One of the least talked-about benefits of mindfulness meditation is the way it aids decision-making.
Devoting a short period of your day to mindfulness practice can help you make important choices with greater clarity and wisdom. This is especially helpful when life presents new and unexpected challenges — such as job insecurity, political changes, a global pandemic, or all three at once.
Before we get to that, we need to establish what mindfulness is, because popular culture tends to get it wrong.
What Is Mindfulness?
Most people know that mindfulness has something to do with paying close attention to what’s happening, or living in the moment. Close attention is part of it, but there’s another element required to make it mindfulness, and that’s equanimity.
We can think of equanimity as the skill of letting moment-to-moment experience unfold without contentiousness — without mental resistance or interference.
Mindfulness is paying attention with equanimity. You observe what’s happening on a sensory level, while allowing it to look, sound, and feel like just as it is.
That’s not how we normally operate. We have a reflexive tendency, when we experience virtually anything — physical sensations, thoughts, or emotions — to grasp at what’s pleasant, recoil from what’s unpleasant, and ignore whatever is neither.
This sort of inner reactivity, inherited from our mammalian ancestors, undoubtedly helped our species survive predators and food scarcity on prehistoric savannahs. In the modern world, however, this program of blindly moving towards pleasure and away from discomfort causes a lot of problems on the personal level.
Chasing the pleasure of high-calorie foods, for example, leads to overeating, indigestion, and long-term health problems. Avoiding the discomfort of doing challenging work, or having difficult conversations, leads to procrastination and regret. Impulse spending diminishes your wealth and your options. Succumbing to anger when someone pushes your buttons only gives them more power over you.
Mindfulness Creates Freedom
Clearly we’d be better off if we were free to move into discomfort, and refrain from moving towards pleasure, whenever it was better for our well-being. Practicing mindfulness gives you that freedom, in growing amounts, by training your mind not to fall into the clinging reflex so easily.
Instead, you learn to meet present-moment experience fully, openly, and unflinchingly. That way, you can respond to what happens more rationally, with less emotional “tilt,” even when emotions themselves are running high.
This subtle retraining of the mind produces countless spinoff benefits over time, including more stable relationships, better sleep, clarity of thought, and an easier time dealing with discomfort.
Most mindfulness benefits fall under the following three general themes.
Experience Less Suffering
Mindfulness reduces the amount you suffer from painful or uncomfortable experiences.
Get Greater Fulfillment
Mindfulness increases the fulfillment you derive from neutral and pleasant experiences.
Gain More Wisdom
Mindfulness allows you to respond consciously to what happens, rather than react habitually. You learn that both pleasure and discomfort are inevitable, and do not last, so you don’t need to grasp so tightly onto them.
The more you practice, the more these benefits grow.
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How to Train the Mind
So how do you train your mind in this way? Let’s take a look at the following techniques.
Mindfulness is developed primarily through meditation, which is really just a word for “time dedicated to training attentional skills.”
Meditation takes many forms, but typically you begin by observing a simple experience (such as the sensation of breathing) in a low-pressure situation (such as sitting still in a quiet room).
Practice doing your best to allow your experience to be exactly as it is, without trying to control it.
Clear Your Mind
As you gain momentum, you begin working with more complex parts of your experience. This may include things such as different physical sensations, sounds, thoughts, and even emotions.
Gradually, you learn to remain aware and relatively clear-minded even during intense or challenging experiences.
Meditation practice is simple, but not easy. Firstly, there’s a tendency to want to change or “improve” the experience. You’ll want to be more focused than you are, or more comfortable. You’ll want to do something more interesting. These desires are natural and okay. This leads us to the next meditation technique.
Accept the Process
The secret to progress is to refrain from trying to make anything happen, instead simply coming back to what’s already happening. It’s essentially a process of noticing what you’re experiencing right now, and seeing if you can be completely open to it — feeling it fully, without cringing, contracting, or interfering. This is done again and again, like all training.
Meditating daily for 10, 20, 30 minutes or more gradually conditions the mind to accept the tumultuous reality of life in real-time, freeing you to act from wisdom instead of inertia.
3 Meditation Techniques to Make Decisions Easier
This has major implications for making decisions under pressure. Mindfulness makes a human being better suited for the mental and emotional challenge of making a choice and following it through.
Establish Emotional Control
Firstly, mindfulness helps you to remain rational even when emotions are running high. Fear, anger, and other intense emotions are so compelling that we tend to lose ourselves in the story behind them — who wronged you, what should have happened, what this world is coming to, and so on.
Bringing equanimity to the emotional experience itself allows you to regard it simply as an uncomfortable but bearable present-moment condition, while you focus on what you should do, given the circumstances.
Build a Safe Setting
Secondly, when you meditate regularly, emotionally charged topics become less triggering. Because you’re less afraid of your own emotions, it feels safer to sit down and think about what’s really worrying you, whether it’s illness, money, relationships, deadlines, or world issues.
This helps you avoid being overwhelmed and procrastinating — leaving you able to focus on the most sensible action.
Accept the Imperfect
Lastly, it makes uncertainty less frightening. You can never know what’s going to happen, but mindfulness prepares you equally for all possibilities.
When you become increasingly willing to meet all moments just as they are, the future doesn’t seem like such a minefield. Whatever happens as a result of your decision, you know you’ll respond with the same wisdom you did today.