September 21st, 2008
Illustration compliments of Lem Fugitt of Robot Dreams
In a prior post, I wrote about the value of thinking inside the box. Working from within the box, we can come to recognize the bounds of the box and begin to understand the framework it establishes. It is after coming to understand the box that we can begin to think outside of it. In a similar fashion, mindfulness training takes an inside to outside developmental route. Though there are a lucky few people in the world who can immediately reach enlightenment and perceive the world with unclouded vision, most people will need to journey through a path of self-discovery first.
Our minds are partly formed via luck of the genetic draw and partly forged through environmental and societal influences; our life experiences and interactions with family and community shape our identities. Starting from childhood, we discover patterns of understanding in our everyday existence and use our life experiences to form a framework for understanding the world. Formulating patterns from our experiences allows us to establish coping strategies to survive life. For example, we learn or are taught early in life not to touch hot objects or stay out of the path of large moving objects. On the other hand, we also develop mental frameworks which only serve to color our perceptions. For a multitude of reasons, we may come to like or dislike certain foods, people, style of clothing, etc. The mental constructs we forge become filters through which we perceive the world.
These mental constructs that we form obscure the true nature of the world we perceive. Our sense of self–our egos–assign labels and values to things based largely on preconceptions. By relying on preformed labels and values, we bias our perceptions. We can’t see with fresh eyes, listen with attentive ears, or taste with a cleansed palate. We constrain ourselves in what we allow ourselves to perceive. Our preconceptions form the walls of box which limit our ability to see things as they are, and our egos become the guardians of those walls.
Due to the imperfections of the mind, we are prone to revert to thinking inside the box. In mindfulness training, we strive to expand our awareness to perceive the world as it truly is, but the constraints of our boxes hinder our growth. Often, we may not even know that we view the world through tinted lenses. Part of the challenge in mindfulness training is to focus our attentions our thoughts so that we can come to recognize the mental boxes which bias our perceptions. After recognizing the box formed by our preconceptions, we can begin to understand the box and recognize the walls which trap us.
Recognition of the box and acknowledgement of our egos is prerequisite to breaking down the walls of mental ensnarement. Mindfulness training teaches us to recognize our mental boxes so that we may learn to look past them and perceive with greater clarity. Mindfulness starts from within and expands our awareness outward as we learn to let go of the mental frameworks that our egos so closely guard.
September 13th, 2008
We often hear people talking about “thinking outside of the box.” Usually what is meant by this metaphorical box is the boundaries defined by some line of thought. By exploring new possibilities different from the previous ways of approaching something, whether it be a business or artistic pursuit, we hope to leap past the confines of the old ways using a novel approach. Without people pushing through the boxes of convention, society would stagnate and we would never have the pioneers and leaders to inspire us and drive us to improvement. We recognize Gandhi, Einstein, Martin Luther King, Amelia Earhart, and Bruce Lee as pioneers who have made their mark in the world; their excellence came about from their willingness to push past and eventually redefine the “box.”
The ability to think outside the box is a valuable skill and is requisite for improvements. However, that doesn’t mean that thinking inside the box is useless or even undesireable. The framework of the existing boxes have their own values. Previous established frameworks are often in place for good reason: they work. The human mind is very good at finding structure in things and working from within developed structures. Even without a previous framework in place, we will try to establish an underlying structure to achieve understanding. Currently existing boxes can provide a prebuilt framework to serve as a launching point to facilitate the process of understanding. Using pre-existing boxes saves you the time and effort of building your own model of understanding, and possibly even saves you the unnecessary effort of duplicating existing frameworks. The conventional boxes can get you up to speed faster, particularly in pursuits that require being able to do things (for example, computer programming, painting, or even writing).
Though the box is often depicted as a constraining structure, the box paradoxically often empowers creativity and the ability to change. With no reference framework, our perceptions of the task at hand consist mostly of unknowns. With so many things unknown, we become uncertain, tentative, and possibly frozen into inaction. It is here where working inside the framework of the box becomes most valuable. The box provides a model which either explains the unknowns or defines a course of action to break the cycle of uncertainty and inaction. The box framework provides the starting point for exploration, and it is from this process of exploration that creativity and change can arise. You can hand a child paints and brushes, but the child probably won’t become the next Picasso without some framework for learning how to use the paints.
It is the exploration of the box that eventually leads to the recognition of the limits of the box. Being able to think outside of the box requires that we know what inside and outside the box actually mean. Thinking “outside” of the box is meaningless without the context of understanding what defines the box; understanding the box and being able to work from within the box gives us a starting point to learn to recognize and perceive the box. Recognition of the box is the first step needed to move beyond the box and push outside of it.
While we may ultimately wish to break through the confines of the box and become one of the innovators thinking outside of the box, we cannot completely discount the value of thinking “inside” the box. Thinking inside of the box complements the ability to move beyond the box. As long as we can learn not to be confined by the box, we can find value thinking both inside and outside the box.