Is Your Mental Diet Bringing You Down?

What we put in our bodies runs deep. Deep into our veins, deep into the cells that make up “us.” This we know. We know that a teaspoon of sugar triggers an immediate cascade of reactions — insulin is secreted and the adrenals fire into action. In the long term, dozens, hundreds and (gasp) thousands of teaspoons of sugar can have enormous consequences. Diabetes, anyone? Fancy chronic inflammation, mood swings?

But what about what we put into our minds? Just how deep does the information we register run? What happens in the brain and nervous system when we watch pointless violence? What happens when we eat up advertising designed (yes, intentionally) to make us think we’re not enough — that we need more stuff to be OK? What happens when we cultivate thoughts of separation? What happens within our minds when we act on those thoughts?

What we do with our minds runs deep, and our mental diets matter.

I learned this truth in my early 20s when, across multiple vipassana retreats, I plumbed some of the depths of my mind and was intrigued, humored, disturbed and astounded to find that deep in the recesses was, well, most anything I’d ever handed my mind over to. I’d handed my mind over to nonsense television and scary movies. I’d handed it over to books, journals and magazines. From parents to professors, much of the information that I’d paid attention to was in my mind. Some of what was in there was important — it just needed to be refiled and refreshed. But so much of what I’d paid attention to in my life was outdated, unhelpful or just plain useless. At worst some of it was harmful, fueling emotions of anger, greed and fear. Stored somewhere, occupying neural pathways that could otherwise be utilized for effective means, was a whole lot of garbage. During that challenging period I also journeyed through memories of every awful thing I’d done, thought, said, and experienced. I felt terrible but as the saying goes “when you’re going through hell, keep going” and I did.

As I’ve been reflecting on the notion of mental diet I came across conceptual artist Jonathon Keats. This guy gets it, and his recent and powerful installation with houseplants has me intrigued.

Picture this: seven houseplants sit in front of screens ‘watching’ a documentary. Varied wavelengths of light emanate from the television and are absorbed by the plants — converted into chemical energy through the process of photosynthesis.

There’s an obvious absurdity to this scene. A ridiculousness in the notion of a "diet" of television until we realize that tonight, in most homes, it will be the mental diet of the masses.

Set up in front of screen we consume information. Some of it is important, relevant and educational, but much of it isn’t. Apparently the average young person views more than 3,000 ads per day on television, Internet, via billboards and in magazines. In a year, we view more than 40,000 ads from television alone.

Equally concerning is the fact we think we’re immune to it.

The late clinical psychologist and author Margaret Singer was an expert on this topic and pointed out the bias which makes us believe media messages affect other people exclusively:

“Just as most soldiers believe bullets will hit only others, not themselves, most citizens like to think that their own minds and thought processes are invulnerable. 'Other people can be manipulated, but not me,' they declare. People like to think that their opinions, values and ideas are inviolate and totally self-regulated. They may admit grudgingly that they are influenced slightly by advertising. Beyond that, they want to preserve a myth in which other persons are weak-minded and easily influenced, but they are strong-minded.”

But we’re not immune. We might be unaware of what we’re handing our minds over to, but we’re not immune.

Meditation brings attention to our awareness. We become more conscious of where our attention goes and what it goes to. We also become aware of our ability to choose. Stemming from the simple practice of sitting in silence and directing our minds back to our breath (or mantra), we cultivate the capacity to choose and when we really step into the truth of what means we become far more conscious our just what we hand our minds over to in daily life.

Nutritionists commonly ask their clients to keep "food journals" to get an accurate understanding of exactly what their daily and weekly diet consists of. Perhaps we meditators could do the same and keep a log of what we fill our heads with. It’s my experience that when we obtain a clear view of our mental diet, we tend to make more conscious choices. No one wants to live in the mental equivalent of a fast-food chain.

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