In his book, The Way of Zen, Alan Watts famously wrote, “Muddy water is best cleared by leaving it alone.” Continuing to shake a jar full of water and dirt will only make the water cloudier; the only way to find clarity is by letting the jar sit and settle.
So, too, does the mind need stillness for clarity, yet people resist mindfulness and meditation in favor of engaging the mind. People spend a lot of time lost in thought and don’t realize the consequences it can have on good decision-making. What happens then, when the thinking gets you nowhere? What happens when the thoughts get so jumbled, you can hardly see your way out? When you are faced with an issue, what if you stop shaking your jar, and instead, try letting it settle? If you give it a chance, clarity will naturally present itself, offering solutions.
What Is Mindfulness?
How much of your day is spent in mindless rumination? Especially when you are making choices, weighing options, brainstorming, and trying to be productive, an overwhelmed mind can easily pull your focus away from the moment at hand. Mindfulness, however, calms and focuses the mind by asking for full awareness with all the senses.
Anytime you are actively engaged in the moment you are in, you are practicing mindfulness. By being aware of your feelings, thoughts, and physical sensations, you wrangle your mind toward a single-pointed focus. Mindfulness also integrates a sense of acceptance for your current situation—without resistance. So even if you recognize that your mind is spinning and you have not paid attention to what your coworker just said, in that moment you are actually demonstrating mindfulness. There is no judgment in this mental process; it is simply the art of paying attention. And you can use that mindfulness as a way of improving decision-making skills.
Any list of tips for decision-making should start with backing up a step to employ mindfulness before you make important choices.
What Does Mindfulness Do for Your Brain?
Many areas of the brain are affected by mindfulness training. Studies show that the part of the brain that governs emotional regulation is affected when that person practices mindfulness, suggesting that mindfulness can help you be more resilient when things get tough.
Mindfulness also affects the frontal lobe, which governs future planning. The prefrontal cortex actually gets thicker when practicing mindfulness, which means that effective decision-making gets easier and more efficient.
MRI scans also show that mindfulness appears to shrink the amygdala, which is the brain’s fight-or-flight center that governs stress and anxiety. Practicing mindfulness helps practitioners to be less reactive, less panicked, and less overwhelmed by having to make decisions and engage with the major factors in their life.
Generally speaking, mindfulness trains the brain to rely on the higher centers rather than the lower ones. Mindfulness helps people see a situation more clearly and less reactively. It strengthens your ability to respond with calm and alert presence, rather than with mindless haste.
Benefits of Mindfulness
The American Psychological Association defines mindfulness as “moment-to-moment awareness of one's experience without judgment.” As you contemplate committing to a more dedicated practice, consider the following benefits.
People who practice mindfulness experience:
- Decreased reactivity
- Increased empathy
- Decreased stress and anxiety
- Greater compassion
- Decreased negativity and depression
- Improved memory
- Increased focus
- Increased satisfaction in their relationships
Though it might seem too good (and easy) to be true, simply by being aware of the here and now, you have the potential to impact from these profound effects.
Ready to try integrating a more mindful approach to your life and develop your decision-making process? Here are a few effective practices that can help you see through the cloudiness of mental overwhelm and improve your decision-making skills and learn how to best achieve your goals.
1. Five Senses Practice
This practice can be done anywhere, at any time. Simply stop what you are doing and dedicate five minutes to reset your energy.
- Begin by closing your eyes and taking a few deep breaths. Just breathing calms your nervous system tremendously, setting the stage for greater clarity and focus.
- Let the weight of your seat feel heavy and notice the texture of whatever it is you are touching. Notice any bodily sensations of your body parts connecting with external items (like the chair, your clothing, or your feet in your shoes), and also any internal sensations (like your heart beating, your muscles twitching, or your belly rumbling). Use your intuition and decide what is going on without judgment.
- Then, as you open your eyes, look around as if it were your first time in this space. If you are at your desk or in your living room, let your eyes scan your environment to orient yourself and notice where you are in space.
- Then, close your eyes again, and listen for 30–60 seconds. What do you hear? Inner sounds? Outer sounds? Are the sounds nearby or far away? Try to notice the sounds without judging or labeling them. Simply acknowledge them as a part of the moment you are living in right now.
- As you breathe through your nose, can you identify any smells? Can you feel the temperature of the air as it hits your nostrils? What about any tastes in your mouth? Just keep scanning your senses to help anchor you in the moment.
After about five minutes, check back in with your bodily sensations, and evaluate if you feel more grounded and clear.
2. Simple Walking Meditation
When your mind is stuck on a hamster wheel, try taking a short walk in the name of mindfulness. This walk is not about getting anywhere, it is about moving your body and being aware of the movement itself. You can walk inside or outside, but give yourself the time and space to go slowly.
- With your hands comfortably behind your back, patiently walk with your eyes cast downward.
- Step with the heel of your first foot, then shift the weight into the ball of your foot, and push off of your toes to the next step.
- Keep going for a few minutes, either in a straight line or in a circle.
In this simple process, you are rewiring your system to slow down, pace yourself, and embody the journey. You are shifting the flighty energy in your mind down into your body and your senses. This helps to clear your mind to make room for fresh, rational ideas.
3. Body Scan
To do a body scan, sit or lay down comfortably.
- Close your eyes, and starting from the tips of your toes, notice the sensation of each of your body parts.
- Move from the toes to the ankles, up your legs, and so on, until you reach the crown of your head with your awareness.
Where there is tension or pain, simply become aware. Where there is spaciousness and freedom, identify those factors too. Notice even if you can’t feel a specific area of your body—like your elbow, for example. By moving your mental focus to the different areas of your body, you not only root your attention out to the mind and into the body, but you also dissipate the stress that can accumulate in your mind when trying to make rational decisions. Be in your body, and you will notice your energy start to ground down. The more grounded you are, the more able you will be to develop a prime mental capacity.
The benefits of mindfulness increase the more you practice; however, any amount of mindfulness will still improve your life. To return to the muddy water analogy, the busier you are, the more “dirt” is in your water. Shaking the jar more (read: doing more) will only add to more cloudiness. Remember to let the jar settle regularly, and you will be able to see beyond the mud with clarity and focus.
*Editor’s Note: The information in this article is intended for your educational use only; it does not necessarily reflect the opinions of the Chopra Center's Mind-Body Medical Group; and is not a substitute for professional medical advice, diagnosis, or treatment. Always seek the advice of your physician or other qualified health providers with any questions you may have regarding a medical condition and before undertaking any diet, supplement, fitness, or other health programs.
Ready to start flowing with the Universe, instead of against it? Learn a natural, effortless style of meditation that helps make every day feel easy, fresh, and fulfilling with Basics of Meditation, a self-paced online course guided by Deepak Chopra. Learn More.