Mind Games

Over this past year, I had a lot of time for introspection. My third year of fellowship was split into 70% research time and 30% clinic time. The pandemic compounded the social distancing by turning all of my research meetings into virtual Zoom meetings. Basically, I spent nearly all my time at home. Since I was left to myself a lot, I did a lot of thinking.

Life is a single player game. People’s greatest problem in the modern era is that they cannot sit in a room by themselves for 30 minutes. I learned that the hard way.

Sitting by myself is hard because I always had the need to do something or be somewhere. Several years of medical training always kept me busy with exams and papers and the like. With what seemed like more time on my hands, I found time to sit and think. I soon realized that my mind literally acted like a monkey. The monkey was running around throwing poop everywhere and making a mess.

People can speak up to 4000 words to themselves every minute. These are the words of the monkey mind. Sometimes the words are positive (I can do this), sometimes are negative (Ugh, I can’t do this), or just nonsense (Baby Shark doo doo doo doo doo). The quality of the words matter. I needed better quality. I stepped up and talked to myself.

The most important conversations are the ones you have with yourself.

Win the game with two steps.

Pay attention.

In order to change is to be aware of a need to change. By not being aware of your mind, you can easily succumb to the powerful emotions and be enslaved by them. If you can observe your thoughts without forcing change, you often times can find both pain and happiness at the same time.

Pay attention to things that you can control. The things you control are internal, like your thoughts. Things you cannot control are external like health, wealth, and pleasure. Epictetus, a Stoic philosopher, describes this as your sphere of control. “Externals are not in my power; will is in my power.” Your will is your thoughts, and your thoughts you can control. Being aware of your thoughts is the key to freedom from the monkey mind.

Talk to yourself as a friend would.

Good friends are compassionate friends. Since the most important conversations are the ones you have with yourself, might as well make yourself your best friend. Self-compassion works. Research has shown that self-compassion increases happiness, positive outlook, and motivation and decreases anxiety, depression, and negative introspection.

Showing compassion is listening. How do you like it when you are venting to a friend and all they do is interrupt you with what you should do and how to fix the problem? I sure hate that. Especially, when I need to vent. So you must do the same with yourself. Pay attention and listen to what’s going on. Give yourself space with no judgement. Allow the situation to boil over.

Everything needs nourishment to survive. You need to eat, right? So, does negative thinking. Let the negativity run its course. As long as you don’t feed the thoughts, they will die of starvation. Just like after letting friends dump their suffering, just let yourself dump your suffering. You can speak to yourself nicely and gently. Motivational lies won’t work here. What works is validation. Validate yourself. Tell yourself “Yeah that sucks!” or “Wow, I see where you’re coming from.” You just need to know that someone is listening. That someone is you.

Life is a mind game

“Every day is like a blank page: When you’re finished filling it, you can save it, you can crumple it up, or you can slide it into the recycling bin and let it be. Only time will tell you what it was worth.”

Austin Kleon, Keep Going

Life is a mind game. The only player that matters is yourself. To win, you need to do two steps. First, pay attention. Pay attention to your thoughts, feelings, and actions. Second, practice self-compassion. Be honest with yourself. Talk as your best friend would. Best friends are there for listening.

Negative thoughts will always happen. You can’t or shouldn’t avoid that. Instead, you must accept that they do happen and realize you have the tools to help yourself when they do happen.

I needed to hear that.

What does your monkey mind say about that? Mine is still singing “Baby Shark doo doo doo doo doo.”

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