In mindful meditation, one of the objects of meditation is our thoughts. As you sit, you see the chaotic nature of thoughts. Thought is always with you: stupid thoughts that recognize the obvious or plan simple steps; emotional thoughts that keep you angry or sad or joyful; and deep thoughts, something we recognize as profound or insightful.
A meditative awareness of my thoughts caused me to have a meta-thought — separating out thoughts into different types by duration and the degree of my being identified with those thoughts.
The silly thoughts upon introspection are but whiffs of smoke, gone as soon as they are recognized, but those that build to a crescendo of emotion must be kneaded out like the knots the stress of these thoughts can cause in our shoulders and neck. However, no thought has the staying power of our sense of self.
Our self narrative brings the fullness of our self to mind. The way we remember events in the past, our plans for the future, and our feelings are wrapped together with our sensory experience of the present to place us firmly within ourselves — me, myself, and I. It feels like a continuation of the person you were yesterday is riding around behind your eyes and integrating experience into the entirety of what consciousness is.
And the self is an important system of thoughts. The self can move as a single unit with agency toward a goal, can correct errors from past attempts, and develop models of the world-in-itself to manipulate the future to continuously improve outcomes. The self can incorporate a massive amount of the stuff of experience and drive it through good times and bad.
But as important as it has been to our evolution, the self is just a persistent thought — a whirlwind capable of completely overwhelming consciousness or receding into dynamic memory.
I first came to believe the self was just a thought because of the many mindless hours I have spent in traffic or in meetings where I allowed my mind to wander along any path it wanted to take. I was — as Sam Harris puts it in his wonderful meditation app “Waking Up” — identified with thought. Instead of being identified with the project of Justin Harnish’s workday or Justin Harnish’s family life, I was lost in thought.
The self is just a persistent thought — a whirlwind capable of completely overwhelming consciousness or receding into dynamic memory.
Mindlessness is one mode of selflessness. This autopilot can be a comfort. It’s accessible for most people and represents a quiet that can be missing from modern life. It is brought about by paying attention to nothing, letting your mind wander, eventually quieting most of the narrative voice. As I have mentioned, driving and meetings can bring on mindlessness to equilibrate to these activities’ seemingly static nature. Mindlessness that most of us seek out includes movies as an entertaining way to replace our inner dialogue between self and self.
When we are mindless, we forget our-selves. We mostly take in our sensory experiences as background and we are not the center of consciousness, there is no center. Driving an automobile in this way is not recommended and is a selling point for autonomous vehicles. Mindlessness is not a way to strengthen our skills or potential, indeed it dampens them.
Way before mindfulness was all the rage, psychologist Ellen Langer, studied mindlessness and highlighted its dangers. She found, like most of us have, that different contexts are more likely to cause us to slip into mindlessness — the long drive or the droning of the same pre-flight checklist. Her prescription for mindlessness was its opposite, and her clinical definition of mindfulness was “actively noticing.”
Mindlessness is a form of selflessness that we can all recognize. The selflessness is calming and passes the time, but due to its handing over the controls to the default mode network even when attention is required, mindlessness is not a desirable state and certainly not a mode of examined life living. Before we look into mindlessness’s opposite, as practiced in vipassana or mindfulness meditation, let’s look at a similarly timeless, eyes-open selflessness stoked by challenging context out of our comfort zone — the selfless state of flow.
A more durable and useful state of selflessness is flow. Flow is at the peak of experience. In our best moments, when we are challenging mind and body outside our comfort zone, we achieve a timeless, selfless state.
Unlike mindlessness, flow experiences are not likely to “just occur.” The quality and amount of designed practice that occurs is correlated to the duration and depth of the selfless flow state. Because of the practice and the enriching quality of the flow state, skills can reliably be built through the selfless states of flow.
Flow experiences, the skill development from pushing outside of our comfort zone, and designed practice create a virtuous cycle like few other experiences. The greater the quality of your practice, the more likely flow experiences and improved skill result, encouraging you to further develop your practice.
The selfless state occurring during flow is very positive. While activities that include instantaneous feedback — like the feel of a well hit golf ball or the sound of a well-played stanza — are more readily given to flow, any activity you can practice and improve can come with a flow “kicker.”
Unlike mindlessness, your attention is not absent, it is just not on your mind. In a flow experience, your awareness is focused on a task that lies just outside your comfort zone. Your not lost in thought, you are lost in practice, your practice has become your purpose. You are giving over your consciousness entirely to a particular piece of content, the task at hand. This focus is great for honing in on the improvement of a skill but is myopic the rest of conscious experience. In order to have a full appreciate of the entire construct of consciousness and to find a selfless state among the myriad thoughts, feelings, and sensory inputs constantly trying to find purchase with a false center of self, we turn to mindfulness.
Mindfulness is the state of taking in the fullness of your mind, the entirety of experience. The constant bombardment of experience with different stimulus: a dynamic visual field, constant noise and language, thoughts at various levels of cognition, and how you feel about all of it makes it difficult to sort out the truth or illusoriness of the self. While mindfulness is extremely useful during a content onslaught from the phenomenal world, the best starting place to gain some insights on the inner workings of your conscious experience is in meditation.
Mindfulness meditation or vipassana has no goal but noticing the contents and context of consciousness. In the beginning, attention to the stream of consciousness alerts us to how consumed by thought we are. We are in constant dialogue with ourselves about minutia — our minds acting like a far more boring theme for the movie “Speed” where we have to keep racing against the silence of non-thought with blabber or face some (hardly) worse consequence enacted on us by a (slightly more) raving lunatic.
With practice, we can see most thoughts as they arrive and, by turning the light of attention on the thought itself, see thoughts unconscious start and short duration. There are a few thoughts that require even more attention and a quieter mind to come to terms with.
I appreciate a mixture of guided and silent meditation in my 30 minute and longer sessions. While this is automated on my phone and I don’t have to break my session and interact with my device to seamlessly meditate in this way, I find that the guide can stay around in my head, directing me, even after the guided meditation has ended. Turning awareness on this subtle voice is not always enough to calm it. The difference between doing the practice and telling myself to do the practice is more noticeable the more difficult the task. In these times, I have added a label to the squatting guru, I give him a name, “The Imam,” recognize where in my brain he seems most prevalent (the upper right brain oddly enough), and I gently ask him to leave so I can do my practice.
Metaphors are also crutches that one day I would like to fully eliminate from my practice. However, they can help the more analytic of us and I think their use in labeling and removing common barriers to practice can be of assistance to a beginner so long as the label does not define the end but a milestone of attention and insight.
Growing up in rural Montana in the middle lands between the Rocky Mountains and the Great Plains, dust devils would cut across fields and end as they crashed into mesas or ran out of fuel crossing a road or a lawn. They arise unexpectedly and take on the nature of their larger cousins, the hurricane or the tornado, spiraling to a greater or lesser circumference due to heat and pressure.
The self is the whirlwind of the mind. Much of the time, you can’t see it, you are consumed by the self, completely identified with this persistent thought. The gale of the self brings you the detritus of self-talk, regret, and prognostication. When it disappears in flow or mindlessness, it does so imperceptibly, the nature of selflessness in these states is really only appreciated reflexively, after the fact.
The self is the whirlwind of the mind.
But sitting mindfully trying to separate from myself, whether I am working the koan of focusing attention on itself or just trying to broaden experience to the entirety of consciousness in that moment, I have seen the whirlwind recede. First, it makes itself known as a thought, much more voracious than the wispy random thoughts from the stream of consciousness, but still just a thought. And like any thought, its appearance in consciousness means that consciousness must be prior to it. Attention to the movements of this diminished dust devil can dispel the thought entirely and the calm of selflessness descends… for a moment.
I am very much a beginner so these times can be few and far between in the controlled conditions of meditation and even more rare in “real life.” But having “seen” it, I know it to be true and trust that greater durations are trainable. The experiment to experience at a more purified level for longer durations continues — ungrasping.