Mental Environmentalism: The art of cleaning your thoughts

I certainly care about the physical planet we live on. My heart aches when I see news stories of toxic chemicals accidentally released into freshwater rivers, PSAs on the negative impact of drilling for oil, and I cringe every time I watch someone toss a Styrofoam takeout container into the section of the trash elegantly labeled "LANDFILL".

I recently began to consider that our minds themselves are an entire environment of their own: a maze of connections, cells, and systems that somehow work together to keep us functioning. Close your eyes and you can visualize entire forests, valleys and mountains. You can imagine situations, conversations and create entire plot lines right in your head. Your mind is the source that allows you to form relationships, create art, and begin positive change. Everything we do begins in our minds, but many of our minds relate more closely to a ragged, litter-filled shoreline complete with decaying, bloated fish than a pristine private oasis of turquoise water and healthy, tropical fish. So many of us are plagued with negative thoughts, always jumping to the worst possible conclusions and berating ourselves 24 hours a day.

This. Ends. Now.

Each thought, positive or negative, can release a series of self-made chemicals and hormones into our body. We can choose negative thoughts, releasing a poisonous cocktail of stress hormones, or we can choose positive thoughts, increasing our dopamine levels and sought-after happiness hormones. 

I’d like to propose that we all start practicing some major mental environmentalism.

The pollution of my own mind dawned on me with a single intrusive thought. I was walking down a busy street, engrossed in my iPhone and gravely unaware of my surroundings. I suddenly felt my foot stop dead, caught on the ledge of a poorly laid slab of sidewalk, but my body kept moving. This spun into a dramatic arm flailing in an attempt to keep myself from slamming face-first into the sidewalk. I caught my balance, although flustered and embarrassed, my ego screaming that everyone was staring right at me.

Immediately and without warning, a thought popped into my head:

“You are so stupid.”

Whoa, whoa, whoa....relax. What happened to all that self-love we were working on? As laughable as it was, it was also deeply concerning.

Would I have said this to a friend I was walking with if they had tripped on the same random, uneven chunk of concrete? Not a chance. I would have told them that no one saw, to just brush it off, they looked great.

But oh how much harder it is to be nice to ourselves.

We’ve all done it; that immediate “I look terrible” upon looking in the mirror early on a Monday morning. That quick, mean-spirited “Oh please...NOT today,” that pops into our mind when we unexpectedly see an old acquaintance coming towards us from the other side of the street.

These thoughts may be quick, but over time, intrusive thoughts like these could have a very negative impact, wreaking havoc on our bodies and leaving us stressed, disconnected and dejected. It’s time we sweep the dusty corners of our minds, pick up the candy wrappers and tattered plastic bags from the shoreline of our psyche and start thinking more positively.

Instead of ignoring these thoughts when they rise up, honour them. Accept that they’re there, but don’t let yourself believe them.  We must examine the dark, murky waters of our brain in order to understand them and to keep ourselves from drowning in their rapid currents. There is no stopping them once they’ve come, but they certainly aren’t invited to stay. I’ve found immediately replacing them with a positive thought can be incredibly helpful and healing over time.

When you see the charity representative making a beeline for you on the street on your way to a meeting, avoid going to the dark place (where I have certainly been) of “I really can’t deal with this right now.”  Instead, try smiling, taking a breath and thinking, “May they be safe, may they be happy, may they be loved.” They're trying their best, just like you. Instant energy shift.

When you find yourself dropping a stack of papers on your way back to your desk, avoid the instantaneous “Why am I such a mess?” Instead, consider what you’d say to a tearful child in the same situation, bracing themselves for the ridicule they’ve learned to expect. Let’s go with: “It’s okay darling, we can get this cleaned up.” Onwards and upwards.

As ridiculous as it may seem, this work can be deeply transformative. Acknowledging your negative thoughts allows you to see how untrue they actually are and eventually you'll learn to simply laugh them off.  Burning toast does not make you an idiot. Just because your hair isn't sitting right today doesn't mean no one will ever love you. Crafting positive thoughts from your turmoil in turn allows you to be more relaxed about stressful or disappointing situations, allowing you to realize how insignificant many of our daily pitfalls actually are. 

Positive thoughts are the environmental activists of the mind. Use them and feel the life flow back into the rivers of your consciousness, free from the toxic waste you once allowed to seep in. Plant them like trees, and watch that garden grow.