Years ago, New York Times crossword puzzle editor Will Shortz was running late to catch a flight at JFK airport. When he entered long-term parking, the ticket to the lot jammed in the machine, worsening his predicament.
As cars piled up behind him and the risk of missing his flight became pressing, Shortz went into problem-solving mode. He got out of the car and spied a paperclip on the ground. Thinking quickly, he twisted it into a hook, extracted his ticket, and dashed to the gate just in time to catch his flight.
When we’re cognitively flexible, we find novel solutions to challenges such as Shortz’s NYT crossword puzzles.
But mental flexibility goes well beyond puzzling. Mental flexibility allows us to see things from different perspectives and appreciate another person’s point of view. It’s what keeps us from getting emotionally stuck and helps us go with the flow of life. All of which not only supports problem-solving but enables us to get along better with others.
Mental flexibility is an essential life skill. And it’s one that appears all the more valuable in a climate of political polarization, outrage porn, and personal broadcasting where tolerant and reasonable exchanges about issues are as rare as shooting stars.
Fortunately, mental flexibility is a trainable skill. To get a sense of what it means to be mentally flexible, let’s try an experiment. Look at the picture below.
What do you see? Do you see a duck with its beak pointing to the left? Can you see a bunny with its nose pointing to the right?
If you can see both images, congratulations, you just exercised a bit of mental flexibility. This 100-year-old drawing has been used in studies to gauge creativity by how quickly people see one image and then the next. It might be relatively easy for us to toggle between a duck and a rabbit in a drawing. But it’s not so easy to be as mentally nimble in daily life.
Think back to the last time you argued with your spouse, a friend, or a co-worker? Was it easy to see their side of the story? Could you empathize with their point of view? Or was doing so as challenging as one of Shortz’s crossword puzzles?
When we become rigid in our thinking, we invariably get straight-jacketed in perceptions and behaviors that exacerbate our stress. Not only do we lose the capacity to see things broadly and create ingenious solutions we wind up locking horns with others. As a result, our efforts to solve problems or resolves disputes often devolve into anger and frustration.
Of course, this happens to all of us, particularly when we care deeply about situations, people, and issues. Training in mental flexibility, however, can allow you to enter problem-and-resolution mode more readily.
There are many ways to become mentally agile. You can do crossword puzzles, fix a broken paper shredder, or cook a recipe with alternative ingredients. You also can practice mindfulness.
A smattering of studies show mindfulness meditation improves cognitive flexibility. Research on how mindfulness affects the brain is still in its infancy and I’m hesitant to rely on it too heavily.
What I’ve experientially gained from practicing mindfulness meditation, though, is a widening tolerance for nuance, alternative perspectives, and the gray area of not knowing.
Mindfully observing the coming and going of thoughts, beliefs, and judgments lessens the investment in them, allowing you to hold them more loosely. It doesn’t mean that you don’t retain a point of view or that you don’t have strong opinions. But what once seemed like the only way to see something often gives way to an open field of other possibilities and outlooks.
In other words, you see both the duck and the rabbit.
Nobel Prize winner and legendary singer-songwriter Bob Dylan was interviewed in the New York Times recently before the release of his latest album “Rough and Ready Ways.”
Asked why more people didn’t pay attention to Little Richard’s gospel music Dylan responded in a way that made me want to blare gospel music throughout the house. Dylan said:
“Gospel music is the music of good news and in these days there just isn’t any. Good news in today’s world is like a fugitive, treated like a hoodlum, and put on the run. Castigated. All we see is good-for-nothing news…On the other hand, gospel news is exemplary. It can give you courage…” Bob Dylan, NYT, June 12, 2020
Buying or not buying goods and services based on whether a company has sound environmental, ethical, or diversity policies has been around long enough to lose steam.
Many of us want to be conscious consumers. But few of us are, and a lot of us are confused about how to make the right purchasing choices, according to an annual Conscious Consumer Spending Index conducted by Good.Must.Grow, a consultancy for socially responsible organizations.
One of the more disheartening findings of the 2019 index is that fewer people feel they can make a difference with their dollars.
That may change in light of increased awareness about racism.
Consumers and shareholders can play a significant role in requiring companies to do more to promote equality. They also can vote with their dollars by supporting companies that make substantial changes or by investing in and buying from Black-owned businesses.
In the aftermath of George Floyd’s death, companies ranging from Adidas to Starbucks to Walt Disney have pledged support Black Lives Matter or donated millions to anti-racist causes. Some are changing product lines. For example, Johnson & Johnson launched Band-Aids that embrace diversity by offering bandages in different skin tones.
Time will tell if this is a just a marketing moment or a movement for corporate America. Critics point out that the representation of Blacks in boardrooms and upper management remains woefully low. And to be sure companies will take their lumps for appearing opportunistic.
Dr. Duana Fullwiley, a medical anthropologist and associate professor at Stanford University, called out Johnson & Johnson in recent Forbes magazine article, saying the company’s timing in offering its new Band-Aids was insincere.
Still, consumers have a choice. And economic opportunity is a great equalizer. Investing in or buying from Black-owned businesses now is all more significant since the COVID-19 pandemic has devastated Black-owned and minority companies.
The great re-opening of America and the rest of the world is well underway. So much so, that people are flouting social distancing routines – removing masks and gathering en masse – as if the pandemic was a thing of the past. Unfortunately, it isn’t. And not surprisingly, COVID-19 cases are on the rise. Maybe people in Germany have the right idea. Wearing a pool noodle on my head suddenly seems like a good idea.
Maybe like me, you’re finding it harder to get traction these days.
Since entering lockdown mode, my days are narrow and familiar, but at the same time, different and undependable.
The footholds I counted on to scale my day have given way. In place of a reliable routine are last-minute Zoom meetings, round-the-clock emails, willy-nilly walks, and family meals that resemble cows grazing in the field with all of us nibbling from the refrigerator at whim.
One day flows into the next, and entire days have changed personalities. Lazy Sundays look like hectic Wednesdays. The glee I usually feel on a Friday afternoon gets tempered by another quiet night at home.
Call this no man’s land of calendar time, Blursday.
It’s a pandemic phenomenon that’s not only the result of upended personal schedules but of an entire society turned topsy-turvy. Cultural cues that keep us on track—morning rush hour or a Saturday night out—have been replaced by a shelter-at-home timelessness that’s now morphing into a patchwork re-opening of cities, counties, and states.
In place of a reliable routine are last-minute Zoom meetings, round-the-clock emails, willy-nilly walks, and family meals that resemble cows grazing in the field with all of us nibbling from the refrigerator at whim.
Those going into work are entering workplaces that have become more structured and rule-based. But, there too, unfamiliar protocols combined with long hours create Blursday. Others have lost jobs, and along with the lost income goes the lost framework they provided. School has become an early, shapeless summer vacation for many kids and teens.
Blursday can leave us feeling unmoored and spacey. Mid-way through a rare grocery shop, we can realize we left our wallet at home. (True story.) Bills don’t get paid on time, and household chores lose their cadence. The other night, I cleaned the toilet 10:45 p.m. Who does that?
Alternatively, Blursday can make you feel dizzyingly productive and overwhelmed. With less structure, work has more capacity to ooze into every crevice of life. It’s like Gak—that slimy goo children love, but adults hate.
Either way, we can wind up blaming ourselves, lamenting a lack of motivation, or feeling guilty for working too hard and not spending quality time with family or taking care of ourselves.
There are practical ways to cope with Blursday (which, by the way, isn’t our fault).
How to Cope with Blursday
1.Getting dressed in something other than sweatpants and making your bed in the morning gives you a sense of accomplishment that propels productivity the rest of the day.
2. Setting boundaries around when you’ll stop working if you’re working from home—i.e., not checking email after 8 p.m.—helps you reclaim the sanctuary of home.
3. Looking at the calendar or your planner, even if it’s too full or too empty, reorients you and creates an impression of normalcy.
4. Being mindful and becoming more aware of what scaffolding you need to erect in your day, whether it’s starting work at a regular time each morning or routinely taking an evening stroll, is eminently helpful.
I’ll also suggest a mindful reframe of Blursday. No matter how disorienting, not being so tethered to date and time grants us more freedom to live in the moment. Clock time is just an externally imposed illusion anyway.
How many times have you eaten breakfast at 8 a.m. even though you weren’t the least bit hungry? And what’s wrong with scrubbing the toilet at 10:45 p.m.?
Maybe the best approach, at least for now and if we’re able, is to follow poet Mary Oliver’s advice and “let the soft animal of your body love what it loves”… whenever it loves it.
No matter how disorienting, not being so tethered to date and time grants us more freedom to live in the moment. Clock time is just an externally imposed illusion anyway.
Work-life balance has been out the window for years anyhow. In vogue is “work-life harmony” where work isn’t compartmentalized but, for better or for worse, flexibly integrated into the day. If going for a run at 11 a.m. recharges you, and you can make up lost time working after dinner, have at it. Scenarios like this will likely become common as more of us work from home.
As we emerge from shelter-in-place orders, whatever new routine we adopt won’t be like the one we had. There’s no going back. Given that, relying on intuition to craft a just-right rhythm to our day is a kinder, gentler way to go—even if we don’t know what day it is.
Poet Maggie Smith has been offering words of pandemic wisdom via Twitter https://twitter.com/maggiesmithpoet?lang=en to inspire and shine a light on our shared experience. Maybe you feel a bit like she does when she writes:
“I feel like I live on a small, remote island and there are no more fairies running. Sometimes, I wonder if I dreamed the mainland.”
Every event has intended and unintended consequences. More often, it’s a mixture of both.
Some consequences are decidedly bad, and others are surprisingly good. Many remain unknown for years to come.
With the COVID-19 pandemic, the bad is painfully apparent. The unknown is portentous. And the good is worth noting to boost our morale, if only briefly, and to add an uplifting contrast to what otherwise has been weeks of unrelenting gloom.
I offer the following observations of the unintended “good” with compassion for all of those who are suffering now. Many among us have lost loved ones as well as their jobs. Others are ill or anxious about getting sick. Still, more are working overtime on the front lines.
Let’s think of them as we turn our attention to the good that’s emerged during the pandemic.
Caring, Connection, and Collaboration: These three “C’s” of human interaction have rarely been higher – save for World War II or national tragedies such as 9/11. The Wall Street Journal ran a stunning article recently about Scientists to Stop COVID-19, a behind-the-scenes consortium of billionaires and top-notch scientists, including a Nobel Prize winner who said he was the least qualified of the group. The group has been working feverishly to try to save the world from the pandemic, bringing tremendous financial and intellectual resources to the gargantuan task. They reportedly have made progress on sorting out the most promising treatments and strategies for defeating COVID-19. They’re now researching the best ways to re-open the economy. Reading about the shared goodwill of the group raised my spirits for hours. People working together with compassion (another C) for others can accomplish amazing things.
Mother Nature: Planet earth is thriving during our global lockdown. Dolphins swim in the clear waters of the Venice canals in Italy. The skies above New York are an unpolluted blue. Black bears freely frolic in Yosemite National Park, where 400 bears have been hit by cars since 1995, according to Beth Pratt, National Wildlife Federation’s regional executive director for California. Surely, flora, and fauna soil and water are thanking us for our collective retreat. Maybe, they’ll continue to thrive a bit longer at our expense. And perhaps when we get back to business, we’ll tread a little more lightly on the earth.
Illicit Drug Supply Chains Get Disrupted: While Wuhan, China, is now famous for COVID-19, BC (before COVID-19), it was known as an industrial hub and a primary supplier of the chemicals needed to make fentanyl and other opioids, according to the Los Angeles Times. Lockdowns in Wuhan disrupted the chemical supply back in January. The flow of drugs into the U.S. from Mexico also has been hampered thanks to the pandemic. Supply and demand is a complicated relationship. Drug users are likely paying more for their high while supplies stall or, worse, going through life-endangering withdrawals without access to their usual drugs. We can still hope, though, that the hiccup in the supply chain shifts the drug trade downward.
A lovely but cynical friend of mine believes that when COVID-19 subsides, we’ll return to our selfish, polluting, mercenary ways.
I’m not so sure. People change. Cultures adapt, and some trends, for better and for worse, are long-lasting. We still go through security checkpoints at airports because of 9/11, and it’s likely wearing masks will be fashionable for a while.
Why not dream that the “better angels of our nature” will lift humanity to higher heights long after the pandemic recedes
On My Mind
British World War II Veteran Captain Thomas Moore decided to do his part during the pandemic. His quest? To raise money for the country’s National Health Service charities by attempting to walk 100 laps around his garden in Eastern England with the aid of a walker before he turned 100 years old. An inspired British nation contributed nearly $38 million to his cause. Moore successfully completed his quest and when he turned 100 years old on April 30th he received more than 100,000 birthday cards, including one from the Queen. Keep Calm and Carry On. http://www.bbc.com/news/uk-england-beds-bucks-herts-52472132
The stories we tell ourselves about the future and the past affect how we live in the present. Watch the following video from poet Tomos Roberts and consider what story you want to tell yourself about post-pandemic life.
Difficulty is never monotone. It’s a symphony of high and low emotions, thoughts, and sensations. Mixed in with the cacophony of horrible is often some good.
During the pandemic, I’ve delighted in the California poppies blooming in my front yard and laughed while giving my daughter an extraordinarily uneven haircut with a pair of dull scissors.
It can feel wildly inappropriate to feel delight or to giggle amid such worldwide suffering. Sometimes we feel guilty for feeling good. Certainly, more than a few of us have felt the spiky tendrils of guilt after a wave of pleasure that’s risen and fallen within us during the COVID-19 crisis. “Who am I to be happy when others grieve?”
When our spirits are buoyed, it’s easier to be kind to others. Think of paying attention to the positive as a public mandate that uplifts everyone.
And, yet, it’s vital to connect to the glimmers of positivity that shine through adversity because they keep our hearts afloat and give us hope.
Famed relational therapist Esther Perel recently told followers on her YouTube channel that feelings of play, imagination, curiosity, exploration, pleasure, and sexual desire are survival tools that help us counter despair.
Positive emotions are a life raft in a sea of uncertainty and heartache. Accessing moments of good not only helps us, but it also helps those we care for and interact with throughout the day. When our spirits are buoyed, it’s easier to be kind to others. Think of paying attention to the positive as a public mandate that uplifts everyone.
Doing so takes intention and practice. Fear and worry commandeer our attention. But the hope that bubbles up when we see a dandelion boldly growing in a sidewalk crack or the comfort we feel when we sip a cup of Earl Grey are easier to miss.
This isn’t to say that we should pretend there isn’t melancholy—and a whole host of other emotions that arise in the continued fallout from the pandemic. We can greet those difficult emotions with kindness.
Then, we can turn toward welcoming feelings of gladness, amusement, relaxation, and the like. We can celebrate our capacity to feel the rainbow of emotions in both good and bad times. And if you need a little help doing so, here are three embodied mindfulness practices to nurture the positive during difficulty.
It’s simplistic to say that smiling can make you happy. And yet, scientists in the field of embodied cognition have long known that how we move affects how we feel and think. “Your face does a lot more than simply express your emotions; it affects how you register those emotions inside your head and remember them. Frowning and smiling actually create different emotions and attitudes; they’re not just the physical result of a mood,” writes Sian Beilock, president of Barnard College and a cognitive scientist who wrote, “How the Body Knows Its Mind: The Surprising Power of the Physical Environment to Influence How You Think and Feel.”
Smiling throughout the day is lovely. But it’s a powerful practice to smile during meditation and fully connect to the physical and emotional sensations that arise. As you begin or end a meditation, invite a gentle smile to your face. Notice if your mood brightens like a light on a dimmer switch. Does a feeling of warmth spread through the core of your body and into your chest? If you like, combine smiling with positive imagery. Imagine yourself doing what you love or picture a movie of joyful memories in your mind’s eye. When positive feelings subside, renew a gentle smile, and refocus on the imagery.
2. Come to Your Senses
Our senses alert us to danger. But we also experience pleasure through sight, sound, taste, touch, hearing, and smell. By mindfully coming to our senses, we can more fully experience everything from peace to awe to rejuvenation. Whenever I pet the silken fur of my cat, Peter, I feel soothed. At dusk, when I watch the street lamps outside my kitchen window illuminate the evening quiet, I feel content. And there’s nothing like the bracing, full-body tingling of a cold shower to re-energize my weary body.
Slowing down and savoring the good that arrives through your senses is a grab-and-go mindfulness practice available in every moment. It also has the added benefit of redirecting your attention from a mind whirling with future worries into a body that’s always in the present. To attune yourself to your senses, wake up slowly in the morning. Feel the warmth of the sheets against your skin. Notice the coolness of the floor beneath your feet as you rise to meet the day. Listen to the dawn chorus of blackbirds out your bedroom window and, by all means, smell the coffee.
3. Spark Joy
Many years ago, when I was in labor, my obstetrician asked me what music I wanted to hear during delivery. My daughter greeted the world to the Beatles’ “Here Comes the Sun.” That song still brings me joy. A meta-analysis of research published in The Lancet medical journal in 2015 showed that music played during and after medical procedures reduces anxiety and pain. By listening to music as a singular object of our focus, we can also evoke feelings of interest, ease, and bliss. The possibilities for how we can positively influence our mood through music are as endless as a Spotify playlist. To spark joy through music, grab a pair of headphones, and select songs that make you happy. Take a seat and as you devote yourself to listening, allow the music to envelop your awareness. Soak in whatever positive emotions, images, or sensations arise.