Ambigamy

Insights for the deeply romantic and deeply skeptical

How Mindfulness Practice Makes You Dumber

But with two complementary skills makes you wiser
Jeremy Sherman
This post is a response to Mindfulness: An Overstep In The Right Direction by Jeremy E. Sherman, Ph.D.

1. Mindfulness

I’ve lost 20 pounds this year by self-imposing a balance between unexciting and exciting foods.  At home I limit my larder to unexciting foods -- fruit, vegetables and a few lean staples like low-fat cottage cheese.  

When I’m out I allow myself to eat whatever I want. The other day I had a mac-brick, a breaded deep-fried block of macaroni and cheese. For every mac-brick I devour I impose some compensatory kale, or else I gain both weight and jadedness, spoiled to the simple pleasures, always expecting gustatory excitement.

Lately I’ve realized I need to apply the same dieting approach to all areas of my life. I gravitate toward highly stimulating play and work the way I gravitate toward mac-bricks. I tend to spoil myself with action movies and parties. At work I seek flow, that high-stimulation thrill of doing at exciting speed whatever I do best, rather than doing the humbling, slow and boring things like waiting patiently through long meetings. To keep myself from getting jaded, I need to compensate for my high stimulation with wait training, deliberately cultivating my ability to wait patiently.  

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For wait training, mindfulness exercises do the trick.  Sitting in a quiet place I watch my breath.  A stimulating thought arises. I say “this is just a thought” and let go of it, so as to maximize my time just watching my breath. Mindfulness practice is the kale to my mind’s mac-bricks. It keeps my attention lean and toned. If my diet were only thrilling stimulation, my attention would get soft and flabby.  Mindfulness practice is part of my expectation management skill set.  It keeps me from just expecting excitement all of the time.

So does attending school, which is one reason we make students sit still listening to teachers drone on for long hours.  We have to train our young to tolerate low-stimulus environments, especially given the amount of high stimulation on offer these days. Though as a teacher I try to keep my classes interesting, I know that I’m also preparing students for sometimes boring jobs they would lose if they got restless easily.  

Having boring jobs may be toning enough for some people. Security guards already idling for long hours probably don’t need to do wait training practice in their off hours.   If your life imposes a lot of low-stimulation on you, you probably don’t need additional wait training the way I do.

Mindfulness practice, being low stimulus is a hard sell, and tends to get sold by hard sell as a cure-all for everything, a way of life, a way to eliminate all suffering and make us all well-rounded and wise

I think that’s a mistake.  Yes, mindfulness training helps us un-jade and resensitize, but by itself it doesn’t make us wiser. For that I count two complementary skills to cultivate.

2. Mind Yoga

If in mindfulness exercises we practice letting go of thoughts, we need another practice for letting thoughts in, getting comfortable with threats, risks, discouraging and difficult thoughts. We need to exercise our ability to think the harder or more discouraging thought because without it we tend to interpret the world through the lens of easy wishful thinking.  We need to be brave enough to wade out into muddy, dark discouraging and confusing waters in our quests for delayed uncertain gratification.  For this we need wade training.

It’s not enough to be able to dismiss all thoughts and return to the here and now as mindfulness encourages. For one thing, given that mindfulness practice is most attractive and helpful to people who feel the weight of negative thoughts and feelings, in practice there's a built in bias against negative thoughts more than positive ones.  When was the last time you heard someone say "Don't be judgmental" about praise? Most often it's meant to discourage discouragement.

Overcoming discouraging thoughts is the goal of plenty of self-help systems, from the ancient philosophical school of skepticism (dispelling discouraging possibilities by remembering they might not come true) to the Wizard of Oz (Believe in good things and they will come true), from Norman Vincent Peale’s “Power of Positive Thinking” to “The Secret.” Over and over this anti-negativity approach proves an insufficient path to wisdom.

In contrast to not thinking or in practice accentuiting the positive, we must cultivate the power of neutral thinking, an ability to, in effect pre-grieve possibilities so that we aren’t scared of them, limbering our minds much the way the way yogis learn to breathe into and get comfortable with the searing slow-burn of a stretched hamstring.

A mind yogi has already visited the inevitability of death, the possibility of global warming, failure, divorce, humiliation, accidents, crime, hate, evil and myriad other debilitations. She is prepared to think long and hard even when it’s not fun and may not pay off. She doesn’t believe you can ward off bad outcomes by not thinking about them. Sometimes precisely what you don’t know can hurt you, so she has visited the scary places. She embraces her shadow until, breathing easy enough she can tolerate it. 

Between mindfulness’s letting go of all thoughts and mind yoga’s stretching into hard thoughts, we gain a the potential for a better blank slate, not one that claims to dispel all thoughts but really is more likely to dispel difficult ones. And why the blank slate? Not as in end in itself, unless you aspire to be a cow. 

An empty mind is a terrible thing to waste. Ultimately, we want minds not empty but receptive to better thoughts, which are sometimes positive and sometimes negative. 

We should distinguish between deciding and decided, two states that call for very different minds.  When we’re deciding, we need the power of neutral thinking a blank-slate receptivity to both the thoughts that please and displease us.

And then when we’ve decided we need the power of positive and negative thinking, the ability to attach ourselves to certain thoughts over others.  For deciding we need to move beyond the blank slate, not just categorizing thoughts as “just thoughts” but some as “more useful” and others as “less useful.” For this we need one more practice.

3. Introspective Intelligence

We all naturally treat some thoughts as superior to others. Our intuitions guide us sometimes well and sometimes poorly. The third practice is the accelerated honing of intuition’s judgment.

Our intuitions are evolved and learned adaptations honed slowly and imperfectly to fit the world we live in.  Through careful study we can accelerate our adaptation (speedaptation?) by learning about the ways our minds work and making them work better. 

Speedaptation is best cultivated through critical thinking or, these days the study of social psychology which inventories intuition’s weaknesses, the places where we’re naturally prone to misinterpret reality.  One key take-away from social psychology is that the mind has two basic modes, the easier intuition-following (Kahneman’s thinking fast), and the harder process of thinking rationally (Kahneman's thinking slow). We tend strongly to favor thinking fast, the path of least resistance but with practice (mind yoga) we can make the harder path easier to where more of it is better incorporated into our intuition.

Through social psychology we learn not just how to correct our misunderstandings, but how to use them too, how to live with the reality of our own wishful thinking and cultivate optimal illusion, Oz-like wishful thinking where it optimizes our chances of success but not where it hurts our chances.

Think of social psychology as three skills built into one, rhetoric (how to spin interpretations so they accommodate our intuitions) critical thinking (how to unspin interpretations so we’re not easily fooled by our intuitions) and introspective intelligence (how to optimize the thoughts we embrace about ourselves so you become as productive as we can be.)

Introspective intelligence requires being multi-level headed.  Simplifying, you have four levels of introspection:

  1. Being: Operating on intuition with no overlay of thought.
  2. Basic introspection:  Interpreting your being, by telling stories about who you are, what you do and why you do it. (For example, “I’m a good guy, on track, doing the right thing”)
  3. Meta-cognition: Telling a story about yourself as your story teller. (For example, “I like to tell myself that I’m a good guy, on track, doing the right thing.”)
  4. Infinite meta:  Knowing that there’s no final story, because for every story you tell yourself about who you are, you can tell another story about the story teller you are. 

Mindfulness practice preferences all of these but Basic Introspection.  Breathing is in a way, just being. Letting go of thoughts as “just thoughts” requires meta-cognition, the ability to say, “I’m thinking a thought,” and let go of it. And why let go? Because if there’s no final story (Infinite meta) all thoughts and stories we tell ourselves are potentially fallible.

But ultimately we can, will and must tell ourselves the stories of Basic Introspection, stories that motivate us to do our best.  That’s where introspective intelligence comes in, the ability to move fluidly between each of these levels of introspection, visiting the happy and sad stories, in the name of finding the useful stories, the ability to categorize thoughts not merely as “just thoughts” but as happy and true, happy but false, sad but true and sad and false. We naturally embrace the happy and true and dismiss as “just thoughts” the sad but false.  We needed mind yoga to get to where we can dismiss the “happy but false” and embrace the “sad but true”. And we need Introspective Intelligence honed through careful study of the mind’s proclivities so we can categorize more subtly than dismissing all thoughts “just thoughts.”

Mindfulness practice is the kale to my high-stimulus lifestyle, but man can not live by kale alone. I'm balancing my diet with the whole three course meal. Mindfulness, Mind Yoga and Introspective Intelligence are all practices to have on our plates.

Jeremy Sherman is an evolutionary epistemologist studying the natural history and practical realities of decision making.

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