It’s always diet season, isn’t it? Seems a day does not go by without another article on dieting.
But, what about your mind?
Are you willing to try out a really 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. And if you are concerned about the condition of your life next week and next year – 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.”
No doubt about it, we’re exquisitely hard-wired to function. The question here is – what kinds of mental habits have we formed?
What’s the Mental Cleanse and How does it Work?
One caveat before we begin; this isn’t an easy practice for most people. 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 choose which direction you want your brain to take.
The news from neuroscience suggests that humans can learn to consciously control individual neurons in the brain. A study in the journal Nature reported that “individuals can rapidly, consciously and voluntarily control neurons deep inside their heads.” We’re running out of excuses as the archaic meme that human beings can’t change gets steadily disproven.
Essentially, the mental cleanse is simple. For seven days you must not allow yourself 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:
Sticking with this discipline won’t be easy. In fact, you may find yourself wanting 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. And restart again, when you stumble.
Taming Monkey Mind
“Monkey Mind” is a term some Buddhists use to describe how the mind jumps from thought to thought like a monkey jumps from tree to tree. Rather than existing in the present moment, the monkey mind’s erratic thought processes distracts us from existing in the present moment.
The wonderful thing about the 7 Day Mental Cleanse is that it not only helps us to see the patterns of our thought process, but it builds the capacity to bring our minds back to the present moment. Early studies show that mindfulness meditation can change the brain structure in just eight weeks, so any form of mindful attention is playing a role in neuronal shaping.
In referring to the work of psychologist Donald Hebb (1949) the author of Buddha’s Brain, Rick Hanson explains, “When neurons fire together, they wire together and mental activity actually creates new neural structures. As a result, even fleeting thoughts and feelings can leave lasting marks on your brain; much like a spring shower can leave trails on a hillside.”
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.” Research shows 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 is mostly 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, restrictive 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 things 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.
Thanks for reading,
Louise Altman, Intentional Communication Partners