How To Become Mindful

Photo: Tim Sheerman-Chase

Photo: Tim Sheerman-Chase

Research shows numerous benefits to meditation: it reduces stress, increases positive emotion, and even treats acute pain. Commonly, meditation involves focusing on one’s breathing as a way to anchor one’s attention in the present moment. Practitioners are also frequently taught to separate their experiences (breathing, pain, thoughts) from their judgments about them. Thus, with respect, for example, to anxiety, one learns to move from the judgment that “anxiety is bad” to the observation that “I’m feeling anxiety.” In this way, the unpleasantness of experience often reduces.

One of the goals of meditation is to quiet the incessant chatter of the mind, which one accomplishes by practicing becoming super-aware—or mindful—of it. But becoming mindful has other meanings and other benefits. Human beings, as far as we know, are the only creatures endowed with full self-awareness—the ability to apprehend themselves as separate from their environment and from other people—but that self-awareness comes in gradations. It’s one thing, for example, to be aware that one is alive, that one exists. It’s another to be able to identify the feelings one is feeling. And it’s entirely another to know why one is feeling it.

But there’s a level of mindfulness that goes even beyond this: an awareness of the underpinnings of one’s own thought process, one’s own biases, and the limitations inherent in both. Mindfulness in its most useful form, I would argue, involves being able not only to turn one’s full power of disinterested observation on oneself in order to improve one’s interactions with others and one’s ability to grasp what’s actually true about the world, but also to know when to do it and when to fully immerse oneself in experience. What follows, then, is a list of things that being mindful will reveal to us, a list of things worth regularly reminding ourselves about ourselves:

  1. We are wrong far more often than we believe. As we go about our daily lives continually making assessments and acting on them, we not only fail to realize how often our assessments are wrong but how negative are the results that come from the actions we base on them. The theory of cognitive dissonance postulates that we can’t stand internal inconsistency and will go to alarming lengths to eliminate it, thinking nothing of embracing falsehoods simply to feel unified.
  2. We look at evidence in an objective manner far less often than we believe. I and others have written extensively about the cognitive biases we all have that prevent us from considering evidence like a computer would. Our conscious minds are far more accurately viewed as rationalizers of our behaviors and beliefs than they are as explainers (much less controllers).
  3. Things are our fault more often than we think. Given that we’re powerfully motivated to defend the positive image we have of ourselves and thus easily overlook when we’re inconsistent or in the wrong, we’re not only wrong more often than we think, but we also discount and underplay our own responsibility for negative outcomes more often than we think.
  4. Our expectations about how things will work out is more often unjustifiably optimistic than pessimistic. A growing body of research shows that even pessimists are, to some degree, at the mercy of the optimism bias. We think it far less likely we’ll get sick, fired, rejected, or robbed, to name just a few negative events that happen to people all the time, than those around us. The most common thought we have after such serious things do happen? “I can’t believe this happened to me.”
  5. We really are going to die. This is the thing we’re least likely to really believe, but the single thing that is more certain to happen to us than anything else.
  6. When it comes to interactions between people, there rarely exists an absolute truth but more commonly only two differing points of view. This is not to say one person might report the substance of a conversation more accurately than another. But in general though our conflicts with others often seem to be about who’s right and who’s wrong, mostly they’re about two differing points of view and sets of values. This doesn’t, of course, apply to conversations about whether gravity exists or not, or how far away the Earth is from the Sun. Rather, it applies to two people trying to save their marriage. Or two colleagues arguing about what they should do with some grant money. Which kinds of conversations do you think you have more often?
  7. Our desires determine most of our beliefs. There’s so much research on this I don’t know where to start linking. We’ll refuse to believe things for which abundant and irrefutable evidence exists (for example, evolution) and believe in things that we want to be true not only in the absence of evidence that they are but in the presence of evidence that they’re not.
  8. We will leap to conclusions with insufficient evidence simply to resolve uncertainty. We’d even rather suffer an undesirable outcome than endure too long uncertainty about whether an outcome will be undesirable.
  9. Much, if not most, of what we do is done with a single aim in mind: to reduce anxiety. I’m continually astounded by how much energy and effort people put into fending off anxiety—by just how large a part of our lives we construct specifically to avoid feeling it.

I didn’t put up this list to depress or discourage you. We are, in fact, great at spotting all of these issues in other people. But it takes great focus, time, energy, and courage to spot them in ourselves. But to become mindful of ourselves this way—to start by admitting the possibility that all of these things are true for us—is to take the first step toward living a life less constrained by them and their effects. Though it remains unlikely we’ll always (or even ever) be able to free ourselves from any one of these constraints entirely, becoming mindful of them, noticing when we’re caught by them, is not only possible but desirable. For in catching ourselves falling prey to them, we really can gain more control over our feelings—and in so doing, improve the choices we make and thus the lives we live.

Next Week: Magical Thinking, Redux

11 comments to How To Become Mindful

  • Sam

    Your post today is great (as usual).

    But I will probably have to read it 3-4 times because I disagree with you on items # 1-9 (excluding 5). Not really, just trying to be light. But seriously, it will take a little thinking to actually find evidence that supports your ideas, even though I believe them to be right. Such is our human mind.

  • Ondrej CZ

    I believe that this should be taught in schools, maybe from the 5th grade—teach children to meditate and be mindful and compassionate (in the Buddhist meaning of the term), and they will be less aggressive, prone to addictions, and better equipped to deal with the world than they are now. It would be a great experiment—to train a group of 10-year-old kids in meditation and mindfulness for a couple of months and than subject them to some variation of the marshmallow experiment (for instance involving a highly desirable computer game), and do the same experiment with untrained children—”the control group.”

    In the spirit of the article I have to add—maybe I am wrong—but I think—and hope—that such training will have a positive impact!

  • Ana

    I love this post, especially Alex’s #4 reminder to us. It reminds me of many years back, when the “Rodney King-related” 1992 Los Angeles “riots” occurred. My young son (obviously wise beyond his years) looked over to me as we watched the violence unfold on the television screen, and asked—after seeing so many folks seemingly “stunned” by the violent response to King’s beating—”Mom, of course this is what was bound to happen; why would any sane person NOT think so?” Indeed. As Alex writes, “Our expectations about how things will work out is more often unjustifiably optimistic than pessimistic. A growing body of research shows that even pessimists are, to some degree, at the mercy of the optimism bias.” I like to think that such optimism keeps some folks sane. Just as healthy realism does, eh? Maybe as we age, we lose our “realism bias” that my son still had?

    But, perhaps the blind spots of “optimism bias” keep us not as safe as we could be? And maybe Alex’s described unjustified optimism that so many of us have also prevents us from waging actions that could help others? (If we don’t “see” the negative in negative events, then we don’t do anything about changing that which is not there, eh?)

    I prefer to “attempt” realism—to see what is there (as my son did). Of course, all is interpretation (different people “see” different things, even in the SAME thing!) We are social beings (we Homo sapiens) who roam this planet together. It’s to our common advantage to see things as clearly as they are—and to TRY to avoid the pessimistic (or optimistic) blinders that otherwise bind us—in not-so-pretty ways.

    Thanks for another insightful post, Alex!


  • chris

    Alex, I DID find your #1-#9 depressing . . .

    #6 should be emblazoned on the foreheads of the Congressmen, or at least the doors of the 2 houses of Congress. The corollary is: work hard(er) at finding common ground, people!

    Is mindfulness akin to naval-gazing? Or to ruminating? I cannot seem to wrap my head around it.

    Chris: I think of ruminating the way psychologists do: negative thinking that follows a circular pattern and that tends to lock in place, leading nowhere but to learned helplessness and depression. Focused self-examination—what I was trying to get at in the post—is quite different: purposeful, more objectively self-reflective, hopefully without intense emotional overlay, and aimed at improving one’s understanding of one’s own thought process to make it better.


  • Ellen

    This is a great post, although I experienced a bit of cognitive dissonance while reading it. 🙂 What you say is true, though.

    A few questions/comments:

    Regarding #1: What if the one with cognitive dissonance is a mental-health professional who should recognize it when it occurs? What if the truth is so hard to bear that the doctor retaliates against the patient? What if the next doctor also has cognitive dissonance and perpetuates the cycle?

    Regarding #6: When a doctor refuses to believe or acknowledge a patient’s symptoms, it is not really a matter of differing points of view as much as it is a matter of cognitive dissonance (or worse). This has happened to us, with dangerous consequences, as the symptoms were real and potentially life-threatening.

    Ellen: This wasn’t what I was getting at, but your questions are important. May I point you to this: When Doctors Don’t Know What’s Wrong.


  • Ellen

    Alex, I apologize for previously going off on a tangent regarding your mindfulness post. When Doctors Don’t Know What’s Wrong was actually the first post I ever read by you. It was at least a year after you posted it, and I thought it was too late to comment by then. But I will go back and take a second look—and will probably comment, too. Thanks!

  • Alex—this was such a refreshingly different analysis of mindfulness that I read it to my husband, and he, a mindfulness teacher, found it stimulating and provocative. (Just today, he was teaching mindfulness at Folsom Prison.) I think that this is the first piece I’ve read that suggests we use mindfulness to examine the cognitive process itself. It certainly makes sense to do so since, in Buddhist psychology, cognition is considered to be the sixth sense.

    Initially, I disagreed with #9 because it seems to me that our single aim in life is to have pleasant experiences. We’ll go to great length, even at risk of harm to ourselves (e.g., overeating, over drinking) for our lives to feel pleasant. But as I reflected on this idea, I’m now wondering if it’s just the flip side of what you’re saying: we crave pleasant experience as a way to fend off anxiety. I’m curious about what you think of this. Are we saying the same thing but from different perspectives?

    Toni: I agree with you that our most basic drive is to become happy. But I think that avoiding pain is both a prerequisite for it and a distinct process from it. I didn’t mean to imply it’s a more basic process—just that it’s incredibly pervasive in our lives, often more so than we realize. And, to make it even more complicated, yes, I think the pursuit of pleasurable experiences is a strategy we use to distract ourselves from pain—because it so often works!


  • Elise

    I generally agree with what you say, but not #4, or at least not the way it is put. My optimism has generally been validated all of my long life and I don’t think I’m luckier than everyone else. And, when disaster has struck, like getting ovarian cancer or losing the sight in my right eye, I never thought “I can’t believe this happened to me.” Why not me? As they say: shit happens. It just doesn’t happen most of the time.

  • Andy

    Ondrej CZ:

    You might be interested in the recent article Training Kids for Kindness at The Greater Good Science Center, which follows and performs a lot of research related to compassion and mindfulness.

  • Michael

    Having lived in a world filled with human beings, I gotta say, I don’t think our most basic drive is to become happy. I don’t really think we have a “most basic drive.” I feel like we could maybe find a half-dozen or so “basic drives” that most people choose 1-3 of and go for. But “most basic drive” is a depth of universality that just isn’t consistent with my experience of human life.

  • An excellent list that highlights the many flaws in our thinking! To those who doubt the things listed, I highly recommend practicing mindfulness meditation and finding out for yourself. If I may expand on #9, we don’t just expend lots of energy fending off anxieties, but also other feelings that are perceived as negative, like loneliness, rejection, loss of face, disappointment, fear of losing our possessions and more. So #9 could read as: Much, if not most, of what we do is done with a single aim in mind: to avoid suffering. 🙂

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