Mental Hygiene: The Overlooked Capacity
The pace of change today is the subject of much examination for product cycles, business development, and leadership development. Those interested in Adult Development Theories have experienced and addressed this volatile pace of change combined with increasing complexity, and uncertainty.
These dynamics impact our ability to cope with the unexpected at work and in our moment to moment living.
Drained or Exhausted
At the end of the day, we are wiped, and often too wiped to reflect on how we got wiped. In most cases, the experiences of “wiped out” is the result of being either exhausted or drained.
Being exhausted is a dilemma rooted in biology that impacts our physical health. It results from activities such as running up the stairs, carrying heavy objects, walking long distances, or loading or unloading heavy items. If we are exhausted, we will experience sensation or pain in our body that require attention.
Being drained is a dilemma rooted in language that impacts our mental health. It results in mental and emotional suffering, such as distress, isolation, anxiety, or overwhelm. As a society, we tend to ignore mental health issues unless and until they impact our physical health, and then we treat the biology, not its source.
We disregard many issues such as major depression (56% ignore it) panic disorder (57%) and obsessive-compulsive disorder (59%). We even neglect common issues such as mental fatigue, feelings of isolation, overwhelm, or overstimulation that lead to poor physical health.
Mental hygiene as a concept is ripening and emerging as a practice by some. Before getting to specific programs, this notion of mental hygiene is a capacity unlike others: it is fundamental to other skills and largely ignored or left to chance.
Consider our physical hygiene: According to many surveys, men and women spend between 30 and 55 minutes daily on physical hygiene: showering, washing hair, brushing teeth, shaving, using products, and dressing. Perhaps another 30 to 45 minutes spent on exercising: working out, walks, running, biking, etc. This doesn’t include any focus on nutrition.
To be clear, physical regimens will lead to mental health, but all this time on our physical health chiefly ignores any specific focus on mental health. When I’ve asked a client or student to begin a 10-minute daily breathing practice, the reflexive response is “I do not have time.”
Rigorous attention to the details and evidence of one’s typical day usually proves otherwise. Engaging a client’s inventory of how they spend their time often reveals what is concealed. We really do not know how — or more importantly WHY — we spend our time as we do.
The “Busy” Self: All Performance, No Practice
Time reveals not what we do, but who we are, disclosing our reflexive self as our choices, motivations, needs, and interests. Most often, however, time reveals our automatic self.
The reflexive response of “busy” or “no time” is not a result of lacking time but of insufficient awareness of our choosing, or of the “magical thinking” that has us running fast and getting nowhere. We cannot unplug from our “busy” and hectic — but very familiar — life.
That machinery-like mind which automatically downloads and uploads responses — is the very reason to engage a mindful breathing practice; to discover our own machinery, its impulses, compulsive triggers, and the ways it undermines our best efforts.
So then … how have we trained our mind? The simple answer is that we’ve left much of this concern to chance or responded only to training that enhances survival. We consume (over)stimulation, inputs, and stress in the name of entertainment and productivity without any attention on clearing our mind or restoring it to an optimal state.
Again, can we cultivate and care for our mind?
Now, imagine for a moment going for three days or a week without your physical hygiene. Soon, it will impact our lives, surroundings, and ability to serve or be productive.
Two decades ago, primary work-life expectations shifted from the physical to the mental realm: knowledge and screen work; developing, designing, writing and responding to ideas; processing, programming, and analyzing information; and, communicating and coordinating action across teams and networks, while conferencing locally and globally.
In 2011, Americans consumed five times as much information daily as they did in 1986–the equivalent of 175 newspapers. A world constituted, saturated, and dominated by such an overload of information requires an internal compass to guide and develop the human condition.
The expansion of mind-work without any focus on mind-training has caused an increase in suffering. Unlike our conventional college/university system, Adult Development Theories must now focus on change and suffering as fundamental to being human. Western knowledge views these dynamics as external situations to manage or control rather than internal perceptions to cultivate and calibrate.
Consider that we upgrade our technology and operating systems on regular cycles to let go of outdated methods but have yet to embrace the mental training to upgrade our minds to let go of outmoded beliefs and views. Fixed perceptions form attachments to realities that no longer exist, and require more force, control, and effort to achieve even a minimal level of workability.
Our work-life involves our mind: a clear, open, and available mind including the mental energy of focus and concentration. What are we doing to care for the mind? What mind-training have we engaged?
The Right Intention
Mindfulness is a practice that can support mental health and wellness and integrate our fragmented lives — if we engage the right intention. For our purpose, we hold this intention as our practice to practice — free from any need to possess, control or achieve any goal or situation. We practice gently and without expectation.
Unfortunately, what is a life-giving practice has already been Americanized, reduced to a “brand” or product — a McMindfulness approach that promises to deliver quick and instantaneous results to improve everything from my tennis game to achieving bliss or peace. The culture, history, and practice of this art, and wisdom may be lost even before ever truly experienced or appreciated.
Mindfulness can open us to the workings of our mind — to become present, on purpose, and without judgment.
Setting the right intention and attitude is important to becoming a practitioner. Begin by giving up doing it right, seeking to know more, or the desire to achieve any result. Simply allow yourself to come to rest, and observe your mind without any other goal, agenda, or motive.
I learned to become mindful in a Zen Monastery with a pillow, breath, and silence. That’s it!
There I was confronted by my monkey mind through silent breathing. I also discovered the term mindfulness through the work of Thich Nhat Hanh, (see an interview with Oprah).
Anyone can access this wisdom if they are willing to set the right intention to practice for the sake of practicing. I offer the following:
• A 5-minute guided breathing link to start,
• A 10-minute guided breathing link by Jon Kabat-Zinn.
• A link to practicing a full body scan
• These secular ideas to begin where you are.
Commitment beyond Commercialism
Some places offer practices at no charge, other MBSR programs can cost up to $600. Organizations with reasonable fees share a deep commitment to making this wisdom accessible and available; they are not developing business models to maximize profits.
Avoid high-cost mindful programs that range from $1000 to $10,000 — unless these are multiple-day retreats (or silent retreats). The origins of mindfulness are deep, time-honored, and do not offer shortcuts — even for purchase.
The commitment to this path can include many benefits but none is more important than a practice to increase awareness, allowing for surprising discoveries, radical openness, and direct experience.
With practice, we become free from impulsive habits and compulsive desires to control situations. We gain a direct experience of each moment and can more easily let go of outmoded views and beliefs that no longer serve us.
Ultimately, we find that split second between our observations, opinions, and actions to pause and to choose freely, now. Perhaps enlightenment is simply getting closer to now and allowing it to expand who we are.
Remember, being exhausted is a physical dynamic rooted in biology. Being drained is a mental dynamic rooted in language, which begins with our perceptions of ourselves and the world.
Educator, coach, activist, and researcher at Bhavana Learning Group (previously, Zampella Group), I work with coaches, learning professionals and executives, dwelling at the intersection of Eastern wisdom and human potential. I am interested in learning, as a human endeavor distinct from “knowing” or “training.”