Keeping an open mind is thinking with your heart
If we believe in free will, we believe in choice, and if we believe in choice, we believe that we can shape our reality. In more traditional thought, this is limited to fulfilling your divine purpose, subject to God’s will. Or if you are a New Age thinker, since the Universe is infinite, so too is your potential and the reality you choose to create for yourself.
The reality we create for ourselves is a result of thoughts that we translate into actions and behaviours. Our thoughts and behaviours are based on beliefs we have acquired throughout our life, shaped by the environment we experience, patterns we inherit, what we learn from parents, education systems, social structures and norms. Every day we are faced with new information to process, and more than this, the information we are receiving is the result of someone else’s interpretation of reality.
So with all of these external influences, how can we be sure that we are creating our own valid reality? That we are not just living out someone else’s wishes and will, according to what they believe? As we develop from children to adults, we acquire critical thinking skills, the ability to analyse information and facts in order to help us to form judgements that affect our beliefs and behaviours. However, during decision-making, two other factors often come into play: that of cognitive bias and cognitive dissonance.
Cognitive bias is when we selectively see or give more value to evidence that supports or reinforces our existing beliefs. This can be subconscious or conscious. At the same time, we avoid information that may be uncomfortable to face or analyse, and so end up confirming what we already think we know, rather than changing or opening our mind to grow in the face of new possibilities. It can be damaging to ourselves because it limits our development and can keep us playing out old patterns that don’t serve us, and perpetuating misinformation can also be damaging to others, of course.
What is happening in psychological terms, is that an individual is creating their own subjective reality from their perception of the information they have chosen to select, rather than taking an objective view of the world. Back to our opening statement about free will and creating our own reality of the world, so what’s wrong with that? It’s up to us to choose how we process information and use it to create a reality we are comfortable with, right? Well yes, except that we are not isolated beings. Most of us have chosen as part of our reality, to live in a community, within a social construct, among other people, and with that comes the need to consider our world in a more objective way. We are not alone. We are all connected.
According to most spiritual guidance, this sense of connectedness comes from releasing the ego, the subjective view of the world, and from taking a more heart-centred, intuitive approach, rather than just using the brain to make our decisions. So far, we’ve only talked about how our thoughts shape our beliefs and actions. What we feel, what we instinctively know, also has an effect. It’s just that we mostly have been trained to put more value on the brain, on our thought processes, than on listening to the rest of our body or other input. We are not used to recognising all the other information that is available to us – we stick to our cognitive bias.
Which brings us to cognitive dissonance. Cognitive dissonance is when we experience something, or are made (choose?) to do something that doesn’t fit with our beliefs, causing us internal conflict. Our mind doesn’t like us to have this conflict, so it tries to explain away the difference, either by changing how we feel about the uncomfortable belief, or by acting in a different way than usual so that the dissonant actions and beliefs can align and make us feel more comfortable. If we consider cognitive dissonance from the perspective of the heart also playing a role in our decision-making, it’s when our heart and mind are not aligned. Our brain has taught us to believe certain things, but our heart knew all along that it wasn’t right. Instead of listening to the heart, the mind tries to rationalise this discomfort. Eventually this mental discomfort can lead to stress and physical symptoms, if we keep suppressing what we know deep down is not right for us.
So how can we be sure that we are living a reality that we have truly created for ourselves?
Understand that the heart, our gut, our instinct, not just the mind, has a big role to play in knowing and decision-making. For every bit of information that comes our way, it helps to consider all the options, not just what we think are all the facts. Keep an open mind, keep questioning. Consider things from all sides, and from all the brains in your body: your gut, heart as well as your head. Another useful concept is to apply Occam’s Razor to any decision-making process – that is, not to make more assumptions than is necessary to reach the right answer. Listen to the heart and it will tell you what is the right answer for you.
Acceptance vs attachment
All of this also has to do with attachment. It is easy to become attached to a certain way of thinking and so always keeping an awareness of that can help us to have a more flexible mindset. Within the frameworks of ikigai that I like to use here in coaching work at Relaxscape, this translates to the principle of “letting go”. Once we have learned to identify our cognitive biases and recognise when we are experiencing cognitive dissonance, we can train ourselves to let go of our attachment to those thoughts, or the outcome of the decision, and in letting go we achieve harmony and sustainability. We also learn acceptance. Because we each create and experience our own reality, it means we are all different, and no one person’s version is better than another, just different, and theirs. So we learn to accept that people think differently, view the world differently, and it might not be the same as our experience. Only by processing the information that comes our way with our heart as well as our head can we let go of the ego and judgements, and in that way can be sure that the reality we are creating is one that truly serves us, and others.
And how do we learn how to listen to our heart more, to tune into our intuition and understand what our body, not just our mind, is telling us? By spending more time in nature, of course, here at Relaxscape with me, and reconnecting with ourselves using tools like yoga, breath work, meditation, coaching, self-reflection and journaling. Get in touch if you'd like to find out more.