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Learning #5 - Create Space for the Mind to Flourish





To strengthen and tone up our muscles, we lift weights. Not many realise that for the mind to flourish - crucial for our mental health, overall well-being and productivity - we also need to tend to it, like it's a garden. Here are a few ways to create space for the mind to flourish: practice mindfulness, conduct mental house-cleaning and decluttering, cultivating an open mind, and managing attention. We will go through each area in detail in this blog post.


Taming our Monkey Mind


Our mind has been called the “monkey mind” not for no reason. The average person has between 6,000 - 20,000 thoughts in a day - which translates into an average of one thought every few seconds (there’s a lot going on in our head at any given moment). The problem is not just with the number of thoughts that we have. The issue is that most of these thoughts (up to 90%) are repeated, erroneous or biased thoughts - the mind is either ruminating about the past, or worrying about the future - thoughts that don’t serve us well. Furthermore, this endless and aimless flow of thoughts can increase our anxieties and our worries. This is our inner prison.


Dubbed “the 3-pound universe”, the human brain comprises 100 billion neurons each with 10-20,000 connections (called synapses). Although only a small fraction of the body weight, it makes up a full 20% of our body’s energy consumption. So imagine—if we can reduce the number of these aimless useless thoughts—just imagine—how much energy and time we could save. How much better we can focus, if thoughts did not bother us. And how much more calmness, inner peace, and happiness we would enjoy. We can accomplish this through mindfulness.


Embracing Mindfulness


Mindfulness refers to the feeling of a moment-by-moment awareness of our thoughts, physical sensations, and environment. It’s a practice that can help us learn to regulate emotions and decrease stress and anxiety. It’s a state of mind. When you’re mindful, you’re not “stuck in your head” or “lost in your thoughts.” You’re focused on the moment at hand, without all the chatter and concern for the future or the past. 


All experiences are experiences of the mind. The mind is like a garden; it needs to be tended to in order for it to thrive and to flourish. We need to tend to the garden of our mind, where all kinds of mental seeds are planted, preserved and maintained. Seeds are sown from our past actions, experiences, and perceptions. Some seeds are planted during our lifetime, others innate. Some wholesome, others unwholesome seeds (resulting in a trapped mind). Be mindful in planting positive seeds and not planting negative seeds.


Mental House Cleaning


As you would clean your house, in preparation for Christmas or New Year, our mind needs a regular house cleaning too. For your mind-garden to flourish and make room for more positive wholesome seeds, you need to perform regular mental house-cleaning. If you want to clean a room thoroughly, you will pick up and examine everything in it. Some things you will look at with love, and you will dust them or polish them to give them new beauty. Some things you will see that need refinishing or repair, and you will make a note to do that. Some things will never serve you again, and it becomes time to let those things go. The same goes for mental house-cleaning.


Take time out in regular mindful self-examination and mental house-cleaning, to examine your past a bit more, to take a look at some of the beliefs that have been running you; to clean out those beliefs that no longer serve you, to make room for those that do. This regular “decluttering” of the mind is one of the most important steps in creating space for the mind to flourish. To empty the cup that is the mind allows more space for serendipity, synchronicity, creativity and flow to spontaneously emerge.


The mind is like a parachute, it only works when open. Having an expanded awareness, or consciousness, is the precursor to operating with an open mind. An old Indian adage compares consciousness to a lamp at the door, shining into the house and out into the world at the same time. It makes you aware of things “out there” and “in here” simultaneously, elucidating the choices you need to make and their consequences resulting in significantly greater outcomes for yourself and your world. 


Life is about making choices. The thoughts we think, the words we speak, the actions we take and responses we create – choices that we make individually – and collectively – create the reality of our world. To create a different and more positive reality for ourselves, and for our world – we need to make choices based on love (vs. fear), a growth (vs. fixed) mindset, and the expanded self (vs. the ego-bounded self). This is possible only when we go from an entrapped mind to an open mind, from constricted consciousness to expanded awareness, when our beliefs are in sync with the truth, when our emotions don’t get in the way, and when our decisions are aligned with our heart and our intuition.


Finally to enable a state of elevated creativity and flow – the state of a flourishing mind – we need to look at how we best manage our attention – tapping into the brain’s various attention states to get more things done and multiply our productivity. 


We live a world with so many distractions, with smartphones, social media, WhatsApp, Slack and a slew of other communication tools making their way into our sphere of awareness. Even if we are able to manage these distractions, we’re often drowning in the amount of communication coming at us. We need to manage our attention and workflow.


To practice attention management, we need to understand our different brain states and how they impact productivity: 


  • Reactive and Distracted: In this state, your attention is divided and you are trying to multitask. You work with several tasks at once (messages, streams, applications, windows, devices, etc), and are receptive to drop-in interruptions. This is our typical state at work, yet we’re often unaware of how distracted we are.

  • Daydreaming: This state is when you are choosing not to focus on anything in particular. There is little external stimulus, and we are letting our minds wander. This state is restorative for the brain. The best use of daydreaming is in those in-between moments, such as waiting in line, walking to an appointment or traveling on public transport. The key is to not take out your phone to fill them.

  • Focused and Mindful: This state is where you’re fully present and deliberately avoiding distraction. You need to make an effort to maintain attention for an extended period of time. An example of being focused and mindful would be when you’re in a job interview, doing a thoughtful task or creative activity, bird-watching outdoors or watching a movie at a theater.

  • Flow: If you’re lucky, your brain can tip from focused and mindful into flow. It’s when you’re laser-focused and fully absorbed in a task, and where you are disengaged from your sense of self and work is effortless. The flow state happens when you’re fully immersed in doing something you’re good at or trained for.


The ultimate goal of attention management is to recognize which brain state you’re in and then shifting to the one that will help you produce your best results in that moment.


A reactive and distracted attention state requires no attention, but to move into a focused and mindful state, you must take control of your environment. Close the door and put your phone on silent. Put up a “do not disturb” sign, wear a noise-canceling headphone, or just find a quiet place when you can fully focus and concentrate.


You need to exert control and effort over your attention to enable flow. When we are reactive and distractive, we are exerting no control. If you stay focused and mindful long enough, your brain might tip you into a flow state.


The daydreaming state involves a low level of attention but requires a high amount of control. This is where you don’t want to focus the mind, but instead let it wander and see where it ends up. Your brain is processing and consolidating information that has been taken in, moving it into long-term memory for access at a later time. This is an important part of how our mind organizes and consolidates information. Resist the urge to disrupt this process with random tasks (like checking messages on your device). We need discipline to enter it and to stay in it, which is a workflow management skill.


With the exception of the flow state, we have the ability to decide which state we enter. Most of us most of the time stay in the reactive and distracted state. Distracted seems to be the nature of our work environment nowadays. 


All four attention states are helpful to productivity, but need to be managed to achieve the desired result. Everyone will need to be focused and undistracted at times to be productive and achieve quality work. For most, flow is a good state to be in, and the mind wandering state is useful for creativity and insights. Attention management skills are thus critical to taking back control, allowing us to refocus the day on our priorities. This allows us to make progress on meaningful and purposeful work instead of reacting to every incoming demand.


In conclusion, creating space for the mind to flourish is essential for our mental health, personal growth and productivity. It takes time and effort, but the benefits are well worth it. When we take time to tend to our minds through the practice of mindfulness, mental decluttering, open awareness, self-care and better attention management, we can be more productive, more creative, happier and enjoy a better overall quality of life.


Epilogue


“A human being is a part of the whole called by us universe, a part limited in time and space. He experiences himself, his thoughts and feelings as something separated from the rest, a kind of optical delusion of his consciousness. This delusion is a kind of prison for us, restricting us to our personal desires and to affection for a few persons nearest to us. Our task must be to free ourselves from this prison by widening our circle of compassion to embrace all living creatures and the whole of nature in its beauty.”

- Albert Einstein


About Yen-Lu Chow

Yen-Lu is the co-founder & Executive Chairman, WholeTree Foundation / Over-

The-Rainbow, co-founder & Executive Chairman, Asia Institute of Mentoring (AIM), co-

founder & Chairman, Singapore Creations, founding partner, Fatfish MediaLab and

founding Executive Mentor, Young Sustainable Impact Southeast Asia (YSI SEA). He is

the founder of the Deep Human movement. Yen-Lu is a former Apple Distinguished

Technologist and a pioneer in the application of AI. A successful entrepreneur, active

angel investor, mentor & advisor, social change-maker & innovator, company

builder, philanthropist, author and keynote speaker, he currently serves on boards of

several startups ventures and actively advises others including many in the social

space. He also serves on government advisory panels on innovation, lending a hand to

bring national level R&D projects to commercialization. With the launch of his family

nonprofit and his many social initiatives, Yen-Lu now devotes all of his time serving the

society as well as the nation in his various capacities.

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