The flexible are preserved unbroken. ~Tao Te Ching
Mental flexibility is the ability to stretch and adapt our perception beyond the limits of our conditioned and fixed mindset and make a mental shift towards experiencing everything taking place inside and around us with a childlike openness, creativity, and curiosity.
In his book Change your Thoughts Change your Life, Dr. Wayne Dyer, having lived by the ocean for many years, used to observe the tall palm trees which grew at the water’s edge. He interestingly observed that those trees were able to withstand the enormous pressure that hurricane-force winds brought as they blew at speeds up to 200 miles per hour, while thousands of other trees in the huge storms’ paths were ultimately uprooted and destroyed.
He realized that the secret of the palm trees to stand unhurt during a storm was their flexibility. They bent almost down to the ground, and it was that very ability that allowed them to remain unbroken and of course alive.
So, here I am, talking about trees for no apparent reason at all, up until now.
The primary cause of our mental inflexibility is that as human beings, we tend to label and categorize every single thing which enters our field of perception. We want to experience good circumstances and to avoid bad. We want to own the stuff we think we need, to have by our side the people who we like the most, to be healthy, to live forever, and to become the kings and queens of our Universe in order to be truly happy.
This way, we build a utopia in our mind and we attach our identity to it using a branding iron, slowly moving down a path of bitter disappointment the moment things don’t turn out exactly the way that we expected them to.
Life isn’t easy. It is extremely unpredictable and possibilities are that we will come face to face with a significant amount of storms.
However, the unpredictability of life isn’t what truly makes us suffer. What makes us suffer is our expectations of reality not being met. Being inflexible by clinging to our mind-made utopia, is going to render us broken, just like the inflexible trees in the fierce storm’s path.
How to be mentally flexible you ask? It is simple, but no easy task. It not just about being flexible, but also about unbecoming inflexible.
Follow the Natural Course of Things
The arrival of painful circumstances is inevitable, but so is their departure. This perspective renders us way more flexible, and thus less likely to break. Accepting that isn’t some kind of pessimism. It is merely an acknowledgment of the true nature of things.
Recalling some of the worst situations that I went through up until this point in my life, I realized that no single action aiming towards avoiding them or overcoming them faster ever really worked.
Letting them go for a while, internally accepting that this is the way that things work and holding firm on the belief that “this too shall pass”, is what gave me the ability to remain unbroken and to keep moving down my path while facing pain and despite any setbacks.
We don’t grow unhappy due to unhappiness; we grow unhappy due to resisting unhappiness.
As difficult situations unfold during our lives, we have the tendency to resist them. We want to feel like we have power over them; that we have them under control; that we own them. We think that by mentally resisting and pushing them away, we will succeed in not being affected by them.
We couldn’t be more wrong. You can’t even imagine how many times I have heard a combination of words similar to “I won’t let it affect me, no matter what”, or “I won’t allow myself to be sad”… Three days later *BOOM*, depression strikes, and we can’t even get out of bed without cursing our damn luck.
Resistance weakens our power, distorts our perception, and reduces our clarity by consuming mental resources which could otherwise be used to actually find the best and most effective solutions towards overcoming our storms.
What we resist, grows and persists. As it persists we tend to resist more. What we resist more is going to inevitably persist more until we become trapped in a vicious cycle, possibly until we ultimately break.
Be flexible by bending from a “why this happened to me” perspective, to a “what can I learn from it” attitude. Try to put yourself right in the eye of the storm and watch it unfold. Seize every little opportunity that is presented to you in order to learn, grow, and evolve.
Start Questioning Your Beliefs
Our belief system is what shapes our perception of reality and what creates everything that we are experiencing.
Unfortunately, beliefs grow deep roots since our early years, when we haven’t really developed the ability to distinguish between the ones which will serve us and we should hold onto, and the ones who are going to drag us down and should be abandoned.
Until our conscious mind, which acts as a filtering mechanism, becomes fully developed, we have already shaped a full sense of self (ego) and have become attached to a certain set of beliefs, adopted from our parents, culture, environment, and society.
Those beliefs will most probably never be truly realized, let alone questioned and they will keep working in the background creating the same kind of reality over and over again, leaving no space for change and improvement, aka making us inflexible.
In his book, Change your Thoughts Change your Life, Dr. Wayne Dyer, once more beautifully states that being open to all possibilities is the way of nature, and following the way of nature could truly render us trouble-free.
To be filled with happiness and peace, we have to become empty of attachments, because attachments fill us and nothing can enter an already filled self. Being empty in this sense means not being full of beliefs, possessions, or ego-driven ideas, but rather remaining open to all possibilities, aka being flexible, just like nature doesn’t restrict itself to a particular point of view or a singular way of doing things; it animates all.
Adapt to Change
Most people hate being forced to change. They want to live a stable, fixed life and have things unfold a specific, absolute way.
However, change is always waiting to sneak up on us just around the corner. Nothing is permanent, but impermanence and everything inside this three-dimensional Universe is affected by it.
Hence, impermanence is a law of nature and whether we like it or not, we are affected by it as well. Embracing impermanence is an important milestone on the road to cultivating a more flexible attitude.
One who lives in accordance with nature moves in harmony with the present moment, always knowing the truth of just what to do. ~Tao Te Ching
Stop Being a Control Freak
The most unhappy and inflexible kind of person is a control freak. A control freak experiences constant impulses to control situations, people’s behaviors, actions, and opinions according to their own needs and self-interest.
Of course, this incessant need for control is just an illusion and people who can’t realize it, are doomed to suffer throughout their lifetime.
The way to beat our controlling attitude and become way more mentally flexible is to realize and accept that certain situations and circumstances are utterly out of our control and the only thing that we have any kind of control over is our very own perception and reaction towards them.
For example, stressing over and using every curse word that has ever existed since man first stepped foot on this planet just because the weather suddenly got bad and you are forced to skip the camping trip you have been planning for the last one and a half days, is a sign that your inflexible and controlling mind has taken over.
Instead, since you don’t have the slightest amount of control over the weather, you could accept things as they already are and in a heartbeat come up with and arrange an equally fun, indoor activity with friends; something like cultivating your lockpicking skills, or whatever.
Just relax. Nothing is ever under control.
Mindfulness is one of the best practices to increase our mental flexibility. It helps us dwell into a deep-rooted stillness, a stillness that clears the lens through which we perceive the world and renders us able to experience a more authentic and unbiased reality.
Our natural state of being is one of openness, curiosity, and non-judgment. We all lived in such states once, when we were toddlers. Our mind was like a blank canvas; we were unprejudiced and ready to be filled with all kinds of colors.
Although, somehow, this flexible state of being got clouded over the years by being poorly conditioned, adopting wrong beliefs, and lacking moment to moment awareness.
Through cultivating mindfulness we have the ability to bring forth our natural state of being once again, which in Zen is called “beginner’s mind”, and refers to having an attitude of flexibility, openness, eagerness, and lack of preconceptions towards every single experience.
Begin Practicing Yoga
Mind and body are interconnected and always working together. Our body’s state profoundly influences and, if in bad condition, impinges on the functioning of our mind and intellect. This works the other way around as well.
Extreme physical stiffness can be related to mental rigidity, or in other words, to our inability of being mentally flexible.
In his book Ashtanga Yoga: Practice and Philosophy, Gregor Maehle states that with yoga, we learn to regulate and meditate on our breathing while moving our body according to it. This way, through meditation and physical stretching, our mind and body grow much more flexible at once; we get to fulfill two goals for the price of one.
Reconnect with Nature
Nature is our natural habitat; it is where we were born, raised, and evolved.
Our current mentality is a reflection of our current habitat. The rigidness of our mind is a direct manifestation of the rigidness of the city, where buildings and streets are extremely organized in straight, monotonous lines.
How could we possibly think out of the box when the apartments into which we are living feel like boxes themselves?
Nature doesn’t build in straight lines. It is creative and doesn’t have limits. It is open to all possibilities.
Pursue going into the wild once in a while and as John Muir beautifully supports, “you will receive far more than you seek”.
Let Go of Past Emotions
An emotion is a conserved feeling that arises because the original feeling has left a subconscious imprint in the mind. To be emotional means to react to a present situation according to a past conditioning. ~Ashtanga Yoga: Practice and Philosophy
When we are clinging to past painful emotions, we tend to project them to our future in order to avoid facing the same kind of pain.
While it is very useful to learn from our mistakes, we can’t possibly believe that we can predict the outcome of every single situation that has yet to come.
For example, our attitude towards failure is what is going to make us successful or unsuccessful.
In our world, failure is perceived as something bad, unwanted, and fearful. When we have failed a number of times, we become hurt. When we come face to face with similar situations we emote hurt even before actually getting hurt. Then we grow fearful of failing once more and we tend to start giving up before we even try. This way we wind up extremely inflexible, turning down opportunities which could literally turn our lives around.
In this specific example, to become more flexible we need to alter our perception of failure and realize that it can become one of our greatest teachers. In fact, the only difference between successful and unsuccessful people is that the successful ones have failed way more times than the unsuccessful ones.
It is not just okay to fail, it is an integral part of success.
The true method of attaining knowledge is through experimenting ~William Blake
Another great way to increase your mental flexibility is to start experimenting with various aspects of your life. Observe instances where you find yourself being significantly inflexible and begin there.
To give you an example, I always believed that eating sushi was gross. I despised the idea of putting raw fish in my mouth. However, when I first tried sushi, I really loved it. Since then, I have tried almost every kind of foreign cuisine available in my country and each one of them has offered me a unique experience.
Of course, I have had dishes which I wouldn’t eat again even if offered money, but nevertheless, I got to try them first.
Never dismiss something before you have tried it. This is one of the most important suggestions towards promoting mental flexibility.
Crack Some Books
If you want to become flexible you need to expand. In order to expand, you must learn. In order to learn, you have to experience.
Books don’t just make you smarter. Through books, you get to witness reality from another person’s perspective and learn from their experiences, instead of merely learning from your own.
They give you the opportunity to boost your mental flexibility, imagination, and creativity, by accumulating various experiences from multiple lives during the one you only have.
Pause And Think Before You React
As human beings, now more than ever, we are living our lives in an autopilot mode. We tend to go through life mechanically, without much awareness.
This is actually an energy preservation mechanism of our own mind. If this mechanism didn’t exist, we would have to focus every time we wanted to move our feet, hands, jaws, and even our eyelids, in order to activate every muscle needed to perform those movements. Focus requires mental effort and effort requires energy.
However, we have been subconsciously abusing this ability of ours in almost every other aspect of our life. Our reactions have become automatic, fixed, and rigid and when we continuously react inflexibly, we will be continuously experiencing an inflexible reality.
To this inflexibility, we first need to pause and observe the reaction before it outwardly manifests. This is the hardest part of this practice.
After pausing, we gain the power to have control over the manifestation of our reaction. We can let it go, we can slightly alter it, we can suppress it, or we can even act the exact opposite way.
By stretching our awareness in such ways, our thinking habits themselves become way more flexible.
This is where our power of free will lies.
Some Last Words
Mental flexibility is not merely a skill, it is a set of skills.
It is the ability to quickly and without hesitation state “screw the plan” when coming face to face with setbacks and difficulties, properly change or modify it according to current insights and knowledge, and effortlessly adapt to it in order to fulfill your goals and aspirations.
In a nutshell, the more mentally flexible one is, the easier they go through life; almost always sure and confident of just how to act accordingly.
The mental flexibility of the wise man permits him to keep an open mind and enables him to readjust himself whenever it becomes necessary for a change. ~Malcolm X
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