An explanation grounded in neuroscience and direct experience
By Due Quach, Founder of Calm Clarity
Featured Image: “Self Reflected in Violets” courtesy of artist Greg Dunn
The fact that my first taste of mindfulness meditation in college was a complete disaster helped spur me years later to take up the challenge of developing a mindful leadership training that uses neuroscience to make meditation practices more understandable and concrete. My own initial confusion makes it deliciously gratifying when my clients share that Calm Clarity was the first program that enabled them to really understand what mindfulness and meditation involve.
In 2000, during my senior year of college at Harvard, I took a documentary film-making course and for our final project, we had to make a biography. My partner and I chose as our subject the most interesting person we could find: Aba-la, a Radcliffe scholar who defied categories. She was a Jamaican-American civil rights activist who had since become a Tibetan Buddhist nun. As part of the project, we accompanied her to the Shambhala Center in Boston to film her activities there.
At the center, she asked us to give her some peace and quiet so she could meditate and to our surprise, she challenged us to sit quietly alongside her. I completely failed. The issue wasn’t that my mind was restless — I was used to my racing mind. The problem was that my body couldn’t sit still. In a few minutes, my legs fell asleep and I spent the rest of the meditation miserable and trying hard not to distract the rest of the group with my fidgeting. I quickly concluded that whatever we just did wasn’t right for me. I wouldn’t bother trying meditation again for another decade.
Then around 2010, after reading about brain imaging studies that showed that meditation and mindfulness practices enhanced brain functioning, I became intrigued. As a brain geek, the neuroscience was too compelling not to explore further. In 2012, after being frustrated with unsatisfactory attempts to learn meditation from watching videos online and from teachers who couldn’t explain it in a logical and concrete way, I bought a one-way ticket to Dharamsala, India to get a more direct experience by doing several meditation retreats there. If I still couldn’t make sense of meditation after that immersion, I would simply give up and move on.
To my surprise, what I experienced in those retreats enabled me to take mind-hacking to a whole new level. It was astonishing the degree to which my interior world transformed because these retreats enabled my brain to re-wire and break habitual neural pathways at an accelerated rate. I got so fascinated, I kept going deeper and deeper. By the end of 2013, I had developed a prototype for a new science-based approach to teaching and explaining meditation, which I named the Calm Clarity Program.
To provide some context, mindfulness is the English translation of a Buddhist concept called “Samma Sati” in Pali, the original language believed to have been spoken in the region where the Buddha lived in northeast India 2,500 years ago. In the 1970s, when the founders of the Insight Meditation Society adapted meditation teachings for an American audience, they placed a strong emphasis on the concept of mindfulness as “an innate human capacity to deliberately pay full attention to where we are, to our actual experience, and to learn from it” (Jack Kornfield). Then later when Jon Kabat-Zinn created the Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction program for secular, clinical, and academic settings, he defined mindfulness as “ moment-to-moment awareness that arises through paying attention, on purpose, in the present moment, non-judgementally.”
The conventional way of teaching mindfulness involves instructing people to sit quietly, usually crossed-legged on the floor, and focus their attention entirely on their breathing. Inevitably, the mind will wander, so in this type of meditation, practitioners have to vigilantly keep guiding their attention back to the breath. It’s hard for beginners not to feel like a failure because they find no matter how hard they try to focus on the breath, the mind jumps all over the place. This is what is called the “monkey mind.”
As a brain geek, I found it interesting that the standard instructions don’t explain that the mind is supposed to wander. In fact, researchers have found that the typical mind wanders within 12 seconds and hypothesize that mind wandering evolved as a way to give our executive functioning neural pathways a break to refuel and to allow creative insights to emerge to the surface of consciousness.
Oftentimes, the instruction to pay attention to the breath in a way that is not grounded in neuroscience tends to give people a misguided notion that mind wandering is a problem, so they start wrestling with their wandering minds. This struggle then becomes a distraction that may prevent a person from experiencing the essence of Samma Sati, which can be more accurately translated as “higher consciousness / remembering.”
As a mind-hacker, I intuitively realized that the aim of Samma Sati could not be to fight against how our brains are evolved to function. For me, Samma Sati involves becoming familiar with how the mind wanders and accepting that we don’t actually control what unfolds inside our minds. Thoughts are really nothing but neural circuits firing. The monkey mind is essentially a chain reaction of neural circuits firing in response to thoughts already in our mind and sensory stimuli triggering associated neural circuits to fire.
The mind has a tendency to weave stories out of whatever neural circuits get activated, which in turn, continuously fuels a tornado of mental activity into which we get lost inside our heads. Often, the voice inside our head projects a fantastic narrative that is far removed from what is actually unfolding right in front of us in the present moment. By getting swept away in our internal ramblings, we become ungrounded from our bodies and spin out into the past or the future. Because of these mechanisms, we spend much of our lives lacking presence.
In the Mahasatipaṭṭhāna-sutta (which means The Great Discourse on the Establishing of Mindfulness), the Buddha explains Samma Sati (which is the 7th component of the Eight-Fold Noble Path). To give a quick synopsis, he is essentially teaching people how to develop the ability to unpack perception, so we can attend to the raw sensations that come in through our sense organs and distinguish these sensations from our mind’s reaction to and interpretation of them.
For me, Samma Sati involves two key components: metacognition and interoception. The word metacognition etymologically means the ability to think about thinking. It involves awareness and understanding of one’s own thought processes and the ability to steer and regulate one’s thinking. Interoception refers to our ability to tune into what it feels like to be inside our bodies. The interoceptive system is made of special nerve receptors which enable us to sense our physiological condition and vital signs, such as respiration, heart rate, hunger, thirst, the need to use the bathroom, as well as our energy levels and emotional state.
Practices to cultivate Samma Sati essentially develop metacognition and/or interoception. In these practices we learn to feel the raw sensations that come into our sensory nervous system, notice what they trigger in terms of emotions, feelings, memories, ideas, concepts, and other sensations, and notice what stories arise in our minds in response to the sensations and what gets stirred up within us. Eventually, by being able to observe how perception unfolds and see that sensations, thoughts, and feelings continuously arise and pass away, we lose our attachment or aversion to these phenomena. We eventually gain equanimity and inner freedom by developing detachment from the stories woven by the voice inside our heads. As the tornado of activity inside the mind calms because we stop fueling it, this allows us to be in tune with the present moment and experience a higher consciousness.
With metacognition, I’m able to recognize sensations as sensations, feelings as feelings, thoughts as thoughts, stories as stories, and as a result, I’m no longer lost in a whirlwind of mental activity. Tuning into my interoceptive system naturally grounds me in my own body into the present moment. Together, metacognition and interoception enable me to create space for calmness and clarity to emerge. For me, the experience of Samma Sati is like having the mind become a white canvas on which the brush strokes of my inner wisdom can clearly be perceived and appreciated.
In designing the Calm Clarity Mindful Leadership Program, I intentionally “hacked” traditional mindfulness practices to give people a taste of Samma Sati. After I guide people to directly experience what that inner freedom feels like and how it enables them to respond more effectively to what’s in front of them, they are naturally inspired to continue the practices on their own. When people experience what’s it like to connect to their inner wisdom / higher self, they naturally want to maintain that connection.
It would be wonderful if we all could simply read about Samma Sati and understand it. But unfortunately, Samma Sati is not something that can be learned from reading other people’s accounts. It can only be genuinely understood from direct experience. If you are intrigued by what I have shared, I welcome you to experience Samma Sati for yourself at a Calm Clarity Weekend Retreat.