Got Uncertainty? Change Your Mind!

Albert Einstein famously said, “No problem can be solved with the same level of consciousness that created it”. What he was saying is that the worlds we create (and the stories we tell about those worlds) are a reflection of the minds that created them. In other words, our problems are an expression of our consciousness (or lack thereof). If we are not aware of waste, we will not design for waste. If we are alienated from nature, we will not design to include nature. If we create a dystopic future it will be because we contain the characteristics of a dystopic world in our hearts and minds.

The only way to change our worlds (and therefore innovate) is to change our minds. Being able to change our consciousness (deepen, heighten, expand) while learning to tolerate and thrive in ambiguity and uncertainty is probably the most essential and crucial skill we will ever need to learn as adults. Period.

Try this five minute experiment

When I say our minds, or consciousness, I am speaking not only about how we think, but also insight into what we are aware of, what we think, what we feel, what we see, what we hear, and what animates how we meet the world. Consciousness is composed of all the senses, including the heart.

As an experiment (without any judgment!), take five minutes to be still. Close your eyes. Take a deep breath. Take another deep breath. Feel your belly, feel your toes. Once your breath settles, after a few minutes, ask your-self “what is the quality of my mind?” Stay open and aware, let whatever thoughts or feelings arise. Keep asking yourself, perhaps a half dozen times, “What is the quality of my mind?” And then come back to your breath.

So, what did you notice when you were quiet?

Maybe it was loud around you and all of a sudden you realized how unquiet your environment is and how that effects you. Maybe you felt colors, or temperature. Or, maybe you saw that your thoughts were any one of these things: repetitive, agitated, angry, dull, confusing, sharp, grasping, desiring, fast, slow, sad, happy, sleepy, scared, open, closed. Or maybe, your mind felt relaxed, fluid, curious, spacious, and your sensations dropped into your body. Maybe you were making lists, checking your phone, glancing at the clock, and maybe even irritated. I am guessing you probably experienced many of these things, perhaps in rapid succession, or it even felt like all at once.

So, why is being able to change our minds and grow our capacity for mindful awareness important and essential for being powerful leaders and innovators? And why does being quiet or reflective almost feel like having to eat vegetables rather than desert, or going to the dentist rather than getting a massage?

The business case for knowing our minds

Here’s an analogy, if we wanted to be a tri-athlete, we would not and could not ignore or disown the qualities of our bodies or our minds. We would train. We would seek coaches. We would want feedback. We would think about food, exercise, and practices to help us reach optimal performance. And, we would work with our minds to make them strong, as well to make ourselves focused and competitive. Sometimes, we would have a lot of fun and feel good about ourselves. Sometimes it would be hard work and require effort. That’s the way it goes to be truly great.

As knowledge workers or employees of the information economy, we are people who work with our minds and often have limited skills of observation and therefore little insight into our most important tool – us. We show narrow interest or willful ignorance about the quality of the mind or what’s going on in our bodies. Instead we binge on media and information like a huge bowl of chips. We swim in gigantic sugarcoated oceans of distraction and urgency. Yet, these are the same minds and bodies being asked to solve problems, make decisions, transform the world, or simply complete tasks. How are we going to reach another level of consciousness to solve our biggest problems if we don’t begin to realize we are training for the ultimate marathon of all – the future of life? We must train our minds.

Somewhere we know a mind can be hijacked or deluded into believing just about anything with the right story or narrative. Our ability for delusion, whether individually or collectively, (like it doesn’t matter if we are taking up enough resources for five planets), is well documented and as we know, has been regularly manipulated for commercial and political success. A really good marketer can sell you the Brooklyn Bridge (or plastic bags or hatred). Our minds go wild for intermittent reward; like a crazy dog, we will not put the bone down. Yet, because we are so focused and doggedly distracted by outer events, (which we believe and are certain are the TRUTH and VERY IMPORTANT), we may not be able to tell what the looping tracks are that lie beneath the surface. These are the voices that are constantly commenting and measuring everything – whether I am better than or worse than, whether there is danger, if something is good or bad, ugly or pretty. While that’s a bummer for us and makes getting close to people difficult, this quality of mind also does not lend itself to seeing and accepting the present as it really is, nor does it have the capacity to envision new and previously unimagined worlds, both of which are essential skills to foster organizational success and drive innovation.

Fundamentally, the quality of our minds is composed and textured by the experiences, beliefs, messages, memories, defenses, and neurobiology that fuels how we relate to the world. The quality of our minds completely colors how we perceive reality and what meaning we make from life, or that sound in the bushes. The quality of our minds determines the flexibility with which we are able to meet ambiguity, uncertainty, and the differences that disconfirm our previous beliefs.

Having the capacity to fluidly, flexibly, and skillfully meet ambiguity and uncertainty is the business case that drives the human imperative for mindful awareness (for all you bean counters and corporate warriors ;-).

Expanding our consciousness is not about dropping out to drop in (although that’s good too), rather it is about becoming aware of the mind that spins the fabric of this thing we call reality and from which we design the future. This is the mind that unless we are determined would rather skip-over not knowing and ambiguity, even though that is where all the potential for previously unimagined realities lives.

So, how are you doing with not knowing?

Four tips to building our tolerance for ambiguity and uncertainty

How do we increase our tolerance for uncertainty? First and foremost – become friends with our minds. What this means is that we seek the support we need to develop an internal witness. Whether this person is a coach, a therapist, a meditation teacher, or simply a really wise person, we all need to find someone who can help us to cultivate our capacity to observe ourselves with compassion. Someone who is able to lovingly and dispassionately stand outside of our minds continual stream of thoughts, feelings, perceptions, beliefs, and opinions and teach us to recognize reality.

When we come into a more skillful relationship with the qualities of our minds, we are not run by the past, or driven by our desires and aversions in the present, nor by our hopes and fears about the future. Our minds might be the most personal aspect of ourselves that we identify with, but we can’t do it alone, that’s the paradox. The witness friend is able to observe, without judgment, what the quality of our minds is. Rather than being focused on the content of the story (usually repetitive), focus on the qualities that are animating the story.

Whatever fuels our stories, the main role of the witness is to ask questions with curiosity, not judge. We are training for endurance not sprints when it comes to our minds. We actually want to approach the world with a relaxed state of not-knowing.

The second suggestion is to use a spoon and not a bulldozer to excavate. While we might feel like we need to move mountains, these are subtle realms that respond better to a light touch. And, refrain from constant analysis! It’s best to turn off bright stadium lights and put away microscopes.

Thirdly, while using a spoon requires us to get close to our minds, (again) paradoxically we need to grow the capacity to view ourselves with distance and perspective in order to see the patterns of our mind and not to take them personally. We might find useful a question such as, “What is familiar about this situation?” Or, “When is the first time I remember having these feelings?” Or, “What is right about this?” Come up with 3-4 questions that you can ask yourself when you find yourself sliding down the rabbit hole for the umpteenth time and screaming “I’m right, I’m right”. It’s in those moments, when we are beginning to go down, that we most need awareness and humor.There is nothing like a good question to stop us in our tracks.

And, fourthly, find time to be still! Seriously, without quiet and reflection we will endlessly be locked in cycles of reaction. Even if the stillness is simply learning to find the moments between breaths, or taking a moment completely to yourself when going to the bathroom (apparently 56% of us do email on the toilet), or by breathing into your belly while waiting for a bus.

The only thing we need to change is our minds

If you want to deepen, expand, or heighten your consciousness you have to make friends with your mind. That means learning to watch your mind, and to name the experience of the mind, rather than getting carried away by the story the mind is telling you. In other words, don’t believe everything you think.

More than we would like to admit, many of our thoughts are blather that takes up space, keeping us from knowing ourselves or grasping how much creative potential exists in the universe.

The essential nature of a mature person and a great leader is the capacity to be present with reality as it is, not as we would have it be. Having a solid and informed relationship to present reality is the starting point for creating new realities. And this all begins with our minds. It’s really the only thing we need to change.

All else will follow.

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