Mental sludge, emotional oil spills

I just began reading “Joyful Wisdom: Embracing change and finding freedom” by Yongey Mingyur Rinchope, a well-respected Tibetan meditation master. Ten pages in and I was already making notes to share with you.

He describes our feelings of helplessness as sludge; I am calling it “mental sludge.”

Are are you picturing the horrible, thick, gooey black substance that clogs your bathtub drains (sure, sure, not yours) – Yuk, or maybe your sewer lines – Gross, or worse yet, the beautiful waters of the Gulf of Mexico – Devastating?

Mental sludge is just as big a threat to our happiness and to creating the lives we want as the oil sludge in the Gulf of Mexico is to our environment.

Rinchope describes sludge as the feeling we get when we are in the middle of a negative or sad thought or situation, and we begin to think “this is the way I am, this is the way life works, there’s nothing I can do to change it.”

Mental sludge. 

Okay, so that got me thinking: I have areas of mental sludge in my life – and, if we are really being honest, which I am – I have, at times, had vast wastelands of mental sludge, which have led me to what I am now calling “emotional spills:” nasty little outbursts of thoughts and words that just like the oil spill in the Gulf, have ripple effects that spread far and wide and can affect me and those around me for years to come.

Sometimes, I have let my fears such as: being late; not getting the job done; not doing it well enough; not making the best __________; being the best _______ ; having the nicest or cleanest  ________; the smartest  ________ or whatever my momentary complaint is, lead me to think and say things I would rather not.

Most of the verbal oil I spew is directed solely at myself, but sometimes, it seeps out toward others: Hey, that guy just cut me off; She looks _______; I can’t believe they expect me to _______; She/he is always ________; They never _________; and one of my favorites” You/they should . . .  (All of these are hard to admit and, of course, there are much uglier examples – I am honest but not a masochist. 🙂

I believe that most of the negative comments we make to ourselves, our loved ones and anyone else, who happens by when we are “spilling,” are the result of some level of mental sludge clogging our spirits and preventing us from creating the life we want.

I began facing my mental sludge years before I named it, which was just a few days ago, thanks to Rinchope – and noticed that when I do face the sludge, my emotional spills became less frequent and much less intense.

Here’s what works for me:

1. Being aware of my mental sludge: the negative thoughts and thought patterns that keep me stuck.  Awareness is always a good first step.  Notice what you are thinking in times of stress or sadness. Then, look for patterns.

2. Learning to recognize them for what they are: thoughts, not prophecies.  Try not to judge yourself.  One mistake or failure does not a loser make.  In fact, a million mistakes and failures do not, and all the negative stuff we tell ourselves is just us telling ourselves negative stuff. It is not fact, nor written in stone – anywhere. (Same for all the stuff others tell us – their thoughts, not fact.)

3. Mentally rewarding myself for being able to recognize and label my thoughts:  Hey, good job, Patrice. (Sort-of like my friend’s adorable two-year old nephew, who tells her all the time, “Good job, I am proud of you!”)

By the time I make it to Step 3, the original thought(s) has passed, and that big old pile of mental sludge that was so overwhelming has disappeared.  Pretty, simple, huh?  And, it works.

Rinchope calls that mindfulness.  I call it wonderful.

To clean-out your spiritual pipes, repeat Steps 1-3, which you will probably need to do often in the beginning, but try not to judge yourself or your progress, just repeat the steps, as needed.

Now, let’s find a solution for the spill in the Gulf of Mexico.


  1. I love your mental sludge analogy. I used to feel sorry for myself all the time. And it turned me into this bitchy girl always angry at something or someone. But the truth was I was angry at myself. I’m still a work in progress but at least, I am less bitchy now. And I know it roots my insecurities and fears.
    PS…Sharing another inspirational article that could help us all in our struggle through life:


  2. Once again, you did it–you knew exactly what I needed today. Mind sludge. Yes that is what it is, nothing more. Thank you.


  3. Your thoughts today was a good reminder of my mental sludge–especially late at night when I am feeling so sorry for myself, thinking of the past and what I could have or should have done to alleviate the mistakes, the pain, and the hurts I gave to others. I’m trying to “develop” a mental broom to sweep away failures and situations that I cannot now change and leaving myself a clean slate to keep in mind how I can be better myself and be better to those around me and savor the present. I have so much to be thankful for, wonderful friends and family, and so much joy awaits if I recognize and realize it. Thanks for making me think and examine myself.


    • I love your honesty and your thoughts. Please move your chair to the head of the class.

      Just remember not to be too hard on yourself while cleaning out you mental closets.


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