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  • Writer's pictureJill Brocklehurst

Mental Athletics

“Your ability to concentrate is only as strong as your commitment to train your mind.”  ~ Cal Newport (Deep Work: Rules for Focused Success in a Distracted World)

About 25 years ago, I began my training as a conscious thought leader. Much to my dismay at the time, I learned that my thinking played a major role in my life (which was packed full of heartache and challenges at the time). I remember once, in class, placing my hands over my ears and screaming inside my head, “STOP THINKING!” (Well, THAT is an impossibility. What I needed to learn instead was HOW to think, and then to choose more wisely).

This is ‘conscious living’… and it is a lifetime journey. I invite you to practice with me while reading this article. Make the decision that you will stay with every word to the end, with no excuses. The invitation is to watch your ‘monkey mind’ (no offence to monkeys) highjack moments with un-related thoughts.

An example of hijacking might be that, instead of allowing yourself to be absorbed with the content of what you are reading here, you may be assessing my grammer. (Do you know how many years it took me to spell that word correctly? Grammar? Ah, there I go… off topic. So what do I do? I tell my mind to get back on task). I have decided to focus on writing this article to completion. More and more, in our world of social media and short sound bites, this kind of concentration is becoming a rare find. Yet, it remains a necessary skill in creating a life of meaning.

My favourite work for exercising my mind, so that it becomes ‘the responder’ rather than ‘the master’ in my life, is the simple task of counting 10 breaths:

1… breathe in, breathe out

2… breathe in, breathe out

3… breathe in, breathe out… etc.

So simple. Only 10.

Try it right now; making sure you are conscious of each inhale and exhale, and counting one after another…

Did you do it? 

Or did you skip past this part, saying, “Later.”

I suggest you DO it now, right now, with me.

Were you able to stay on track? Did your mind wander? Did you make excuses and still decide to do it later? (Ha… ‘later’ never comes!) 

This skill is the first step of mindfulness… noticing thoughts. After opening that awareness, we can begin deciphering our thoughts and beliefs; recognizing those that no longer serve us.

Step two is to change our thinking. If I can’t be the one that tells my mind to count to 10 right now, how do I think I can ever build the mental muscle to take a well-worn defeating thought and replace it with something more life-affirming? 

I realize I have been counting rhythmically for years. As a swimmer, I like to count my lengths, back and forth. Lengths 1-2, 1-2, 1-2… lengths 3-4, 3-4, 3-4… all the way to 19-20, 19-20. Then I start over again. BUT what often happens is, at “5-6, 5-6”, in comes thoughts like, “Wonder what I want for dinner? Spaghetti. Oh, we ran out. I need to remember to call home and ask Hubby to pick some up. How am I ever going to remember? Spaghetti, spaghetti, spaghetti… Oh shoot! How many lengths did I just swim? Did I finish 5-6? Am I on 7-8? I have no idea… . Fine, then!”

I start over where I left off… “5-6, 5-6…”.

Little did I know that, in following this practice, I was teaching myself to concentrate. Good thing. As wired and hyper as I am, it is nearly impossible for me to stay seated as I complete these articles. Yet, week after week, I do it. Thank heavens for being on the swim team! Who would have thought that such a rigorous physical activity was also building mental strength?

I have almost completed reading, Deep Work, by Cal Newport. I now feel even more motivated to impress upon you the incredible value of exercising your mental muscles so that you can actively effect change in your life.

Our inner voices are calling us forward; inviting us to head down our personal paths of meaning. Let’s forge forward; expanding into unknown possibilities and more Good than we have ever realized… . 10 conscious breaths, at least once EVERY day is a start. Next, expand that into a 5 minute practice… then 10 minutes.

Our minds and thoughts are powerful. You’d better know it. Putting conscious thought to work on your own behalf is a journey untold, with new vistas you won’t even have thought possible. (How could can we know what is possible, when we’re too busy thinking the same scattered thoughts over and over?)


Breathe with me now:

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