Ego

Defining The Spiritual Ego

ego
Explaining who you really are.

The human psyche is one of life’s greatest mysteries.What is our innermost essence? What is our life force? Is the idea of who we are a product of the mind, social conditioning, and the thoughts we have? Or are we spiritual beings, both material and divine?

The psyche encompasses all it means to be human. It originates from the 17th century Greek word, psukhē, which translates to “breath, life, soul.” Clearly, more than one approach is needed to tackle such a broad subject.

In psychology and theories arising from the West, the ego plays a crucial role in the psyche. It forms our self-concept and is an essential part of human cognitive function. Conversely, on the spiritual path the ego can be an obstruction to enlightenment. If left to its own devices, it can become a monster that needs to be tamed and transcended. My view falls somewhere in the middle.

In this article I’ll attempt to explain the ego’s role in who you are. Then, I’ll turn to spirituality to highlight how the ego can limit your potential, and what you can do to combat it.

Me, Myself And I — The Ego And Psychotherapy

The word ego originates from early 19th century Latin, translating directly to I. The ego is synonymous with Sigmund Freud’s theory on the human psyche. Freud was a renowned neurologist who founded the discipline of psychoanalysis in the early 1890s, in an attempt to understand the workings of the human self-image, the I. As well as explaining our motivations and behaviour, psychoanalysis was also used to help treat mental health disorders.

Freud’s theories on the mind have permeated popular culture for good reason; the belief that our thoughts, emotions and motivations are powered by a rich inner universe — most of which we are unaware of — is still relevant today. This inner universe is theorised by Freud in a branch of psychoanalysis, known as ego psychology, which splits the human psyche into three distinct levels of consciousness — the id, ego and superego.

The Id, Ego And Supergo

According to Freud, the subconscious id is the most deep-rooted aspect of the human psyche. It’s our animal instinct. This chaotic aspect of mind is stored deep in the subconscious and seeks instant gratification by following pleasure and avoiding pain. Aptly, Freud coined this the “pleasure principle.”

The ego is an unconscious aspect of mind that acts as a buffer between the id’s overzealous quest for pleasure and the reality of the external world. Aptly (x2), Freud coined this the “reality principle.” Though still looking to satisfy the id, the ego does so in a much more rational, logical manner. In this context, the ego is positive. Let’s call this the “don’t be a dick but still want nice things” principle.

The third and final aspect, the superego, is governed by social conditioning. Moulded around the ages of 3-5, the superego is driven by societal and parental values, and often strives for perfection. This conscious aspect of mind is further split into the conscience (feelings of guilt) and the ideal self (I “should” be like this or like that).

Carl Jung And Ego-Consciousness

This concept of ego was built upon by Freud’s protégé, Carl Jung. In many ways, Jung bridges the gap between Freud’s model of the psyche and a more Eastern approach. Jung believed that while the ego was the centre of the both the psyche and human consciousness, it wasn’t the magic ingredient in the recipe of human life. Instead, he highlights the limits of the ego and placed a lot of importance on the subconscious.

Anyone who has any ego-consciousness at all takes it for granted that he knows himself. But the ego knows only its own contents, not the unconscious and its contents. Carl Jung, The Undiscovered Self.

Jung entered more spiritual territory by acknowledging a mystical element of the psyche that wasn’t necessarily governed by biological drives. But Western theories still highlight the ego as part of our core identity. Granted, the ego plays a crucial role in how we function in the external world, but it doesn’t satisfactorily explain what makes us human.

Freud and Jung pinpoint that there are elements of our psyche that are out of our control. A driving force that influences our decisions. Now, here’s where spirituality kicks in — what are these mysterious elements? Are they simply biological drives built into our DNA? Deep-rooted conditioned aspects of mind? Or is there something greater?

Moving Beyond The Mind — The Ego And Spirituality

“We are living in a material world.” Madonna.

Though quantum physics increasingly merges scientific theory with spiritual concepts, Western theories of the ego are limited to the material world. The central argument of materialism is that only the physical realm exists. If you apply materialism to the concept of what-makes-us-us, then we are exclusively physical beings. Our brain, made of physical matter, contains the mind, and the mind is the source of human consciousness.

The importance of spirituality is that its focus is beyond the material dimension. When you look beyond the material, the concept of who we are dramatically expands. Looking at the psyche from this perspective, we realise what-makes-us-us isn’t the thoughts we have about ourselves, but instead an expansive awareness behind those thoughts, the witness of our inner world.

In Eastern philosophy, this is our true identity. We are connected to a spiritual, divine dimension of pure awareness, pure being, God (eek!). Our psyche isn’t part of a greater whole, it is the greater whole, with no separation in between.

The video below explains how to transcend the ego, whilst remaining grounded. 

The Ocean And The Onion

Now it’s time for a colourful metaphor.

Think of the universe as a cosmic ocean of consciousness. Each and every one of us, on the deepest level of our psyche, is a part of this ocean. The ego prevents us from seeing this reality by deceiving us into believing we only exist materialistically. When we identify with the ego, our self-image helps create the illusion that we are individual and separate from the ocean. We believe what-makes-us-us is the mind, squished into the confines of grey matter, flesh and blood.

Continuing the aquatic metaphor, let’s imagine the ego as an onion, floating on the cosmic ocean. The egoic onion (I’m sticking with this) consists of layer after layer of thoughts (“I’m useless”), beliefs (“there is no God”), opinions (“Bristol Rovers are the best team in the world”) and memories. Identifying with this self-image means living a life whereby the vastness of the entire universe self-deceptively contained in an onion.

Identifying With The Onion And Negativity Bias

The egoic onion explains why spiritual practice emphasises the importance of not identifying with the ego. The onion is minuscule reflection of who you really are. I mentioned above that the ego is integral to functioning in society, and that is true. The issue isn’t the ego, but how you identify with it. Identifying with the onion wouldn’t be awful if it were fresh, pragmatic, logical, rational and selfless. But most of our onions are tainted by a negativity bias, as hypothesized by Paul Rozin’s and Edward Royzman’s 2001 study.

As well as the thoughts and beliefs we have about our identity (“I’m unlovable,” “I’ll never be happy”) and the external world (“things never go my way”), negativity bias also taints our memory recollection, another significant aspect of the onion’s “who am I?.” Rozin’s and Royzman’s study discovered that the potency of negative experiences is much higher than positive, which means our memories of negative events are much stronger. Our onion’s are naturally glass-half-empty.

So not only is the identifying with the onion drastically limiting our potential and cutting us off from the vast ocean of awareness, it also convinces us we’re not really that great. We live our lives convinced we’re the onion, and the story we create of who we are often discounts the positive. Yes, onions can be mature, logical, caring, successful, inspiring and all sorts. We can work on improving our own onion. But an onion can only ever excel in the material world. It is never our full potential.

Identifying with the egoic onion is a global phenomenon. We live in a mass illusion, which Buddhism refers to as maya. For American psychologist Charles Tart — who is known for his work in the field of consciousness — this is a “consensus trance” that is “much more pervasive, powerful, and artificial state than ordinary hypnosis.”

We’re a limitless ocean believing itself an onion. Is that not a shame?

How Do I Mind My Ego?

“Give up defining yourself – to yourself or to others. You won’t die. You will come to life. And don’t be concerned with how others define you. When they define you, they are limiting themselves, so it’s their problem. Whenever you interact with people, don’t be there primarily as a function or a role, but as the field of conscious Presence. You can only lose something that you have, but you cannot lose something that you are.”  Eckhart Tolle, A New Earth

There are two important elements to consider. The first is that you are not the onion and your potential is unlimited. You are not thoughts or beliefs, but instead, part of a greater whole. That greater whole contains peace, tranquility, love, and all nice things. Understanding you are part of the ocean and not separate can liberate you.

The second element is the importance of the onion in the functioning of day-to-day life. I’m aware that I am much, much more than Ricky. But Ricky (sorry, I) has a value to offer the material world. I’m in a unique position where I can become aware of my own divine nature (as we all can be with spiritual practice), and I can balance my material duties (personal growth, achieving goals, etc) with the knowledge that who I am will forever remain the same.

I do not crave to make the Ricky onion perfect, but through channeling divine traits (such as compassion and love) my onion will grow. Spiritually speaking, I believe the ultimate aim is a healthy, mature onion combined with the understanding of our ever-present, divine, spiritual nature. Again — the egoic onion isn’t the monster. It is vital. But understanding you are much, much more than the onion will liberate you. Seeing the onion allows you to ignore the traits that won’t benefit you, and enhance the ones that will.

To become aware of the onion, meditation is vital. Taking a step back and witnessing the part of the psyche that contains the ego is highly valuable. But always remember: You are not the onion. You’re the ocean. And the ocean is vast. And it’s here. Always.

How do you relate to who you really are? Let me know in the comments section below.


Spirituality

How ‘mother!’ Tells A Story Of Divine Femininity

Like a perfect storm, mother! is chaos. It drags you from your seat, punches you in the face, grabs you by the shoulders and shakes, leaving you with an emotional palette that mixes feelings of disgust, awe, and astonishment. It is, essentially, a masterpiece. But it’s a masterpiece only Darren Aronofsky can make, technically accomplished on the surface but elevated to greatness by its context.

Huge spoilers for mother! from now on.

It’s not a surprise that analysis has delved into metaphor. Outwardly, mother! is a dark psychological horror that tells the story of a couple, known as Mother (Jennifer Lawrence) and Him (Javier Bardem) whose quiet, isolated home life is disrupted by mysterious visitors, known simply as Man (Ed Harris) and Woman (Michelle Pfeiffer).

Behind the veil, the film is a metaphorical representation of mankind’s most deep-rooted religious parables. Following the spiritual dive into the metaphysical with The Fountain (2006) and an exploration into the Book of Genesis with Noah (2014), mother! is Aronofsky’s attempt to produce an allegory of Christianity, and in particular, the biblical tale of creation.

Bustle has eloquently analysed the biblical correlations in mother!, highlighting the film as a condensed history of Earth told through the doctrine of Christianity, ending tragically with the forewarned apocalypse. The links aren’t all ambiguous, either. Mother is a representation of mother nature. Him is the masculine, Judeo-Christian god. Man and Woman are Adam and Eve, their feuding sons Cain and Abel.

As frantically manic as it is, the plot also follows a biblical trajectory. At its core, it becomes a story of man destroying Earth against mother nature’s wishes. People pay the house no respect, they do as they please, they take renovation under their own control. The ignorance of those unwanted visitors leads a broken sink, which floods the house in a clear reference to the Genesis flood, where God reverses creation by turning the Earth into a flooded wasteland.

In an oddly niche mother! based Inception, I’m going to dive even deeper down the parabolic rabbit hole and look at the meaning behind the parable behind the allegory. Having digested Aronofsky’s work, I don’t think mother! is a straight up, like-for-like metaphor for Christianity. I believe it contains commentary on the belief system that underpins religious doctrine. Now, let’s metaphorically peel back the blood-soaked floorboards.

The Distinction Between Religion And Spirituality

Before we go on, it’s important to make a distinction between religion and spirituality. The former can be see as dogma, a set of held beliefs that are taught in a structured way. The definition itself is: “a particular system of faith and worship” — emphasis on particular system. Spirituality, on the other hand, is more open, encompassing a belief or experience with the metaphysical, or the soul. It isn’t assigned a set God, it doesn’t follow rules. It’s religion in its distilled state.

All religions, at their core state, generally agree on the same principles. They just package them in different ways. In his book, Essential Spirituality, Dr. Roger Walsh identifies seven central spiritual practices across all religions: finding the soul’s desire; cultivating wisdom; living ethically; calming the mind; recognizing the sacred in all things; awakening wisdom and understanding; expressing generosity and service.

Another facet of spirituality is the conflict between the ego and the soul. The ego is a manifestation of the thinking mind, the barrier blocking our soul’s true desire and the discovery of God. For many Eastern religions, our true selves lie in the quiet clarity that sits beyond the mind’s “chatterbox” nature — the part of ourselves that resides beyond the thinking mind (i.e., the part of you that is aware of your thoughts) is awareness. While the ego sees itself as separate entity cut off from the world, our true selves tap into a universal, interconnected consciousness.

What on Earth does this have to do with mother!? By viewing the film through the lens of essential spirituality, it leads us to a new set of comparisons, that provides further understanding of the message behind it — Him is a manifestation of the ego, Her is awareness.

“I Am I” — Is Him A Manifestation Of The Ego?

While watching mother!, there was one particular comment that caught my attention. After she has destroyed the home to rid the unwanted guests, Mother is dying in His arms. She asks him, “who are you?” to which he responds, “I am I.” This statement is crucial. The ego is often referred to as a false sense of a separate self, a set of belief systems separate from the soul that sees itself as an “I.” By referring to himself as “I,” Bardem’s character reveals he isn’t God, but masculine, man-made representation of God.

There’s more evidence of this. The seven deadly sins on the surface appear to be rigid religious doctrine on “how not to have fun.” Instead, they highlight the different desires of the ego, “sins” in the respect that they remove oneself from the soul, or true being. Him is clearly captivated by a number of these sins, most of all pride. His attraction to fame and adulation takes him away from his soul, Her. It becomes an obsession that leads to him neglecting the most important thing he has.

This is also reflected with the visitors, who can be seen as challenges that entice the ego, to lure it into false fulfilment, away from the enlightenment that lies within the soul. In many ways, the visitors are manifestations of such ego-desires, or sins; they act freely without inhibitions, they fornicate, they steal, they crave salvation. Interestingly, in mother!, celebrity worship replaces religious deity, a nod toward fame being an ego-driven, modern substitute for God.

Mother divine feminity
Mother and Him [Credit: Paramount Pictures]

When Mother gives birth she introduces the purist element of the film. The newborn has no ego, no doctrine, no religion. It’s essence is spiritually free, explaining why many eastern religions advocate the need to “be more like children.” However, the ego-driven hoards can’t handle purity, they literally devour it, their own craving causing the death of the untainted.

Bardem’s character shows signs of gluttony (often referred to as a sign of selfishness), greed (in the manner he seeks adulation), despondency (his struggle with writer’s block) and wrath (his outburst of anger). As an interesting side note, Mother takes on the role of temptress for Him to commit the two final sins — she provokes him into seducing her (lust) and doesn’t let him hold their newborn child (envy) — thus completing the set and potentially unveiling the film’s true message.

Is Mother The Divine Feminine?

On top of testing Him’s ability to show restraint and avoid sin, there are more signs that Mother is ushering Him toward enlightenment. After supporting him through writer’s block, she cries as she reads his finished poem. In that moment, she believes, having attained his goal, Him may be close to enlightenment and overcoming his ego-driven desire (“will I lose you?”). However, he immediately informs his publisher and the press, seeking fame. Mother realises, to her disappointment, his work has become another extension of his ego.

This leads me onto the crux of this article. I don’t believe Him is God. In fact, there’s enough to suggest Mother is God, or at least the true divinity of the film. At the end, we’re shown that the Him is masculine God, the creator. He takes pride in his creation. He takes pride in the fact that he remains, while Mother does not. But out of the two, it’s Mother who acts Godlike. She surrenders, wholly. Despite everything, she gives her heart, her essence, to allow Him to continue. This leads me to a biblical quote, Galatians 2:20, which states:

“I have been crucified with Christ; and it’s no longer I who live, but Christ lives in me; and the life which I now live in the flesh, I live by faith in the Son of God, who loved me and gave Herself up for me.”

This text, it’s the Son of God who surrenders, and gives “Himself” (I’ve switch the gender pronoun for clarity), so it is no longer “I” who lives. In a biblical bait-and-switch, I believe that Aronofsky is making a claim that the divine feminine is God, and man’s masculine creation only “thinks” he is God — but as explained, thinking is a manifestation of the ego. If this is the case, the ending takes an interesting twist.

Him makes out Mother didn’t live up to his high expectations, but instead he’s the one being tested, and failing. Like Sisyphus, he’s forced into repetition until he learns his lesson. What’s the lesson? To avoid the cycle of destruction, “I” (Him) must transcend his ego to become connected with being, or pure awareness (symbolised by the poem which shows them connected, holding hands). In short: Him is responsible for attaining enlightenment to prevent the cycle of egoistic living and thus become one with God — “You never loved me, you loved how much I loved you,” says Mother.

The question is: Is there a basis in reality to motivate Aronofsky to pursue this as a story?

The Suppressed Sacred Femininity

Unequivocally yes. Divine femininity has been seriously suppressed, throughout centuries. As highlighted by spiritual guru Eckhart Tolle, the Holy Inquisition — an institution founded by the Catholic Church — tortured and killed between three million and five million women across a 300 year period. Conversely, pre-Christian civilizations such as Sumerian, Egyptian and Celtic societies, revered and worshipped the divine female. The Holy Inquisition rebranded sacred femininity, making it demonic.

Why? As highlighted by Tolle in A New Earth, sacred femininity was rebranded due to collective ego desires taking control. Tolle argues females are more in touch with the soul, thus the ego takes a stronger hold in men. Historically, as the collective ego grew, dogma and fear-based religion was introduced. In order to flourish, the enlightened form of spirituality, in its feminine form, was censored and silenced.

Tolle adds that as a result, women were pushed to the sidelines, reduced to child bearers and objects owned by men. We see this in mother! — throughout the film, Lawrence is seen as an object of Him, her hospitality and life-giving qualities are overlooked. When Mother fulfils her child bearing purpose, she knows immediately. In that scene, the camera focuses on the sun, shining brightly. This could be an illustration of good weather…

Or, in a parable of a parable, a film abundant in metaphor and deeper meaning, it’s more likely the sun represents something else — the Son of God.


Originally posted on Movie Pilot.

Psychology

When Depression Strikes

This isn’t easy to write. But I’ve promised an open and honest relationship, to lead by example. So it’s only right I share the personal challenge I’ve been facing.

Up until recently, I’d been surfing the electrochemical wave of energised neurons as they vigorously fired through the synapses of my brain. My mind felt free and abundant with ideas and exciting prospects for the future. My imagination vividly presented me bright, lifelike visualisations. An unconditional zest for being alive powered me forwards with purpose.

My energy — all that makes me “me” — flowed beyond my physical body, meeting the energy that makes everything “everything,” connecting me with the rest of the world, and beyond.

Then depression struck.

I don’t know why it surprises me, I’ve been here many times. But try as I might, it returns. And with it the reverse of what I’d experienced moments before. Zest replaced by numbness. Forward motion replaced by a sinking sensation.

Those neurons, they slowed as they attempted to fight their way through the thick grey sludge of a weary brain. My energy returned from distant stars and compressed into the confines of flesh and bone. “Me” no longer connected with “everything,” creating a bubble, leaving me isolated, stuck in the mud of the mind. My imagination now a perpetual loop of sepia-tinted memories, encasing me in a nostalgic amber of better times.

I’d been meditating. Eating well. Exercising regularly. Avoiding alcohol. Practicing mindfulness. Journaling. Taking multivitamins and Omega-3. Bathing in ultra-bright artificial light. I’d been studying the human mind, training for the time when I can hopefully help others.

But it doesn’t matter. There’s a simple truth about depression: no matter how much you prepare, no matter how much you know, or how self-aware you are, depression can strike. No matter your status in life, how happy you seem, how much money you have in the bank, how healthy your body or how healthy your relationships, depression can strike. No matter how you eat, sleep, rave or repeat, depression can strike.

An anti-emotion.

Depression is a defect of the very core. It’s the extinguishing of the sun that nourishes the body’s solar system. Yet I can still laugh at jokes, appear happy, appear motivated. For those without first hand experience, this can be a strange concept. Planets continue to orbit an extinguished sun.

In my experience, depression doesn’t really strike. Striking is filled with energy. But depression is the opposite. Putting aside beliefs or scientific understanding, depression dims the special element that gives us life, whatever the source or the nature of that element. It’s an anti-emotion, too numb to qualify as numb. It’s beyond emotion, beyond sadness.

We’re the architects of how we see the world. Everything outside of us is filtered by us. That’s what makes depression so consuming — life is filtered through bleakness. In the eye of the storm, it filters your future projections, your view on your relationships, your view on who you are, your view on your worth, abilities, importance.

Then comes the shame.

“FFS Ricky. Come on. Stop being stupid. You know these are self-destructive thought patterns. You know not to identify with them. You know how to be mindful. You know how to focus on sensation. You know things will change. So why are you stuck? This is your making.”

Then came the kicker.

“How will you ever become a Life Coach if you can’t manage your own emotions?”

Ouch. Way to kick me when I’m down and shit all over my dreams, brain.

But always remember these truths.

I’ve been vocal about depression and anxiety because I’m all too aware — no matter how knowledgeable or experienced you are — of its ability to deceive. I know what it’s like to feel isolated, and I remember reading other’s experiences in times of need, which reassured me. Still, it’s incredibly hard for me to be open and honest when I’m not hiding behind hindsight.

But this post isn’t intended to be negative, full of despair or hopeless. Instead, I want to throw a metaphorical life-jacket to anyone out there drowning a little. If you are in need of that life-jacket, please, please remember these crucial truths:

  1. You are not alone and people love you. Ignore any thoughts telling you otherwise.
  2. Your negative view on yourself and your world is temporarily misaligned. Do not take it seriously. It is not the truth, it is a perspective influenced by your current state.
  3. Be kind to yourself. Self-compassion is a massive fuck you to depression. Take the day off work, switch off, be kind to yourself.
  4. Reach out, talk to someone. Your brain might tell you they don’t care or they won’t listen, but see point 1.
  5. Start rebuilding by focusing on one or two positives. Anything. Morning coffee? A smile from a stranger? Surprise December sun? All valid.
  6. Keep going.
  7. Remember impermanence. Things will change. This too shall pass. Soon the sun will shine and the view on yourself and your world will be bright again.

A message of hope.

For our muscles to grow, first they must be damaged. Then they repair and grow stronger. What’s to say depression isn’t the brain’s equivalent of this process?

Thank God, I’m coming out the other side. Again. And you will too. Every time you do, you’ll recover quicker. You’ll return stronger.

When the sun reignites, it’ll shine brighter than before.

Depression deserves respect, but it’s not something to be defined by.

You are not depression, and neither am I.

 

Mindfulness

3 Mindful Exercises To Make Daily Chores Enjoyable

There’s immense power in living mindfully. Though mindfulness has become a buzzword in recent years, the basic practice of being completely, utterly focused on the present moment produces huge benefits. The mind — and all the belief systems and thoughts that come with it — clouds our experience. It likes to label things, to transform experience into concepts. Work. Play. Boring. Fun. Like. Don’t like.

What you experience is then filtered through the mind’s labelling system. If something’s labelled boring, it becomes boring. By applying mindfulness, you experience life beyond that labelling system. Everything just is the way it is.

Which leads me on to today’s post, which focuses on boredom, monotony, or any other label that has the same effect. I highlight boredom because it’s an interesting feeling. It’s not as intrusive as unpleasantness, but it’s a low-level, apathetic state that can suck the joy out of certain activities. Plus, being mindful when walking in the sunshine with your significant other while on holiday in an exotic location is much easier than being mindful taking out the bin. Especially when the bag splits. Yuck.

washing-dishes
Washing dishes can be a mindful process.

By applying mindfulness to “boring” tasks, I’ll hopefully highlight the benefit of practicing present moment awareness. With that in mind, below are three mindful exercises I’d like you to try. I’ve chosen these three activities because they’re the kind we generally undertake on autopilot. We like to get them “out of the way.” But remember, any moment spent wanting to get out of the way, or to move beyond, is a moment wasted. So, on we go…

Mindful Exercise 1: Showering

Why am I choosing showering? It’s not that boring, is it? Although not boring, applying mindfulness to your daily shower is important. In theory, standing under a warm, gentle flow of water is a pleasant experience. But it’s also the perfect environment for our monkey mind to take control. Think back to your last shower. How many thoughts did you have? My money is on a lot.

For whatever reason, standing in the shower seems to give the green light to a significant number of our daily 70,000 thoughts. If you’re anything like me, when my mind is particularly busy, I’ve caught myself in the midst of shampooing my hair immediately after shampooing my hair. Such mindlessness is costly; American Crew ain’t cheap.

Mindful practice involves paying focused attention to your present experience. That includes all of your senses. In particular while showering, temperature, smell and sound. Your mindful shower may go something like this:

  • Before entering the shower, set your intention by taking a few deep breaths and reminding yourself you are about to shower mindfully.
  • Notice the sensation of the handle as you turn the shower on. What does it feel like? How much resistance is there as you turn it to the desired speed (is that the right term, shower speed? Shower power? Shower strength? Someone help me out?).
  • Again, take a few deep breaths. Pay close attention to the sound of the water falling from the shower head to the base of the shower. Try and notice each audible plop.
  • Stand in the shower. Can you feel the water before you step under the flow. Can you feel the heat emanating from it? Does the air near the flow move slightly?
  • Stand under the water. Focus on the pleasantness of the sensation of water running over your body as you stand still. Scan your body from head to toe, feel the different sensations.
  • As you reach for the shampoo / conditioner / shower gel, notice the weight of the bottle. Notice the sound as you open the bottle. Notice the texture. Then turn your attention to the scent as you breathe deeply.
  • As you wash away the shampoo / conditioner / shower gel, notice the sensation and scent, but also the flow and texture of the foam as it runs down the plug. Bye foam!
  • Celebrate for being mindful. And clean.

Mindful Exercise 2: Washing Dishes

You’ve just enjoyed a lovely meal that you’ve spent time slaving over, and now you’re left with a full stomach, but an empty plate. Time to do the washing up. FFS. Washing the dishes is high up on the monotony stakes. Quick frankly, it’s rare you’ll ever be motivated. The entire process ticks the box of being “something to get over and done with” — but it doesn’t have to be.

Want a quick motivator? Okay. How long do you spend washing up dishes each day? 10 minutes? That’s over an hour a week. Four hours every month. Two days every year. Almost six months of your entire life spent getting over and done with or wanting to be somewhere else. I don’t know about you, but if there’s a way I can spend those six months a little differently, I’ll take it. Well fear not, because now you can replace them with six months of mindfulness. Hurray!

Believe it or not, a recent study revealed that mindful washing up is a great stress reliever. Out of those taking part, those who washed up mindfully had a 25% increase in inspiration and a 27% decrease in anxiety. Much like the mindful shower, to washing dishes mindfully means focusing attentively the senses:

  • Notice the thought that springs to mind as you look at the dirty cutlery (“Ugh, there’s loads, this’ll take a while”). Take a few deep breaths.
  • Instead of seeing this is a mountain to overcome, focus on each item without rushing through. Notice any thought related to time or frustration at how long the process will take.
  • Give all of your attention to the item currently you’re currently holding: How heavy is it? How hard do you have to scrub to remove the stains? Is it smooth? Rough?
  • Notice the scent of the washing up liquid and the formation of the foam.
  • Tune in to the sound of the running water, the unique clunk of each plate as you place it in the drying rack.
  • Notice the temperature of the water.
  • Celebrate being mindful. And having clean dishes.

Mindful Exercise 3: Eating Chocolate

Don’t say I don’t bloody treat you. I know I promised three boring exercises but if you’ve washed the dishes mindfully, it’s time to celebrate by doing something fun in the same manner. Being mindful increases our perception, no more so than the sense of taste, which is greatly enhanced. Yet most of us don’t really take time to eat. Instead, we go on auto pilot, chewing, swallowing, thinking of the next mouthful.

To highlight just how incredible food can taste when attention is fully switch on, try this third and final exercise:

  • Sit down and place the chocolate of your choosing in front of you. I’d choose a Bounty, but I know I’m in the minority.
  • Notice the eagerness to dive straight in. Sit with it and breathe.
  • Carefully peel the wrapper, paying close attention to touch and sound.
  • Then, notice the scent of the chocolate. If you feel another urge to take a bite, slow down and breathe.
  • Take a tiny bite, but don’t chew. Leave the chocolate in your mouth. Notice the physical sensation as it melts.
  • Now focus fully on the taste. Does it taste different than usual? Is there more flavour?
  • Allow the chocolate to melt as much as possible before chewing.
  • Notice the impulse to take another bite immediately. Breathe and wait for two minutes before taking the next bite (this is a lot harder than it sounds).
  • Repeat until the chocolate has gone. Never rush. This whole process should take at least 10 minutes.
  • Celebrate. You’ve just eaten chocolate. Oh, and mindfulness. Yeah! Mindfulness!

If you’ve read these instructions, you may be doubting their credentials. They sound incredibly simple. And yes, I may have over-detailed the instructions, but I really want to emphasise how mindfulness is about breaking down every micro-second of experience, tuning into the senses and fully being.

So try them out. And remember, if you practice this regularly, you can replace all of those “boredom” labels with mindful ones. Now if that’s not an achievement, I don’t know what is.

Psychology

Categorising 70,000 Daily Thoughts

One of the biggest benefits of meditation is increased awareness of thought. Meditation allows you to see thoughts for what they really are. When you see thoughts clearly, you are less attached to them, which gives life a greater sense of ease. But how significant and consuming are thoughts? How many thoughts do we have daily? And is there even anything wrong in thinking, anyway?

Most of us live in our heads to some degree. Estimations on how many thoughts fire through the brain vary. The higher end predicts we have up to 70,000 thoughts every day. That’s 2,916 every hour. 48 every minute.

Is that number accurate? 70,000 sounds like a lot. There are only so many times you can think about what you’re having for tea or what to watch on Netflix. However, the number skyrockets thanks to the wealth of subconscious thoughts firing through the mind at any given moment. Subconscious thought is so instinctual and deeply ingrained, most of the time we don’t realise it’s the reason we’ve become distracted.

Breaking Down The Different Types Of Thought

Before I begin dissecting the different categories of common thought, it’s important to note that thinking isn’t inherently bad. This is a frequent misconception with meditation — that transcending thinking is an idea goal. But that discounts rational, intellectual thinking which absolutely necessary. Problem solving, planning, analytically weighing up the pros and cons of a situation are all crucial skills of human maturity that fall under the umbrella of “thinking.”

thinking
There are many types of thought.

The key is that only a small portion of those 70,000 are deliberate thoughts. That means the rest of the time, your brain is busy thinking without your consent and influencing your emotions.

When referring to meditation and spirituality, you’ll often hear terms such as “detached from thinking,” “not identifying with thought” and so on. In an attempt to clarify what such statements mean, I’ll break down the thought processes I notice within my own inner-world.

Purposeful Intellectual Thought

As mentioned above, this includes problem solving and planning. I wholeheartedly support this rational thinking because you need it to live life as a fully functioning adult. While admirable and necessary, it’s also rare for us to a) take some time out to actively focus our attention on such thought and b) avoid slipping into a daydream state where the problem solving and planning takes control of us.

Let’s say you’re planning a weekend away. Purposeful planning would be putting aside some time to sit down, do some research and weigh up the cost and logistics of different locations. Maybe you’ll scan Airbnb, go incognito on Skyscanner, look at affordable flights and write a list of desired destinations, budgets and so on. Great! This is essential if you want to go on holiday. It ain’t gonna book itself while you sit and meditate on the breath.

However, even this form of well-meaning thinking can cunningly turn into idle, background static in the mind. Example: you’re walking through the isles at Aldi looking for something to eat for dinner, when you realise you’ve spent 10 minutes thinking about where you could go on holiday, and now you’ve strolled passed the cheese section — you want cheese for dinner.

Here, your subconscious has continued to work, and it’s disrupted you at a time that isn’t convenient.

Purposeful Reflection

Here’s another area that isn’t intended to be swept up in the “thinking is bad” mindset. I call this purposeful reflection because again, the desire to reflect is deliberate on your part. Reflecting is a valuable process for spiritual and emotional growth. If something bad happens, taking your mind’s eye to that place, looking at how you behaved and what you can learn has immense value. As is the experience of processing events.

Most of us engage in a little purposeful reflection while travelling. Great! This is a healthy, enjoyable process. Like planning, though, sometimes reflection creeps up on us. I often become immersed in a world of events gone by when, wait, what’s that smell?! Shit, I’ve burnt my toast because I was swept up in memories of what I was doing this time last year. Oops.

Psychological Time-Travel

I can (and I will) write a lot on this topic. Eckhart Tolle’s concept of psychological time was one of the first concepts that really opened my eyes to the extent the mind prevents us from simply being. If I could ask anyone reading this to explore one “spiritual” (I use this term loosely) concept, it’s this.

Psychological time is the understanding the present moment is all that ever exists. The past consists only of memories. The future, our imagination. Therefore, psychological time is a product of the mind, and it isn’t useful (clock time is, though: see fully functioning adult). Being able to mentally flitter back and forth from the an apparent past, present and future, deceives us into feeling like time is a palpable entity.

When time feels like a palpable entity, we identify with it. This is a problem. Anyone who suffers from anxiety will know how vividly the mind can project mental visualisations of a future that appears real. Such futures are almost always worst case scenarios.

It’s not only anxiety sufferers, though. Everyone travels in the mind on a daily basis. Let’s say you’re on your way to work, when a complete stranger physically knocks you out of the way to get the last seat on the carriage. You feel angry and victimised. Suddenly, you realise five minutes have passed and you’ve missed your stop. You’ve been ruminating on the event and you’ve been taken out of the present by the memory of what happened moments before.

In terms of the future, image you have to give a presentation at work in the afternoon. The whole morning, rather than focusing on the tasks you have to do in the hours running up to the presentation, your mental cinema is playing the “must see” premiere of the meeting before it happens. You’ve spent the morning mentally projecting to a perceived future.

Inner Dialogue

Occasionally, we may use our inner voice to motivate ourselves for certain events. “Come on you can do this!” Mostly, though, that inner voice isn’t being so supportive. Us humans are blessed with a negative bias, which means our monkey mind often has bad things to say about our past, our present, and our future.

Ever said something you regret, only to realise you’ve missed the next 30 seconds of conversation because the unhelpful dialogue is telling you that was a stupid thing to say? I’d hazard a guess all of us have at some point.

Tune in to your inner dialogue. It’s there all of the time, but most of us don’t pay much attention to it. When you do pay attention, you’ll realise that is had a profound affect on how you think and feel. Fortunately, we can manage or inner dialogue. Each time you notice your negative inner voice, try reframing with compassion and talking to yourself like you would a friend.

How It All Comes Together

I’m only touching the tip of the iceberg with these forms of thinking — there are many, many more. Suddenly, when you take into account how all of these forms interact, consciously and unconsciously, 70,000 doesn’t seem too much.

Here’s a quick experiment to prove my point. Take a look at the image below:

Traffic light.
Oh look, a green man!

Bear with me on this one, it’s going somewhere. When looking at the image, what did you think? The chances are you experienced a multitude of thoughts, visualisations and beliefs. Here’s what I thought when I found the image:

“Ah, a traffic light. That’s a nice example to use, it’s pretty indiscriminate. Wait, where is that? Is that the UK? No it’s not. It looks more like the UK than Germany though. Isn’t it weird how in Berlin everyone obeys the green man? Why am I thinking this? Wait is this thought experiment even legitimate? What’s the point? Is anyone going to understand what I’m trying to get at? No, come on Ricky, you can do this (deliberate inner-dialogue, bonus points).”

Then, I had a strong visual image of the green man in Germany (known as the Ampelmännchen) loaded with streams of thought about how patiently waiting (even though there is no traffic within miles) is part of German culture, and how I identify with waiting for the green man in Berlin as a sign of my acceptance of that culture.

All of this might sound a bit silly, but I want to try to illustrate how many thoughts one simple, inoffensive, innocuous image can have. Now, imagine how many thoughts, beliefs and images you have when meeting another living, breathing human being. Yikes!

Understanding and noting the multitude of the thinking mind also highlights why meditation is so important. We’re distracted much more frequently than we may believe. By focusing our attention on the breath and taking a curious, playful approach, we begin to see thoughts more clearly. Consequently, they lose their hold and we can bring our focus to the present.

Try this exercise today: I want you to note every time you’ve been distracted by thought. Then, label those thoughts according to the above categories. Note how many times this happens throughout the course of the day.

I’d love to hear what you discover in the comments. Make them good, you have 70,000 to choose from.