Mental Fitness recently, we experienced another tragic event: a mass stabbing at a Pittsburg-area high school. Just one week prior it was yet another mass shooting at Fort Hood. And before that a long line of devastating and preventable tragedies of the kind that are seemingly becoming more common by the day. The Navy Yard, Aurora, Newtown, Virginia Tech, Columbine: once names that simply brought to mind placid locations across our great nation that, sadly now, conjure devastating memories of unspeakable heartbreak.
In the midst of all of this, a national dialogue has again begun to emerge. It’s one that, given the questionable mental stability of a great many of the shooters in these events, involves discussions revolving around our nation’s attitudes and policies regarding mental health (mental fitness).
~ Are we doing enough to treat the mentally ill?
~ How can we better screen people for mental illness?
~ How can we keep guns out of the hands of those with histories of mental instability?
And so on…
But here’s a question I’ve yet to hear: “What can we do to prevent mental illness to begin with?”
Seems logical. And truthfully, if we were dealing with an epidemic of flu, obesity, or some other physical malady, prevention would be at the top of this list. But strangely, our culture’s attitudes and habits pertaining to mental health (mental fitness) differ significantly from those toward physical health.
In the physical realm, it is universally recognized (though not always practiced), that if you want a healthy body or mental fitness, you must take preventive care: brush your teeth, eat a moderately healthy diet, exercise, get enough rest. Day after day we engage in a number of tasks designed to help promote the well-being and longevity of our physical selves.
In other words, we understand that physical fitness is the beginning of physical health. However, in matters relating to ourselves mentally and emotionally, we find a different story.
Developing the habit of nurturing and exercising our mental and emotional selves is not something most Americans regularly take for granted. In contrast, most of our efforts devoted to meeting our mental and emotional needs are more about pampering than wellness. Feeling stressed? Grab a beer with friends. Sadness brings you down? Go see the latest blockbuster movies. Worried about work? How about a round of golf?
Instead of increasing our mental capacity, we treat ourselves. We engage in activities to make us feel better in the short term, but without really addressing the root cause which revolves around an inadequate ability to absorb and cope with life’s difficulties. It’s like dealing with your weight gain by removing all the mirrors in the house. Sure it might make you feel better temporarily, but what does it do to solve the problem?
In fact this is an approach that too often results in what can only be described as free, wild thoughts.
Mental Fitness Set
To be clear, in this context Mental Fitness does not refer to the development of knowledge or even mental acuity. This is an important point. Many of the mental activities we do to develop our minds have very little to do with Mental Fitness, as referred to here. Examples of activities that do NOT dramatically increase our Mental Fitness levels include:
~ Digesting data as part of the learning process
~ Exercising one’s cognitive facility to make the mind more nimble
~ Participating in activities that soothe and nurture the agitated mind and emotions
This is not to say that these activities are unworthy and valuable, as they are clearly very important in our development as productive and happy human beings. Still, for the most part, they don’t help improve our ability to synthesize relatively easy experiences in the most challenging situations. And cultivating that ease-filled experience is the essence of Mental Fitness.
The key to understanding Mental Fitness is understanding capacity. Mental Fitness is a measure of a person’s capacity to face life’s challenges without becoming too out of balance. It is the capacity to withstand layoffs, to endure a medical diagnosis, or to endure financial challenges with grace, élan, and a confident sense of calm.
We all know people like this, who never seem to mess around. layoffs? No problem. IRS audits? Well. Traffic accident? No big deal. While everyone around them was sent into chaos, these people remained calm, composed, and calm no matter what happened in their lives. So, what is it about these people that makes them so equipped to tackle life’s challenges intelligently?
You guessed it: they have a Mental Fitness level that allows them to artistically ride things like that. The greater your level of Mental Fitness, the greater your mental and emotional capacities, and the greater your capacity to live happily, regardless of the twists and turns of life that comes your way.
Obviously, this immunity to life’s ups and downs seems to develop more naturally in some people than others. And it’s true, some people seem to be born with the natural ability to face life’s challenges smartly that is, they are endowed with a higher than average level of Mental Fitness. But-and this is very important-this in no way means that one’s Mental Fitness level is fixed.
Again, we can take cues from the physical realm. The same is true for our innate level of physical fitness. Some of us are natural born athletes, others are not. Despite the fact that we humans come in all shapes and sizes and physical abilities, no matter what one’s natural level of physical fitness is, we can ALL benefit from exercising our physical selves – and improving our physical fitness and leading healthier and happier lives.
So is Mental Fitness.
This means that we are not victims of our natural level of mental fitness, nor of our circumstances. Remember, the greater our Mental Fitness, the easier it will be for us to remain undisturbed by the inevitable difficulties that our lives face. So it paves the way for more happiness and contentment—in the good times and the bad.
And just as importantly, developing oneself in this regard can serve as an important component of the health of our society. Physical fitness helps to prevent physical ailments. Mental Fitness helps to prevent mental illness. This is a simple way to improve the well-being of all of us.
With this understanding, the problem becomes one of increasing our Mental Fitness – our capacity to remain mentally and emotionally undisturbed in increasingly diverse situations, especially in situations that have historically thrown us off balance.
How do I increase my Mental Fitness?
So, this all begs the question: “How do we increase our Mental Fitness level?” Surprisingly, it’s more simple and straightforward than you might think, and truly is not all that different from the way we build more physical fitness!
Think about it. To build our physical capacity, for example your capacity to lift weight, you physically challenge yourself. To lift more weight, you need to lift more weight. Strength builds as you deliberately lift just a bit more weight than you’re comfortable with. If you can easily lift 80 pounds, lift 85; once you can lift 85 without difficulty, move up to 90; and so on. You’re expanding your capacity for weight lifting by always lifting just a bit more than is comfortable and by staying with the burn.
The same principle applies when you’re working to expand your mental and emotional capacity. Here, too, the invitation remains the same: do a bit more than is comfortable and stay with the burn. But for the expansion of our mental and emotional capacity, rather than needing physical weight to provide the resistance needed for growth, we need difficulty or challenge.
Here’s the thing: life’s challenges, the ones that typically throw us into a tizzy, are for our Mental Fitness, like the weight is to our physical fitness. They are challenges that can be used to increase our capacity to calmly weather life’s challenges-but only if we see the opportunities for what they are.
I confess. There is much more nuance to effectively increasing our Mental Fitness levels than is presented in this simplistic explanation. Nevertheless, the premise remains sound. And this I know from experience.
You see, helping people cultivate optimum mental and emotional fitness is my life’s work. Over the years I’ve seen thousands upon thousands of people forge lives of great equanimity and fulfillment even amidst torrents of disappointment and challenges. My chosen tools are drawn from the ancient wisdom of yoga (tapping the lesser-known mental and emotional aspects of the practice beyond mere yoga postures and breath), but that is not to say these are the only tools that can be used to this end.
Is this orientation toward Mental Fitness a silver bullet? Will it end mental illness and completely stave off future killings and other such tragedies? Not by a long shot. For the truth is that Mental Fitness can’t completely eradicate mental illness any more than physical fitness can totally end physical illness.
We will always have a need for treatment modalities, facilities, and trained professionals to address the needs of those who have slid into mental illness. Just as we do for those who are physically ill.
But if we could take steps to reduce the incidence of such illness even 5 or 10 or 20 percent, wouldn’t it be worth it?
The invitation here is to look at the tremendous impact that forging greater physical fitness has had on reducing physical illness. And then orient toward employing those same principles as a means to increasing our Mental Fitness to help reduce the incidence mental illness as well.
While the true impact of such a movement is uncertain, it seems clear from where I sit that we owe it to the victims and families of these senseless tragedies to at least give it a try.
Eric Walrabenstein is the founder of Yoga Pura, and is one of the most sought-after authorities on the application of yogic technology for self healing and empowerment in the nation. As an author, speaker, and master teacher of mind/body health, E is famous for making yoga’s ancient wisdom practical and relevant for people from all walks of life.
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