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This is practical guide to mindhacking, started on 3/20/2016, to collect notes from various readings. It is meant for my own personal use, and is not intended for distribution or as a replacement for any reference material.

Table of Contents


I put this together because so much of the information on the market did not seem to match my learning style, in that it is written in a way that appeals to either (1) verbosity or (2) new-agism or spiritual-ism. I need a study guide that's going to take me deep into the science in a concise way. I'd describe my learning style as analytical: Give me the atomic building blocks, I build understanding.



Key Parts

  • Prefrontal cortex (PFC)—sets goals, makes plans, directs action; shapes emotions, in part by guiding and sometimes inhibiting the limbic system
  • Anterior (frontal) cingulate cortex (ACC)—steadies attention and monitors plans; helps integrate thinking and feeling. a “cingulate” is a curved bundle of nerve fibers
  • Insula—senses the internal state of your body, including gut feelings; helps you be empathic; located on the inside of the temporal lobes on each side of your head
  • Thalamus—the major relay station for sensory information
  • Brain stem—sends neuromodulators such as serotonin and dopamine to the rest of the brain
  • Corpus callosum—passes information between the two hemispheres of the brain
  • Cerebellum—regulates movement
  • Limbic system—central to emotion and motivation; includes the basal ganglia, hippocampus, amygdala, hypothalamus, and pituitary gland; sometimes also considered to include parts of the cortex (e.g., cingulate, insula), but for simplicity we will define it anatomically in terms of subcortical structures; many parts of the brain besides the limbic system are involved with emotion
  • Basal ganglia—involved with rewards, stimulation seeking, and movement; “ganglia” are masses of tissue
  • Hippocampus—forms new memories; detect
  • Hypothalamus—regulates primal drives such as hunger and sex; makes oxytocin; activates the pituitary gland
  • Pituitary gland—makes endorphins; triggers stress hormones; stores and releases oxytocin


  1. Neurons are the basic building blocks of the nervous system. Main function is to communicate across tiny junctions (synapses)
  2. The body sends out spikes callled dendrites which receive neurotarnsmitters from other neurons.
  3. When a neuron fires, an electrochemical wive replies down its axon, fiber extending toward other neurons). This releases neurotransmitters into synapses, either inhibiting them or exciting them to fire also.
  4. Gray matter of your brain is composed largely of neurons.

Neuron Facts

  1. Your brain has 100 billion neurons.
  2. Each neuron receives about 5,000 connections.
  3. A typical neuron fires 5-50x / second.
  4. Your nervous system moves information around.

When neurons fire together, they wire together. Mental activity actually creates new neural structure

For example, taxi drivers in London—whose job requires remembering lots of twisty streets—develop a larger hippocampus (a key brain region for making visual-spatial memories), since that part of the brain gets an extra workout. As you become a happier person, the left frontal region of your brain becomes more active.

What flows through your attention sculpts your brain.

Squirrel Monkey Lizard Brain

Reactions are formed from the bottom up:

  1. Lizard Brain - Subcortal Region/Brain stem -- ancient, simplistic, fast, motivationally intense.
  2. Squirrel Brain - Limbic system - central to emotion and motivation.
  3. Monkey Brain - Neo cortex - controls rational thought, speaking and other higher brain functions

Two Sides

There are two hemispheres,

  1. Left is sequential and linguisting
  2. Right is holistic / visual spatial processing
  3. (but many neural structures are duplicated across hemispheres).

Survival Strategies

There are three survival strategies baked into us:

  1. Create seperations in order to form boundaries between self and world.
  2. Maintain stability/
  3. Aproach opportunities and avoid threats.

Although these strategies are essential for survival, they also cause suffering. Unfortunately,

  1. Everything is connected.
  2. Everything keeps changin.
  3. Opportunities remain unfulfilled or lose their luster, many threats are inescapable (eg aging and death)

Your brain colors your experiences with a feeling tone—pleasant, unpleasant, or neutral—so you’ll approach what’s pleasant, avoid what’s unpleasant, and move on from what’s neutral.

We evolved to pay great attention to unpleasant experiences. This negativity bias overlooks good news, highlights bad news, and creates anxiety and pessimism.

Autonomic Nervous System

Sympathetic Nervous System

Primary purpose - Fight or flight system -- responds to threats

Parasympathetic Nervous System

The PNS conserves energy in your body and is responsible for ongoing, steady-state activity. It produces a feeling of relaxation, often with a sense of contentment—this is why it’s sometimes called the “rest-and-digest” system, in contrast to the “fight-or-flight” SNS.


Suffering is deeply embodied. Physical reactions involving your sympathetic nervous system (SNS) and hypothalamic-pituitary-adrenal axis (HPAA) cause suffering to snowball throughout your body.

Some physical and mental discomforts are unavoidable. These are the “first darts” of life.

When we react to a first dart with one or more of the Three Poisons of greed, hatred, and delusion (broadly defined)—each one of which has craving at its center—we start throwing second darts at ourselves and others. In fact, we often toss second darts even when no first dart is to be found. Most poignantly, we sometimes throw second darts as a reaction to situations that are actually good, such as receiving a compliment. Most people experience chronic second-dart cascades

Attention & Awareness

What flows through your attention sculpts your brain. Therefore, controlling your attention may be the single most effective way to shape your brain, and thus your mind. You can train and strengthen attention like any other mental ability; mindfulness is well-controlled attention.


  • Consciousness - whatever we're experiencing at the moment. Just like you can have something in your field of vision, things can be in your field of consciousness.
  • Takes two forms: attention and peripheral awareness. Both have their virtues and shortcomings. Think of consciousness as a shared power source, both draw from this shared source, so there is a trade off between the two.
    • Attention: When you focus on something, it dominates our conscious experience
    • We can also be generally aware of things in the background.

| Awareness | Attention | |:-:|---|---| | Holistic, relational, contextual | Isoaltes and analyzes | | Filters all incoming information | Selects information from awareness | | Acts as a waterful alert system | Hones in on objects | | Less processing, quicker response | More processing power, slower response | | Less personal and more objective | More self centered | | Can be introspective or extrospective | Can be introspective or extrospective |

  • Concentration: Vague term, not used.
  • Stable attention: the ability to intentionally direct and sustain the focus of attention, as well as control scope of attention
  • Spontaneous Movement of attention: Opposite of stable attention. Three types:
    • Scanning - When focus moves from object to object, searching the outer world or contents of our mind for something of interest
    • Getting captured - When an object like a thought, bodily sensstaion, or extenral stimulus, suddently captures our interest
    • Alternating - Subtler kind of scattered attention, there is an illlusion of paying attention to two or more things simultaneously, but whats actually happening is that the focus of attention is moving very quickly between two or more things.
  • Intentionally Directed Attention - Make a conscious decision about what to focus on.
  • Sutained attention - Stopping all spontaneous movements of attention
  • Conscious intention -- Setting a conscious intention to do something provides a new piece of information for unscious processes to take into account.


What is mindfulness?

TLDR -- Powerfully effective conscious awareness. Or 'fully conscious awareness'.

When we lack mindfulness, we get so entangled in our own thoughts and emotions that we forget the biger picture. Our perspective narrows, and we lose our way. We do regretful things that cause needless suffering in ourselves and others. Mindfulness allows us to recognize our options, choose our responses wisely, and take control over the direction of our lives. Mindfulness leads to Insight, and awakening. With mindfulness, we pay attention to the right things, and in a more skillful way. With mindfulness, youre more fully conscious and alert than normal. Attention is more precise/objective and peripheral awareness is much higher.

Quality of attention / peripheral awareness improves

  • Peripheral awareness doesnt fade away when attention is focused.
  • Peripheral awareness does a better job of providing context and makes you more sensitive to how objeccts related to each other and to the whole.
  • Peripheral awareness processes information more thoroughly making it better at selecting appropriate objects for attention to focus on.
  • Attention is always directed to the more important objects
  • Attention becomes clearer, more intese, and can analyze things more effectively.
  • Attention doesnt get stuck in subjectivity and projection. Percepition is more objective.

Life becomes more vivid, richer, more satisfying, and you don't take things personally.

Milestones to Mindfulness

Novice Meditator

  1. Establish a practice
  2. Interuptted Attention and Overcoming Mind Wandering
  3. Extended Attention and Overcoming Forgetting

Skilled Meditator 4. Continuous Attention and Overcoming Gross Distraction and Strong Dullness 5. Overcoming Subtle Dullness and Increasing Mindfulness 6. Subduing Subtle Distraction

Transitioning Meditator 7. Exclusive Attention and Unifying the Mind

Adept Meditator 8. Mental Pliancy and Pacifying th Senses 9. Mental and Physical Pilancy and Calming the Intesity and Meditative Joy 10. Tranquility and Equanimity

Key notes

  1. Progressions through stages of building meditation skill is not linera. You will be moving between stages over several sits, or even many during the same sit.
  2. The secret to progress is working with specific obstabcles appropriate to your skill level.

1. Establish a practice

Goal: Develop a regular meditation practice Obstacles: Resistance, procrastination, fatigue, impatience, boredom, lack of motivation Skills:

  • Create practice routines (set a time and place)
  • setting practice goals
  • generating motivation
  • cultivating diligence.

Each time you meditate:

  1. Fire up your motivation
  2. Set reasonable goals
  3. Beware of expectations
  4. Commit to dilligence (engaging wholeheartedly)
  5. Review potential distractions
  6. Adjust your posture.

Meditation objects

Something you intentionally choose to gbe the focus of your attention during meditation. You can choose anything, but the breadth is ideal. It's always with you, and it allows you to be a passive observer. You don't need to do anything or be anywhere. Also, sensations of the breath change often, which is a good reminder of impermanence.

  1. Breath
  2. Pain
  3. Visualized object
  4. mantra
  5. loving kindess practice

Here's an example of a 4-step transition to focusing on a meditation object:


Coutning is a good novice technique. Count your breath. When your attention slips or you lose track of the count, start over at one. What you consider the start or end of abreath cycle matters. If you regard the inhale as the beginning, you are liable to let the mind wander off after you exhale, isnce the mind naturally wanders off when it's completed a task. Instead, try to use the beginning of an exhale as the counting time.

Five hindrances

Worldly Desire

Pursuite of pleasures,fame, praise and avoiding pain/blame,obscurity.

Opposite of unification of mind. A "blissful and unified mind" has no reason to chase wordly desires. You live a more dynamic life, not constrained by craving.


A negative mental state involving judgement, rejection , and denial.

Opposite of pleasure/happiness. Pleasure/happiness makes negative mental states impossible to hold on to; theres no room for negativity in a mind filled with bliss.


Laziness appears when teh cost of an activity seem to outweigh the benefits.

Opposite of directed attention. Directed Attention impledes Lethargy because focus on the meditation object is "just do it".


Remorse for unwise, unwholesome, or illegal activities. Worry about consequences, and makes it hard to focus mental resources on anything else.

Opposite of meditative joy. Joy overcomes remorse because a joyful person regrets any harm he has caused inthe past and is eager to set things right.


A biased unconscious mental process focused on negative possible outcomes. Makes us hesitate. Saps our will.

Opposite of sustained attention. Sustained attention overcomes doubt because if you keep applying yourself, you're realize you're capable of sustaining attention and achieving other positive results. Success leads to trust in practice and yourself.

2. Interuptted Attention and Overcoming Mind Wandering


  1. Distraction: Something that captures attention, making you forget that you're supposed to be paying attention to the breath.
  2. Forgetting: Quickly leads to mind wandering
  3. Mind Wandering: Can last for a few seconds, several minutes, even an entire med session!
  4. Spontaneous Introspective Awaness: the aha moment when you siuddently realize theres a disconnect between what you wanted to do and what you're actually doing.

Goal: Shorten the periods of mind wandering and extend the periods of sustained attention to the meditation object Obstacles: Mind wandering, monkey mind, and impatience. Skills: Reinforcing spontaneous introspective awareness.

3. Extended Attention and Overcoming Forgetting


  1. Following the breath
  2. Connecting
  3. Labeling
  4. Checking In

Goals: Overcoming forgetting and falling asleep. Obstacles: Distractions, forgetting, mind wandering, and sleepiness Skills: (see techniques above)

4. Continuous Attention and Overcoming Gross Distraction and Strong Dullness


  1. Gross distraction
  2. Strong dullness
  3. Introspective Awareness

Goals: Overcome gross distraction and strong dullness. Obstacles: Distractions, pain and discomfort, intellectual insights, emotionally charged visions and memories. Skills:

  • Develop introspective awareness to prevent sublte distractions becoming gross distractions.
  • Work with pain.
  • Purifying the mind of past trauma and unwholesome conditioning

5. Overcoming Subtle Dullness and Increasing Mindfulness


  1. Stable subtle dullness
  2. Peripheral Awareness
  3. Concentration with dullness

Goals: Overcome sublte dullness and increase the power of mindfulness Obstacles: Subtle dullness is difficult to recognize, creates an illusion of stable attention, and is seductively pleasant Skills

  1. Cultivate stronger and more continous introspective awareness to correct for sublte dullness
  2. Learn a new body scanning technique to increase mindfulness.

6. Subduing Subtle Distraction


  1. Subtle distractions
  2. Exlusive Attention
  3. Scope of attention - how wide or narrow your focus is.
  4. Metacognitive Introspective Awareness -- When you're aware of your state of mind in every moment even as you focus on breath.

Goal: Subdue subtle distractions and develop metacognitive introspective awareness Obstacles: Tendancy for attention to alternate to stream of distracting thoughts and other mental objects in peripheral awareness. Skills:

  • Defining scope of attention precisely.
  • Ignoring anything outside of scope of attention
  • Develop a more refined and selective awawrenesss of teh mind itself (metacognitive introspective awareness)


Goal: Obstacles: Skills:


Goal: Obstacles: Skills:


Goal: Obstacles: Skills:


Goal: Obstacles: Skills:

TODO: Annotate these diagrams

August 3 2017 -- Deep Okayness

Every once in a while, you read something that articulates an intuition you've had.    Making the implicit explicit is a great way to advance understanding.

I think that this is a super valuable tool when the direction of the advancement is in something you care deeply about.  As I do Practical Mindhacking.  It just so happens, that in From Being Driven To Being Drawn, published last week, author Richard Rohr articulates the value of a "deep okayness" which fits this criteria.

Excerpt below:

When I was a young man, I liked ideas and books quite a lot, and I still read a great deal. But each time I come back from a long hermitage retreat, I have no desire to read a book for the next few weeks or even months. For a while I know there is nothing in any book that is going to be better, more truthful, or more solid than what I have just experienced on the cellular, heart, and soul level.

If you asked me what it is I know, I would be hard pressed to tell you. All I know is that there is a deep “okayness” to life—despite all the contradictions—which has become even more evident in the silence. Even when much is terrible, seemingly contradictory, unjust, and inconsistent, somehow sadness and joy are able to coexist at the same time. The negative value of things no longer cancels out the positive, nor does the positive deny the negative.

Whatever your personal calling or your delivery system for the world, it must proceed from a foundational “yes” to life. Your necessary “no” to injustice and all forms of un-love will actually become even clearer and more urgent in the silence, but now your work has a chance of being pure healing instead of impure anger and agenda. You can feel the difference in people who are working for causes; so many works of social justice have been undone by people who do all the fighting from their small or angry selves.


Read the rest of the article here.


cliffs notes on various mind hacking things i've learned



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