Present in Mind and Body

In Letters From a Stoic Seneca writes, “You must be not only present in the body, but watchful in mind, if you would avail yourself of the fleeting opportunity.” I am always surprised by how hard it is to actually be present at any given moment. Our minds think far faster than we can talk or do any physical activity. From what I remember from a psychology class in college, our minds can think somewhere around 400 words per minute. We talk at about 200 words per minute when talking quickly and our pulse is much closer to about 60-ish beats per minute when just sitting around relaxed (just off memory so double check those numbers if you are really curious). Our brains are seriously quick, and that gives the mind extra time to jump around outside of our body and outside of our current setting.

 

I started reading the first Harry Potter book as a little break from non-fiction and one of the surprising things about the book is how quickly I detach from the present moment. Throughout the series, which I am now reading as quickly as possible it seems, I have found myself completely unaware of my physical surroundings and I have noticed my mind continually wanders away from the present in a day-dream. I will admit that I have enjoyed the books and the time that has flown by while reading them, but I do find it a little concerning how quickly my mind will jump out of my body into the story and steal away 10 minutes, an hour, or an entire evening in story, absent of the present moment and the things that my mind originally intended to do.

 

Seneca’s quote is about opportunity, and this morning I am reading it more as a quote about intention and doing meaningful things that we want to do. A good quick example to illustrate my thoughts comes from the world of sports. When we really train for something in a serious manner, we know that we have to put in deliberate practice. If we are just trying to stay fit then it is fine to hit the gym with our music, listen to a podcast while lifting weights, or lose ourselves in our thoughts or music while jogging comfortably. However, if we want to train to be a great martial artist, if we want to train to make a free throw when the game is on the line, and if we really want to stick that ski jump landing, then we need to focus on our physical body and what we need to do to perfectly execute our desired sports performance. If we are not also mentally present, then we miss the opportunity to apply ourselves in a serious way.

 

Presence is a sense of awareness of where we are, of the time, and of the opportunities in front of us. This is what the Harry Potter series, while I have enjoyed it, has stolen from me. I am physically present and where I need to be, but my mind has been running at 400 words per minute through a fictional world and magical fantasy. I think it is great to read fiction and get some story exposure in our minds, but we should remember the opportunities we miss if we can’t bring ourselves back to a mental presence. We need to be aware of our physical situation and also our mental situation if we really want to make the most out of the time we have on our planet.

Talking to People We Disagree With

It is hard to talk to people you disagree with and I’m sure that each year across the United States thousands of Thanksgiving dinners are ruined when someone kicks off a bitter argument with their uncle. Colin Wright gives us a template to use when talking to someone with whom we disagree in his book Becoming Who We Need To Be:

 

“There’s a discussion method I like to use when I’m having a conversation with someone with whom I disagree, but who seems to be open to sharing their thoughts and learning about my opposing view-points. The rules are that neither of us will aim to offend or assume offense is intended by the other, that we primarily ask questions and give answers, focusing on saying why we believe what we do rather than saying why we don’t believe the opposite, and we avoid using labels. If we do use labels at any point, they have to be thoroughly defined.”

 

I think these are terrific rules to use for having a meaningful conversation with someone. The final point, avoiding labels, is really crucial. Our labels are often quite mean without us intending them to be mean. To people we disagree with, our labels are often ways to straw-man their entire set of views or identity (calling someone a Bible-Thumper is a clear example which implies they are unthinkingly fanatical about religion). Forcing yourself and your communication partner to define labels helps you to both draw out new connections you previously had not made. When you have to define what you mean by the labels you offhandedly use, you will become more precise with your thinking and your own arguments will become more clear for people who don’t always use the same label that you so casually use.

 

Wright’s other rules help ensure the disagreement moves in a reasonable direction. When you only say, “I don’t believe XYZ” and don’t offer a different interpretation or understanding of reality, then you are really just causing havoc. It should also be acceptable for you or someone else to say, “I don’t believe XYZ, but I don’t know exactly what would replace it.” Being honest about your doubts and your lack of complete alternatives is a better way to have a conversation than to engage in a back and forth version of “your idea is stupid.”

 

One suggestion I would have for anyone trying to implement Wright’s disagreement model is to be very careful with the types of questions that you ask. It is important not to ask fake “gotcha” questions. I wrote about fake questions in the context of coaching, and it is easy in debate to do the same thing. When you ask a fake question you are not trying to get more information from the other person, but instead trying to make them look dumb. Certainly you will both ask each other questions that reveal areas of thought that are not fully developed, but the key is not to reveal these areas in an attempt to win an argument, but to find the boundary of well thought versus unconsidered possibilities.

Building Models and Examining the World and Our Thoughts

This morning listening to an episode of Conversations with Tyler, Russ Roberts, the guest on the show said something that really stood out to me, “I used to believe that…my models described the world, as opposed to gave me insight into the world.” We operate in a world where there is no way for us to ever have complete information. There is simply too much data, too much information, to much stuff going on all around us for our brains to perfectly absorb everything in a reasonable and coherent way.

 

You do not notice every blink, you could never possibly understand every chemical’s smell that makes up the complex aroma of your coffee, and you can’t hold every variable for that big business decision in your head at the same time. Instead, our brains filter out information that does not seem relevant and we key in on what appears to be the main factors that influence the world around us. We build models that sometimes seem like they describe the world with spectacular clarity, but are only a product of our brain and the limited space for information that we have. Our models do not reflect reality and they are not reality, but they can give us an insight into reality if we can build them well.

 

No matter what, we are going to operate on these models in our daily lives. We develop a sense of what works, what will bring us happiness, what will create well-being, and how we will find success. We pursue those things that fit in our model, toss those things that don’t fit in the model to the side, and somewhere along the line begin to believe that our model is reality and criticize everyone who has a model that doesn’t seem to jive with ours.

 

A more reasonable stance is to say that we have developed a model that gives us insight into some aspect of reality, but is open for adjustment, improvement, or could be scrapped altogether in favor of a new model if necessary. The only way to do this is to be an active participant in our lives and to work to truly understand ourselves and the world around us. The quote from Roberts on Cowen’s podcast aligns with the quote that I have from Colin Wright today. From Wright’s book Becoming Who We Need To Be I have a quote reading, “It’s not enough to just smell the fragrances that drift our way every day. We have to take the time to pull those aromas apart, to figure out what components go into them, and compare and contrast them with others. We have to be awake and aware, not just alive. We have to be participatory in our own lives, and give our mental capacities a reason to keep operating and expanding, otherwise they will, quite understandably, if we’re using biological logic, begin to shut down to save energy.”

 

Deciphering the aromas is a metaphor for understanding how we are interacting with the world and how the world exists around us. If we retreat to safety and comfort by believing that our models are correct and perfect, then we fail to improve our understanding of the world and our place in it. Our mind atrophies, and the potential we have for making the world a better place is continually diminished. Simply believing something because it benefits us, makes us feel good, and is what people similar to us believe can drive us and the world into an inefficient place where we fail to do the most good for the most people. There is nothing wrong with that world, it is an option, but if we believe that human flourishing is worth striving for and if we believe that we can help improve the living standards for ourselves and the rest of humanity, then we must use and expand our cognitive capacity to better understand the universe to improve the world for ourselves and the rest of humanity. Your model is incomplete and gives you insight into one aspect of reality, but you must remember that it is not a perfect description of how the world should be, and you must work continuously to build a better model with better insight into the world.

Selective Attention

I listened to an episode of the After On podcast this last week, and the guest, Dr. Don Hoffman, suggested that our brains did not evolve to help us understand reality, but evolved to help us survive, which often did not require that our ancestors have the most accurate view of reality but instead had the perceptions necessary to avoid lions, work as a tribe, and pick healthy berries. What we see when we look around us is only a small fraction of the world, our eyes are only able to perceive a rather narrow range of electromagnetic radiation (light). With the fact that our brains did not evolve to give us the most clear picture of reality and with our inability to fully perceive all of reality, we must remember that there are reasons to be skeptical of the thoughts produced by our brain.

 

In his book Becoming Who We Need to Be, author Colin Wright discusses the outcomes of our brains cognitive shortcomings. He writes, “This tendency to pay more attention to the seeming unlikely events that happen to and around us is called “selective attention.” Our brains have a bias toward patterns, and ignore so called uninteresting data…” Wright suggests that this is part of the reason our brains our so bad at statistical thinking as I described yesterday. Statistics is hard because we selectively pick out certain things as important and have a distorted memory of the world based on what we happened to see and notice. Wright continues describing what this means for us, “Which in turn result in our finding meaning in what is almost certainly meaningless…familiarity and feeling of significance is merely the consequence of our brains wigging out over the perceived connection, due to its pattern-finding predilections. Because that’s what it does.”

 

When we recognize that we did not evolve to develop a perfect view of what is happening around us and that our brains only selectively record a small chunk of reality, we can begin to think about how approach the world. We know our brains look for patterns and behave quickly, but that the patterns the brain picks out might not be fully correct or meaningful. We don’t have to eat Pringles every time our team is in the playoffs, because we are aware that our brain is making a false connection between us eating specific chips and our favorite team winning based on a perception that doesn’t really exist. What I am ultimately getting at is that our brains can invent realities that seem reasonable, but are based on cognitive errors, selective attention, and don’t actually align with the physical reality of the universe. We make sense out of meaningless things around us and start to attach symbolic importance to things that should not have any importance in our lives.

 

This distorted reality may not be a problem at an individual level with how any of us move through our lives. No one is going to care too much if you believe you need to drink a specific coffee every morning or sit in a specific spot, but as this mode of thinking scales up to a societal level, we must recognize that beliefs resulting from cognitive bias and error can lead to a world that doesn’t operate equitably for all members of society. Public policy must be grounded in the best empirical science and data that we can collect (even if our interpretation of the data is always going to be imperfect) so that we can distribute our finite resources in a reasonable way, and we must cut through our false narratives to avoid stigmatizing groups and discriminating against people who see the world differently from us.

The Trouble of Probability

“Most people, it should be noted, are terrible at offhandedly understanding, or even estimating, probability,” Colin Wright writes in his book Becoming Who We Need To Be. Without specific training, human beings generally seem to be pretty bad at statistics and statistical thinking, as Wright states. Our ability to estimate how frequently something should occur or the relative risk of something is not as good as one would think considering the power of our brain to recognize patterns and help us evolve to the point where we are as a species.

 

We really didn’t evolve to be good at numbers. Humans evolved in small tribes that likely numbered 150 people or less. As hunters and gatherers we likely just didn’t deal with numbers that were so large that we needed complex statistics to understand them. The largest numbers we probably really focused on were 10 or 20 and we have enough fingers and toes to help us there. As our societies began to take shape and grow, numbers and statistics still were not the deciding things that determined whether ones genes were passed on or not. Story telling has always had a much greater influence on the human mind than statistics.

 

For most of us, the fact that we are bad at statistics probably doesn’t matter too much. We can invest in mutual funds or index funds, have someone else tell us how much money should be taken from our paycheck automatically, and we will be fine. But if we want to engage with public policy, if we want to do the most good we can do, and if we want to approach the world rationally and leave it better than we found it, we must not only understand a base level of statistics, we must be able to understand how little statistical grounding most people have for their decisions. Convincing someone to make donations to help indigent people is much easier if you can focus on a single individual with a compassionate story who needs help. Overwhelming a person with statistics regarding the number of people who need aid will not convince anyone that their action is necessary. Giving your neighbor or uncle a dizzying array of data points around climate change and global warming is probably less effective than focusing on a single whale that washes up with plastic bags in its stomach, less effective than a story about coral bleaching along the Great Barrier Reef, and less valuable than a visual story of storms destroying the house of someone who looks like your neighbor or uncle. We must work to understand science and statistics ourselves, and we must take what we learn in dry numerically dense academic papers and craft a story that shows people exactly what they will lose if they do not act, or how they can be a hero if they do take the action we encourage.

Cognitive Dissonance

I recent changed my mind about vaping. I have asthma and cigarette smoke really gives me terrible breathing problems so I have never smoked either traditional cigarettes or any type of vaping product. I have hated traditional cigarettes my whole life and as vaping has become a new hit, I have hated it as well. Since vaping really popped onto the scene, I considered it to be basically as evil as traditional cigarettes and didn’t make much of a distinction in my head between the two.

 

A recent podcast interview with Dr. David Abrahms on the Healthcare Policy Podcast changed my mind. Vaping products may be far less deadly than traditional burnt cigarettes. The addictive potential of nicotine is still there and there are certainly plenty of things in vaping products that we should not be putting into our lungs, but vaping products may have far fewer carcinogens than traditional cigarettes and appear as though they are far less deadly than traditional cigarettes. For the first time in history, we have a product which could completely displace traditional cigarettes and tobacco, and most importantly, save millions of lives. I still don’t like vaping and won’t ever do it myself, but I the new information has forced me to change the way I think about and respond to vaping.

 

As humans, we really are not very good at changing our mind. We are not very good at being receptive to information that conflicts with what we already think we believe or with what we want to believe. We become really good at rationalizing the beliefs we already hold or that we want to hold, and we discount any information that doesn’t fit the world view we would like to hold. Any argument or debate is basically meaningless because our beliefs often become part of who we are and become unchangeable as part of our identity.

 

Colin Wright addresses this in his book Becoming Who We Need to Be, “First, we seldom experience cognitive dissonance, which is the feeling of discomfort associated with being exposed to information that contradicts our existing beliefs. This dissonance is a vital component of changing our mind and adjusting our views, and without it, without feeling that we might be wrong about something and therefore it’s probably important to check our math and learn more about the subject we’ve been armchair-philosophizing about on Facebook, we stand little chance of ever tempering our extreme, unjustifiable views.”

 

My example of changing my views on vaping is a short version of experiencing cognitive dissonance and being able to adjust opinions in the face of data, even when it is data that doesn’t align with what I want to see in the world (which is no one ever smoking anything). My example is less profound than changing beliefs about economic systems, about political parties, or about favorite super heroes. At some point I’m not sure we ever really will change those beliefs, but I think it is important to be aware of the small times when we change our beliefs so that we can better monitor the beliefs we do hold and be more aware of the times when we may experience cognitive dissonance. Rather than hiding behind a rationalization of our beliefs and pretending that everything within our belief structure is perfectly coherent, we can accept that there are some parts we don’t have figured out or don’t have perfect scientific evidence to support. For some questions, like what religious belief do you hold or what would be the perfect super power if you could only pick one, you will never have the perfect answer that solves all of life’s mysteries. It is ok to accept that people have been debating these questions forever and to not expect that you will suddenly find the perfect answer that no one else could. Cognitive dissonance may be uncomfortable, but it is a necessary part of our lives today and we should embrace it rather than try to hide from or ignore it.

Attribution Bias

Our brains are pretty impressive pattern recognition machines. We take in a lot of information about the world around us, remember stories, pull information together to form new thoughts and insights, move through the world based on the information we take in, and we are able to predict the results of actions before they have occurred. Our brain evolved to help us navigate a complex, dangerous, and uncertain world.

 

Today however, while our world is arguably more complex and uncertain than ever, it might not be as dangerous on a general day to day basis. I’m pretty sure I won’t encounter any animals who may try to eat me when I sit at the park to read during my lunch break, I won’t need to distinguish between two types of berries to make sure I don’t eat the poison kind, and if the thunder storms scheduled for this evening drop golf ball sized hail, I won’t have to worry to much about where I will find safety and shelter. Nevertheless, my evolved brain is still going to approach the world as if it were the dangerous place it was when my ancestors were evolving their thought capacities, and that will throw some monkey-wrenches into my life and lead to me to see patterns that don’t really exist.

 

Colin Wright has a great quote about this in his book Becoming Who We Need to Be. He writes, “You ascribe meaning to that person’s actions through the lens of what’s called “attribution bias.” If you’re annoyed by their slow driving, that inferred meaning will probably not be generous to the other driver: they’re a bad person, they’re in the way, and they’re doing this because they’re stupid or incapable. That these assumptions about the situation are possibly incorrect – maybe they’re driving slowly because thy’re in deep thought about elephant tool usage – is irrelevant. Ascribing meaning to acts unto itself is impressive, even if we often fail to arrive at a correct, or fully correct understanding of the situation.”

 

We often find ourselves in situations that are random and try to ascribe a greater meaning to the situation or event we are in. At least in the United States, it is incredibly common to hear people say that everything happens for a reason, creating a story for themselves in which this moment of inconvenience is part of a larger story filled with lessons, staircases, detours, success, and failure that are all supposed to culminate in a larger narrative that will one day all make sense. The fact that this way of thinking is so prevalent suggests to me that the power of our pattern recognition focused brains is still in full swing even though we no longer need it to be as active in as many situations of our life. We don’t need every moment of our life to happen for a reason, and if we allow for randomness and eliminate the running narrative of our life, we don’t have to work through challenging apologetics to understand something negative.

 

Attribution bias as described by Wright shows us how wrong our brain can be about the world. It shows us that our brains have certain tendencies that elevate ourselves in thought over the rest of the world that doesn’t conform to our desires, interests, wishes, and preferences. It reveals that we are using parts of our brains that evolved to help our ancestors in ways that we now understand to be irrational. If we can see that the slow person driving in front of us with a political sticker that makes our blood boil is not all the terrible things we instantly think they are (that instead they are a 75 year-old grandfather driving in a new town trying to get to the hospital where his child is sick) then we can recognize that not everything in life has a meaning, or at least not the meaning that our narrow pattern recognizing brain wants to ascribe. Remembering this mental bias and making an effort to recognize this type of thinking and move in a more generous thought direction will help us move through the world with less friction, anger, and disappointment because we won’t develop false patterns that let us down when they fail to materialize in the outcomes we expected.

The Mind Observing the Mind

I am not a scientist in the sense that I don’t work at a laboratory, I don’t publish academic papers, and I am not going out into a field to make observation about the nature of the world to experiment with and report back on. But I do love science. I listen to a handful of science podcasts and I like to approach the world from a scientific point of view. This has lead me to look at objects and observers and to be aware of the relationship between an object and the observer recording the object. Scientists try to be as objective as possible, independent of the thing they are studying, but this is not always possible. When it comes to the human mind, and the observations we make about our thoughts, we must accept that we cannot split the mind from our thoughts and our emotions, even though we can observe both.

 

Thich Nhat Hanh writes about this in his book The Miracle of Mindfulness. He uses a metaphor of a guard standing at a gate, observing everyone who enters and leaves to describe the typical vision we have for our mind. Hanh explains that this is a limited view of the mind because we are both the guard and the people going through the gate. The mind cannot truly be separated from the thoughts and emotions going through it.

 

He describes the importance of this by writing, “We are both the mind and the observer of the mind. Therefore, chasing away or dwelling on any thought isn’t the important thing. The important thing is to be aware of thought. This observation is not an objectification of the mind: it does not establish distinction between subject and object. … Mind can only observe itself. This observation isn’t an observation of some object outside and independent of the observer.”

 

Our observations of the mind can change the mind as much as cake, a traffic accident, or the birth of a child can. We only have our thoughts inside our mind, but we don’t exactly control every thought, emotion, and feeling. Being unaware of our thoughts leads us to being whipped around as in a hurricane, but trying to be too controlling of our mind drives us mad and frustrates us at our inability to shut down the thoughts and emotions we don’t wish to have. Recognizing the reality of the mind as being one with its thoughts helps us see that our best option is simply to observe and accept the thoughts and emotions that run through our mind so we can choose to be more constructive with how we react to thoughts and structure the environment in which our mind operates.

How to Practice Mindfulness

“Keep your attention focused on the work, be alert and ready to handle ably and intelligently any situation which may arise – this is mindfulness.”

 

The sentence above is how Thich Nhat Hanh describes mindfulness. Anything that we do, can be done either absentmindedly, or with mindfulness. We can drink coffee, wash dishes, walk to the mailbox, and write reports at work with full intention and focus, or we can do them on autopilot, never truly focusing on what we are doing. Bringing mindfulness to whatever it is we are doing, whether it is something small and boring like drinking coffee or whether it is something important and nuanced, like open heart surgery, helps us be our best in that moment and helps us truly experience our lives. When the world seems to be going by to quickly, when we are anxious and nervous about what may come in the future, and when we are worked up over news and events from across the world, we lose a sense of who we are and what it means to be us in our own lives. Mindfulness, a focus on the moment and a complete alertness with regard to the task or action in front of us, helps us be more peaceful and more grounded in the present moment.

 

In my own life it is has been easy to be caught up in national politics, fearful of missing out on fun and exciting opportunities, and depressed by the tedious and repetitive nature of my daily routine. I have often been caught up in the story I tell myself about who I am, about what everything around me means, and about what I need to do in order to be successful and well respected. These pressures, stories, and the battle for my attention leaves me in a place where any individual action seems meaningless and where days and weeks rush past me in a blur that I barely remember.

 

Practicing mindfulness is a way to combat these problems. Mindfulness itself does not slow the world down or make what I am doing at any given moment more meaningful or important. What it does, is help me understand where my conscious thought is spending its time. Am I truly focused on where I am right now, or am I letting my mind run in a million directions a million miles away from this place? For me, mindfulness has never been a complete control over my mind, but a recognition of what my mind is doing at any given moment, so that I can take actions to help move my mind back to more meaningful places.

 

Hanh continues, “A calm heart and self-control are necessary if one is to obtain good results. … If we are not in control of our selves but instead let our impatience or anger interfere, then our work is no longer of any value.” We may not have full control over our mind, but mindfulness does help us be more cognizant of our thinking and patterns of thought so that we can begin to shape new habits of thinking to be more intentional and direct with how we use the only thing we have, our mind in the present moment.

Coaching is About Curiosity

One of the final paragraphs from Michael Bungay Stanier’s book The Coaching Habit  reads, “But the real secret sauce here is building a habit of curiosity. The change of behavior that’s going to serve you most powerfully is simply this: a little less advice, a little more curiosity. Find your own questions, find your own voice. And above all, build your own coaching habit.”

 

The crux of Bungay Stanier’s thoughts on coaching is that being a good coach requires asking questions in a process of discovery as opposed to providing answers in the form of advice giving. Contrary to the typical American version of coaches or the sports movie version of coaches, an effective coach doesn’t just bark orders and doesn’t just automatically give everyone answers, advice, and life lessons. True coaches, in real life, help individuals find answers themselves.

 

When we think about coaches, we often imagine someone who has years of experience, who has been in every situation, and who can decipher exactly what needs to be done at any moment. This imagined coach, however, does not exist. No matter how long someone has been coaching and no matter how insightful they are, no one can truly understand the pressures, challenges, and specifics of the situations and needs of another person. By focusing on asking questions, the coach discovers what is happening and what the other person needs. The individual being coached gets more help from questions than advice because the questions drive them to think more deeply about themselves, other people, and the where they are at in life. Questions can shift their perspective, encourage deeper thought, and lead to discoveries that advice cannot produce.

 

For almost all of us, we do less listening than we do speaking. When another person is talking, we spend a lot of our free brain space trying to anticipate where the conversation is going so that we can have a perfect response. Knowing this about ourselves can help us understand why advice simply doesn’t land. The other person, while we are giving them advice, is thinking ahead of where our advice is going. Asking a question instead of giving advice gets the other person talking and thinking through what they are saying and describing. It allows them to put pieces together in a constructive form of discovery in a way that advice simply doesn’t.

 

Ultimately, by remembering that coaching is a form of discovery, we enter our coaching opportunities willing to be more flexible, and willing to be more responsive to the needs of the person we are coaching. Rather than walking into the coaching opportunity feeling pressured to have brilliant insights and to give the other person some magnificent piece of advice, we can enter the opportunity knowing that we can both co-discover a solution that is not yet apparent. This takes a lot of pressure off of both the coach and the person being coached.