Gamifying Your Mindfulness Practice | by Michael Vastola | Mindfully Speaking | Nov, 2021

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The surprising value of building mindfulness by keeping score

Michael Vastola

Wood Scrabble tiles spelling the word explore
Photo by Amanda Jones on Unsplash

On a hot Monday in late August, I decided to build mindfulness by walking around all day with a mechanical tally counter in my pocket.

The four-digit counter is metal except for a plastic screen and frame around the digits, with a button on the top to advance the digits one at a time from right to left, and a knob on the side to rapidly advance or reset the tally. In other words, it gave me, a mere mortal, the awesome power to keep track of up to 9,999 distinct things.

The decision to walk around all day with the bulky and awkward object in my pocket was based on a Facebook post I had read the previous day in a private mindfulness coaching group. The poster challenged anyone interested to keep track of 100 repetitions of what are called microhits of mindfulness.

A microhit is a period ranging from a moment to just under ten minutes where you bring your complete attention to at least one sensation arising in your experience, soaking into it as deeply as possible.

It was a magnificently nerdy challenge.

As a magnificently nerdy practitioner of mindfulness, this was not my first time walking around trying to repeatedly press the button on a tally counter for mindfulness purposes. In fact, I had purchased the counter a decade earlier, likely for that exact purpose, and had privately run this challenge many times before, fumbling in my pocket throughout the day to acknowledge something I was experiencing and rewarding myself with a soft click.

The object of attention can be anything. To be click-worthy, you only have to bring your full attention to some quality of your experience.

For example, when I drafted some of this content, I could hear the sound of cicadas frantically requesting copulation outside my window; the feeling of the keyboard keys against my fingertips; some mental chatter about how to spell “exigence” before misspelling it exe, feeling slight tension in my upper torso from embarrassment, and then letting spellcheck correct it before deciding that “imposed” sounds less pretentious.

The choice of where to rest your attention can be guided by your interest or imposed on you by circumstances.

The reason I had not recently challenged myself by keeping track of my moments of deliberate attention was not because I had become less attracted to nerdy challenges. That’s unthinkable. My habit of noticing stuff had just progressed to a point where it was less useful to keep a tally.

Mindfulness is a skill, and each repetition of mindfulness in the form of a microhit — whether two seconds or nine minutes — potentially improves your capacity to exercise mindful awareness. It can be likened to the mileage a distance runner acquires. But just as importantly, it creates a habit of noticing things.

Over time, using a counter resulted in reducing the continuity of my mindfulness rather than facilitating it because I was fumbling in my pocket to press a button instead of allowing myself to notice the next sensation.

That discontinuity is why I eventually began using an interval timer that would periodically vibrate and remind me to begin paying closer attention to the continuous procession of momentary worlds simultaneously forming in and around me. It also reminded me of being a teenager in the nineties when pagers were cool.

I was a cool nineties teenager taking periodic healthy hits of intensely lived experience. My actual teenage self would have been confused and disgusted by that idea.

I embraced this mindfulness challenge on the same Monday I was also planning to consider maybe possibly deciding on a website host and purchasing a domain name for my coaching business. This was a huge, scary step for me.

I had been in an academic bubble for seventeen years. I had zero interest in owning, building, or maintaining a website. I had even less interest in learning how to do those things. And yet, I wouldn’t even entertain the thought of paying someone to help. I was almost perfectly set up to fail.

I was also perfectly set up to clearly observe the internal talk I would be having about the nightmare I was self-inducing.

That’s because my mindfulness technique for the day was to observe the automatic quality of my mental talk — to notice spontaneity and lack of intention in how verbal thoughts seem to arise and diffuse in real-time.

A strange example of noticing the automatic quality of inner talk occurred during seated meditation that morning. At some point, I heard the thought “Those birds [outside my window] sound pissed off at each other” spontaneously become “I wonder where [temperamental former Cornhuskers football coach] Bo Pelini is coaching these days?” The arbitrariness of the connection inspired a moment of awe.

During this period, I was randomly selecting a new mindfulness technique each day to use the following day. After sitting in meditation in the morning, I would take some notes about the character and quality of the sit in a notebook. I then went to my computer, pulled up a chart of mindfulness techniques, and used a Google random number generator to give me the technique I would use the following morning and during microhits throughout the day.

If that approach sounds more pathological than inspiring, I should note that I enjoy the variety and opportunity for surprise. Each technique on the chart investigates a different quality of experience. That investigation builds the skills that are arguably fundamental to mindfulness because concentrating on a sensation, even momentarily, experiencing it clearly, and allowing it to be there without clinging to it or pushing it away, is training you can transfer to any technique you use.

Exploring the variety of sensations through numerous techniques doesn’t mean you are digging lots of shallow holes instead of going deep in one place, as some might assume. You are strengthening your ability to go deep anywhere a sensation arises.

A complete experience of the arising of a thought about angry birds and the career status of a notoriously angry college football coach is a source of insight into how our minds work and, thus, how our realities are constructed. I never expected to one day write a sentence like that when I began my daily mindfulness practice. But here we are.

The inner monologues we have at ourselves are among the most interesting to observe for noticing intention. We can get pretty involved in them, so we might be under the impression that our conscious attention is directing the play. But that’s not always true. By the time we exert conscious control over those ruminations, their character frequently changes in significant ways — less shouty, fewer generalizations, more nuance.

My inner talk had been relatively encouraging all morning as I read different articles about the costs and benefits of various website builders and hosts. I periodically pressed my tally counter in acknowledgment of automatic thoughts. I finally committed to a host, filled in my information, and registered for a new domain name.

I felt relief. The inner monologue was generally reassuring me that, while I had chosen a more challenging path to build a website, I had made an educated bet on myself, and that was something to be proud of.

And then the monologue noted that I had registered for the wrong domain name.

Insecurities about my readiness to build and manage my own website collided with doubts about starting my own business, which initiated a chorus of self-recrimination about wasting my family’s money. I could have pressed the tally counter continuously over the next hour. Instead, I changed techniques and focused on trying to fix my mistake.

I was trying to “feel rest,” or to notice places that were relatively restful compared to the tension I was experiencing while wasting time with the online support chat for my new website host.

The loud, critical thoughts were still apparent. But, instead of noticing their spontaneous quality, I was noticing the bodily tensions they accompanied. Once it became clear that I was purchasing two domains that day, I began actively trying to release those tensions while finally dialing up the hosting company.

The polite support member I spoke to was unable to keep from chortling at me as she offered sympathy in what sounded like a lovely South Asian English accent.

Having a stranger literally laugh at me was somehow helpful. The extra cost of a new domain was relatively modest. The opportunity to bring laughter to others with my folly was priceless. No, it wasn’t. But I found myself okay with it all.

At some point I returned my focus to inner talk, only now using it as a cue to find or create relaxation in the body. I was still physically harboring concerns about the frustrations ahead while working on my website. My body’s assumptions were not wrong. A sad debacle that would span weeks was slowly unfolding. But that’s a different story.

By the end of the day, I had pressed the tally counter 73 times, a bit short of my goal of one-hundred repetitions of distinct microhits. On the one hand, this was a profound failure on my part. On the other (less jokey) hand, the real goal of the challenge had been achieved. I maintained a high level of mindful awareness of my internal talk during a day when the mind had a lot to say.

Each click of the counter represented at least a moment in time when my complete attention was directed at speech acts that generally arise and pass away in the background, sometimes ruining our mindsets without clearly presenting themselves.

Usually, the thoughts I tracked dissolved in the light of my attention. When that happened, I spent some additional time resting in that period of quiet between gloriously random mental nonsense.

For this experiment, you will be adopting some means for tracking sensations or applying techniques throughout the day. The counting method doesn’t matter, though less distracting is better and most appealing is best. You are effectively gamifying the acquisition of mindfulness skills, so enjoyment is an appropriate motivation for selecting your approach.

I used a tally counter for tracking my mental talk. But if that is too high-tech for you, a pocket full of pennies or similar objects that can be shifted between pockets might be preferable. You could start with ten items in the right pocket and move one at a time until you reach ten in the left pocket. At that point, each microhit will result in an object being moved back to the right pocket, etc.

There are also tally count apps and online tools for those of you who can regularly interact with your phones without being distracted.

Your choice of techniques may be guided by any number of factors. For this experiment, I prefer using interest for the initial selection. Throughout the day, you may find yourself embracing new practice opportunities or having your practice decided for you by difficult circumstances.

Some examples of techniques would be focusing on visual or audible content from the environment, random body sensations, body sensations related to breathing, positivity, spaciousness, or a more general noting practice. As I did, you may choose a primary technique and then switch if you decide something else might be more helpful for maintaining continuity of attention.

Here are some recommendations for organizing your practice:

1. Whenever you attempt to bring your full attention to a particular technique for a period of at least ten seconds, you may count that as one microhit. If a sensation you are investigating disappears before ten seconds, you may turn your attention to a different one or rest in the sense of the sensation’s absence.

2. You should allow yourself to soak into whatever sensation you are experiencing related to the technique. For example, if you are focused on visual content, open yourself to the fullness of the experience of seeing for that period.

3. Allow yourself does not mean make yourself. Be gentle with each microhit and you will find yourself going deeper than if you tried really hard to pay attention. There are no extra points for being hardcore or mindful to the max.

4. Set a goal that seems reasonable for your total number of microhits. 100 has a certain socio-cultural prestige to it, but you should create your own goal number or go without one if you prefer.

5. Remember, while it’s fun to create mindfulness games and set mindfulness goals, a moment of mindfulness is its own reward.

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