Point: You can grow your mind like you build muscle—with daily practice.
Thinking is an exercise. How you do it determines everything about your life. Your mind is the most important tool you will ever own. But so often we are unaware of how we think, how we exercise our minds, how we wield this tool. And then we wonder why we're not getting where we want to go.
When we think of exercise, we usually think of physical movement. We exercise our bodies to change our muscles. We lift weights to strengthen muscles and sometimes to grow muscle mass. We run to strengthen our heart and lungs. We stretch to make our muscles more flexible.
We add regimens of physical exercise to our routine to deliberately use our muscles in ways that will improve our ability to move and function in the world. For knowledge workers, modern life does not require enough muscle use to keep us strong and limber. We sit at desks to work, reach for foods on shelves, drive cars to get where we need to go. We're not swinging from trees, traversing savannas, running from predators. If we want to stay strong, we have to re-create physical scenarios deliberately. But what about our minds?
Strengthen the mind like you do the body
Like our bodies, our minds don't receive the same kinds of stimulation as they used to. We demand of them periods of intense focus and quick switching between very different tasks. We stress them out and give them little opportunity to dispose of the extra energy. No wonder we suffer from anxiety and depression at such high, never-seen-before rates.
But what if we consider ways to develop the mind as we consider the ways to develop our muscles?
The mind is not a muscle. But it can be strengthened, built, and made more flexible in ways that are similar to muscle exercise ... consistent, periodic practice of certain ways of thinking and being aware.
You've been building this mind your entire life
Mind exercise happens whether you realize it or not. You have been exercising your mind your entire life. The ways that your mind works now are the result of all the ways you've used it in all the moments, days, and decades you've been alive.
If your mind is not working quite the way you would like, you can change it. Sometimes people are unhappy with the way they think because they have mental illness that would benefit from therapy and medication. I am not a therapist and don't pretend to be one. I'm only sharing my own experiences. Please consult with a therapist on mental health issues ... there are some wonderful therapists out there ... even some services online. You can do therapy and mind exercising at the same time.
How is your mind working now?
The first step in mind exercise is to become aware of how your mind is currently working. This is difficult because we often live believing that we are our mind. We believe our thoughts to be reality. It's hard to get a wedge in there between "I" and "mind".
I use mindfulness meditation and prayer as that wedge. I've read a lot of books on meditation. The most inspriing for me were Michael Singer's The Untethered Soul, Pema Chodron's How to Meditate, and Robert Wright's Why Buddhism is True. I had to learn that the inspiration residue of reading those was not enough to make the change I sought. It was not enough to just learn and understand the concept of meditation. Similarly, it's not enough to just understand the concept of weight lifting, you have to actually lift the weights. You have to actually practice meditation to get some space between your mind and you—to become aware.
At first, I tried meditating by sitting at the kitchen table and closing my eyes. Time slowed down so that seconds seemed to take minutes and minutes seemed to take hours. I constantly wondered if I was getting close to 5 minutes (like I was suddenly a kid in the back seat on a long family road trip ... "Are we there yet? How about now?"). It felt so painstaking and uncertain that I beat myself up a little and told myself I wasn't good at. I feared I was doing it wrong. The punishment and fear made it harder and harder to make myself sit still and meditate.
I stopped doing it for a long time. I still thought about it and felt self-congratulatory for thinking about it. I had the experience of trying to meditate. I'd read about it. I understood the concept of meditating. That was better than your average unaware bear out there. Right?
Thinking about meditating is not meditating
Thinking about meditation is just thinking and will not exercise your mind meditatively. To change your mind, you need to do the exercise.
Some time later, after reading a story about doctor Bill Rawls who had Lyme disease and recovered partially just through meditation, I renewed my quest to build a meditation habit. I signed up for the Calm guided meditation app thinking it would remove some of the barriers I'd built up because all I had to do was sit and follow directions. I wouldn't be constantly wondering ... am I doing this right? Am I there yet? Using that app ... doing the daily Calm guided meditation made it much easier for me to get in the habit.
Now I'm meditating multiple times a day and I've been doing this for close to four years. My mind has changed greatly. But I had to meditate daily for a while before I could consciously feel a benefit. You might not get a noticeable reward for awhile. You have to do the habit before you get the reward.