How to Train Your Mind to Have More Insight

What scientists have discovered about human flourishing

Image: artpartner-images/Getty Images

I recently caught up with an old friend who shared an experience that many of us can relate to. A few weeks ago, she got up in the morning and listened to a news podcast, like she does every day. And like every day, the news was filled with ominous stories and dire predictions. More and more coronavirus deaths. Political chaos. Lost jobs and school closures. She’d been hearing similar reports day after day for months, but on this particular day, her mind just snapped. She couldn’t take it. The thought of helping her kids get through the school day, making sure her elderly parents were safe and healthy, getting her work done on time, and the endless list of chores and unfinished tasks building up on her to-do list — all of it became too much to handle. All she could do was crawl back into bed and stare at the ceiling, hoping that she could simply close her eyes and make it all disappear.

My friend was one of the lucky ones. She was able to take that day off — which gave her the space to recharge. She woke up the next morning with a little more energy and confidence and made a conscious choice to avoid the news. But there are times when it’s not so easy to get our head back in the game. When we get so overwhelmed that no amount of rest is enough, or we don’t have the luxury of taking the time and space we need to hit our inner reset button. So what can we do in these challenging times? How can we possibly be resilient when it feels as though the world is falling apart all around us?

Scientists have been studying these questions for decades and have reached some important conclusions. One of the single most important discoveries is that when we are resilient, the most challenging periods of life can fuel growth and self-discovery. Scientists define resilience as the ability to adapt successfully to stress, adversity, and other life challenges. You are likely familiar with PTSD — post-traumatic stress disorder. This is what happens when the brain and nervous system get trapped in a vicious loop following a traumatic event, reliving the fear and anxiety of the experience over and over again. But you may be less familiar with post-traumatic growth. There are times when even extreme adversity doesn’t overwhelm us but instead makes us stronger. In those moments, we learn and grow in powerful ways. We forge positive connections with other people. We clarify our core values and become more focused on what truly matters in life.

Resilience is a skill

The studies we conduct at the Center for Healthy Minds (where I am a research scientist) suggest that resilience is a skill, and so is its counterpart on the other end of the spectrum: human flourishing. It turns out we can train our minds and even rewire our brains to be more resilient in the face of challenges and to thrive when things are going well.

In principle, this process is not all that different from physical exercise. Training the body builds our physical immune system. Training the mind builds our mental immune system. To summarize a great deal of scientific research on mental well-being into a singular finding: One of the best strategies to promote resilience and peak mental functioning is to let go of trying to avoid challenges and difficulties and to instead train ourselves to handle them well.

There are many ways to do this. And again, the parallels with physical health are apt. Jogging, by itself, won’t make you perfectly healthy, nor will drinking enough water or practicing good sleep habits. Physical health is complex. We need an “all of the above” strategy or something will inevitably be out of balance. A similar approach is necessary to “grow” a healthy mind. Whether we’re focused on resilience or human flourishing — two core aspects of overall well-being — no one approach will be enough. There are multiple dimensions of well-being and we need strategies that target all of them. So what are these dimensions and how do we strengthen them? And where do we start?

One of the best strategies to promote resilience and peak mental functioning is to let go of trying to avoid challenges and difficulties and to instead train ourselves to handle them well.

The scientific model that informs my team’s approach to well-being focuses on four pillars of a healthy mind that can be strengthened through training: awareness, connection, insight, and purpose. All four are central to well-being. In other words, when we are fully present and more focused (awareness), we’re more resilient, and we’re at the top of our game when things are going well. The same is true when we feel more connected to other people (connection), and when we have core values and a sense of purpose that inspires and motivates us (purpose). Some of these factors may seem obvious, but the one that is perhaps least clear is the role of insight.

The emerging science of insight

Insight refers to our ability to recognize how thoughts, emotions, and beliefs are shaping the way we see the world, and especially how we see ourselves. Take the experience my friend had listening to the morning news. Have you had a similar experience? Hearing all the doom and gloom likely triggered her anxious thoughts and feelings. These thoughts and feelings tend to shape how we see ourselves, other people, and our life as a whole. When your “insight meter” (that is, your level of insight in a given moment) is down, all these perceptions will seem like reality. There won’t be any room to step back and examine what’s really going on, and whether the situation is really as dire as it seems in that moment.

In contrast, when your “insight meter” is up, you might notice all of this playing out in your mind. You can recognize that the information you’re hearing is triggering certain thoughts, and those thoughts are prompting you to fixate on all the bad things that might happen and completely ignore more positive outcomes. This ability to pause and notice your own thoughts and emotions and examine how they are influencing your perception defuses rumination. You might still have the same thoughts and feelings, but you can recognize that they are not necessarily true or accurate.

Moments of insight happen spontaneously all the time, but we don’t have to sit around and wait for them to happen. We can train our minds to experience more insight. Studies have shown that meditation and other forms of mental training allow us to recognize when our thoughts and feelings are hijacking the way we see ourselves, and see the world, which then gives us the opportunity to shift the way we relate to our memories, expectations, and beliefs. Instead of all these mental phenomena distorting the way we see the world (like a defective pair of glasses), we can take the glasses off and inspect them. In scientific terms, this is referred to as the shift from a “narrative mode” of experience that is heavily influenced by our thoughts and emotions to an “experiential mode” that is focused on the here and now, and less so on all our beliefs and assumptions. There is even evidence that this shift corresponds to a related shift in brain activity.

Step 1: Hit pause

How do we treat insight like a skill and train it to grow? Cultivating moments of insight begins with the ability to hit your inner pause button and bring your attention into the present moment. The simplest way to do this is to use an anchor for your attention, like your breath. All you have to do is notice what your breath feels like as it moves in and out of your body. If you’re really worked up, you can take a few slow, deep breaths — one of the simplest ways to calm an overactive nervous system. Keep in mind that you don’t need to stop what you’re doing to breathe and take note of things. You can take a mental pause while you’re still doing the dishes and listening to the news. You can take a few calming breaths when you sit down at your desk to get some work done, or even in the middle of a conversation. The key is to bring a heightened awareness to the present moment.

Moments of insight happen spontaneously all the time, but we don’t have to sit around and wait for them to happen. We can train our minds to experience more insight.

Step 2: Get curious

Once your mind is firmly rooted in the present moment, you can bring in some self-inquiry and examine what’s happening in your mind and body. Self-inquiry is powered by curiosity, not judgment. The point here isn’t to view what you’re experiencing as right or wrong. There’s no good or bad. The point is to observe your mind and gain insight into how it works. So even if you have a self-critical thought or a judgment about someone else, that’s fine. Just observe. Get curious. “Huh… that’s interesting. There’s that thought again, looping through my mind for the 20th time. How is this thought shaping the way I’m seeing things right now? Is it really true? Is there something I’m not seeing here?” The questions are more important than the answers. Being able to step back and examine is the skill you’re cultivating. The more you practice it, the easier it gets.

Step 3: Respond, don’t react

The third step is to reengage with whatever you’re doing from a place of insight. Don’t blindly react. Instead, respond. Responding implies intention. Reacting occurs out of habit. Whether you give your next step a few moments, a few minutes, or a few hours, bring some intention and consideration into whatever you do next.

Thoughts and emotions often prompt us to react in certain ways. We say things, do things, and even think things driven by habit. When you hit pause and examine your inner experience in this way, you have the ability to respond rather than react. You can act with intention and avoid unhealthy habits. Insight will help you see the situation in front of you with more clarity and less mental distortion. As a result, your actions will be more skillful and wise, informed by a broader perspective rather than the skewed perception shaped by thought and emotion. If you have some space, try this 10-minute seated meditation, and get even more curious.

Insight can be a challenge for many of us. It sometimes isn’t as intuitive as learning how to focus, or increasing your warm thoughts toward others. But, building it can be deeply rewarding.

Know thyself

Treating insight like a skill and practicing it can transform flashes of inner clarity into enduring self-knowledge that will stay with you through the ups and downs of daily life. It will help you see the dynamic interplay between your beliefs, thoughts, and emotions. You might see how certain mental experiences trigger sensations in your body, or how a single memory can produce a cascade of thoughts and feelings. The net result is self-knowledge and the ability to manage thoughts, emotions, and impulses in a healthy way.

Cortland Dahl is a leading expert on the science of well-being. He is a scientist and Chief Contemplative Officer at the Center for Healthy Minds at UW-Madison.

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