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Mindfulness: There's An App for That

Mindwell Labs Pioneers Digital Tools for Mindfulness

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For Shaun Nanavati, the teachings of mindfulness and Buddhism arrived by a happy accident. Traveling around India in his mid-20s in 1998, he took the cheapest flight he could get from Delhi to Amritsar—and found himself sitting next to the Dalai Lama. At first, he couldn't place the bespectacled man who sat just across the aisle from him, his face buried in a newspaper. Didn't he know him from somewhere? Catching his eye, Nanavati realized it was the Tibetan spiritual leader. "To think this guy was a head of state, flying in coach—it was amazing," he recalls. He wanted to make a connection, yet he didn't want to intrude. The Dalai Lama noticed his neighbor's excitement and responded with playful laughter. Nanavati jotted a note on a napkin, inviting the Dalai Lama to have chai sometime. In turn, a monk sitting nearby presented him with the Dalai Lama's business card. And when the plane landed at Amritsar, the Buddhist leader stood next to Nanavati, grinning, and raised his palm. "I understood later that that's an invitation for a blessing. But I didn't know that. I'm a kid who grew up in Jersey—I had no idea what to do. So I gave him five," he says. "And very spontaneously, the Dalai Lama gave me five right back. He was loving it. The monks were aghast, shaking their heads. But the Dalai Lama was having a ball."

The chance meeting—wordless yet full of laughter—would change Nanavati's life. He didn't know much about Buddhism at the time, but his interest was sparked. "I felt like I had made a friend. And I thought, that's a character I admire. He's dealt with so much trauma, and yet he's so playful. What more evidence is there of a healthy psychological framework than that? I became curious." He went on to read ancient classical texts and quit his job in technology to pursue graduate degrees—first in religion, exploring Tibetan Buddhism with Dr. Robert Thurman at Columbia University, and then in psychology, applying mindfulness in clinical settings. Nanavati briefly considered becoming a monk. But during another trip to India in 2003, when he received the Kalachakra Tantra initiation from the Dalai Lama, the message he got was, "No, go back to your own culture and do what you can to help people who are suffering." For a time, he worked in a hospital oncology ward and a traumatic brain injury unit. "It was deeply meaningful," Nanavati says. "Sometimes with things that even surgery can't fix, I found that if people have some insight into the nature of the mind, they can get better."

These days, Nanavati is a neuroscience researcher, clinician, and professor, and he's drawing on everything in his background—ancient texts, psychology, and technology—to help bring mindfulness into the present moment. That is, into the digital age. He's teamed up with colleagues from New York City and Menla retreat center in Phoenicia to form Mindwell Labs, a company that's developing digital tools to help measure and improve attention and mindfulness. Last month, they launched their first offering—a free app for the Apple Watch called the AQ (attention quotient) app. It uses the smartwatch's ECG technology to measure heart rate through the pulse on your wrist, which corresponds with your capacity to focus attention. (Those who don't own a smartwatch can go to a testing center in Manhattan or at Menla.) "Generally speaking, when we pay attention to something, our heart rate decreases," explains Nanavati, who first developed the technology in his PhD studies. "With this company, we want to build more and more advanced biofeedback apps that can help people," he says. The goal is to make the tools of psychology and mindfulness more accessible, and empower people to take control of their own wellbeing, independent of a lab. "Your mind," he says, "is too important to leave to somebody else."

Enlightenment's Digital Moment

The digitization of mindfulness is already underway. In recent years, meditation apps like Calm, Headspace, and the Insight Timer have soared in popularity. The AQ app builds on this by offering a new metric that lets people measure their attention over time so they can see if they're getting tangible, real-world benefits from it. Are they investing their time and money in the right way? "The AQ app provides you with a way to track your progress," says Mindwell Labs CEO Sab Kanaujia. "We have the ability to guide our attention at all times, and to improve that ability like a muscle. But it's lost because of our 24/7 digital world. As a result, people are not happy. They have a fear of missing out. They want to check everything all the time. You pass the whole day that way and then feel that something is lacking. I also think that in today's world, improving your attention can be the crucial difference between success and failure at work and at play. So, it's a useful thing for people to be able to measure attention. If you can't measure it, it's hard to manage and improve it."

Beyond the smartwatch app, Mindwell Labs has bigger plans afoot. "Later on, we will suggest interventions that are mindfulness-based, so you can improve your attention level through practice," says Kanaujia. "We're introducing what we call data-driven mindfulness. Data-driven means that it's based on your data. It also allows us to personalize our interventions based on you." The company's core product, which they hope to launch later this year, will be a 24/7 automated mindfulness guide—like an Alexa or Siri, but designed for mind-body health. The technology will bring in other biofeedback testing such as vagal tone metrics (vagal tone is the response of the vagus nerve, which plays a role in regulating the nervous system), as well as AI, voice recognition technology, and even voice analysis software that can give indicators about health issues based on the tone and timbre of the human voice. "We're going to be one of the first companies to utilize [this technology]," says Michael Burbank, director of operations at Mindwell Labs, director of administration at Menla, and a 20-plus-year student of Robert Thurman. "We'll be weaving it together with other metrics to create a portable diagnostic tool, powered by AI." Think if it as a Siri for the soul—your own voice-controlled virtual enlightenment guide.

The larger goal of the folks at Mindwell Labs is to help usher in a new wave of mindfulness that they believe is deeply needed in the West. In its current form, mindfulness has become a buzzword that's drifted away from its original meaning and source text, which is the Buddha's 2,500-year-old Maha-satipatthana Sutta (Great Sutra on the Four Foci of Mindfulness). "There's a simplification and de-Buddhist-ization of mindfulness happening in the mainstream, where everyone and their uncle is claiming to be a mindfulness teacher," says Burbank. "This is good on the one hand, because it's helping to popularize meditation, which is an urgent need in our culture of attention deficit and sensory overload. On the other hand, it's left itself open to legitimate critiques from people who feel that it's only presenting a very partial picture from the original source."

To get nitty-gritty about it, the primary sutra lays out four focal points of mindfulness—the body, feelings, mind, and mental qualities. Yet mainstream mindfulness tends to emphasize only the first two—the idea of tuning into the body and our feelings to help us become more present and de-stress. It usually leaves out the third and fourth steps, which have to do with observing and directing the contents of the mind. "In Tibet they have six words for six different senses—they have the traditional five senses like we have, but there's another sense. This is the sense of the mind being aware of itself. Because we don't have that in our neurological paradigms, I think there's a bit of mistranslation that happens in the teaching," says Nanavati. "There's more to it than just stress reduction. It's a whole system that brings together presence, flow, visual thinking, and intentional or ethical action. This is the real value of mindfulness: When you understand it as a system, you can apply it to your day-to-day life. You can learn faster, develop neuroplasticity, and reap the higher-level benefits."

For people interested in mindfulness, it's as if the palace they've been living in has a hidden wing they've never explored before. Practiced in the East but rarely practiced here, the complete mindfulness system often includes visual thinking exercises, which can call up dream-like states and lead to insights. (Nanavati includes one such visualization exercise in the AQ app, to give you a taste.) Another element is the ethical piece, which is sometimes missing in our corporate world. "[Mainstream mindfulness] is often used to give high-powered executives and others the sense that they can learn how to focus and de-stress so they can be more effective capitalists," says Burbank. That's why Mindwell Labs plans to offer business training programs that introduce ethics and other components that are part of the Buddha's original mindfulness teachings. They're also busy automating a new metric called a Mindfulness Score (or MF score), comprised of a battery of neurological and psychological tests that measure mindfulness across seven categories. These categories—tranquility, investigational skills, mindful awareness, equanimity, concentration and memory, effort, and relational intelligence—just happen to correspond with the seven qualities of enlightenment laid out in the original sutra.

Yet Burbank notes that you don't have to be a Buddhist to benefit from these philosophies or metrics. "We're not trying to convert anyone to Buddhism," he says. "These teachings are directly relevant to anyone's life, regardless of faith. They're common sense, practical teachings for how to accurately perceive the nature of reality—and therefore how to understand your own mind and become more effective at being you."

An Opportunity to Be Gentler

In Nanavati's view, the new wave of mindfulness has the potential to disrupt not just corporate culture but also mainstream medicine. "What we're trying to do with Mindwell Labs is a project for a scientific psychologist," he says. "We think of religion as the opposite of that. But really, the Buddhist approach is much more scientific than the way the West practices psychology, which is based largely on observations rather than causal factors. It's clear that our system of diagnosis is completely broken." The first thing that needs to go are many of the terms in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM). "There's so much judgment in some of these terms," he says. "Bipolar, for example—it's obviously an insult. They claim it's scientific, but it's not. We have no firm physiological test." To top it off, we're overmedicated as a society, but we're not healthier. And many of our diagnoses lead to drugs with serious side effects.

With mindful awareness, we have an opportunity to be gentler. "Instead of saying, 'You have anxiety,' or 'You are this or that,' you might say, 'You can be more tranquil. We recommend this tea and this yoga and this practice.' And that's much more innocent in its approach," says Nanavati. "We are bringing a new idea about the nature of the mind that discards the current DSM-driven model of psychiatry for one based on attention. I believe that can help people achieve a high level of personal happiness and mental focus, without all the shame and judgment."

In the end, it's about creating more harmonious relationships with ourselves and others—and opening the door to the same lightness of spirit that Nanavati found in his chance encounter, at 30,000 feet, with the Dalai Lama. It was an encounter that opened his mind just as he hopes others' minds will be opened. "People are waking up," he says. "They're having a little bit of experience with mindfulness and saying, 'Okay. Now I'd like to know the real thing.'"

Mindwell Labs is seeking meditators in the Hudson Valley who may be interested in recording their AQ as they embark on a meditation practice. To learn more, contact shaun@mindwelllabs.com.

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