Catalyzing Positive Behavior Change with Mindful Review

This entry is part 4 of 6 in the series Meditation and Algorithms

This post was written in 2019! It’s still accurate and helpful, but if you’d like an update on how I currently practice Mindful Review, you can watch this video:

In the last post, I shared a simple algorithmic technique for using distractions to optimize concentration power. In this post, I’ll share one of several meditation techniques that have dramatically changed my meditation practice and life: Mindful Review.

Mindful Review catalyzes positive behavior change. In the technique, you review – remember – recent events that happened to you, and make use of them. It helps you make behavior changes related to those events, and to resolve the hindrance of anxiety or worry, so that you can meditate more effectively. Over time, this leads to consistent deepening of your meditation practice as well as a more ethical and fulfilling life.

I started practicing Mindful Review during a difficult time at the Monastic Academy. Our teacher was away for an extended period of time, and I was placed in a leadership role. I was the “Operations” person, the equivalent of a head monk at other monasteries. I was responsible for maintaining the rules, discipline, and schedule of the monastery.

I was off to a rocky start. I would often get angry at others, which would make them angry at me. It didn’t feel good.

I wanted to give useful and skillful feedback, but found myself giving feedback poorly, or omitting important feedback.I wanted to lead and inspire each member of the group, but I found that difficult, and often ended up doing the opposite. Above all, I wanted to understand myself better. Why did I find some of my duties so challenging? What was going on in my mind that made things so hard?

I decided to do mindful review regularly, at the beginning of each evening meditation period.

Here’s how I practice Mindful Review:

  1. Review your recent actions, recollecting the last day or so in broad strokes.
  2. Choose an event that seems important – one you might be proud of, or not so proud of, or simply an ambiguous event you’d like to explore.
  3. Review this event by remembering it in as much detail as you can. Remember the area around you, how mindful you were (or not), what happened in your body, what you saw and heard, how you felt, what others may have said, their body language, etc.
  4. If you feel proud of what happened, celebrate that! Commend yourself mentally. Say, “that was good! Nice work!” or something that resonates with you. Bask in any feelings of pride or joy or pleasure that arise. Explore and enjoy these positive emotions.
  5. If you don’t approve of what happened, you can also turn this into a positive experience. You can envision having done it differently in the past, or set a different intention for the future.
  6. Either way, feel good. Feel good in your body. In this way, we learn to celebrate and grow our successes, and learn from our mistakes – so there’s always a positive outcome.

You can stop there, or you can repeat this process with as many discrete events as you like. If, during the session, you think of something concrete to do as a result of this meditation (like offer an apology), follow up on that.

I did mindful review regularly for several months. When I began to practice each night, I would often find myself distracted. When I inquired into the source of the distraction, I would notice my body felt uncomfortable – and it wasn’t physical pain. It was emotional pain: regret, worry, fear, sadness, and anger.

I discovered, through mindful review, that these feelings were based in an event that happened during the day. I had usually handled something unskillfully, hurting myself or others. I had wanted to act in a skillful way, rising to the challenge and doing what needed to be done, but found myself falling short.

Ordinarily when I received feedback, I would tighten up, becoming defensive, or attacking the person who gave me the feedback, or, even worse, attacking myself, spiraling into shame and self-abuse. Those strategies haven’t worked for me. I quickly learned that mindful review was an opportunity to receive the feedback I sorely needed, but in a safe way. It was hard to see feedback that I gave myself as a threat or an insult. If I gave myself the feedback, I could connect to the positive intention behind the feedback: helping me to do better in the future. And I didn’t have to get better immediately. I could incorporate the feedback in my own way, at my own pace, without a deadline (which I usually perceived as stressful).

This is actually a good way to receive any feedback. You simply listen to and hear the feedback, without reacting to it – no arguing, no defending, and without planning how you will incorporate it. It’s as if you are the floor, and water is spilled on you- there’s nothing to do. There’s no need to think about it any more than you have to. Simply let the feedback inform your next actions. And if it isn’t sufficient – well, you’ll likely get more feedback, perhaps in a way that is louder, clearer, and easier to understand!

Mindful Review works best when done regularly, ideally daily. If you try it just once or twice, or every so often, you probably won’t find it very useful. But if you practice it consistently, you will start to see incredible behavior changes over time. Some of these changes will be small, and some will be big. Either way, they will make a meaningful improvement on your quality of life.

If you try Mindful Review and find it useful, you’ll want to make it a habit. I have found that there are three good times to do Mindful Review:

  1. Once a day, at the beginning or end of the day
  2. Once a day, at the beginning of a meditation practice in the evening
  3. Intermittently throughout the day, on an as-needed basis or at good transition points or breaks.

Doing it at a specific time of day has the advantage of making it easy to form a habit. Doing the technique on an as-needed basis has the advantage of allowing us to respond and react more quickly to successes and mistakes.

I kept persisting with mindful review, and, over time, it led to me making enormous gains in the areas I found challenging. I wasn’t a perfect leader, and I still made and make many mistakes. But even my mistakes became smoother. The fear and anger that others felt around me gradually transformed into respect, love, and even admiration. This was a very welcome change.

As we’ve discussed earlier in this series, Shinzen describes five reasons that we practice mindfulness: increased fulfillment, decreased suffering, increased self-knowledge, positive behavior change, and the arising of a spirit of love and service. For me, Mindful Review has been an endless and reliable source of positive behavior change. That positive behavior change facilitates mindful awareness, which, in turn, leads to the other four benefits of practice – as well as more and more positive behavior change.

If you are in a leadership position, or want to improve your ethics and character, I cannot recommend consistent practice of Mindful Review highly enough.

More on Mindful Review

Subscribe to my newsletter, my YouTube channel, or follow me on Twitter to get updates on my new blog posts and current projects. You can also support my work and writing on Patreon.

Series Navigation<< The Distraction AlgorithmUsing Mindfulness to Practice Making Decisions >>