Today’s Scene: I’m at the gym and doing a more grueling workout than usual. You see, a few of my New Year’s resolutions, like many of you, are to improve my physical well being and start Girl Scout cookie season ahead of the game. As the weights got heavier and the reps increased, my body faltered with the extra exertion…and then I noticed my thoughts became dark and negative and angry. I began arguing with myself in my head, which was not helping my current situation! It was like my mind was turning on my body, sending it negative messages about its present state. As a result, I became tired and less motivated to continue my workout. I felt defeated and hopeless despite making some significant gains and improvements on my times and with added weights. What was happening to me?
Apparently my emotional and logical minds started war! My logical mind was telling me that I was doing well and making good progress, but the emotional mind was tired and fatigued and not seeing the immediate benefits of what I was doing. This interplay of emotion and logic is part of the human condition, and we are constantly balancing the demands of our highly developed frontal lobe responsible for higher order thinking with our ancient “lizard brain” that is tuned into the emotional parts of us.
In my blog last month, I shared about how to build what we call the “wise mind,” the balanced state between our logical mind and our emotional mind. By integrating our direct experiences, thoughts and reasoning, and meaning or significance of an event, we can create a state of intuitive knowing that goes beyond logic and emotion. It is this state of wisdom that brings peace and contentment, which in turn sets us up well to approach and navigate each task, big or small, with purpose and intention. In other words, the wise mind has emotion and logic working together instead of against each other. The wise mind is a way for our emotional mind and logical mind to speak the same language, to translate and understand each other. By understanding each other, they can work together toward a common goal.
When the wise mind is in charge, it means taking effective action in my best interest. In my case, the goal was to finish my workout successfully and purposefully, walking away from my endeavor feeling empowered and accomplished. So, I pulled up my list of wise mind exercises on my phone, and did the following:
1 – Focus on your breath – Take a moment to pause and take a deep breath, being conscious of your breath filling your lungs, and how it feels upon inhaling and exhaling. Be purposeful and direct your breaths intentionally. Take a breath in, hold for a few seconds and notice the subtle shifts in your body and mind, and then exhale slowly. Close your eyes if that’s helpful, and take a minute or two to be 100% present in your physical form. That’s the only task here, and it’s relatively simple, but the shift in your mind and body can be profound.
2 – Pay attention to what’s real, here and now – Maybe it’s noticing the subtle pauses after each inhale and exhale of your breath. Maybe it’s the position of your body sitting on a surface, or your feet touching the ground, or whether the environment feels warm or cold. Engaging the senses without judgment or interpretation can further anchor the mind and body to facilitate the wise mind.
3 – Close your eyes and visualize – This may sound cliché, but using your mind to focus and create is a powerful tool. We underestimate the power of our brains so much. If we can think our way into distress, we can certain harness those powers to think our way out of it, too. I like to picture a calming scene, maybe a beach or a lake, to practice harnessing my logical mind so it can align with my emotional mind. In creating this mental scene with logic, you can now begin to introduce aspects of feeling, like how the breeze on the lake feels, and the emotional response to being in this peaceful environment. These new awarenesses, and the processes the brain is moving through are creating new neural pathways that help the emotional and logical minds to come together.
These exercises may feel odd and awkward at first, but like learning any new skill, practice will help these become second nature. They may come in handy when you need to get through a tough workout, or a tough day. In the end, you are continuing to empower your brain and training it to be your ally rather than your enemy!
In solidarity, and in kindness, Dr. Farwell