Shauna Shapiro, Ph.D., is a clinical psychologist, author and internationally recognized expert in mindfulness and self-compassion. She is a professor at Santa Clara University and has published over 150 papers and three critically acclaimed books, translated into 16 languages.
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January 29, 2020
One important aspect of daily life that's deeply affected by mindfulness is decision-making. There’s a pertinent story of a student who asks his wise teacher about how to make decisions:
Student: "Teacher, how do I make good choices?"
Student: "How do I gain experience?"
Teacher: "Bad choices."
From this perspective, there are no mistakes, only experience. Each experience offers us an opportunity to learn and informs our next decision. And yet this is not how we typically respond when something doesn't go the way we planned. We label it as "wrong" or a "mistake," followed by all sorts of negative self-talk and self-judgment.
But what if instead we viewed our "mistake" as part of the process of learning, bringing us ever closer to our goals?
The power of mindfulness.
Mindfulness teaches us to trust that "even this is part of my evolution." By approaching each of our experiences as an opportunity for growth, we open ourselves to infinite possibilities for change and transformation.
This approach takes a bit of the pressure off when facing a decision—which, it turns out, is very important: Professor Barry Schwartz at Swarthmore College in Pennsylvania discovered that the biggest reason people fail to make a decision is their fear of making the wrong one. He termed this the paradox of choice, empirically demonstrating that, paradoxically, the more choices we have, the less likely we are to make a choice—and if we do make a choice, the less likely we are to be satisfied with it.
So, how can we make our best choices?
First, we need to limit the number of options to those most relevant to what we truly want. This begins by getting clear on what your standards and goals are, and then to feel satisfied once you've reached them. Research shows that satisficers—people who limit their options and don't keep endlessly looking for the perfect, best choice—are much happier and more successful. Mindfulness helps us do this by keeping us in touch with our intentions and guiding us to zero in on what is most important and let go of distracting desires and impulses.
Another crucial step in making wise decisions is to pause and listen not just to our mental processes—the pros/cons list we keep running through our mind—but also to our emotions and to the cues our body gives us. As psychotherapist Esther Perel astutely notes, "The body often contains emotional truths that words can too easily gloss over."
Renowned neuroscientist Antonio Damasio found that when the connection between the amygdala (the seat of our emotions) and the prefrontal cortex (the source of our higher-order reasoning) was cut as the result of injury, it led to an inability to make decisions. The conclusion: In order to make wise decisions, we need to be able to draw on the wisdom of our body sensations and emotions coupled with our mental capacities.
Again, mindfulness comes to our aid. By attending to the sensations in our body as we explore the different options, we can connect with our emotions and route this information up to our cortex, where the highly developed frontal lobe is grappling with what to decide.
But we need to train this capacity to notice and listen to our body and our emotions. We can't just all of a sudden expect to tune in like this when hit with big decisions (e.g., "Should I marry this person?" "Should I take this job?"). We need to practice inner listening every day so that when the big decisions come, we are attuned and ready.
Mindfulness trains us in how to listen to our emotions and our bodies: How does it feel in my body when I imagine making this decision? Do I feel calm and at ease? Is there a sense of relief? A sense of alignment?
As we practice mindfulness in low-stakes situations (e.g., "Should I eat this for lunch?"), we deepen the feedback loop between body and brain. The more you practice, the stronger the feedback loop and the faster you can access it. What you practice grows stronger. So, when the stakes are high, you have developed a trustworthy pathway, aligning your emotional intuition with your cognitive intelligence.
The three elements of mindfulness.
Mindfulness helps decision-making become a process of personal inquiry as opposed to a purely top-down hierarchical and moralistic process of being told what is "right" versus what is "wrong." Again, we can apply the three elements of mindfulness to decision-making:
Reflect on what your deepest hope is for the outcome of this decision. What do you value? How might you feel once you reach the "right" choice for you? Reflect on what choices and actions will lead to greater well-being for yourself and others.
Bring your full attention to your mental processes, your body sensations, and your emotional responses as you consider the decision. Listen deeply, welcoming all your emotions, sensations in the body, and thoughts as part of the listening process. Perhaps when you think about making a particular choice you feel a hollowness in your belly or tightness in your throat.
Perhaps as you reflect on a different choice, you feel a sense of confidence and calm. Pay attention with your whole being; as Chuang Tzu said, "The hearing of the spirit is not limited to any one faculty, not to the ear or the mind."
Cultivate the attitudes of kindness and curiosity as you reflect on the decision you are trying to make. Welcome all of the concerns, ideas, emotions, and thoughts that arise. Allow yourself whatever reactions you are having to the different options.
As the wise teacher Coquelicot Gilland once guided me, "Hold a quorum inside yourself, invite all of your voices. Listen deeply, with curiosity and kindness." It is only through listening to all the voices that we can discover the truth and make wise decisions.