Okay, we are at that point of winter where the pressure of our "New Year's Resolutions" has faded and we are on the brink of spring. Even colder cities (like the one in which I reside) are starting to loosen their wintery grip and present some milder temperatures.
Other than sharing the current weather conditions in Salt Lake City, this time of year is yet another point of transition in our long swing around the sun. This is the point during which kids start to think about the end of the school year, weekday warriors' cars take less than ten minutes to warm up, and parents start getting excited about spring cleaning.
Spring is the season of rebirth, affording the opportunity to start over, start fresh, and try new things that we had been thinking about or putting off through the gray of winter.
In childhood, this was getting rid of excess junk in my house. As an adult, though, spring cleaning can look quite different. Many still take the opportunity to purge their house or closets and that is plenty for them, but people also get outside more and consider their physical health even more than when they set that New Year's Resolution to lose fifty pounds and stop eating Oreos.
However one chooses to enact it, "Spring Cleaning" is often meant as a cleanse of some kind. There are a million juice and diet cleanses out there, but my job is not to comment on the physical cleansing. Instead, I am concerned with the psychological Spring Cleaning that many people feel forced to pursue.
CLEANSE THE SOUL
Back when we humans first compare ourselves to others - um, when we are born? - we fall into the trap of social competition and develop a perfectionist pressure to be the healthiest, most successful, and got-it-all-together version of ourselves as we get older. After all, it is for your survival, right? It is just science.
The problem is that the "got-it-all-together" benchmark for which we all strive is completely unrealistic...and impossible.
This is why there is still such a dramatic misconception about meditation and mindfulness in western society. Even those athleisure influencers who have been doing bikram yoga and juice cleanses for years still fall prey to the thought that in both yoga and meditation one must be able to "clear out the mind" to achieve total peace.
Then it does not happen.
Then they get nervous.
Then they try again.
It still does not work.
Then they call themselves "hot messes" that they playfully need to "clean out". But when meditation and yoga do not seem to empty the mind, they begin to identify with the label of Hot Mess in a way that is like "Well, this is just how I am now" while internally there is panic that they have "failed" to "have it all together" and that they "do not know what to do with their lives". Unfortunately, they only succeed in creating a cage for themselves where they feel inadequate but try to present as successful as possible, which is a misalignment that requires a ton of extra energy, which is likely treated with more yoga and the cycle repeats itself...
THE INCONVENIENT TRUTH
The goal to cleanse the mind or clean the hot mess in your head is a perfectionist ideal.
We see other people presenting as having it all together and we think "oh no! I am a failure. Why can't I be like them?" and we set the ideal in our mind to at least present the same way. We present like we are perfect and happy because we have trouble figuring out how to actually wipe our brain slates clean and at least feel zen.
SPOILER ALERT: THERE IS NO HOW. IT CANNOT BE DONE.
Your brain is constantly working. All of life is energy and, like the Black Eyed Peas say, the energy never dies. Everything in the universe is chaos; not in the negatively connoted sense of turmoil but rather in the sense of turbulence and movement at all times. The energy organizes itself so that the chaos is directed to form things like bodies and weather, but the chaos never stops.
In the context of your perfectionist hope to turn your brain off, you will not be able to. The energy will continue to flow. The truth about meditation is that its purpose is not to erase all thoughts from the chalkboard of your mind. Instead, it is to create a mindful and metaphysical detachment from your thoughts so that you can watch them flow by like they were dropped in a river.
The British philosopher and zen buddhism professor Alan Watts says that trying to stop thinking is like "trying to make rough water smooth with a flat iron, and all that will do is stir it up. So, in the same way as a muddy, turbulent pool quiets itself when left alone, you have to know how to leave your mind alone." In psychoanalysis, this relates to offering yourself self-compassion in that you must not be so critical of your own thoughts. Even if you assign frustration or stress to a thought, it is still best to let that thought happen and witness it without acting to stomp it out.
Proper meditation provides different energy, rejuvenation, and mindspace because the meditator surrendered their extra energy exertion to try and stop the thoughts. The unused energy is kept in storage.
Try this for the next three days.
Identify the pressure you put on yourself for the sake of your mental health. For example, "I need to figure my life out", "I need to clear my mind", "Oh my god I'm such a failure."
Write whatever your pressure is down in a concise sentence. Be as specific as you can without feeling like it has to be perfect...
Beneath it, write down the version of that statement that is just one level lower in intensity. For example: "Oh my god I'm such a failure" ----> "Ugh, I am struggling so much with _______(specific "issue")"
Even though the new statement is not much more encouraging, the exercise of easing off the extreme perfectionist pressure frees up space to feel a more authentic version of the original emotion (such as sadness or fear) and even that tiny semantic adjustment draws you to slightly more humility and honesty with yourself, which closes the gap between the idealized "perfect" external presentation and your internal panic of inadequacy.
Extra credit: If you want to go pro, keep repeating the activity with one original statement to see how deeply you can lower its pressure. See what happens...