Learning about mindfulness from The Mentalist

Have you ever been upset with someone, frustrated because they didn’t understand what you needed from them, only to have them say, “I’m not psychic you know!” The message, of course, is that we can’t read each other’s minds, so how can we possibly know what another person feels or needs?

But the reality is that we really don’t have to be psychic to know some basic things about other people; we just have to pay attention.

In case you’ve never seen The Mentalist, it’s about Patrick Jane, a man who at one time pretended to be a psychic. In reality, he just has very keen powers of observation and a lot of chutzpah. His arrogance as a fake psychic caused his family to be murdered, however, so he stopped pretending, and went to work for the police, helping them solve criminal cases.

Of course, The Mentalist is a fictional TV show, but it’s fascinating to watch as the character explains what he knows about a suspect or a witness, just from observing or talking with them. Body language, clothes, nervous habits, accents, the things we surround ourselves with – they tell our story, if anyone takes the time to read it. Patrick Jane does that – he questions things that seem out of place; he uses his senses; he looks for what people value, he empathizes.

If only we were all TV characters like the Mentalist! We might understand so much more about each other. Don’t despair, though, there’s an app for that. Cognitive psychologists have been developing wearable gadgets that can monitor emotional ups and downs by measuring things such as heart rate and electrical changes in the skin. Depending on the device, they send messages about your emotional state to you or to other people. This is not as creepy as it sounds. Worn by children with autism, they can provide valuable messages to parents and caregivers so that the adults can respond to a child’s behaviors appropriately, even if the child isn’t able to express what he or she is feeling. The devices are also useful as biofeedback tools so that you can learn to recognize and manage your own moods and emotions.

Would feedback like that help us understand each other better? If you’re wearing a wristband that sends me messages when you’re feeling low, would I eventually learn to recognize those moods without the technology? Or would I become dependent on the technology and no more sensitive than I was before?

Humans are hard-wired for empathy – somewhat. We learn it as children by watching the adults around us, and from stories we read and hear. But we need to keep practicing it. Even as adults, we can improve our emotional intelligence. Before we can truly understand others’ emotions, we have to start with ourselves – staying connected to our emotions instead of suppressing them, learning how to reduce stress and being okay with strong feelings. Then we can expand that intelligence to include others – communicating better by staying focused on the person we’re with, making eye contact, paying attention to nonverbal cues (like the Mentalist!)

Daniel Goleman says that, “A prerequisite to empathy is simply paying attention to the person in pain.” How you turn your attention to someone may not matter in the end. Staying tuned in emotionally with the people we love makes our relationships stronger, whether it comes from a gadget, a mindfulness practice, or even psychic ability.


Stories we tell

Every family has stories – usually a mix of the good, the bad and the ugly. Some stories are told over and over, and others get hidden away like skeletons in the closet. But all the stories shape us and our life stories.

Sometimes I stare at the old photos of my great-grandparents, or my dad with his army buddies, and try to figure out who they were. Were their lives mostly hard work and disappointment, or did they experience joy and possibility? How does the answer to that question explain who I am? Did I just inherit my blue eyes and brown hair from them, or does their legacy also include patterns of behavior and ways of looking at the world?

Carl Jung wrote that, “The more intensively the family has stamped its character upon the child, the more it will tend to feel and see its earlier miniature world again in the bigger world of adult life.” In other words, our perspective can be profoundly shaped by our early experience.

People in my family have been farmers, miners, autoworkers, soldiers, teachers and cooks. One was a blacksmith, one a postmaster, and another a mayor. One person has a library named for him, while others lived and died in anonymity. Their stories include poverty, abandonment, infidelity and suicide, as well as pioneering spirit, public service, loyalty and courage.

While I want to embrace many of the values I inherited from them, such as a strong work ethic and sense of responsibility, I sometimes find myself stuck with some of the others, such as a tendency to think small and play it safe – characteristics that probably result from generations who always had to struggle. Can we change our lives enough as adults to establish a broader legacy for our own children? Is it possible to get past the negative self-talk, the family dysfunction, and the habitual patterns of behavior to grow into a more satisfying life while still building on the positive aspects of the past?

Just tuning in and becoming aware of our thoughts and feelings, then being able to label them, are good first steps. In their book Emotional Intelligence 2.0, Travis Bradberry and Jean Greaves define emotional intelligence as “your ability to recognize and understand emotions in yourself and others, and your ability to use this awareness to manage your behavior and relationships.”

Understanding emotions and managing behavior require us to pay attention to them. Sometimes we are so caught up in daily life that we act and react without thought. Keeping a journal (or writing a blog) can help focus the attention on what we are doing and feeling.  Formally practicing mindfulness can also help develop the ability to slow down and pay more attention to our emotional lives. A mindfulness practice can be as simple as sitting quietly and observing the breath for a little while each day. In his book, Peace is Every Step, Thich Nhat Hanh writes about mindfulness that it “enables us to be in touch with life, which is wonderful in the present moment.”

So perhaps that is the legacy I can give my children: a consciousness of my actions, a smile shared in joy, an awareness of how awesome life is right now. If I can do that for myself, and for them, what stories will they tell?


In the zone

Comfort zone, time zone, twilight zone, euro zone, green zone, in the zone? As we traverse in and out of various kinds of zones, how can we keep as balanced and true to ourselves as possible?

I just came back from a trip to three different countries in 11 days. While this trip sets no kind of record for whirlwind travel, it still demanded an expenditure of energy in both mind and body to find some kind of equilibrium each day. Stepping into another country takes me to the borders of my comfort zone, at least at first. Then I add crossing time zones, and life definitely takes on a twilight zone feel!

While the body can be helped by following good travel advice like refraining from caffeine and alcohol, drinking plenty of water, and exposing oneself to sunlight every day, how do we handle the mental stress?

I love having new experiences, seeing unfamiliar places, learning new things – but such growth doesn’t happen in my comfort zone. So I had to think about how best to navigate the challenges of meeting a lot of new people, learning my way around strange cities and communicating in places where I don’t speak the language.

On my trip, I happened to be reading Search Inside Yourself, a new book by Chade-Meng Tan about the mindfulness-based emotional intelligence curriculum he started at Google. In the book, Meng describes the emotional competencies that (according to Daniel Goleman) make up self-awareness: emotional awareness, accurate self-assessment and self-confidence.

Meng, who describes himself as a shy person, discussed how he prepared for a speech to a large audience by using these competencies of self-awareness. He made his ego “small enough that my ‘self’ did not matter,” and big enough that he “felt perfectly comfortable speaking alongside” the luminaries at the event. He also kept in mind his strengths and limitations so that he could focus “on adding value where [he] could contribute most.”

I realized that by bringing mindfulness and self-awareness to my experiences on my trip, I was better able to deal with the challenges and turn them into positive events. I’m not the bravest or most out-going person in the world, but by staying present and paying attention to people and situations, I was able to increase my self-confidence and to use my strengths to my advantage. For instance, as a spouse at a dinner with people in an industry in which I do not work, sometimes I might feel inadequate or not “high-powered” enough. But by focusing on my strengths in my own field of stress management, and being mindfully engaged with each person I met, I found that I had plenty to contribute to conversations.

In a similar way, as I navigated streets and neighborhoods, I relied on my strong sense of direction, my curiosity and my desire to see everything to give me the confidence to explore on my own. But I tried to stay emotionally aware so that I would know when I needed a break in the “comfort” zone of my hotel room.

The British writer Lawrence Durrell once said, “Travel can be one of the most rewarding forms of introspection.” In that spirit, I’m still tapping into Search Inside Yourself at home now. I plan to use some of the book’s tools, such as journaling and body scanning, to build even greater self-awareness. After all, we never know when the next trip outside our comfort zone will happen.