Mindfulness Explained by a Mind-hacker

Updated: Apr 24, 2018

An explanation grounded in neuroscience and direct experience

The fact that my first taste of mindfulness meditation in college was a 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 how to practice mindfulness and meditation.

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.”