Provision #755: Stop Mental Musterbating

Laser Provision

You read that Provision title right. The best thing we can do for our brains, in particular, and our happiness overall is to stop musterbating. You know what I mean: all those mental lists we keep of the things we “must” and “must not” do. Checklists are one thing, and many people find them to be helpful. “Must” and “must not” do lists are quite another thing. They cause us to “should” on ourselves with all kind of negative self talk about how sick, dumb, crazy, or stupid we are to not be doing what we are supposed to be doing. Sound familiar? Do you play the “should-a, would-a, could-a” game with yourself? If so, then this Provision may give you both relief and direction. How do you spell relief? Read on!

LifeTrek Provision

Last week, in Our Organizing Minds, I summarized the key points in a new book by Dr. Paul Hammerness and Margaret Moore, Organize Your Mind, Organize Your LifeThe first step to getting organized, they assert, is to tame the frenzy. There’s no way to get organized when our emotions are racing out of control. To check and handle negative emotions such as anxiety, sadness, and anger, Margaret Moore (aka Coach Meg in the book) suggests strategies such as mindfulness, self-care, life-planning, therapy, and experimenting with small steps that can generate big smiles.

Since I read the book, Newsweek magazine came out with an issue the cover story of which was titled: “31 Ways to Get Smarter•Faster.” I enjoyed the article, as well as the companion piece written by Amy Gross, former editor-in-chief of O, the Oprah Magazine, titled: “Your Brain on Happiness.”  In her article, Gross tells the story of why she left that position to pursue mindfulness meditation and what she is doing now to become less afraid of her own interior storms. In other words, she tells the story of taming her own frenzy by adopting, full time, one of Coach Meg’s recommendations.

Gross is an articulate writer with a gift for describing the indescribable:

“Mindfulness meditation is the Buddha’s prescription to end suffering. He discovered that if you pay attention to what’s going on, moment to moment•without trying to hold onto what feels good or push away what feels bad•your relationship to pain changes.”

“The key shift is in turning toward pain, when all your life you•ve turned away from it. You give it your full attention•you yield to it•and, paradoxically, its hold on you diminishes. (The majority of chronic-pain patients in an eight-week meditation course are able to reduce their medications and become more active.) You open to emotional pain as well. As you meditate, the grip of your history loosens and you get a little saner, lighter, less entangled.”

“The formal structure for intense practice is a silent retreat, which can last anywhere from one morning to three years. No talking, no reading, no writing, no eye contact. You•re stranded on the island of your mind. You•re sitting peacefully, or impatiently, or hungrily, when a thought suddenly jerks through your head and your inner world breaks into a riot•heart racing, muscles gripping, adrenaline pouring, breath speeding.”

“You bring your attention to the explosion: what is this? Ah, this time it’s anger•and it feels lousy. You notice that it’s causing you pain•you, not X, the object of your anger. Focusing on the sensations of the emotion, you stop telling yourself the story of how X did you wrong. Without the story, the anger runs out of fuel. Relief. Non-anger feels so good. You come to be less and less afraid of your own interior storms.”

That’s about as good a description as I have ever read on how mindfulness meditation works. It certainly connects the dots to taming our frenzy and it makes clear that the opposite of mindfulness is not always mindlessness. It can also be mental musterbating. Those are the stories we tell ourselves that inflame the frenzy by focusing on all the things that we and others “must” or “must not” be doing. To let go of the “must” is a deeply spiritual journey, yet it can take place quickly, in a morning or even a moment, when we see ourselves and others through the lens of possibility.

Believe it or not, that’s part of what people learn through the evocative coaching training program. By cultivating coaching presence and developing emotional intelligence, those who go through the training program become better able to set aside enemy images and to let go of the stories that are causing so much pain. Instead of taking stories at face value, trainees learn to listen for the feelings and needs behind the story and to empathize in ways that are as transformational as Gross describes her own journey into mindfulness meditation:

“My contract at the magazine was coming up for renewal. I’d been working since a week after I graduated from college. Forty-five years. I had saved some money, I’d paid off my mortgage, and freedom was looking like the ultimate luxury good. Why not drop out now? I could read purely for pleasure, put people first rather than last, and wallow in practice.”

“So I dropped, and as I was landing, I found a new occupation’studying and teaching something called Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction or MBSR. Designed in 1979 by molecular biologist Jon Kabat-Zinn, MBSR is an eight-week course that delivers the benefits of mindfulness meditation to people who may have no interest in Buddhism. They•re often busy, ambitious people willing to commit a few hours a week to learning a new set of skills widely reported to be good for them.”

“The burgeoning field of neuroscience emits a fairly constant stream of evidence for meditation’s positive impact on immune response, cardiovascular functioning, the brain itself. Meditation can change the brain•measurably. Scientists can see a thickening of the cortex areas where memory and empathy reside. In one famous study, subjects who meditated showed less activity in an area associated with negative emotions like anger, depression, and anxiety, and more activity in the area associated with buoyancy, optimism, and confidence. They also had a stronger immune reaction to flu vaccine than did those in control groups. And all these differences show up in eight weeks.”

“Kabat-Zinn’s work has inspired a host of mindfulness-based therapies, with offshoots focusing on depression, addiction, eating and sleep disorders, and chronic pain. Mindfulness itself is being applied in psychotherapy•for treating cancer survivors, PTSD, sexual dysfunction•and is now so legit it’s taught around the world in medical centers, hospitals, schools (from primary school to medical school), prisons, and corporations. Teacher-training courses draw doctors, nurses, psychologists, psychotherapists, and the occasional odd duck devoted to meditation, which is where I came in.”

“Last winter I ended a course by asking the 23 participants to single out an idea or change of behavior they wanted to take away with them. One man said his staff was telling him he was being more patient. A woman noticed she was doing everyday things mindfully•walking to the bus, cutting an apple•and was surprised at how much pleasure these ordinary activities gave her. A woman who got angry when people littered on subway platforms, or when her boss showed up a few minutes late for meetings, now turned her attention to the anger itself and felt it dissipate.”

“Listening to them go around, I thought: I never teared up like this at a magazine award.”

“This meditation business is potent stuff. Mindfulness meditation has been around for more than 2,500 years, and I’m grateful to have stumbled on it. As a veteran magazine editor who spent 24/7 alert to trends, to the waves that move us, that make masses of us hunger for this and not that, I have no doubt that mindfulness meditation is an idea whose time has come•again.”

That’s one way to not only stop the mental musterbating but also to make a difference in the world. The world needs relief from the constant stream of “should-a, would-a, could-a” messages. Blaming and berating ourselves and others as inadequate is the exact opposite of MBSR. The whole point of MBSR is to notice things, both internal and external, without judging them. We just notice and pay attention until the blaming and berating story runs out of fuel.

I love that metaphor! The reason it runs out of fuel is that the blaming and berating story is replaced with a new, life-giving story as to our feelings and needs in the moment. By meeting our needs in the sense of getting better acquainted and more comfortable with them, we shift from the roles of victims, persecutors, and rescuers to the role of those who are at choice as to how we want to be.

The point of books like Organize Your Mind, Organize Your Life is not to make us more miserable about all the things we “must” do to get more organized. The point is not even, ironically enough, to give us tips on how to get more organized. The point is to make us more aware of how are brains are organizing life. When that happens, when we start to notice our organizing minds without judging them, that’s when the frenzy begins to die down and the possibilities begin to emerge.

Several of the “31 Ways to Get Smarter•Faster” in the other Newsweek article, by staff writer Sharon Begley, as well as some of their featured callouts, feature good advice for doing just that:

  • Take sabbaticals from the Smartphone and other connections to the digital world.
  • Build a “Memory Palace” by associating memories with vivid images.
  • Learn a new language, which affects decision making and emotions.
  • Welcome being contradicted and try to see the other point of view.
  • Stay well hydrated, since the brain suffers greatly from dehydration.
  • Visit an art museum or take in other aesthetic treats.
  • Zone out, letting your mind wander, to see the big picture.
  • Delay gratification.

Delaying gratification is about meeting our needs in a totally different sense. Just because we have a need does not mean that we “must” satisfy that need. Delaying gratification gives us the opportunity to savor that need, to learn what it means to us, and to calmly choose the path we will take in relation to that need. When the calm arrives, we will stop beating up ourselves and we will start organizing ourselves for life.

Coaching Inquiries: How often do you blame, belittle, or berate yourself? How often do you think such thoughts about others? What would your life be like if you were to let go of all mental musterbating? What if the “should-a, would-a, could-a” voices were dial down the volume or even disappear? How good would that be? How could you make it so?

To reply to this Provision, use our Feedback Form. To talk with us about coaching or consulting services for yourself or your organization, Email Us or use our Contact Form to arrange a complimentary conversation. 

LifeTrek Readers’ Forum (selected feedback from the past week)

Editor’s Note: The LifeTrek Readers’ Forum contains selections from the comments and materials sent in each week by the readers of LifeTrek Provisions. They do not necessarily reflect the perspective of LifeTrek Coaching International. To submit your comment, use our Feedback Form or Email Bob.

As I read through your Provision on Our Organizing Minds this morning, my mind wandered and I paused. I found myself thinking, “When would I find the time to organize with everything else on my plate? I really liked the advice on focusing on one domain at a time, have faith, approach it as a challenge, and remember the constant of change. I found this Provision appropriate for this time of the year when many of us are reflecting and setting New Year’s resolutions and trying to keep them. Thank you for another great Provision and your recommendation of another book. It really is the journey and making it happen.

Your Provision was helpful for me, and to be honest I haven’t been reading them, mainly because my own mind and life has seemed to be on autopilot. It’s been a crazy year, and the stress level has been high. In times like these I tend to go with the flow and procrastinate. The biggest help, however, is that I am now running 30-40 miles a week. I’ve lost 30 pounds and am in the best shape of my life. 

So what is interesting is that as I have taken control of my life stuff and feel great, I now feel a need to translate the same effort into my calling as a pastor. I feel like I’m in that mid-career, fall into the routine, deal with the institution mode. But I also have set a goal of this year being the year when we as a church set some goals for the future, and I believe that will help both the church and me. Your Provision will help with this, as well as our past work together.

As I was reading the Provision, I finished and can see the takeaways, but I was wondering how you deal with the balance between being so •organized• that the Spirit is quashed. Maybe it’s my touch of ADD, but my mode of ministry has been one of fluidity where I try to stay attuned to the Spirit’s movement, and it leads. I guess the way to approach this would be to stop and write it down for later, as indicated in the Provision, or maybe there are times when one knows that the Spirit’s movement takes precedence. (Ed. Note: I hope today’s follow-up Provision will help! Thanks for reaching out)

I am looking for information on mentoring for new coaches • coach to coach. Would you have any information that you would be willing to share with me? (Ed. Note: You can find coach referral directories at and I would also encourage you to look into the evocative coaching training program as a way of buffing up your skills.) 

May you be filled with goodness, peace, and joy.

Bob Tschannen-Moran, MCC, BCC

President, LifeTrek Coaching
CEO & Co-Founder, Center for School
Immediate Past President, International Association of
Author, Evocative Coaching: Transforming Schools One Conversation at a TimeOnline Retailers

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