Right Mindfulness in Systems Design
This article is titled “Right Mindfulness.” At last, my Mindful Technology column tackles this popular and trending topic. Nowadays, most people have heard of mindfulness in some context or other, yet many still seem to have no idea exactly what it is or how it relates to their daily lives. And of those who have heard of it, many think it is merely a buzzword for some new fashion or fad.
This article will introduce some of the challenges associated with discussing mind-related topics in a scientific context, and will point to the canonical source of discourse on mindfulness: the Satipatthana Sutta. It ends by discussing the relevance of mindfulness to contemporary technology and systems development practices.
In popular literature, mindfulness is commonly defined as “the basic human ability to be fully present, aware of where we are and what we’re doing, and not overly reactive or overwhelmed by what’s going on around us,” which can be achieved with correct breathing, posture, and meditation techniques. (Mindful)
The main purpose of mindfulness is to understand life, transcend grief and sorrow, destroy pain and anxiety, travel the right path, and realize nirvana.
Literally interpreted, the core of “mindfulness” lies in the word “mind”—as in paying attention to the mind. And this is perhaps the first conceptual hurdle in tackling the subject of mindfulness in relation to system design: the ”mind” as a concept has rarely been the official subject of modern scientific study, despite numerous religious and philosophical explorations of the topic, so there is no clear scientific category where the mind pertains, except perhaps in psychology and more recently the cognitive sciences, both of which have yet to influence old engineering thinking.
If one sees the brain as the biological seat of the “mind” there is psychiatry and neurology as other fields of scientific research. But readers may be surprised to learn that even studying the brain as a whole (as opposed to studying its parts) is a relatively new approach.*
Even the idea that the brain is the seat of the mind, remains but an assumption. Depending on your definition of the mind, we can’t exclude the possibility that the mind, or some level of consciousness, exists throughout the body, for example in the nervous system. And when discussing the mind in the paradigm of the chakra system, some interpretations read that the crown chakra is located just above the human head, just outside our body.**
The Buddhadharma has discussed the mind for thousands of years and has, in recent years, brought the need for a mind science to the forefront, with His Holiness the 14th Dalai Lama as one of its most prominent advocates.
The canonical source of mindfulness
The Discourse on the Foundations of Mindfulness, or Samma Sati, attributed to Shakyamuni Buddha, is regarded as the main reference text for mindfulness in the Pali Canon. It is a long and profound text that states, in short, that mindfulness revolves around four pillars called the Four Establishments:
1. Observing the body
2. Observing the feelings
3. Observing the mind
4. Observing the objects of mind
This is easier said than done, since most humans are not enlightened and may not be able to clearly distinguish with clarity the physical body from emotions, or the mind from its objects.
The sutra also explains the six hindrances, the five aggregates, and the seven factors of awakening. By practicing the methods discussed in the sutra, new levels of awareness may arise that enable mindfulness as a path to happiness and enlightenment. See the articles below for a more in depth study of mindfulness in the original sutras.***
Despite its canonical and well-defined roots in the sutras, mindfulness need not be constrained to Buddhist religious practice. It is versatile and easily applicable to a variety of fields and circumstances: be mindful, pay attention; to our own body, our speech, our mind, as well as to others.
Ultimate mindfulness includes the utmost awareness, of breath, of thoughts, of actions, and the direct and indirect consequences that these may have on all other sentient beings and on the environment. It also discusses the notion of an expanded consciousness, embracing everything.
Socio-technical and systems mindfulness
As explained in a previous article in this series, socio-technical system design considers technology, people, and the environment, in contrast to a typical technical system, which generally only addresses the technological aspects of a system. The environment includes all sentient beings, including the smallest and arguably most unsightly creatures, however challenging that may be from a systems modelling point of view.
As the awareness and understanding of the capability of the mind expands to encompass consciousness beyond our immediate body and self, to include spaces outside and far into the cosmos, it (the mind) also includes awareness of other beings and their suffering.
For example, in designing a switch, a socio-technical systems engineer considers functions well beyond the on/off states, such as human factors and behaviors at the interface level, as well as climate and environmental conditions such as rain that may impact the safety and functionality of the switch itself, as well as saving energy, and so on.
Mindfulness in systems design should not be limited to a single approach or perspective. In principle, a system designed and implemented with consideration of mindfulness should take the consequences of its functionality and use into account, not only for designated end users, but also for everyone else, including humans and other species, as well as the medium- and long-term impact on the environment.
Engineering choices have always been determined by cost and efficiency, and typically, at least until recently, it is the maximization of the financial cost and economic returns of investors that drive the technical choices.
Modern technology engineering is embracing sustainability and environmental considerations, at least to some extent—carbon footprints and all—but much of that is guided by so-called compliance requirements, and mandated by legislators. Often it is also window dressing/whitewashing, providing a company with an appearance of ethical standards.
Rarely is the purpose of technology to sustain and propagate mindfulness. Yet that may change when technologists understand and practice mindfulness. The most precious advice of mindfulness is perhaps to “guard your thoughts.”
When applying principles of mindfulness to technology development, and especially the design of intelligent systems, technologists and system engineers and designers:
• Are, to some extent, creating a simulation or a reproduction of the human mind, and as such its activities and outputs should be “guarded” against undesirable outcomes.
• Should increase their level of awareness, so that they can increase the level of awareness of their products and services.
• Should strive to become aware of the implications of the system functions and its consequences.
• Should study how information and knowledge representation may impact behaviors, outputs, and outcomes of the system.
• Should keep in mind emergence—unexpected complex systems properties and behaviors that can emerge from the interactions of the system components, or interaction with other systems. Given the relative unpredictability of emergent behaviors, mindfulness can be considered a “general constraint” to ensure outcomes are aligned with desirable, ethical system goals.
• Must be aware that systems inputs and overall design largely determine states, functions, and outputs.
** The Crown Chakra (Chakras.info)
*** The Way of Mindfulness - The Satipatthana Sutta and Its Commentary (Access to Insight) or The Buddha’s Original Teachings on Mindfulness (Tricycle)
His Holiness the Dalai Lama, Herbert Benson, Robert Thurman, Howard Gardner, Daniel Goleman. 1999. MindScience: An East-West Dialogue. Sommerville, MA: Wisdom Publications
Hanh, Thich Nhat. 1990. Transformation and Healing: Sutra on the Four Establishments of Mindfulness. Berkeley, CA: Parallax Press.
Bhikkhu Ñāṇamoli, Bhikkhu Bodhi. 1995. The Middle Length Discourses of The Buddha (A Translation of the Majjhima Nikāya). Sommerville, MA: Wisdom Publications.
Satipatthana Sutta: The Discourse on the Arousing of Mindfulness (Access to Insight)
Venerable Tai Situ Rinpoche's Talk on 'Mindfulness' in Delhi *april 2nd 2018 (YouTube)
5 Nikayas of Theravada Buddhism: Structure and Review (Red Zambala)
What is Mindfulness? (Mindful)