Cognitive exercises help sharpen mental faculties and also strengthen will-power. Most of these exercises are based on ancient spiritual practices from what were once called The Mystery Schools. The following are are a few that I consider especially effective:
RIGHT EXAMINATION (5 min)
Close yourself off from all external interruptions (people, electronics, work, etc.). Breathe quietly and observe your emotions and thoughts. Then think about your life in general. Test and form the principles you live by, weigh up your duties, think about the true purpose of your life, and also take time to feel genuinely pained over your own errors and imperfections, but don’t wallow in regret.
Wishing to change the past is selfish; you wish it because you’re ashamed or embarrassed over how you acted, and this is driven by your ego (the limited perception you have of yourself). The desire to do better in the future should replace any feelings of regret.
The result of this exercise is the discovery of what is essential and enduring in life, and what is inessential. If you strive to live in accordance with what is essential, your virtues will also grow stronger (courage, love, friendship, loyalty, honesty) and you will have a more fulfilling life, or at least that’s the science of it.
DAILY REVIEW (5-15 min)
Once you’re done with everything and ready to go to bed, mentally review everything you did during the day backwards (from the end of the day to the beginning). You do this backwards because naturally you’re more attached to the experiences you have recently lived and less attached to, say, what you had for breakfast.
As you review your day, try to remember how you felt, your reactions to people and the words you used. This shouldn’t be a mechanical exercise, it should be filled with real feeling. Whether these are good feelings because you are proud of what you did, or more ambiguous feelings over things you’re maybe not so proud of, depends entirely on how you lived your day.
It’s totally fine if you fall asleep during this exercise. Even 3-4 minutes are hugely beneficial. The result of this daily practice is a growing awareness of your actions, words, and reactions during the day. When you emotionally connect to your deeds before going to sleep, you wake up feeling more conscientious about what you do and say and how you interact with others. It helps open your eyes to yourself.
TRIPLE MEDITATION (15 min)
You do this exercise early in the morning, right after you wake up. For the first five minutes, take a couple of breaths and separate yourself from your ordinary life, your daily worries, duties, responsibilities, or plans. Take your mind off external life, and focus on the inside. Strive to connect with that higher part of you that is beyond all the petty concerns of life, the part of you that is infinitely calm, no matter what the outward circumstances may be.
Then, for the next five minutes, choose a saying that you like and repeat it in your head, like a mantra. Again, this shouldn’t be mindless repetition. We should seek to emotionally connect with the words we’re thinking. Here are a few of my favorites:
“For a warrior, nothing is greater than a battle against evil.”–Sri Krishna, The Bhagavad-Gita
“Whosoever shall come with me, shall deny himself, pick up his cross, and follow me.”–Jesus Christ, The Gospel of Mark
“We are what we repeatedly do. Excellence, then, is not an act, but a habit.”–Aristotle
“The path is open to anyone whose will is sincere.”–Rudolf Steiner
The words you choose should come from enlightened literature or from people that you consider your superiors. The point of these 5 minutes is to connect with a current of thought (or thought-form) that is elevated; higher than the types of thoughts normally flitting through your head. When you fill your mind with higher thoughts and feelings, you access a certain mood of soul that helps you deal with life in a more inspired way.
The last 5 minutes of this exercise should be dedicated exclusively to a devotional practice, or prayerful surrender. If you are not religious, spend these 5 minutes seeking to surrender yourself to high ideals such as truth, compassion, love, acceptance, and fraternity. Fill yourself with thoughts and feelings about what it would be like to actually have peace on earth, or a fair justice system, or a human race where there is no poverty and every human being has the opportunity for true happiness. Anything that strikes sincere devotion in you will work for the purpose of this meditation. If you are religious, surrender yourself in prayer to the deity of your choice.
It doesn’t really matter what we feel devoted to, as long as–once again–it’s something that you consider higher than yourself. The point of this exercise is to feel what it’s like to be devoted to something other than yourself, your motives, or your life. When you practice these feelings of devotion and reverence to something greater, it becomes easier to look at your fellow human beings with acceptance, tolerance, and maybe even compassion, rather than judgment or criticism.
CONCENTRATION EXERCISES (5 min. each)
For 5 minutes, stare at a dot in the middle of a circle:
Try not to think about anything, just stare at the dot and keep your mind blank. Slowly, if you’re doing it right, the circle around the dot will start to disappear. Then your surroundings will also start to disappear (I kid you not) in a white haze, and you will only see the dot, until this too disappears.
This mental training helps foster single-mindedness and sharpens your focus, because you learn how to block out anything that you’re not exclusively paying attention to. This could later help in your work when you need to sit down and hammer away for hours to get something done and don’t want any distractions (like your cellphone or facebook, for example). Total single-mindedness.
This second exercise fosters logical, objective thinking. You take a random object (a pencil, a lighter, a spoon, whatever) and place it in front of yourself. For 5 minutes, you think about ways you can describe this object. Take a box of matches, for example. It’s rectangular, three-dimensional, made of carton, the sides are folded in, the matches have tips made of phosphorous, etc. etc. Five minutes seems like a small amount of time, but it really isn’t when you’re doing this exercise.
What you’re doing here is awakening your mind to a whole new level of observation. If you routinely practice this, soon you will get used to observing everything objectively, and you will be able to absorb greater amounts of information from the whole world surrounding you.
Every day, look at the sky and notice the weather. Form a vivid picture by remembering every detail that you observe (the shapes of the clouds, the color of the sky, the amount of sunlight, etc.). At the end of the week, try to remember how the weather changed from day to day, forming a sequence of images in your head. This exercise will help foster an awareness of your surroundings and of the passing of time, as well as sharpen your memory and capacity for recalling details.
The great thing about these exercises is that they don’t take much time at all. Once I did every single one of these exercises for two weeks straight. My memory was super sharp, I started noticing details that other people took for granted, my argumentative skills were on point because I could follow a logical train of thought for a long period of time, and I was calmer and more serene in the face of adversity, because I knew I had a well of skill and strength inside me that I could use no matter what happened.
It’s important that when we start practicing these exercises we don’t lose touch with our humanity or start thinking ourselves superior or more intelligent than other people. It really doesn’t matter how smart we get if we’re still total a-holes. That’s why every day, in our dealings with others, we should strive to understand instead of criticize, and look for the good qualities in people instead of focusing on the bad.
What food is to the body, feelings are to the soul. And if your mind is sharp but your feelings are shitty, you’re doing yourself and the world a disfavor.
Hope these exercises have piqued your interest. What do you do to stay sharp?