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:
- 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.
- 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).
- 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.
- 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.”
- 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.
- 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?
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
Alex Lickerman is an internal medicine physician at the University of Chicago who blogs at Happiness in this World. He is the author of The Undefeated Mind: On the Science of Constructing an Indestructible Self.
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