Archive for November, 2014

Renewing Your Mind: How Gratitude Changes Perspective

Wednesday, November 26th, 2014

Soon it will be Thanksgiving here in the USA, so this week I’m focusing on how you can renew your mind simply by being thankful. Gratitude is a powerful way to change your perspective on topics that trigger negative thoughts for you right now, because when you notice elements you can be grateful for, it opens your mind to new, positive thoughts. Whether you’re struggling with negative thoughts about difficult people or challenging situations, you’re bound to find something to be grateful for about them if you intentionally look.

This Thanksgiving is a difficult one for me, because a family member has recently hurt me and other family members by making a decision that has caused lots of unnecessary pain for us all around the holidays.¬† Frankly, when I think about this particular family member right now, the only thoughts that come to my mind, at first, are negative. So I’ve challenged myself to figure out how to think more positively about this difficult person in my life.

What works for me, when I try to do that, is to purposefully take an inventory of anything I do like about her. For example, this family member is kind to animals. Noticing just one positive trait opens the door for me to find others, and once I’ve started a flow of positive thoughts about her, my perspective on this person gets bigger — and more accurate, since everyone and everything in this world has both negative and positive characteristics.

Who or what is triggering negative thoughts in your mind right now? This week, I challenge you to find several positive traits about that difficult person or challenging situation in your life, reflect on those traits, and see how that changes your perspective for the better. Then the next time you must deal with that person or situation, you’ll be better equipped to do so.

Renewing Your Mind: Identifying Thought Patterns to Change

Wednesday, November 19th, 2014

Have you ever tried to stop yourself from thinking about something, only to find that the more you try to avoid thinking about that particular subject, the more it pops into your mind?

This counterintuitive process really hit me when I tried to give up chocolate for a 40-day period, when I was preparing for Easter by observing Lent and wanted to fast from something that had drawn my attention away from God. Prior to that, chocolate had become almost an obsession for me. I’d thought about it so much that I actually planned my daily schedule around when I could eat some chocolate, to make sure that I got my “fix” several times a day. Usually, I wasn’t even hungry when I ate the chocolate; I ate it for emotional reasons (to reward myself for hard work or to relax) rather than physical reasons. My unhealthy chocolate habit wasn’t just bad for my body; it was also bad for my mind, because my thoughts about chocolate controlled me rather than me controlling them.

So, with good intentions and all the willpower I could muster, I stopped consuming chocolate of any kind and repeatedly reminded myself not to think about it.

What a joke!

The more I reminded myself not to think about chocolate, the more mental energy I ended up using to focus on chocolate. Even though I directed my thoughts about chocolate¬† to be warnings against it, I was still thinking about chocolate — and more than ever before! Chocolate suddenly seemed to be everywhere around me, tempting and taunting me as I struggled not to think about it.

Then I discovered that if I didn’t remind myself not to think about chocolate, but simply used my mental energy to think about something else, chocolate thoughts started to melt away (:>) in my mind. When I saw chocolate and felt frustrated by my commitment not to eat it, I reminded myself that I’d made that commitment in order to focus on a greater goal than eating chocolate: drawing closer to God. Instead of scolding myself not to think about chocolate, I let the thoughts of chocolate that inevitably came into my mind trigger me to decide to think about God instead. By the end of the 40 days, my blood sugar levels were healthier, and so was my mind!

You can make unhealthy thoughts fade away in your mind by first identifying unhealthy thought patterns (recurring thoughts that you find yourself dwelling on despite not wanting to) and then replacing them by directing your mental energy elsewhere, to something healthy about which you do want to think.

What is one unhealthy thought pattern you’d like to change? Why is it important to you to work on changing that (because the thoughts fuel a bad habit in your life, perhaps, or because they negatively influence your relationship with someone)? What other thoughts can you replace those thoughts with that will help you grow?

Renewing Your Mind: Breathing

Wednesday, November 12th, 2014

Another effective way to focus your mind when you’re distracted, besides sharpening your senses, is by using your breathing as a tool to make you more aware of your thoughts in the present moment. Just as you constantly have thoughts flowing through your mind, you have breath flowing in and out of your lungs. Paying attention to your breathing patterns during times when you want to focus on your thoughts gives you a tangible cue to connect with what’s going on in your mind at that time. Some people use breathing in this way during meditation or prayer, and the practice can lead to decreased stress and increased peace.

You’ve probably had someone tell you to “take a deep breath” sometime when you’ve been stressed; or maybe, you’ve reminded yourself to do so. I certainly have. There’s real power to change your perspective when you focus your thoughts on your breathing, because it connects you completely what you’re experiencing now, making you fully aware of it. Your thoughts can run wild, but your breathing is naturally consistent — and you can only take one breath at a time.

As you breathe in, you can focus on what thought — positive or negative — happens to be in your mind at that moment. Then, if it’s a negative thought that you’d like to change to a positive one, you can imagine yourself exhaling that negative thought. When you inhale again, you can intentionally think a positive thought to replace the negative thought you’ve exhaled. Even if you’re not trying to change your thoughts yet, but simply trying to tune into them with greater awareness, your breathing’s natural consistency can help you deal with your busy mind in a way that brings order out of chaos.

How has taking a deep breath helped you focus your mind in a stressful situation before? Do you ever use your breathing to help you meditate or pray — and if so, how has that proven helpful for you?

Renewing Your Mind: Sharpening Your Senses

Wednesday, November 5th, 2014

An especially fun way to sharpen your focus on your thoughts is by sharpening your senses. Training yourself to pay careful attention to your physical senses — the classic ones like seeing, hearing, smelling, touching, and tasting, as well as others such as temperature and motion — makes you more aware of the information that your experiences are giving you. Just as living fully in each present moment helps you wake up your mind, so does sensing the world around you as fully as possible. The external stimuli you experience can enliven your internal thoughts.

I practiced this at the famous floating flower market, the Bloemenmarkt, in Amsterdam, the Netherlands (Holland):

* Seeing: A crush of color — from bright yellow and vibrant red to pale pink and soothing lavender — met my eyes as I walked among the flowers. Holland’s signature flower, the tulip, was in abundant supply, and so were many other varieties of flowers, like daffodils and roses. Each had its own distinctive shape. Then there were large bins of brown bulbs with future flowers inside, waiting to burst out in all their glory after planting. There were other products spilling out of the market’s stalls, too, such as seeds, wind chimes, wooden flowers, magnets, candy, and cheese. Finally, I saw a crush of people as we all tried to navigate the stall’s narrow aisles without bumping into each other.

* Hearing: I overheard conversations happening around me in a variety of different languages — Dutch, English, German, French, and Spanish — punctuated by the sounds of bicycles and trams going past on the streets nearby and boats traveling past on the nearby canal.

* Smelling: The fresh scent of flowers was everywhere, of course. I also experienced the aroma of the Gouda cheese I bought and ate at the market, as well as the pungent scent of the canal water that wafted up to the market’s stalls in the breeze.

* Touching: From soft flower petals and squishy cheese to hard magnets and rough flower bulbs, there was a wide array of different types of touch to experience at the Bloemenmarkt.

* Tasting: As I snacked on Gouda cheese, I savored its creamy taste. Then I washed it down by finishing the clear, refreshing spring water in a bottle I had carried with me.

This week, I’d like to challenge you to visit a place that makes your senses come alive and spend some time there paying full attention to what you see, hear, smell, touch, and taste there. Take notes on what you experience with your senses, describing the details and considering how that awareness makes you more aware of the thoughts in your mind.