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 isn’t going to produce much change. And isn’t that
what resolutions and affirmations are all about – change?
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?
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 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.”
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:
- 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)
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.”
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
“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
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
It’s the ultimate tool to begin a fresh new year.
As always, I appreciate your comments, subscriptions, shares and tweets.
Louise Altman, Intentional Communication Partners