Despite the 2,500 years since Buddhism began to coalesce, “mindfulness” has been rediscovered as the latest body hacking craze. What happens when the digital age takes it too far?
Hyperbaric chambers, neurofeedback booths, nutrient injections, bulletproof coffee, vibration plates and oxygen bars–all of these body hacking (or biohacking) methods are promising to make us into superheroes.
Of course, body hacking refers to more than these strange and often futuristic inventions. It’s most often used as a blanket term to describe anyone who is applying science to “upgrade” their bodies.
As humans, we strive to be more, do more, earn more. We thrive when we have clear goals.
The negative connotation of the word stagnation should tell you exactly how we feel about lack of progress.
Having pushed the boundaries of our environment, our bodies are the next frontier. Body hacking uses scientific insights to improve physical and mental capabilities.
Our thoughts cannot be separated from our actions. As a doctor will tell you, mental stress can affect physical health.
Body hacking leverages this truth. Among the countless new body hacking crazes, metacognition and the overall rise in mental self-awareness has been helped along by technology.
Of course, Hindu and Zen Buddhists might argue that this “body hack” has been their focus for centuries. Yet, their insights into self-awareness have been rediscovered and repurposed into a much more marketable, 21st-century tech fix.
Just look at apps like 10 Percent Happier to see how these age-old metacognition and meditation practices have been swallowed up by tech entrepreneurs.
What we would originally imagine Buddhist monks doing on a mountain in Tibet is now done by everyone from the New York Knicks to the MPs in Westminister.
Self-awareness has been carefully repackaged time and time again. Eckhart Tolle made his fortune with The Power of Now in 1997, which covers similar practices. Mindfulness meditation has gone mainstream.
Instead of a tenant of Hinduism and Zen Buddhism, metacognition is now body hacking.
Behind the Body Hacking Craze: High expectations and Low Tolerance
If you were to describe day to day living in 2018, chances are you’d say hectic and stressful. People everywhere are on “the grind”.
The unspoken rule is: if you’re not rushing to meet a deadline, then you’re not doing enough.
Going to the grocery store to buy milk perfectly reflects modern life. Although most of us have the liberty to go and purchase a gallon of milk, it actually more complicated than it seems.
Which grocery shop do we go to? The most convenient, the most reasonable, or the one with the most choice?
Once there, we have a choice of low-fat milk, whole milk, milk fortified with vitamins, organic milk, unpasteurized, ultra-pasteurized, and even milk from cows brought up on caviar. Don’t get me started on dairy-free options.
What I mean is, we are overwhelmed by choice. This is a wonderful privilege, right?
Choice isn’t as beneficial as it seems. Take former U.S. President Barack Obama for instance. During his presidency, why did he usually only wear a grey or black suit?
With so much responsibility, Obama eliminated menial decisions like what to have for breakfast or what to wear. We don’t know exactly why he did this, but we did take notice of studies that claim to make little decisions early in the day can negatively affect our ability to make decisions later.
We have myriad choices to make as 21st-century, developed-world humans.
If we don’t like where we live, we can move. Choosing meals is a luxury most non-aristocratic people gained little more than a century ago.
Going further, most U.S. and Western European citizens are brought up thinking that we can be anything we want.
Of course, with this freedom comes intense existential pressure.
We have the personal responsibility to facilitate the best possible outcome to any situation. Yet, because freedom of choice does not equal freedom from mistake, this also opens us up to a world of regret.
After making mistakes, some people become so paralyzed by regret that they never make confident choices ever again. More choice = more opportunity for regret.
Choice disguises lack of control, and when things don’t go perfectly we can’t understand why. Unrealistic expectations of control over life can lead to mental breakdown.
This has arguably led to the explosive growth in depression we see today. We are more vulnerable to mental illness from a younger age than ever before–of course, we’re also more aware of mental illness than ever before.
Speaking of freedom of choice and associated regret, here’s Louis C.K. before his own poor choices caught up with him:
How is Meditation Today Different to Ancient Eastern Meditation Practices?
Since the 20th century, mindfulness and meditation have moved beyond religion, particularly in the Western Hemisphere.
Walk into any bookshop and you’ll find titles such as ‘Grounding Yourself for Dummies’ and ‘How to Breathe with Intention’. Even Apple’s latest watch comes with a built-in mindfulness tool that reminds users to ‘breathe’.
We have all seen the hype, but what exactly is mindfulness? The Oxford Mindfulness Organisation defines mindfulness as a moment to moment awareness of one’s experience.
It enables us to become aware of our thought patterns and belief systems, makes us aware of bodily sensations, and places us in the present moment.
Mindfulness is one of the few places where mysticism and science collide. It has brought together the Dalai Lama and neuroscientists in conversation.
As you probably know, meditation is an old practice. Most of the techniques used today date back to multiple millennia. The idea of being still in mind, without the ever-present subconscious voice in our heads, is a part of multiple world religions.
In Judaism, Kabbalah is a meditative field of study. In Islam, the Qur’an refers to Tafakkar, a contemplative reflection upon the universe.
In Christianity, it is an essential part of monastic life and reciting the rosary could be described as meditative.
The aforementioned Eckhart Tolle even asserts that when Luke 17:21 says “Neither shall they say, ‘Lo, it is here!’ or ‘Lo, it is there!’ For behold, the Kingdom of God is within you” that the “Kingdom of God” is the realization of stillness within us. Quite simply, God is the connection between everything in the universe, and you are a part of that.
Zen Buddhism has made perhaps the most extensive contribution to “mindfulness” as we know it today.
The modern concept of “mindfulness” comes from the Pali (A Middle Indo Aryan language) word “sati”, which was used widely in Theravada, an early branch of Buddhism.
This translation of “sati” is more of an approximation of the concept created in 1881. “Sati” would more accurately be translated as “memory of the present”, but that just doesn’t have much of a commercial ring to it does it?
The significance of “sati” is paramount to the tenets of Buddhism and goes far beyond just being relaxed. In fact, it is the 7th element of the Eightfold Path outlined in the Dharma, the Buddhist religious doctrine. This means that meditation is an essential part of finding enlightenment.
The Buddhist tradition views well-being as something that goes beyond simply being happy all the time. It realizes happiness is fleeting.
In our modern world, many of us are happiness chasers.
We think of happiness as the optimal state and worry when we are overcome by other uncomfortable emotions. However, what much of society has forgotten is that happiness is fleeting and a whole spectrum of emotions are an inevitable part of the human condition.
Mindfulness could be described as the westernized version of Sati. This idea really stuck around in the 1960s thanks to a Western opening-up to Eastern philosophy brought about by the horror of the Vietnam War.
It was made even more digestible to the masses in the 1970s by Jon Kabat-Zinn, a molecular biologist from New England. He stripped “mindfulness” of any religious connotations that remained and devised a secular definition.
From then on, mindfulness became something everyone could use to enhance their lives. This gradually drove us to the mindfulness movement as we know it today.
Fast forward to 2018 and we even have Twitter-famous-mindfulness-masters leading the way. Take Haemin Sunim for example, a Zen Buddhist monk with 1.25 million followers and two best-selling books–a.k.a. the epitome of mindfulness in the digital age.
Mindfulness promises productivity AND relaxation. These are both highly sought after for the world in which we live. It’s no wonder that the mindfulness movement is alive and well and continues to evolve today.
The Science Behind Mindfulness
18 million Americans now say that they practice meditation regularly. Mindfulness practices have been implemented in schools, hospitals, and even prisons.
The latest development comes in the form of ‘corporate mindfulness’, where mindfulness training programs are implemented in offices to enhance productivity and decrease stress. In all, meditation has come a long way from its roots.
It seems that we are catching up with what Buddhists have worked on for 2,600 years. Buddhists use meditation to cultivate a deep sense of serenity and fulfillment that underlines all emotional states.
Mindfulness meditation equips people with the ability to prevent themselves from judging their emotions or negative thought patterns. Instead, meditation should teach you to be aware of negative events, thoughts, and emotions without any reaction. Awareness is all that matters.
Of course, the science-first attitude of Western thinkers balked at meditation’s efficacy until we found evidence that it can induce our brain’s plasticity.
We’ve discovered that connections in our brains are not fixed. They can change with our changing habits or lifestyles. Our brain is a muscle like any other. With enough practice, it adapts.
Meditation has been shown to slow down neurodegenerative diseases like Alzheimer’s and dementia.
A 2012 UCLA study published in the journal Frontiers in Human Neuroscience showed that those who meditate have larger amounts of gyrification in the brain’s cortex than those who don’t. This means they can process information faster, avoid ruminating on past events, and make decisions more efficiently.
Meditation also increases attention span and focus.
This “brain hack” has been used to help control pain caused by chronic illnesses such as AIDS and some types of cancer. A 2011 study by the Journal of Neuroscience showed that just 80 minutes of mindfulness could cut pain perception almost in half. It has also been used effectively to help treat depression, ADHD, and anxiety disorders.
Mindfulness practice is a moment to moment awareness of one’s experience that is free from judgment. It enables us to realize that the automatic activation of habitual, dysfunctional cognitive processes, such as negative thoughts, are not fixed but can change.
Indian researcher B.K. Anand has described how yogis could mediate themselves into trances so deep that they didn’t react when hot test tubes were pressed against their arm. It’s not exactly the most useful aspect of meditation, but it shows just how powerful it is. Why wouldn’t everyone want to benefit from these superpowers?
Happiness, Creativity, and Health are Just a Brain Zap Away
By now you realize we should all be on the long journey towards successful, deep meditation. But, what if we could achieve the same results with minimal effort?
In a world where productivity has become the measure of success, we want our problems to solve themselves.
Many people in Western society want to reap the rewards of meditation. However, incorporating a meditation practice into your daily routine takes discipline.
In today’s fast-paced world, our attention spans are dwindling and our schedules jam-packed. Meditation seems impossible.
As usual, we have come up with a way to cut out the work yet still enjoy the “upgraded” benefits of this ancient practice by leveraging technology to cultivate zen.
Machine assisted programmes based on the concepts of neurofeedback and neurostimulation claim to provide a way to help individuals rapidly develop their meditation practice.
Such programmes were developed on the basis that electrical brain activity reflects mental states. Evidence suggests that the brain will mimic the signals it is provided with, whether that is by an electromagnetic field or by a current stimulation. This means that the activity of our brains can be trained and stimulated.
In other words, what we could refer to as our brain’s “bad data” can be filtered out using these neurofeedback methods to allow us to access a higher state of awareness and clearer thought processes.
Once this mental declutter takes place, these technologies claim that you will unlock your inner creativity, intelligence, and calm focus. In short, we can skip the work and go straight to the reward with minimal effort. A very tempting promise for those who are forever chasing self-improvement but want immediate results.
At-home neurostimulation devices such as Ybrain improves creativity and focus. Platowork is used to treat depression. It allows you to administrate electric zaps to alter your mental state from the comfort of your own home.
These devices use transcranial direct stimulation (tDCS) to pass a weak electric current through the brain via electrodes in the head. You can now simply squirt some conductive gel on your skin and throw on the headset to open yourself up to limitless self-improvement.
These devices reportedly temporarily increase the activity part of the brain under the positive electrode while decreasing activity under the negative electrode, therefore altering neural connections within the brain. With an effortless zap of the brain, you can sleep better, perform better, lose weight, or relieve pain and depression.
Modius, a neurostimulation device that is designed to enhance weight loss, targets the vestibular nerve, which affects the hypothalamus. This is the part of the brain responsible for appetite and fat storage. When the hypothalamus is stimulated, the brain is tricked into thinking that the body is in motion, revving up your metabolism.
The creator of Modius claims that out of 650 people who used the device, 80% percent lost weight, with an average decrease of six pounds in six weeks. This is all for the small price of $499, and hopefully no risk of brain damage.
Why electric shocks correlate with improvement in our mental conditions we do not fully understand. Despite this, it’s becoming increasingly popular.
Why? Because it’s an easy, cheap, and relatively painless body hacking method, at least in the short-term.
Through body hacking, you can get all the benefits of cultivating mindfulness without having to do any of the work or even paying attention to the thought patterns you want to change. Seems too good to be true, doesn’t it?
The allure of a quick fix cannot be underestimated but many have speculated that if mishandled, such body hacking devices will prove to be ineffective or cause harm.
Mindfulness has become body hacking.