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  • Writer's pictureallenbroadman

Gym for the Mind

What does health of the mind look like?

The thinking mind makes a wonderful servant but a terrible master.

When we go to the gym, we don’t go so that we can be fit at the gym. We go to develop strength, and stamina, and balance that we can take with us out of the gym into our everyday lives. We use the strength to carry groceries or heavy luggage; we use the balance and stamina to clean up the yard after a storm. It’s similar with wholesome eating – we don’t do it to be healthy while we’re eating, we want good health that lasts the whole day long, so that all our everyday living is positively impacted.

But what of the mind?

Our culture here in the U.S. is highly focused on the health of the body, which can be a double-edged sword. It’s good to take care of this body – this body is the vehicle through which all our lived experiences happen, and maintaining it with exercise and wholesome eating is wonderful. But if the concern with the body becomes a fixation, if the focus on the body causes us to forget about taking care of the mind, then that neglect of the mind is going to have some seriously negative consequences.

abstract person doing pushups

And it’s not just about neglect – our default treatment of the mind is more accurately described as abuse than neglect. We use hours and hours of free moments to read and obsess over news, to watch endless amounts of bad reality TV and TikTok videos, to jump down social media rabbit holes, play pointless video games, etc. etc. This is the mind's equivalent of having a diet of the worst junk food and eating it all day, every day, the kind of diet that kills the body if you persist in it too long. It's a testament to the mind's resiliency that we can mistreat it so, and still it functions despite the abuse. So, what is the equivalent of exercise and wholesome eating for the mind? What activities help promote the health of the mind, instead of neglecting or abusing it?

One thing is psychotherapy. As a practice, psychotherapies help us to look at the content of our thinking mind and at its habits, and to see what needs some cleaning up. Just even looking at our minds with some intention is by itself helpful and practical – it’s great to be willing to slow down and turn inward towards how we think and feel. It’s a kind of looking that most people usually avoid or even refuse to do. That refusal comes with great risks.

We need curiosity about how our minds work - about why we think and feel the particular ways that we do. Curiosity helps us to see where change would be helpful. Psychology, although far from perfect, offers some very useful teachings and models for why we think and feel the way we do. It’s not random! There are patterns of cause and effect involved, and learning some of those models is helpful. Even more helpful is directly investigating our own thinking and feeling – following through on the curiosity, and making it concrete with therapy.

person talking to another person

Sometimes the seeming mess of our mental-emotional content is so chaotic that we need some help doing the investigating, and so working with a caring, expert therapist can be a terrific support. It’s as if we wanted to hike into a treacherous mountain with blind turns, steep drops, hidden ditches - we would want a good guide! We’d want someone that understands hiking in general, who knows this particular mountain and its obstacles, and who is experienced in giving help in ways that it can be received and used well. That’s what a compassionate therapist does – finds a way to support us in investigating our minds. They cannot do the work for us – nobody can do that. But they can give us tools that help us do the work ourselves and they can also be there to soften the landings when we fall or to nudge us back onto the trail when we’ve strayed off or gotten lost. Therapy with a therapist who cares about us can be life-changing and is well worth the commitment in time, effort, and cost if one has the resources to do it.

More to the Story

But therapy is not the end of the story of what taking care of the mind means. It is only a part of the story. Even though therapy can help us develop good mental-emotional health, there are things it cannot resolve. Therapy, by definition, is a thinking process – its type of investigation into the content of the mind uses language and concepts, uses symbols and metaphors – it deals with patterns and categories of thinking. For example, it can help reduce distorted thinking of all kinds, such as catastrophizing or all-or-nothing thinking, or filtering and tunnel vision. Wonderful! But what about when thinking itself is the problem? What about when our endless compulsions to think and analyze and compare are themselves obstacles? Then we need a different process, a non-thinking process. That’s where meditation comes into play.

Meditation is a completely different approach to the health of the mind. Meditation is a practice of attention. Attention is not a thinking process, although thinking can be the object of our attention. Attention is directing our awareness onto an object and holding it there. There is absolutely no thinking involved at all. None. Nada. And the awake nature of our mind – simple awareness itself - has nothing to do with thinking – we’re aware, just aware – whether there is thinking happening or not. We don’t think ourselves into being aware; we don't do anything at all that makes us aware - aware is what we are. Awareness is before thinking. Thinking is always optional, even though we feel compulsively driven to do it constantly.

Imagine rock climbing up some steep precipice. To do that and live through it, you would need to give every moment of the climbing your full attention. You’d need to concentrate on the physical sensations of your hands and their grip on the rocks, on your feet and their stability on ledges. You’d need to see clearly all the cracks and textures on the rock. When thinking gets involved, you’d be thinking not about what you will have for lunch later, or the argument you had with your coworker yesterday – those kinds of thoughts would distract you and even be dangerous to indulge.

a person rock climbing a steep cliff

Your thinking would need to be thinking of where to place your hands and feet, what path to take up the climb, where the sun might be blinding – it would be an integrated and directed thinking – one that includes, and is not separate from, total attention on all your senses. And when that kind of thinking would finish, your attention would go completely back to the hands and feet and body where it would remain until you needed to think again as part of the overall process. What a different way of using thinking than we normally do! It would be an immersive experience. Rock climbing is only one of many examples – we have these kinds of flow experiences when we give our full attention in a directed way to our activity, especially activities that require our full bodily concentration in order to be completed.

Meditation is a practice that helps cultivate a way of living everyday life that uses attention and thinking similarly to the way it would be used for rock climbing or other immersive experiences. Sitting meditation is practicing the directing of our attention and the holding of it where we choose, instead of having it pulled this way and that way towards objects we don’t want it to be placed upon. The more we sincerely meditate, the more we build a strength of attention that we can then apply to any activity or situation. With more practice, we start to naturally apply a strong attention to what are mostly considered mundane activities – eating a sandwich, taking a shower, putting on clothes, reading a book. Zen practice elevates those activities to being as worthy of our full attention as any of the other activities we normally think of as more urgent.

Meditation requires tremendous attention and discipline. The word “discipline” means to learn - not control, subjugate, imitate, or conform. From the word discipline comes “disciple”- one who is willing to learn... - Jiddu Krishnamurti

Through meditation practice we begin to create a new habit of being attentive and letting go of distractions, and then we have a more direct experience of what’s happening right here, right now. And when we bring that level of attention to everyday activities, and we do it more and more throughout the day, our lives begin to change. If we could approach eating a sandwich the way an Olympic athlete approaches downhill skiing or a concert pianist approaches performing a concerto, our lives would feel very differently! What a sandwich it would be - good or bad, what a sandwich! And we can do this - it's challenging, but within anyone's reach. It's mostly a matter of effort, intention, and sincerity.

All this is just talk! The purpose of the talk is encouragement, and the talk is useful only in so far as it leads to curiosity and to a willingness to try meditating and to see for yourself if it’s a practice that changes things for you in ways that feel right. Try it! Try it!


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