My mental health toolkit
January 19, 2020
I try my best to not take my mental health for granted, and to be grateful that my brain chemistry allows me to do the things I want while feeling good about life most days.
It feels good to live in a society that is placing more emphasis on the importance of mental health, and is becoming more willing to accept that humans are not infinitely reliable automata, but complicated beings who are always negotiating our happiness and fulfilment with the environment around us.
I often feel I don’t have control over the environment to the extent that I would like, but I do have some say in what goes on inside my head, which has made a big difference in my life. So, I’d like to share the routine that I’ve found works for me.
The routine consists of four components - two practices to be done at the beginning and end of each day, and two mental habits or reminders to give ourselves throughout the day as needed - that can be summarized as this:
- Mindfulness meditation - at the beginning of the day
- Ego monitoring - throughout the day
- Active empathy - throughout the day
- Lovingkindness meditation - at the end of the day
The fact that meditation plays some role in a mental health routine is probably no surprise to anyone. I’ve been meditating on and off (mostly off) for years, but more recently, as a result of podcasts (one example is Peter Attia vs. Tim Ferriss), and through conversations with friends, I’ve mixed these techniques together and have ended up following the routine with a consistency I find surprising.
The consistency is probably one of the most important things about this routine. As Tim Ferriss so insightfully points out in that same podcast, “The consistent program that you follow is better than the perfect program that you quit.” This is important because one of the benefits of mindfulness meditation is that it empowers us to take control over our thoughts, to observe undesirable thought patterns, and to choose not to indulge them before they have a chance to drag us down. Consistent mindfulness meditation makes this easier, which consequently facilitates the rest of the routine.
Step 2, what I’m calling ‘ego monitoring’ for lack of a better phrase, is a reminder to abandon one specific thought pattern that is particularly prevalent in our heads, a pattern that I think becomes obvious when we begin to pay attention to the content and frequency of our thoughts.
I used to believe that there was some kind of moral distinction between pursuing material wealth or good looks on one hand, and pursuing knowledge, for instance, or other forms of self-betterment, on the other hand. I thought that it was better, more noble, or more meaningful to pursue the latter.
Then I slowly started to realize just how often I would have the experience of solving a problem at work, or telling an anecdote, or writing something that I was particularly proud of, and then feeling an acute satisfaction because of what these things signalled about me, or about my place in society, or about my ability relative to my peers. I could feel that my actions every day were guided by a craving for that satisfaction, and that as soon as I got it, it would disappear and I would have to seek out new ways of obtaining it. In some respects, these compulsions are reminiscent of an addiction, but this addiction is something that our way of life convinces us to accept as perfectly ordinary.
This was a distressing realization. I know this sounds extremely trite, but when I began to notice how often this was happening, I really internalized the idea that the motivation for pursuing a goal can be far more important than the goal itself. Solving interesting problems is a great thing to do, especially if you’re just interested in the process, or find learning pleasurable, or a million other reasons. But if you’re constantly using praise as a means of reinforcing an image you have of yourself, then I believe this is just inviting depression and anxiety into your life when you encounter something that undermines that image.
Since that realization, I’ve started trying to notice whenever I’m saying or doing something because I think it will bring me that sort of egotistical satisfaction, or when I otherwise find myself taking egotistical pleasure in some circumstance that makes me look good. Once I notice, I acknowledge that I’m putting emphasis on something which ultimately doesn’t matter, and gently remind myself that people are worthy of love not because of some ephemeral achievement, but because of the permanent and unchangeable fact that they’re human. Then, I think about something else.
There is a quote from Alan Watts that has always resonated with me - “To succeed is always to fail – in the sense that the more one succeeds in anything, the greater is the need to go on succeeding. To eat is to survive to be hungry.” After following the routine I’m describing here, it has acquired an even greater significance, because I realized that if I allow myself to luxuriate in external validation, then I’m also allowing myself to be swept away by the disappointment that always follows. There is no real way to win this game, the only way to win is to not play, and go do something else instead.
Step 3, active empathy (I’m sure there’s a better phrase for this somewhere) is very straightforward. In this part of the routine we just remind ourselves that there is nothing to be gained from feeling resentment or anger towards others, and we should try to see that everyone is the protagonist in their own story.
We are not diminished in any way by being kind to other people or finding something about them that we enjoy. And if we discover that we’re beginning to feel threatened by others’ success, or that their presence is causing us to belittle ourselves, then we revisit step 2, and remind ourselves that our worth as human beings does not consist in something as transitory as material wealth, career success, or arbitrary personality traits.
Step 4 is another form of meditation to round out the day, called Metta meditation or loving-kindness meditation. This is another technique that I heard about on the Tim Ferriss podcast (eagle-eyed readers may have begun to detect a theme), and decided to incorporate into my routine.
Most of the time when we hear about meditation, it’s mindfulness meditation that is being discussed, and so I decided to do some more in-depth exploration of some other types. The great thing about this form of meditation, especially before bed, is that it allows us to put down the stress, resentment, and antagonism that we accumulate throughout the day through our interactions with others or through needless self-deprecation.
We often hear that it’s not a good idea to go to bed angry, and by practising Metta meditation we are able to attend to the state of our emotions and feel happiness and compassion for others, so that the last emotion we experience on any given day has a quality of acceptance, forgiveness, and optimism.
I’ve been thinking about this topic a lot lately and I came to realize that at least for myself, there has to be a way of intercepting my inner monologue and redirecting it to something more productive, or else I would never allow myself to experience true freedom and happiness.
This routine is my attempt to take back the power that my ego has over my life. I believe that some variation on this theme will allow us to change the character of our thoughts, and to become kinder towards ourselves and others, which will in turn improve the richness and quality of our everyday experience.