If you’re alive on this planet at this moment in history, you’ve got sh*t to do. Whether you’re just awakening to this fact or you’ve known it all along, you know it’s time to get down to business. You simply can’t afford to be held back by negative thoughts or emotion, paralyzed in climate fear or spinning in climate anxiety (or regular anxiety, for that matter!). That’s why — for the love of Earth — learning to tend to your mind is critical.
Tending to your mind is all about calling upon your prefrontal cortex (PFC). Situated right behind the forehead, the PFC is often called the CEO of the brain. Put another way, “if the brain is one big village, the PFC is its mayor.” Better yet, we might call the PFC “our gardener.” As you might be able to guess from these metaphors, the PFC plays a huge role in what’s called “executive function,” or the mental processes we use to get things done. These include skills like controlling attention, managing time, planning and organizing, setting goals, and regulating emotions.
Ultimately, the PFC allows us to think about thinking — and it’s what allows us to uncover our unconscious patterns of thought that might be sabotaging our best efforts to actually use our executive functions. And what’s really amazing is that our brains never stop changing their physical structure as we continue to experience life and all its ups and downs, thanks to what’s called “neuroplasticity.” But we can use neuroplasticity to our advantage: we can actually use the PFC to change the way we think and therefore consciously change the way our brains work.
Two main ways we can use our PFC to tend to our minds are by changing what we focus on and by changing what we think about what we focus on. So first, we’ve got our attention and what we do with it. You might have heard the phrase, “what you focus on expands.” The neuroscience correlate to this is “neurons that fire together wire together.” What this means is that as we continue to focus on something, the neurons sparked to focus on that thing begin to link up. The longer we focus on that thing, the deeper the neuronal pathways get. The deeper the neuronal pathways get, the more efficient those pathways become, and the more habitual our focus becomes.
We can use our PFC to change what we focus on through a number of different methods, mindfulness and other meditation practices key among them. Cultivating mindfulness, or nonjudgmental awareness, of our thoughts, feelings, and actions is really the first step in changing our focus. It’s by noticing our thoughts, feelings, and actions that we can begin to recognize what we’re focusing on. From this point of understanding, we can interrupt any unhelpful focus and turn our attention elsewhere. We can also employ focused-attention meditation practices, which train our brains to focus on what we purposefully choose instead of what our brains have focused on out of habit.
Let’s Try It Out: Cultivating Mindfulness through Focus on the Breath
Let’s sit back in our chairs, allowing our eyes to gently close and turning our attention inward.
Let’s move our focus to our feet, feeling their connection to the Earth. Note any sensations. Is there tingling? An energy coming up from the ground? Do the sensations stay in the same place or move around? Just notice. No need to judge.
Now let’s move our focus to our seat. Feel the connection with your chair. What sensations do you notice here?
Moving up to our backs now. Notice the connection with the backrest and allow yourself to feel supported in this moment.
Now let’s turn our attention to our breath. Notice where in your body you sense your breath the most. It might be the rise and fall of your belly. It might be in your chest as your lungs participate in the giving and receiving of breath. It might be in the tickle of your nose hairs as the air passes through. No matter where it is, simply allow your attention to rest here. In and out. Up and down.
Allow any thoughts to come and go. Inevitably, your attention will wander. A thought will come along and lure you away from focusing on your breath. That’s okay. Nothing has gone wrong!
Imagine your brain is a puppy, and each time it bounds off into some other direction, just lead it gently back to your breath. You wouldn’t scold a puppy for chasing after some shiny thing, so don’t scold yourself when your brain does the same. Expect your mind to wander (after all, thinking is kind of its job!) — just keep simply and lovingly guiding it back. As you practice more, you’ll find your puppy brain runs off far less often. Just keep returning to your breath.
After some time, slowly bring your attention back to the room. Notice any sensations you feel. Notice any sounds you hear. And when you’re ready, gently open your eyes.
Second, we can use our PFC to tend to our minds by changing what we think about what we focus on. The term I’ll use for this is “thought work” (borrowing from The Life Coach School), which is the work we do to purposefully uncover and change our thoughts and beliefs. At its core, thought work is based on the truth that our circumstances do not create our feelings, actions, or results — it’s really what we make those outside circumstances mean that creates those things. As Marcus Aurelius put it way back in the second century in his Meditations, “If you are distressed by anything external, the pain is not due to the thing itself, but to your estimate of it; and this you have the power to revoke at any moment.” In the end, by changing our thoughts, we can actually change both our brain structure and our results out in the world.
It sounds simple: just change your thoughts! But there’s a lot more to it. Before we can even get to thinking about new thoughts, we need to process any negative emotion resulting from the negative thought we’d like to change. It takes only 90 seconds for the emotion to process through our bodies, and any negative emotion after that period is because of a story we’re telling ourselves. Nevertheless, we often resist processing emotion and act it out instead (think about anger, for instance), or we “buffer,” or numb out, through behaviors like drinking, overworking, or Netflix. But once we do process it and do the work to uncover the thoughts that led to the negative emotion in the first place, we can set about changing those thoughts. And when we change our thoughts, we begin to show up in the world in a different way.
To demonstrate the value of tending to our minds in this time of planetary emergency, let’s walk through a couple of examples to show the vast and practical applicability of these practices.
Let’s say I’ve just encountered a news story on the ecological emergency. These sorts of news stories have “sent” me into a deep, dark place before. Thoughts swirl. “We’re f*cked” is most prominent among them. I feel hopeless and despair. From this place of hopelessness and despair, I might just decide to stay in bed. Or maybe I’d reach for a glass of wine to quell the pain. Either way, “we’re f*cked” never leads to my taking effective action.
How might I use my PFC to change my attention here?
I can first take note of the fact that my thoughts are beginning to swirl. I notice the hopelessness and despair in my body with care. Perhaps I put a hand over my heart. I drop into my body and focus on my breath. I recognize that this hopelessness and despair is connected to my love for all life on Earth. I then turn my focus to this love, this compassion. I spend some time hanging out here, in this field of unconditional love. Perhaps I repeat a compassion mantra to myself: May all beings be free of suffering and the root of suffering. When I’m ready, I can turn toward my work, coming not from a place of hopelessness and despair but rather from this place of love, compassion, and connection.
How might I use my PFC to change my thoughts here?
Let’s say for illustrative purposes here that the first thing I notice is not my thoughts but my feelings. I recognize that I’m falling into that place of hopelessness and despair. Maybe I’m reaching for wine, and I say, oh, I must be reacting to something, some thought I’m having. Instead of pouring a glass, I get out some paper and do a “thought download,” where I write down all the thoughts I’m having without stopping for, say, ten minutes. Lots of thoughts appear, but the one that feels the most relevant, the truest to this feeling of hopeless despair, is “we’re f*cked.”
First, of course, I have to actually feel this hopeless despair. I feel it in my body: there’s a heaviness in my heart, a knot in my stomach. I recognize this hopeless despair is just a feeling in my body and it’s a result of a thought, a sentence in my mind. Just by becoming aware of this might help to dissipate my negative thoughts and feelings. However, I might need to work on replacement thoughts to really move past this feeling. So I set about coming up with better feeling thoughts. The opposite of my thought is something like “we’re going to thrive,” and maybe I can’t believe that immediately. But maybe a thought like “it’s possible we’re not f*cked” will help me move toward effective action. I practice it and it feels good. “It’s possible we’re not f*cked!” Now, from this place of possibility, I’m ready to tackle my work!
Let’s say I’ve got a big presentation to give on the climate crisis. This time it’s not external news that might hold me back but rather my own self-limiting beliefs. “You’re going to screw up,” the nasty voice in my head keeps repeating. I feel like sh*t, not good enough, utterly without confidence. In the past, this nasty voice and resulting feeling have led me to, sure enough, screw up — “proving” my thoughts true.
How might I use my PFC to change my attention here?
First I’ll take note of where my attention is now, on these icky thoughts and feelings. I can drop into my experience. Ah, judging, I might say to myself. Perhaps I stay here, with my experience, with my breath, simply noting each time the judgmental thoughts come up. This creates distance between me and the judgmental thoughts. From this place of the “watcher,” I recognize that I am not my thoughts. These thoughts are just the clouds, and I am the entire sky. From this knowing, I release these judging thoughts and am able to return to preparing my presentation.
How might I use my PFC to change my thoughts here?
First, I recognize that critical voice in my head and what it’s done to me in the past. I allow the feeling of insufficiency to come and go. Is it true that I’ll screw up? I ask myself. Is it really true? No, certainly not, I think. There have absolutely been times I haven’t screwed up. I decide to come up with all the evidence for that thought, listing all the times I’ve totally killed it during a presentation, including even the times I’ve done a passable job. I recognize that I’ve actually done fine presenting far more times than I’ve screwed up. Feeling confident in that new thought, I am able to present with ease!