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Sometimes mindlessness is better than mindfulness (scientificamerican.com)
160 points by prostoalex 66 days ago | hide | past | favorite | 143 comments



A lot of these posts here on HN regarding meditation and mindfulness sound like what you would hear from an 'intergalactic encyclopedia salesman'. Just a different faith. It's dressed up in the mystery of 'teachings' and 'feelings' and other vague notions.

It feels like someone has set up an industry that's raking in a lot of money and all the converts perpetuate it. Perhaps they buy into it or maybe they try to justify it to not feel like they were cheated, but the way it's talked about puts me immediately on guard. I suppose that even if it doesn't work there might be a placebo effect at play.


To be fair, there's a multi-layered thing going on here.

Yes, there is a mindfulness "industry" nowadays, and it's terribly fashionable right now, and with fashion comes The Horde, and with that comes The Charlatans (not the band) - and in the modern world this is all now followed by The Influencers and adverts and apps and a whole plastic money-fuelled nothingness that accompanies the modern world.

But. Under the hood is a centuries-old tradition of self-investigation and awareness. It's often laid at the door of Buddhism, and as a discipline, no other faith (or non-faith, whatever you choose to call it) has taken this set of "Rules for Life" and made them their own quite as much - but the contemplative method is there in pretty much every tradition.

There can be a religious element to all of this, so yes, there is a "faith" angle to it, and the associated perpetuation / zealotry, but there is also a path to be trod which is secular, and holds a lot of worth and meaning.

The article itself isn't terribly interesting, IMO. Yes, there are moments like Flow when doing something familiar (piano playing, coding) which are apparently "mindless" but in fact are themselves deeply mindful, in that they feel like they connect action almost directly to the subconscious. Or this at least is how it feels when I play piano - I have literally no idea how my fingers do what they do, and if I think about it too hard, things fall apart.

And then - as I posted quickly elsewhere on this thread - there is the notion of mindlessness actually being set in a mindful context. It could all go a bit Rumsfeldian but I find there is some value in thinking about "mindful mindlessness" vs "mindless mindlessness". Sitting down and saying "I'm now going to look at some s*t on the web" but being aware of how that mindless rabbithole is making you feel has a different flavour to it than just doing it without focusing on the position of the self when doing the same.

ps. I quite like "vague notions" like "feelings", myself :-)


> Yes, there is a mindfulness "industry"

> But.

> I quite like "vague notions" like "feelings", myself :-)

it's funny how what you write is exactly "what you would hear from an 'intergalactic encyclopedia salesman'", to quote OP. thanks for proving OP's point.

i think the reason mindfulness falls flat is because it ignores the material reality of the working class in our profit-seeking economic system. it makes like miserable for a large group of people.

the problem is that you can't meditate your way out of poverty of precarity by using "a centuries-old tradition of self-investigation and awareness".

mindfulness is 'for' the propertied classes who usually collect all types of rent [1] and who aren't living paycheck to paycheck.

try telling an exhausted Amazon warehouse worker to 'try' mindfulness. often it's just a bunch of gaslighting hoo-ha

[1] https://www.resilience.org/stories/2017-08-03/book-day-corru...


This is silly. I discovered mindfulness early in life and it definitely does help one contend with the (mental) pains of poverty. Please at least minimally research the topic before descending to call it “gaslighting hoo-ha”.


my problem is that we are living in one of the most globally unequal times [1]. i just don’t know how relevant a hijacked practice is that misrepresents it’s origins.

the way ‘mindfulness research’ filters down today is a type of gaslighting. ‘McMindfulness’ (as Ron Purser calls it - he wrote a book with that same term) is often a vanity project by CEOs/executives/school boards in the west who have too much time on their hands. they impose it on their organizations and want to be patted on the back for their 'enlightened' solution. but it does nothing to improve the alienating material conditions most of the working class face, which is the root cause of their suffering.

“Mindfulness is said to be a $4bn industry. More than 60,000 books for sale on Amazon have a variant of “mindfulness” in their title, touting the benefits of Mindful Parenting, Mindful Eating, Mindful Teaching, Mindful Therapy, Mindful Leadership, Mindful Finance, a Mindful Nation, and Mindful Dog Owners, to name just a few. There is also The Mindfulness Colouring Book, part of a bestselling subgenre in itself. Besides books, there are workshops, online courses, glossy magazines, documentary films, smartphone apps, bells, cushions, bracelets, beauty products and other paraphernalia, as well as a lucrative and burgeoning conference circuit. Mindfulness programmes have made their way into schools, Wall Street and Silicon Valley corporations, law firms, and government agencies, including the US military.” [2]

and:

“What is the problem with people making money out of mindfulness?

I guess if you’re a devout capitalist there probably isn’t a problem. But the issue is that it’s a capitalist spirituality. It’s under the big umbrella of the ‘wellness industry’. What is troubling is how easily it has become accommodated within the mainstream marketplace – I think that should give us pause. Mindfulness is so market-friendly because it appeals to this highly individualistic, entrepreneurial ethos. It’s all about ‘me’ and self-improvement. It’s thriving in a culture of narcissism. The focus is firmly on delivering a more happy self. This is a real kind of social myopia: it squarely places the responsibility of being ‘happy’ within the individual themselves, rather than taking into account all the systemic, structural aspects of society that are causing the cultural malaise that has so many people flocking to the wellness industry for answers.”

Purser does offer a potential alternative:

“Is it possible to reclaim mindfulness from the marketplace?

Mindfulness has been hijacked by the neoliberal narrative, but I think it could be reclaimed by expanding its scope. From the very start, the Buddhist community, or sangha, was always going against the grain of the Hindu caste system in India. Buddhism was always countercultural. Mindfulness is now all about critique being turned inward, toward ourselves. We need to flip that critique back out, toward the systems and practices that are causing the problems in the first place. A collective form of mindfulness would not throw the baby out with the bathwater; it wouldn’t throw out self-care, would not disregard the therapeutic benefits of meditation — but it would expand the scope of its environment. We could sever its ties to the marketplace, to create a more collective practice that focuses on the alleviation of collective social suffering, rather than just that of the individual.” [3]

lastly though, i think it’s ironic that this article mentions a “classic study [that] had skilled golfers attempt to sink putts under different experimental conditions”. so you’re saying that in a stressed out society where people in the working class get no time for themselves to reflect, academic researchers in the west are going to do research on the golf playing propertied class to look for alternatives/solutions (no matter if those solutions are either 'mindfulness' or 'mindlessness' or whatever else)?

[1] https://mronline.org/2019/09/29/iphone-workers-today-are-25-...

[2] https://www.theguardian.com/lifeandstyle/2019/jun/14/the-min...

[3] https://www.huckmag.com/art-and-culture/books-art-and-cultur...


Your qualms with meditation seem to be a reaction to the fact that within a capitalistic system, many things are coopted by capitalists because if they're compelling, they can compel people to pay money to be told about them. I'm not going to tell you you're wrong or really engage on that point but perhaps you'd appreciate listening to someone distinctly non-capitalist describing how meditation was an effective tool to understand the world around them, motivate their activism, and work towards a better world. Check out Michael Brooks on RevLeft [1]. Michael Brooks wrote a book on meditation and revolution that ties into some similar ideas, too.

[1]https://revolutionaryleftradio.libsyn.com/michael-brooks


yes your analysis is spot on. i wrote clumsily above. i've been on a Vipassana retreat and had a beautiful experience and definitely benefited lots. thank you for your thoughtful comment and for the link to Brooks, i hadn't seen this


I think I was hoping to make the point that there is indeed a "McMindfulness" thing going on - the industry that we've both linked to / talked about - but I was also trying to say that there is a deeper practice, too, something less about the glitz and glamour of the next meditation app or course that suggests it can "fix you" or instantly remove your stress, or whatever.

I don't personally have a problem with people making money from Mindfulness - I'm myself studying to be an MBSR teacher and ultimately I may well find myself being paid for this. I pay for Sam Harris' Waking Up app. I pay for retreats (I'm going on a 5 day one tomorrow as it happens!) - none of this strikes me as problematic.

What is problematic for me is the misunderstanding that this new industry (actually, as someone else says below, it's not new, it's just "New Age", only...newer) IS the practice that underlies it. It isn't. And further to this, nothing is going to save anything without work and practice and fluidity and understanding, least of all meditative practice. I have sympathy with the view that this modern approach has found itself in the company of rich Westerners looking or boardrooms or consultants all looking either to find meaning or to make loads of cash. But the misunderstanding about the practice itself is just plain wrong.

In the world of mindfulness and meditative practice that I inhabit, it is compassion and understanding and - totally - that outward looking view which is at the core. It is SO far from being a narcissistic, inward-looking thing. A fundamental principle which runs throughout this practice circles around Metta[1] - and what's been interesting to me as a practitioner is how uncomfortable this can be! We're so used to being insular and inward looking and all the things you cite in your reply that to be faced with an outward-looking, compassion based set of principles can feel really quite exposing and strange.

Does this solve inequality? No, of course not. Do I come at this from a privileged and relatively wealthy white male point of view? Yes. But we'd accept, wouldn't we, that (say) fitness, maintaining a good weight, working less, eating well, having more time with family, etc. are all "good things" without being shot down for being elitist?

The question for me is: Does a more inclusive, compassionate, considered world view help people to help others in some small way? I hope so. In large part that's exactly why I do this practice.

[1] https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Maitr%C4%AB


> The question for me is: Does a more inclusive, compassionate, considered world view help people to help others in some small way?

The more important question is: what happens to people that they lose their compassionate worldview in the first place? Or are you telling me that you've never heard the contagious laughter of a baby who is lovingly cradled, or played with, by a caregiver/parent?

"The radical therapist David Smail argues that Margaret Thatcher's view that there's no such thing as society, only individuals and their families, finds "an unacknowledged echo in almost all approaches to therapy". Therapies such as cognitive behaviour therapy combine a focus on early life with the self-help doctrine that individuals can become masters of their own destiny. The idea is "with the expert help of your therapist or counsellor, you can change the world you are in the last analysis responsible for, so that it no longer causes you distress" – Smail calls this view "magical voluntarism".

Depression is the shadow side of entrepreneurial culture, what happens when magical voluntarism confronts limited opportunities. As psychologist Oliver James put it in his book The Selfish Capitalist, "in the entrepreneurial fantasy society," we are taught "that only the affluent are winners and that access to the top is open to anyone willing to work hard enough, regardless of their familial, ethnic or social background – if you do not succeed, there is only one person to blame." It's high time that the blame was placed elsewhere. We need to reverse the privatisation of stress and recognise that mental health is a political issue."

— Mark Fisher, Why mental health is a political issue

https://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2012/jul/16/mental...


Falls flat? You can MRI and observe neuroplasticity type changes based on level of meditation experience. Also, I believe it was Berkley affiliated, a monthly review of papers published on mindfulness and it's impacts often had 80+ meaningful entries on an average month: some of the use cases around therapy, around endangered populations (ptsd), disorders (agoraphobia, etc).

Your general point about society might not be wrong, but the main claim that meditation does nothing is woefully incorrect.

The argument in this thread seems to "late night TV sold me a shake weight, it's a bullshit, those scam artists, who needs strenght training anyways?". There's other ways.


You have neuroplastic changes if you practice guitar or golf.


Can you really see neuroplasticity in an MRI?


One measures oxygen levels by MRI while doing a task before and after the intervention to determine changes to what regions get enlisted for the task.


Speaking as a meditation practitioner, I don't think you deserve downvotes but I don't think it's zero sum either. Mindfulness should not be used to salve problems whose root cause is exploitation. I'm a proponent of being socially engaged and this actually comes from my own Buddhist inclinations. It would be somewhat inimical to the point of Buddhist practice to save oneself and ignore other's suffering, and understanding that suffering may involve looking at systems, not just the individual's response to things. Held in this sprit of interrelationship, things like meditation can help us become better activists. You will also be less likely to burn out as you strive for things and try and affect change from a healthier standpoint.


"But. Under the hood is a centuries-old tradition of self-investigation and awareness. It's often laid at the door of Buddhism,". Could you be more precise? Which Buddhism? And which buddhist (meditation) practice? I am getting more and more the feeling that this is as true as 'ikigai' being something rooted in japanese culture (which it is not). People know little in depth about Japan, and/or Buddhism (but perception is positive), so somebody might just have come up with some amalgation of something and sell it with 'but we know from thousends of year of buddhist practice...' and so on.

So which one is closest to mindfullnes: Theravada, Mahayana, Zen, or some other smaller branch and which meditation practise exactly?

I realize I sound very confrontational, I dont mean to attack you (I think it is important to have this precise question though)


Probably Chan or Zen Buddhism, the word Chan 禅 means meditation. Zen is the Japanese pronunciation for Chan. Although they all belong to Mahayana Buddhism and Mahayana Buddhism has meditation practices, the more modern formats that the Western world has exposure from is likely Zen Buddhism.


I was thinking so (know too little about mindfulness). If you look at the state of Zen in Japan it is in a sharp decline and probably the vast majority does not practice meditation (couldn't find numbers though). While I sympathize with meditation it somehow has been taken over by modern life


I have a feeling they just took the hood.


> The article itself isn't terribly interesting, IMO. Yes, there are moments like Flow when doing something familiar (piano playing, coding) which are apparently "mindless" but in fact are themselves deeply mindful, in that they feel like they connect action almost directly to the subconscious. Or this at least is how it feels when I play piano - I have literally no idea how my fingers do what they do, and if I think about it too hard, things fall apart.

If you're willing to define both reflective thinking and task-driven nonthinking as mindfulness, then what exactly isn't?


Anything that didn't involve someone getting paid to teach a course.


I use the "culture test" for this kind of things: if something is talked about a lot in one part of the world but not the other, it means there's an underlying industry that has their money in the media and the so called influencers. As for mindfulness, for example, you can almost unmistakably tell an American from a European online, by how someone talks about meditation or ignores the topic. Interestingly also, podcasts seem to be a lot more popular among the Americans compared to Europeans. In this age when we seem to live in the same shared information space, I can only explain these discrepancies by some serious marketing money but local to some country or region.


Why does it being cultural imply that there is someone pushing it in order to make money?

Specifically regarding podcasts, Americans have on average much higher commute times, and I've found podcasts are brilliant for when I do long drives here in the UK, so that would explain the difference in popularity


You think Americans like podcasts more than Europeans because of American marketing? Sometimes it can just be simply cultural preferences I think. I can think of lots of American made products which succeeded much better in parts of Europe not due to a specialized marketing campaign, but just because the product was more in line with European preferences.

I don’t think that the internet has homogenized us quite to the extent that regional preferences no longer exist :)


Take the classical big American cars vs. small European cars, I think it's pretty much a fact that the love of big cars was manufactured by the auto industry in the 1950-60s and is likely supported to this day by, again, some marketing money.

There's an interesting documentary about these things by Adam Curtis called "The Century of the Self", and esp. part I "Happiness Machines".


I thought the giant cars/trucks were a cobra effect style thing resulting from a loophole in emissions standards for commercial vs. passenger vehicles.


Well then who lobbied those standards? But undoubtedly advertisement and more subtle product placements made their job even easier.


> I suppose that even if it doesn't work there might be a placebo effect at play.

I mean, it's not hard to believe (hah!) that faith, various belief systems and meditation-like exercises are beneficial for mental health. The alternative is generally "the universe is uncaring and nothing you do matters in the grand scheme of things", which is slightly less uplifting.

Completely agree that any related rhetoric should put one on guard, but "the explanations they provide are wrong" isn't incompatible with "they help you live a better life". Probably not worth becoming a zealot and throwing all your money down a certain drain though.


New Age never died, it just transformed. That's how I see it. And you don't have to be this cynic about it, people need spirituality and will create it and sustain it even without business interests. But of course, where there's demand somebody will come up with supply to sell.

I suspect myself ulterior motives in de facto influencers who promote mindfulness. But again not necessarily in a cynical way, I think most really believe and are in it for their mental comfort and social aspects just as much if not more as for the money.


Interesting thought. Jonathan Haidt has a chapter about spirituality in his book "The Happiness Hypothesis: Finding Modern Truth in Ancient Wisdom".

I had a thought some days ago: "Maybe the rise of QAnon, and other similar outlandish ideas, stems from a spirituality vacuum. Given Nietzsches' proclamation and the continuing destruction of their own credibility by the catholic church and other religious organizations, it seems to me those people seem to try to fill their spiritual void with something. Maybe a need for shared consensus or values, which postmodern society does not supply."


Personally when I see multiple belief systems arrive at the same general (if vague) conclusions I take it as a sign that they’re probably all on to something.


Human sacrifice has been practiced by cultures in every single continent!


Sure that sucks, but presumably the practice bought those societies something worth more to the group than the individual lives sacrificed. Maybe a false feeling of influence over the natural world was required for those societies to function instead of everyone living in fear of the next unpredictable typhoon/earthquake/flood/whatever and losing cohesiveness as individuals tried to protect their own?

Anyway I’ll finish typing this comment in a couple hours ‘cause My 600-lb Life season premier is on and I never miss an episode


Interesting, my experience differs from yours. I got the recommendation of "Mind Illuminated" here on HN, a super valuable book for people into meditation IMHO, maybe the best?


TBF both meditation and yoga were ripped from religious practices and repackaged for Western consumption, and this version wins out because it helps sell pants.


> because it helps sell pants.

Check the etymology pyjamas, actual pants and shampoo. Though lots was stolen from other cultures I fail to see how these examples of mimicry qualify as theft. They were asymilated because it’s nice to have night pants and clean hair, just like it’s nice to put yourself in a relaxed and untroubled state of mind.


simultaneously, yoga & meditation were translated and shared in earnest with western audiences. It’s not all new age wu.


I fully agree. Although there are exceptions, much of the self-help industry has a similar spooky feel to me. Also, I find it hilarious that people are using apps to meditate or be "mindful". I cant quite explain it with words, but... If the first step of your journey is already in the wrong direction, forget about the rest...


I've done the entire stack: by myself, in class (Buddhist affiliated, weekly), app, and 10 day silent meditation retreat.

Apps are fine. It's an entry point and some people might feel uncomfortable driving to a strange place to sit with strangers doing a strange activity.

You know pretty quickly if works or not. Eventually the apps (maybe this has changed) are relatively limited as the cater to the 20 minutes crowd, and you might want to go further.

In terms of depth, Sam Harris has an app where he comingles (IMHO) fairly advanced philosophical concepts. Maybe it's snake oil to you, but feels real and material to me.

That being said, like getting enough sun or eating well or working out...it's optional and there's multiple ways to get there. No need to buy any encyclopedias if you know you're never going to open then :)


Mindfulness isn't "thinking about chopping onions while chopping onions." Mindfulness is chopping onions.

The confusion is that "developing" mindfulness means recognizing when, while chopping onions, you're instead thinking about work, or that embarrassing moment from years ago.

There are meditation practices, like "noting", that have you think or say what you're doing while you're doing it. But this is an exercise to train mindfulness, not mindfulness itself.


so it's similar to [programmer's] flow ?


I think a mindfulness teacher would describe what you refer to as flow as absorbed awareness. The alternative would be panoramic awareness, where you aren't just focused on one thing (the problem you're solving) but you are aware of everything that is going on in the moment.


oh yeah interesting


Yes


You're arguing semantics.

These two things are not mutually exclusive either. You can and should practice both.


The article is worse than parent commenter in sematics. It equates mindfulness with golfers 'paying attention to their swing' which is just plain wrong. Mindfulness is not focussing on an outcome, like hitting a golf ball exactly in the right way, but about understanding the breadth of experiences in the present - senses and thoughts.


It's like going to a discount store, browsing the isles and finding good deals here and there (fun random shopping), vs going to the mall to get that blue shirt with white lines, and never finding it in the right size in any store (an often frustrating experience).

The difference is in how you filter your experiences - wide filter with no specific purpose is mindful state, narrow filter with exact purpose is regular state.

A simple test: in mindful states you are very aware of the body and in regular states you forget about it.


Please elaborate what arguing semantics means to you in this context.

The comment above seems very relevant to me. Sure, mindfulness (meditation?) can be both.

Still, the signposts point primarily not to thinking as the driver of doing (being), but to awareness itself.


> You can and should practice both.

Yes.


As a musician what happens when you don't think and just do is often superior than when you are mindful of every tiny detail of your hands movement (it can even happen that you are downright unable to play if you are too aware of what you are doing).

This kind of focus is important when practising, but on stage it should just be there with the sound, not sure whether this would be called mindful or the opposite.

Mindfulness is very subjective as well — I know people who are proud of their own mindfulness and I can't help but notice that there are always aspects within their behaviour or their surroundings that they are totally not getting. You get the feeling they want to be so "in tune with themselves" they don't notice what is going on in the person opposite, or in their general surroundings. Maybe they got mindfulness wrong or maybe I got mindfulness wrong, but for me what I see there is the polar opposite of the flow state I described with music


flow state and mindfulness aren’t really opposed. In fact, having a good grasp of mindfulness allows you to shut down distractions to your own flow as they appear in your mind. Sounds like they got it wrong.


I believe western school of music is too much on the analytical side of this. Indian music a bit too.

While other cultures are more on plugging into "feel" and letting things emerge/flow.


I am a improvisational musician for a reason.


Concentration (sustained attention) has many stages. For example, at the lowest stage and in an unpracticed individual, one must fight to keep attention placed on an object. Someone who is well practised will either pass over that stage immediately upon beginning to concentrate or they will not be in that stage for long. As concentration sustains it becomes easier to the point that no will is required for it to remain, it becomes automatic and arises as if you are being concentrated by the object. Sportsmen call this flow.

Are these studies comparing this difference? Do they first ascertain the level of skill in concentration that the subject has? Are they going to go against what all sportsmen who've experienced flow have to say on the matter?

Personally, I find much of the science world's attempts to look at mindfulness and/or meditation as incredibly clumsy, and frankly, arrogant. Just because people who have written extensively on the subject were not scientists is no reason to dispense with their insights (ha).


Yeah I feel like equating sati with just attention or concentration like is done in so many of these studies misunderstands the teaching. Tilopa’s advice might help them understand this sort of meditative “concentration” a little more: don’t recall, don’t imagine, don’t think, don’t examine, don’t control, rest. A high level professional athlete is probably doing something along those lines in relation to their sport, so asking them to examine and control is of course going to knock them out of it. There is a reason why it’s called samma-sati.


I agree with everything you've written except "misunderstands the teaching", I think they've ignored the teaching and instead decided to investigate what they think the teaching is without having researched the teaching. Misunderstanding would be understandable and easier to forgive.

Preconception certainly is a terrible affliction!


Apology for the slight detour, I wonder if pianists/drummers have a leg up on this. The multiple parallel layers (hands/melody/chords for piano, polyrythms mapped over all limbs). This forces your brain to handle many things at once yet focus on a single whole. In my small experience it was highly meditative (and very deeply stimulating for the brain).


Don't apologise, I've wondered the same thing many times! One way of categorising meditation is single pointed (basically, one object of attention) and many pointed (many objects, usually contemplative and attempted after skill in single pointed techniques, though not always - vipassana as an example), though one can become the other. I'm not sure that something with many things to concentrate on will help foster levels of concentration (jhana) better. <y feeling is they probably just help keep it interesting, which is an underrated ingredient - even things we like and enjoy can feel like work if we feel we should do it, or have to do it, or we get no variety. Music provides variety, energy and spoteneity in abundance.

It's also very distracting too. You can't have it all :) Personally, I've found learning scales or some particular run of notes to be similar to single pointed meditation but I notice changes in mental state more with a traditional technique, my goals are slightly different.


> even things we like and enjoy can feel like work if we feel we should do it, or have to do it, or we get no variety

This is what modern society produces. I often try to turn chores into joy, or games. When you think about it, the difference in labour and fun is small.. Doing 200 pushups or 200 wipes on the floor, both can be nice and beneficial. People should frame stuff this way. The issue is that social structures make that difficult, you can rarely tell your boss "hmm i'm gonna do it this way because I feel better" your 'self' has no place in a work group so you become a slave and suffer.

A lot of people consider music like a semi transe. Drums are special because of the apparent simplicity in gesture and sound, but even broken scales can be deeply infatuating.


I have always doubted full Mindfulness.

I meditate irregularly.

Some of the best ideas in my life came to me when I was not thinking about it- while walking, cooking, or in shower.

If I had fully focused on those tasks only, those ideas might have had eluded me.

OTOH, always thinking about something is unhealthy.

I find a comfortable middle ground in times when it is required.

If Archimedes only focused on the warmth and the smooth texture of water on his skin, he wouldn't have gotten to the Law. (I know these stories are little dramatized.)

Only doubt I have is that is there some (perceptionally) magical benefit that you get when you reach there? Could be. Or it could be mythical.


I have discovered many a bug in the code I’d written while mindlessly staring out of the window of a subway car on my way home.


Not aware* that your brain was thinking about it and just waiting for a path to form :)


mindfulness is almost an opposite of thinking.


No. Mindfulness is "thinking when thinking, walking when walking, shitting when shitting".


No, mindfulness is more “watching while thinking, watching while walking, watching when shitting”


No, that is a popular misunderstanding of it. Watching is watching, watching while walking is not being mindful, you are being mindless if you are doing that, since you are removed from the situation. Mindfulness is simply knowing that you are doing without the need to watch or reflect on the fact that you are doing.


That’s more like Zen Buddhism


No, it is not, it's the Buddha's definition of mindfulness, that a monk knows exactly without confusion when he is walking, knows when he is sleeping, knows when he is eating, etc. It's easy to look it up in the suttas. Saying the canonical presentation of mindfulness is somehow "Zen Buddhism" is totally incorrect.


What is concentration? Is to have your attention totally directed to one thought. The goal of meditation is to have no thoughts, which is totally different from mindfulness, which is just attention on everything you do.

Samadhi or illumination is attained without thoughts, mostly with a help of a 'koan' like: 'we know that all things can be reduced to unity. What unity is reduced to?'

Then the mind cannot answer and will start to evade and even give illogical answers, then the mind, when tired, stops looking for answers and go quiet, and that's the goal of meditation.


Is there any evidence mindfulness as taught and practiced by, well, those who teach and practice it, is good for anything?

Keep in mind (no pun intended) - if your example is someone who was already successful, and they remain successful, that's not terribly good evidence.


This is easily googled. In any case, keep in mind that scientific approaches have only been applied to a very small subset of meditation practices popularized in the West by people like Jon Kabat-Zinn who were looking to address specific problems. Jon's program has had over 100 randomized clinical trials, and several hundred more publications.


He has a pretty good course on master class.


Good question. Just note that success is not the only possible desirable outcome. And I would judge it at a larger than individual scale, sort of like a medical trial for a drug.

I think no, there's no proof it actually does anything meaningful. Otherwise we would see some effects on populations where these practices are popular.


> Is there any evidence mindfulness as taught and practiced by, well, those who teach and practice it, is good for anything?

Well, the 26 centuries of Buddhism, and all those monks and laypeople. I'm not sure if you consider all that they've said and written to be evidence, but I think you should.


This statement can be made of any long-lived practice.

(This is not a statement of disagreement, just a comment.)


Well, I think it's pretty easy to see differences between, say, Christianity and Buddhism. Do you know of any Christians who claim to have had some breakthrough in prayer after which they experienced no suffering? I don't. But it's normal for Buddhist meditators to report things like that, or to report that happiness flows to them automatically. Ecstatic experiences are sometimes reported in Christianity, but I and many other Buddhist meditators have ecstatic experiences every day. How many hundreds of thousands of people reporting things like this over 26 centuries does it take before it starts being considered evidence? Edit: don't be shy about hitting the "reply" and typing your thoughts if you disagree with something I said.


“Enlightened” people have existed in all walks of life, not just Buddhism. In fact one could see Buddhism as annoyingly codifying into a religion that which is natural and obvious. Just like Christianity.


I agree, enlightenment can happen many different ways. I see Buddhism as just one collection of strategies to achieve it. But I don't agree that it's obvious. It's so non-obvious that people have been trying to teach it to everyone without charge for 26 centuries without much luck.


It’s obvious in the sense that it’s basically elimination of unproductive habits. And it might be unlikely, but some people arrive there naturally, without pursuing it.

As for the teachings, I think they’ve been misleading people for centuries. Every religion comes up with rules and symbols to explain the “way to the truth” and mostly what happens is they gain a following that just worships and embellishes the symbols. Those people would have been better off being naive. Maybe then they’d be free to have a visceral insight.


Indeed. The only time I have ever achieved enlightenment was when I took a pill of hydromorphone.


According to the Buddha, his path is the only one to nirvana.


Many enlightened Indians didn’t follow Buddha’s path — and in fact followed a variety of paths.


Then they are not enlightened in the sense meant in Buddhism, that is, they have not attained Arhatship nor become awakened Bodhisattvas nor Buddhas. They haven't extinguished the causes for rebirth, and are still bound to the samsaric cycle.


I don't buy that. For example Ramana Maharshi was awakened and he self-realized suddenly without following any path. There were awakened people before Buddha, and there are awakened people today without having followed any path.

The idea that only Buddhism holds the keys to self-realization is dangerous, frankly. The Catholic Church want you to believe the same thing, that only the Papal hierarchy can direct you to God.


"self-realisation" has nothing to do with enlightenment in a Buddhist sense. I understand it is tempting to subsume all religious experiences into one super-experience, but they really are qualitatively different: in Buddhism it is about permanently ending suffering and the cycle of rebirth, in Advaita Vedanta (e.g. like Ramana Maharshi) it's about, as you say, self-realisation or perhaps "realising you are a part of God". What makes you so sure that these two things are necessarily related? I see this quite a lot, people want to think that Buddhist enlightenment is qualitatively the same thing as others, and that all the different spiritualities point to the same ultimate goal, which is some kind of spiritual union with God. Well that's _not_ the goal of Buddhism. Do you have any actual evidence to suggest it is?


> What makes you so sure that these two things are necessarily related?

In short, I take these people's word for it because I see no reason to doubt it, just like any non-enlightened person takes the word of Buddha or Buddhist monks that they were/are enlightened. There are numerous instances of Hindus like Ramana and Nisargadatta claiming that their state of mind is identical to what Buddhists call Enlightenment.

If anything, it's Buddhism that has these crazy religious narratives about the cycle or rebirth and so on. Nisargadatta, for example, rejects all this stuff. God, reincarnation, is all conceptual fluff; ignorance. Because what is the "reincarnation" concept to the silent mind? It a disturbance.


What’s so special about buddhists? What’s the evidence? Is there some scientific research demonstrating something unique about them compared to the rest of the people?


Well, suppose your best friend told you that he did some practice for a while, and gradually got rid of what he estimated to be 99% of the suffering he'd had before. What form do you think evidence of that could take? Brain scans of some kind? They have apparently been done, and they apparently really do look odd. https://www.lionsroar.com/how-meditation-changes-your-brain-...


I don’t doubt that one can do mental things to put one’s mind in an unusual state long term (nor that differences from these unusual states can be observed with a measurement device).

What I doubt is that doing so is prudent.

When you look at the ambiguously labeled knobs and levers in the locked control panel of your mind, is it really a good idea to pick the lock and mess around with the levers?

(Also, why would I even want to change whether a thing would cause my mental reaction to be “suffering”? Either “suffering” refers to something other than what I generally mean by the word, in which case, well, whether it is a benefit would depend on what that meaning is (but the default would be not to mess with things beyond my ken) , or it does, in which case, uh, no, I’d rather not be wireheaded kthx. Along the lines of https://www.smbc-comics.com/comic/utilitarian-time-travel , if the baron would impale me on a pike, my preferred solution would be to prevent that, not to have a neural restructuring beam make it so I love getting impaled. )


The basic problem of life is that by default, happiness depends on circumstances that you don't control. Meditation helps cultivate a kind of happiness that does not depend on getting what you like or avoiding what you dislike. It also helps people behave like saints, i.e., kind, compassionate, joyful about the successes of others, equanimous, generous, fearless, etc.


Why should I want to be happy?

A major purpose of happiness is a difficult-to-fake signal to others of an outcome being good for me (rather, of it seeming to me to be good/desirable).

Happiness is what happens when I get what I want. Making happiness into the thing I want is almost completely backwards.


I am not advocating wanting to be happy, I'm advocating cultivating happiness that does not depend on circumstances. There's a parable called "who knows what's good or bad?" that addresses why it doesn't make sense to assign "good" or "bad" to the events that happen to us.

> Happiness is what happens when I get what I want.

Well, that's how it seems at first. But even though you were overjoyed at the presents you got on your 10th birthday, that happiness did not last. After seeing enough ups and downs, the mind might get tired of being endlessly pushed around by wanting or aversion. It might prefer to just be still, unmoved. Meditation helps develop this kind of stability.


But what reason is there to cultivate this happiness-independent-of-circumstances if not in order to be happy? But if I do not wish to be happy, then I have no reason to cultivate this kind of happiness. It is like you are trying to tell me a way that I can get free oil for my car instead of having to buy it from the gas station, when I don’t have a car, but a bicycle (or maybe a skateboard?). I have no use for this source of free oil.

And of course the happiness from getting things I want doesn’t last; if it did, my happiness would cease to be a useful signal for others of what I want, and therefore the mechanism which modulates my happiness would cease to usefully serve its purpose, which would be detrimental regarding the goal of me getting more of what I want.

Your arguments are all assuming that I terminally value being happy, and without that assumption they have no foundation.


If you're completely content with how things are already, you're one of the rare individuals who has no need for meditation.


The Buddha taught of those who are deluded and thus content with samsara as it is, which is the category you fall into. It could be because you have a good rebirth, and thus have not experienced enough significant suffering to feel the need to find refuge from it. Whatever it is, no one can convince you that samsara should be escaped. In Buddhist doctrine, probably the best approach for you would to be to cultivate good karma for good future rebirths and wait until samvega perhaps develops.



By that logic we have proof that tiger dongs cure erectile dysfunction.


Well, I regret how I phrased my answer. I read a lot of books about Buddhism and listen to a lot of monks explain things about Buddhism, and I really meant "all that stuff", i.e., tens of thousands of books and uncountable hours of dhamma talks about how to practice, what results to expect, etc.

To me the question was kind of like "is there really any evidence that this 'exercise' stuff is useful at all?" And the answer would be "yes... all the thousands of books about exercise and all the people who exercise regularly."


So, an appeal to tradition is all you have?

Just because it's a Buddhist practice, and it's ancient, that's all you need...?

The same can be said about any other religious practice.

You sound almost like a Christian preacher who could very well say,

"Well, the 20 centuries of Christianity, and all those priests and laypeople. I'm not sure if you consider all that they've said and written to be evidence, but I think you should."

You need reasons actually grounded in preferably personal practice.

That is, something treated like a scientific experiment performed on yourself, to see if following the steps affects you. Then, you look at the results others have attained.

And then you draw rational and logical conclusions based off of that cumulative data.


> So, an appeal to tradition is all you have?

Hmm, no, sorry if that's how it seemed. I mean the tens of thousands of books, talks, testimonials, etc, that make specific claims like attaining freedom from suffering using various specific strategies and meditation practices.

> You need reasons actually grounded in preferably personal practice.

My personal practice is a few thousand hours of meditation. It's obvious to me that the practice is working, but I can't say exactly what it's doing to my brain, and I can't prove it to anyone else (unless I would already appear odd on a brain scan)


I am now of the view that mindfulness in the Theravada Buddhist tradition is accompanied by an overall attitude of renunciation (nekkhamma in Pali).

Besides, the Pali word for mindfulness, sati, is one of the Seven Factors of Awakening (https://en.m.wikipedia.org/wiki/Seven_Factors_of_Awakening). So as part of a whole practice, besides just bare attention and a mind that doesn't move much, there's factors like joy, energy, and tranquility to balance.

Not to mention the precepts as a prerequisite to even starting the practice.

I used to think this mindfulness stuff could be completely stripped of its context, like an extra secular Buddhism, but I'm not so sure anymore.


I honestly think it's quite dangerous in a secular context. Mindfulness can be, for some, like literally taking psychedelics, but except you are sober and there is no guarantee that you will ever come down. I know many people who have to "fake" a normal, healthy mental life because they are genuinely in a state of total, constant perceptual chaos due to badly integrated mindfulness experiences. Like, this is genuinely totally life-destroying stuff.

It is dangerous outside of the Buddhist context, because Buddhism offers a world view that can synthesise with your experiences, along with many qualities that should be developed at the same time as mindfulness, such as loving-kindness and compassion, which help to create stability. Otherwise, just focussing extremely on mindfulness and insight, you can get an extremely destabilised individual.

Because of this, recommending intense (>30 mins) daily mindfulness meditation to people suffering from mental health issues is almost criminal imo.


i get the articles point, but it doesn’t touch onto some of the main reasons people follow mindfulness. sure everyone knows if you think too much about a task you mess up. imagine a pro golfer focusing on every muscle tensing in the correct way to hit a ball. it’s not possible to play at that level with a level of consciousness, it’s about muscle memory.

but a pro golfer that meditates to get beyond bad press and things that consume their minds, that’s where mindfulness will make them a better golfer.

mindfulness is on a different level to just being conscious of a task, it allows you to prevent going down pathways of thought that are not useful, and taking you away from the moment. it allows you to experience your emotions and thoughts and to most importantly not judge them, allowing you to see who you really are. Experience different perspectives, gain a different view on life. enabling you to be your true self and to those around you


>> Underlying this state of “automaticity” (as cognitive psychologists call it) are mental processes that can be executed without paying attention to them. These processes run off without conscious awareness—a chain reaction of mental events. We don’t perform all tasks automatically, but many can be performed this way once they are well practiced.

It is not the case that we do not pay attention to the tasks, but that we pay attention to them with different faculties than the mind. For chopping cucumbers, if we are chopping cucumbers and talking to our mother at the same time or singing a song in our head, we are utilizing our physical functions rather than mental. It is not that we do not pay attention to the chopping, but that we use our body to do the paying of attention while we use mind elsewhere.

>> this is one reason why some experts appear to “choke under pressure”: they think too much about the mechanics of the task at hand.

If you're trying to do physical tasks while also doing mental tasks at all, then you are thinking too much.

>> skilled golfers performed substantially worse when they focused on their swing

Now they are realizing they have bodies, and trying to see what they are doing, mentating while also trying to use that physical-only skill that they had developed under very different circumstances (without mentation).

One may also hear about how meditation or mindfulness 'destroyed' someone's life or 'made them crazy'. It is the case that many are unable to process the pain/unpleasantness of fully experiencing one's being in all its horrror. Truly looking at oneself can probably be achieved by more if they were to take it in small doses with plenty of mindlessness interspersed throughout their practice, rather than trying to 'drink the ocean'.

Edit: clarity/verbiage.


Unwanted mindfulness when you are trying to get into the flow state - also known to sports psychologists as "the yips".

Come to think of it, I wonder if coding burnouts / writer's block / analysis paralysis has the same underlying mechanism.


Mindfulness is an invaluable tool for victims of trauma, to ground them in the 'here and now', when they are overwhelmed by floods of uncontrollable emotions.

These emotions are the result of biological, not cognitive, processes. Mindfulness is one of several tools that help to dampen emotions as victims ('survivors') learn to 'process' traumatic memories.

The Body Keeps the Score, by Bessel van der Kolk, is the canonical work on the subject of trauma - highly recommended for anyone interested in psychology!

'Mindlessness' might have its place too. The idea of letting go, allowing the subconscious to take over... could that be an important part of healing?


The article mainly addresses performing expert physical tasks like golf of playing musical instruments. I agree that muscle memory can be what you need.

However, based on my own experience of meditating for 40+ years, I believe that the practice of only doing one thing at a time without stray thoughts leads to contentment and productivity - a great combination! For me, the ability to (usually) be able it almost instantly quiet my mind during meditation is a skill that carried over into the rest of my life. In the spirit of Stoicism, I try to not concern myself with tasks that I can’t do until some future time and if I catch myself becoming distracted thinking of something that belongs in the future, I use mindfulness to be in the present.

Everyone needs to figure out for themselves what makes them happy, and for me it is spending as much of my life as possible doing productive things for society, being calm and content, and happiness gained from caring about other people as much as I care about myself.


The term I've been preferring lately is "whole-mindedness". It's a mouthful, but the point is to have internal integration, to not be split in ones thinking. To do things fully. That does not mean having lots of mentalizing, verbal thoughts. Those thoughts can get in the way and prevent us from wholemindedly attending to the work.


Clickbait title. The article defines mindfulness as directing one's attention to an object. The act of directing and redirecting attention is a practice that develops mindfulness, not the mindfulness itself.


Also both paying attention to the swing and to the sounds are both forms of concentration (both can be improved by mindful concentration exercises). The swing is really not something that will improve your shot, it’s also about understanding the conditions like wind, ground patterns etc. Makes sense that listening to the sounds you would be more in tune to these things (then using your muscle memory to perform the swing), while a swing is just a mechanical motion that doesn’t interact with many of the features that would make you a better player.


I once thought I was at the brink of life. Since then I know what mindfulness is and I know I did not experience it since then.


Well, even mantras are a way of distracting the mind from thought in order to support improved performance. Often, verbal thinking distracts us from a task— verbal thinking is just a small part of the thinking we do.

So, counterintuitively, distractions can help our mind attend more mindfully.


“Don't think. Feel! It is like a finger pointing at the moon. Do not concentrate on the finger, or you will miss all that heavenly glory.”

(and never take your eyes off your opponent, even when you bow)


I believe mindfulness teaches you to focus your attentions in a turn on / turn off manner. It doesn't actually tell you to be painfully attentive all the time.


The end goal of mindfulness is to make you realize that you don't exist and that you have no free will, and there is no "you." With enough practice you will get there, and it's interesting to be able to meditate to the point where you briefly experience periods where you don't exist. Overall, while of course it's true that we have no free will and there is no "you", it's a terrible place to leave someone, especially as a therapeutic intervention. The only way I've found to keep on living happily is to basically ignore the outcome of mindfulness.


https://danlawton.substack.com/p/when-buddhism-goes-bad

...* distressing and functionally impairing meditation experiences of 60 Western Buddhist meditators. They documented 59 types of adverse effects in their study, including involuntary convulsions, panic, anxiety, dissociation and perceptual hypersensitivity—a far cry from the mainstream branding of mindfulness meditation as a panacea for all our woes.*


> Overall, while of course it's true that we have no free will and there is no "you", it's a terrible place to leave someone, especially as a therapeutic intervention.

I wonder if part of the problem is exposing people to a visceral understanding of that without also teaching them an intellectual understanding. I.e. that if the universe is deterministic, then all their actions were predetermined at the start of the universe, and there's no sense in worrying about the future because there's nothing we can do to change it. And to the extent that the universe is non-deterministic, the added randomness means we have even less (still zero) influence over future outcomes. In this light, the notion of "self" drops away as an arbitrary distinction among cogs in a single machine, and without the self there's no way to think thoughts like "I am sad" or "I am unhappy". Because such thoughts rely on belief in the existence of "I".

I can imagine it causing trauma when someone suddenly feels via meditation that they have no "I", but have no way of understanding/processing this on an intellectual level.


Who knows, maybe there's an I, but it's not what we think it is.

Every proper religion has two sides: public and occult. Buddhism is a very elaborate, but still public and thus simplified teaching. The complexity and level of detail of Buddhism was appropriate at the time it was last updated.

For example, the meaning of word "I" from the occult perspective is interesting. That I is the number 1, the number of abstract spirit - the immutable mathematical principle behind reality. So that "I" exists, but it's unreal and it's shared by all humans.


I think there are two kind of separate topics here: mindfulness meditation and enlightenment. Mindfulness meditation can be useful just as a tool to improve attention and awareness in daily life. To “achieve enlightenment” you may or may not use mindfulness meditation, and in fact it may be the wrong tool for your needs. E.g., if you really must right a wrong in your life in order for you to personally come to terms with it, no amount of mindfulness meditation will get you beyond that.


That might have been your goal, and I'm not surprised it left you depressed. It certainly wasn't mine.


At a somewhat deeper level, you realize that there are many forms of non-existence. Yours is different from, say, that of Napoleon, and also from that of the Flying Spaghetti Monster, etc.


> you don't exist and that you have no free will, and there is no "you."

Have you ever considered that all of this might be gobbledygook that obviously doesn't even serve you well?


There is no “you” to serve :) . There is no ghost in the machine.


I doubt these experiments.

The participants weren't practiced in mindfulness, nor where the experiments comparing mindfulness to its opposite.


I find that a handful of experiences with ketamine over the past few years have been very good for my mindfulness.


One thing to be mindful of is mindfulness is a fad. It’s not a silver bullet for fixing problems.


True that it’s not a silver bullet.. I don’t really see it as a fad though. It’s been around for thousands of years. It’s probably not going anywhere.


I see his point though.

More and more I am associating mindfulness as one of many over-marketed self-help practices to cope with the stress of modern life.

This mountain of books and methods to find calm or happiness appear to me as a stigma of how insane some aspects of modern life can be. Somehow, our society create a problem and sell you a way to deal with it.

Sometimes I am even thinking it is one of the built-in mechanism helping to keep the system stable.


A lot of the talk about mindfulness is a fad. The actual practice is extremely old. Same with meditation.


Astrology has been thousands of years, too. So it's not a proof is not a fad.


Fads aren't things you personally find no use in, they're things that get wide attention very fast and lose it quickly.


I think it's the thinking that it must be a silver bullet to be of any use that has you calling it a fad.


Think about what other things today are cool but ultimately a fad in the future. When mindfulness was on the rise sometime in 2017, dare if you would question it! Corporations sold mindfulness like hot cakes. I’ve read some arguments that it can psychologically destroy you.


Along these lines, my psychiatrist was all about mindfulness. I’d spent my entire life working on being mindful of my actions and reinvented Cognitive Behavior Therapy in the process. For all the good it did me.

Without executive function, mindfulness is pretty much useless for self-improvement.

People misapply mindfulness all over the place and it drives me nuts. Maybe if we called it “paying attention to detail”, people would understand it better.


Mindfulness (in the Buddhist tradition, at least) is not a synonym for "paying attention to detail". From[1]:

> The practice of Satipatthana meditation centers on the methodical cultivation of one simple mental faculty readily available to all of us at any moment. This is the faculty of mindfulness, the capacity for attending to the content of our experience as it becomes manifest in the immediate present.

I can't speak to what your psychiatrist applied the term to, nor how it's been popularised.

[1] https://accesstoinsight.org/lib/authors/soma/wayof.html


>> self-improvement

I don't see mindfulness as being for self improvement. Its most precious function is for self observation and self learning. It is intended for one to 'wake up' to be able to see oneself as one is. In our 'normal' state of functioning, we are completely divorced from most of our own internal perceptions most of the time. Do you realize that you have a foot right now? Likely no, but when you read that sentence, you are able to remember that you have a foot, and you can feel it and sense it. Mindfulness is intended to grow the experiencing of oneself to encompass all aspects of ones own reality including the physical body, intellectual activity, and emotional states. At the extreme end of the practice, one may perceive these things singularly and at all times.

Where self improvement involves changing oneself and trying to achieve, mindfulness involves acceptance and not trying to force something.

>> Without executive function

...however, some people are damaged and will not be able to realize self observation. We do not expect those without feet to run.

Edit: formatting


Beeing aware of the sound you hear in your ear when it is silent and focusing on it is the best way to increase the volume, making it permanent and driving you nuts according to my ear doctor. Being oblivious to your body is in my opinion the healthy state.


Tinnitus is an interesting state. I've had it for quite a time, having had loud car audio systems and attending rock concerts in my teen years. I've tried doing as you say and focusing on the noise. It does seem to be more noticeable when I focus on it, but I've never had the experience of it getting louder when I stop.

There is also the case of bleeding as a direct experiment one can do. Next time you cut yourself and suspect you may have some blood, try not looking at it (reduces the mentation/expectation of blood), and focus exclusively on the feeling of the pain as much as possible. You'll find the bleeding stops substantially faster.


A 26-century-long fad.


Yea so in the end being street smart always beat book smart.


Sometimes madness is better than mindlessness.


Being deliberately mindless is itself mindful.


You shouldn't be mindful in a way that interferes with your ability to perform automatic actions. You need non-dual mindfulness, but it's a bit subtle and harder to teach (not harder to do, just harder to get started). Non-dual mindfulness can make you more spontaneous and perform automatic actions better in that you're not self-hindering with internal friction.

Sam Harris' Waking Up https://app.wakingup.com/ tries to. (No affiliation, just an user.)


that's just playing with words. both terms can actually and often do in practice mean the same.




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