How do you use mindfulness and meditation for decision making?
February 17, 2015 12:56 AM   Subscribe

I need to make a series of decisions soon. What specific mindfulness exercises or meditation methods might help?

I've been doing mindfulness training for about a year. I am getting somewhat better at living in the present, not letting the past dictate my current choices ("sunk cost bias"), and I realize that the future is fundamentally unknowable. But right now, I need to plan for the future, and going with the flow isn't a realistic option.

If it's relevant, my current practice is seated and breath focused, generally 20 minutes every morning, and I use the [not Pepsi blue] Myheadspace program.

So, more experienced practitioners, are there any good ways to meditate "about" something? Does that help and how? How does one do that? How can one be mindful and in the present moment when one's making decisions about the future? I'm looking for specific resources or advice. And please, as little woo as possible :)
posted by digitalprimate to Health & Fitness (11 answers total) 27 users marked this as a favorite
The way I look at it, mindfulness meditation isn't a tool, it's an exercise.
posted by humboldt32 at 1:51 AM on February 17, 2015 [5 favorites]

Decisions are about duality. Mindfulness is about unity. That said, bad decisions are often the result of attachment--that is, thinking inside the box from which you can't find a way out, when that box is just habit and familiarity. If you tend to over think a plate of beans, try with an empty plate this time.
posted by Obscure Reference at 4:23 AM on February 17, 2015 [3 favorites]

I will try to keep it low woo.

I asked my monk once about making decisions. If we are to be without desirous attachment or aversion, how do we make decisions? Isn't a decision inherently about like or dislike? But we have to make decisions in order to function in the world.

His reply: we make the best decisions when our mind is calm clear and positive. If our mind is agitated (unstable or unsteady, bouncing back & forth), negative (wishing to harm self or others) or we have confused, cloudy and illogical thoughts, we need to use mediation to bring our mind to a place of clarity and then we can make a decision.

He said, once our mind is calm clear and positive, then we make the decision with our heart. That is to say, we think about all the options & outcomes, and pick the decision that feels right in our heart.

I asked: but sometimes habit feels good when what we really need is change. So won't going with our heart always pick the easy choice?

He said that is where wisdom comes in. And that is where mindfulness really kicks in. With mindfulness we have wisdom to know ourselves and our deep mental patterns; we know what to face even though it may be difficult and we know what to let slide because it does not benefit us or anyone else to take that action.

So as you consider (aka think about or "meditate upon," although we both know that's not meditation per se) the problem and different options about your decision, notice the feelings and thoughts that arise in conjunction and explore them. Explore areas of resistance (aka fear) and excitement (desire) and let them flow through you and that can help guide your mind to a place of clarity. Often at this point the decision seems "obvious."

Basically I am asking you to move on to the next level of mindfulness training which is observing the mind as it is moving (which can only be done when you can keep one part of your mind still enough to act as an anchor for the rest of the mindful exploration, and it sounds like you've cultivated that still mind via your current practice). If I can find a link describing in more detail how this meditation is done, I will pop back in to post it. I wish you all the best with your decisions, this is a great question.
posted by St. Peepsburg at 5:46 AM on February 17, 2015 [35 favorites]

What humboldt32 says, but: you can first exercise and free your mind, and then have a planning pass during which you concentrate, structure, make choices, calculate risks, etc.
That's how I would try to do this. Trying to look into the future is essentially human. We do have some tools for it, mindful or not...
posted by Namlit at 5:48 AM on February 17, 2015

When I am trying to make a decision, I actually find writing morning pages more useful than seated meditation. When I write down things that are confusing or troubling me, I just dump everything onto a page. The first few days I don't get much out of it, but by the end of a week or two, the answer becomes obvious. It's the best way I know how to tease out what I really want or need from a jumble of options.

Also, if it helps, one thing that has often come up in my reading about mindfulness and decisions: if you have a hard decision to make, it means that both options are relatively equivalent. It's easy to decide "should I take the great job with great pay or the crappy job with bad pay," but hard to decide between two almost equal options. Realizing that took a lot of pressure off me to make the "right" decision, and helped me be more mindful and less fearful when deciding.
posted by instamatic at 6:02 AM on February 17, 2015 [9 favorites]

To add to St Peepsburg: it's helpful to, with practice, cultivate calm, compassionate observation of your context (players, circumstances, etc) as well as of yourself within your context. That may clarify your choice of appropriate action.
posted by mmiddle at 6:43 AM on February 17, 2015 [1 favorite]

You mentioned that you're using Headspace - I think that some of the elements of the Performance Series would help you with this (although I wouldn't know, as I'm still working on the Foundation stuff - but I did read through all of the descriptions...)

Otherwise, and completely unrelated, a decision-making tool/process that might prove useful is described on the Farnam Street blog.

Good luck!
posted by HopStopDon'tShop at 8:45 AM on February 17, 2015 [1 favorite]

Oh, one more thing I like to do is to pretend I have made the decision in one way ("take the good job with crappy pay") and imagine what life is like: "I love going to work every morning and I discovered I can save money by packing my lunch but I really miss being able to take a nice vacation." Then I do the opposite: "I love the bigger house I bought with the big paycheck, but I'm not actually saving any money because I'm so miserable at work I am spending all my money on expensive vacations to cheer myself up." And then (here's the mindfulness part), I just sit with it. Sit with the emotions that each scenario brings up for me and literally see how my gut feels about it. And if that doesn't work, I flip a coin. And if I hate the answer the coin gives me, I know what I really want to do.
posted by instamatic at 9:02 AM on February 17, 2015 [2 favorites]

meditate "about" something

Your use of ironic quotes shows that you understand the contradiction here.

Truth is like cold. It's not a "thing" or a "force" in and of itself, it's just what remains when miscalculation, delusion, projection, and the rest are stripped away.

The best stripping device humans have devised is meditation, where you simply relax that stuff all away. You let go. You surrender your gnashing needs and aversions. Meditation is great and effective, but it's a very gradual process. Making yourself meditate "about" something is the very opposite of letting what you're talking about is the opposite of meditation. It's a grabbing hold, not a letting go.

Drop baggage. Throw open your doors and windows, and go beyond the need for this or that result in order for you to remain on good terms with the universe. See this impending road fork for the mere yadda-yadda it is, and that you'll continue to be You regardless of which way any fork ever goes. Nothing has ever separated you from yourself; the intelligence that looks out of your eyes will continue to look out of your eyes, just as it always has.

Today, tomorrow, and the next day, stay with that truth, knowing that the passing display of ever-shifting specifics and particulars are simply decoration - stuff happening around you, not TO you (nothing happens to you; has the humming intelligence peering out your eyes ever wavered in the slightest?).

When the flow of your unfolding life requires you to make an actual in-the-moment choice (as opposed to your current baseless pre-stressing over an abstracted future projection), be calm and equanimous and detached from a neurotic, grabby need for exactly the perfect thing to happen. Whatever happens is exactly the perfect thing, anyway. So choose with playful zeal, as you'd choose a chocolate from a box of truffles.
posted by Quisp Lover at 9:04 AM on February 17, 2015 [5 favorites]

I have found meditation very useful: not for facilitating decision-making directly, but for gaining enough skill at uncritical self-observation to be able to watch myself making decisions and recognize the internal patterns involved.

One of the things I've learned by doing that is that having real trouble deciding is usually down to being forced to work from information that's badly incomplete. Since in that case I've got about as much chance of making an unhelpful decision as a helpful one, I'll often use an external source of randomness to get the job done if simply waiting for more information isn't going to work.

So I decide which choice will be heads and which will be tails, and I flip a coin. I then give myself one chance to disagree with the coin's decision, based on the observation that feeling a wrong decision after making one is usually easier than choosing correctly ahead of time.

Once the decision's made, I won't revisit it unless new information clearly shows me it was wrong.

I have made many important life decisions by this method. Some of them have worked out well. Some of them have not. But I'm quite convinced that no other method could possibly have worked better enough to justify the extra effort, fretting and worry.
posted by flabdablet at 10:38 AM on February 17, 2015

Don't treat mindfulness as an executive stress ball.
posted by quadog at 12:15 AM on February 18, 2015 [1 favorite]

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