Wednesday, November 10, 2010

Tending the Garden of the Midlife Mind

Men are disturbed not by the things that happen,
But by their opinion of the things that happen.

~ Epictetus ~

Everything we feel, experience, and do is powerfully shaped by the activity that exists between our right and left ears, - in the perceptions of our mind.     I am using this metaphor, the garden of the mind, to suggest the benefits of tending to the nature of our thoughts and perceptions.   Our ability to navigate the crisis that can come at the midlife juncture - to understand it and make the most use of its hidden benefits - will depend upon our mental gardening habits.    Tending the garden of the mind is one of the most under-utilized strategies we have at our disposal to make positive changes in our lives.    How do we become good gardeners of the mind at midlife?

Weeds in the garden of the mind
There are a number of factors that contribute to a healthy garden including placing it in a location where it will receive the light of the sun, choosing the right seeds for the environment, and watering the seeds you want to grow.    But let’s focus on one especially important discipline required- weeding your mental garden.   Weeds in the garden of the mind are the thoughts, beliefs and perceptions that when left unattended choke the life of the plants we want to grow.    The weeds of our thoughts are what leave us discouraged, demoralized, fearful, and even depressed.    They are the perceptions that will derail us from accomplishing what we set out to do or rob us of our peace of mind.     Some midlife weeds include thoughts such as:  “There is so much more I thought I would have done with my life by now”;   “I no longer  have sufficient time left or the inclination to pursue my dream, or even remember what it was”;  “The best years of my life are over”;  “I can’t really stand the work I do, but I have no choice but to keep doing it”;  “What’s wrong with me- I should be happy with my life just as it is”’;  “The world is for the young, there is no place for me anymore”.      If you have managed to make it to middle age, it’s likely you have some such weeds.    What are yours?     

How to weed
The importance of your thoughts in shaping your experience may not be a new idea for you. However, if you find yourself stuck or suffering inordinately, it suggests you may not be seeing and tending to the weeds in your own garden.   The more typical strategy at this juncture is to look first to changing external circumstances rather than tending to this inner garden.    Here are some tips to help: 
1) Be aware of the signs of too many weeds.    Simply feeling bad is the main symptom of an untended garden.  You may feel chronically frustrated, or find that something you really want to do or have remains forever elusive.  
2) Pay attention.    Listen for thought weeds as they occur.    If you believe you are having a crisis, it is a good time to get your pen or keyboard and write down all the thoughts that the ‘little voice’ in your mind is saying to you about your experience.     Make note especially of the ones that leave you feeling sad, discouraged, guilty, angry, or hopeless. 
3) Most importantly- PULL THOSE WEEDS.   Mental weeding is to adopt the perspective that all those unhelpful thoughts are not literally true.   They are just thoughts - unhelpful thoughts at that.   But if we water them… that is dwell upon and entertain them as literal truths, they can devastate the health of our  precious mental garden.    A good inner response as you pull a mental weed is simply saying to those unhelpful thoughts  “thanks for sharing”, as you turn your attention instead to watering the healthy plants.   When I stumble upon a patch of mental weeds, I like to adopt the persona of the “Dude” (cf. The Big Lebowski) and respond to those unhelpful thought weeds with:  “…Well that’s, like, just your opinion man”.     Try making all of those unhelpful thoughts speak to you with the voice of an old cartoon character, like Elmer Fudd.   That will help put them into perspective.     
4) Think better thoughts.   Sounds simple, but in reality choosing to replace an unhelpful thought with a better one takes a great deal of focus, practice, and mental discipline.    Most of the time, most of us just leave all those weeds to grow like… well weeds. 

If we can bring some conscious awareness to the state of our mental garden, it gives us the option of doing something about it.  Ultimately, it does not matter where those weeds originated.  If they have blown into your garden, they are now your responsibility.      To survive and even thrive as a result of your midlife crisis, tend to this garden…and it will take care of you.  

Copyright © 2010 David O. Aspenson   All rights reserved   

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