THE Diet for a New Year ~ the 7 Day Mental Cleanse

Sometimes someone else captures the essence of what is on your mind –  this time it’s from Dr. Ken Druck’s New Year’s post

 With all due respect to the procrastination-ending promises, spirited goals, deeply-held commitments and news-making fresh starts, I’ve decided the opt out of this annual ritual and treat Jan. 1st as just another (precious, irretrievable) day. On January 1st, the sun will rise and fall for me in the absence of anything resembling a resolution. So what are my un-resolutions? What exactly am I going to step aside and allow to go unresolved? And why have I decided to do this?
Let’s start with the “why.” Well, for one thing, I’m tired of making agreements I might not keep, pressuring myself to be better, smarter, thinner, healthier, richer, happier or more at peace with life. No more trying, stressing and/or straining to willfully plan or control the future, putting myself on deadline to write the next book — and no more deflating false starts in 2014. I am giving myself time off from having to change anything. And devoting myself to a year of accepting things just the way they are. Accepting myself just as I am.”
Now that may sound unambitious to some –  but it makes perfect sense to me as I ponder the transition from one year to another.  If I have any “resolution” this year, it is to be gentler on myself in all things. This doesn’t mean I don’t have things I want to accomplish or improvements I’d like to make. It does not diminish my passion or enthusiasm for the new or for change. In fact, I’m more appreciative than ever of the small, steady changes I am making that are replacing old behaviors with new ones.  I expect that great, new things (ideas, people, experiences) will not only unfold, but are constantly unfolding. Often I feel I get in the way of those possibilities by the pressure I place on myself and trying to shape outcomes that are largely out of my control. 
The one thing I do know is that most of what I am in control of is my thinking. Everything flows from it. So I’m reprising this  article from 2012 – I hope it’s a helpful way to think about the New Year. How you approach the mental cleanse is important. In the spirit of lightening up and being easier on yourself, think of the mental cleanse as a vehicle to release persistent unhelpful thoughts especially those that tend towards self-judgment and comparison with others. A little goes a long way….
It’s diet season, right? Put down that muffin and pick up that kale. There’s no shortage of articles, ads and advice on shedding those extra pounds.  Even if you don’t achieve your weight goals (and I wish you luck in doing so) it’s still a good thing to cleanse your body.
But, what about your mind?
Going into a New Year dragging pounds of old mental baggage will likely produce the same outcomes this year as last.
Are you willing to try out a challenging but ultimately very rewarding new kind of diet?  Then the 7 Day Mental Cleanse is for you.
If you believe, as I do, that thought is the real causative force in life, then this diet may be the most important one you’ll ever do.  Most of your life today is conditioned by the habitual tone of your past thinking. The thoughts you entertain today are shaping that future. If you want to get off of auto-pilot and become more consciously responsive to your experience, the mental cleanse will help you to do that.
Most thoughts are habits. For most of us, little of what we think routinely is new or spontaneous.  In a recent study, Dr. Joe Tsein, Co-Director of the Brain & Behavior Institute at Georgia Health Science University reported, “Habits, for better or worse, basically define who we are. Habits provide mental freedom and flexibility by enabling many activities to be on autopilot while the brain focuses on more urgent matters.”

What’s the Mental Cleanse and How does it Work?

One caveat before we begin; this is not an easy practice.  If it was, we’d change much more easily than we do.  Dr. Tsein’s statement above captures the essence of the challenge – the brain favors routines so it can focus on more important things.  The trick is that you get to decide what’s important if you take yourself off of auto-pilot. You put the brake on – with your conscious mind – and shift the direction of your thought processes.
The latest news from neuroscience suggests that humans can learn to consciously control individual neurons in the brain. A recent study in the journal Nature reported that “individuals can rapidly, consciously and voluntarily control neurons deep inside their heads.”
The old meme that human beings can’t change is steadily being challenged by research that shows how brain changes can be consciously made.
Here’s how the  mental cleanse works. For seven days try not to dwell on any kind of “negative” thought. The word negative is broad and very idiosyncratic so it’s better if you decide what’s negative for you. I’ll offer a few guidelines to consider:

  • Is the thought productive, constructive?
  • Is the thought critical of you or someone else? (we’re not talking about losing your ability to be discerning)
  • Is the thought unkind? (to yourself or others)
  • Is the thought a form of worry, doubt, failure or disappointment of any kind?
  • Is the thought fear-based?
  • Is the thought going to trigger emotions such as envy, jealousy, resentment, frustration or unproductive anger?
  • Does the thought place a limit on possibilities or opportunities that you might consider? (weigh this carefully – it’s easy for rationalization to creep in)

You may want to bail out after a short try – but hang in there! You may only get through a few hours on the first day before you find yourself up against another limiting thought – if that’s the case, go easy on yourself – take a deep breath and start again.

Thought Awareness is Not Thought Stopping 

Thinking we can stop a certain train of thought is a recipe for frustration. Thoughts arise and we do not have to understand or know the source of each one to make the kinds of changes we want in our thinking process. As Buddhist monk and author, Thich Nhat Hahn beautifully states, “Thoughts and feelings come and go like clouds in a windy sky. Conscious breathing is my anchor.”
Recent studies show that thought suppression or thought stopping doesn’t work.  Yale psychologists Ameli Aldao and Susan Nolen-Hoeksema found that “suppression strategies for thoughts and emotions are associated with greater anxiety and depression whereas other strategies (such as problem solving, acceptance and cognitive restructuring are associated with less anxiety.”
“Allowing” thoughts is an important part of this process. We accept that they exist without dwelling on them or figuring them out – acting almost like a “witness” or “neutral observer” to our thought process. Most important, when we do this, we don’t give thoughts the energy to trigger unhelpful emotions or feelings.
The mental cleanse practice allows us to gently redirect our thoughts by learning new neural habits by thinking about a whole new group of thoughts.  Typically, a few days into the practice you will realize how much of your thinking is focused on the so-called negative and how much is anchored in the past or fixated on the future.

Don’t Give Up 

Sometimes the mental cleanse process kicks up some old emotions. That’s a good thing. I didn’t say a comfortable thing – but ultimately a releasing and rejuvenating thing.  When we begin to shift our thoughts away from our habituated patterns we also find ourselves confronting the beliefs that keep that type of thinking in place. This is important because the more we mitigate limited beliefs; the more we free our thinking process.
One last important tip – if you decide to take on this valuable challenge, don’t tell anyone what you are doing until you’ve completed the process. The last thing you need are the thoughts, beliefs and feelings of others complicating and influencing your thinking. This is all about your experience and how you live in the world every day – thought by thought. A mental cleanse will reveal what you think about, how often you think it and what you mainly focus on in your thoughts.
This is not simply an exercise in positive thinking. Periodic mental cleanses will help you to quiet the incessant chatter in your mind, strengthen your ability to pay attention and focus and build greater patience.
Every time you become aware of the content of your thoughts you reclaim the power to control your response to circumstances that are beyond your control. Work, relationships, health, world events, financial situations – there is not one area of your life that will not benefit from increasing your conscious awareness.
It’s the ultimate tool to begin a fresh new year.
Thanks for reading and taking the time to comment, subscribe, share, like and tweet this article. It’s appreciated.
Louise Altman, Partner, Intentional Communication Consultants
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Related Articles: Why Do We Continue to Think Self-Compassion is Self-Indulgent? Even 5 Minutes of Meditation a Day Can Change the Way you Work; Talking to Your Self: Are you Judging or Coaching?
photo credit: Alice Popkorn

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