June 12th, 2014

Letting Go of Mental Models

This is an excerpt from my book Enlightening Technical Leadership.

What I particularly like about GIS mapping programs like Google Earth is that it’s just as easy to add a layer and take on a new perspective as it is to uncheck a layer and let go of my current perspective. If I bring up a satellite map of North America with the usual layer delineating countries and states, and then uncheck that layer, what happens? The differentiated concepts of country and state disappear. I see with new eyes as I rediscover an underlying substrate that is more continuous. I scroll through the jagged peaks of mountain ranges stretching across thousands of miles. I marvel at the unbroken expanse of flatlands. I drink in capacious inland bodies of water…

But what’s that right in between two of the biggest lakes? I can’t deny it. Michigan, like the claws of a wolverine, drags my jailbird mind back into the world of nations and states. I notice Florida as well, its peninsula as iconic to me as the ears of Mickey Mouse. Still, there is something different to this experience. These places, as distinct as they are, are more connected here than they were in the delineated map – they’re more like parts of the same whole. The more I stay present with this map free of external layers, the more I become aware of the internal layers which supply my continued impressions of “Florida”, “Michigan”, and other such things. Even if I can’t quite un-see them, their nature as constructs projected from my mind becomes more apparent and transparent.

The promise held out by this exercise is that we can gain more awareness of these inner layers/lenses that color and shape our perceptions, which we would otherwise see as the color and shape of the outside world.

To truly and freely let go of mental models, we need plenty of mental space. Without an abundance of mental space, and without a tolerance for its emptiness, we tend to fill the space vacated by one model with an equally cramped alternative. It’s like a corollary of Einstein’s observation that we can’t solve problems from the same level of thinking we were at when we created them. We can’t properly let go of mental models from the same bubbles of mental space in which we constructed them.

Take the well-known anecdote about the belief that the earth rests on a giant turtle. When challenged by the question of what that turtle stands on, the person with this belief responds “it’s turtles all the way down!” I find this particularly humorous, because it’s exactly what I do. When one of my turtle-models is undermined and I can’t tolerate letting go of the turtle, I rush to add more turtles – or elephants, or giraffes, or unicorns for that matter. Whereas when I have more mental space, the turtle doesn’t loom so large in my worldview. I welcome the opportunity to let it go, which enables me to be present with the question at a more im-mediate, essential level – both as conceived and as perceived.

One of the best ways I know to gain mental space is through meditation. There are various types of meditation techniques, such as the mental repetition of a sound (mantra); focusing on the breath or some other object; monitoring thoughts/feelings/sensations with equanimity; and others. All of these share a fundamental principle: the expansion of self-awareness. In meditation, when you become distracted by a thought, feeling or sensation, you gently return your attention back to the intention with which you started the meditation. Every such act of reaching beyond your current distraction is a micro-expansion of self-awareness.

The gentle aspect of this is important. Meditation is like shifting your car into neutral. When you realize that you have become distracted, it’s like discovering that your right foot is back on the gas pedal and your car is in gear. At that moment, forcefully suppressing the distraction is like putting your left foot on the brake. That creates more friction, and takes you away from meditation. Instead, the idea is to just let up on the gas pedal and shift back into neutral. The car may keep moving, but you’re not intentionally involved with that movement.

In meditation, you uncover many pressed gas pedals and brakes which you can release. All of this reduces internal friction and frees up mental space, which carries over into day-to-day experience. You find greater patience to listen to another person with an open mind, and to sit with a problem without the limitations imposed by a particular mental model. You can allow a holistically informed response/solution to naturally emerge.

Leave a Reply

You can use these HTML tags

<a href="" title=""> <abbr title=""> <acronym title=""> <b> <blockquote cite=""> <cite> <code> <del datetime=""> <em> <i> <q cite=""> <s> <strike> <strong>