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De-mystifying Mindfulness

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Don’t just do something, sit there!

Recently I have been experimenting with sitting meditation. Alas, no great revelations to report. Monkey mind is alive and well and demands bananas!

Scientist and Monk

Working at it, however, has changed me in subtle ways and stoked my curiosity to dig deeper. I just completed an excellent online course offered by Coursera titled De-mystifying Mindfulness, which combines theory with guided-meditation experiential practice. Starting with What exactly is Mindfulness?, common stereotypes are examined under the guidance of the monk, the scientist, the ninja, the hippie, and the zombie. Ancient ideas get remixed as construct mindfulness for neuroscientific investigation, and are put to work in the modern therapeutic practices of Mindfulness-based stress reduction (MBSR) and Mindfulness-based cognitive therapy (MBCT).

Mindfulness is often associated with Buddhism. Secular mindfulness can go to great lengths to disassociate (de-mystify) modern practice from its origins. And those origins can be traced not just to one tradition - e.g. vipassana, or maybe zen - of “Buddhism” (an all-encompassing word invented only in the 19th century), nor limited to a single region or philosophy: Daoism, the Stoics, American psychologist William James and others have left their mark. Mindfulness is no longer to be left to the monks. Its a big business now. Even the military is embracing mindfulness!

The best encounters in life always leave you with a more complete view of the land, and a forever receding view of the horizon. Ever onward! I have so many questions! But two questions in particular spur my exploration. First: What is this? This being the inner sense of perceiving and interpreting information moment to moment. Rather inaccurately, I suspect. Humans appear to perceive what we need to survive, not what makes us happy or what is necessarily true. A question that flows into my second: How can this very same sense make a more accurate, re-constructed sense of itself? How can the tool fix the tool?

I find the idea of sati explored in the Satipatthana Sutta very intriguing. It strikes me how much a millennia-old contemplative tradition can be approached as a 21st century secular technology. Better yet, to borrow a popular definition from software, an open-source technology. I have access to freely available tools to verify sati claims about physical reality, step-by-step, for myself. No magic, no permission, no end-user agreements from third-parties is required. Focusing on, say, the breath improves the skill of focus and makes me conscious of all the things that pull me away from the focus. Things I normally experience mindlessly. What are all these things that enter my awareness unbidden? And how does my body respond both to the object of focus and the objects that pull that focus elsewhere? Sati makes the claim that - through experience gained from diligent practice - I can learn to discern the difference between event and reaction, and elect to choose more skillful responses. Which is a good skill to cultivate, because sati invites me to consider objects of focus that might be upsetting and most likely avoided in a more therapeutic practice. Such as the idea of impermanence, and making it up close and personal in the visualization of my own death.

This ability of metacognition, to “step back” and observe the stream of consciousness, is a skill I wish to cultivate in my own mindfulness practice. Whereas the MBSR and MBCT focus on wellness benefits, I wish to explicitly develop greater awareness of things as they are and equanimity to observe whatever may rise and fall away. Gaining the ability to partition my awareness also addresses my earlier question: How can the (mind) tool fix the tool? By using the ability to reserve a portion of my cognition to observe and make choices elsewhere. Bootstrapping my way out of dukkha, if you will.

I have begun a daily mindfulness exercise where I set aside a block of time to focus on the breath. Breath exercises appear to be a good foundation to hone focus and note distractions. I have also begun reading “secular dharma” writers such as Stephen Batchelor (Buddhism Without Belief, After Buddhism), Joseph Goldstein (Mindfulness), and Jay Michaelson (Evolving Dharma). Something I also wish to explore in-depth are technologies - e.g. electroencephalogram (EEG) - that attempt to quantify the subjective experience of mindfulness, and how that can be translated into DIY brain hacking tools.

New sessions of De-Mystifying Mindfulness start every few weeks. Highly recommended!