements, the impetus is set in motion to get cracking. The perceptual system hones in on the details, the cognitive system (with it’s ‘executive control’ centres) delegates roles and responsibilities, plans and strategies. The task-positive network, buoyed by the salience network of attention, seeks out the cues that motivate next steps and keeps the work on track. And importantly, ‘switches off’ that default wandering state of mind that can take one off track and back to square one.
Occasionally, when thoroughly absorbed in the task, the default mode may come back online, but offers suggestions, creative input, identifying new opportunities. This is ‘active mind-wandering’ and occurs when the mind is engaged in effortless, automatic tasks that don’t require remaining overly vigilant (as long as you’re not wielding a power tool or cutting something with a sharp implement when all attention needs focusing on that task!).
Thus, the focused, goal-directed and purposeful mind can work harmoniously with its constituent parts, efficiently galvanising the bits that ‘crack on’ whilst tuning down the bits that do not need to be online and which potentially distract off-task. Or drawing on those later parts that can offer creative insight, bringing attention inwards momentarily to solve a problem in the outside world, and re-engage on-task with fresh ideas...
This approach can be hugely beneficial for mental health, and for general instilling of goals and purpose, along with a strong work ethic. Whilst at the same time, with a little awareness of the mechanisms ‘beneath the deck’ (I.e. your brain), a better sense of how you can switch on and off the right ‘bits’ to perform more optimally and in a motivated state of mind...This is the approach that an enterprise I am involved with, Shadow Wind, is adopting to help people who need a little extra impetus in life, be it to set new goals for themselves, or to pull back from the brink of adversity, including sufferers from depression, mental health issues, and a lapsed sense of direction and identity.
The beauty of restoring a boat is in the wealth of opportunities for adventure the finished outcome can offer. It is a vehicle that can transport one to new destinations, new perspectives, new environments. It is a vehicle for change and of transformation. It is a metaphor in literal form!
And once finally adrift on the sea in the gleaming vessel, sitting watching the sun go down, finally you can rest, switch off from task, and let the mind once more drift, but renewed in it’s capacity to dream of the next adventure, the next goal that you can get stuck into. The mind, directed, harnessed, is the vessel that will take you where you will in life. It all starts with painting a boat...