What is good mental health?
It is the ability to be fully in reality as it is, without requiring it to be anything other than it is right now.
Having this ability ensures that you respond appropriately to situations, with the right kind of emotion and at the right level of intensity. Over time, being fully present to reality as it is now generates a stable sense of self that is non-reactive, doesn’t take things personally and greets each day with a calm, clear, light and joyful eagerness.
Contrast this with the frequently chaotic and busy mind that you are probably familiar with during stressful times. A mind that judges the present moment as never good enough. A mind that says: “I shouldn’t be feeling this way” and says “Why?” in an impatient tone, meaning “This present moment isn’t OK and if I try hard enough I can force it to be different.”
This is a cycle that creates suffering — anxiety, misery, anguish, despair and confusion.
Yet there is one simple method, if practiced daily, that yields subtle but incredible results in the direction of emotional well-being. It is this:
Each day, go for a 40- to 60-minute walk in nature (having a dog helps!). As you establish the pace of your walk, notice your surroundings. Pay full attention to the smell and the temperature of the air. Notice the color of the sky and the sounds of nature around you. Notice how you feel as your feet hit the ground and how your breathing changes rhythm as you exercise.
Once you have established this present-moment awareness, it’s time to do a check-in with yourself. Ask yourself this simple question:
“How am I doing right now?”
Answer yourself with a short phrase that accurately describes your experience, without embellishments, judgments, explanations and analyses. The description should be no more than 6 words. For example:
“I have a knot in my stomach.”
Then inquire kindly of yourself:
“What’s that like?”
Await the response patiently as you focus your attention more closely on the exact physical sensations in your body and how they shift and change as you observe. The most important thing to remember is:
Do nothing. Just listen.
Then keep describing your experience to yourself in simple, unadorned terms. If you notice that your mind starts racing, with thoughts that are based in the past or the future, or thoughts that are trying very hard to figure out what to do to solve a problem, it’s probably your inner critic wanting to take over.
The inner critic is a part of you that continually judges, criticizes and orders you around – like Lucifer prodding you with his fork. If you notice this inner critic, acknowledge that it has worked very hard for you for a very long time, probably without ever receiving acknowledgement for all its efforts. Your inner critic may be misguided in its efforts, but it is sincerely well-intentioned in trying to protect you. So ask:
“How are you doing right now?”
Allow your inner critic to tell you about his or her experience. Don’t judge the judging; instead, do nothing. Just listen.
If you practice this simple check-in process throughout your day, day in, day out, year in, year out, you will eventually acquire wisdom. You will know and understand yourself better, be more at peace, become more resilient and phase out your need to feel anxious, insecure or depressed. This basic skill, one of simply observing your experience and developing pure awareness, heals and resolves all issues. The ability to self-reflect in this way gives you greater choice in, and control over your life.
This skill has variously been called “focusing” (by Eugene Gendlin), mindfulness by Buddhists as well as psychologists who have borrowed from Buddhism, or the “observing ego” (by the Gestalt tradition). There is a vast body of research that demonstrates the effectiveness of this method in creating successful outcomes in therapy, as well as in life.