Mindfulness is the first step toward Emotional Intelligence

Mindfulness is a bit of a buzz phrase at the moment, but what does it really mean? In my own journey I have discovered many ways that help me to focus, relax, and regain some control when everything seems to be moving too fast. This article will discuss two key elements which are essential for building Emotional Intelligence.

The first is consciously becoming aware of your surroundings. That is, deliberately noticing little, inconsequential things that normally wouldn’t merit attention.

The second is to observe these things without judging, which is much harder than it sounds. It involves temporarily turning off the part of our brain which associates meaning. This meaning filter is why so many little things pass by unnoticed. They are judged to be unimportant and so they just don’t show up on the radar. In this way, the mere act of focusing attention on things that don’t ‘mean’ anything has already disrupted the usual pattern of judgement.

Let’s say I’m making myself a cup of tea. Do I notice the tiny bubbles in my freshly boiled water? Do I count them? Do I observe their pattern? Do I watch them come in and out of existence? Normally, the answer is no. My brain’s meaning centre has unconsciously judged that focusing my attention in this way would not be a good use of its resources. Instead my mind is busily working out how I’m going to finish all my tasks today so that I have time to get ready for that dinner party tonight that I’ve been looking forward to all week!

water droplet: detail we usually miss

Being mindful is therefore to simply observe the fact without associating meaning. My coffee is not good or bad… it just is. When the digital clock on my microwave reads 11:00 it is merely light. It does not indicate time, or imply that I’ve already wasted half my morning. This forgetting of meaning can be very difficult at first and that’s why focusing on little things is a good first step… Looking at the little bubbles in my tea, it’s easy to see that they don’t mean anything.

“Meaningless” bubbles in tea. Look closely. How many can you see?

This simple yet often elusive skill of disassociation comes with practice, but it is invaluable in many areas. By observing myself I can notice (without judgement) the meaning I place on things. Sometimes this meaning helps me to understand the world and live within it. Other times the meaning is somewhat arbitrary. Looking at the clock… am I really ‘running out of time’?

Learning to merely observe phenomena opens the door to a powerful opportunity. I get to choose what meaning I decide to associate. Of the many thousands of ways I could view this situation… which will I choose to see?

“Lost my job, it’s a new opportunity! More free time for my awesome community!” – Everything is Awesome

So how does this link in with Emotional Intelligence?

Awareness is the first step toward mastery. Only once I am aware of an emotion do I have the opportunity to go about changing it. If I feel myself becoming frustrated I can take a break or voice my frustration to change my surroundings. The same is true when dealing with others. If I recognise frustration in my colleague then I can take steps to reduce it, or channel it into a powerful motivation to act. In general, if I notice an emotion, pause for a time, and hold it without judgement, I can then calmly imagine many different ways to see the situation before choosing what it means and how I will respond.

Real life dictates that in order to act we must judge. Judgement can therefore not be withheld indefinitely. The mastery of mindfulness allows a choice via a temporary suspension of judgement. It represents a pause on our unconscious associations and their automatic reactions.

Mastery of this skill is mastery of self. I am no longer a slave to my instinctive knee-jerk reactions. I have a choice, not complete power, but a choice, and this choice is my freedom.


8 thoughts on “Mindfulness is the first step toward Emotional Intelligence

  1. Thank you so much for this article! I’ve recently started meditation and tried to become better at self care. When I don’t do it and recharge, I have such a hard time being a productive person at work. I’ve also been reading quite a few books on EI and have found them helpful. They had similar guidance as your article, this was a great reinforcement for me on the topic of awareness and judgement. I look forward to the next time your EI class is offered. Take care and keep up the great work – it’s really appreciated.


  2. Thanks for the article Paul, super helpful! As a filmmaker, I attempt to find meaning in everything – which is fun, but doing so can send the brain into overdrive when you’re constantly looking for meaning in the tiniest of instances.

    For example, when you look at the bubbles in your tea, they may not mean anything to you… BUT to me, I see the mandelbrot set – and isn’t that cool and strange for that pattern to occur in bubbles in tea! That’s really interesting!


      • I’ve just discovered the magic of fractals, I don’t fully understand it all yet…

        If you love fractals and you’re ever in Canberra, you should totally check out this artwork “L-system oscillator” by Aus artist Joyce Hinterding at the NGA.

        She used liquid graphite to draw fractal-based patterns onto glass panels, which were then wired up in a way (that I don’t fully understand) to capture the electromagnetic energy of the gallery, which was then translated into a soundscape that only becomes audible when you place your hands on the glass. IT’S TOTALLY AMAZING AND COOL!

        The ideas artists come up with are totally mind-blowing!


  3. I find the practice of mindfulness tedious at best. No offense to anyone, but I personally don’t believe in the concept, no matter how much “evidence” there is, however, I do strongly believe it IS helpful for those who believe in it… It is essentially like a placebo effect – if you believe it can help, it can help you.

    Unfortunately, I “can’t” (or won’t – depending on your perspective) switch my logic off, and hence this just causes increasing tension, anxiety and frustration. Perhaps, these are good things to experience, as they are a manifestation of my sub-conscious, however, for something to be helpful it needs to be sustainable (emotionally, physically and etc). I find mindfulness to be excessively frustrating…

    In short – I believe it can be helpful, however, I don’t think it is helpful for me.


    • I also believed that until I had a couple of months of hipnosis therapy, which is basically intensive mindfulness. Now it’s much easier to reach that state of relaxation because I know where I’m supposed to go and how it’s supposed to feel.


  4. I’ve been practising Qi Gong for a couple of years now as a movement meditation. It’s an ancient Chinese practice I try to do every day.It’s a good indoor substitute for swimming…. calms the body, calms the mind, and also guides my mind away from its favourite hamster wheel of thought. Some moves have names, like “soaring crane” or “cloudy hands”, which imitate movement in nature, and bring body and mind together into a nature space. Days without it are ‘less than’ for me.


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