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June 25th, 2020
What were we just saying?
How is it that we can forget something that just happened, especially words that we our selves came up with and spoke, and then heard ourselves say?
The same thing happens somewhere else in our daily experience:
Can you pinpoint the moment when you fall asleep?
In both instances there’s a break in the quality of our attention which has an effect on our memory of the moment, in that moment.
Our normal experience during the day, is a constant renewing and redirecting of attention. While awake, the attention seems – for the most part – to have an awareness of itself. Even when we aren’t consciously paying attention to attention itself, attention still seems to have some stewardship of itself.
A distraction pops up. The phone rings, a text dings, someone in the room asks a question, and then afterward, the attention surveys the options, checks them against recent memory and if the match is meaningful, we get back to what we were doing.
Flow states certainly pose an exception to this. Whether it be the experience of being lost in a good workout or in the details of a project, our actions achieve a kind of synchronicity with our immediate environment, our attentional capacity relaxes it’s recursive efforts. This variation of how attention functions might explain the similarities in experience between dreaming and flow states. Both lack the staccato quality of normal waking life that is distracted and disorganized.
Life as we experience it seems pinned with a tension that constantly draws us between this attentional recursion and attentional relax. We turn on another episode because the experience of being lost in the narrative is pleasurable in the same way a flow state is, or a dream. And yet the same mechanism seems to be at play when we can’t tear our face away from a social media feed that is causing us to grow increasingly depressed, angry or disturbed.
(As an aside, it might be healthier to regard such feeds as we would a movie with disturbing content – more a function of entertainment than a reality we should take seriously.)
In meditation, a great deal of benefit is won as a person attempts to create the opposite of what most people think of as meditative. A worthy exercise in meditation is to resist being swept away by the drama wrapped up in a string of thought that carries our attention off in a little “flow” state for a minute or two. We eventually return to the moment and realize that we’ve failed to pay attention to the breath or the posture, or any number of things that are actually happening. So we return again and again. Meditation as a mindfulness practice is an exercise in attentional recursion. In some sense, we practice by constantly asking: where is my attention right now? Of course, by verbalizing the question, even in the sub-vocalization we hear in the mind becomes the object of attention. It is just another thought, the next thought. But by returning with the object of this question over and over, it seems to become internalized as a process as opposed to an explicit thought.
Eventually the attentional recursion sweeps enough of the mental dust away and we begin to have the ability during short strings of moments to pay attention to the raw data of the moment without judgment, provocation or a need to double-check the status of attention.
The real benefit here - the “point” you might say - of meditating and developing this ability is that it enables two things to occur: you gain a new level of thoughtful control over your life and the actions you take. And secondly, within that control, an individual becomes free from the intoxication of emotion and memories, of future plans and reactions – all of this is swept aside at will, at your discretion, leaving only the pleasant experience of being alive, right now.