What comes to mind when I say the word “flexible?” I’m going to guess that you’re thinking of physical flexibility and your body’s ability, or inability, to bend, twist and stretch. Rarely do we connect the word flexibility to what’s going on inside of our minds: our thinking patterns. While we build up our physical openness through simple actions like stretching out our hamstrings, it’s just as important that we also focus on how to effectively open our minds and ways of thinking. It is this mental flexibility that is crucial to helping us live our fullest and most purpose-driven life.
Mental flexibility, also known as cognitive flexibility, is a key benefit of mindfulness and simply refers to our ability to adapt and shift our thoughts from one concept to another. Because mindfulness requires that we pay attention, it strengthens our ability to recognize and shift our thought patterns. In the same way that we must practice new physical movements to improve our posture and correct muscle imbalances, mental flexibility allows us to shift our thinking patterns to open ourselves up to new possibilities, perspectives and beliefs.
In the moments, when we are feeling stuck, worn out, or caught in old, repetitive (and often-times negative) patterns, mental flexibility helps us shift our thinking in ways that will inspire and motivate us to break out of these ruts. It’s no wonder that many well-known thinkers like Oprah Winfrey, Warren Buffet and Ariana Huffington all have strong mindfulness practices. They use their mental flexibility to continuously push the envelope, build new empires and discover innovative solutions.
Recently, as I have shared in past blogs, I underwent a massive transition in my business but maintained my same intention: to share the practice of yoga therapy with as many people as I could. As I started making outward changes – a different region and hours – I started noticing that my thoughts and ideas about operating my business were stuck in the past. It sounded a little something like this, “I know that I’m in a new city, but the only way for me to avoid financial ruin is to keep everything exactly as it was.”
I was technically operating under completely new circumstances, but my rigid mindset started limiting my ability to expand my reach. I started to get burned out by my new schedule because I refused to think beyond the comfort of my old mental patterns.
This is where mental flexibility came to the rescue. I began being more mindful of why I was forcing myself to continue thinking about my business in the same limiting way. What if I thought about it differently? What if I took a risk and tried another approach? It was during this practice that I stopped seeing the limitations and started seeing the possibilities ahead. I began taking new opportunities that didn’t necessarily fit my mold, but that ended up being amazing!
It’s still a work in progress – as all things are – but my new found focus on flexing my mind has helped me keep ROOT thriving. Here are my 3 practices that are helping me keep a steady and supple mindset.
Set small goals: It is important to recognize that flexibility (just like the body) is something we can practice and gain. Certainly, we are all naturally more flexible about some things and less flexible about others. What is important to note, is that you are not doomed because of your personality trait (ie: “A type”). Our brains are plastic, meaning they have the ability to change, even as adults! I did not change my business thinking overnight. In fact, I worked on first visualizing the change and slowly allowed myself to connect with what that change would feel like. Give yourself space to observe your thinking patterns. Then choose one thought or belief that you notice you feel stuck or rigid in. Working to gently allow in other possibilities or outcomes can open the door towards lasting change. It’s not about becoming flexible in every realm of your thinking- that’s just overwhelming. But successfully shifting one thought demonstrates your ability and is a satisfying accomplishment.
Engage in flexible interaction: Changing up our daily and often times rigid routine can challenge our ability to adapt and let go. For example; taking a new route to work is a great way to stretch your mental flexibility because it forces us to be a bit more conscious and maybe a little uncomfortable. For me, when I moved across town, I was forced to take a different route every day to compete with traffic in the most efficient way. I had to be present on my drive as I was often maneuvering in unfamiliar territory. This was a great lesson in letting go and diving into the unknown. Just like we have to switch up our workout routine in order to continue to strengthen our muscles and see results, each time we shift the ways in which we interact with our environment, we are giving ourselves space to break our mental patterns and expand our comfort zone.
Be interested in failure: For most of us, when we are working on changing habits, we don’t always nail it on the first try. Luckily, developing mental flexibility is not about being successful, it is simply about learning about what is holding us back and how to incorporate new patterns to better serve ourselves. Give yourself permission to use our inflexible moments or thoughts as pieces to learn from. If you are feeling challenged with trying to stretch beyond a rigid belief, try instead to approach that thought with curiosity. Use the rigidity as information. Ask, what is behind it? For example, no matter how many people told me that I needed change the way in which I was doing things, I could not stretch my mind to understand what they were seeing. As I tirelessly tried and “failed”, I finally decided to approach the thought with wonder. I realized that it wasn’t my inability to be mentally flexible, rather my rigid thinking was rooted in fear. I was not allowing myself to see the opportunities because I was scared. Fear was narrowing my perspective, not my personality.
What are some thought patterns that are cycling in your mind? Are they preventing you from taking a risk or meeting your goals? See if you can begin to pay attention these patterns and explore what happens when shift the direction of your thoughts.