Mindfulness is the hack

Mindfulness is a traditional Buddhist concept which is being embraced by modern psychology. The Buddha taught mindfulness as one element of the “Eightfold Noble Path” to enlightenment and its benefits are being recognised as being particularly applicable to the modern world. Indeed, mindfulness can be seen as having two incarnations – the traditional Buddhist idea, and the modern psychology concept it has directly inspired.

It can be a tricky idea to define, but Ed Halliwell, who wrote “The Mindful Manifesto”, offers:

Mindfulness is a mind-body approach to life that helps us relate skillfully to thoughts, emotions, body sensations and the environment, increasing our awareness, ability to manage difficult experiences, and make wise choices.

When we train in mindfulness, we practice paying attention to what’s going on in ourselves and the world around us, cultivating open-hearted and compassionate attention.

or Jon Kabat-Zinn:

Fundamentally mindfulness is a simple concept. Its power lies in its practice and its applications. Mindfulness means paying attention in a particular way: on purpose, in the present moment, and nonjudgmentally. This kind of attention nurtures greater awareness, clarity, and acceptance of present-moment reality. It wakes us up to the fact that our lives unfold only in moments. If we are not fully present for many of those moments, we may not only miss what is most valuable in our lives but also fail to realize the richness and the depth of our possibilities for growth, and transformation.

Mindfulness is rooted in meditation and can be seen as an extension of a sitting meditation practice into our everyday lives. Indeed basic meditation practice is often described as ‘mindfulness meditation’. In this we take a solid posture and then rest our attention on an object, most commonly the breath. When thoughts arise we notice them, but do not fixate on them. We simply return our attention to the breath. This helps us develop what is known as ‘mindfulness and awareness’ – and it helps us become aware of our thoughts and emotions whilst allowing us to develop the skills to not be consumed by them.

The general idea is that by practicing this for a short period everyday we can develop the ability to live our lives in a more mindful way – mindful of how our thoughts shape our actions, emotions, etc.

Buddhist teachers who came to the West like Chögyam Trunpa Rinpoche, Suzuki Roshi and Thich Nhat Hanh seemed more interested in teaching the core sitting mindful meditation practice to people, than particularly espousing complex Buddhist philosophy (although they also did this). This, I think, inspired people like Dr. Jon Kabat-Zin to develop programs like Mindfulness Based Stress Reduction, which were more overtly secular frameworks for teaching mindfulness. Indeed the modern ‘mindfulness’ movement can be seen as a way to repackage this ancient practice in a way that may be more palatable for many. It should be noted that most Buddhist centres offer meditation courses which do not require any religious conversion or acceptance of dogma. At the heart of Buddhism is a practical, usable technique to improve your relationship with your mind and the world. Also, meditation has been mixed up in all sorts of various “New Age” movements, which may also be off putting for many. But through all these means, it is emerging as a mainstream idea, no stranger than going to the gym. Companies like Google are even promoting meditation to their own staff.

I guess what’s important is that the core idea and practice is promoted. I was thinking about this when I came across the term “mindfulness is the hack”, a phrase I first heard on Merlin Mann and Dan Benjamin’s podcast “Back to Work”. “Back to Work” is about “productivity, communication, work, barriers, constraints, tools, and more.” and it occasionally talks about mindfulness as a method for helping improve productivity and concentration. I have been learning about and trying to practice mindfulness for a few years, mainly through meditation, and thinking of it as a ‘hack’ was interesting.

Then I also read an article about Steve Jobs’ Buddhist practice. It postulated that Jobs would have seen Buddhism’s practical methods for mindfulness as a ‘hack’ which would have appealed to him.

Why would a former phone phreak who perseverated over the design of motherboards be interested in doing that? Using the mind to watch the mind, and ultimately to change how the mind works, is known in cognitive psychology as metacognition. Beneath the poetic cultural trappings of Buddhism, what intensive meditation offers to long-term practitioners is a kind of metacognitive hack of the human operating system (a metaphor that probably crossed Jobs’ mind at some point.) Sitting zazen offered Jobs a practical technique for upgrading the motherboard in his head.

This I think is a fascinating way to look at mindfulness meditation as a way of hacking your brain. Neuroplasticity is the idea that our brain’s neural pathways and synapses are changeable due to behaviors, environment, and injuries, which challenges the previous notion that the brain was static from adulthood. The notion is that certain behaviors can shape the physical make up of our brain. Some say that repeated use of the internet, which its inherent maze of distractions and multiple clicks, shapes these pathways in a way which is to the detriment of our ability to concentrate and focus. Similarly, research is being done that prolonged periods of meditation shape these pathways in other ways, which can be beneficial. Research is showing promising signs that mindfulness can reduce stress and promote happiness. By hacking our brains with a tried-and-tested techniques we could learn to be more mindful and aware of the present moment.

In the era of scientific scrutiny and of the ‘life-hack’ I think seeing meditation as a ‘cognitive mind hack’ could be a great way of promoting it to people who might otherwise have dismissed it.

Many towns have meditation or Buddhist centres where the core technique can be learned, in particular I’d recommend a Shambhala or Karma Kagyu Centre. I’d also recommend the book “The Mindfulness Revolution” which has a series of great essays on the topic. Finally, Merlin Mann’s post on mindfulness has a series of really great quotes to help tease out a bit more what is meant by mindfulness.