Mental Strategies to Feeling More Joy

Art by Kristina Webb Art

A Zen master and his student are walking in a forest discussing ways to quiet the mind of distractions. They come to a fast rushing stream where a damsel stands stuck on one side. She asks the master for help to cross the stream. The student assumes the master will say no because of their ascetic lifestyle, but the master agrees and assists the woman across. When the two get back to the monastery, the student confronts the master. “How could you do that? It expressly forbidden us to touch a woman.” The master smiled and asked, “Did you not learn anything today? You still carry the woman around in your mind while I left her at the riverbank.”

Like the Zen student, I ruminate on frustrations from past events or worry about my future and everything in between. My mind, my thoughts play a power role in my mood.

Sometimes my desires for more and better get the best of me. I worry about having more time. Dwell on some indiscretion done to me by a friend, acquaintance, or stranger. I look at where I am in life and think I should have done more, be more, have more. It doesn’t matter what the circumstance. It all happens in my thoughts. I let thoughts control my feelings.

The point is we all have times when our thoughts control our feelings. We allow them to run free in our head and we chase them; hold them; and worst of all believe them.

But they are just thoughts.

I looked for ways to break that negative thoughts cycle over the past few years and found exercises that work. I’m proud of myself. My mind feels “cleaner,” less cluttered. The negative thoughts still come, but I’ve learned how to better deal with them. I can do something about them besides dwell on them.

Here are six techniques that help me deal with my thoughts.

The Ten Second Centering Technique

The ten-second centering technique is taken from a book titled Ten Zen Seconds, by Dr. Eric Maisel. It’s a simple exercise of expanding my breathing from the normal two to three seconds to ten seconds.: five seconds inhale, five seconds exhale.

This expanded breathing rhythm signals my mind that something is different with my breathing and my mind focuses on the breathing and not the thoughts. My breathing distracts my thoughts. This works great when I’m worrying about something or excessively thinking about a project or idea. I found it works best when I count the seconds: five seconds on the in-breath, five on the out-breath.

Dr Maisel recommends adding mantra. A mantra is a word or phrase repeated in the mind. With every inhale of five seconds, repeat part of the phrase and with every exhale complete the phrase. For example, I would breathe in for five seconds and think “In every moment. . .” and on the exhale say, “we can find joy.” I admit it’s corny, but it works for me. Dr. Maisel lists twelve examples of mantras in his book and encourages users to experiment with creating your own.

Change place:

There is power in a place. Something as simple as moving to another room, outside, or further can help break the cycle of sadness. University of Notre Dame Psychology found that by going through doorways or portals causes the brain to file away a memory. It’s subtle, simple. Go somewhere different I choose to go outside and choose a place that I know brings on joy: a walk in the forest; playing a sport; visiting with friends; or creative writing.

Move My Body

Any movement gets my mind focused on the mechanics of moving instead of thoughts. A walk around my neighborhood, a hike in the hills, cooking, cleaning, anything that gets me moving takes my mind away from thoughts. Physical and mental recreation of any type increases the endorphins, the “feelgood” chemicals produced by the body. Endorphins are released during exercise and are in the same class of chemicals as opioids.

Connect with Positive People

Being around positive people help bring joy back into my life. I call friends I know that have an intense positive outlook on life. I meet with three friends weekly that make me laugh. It’s two hours of conversation. We are so comfortable with each other and our conversation so engaging that it’s hard to leave. But, those conversations leave a flavor running through me that lasts the week. I remember their stories, and it brings a smile to me during the week.

I know someone that suffered from bouts of suicidal thoughts, especially when left alone. When he drove home from work alone with his thoughts, he always called someone that was positive, upbeat, and caring. He talked to that person for his entire ride home until he was with his family. It worked for him. He doesn’t need that support currently, but he knows that talking with positive people helped him relax in the now, accept his current situation, and hope for the future.

Use My Gift

We are are good at something. My gift is creativity. I love to create. To throw my mind into a project not only takes me out of my negativity, but puts me in the best mood. But, creativity is just one gift. I found the StrengthFinders assessment a valid way to help me find other strengths.

Wish My Antagonists Well

People can iritate me, anger harms only the angry person. It festers in the mind and can build up to a point where the mind moves the mental pain to other different points in the body: the neck, the back, and other joints and muscles. The back aches, knees, joints or muscle pain could come from mental anguish I hold. Research found a connection between body pains and illnesses and our thoughts.

The way I deal with anger is to think well of my antagonist.

I listen to a Jeff Warren on the meditation app Calm. One day during the last presidential campaign, I found myself full of rage at the news. Government officials were saying and doing things I felt wrong. This raised my blood pressure, heart rate and just put me in a bad mood.

To let go of those angry feelings, Jeff recommended the following exercise: Visualize the offending person/persons then say the following words: “May you be safe; may you be healthy; may you be happy.” Say them repeatedly while thinking of the person.

It works! I thought well of that person until the next negative thought about that person, then I repeated the phrase. Keep repeating it until the anger goes away.

It worked so well that I now think that phrase in public when in a disagreement with someone. It helps me stay calm and peaceful in that moment.

Change Worry into gratitude

Joy is already available everywhere, every day. It’s up to us to train our minds away from the negative thoughts to feel the joy around us.

My wife and I have this exercise where if one of us shares a worry and we both realize it’s trivial we say something for which we are grateful. We do this ten times. We realize saying the gratitude out loud helps us put in perspective the insignificance of the worry. I found gratitude listing an effective way to ease my worries.

Along with gratitude, daily meditation has become a routine that helps clear my mind. Making it a practice of ten minutes a day. I let the negative thoughts pass through the mind like a wave passes across the water or an object floats down a river. The thoughts will come, but it is my choice whether I grab hold of the negativity passing in my mind. Meditation helps me do that.

Like the Zen student, we all hold thoughts we should let go. Finding mental exercises that mitigate the negative and harmful thoughts keeps me calm, focused and most of all brings me back to feeling more joy.