Monday, January 24, 2011

Pulling Weeds & Planting Flowers: How to Rid Negative Thoughts and Nourish the Positive

A brain is a terrible thing to waste. A mind is a terrible thing to leave unattended. Left to its own devices my mind can become the nesting ground for negativity, and regularly time is spent having arguments with people who aren't there. Negative thoughts are sticky, they breed like bunnies in my mind. This month has been challenging. Mentally I feel like the guys from the movie "300", fighting off my neurosis instead of Persians. A harder and longer battle has not been fought in all of human existence, the fight against the angry voices of our minds. I cant help myself, it seems as if somehow I became and excellent salesman. I sell myself thoughts about awful past decisions, I replay sad events, I judge people, I sink into self-pity, I meticulously pick away at myself, and dear lord lets not even jump into the self comparisons (a deeper shitfest I could not imagine). Misery loves company, and a more seductive song than that of an angry and negative perception I have not heard.

Regularly a negative thought has not been a problem for me. Since the age of 15 I have been cultivating mindfulness, a skillful use of attention to what I am thinking about (or my inner state). My practice is not without its massive flaws, but I hold to the fact that most people pay zero attention to what is going on inside and attend to what is happening outside of themselves (the cause of suffering). My negative thoughts continued so I shut down for a few days, in total defeat mode. I laid down. I felt awful. I thought deep thoughts. I decided to face every single issue. It hurt deeply. And then I decided to pull weeds and plant flowers in the garden of my mind.

I suppose in order to understand why we have negative thoughts that stalk us, its important to understand our biological machinery. In the sphere of our mind, the brain is the machinery. It has been proven by psychologist and regular people alike that our brains have a negativity bias (google it). Our minds pay more attention and give more weight to negative experiences. From an evolutionary perspective our brains do this because back when we were cave dudes and dudettes, we needed to pay attention to the negative in order to survive. It was a decision between running away or being mauled by a tiger. So we developed neurotransmitters that relate to rewards in the past (Dopamine). Therefore you and I are more likely to not play with fire again since we got burned the last time we tried, or less likely to ask a pretty girl on a date because you had a bad experience as a teenager. The survival value of this was carried on through our DNA. It is easy to see how our hardwiring is no longer very useful. I live in Manhattan and the only tiger near here is in the Bronx Zoo. So now instead of going apeshit over a tiger potentially eating me, I go ape shit about standing in line for too long at Walgreens, or having an argument with a family member seems like a life or death stress.

Negative thoughts persist essentially because we let them grow, like weeds. Weeds are natural, they grow and will always grow because consistently there is change in the environment (weeds grow in areas that are frequently disturbed by winds and the moving of soil), but weeds often overgrow specially in gardens where they must be eliminated since they steal soil nutrients from flowers. So as life presents us with changing negative experiences we will consistently have negative thoughts. With weeds its important to pull out the root or they will keep growing back. So with our thoughts it is important to go deeper into why some negative event or thought is constantly on replay, we must dig out all the causes right down to our roots (our childhood or our past) and pull it out. 

The negative thoughts in our minds are taking up mental space that could more effectively and beautifully be filled with positive thoughts. This is the actual way to get rid of negative thoughts, by pulling those negative thoughts out by the root and planting positive thoughts instead. Whenever you have a negative thought it is beneficial to focus on a positive fact, hold on to that fact, and let it sink in. The holding on to that positive mental image enforces your brain to automatically scan for the good as well as the bad, instead of just the bad. With time this will become routine and automatic for your brain. Most of our negative thoughts are not facts but worries, worries are not real they are mental imagery, remind yourself of the pure facts and focus on what is positive.

I am still pulling weeds and planting flowers. Gardening is hard work, but graciously I do it because I will take the truth at any cost. Your happiness, your peace, your joy, your pain, your stress, and your life in general is managed by you. You and only you have the power to experience your life from a certain vantage point, therefore no one but you can show up to your mental garden. Show up and look around, please clean up while your there. I will tell you why I suffered my mental world war. On my path to becoming a better person I have faced things superficially, events and experiences that In my mental garden I just trimmed away from view. Experiences and opinions and actions that I glanced but never fully faced. Some things hurt so much we put them aside from view, we bury them in the garden, but the rain always falls to uncover our mess. I am no longer trimming weeds, I am now pulling them from the root. 

For further reading on the brain and the neuroscience of happiness read the book Buddha's Brain by Rick Hanson

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