Mental Hygiene

Mental Hygiene

Imagine if caring for the mind were as common place as daily teeth brushing. Neuroscientist and founder of the Center for Healthy Minds at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, Richard Davidson, believes that just as we evolved as human beings to realize the importance of caring for our teeth, we can evolve into an understanding that mental hygiene is just as important–perhaps even more–than personal hygiene. Mental hygiene is a Buddhist concept that I heard Davidson speak of on a recent episode of the Podcast “On Being.” Davidson, who has been working largely with children, teachers, and people who work closely with children, explains that our brain does not have separate areas for thoughts and feelings. Thought and feeling are very much intermingled. Attending to the feelings of the mind, and even learning to direct the rudder of our mind toward feelings of compassion, empathy, kindness, and love, can mean that we evolve into a more fully loving and compassionate world. Another Aha! of wisdom. How do we heal our environment, our nation, our world? We begin by healing our self, and this begins by acknowledging that our unseen body of emotions, feelings, and thoughts–the mind–is as important to attend to as our physical, seen bodies.

So how do we attend to mental hygiene, to the care and “cleaning” of our storehouse of emotions and thoughts? Davidson and interviewer Krista Tippet mention “mindfulness” practices, but what he says is that he doesn’t really use this overused language anymore. Instead, he states, “We talk about it as mental exercises to cultivate self-regulation, to cultivate the regulation of attention, the regulation of emotion. So far, I haven’t found a single parent who didn’t want to help their child better regulate their attention and better regulate their emotions. Framed in this way, I think we can make it quite universal.” We are born with the capacity toward kindness and compassion, he says, but these qualities must be exercised and supported through practice and demonstration if they are to become fully realized within a person. Much like we are born with the capacity to have clean teeth but must brush and care for them everyday if we want to have strong dental health for a lifetime, we must practice and exercise our capacity for kind, compassionate, connected attention if we are to grow our ability to be a kind and connected culture of humans. These practices begin with the ability to be attentive: “Attention,” Davidson says, “is the building block of everything else.”

This work excites me–perhaps we are on the cusp of something quite beautiful–a movement toward directing our attention to a fuller, more connected life, and in my vision, a movement toward a more compassionate, unified world. Perhaps that is idealistic, but what if it’s also possible? That the practices we do to direct our attention toward healing our own thoughts, our own minds, and building our muscles of mental attention toward connection and kindness, could ripple so far and wide as to create a wave of love that might redirect all the negative noise and disassociation our culture has come to accept as “part of life.” What if? Can you imagine what life might feel like then?

As a culture we have an attention deficit we’re working with on a daily basis. Not only people who have actual diagnoses, but I think all of us are working in an time and environment when the pinging of gadgets, calls, and humans is enough to constantly pull our mind’s attention off course. Add to this our human capacity for thought. I used to describe to meditation students an image I first learned when discovering meditation–that of the mind as a hamster wheel constantly turning. But I think this image may no longer be strong enough to describe the scattered framework within which we’re working. It might be better to think of our attention as a child’s little bouncy ball. Much like the crazy directionless motion of the ball, our minds are often bouncing from ping to ping to thought to ping, from one moment to the next. It’s important to remember we have an anchor available to us all of the time in our breath. Observation of the moment by moment movement of the inhalation and exhalation, while not the most colorful, loud, or exciting aspects of consideration, can help us grow accustomed toward directing our attention. Says Davisdon, “[I]f we can learn to pay attention to something that’s not that interesting, it can really help strengthen our attention. Our attention tends to be hijacked by salient stimuli in our environment. Our attention is stimulus-driven. It’s pulled; it’s grabbed. The invitation here is that we can actually be the rudder of our own mind, if you will, and steer it, direct it where we would like it to be directed by strengthening our capacity to voluntarily deploy our attention.” Learning to observe in this way makes us better able to also observe when a thought arises how that thought is showing up as a feeling in our body. And if we can learn to do this, we can also learn to regulate how we respond to these sensations as they arise. So we institute a kind of internal regulatory system that makes us better able to respond to life. Eventually, we also learn to direct our attention toward a form of compassionate connection, because a movement toward a culture of calm presence is a movement away from “us against them” mentality, toward a culture that is working toward love. As Davidson says, “I actually think that this is going to be the next frontier for science and for neuroscience. I’m not afraid to speak about love. I think that the way I think about it is that love is a quality which obliterates certain kinds of boundaries…it certainly will be associated with pervasive differences in the brain and is really something that needs to be studied…Biased compassion is compassion toward your in-group. Unbiased compassion is compassion toward all beings. And I think the same is true of love. There’s biased love, and there’s unbiased love. The cultivation of unbiased love is really challenging. That’s where, I think, the next frontier is; and I think that some of the practices that we’ve been talking about really are about the cultivation of this kind of unbiased love.”

Which brings me to the practice of Bhakti Yoga. The practices of Bhakti Yoga, which are the heart-centered practices, allow the hard edges of the mind to soften so that we may bear witness to life with an open and abundant heart. These are practices that tune the instrument of us toward a more loving song, played not for the benefit of one but for all. The great Bhagavan Nityananda said, “The heart is the hub of all sacred places. Go there and roam.” I have discovered that by learning to center myself in my heart by holding my attention on the movement of my breath around my heart, I grow more conscious of the softness here and more available for heart-centered connection to the world. As I’ve become more attuned to my breath, I notice now more quickly when my thoughts are creating a flood of feelings that want to send me into reactivity mode. This has made it more possible for me to pause long enough that I can relate to the world from the softness of my heart, rather than the defense or reactivity of my overstimulated brain. This doesn’t mean that we have to do any particularly different practice; instead, I think, it changes the intention behind our practice. I thought of this listening to a sermon at church this week. The church I attend refers to itself as a “School of Love” where we are all learners. This week when I heard this church description, as I’d been contemplating all the thoughts building on the writing of this flow, I asked myself, why can’t our beautiful studio community be a school of love too? It doesn’t change what we’re doing exactly, but instead the intention behind what we do. If every practice is held as an opportunity for the kind of mental hygiene that cultivates attention directed toward kindness and compassion, what wave might swell? Call me idealistic, but I like to think a wave of love.

Perhaps I’m not the only idealistic one saying this. I like to think that Sharon Salzburg is saying the same thing when she says that the practice of cultivating attention, especially through mindfulness, “helps us find the power to be kind to ourselves.” She writes: We can let go of our laundry list of work agenda items once we get home to be with our family members, even if our Google calendar gives us a ping. We may be compelled to ruminate or obsess, but a commitment to mindfulness, to being present, is a gesture of kindness to ourselves. We react to our compulsions with compassion. We open up, and feel a subtle movement of our hearts. This movement of the heart is like the sea moving close to the ocean floor — it is so subtle, but affects everything above.” It affects everything above and all around too, for a gesture of kindness toward ourselves brings us that much closer to kindness toward the “other” until perhaps there is no other at all. Can you imagine?