My focus the last few weeks has been on what I’ll call mental strength training because that sounds cooler than mindfulness, meditation, etc, but it’s the same thing.
Why have I been focusing on this? A month ago I lost my job and girlfriend within the span of a week, which also upended my living plans, and totally threw me off my game, throwing me into what could be classified as a depression. I went from having what seemed like endless motivation and godlike work ethic over the last year (particularly the few months prior) to not being able to get myself to do any work, being endlessly consumed in thought and rumination, and feeling a sense of pointlessness. The breakup in particular was like the removal of a structural foundation in the house of life I’d built, laying bare stark weaknesses in me.
Now I can fortunately say I’m pretty much good. The last few days I’d rate my state between 7-8 out of 10. I’ve accepted reality, am getting back into my rhythm, excited for the future, and have significantly more control over my mental state. which is very liberating. I write this from a cool outdoor cafe in Mexico City surrounded by plants, where the weather is perfect. This morning I went for a jog and workout in an outdoor park, had a nice cheap breakfast outdoors, then went for a nice casual walk admiring the beauty of this city while listening to Sam Harris on mindfulness (currently exploring his work).
Before getting into the “mindfulness” piece, I think everyone should be doing the following.
- Work out
Physical health and mental health are two sides of the same coin. Working out is such an easy hack to improving mental health and mental fitness that I think working out should be required for everybody, especially if your mental health sucks. If anybody is feeling like crap the first thing they should do is workout as that naturally lifts one’s mood, and if the workout is strenuous enough – shuts off the useless thought loops in the brain. If a depressed person came to me the first thing I’d ask them is if they’re working out.
I’m making it a priority to work out everyday – ideally a combination of strength training and cardio. I think it is important to actually work out hard/intense and do something that gets your heart rate up like HIIT (high intensity interval training) instead of doing some lazy jog. This is particularly important if you have an overactive mind. You should work out so intensely that you don’t even have the capacity to think while you’re working out.
If you don’t have gym access, do pushups. Find an outdoor gym or playground with a pullup bar and/or dip bar.
My goal is to work out at least once everyday, but ideally twice even if the second workout is light (eg. shadow boxing, some pushups + pullups).
- Healthy diet. I’m also a fan of intermittent fasting – for example reducing your eating window in a day to within 8 hours.
- Getting plenty of sunlight, walking around outside, cold showers, etc.
- Socializing with friends, family, etc. Community is extremely beneficial and its benefits cannot be understated. I won’t flag this as an absolute requirement because some people can live comfortably like hermits, but why make things harder for yourself? You’re probably not Ralph Waldo Emerson or an enlightened Buddhist monk.
I’ll refrain from discussing mindfulness too much here because I’m still learning (eg. I have not yet fully grasped my head around nondual mindfulness advocated by Sam Harris). But essentially I see mindfulness as a state of “being” or experiencing reality with the following:
- Awareness of thoughts and emotions without being consumed in them
- Removal of useless mind chatter, distracting thoughts, rumination
We’re living mindfully when we experience reality as is, without useless distracting thoughts, and without being enslaved by negative emotions and thought loops. One should strive to live mindfully at all times.
Imagine you’re in a vehicle looking through a window, and suddenly you notice reflections of light. The reflections of light are distracting thoughts (eg. ruminating about the past), the window is your consciousness. You can choose to either focus on the reflections of light, or look straight through the window. Better to look straight through the window.
Mindfulness essentially allows one to control their mind and engineer it towards a better state – for example a state of boundless curiosity, gratitude, and unconditional love. It allows one to appreciate the beauty of reality and treating every moment like a gift, instead of being bogged down in anger, stress, anxiety, and useless rumination.
I consider flow state (eg. being “in the zone” while playing an instrument) an example of a mindful state as it entails being fully absorbed in something without the useless mind chatter. When performing in front of an audience or competing, you want to be in a flow state. Getting out of that flow state to think about useless mental chitchat will distract you and probably negatively impact your performance.
Getting rid of thought loops
I recently read a book “The Craving Mind” by psychiatrist Judson Brewer that I found very helpful. He created a mindfulness approach to tackling cigarette addiction that is allegedly 5x more effective than the traditional approach of cognitive behavioral therapy.
Essentially the idea is that when one is inundated by a craving, negative thoughts, or emotions, one should take a step back and identify what exactly is triggering these thoughts/emotions, and then examine in depth how how it’s making one feel (eg. what bodily sensations am I feeling right now?). By identifying the cause and detailing the effects, one naturally disassociates from the thoughts/emotions. Identifying the cause can help eliminate negatively reinforcing behavior / destructive feedback loops (eg. if one gets the urge to smoke or binge eat when they’re “bored”).
The way I see it, thoughts originate from the following:
- Your brain trying to tell you something (1% of the time)
- You brain bored and daydreaming (99% of the time)
Practicing mindfulness removes brain distraction, heavily reducing or eliminating useless brain activity. Again one should strive to live mindfully at all times. It really is a practice, and anyone struggling to achieve mindfulness can help get there through meditation (though that’s not required).
But sometimes your brain is actually trying to tell you something.
For example I’m writing this from Mexico City where I’m currently booked until tomorrow, and in the back of my mind I could find a voice asking me “What is your plan? Where will you book tomorrow? How much longer will you stay in Mexico City, and where will you go next?”
To some this might manifest as a stress, anxiety, or brain fog. But for me I’ve prioritized writing this article right now, and will deal with that other stuff later. I’ve accepted this order of activity, my mind has accepted it, and thus I’m able to write this article in peace without being stressed out about uncertainty around my plans.
Of course most mental fog is just useless nonsense, the bored manifestations of a delusional chimp brain. Squash that background noise through living mindfully. I was afraid of maybe “missing out”, but really you’re not – just like you’re not missing out on anything performing a piano concert in front of a live audience and then suddenly wondering if you forgot to lock your door on the way out.
Kill Negative Rumination
Depression generally entails a high degree of negative rumination and brain fog. I had a lot of this while going through the breakup. It was like my brain was on overdrive in negative rumination, so much that it was like a virus that had even infiltrated my subconscious (95% of your brain activity is subconscious).
Removing that brain fog is not easy when you’re infiltrated by it and not practiced in mindfulness, which I definitely wasn’t. There’s no single silver bullet, and one must continually engage in mindfulness otherwise thoughts/emotions can creep back and re-attack you. Mindfulness is like building a solid structure that doesn’t allow the virus to infiltrate.
I do remember an epiphany like moment though in a taxi from the airport in Mexico City listening to Sam Harris on the Huberman podcast where my brain was suddenly able to dial down background noise like a knob, something I’d imagine was equivalent to a reduction in brain activity in the default mode network (the “Craving” book talks a lot about this).
Prior to that I think it’d been difficult for me to dial down the overthinking because my brain was convinced that this thinking was actual useful, or that reducing this brain activity would make me “dumber”. But of course it’s the exact opposite.
A mindful brain can help distinguish between useful and useless thoughts, and disregard the useless ones. But at the end of the day the brain is an imperfect tool with lizard-brain components and always operating within some form of delusion, so we should know when to shut it off. By shutting off useless mental chitchat, we free up bandwidth to experience life to the fullest.
I’ve done a lot of rambling here, but ultimately the goal is just to be in control and live your best life, how you want it. It’s possible to live life with boundless curiosity, gratitude, selflessness, confidence, and unconditional love. It’s possible to appreciate the beauty of everything, enjoy what you’re doing, not be bored, and be relatively unaffected and resilient to hardship.
This can be achieved through deliberate practice. For example for gratitude, you can imagine that you died yesterday but were given the chance to live another day of life. All of a sudden you are now grateful to be doing what you might’ve previously considered boring.
Alternatively it’s possible to live life depressed, anxious, hopeless, stressed out, pessimistic, unsatisfied, sad, with low self-esteem, lacking control and easily affected by new hardships, constantly ruminating about the past, etc.
I’d guess most people fluctuate wildly, averaging out somewhere near the middle or in a worse than average state. Remember it’s not just about where you are on the spectrum, it’s also about how resilient you are to hardship. I thought I was a top G, but the breakup showed me I wasn’t.
Are you the type who’s entire day is ruined over some rude statement that someone said, or can you still proceed in a good mood, unaffected? Mindfulness allows you to be more stable and in control of your state, experiencing life how you want rather than being enslaved by thoughts and emotions that in an untrained mind generally don’t serve you.
There will always be hardships in life – death, breakups, layoffs, etc. One can feel sad in these moments while still being resilient and living their best lives without being enslaved for months in negative rumination and spiraling into depression.
Be Mindful Every Moment
Again mindfulness, like physical exercise, is a constant practice. You don’t just get jacked and get to sit back and marvel at your incredible physique for the rest of your life – if you stop training and eating healthy it’ll go away.
Unlike weightlifting, mindfulness can and should be practiced at all times. Every moment you are experiencing reality not mindfully is a moment of weakness where you can get swept away in lizard brain nonsense.
Of course there’s a place for serious, productive thinking. Productive thinking is not to be confused with looping useless thoughts over and over in your head. Most of your brain chatter is probably useless.
What’s next for me
Location-wise I’m in Mexico City at least for the next few days if not longer, then I’ll be making my way to Bali. It seems that most flights from here stop in Europe, so I may make a pitstop somewhere in Europe, but not sure where. If I enjoy Bali I’d like to stay there a while. I really want to have a home-base as all this moving around is a huge distraction, and I miss having a more permanent sense of community. The main downside of Asia is the timezone difference to the U.S, which is a disadvantage for work. If I’m not feeling Bali, I’ll prob make my way back to Portugal and maybe check out some countries I haven’t explored yet (eg. Romania, Ireland).
Dating is not even remotely a priority for me right now. I think it’ll be a while before I can even entertain the idea of a serious relationship. Definitely not interested in “chasing” or settling for some pretty face with accountability issues. Not really impressed by physical appearance anymore. Sex doesn’t even interest me much at this point (did I really say that?). Don’t ever want to be in a position of co-dependence. At some point I’ll have kids, but only with the right person, and there’s zero reason to rush any of that or force it.
My focus is on setting up a homebase, kicking ass on work, and being in control of my life / mental state and not dependent on anyone. The next time I experience some unexpected negative shock in my event, I don’t want that to have any bearing on my mental state and work ethic.
Work-wise I’ll get back to content creation (articles and Youtube), keep working on personal projects, and apply for jobs/contract work again. Project wise I’m at a bit of a crossroads and honestly think it’s probably better for me to apply for jobs/contract work, but I’ve held off on that because of my plan to go back to Bali and assuming most jobs won’t be happy with me working in Asia. That being said I probably shouldn’t make that assumption since I did get one of my last jobs working from Asia. Anyways will try to figure things out soon. My recent interest in neuroscience and mindfulness has been fascinating and highly beneficial, but I do have to get back to making money at some point…
Keep crushing it,
3 thoughts on “Mindfulness and Optimizing Your Mind”
If you really want to be more mindful/present, read “the power of now” by eckhart tolle
He talked about it long before it became a trend
I did skim through that book many years ago, maybe I should revisit it!
Trust me, you must!