You should not see mindfulness as an addition to your life. Rather, see it as part of you and part of your everyday life. Mindfulness should not be something you do and then get on with your life: it’s part of everything you do. This includes making mindful decisions.
There plenty of research to support the idea that it aids clarity in thinking and in making decisions. So much so that one review of academic scientific studies concluded that there was evidence that mindfulness would help a range of people in varied situations.
Thus far, the literature seems to clearly slant toward support for basic hypotheses concerning the effects of mindfulness on mental and physical well-being. Mindfulness training may be an intervention with potential for helping many.
In the cautious language of academic journals, that’s a pretty good endorsement.
Michael Chaskalson’s book ‘The Mindful Workplace’ identified that employees who engaged in mindfulness exercises showed signs of:
- improved attention, job performance, productivity and satisfaction;
- reduced experience of psychological distress and neuroticism;
- greater well-being and satisfaction;
- increased blood flow with reduced blood pressure;
- improved social skills;
- increased self-awareness;
- higher success in achieving academic and personal goals;
- greater awareness, understanding and acceptance of their emotions and quicker recovery from bad moods;
- less frequent negative thoughts with improved self-esteem and reduced dependence on external validation;
- reduced defensiveness and aggressiveness when threatened;
- enhanced ability to manage internal thoughts and feelings and resist acting on impulse;
- fewer hospital admissions for heart disease, cancer and infectious diseases; and
- a reduction in addictive behaviors.
That’s quite a list and I’m not saying you will experience all these benefits, but the research appears to be pretty conclusive.
This conclusion has also been supported by leading business publications such as the Harvard Business Review.
But what if you are just starting out in your career or thinking about what direction to take next?
If you are new to mindfulness, here’s a good place to start.
Mindful Career Decisions
One thing to remember about using mindfulness is that while it helps you to focus on a single objective and to concentrate on the task in hand, this is very different from being single minded about something.
And this is a great benefit when it comes to planning your career where mindful decisions are important.
You can set out a single objective of building a successful career, however you might define that. You have a single objective that dominates all others.
However, you must never be single minded about your career. Instead you must be very open minded i.e. open to any number of alternative concepts to the one you have adopted as your preferred conclusion. An example will show you what I mean.
Let’s say you have decided on a career in marketing. (If that’s not you, no problem. The ideas here are just as applicable to every career).
You have made this decision on the basis of information that is available to you and a mental comparison of what you think will result from pursuing this path relative to where you currently are.
You may see opportunities, you might know someone what can give you a start, or you may have reached conclusions about your own talent that point you in this direction.
Along the way, as you develop your career, new information on what is involved in marketing becomes available. You also begin to learn more about yourself and to see new opportunities.
In other words, just about everything you knew when you decided to enter marketing will change. Should your decision also change?
In many cases, people are faced with this sort of situation. But instead of stepping back and assessing where they are and where they are going, our brains tend to rationalise that the best thing to do is to stick with what we are doing. This is often the same as ‘do nothing’ different.
But the whole basis of your original decision may have changed. In your heart you may know that you need to reassess what you are doing. Believe me, I know (as you can see here).
But inertia is a powerful force. The thought process is likely to be along the following lines: you have put a lot into getting where you are. Are you just going to write that off and move in a different direction?
There’s a loud voice telling you not to waste all that effort. You will need a lot of convincing to overcome that loud, rational, calculating voice.
But that voice may well be wrong. Because that voice is working on the basis of what you have done in the past.
You cannot change that. And why would you wish to? After all it has got you to where you are now that you perceive a better path than you saw in the past.
You listen to that voice. It’s a pretty reasonable voice, even though you know, somewhere deep inside you, it is wrong.
You don’t go against it. It’s not a matter of fear or lack of courage. It’s not bravery you need. After all, it’s a very sensible voice. And nonsensical actions are seldom brave. They’re just foolhardy.
It’s clarity you need.
But without a way to gain this insight you continue to not go against this loud sensible voice. Now you really are wasting effort and time.
As well as creating inner turmoil that may surface as regret in the future.
Using a Mindful Decision Process
Mindfulness will help you to break this very common adherence to prior conclusions and expectations by increasing your awareness of what is actually happening now.
It centres you in the present, rather than emphasising expectations about the future that are based on analysis undertaken in the past. So mindful decisions will emphasise the present.
I think the following paragraph from ‘Mindfulness in Plain English’ by Bhante Gunarantana captures mindful behaviour, as opposed to this learned way of thinking, quite well:
Mindfulness is very much like what you see with your peripheral vision as opposed to the hard focus of normal or central vision. Yet this moment of soft, unfocused, awareness contains a very deep sort of knowing that is lost as soon as you focus your mind and objectify the object into a thing. In the process of ordinary perception, the mindfulness step is so fleeting as to be unobservable. We have developed the habit of squandering our attention on all the remaining steps, focusing on the perception, recognizing the perception, labelling it, and most of all, getting involved in a long string of symbolic thought about it. That original moment of mindfulness is rapidly passed over.
Contrast this idea of awareness with the decision process above where you listened to the reasonable, calculating internal voice.
The information about the present was known. But it was rationalised as support for a decision made in the past before new information about yourself was available to you.
Notice two important concepts in the passage above in relation to mindfulness. The first is that it is about awareness. The second is that mindfulness is only about this awareness. It occurs before the logical mind kicks in.
Learning mindfulness is not just about trying to improve awareness, but also to develop the skill to leave it at that. You do not explain or categorize or internalize whatever it is that we become aware of.
This contrasts with our usual practice of being aware of only a tiny subset of our sensory experience and then applying our intellectual facilities to this subset to reach conclusions of some sort.
Often these coloured by our prejudices and prior experiences, which are just figments of our imagination and memory.
And even if by some chance we are objective in our thinking we will have ignored so much else.
Gunarantana goes on to say
Mindfulness is mirror-thought. It reflects only what is presently happening and in exactly the way it is happening. There are no biases. Mindfulness is nonjudgmental observation. It is that ability of the mind to observe without criticism. With this ability, one sees things without condemnation or judgment. One is surprised by nothing. One simply takes a balanced interest in things exactly as they are in their natural states. One does not decide and does not judge. One just observes.
Do you see the relevance of being able to do this to making and reassessing major decisions like planning your career?
So mindfulness should not be seen as a sort of soft, esoteric or spiritual timeout. You make good decisions on the basis of what is. Not what you want to be, or what you think should be, or what you want someone else to do ,or what you imagine is happening.
The flow of information, the inputs to your decisions, is one way only. It is from the external world to you. Never the reverse.
You cannot influence this external environment by ignoring, or refuting, what it is telling you. You must simply accept it.
The practice of doing so is a skill at the heart of mindfulness as captured by the following passage:
Mindfulness is an impartial watchfulness. It does not take sides. It does not get hung up in what is perceived. It just perceives. Mindfulness does not get infatuated with good mental states. It does not try to sidestep bad mental states. There is no clinging to the pleasant, no fleeing from the unpleasant. Mindfulness treats all experiences equally, all thoughts equally, all feelings equally. Nothing is suppressed. Nothing is repressed. Mindfulness does not play favourites.
It’s not a big step from this to say that if you make decisions mindfully then it is much the same thing in terms of its emotional impact for your mind to accept the times when you are wrong, as to accept that you are right.
If you can achieve this you will not experience any regret about wasted effort. You will not be defensive. Your only impetus will be to revise your decisions.
This is a long way from how most people react when faced with new information that undermines an earlier decision.
Winston Churchill put it well when he argued that ‘to improve is to change, so to be perfect is to have changed often’.
OK, the logic is not perfect, and he was almost directly quoting, without credit, from Cardinal John Henry Newman some 80 years earlier. But his own life showed that he lived by this rule.
Do you have the clarity of thought to do so also? Do you have the courage to make decisions in a manner that might require you to change?