The thoughts in your head can give you the stuff you need to go after and be successful in the profession of your dreams, maintain loving, healthy relationships, and be pretty happy and optimistic on most days when slogging through muck and mire of life.
On the other hand, your mind can mercilessly criticize and ridicule your every move, hold you back from going after whatever you really want in life, and sabotage and second-guess every part of your relationships.
Think about it. Your brain affects everything you do. How you feel, think, and move, what you see and hear, literally every single thing originates in or is processed by that three-pound mass in your head. I didn’t realize just how much my brain shaped my everyday life until I had a serious brain injury, the result of a suicide attempt. (Read the full story here.)
At the most basic level, your reality is constructed by your brain. Making sense of the world and its happenings is nothing more than your individual brain’s interpretation of the signals it receives as you go about your days interacting with your environment. (Read more: How Your Brain Creates Your Reality) Each of us experience the world uniquely because our brain adds its own “special sauce” when giving meaning to events and incoming stimuli which is flavored by your physical brain function, memories, beliefs, and attitudes about yourself, others, and the world. These subjective influences, shaped by family, religion, school, culture, and life experiences past and present, are typically below your conscious awareness and determine how you respond to the world, act in relationships, and think of and talk to yourself.
For most of my life, I let my mind bash, bully, undermine, and torture me which resulted in a decade of depression culminating in the suicide attempt. (Read more: Seeing The World Through Rose Colored Glasses) The resulting brain injury was actually a blessing in disguise as it forced me to make the radical changes in my life and mind that I’d needed to make long before. Because the underlying belief systems and the perceptual foundation upon which I’d built my reality withered away along with brain cells, I got to start with a clean slate, so to speak.
This time, I consciously choose to rebuild my brain to make healthier patterns and put my mind to work for me. Just as your brain influences your interpretation of the world, your world physically influences the structure of your brain through a process called experience-dependent neuroplasticity. The neurological explanation of how this happens is complicated, but the basic concept is simple: every minute of every day you are shaping your brain.
In his book, Just One Thing, Rick Hanson describes how to undertake the process of “developing a buddha brain one simple practice at a time.” The book outlines 52 brief actions you can do several times a day to craft a brain that is less stressed, happier, and more resilient with a deeper sense of well-being. He writes:
There’s a traditional saying that the mind takes the shape it rests upon; the modern update is that the brain takes the shape the mind rests upon. For instance, if you regularly rest your mind upon worries, self criticism, and anger, then your brain will gradually take that shape – will develop neural structures and dynamics of anxiety, low sense of worth, and prickly reactivity to others. On the other hand, if you regularly rest your mind upon, for example noticing you’re all right right now, seeing the good in yourself and letting go…then your brain will gradually take the shape of calm strength, self confidence, and inner peace.
By consciously working with and altering my thoughts, behaviors, and emotions, I transformed my world which in turn, changed my physical brain and its default mode of operation. Today, I live a brain healthy lifestyle incorporating mental health practices daily to maintain the balance and happiness I’ve found. I’ve made friends with my mind and have even learned to put it to work FOR me instead of AGAINST me. The difference in my life has been amazing. I like it much better this way. You can do it too.
Think About Thinking
The first step in making your mind your ally is to spend some time thinking about thinking. Seriously. There’s even a fancy word for it: metacognition, and I’ve come to believe that it’s an essential part of the foundation of a happy life. Turn your thoughts and beliefs around and look at them objectively from all angles. Is this really what you think or is it just an inherited belief from your past? Have the intent to get to know your mind to improve your thinking and give it guidance instead of letting it run wild. Metacognition allows you to take control of your mind instead of it controlling you.
It’s a concept taught by many philosophies, and I’ve come to understand first hand that it’s not the actual circumstances in life that are the source of happiness, sadness, or any emotion. It’s my thoughts about what happens that determines my experience of everything in life. What I say to myself about others, myself, and the events taking place around me produce emotions and make up my reality on a daily basis. Becoming aware of my thoughts, working with them, and consciously choosing my mindset, beliefs, and behaviors has drastically changed my world for the better – but I haven’t quite reached monk status yet. (Read more here: Thinking About Thinking)
Mindfulness is a first cousin to metacognition. If metacognition is thinking about your own thinking, mindfulness is focusing your mind in the present moment on the task at hand. Mindfulness is about being aware of what’s happening as it’s happening and your reactions to it. Being mindful is not only being aware, it is being aware of awareness. (Read more: The Meaning Of Mindfulness)
In his book, The Mindful Brain: Reflection and Attunement in the Cultivation of Well-Being, Daniel J. Siegel, writes:
Mindfulness in its most general sense is about waking up from a life on automatic, and being sensitive to novelty in our everyday experiences. With mindful awareness the flow of energy and information that is our mind enters our conscious attention and we can both appreciate its contents and come to regulate its flow in a new way. Mindful awareness, as we will see, actually involves more than just simply being aware: It involves being aware of aspects of the mind itself. Instead of being on automatic and mindless, mindfulness helps us awaken, and by reflecting on the mind we are enabled to make choices and thus change becomes possible.
Meditation is mindfulness’ sibling and the closest thing to a happy pill I’ve found. The purpose of meditation is to exercise a passive awareness of your mind objectively, detaching from your thoughts and feelings, and observing rather than identifying with them. When meditating, you just let thoughts and feelings bubble up – the good, the bad, and the ugly – without labeling or judging them. You just notice them and let them pass.
At first, I found this ridiculously difficult, as does almost everyone, but that’s the benefit of meditation. You’re training your mind not to react. When you begin to meditate, all of your old wounds, hurts, grudges, and resentments are going to surface. Meditation can be unpleasant, unsettling, scary, painful, and absolutely no fun, but it is good work essential to healing emotional wounds and becoming a whole, healthy, happy person – and making friends with your mind.
As emotional layers are peeled back, you can start to achieve the bliss you’ve heard about which can take years of practice isn’t a steady state. When dealing with challenging issues, a person dips back into the work mode of meditation. That’s the whole point of a daily practice, if you ask me.
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