Taming the hamsters in my head

Spinning, spinning, spinning “Are you okay, darling?”

My wife heard me cursing to myself in the shower and she was concerned. It was a normal day and a normal shower. But I was so busy thinking about things that made me angry that I was muttering out loud.

Instead of trying to rationalize my insanity (“Nothing, dear! Just having an imaginary conflict in my head.”), I decided to try and change.

Here’s what I learned.

The meanest hamster

My inner critic

My first insight into what was going on came from a book on cognitive behavior therapy called “Self-Esteem”. In the very beginning, the authors introduce the concept of the pathological inner critic, the voice in your head that tells you what you could and should be doing.

One of the first exercises in the book is to simply monitor your critic and write down what he says. Here’s an excerpt from a 24 year old teacher:

"8:15 The principal must be sick of my getting here late.

8:40 Skimpy lesson plan. God I’m lazy.

9:30 These kids are slow and I’m not helping them much.

9:45 Stupid to send Sheila with the lunch list, she’ll fool around in the halls.

10:00 What kind of teacher are you? These kids are moving ahead so slow.

12:15 Stupid remark in the lunchroom.

12:20 Why am I so inane?

2:20 It was a madhouse today. When will I learn to control the class?

2:35 Why don’t I get some of the kids drawings on the wall boards? I’m so disorganized.

3:10 Parked like an idiot - look at the angle of the car.

3:40 Look at the mess. Nice housekeeping.”

I remember chuckling when I first read this. Then, after monitoring my own critic, I realized how much worse off I was. The authors write that “a loud, voluble critic is toxic.” And now I could see, for the first time, how the hundreds of negative reinforcements in my head each day were poisoning me.

Hamster city

So many hamsters!

I soon I realized that my inner critic was just one of many hamsters in my head. Whenever the critic took a break, my mind would be spinning about something else, replaying past events or worrying about future events.

It was around this time that I started reading about “being present.” And I noticed how books as different as “The Miracle of Mindfulness”, “The Willpower Instinct”, “Flow”, “Manage Your Day-to-Day” and “Are Your Ready to Succeed?” all highlighted the power of quieting the mind.

Certainly, part of the reason to do this is to change the habit of hurrying so you can appreciate the present moment and be happier. And yet another important reason is to be calmer so you can think and act more intentionally instead of (over)reacting to every thought and emotion.

Using the same quote from “Presence” I cited last week, quieting the mind is a key to being effective:

“First you slow down and look deeply into yourself and the world until you start to be present to what’s trying to emerge. Then you move back into the world with a unique capacity to act and create.”

Changing the hamster habit

My sleeping hamster (as seen on hamster-palace.com)

While the wisdom in the books seemed irrefutable, nothing really changed for me for quite some time. It was only when I started touching the treadmill - taking a small first step - that I begin to develop new habits.

Of course, I started in the shower. When the hamsters started to stir, whether it was my inner critic or a replay of some conflict, I’d breathe in and out a few times, feel the water, and smile. I’d remind myself that “today was not just another day in my life” and I’d be grateful for the hot and cold water at my fingertips. Before the hamsters had a chance to wake up and start running around my head, I was able to transform my expletive-laden shower into a positive experience.

Just as Thich Nhat Hanh suggests, I soon began looking for other ways I could practice taming the hamsters throughout the day: washing the dishes, making coffee, walking to work.

“Even when you are driving your car, you can practice. Take advantage of that moment to cultivate mindfulness....Breathe in and breathe out, and remain aware of everything that goes on inside you when, for example, you come to a red light. You look at the red light and you smile. The red light is not your enemy. It is a friend who is helping you come back to yourself.”

I’m no monk, but I don’t curse in the shower or get angry about traffic any more. I’m practicing hundreds of times a day now, gradually getting calmer and happier. Gradually becoming more intentional and more effective.

People first wrote about quieting the mind more than 2500 years ago and there are reasons why so many books are still being written on the topic: it's important and it works.