I once read a story about a man on a subway train who was angered by a father and his misbehaving sons. Apparently, the two, young boys were carrying on – jumping up and down and darting from seat to seat while their seemingly hapless father looked on.
Eventually, the father apologized to the man. He told him that the boys’ mother had just died and they were heading home from the hospital. He just didn’t have it in him to discipline his sons, he said wearily.
I can’t recall where I first read that story (my apologies to the author). It’s nonetheless stayed with me for years as a reminder to withhold my judgments and wrap them in a blanket of open-mindedness.
Doing so has allowed me to view others, even those who rankle me, with a spirit of generosity and open-heartedness. Who knows what trouble has befallen someone in a foul mood?
It’s not easy to pry open our assumptions, judgments and long-held beliefs to consider an alternative. Doing so seems all the more difficult amid a culture of partisan politics, social polarization and “outrage porn” where unfiltered, tweeted opinions often compel us to cling more tightly to our own.
The Benefits of Being Open-Minded: What Is Open-Mindedness?
But being open-minded about others and the circumstances of our lives can create more ease, curiosity and even delight. It also can lead to open-heartedness, which allows us to connect more compassionately with others as well as ourselves. I don’t know what the man on the subway felt toward those two boys once he knew what had befallen them. But I imagine his anger gave way to a softened heart.
Open-mindedness – or the ability to listen to and accept differing ideas, opinions and perspectives – is more than just an attitude we occasionally adopt. In many ways, it’s a worldview. It’s also a hallmark of mindfulness.
Mindfulness is the practice of paying attention to the present moment, on purpose, nonjudgmentally. Often when we think of being mindful we focus on the elements of how to practice it and forget about the attitudes that support the quality of mindfulness itself. One of those attitudes is open-mindedness.
1. It Gives Us Perspective
When we’re open-minded, we don’t have to abandon our principles. Paul Saffo, a futurist and professor at Stanford University, describes open-mindedness as the ability to hold strong opinions, weakly. In other words, being open-minded means that we entertain the newness of another perspective and allow it to guide us to a deeper understanding of what else might be valid.
After all, clinging to our beliefs can be stressful. How stressful? Let’s do a brief experiment: Hold your hand out in front of you. Now, clinch your hand into a fist and squeeze it tight. Doing this is a bit like rigidly holding onto a belief. It’s a bit taxing on the nervous system not to mention your hand. Now, take a deep breath. Open your hand and allow your fingers to unfurl. Relax your palm. Notice a difference?
For me, an open hand is the physical embodiment of an open mind. My hand is still my hand – with all its predilections mapped into the lines running along my palm. And, yet, with my hand outstretched I feel receptive to what else might shape my well-worn lines.
2. It Helps Us Understand The World Around Us
Being open-minded unlocks the door to what you don’t yet know and what you might learn about another person, a situation or yourself. It leads us down the path of possibility.
I recently met a woman who loved to travel to remote places. Her husband did not enjoy doing this, but at times he tagged along. When he traveled with his wife, though, he stayed in the hotel, tethered to the familiarity of a continental breakfast and reading the paper or watching television in his room. It’s comfortable to stick to what we know. But it’s also limiting. I wondered about the adventures he missed as his wife explored a foreign country.
In many ways, being open-minded is a like traveling to a remote village. It takes a bit of courage and a willingness to be uncomfortable as you experience and learn something new.
3. It Allows Us to Let Go of Judgement
This is certainly true when it comes to observing our own opinions. If you’ve ever judged yourself for mentally lambasting the stranger snoring loudly in the airplane seat next to you, you know what I mean. If we’re open-minded, though, we can check our judgment like baggage in the overhead compartment. We can be bemused at the mischievous nature of our mind. And we can let our judgment pass, put on our headphones and settle into a good book for the rest of the plane ride.
Being open-minded helps us in countless other ways, too. It’s a pre-requisite for problem solving. It’s essential for scientific discovery. It also comes in handy around the dinner table when family members begin to argue. In those tense moments, I remember a line from the poet Rumi who described open-mindedness this way: “Out beyond ideas of wrong doing and right doing there is field. I’ll meet you there.”
Want to Learn More About Mindfulness? Join The Free Intro To Mindfulness Webinar!
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Written by eM Life Teacher Kelly Barron.