To solve problems better, rethink 'mindfulness'

Embrace alternative perspectives when tackling stressful situations

Mindfulness should not be viewed as the absence of thought, but rather, the practice of active thinking, Matthew May reports for the New York Times.

May explains that mindfulness and meditation tend to be mistakenly conflated, when meditation is actually a means to achieving mindfulness, or "a higher-order attention that involves noticing changes around us and fully experiencing them in real time." And meditation isn't necessarily the best way to accomplish this goal.

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"Given the speed of change today, it may not be realistic to suspend or stop thinking," May says. Instead, "we need to actively think through problems in new ways to achieve innovative, elegant solutions."

He cites 18th-century philosopher Adam Smith, who wrote that everyone has access to an "impartial and well-informed spectator." The spectator's attention brings us back to the present, allowing us to look at situations from an unbiased perspective. Embracing the unknown gives us the opportunity to consider multiple points of view.

To make the transition from mindlessness to mindfulness without meditation, May recommends an exercise that involves self-distancing and talking to yourself as if you were an objective figure.

Consider a situation that is inducing stress. First, you must understand that you have already assumed that something will happen and it will not be positive. Next, May says, think of three reasons why the outcome you've envisioned may not happen at all. Then, think of three reasons why if the negative outcome you've predicted comes to fruition, things will turn out OK.

This thought process demonstrates the ability to go from worrying about something bad happening to embracing whatever comes next, May writes. It may even help you see the good in the situation as well. 

"It's an easy method that leads us to become less reactive to the world—still responsive, just not reactive," May says. "In the end, the entire key to eliminating mindlessness without meditation may simply be realizing that the issue looks different from a different perspective, and then taking that perspective" (May, New York Times, 4/23).

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