I found myself the other day chopping some mushrooms. I've only recently, past three months or so, started to enjoy cooking, and this is largely due to my new practice of chopping everything first, rather than chop some, throw it in the pan, then rush to cut the rest so nothing burns and I'm eating in ten minutes, or die trying. By changing the order in which I do things, I've reduced the challenge from "Cook it fast" to "Have a good time and notice sensory details." Another way to put it is that I've turned cooking into an opportunity for mindfulness.
Mindfulness can be described in many ways. It's a state of being, a state of not doing, a way of using your attention, a kind of surrender, a skill, a meditation, acceptance of what is. I have more recently come to define it as the act of paying attention to my senses. Doing a kind of scan, "OK, what am I seeing, what am I hearing, how does my body feel?" I find that this is more concrete for me. The definition makes it easier to test whether I'm being mindful or not. I of course don't stay in this state for long, as my mind wanders into the stories behind what I'm sensing. "Oh, that's a tree. Trees are so old." "Oh that's a dog, I wonder what it's thinking." "I want ice cream!" The mind has endless energy to find something else.
One effective way of stopping the mind from being anywhere but here and (anywhen but now) is to participate in what is called Flow. Flow is another state of being, but slightly different from mindfulness. Flow is the experience of total engagement in an activity, with a loss of self consciousness and a distorted sense of time. It often happens when our skill level matches the challenge level of the activity we're doing. People who report experiencing flow more often also report being more satisfied with their lives in general. (I think the two main ways to increase happiness are to address the minute by minute experience and the big picture narrative. Flow is minute by minute, discovering and refining one's life purpose is the big narrative).
The good news is that it's not actually that difficult to create flow experiences. All it takes is: a clear goal, immediate feedback, and (breakable) rules. A few examples. Playing music: the goal is to make nice sounds, the feedback comes from the auditory senses, and the rules are roughly rhythm and melody. Reading: the goal is to process new ideas, the feedback comes from our thoughts, and the rules are grammar. Physical fitness: the goal is to get stronger/thinner/whateverer, the feedback comes from physical sensation in the muscles and joints, and the rules are whatever program one is following. When I was trying to be mindful in cooking, the goal was to enjoy myself, the feedback came from my feelings, and the rules were that I pay attention to how I felt and what I experienced.
The connection between mindfulness and flow, the reason I'm writing this post in the first place, is hard to detect. As far as I can tell, mindfulness can bring flow, and flow can bring mindfulness. Flow isn't always mindful, and mindfulness doesn't always create flow. So basically, they're not the same thing but can be done simultaneously, and also not.
Back to me chopping mushrooms. The other day when I was doing so, I had lapsed into my old state of doing, a rush from cut to cook to realize I forgot to put in oil to "Is it burning yet? It's burning isn't it!" Neither flow nor mindfulness. At this point, I had let some time go by, mid-cook snacking, more time than I had anticipated, and it became clear that I had more mushrooms than seconds to cut them. I started slicing left and right not straight, almost offing my thumb, when I paused. I could feel a familiar tightness of stomach that signaled to me I was Rushing. What happened to enjoying myself and taking in sensory details, bro? "I just DON'T HAVE THE TIME," when another thought entered my awareness. If I was too anxious to be mindful, then maybe I could change the activity. Instead of paying attention to my sensory experience, my new goal became to chop the mushrooms perfectly precisely in the exact amount of time it would take to do that, without letting myself wander into "ooh mushroom so soft" or mindless self-mutilation.
It was in this flexibility, changing the goal of the activity, that I was able to avoid hating myself. I went from, "How could I do this? To ME," to feeling like a Jedi Knight for a couple minutes.
The meal turned out horribly, since I had forgotten to take the chicken out of the fridge in the first place. I had to turn the stove off for a few minutes to wash and cut the chicken before doing that thing where you have to put the chicken under the already cooked vegetables, and it turned into more of a mushy stew than a stir fry.
When you have to make a decision in your life that will affect you emotionally, such as what school to go to, what city to live in, what job to take, what career to pursue, who to date or marry, what to name your child, what to name your pet, or what to name your website (I didn't sleep for 2 days), there are several techniques to make the choice clearer, and I'm going to describe a few that I have found work really well.
But first, an aside. There is a concept called "Stochastic Resonance", which might at first seem totally irrelevant but isn't, according to me. "Stochastic" is a fancy word for random, and resonance is when things that are alike vibrate together. (It's a term I first read in Nassim Taleb's Antifragile, a book that has changed my life for the infinite better.) Stochastic Resonance relates to understanding signals that are buried in noise. Like if you're trying to hear a specific frequency on a radio, and it's a very weak signal, when you add white noise, randomness, you will hear the signal you're looking for more clearly.
This applies to other domains as well, where you're looking for some kind of information in a bunch of other information, and when you inject random information into the whole system, you're more likely to find what you're looking for. Here's an example. If you're looking for a needle in a haystack, rather than combing gently and finely through the mess, it might help to just shine a bright light on the whole pile and start throwing it all up in the air, hoping for the needle to catch the light on its fall back to the floor.
Does it makes sense how this relates to making emotional life decisions? There is a signal, some information you want to have in order to make the right choice, but it's hidden among all the other stuff you want, don't want, regret, crave, have heard is good, used to care about, one day might care about, can't live without, can't put your thumb on, have never tried, have only tried alone, will never admit to having tried, etc. It's hard to determine what exactly is the best choice and the best reason for it. The techniques to follow could be called "Stochastic Emotional Resonance."
First, it's all about the question.
What question is it that we're trying to answer by making this decision? Is it, "How can I make my parents happy?" "How can I enjoy life more?" "Who do I care most about?" "What's wrong with me?" "What will other people think?" "Who cares what other people think?" "Why are other people thinking so much all the damn time?"
Our questions determine what answers we will find. If we're not sure what questions we're really asking, then we won't know why we make the decisions we make. Marilee Adams has created a nice quick tool for asking questions that can clarify what problem we're really looking to solve. It's called the Choice Map. It's an illustration that helps us see the distinction between two types of mindsets we have when solving problems and the questions that create them. Briefly, the Judger Mindset is when we get stuck in judgments and judgmental questions like, "Whose fault is this?" or "What's wrong with me/them?" These reduce our ability to find new solutions by assuming that how the world is now is how it will continue to be in the future. The Learner Mindset, on the other hand, is characterized by open-ended questions which focus on our power to make choices in the moment that can change our future. Learner questions include, "What's possible right now?" "What do I want for myself and others?" and "Who do I choose to be in this moment?" By spit-balling these into our thought processes, we can more clearly detect what we want. We don't even have to come up with concrete answers to the Learner questions. Just by asking them, we ignite exploratory processes in our brains that can bring unconscious solutions to us. The open-endedness and unpredictability (randomness) from the questions leads us to clearer emotional signals.
Of course, you can then make a list of the things you discover and compare the pros and cons of each choice, etc. This will give you some information, but big decisions are usually too complex to truly understand by listing things we consciously know about them. In the end, these decisions are made in our unconscious mind/body, which is a much more powerful processing machine than we can possibly understand. Which brings me to the second technique for injecting useful randomness into the decision making process.
Once we've asked yourself a bunch of Learner questions, many of which we haven't even answered because that's not necessarily the point, we can go for a vigorous walk in town or a run or some kind of exercise that will focus our energy and attention on things totally unrelated to the decision at hand. This can make the aspects of the decision that matter most bubble up to the surface amidst the bumping and pumping sensations we get from physical exertion. The body stores a lot of information within it, much more than we can hold in our conscious minds. When we shake it up the way it wants, it offers us signals in return.
*Bonus* For smaller decisions with two options, you can try flipping a coin with one option heads and the other tails. The experience of having the decision made by fate can sometimes make it clearer which one you want more. I often do this when deciding where to eat. I flip the coin, and if I'm not too excited about the result, I choose the other option. For decisions with 6 options, you can use a 6-sided die like this. You can write down which choices correspond to which numbers and, when you roll it, if you're not happy with the outcome, cross it off the list and repeat until you hit upon the number that you feel good about.
Thank you for reading. If you found this illuminating or refreshing, please share with your friends on Facebook, Twitter, LinkedIn, or just copy and paste it somewhere on your hard drive.