Mental Minimalism: To Think Positively or to Not Think at All?
Look at the quality of your thoughts, and you will see the quality of your life. That’s something I believe in more than anything else. And yet, it is the one thing I personally find to be one of the most challenging jobs to succeed in.
Be present in the moment. Focus on the good that is happening in your life. Meditate. Pray. Recite positive affirmations. There’s a lot we can do to be better in our heads, ergo, become more comfortable with our bodies and our lives.
Doesn’t it sound daunting, though?
You try this, and then that. Sometimes it feels good, sometimes you find refuge in the solace of your own misery; you know what to expect from it. It causes you pain, but no surprises here. You have been friends for long enough.
To think positively is advice that often falls on a mind too heavy to care, let alone to listen. When we are told to embrace positive thinking, it’s as if we were sitting in a messy room full of clutter, unwanted junk, and stinky mold, being instructed to focus on the beautiful view outside the window instead.
Indeed, such a technique might help us survive and preserve our mental wellbeing. However, what if we could fully enjoy what’s right there? Inside our inner self?
Let’s go back to that aforementioned room and try to picture where you’d start should it come to improving its living conditions. Would you buy new furniture, toss in some fluffy pillows, and decorate the walls with a few cute paintings?
I doubt it.
Or would you roll up your sleeves, bring a few plastic bags, remove everything old, redundant, and broken, scrub the place down, paint the walls, and let some fresh air in, first?
Our conscious mind harbors thoughts we have control of. They represent the items we can decide to keep or throw away. Our subconscious mind is the cellar underneath it, which we cannot enter that easily, anytime we might wish to do so. It takes considerably more effort and time to clean up and make order in there. But that’s a story for another day.
Now, if we shift from metaphoric to practical speaking, your mental cleansing process could look like this:
1. Stop thinking
Easier said than done, right? A friend of mine once told me that she gets the most breakthrough ideas in the moments when she's just sitting and dumbly gaping at stuff. I laughed, but then it came to me that it was actually one of the best “mindfulness” characterizations I’ve ever heard.
Another man, this time a client of mine, who I worked with as a coach a while ago, sent me an email update, sharing with me how he had gotten rid of anxiety and depression he had been fighting for many years. One of those lines struck me with full force:
“In my life experience, I have learned that I am a human being, not a human trying.”
What I’m saying is that the critical first step towards mental wellbeing, to that cozier room of our conscious mind, is to practice adding no more ideas, worries, fears, doubts, or other disturbing thoughts to the stock.
Just be. Look around. Or stare into the void.
Even if it’s only for a couple of minutes. Or a few seconds. It will eventually add up.
Aim for progress, not perfection.
What happens when we stop processing information, old memories, and our own mental fiction stories is that we preserve a copious amount of energy, which our body has immediately at its disposal to heal and recover itself. Besides, we open up our mental space for thoughts and ideas that matter. Those healthy, productive, and satisfying ones. Those that have the genuine power to transform our lives.
2. Make an inventory
When you get better at non-thinking, or more elegantly said, at being present in the moment, without judgment and conscious analysis, you will naturally become more aware of what type of thoughts normally enter your head, what triggers their branching, and what emotions they awaken.
Meditation teachers often use an analogy of a railway station where you sit on a bench and observe trains — your thoughts — as they pass through without hopping onto any of them.
Now imagine a busy, crowded station during a rush hour, let’s say in Tokyo, and a quiet, charming station in an alpine village.
With practice, you can arrive at the latter and get a better view and understanding of the daily traffic. You may end up surprised to see that the majority of thoughts repeat over and over, which will provide you with valuable insight into what lurks behind the high-priority issues in your life, and possibly also behind those chronic health problems you might have been struggling with.
What I often recommend is to dedicate a few days to writing down thoughts and ideas that trigger unpleasant emotions. You don’t need to necessarily record the entire mental process each time. For example, when you realize that you’ve just spent 20 minutes ruminating on what your partner is doing on their business trip, you can mark “insecurity and jealousy”, for example. Or when you recall an unpleasant conversation with a colleague at work, you can note “anger at myself for not responding adequately”. Whatever suits you. Just keep it short and, most importantly, honest. At the end of the day, you can review the list and see to what extent the patterns keep showing up.
3. Reprogram yourself
Your ultimate goal is to maintain reasonable mental traffic most of the time and to be able to monitor, deliberately control, and at least partially comprehend it. Like that, it’s much easier to deconstruct your thoughts according to the event-thought-emotion sequence.
EVENT – Something happens.
THOUGHT – I give this event a meaning - neutral, positive, or negative.
EMOTION – This thought projects into my body as an unpleasant or pleasant sensation.
What cannot we control?
Often the big part of what is happening around us or to us.
What can we have influence over instead?
We can intentionally evaluate certain situations, the behavior of other people, their acts, words, including our memories of what has happened in the past. Not so much for the sake of the other people, rather for the sake of our own health, both physical and mental.
That’s when the legendary positive thinking comes onto the stage. In this context, doing your best to take the very best of every conversation, circumstance, or interaction. Not avoiding them or ignoring them. Simply alternating your judgments in a way that they induce, if not pleasant, then at least palatable emotions.
And don’t forget visualization. Imagining things that have not (yet) happened, things that make you feel nice, or hopeful, trigger the same physiological response as if they did, activating the parasympathetic nervous system that makes your body rest and conserve energy.
Laughing for no reason. Smiling just at yourself. Dancing to a cheerful song even if you don’t feel like it. Develop a habit of tricking your body a few times a day into feeling good, even if the external circumstances provide little incentive to do so. Just like you do when you eat some comforting junk food, have a drink, or watch Netflix. Except this time with no detrimental side effects.
The benefits of a minimalist lifestyle have been trending all over the internet and social media for many years now. One should own and buy only things, clothes, or food they truly need for stress/clutter-free and eco-friendly experience. Nothing to argue about there. What I’m encouraging you to do is to add your own thoughts into the play, carefully selecting which ones you genuinely need and want to let enter your mind.