How to make your head the best possible place to spend time in (featuring Stoicism, Sherlock, and mindfulness)

Do you ever get told to get out of your own head? It’s a real challenge to stop overthinking on command. But I think we can reframe the solution. Instead of trying to stop thinking, we could focus on making our minds the best possible place to spend time in.

It all goes back over 1800 years ago to the Stoics, when Marcus Aurelius was Roman Emperor.

This is the man who wrote in his Meditations:

“Men seek retreats for themselves, houses in the country, sea-shores, and mountains; and thou too art wont to desire such things very much. But this is altogether a mark of the most common sort of men, for it is in thy power whenever thou shalt choose to retire into thyself. For nowhere either with more quiet or more freedom from trouble does a man retire than into his own soul.”

It is from Marcus Aurelius that I – and so many others – have learned how to adjust the mind’s base state and maintain a deeper sense of tranquillity. With some conscious upkeep, this can provide both a retreat to seek out when we need it most and a more mindful way of approaching life’s trials.

Here’s what I’ve learned from Marcus Aurelius on making our mind a more rejuvenating place to be. The soul becomes “dyed with the colour of its thoughts”, after all.

Furnish your mind how you want it

In A Study in Scarlet by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, the first Sherlock Holmes story, Holmes says to Watson: “I consider that a man’s brain originally is like a little empty attic, and you have to stock it with such furniture as you choose”.

This is a great description of the Holmesian mind palace, but I think it can also apply more broadly to the housekeeping we do in our minds.

I think of it this way. Your mind is the room you spend most time in. And the only interior designer or housekeeper it will ever have is you.

Stimulus goes in and it’s up to you what you make of it. You decide if an external event is going to leave you calm and collected, propel you towards anxiety, or make you want to retreat into bed for the rest of the day.

Sometimes we make the right decisions. But often we jump to conclusions and get thrown in different directions by situations outside of our control. We lose control of the traffic and it soon becomes gridlock in there.

Redirecting incoming traffic and having quiet, sunny roads to drive down is a choice we can make at any time. It’s about getting our authority back and deciding what’s allowed in. Once we’ve done this once, we can do it again. And again. Until it becomes a habit and our go-to way of being.

“You have power over your mind – not outside events”, wrote Marcus Aurelius, “realize this, and you will find strength”.

Our aim isn’t to become Marcus Aurelius in sixty-six days, it’s to exert just enough willpower to stop and briefly ponder whether something is in or out of our control.

Do this once, then once more, and keep going until it becomes a part of our mental furniture.

The happiness of your life depends upon the quality of your thoughts. You decide what goes in.

Have time to enjoy the room

Once you have a lovely new room in your house, you sit and enjoy it. Pour a cup of tea and admire the beautifully decorated walls, the framed pictures, the furniture. You enjoy how comfortable and warm it is sitting there.

Pretty quickly though, it loses its appeal as something new and exciting. But if you keep it well-kept and clean, perhaps with a renovation or small change every so often, it remains a relaxing place to sit down and chill.

Why don’t we do the same with our minds?

Take some time to look inwards. This might just be a few minutes of sitting quietly and focusing on the breath. I try and do this a few times a day, just to check in and see how my body is feeling.

I also sometimes like to bring up fond memories, beautiful mountain top views I’ve seen around the world, and thoughts of favourite places. This has a good way of filling me with happy and calm sensations.

You could also have some guided meditation or mindfulness, perhaps with the help of Headspace, Buddhify, or the Calm app. I find the Calm “body scan” exercise to be really useful – you can choose how long you want it to last so it best fits with your day. Although the idea of meditation is to be both relaxed and awake, I’m guilty of breaking the rules (guidelines?) and do it before falling asleep. I do try and check in when I’m feeling fresher as well, though.

Check in and make repairs

I really gained a lot from reading Search Inside Yourself: Increase Productivity, Creativity and Happiness by Chade Meng Tan. It’s full of mindfulness and meditation exercises and handy tips to keep in mind as you become more present.

One idea I like: when meditating and unsure of your posture, try sitting like a majestic mountain. The idea is to think of your favourite mountain, say Mount Fuji or Mount Kilimanjaro, and then pretend to be that mountain when you sit. Also, don’t raise the bar too high for your meditation practice: “I may be the laziest mindfulness instructor in the world because I tell my students all they need to commit to is one mindful breath a day. Just one. Breathe in and breathe out mindfully, and your commitment for the day is fulfilled; everything else is a bonus”.

We can also help ourselves out by getting rid of the clutter. It’s way too easy for us to use our minds as a sort of filing cabinet, holding everything we might possibly need to remember. Even if we do an exceptional job at this, it’s tiring. It depletes our willpower and mental energy that could be spent on creative tasks or problem-solving.

To tidy up our mental clutter, David Allen advises in Getting Things Done: The Art of Stress-free Productivity and in his GTD system that we need to get things out of our mind. Anything that works for you goes – it could be on paper or in an app, it just needs to be externalised. Once you have it written down (and even better if it goes into a system with deadlines and priorities, so you know it’ll be taken care of), you can commit your mind to more important things.

Use your mind as your best tool for a happy life

Where the head goes, the body follows. How we anticipate and interpret events dictates how our body will prepare or react. We need the right perspective to ensure the right actions.

One final bit of wisdom from Marcus Aurelius: “Very little is needed to make a happy life; it is all within yourself in your way of thinking.”

Recommended books:


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