A few weeks back, in a conversation with a colleague, she used a term in passing that I hadn’t heard in a long time: “mental hygiene”. We were talking about the different depth-levels of therapy and she was making the point that sometimes before getting deeper into an issue we need to first attend to day-to-day living skills, to “mental hygiene”. The phrase resonated and so I thought I’ll do a bit of research about its exact meaning and origin. Turns out, it’s not that straight forward.

“Mental Hygiene” is a catchy phrase and one that lends itself to easy images and metaphors. One online resource started with a comparison to brushing our teeth and washing our faces. Basics. Things we do all the time; and thus it should be with mental hygiene: think positive; don’t compare yourself to others; don’t stress (http://www.wikihow.com/Improve-Mental-Hygiene).

An article in Psychology Today went a bit further (although again starting with the teeth as a comparison): we go for a check-up at the dentist’s, even if we don’t have pain. We are proactive. Why not be as proactive with our mental health and book a psychotherapy check-up bi-annually or annually. Certainly, preventing possible mental issues by dealing with extremely stressful life situations and emotions would be a good idea (https://www.psychologytoday.com/blog/struck-living/201202/mental-hygiene-preventative-care-mental-illness).

Medically speaking, mental hygiene is about the “the science and practice of maintaining and restoring mental health” (http://medical-dictionary.thefreedictionary.com/mental+hygiene); and historically speaking it is a movement for the betterment of mental health issues and care that was founded by a survivor of the mental health system in the beginning of the last century (http://www.infoplease.com/encyclopedia/science/mental-hygiene.html).

Whatever the depth of the meaning one adopts, what seems to be the essence of them all is

daily (or at least regular) care and

preventative care

That, to me, makes total sense. Most of us know from personal experience that a situation will have a different mental impact on us if we already feel stressed and tired. We understand that it is easier to deal with one major loss than with three losses occurring in a short period of time. We know that having been physically ill can have an impact on how we deal with normal stressors at work or in the family. So, having some regular practice to keep the balance (or as some would say, stay sane), makes sense.

It makes so much sense that most of us do this already, at least to some degree. We may make it a point to have dinner with the family whenever possible. We may go to a weekly yoga class or to the gym because we know that it makes us feel better, not only physically. We may have keep drinking alcohol or coffee to nights out when we don’t have an important meeting the next day, lest we feel moody the next day. We may have learned that communication is important, so we try to communicate.

The problem is that we actually do treat our mental health very much like our physical health. We have some very basic rituals — e.g. brushing teeth; having a shower; washing our hair / having some fun and a good laugh every once in a while / having a conversation with our spouse at the end of the day / cuddling with the cats. What we often don’t have is a way to go beyond those very basics. Like that gym membership that we got when we “really got it” that our bodies needed more movement to be healthy, our meditation CDs, which we purchased when we “really got it” that we needed to find a way to still the monkey mind inside our heads, are collecting dust on the shelves. We don’t have time to meditate (or go to the gym); we are too busy getting by.

Like our bodies, our minds have their limits and sooner or later they are stretched too far. On the physical level we may get a bad cold or just simply get perpetually tired. What is the mental equivalent of that? Moodiness, feeling low or depressed, overwhelmed and mentally exhausted, not being able to engage fully with life around us.

Again, the problem is that we treat our minds like our bodies in those situations: we push on. We ask for (and often receive) some chemical solution that keeps us going a bit further, that keeps numbing the pain. We get mad with ourselves. We swear we’ll take better care of ourselves once this is over — and then we don’t. It seems like we are engaging in a vicious cycle of ever greater desensitization from the actually needs of our bodies and minds, supported by the expectations and requests from society.

Can we actually do anything about this? Well, I don’t know for certain because like most people, I myself often struggle with those same expectations and requests (and of course with those insistent inner voices that are telling me that I simply can’t afford to be sick or take time off, etc.) We are, after all, human. We struggle. We worry. We want to belong, to be appreciated, valued, loved.

However, there is an idea that has been tugging at the edges of my mind for a long time: Soul Hygiene! What do I mean by that? Well, I mean those little acts of true awareness, of true presence and kindness, those moments of actual acknowledgement of the reality and truth around us and within us, that touch the heart and lift the spirit. I was just listening to a presentation by Jon Kabbat-Zinn and I think what I am talking about may be the essence of mindfulness as he defined it: “The awareness that arises through paying attention, on purpose, in the moment, non-judgementally.”

As Kabbat-Zinn says himself, this is not about doing something specific, like meditation or conscious breath (although, as he also mentions, those things help tremendously). No, this is about actually becoming aware of our awareness. We often use the word aware without really understanding what it means: “I wasn’t aware of that” or “I want to make you aware of this new product” or even “as far as I am aware …”

Thing is, we always are aware. We just mostly aren’t aware of our awareness. Awareness is being present, having a hold of all of us. The root of the word “aware” is Proto-Germanic and means “attentive, cautious” and ultimately comes from the Proto-Indo-European meaning “to perceive, watch out for”. So, to be aware means to be attentive, to perceive, to watch out for life around us. It doesn’t mean “I didn’t know this”, “I want you to see this / know this”, or even “as far as I know….”.

Practising Soul Hygiene is at the same time the easiest and the hardest thing to do. It is about taking a moment to just be: to be aware of one’s feelings and one’s body; aware of the world around oneself in sounds, and smells, and images; aware of one’s thoughts, one’s fears, and one’s hopes; aware of the weather; aware of the people around oneself.

It is the easiest thing to do because we can do it anywhere at any time. No tools needed, no scheduling, no preparation. We can do it sitting in the bus or at a red light in the car, typing an essay on the computer or having a meal with a friend. We even can do it when we aren’t doing what we think we should be doing, e.g. when we are sitting in front of the TV at 12:30 am while thinking that we really should be going to bed and getting angry with ourselves for not doing so. Being aware, non-judgementally, can be done in every and any life situation.

It is the hardest thing to do because it means not doing anything. It means being still, just for a moment and allowing ourselves to just receive what is going on inside and around us. It means quieting our ever chatty mind for just long enough to actually be able to observe our thoughts without being talked to death by them. It means seeing, hearing, smelling, feeling without judging — and without judging means without an inner evaluation of how this is right or wrong, good or bad. It means actually letting down all our defences against the reality of the world for just a moment and allowing for the possibility of truly experiencing it.

How, you wonder, may such experience help with the health of our soul life and subsequently with that of our mind and body? Being fully aware of oneself and the world around one helps the soul breathe. It allows our soul to connect and engage with the world fully — and that is our soul’s very nature. Letting down our defences for a moment allows us to feel the wholeness of life — good, bad and ugly — without judging and naming it such and thus preventing our souls from embracing and transforming the feelings. Allowing ourselves to be aware for a moment makes us more vulnerable. It also makes us stronger and more resilient.

As our souls regain their natural ability to support us in the world as a part of the whole, our fears become less unmanageable, our expectations shrink back to appropriate levels, our perspectives become less distorted by worry, expectations, and shame. We may find that there are deeply sad and troublesome things in the world around us and that all we can do is to actually witness them, feel our way into and maybe through them, and let our soul guide us to the best way to act in light of them.

As we allow ourselves to be more fully part of the world, rather than just running through it, trying to influence it or escape it, we may feel more balanced, more engaged with our thoughts and minds. We may find that letting our feelings determine our actions is sometimes a good thing, and sometimes it isn’t. But without judging it, without making ourselves wrong for it, we may be able to find new ways of acting from the heart. And as we are acting more from the heart, as we learn to be truly aware of the realities and needs of our own bodies and of life around us, we may also make choices for our health that are more appropriate and easier to follow through.

What does all of this mean practically? Well, tonight, after I have my shower and brush my teeth, after doing my journal entry to let my mind look back over the day and let go of all those things that have been especially noteworthy, I will also take a moment to just allow myself to be aware of my body, my thought, my feelings, the sounds in the house and the warmth of the blankets. On second thought, maybe I’ll start with that right now: being aware of the sound of running water from my fountain, the gentle falling snow outside my window, the warmth of a sleeping cat on my legs…