“Minds are like parachutes. They function better when open.” ~Thomas Dewar
A quick Google search offers the following synonyms for open-minded: unbiased, nonjudgmental, accepting, unprejudiced and nondiscriminatory. To be open-minded is to be receptive and open to new ideas. It means approaching all situations, people and ideas without prejudice and without any self-imposed restrictions on what your experiences may offer or where they may lead.
When we are freed from our preconceptions, there is so much more potential for new learning, expanded thinking and overall growth. This is important because we are likely to be more mentally healthy and happy. Our brains have what psychologists call an inherent negativity bias. This means that when we make assumptions, they are likely to be unfairly critical. By being open-minded instead, we are creating space for the possibility of a positive outcome.
Why It's Hard to Open Your Mind
When our ego feels threatened, it wants to preserve its view of itself as separate and better than everything else. So, we build walls around our carefully constructed worldviews and refuse to let other options in. Often, when we close down to a person, situation or idea it's because we think it goes against something we believe in or value.
(Find out How to See the Ego for What it Is.)
This type of thinking can be incredibly limiting. The more the mind closes down, the less we are able to experience real connection with our inner self, the part of us that is far bigger, more expansive and more peaceful than our ego. We also restrict our connection with others because we are seeing them only through the filters of our judgments and prejudices.
Part of the challenge is that we are often unaware of the assumptions and preconceptions that our minds bring to new situations. Before we have had a chance to examine a situation in an objective and open manner, our minds have already jumped in and made a judgment. We do this before acknowledging there could have been another approach.
The other challenge we face is around emotions. When emotions arise, they flood our system with hormones and may end up impairing our ability to think things through objectively, in a balanced and open way. All too often it may not even be the situation itself that instigates this emotional reaction, but rather a memory or fear. Without cultivating awareness, it feels almost impossible to do anything about this.
How to Open Your Mind
Acknowledge Your Thoughts
The first step is practicing mindfulness and awareness. You need a greater ability to step back from the flow of automatic thoughts, judgments and emotional reactions in order to observe what is happening. Meditation is the perfect practice for building that power. The more we practice meditation, the better we are able to step into a witnessing mode, where instead of being caught up in the narrative of our thoughts, we are able to see them for what they are: just thoughts.
Establishing a regular daily meditation practice is a great way to build awareness. This will help you notice when your mind is closing down. It can also be helpful to take a break to meditate in the middle of a challenging situation. Just five minutes of meditation, focusing on your breath and acknowledging your thoughts without dwelling on them can clear the way for a freer, more expansive mindset. This will also boost your creativity, compassion and intuition.
Then Challenge Them
Once you’ve become aware of judgmental thoughts, the next step is to challenge them. An easy way to do this is to write down the automatic thoughts as they arise in a meditation journal. Sometimes it helps to ask yourself if you have any evidence to support a particular line of thinking. This will create a healthy distance from the thoughts in which to find more open, positive alternatives. What other questions could you ask yourself and what further work could you do to help open a situation up into a place of expansion? Over time, and with practice, you will find the negative thoughts diminish.
Being open-minded doesn’t have to mean that you never experience prejudiced or presumptuous thoughts. It does mean that you notice these thoughts and, rather than accepting them as the truth, you choose a more healthy, fair and open response. In doing so, you allow your mind to function at its fullest potential.
(Read on in How Yoga Helps You Keep an Open Mind in the Boardroom.)