‘Just like a computer’: technologising mindfulness

Mindfulness is often promoted as a way for people to regain control and agency, making ‘choices’, in the face of increasing automation, thus reclaiming their humanity within an expanding ‘digital capitalism’ (King, 2016). At the same time, mindfulness itself is often explained using metaphors taken from science and technology. We found that technoscientific metaphors are frequently used in the popular book Mindfulness: Finding Peace in a Frantic World (Williams & Penman, 2011). Mindfulness, and the meditating person, are described using technoscientific and communicational terms, such as microphone, radio, radar, tuning, cinema, amplifier and barometer. In particular, mindfulness is a way of releasing people from what psychologists call ‘automatic pilot’. For example, Williams and Penman (2011) use a simile to compare the mind of the person reading their book to a multi-tasking computer, which may ‘crash’ due to being on ‘autopilot’. As is standard in popular self-help, they address the reader personally and directly (‘you’), using a somewhat dramatic example.

Very soon the autopilot can become overloaded with too many thoughts, memories, anxieties and tasks - just like a computer with too many windows left open. Your mind slows down. You may become exhausted, anxious, frantic and chronically dissatisfied with life. And again, just like a computer, you may freeze - or even crash, (ibid.: 86)

Many of the descriptions of mindfulness practice involve a distinctly disembodied language of computation and information processing, such as ‘autopilot’, ‘mode’, ‘system’ and ‘feedback’ which are common to cognitive psychology and cybernetics. Mindfulness is framed, for example, as a way to help people notice when they are in a ‘doing mode’ of mind, such as automatically reacting to experiences. Mindfulness is claimed to help people to ‘switch’ into a ‘being mode’ of mind, in which they gently notice and respond kindly to what is happening.

The ‘being mode' of mindfulness is commonly considered to be in opposition to ‘mind wandering’ (Morrison et al., 2019; Mrazek et al., 2013). But the conference programme (see Figure 2.2) illustrates some of the conceptual and moral complexity in narrating ‘mind wandering' within the context of a mindfulness training event. By writing ‘we need mind-wandering in our practice’ Williams

A day of Mindfulness Practice and Dialogue

Mark Williams

Sunday 5th July, 9.30 - 17.00

Mindfulness is about everyday life. It is in the rush of daily life that thoughts, feelings and impulses of any instant come together to change the trajectory of the next instant. If we wish to be more mindful in these ‘ordinary’ moments when life is rushing by, then it is good to set some time aside each day when only mindfulness practice is prioritised.

What goes on when we practice? Exactly what happens in the world 'outside' practice: thoughts, feelings, body sensations and impulses to act. We call it a ‘wandering mind’, but as far as the mind itself is concerned it is not wandering! It is only doing what it needs to do: reminding and planning, daydreaming or brooding, mostly about unfinished business and its consequences. We need such mindwandering in our practice. Without it, it would be like going to the gym and finding no equipment - nothing to work with, nothing to train on.

So in our ‘laboratory of practice', we wake up to our habitual patterns of mind, feelings and impulses. More than this, we begin to use the micro-reactions when we awaken to mind-wandering - the subtle colour or feeling tone - to witness the tiny start of a cascade of secondary reactions.

In our day of practice together, we will have the chance to turn towards our mindwandering to see the quality of its patterns (especially those we have found frustrating), and to discern how we may choose to respond more tenderly.

Much of the day (including breaks) will be in silence.

Mark Williams was Professor of Clinical Psychology at the University of Oxford until 2013, and before that at Bangor University between 1991 and 2002. He is interested in understanding suicidal depression and how best to prevent it, and collaborated with John Teasdale and Zindel Segal in developing Mindfulness-based Cognitive Therapy to prevent relapse and recurrence. Now retired, he continues to live near Oxford, to teach mindfulness to teachers-in-training across the world, and to explore, with colleagues, how mindfulness and compassion might most authentically be cultivated in public policy.

‘A Day of Mindfulness Practice and Dialogue’ conference programme

Figure 2.2 ‘A Day of Mindfulness Practice and Dialogue’ conference programme.

implicitly defends against the idea that mindfulness is incompatible with mind wandering. Mindfulness without mind wandering is considered to be similar to a ‘gym’ without ‘equipment’.

‘The gym’ is first used as a simile for the space of ‘practice’, before Williams employs a metaphor of mindfulness training as a ‘laboratory of practice’. This ‘laboratory’ is simultaneously imagined as both scientific and therapeutic. The person ‘awakens’ inside the laboratory of practice, ‘turning towards’ mind

Assembling mindful bodies 31 wandering and thereby witnessing the ‘cascade of secondary reactions’. While not explicitly describing mindfulness practice as a ‘laboratory’ during the DoP itself, Williams nevertheless routinely describes mindfulness using keywords from this metaphorical thesaurus (seeing, discovery, observation). During the DoP, Williams suggests ‘testing this out with experiments’ on the ‘workbench’ of the mind. Mindfulness practice is presented primarily as a scientific experiment with therapeutic effects, rather than as a religious or spiritual enterprise.

When functioning together, the use of optic and technoscientific metaphors may be an attempt by mindfulness teachers to universalise and standardise mind and body. This is similar to the attempts by early psychologists, who were ‘observers' of their own experiences, to train their inwardly directed attentions through introspection, thus turning themselves into reliable scientific instruments (Coon, 1993). ‘Objective’ ways to collect data became typical of the mid-twentieth century psychology of behaviourism, although ‘behaviour’ referred to physical movement, observed from the outside. The body was construed physically through a mechanical and sterile objectivity (Siam, 1998). This served the science of the time in producing measurable knowledge of a human organism, understood as a machine. The body as envisaged by behaviourism is not a fluid, processual, unsure or flowing body. The potential lack of nuance of behaviourist language for describing the human body has been called into question in, for example, affect theory (Blackman, 2012). We are similarly using the concept of affective-practice to analyse and subtly problématisé some of the assumptions made in the discourse of expert mindfulness training.

The mechanical mindset of behaviourism still haunts the account of mindfulness within MBCT, and Williams’ standpoint perhaps shows some influence of the early psychology of introspection too (see above). Williams also builds upon these influences with cognitive and experiential - humanistic and phenomenological - forms of understanding through his emphasis on the importance of ‘sharing’ subjective experience in pairs and with the larger group. In the following section we will show how Williams also applies naturalistic and organic metaphors, when advising how people should pay attention to the present moment.

‘Ah, Gravity’: naturalising mindfulness

The use of technoscientific metaphors is balanced with natural and organic ways of describing mindful (and unmindful) bodies (cloud, river, stream, waterfall, avalanche, garden, tree, seeds, spider's web). Naturalistic imagery such as landscapes, beaches and deserts are commonly found in the popular representation of mindfulness and Buddhist meditation, for example, on the front cover of the TIME magazine edition on ‘The Mindfulness Revolution' (Mitchell, 2014). In the following example, Williams uses a metaphor of ‘weather’ as a way of describing the emotional experience of a ‘bad mood’. By using this metaphor, he suggests practitioners’ experience resembles impersonal forces of nature, which are not subject to their direct influence and control.

Extract 1: Weather Pattern

Mark Williams (MW)



You’ve done what exactly what you have to do which is actually just notice the sense of the feeling tone and I think this sense of the overall? Weather pattern? And then little micro-climates within it ... yeah? That can just some- and sometimes the overall weather pattern’s very stormy and then the- the interesting thing is to discover is the micro-climate still stormy or are there some things which are really curious because in the midst of all this thing my bad mood for example I’m- ‘oh that was a moment of pleasantness’ ‘well that can’t be right’ (laughs)


So it’s just a sense of discovery, of what’s of what’s here and er I- you know I love the equation thing but I think I- you came back to just say ‘okay so what actually is here now’

Williams’ use of the metaphor ‘weather pattern’ involves a management of agency. While he suggests the mindful person is not solely responsible for their ‘bad mood’, which may change like the weather, they can nevertheless decide to ‘observe’ this weather (see also Williams and Penman, 2011: 87). The practice of mindfulness is equated with the act of ‘discovery’. A mindfulness practitioner is like a naturalist conducting a field observation. This is a subtly different style of observation, and positioning of the observer, to the laboratory experimentation discussed earlier. Patterns of ‘mood’ resemble weather patterns and the job of the mindfulness practitioner is to neutrally ‘notice’ their distinctive nuances and changing character. Williams does not explicitly say ‘weather pattern’ is a metaphor, implying this represents real experience. The wild and lively mind-body of the practitioner is naturalised as an impersonal force. This is similarly illustrated by Kabat-Zinn (1994) who remarks: ‘You can’t stop the waves, but you can learn to surf.

In the following extract, Williams uses ‘gravity’ as a simile, managing accountability for feelings of resentment and anger, and normalising the ‘egos’ of mindfulness teachers.

Extract 2: Gravity

MW The ability to see, the mind, especially when it goes off on one when we feel resentment or, angry and we realise that what’s happened is somebody has affronted us in some way or you know wid- ‘p-people haven’t treated us with respect’ you know ‘that bus driver spoke badly to me’ and ‘don’t they know who I am?’ you know ‘I’ve got a senior citizen bus pass’

Group (laughter)

MW er so T have rights on this bus’ you know this sort’ve thing where the ego gets involved, and and then we can feel really bad cos we’re a mindftilness teacher we shouldn’t be like this my God, an- an- see if it’s possible to see the ego and all of its works as like gravity it’s it’s just a force of nature and we have to take it into account like we have to take gravity into account and we can use it for things but it’s always there (turns to group) we’re not gonna get rid of our egos sorry

Group (laughter)

MW we’re not gonna get rid of our egos so we have to learn to live with them live

alongside them just as you say learn to respect to treat them with gra- and see it as gravity so that next time you get angry you can sort’ve say to yoursel- ‘ah gravity’

Group (laughter)

MW ‘there it goes, gravity’ yeah ‘gravity’ just a force yeah

By ‘taking the ego into account’, ‘like gravity', Williams encourages mindfulness teachers to conduct their own natural science-like observations and experiments in everyday life situations. He normalises the experience of feeling resentful and angry at being affronted by a bus driver, employing a personal story, thereby humanising himself as a teacher. ‘Seeing’ the mind is prescribed as a morally and therapeutically efficacious course of action, which may be in conflict with an internalised stereotype of a mindfulness teacher who ‘shouldn’t be like this my God’. We have to learn to live with ‘ego’ in mindfulness training, a similar point to ‘needing’ mind wandering. Seeing the ego as being like gravity, just a force of nature, involves naturalising the self and emotions. Williams attempts to bring an objective and neutral model of the body as a natural organism into the participants’ self-observation. Images of gravity, along with weather patterns, might become part of practitioners' subjective meditative experience. After all. the act of seeing the mind-body as a powerful force of nature, and not always subject to individual control, is itself implied to be therapeutic. Mindfulness practitioners are being trained to imagine themselves as a natural scientist who heals herself through self-observation.

Describing ‘mood’ and ‘ego’ as natural phenomena does not necessarily contradict the technoscientific language discussed previously. Both metaphors involve imagining an objective reahn, commonly shared by all people, which can potentially be observed (or even measured) experientially through a kind of ‘inner empiricism'. Naturalising mindfulness is therefore closely intertwined with technologising mindfulness, as both practices are potentially involved in making mindfulness universal and its training standardised. While Williams introduces his audience to multiple descriptions of what happens during mindfulness practice, the quality of paying attention is assumed to be fundamentally the same, or at least very similar, among different people. By using natural science rhetoric, Williams renders the observational capacity of mindfulness as compatible with empirical science, thus making mindfulness appear trustworthy and reliable. If mindfulness practice is equivalent, or similar, to conducting a natural scientific observation or experiment, then it can produce observable, and potentially replicable, objective results.

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