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Mindfulness for better decision making

In Meditation and Mindfulness, Mind and Movement by Elise BialylewLeave a Comment

Have you ever been stuck making a decision? Here are some mindfulness-based tips to help tap into your inner wisdom.

When you have to make a choice and don’t make it, that is in itself a choice. [William James]

Many of us get really stuck when faced with decision making, and mindfulness can be a very helpful tool in supporting us in this kind of challenge. Our emotions can be a helpful guide in the face of making big decisions. When you become more aware of body sensations associated with particular emotions, you’ll find a deeper source of wisdom; this is your intuition or ‘gut feeling’.

Our emotions can be powerful guides that help us move forward in the face of difficult decisions

Mindfulness helps us get better at discerning which emotions are driven by fear and lead us away from what we truly want in our lives, and which ones are driven by wisdom guiding us towards what we genuinely desire.

The word ‘decision’ comes from the Latin decidere, which means ‘to cut off ’. Decisions lead to change, which inevitably come with losses and gains, and for many of us the thought of closing doors and making the ‘wrong’ decision can be deeply uncomfortable. We each have our own unique way of making decisions. Some of us dive into taking action in the face of a decision, then are overwhelmed, post-decision, as the mind starts analysing the situation. Others of us end up in ‘analysis paralysis’, and then finally make a choice once we’ve exhausted all possible outcomes in our mind.

Mindfulness training has been crucial in helping me tune in to my feelings and intuition to solve a dilemma, rather than getting caught in analytical mind loops.

Damasio’s theory

Although many philosophers over the centuries have warned that we should always turn to reason over emotion, science has revealed that our emotions are actually useful bodily signals that can help to support our decisions. In his book Descartes’ Error, world-renowned neuroscientist Antonio Damasio describes a patient whose inability to experience emotions had a devastating effect on his decision-making and his life. Elliot was a successful lawyer who underwent surgery for a brain tumour that led to an injury in his prefrontal cortex, which is crucial for receiving messages and signals from the emotional brain centre. After the surgery, his intelligence was unaffected – he could think, speak and do all of the things he could do before. However, his life fell apart through poor decision-making. His family explained that simple decisions such as what to eat or how to file his work papers would now take him hours to make.

Damasio tested Elliot’s brain and found that while the surgery didn’t affect his thinking and reasoning, when asked what date he would like to come back for another check-up, Elliot could give a list of things that were coming up but was unable to make a decision. 

Damasio’s theory was that when we are faced with decisions, we unconsciously receive body signals associated with different emotions that help us filter one outcome from the next. Without an ability to access his emotions and ‘body wisdom’, Elliot could not weigh up what mattered most to him.

Trust your gut

In fact, the term ‘trust your gut’ has a scientific base, thanks to a part of the brain called the ‘basal ganglia’. According to Daniel Goleman, our basal ganglia stores information about everything we do and keeps track of our decisions, like a database that remembers  everything from our lives. It isn’t connected to our verbal brain and so it can’t communicate with our reason. But it is connected to the gut, and may therefore play an important role in what we call ‘intuition’, our non-verbal feeling system. It can’t tell us what it knows in words, so it tells us what it knows through the body, through our feelings.

In his book Memories, Dreams, Reflections, Carl Jung describes visiting Taos, New Mexico, to learn about Native American culture. He spoke with an elder named Mountain Lake, who

expressed that white people always seemed uneasy and restless. “We do not understand them. We think that they are mad.” Jung asked him why he thought white people were mad.

“They say they think with their heads,” Mountain Lake explained. “We think here.” He pointed to his heart.

In the Western world, we too easily dismiss the body as no more than a mode of transportation for our heads, rather than an additional source of intelligence. Our language is a powerful reflection of the way we perceive reality. In English (and most other Western languages), we define ourselves with two separate words – we are a ‘mind’ and a ‘body’. In contrast, the single Japanese word kokoro translates to ‘heart–mind–spirit’, which reflects an understanding that these parts are not entirely separate, but are really one integrated whole. A far more accurate reflection of the reality.

Is there a decision that you’re avoiding because it feels too hard to make? 

This might be a good time to try accessing your intuition. This mindful writing exercise invites you to bring your awareness back into the body:

  1. Take ten minutes to settle yourself by doing a short meditation.
  2. After the practice is finished, bring your awareness into the region of your gut.
  3. Notice any bodily sensations in this area.
  4. Now set a timer for five minutes and write as if you were the gut writing to ‘yourself ’.
  5. Ask your gut to tell you what you need to pay attention to at the moment.
  6. If your mind starts to get judgmental or agitated, just imagine you are unscrewing your head and putting it next to you for five minutes.
  7. Allow the pen to flow.
  8. You may need to keep remembering to come back to resting your awareness on the belly.

Here are a few more steps to help you gain perspective on your dilemma and manage it with greater ease:

Clearly label the decision that you’re grappling with

Sometimes we get caught in thought loops about decisions that really aren’t that important. Other times, we’re faced with decisions that have no perceivable positive outcome as an option. Recognising and labelling what type of decision we’re facing provides a perspective on it. This brings attention to what is really going on. Then we can gain deeper insight into what is occurring beneath the surface of our busy minds.

Ask yourself what this is really about

Often a decision may seem like it’s about one thing. But through further investigation, you might discover it’s about something deeper and more universal. For example, it could be the fear of the unknown or a need to be in control. When I catch myself clinging to the need for a perfect decision, I remind myself that there is no way of absolutely knowing its consequences. Instead of letting myself be trapped by the need for certainty, I turn my mind to a challenge that I have faced and managed. I tap into my inner resource of resilience. I remind myself that I’m making the best decision I can, knowing all that I know. And that I will have the strength and resilience to manage its outcomes.

Be aware of what the mind is doing in relation to the decision

If you are just obsessively replaying thoughts through your mind, recognise this as anxious thinking. Let the thoughts go and bring your attention back to the breath as a way of unhooking from it

Make sure you have all the information you need to make the decision

Are there missing bits of information that might help you make your decision? Contact anyone you think may be helpful in giving you the information you need to take a step forward.

Reflect on your values and let them drive your decision

For example, if one of your values is courage, recognise that perhaps the thing obstructing your decision-making process is fear. Reassure yourself that just as you’ve managed difficulties in the past, you have the resilience to manage any outcomes. 

If you value authenticity and honesty, allow these to drive you to have that difficult conversation you’ve been avoiding.

Be compassionate with yourself

Big decisions often take longer to make than we’d like. This can cause frustration and create a feeling of ‘stuckness’ in our lives that can easily turn into self-criticism. Remember to actively maintain self compassion as you navigate the complexity of your decision. Remind yourself that sometimes answers don’t come according to the timelines we have in our mind.

Some questions for your reflection

  • How do you make big decisions or small decisions?
  • What have you learned about how you make decisions?
  • What gets in the way of you making a decision?
  • Which lessons have you learned about the wisdom of the mind, heart and gut through making decisions?
  • What wisdom from the lessons you’ve learned can you call upon to support you in your decision?

About the author
Elise Bialylew

Elise Bialylew

Elise Bialylew is founder of Mindful in May, the world’s largest online global mindfulness fundraising campaign that features the world’s leading experts and raises funds for clean water projects in the developing world. A doctor trained in psychiatry, and mindfulness expert, she’s passionate about supporting individuals and organisations to develop inner tools for greater wellbeing and flourishing. This is an extract from her latest book The Happiness Plan.

Join her Mindful in May program!

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