If there’s a tool to becoming a more successful anything, it’s probably mindfulness.
I’m not 100% sure if there’s a universally agreed-upon definition for it, but I kind of like Wikipedia’s. From the mindfulness article: “the practice of mindfulness involves being aware, moment-to-moment, of one’s subjective conscious experience from a first-person perspective.”
There’s a lot to that concept! However, it’s a tremendously handy process, one I’m surprised I haven’t really explicitly written on. I touch on it, but I haven’t explored this specifically. In many ways it’s the cornerstone of self-improvement in all areas! Let’s get cracking.
Listening to yourself
Maybe you’ve heard somebody being a hypocrite, or saying something exceptionally stupid or ignorant, and you thought “if only you could hear yourself right now!” That is, essentially, mindfulness.
The hearing part, not the stupid hypocrite part.
It means taking an active awareness of your thoughts, feelings, and behaviors right now. Usually, it also means doing so while withholding judgments about them. However, if you do have judgments, you also observe those.
I find the most passive, observer-oriented phrase to use is “I notice that…” and then I follow it with what I notice. “I notice that I’m feeling angry.” “I notice that my jaw is tense.” “I notice that I want nothing more than to go home and play video games.”
I just notice. That’s it. No other big gameplan in mind other than to quiet down, listen, and collect some data.
There is a form of meditation called “mindfulness meditation” (surprise surprise) based on this. Rather than attempting to clear your mind, you attempt to observe your mind. You sit still, somewhere quiet and comfortable, and you just listen to your thoughts. Often they will run away with you, but eventually you notice that, and you bring it back. You wait patiently for the thoughts to come through, and then you just watch them go by without forcing anything.
It’s actually a lot harder than it sounds. Especially for me, since my thoughts really like to rev up and take off without my say-so. After awhile, however, you do start getting the hang of it, and you bring yourself back to noticing rather quickly.
With practice and time, you will become more skilled at doing it in everyday life. It’s an internal process, so while you’re standing in line somewhere, you can stop for a moment, and honestly listen to your own thoughts as if you were an outsider. You can listen to your body as well, being mindful of the tension in your limbs, or maybe the pains and aches you’ve blocked out because you’re so used to them.
The skill of mindfulness is a nuanced one that takes time to cultivate. Over the time I have spent practicing it, I have become more and more aware of automatic, formerly unconscious processes in my head. It was almost like getting to “see” my thoughts in higher and higher resolutions, noticing gaps and shifts where I hadn’t before. Our motives, our thoughts, our beliefs, our wants, our desires, they can take on fractal degrees of complexity. And even though I knew that consciously for a long time, it amazes me how many little zigs and zags are inside my mind. I have always been an introvert, but mindfulness has an entirely different flavor to it.
Why do this, again?
There are a few objectives with mindfulness.
One of them is to avoid getting carried away with long trains of thought. Like I said, I struggle with that in general. It gets worse for me when I’m in competitions, when I’m nervous and anxious, when I’m trying to sleep, when I’m bored in school, things like that.
In many ways, writing has been a mindfulness tool for me, because it displays my thoughts on screen or paper, and that forces me to confront them as an outsider, to structure them, challenge them, understand them. It doesn’t seem like we should have trouble understanding our own thoughts, but if you just observe them, you will quickly confront how illogical and paradoxical your own mind can be. You will wonder, “why did I think that?” Then you will notice that you wondered...
And you will stop. You won’t get whisked away on that bullet train of the associative stream of consciousness; you will watch it from the hillside, noting its turns, its hooks, and places where the tracks could probably use some repair. Which is the second reason you do it.
When you work on a math problem (which I seem to spend a lot of time doing nowadays), you may spend a lot of time trying to figure out why you’re constantly getting a wrong answer. It seems like everything is going right, but you’re just not getting the answer from the book, or that the teacher has given you, or whatever.
Usually this happens because you have a faulty interpretation of how to solve the problem, or a faulty interpretation of the tools that you use to solve it. Sometimes you’re just going too fast and making a mistake without noticing. So the simplest thing is to become mindful of your thought process, and in this regard, you might describe it to yourself, noticing every component of it, one at a time.
Then you realize that, somewhere in the problem, you were hastily zipping over the part where you calculated “six squared,” and you kept getting “forty-eight,” and it was ruining everything.
With mindfulness, you turn your gaze onto your thought processes. You don’t judge it, you just observe it. You watch the train go by, you don’t necessarily get on it.
And that’s the third big reason. Noticing something, like a stressed or anxious thought, can help you get a bit of distance and perspective. Have you ever given great advice and then noticed just how bad you are at using it? Happens to me all the time.
When I am mindful, I see my problems or my thoughts from an outsider’s view; because they don’t carry me away, I also don’t receive the emotional components of them. At least, I don’t receive them to the same degree. This relieves that pressure, which lets me give myself the advice I would give somebody else.
The improvement part
“What gets measured, gets managed.” -- Peter Drucker
I dial you up and ask you to help me fix my computer. You ask me what’s wrong with it, and I hang up instantly, disgusted that the problem isn’t fixed.
You stare at the receiver, confused. Why on earth would I ask for help fixing something, but not give you any information on how it works, on how it’s malfunctioning? No description? Nothing? How can you fix what you have no information on?
“How do I get to the restaurant from where I am?”
I don’t know. Where are you?
“I hardly see how that’s relevant.”
Mindfulness means you can measure your thoughts. You can collect data on the mind. With data comes patterns, shape, and structure. You can see flaws in your thought processes, dysfunctions, the places where you are causing yourself issues. This, however, is where it’s important to withhold judgment on your own thoughts.
There is a bias in psychology called the “social desirability bias.” Basically it means, if I ask you a personal question on a survey, you might not answer it accurately because you don’t want to look bad. This sucks for me, the survey collector, because I don’t want data that makes you look good, I want accurate data. Otherwise I’m not measuring things right. I’m certainly not going to manage well.
For instance, if I bring a box of bagels to my office, and then I have a jar for payment or donations or whatever, and I ask people how much they give on average, they might try to say a higher number than is true. I’ll compare the averages, and notice that I should be walking out of that office with $200 because my co-workers are apparently just that generous. Well bad news, I know you’re not that generous, and now I know you’re all liars, too. Not that I’m judging, of course.
If we are too judgmental of our internal thoughts, we can easily trigger that bias, even when we’re completely alone! It can be painful to confront a negative truth about ourselves, to accept that we have acted irrationally, or out of line with some value we hold dear. We may try to be more desirable and good in our own heads, because we don’t want to feel negatively towards ourselves. Even when it means lying to ourselves, making things up, or completely avoiding certain thoughts. This is the root of the cognitive dissonance model (look it up!), which explains so much goofy human behavior it’s kind of scary.
So you must not judge. You can’t say, “I notice that I’m angry and that’s bad because i’m not supposed to be an angry person oh god what happened to me I’m just like my father.” If you do judge, you must notice the judgments (and don’t judge them either!). You may want to (don’t judge that either), but resist. Because if you don’t measure it, you can’t manage it, and if it’s your thoughts causing a bunch of your own problems, that is going to cost you dearly down the line. The line they carried you down.
However… if you become mindful, if you start noticing your thoughts in a calm and dispassionate manner, you start getting real data. You also reduce your own tension and anxiety about the thoughts (since the judgments often trigger those things), which will help you be more accurate and useful with your assessments.
Being here, now
“There was a tale he had read once, long ago, as a small boy: the story of a traveler who had slipped down a cliff, with man-eating tigers above him and a lethal fall below him, who managed to stop his fall halfway down the side of the cliff, holding on for dear life. There was a clump of strawberries beside him, and certain death above him and below. What should he do? went the question.
And the reply was, Eat the strawberries.
I thought I understood that quote, but its weight actually hit me hard recently.
I was walking through my campus, immediately after a class, headed back to my car. I was stressed out thinking about the homework I had coming up, and then I was stressed because I know that stress just destroys my ability to focus and study. When I’m stressed, I have this tendency to bail on the stressful situation, and do something comforting instead, especially if I can convince myself I have enough time to take care of it later, when I feel better.
Procrastination! The absolute best. Best best best.
Anyhow, I wanted to cut down the stress, and I mentally began cataloging the methods I had at my disposal. Listening to music helps me a lot. Going for walks helps. Deep breathing. I started to wonder when I was going to do that. Maybe I could do all that once I got home? Pop in headphones, go for a nice slow walk (it was good weather), and…
That’s when I realized that I was walking across my college campus in lovely, mild weather, and my headphones were already in.
I was so stressed about becoming stressed that I didn’t realize I was already doing the thing that fixed it. Because I wasn’t paying any attention to my relaxation methods, I wasn’t receiving the benefits. Without noticing the breeze on my face, without hearing the playlist that always gives me energy and motivation and confidence, I was completely wasting my own time. It was worse than waste! I was receiving no benefit and adding stress to it by dwelling!
To bring it back to that quote, I had my metaphorical strawberries, and I wasn’t eating them.
Actually... to talk about that quote a bit, it’s important not to oversimplify the idea. You don’t just give up when you’re in a stressful situation and look for the nearest serotonin/dopamine pump to distract you from real problems. Hey, we’re all gonna die, we’re surrounded by tigers and spikes and cliffs. Eat the cocaine infused strawberries.
No. Not quite.
The point is be here, where you are, right now. Do not get sucked away into thinking about things in the past you can’t change, or into future stuff you can’t impact by worrying. Don’t meta-worry by stressing out about the stress. Don’t become anxious about the anxiety. Don’t get nervous about your nervousness.
Look at where you are, right now. Do something productive based on that. In my case, it was “focus on my walk, and enjoy my music on the walk to my car.” That was the stress reducer that would help me focus more when I needed it. It was exactly what I wanted, so I did just that.
This is one of the applications of mindfulness. You hear and observe your own thoughts, you become aware of your feelings, your behaviors… but you also become more aware of where you are right now. That lets you act more productively! It can even save your life, like when you get into your car but you’re so busy thinking about something else that you drive like crap.
If you observe, calmly and without judgment, you can also avoid over-focusing on the things that just aren’t helping. You notice them. You notice they aren’t giving you solutions, so you look elsewhere. You can start to see things you didn’t before.
You might see strawberries, but you also might see a handy ladder. These are the things you might be too panicked to notice because you were imagining your fall, or you were still staring at the tigers above you.
If we generalize this to competition, we begin to notice thoughts like “oh god I hope I don’t lose,” and realize we aren’t using the tools that normally calm us down instead. We notice that we are just standing there fumbling with our controller, that we’re just tapping an empty energy drink on a nearby counter nervously when we could be warming up or stretching.
We notice that we’re obsessing on the crowd, and we ask “well, does focusing on the crowd help me play better?” I repeat, I repeat, I repeat; judgment needs to be turned off for this. Otherwise you get sucked into a different thought current. Things like, “ugh, I shouldn’t be so distracted by the crowd I’ve been playing for eight years now, why can’t I just learn to deal with it, why do I always do this right before I play…” Stop!
Sorry for yelling.
Take that moment to notice without judging. Take that moment to observe yourself, to be mindful. The advice you might give somebody else might come to mind, things like “take some deep breaths, stretch those hands, and start warming up, it’ll help you take your mind off that crowd.”
You may also realize that because you’re focusing on the thought as its own object, rather than what the thought represents, its emotional association is already weaker. You are already calming down. You are already asserting a control you didn’t have before. That lets you get to business.
When to turn it off
There is definitely a weakness with mindfulness and introspection and stuff like that. Rather than a weakness, we’ll call it a danger.
I mean, it sounds really awesome. I’m examining my thoughts! I’m being productive and being more “right” more of the time. It’s better than getting lost in the moment and not realizing what I’m doing, right?
Rrrrright…. wrong? Rightwrong?
If the goal of mindfulness is to keep yourself centered on your current moment, to be accurate and productive and notice where you are… then you do want to be in the moment. Just not lost in the moment. Immersed is a better word. Immersed, but not lost.
The inside of your head is not always the moment you need to be in. Sometimes the moment is laughing with your friends and having an amazing time. Sometimes the moment is focusing hard on this test, right now. Sometimes the moment is feeling badly about a wrong you have done, because if you don’t feel badly, you might not feel motivated to do things differently next time. Sometimes the moment is feeling nervous, because nervousness gives you the adrenaline to focus harder, to react faster, and deal with the situation as it is.
Mindfulness, as a tool, is not about constantly exerting tight control on your mind. It’s about being able to step outside and see where you are, so you can re-orient and continue. It’s about figuring out which moment you’re in so you can immerse yourself in that, rather than in something that isn’t useful or productive.
A comparison might be riding a horse. You are the rider, your mind/brain/emotions/body/whatever is the animal. The rider does not get down and start moving the horse’s legs for it. It doesn’t jerk the reins around crazily to make sure the horse does exactly what it wants all the time. The rider wants a light and delicate touch that keeps the horse on the path, then it lets the horse actually do its job. The rider might let the horse know it needs to pick up the pace or slow down, it might stop the horse completely to check and make sure it’s healthy. It keeps an eye out for things the horse might not notice, but also trusts the horse will be aware of things it’s not. In an ideal situation, the rider and the horse are working together.
The rider also wants a horse that actually listens to it when it really does know what’s best, which is why they train and ride together. No rider is quite the same, no horse is quite the same; with time and understanding, they figure each other out and get used to each other.
Most of us are not that rider, and our bodies/minds/brains are not that horse. We can get by, but it’s a little bit of a struggle. Or a huge one, depending.
But that’s mindfulness. You quiet down listen to yourself. You don’t judge and deny or distort the observations with other preferences. You just notice.
You learn the patterns, you learn to manage yourself, to keep yourself calm, and you figure out how to keep yourself on the path. You measure yourself so you can manage. But when you’ve put yourself in the right place, pointed in the right direction, you don’t keep trying to steal control. You just ride.
Thanks for reading. See you next time.