philosophy

Everyday Mindfulness: Notice and Name

While studying for my Precision Nutrition Level 2 certification, I came across this cool metaphor for the relationship between our frontal cortex (‘thinking’ brain) and our deeper emotional brain. It’s from the book ‘Switch’ by Chip and Dan Heath. I think it’s a great way to describe the challenges you face when you’re trying to make a change in your life.

The elephant and the rider

  • The rider is logical, planning, judging, ‘thinky’ brain. It controls the direction of the elephant... sort of.
  • The elephant is the deeper emotional brain, as well as the more basic physical sensations and impulses devoted to survival. It’s powerful and the rider can only direct it for so long.
  • The path is the environment. The path can affect the elephants movements much more strongly than the rider can, and usually unconsciously.

As the rider, you believe yourself to be in control. So you try to ‘control’ the emotional-brain elephant. You will be met with disastrous consequences when you try to force the elephant to go somewhere it doesn’t want to go (or indeed, if something surprises the elephant on the path).

Instead, your job as the rider is to observe and guide the elephant to navigate the path carefully. You can do this through mindfulness - observing your emotional brain and your environment and acting accordingly.

Speaking to the rider alone is a waste of time. The rider will be overwhelmed by the elephant at some point and the elephant is constrained by the path. Instead, you must talk to the rider, guide the elephant, and shape the path.

Noticing and Naming

You can start doing this with a basic mindfullness strategy called “noticing and naming”. This helps the rider (thinky brain) observe the elephants (emotional brain) movements and the paths contribution so you can respond rather than react.

Noticing is about observing and describing something at the most basic level. Naming is taking that description further and putting language (or imagery/metaphor) to it.

This should happen before you decide how to respond.

Give it a go. Ask yourself three questions today:

  1. What am I noticing?
  2. What would I name the thing I’m observing?
  3. How will I choose to respond?

A Decision Making Heuristic

You decide to start a new business, but you don’t commit to it fully because you’re afraid it won’t work. Problem is because you’re not committed to it fully, you may actually be causing it not to work.

You decide to date someone new. You like them, they like you. But you spend your time worrying that you’d be better with someone else.

You decide to change the way you eat, but you don't want to miss out on birthday cake for the rest of your life.

Halfheartedly making decisions makes a fool out of those decisions.

It’s scary to commit fully to something. It means dropping other things. By making the decision to do this, you’re making the decision not to do a bunch of other things. You don’t want to close the door on all those other opportunities.

You can have both.

Use the duration of a decision as a way to fully commit to your decisions.

Decide to commit to something for a specific length of time. At the end of that time, you have another decision to make - you keep going with this, or you take up any of the other opportunities that exist at that time.

Your decisions all have an expiry anyway. Whether you realise it or not, they only exist until you decide to do something else.

Opening a new shop? Take out a lease on the shop for two years and commit fully to trying to make it work for two years. You’re not in this for the rest of your life.

Dating someone new? Try assuming that it’s going great and that you’re committed for the next six weeks. At the end of that time, see where you’re up to.

Trying to change the way you eat? Decide to be strict for a week, then have a day off once a week. You get to make the change, while still enjoying the social side of eating.

When you make difficult decisions, create an expiry date for it. Commit yourself and have a moment planned when you will have to make the decision again.

What are you Hiding from Yourself?

Very early in 2018 I had a super weird realisation: I’m a details person. I delight in details. I get sucked into and lost in details.

Time and time again in 2017 I noticed people saying things to me like “thanks for all the detail you put into this” or “you spent way too long on this, it’s only a small detail for this report!” or “you’re a great [physiotherapy] client because you’re always asking so many questions and pay attention to all the details” . I kept putting it out of my mind, but I could feel a little pull that there was something important here. It took me almost all year, but eventually the common theme got through to me: on things that matter to me, I go into lots of detail.

This was a mind blown moment for me. For some reason I’ve always thought of myself as a big picture person who stayed up in the clouds and didn’t like detail. When I heard descriptions of ‘dreamers’ and ‘details’ people, I always identified so much more with the ‘dreamers’. I think part of it is also that somewhere deep inside, I feel that it’s somehow ‘better’ to be a dreamer than a details person so I willed myself to be a ‘dreamer’ so I could be better. Pretty dumb right? Talk about a [story I’ve built my identity on].

I asked a few of my close friends about this and they were all surprised I didn’t realise I was a details person. They told me that the difference with me and a ‘classic details person’ is that I tended to start big picture, then sink right down into the detail to get something done. Apparently other ‘details people’ always start in the detail and have trouble ever coming up to big picture.

All of a sudden I’m free of this story. I’m not a dreamer. I am capable of getting into details (so capable that I do it all the time without even meaning to!) I’m not just a slow worker - I’m getting bogged down in detail. Now that I realise that’s what’s happening, I’m able to catch myself much sooner than before. I’m able to use my details-power for good! It’s very exciting and I’m looking forward to seeing what I can do with this new knowledge.


All this got me thinking. What long-held truths about you aren’t true? Is there anything pulling at your awareness right now that might change your story of who you are?

Question your Needs to Set New Direction this Year

Seth Godin’s blog grabbed my attention again:

Once our needs our met, our instinct is to invent new ones, to find a fuel to continually move things forward, to bring that propulsive energy back.

I couldn’t help myself - one mention of ‘needs’ and I went way off from what Seth’s post was about. I thought about this compulsion humans have, to continually move things forward, and how our needs affect the direction we move.

This is why it’s important to break down your needs sometimes. Do you need everything you think you need? Have you tried fasting once in a while - you’ll find it hard, but I bet you’ll also find that you don’t need all that food all the time. You’ll find that it’s alright to be a little hungry sometimes and maybe you’ll enjoy your food more.

Further to this, what if you could get that propulsive energy back in your life that easily? What if you could question and strip back some of the things you need to find fuel in the things you already have access to?

Reality isn’t What You Think and Feel

Humans are neither thinking machines or feeling machines. They’re feeling machines that think.

Antonio Damasio


I was panicking.

I had a feeling in the pit of my stomach. A tight ball of black wire wool was scratching away my insides.

My mind jumped into action.

You’re feeling this way because...

You didn’t eat much this morning, maybe you’re just hungr....

What if it’s the weather?

Maybe you miss Ollie?

When was the last time Ash hugged you?

Oh. It was yesterday. So… That must be it!

You’re feeling this way because you want Ash to hug you more.

That’s it. It’s hugs.

Phew. Thoughts to the rescue. My mind came up with the answer. Lucky I’m so smart and logical. Those fucking hugs, why won’t Ash hug me more?? I started to feel upset and a little lonely. The tight ball of black wire wool was still there, but I was distracted by how upset I felt that Ash didn’t hug me more.


Hang on.

This makes no sense. I have no idea where that answer came from. All I know is that I felt a sensation, likely attached to an emotion, and my mind sprayed a bunch of thoughts at me until I accepted one as the truth. It didn’t even address the ‘black wire wool’ sensation I was having - instead I created a distraction out of thin air… I thought it, I was able to come up with logic around the thought, so it seemed true.


If my emotions and my thoughts were people having a conversation it would be a very one sided conversation. My thoughts would be the kind of person who interrupts constantly, finishing sentences, not listening, just waiting until the next moment he can jump in and explain how it really is. My emotions would be the person being talked over, not being listened to, meekly saying “oh, no... that’s not what I was trying to say at all...” while the other person takes over the conversation.

My thoughts aren’t necessarily any truer than my emotions. And yet, something about me causes me to believe them over and above any other kind of signal I experience. Even though they’re mostly a random spray of ideas and general mind junk, my thoughts seem the most true.

Not everyone is like me. You might be convinced that your emotions are the truth. You’ll tell me that if you feel it, it must be true. You’ll accept your emotions as truth and do all sorts of mind tricks to fall in line with the truth.

You and I are not so different. I assume my thoughts are the truth and bend my emotions to fit and you assume your emotions are truth and rationalise to fit. What each of us tends to accept as reality obscures reality.

Emotions, thoughts, and sensations are just signals. The only thing that is ‘real’ is what we do. Barring a big philosophical discussion about what 'real' means. Let's do that another time.

Don’t get me wrong - I’m not asking you to ignore your signals. They’re incredibly important parts of the way you perceive the world and work out what to do. But they’re not reality - they’re trying to tell you something about reality. I want you to see them for what they are and perhaps free yourself from the belief that your negative emotions or oppressive thoughts are real. For many of you, the starting point to this is the third signal - sensation.

The Triangle

These three signals; emotion, sensation, thinking; make up a nice neat triangle. I know that this triangle is much neater than you or I will ever be but this sort of simplification is a great start to understanding what goes on inside the complexities of your brain.

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Emotions are the motivations to take actions. Essentially, an emotion is a strong cue for you to move.

Thinking is the ’rational’ part of you brain trying to process, consider, reason, judge, and provide explanation to what’s going on.

Sensations are signals coming from the systems in your body designed to notice changes in environment internally and externally. For example, a sensation might be how the skin on your hand notices a change when you move it near the stove. A more internal sensation could be the how your muscles and connective tissue feel when you stretch them.

All of these elements are linked and it can be hard to distinguish between them sometimes. Luckily, it’s not that important for you to be able to do that.

What is important is that these three elements are constantly trying to interpret each other. If you're feeling a sensation, you interpret it with your emotions or you think about it. For example, you feel the sensation of pain. Maybe your response is to spend time thinking about why it’s hurting. Or perhaps you start to feel sad (an emotion) because you feel as though the pain will never go away. Either way, you are interpreting the sensation using the other signals available to you.

Sometimes this is helpful. Your thoughts about why you’re feeling pain might lead to you think of a way to stop the pain. But it’s not always helpful. Have you ever woken up feeling angry about a dream you’ve had? Has that anger crept into your day? When you wake up from a dream like that, you’re feeling the emotion of anger. Because you’re feeling that emotion, you rationalise that there must be a reason you’re angry so it feels much more reasonable to respond with anger to things in the real world. If you’re feeling the emotion, it must be for a reason!

Of the three sides of this triangle, thoughts and emotions are most often mistaken for fact. But as you can see from the dream example, they're merely signals and interpretations of your environment. They are all important and helpful at times, but when you start to believe them to be more than they are, you stop using them to interpret the world and instead find yourself caught in a weird abstraction of reality that feels completely true.

It’s hard to see the signals for what they are when you’re in the habit of believing them to be truth. It’s even harder when you have a particularly strong signal. Nevertheless, you can change how you react to your signals. You can change which signals you pay more attention to (remember, I tend towards believing that what I think is true). You can also change the way these signals are created in the first place.

Powerful stuff huh? Guess what? It’s basically just realising that all of these are signals and listening carefully to them. It’s simple to write, easy to say. Hard to do.

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Meta cognitive awareness is your ability to sit above this triangle and watch what’s going on in the triangle without perceiving anything in the triangle as a fact. You become an objective observer of your signals and can make choices about how to interpret them. It’s not about questioning what’s going on in the triangle or trying to rationalise why you can see things happening in a particular way (guess what? that’s just thinking...) You simply take the time to observe all the emotions, the thoughts that pop up, and any sensations you feel without doing anything about any of them.

That’s the beauty of this - you don’t have to do anything.

Just observe.

I’m not suggesting that you live your entire life like this, but the skill is incredibly useful to have. With a life time of practice in taking action in response to your thoughts, emotions or sensations, sitting back and observing instead will be hard. It’s highly unlikely you’ll be able to do this after reading my blog post about it. It takes practice.

This model is a simplification of the complex system that is you. The whole point of observing yourself in this way is to show you that you’re operating in a system. The thoughts, emotions, and sensations you’re having are all part of a system even if one feels overwhelming right now.

it gets a whole lot more complex than this but that’s for another time.

Meditation Practice

The objective of mindfulness meditation practice is to be able to observe your experience and to be less reactive. You focus on what’s happening right now in your body and mind. A common method to get into this state is to observe the sensations in the body such as the rise and fall of your breath.

There are many resources out there now to help you practice mediation. I successfully kicked off my mediation practice using the Headspace app which I continue to use today. I also use Oak for unguided mediations because of the great implementation of interval bells.

I strongly recommend using an app to help you or even better, an in person guided mediation. If you can’t, here’s a simple written guide to help you get started now.

  1. Get comfortable. You could sit on a cushion, your favourite chair, or even lie down.
  2. Take a few deep breaths, slowly drawing air all the way in and slowly releasing the air.
  3. Close your eyes and let your breath return to normal - make no effort to breath in a particular way.
  4. Focus your attention on the rising and falling sensation of the breath in the body. It might be in your stomach, or chest. If you can’t feel it, try putting your hand on your stomach.
  5. If it helps you to focus, count in your mind each breath as it passes up to 10 then start over at 1. For example, breath in, one, breath out, two, breath in, three etc.
  6. All you have to do is pay attention to your breath. There’s nothing else to do. If your mind wanders, as soon as you realise it has happened, bring it back to focusing on your breath. Don’t worry - this will happen a lot. Coming back to the focus is the practice.

Maintain this practice for 5 minutes to begin with. You could set a timer using your phone. Try building up to longer periods of time as you get used to observing your ‘triangle’ like this.

Do you know which side of the triangle you tend to believe is true? I’d love to hear your answer in the comments!

The Enemy of Creativity is Comparison

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I got a Panobook from Studio Neat today. It’s really nice. The cover is lovely, and the paper itself is beautiful to write on (and I’m only using a bic!).

Do you ever feel bad writing in new notebooks? Like whatever crap your writing or drawing isn’t as nice as the notebook deserves or something? I do. The Panobook has lovely paper and such attention to detail that I felt bad writing in for the first time.

I learned from Merlin Mann that the way around this is to break the spell straight away. Draw something stupid on the first page. Scribble on it. Write a dumb quote. Put a sticker in there. Shit. Someone has to do it. Once you realise that the notebook is just there for you to fill up in whatever way you want, there’s nothing left but to fill it up! Create in it. Draw. Write. Make Things. No-one will laugh at you here in this notebook.

And even if they did somehow find the notebook, look at it, and for some reason laugh at you, it’s because they’re not creating. It doesn’t mean you should turn off your creative tap. It doesn’t mean you should stop creating.

Creativity is how you figure stuff out. It’s how you learn about yourself. Fuck, it’s how you get in touch of who you are. It’s play. It’s human.

It starts with the first page. And Don’t Fucking Stop. I get it. You’ve heard this before. And you can’t draw anyway. Well fuck. If you really can’t draw then that’s something you can learn to do in this notebook.

The enemy of creativity is comparison.

I’m sure I heard that somewhere but I can’t remember where. A few months ago I would’ve let that stop me writing because I wanted to be scientific and cite my sources always. That’s a fair point - people should get credit if they want it. But creativity is also taking what you see around you and bringing a part of yourself to it. I’m not saying you should steal. I am saying don’t fucking let details like that get in the way of you tapping into your creative stream.

I wrote about making something instead of consuming something next time you and try to relax. Did you try that? What did you make?

Once you besmirch the first page of your notebook and keep creating, the next step is realising that’s the whole point. It’s about attitude. In this culture where work is the primarily valued thing, it can be easy to measure the value of your play and creativity in terms of money. Imagine for a second that the value in whatever you’re creating in this notebook (or whatever you’re doing!) is just as important as the work you do. Hopefully you don’t need much imagination because if it feels good to you and you get something out of it, it has value.

So. Go dirty the first page of your notebook in whatever way you want. Hell, you can just tear it out if you want. Creativity is valuable in all its forms. Don’t let comparison in any form get in your way.

Images on this post are from Studio Neat