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Mindfulness as debugging

Are mindfulness practices just attempts to reverse-engineer our brain’s compression algorithms?

Photo by Yu Hai on Unsplash

I was recently thinking about one cool way we could conceptualize various mindfulness practices from a cognitive science and information theory perspective. Here I am referring to mindfulness practices in the broadest sense. So Tai Chi (or other martial arts of even dance practices) can be seen as mindfulness of physical movement: rather than just making a step, I look into what muscles I need to contract and where to shift my weight in order to make that step. “Consent Culture” could be another one: rather than just initiating physical contact with a partner, I first ask myself what precise contact I would really enjoy, and then explicitly ask them if it aligns with their desires. Similarly we can view practices like “Nonviolent Communication” — as mindfulness of emotions and needs behind the things I say; or “Street Epistemology” — as mindfulness of the beliefs I hold and the evidence that led me to them. And, of course, meditation — as mindfulness of the processes that turn my raw sensations into the qualia of my experiences.

The emerging pattern may thus be that all mindfulness practices are about unpacking and examining our habitual patterns of experiencing the world. To be more precise, by “habitual patterns” I am here referring to the amazing ways that our brain learns to make sense of the vast amounts of data constantly streaming in through our various senses. This complex task of compressing sensory information by finding patterns and forming concepts is crucial for our survival and adequate existence in our world (see my last post about this). From the day we are born, our brain is hard at work looking for the most accurate and efficient compression algorithms. Even cultural heritage may be seen as especially effective compression heuristics that are being passed down through generations.

Nonetheless, any compression algorithm is necessarily inaccurate in some ways — and may thus mislead us in atypical, delicate, or complex situations. In order to have some way to “debug” these algorithms when that happens, we need to have some sense of how they function — and this is where mindfulness comes in! In these practices, we pick one particular habitual compression pattern (e.g., for Tai Chi, this would be physical movement), we setup a safe practice container (e.g., matts or grass to soften falls, certain rules around not moving too fast or punching too hard), and then try to unpack our usual actions by doing everything much more slowly and explicitly, being aware of every detail of the process. For another example, we can view Street Epistemology as unpacking our habitual pattern of beliefs, by creating a safe container of non-judging unbiased listening and constructive inquiry, and slowly walking through the various factors our beliefs have been constructed of.

We typically also check our awareness by seeing if we can change the habitual pattern in one way or another — though I think this control must really be seen as a test of awareness, and not a goal in itself (otherwise we merely create new habitual patterns and start labeling them as “better” than others). Another delicate issue here is to confuse the practice with life: outside the practice container, it may not be safe or practical to do things as explicitly or as slowly as during practice. Our compression algorithms have evolved for a good reason, and are still quite useful and reliable in many situations — we just need to notice when they start failing, and then be able to shift them.

I think this perspective helps to put mindfulness practices in their right place in the grand scheme of our lives, and to highlight what they are and what they are not. They are a tool to unpack and re-examine any habitual patterns we rely on. With practice, we can go deep enough as to see our fundamental patterns of perceiving the world and of finding joy in our lives. Mindfulness is not, however, a recipe for a new pattern. As there cannot exist a lossless compression algorithm that will work in all situations, so it is futile (and boring) to try formulating a fail-safe habitual pattern for life in our complex world.

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