I concluded my last post on Mental Fitness on the note that we, as human beings, have the ability to train our brain just as we can train our bodies. I want to make it clear that mental fitness is NOT about mental illness and treatment, just as sport or strength fitness training is not about treating a medical condition either. Both can be very helpful and make us more resilient in the face of illness, whether physical or mental, but the practice of either is not meant only for those who are ill or weak. The practice and development of Mental Fitness is for anyone, at any time, and in any place. It will make you stronger and better regardless of where you are starting off from. It is a continuum without an end.
So what does Mental Fitness training look like? In the following, I will delineate some of the beginning exercises you can start incorporating into your daily routines. Again, like any strength training routine, you need to start off with simpler moves, increase your reps, and over time you will build stronger muscles in order to be able to progressively lift heavier weights. In Mental Fitness, reps refer to PQ reps which are the mental exercises you will do, and the weights that you will progressively get better at lifting are the stressors, difficult life situations, dilemmas, conflicts, etc that are all produced by the various Saboteurs that live in our survival brain. In case you missed my last post, let me explain a bit more: Research has shown that the human brain essentially is composed of two organs: the first is the part of the brain where our survival instincts live and all processing is done through analysis and “hard” thinking. The second is the part of the brain where wisdom and creativity live. Here we find the five powers of the Sage: empathy, explore, innovate, navigate, and activate- the only powers that we ever need to be able to move forward and find happiness in our lives. The Sage is our true self- everything that we are capable of being when we embrace all of our gifts and abilities. This is in contrast to the survival brain that is inhabited by our saboteurs.
The saboteurs are the thoughts or “voices” that we hear in our heads that create negative emotions. Again, research has shown that there are 10 saboteurs that can inhabit the mind. The ring leader is typically The Judge. This is that voice that judges us, judges others, and judges our circumstances. There are 9 other saboteurs that can inhabit the survival brain area to differing degrees that depend on each individuals’ personality, strengths, and life experiences. Typically, each person’s saboteurs are forged from some of their greatest strengths that have been corrupted into thoughts, rules, beliefs, and assumptions that serve only to keep us tied to ways of reacting that no longer serve us.
As you may recall there are three “muscles” in the brain that we are working to strengthen with our Mental Fitness routine. 1. The Saboteur interceptor muscle 2. The Self-Command muscle and the 3. Sage muscle. So now let’s finally look at a couple of the exercises that I recommend you start incorporating:
- Take out your smart phone and set a timer for 2-5 minutes. Close your eyes, take three deep breaths, and then settle into your normal breathing. Breathe in and out through your nose. Focus on your breath- try to feel the texture and temperature of your breath as it goes in through your nose and out through your nose. Be aware that your mind will try to wander, and that’s okay. Every time it does, catch yourself, and bring yourself back to focusing on the breathing. Then, take two fingers and rub them so intently that you can feel the ridges on each finger. Focus on the sensation of this and when your mind wanders just gently pull yourself back. Finally, allow your body to sink into your seat. Feel the pressure points where your back, buttocks, and thighs sink into the seat. Again, breath into this and focus completely on the sensation of your body. When your mind wanders, gently pull it back to the focus. Once your timer goes off, you’ve completed your set of PQ reps. Set your smart phone to remind you to do another set of this 1-2 hours later. Ideally, you want to complete a minimum of 15 minutes of PQ reps per day, so if you do 2 minute sessions, you need to do 8 throughout the day. When you have more time, you can do longer sessions. If you consistently do this, you will begin to notice changes in 6-8 weeks. In this exercise you are specifically working on building your saboteur interceptor and your self command muscles. You’re strengthening the saboteur interceptor by creating intentional awareness of your body in the present moment. As this muscle gets stronger, it will allow you to recognize when your brain is being “hijacked” by one of the saboteurs as you will be able to notice the negative emotions/sensations generated by the saboteurs in your body. The self-command muscle is getting a workout every time you catch your mind wandering and “command” it back to your point of focus. As this gets stronger you will be able to command your survival brain away from going down the “usual” reactive neural pathways and instead have it engage with the positive neural pathways in the sage brain.
- Start this exercise in the same fashion as you started the one above with eyes closed while breathing, then focusing on rubbing your fingers, then focusing on the pressure points on your seat, etc. Once you feel you are settled into the exercise, bring to mind the image of a dearly loved one- it can be your child, your best friend, your spouse, even a pet. But, it has to be someone or something whom you love unconditionally. Think about being with that being and allow yourself to feel all the love, joy, tenderness, compassion, understanding, acceptance, etc that that being elicits in you. How do those feelings manifest themselves in your body? Where in your body do you feel those sensations most powerfully? Stay with these sensations and emotions for a couple of minutes. Then you can take a deep breath and bring yourself back to your present moment. This exercise helps to strengthen the Sage part of the brain. It causes the neural pathways in the empathy circuit of the brain to activate, which is one of the most effective ways to access the Sage part of the brain. The amount of time that you do this exercise for can be counted towards your daily 15 minute total as described above.
I hope that many of you will consider making Mental Fitness training a part of your daily routines. The benefits that you can derive from this are too many to list here. If any of you are curious about the research behind some of the statements that I made please go to www.positiveintelligence.com or consider reading Positive Intelligence by Shirzad Chamine.