Cultivating a Flexible Mind

Photo by Justin Luebke

There’s a fair amount of research showing that mindfulness practice is correlated with enhanced cognitive functioning in a number of ways. Attentional performance (sustained and selective), processing speed, working memory, alertness/awareness, emotional regulation and cognitive flexibility have all been positively related to meditation practice and self-reported levels of mindfulness.

In this post I’d like to talk more specifically about flexibility, which is a willingness and capability to adapt and change – to bend without breaking. When we are flexible, we are less likely to become stuck because we’re able to nimbly shift and switch gears in response to life’s changing demands.

Mindful movement and yoga can help cultivate both physical and mental flexibility, while meditation primarily builds flexibility of mind. Physical flexibility allows for a wider available range of motion and greater fluidity, freedom and ease of movement. Cognitive flexibility expands our range of choices and responses, providing greater freedom and ease in being with whatever arises.

The opposite of flexibility is rigidity, which brings with it a sense of being constricted and constrained. Physically we may feel tight, stiff and unyielding. Mentally we may hold fixed views, be set in our ways, and respond dogmatically to challenges. The rigid mind tends to:

  • fall into well worn habits, “knowing” before fully experiencing
  • reject or devalue ambiguity, change, and new information
  • decide prematurely before gathering all the data
  • become paralyzed when the default mode isn’t working
  • be prone to bias – including negativity bias or over-focusing on perceived threats, what’s lacking, or what’s wrong

Is it possible to become too flexible? Mainstream US culture tends to overvalue certainty, steadfastness and resoluteness. Most of us already have such a powerful bias toward the rigid that it’s unlikely that we will go too far. If we do, no problem – an awake and flexible mind can adjust. It’s important; however, to balance strength with flexibility, because we all have our breaking points. Fortunately mindful movement and meditation also strengthen and balance both body and mind through dedication, devotion and diligence in practice, cultivating self-compassion, building confidence and trust, and expanding our window of tolerance. With persistence over time, this balance of strength and flexibility allows us to meet life’s joys and challenges with greater resilience.

Rooted to the ground
She repels her attackers
Flowing, not moving.

In storms, trees bear great burdens
Bending, not breaking.

—Ken Chawkin, My Son’s Sensei: A tanka about my son’s Aikido teacher

Research

Moore, A., & Malinowski, P. (2009). Meditation, mindfulness and cognitive flexibility. Consciousness and Cognition, 18(1), 176–186.

Greenberg J, Reiner K, Meiran N (2012) Mind the Trap”: Mindfulness Practice Reduces Cognitive Rigidity. PLOS ONE 7(5): e36206.

Raffone, A. & Srinivasan, N. (2017) Mindfulness and Cognitive Functions: Toward a Unifying Neurocognitive Framework. Mindfulness 8: 1.

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