Thomas McConkie, a mindfulness coach and founder of the Lower Lights School of Wisdom, hosts the Mindfulness+ podcast on the Skylight app. In the podcast, Thomas uses his unique skillset as a developmental researcher and spiritual leader to illuminate mindfulness in a new way. Each episode is 20 to 30 minutes long, to help you practice mindfulness in bite-sized chunks. This post is a review of the “How to Not Suffer” episode.

The Concept of Overwhelm

The podcast begins with a personal story about one of Thomas’s home projects: painting his front porch. He had drastically different experiences painting the first coat and the second coat.

For the first coat, he chose to paint a really hot summer day—so hot, in fact, that the coat of primer was getting tough and gummy, making it harder to paint on. Plus, the sun was heating up the metal ladder that he was using, which wouldn’t usually be a huge problem—except he was barefoot! He didn’t have any shoes he was willing to get paint on, so he chose to be barefoot, which made his feet burn and blister. And the project was taking longer than he anticipated, and he was miserable, and he had a work engagement that he had to finish in time for. Everything combined to cause overwhelm. What is overwhelm? Thomas shares:

“Overwhelm, it's a day-to-day emotion we feel, but it's also a technical term in the mindfulness practice. And it refers to this window of intensity beyond which, outside of which, we're not able to be mindful anymore. Experience is too intense. It's too difficult to process mindfully. So we just start to thrash, we start to suffer. We push, we pull, we struggle. We fantasize about not being right where we are. That's what overwhelm amounts to.”

All of us experience overwhelm. To think about this more deeply, here’s a few questions to help you consider overwhelm in your own life:

  • What are some situations that lead to overwhelm for you?
  • What does overwhelm feel like in your body and mind?
  • How do you typically respond when you are overwhelmed?

Make Changes to Be Mindful

Going back to the painting story—Thomas hated his first painting experience so much that he waited an entire six months before doing the second coat. By this time, it was autumn. He describes:

“I go out there, a new man with a new resolve to have a much better experience than I had the first time. First thing I do: find a pair of shoes to get paint on. I don't care if they get painted, last time was so painful painting in bare feet. I'm painting with shoes on. And it all got better from there. I had my shoes on, comfortable walking around on the porch. The color of the paint that my wife chose was just beautiful. It was going on silky smooth because the temperature window was just right. I decide to play some tunes this time so I have my favorite music going on the porch. Oh, and it's such a lovely day. My wife and son decided to play in the front yard and watch my handiwork. At one point, and remind you I'd been dreading round two, I'd been dreading it, I put it off as long as possible. And there's a point when I was putting on the second coat that I just paused and I felt this beautiful autumn breeze on my skin and I just breathed in deep. And I think I had a conscious thought that was something like, man, I love painting.”

Thomas was definitely more mindful the second time around. But it was also easier for him to be mindful, because he had made some changes to make the experience better. For example, he wore shoes, he played music, he waited for a day with better weather, he was surrounded by family, and he took the time to pause and breathe.

Mindfulness Skill: Divide and Conquer

Thomas explains that you can combat overwhelm with a mindfulness skill that he calls divide and conquer. It means to take a step back from an overwhelming situation and see if there’s anything you can change to make it easier for yourself. This is harder than it sounds! It’s tempting to just grit your teeth and push through—wouldn’t that be faster, more effective, and easier? Not necessarily!

Thomas says, “In any given situation where you're really suffering, there is a way out of that significant suffering into less suffering.” You can’t always escape pain, but you can find ease in whatever you’re doing to make it easier. Sometimes we willfully suffer simply because we just don’t take the time to ask ourselves if we can adjust anything to be more comfortable. For example, say you notice a small pebble in your shoe while you’re walking. You want to get to your destination as fast as possible, so you just deal with the pain in each step. But you’d suffer a lot less if you stopped, took off your shoe, and removed the pebble.

This is why a mindfulness practice is important. You can practice the divide and conquer skill when you’re not actually overwhelmed, so that it becomes natural for you to use in real life:

“The more you practice, the more you experience states of decreased suffering. And the more you experience decreased suffering, the more heightened your intuition moment to moment, day to day, when you're in a tough situation, when you are suffering. Something new in you, this awareness rises and says, ‘Hey, this is how you've done it for a really long time. You don't have to do it this way anymore. It doesn't have to be this hard.’ We can divide and conquer. We can analyze the situation in the moment. We can notice what the hardest aspect about this situation is to process in a given moment. And we can work with that.”

This may seem counterintuitive, but it really does work. You can live a life where you suffer much less than you need to. The answer doesn’t always lie in escaping what’s hard; sometimes, the answer is just to find a way to make whatever you’re doing just a little easier.  

How to Not Suffer: Two Questions to Ask

There are two questions to ask yourself that are central to learning how to decrease suffering:

  1. What's the most difficult part of this situation I’m in right now?
  2. How can I adjust this part of the situation to make things easier for me?

Asking yourself these questions can bring immense help in moments of overwhelm. Going back to Thomas’s painting story, what if he had paused and asked himself these questions? He actually reflects on this in the podcast:

“It's clear to me as I reflect on the practice that day that the hardest part was the pain in my feet. I was getting burns on the soles of my feet and that metal was digging into 'em. I was miserable. If I only changed one thing about round one, the primer day, it would've been to put on a pair of shoes. Just press pause after 30 minutes and say, ‘You know what? Plan A not working, go to plan B, which is ruin a fine pair of shoes, 'cause that's better than spending the next three hours in abject misery.’ And I did that. I corrected for it. Threw a pair of shoes on round two.”

It’s good to remind yourself that even Thomas, a mindfulness coach, is not perfect at this all the time! Overwhelm takes over so quickly, sometimes it’s impossible to even think to take a step back to divide and conquer. This is where your spiritual wellness practice comes in. You practice so that you can use these skills in real life. Lucky for you, Thomas leads a mindfulness exercise in this episode where you can deep-dive into dividing and conquering. We’re not going to give the play-by-play here, but we will share a few of Thomas’s tips for practicing this mindfulness skill.

How to Practice Mindful Dividing and Conquering

Becoming a pro at mindful dividing and conquering will take some time and practice. We picked out a few of Thomas’s suggestions for practicing this skill: awareness, honesty, and pacing.

Tip #1: Awareness

Mindfulness always requires an awareness of your body and mind. This kind of awareness is linked to your intuition. Thomas suggests to “sense into it deeply with the body, through the knowing of the heart” and “follow the thread, trust your sensing.”

Tip #2: Honesty

When you think about the state of your life, include the victories and the failures. Be honest with yourself about what’s challenging for you and what you’re doing well. Sometimes life moves so fast that you never face the real reason why you’re suffering so much.

Tip #3: Pacing

Thomas says, “Just learning to work with your own pacing and your own time is a major aspect of the practice.” This requires awareness and honesty. Are you taking on too much? Are you expecting to master dividing and conquering in a day? Know the best pace for you.

In this podcast episode, Thomas McConkie defines overwhelm and provides a mindfulness skill for overcoming it called dividing and conquering. He shares examples from his own life and suggestions for practicing mindfulness. At the end, he leads a mindfulness exercise where you can apply what you’ve learned.

Want to listen to the full podcast? Download the Skylight app to access Mindfulness+ for free.

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