I’ve written a lot about mindfulness, and up until now, it’s pretty much all been about mindfulness as a way of either feeling or functioning better – sort of a ‘mindfulness for a better you’ stance. This is also the direction taken in a lot of modern mindfulness texts and therapies, and by its many proponents. Thus, mindfulness usually gets defined and advertised as a ‘way of being in the moment’. Learning to be mindful, therefore, typically involves learning to be present in the presence of distractions (including our thoughts and feelings).
It’s not that this definition is a bad thing – mindfulness (as a way of ‘being in the moment’) can work well for many people in a lot of situations (at least for coming back into the moment in the face of distraction). But there’s another way of looking at mindfulness that, in my opinion, is more valuable and can help us function a lot better: mindfulness as a way of correcting for our inherent screw ups.
If you’re a reader of my blog, you’ll be familiar with my ideas on the inherent issues within our cognitive architecture – from our limbic system (inner monkey) overrides (see here), to our multitude of cognitive biases (see here). All of these processes, themselves the product of an evolved neurological architecture, influence our thinking and our actions. And this influence isn’t usually gentle, it can be immediate, abrupt, and profound, and it makes for a substantially greater likelihood that we’ll underperform, especially under pressure.
I’m going to cut our brains a break at this point, because it’s all very well to dump on our nervous systems for not having caught up to the 21st century. Most of the systems that get us in trouble in the modern world evolved to enhance our survivability. So, when we underperform, it’s only by modern standards – up until very recently (from an evolutionary standpoint), this sort of shortcut thinking was often very useful as a survival tool. And evolution doesn’t necessarily keep pace with technological or sociological development, meaning that we can’t really blame our brains for not adapting in a few hundred years. Unfortunately though, the same shortcuts that once increased survivability now degrade our ability to function. Keeping your head in a crisis is the epitome of modern functioning, and the one thing our neurological architecture makes extremely difficult.
You might recall my review of Daniel Kahneman’s ideas on Type I and Type II thinking (see here). To resummarise quickly, Kahneman proposes that we have two major ‘thinking’ systems in the brain: Type I and Type II. On the one hand, Type I is fast, it allows us to react quickly and without much processing time to things with which we are habituated (e.g., what’s 2+2?), and it’s our default mode. The advantage of Type I is that we can come to a conclusion both rapidly and by using very few resources. The brain, you see, runs on blood sugar and, for most of our evolution, this was potentially difficult to replenish – hence the system’s tendency to conserve resources. The disadvantage of Type I is that it’s not very flexible, and it’s prone to mistakes. It will settle for ‘good enough’, even when it’s not. Type II, on the other hand, is epitomised by deeper thought, the type of thinking that takes a lot of effort and concentration, and that is difficult to sustain. Type II has the advantage of allowing us to really solve problems, but it is distracting, time consuming, and can’t be done in combination with other activities (e.g., try calculating 263×567 in your head – even if you can do it, it will take an enormous amount of practise to be able to do so whilst also doing something else). So not only does Type II use more resources (making it less preferential from a system resource perspective, unless absolutely necessary), it can also slow us down.
So, short story: we default to ‘shortcut’ thinking as a basic feature of our neurological settings. In other words, unless we’re paying attention, we’ll go with whatever is easiest. And when it comes to performing, in the context of external and internal pressure, strong emotions, and a tendency to shortcut problems, it’s extremely hard to solve the complex set of issues that a modern world offers us. Running away from a bear is easy – and that’s what we’re primed to be really good at. Solving complex problems while effectively running away from bears – that’s a lot harder.
Think about how this plays out in your own life. Imagine your usual responses in situations that you find routinely difficult. Driving in heavy traffic, for example, or repeated arguments with your partner, or excessive demands from your boss, or financial difficulties… Chances are that you repeat exactly the same patterns of behaviour pretty much every time, despite the fact that this behaviour simply doesn’t work – you don’t function better, you don’t move forward and, annoyingly, most of the time you don’t even feel better. But you keep doing it anyway.
So, I’d like to have a go at redefining mindfulness. What if mindfulness is the outcome of a training process in which we learn to recognise and act on our cognitive limitations? Thus, mindfulness becomes a set of psychological and neurological adaptations which put the emphasis on paying focused attention in situations where we would normally default to built-in norms (i.e., stressful, challenging, or emotionally overwhelming situations), and then deliberately and carefully choosing an alternate set of behaviours. This would be intensely difficult at first, because it requires the activation of Type II thinking in high pressure situations – and our brains don’t like that because it requires a lot of focused effort (using up resources that in the modern world are fully replenishable). Nevertheless, as Kahneman himself points out, with enough practise, most Type II processes can become automated to Type I (he suggests that chess grandmasters have done exactly this – by automatising the complex pattern recognition required for advanced chess play). In other words, with enough attention and practise, we can train ourselves to default to a different set of actions. This, to my mind, is what mindfulness really is.
Thus, instead of being some sort of magical, mystical, woowoo process, mindfulness is simply a way of learning to self review – it’s about observing the cognitive shortcuts we make, and stepping back from their influence. It’s about learning to referee our own thoughts and behaviours and to determine a more effective action beyond our defaults.
So what can you do, specifically? A great place to start is to have the prenegotiated intention of treating your thoughts, feelings, and urges differently from the way you normally would. For example, the next time you find yourself getting angry, pay attention. Notice that you are upset, notice that you have strong urges to act in a certain way (or say a certain thing), notice the sensations in your body, then attempt to act differently. It will be hard to do, but with some practise, you might be able to act even a little bit differently from your usual. Think of the feeling like you would an uncomfortable chair. If, for instance, you had voluntarily attended an event in which you were required to sit in a really uncomfortable chair for a few hours, you would have two choices. You could sit and squirm, and get angry at the chair and the event organisers, and pay a lot of attention to your discomfort – and completely miss out on the event. Or you could accept the fact that the chair is uncomfortable, that it’s not the chair’s fault, and that you are simply experiencing discomfort. Then you could choose to focus on the event. Nothing is objectively different between the two scenarios, apart from your observation, and choice of action (in this case, your focus).
The Buddhists are fond of saying that, in life, pain is inevitable, but suffering is optional. This is a superb description of mindfulness. You will always have unpleasant thoughts, feelings, sensations and urges. We simply can’t avoid these things (although we like to pretend that they’re not happening, or act in a way that distracts us from them), but we can choose to notice them, and to attend to our choices in that moment. In doing so, we’re programming a distinct upgrade into our default, reactive systems – think of it as a 21st century firmware patch.