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10 keys to open up your mind

Freeing your thinking has surprising benefits. Here’s how to get started.

By Trisha Elliott

My openness test began with a challenge: to expose myself to six new ideas and experiences. My partner filled a bag with slips of paper, each representing a meet-up he found on social media. The idea was that I would draw six mystery events, show up and see how open I was to the experience. I savoured mirza ghasemi at a Persian restaurant, teetered at a roller-skating club, took in a lecture about the #MeToo phenomenon and delighted in trumping strangers who clearly took euchre more seriously than I ever have.

Then I drew “swim with a naturalist group,” billed as “open-minded people looking to enjoy many different activities naked.” My partner doubled over at my reaction. I didn’t make it to the sixth challenge; my open mind slammed firmly shut at number five. Maybe that’s not a bad thing. We all draw the line somewhere.

The world is not well-served by people who spend their days searching for alien crop circles or giving credence to conspiracy theories. Being truly open to the possibility that you were abducted at birth might be discombobulating. While open-mindedness is espoused as a virtue, it clearly has its limits. “Don’t be so open-minded that your brains fall out,” the adage goes.

And yet openness, which psychology deems one of the “big five” personality characteristics, makes for more constructive disagreement by increasing our potential for compassion and empathy. It involves creativity, imagination, and the willingness to try new things and entertain new thoughts. You don’t get to be Einstein or Picasso without having an open mind. Open-mindedness is at the root of progress.

It might also be key to helping us live longer. A 2008 study that tracked seniors for five years found that an attitude of openness plays a protective role when it comes to health, possibly because it helps us adapt to challenges.

There is good spiritual precedent for open-mindedness, too. Contrary to his contemporaries, Jesus kept a remarkably open mind toward sex workers, tax collectors, lepers and other marginalized groups. “In fact, it was this open-minded attitude that made him such a scandal,” writes James Spiegel, professor of philosophy and religion at Taylor University in Indiana.

So where is the line between the anything-goes version of open-mindedness that fogs up our brains and the constructive kind that makes us flourish? In How to Be Critically Open-Minded: A Psychological and Historical Analysis, author John Lambie advocates for “critical open-mindedness.” This approach, he writes, “is about acknowledging the fallibility of oneself and others. It refers to a rare, but undoubtedly real, human capacity that is also seemingly a paradox: the ability both to hold in mind different points of view and ‘accept’ them, and at the same time rationally criticize and shift between them. It is thus the interweaving of perspective with reason.”

Similarly, philosopher Bertrand Russell calls for “critical receptiveness,” or being open to hearing and receiving new ideas while at the same time only holding on to those that cut the mustard.

Here are 10 ways you can exercise an open mind while keeping your critical faculties intact:

1. Be ready to revise your opinion. A willingness to reconsider our views is at the core of open-mindedness, according to educational philosopher William Hare. It involves a sincere desire to seek the truth regardless of what the truth might turn out to be and to accept that any truth we hold might in the end be proven wrong. Jesus adopts this stance in the Gospel of Matthew in his exchange with a Canaanite woman, whom he initially declines to help because she doesn’t belong to the “house of Israel.” As the story goes, she challenges Jesus’ judgment, and he changes his mind, exemplifying the Christian virtues of humility and grace.

2. Make an inventory. Sometimes it's healthy to keep a record of wrongs, especially if you’re prone to thinking your perspective is flawless. To keep it humble, make a list of opinions you once held and have since abandoned. Identify the factors that triggered the change of heart. In each case, contemplate the frame of mind you had to adopt to allow the new perspective to take root. Note how your world view expanded as a result.

3. Widen your scope. Mix it up. Expose yourself to different perspectives, values and experiences. Attend an event you wouldn’t naturally gravitate toward. Choose a book with a viewpoint you find challenging. Strike up a conversation with someone who stretches your mindset. Befriend someone with a different faith perspective or political stripe. Notice what changes in you.

4. Welcome opposing views. We are psychologically hard-wired to automatically search for evidence that supports our opinion and shut out information that doesn’t. To kick back against our one-track mind when faced with an opposing view, philosopher Jason Baehr suggests we ask ourselves the following questions: “What temptations am I experiencing to ignore, distort, or otherwise exhibit a ‘closed’ mind toward the perspective I am considering? Can I see how an intelligent, well-meaning person might be led to disagree with me about X? Am I able to accept this fact? Or does it make me feel uncomfortable?”

5. Resist snap judgments. A series of experiments led by Princeton psychologists Janine Willis and Alexander Todorov found that all it takes is a 10th of a second to form an impression of a stranger. In the rush to judgment, patience is a virtue. Question your immediate impressions. Consider the evidence that shores up your judgments. Instead of giving in to a knee-jerk response, buy yourself some time. Use the phrase “let me think about that” and really mean it.

6. Demote your opinion. Just because we have an opinion doesn’t mean it counts for more. In the field of social psychology, “superiority bias” is when we overestimate our worth in relation to the average person. Challenge superiority bias by chalking up your perspective as one of many. When you are tempted to come down hard on an issue, make a list of other legitimate approaches.

7. Engage in spiritual practice. Spiritual practice helps us to understand and appreciate other perspectives. Instead of trying to make your mind go blank in your meditation practice, hold the heap of mental chatter up to God, asking for insight as you sort through each aspect.

If you find yourself in an ideological disagreement, make your heart attentive not only to the other person’s position but also to your relationship. Hold your relationship in prayer. Ask God to provide wisdom and clarity.

8. Ask questions. Important facts are often lost in translation. So when it comes to being open-minded, curiosity is your friend. Don’t assume you automatically understand someone else’s perspective. Dig deep. Ask open, probing and clarifying questions. Once you feel that you have a handle on another’s perspective, check your understanding by paraphrasing or mirroring it: “Do I understand correctly that you are saying this because you think XYZ?”

9. Sharpen your listening skills. Instead of plotting your counterpoint, truly listen to the perspective that is being offered. In person, use body language that shows you are listening and open. Be attentive to the desire behind the position; ask yourself what is really important to the individuals holding the opposite view. Demonstrate empathy by naming what’s at stake in the other perspective.

10. Love your neighbour. The Christian imperative is to love not only our neighbours but also our enemies. Baehr writes that this involves giving serious consideration to our enemies’ beliefs: “If I feed and clothe my neighbor or enemy, but ignore, distort, or otherwise fail to ‘take seriously’ his deeply held beliefs, then surely I fail to embody the kind of love that Jesus commands.” Open-mindedness is a prerequisite to truly loving each other.

Rev. Trisha Elliott is a minister at Southminster United in Ottawa.


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