Just in time for Valentine's Day, a blog post about how to cultivate a healthy mind and happy heart! This is Thinking about thinking, Part II. You know that moment when you are driving to the boonies and your favorite radio station becomes more faint? Suddenly your song gets mashed up with a sports talk show. The music becomes garbled and static starts to set your teeth on edge. Our minds are a lot like that radio station. Static can interfere with the normal, beautiful music of life. Worries creep in. Anger. Resentment. Guilt. Obsessive or depressing thoughts. It could be a particular relationship that is fraught with tension, or a work or health issue that is apparently unresolvable. How do we avoid wallowing on thoughts that interfere with a peaceful, happy heart and a positive outlook? How do we fill our minds with good things?
- Guard your heart. We want to avoid getting that static in our heads in the first place. We need to protect our hearts from thoughts that drag us down (or move us in the wrong direction). This is why I won’t be going to see “Fifty shades of grey” this weekend. Images are powerful and difficult to erase. I like to eat the best food to fuel my body. Why would I want to let sordid images pollute my mind? Guarding my heart means being careful what I expose myself to. If/when I am tempted to go down a path that is unhelpful, I recruit “back up” guards: friends or family whom I can turn to for support and strength. Or I look for healthier, uplifting alternatives—exercise, an inspiring book or movie, connecting with friends who I know will lift me up.
- Be present. There’s a lot of buzz about mindfulness and awareness these days. I understand the hype. We can physically be in one place while our minds can be far, far away.
If unhelpful thoughts or worries sneak past our “guarded heart”, how do we minimize the damage? One help is to focus on the here and now. I remember a few years back when I was troubled with a difficult relationship with a coworker. I was like a dog with a chew toy. My mind was going over and over the problem, puzzling over it. I’d drop it, only to pick it up again in short order. I learned a little trick that helped me get out of my head and into real life. I would remind myself of where I was and what I was doing. Literally. Even if I had to say it out loud. I would speak softly to myself: “I’m in the grocery store,” I’d say. “I’m buying oranges.” (Most people probably just thought I was on the phone.) It sounds silly but it was actually quite grounding. The worrying was getting me nowhere anyway. And it reminded me that there’s a lot of life going on right underneath my nose.
- Change the channel. Do you find certain thoughts are dogging you? Do you have a friend that makes you feel like dirt? Does a certain situation cause you stomachaches? Try to observe the relationship or problem from a detached perspective. What is troubling you? What is really going on? Stepping back a bit can help you to find new ways to relate or respond. You can’t very well change the channel if you think it’s the only one available. You need a fresh perspective to find alternatives to that channel. Look for people, situations, and places that lift you up rather than dragging you down.
- Look up. Looking up is also about perspective. What is our focus? On a cold, snowy day, for example, you can either gripe about the number on the thermometer or you can choose to be grateful about your warm home, a cup of soup, or an uplifting movie. Both things are true: it is bitterly cold and you also have what you need around you. Why focus on the bothersome thing? The first time I visited my husband’s grandmother after her move to assisted living, she said, “I have all of these nice people who take care of me here.” Her positivity blew me away. She may have been sad about leaving her home but she still chose to focus on what good was still around her. If we make a habit of this, we will find ourselves in a healthier place emotionally. And we will be better suited to help others look up, too. (And by the way, if you look up long enough, you may start to get a glimpse of the Giver of all those good gifts.)
- Persevere. Whatever you do, don’t let those persistent negative thoughts have the last word. When you screw up at work on a particular project, you will feel dejected and discouraged. Of course. Go ahead and let yourself feel it. (See Tip 2: be present.) Then, remind yourself that you can’t go back and fix it. Move on. Work harder (or smarter) on the next project. That failure does not define you. Set-backs will happen in life. You failed, but that doesn’t make you a failure. In "The War of Art: Break through the blocks and win your creative battles," author Steven Pressfield contrasts the person who sees himself as an amateur and the person who perceives himself as a professional. The professional, when confronted with setbacks and disappointments, perseveres. The amateur gives up. The professional shows up, time after time, after time, regardless of what the previous result was. Professionals put in the time and effort and may see no return for years. Don't let set backs set you permanently back. Keep perspective and persevere.