How to Take Care of Yourself When… Your Own Mind is Your Worst Enemy

In the words of a former client: “When I finally looked into all of my most painful moments, I saw that it was my own thinking about the situations that made them so bad.”

Some people seem to be born with a positive disposition, with optimism at their core.  It doesn’t matter if they had saint-like parents nurturing them in all the right ways or came from the most challenging of childhoods, marked by poverty or abuse- they see the silver lining, and their joy is contagious!  Others of us struggle with negative, defeating thinking- even if things have always worked out reasonably well for us.  The mind is a powerful indicator of our ability to enjoy our time on this planet and to make a positive impact while we’re at it.  Have you found that your biggest obstacle to happiness or reaching your potential is your own mind?  Count yourself among the majority of humanity!  We all have struggled with the fact that our own thoughts in reaction to difficult situations can make the situations much worse.

The good news is that we can work with our own minds.  We can leverage our thinking mind in ways that- over time- develop a positivity bias in our brains.  As Rick Hanson says in his book Hardwiring Happiness, “All mental activity—sights and sounds, thoughts and feelings, conscious and unconscious processes—is based on underlying neural activity. Much mental and therefore neural activity flows through the brain like ripples on a river, with no lasting effects on its channel. But intense, prolonged, or repeated mental/ neural activity—especially if it is conscious— will leave an enduring imprint in neural structure, like a surging current reshaping a riverbed. As they say in neuroscience: Neurons that fire together wire together. Mental states become neural traits. Day after day, your mind is building your brain.”  

We can use this powerful information in two directions- limiting the negative and cultivating the positive, both discussed below.             

 

Respectfully Set Boundaries With the Negative Mind

Negative thoughts come and go, just like positive thoughts.  Negative and positive experiences come and go, alike.  It has been said that our minds evolved to take special note of negative experiences, in order to protect us from future negative experiences.  For other species, and for our pre-homo sapiens ancestors, a “negative” experience would be something like encountering a predator and narrowly escaping alive, or experimenting with eating an unfamiliar plant and becoming violently ill.  

We no longer have close calls with such life-threatening experiences in the mainstream modern lifestyle, yet most of us still have the same strong internal reactions to common, but unpleasant experiences.  A supervisor at work gives us a less-than-glowing yearly review or a friend neglects to include us in group plans, and it can fill our minds as if it were a life-threatening encounter.  We might have anxiety around encountering the supervisor or the friend the next day, or we might ruminate over what imminent problems the event portends, such as being fired or being told your friends no longer find you interesting.  Nevermind that 80% of the work review was positive, or that the event you weren’t invited to was a musical jam and you’re not a musician… our minds have a way of running away with shreds of negative experience and drawing a picture much worse than it actually is.  

Along the same lines, we may find ourselves repeating difficult conversations / conflicts in our minds, practicing the statements we wished we had made in order to maintain our dignity / demonstrate the inferiority of the other party.  

When we step back from these thought patterns, we can see that they are useless.  In the vast majority of cases, it is useless to fret over whether something more drastic is coming down the line after we’ve had an unpleasant experience.  It is useless to repeatedly play back challenging interactions and to build up our own sense of superiority or righteous indignation.  In fact, it’s not only useless: it’s harmful!  If there is anything to be worried about in this area, it is our own negative thought process.  As Dr. Hanson says, the repeated thought patterns we follow develop and strengthen neural pathways- whether the thought patterns are damning, angry thoughts or are loving, joyful thoughts.  I would posit that the pathways we develop in our brains lead to not only further thoughts along the same lines, but further actions, and, hence experiences.  This is the degree to which I can get behind “The Secret”- type thinking.  Yes, our thoughts create our reality: they manipulate our physical brain and sway our future thoughts and actions.  The future starts with the thoughts you are thinking right now.  Is it going to be a limiting, afflicted reality… or an expansive, liberated reality?  The choice is ours!

Luckily, we are not the victims of our thoughts.  Maybe your thoughts are way more negative than you would prefer.  The most important thing is that you see this, and determine to work with your mind.  The only way to make change is with respect and compassion.  When you see the negativity, take note, pause, and gently embrace your fighting, negative mind.  You can journal or even say a silent mantra to yourself, “Everything is okay.”  “I don’t need to fight.”  “I’m here for myself,” “I love and respect myself.”  Just like a meditation practice, you can decide to drop the negative line of thinking and pick up a positive line of thinking.  For example, dropping the argument re-hash and deciding to pay attention to the beautiful flowers on the path you are walking.  Or thinking about someone you love and appreciate.  You may have to re-direct your mind a dozen times in as many minutes, but this boundary-setting around negative thought processes is making a difference.  You are employing your pre-frontal cortex in the enterprise of minimizing negative thought-pathways in your brain stemming from the amygdala.  Your brain has its reasons for being focused on the negative, yet you have the ability to guide it towards patterns that serve you best.

 

Cultivate the Positive

Going a step further, you can choose to turn your attention towards the positive at any time.  

Flower Garden

We are responsible for growing the flowers of compassion and joy in our own hearts.

It can be a part of your meditation practice, it can be something you do once an hour with a bell chime you set up on your cell phone, it can be something you do, as mentioned above, in response to a negative thought-stream you’ve just found yourself following.  Here are just a small sample of countless potential practices to try:

A quick and calming practice is to contemplate a source of support you’ve known in your life- a person, a pet, an organization, a tree.  Allow your mind to rest on that source of support and how the feeling of being supported feels in your body.  Stay with that awareness for a full minute or two, relaxing into the soft feeling of being cared for.  

Another example is gratitude-listing.  Take 3 minutes to get out a pen and paper and write, stream-of-consciousness-style, everything that comes to mind for which you are grateful.  Some people do this every day.  I do it many mornings.

An alternative is to write down one thing for which you are grateful and the several (positive) ways you feel because of it.  For example, I am grateful for the internet because it allows me to feel more connected when others can see what I have written and respond to it.  The internet helps me feel abundant because it allows part of my livelihood to exist.  The internet helps me feel more efficient when I can use it quickly to find information as I’m making plans or writing.  The internet brings me a sense of being in community when I see that others around the world share my political and spiritual perspectives.   

The loving-kindness meditation practice is powerful, and also requires more time than the other practices just listed.  It is a heart-opening concentration practice of developing genuine goodwill for yourself and all others.  Here is a description of loving-kindness meditation by teacher Jack Kornfield, and a 40 minute talk / guided loving-kindness meditation by teacher Tara Brach.  One of the most powerful meditation retreats I have attended was a week-long silent retreat on the topic of loving-kindness.  Out of that came a commitment to practice in this way on one specific day of the week (at the least.)  I am grateful to have the regular opportunity to make a little more space in my heart.  Similar to forgiveness meditation, loving-kindness can be triggering when we bring to mind those who have presented challenges in our lives.  I believe this confrontation with our mental formations around challenging people is a direct line to freedom.  When we work with our minds, we can break ourselves free of hatred by growing forgiveness and free of judgement by growing compassion.

Another heart-opening (and more lengthy) practice I enjoy is sympathetic joy.  This is an excellent antidote to envy.  In the meditation, you contemplate the blessings and good fortune of others, and grow your sense of joy for them that things are going so well.  Here is an article describing the practice, by teacher Sharon Salzberg.  Here is also a 1-hour talk and guided meditation of the practice, by teacher Joseph Goldstein.          

 

Important skills you are strengthening:

Awareness

Loving-kindness

Sympathetic Joy

Gratitude

Goodwill

Compassion

 

Share Your Experience
What have you learned about nurturing your own positive mental states?  Please share about it in the “comments” section.  The internet is a powerful resource for learning from others- make your experience count!  

How to Take Care of Yourself When… You are Feeling Carried Away

“I’m in an early relationship that seems to be moving fast.  I’m not sure if this is right for me.  How can I know?”

 

winterroad

“Am I going the right way here?”

 

We all have had the feeling that we are being pulled along by a force outside ourselves.  This could be in any area- career, intimate relationship, a single conversation.  Maybe we wake up one day and realize that we are only climbing the corporate ladder for larger paychecks- that we may have been happiest at work in our entry-level position from years ago.  Or, as in this question, we are carried away by new relationship energy, making an “insta-relationship,” without giving the adequate time to get to know the other person’s personality, in all kinds of circumstances.  Or we keep having the same kind of banter with someone that leaves us feeling… icky.  

In some instances, this action without even having to think much can feel like divine purpose- like we are in contact with some power greater than ourselves, and consciously choosing to go with the flow of that power is sublime.  While lovely, this is not the type of “being pulled along” to which I am referring here.  The feeling I am referring to is a product of being out of touch with that greater power- out of touch with our higher purpose.  It feels over-powering, not just energizing.  Neutral, negative, blind or frantic.  Not joyful and inspired- though it can be hard to really distinguish between these sensations, if we do not give ourselves the space and time to discern, for ourselves.

If you find yourself in a moment- or several years- of following a path that doesn’t feel right, it’s time to take care of yourself.  Here are some steps to take to look into this apparent dissonance between your actions and your heart.

 

Pause

Take some time and space away from the activity.  For a career question, maybe it’s clearing a weekend or even tacking on an extra mental-health day to the weekend so you have time to look into your own heart.  In an intimate relationship, let your partner know that you need to take a span of time for yourself (this looks different, depending on the nature of the relationship- casual dating means just not going on a date for a week, a spouse that you live with might mean taking a weekend vacation by yourself.)  In a conversation, it would mean ending the conversation, “Anyway- it has been good to catch up with you, and I need to stop now and take care of some other things.”  

Have you ever seen the 1980’s TV show “Out of This World?”  I’ve always wished I had the same superpower as Evie, to freeze time so I can do all the things I want to do in the course of an already busy day.  We may not be able to freeze time, but we can clearly set aside time for the things we want- need– to do.  If gaining clarity for yourself is important to you, set the boundary with the people and tasks in your life around this exercise.  Take the time and space you need, where nothing else can intrude.

 

Set the Stage for Inquiry

Maybe this means finding a chair for yourself and your journal in a quiet corner and letting others in the house know that you will be unavailable for anything but medical emergencies for the next half-hour.  Maybe it means spending several hours in a day or over a weekend in a room of your home with candles and incense burning.  You don’t need to book a cabin in nearby mountains, or a spot on a weekend meditation retreat that allows space for personal practice.  However, if you have the means and wish to, please do that!  Do whatever it is that you believe is going to be most conducive to this self-inquiry.  

 

Look Deeply and Embrace

Now that you have paused the activity in question, and have set the stage for your inquiry, it’s time to check in with yourself and embrace what you see.  Go slow.  Before you begin your inquiry, give thanks to yourself for seeking clarity and alignment in your life.  Give thanks to all of the teachers, ancestors, and conditions that have allowed you to be in this exact position in your life, able to take stock and grow.  If you pray and/or believe in a higher power, ask for guidance.  This can be silent or out loud.  

 

Next, sit quietly and gradually scan your body- head (including mind,) neck, shoulders, torso (including heart and gut,) arms, hands, hips and reproductive organs, legs, feet.  Notice the qualities of energy, weight, and heat you feel in these parts of your body.  If you are completely new to the idea of a body-scan meditation, here is a short (5 minutes) video online to get the idea: Body-scan meditation.  

 

Now that you have settled and have a sense of what’s happening in your body, bring to mind the activity in question- your career path, the relationship, the uncomfortable conversation you were having earlier.  Rest your mind and heart gently on this topic- not tearing into it with intellect, but allowing its essence to seep into your body.  It may not take long (a few seconds?) before you begin to feel what is changing in your physical sensations, when exposed to the activity in question.  Once you feel you have settled enough into your physical inquiry, allow the physical sensations to speak to you.  

 

Is the constriction in the chest saying things are going too fast for you?  Is the fog in the mind saying that there is confusion about the topic?  Are the sweaty palms spelling out anxiety?  Let the flavor define itself- note that we are not using intellect here.  This is a corporal way of knowing, different from what most of us do every day.  Many of us have spent lifetimes building our intellect, and we obsessively ruminate about everything under the sun.  In this investigation, we are setting rumination aside and listening to other sources of information- this is an aspect of intuition.  

 

When the mind naturally returns to thinking, we re-direct our attention back to the physical sensations that are arising, and the feeling-words that may appear with them.  Do this for as long as you need.  Take breaks for tea or stretching, if your inquiry is taking a lot of time and you need to break it up.  If you are approaching the limit of the time you have for this exercise, and no insight has occurred, this is okay.  Move to the next step.

 

Write it Down

Whether you have gotten some guidance just yet or not, it is time to journal.  Record your question (“Am I on the right career path?”  “Is this relationship building me up, or bringing me down?” “Are these conversations good for me?”) and what your body told you.  If there is not a clear answer from your corporal knowing, write your intention to receive clarity- from the passage of time, or from a higher power.  Setting the intention for clarity, now that you are aware of this prominent question, may be all the progress you will make at this time.   

Now is also when- if you are giving yourself plenty of time for a larger life-question- you can allow the intellect to look at facts about your area of question and to evaluate them.  This is much better done in writing, as thinking tends to be repetitive and is slower to insight than writing.   This could be simple journaling (writing whatever comes to mind,) or a “pro” and “con” list in response to the question of keeping the status quo or changing things up.  It could be an “evidence for” and “evidence against” list in response to some belief you may be circling back onto, but which feels a bit sticky, maybe skewed.

 

Closure

If you have established that your activity in question must change, you can continue with making a plan to initiate change- see next week’s post about that.  Whether you are making a plan for change right now or not, make sure you close your self-inquiry with a few moments of repeated gratitude: to yourself, your teachers, ancestors, and other conditions that have led to your existence, on the path you are walking.  Finally, make a commitment to yourself to continue to listen to and care for your own deepest truths. 

     

Important skills you are strengthening:

Pausing

Setting boundaries

Gratitude

Listening

Journaling

Meditating

Intuition