Mindfulness: Authenticity, Non-reactivity, and the Curious Pleasures of Being Electrocuted for Science

There are plenty of definitions of mindfulness out there. From JKZ's classic to the clunky elaborations of Bishop et al. to the incisive brilliance of the Buddha himself.

Here's another one:

Mindfulness strikes a balance between two things: authenticity and non-reactivity. 

Authenticity is about getting real with yourself. As I've mentioned elsewhere, it's about knowing what's going on while it's going on. 

So if you have a thought, you know that thought. If you have a feeling, you know that feeling. If your right leg hurts, you know the pain in your right leg. 

Simple, yes? But profound. The knowing of what is befuddles everyone fromphilosophers to neuroscientists. How is that this body, this mind, is awake, aware, how is it that humans (and cats, and turtles) are sentient at all? 

Nobody knows*. What we do know is that there is power in recognition. To know with bare attention that there is irritation is categorically a different experience than just being irritated. Same with physical pain. Same with just about anything. Because knowing gives us space.

Which brings us to the next point: non-reactivity. 

When I say that mindfulness is about non-reactivity, I don't mean we don't have reactions to things. What I mean is that our reactions have lots of room to play. Like a dog in a park. Or a bull in an open field. 

For example, this morning I was getting tested in Richie Davidson's lab at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. I'm part of a study they're doing on longterm meditators. And as part of that study, they were shocking my fingers with electrodes. 

Now, getting shocked with electrodes is pretty disconcerting. I noticed that the first couple shocks brought on a sense of anxiety. I didn't like it. But then I got really curious about the experience.

I noticed that every time a shock came my fingers jumped. I also noticed that, in the lead up to each shock, my heart rate jumped. The anticipation was, in some ways, worse than the pain. 

Once I noticed that, I started to pay very close attention to the actual sensations of getting shocked. My fingers kept jumping. But the anxiety diminished. Pretty soon, I was laughing out loud. 

So, mindfulness can become a kind of superpower. Even pretty unpleasant experiences can, with mindfulness, turn neutral, or pleasant, or even fascinating. And taken moment by moment throughout one day and then another day, this little superpower can begin to change our lives. 

*There are definitely neuroscientists out there who believe they have resolved the problem of consciousness. What they usually mean is that they've ignored the problem of consciousness. But that's a debate for another blog post.


Craig Hase