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Benefits of Meditation
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The Importance of Self Awareness

(Part Two Of The Intelligence of Self Observation)

In Part One of The Intelligence of Self Observation I point out how at the highest levels, better brainpower cannot be separated from higher self awareness. How do you become more self aware? Some people turn to meditation, and this is a good start. This helps one deal with the "monkey mind," which describes how the mind often jumps from thought to thought like a restless monkey in a tree, jumping around from branch to branch. The idea is to "tame" that busy barrage of thoughts.

Meditative practices help you observe things more clearly, concentrate better, and perhaps think more efficiently. Efficient doesn't necessarily mean effective, however. A perfectly tuned car can still take you to the wrong destination, right? Self awareness, then, starts with this meditative observation of the "chatter" in your mind, but for more powerful thinking you have to look deeper, to see the content of those thoughts and identify the patterns and biases working there, often unnoticed by you.

With that in mind, here are some more of the common biases and other patterns of thought that can get in the way of better brainpower.

Effective Thinking - Three Stumbling Blocks

Source Biases

We're not always aware that we're under the influence of a bias against the source of an idea. For example, even a very rational scientist may discount the theories of another, without realizing that it has as much to do with his dislike of the person as with the merits of the ideas. If you doubt this, you can prove it to yourself with an experiment. Tell 100 people, "John Wayne said that citizens have a duty to fight for their country when their government asks them to. Do you agree?" Then make the same statement to another 100 people, but start with "Adolph Hitler said..." See how many agree with each version.

You can guess the results without doing the work. We know from experience that where information, ideas, or even evidence comes from helps determine how people perceive these things - even when there is no rational reason to differentiate (it is rational, of course, to be more skeptical of information from a source with a justified reputation for being unreliable). It is common to note this bias, but it is also common to assume that "I'm not like that." Of course we are all subject to this ordinary pattern of thought.

To get past this, then, we have to become aware of it in ourselves. We can start by asking questions like, "How do I feel about this source, and could that be affecting my thinking?" You might hate the slant of a particular news channel, for example, and so discount the importance of something they report on. Upon reflection, you realize that despite the political slant to their reporting, they never invent facts, and that if you saw the same story on a different station you would have thought about it differently.

Here's another approach: When you feel a strong negative or positive reaction to some idea, evidence or information, imagine for a moment what your response/reaction would have been if you heard the same thing from a different source. In fact, imagine several sources and pay attention to what your mind does. We've probably all heard a friend defend the ideas of a favorite politician, even though we know he would denounce the same ideas if they came from someone he didn't like. To see if, and to what extent, this is happening in yourself, do this little mental exercise as honestly as possible.

Philosophical Biases

We all have some fundamental ideas about various aspects of life. I hesitate to call this a "philosophy," because these thoughts are not always consistent nor consciously formulated in a person. In fact, many people's unconscious philosophical perspectives contradict conscious beliefs. For example, a man might openly express capitalistic beliefs and yet still feel like business is somehow "dirty," perhaps because of childhood experiences.

Whether conscious or not, our philosophical "leanings" can affect our ability to clearly and rationally think about things. For example, suppose a woman has a basic feeling or philosophy that hard work toward goals is what makes us happy. Then she reads about a study which found that those who could not quickly name three specific personal goals were actually happier than those who could. What might her response be?

I made that study up by the way. If it was true, though, it might be fascinating to take it further and see why people without definite goals were happier. However, given this woman's basic philosophical bias, it seem likely that she might start asking questions like, "How did they measure happiness?" and "Why did they have to name their goals quickly?" These are valid questions, but probably a reactive challenge to the validity of the study rather than an attempt to get at the truth. Or to put it another way, the "truth" she wants to get at is getting in the way of honestly looking at the evidence and learning something new.

Before we consciously see the logical implications of an idea, our unconscious mind has already figured them out, and caused an uneasy feeling if they contradict other important beliefs. We then react according to this "processing," and we may even feel obligated to defend our response -that's where rationalization enters. If we asked this woman why she so quickly attacked the study rather than exploring the fascinating implications of its findings, she might say, "Because there is so much bad science out there." True, perhaps, but we would have to wonder if she did the same with studies that confirmed her philosophical leanings.

With self observation we develop more self awareness. How do apply that here? When you react quickly to something, don't allow yourself to create "reasons" to defend your reaction. Instead look for causes that may have been hiding just below the surface. What important beliefs do you have that might be challenged or confirmed by this new information or idea?

Social Biases

If we think a certain way because all of our associates and friends do, that can be fear of being ostracized from the group. Imagine if a scientist found evidence of a physical aspect of thoughts. Perhaps his mind races ahead to imagine the ridicule he'll face from his peers if he mentions such a radical hypothesis, so he ignores what he found, and stops thinking about it.

This bias is commonly used against us. A person starts a statement with, "We all know that..." and whether what "we all know" is true or not, we have been warned that we will be looked at as an "outsider" if we disagree. This is less a statement of the obvious than an argument from intimidation, but it is often more subtle than this. For example, there is an unspoken agreement among many people that they should never point out that affirmative action (purposely hiring minorities) fits the exact definition of discriminatory hiring. I propose that such social "correctness" not only intimidates people into silence, but it prevents clear thinking (and certainly rational discussion) on some topics.

There may be good reasons to limit what you say, but why limit what you think about? Ask yourself what uncomfortable thoughts you've entertained at times. Then do a simple experiment. Imagine if you lived in a place where everyone agreed with those ideas. Would you feel more comfortable exploring them? You may be biased and limited by the beliefs of those around you.

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