By | Rajiv Jayaraman | Founder-CEO, KNOLSKAPE ; Author: Clearing the Digital BLUR, TEDx speaker, Chief People Officer, Talent Transformation
Our mind thinks a million thoughts a day. Let me ask you a question – do you know what your next thought is going to be? I bet you don’t. Yet, this is the single most important thing that shapes the way our life unfolds from moment to moment. These thoughts are triggered by various stimuli in the environment often times unbeknownst to us or from our vast storehouse of memories.
Mind – the thought machine
In essence, our mind is a thought machine. Our heart acts as the machine’s pulse. Our senses feed data into this machine on a continuous basis. Our memories and conditioning (social and genetic) act as procedures that we keep running mostly on an auto-pilot mode.
Our thoughts have far reaching consequences for us in terms of the way we feel and act. The Cognitive triangle below depicts how our thoughts, emotions and behaviors are all interconnected with each other, and influence one another. Therefore, you can change, or at least influence, one by changing another.
When we are not in control of the next thought that can arise in our minds, how can we be in control of our emotions, actions, habits, careers, relationships and ultimately our destiny? Is there a way to establish a positive feedback loop in our cognitive triangle? Mindfulness holds the key to answering this question.
Various studies refer to mindfulness as the moment-to-moment awareness of one’s experience – our thoughts, feelings, sensations and the environment around us – with a sense of acceptance and without any judgment. Spiritual texts would actually say that the trick behind mindfulness is to actually quieten the mind. In a manner of speaking, we must become ‘mind-less’ to become mindful.
To me, mindfulness boils down to a simple thing – are we aware of the space, albeit a tiny one, that exists between the stimulus (internal or external) and our response. There lies our freedom of choice – the freedom to chart our own path, create our own destiny. Exactly what Viktor Frankl talks about in his iconic book “Man’s search for meaning”. What’s empowering to note is that we do have the ability to identify, create and expand the space between the stimulus and the response. It can be deliberately developed over a period of time. In tune with the times, let’s call the creation of this space stimulus-response distancing.
Now let’s understand what stops us from stimulus-response distancing and what we can do to master mindfulness.
1. Multitasking – Cognitive overload doesn’t help our cause when it comes to mindfulness. When we are constantly bombarded by different stimuli, we fail to stay in tune with our inner world – how cold the room is making me feel, what the fragrance wafting through the air reminds me of, how the noisy environment is making me irritable etc. Each one of these inputs is capable of triggering thoughts and memories from various hidden nooks of our minds.
Mindfulness Hack #1: Cut down multitasking and engage in deep work when you need to produce breakthrough outcomes
2. Busy is the new stupid – Perennially staying busy robs us the opportunity to pause and really pay attention to the environment around us and stay in touch with the way we feel on a moment to moment basis.
Mindfulness Hack #2: Be disciplined about switching off from external impulses – devices, work, people etc. Meditation is a great way to connect deeply with our inner world.
3. Being judgmental – Often times, we tend to judge our thoughts and apply various labels on them – good, bad, ugly. Staying at the surface level and reacting prematurely doesn’t help us see the connection between the stimuli and the response. Accepting thoughts with a level of equanimity and suspending judgment, on the other hand, helps us see the connection clearly. When we take the position of an observer, we also realize that thoughts are fleeting and they don’t have as much power over the way we feel or act.
Mindfulness Hack #3: Keep a journal to record your thoughts, your reactions and notice if there are recurring patterns.
To sum up, mindfulness may not help us identify what our next thought is going to be but it sure can help us come up with the best response to the thought. Let’s be sure that it takes deliberate practice over a period of time to get out of the auto-pilot mode and enjoy the freedom that exists between stimulus and response. When practiced regularly, mindfulness can positively shape our emotions, actions, habits and ultimately, our destiny.