Unselfconsciousness training (MFT III)

Raise your hand if you’ve practised mindfulness before.

Mindfulness [meditation], as probably most of you know, is the practice of focusing your attention on (usually) your breath, and when your mind wanders, bringing it back. You’re training your ability to deliberately influence your subjective experience. You’re training your ability to not be distracted, and to recover from distraction.

But how are you doing this? You’re sitting on your cushion, in your quiet room… practising not being distracted by… well, nothing. I mean, your own thoughts, sure. But you’re not really trying to use your brain for anything, so this is pretty crude: all thoughts get set aside. This is maybe level one mindfulness: a good foundation, but not that directly applicable to everyday life.

What can you do with it? What would applied mindfulness look like?

How could you train these skills in contexts more like the ones in which you’ll actually use them?

Applications of mindfulness

So if mindfulness is the direction of attention, where would that be helpful? One context is in trying to do productive work, but for the most part I think there’s a lot of other low-hanging fruit in that arena already. But if you want to try something here, you could pay attention to your levels of motivation, particularly when trying to get yourself to do something hard, messy, or otherwise aversive. Level two: self-fulfilling motivation.

In addition to aversions producing boredom or distraction, they can also produce stress or anxiety—what CFAR sometimes calls againstness. Againstness is the quality of approaching the world with resistance, and is closely tied to the relative activations of the two parts of your autonomic nervous system (which regulates basic bodily functions). So the Againstness Training class that CFAR teaches is a kind of applied mindfulness: instead of just noticing that your attention has wandered, you’re noticing that your physiological state has wandered. Watch a video of me learning to do this here.

In addition to that one, there are several other applications that show up in conversation. NVC (“Nonviolent communication“) is based around communicating only through the expression of observations, feelings, needs, and requests, but if you encounter somebody else making an accusation of you, it can take some of the same skill as in mindfulness to notice that you feel accused and to set that aside and engage with the person as if they’d instead calmly stated their observations, feelings, and needs. Like when you’re on the cushion, breathing may help.

There are applications of mindfulness in less-heated conversations as well: you might be having an argument with someone, and then notice that your brain is in the process of straw-manning them. Or any number of other biases or unwanted thought patterns that might be showing up in the interaction.

And I’m sure there are many, many more.

How to train mindfulness in conversation

I’ve definitely gotten a lot better at this over the last year, but most of that was from fairly implicit practice. My circles (particularly the intentional community in Waterloo) tend to prompt this kind of awareness and reflection, due to a general focus on metacognition and a sense that others might be interested in and open to your internal experience. But I think you can do it somewhat more deliberately.

I’ve written about this a year ago, in the original mindfulness field training post, where I described navigating a conversation about an argument, without letting myself fall back into the argument. Then shortly thereafter, I wrote the post trust-powered feedback loops, describing how revealing the mental patterns I was noticing made it a lot easier to notice them.

One key insight from these is that if you want to practice this in conversation with a real person, it’s way easier if you’re not trying to pretend it’s not happening. Ideally, the other person is very interested and curious in your internal experience, and you in theirs (though you might want to take turns focusing on one person’s learning then the other’s).

What’s different about these from classic solo mindfulness meditation is that you’re actually still being active: the goal is not just “not getting into argument mode” but “talking about an argument without getting into argument mode”. And the mindfulness skill is a necessary component of being able to calmly(ish) talk about the argument.

Unselfconsciousness training

I want to share one new exercise I’ve found for doing this. I think it’s particularly helpful for my social patterns, but may fall totally flat for others. (I expect the main failure mode will look like out-fizzlement though, not up-blowment, so feel free to try it.)

Here’s how it works:

You find someone else, and you sit or stand facing them, a few feet apart. If you’re not already feeling calm and connected, it may help to talk relaxedly for a few minutes, to embrace, or to do some solo meditation or simply eyes-closed breathing.

Then, start by making relaxed eye contact. The idea is that by default you’ll make eye contact throughout the exercise, but breaking the eye contact is no more of a failure than forgetting about your breath during classic meditation. In fact, they play the same role: there are certain kinds of self-consciousness that predictably produce spontaneous breaking of eye-contact, especially while speaking.

This means that you have a really tight feedback loop, where the moment you break eye contact you realize “wait, nope, this is my brain becoming selfconscious.” And it gives you a chance to interrupt the process and return your sense of presence to the other person. You can experiment with deliberately looking away and remaining present as you do so, then looking back. As mentioned above, it’s probably helpful to have the attention focused on one person’s learning at a given time, but this may be hard to do if both people are beginners—I mostly have done this with Jean, whose presence and unselfconsciousness are quite consistent anyway.

Another way to think about this is where mindfulness meditation is designed to soften the grip of your regular thought patterns, this unselfconsciousness training exercise softens the grip of your regular social interaction patterns.

I’m planning to write more about unselfconsciousness soon, so subscribe to my blog via rss or email (below) if you want to stay in the loop on this 🙂

Those in the SF/Berkeley area: I’m interested in experimenting more with this, so get in touch if you want to meet up and try it.

(Click me for further reading on reflective attention)

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About Malcolm

Constantly consciously expanding the boundaries of thoughtspace and actionspace. Creator of Complice, a system for achieving your important goals.

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