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A recent RSA Friday Conversation on mindfulness highlighted a huge number of disparate opinions about what it is. Perhaps, then, it’s time to clarify the true nature of mindfulness and what it’s actually useful for.

Cognition fundamentally depends on categorisation. Clusters of sensory stimuli are classified and labelled, creating an assemblage of mental models that approximately represent things in the real world. These models are recalled when similar clusters of stimuli are encountered again, resulting in recognition – perceiving again as opposed to for the first time. At a basic level, they enable rapid responses to threats and rewards in support of individual and species survival. Such mental models need not be detailed or even very accurate – just similar enough to incoming stimulus clusters to trigger beneficial responses. The brain’s categorisation systems are nevertheless capable of processing much more detailed models.

Mindfulness training was probably invented to facilitate voluntary exercise of this greater capacity, but somewhere along its two thousand-odd year history it got conflated with meditation practice and lost its way. Therefore we now have to disentangle mindfulness as a capacity, mindfulness training towards acquiring that capacity, and irrelevant forms of meditation practice that look superficially like mindfulness training exercises.

Mindfulness is not meditation. It’s just a state of mind in which the categorisation of sensory input is postponed. Normally, as soon as the mental model attached to an existing category is matched by sensory input, we automatically label the ‘observation’ with that category and stop paying attention to the sensory input. This ensures the primacy of mental models over sensory input, resulting in a stable but very incomplete overall model of the world. Categorisation normally occurs within a few milliseconds, so only a small amount of new sensory input can update the model. Postponing its onset for longer can allow more sensory input to be processed before a label is assigned to the stimulus cluster. This can add a significant amount of new information to the mental model attached to an existing category (or create enough disparity with existing models to create a new category).

So what’s the benefit? That depends what use you make of it.

For example, mindful walking (a standard training exercise) involves attending to your body posture and movements as you walk. Concentrating on this affects only a relatively small set of mental models, so although your posture and facility in certain movements might improve, the overall expansion of your capacities as a walker will be limited. However if your attention were extended wider to encompass in addition what you step on, the tracks you leave, the sounds of your movement and the reactions to you of things in your surroundings, this would update many mental models, creating an extended awareness that might improve your capacity to move inconspicuously as a hunter or as, in my case, a nature sound recordist.

Mindfulness operates most effectively if you don’t restrict your attention to a pre-defined focus. The mindful state operates impartially on everything currently in your realm of attention. The wider that is, the more information arrives before you categorise. Artificially limiting it is therefore counter-productive. Mindfully sucking a raisin (another common exercise) can only improve your mental models of some (but not all) aspects of a raisin and the sensations associated with sucking it.

There’s also another important reason not to decide in advance what to focus on.

Preconceptions invoke the very categorisation systems whose engagement you’re trying to postpone. If you’ve decided to limit the bounds of your attention, that limitation will influence your subconscious processing of sensory inputs. There’s an old joke: 'don’t think about an elephant – now try not to'. Your inevitably incomplete mental model of an elephant thus invoked will bias your perception of a real elephant should one be present.

I’ve been asked whether one could maintain the mindful state permanently. It’s theoretically possible but would be pointless. Mindfulness may improve categorisation but cannot operate simultaneously with it, and categorisation is necessary for cognition and action. Jorge Luis Borges’ short story ‘Funes, the Memorious’ describes a state analogous to permanent mindfulness. The normal mental processes of the protagonist are disabled by a continuous stream of intense unconstrained perception that prevents him engaging in cognition. So as well as knowing when to engage the mindful state, you must also know when not to.

But do we need training? Beyond the most elementary exercises that introduce the nature of the state and how to invoke it, there’s no standard pathway. One of the greatest failings of the current mindfulness industry is mistaking these entry level exercises for the functional capacity itself, and engaging in endless repetition of the exercises instead of progressing towards use of that capacity to learn more about things that matter. Learning to exercise mindfulness usefully is not a matter of ‘training’, it’s an experiential apprenticeship in which appropriate practice yields improvement. You’ll recognise success by the results – more acute perception while in your normal active state of mind of things you previously witnessed mindfully.

As Theravada master Henepola Gunaratana notably stated, we normally pay so little attention that we don’t even realise we’re not paying attention. True mindfulness practice can help us change that.

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