An operator’s guide to the nervous system

The machine that you are — the body and brain you ride around in — is the most incredible piece of machinery you will handle in your life. Someone could offer you the most sophisticated piece of technology that humans have made — a stealth jet, a rocket, an advanced skyscraper — and it would not be as sophisticated as your body.

And yet, nobody teaches you how to operate this machine.

One way in which we systematically learn how to operate our nervous system is through mindfulness practice. In this practice we watch the real time operation of your nervous system. You may put your system under different stresses and see what happens. You may try to nudge it in certain ways and observe the result. Through this process, you learn important stuff about how to operate your nervous system.

Why would anyone believe Cersei?

Season 7 finale spoilers.

I loved the season 7 finale. But there have been some difficult-to-swallow plot points lately. This is one of them.

Cersei has relentlessly and openly exhibited her willingness to shatter any moral norm necessary to help her consolidate and preserve power. It strains credulity to believe that Jon and Daenerys could miss this, and think that a plan that relies on allying with Cersei is viable. But to believe that Tyrion could buy into it is beyond the pale.

You have to know that she will, from the get-go, be deciding to ally only for as long as it seems to be in her interest. Her words mean nothing. Honor means nothing.

It’s just not a viable plan to rely on her for a truce or an alliance. You’re better off killing her. An assassination or dragon attack plan would be better than an alliance.

What is the relationship between mindfulness and meta-awareness?

Mindfulness and meta-awareness are often discussed in such a way that they sound quite similar — perhaps even synonymous. Do these terms refer to the same thing? If not, what’s the relationship between them?

In this post I share takes from three leading thinkers:

  • Richard Davidson, directer of the UW’s Center for Healthy Minds and co-author of the excellent book Altered Traits.
  • Jon Kabat-Zinn, developer of the popular therapeutic protocol Mindfulness Based Stress Reduction (MBSR) and one of the grand-daddies of mindfulness in the West.
  • John Yates, aka Culadasa, neuroscientist and one of Silicon Valley’s two favorite meditation teachers (the other being Shinzen Young), author of the excellent The Mind Illuminated.

Richard Davidson

Mindfulness

A term that is defined differently in Buddhist and contemporary contexts, but which often refers to a self-regulated attentional stance oriented toward present-moment experience that is characterized by curiosity, openness, and acceptance. In some traditional Buddhist contexts, mindfulness is equivalent to the psychological process that we refer to here as meta-awareness.

Meta-awareness

Heightened awareness of the processes of consciousness, including the processes of thinking, feeling, and perceiving. Along with the regulation of the scope and stability of attention, the cultivation of meta-awareness is an important objective in attentional styles of meditation practice.

From a 2015 review of meditation practices.

Jon Kabat-Zinn

Mindfulness

If you want one word it’s awareness.

My operational definition of mindfulness is the awareness that arises from paying attention, on purpose, in the present moment, non-judgmentally.

Meta-awareness

We called ourselves as a species Homo sapiens sapiens. Namely, the species from the Latin sapere which means to taste, or to sense, or to know. And the Buddhists talk about awareness as a sixth sense, another sense. So we’re the species that knows, and knows that it knows. In the sense of not cognition and meta-cognition but awareness and meta-awareness.

From an interview with Dan Harris on the 10% Happier podcast (starting at around 28 minutes).

John Yates (Culadasa)

Mindfulness

Conscious experience takes two different forms, attention and peripheral awareness. Whenever we focus our attention on something, it dominates our conscious experience. At the same time, however, we can be more generally aware of things in the background. For example, right now your attention is focused on what you’re reading. At the same time you’re also aware of other sights, sounds, smells, and sensations in the periphery.

Mindfulness is the optimal interaction between attention and peripheral awareness.

“Mindfulness” is a somewhat unfortunate translation of the Pali word sati because it suggests being attentive, or remembering to pay attention. This doesn’t really capture the full meaning and importance of sati. Even without sati, we’re always paying attention to something. But with sati, we pay attention to the right things, and in a more skillful way.

Everything we think, feel, say, or do from one moment to the next—who we are, and how we behave—all ultimately depends on the interactions between attention and awareness. Mindfulness is the optimum interaction between the two, so cultivating mindfulness can change everything we think, feel, say, and do for the better. It can completely transform who we are.

Meta-awareness

Even though attention and awareness can be either extrospective or introspective, only peripheral awareness can observe the overall state of mind (e.g., whether it is happy, peaceful, or agitated), as well as the activities of the mind (e.g., whether attention is moving or not, and whether attention is occupied with thinking, remembering, or listening). The condition in which the mind “stands back” to observe its own state and activities is called metacognitive introspective awareness.

From The Mind Illuminated.

Why product managers need deep work

Mark Twain’s deep work writing hut. source

One way to describe the job a product manager is to hand engineers specs that will work. Writing the specs, tedious as it may be, is the easy part. Learning what will work is the challenge.

Figuring out what will work is a long process.

PMs typically start with a highly unconstrained solution space. Your job is to figure out what we should build.

The problem space is also quite unconstrained. What are the goals? What state of the world are you trying to solve for? Is it $100k revenue? $1,000k? Are you thinking in terms of this quarter? End of the year? Three years out? Are you trying to solve the same problem for the same audience that you were solving last year? Or is there a new problem, or a new audience, that would be better this year?

Somehow, out of the great undefined soup of potential solutions to potential problems, your job is to write concrete specs for a product that engineers can build, that, when released to the world, will “work”. It’s fucking hard.

To do this difficult job successfully, it’s essential that product managers take a healthy amount of time for ‘deep work’. This is time where you won’t be interrupted at all for at least four hours at a time.

Your goal, during that time, is to let your mind go deep. You’re the explorer of the unconstrained spaces: you’re the one who has to know the way around in there, and your job is to bring back clarity and concrete edges for your team to hold on to. If there’s something in that space that’s important to discover and bring into the light of day, yours is the role that does that.

So you need to give your mind the space to explore. Let it chase rabbits down their holes. Let it dream of science fiction futures. Let it work back to first principles, and then build up from there, temporarily setting aside the realities of your actual team and present circumstances, before bringing them back in. Your mind is a simulation engine. As you spend time in deep focus running simulations, you’re making sense of the great abyss that successful solutions must be extracted from.

If you don’t do this, you can expect your team to build common solutions to common problems. Maybe that’ll work. Maybe in a few years you’ll look back and wish you’d seen something bigger.

Get out of the office. Take Friday mornings. Work from home if you can be alone. Get a hotel room if you have to. And give yourself the space to think.

What does it mean to be authentic?

Somebody gives you a baseball signed by Nolan Ryan. Is it authentic? You meet someone at a party, and you get the feeling that the person doesn’t seem very authentic. You enter your username and password into a website, and thereby become authenticated.

The dictionary definition of ‘authentic’ is “of undisputed origin; genuine”.

So, authenticity has to do with origin stories. If the baseball’s origin story involves an event where Nolan Ryan signed it, it’s authentic. If its origin story involves someone else signing Nolan Ryan’s name, it’s not.

Likewise with people: if the words and behaviors a person is exhibiting have their origin in that person’s real beliefs and emotions, we say the person is authentic. If there’s a layer of dissimulation in the middle, a sense in which the person is trying to appear to be a certain way, without actually being that way, then we say that the person is inauthentic.

To be authentic as a person implies that your thoughts and actions are genuine — that they are illustrative of the the ‘real you’. This doesn’t mean that you speak every thought that comes to your mind. It just means that when you do speak, your words are revealing a genuine part of what it’s like to be you.

Is mindfulness deconstructive?

Constructive meditation practices are those that strengthen psychological patterns (hopefully patterns associated with well-being) — for example, a meditator might hold a loved one in mind while repeating phrases like “may you be well” and attempting to generate and amplify the positive intention.

Deconstructive meditation practices are those that analyze experience into component parts, which are often then analyzed and decomposed again. In vipassana mediation, for example, the meditator might observe a pain in the leg, and immediately move past seeing it as one big chunky thing and instead see it as the rich dynamic tapestry of arising and changing and passing away sensations that it is.

This distinction is articulated in a cognitive science research paper by Richard Davidson and others.

Holding this distinction, we might ask whether mindfulness is constructive or deconstructive or both or neither.

Why the present moment is so significant

<— — — past — — — | — — — future — — — >

In mindfulness meditation, you want to bring your attention away from memories of the past or imaginings of the future, and hold it steady on experience as it is streaming right now in the present moment.

Why?

Two reasons.

  1. Because the present is simple and easy. The events in the past and future you’re ruminating on are not. They’re complex, and they stress you out. The present moment just is as it is. So if you bring your attention out of the past/future, and into the present, you can allow your mind to come into a more relaxed mood.
  2. Because you’re learning to operate your nervous system. To do that, you have to watch it operate. Its operation occurs in the present moment. Actions you can take occur within the present moment, and have effects in the present moment. As a product of your culture, you spend too much time thinking about the past/future and not enough time observing the present. In mindfulness meditation you will intentionally compensate for that. In so doing you will increase in wisdom regarding the operation of your nervous system.

The meditation funnel

I was talking with a Daniel Ingram recently, and he articulated a way of carving up the world of meditators. He broke them into three groups: people who the wide end of the funnel, the middle, and the narrow end.

At the wide end, you have the newbies.

  • These people are in it because they’ve got some non-meditation goal and they heard that meditation might be a good way to achieve it. Maybe they want to reduce their stress and anxiety. Maybe they want to perform better at work. Maybe they want to be more creative.
  • They haven’t experienced any of the ‘special’ experiences that come about through meditation. Things like dissolution, bhanga, arising & passing.
  • They probably meditate for 10 or 15 minutes a day and think that’s pretty good for their needs.

In the middle, you have the people who have tasted something more, and are exploring what’s possible.

  • They know from first-hand experience (and probably from their readings and received teachings) that there’s some crazy shit that’s possible here. They want to explore it. They probably don’t know exactly what they’re after because they don’t have a good understanding of all the things that are possible.
  • These people tend to go on retreats and read geeky Buddhist stuff. If they don’t meditate for an hour or more a day, they at least recognize that they should if they want to make progress.

At the narrow end, you have the people who are going for enlightenment. They know what it is, they know how much work will be involved, and they’re going for it.

  • These people are deep. They’ve been at it for a while and are quite skilled as practitioners. Furthermore they have studied the landscape and the ‘maps’ of the paths to enlightenment, and they know what path they’re taking.
  • They’re probably working with a very focused teacher or center that’s specifically aiming to push people on to enlightenment.
  • They’re prepared to spend an enormous amount of time and energy pursuing the goal. Either that means a consistent daily practice of at least 1 hour for ~5 years, or 3–6 months of retreat living with 24/7 intensive practice.

The ‘funnel’ metaphor is apt because, as with a typical product engagement funnel, you have many more people in the casual end than you do in the middle and at the extreme end.

Why meditate?

These are the big motivators, as I see them, in order of prevalence.

  1. Escape suffering. This is the classic Siddhartha motivation. From what I can tell, this the major motivation driving the current surge in mindfulness/meditation interest.
  2. Performance. Some people meditate because they want performance benefits. Happens a lot in sports and business.
  3. Achieve enlightenment. This is a more aspirational motivation.

Shinzen Young gives these five aspects of happiness that can be achieved through the application of mindful awareness.

  • Reduce physical or emotional suffering.
  • Elevate physical or emotional fulfillment.
  • Achieve deep self knowledge.
  • Make positive changes in objective behavior.
  • Develop a spirit of love and service towards others.

Hypothesis: loving-kindness and equanimity are the same thing in different uses

Loving-kindness, or metta, is described as a kind of openness, a gentle friendliness.

Equanimity is often described as a kind of allowance or acceptance. In Shinzen Young’s mindfulness system, non-equanimity is likened to electrical resistance or friction, and equanimity is likened to a releasing of that resistance.

In the traditional metta meditation, the meditator directs attention to herself and other people in sequence, each time repeating a set of phrases like “may {person} be well, may she be free from suffering”. The meditator tries to really generate the intention for that person to be well. If feelings of friendliness or love arise, the meditator tries to amplify those feelings.

In the traditional vipassana meditation, the meditator directs attention to the body, usually systematically scanning the attention from the top of the head to the feet, and then back up. As the meditator attends to each area of the body, she tries to detect whatever sensations are arising there, and to meet them with equanimity. That equanimity involves a kind of opening, allowance, friendliness.

My hypothesis is that the friendliness and love generated in metta, and the friendliness and acceptance applied in vipassana, are the same basic move, just applied differently. In vipassana the target is bare sensation — something very immediate and conceptually simple. In metta the target is the concept of some person — not so present, and much more complex. But in either case, the meditator takes an action towards the object. I’m hypothesizing it’s the same action.