Exercising your mind requires giving your brain a break

A young, but earnest, martial arts student asked his new teacher: “I am devoted to studying your martial system. How long will it take me to master it?”

The teacher replied casually: “Ten years.”

The student wanted to learn faster: “But what if I really, really work hard at it? How long will it take then?”

The teacher thought for a moment. “20 years,” he finally replied

Learning something is easy. Training your mind is not — it takes a lifetime, as this Zen parable reminds us. The more you want to accelerate the process, the more time it will take.

The student was asking the wrong question. He was so anxious that he only cared about the outcome: how long it would take him to accomplish it.

Taming the mind takes effort — you have to put your emotions and thoughts aside.

That’s why it’s the most important priority in your life.

Are you out of your mind?

Your mind and brain are similar but are not the same.

Think of the brain as an organ, and the mind as the representation of your thoughts and emotions.

Does the mind live in the brain or outside of it?

Daniel Dennett posed this question as a challenge: would a brain transplant include the person’s identity?

On his philosophical essay titled Where am I?, the American philosopher challenged the notion that if eventually, we could download the contents of a human brain into a computer, would our identity be associated with the brain? And therefore could it be transferred to a different body?

The mind and brain debate has been going on since Aristotle.

Dualists, such as Descartes, believed that the mind is separate from the brain. Monists believe that the mind and the brain are the same. To make things more complicated, there are in-between lines of thinking that establish that, though the mind and brain are two different realities, they are interconnected.

Scientists have tried to resolve this puzzle by using brain scanners. Unfortunately, without much success. Brain scanners are just sophisticated photographs of how the brain is working. Scientists can’t just look “in” the brain and see what it is actually doing.

Brain scan images are beautiful yet deceiving.

The authors of the “This Is Your Brain on Politics claimed that, by observing brain scans from voters, they could predict the U.S. 2008 election. However, the supposedly most unpopular candidates became nominees for president: John McCain and Barack Obama.

The mind is a metaphor

If an image is worth a thousand words; a metaphor is worth a thousand images. Especially, to explain the concept of ‘mind.’

Technology provides a helpful analogy: the brain is the hardware; the mind is the software. The first is more tangible, the latter more abstract. One has the capacity and power that can be augmented; the other can be programmed.

This approach has as many supporters as detractors. It sparks a never-ending debate. What’s more important, the software or the hardware?

Dan Siegel, author of “Mind: A Journey to the Heart of Being Human,” has a more straightforward metaphor that brings to life how mind and brain are different, yet interdependent.

“I started thinking, maybe the mind is like the coastline — it’s both sand and sea.”

“I realized if someone asked me to define the shoreline but insisted, is it the water or the sand, I would have to say the shore is both sand and sea,” says Siegel. “You can’t limit our understanding of the coastline to insist it’s one or the other. I started thinking, maybe the mind is like the coastline.”

Our society glorifies the brain as a computer — we focus so much on upgrading the ‘hardware’ that we neglect the value of its ‘software.’

How to train your mind: the ACT triangle

The brain is of the thinking realm; the mind is of the witnessing realm.

We are a brain-centered society. That’s why people have a hard time to observe their thoughts. I’ve been accused of discouraging people from thinking, simply because I said that our thoughts cause most of our problems.

To overcome your issues, sometimes, you need to observe your thoughts rather than continue thinking.

Give your brain a break.

That’s the power of mindfulness. As Chögyam Trungpa explains, it’s a sense of presence and accuracy in terms of being here. We can only operate on one dot-at-a-time — mindfulness is approaching our life that same way.

The Buddhist Psychologist defines Mindfulness as “being watchful rather than watching something.”

Mindfulness is personal; it’s your experience.

ACT — Acceptance Commitment Therapy — defines Psychological Flexibility as the ability to be in the present moment with full awareness and openness to our experience, and to take action guided by our values.

The following diagram represents the three core components.

ACT triangle image open up be present and do what matters

Open up: Both Defusion and acceptance are about separating from our thoughts and emotions — seeing them for what they are, making room for them, without judging.

Be Present: It’s about contacting with the here-and-now, involving both verbal and non-verbal aspects of your experience — observing our own self from a different place.

Do What Matters: Your values should guide your goals — commit to living a life based on what matters to you.

This triangle is an effective way to train your mind. Though it’s a continuum, it helps identifies the areas that you want to exercise the most.

Open your mind

“Happiness can be achieved through training the mind.” — Dalai Lama

Acceptance is allowing your thoughts and feelings to be as they are.

It doesn’t matter if they are painful or pleasant — stop fighting reality, as I wrote here. Let your thoughts and emotions come and go naturally without neither forcing nor silencing them.

Acceptance doesn’t mean giving up. On the contrary, it’s acknowledging your feelings and life events. When you accept all your experiences — both pleasant and painful — you are expanding your mind.

The opposite of acceptance is avoidance.

Painful experiences are like a wild river; we need to cross them if we want to get to the other side.

Defusion is a powerful technique to observe your thoughts rather than see through them. Your thoughts are a lens that clouds your vision. Defusion neutralizes it.

Your thoughts are wild wolves that live inside you — if you don’t domesticate them, they will eat you alive. Defusion brings clarity — it’s about separating yourself from your thoughts rather than getting stuck in them. Taming the inner wolves requires to stop living on autopilot.

Mindfulness is not a distraction technique; it is not meant for you to avoid your thoughts. If negative feelings come up, notice them, and move on.

Simply label your thoughts as “thoughts” without reacting or judging them. You can make fun of your thoughts or turn them into objects. There are many defusion exercises that can help tame your mind.

Remember, mindfulness is the opposite of living on autopilot.

Train your Observing Self

Being present requires focus. To pay attention to what’s happening here and now. To stop thinking about the past or speculating about the future. Bring your awareness to this instant.

That’s easier said than done though.

Elevators are a perfect example of how hard it is to be present. What do we usually do? We get anxious because we can’t face not having anything to do. Instead of being present, we look at our phone screens. We avoid paying attention to what’s going on.

The past we cannot change. We cannot control the future either. Being present is connecting to your nowness. The more you are in touch with your feelings, the more you can regulate your behaviors.

When you are lost in your thoughts, you are missing out life in the present.

The Thinking-Self and the Observing-Self are the two significant aspects of your mind.

The Observing-Self is not a thought or a feeling but more an awareness — it’s a perspective from which you observe your experiences from the distance.

Your thoughts are constantly changing: at times, they can be joyful, painful, or pleasant. The same is true for your feelings: sometimes you feel anxious, sad, upset, or frustrated.

The Observing-Self is the part of you that does not change but experiences — it neither judges nor takes any responsibility. Whereas the Thinking-Self is the part of you that judges, the Observing Self helps you to become aware of what you are doing.

The Observing-Self is like the sky. Your thoughts and emotions are like the weather. No matter how strong the storms, they can’t damage the sky. It always has room for more — sooner or later, the weather will change for better.

This simple exercise by Russ Harris will help you practice being present.

  1. Pause for a moment.
  2. Look around and notice five things that you can see.
  3. Listen carefully and notice five things that you can hear.
  4. Notice five things that you can feel in contact with your body.
  5. Finally, do all the above simultaneously.

You can practice this exercise at your next meeting to gain focus. Or try it next time you catch an elevator; you’ll realize everything you are missing when you are living on autopilot.

Train your mind for action

You’ve got to serve somebody.” — Bob Dylan said

Who or what will you serve?

Your values determine what you serve in life.

We are a goal driven-society. That’s dangerous: your goals shouldn’t determine your values but the other way around. Your goals are in the future; your values are in the present.

Values are not emotions. They are directions, not outcomes. They help you define what to say ‘yes’ to and, most importantly, what you say ‘no’ to. Your values shape your priorities.

Acceptance is the first step. However, life is more than merely overcoming your emotions and thoughts. To achieve fulfillment, you must live a life according to your values.

What’s your life’s purpose?

Clarity helps you move into action. When you know the kind of life you want to live, when you know the impact you want to create, when you know what matters to you, it’s easier to make things happen.

However, clarity is not rigid but fluid. Storms can cloud what you see, but the sky is still there. Be patient. When you feel lost, treat yourself kindly. Once the storm passes, you will be able to see what matters to you again.

When you gain clarity, everything feels more natural.

This exercise will help you understand your purpose and what matters to you.

Move from FEAR to DARE

“First say to yourself what you would be, and then do what you have to do.” — Epictetus

Training your mind requires moving from avoidance to acceptance. To overcome your fears and be courageous to live the life you want.

FEAR is an acronym for Fusion (seeing through your thoughts), Excessive goals (unrealistic or unclear), Avoidance of discomfort (blaming things into others and living in denial) and Remoteness from values (lack of clarity or alignment between what matters to you and what you do).

DARE is the antidote to FEAR.

Defusion: You can acknowledge your thoughts and emotions. You don’t let them cloud your vision. You see them, but don’t see life through them.

Acceptance of discomfort: Life is not easy. Only those who can make room for unpleasant experiences and feelings can overcome them. Being in denial won’t make your problems disappear.

Realistic goals: Do you have the skills needed to achieve your goals? Can you get them or should you adjust your goals to your current abilities? Being realistic is not lowering your bar but avoiding unnecessary frustrations. Sometimes setting micro-goals is smarter. The more you achieve, the more you can achieve.

Embracing Values: Are your actions aligned with your values? This is one of the most common reasons why people get stuck. Lack of motivation is typically correlated to lack of clarity or doing things that don’t matter to oneself.

These acronyms — from Act make simple by Russ Harris — are not a formula but a framework. Use them as a self-reflection tool to understand and overcome barriers.

Your mind is your most valuable asset, training it not only takes a lifetime — it’s the most critical priority in your life.

Practice some exercises to stretch your mind.