Cultivating Flexible Minds

Think about important changes you would like to see—in yourself, your family, your schools, your neighborhood, or your workplace. If you are like us, thinking about things you really value (such as having your kids succeed or reducing conflict in the neighborhood) brings up positive thoughts followed by thoughts about how it cannot be done. How often do we not even bother to try because we fear we cannot succeed? Well, we have good news. Psychologists have recently found that people can make dramatic changes in their lives through a new approach to the thoughts and feelings that have usually stopped them. Rather than trying to get rid of all their doubts and fears before they try to change, people are finding it useful to think about their thoughts and feelings differently.

Recent research on mindfulness shows that people can learn—often rather easily—to see their thoughts as nothing more than thoughts that do not have to control their lives. For example, take a minute to think about something you want to change—about yourself, your family, or your neighborhood. Notice the thoughts that arise that normally would stop you from taking the next step. As you do, write them down or imagine that you are putting each thought on a leaf and watching it float down a stream. Those thoughts just became a little less of a barrier. With practice, people become good at noticing these barriers as they occur. When they notice them and practice this exercise, they find they can more flexibly and effectively pursue what they value.

For example, many people who have learned to step back from emotional barriers find they are better able to stick to difficult tasks. People who can step back from habitual thinking find that they are more open to new ideas and more inclined to innovate. This different stance toward thoughts and feelings has helped many people overcome psychological problems, including anxiety, depression, and psychosis. It has helped some people quit smoking and others to stop using drugs. It has even helped people lose weight or deal with chronic illness. Cultivating flexible thinking also helps groups solve problems. Often people cannot agree on how to solve a problem because they are so focused on their own way of thinking that they have trouble seeing how others view it. Often there are warring camps—each sure that it is right; each talking mostly to its own members; each vilifying those with different points of view. The result is that people are unable to come together around a set of practical steps that could improve everyone’s wellbeing, even when deep down they share the same values.

Groups that have adopted this more flexible approach to their own thoughts and feelings report that they are better able to listen to others. They also say that they feel greater respect and caring for others, and can work together toward values they share.

The shift toward flexibility is something each one of us can pursue by learning to be more open. We can take the time to see what our reactions can teach us—without turning our lives over to those reactions. Flexibly minded people find that their reactions and worries do not have to get in the way of searching for a common solution. They can speak up if they feel that their comments will help the group reach a valued goal, but they might also choose to keep their thoughts to themselves and say nothing—depending on what seems most likely to help. What is important is sharing, caring, and making progress, not just being right or looking good. When negative traps are no longer so powerful, flexible minds have more time to attend to the positive ways we can move forward. Email us if you are interested in learning more about how we work with neighborhoods to foster flexibility. Send us your name, email address, and phone number. Also please indicate if you are looking for help for an organization, your neighborhood, or yourself.