First of all, it is important to say a bit about what mindfulness is. Mindfulness is the skillful use of attention. It is the practice of intentionally bringing awareness and acceptance to what is happening within you and around you.
There are many ways to practice this skill. The most common way to practice is meditation on the sensations of the breath. In this practice, you commit to paying attention for a period of time, you notice and accept the experience as it is, and when you notice that your attention has wandered away from the breath, you bring it back. All of this is done with the acceptance that feelings, thoughts, sounds, and other sensations will show up. The practice is simply noticing when your attention is not where you intended and bringing it back kindly and gently.
Secondly, it is important to acknowledge what mindfulness is not. Mindfulness is not the same as relaxation. Despite what pictures of blissful individuals on the covers of popular magazines may lead you to believe, you can be mindful of all kinds of internal sensations such as tension, anxiety, stress, sadness, fear, anger, resentment, frustration, boredom, fatigue, and restlessness. You can be aware and accepting of any internal experience.
Mindfulness is not a practice for getting rid of challenging internal and external circumstances – it is a practice that creates the space to live a more peaceful and powerful life in the presence of whatever shows up. And there are many reasons to think that mindfulness helps us make more effective decisions. Here are my top six:
1. Even simple decisions are complicated. We have a clever brain that leads us to believe that we came up with our reasons first and then we made our decision – it turns out that it often happens in reverse. Neuroscientists have found that, in many situations, we make a decision first and then come up with our reasons to support the decision afterwards. More incredibly, these processes of deciding and then defending are often carried out in completely different areas of the brain. Being quiet and mindful can help us investigate our reasons with a bit more curiosity rather than swallowing them whole.
2. We are driven by sensations. Unless you are Dr. Spock (shout out to the original Trekkies out there), what you feel (or don’t feel) shapes how you think. While we generally consider ourselves to make important decisions based on reason and rational thought, many of our decisions are made based on how we imagine we will feel in the future. In order to know how we will feel in the future, our brains actually create that feeling in the present. If we are mindful of how we feel, we can more consciously include this in the decision-making process.
3. We are all biased. Age, gender, class, race…every one of us has biases about the groups we belong to and the groups we don’t. In addition, we have strong biases toward confirming what we already believe to be true. We can convince ourselves that we are operating objectively, but we rarely are. Being blind to our biases increases the likelihood that we will act on them. Being aware that we harbor biases of all kinds makes us less susceptible to them.
4. We can be more open to multiple perspectives. Consulting with people who see things differently is a powerful practice in decision-making. It can be quite uncomfortable to listen to a perspective that challenges our own. Rather than avoiding disagreement, we can find the space to accept discomfort as part of the process of making an effective decision. Openness to experience is a personality trait that seems to correlate with mindfulness.
5. Morals and ethics can get lost. Some decisions feel that they are connected to our survival even when they are not. Our brain can make getting what we want or avoiding what we don’t want seem like life or death. In these cases, ethics and morality can take a back seat in decision-making. There is evidence that some quiet reflection and greater awareness can restore our principles to more central consideration and lead to decisions that are aligned with our deepest values.
6. Not making a decision is a decision. Doing nothing is a decision that has consequences. Avoidance is often the result of the discomfort we feel when we think about taking action. We can be very good at rationalizing non-action – finding compelling reasons and passing on the responsibility to others. Being aware and accepting of our tendencies to do this allows us to accept responsibility for not making a decision as well as the consequences that follow.
It may seem that sitting down and paying attention to your breath is a waste of time in a busy life. Perhaps. However, there is a growing body of evidence that suggests that taking this time may lead to more effective decisions. What is that worth?
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