True health is defined as the state of being free from illness or injury. It’s a complete package – body AND MIND – yet many of us focus solely on the physical, leaving our mental well-being in the dust. We find time to prepare healthy meals, lift weights, or go for a run. We take vitamins and supplements in order to keep our physical body in tip top shape. But for some reason we never seem to have a moment to spare for our mental health – a moment to simply pause and be still in order to nourish the illnesses and injuries of our heart and mind.
Why is this?
Perhaps we don’t realize how important training our mind is in our everyday life. Maybe we don’t understand that many physical illnesses could be prevented by reducing mental stress with simple mindfulness techniques and practices. Or it might even be that we don’t recognize mental illnesses can be equally, if not more harmful and damaging than the physical ones.
Whether we are aware of it or not, everything exists in the mind, or better put, everything arises because of, and is in a constant intimate relationship with, the mind. Anxiety, depression and addiction all have their roots buried there, as does our happiness, joy, and contentment. The truth is every word we speak, action we take, and choice we make all begin in our mind, and unfortunately, so few of us give it much attention. Most don’t even realize this is a possibility!
Mental Fitness Training reminds us that change is possible. In fact, modern neuroscience has proven something called neuroplasticity, which is a fancy scientific word that means we can reorganize the neural pathways in our brain. In layman’s terms: We are not bound by the unwholesome habitual patterns and behaviors which cause us tremendous, unnecessary suffering. We have a choice. It is possible to train our brain to consciously and appropriately respond (rather than unconsciously react), to our inner and outer world. Neuroplasticity means we can no longer say, “Well this is just the way that I am,” and instead reminds us that this is what we keep repeatedly choosing to do.
If the mind is essentially the source for both our dis-ease and our happiness, and we fully understand we can reorganize it’s direction, wouldn’t it make sense to start the journey towards true health by working directly with it? Or at the very least give some attention to which neural pathways we’re actually strengthening as we go about our day?
I would say so!
So what are you practicing everyday? What habits of mind are you strengthening? Whether you are aware of it or not, you’re getting better at something, day after day – wholesome or not. Are you getting better at suffering, aversion, anger, worry, and addictive craving? Or are you cultivating a mind that’s aware, relaxed, equanimous, content, joyful, and compassionate? Have you ever even bothered to look?
I think it’s time!
Perhaps hearing more about the benefits of Mental Fitness Training will help.
The benefits of Mental Fitness Training are numerous and, in recent years, have been supported by science. Although most people begin practicing for peace of mind, to reduce anxiety, or simply to manage their stress, these benefits are only the tip of the iceberg. There are thousands of other scientifically proven benefits, which can have a positive impact on mental, physical, and emotional well-being.
A steady Mental Fitness Training routine can reverse the negative effects of stress on the body and increase awareness, compassion, and clarity, while also bringing about a transformative, unshakeable sense of ease (what I’ve been calling a “profound okayness”). It can strengthen the ability to focus the mind, and reduce the psychological symptoms caused by anxiety, depression, or chronic pain/illness. It expands the window of tolerance for the inevitable difficulties of life, and increases mental resilience, appreciation, and gratitude.
It’s important to understand from the beginning that Mental Fitness Training is NOT about getting rid of thoughts or certain emotions we don’t like, nor is it about becoming some ideal, “better” person. It’s not even about having a particular type of experience, but rather is about learning how to relate deeply and skillfully to ALL experience.
As we deepen our Mental Fitness Training we learn to put less emphasis on the what (the content of our experience), and more emphasis on the how (how we are relating to that particular experience). We are not trying to fix ourselves or our lives, but rather learning to deeply understand both, ultimately finding a more wholesome and peaceful way to navigate through our, oftentimes, messy lives.
We need to be honest and clear about how we are living our life and ask yourself if the activities we’re investing our time in are giving us the proper tools to help us when life gets difficult, because, let’s face it, at times life can get pretty difficult. As author and meditation teacher Norman Fischer wrote, “Being human is a tough proposition.” If we don’t have clarity, resilience, and inner strength, navigating this thing we call “life” won’t be easy.
Now don’t get me wrong, physical fitness is wonderful and important in order to live a good life. Without a strong, healthy body, it’s a lot harder to get through our day. But still, I’ve met countless people who are physically fit, but are filled with self-hatred over the way they look. Or others who can lift a lot of weight, but get completely crushed by the heavy burdens of their life. Clearly, physical health doesn’t guarantee mental health.
So what exactly is Mental Fitness Training and how can we get started right now?
Mental Fitness Training is a meditation and mindfulness training intended to take your health and wellness to the next level. It’s a form of awareness training intended to give you a healthy perspective on life. It offers you the ability to see your experience with clarity and calm, allowing for a wiser relationship to thoughts, emotions, and difficult life situations. It goes to the heart of your dissatisfaction and struggles – the endless conditioned reactivity in your mind – and teaches you ways to respond clearly and compassionately.
Mental Fitness Training cultivates three qualities that you can bring to every aspect of your life. I use the acronym ARK for a simple way to remember what they are:
Awareness is our ability to intentionally pay attention to the present moment. We consciously bring attention to the unfolding of our mind, body, and our life – moment by moment. We touch the immediacy of our experience with an awareness that is free of judgments, storylines, and expectations, and learn how to bring ease and Relaxation into the present moment – just the way it is (even if it doesn’t feel good!). By allowing things to be as they are we are cultivating Kindness toward our actual life and to the exact spot we are in on our journey. We are training the mind towards an unconditional friendliness that can be both receptive and resilient, and that can meet our life from a place of compassion and clarity.
With a dedicated practice we can learn to live from a clear place of profound okayness – an unshakeable peace of mind that understands all things are workable and impermanent. Over time our suffering, fears, and struggles will be reduced, and our confidence in our ability to face our life will continuously grow.
So you’re probably wondering how to get started…
Well of course the best way is to find a teacher or trainer (such as myself 😉) who can give you proper instructions and hold you accountable for your daily practice, while also answering any questions and clearing up any confusion along the way. But in the meantime, Mental Fitness Training is literally as simple as paying attention to your next breath – showing up fully to your life. But simple doesn’t mean easy and discipline and training are required. The best way I know how to strengthen mental fitness is through the practice of meditation. Meditation is the formal awareness training that strengthens the muscles of ARK.
Here’s what a simple meditation practice looks like:
Find a quiet place and take an upright comfortable seated position. Put your hands on your knees or simply rest them in your lap. Close your eyes.
To begin, just simply arrive. Know that you are sitting right here, in this place, in this moment, with this exact body and mind. Let go of all judgements and storylines and just be.
Next, take three deep breaths. Breathe in through the nose and then slowly out the mouth as if you were blowing out of a straw. After these three breaths, allow your breathing to simply return back to a natural pace in and out of the nose.
From here, quickly scan your body from head to toe, releasing any tension you may feel.
Once you are relaxed, simply allow everything to be the way that it is. Leave everything alone and just be aware and relaxed.
After a few minutes, take one more deep breath, in the nose and out the mouth, and then slowly open your eyes.
Well, you did it! Congratulations! Now, try to bring this awareness, relaxation, and kindness to the rest of your day. And most importantly, don’t forget to do it all again tomorrow!