In February I was fortunate to spend time at a lush retreat center in Costa Rica. The jungle with its howler monkeys, variegated birds, and a wonderful tribe of fellow journeyers was an incredible ambiance. There was also a subtle and profound detail to be noticed in painted rocks around the property.
Part of the retreat was an integration session centered around art therapy. Once dried, the rocks live on the premises to inspire future visitors. The simplicity of a few words on a stone belies the true significance of these mindful totems. While “have courage” could be written off as a pithy inspirational quote, these stones reminded me of something more foundational: our habitual thought patterns.
Often when we think of things like diet, health or wellbeing, the first thing that comes to mind are what vegetables to add to our meal and how our workout routine needs a revamp. Attending to our mental consumption of thoughts, however, is just as, or more important than optimizing our macros and dialing in our weight. Consider that we spend almost all our waking time thinking, and what we’re feeding ourselves psychologically becomes a hugely important consideration if we’re looking at creating meaningful improvement not just to our health, but in any aspect of our lives.
What is the quality of our mental cuisine?
What influences are we allowing in?
How are we perceiving events in our lives?
What is the tone of our self talk?
As a professional coach and someone on their own 13+ year self-healing mental health journey, I’m endlessly curious about how our mindset determines our reality.
Let’s take a look at some of our mental “junk food.”
The Comparing Mind
Our modern culture is an environment rife with comparison, competition, acquisitiveness, productivity, and achievement. The approved societal altar comprises of values around usefulness, utility, value generation, and effectiveness. While it may sound like I’m advocating the elimination of ambition, that’s far from the mark. Nothing lights me up more than people creating better outcomes for themselves and others.
I AM, however, a huge proponent of integrating self-acceptance and self-care along the way to our goals.
Without intentional effort, our society’s fixation on results can leak into our psychological operating system. I assert this is one reason why the phenomenon of imposter syndrome is so widespread. When we look around and see all the brilliant people around us, how could we possibly measure up? The Information Age is an environment that makes our psyches ripe for comparison and if we’re not careful, self-criticism. The internet affords us fresh deliveries of endless accomplishments and edited highlight reels through a dizzying array of platforms from the news to social media. Conversely, cancel-culture shows us the cost of failure or misalignment with the mainstream: ostracism.
Unattended to, self-criticism can even balloon into self-hatred. I’m reminded of a famous exchange with the Dalai Lama about self-hatred. When asked about his thoughts on self-hatred his response was confusion and required several minutes of explanation by his translator. Finally, his response was “But that’s a mistake! Every being is precious!”
The comparing mind can be a tricky influence to identify. At healthy levels it can be a motivator to have high standards, persevere, or seek continuous growth. At an unhealthy volume, it subtly morphs into a tyrant who demands ever more from ourselves and serves up a persistent feeling of inadequacy. Beware of how caustic our attitudes can be when our lens on the world is one of “not-enough.”
Awareness is always the first step towards change. When we can slow down enough to notice this voice, we can step back from it and find a more peaceful place from which to operate. We can begin to practice self-acceptance that roots ourselves in a deep knowing that we are always enough just as we are, and of course we can always grow.
Psychological Stress and the Coping Process provides a pragmatic definition of stress (bolding mine):
“Stress is considered as one of the principle causes of human performance failure. Stress arises when individuals perceive that they cannot adequately cope with the demands being placed on them or with threats to their well-being.”
This definition crucially offers us a key word that brings stress into our locus of control: “perceive.” By integrating this element of free-will, we can shift our perspective away from a receiver of stress to an active chooser. By acknowledging our agency in how we respond to our lives, we can empower ourselves to create less stress from situations or external variables.
I’m not negating that situations can get under our skin. Just yesterday I was frustrated with other drivers when I was running late to an appointment. The key is that when we can move out of a reactive state, we can begin to respond. The classic phrase is that we become “response-able” – quite literally enabling ourselves the option of how to respond versus simply having uncontrollable reactions to our environment.
Thich Nhat Hanh elaborates on this mindful approach to stress through the Buddhist teaching of “The Second Arrow.” We can consider being shot with an arrow as the initial wound or stimulus from our environment, event, or person. We aren’t responsible for that arrow. We are, however, responsible for subsequent ones that we fire into ourselves. Rumination, resentment, and persistent worry – those are our responsibility and our choice. He explains: “if you recognize [a challenging situation] as it is and do not exaggerate, then you can make peace with it, and you don’t suffer much. But if you get angry, revolting against that and worry too much… The pain will be multiplied by 100x. And that is the second arrow we shouldn’t allow it to come.”
If dealing with the burnout and aftermath of our own experiences with stress aren’t enough to deter us from further feeding stressful reactivity, neuroscience shows that the downstream impact of stress isn’t just psychological. A 2018 study published in Nature was able to measure and draw correlation between our thought patterns and the presence of cortisol, (a hormone linked to stress), in the body. “Thoughts more firmly rooted in the past were associated with higher cortisol levels in the absence of subjective stress, while more future-directed thoughts were associated with higher cortisol levels in the presence of subjective stress.” This research suggests that past-based rumination and future-based anxiety aren’t just thought forms. Stress has tangible consequences on our biology, not just our psychology.
The Negativity Bias
“Harm avoidance first. Our brain is equipped to register pain more sensitively than any other emotion. We also remember negatively arousing stimuli better.”
– Peter Bevelin, Seeking Wisdom From Darwin to Munger
For better or for worse, we’re essentially living in a radically advanced society while occupying bodies and brains that evolved for drastically simpler times – in fact the vast majority of human history (more than 99%) was spent in a hunter gather environment. This is pretty staggering and explains why our neurobiology is geared towards remembering and operating from negative memories rather than positive ones: survival. This bias towards negativity served us well in vast majority of human history, but faced with modern day concerns, it is a less ideal way to function. It means that although stimuli may be objectively more benign (losing a job), our mental patterning may treat it as a threat to survival.
A simple metaphor to help grok this concept is to imagine negative thoughts like velcro and positive ones like teflon. The former is more grippy than the latter. Although we have a propensity towards negativity, a possible solution is to lean on the brain’s inherent neuroplasticity – its ability to re-pattern, change and adapt through experience. Neurobiology professor Dr. Ralph Greenspan shares, “Even though we are capable of logic, our brain does not operate by the principles of logic. It operates by selection of pattern recognition. It’s a dynamic network. It’s not an ‘if-then’ logic machine.” Hence, we can’t simple decree that we won’t think negative thoughts because they produce sub-optimal outcomes. We need to instead re-train and re-educate the mind with new patterns.
If we could take a medicine or salve for the negativity bias, the go-to prescription is a gratitude practice. By creating a practice of intentionally focusing on the blessings in our lives, we can slowly but surely begin to shift the needle towards a more equanimous state of being. Gratitude practices can look like many things. Journaling at the end of the day, adding it to your meditation practice, or otherwise building it into your habits. Personally, I like to combine my gratitude practice with any time I sit down to eat a meal. The benefit is that I’m rewarded immediately after with food – a powerful survival incentive.
What to do?
Given that our thoughts are not 100% in our control (think about any reactive or habitual thought that runs automatically), re-patterning our thoughts can feel like a daunting task. But like the pithy riddle, “How do you eat an elephant? One bite at a time,” addressing our self-talk is no different.
First, remind yourself that you can change your thought patterns. Our brains are plastic and can change over time. Anthony De Mello, a Jesuit priest and author of Awareness: The Perils and Opportunities of Reality shares an empowering perspective:
“Negative feelings are in you, not in reality. So stop trying to change reality. That’s crazy! Stop trying to change the other person. We spend all our time and energy trying to change external circumstances, trying to change our spouse, our bosses, our friends, our enemies, and everybody else. We don’t have to change anything. Negative feelings are in you. No person on earth has the power to make you feel unhappy. There is no event on earth that has the power to disturb you or hurt you. No event, condition, situation or person.”
Our perspective defines our reality, not the other way around.
Second, develop your power of awareness. When guiding meditation, I like to give awareness a simple working definition: the ability to notice, on purpose and with intention, our experience both within and without. This gives us the ability to step into a “meta-view” of our thoughts and our lives: a position almost slightly detached, from which we’re able to gain insight into the wider landscape. Think about it as being able literally zoom out on a camera. We can be so dialed into a detail in our lives that without a meta-view, we are unequipped to see what’s going on.
Once you’ve begun cultivating awareness of your thoughts, you may notice that a lot of our thoughts are routine, automated, and repetitive. Jung is famously quoted, “Until you make the unconscious conscious, it will direct your life and you will call it fate.” Our job is bringing those unconscious patterns into the light of our awareness to be noticed. We have to have that light of awareness first. Once we can expose our thought patterns with kind-hearted presence, we begin to have agency to do something about them.
For this, I recommend a mindfulness practice which can be any activity where you can begin to create some space in between your thoughts. Think gardening, or taking a walk without your cell phone. Anytime you can start to slow things down is an opportunity to strengthen our mindfulness practice. Insert a pause anywhere you can in your day. Perhaps it’s after you step off a Zoom - you take a few mindful breaths. Or during a shower, truly being present to the entire experience - the feeling of water on the skin, the scent of your soap. Modern life moves at such a break-neck pace that it’s easy to forget: WE get to define the pace of our own lives.
Last, apply a non-judgmental curiosity. With awareness, all of a sudden, we might start noticing just how habitual our thoughts might be! It’s counterproductive to judge ourselves for our negative thoughts. Our thoughts are so intimate to our experience of life that often they feel true, even if they aren’t based in reality. It’s useful to develop a healthy skepticism of our own thoughts. Some useful questions to use are: How do I know that’s true? Where does that story come from?
Over the last decade I’ve tinkered with a myriad of methods to heighten my awareness. Some of these methods have been useful, others not so much. Below I share the ones that have been the most impactful and durable for me. Like any method, your milage may vary. If you find yourself experimenting and want a thought partner, reach out! I love talking about mindful practices.
Mantras: The etymology of mantra is the Sanskrit “manas” meaning mind and “trayati” meaning to save. Of late, mantra has been hands down the most powerful practice for me. Mantras can be a phrase, or even just a single word to which you entrain the mind. Instead of getting swept into worry, a mantra acts as a mental anchor in the face of stormy waves.
David Frawley, author of Ayurveda and the Mind, emphasizes the importance of mantra work:
“To reprogram the mind, to remove its negative conditioning and replace it with one that is beneficial – which is the essence of psychological healing – the therapeutic use of sound is the central tool. Mantra is not only a sensory tool for healing the mind by using the power of sound and linking it with meaning and feeling, but it also affects the very nature of the mind and is part of the mind itself. As human beings we are primarily creatures of speech. Our words are our main means of communication and expression… Through words, our minds come together and information of all types is transmitted from which our action in life proceeds.”
Consistent practice with a mantra is a potent tool to re-pattern the mind. Over time, it can provide a new default choice in your consciousness that replaces unhelpful reactions.
The form of your mantra will be highly personal. For me, this is an extension of my spiritual practice, and I often find myself repeating Rama over and over as I take a walk or even as I write this post. A close friend of mine uses the phrase “peace and strength.” You can create your own, or perhaps using the template of an affirmational “I AM” statement could be helpful. If this practice fascinates you, Eknath Easwaran’s Mantram Handbook is a fantastic resource to go deeper into this practice.
Thought Journal: Do you have a particularly loud inner critic? Or perhaps you’re working through a pattern of resistance? Play with keeping a log every time you notice the thought arising. This doesn’t have to be a perfect practice, so don’t hold yourself to getting every instance down. Just by focusing your awareness onto these unhelpful patterns will be hugely beneficial.
Getting thoughts out onto paper can help make the unmanageable seem manageable. By either speaking or writing, we are literally giving form to the formless. Through concretizing our intangible thoughts, it’s easier to understand and organize them.
Meditation: Although my meditation practice has been a long and non-linear path to become consistent, it’s still proved to be an absolutely life changing practice. I have personally walked through some deep depression, and still actively manage my own mental equilibrium. Thankfully, through many years of yoga, climbing, meditation, plant medicine, deep inner work, and training as a professional coach, I have been able to move away from pharmaceuticals and the mental health system to stabilize my mind.
This would not have been possible without a mindfulness practice or the myriad of mentors and teachers who supported me along that journey. Meditation has created a foundation both to my spirituality and to my ability to simply exist as a flesh and blood human in the world.
If you’re new to the practice, remember: Patience and be gentle with yourself! Our mind is made to think thoughts. The first time you sit down and close your eyes, it’s not uncommon to experience a flood of thoughts. This is normal! You’re removing all sources of stimuli for the mind to be distracted. Of course you’re going to be inundated with rumination and plans. Instead of sitting for 20 minutes right out the gate, I recommend trying just a few minutes of guided meditation. Or even just a single conscious breath (which you could try right now!). A great book I love to recommend is Search Inside Yourself by Chade Meng Tan. Tailor made for the modern meditator, it is an extremely accessible approach to mindfulness.
“Malembe, malembe” is a phrase taught to me by a Bwiti facilitator. With roots in Lingala, it roughly translates to “slowly” or “gently.”
Approach your mind with gentle care. If you’re anything like me, there’s already enough forcing and driving energy that we use to eke performance out of ourselves.
Be well, tread softly, malembe, malembe. 🙏 Written By fitPROs Wellbeing Pro , Wei-Ming Lam Read more about Wei-Ming here! Looking for something different? Contact us to see how we can customize your health talk or activity.