Thursday, April 8, 2021

Mindfulness on the go: A working definition

Mindfulness is an abstract term and it means multiple things to multiple people. Hence, a working definition helps in bringing out key aspects and contrasting them with other connotations. The suggestion here is to "work with" this definition and adapt it to one's needs. Before we look at the definition, let's first take a look at the "overconfidence trap" to which mindfulness is a response. 

Overconfidence trap: The picture above illustrates a bistable optical illusion and a related cartooned cognitive illusion. To quote Daniel Kahneman, "Your cognitive biases act like optical illusions". One way to understand how such an illusion is sustained is through the loop of an overconfidence trap (see the figure below). Here, we have two biases reinforcing each other: the confirmation bias (What you believe is what you see) and WYSIATI bias (What you see is all there is). Please note that not all biases are subjected to this trap. Typically, beliefs related to religion, race, caste, politics, culture, some scientific ideas if you are a scientist are susceptible to the overconfidence trap. Also note that there is nothing wrong with a belief, it is the confidence attached to it that creates conflicts. It is just fine to worship duck-god, but when you say duck-god is all there is, trouble starts.

A working definition:

The definition has 4 parts (1) a process of learning (2) to see clearly (3) despite fast, automatic, and biased thinking, and (4) anytime, anywhere. It is sometimes understood better when it is contrasted with what it is not (see below).

1. Process of learning vs state of knowing: This is a process-oriented definition and not a state-oriented definition.  

2. To see clearly vs to do rightly: It puts emphasis on seeing (or perceiving) rather than doing. Willingness to learn to see clearly implies the presence of some doubt about what you see. It means the WYSIATI bias is not very strong.

3. Despite fast, automatic, and biased thinking: The biases could still be operating i.e. I may still see only duck-god. However, I may now be open to other possibilities despite seeing only duck-god, especially when someone else says she sees a rabbit-god. 

4. Anytime, anywhere: This implies that this process of learning is not restricted to a specific time of the day when I sit quietly with my eyes closed. It could happen anytime, anywhere.

5. Absence of any goal: This definition does not assume any goal. Learning to see clearly not in order to get anywhere, but for its own sake.

How do I know I am seeing clearly? I don't know. All it means is to carry some openness about a possibility that I may not see clearly. If someone expresses a view different from mine (duck-god vs rabbit-god) or if I see that there is an expectation mismatch (I try to diet, but end up overeating), it is a hint that I may not be seeing clearly.  

Happy to receive your inputs.

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