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How to turn insight into action


You know what it’s like to have an insight: one of those “aha” moments when something becomes very clear. You “get” it, even though you may not be able to put words into it, you have a sense of clarity, a sense of possibility. In this article, I will talk about the fine line there is between insight and action.

I sometimes use far-fetched metaphors to make my point. This time, I’m going to use an analogy with safecracking. It’s not that I practice this art—or that I expect you to have a first hand acquaintance with it. But we’ve all seen it done in movies and TV shows. The perpetrator is usually portrayed as some sort of artist with a superhuman calm, an extraordinarily good ear, and very deft hands. As he makes tiny movements with the locking mechanisms, he listens to the subtle clues of the wheels turning inside, and adjusts his movements accordingly. And the supposedly impregnable safe gently opens up.

Now, how is this related to exploring “insights”?

Well, that typical scene gives us some insights into the nature of safes and what it takes to open them. A large part of the fascination that such a scene exerts on us is the contrast between the heaviness, the rock-solid stodginess of the safe on the one hand, and the gentleness and grace of the burglar’s movements on the other hand. This scene informs us that, if we want to have a frank and open relationship with a safe, we should go beyond first looks. We’ll get more out of the safe if we relate to it as a complex mechanism full of delicate little wheels and cranks, than if we just see it as a thickly padded, compact box.

That is definitely a nice insight. You and I understand it quite well. However, we’d never be able to open a safe even if our life depended on it. So, while this kind of insight is necessary to becoming a safecracker, it is certainly not sufficient.

What then is the difference between, on the one hand, people like you and me, and on the other hand people who actually crack safes? I mean, other than the fact they’re criminal.

You and I would say: “Aha. I get it. I see how you crack a safe. I get the idea.” But, of course, what we get is just an overview of what it’s like to crack a safe, as seen from the outside, and from a distance. In contrast, the “pro” is somebody who has gone beyond the mere concept to the actual practice, and has invested time and effort to develop his powers of attention to actually understand the specifics of “communicating” with a safe: what different sounds indicate, and how to respond to them. Each sound is like an insight into what’s happening inside the safe’s mechanism at a given moment. But, instead of being a very general sense about what a safe is, it is a very specific sense of what can be done to affect the inner mechanisms of the safe at that moment.

So, what was this article about? If what you get from it is that I’m suggesting safecracking as a legitimate alternative within a process of career change, there may be a miscommunication. I’d be happier if you saw this as a metaphor for how to deal with insights.

If all you're asking from an insight is to give you some sort of understanding, the danger is that you won't explore any further once you have the insight. The insight does give you a sense of what it's all about, so, yes, you understand the situation better. But it's not really actionable, any more than seeing a safecracker in a movie teaches you to actually crack a safe.

Instead, it usually pays to see the insight as only a first step. It is going to take work to go beyond that first glimpse of understanding. It's going to take practice -- confronting reality, and learning from that experience.

Insight is a wonderful way to open new doors. But don't just stay on the threshhold. Give yourself a chance to go beyond the gateway. It takes personal engagement to make things happen.



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