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Episode 8: the Buddha and the Science of Mindfulness

Updated: May 1, 2021

Previous episode:-

Aristotle had a clear account of how the world worked and how he fit into it. Although we have developed a scientific world view today, it does not point to any existential values in terms of how to make us feel like we belong or make our lives more meaningful. We lack nomological order. Erich Fromm introduced the 'having' and the 'being' mode. We often confuse the two (we may think having a car means being more mature) resulting in modal confusion. This is related to what happened in the Axial Revolution in India and how it started with Siddhartha Gautama/the Buddha. Read my post on episode 7 here.

In this lecture, Professor Vervaeke continues the discussion on the Axial Revolution in India and introduces the cognitive-science of mindfulness.

When Siddhartha left the palace he saw three sights that disturbed him deeply --- a sick man, an old man, and a dead body. When he learned about how these are just the natural circumstances of life, he couldn't understand why this would happen to everybody. This existentially distressing experience was starkly contrasted with his next encounter; a mendicant whose eyes reflected peace and serenity. He realized his palace had been a bubble of disillusionment and he felt displaced; he didn't know where he belonged. In other words, he experienced modal confusion; he confused having the palace with knowing how to be in the world. When he understood how this was a bubble of deception, he felt the need to make a drastic change in his life (as people do when they go through awakening experiences).

He decided to go to the forest to follow the path of the renouncer and cultivate a solution to the fear, turmoil, and confusion inside him. Because he felt like he had over-consumed and over-indulged all his life, he thought the solution was in self-denial; he starved himself to the point where he barely had any flesh left. What he didn't realize is that by depriving himself of having certain things, he's still stuck in the having mode. He has just gone from having to not-having. Self-denial is as much of an aspect of modal-confusion as is self-indulgence. The solution is not in negating the having mode and what he has, but transcending it. When he realized the importance of transcending both self-indulgence and self-denial he decided to pursue the Middle Path; this is not about maximizing or minimizing but rather optimizing one's sense of being so one can be connected to the world in the right fashion. When he had this realization he remembered what he saw in the eyes of the Mendicant. 'Remembering' here refers to sati --- a deep, embodied sense of what an experience is like. This is important because this is connected to what we today call mindfulness. Mindfulness is deeply connected with this sense of recovering, remembering, and seeing through illusion.

The story will be continued in later episodes. For now, let's look at the cognitive-science of mindfulness:-

The mindfulness revolution is a response to the meaning crisis. If we resituate this idea in his myth we can see how the Buddha cultivated mindfulness to cultivate awakening as a response to the meaning crisis.

How can we get an understanding of mindfulness and the constitutive psychotechnologies that will help us afford it?

If you ask people what mindfulness is, they'll give you a feature list. They'll say things like 'being present', 'non-judgment' (states invoking the 'being' mode), and that it should bring about insight and reduced reactivity (traits that one experiences in the process) In other words, they'll provide some sort of feature list. This feature list may contain terms that are useful for training someone in mindfulness, but it makes for a poor cognitive-scienitic explanation of it; it doesn't say anything about the causal relationship between them and what aspects of the states (being present and non-judgemental) cause the traits (insight and reduced activity).

Just like the feature list of a bird doesn't encapsulate what a bird is (as elaborated on in episode 5), a feature list of mindfulness does not say anything about its aidos or structural-functional organization (SFO).

So how can we develop an SFO for mindfulness?

Being present

Siddhartha talks about a 'right' kind of concentration during mindfulness which implies that a wrong kind exists. Someone, for example, may keep shouting at you and tell you to narrow your vision so you can only focus on their finger. But does this help cultivate mindfulness? On the other hand, someone may start describing their finger to you as you look at it as a way of constantly renewing your interest in the focus point. The 'right' concentration refers to something like soft-vigilance (as discussed by Ellen Langer) so that being focused means being deeply involved with and interested in the point.

The kind of attention or concentration here refers to something that is not too hard and rigid but not too soft either. Christopher Mole talks about how attention is not something you directly do. For example, if someone asked you to practice swimming, you could swim and do it. But if they asked you to just 'practice' with no context, you'd be confused. This is because we can't directly optimize 'practicing', we practice something by optimizing how we do something else (in this case, swimming). In a similar fashion, you pay attention to something by optimizing another process; paying attention could mean optimizing your hearing so it becomes listening, optimizing your seeing so it becomes looking, etc. Mol talks refer to this as form cognitive unison which involves coordinating various processes so that they share the same goal and work well together.

How is this optimization process in attention improved during mindfulness practices? How does that afford us systematic insight? Does this ultimately empower us to escape our modal confusion and existential dilemmas? These questions will be examined in episode 9 which dives deeper into the cognitive-science of attention in mindfulness and how it can lead to insight.

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