Meditation for IT Nerds – Leveling up your mind

In the previous post we introduced the ten Stages of meditation from John Yates’ book The Mind Illuminated:

  1. Stage One: Establishing a practice.
  2. Stage Two: Attention gets interrupted by mind-wandering.
  3. Stage Three: Attention can be sustained, but it’s easy to forget to keep on sustaining.
  4. Stage Four: Attention can be sustained continuously, but competing objects still come to the foreground. There’s also a tendency to fall asleep.
  5. Stage Five: Attention is continuous, but there is a tendency to fall into a dull mildly pleasant state of mind that prevents advancement.
  6. Stage Six: Attention can be sustained almost exclusively. Sensations and thoughts competing for attention are subdued.
  7. Stage Seven: Attention is exclusive and subconscious parts of the mind start to unify behind a shared intention to observe the breath.
  8. Stage Eight: Paying exclusive attention no longer requires effort. The mind grows quiet and the senses start to pacify.
  9. Stage Nine: Even the senses have grown quiet. Paradoxically this experience can be very intense and something you need to get accustomed to. 
  10. Stage Ten: Perfect attention with profound tranquility and equanimity.

Various meditation techniques have been around for millennia, but here we’re interested in methods that makes sense in the light of modern brain science and information theory. The Mind Illuminated models the mind as being composed of multiple subsystems competing to control attention and resources. Consciousness is treated only as one of the information hubs in the software architecture comprising the mind. Each of these so called subminds can project content into consciousness and observe content projected by others. This is similar to the so called Global Workspace Theory in neuroscience. The Mind Illuminated proposes that the subminds have receptive fields of their own and are themselves conscious in this sense. (More about if they have self-consciousness later.)

Aligning subminds

You may recall the difference between attention and awareness from the previous post. In short, awareness forms the general context of perception and thought and attention picks individual percepts and ideas for further analysis and elaboration. Different subminds project intentions about how wide our awareness should be and where our attention should be directed towards. In an untrained mind these intentions are often in conflict causing attention to get distracted as the competing intentions vary in intensity.

In meditation you choose a relatively boring object, such as the breath, to act as a proxy for something you’d like to hold in your mind for a long time. Through hours of practice some of the conflict between the subminds starts to subside, leading to longer periods of stable focus (Stages 1 through 3). Initially this reduces your energy levels and there is a tendency to fall asleep. Once you’ve dealt with that on Stage 4, you gain access to a technique called analytical meditation.

In analytical meditation you firmly hold a problem in your mind and sort of let it solve itself. This makes use of the fact the subminds have access to consciousness even if they’re not projecting anything themselves. Being able to delegate analysis to the subconsciousness is a powerful skill. You may not realize how cumbersome it is to do everything directly in first person. Your mind is capable of much more as long as “you” step out of the way. Eventually the solution will pop up unless the problem is too hard to solve during a single session. Once you have the intuitive solution you should still verify it with conscious analysis. The creative parts of the mind are known to make some leaps of logic.

When talking about alignment it’s good to note that the senses themselves are governed by subminds. This means that there is a layer of control between raw sensory data and consciousness. Once the sensory minds start to guard against distractions during meditation in Stage Nine there can be a complete pacification of the senses. This doesn’t mean that you’ve gone deaf or blind. You can perceive the outside world if you wish, but the intention to do so is completely voluntary.

The flow of programming

Some of us may be lucky enough to have experienced the so called flow states during intense bouts of programming. Starting from Stage Six you can induce meditative states that have all the qualities of flow. This habituates the mind and makes achieving flow easier in daily life. The absorptive meditative states can also be highly pleasant and give a nice break from the monotony of just focusing on the breath.

Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi describes flow in his book The Psychology of Optimal Experience. In his words, flow is:

...a state of concentration so focused that it amounts to complete absorption in an activity. Everyone experiences flow from time to time and will recognize its characteristics: People typically feel strong, alert, in effortless control, unselfconscious, and at the peak of their abilities. Both the sense of time and emotional problems seem to disappear, and there is an exhilarating feeling of transcendence.

He gives four conditions for potentially achieving flow:

  1. The activity is performed as an end itself, not for any purpose.
  2. The goals of the activity are clear, and the feedback you get from it is immediate. The most important thing about the feedback is the symbolic message it contains: I have succeeded in my goal.
  3. The activity is neither taxingly difficult, nor too easy. The challenge of the task is perfectly balanced with the person’s abilities.
  4. The activity requires complete focus of attention, allowing only a very select range of information into awareness, and leaving no room in the mind for anything else. All troubling and irrelevant thoughts are kept entirely at bay.

These are followed by the final conditions for actually transforming an activity in a flow state:

  1. The activity becomes spontaneous, almost automatic, and there is no sense of self apart from the activity.
  2. A feeling of effortlessness arises, even though continuous skilled performance is required. Everything happens seamlessly, as if by magic.
  3. There is a sense of successfully exercising control—which is not the same as feeling like “you” are in control.

Decompiling the self

The sense of self is just that, a composite sensation in the mind. It is a good proxy for referring to the composite organism running all of this software producing the “user” interface of consciousness.

However, as mentioned in the previous post, even the “outside” world as perceived through the senses is a convenient fabrication constructed based on distorted, noisy and ambiguous sensory data. Still for some reason we treat this controlled hallucination of the world very differently than the main actor of our illusory self-story.

There are many components to this fabricated sense of separation from the Other. One component is the organisation of memories so that our lives happened to “someone”. This organisation continues in the present moment to provide narration about what the main character of our life is doing. If we’re the kind of person that uses inner speech the self is the one who is doing the talking in our head. (I was quite surprised to learn that not all people organise their lives verbally or that others hear independent voices linked to self-criticism or addictions.)

All of these components and a myriad more are integrated into a mental sensation of what it feels like to be me. I personally felt like I was located inside my head behind the eyes, but after developing very solid and stable attention to investigate it I couldn’t find anyone there.

My theory is that most of these components are reusable. Meditation can stir up some weird experiences like suddenly talking with a past version of yourself. I’m pretty sure that the subconscious doesn’t cache a personality wholesale and only stores enough associative memories to restore a personality. The inner theatre probably uses the same machinery that we use in our daily lives to experience ourselves and model other people. This type of inner dialogue is just one of the ways you can use to reclaim old forgotten circuits resulting in deeper unification of the mind.

While the sense of being separated is certainly a useful way of organizing the events of our lives and a healthy ego lets us stand up for ourselves at the right times, there is a cost that comes with separating experience into the self against the other. As long as there is “someone” to feel pain it elicits suffering and everything pleasant is eventually lost by that someone.

Once the mind has been stabilized enough to reach Stage Eight, the resulting equanimity allows you to investigate and eventually separate these components of the self. While pain is inevitable, with sufficient debugging suffering becomes optional. There is less need to crave after pleasure or to avert unpleasant sensations or thoughts.

Directing a compliant mind is inherently joyful and the profound peace that matures all the way up to Stage Ten will make ego-centric drama seem superficial and unnecessary. It is important to note that none of this feels forced. With growing wisdom you can avert more unpleasantness and accept what cannot be changed. It is also common to develop a deeper appreciation for the simple pleasures of life.

This kind of equanimity may seem like indifference and in a sense it is. When short-sighted desires subside there is more room to lead a consistent life with long-term goals benefiting the whole mind system. We use enormous amounts of brain power maintaining a self and coming up with quick explanations of why “I” did this or that. As long as “me” is important, any subsystem of the mind that manages to convince that it is that “me” can get an unhealthy stranglehold on the rest of the system.

Getting into the practice

So what kind of commitment are we talking about here? If you just want basic mindfulness and don’t care about knowing about the fine details of subjective experience, you can get that with 10 minute daily practice. At Silo.AI, we do about 15 minutes of daily practice.

Really leveling up your mind is hard work, but with diligent practice you should be able to reach Stage Ten in about a year. The Stages I refer to are from The Mind Illuminated book, which I highly recommend if you're getting started with meditation. There is a lot of small but important details that cannot be covered in the span of two blog posts (first one here).

You can first work up to 30 minutes a day, but later it will take more time to reach a state of mind where further progress can take place. I reached Stage Ten with two hours of sitting practice every day over a period of 13 months (I did have a lot of previous experience, but the way you exercise awareness in support for attention is quite unique and something I had to learn from scratch.).

are from The Mind Illuminated book, which I highly recommend if you're getting started with meditation. You can first work up to 30 minutes a day, but later it will take more time to reach a state of mind where further progress can take place. I reached Stage Ten with two hours of sitting practice every day over a period of 13 months (I did have a lot of previous experience, but the way you exercise awareness in support for attention is quite unique and something I had to learn from scratch.).

In extreme cases some sources recommend up to 5 hours daily. Luckily at such doses meditation starts to replace sleep so you’re not losing all of that time compared to not practicing at all. Messing with your sleep schedule can be potentially dangerous so take care. Silent two-week meditation retreats far away from the busy city life provide a less extreme option and can give you a big boost in your practice (up to two Stages). I’ve also made progress by cultivating mindfulness in daily life by remaining in the present moment (spoiler alert: it’s mostly boring). Puts that public transit time to good use.

This blog post wouldn’t be complete without geeking up on how to boost the meditation practice. Purchasing an EEG meditation headband can get you started by giving you direct feedback if you’ve reached a meditative state or not. The band loses its usefulness once you get meditation but then you can already focus on debugging your mind software.

Chemicals can have very different effects from person to person, but in my experience green tea has an excellent mix of chemicals that help you relax and focus simultaneously. Drinking coffee makes my mind too jumpy for sustained work. Lion’s mane mushroom extract is a more exotic booster, but certainly helps with acquiring the introspective skills needed. To my dismay, I developed a rather nasty muscle twitch that interfered with high levels of concentration, but ingesting a capsule of Bacopa Monnieri seemed to help.

It takes quite a bit of “refactoring” of the mind to reach the profound mental consensus of Stage Ten and there can be some quite wild effects while the subconscious rearranges itself. Try not to get caught up in the side effects and just keep meditating. While it can at times feel like you’ve realized the Ultimate Truth of Everything and Beyond++ it most probably isn’t the case.

To be honest, the end result is almost but not quite boring. However, the sustained background happiness sure adds up over the weeks. By the way, just in case there are other people at Stage Ten reading this blog post I suggest taking a very close look at your life to see if there are still some big blind spots. Even the book’s author developed emotional and behavioral issues without realising it himself. Personally I eventually chose to abandon continuous happiness because ignoring deeply buried somatic suffering simply isn’t functional in the long term. In my opinion, focusing only on mental qualities of life misses out on what being a human is all about.

In any case, happy sitting!

About the Author

Lumi has a passion for learning about intelligence. In addition to studying artificial intelligence she has been investigating her own “software” using various meditation techniques since 2005. She had reached Stage Ten in the framework introduced here. While perfect peace of mind was certainly interesting, she ultimately felt like it was too exclusive and didn’t contribute to a balanced life. More on her thoughts on Tyhjäntoimittajat podcast (in Finnish).

At Silo.AI Lumi leads a daily meditation session to help the team improve their ability to focus.

Lumi Pakkanen
Former AI Engineer
Silo AI
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Lumi Pakkanen

Former AI Engineer

Silo AI

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