Mindfulness for Skeptical Nerds
a.k.a. a letter to my past self & the resources I wish I had earlier
I’ve been practicing various forms of mindfulness for a while. But after many years of thinking I wasn’t “good” at meditation because I was bad at clearing my restless mind, I finally started trying different approaches in earnest several months ago, and it’s been incredibly helpful for self-regulation and self-awareness.
Certain flavors of spirituality can sometimes get a bad rap amongst academics because of inappropriate pop-cultural substitutions of spiritual practices for appropriate applications of modern technology — such as if someone refuses to let their child see a doctor for a physical ailment because they only want to use prayer as a treatment. But what about the reverse? Even though medications cannot be used to resolve trauma or fulfillment, Western medicine is rarely blamed for inappropriate use in emotional matters.
Five-sigma scientific facts and rules are appropriate when you need to create tangible inferences and mechanisms which quantifiably follow said facts and rules, such as when designing a bridge, computer, or synthesized molecule. Western medicine is appropriate when you need surgery, antibiotics, or hormones you are physically incapable of synthesizing. And spirituality and other flexible personalized frameworks are appropriate when you need to regulate your stress response, sort out your emotional baggage, or figure out what you want in life.
Mindfulness analogy in engineering terms
Suppose something is wrong in your mechatronic/software system, and the best investigative tool you have is a single check engine light or integration test. If it goes off, all you know is that Something Is Not Right Somewhere, which could be anything at various levels of urgency, including the check engine light circuit itself. You will search many unnecessary subsystems, perhaps try solutions that don’t address (or even worsen) your actual underlying frustration, and likely end up frustrated and salty in both mood and glands.
If you had difficult formative experiences, or have never spent too much time intentionally delving your psyche, you might only have an emotional check engine light: a confusing feeling of something’s-not-right-ness that doesn’t know how to explain itself (alexithymia). And if you have trauma, it is especially likely that your check engine light misfires often.
Just as movement and exercise increase your body awareness and knowledge of your physical limitations, mindfulness practice increases your self-awareness and knowledge of your mind’s raw spots. With observational mindfulness practices, you can build yourself a detailed troubleshooting guide, logging system, profiler, oscilloscope, observability platform, metaphor et cetera that allows you to debug why you don’t feel good and exactly what to do about it.
It saves massive amounts of personal and interpersonal strife to be able to rapidly distinguish between feelings such as “I’m hungry”, “I feel triggered because this reminds me of a really scary situation I used to be in”, and “I’m annoyed because it’s been a long day, not because of you”.
Once you know what the problem is, it’s much more feasible to develop a troubleshooting handbook: “I need a snack”, “I need a time out”, “I would like a hug”, “it’s time to decompress and not do anything for a bit”.
Why trundle through life with merely a cursed check engine light, when you can set up much more efficient debugging toolchains?
Resources for getting started
Meditation & mindfulness
- Intro to mindfulness practice by Thich Nhat Hanh
- No Mud No Lotus (Thich Nhat Hanh)
How to gently connect with your inner pain without feeling overwhelmed by it.
- There Is No Right Way To Meditate (Yumi Sakugawa)
Approachable and goofy cartoons visualizing many different ways to come to mindfulness.
- A Handful of Quiet: Happiness in Four Pebbles (Thich Nhat Hanh)
Simple mindfulness exercises designed for children, but could also be useful for those very new to mindfulness or looking for a hands-on approach with less philosophy. Offers useful spatializations for processing emotions, like putting your anger into a pebble in your pocket.
Meditation apps & guided courses. I personally prefer Insight Timer, but your mileage may vary.
- Insight Timer — a customizable meditation timer app with soothing sounds, plus a large library of guided meditations
- Mindfulness Based Living Course — guided meditation audio course with body awareness focus
- Oak — a minimalist guided meditation/breathing app
- Plum Village app—guided meditation app for Thich Nhat Hanh’s teachings. Good body scans, general awareness, and gratitude practice.
Am I doing it right?
I got frustrated when starting because I thought that meditation was supposed to clear your mind, and since I couldn’t do this, I thought I wasn’t doing it “right”. However, that is only one particular way that some people meditate. It’s a very personal trial-and-error process for everyone. It’s okay if you don’t feel a certain way. Try different approaches and do whatever improves your own personal self-awareness.
For me, meditation is often a state of nonjudgmental, transience-welcoming hyperawareness, where I let all my feelings and thoughts happen, but I observe them like a third party. Left in total silence, I tend to get fixated on worryful thought spirals rather than observation. The timed bells in meditation apps are really useful for reminding me that I’m an observer, and giving me a moment to decide whether to stay on the current thought train or hop on a new train.
Of course, other people I’ve talked with experience meditation in different ways. Whatever the heck meditation is, it’s extremely helpful for self-awareness and making emotional baggage less scary.
On body-based mindfulness
The resources above contain some deep breathing exercises and body scans which are very useful for physical self-awareness and identifying how tension or emotions are held in the body.
However, if you happen to have trauma which makes you feel particularly unsafe in your body, it may be counterproductively panic-triggering rather than calming to try body-based mindfulness right away. Here are some gentler ramps (which are also very useful even if you don’t have trauma):
- Nature therapy or gardening
- On environment-based mindfulness for people with body-based trauma | Clementine Morrigan
- Having a pet or volunteering with animals
- Yoga therapy, flow arts, or expressive arts therapy (basically, increasing your general comfort with your body without focusing directly on body mindfulness right away)
- Alexithymia — The inability to identify emotions in oneself or others.
This can be a general state for some people. But even if you’re usually fine at identifying emotions, it’s not uncommon to enter this state while feeling triggered or overwhelmed.
- Interoception — Awareness of one’s internal physiological state.
- Limbic system — A grouping of structures in the brain that deal with emotions, behavior, motivation, long-term memory, and olfaction.
- Emotional hijacking — The amygdala sets off threat alerts a lot faster than our neocortex can make complex decisions, so in order to de-trigger, we need to first focus on calming the amygdala rather than trying to rationalize more facts. In other words, there’s a physiological explanation as to why facts and rationalizations aren’t great at preventing us from getting inappropriately triggered, scared, or angry.
More on the physiology of mindfulness & emotional self-awareness
Fortunately, Western studies have recently seemed to be picking up that many mindfulness-based spiritual practices are very much not a scam, but in fact time-honored biohacks which demonstrably affect our limbic systems’ ability to function and physiologically regulate.
- Emotional Intelligence (Daniel Goleman)
A thorough overview on how emotions physiologically affect us, and ways in which emotional intelligence & self-awareness are more important for our executive functioning than conventional intelligence.
- The Body Keeps The Score (Bessel van der Kolk)
A heavy foundational read on understanding trauma, with a particular focus on cPTSD from childhood abuse. Has a good overview of the neurophysiology of self-awareness, and of mind-body integrative therapies which are being researched to improve self-awareness for trauma treatment.
- Mechanisms of mindfulness meditation | Wikipedia
This article focuses specifically on mindfulness, but if you’re looking for other emotional debugging resources, check out innerdemons.me, an accessible resource hub I’ve made organized by feelings.