Recently I attended a mindfulness training day and instead of actually doing the practice, which is much about spending less time in our heads and more time in the real world, I found myself analysing the training itself. I was sitting on a meditation cushion and doing old-fashioned left-brain-type analysis.
I found myself making different connections between mindfulness and brain-related sciences. I thought I had found some interesting links between mindfulness and Nobel Prize winning psychologist Daniel Kahneman’s ‘fast and slow thinking’. This led to me to believe that one way of looking at mindfulness is as a skilful engagement of Kahneman’s both ‘fast’ and ‘slow’ thinking. Also, sitting on that cushion I came to believe that mindfulness is an important part of closing the RSA’s ‘social aspiration gap’ to become more of a person one wants to be.
According to Kahneman, we can think about our brains as having two systems – super fast, automatic, intuition-based ‘system 1’ (S1) and effortful, reasoning-based, and much slower ‘system 2’ (S2). Most of our daily decisions are produced by S1, are automatic and are based on habits. They require little attention or effort. Through experience S1 allows us to become experts who can make fast, intuitive and mostly good decisions. For example, it allows driving a car in heavy traffic while maintaining a conversation. You can try to imagine the chances of you being able to do that by having only read lots of books about driving (i.e. by having only engaged reasoning-based S2). What S1 is great at is tapping into our vast experience and packaging a multitude of calculations into a sense of intuition.
This sense is an integral part of making good decisions informed by our experience. It has been found that people who don’t feel emotions struggle to make even the simplest decisions. This intuition bit is where mindfulness training becomes very useful. From time to time I find myself for various reasons becoming stressed and caught up in all sorts of unhelpful thinking. I may think ‘I really screwed up this one’ or ‘I am just not good enough at that’. This not only distracts me from focusing on the real problem (disturbs reason-based S2 thinking) but also obscures my ability to ‘read’ my intuition.
What mindfulness allows me to do is to see through the forest of emotions and maintain connection to this intuition, leading to better decisions. What it also allows is to become aware of unhelpful thinking patterns in S2 and not to take them at face value. Another dimension of mindfulness is openness to experience, be it pleasant or unpleasant experience. This openness stops vicious circles in their tracks, the circles of getting stressed about getting stressed, about getting stressed…
For these and many other reasons I hold mindfulness to be an integral part of the RSA’s neurological reflexivity that allows closing the ‘social aspiration gap’. One must be aware of one’s conditions manifesting moment-by-moment in order to allow one’s awareness to transform the effect of these conditions. This moment-by-moment attention paves way for different decisions, which in the long run have the power to change habits.
Sitting on that cushion and having made such links for a while I felt a bit too excited to meditate properly. I had to use some mindfulness to calm my analytical mind down and to come back to the cushion. This also served as good exercise on the long path of becoming more of a ‘skilled user’, a master if you will, of my own mind and less of a slave of its unhelpful patterns.