“If you correct your mind, the rest of your life will fall into place.” Lao Tzu
We are all familiar with the benefits of maintaining a healthy body, borne out by the thriving health and fitness industry promoting practices involving:
- Diet and nutrition
- Physical fitness & exercise
Why is it important to maintain our minds?
But how many of us pay as much attention to maintaining a healthy mind? Indeed, some would argue that having a healthy mind is even more important than maintaining our bodies. A healthy mind has many benefits from improved resilience and reduced stress levels, to having mindsets that will support growth and development. Furthermore, we are more likely to stick to our physical diet or fitness regimes if we have worked on the thoughts and feelings that will drive the necessary actions to achieve these goals.
In the field of neuroscience, it is now well recognized that our minds are not fixed but ‘plastic’ meaning we are able to change our automatic behaviours and response patterns if we choose to. Just as we exercise our ‘body muscles’ to improve our physical performance, fitness and well-being, we can exercise our ‘brain muscles’ to enhance our mental performance, fitness and well-being.
What are the benefits of exercising our ‘brain muscle’?
For many of us, our bodies will function satisfactorily without paying conscious attention to physical fitness. However, our mental fitness is more complicated. Few of us consciously exercise choice over our thoughts and responses, and so we tend to react to situations based on our core survival instincts. We also draw on responses we have learned from previous experiences and so, in combination with our instincts, our brains develop pre-programmed responses to most situations. Most situations we face will see our brains trigger these pre-programmed responses rather than working out a bespoke response each time.
How do our thoughts and feelings influence our actions?
How we form our responses to most situations is a complicated process with much happening that we don’t notice consciously. A helpful analogy is that of an iceberg with only a small element being visible above the waterline, and the remainder being unseen below the surface. The visible elements, being the outcome, actions and behaviours, are judged by others based on their inner world and may not give a full and accurate picture of the intent, attitudes or habits that underpin our actions based on our inner world. What you see is not always a true reflection of reality.
This ‘response transaction’ can be broken down as follows:
So what can we do?
To change what we experience on the outside, we need to work on our inner experience. In short, to change what you do, you have to change what you think and feel.
Exercising our brain involves raising our awareness of how we respond to different triggers followed by exercising the parts of the brain that require specific attention similar to a physical fitness plan, it is worth focusing on the muscles that will yield the best results.
In particular, we will benefit if we work on:
- Developing our ‘compassionate self’ – observing how we normally respond in our thinking, feeling and actions without judgement
- Understanding that our emotions are a combination of information and energy – we need to decipher the information and harness the energy for better performance
- Learning how to ‘slow down & stop’ to allow ourselves to choose our responses rather than react automatically
- Improving our response patterns to achieve better outcomes
There are numerous ways that we can exercise our brain muscle from meditation techniques to techniques managing our response patterns – a few exercises are detailed here to get you started.
Exercises for the Brain
In the words of Eckhart Tolle ‘Awareness is the greatest agent for change’. To understand your own response patterns and their impact on your well-being and performance you may find it useful to maintain a journal.
One of the most effective ‘brain muscle’ exercises found to ‘pause’ our automatic responses, improve our attention and manage our thought processes is practising mindfulness on a regular basis. Try out these mindfulness exercises.
Emotions are a core survival function and cannot be turned off. All emotions are useful and should be seen as information, worthy of attention, and energy, that can be harnessed to achieve our goals.
By being smarter with our feelings and how our automatic actions and behaviours may be interpreted by others, we can influence our automatic response patterns to better reflect our true intent. Review this exercise to understand the purpose of emotions.
Our final ‘brain exercise’ focusses on improving our ability to respond rather than react. Some useful techniques include: