Framing the Frameless
Over the past weeks, we have been introducing various meditation techniques and aspects of Mindfulness. In this Frame, I hope to collect and connect the pieces in order to render an overview that helps you create an integral mindfulness practice.
The problems with Frames
“A wealth of information creates a poverty of attention”– Herbert A. Simon
Since attention is a scarce resource, we have to ignore most information in order to zero in on what is relevant to us. In a previous Frame, we explored how our conscious attention helps us do this by glueing our experiences together and creating coherency. In this process of “zeroing in”, we apply heuristics – mental frames – to decide what is relevant and what to ignore. These mental frames help us operate in the world by acting as shortcuts that speed up our sensemaking and decision making. Without these heuristics, we would get stuck in endless evaluations and never come to any conclusion. We need our frames. At the same time, they often cause us to misjudge situations and jump to conclusions. While we like to believe that we are rational and logical, the fact is that we continually fixate on our mental frames and fall into various cognitive biases that distort our thinking and decision making.
There are endless ways in which our mental frames and biases cause us to go astray. Just think of how the “confirmation bias” plays out in the age of social media and filter bubbles. Or the way in which momentary feelings of anxiety can result in vicious cycles through the following “mis-framing”:
The anxiety tends to remind us of similar situations from our past where we felt anxious and cause us to overrate the likelihood of negative events happening (known as the “availability heuristics”). This leads us to interpret even neutral events as negative, which, in turn, perpetuates the anxiety.
(I recommend this List of Common Cognitive Biases for further details and examples.)
Finding the right level of attention
We need a way to detect and over-ride dysfunctional shortcuts and occasionally re-frame the way we look at problems and situations. We have been talking about how mindfulness practices help us do this by training our capacity to “zoom in” and cutting through delusions, and to “zoom out” and apply appropriate frames to see the big picture. We need both of these capacities in order to find the right level of detail in any given situation.
Meditation to cultivate Insight
In fact, the word vipassanā (or vipaśyanā) – a traditional Buddhist meditation technique – means Insight, it means seeing deeply into the nature of reality. We have discussed how the process of meditation helps us step back and observe the lens of our mind and gain some distance to our experience. As our mind settles down, we make room for insights which help us break through self-delusion and bad framing that keep us stuck.
As we practice meditation, we also cultivate attitudes of acceptance and non-judging. We are training our capacity for equanimity – a balance of mind that affords us to stay centred in the midst of the tumult of our minds and of the world around us. This brings us to the second domain of Mindfulness
Contemplation to cultivate love and compassion
In addition to the aforementioned attitudes, this second domain of Mindfulness includes a distinct set of practices that can be summarised as contemplation. Whereas meditation is a process of “stepping back” and seeing deeply (“gaining insights”) into our mind and the world, the practice of contemplation is a process by which we create and apply new frames and look out into the world. The way we typically do this in Mindfulness is through a practice called Metta (often translated as “loving kindness”). This includes setting intentions and working with recitations and visualisations to cultivate love and compassion toward ourselves, our loved ones, and an ever widening circle of compassion.
So these are the two wings of Mindfulness. I hope you are beginning to see how they fit together – that insights without love, and vice versa, is not a good recipe. That, returning to our metaphor, a bird with only one wing is unable to fly.
Moving the wings closer together
In closing, I’d like to mention a third dimension, which is about bringing the two wings together. We want to be able to strike a balance between insight with love – between seeing into the details and seeing the bigger picture. We want to be able to flow between them, so that we can adapt to what the circumstances demand of us.
A third type of practice that can help us do this is various forms of movement practices. This can be yoga, qigong, breath work, or other types of “moving meditations” in which we coordinate our bodily movements with our breath. These practices help us dynamically flow in and out, and bring our practice closer to our ordinary way of being in the world. Ultimately, we want to bring the two wings together and integrate them into a living, dynamic organism that is more than the sum of its parts.
With that said, I hope that you find this framing helpful in clearing up potential confusion, and helping you craft a more balanced and integrated Mindfulness practice.
Try these practices!
Mindfulness Meditation (24 min)
Metta Contempltation (18 min)
I’d like to give credit and express my gratitude to cognitive scientist John Vervaeke for a lot of the concepts I use in this explanation.