Mindfulness is all the rage these days. Here at Silo.AI we’re building high quality AI solutions that require us to keep ourselves healthy and happy in order to work efficiently. Somewhat paradoxically, one of the best ways to become efficient is to set efficiency aside for a while during our daily guided meditation sessions. In this blog post we’ll go over what meditation is and some tangible benefits you get with sustained practice.
The technique we use to get focused is simple: Focus your attention on the breath sensations at the nose while remaining openly aware of the present moment. There’s no need to forcefully hold attention at the breath or to block anything out in your surroundings or thoughts. Gently guiding attention back to the breath thousands of times will naturally quiet the mind, and as a consequence, help us do our daily work better.
The Benefits of Meditation
This simple technique of simultaneously focusing attention and expanding of awareness of the present leads to a more unified mind. Some of the benefits of this are:
- Better focus
- Peace of mind
- Keep more of the mind “online”
- Learn more from experience
- Learn how the mind works
There is a lot happening beneath the surface even if the conscious mind is mostly empty. To use a programmer’s analogy: Your mind has inner garbage collection and defragmentation as long as you give it time to run the relevant subprograms. Even idle day-dreaming can engage this passive reorganisation if meditation is not your cup of tea. This is why procrastination might help you solve the bug you’ve been trying to fix the whole day.
Attention vs. Awareness
There are two main circuits that determine the contents of consciousness: attention and awareness. Most of us are familiar with attention: directing your mind in real time to different sensory or mental objects and analysing them. Awareness has a more open quality and responds to intention more slowly. Right now your attention is on this text, but you still have background awareness of your surroundings. Awareness encompasses many objects at once and provides quick summaries that attention can then elaborate on. In a sense awareness provides the context from which to choose what to pay attention to.
Attention is inherently unstable and alternates between objects of interest. You also can’t pay attention to attention, so this movement is impossible to control in real time. Only awareness can know where your attention is directed right now and gently hold it stable. We call this interplay between attention and awareness mindfulness and it is key to stabilising your focus. This skill which you will learn through meditation is especially useful in today’s busy work life: the more you focus while meditating the better your ability to focus will become in general. In meditation you focus attention on the breath at the nose and remain as aware as you can of the present moment. Eventually this awareness of the outside world becomes strong enough to be turned inwards into awareness of the mind itself.
The reason you can’t pay attention to the breath for extended periods of time is that different parts of the mind have conflicting ideas on what is important. A boring object like the breath acts as a good proxy for fostering subconscious agreement. This progressive resolution of inner conflicts brings you more peace of mind and the ability to focus on something actually useful. Better agreement between different parts of the mind also keeps more of them “online”. This gives them a better chance to learn the consequences of their actions. Having a larger part of the mind online can help you come up with more creative solutions at your work. With more potential viewpoints, you will get more potential solutions.
The mind is our user interface to the world
There is intrinsic value in learning how the mind works. Your mind is your user interface to the world. Our senses go through an enormous amount of preprocessing before they are presented to consciousness. Have you ever wondered why you can’t see your own blood vessels in your eyes or hear your own heart beat? Our visual and auditory systems filter these out. These filters are hard-wired but at the higher levels there is room for improvement and investigation.
By closely studying the touch sensations related to the breath we can learn that the mind fabricates an orderly perception based on noisy sensations. Further investigating these fabrications we may learn that they are made of the same “mind stuff” as everything else we have ever experienced or thought about. In a very concrete sense the mind is the only place you ever visit and it pays to study it and fix any bugs you find. This might sound scary, and for some meditators it is, but ultimately learning that “all is mind” will be liberating.
To actually investigate the mind from the first perspective you need extremely stable attention. This is why John Yates’ book The Mind Illuminated is all about concentration. It also provides some theory on how the mind is organised and later gives instructions on how to verify everything yourself. The book divides meditation into ten Stages with the first once simply being about sitting down daily to concentrate on the breath. There’s no way around the fact that the mind has subconscious parts that can only be trained with sustained practice. An intellectual understanding of the mind simply won’t cut it.
The ten stages of meditation according to Yates’ theory are:
- Stage One: Establishing a Practice
- Stage Two: Attention gets interrupted by mind-wandering.
- Stage Three: Attention can be sustained, but it’s easy to forget to keep on sustaining.
- Stage Four: Attention can be sustained continuously, but competing objects still come to the foreground. There’s also a tendency to fall asleep.
- Stage Five: Attention is continuous, but there is a tendency to fall into a dull mildly pleasant state of mind that prevents advancement.
- Stage Six: Attention can be sustained almost exclusively. Sensations and thoughts competing for attention are subdued.
- Stage Seven: Attention is exclusive and subconscious parts of the mind start to unify behind a shared intention to observe the breath.
- Stage Eight: Paying exclusive attention no longer requires effort. The mind grows quiet and the senses start to pacify.
- Stage Nine: Even the senses have grown quiet. This experience can be very intense and something you need to get accustomed to.
- Stage Ten: Perfect attention with profound tranquility and equanimity.
We’ll cover these in a future post and take a closer look at the how the “software” of the mind is organised.
About the Author
Lumi has a passion for learning about intelligence. In addition to studying artificial intelligence she has been investigating her own “software” using various meditation techniques since 2005. She has reached Stage Eight in the framework introduced here and hopes to make it all the way to Stage Ten.