Mental Floss

UPDATED: May 8, 2009
PUBLISHED: May 8, 2009

Not far from my home in Phoenix lies a landmark that so epitomizes the human condition I consider it a piece of “found art.” It’s no tourist destination, just an inconspicuous strip mall that houses a discount tobacco shop, a liquor store and a psychic. In the parking lot, visible from the road, stands a large whiteboard bearing the psychic’s advertising message, which reads simply: “HOPE, $5.00.”

I find this richly ironic. The wealthiest most privileged society in history demands products that have been coveted for ages by prisoners, paupers and other people living on the hardscrabble edge of survival. We’ll pay a stranger to tell us the future will be bright, even a stranger whose guarantee of a hopeful reading casts rational doubt on the authenticity of the message.

In short, all the material advances that have lengthened and enriched our lives haven’t secured our happiness. That’s why my profession—life coaching—exists, and why I spend so much time teaching clients to find in themselves what shoppers may seek at that strip mall: relaxation, confidence, optimism. Our culture hasn’t taught them to access the things they need most, so as a rule, they have woefully inadequate mental hygiene. The same may be true of you. Add the following routine to your daily hygienic practices, such as bathing and brushing your teeth.

Daily Practice No. 1: Nothing-Doing
All mental hygiene is based on the core practice of doing nothing. Most of us are good at wasting time, staring at the wall while telling ourselves we should be working. We call this “doing nothing,” but our brains are furiously active. We think constantly, and our thinking is often rife with distress. We worry about finances and relationships, fume over past injustice, replay events we wish had gone better, fret about future consequences.

Doing nothing means relinquishing this kind of past-and-future-oriented thinking—in fact, all thinking. This is difficult, even shocking, to people who’ve been told all their lives that continuous thinking is laudable and constructive. Here’s one for you to try. I call it “naming your mice.”

Find five minutes when you can sit quietly and relax your body. Begin watching your mind like a cat watching a mouse hole. Pay attention: What thought will the mind think next? Try this now, and you’ll notice that when you’re watching for thoughts, your consciousness becomes still, though very attentive. When a thought pops out (“This doesn’t feel like much,” “I’m bored,” “I want a snack.”), give it a name (“Complaining,” “Anxiety,” “Craving.”). Then let each thought-mouse scurry on its way.

The more you do this, the more easily you’ll access the watching consciousness, the part of your brain that isn’t always thinking. This has extraordinarily positive effects on your mental and physical health. But it won’t happen instantly. It takes perseverance, and the next two steps.

Daily Practice No. 2: Honesty
One reason most people never stop thinking is that mental frenzy keeps us from having to see the upsetting aspects of our lives. If I’m constantly brooding about my children or career, I won’t notice that I’m lonely. If I grapple continuously with logistical problems, I can avoid contemplating little issues like, say, my own mortality.

Of course, thinking is never enough to totally block out things we’d rather avoid, so we frequently up the ante. Under stress, our thoughts may become truly obsessive. If that doesn’t work, we’ll turn to activities like smoking, drinking, paying 5 bucks for a hit of hope. Even so, the thoughts we fear find their way in through cracks in our psychological armor, giving us insomnia or nightmares, creating various forms of unhappiness that ruin relationships and make solitude intolerable.

Once you begin doing nothing, all the scary, upsetting thoughts you’ve been holding out of consciousness may emerge into it. This is not for the fainthearted. The first time I tried stilling my mind, I was 23, on the way to Japan, trying Zen meditation as a kind of tourist activity—it took about 3 minutes for a barrage of anxious, unpleasant thoughts to grow so horrifying that I literally jumped up and shouted, “I will never do that again!” So, why do I now do it every single day? Because I’ve learned that resisting painful thoughts and emotions doesn’t eliminate them; it makes them toxic.

As you watch your thoughts, notice your resistance to whatever comes up. Name each resistant feeling: “Reluctance.” “Denial.” “Fear.” This will bring down the resistance and allow the thought or feeling to arise. How do you cope with it? Proceed immediately to the next step.

Daily Practice No. 3: Compassion
The great power of separating the watching mind from the thinking mind is that the watching mind is innately loving. Some call this part of the psyche the “compassionate witness.” Sharing our difficult feelings with a compassionate witness is the crucial step that heals the infinite small wounds inflicted upon the soul by everyday life. It’s wonderful to have a professional do this for you, but ultimately, even a therapist’s role is to teach you how to do it for yourself.

To complete your daily mental hygiene, observe any part of you that is upset or anxious, and offer that part of yourself the following simple wishes: “May you be well. May you be happy. May you be free from suffering.” Repeat this until you actually mean it. For most of my clients, it only takes a minute or two, and it provides an amazingly healing release.

Occasionally, this practice may open you up to cleansing tears or sudden inspiration about dealing with your life situations. Most of the time, it will simply take you deeper into the compassionate witness. There, you’ll find the limitless reservoirs of calm, ease and peace described by so many mystics—and the more persistently you practice mental hygiene, the more easily you’ll tap these reservoirs. Studies indicate that people who utilize this practice regularly have thicker, denser neural connections in the part of the brain associated with happiness.

The more you cleanse your mind this way, the lighter, cleaner and healthier your inner life will feel. You’ll trigger the output of feel-good endogenous opioids, hormones that make a nicotine rush or an alcohol buzz feel like the pale imitations of happiness they are. You may never need to visit my favorite Phoenix landmark, because you’ll have discovered your own source of inner peace. You’ll have hope, in abundance. At a $5.00 discount.

Martha Beck is a life coach with a Ph.D. in sociology from Harvard University. She is a columnist for O, Oprah�?�¢??s magazine, and a best-selling author of several titles, including Finding Your Own North Star.