How I Protect My Brain By Protecting the Environment
It started with the realization I can change the climate of my mind. That awareness has grown into a deeper, ongoing feeling of responsibility: I am the steward of my brain's environment.
For the first 39 years of my life, I was terrible to my brain. I would engage in deep, intrusive pondering, telling myself that I was working hard to "figure things out." The garbage I threw onto the ground (like Mad Men characters post-picnic) came in the form of black-and-white thoughts. Carbon emissions? For me, those were generalizations and the escalated catastrophizing I specialized in.
A combination of reading The Mayo Clinic Guide to Stress-Free Living (summarized in this video about what that kind of behavior does to your brain) and mindfulness training helped me realize that the path I was on was hurting myself, my own mind, and others. As of the middle of last year, I assumed a more direct role of responsibility vis-a-vis tending to my brain.
I began to visualize the environment of my brain. Instead of fixating on individual thoughts, I thought about the aggregate. I tuned in to the climate of my mind. When the weather's rough, I learned that I had the choice to take action to relax and help return the environment to a calmer, more peaceful state.
But I learned something more important over time: it's not just about trying to get to peaceful weather. It was more important to teach myself to get into the groove of good weather. First, I had to start feeling the sun when it came out. I had to get used to returning to that feeling. I did it by leaning into the moments when I felt good. It's was like teaching myself to return to good feelings in a more automatic way.
These ideas are all based in cognitive behavioral therapy. For me, though, ideas are one thing—internalized behavior is another. To truly make something happen, I needed simple sentences or visualizations to return to.
"I am the steward of my brain's environment" was the metaphor I came up with. I imagined myself cleaning up the trash and creating the environment I want to live in. Doing this incremental work while understanding intuitively what a good environment feels like many times a day is what's making the difference.
The steward doesn't look for one massive change. The steward understands it's all about consistency, and that increasingly positive changes in the brain's environment add up over time.
Warning: you can't steward anyone else's mind, but you may notice that as your climate improves, the effect is contagious.
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Originally published March 12, 2016. Updated April 17, 2017.