My mindfulness works in large part by way of changing my identity, my sense of "who I am".
Before I even inch into this, I just gotta remind you that you’re reading the words of someone who is an obnoxious wise-cracking irreligious unspiritual foul-mouthed dirty-minded unmystical hardcore computer geek.
It’s important to say, because after all, we’re about to talk about stuff that is easily associated with an archetype I very much don’t resemble. My own encounters with that archetype could be perhaps best & most gently as "eye-rolling" in their impact.
We’ve lots of words, of varying intensity (and meanness), to label that archetype that ain’t me, but to pick a disparaging but still middle of the road, call it "woo-woo".
I’m really not a woo-woo person. I am a strict materialist atheist. I am not spiritual. I have no ties to Said’s fake "the East". I eat dead animals. I think & say mean things. I hate incense. I wear ordinary old-guy clothes. I smoke way too many cigaretes & no dope. Not woo-woo.
So if this gets weird for you, well, it’s weird for me, too. But it’s weird for us because it’s hard to break the habits of a lifetime that work to block our experience of the idea.
Let’s get to it.
The easiest way I found in to mindfulness was noticing that my mind has multiple tracks. If you ask me at any given time what I’m thinking, the most faithful answer I could give would involve, in my case, about a half-dozen things, with no inherent relationship between them.
(I’ve learned that six tracks is considered an awful lot, and that it’s one of the areas I’m an outlier in. Even so, I’ve never spoken to folks who don’t have at least two, and most have three or sometimes four.)
Right now, for instance. I’m thinking of mindfulness, the next word, Getz & Gilberto, naked persons, being hungry, and how many things I’m thinking about.
So I have these tracks. And I can kinda control some of them some of the time. Mostly, I do a lot of things to keep 1 or 2 of them on whatever I will, and the others calm & quiet enough to not be a problem.
Spoze I’m coding. One of my tracks is attending to the line I’m writing. One of them is attending to the larger context of that line. Imagine a third track, the M-track. Imagine that all it was doing was sitting there quietly watching the others.
The first track reacts to a typo and rapidly backspaces. The second track spins on how this change is gonna fit into its other plans. And the M-track? Just sitting there, watching. It doesn’t act. It doesn’t re-act. It just watches.
For me, the M-track was the beginning of my exploration of mindfulness. One can go much further with these explorations. I’ve gone further, but I have high confidence that I’m not even close to the end of my own.
Once I woke up to the M-track, I realized that I could do a lot with it. The first thing I could do was itself remarkable: I could interrogate it, and the answers it gave me were different from the other tracks, and useful to them and to me.
See, that track that made and backspaced the typo? It’s irritated and distracted. That track that is spinning out the coding moves I’m going to make? It’s nervous and distracted. But the M-track? It’s none of that. It’s just watching, watching.
It can notice, for instance, that "I" am upset, without being upset itself. Or hungry. It can notice it’s been a while since "I" got a closure, a dose of endorphins. And what’s great is, it doesn’t really care. I mean, "I" care, and the other tracks care. But not the M-track.
Over time, some of its style and observations began to enter into the style and observations of my other tracks. And that’s when I started getting the big bucks, the very technical bucks some of y’all follow me for.
My M-track was instrumental in my understanding of how and why TDD works so well, for instance. It led me, too, to all that emphasis on minimizing the usage of mental bandwidth. It informs my ideas about naming. All of that has made my technique stronger.
And here’s the thing, this is all taking place in the context of just me at the keyboard geeking out. But you know, that’s a very small part of what it is to be a professional geek. The rest of that job involves interactions with the dreaded "other people".
And once I came to start actively using my M-tracks quiet watchfulness at the keyboard, I also came to use it in my movements in the wider world. People are one helluva lot harder than computers, and even small improvements in my interactions with people are huge wins. None of which, though, quite says what I said at the beginning: mindfulness works in part by changing my identity, my sense of "who I am".
Let’s put it this way: if you’re wandering around this vale of tears, as I am, and carrying multiple simultaneous tracks inside your head, which of those tracks is you? All of them? One of them? Some of them sometimes and others others?
Once "I" found my M-track, once that track came to influence the activity of the others, once the others came in turn to have shapes that were more like the M-track in some sense I can’t quite put my finger on, once all that, my sense of identity was bound to get embroiled.
(To be as transparent as possible, I actually advocate developing one’s mindfulness precisely because of the effect I believe it has had on my identity and will perhaps have on yours.)
This is famously the era of identify politics, but you don’t have to read the news to grasp this. Look at the trade. Identity wars are endemic. Many here on twitter everyday see and express themselves as a single unified identity. And many see and receive others that way, too.
So, ummm, how’s that working out for you?
I’m a member of perhaps the most privileged social group in history, a white American male computer geek born in 1960. Folks casually restrict my identity based on that every day. It’s awful for me, and I can’t imagine how hard it is for those less privileged than me.
So to me, changing my identity, loosening its bonds, multiplying it, playing with it, these are enormous virtues. For me, at least, they were reinforced and in some cases initated just by asking my M-track what was going on. Come to mindfulness for the geekery improvement. Maybe you’ll stay for other reasons.
For the close, here’s James Baldwin, one member of a very short list of personal heroes to me, on the subject of identity.
“Identity would seem to be the garment with which one covers the nakedness of the self: in which case, it is best that the garment be loose, a little like the robes of the desert, through which one’s nakedness can always be felt, and, sometimes, discerned. This trust in one’s nakedness is all that gives one the power to change one’s robes.” — James Baldwin