Describing the experience of mindfulness is tricky — it’s like biting your own teeth or straining to view the back of your head using a single mirror. In a weird sense, it feels like the more words needed to explain the phenomenon, the further away we are from the direct experience itself.
Aristotle (or a philosopher around his time) once famously claimed that god is thinking about thinking about thinking about thought. I really dislike that quote in relation to mindfulness, mainly because little deliberate thinking is involved. Nonetheless, I love the idea of using an identical process iteratively to break a problem down and uncover some base truth about the world.
In computer science, recursion is the process by which a function calls itself. In other words, before reaching an answer to some question, we must first ask the same question again (in hopes that we’re a bit closer). Think of the kid who continuously asks why a gazillion times when trying to figure something out. It’s incredibly annoying, yet existentially effective. For you geeks out there, here is a snippet of recursive code in the wild:
Now, young Yogi, you might be wondering what the heck a function calling itself has to do with sitting down in a quiet room and paying attention to only the breath until your legs scream in agony. Well, basically everything. I’m by no means an expert in meditation, but if you have ever attempted the practice, it may have gone something like this. It certainly has for me.
“Paying attention to the breath….One…Two…those ham and cheese hotpockets have definitely been in the fridge too long…” “S***!! I’m suppose to be meditating!” “Three…Four… Am I doing this right? I basically feel the same as I did five minutes ago.”
And this continues until a buzzer jolts us back to the reality we were already all too aware of. And thus begins the process of questioning why were doing the process in the first place. Approaching meditation like its recursion, on the other hand, opens up a whole new frame of reference. Instead of considering awareness of the breath good, and everything else bad, we simply become aware of everything! With the example above, we would simply:
- Begin by focusing on the in and out of the breath.
- When the mind wanders to questionably editable junk food (it will), notice that it has wandered away. Even if it’s been five minutes.
- Notice how you noticed that. How did it feel? Was there an anxious feeling or judgment when you realized the mind wandered?
- Continue the process of re-focusing on the breath — not so much a goal as a neutral subject of attention.
As Aristotle would have it, meditation is awareness of awareness of awareness.
The base case?
With recursive algorithms, there is a notion that the process should at some point reach a base case — a point where no further decent is necessary. Unfortunately, I don’t have many answers there, but it is a fun thought experiment. Is awareness analogous to infinite recursion? Or, maybe reaching some base case is similar to achieving enlightenment?
But probably, I’m just a nerd and need to go eat my hotpockets before they expire…
Thanks for reading!