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An exploration of mindful experience through the lens of sense

Cassandra Michel Products of Design, School of Visual Arts






Goals & Objectives










Looking Ahead


About Cassandra







The most important concept in Buddhism is contained in the first of the Buddha’s Four Noble Truths. The principle of dukkha, which states that all who experience life will suffer. This suffering is due, on the one hand, to the physical and mental stress of growing old and the prospect of our eventual death, but more broadly it is the anxiety that arises in the transient and ever-changing nature of existence. In short, to suffer is the human condition. This seems like a fairly pessimistic perspective on life, but the third noble truth, nirodha, offers hope for the cessation of suffering through sukha, “the state of lasting well-being that manifests itself when we have freed ourselves of mental blindness and afflictive emotions.” The path toward sukha proposes mindfulness as the first step of the Seven Factors of Awakening. Mindfulness, according to Jon Kabat-Zinn, is the ability to “pay attention, on purpose, in the present moment, nonjudgmentally.”1 Paying attention is at the core of mindfulness and, ultimately, our own sukha or happiness.

1 Jon Kabat-Zinn, Wherever you go, there you are: Mindfulness Meditation in Everyday Life (New York: Hyperion, 1994) 5

A 2010 Harvard research study conducted by Matthew A. Killingsworth and Daniel T. Gilbert found that 47% of the time our minds are wandering. According to the Killingsworth and Gilbert, however, wandering minds are far from a simple distractions.1 Indeed, humans are unique in their ability to engage in “stimulant independent thought,” defined as “contemplating events that happened in the past, might happen in the future, or will never happen at all…[a] remarkable evolutionary achievement” that allows us to imagine, to create, to plan, to fantasize. For many creatives and designers mind wandering is an asset because it allows for lateral thinking. It is what sets us apart and gives our way of thinking value. The down-side to our mind wandering is that much of the time it can lead to negative thought patterns—rumination, regret, or worrying about the future. When this occurs we get pulled out of the present moment and hypnotized by the thoughts racing through our minds.2 A wandering mind, according to Killingsworth and Gilbert, leads to an unhappy mind. Implied in this study is the question that, if our default mode is to have a wandering mind half of the time, and a wandering mind is an unhappy mind, are we programmed for unhappiness?

1 Matthew A. Killingsworth and Daniel T. Gilbert, “A Wandering Mind is an Unhappy Mind,” Science 330 (12 November), 932

2 Ibid. 6

The lifestyle of the 21st century makes it increasingly difficult to pay attention, leading media theorist Douglas Rushkoff to coin the term digiphrenia to describe1 the experience of trying to exist in more than one incarnation of yourself at the same time. There’s your Twitter profile, there’s your Facebook profile, there’s your email inbox. And all of these sort of multiple instances of you are operating simultaneously and in parallel. And that’s not a really comfortable position for If the digital revolution makes it especially difficult to pay attention to the present moment, and mindfulness is the first step to freeing ourselves from dukkha, then it is no wonder that so many of us find it difficult to achieve happiness.


1 Douglas Rushkoff, Present Shock: When Everything Happens Now (New York: Penguin, 2013)


That doesn’t sound so pleasant, but it does call to mind the First Noble Truth—that all who experience life will suffer. This is a hard truth to swallow but, again, it is not all negative. If the 2500-year-old contemplative practices of Buddhism are right about our suffering, then perhaps they are right about our freedom from suffering and the possibility of achieving sukha through the practice of mindfulness. Indeed, as David Hochman puts it, “the hunger to get centered is especially fervent in the cradle of the digital revolution,”1 and the evidence in favor of practicing attention and mindfulness is rapidly growing. As studies show that the brain is flexible and with training can change. The neuroscientific principle of experience-de pendent neuroplasticity is one of the most important paradigm shifts in modern science and medicine. Rather than being fixed entities unchangeable traits and behaviors, our brains and psychological tendencies are actually quite malleable, and can change with both experience and practice. Just as exercise and training strengthens physical muscles, mental habits construct and become entrenched in corresponding brain networks.2 1 David Hochman, “Mindfulness—Getting Its Share of Attention,” The New York Times, first edition, November 1, 2013. 2 Willoughby Britton, “Neurobiological Models of Meditation Practices: Implications for Applications with Youth,” Department of Psychology, Brown Medical School, 2013


Hypofronatlity—a weak or underdeveloped prefrontal cortex—can be reversed through the cultivation of attention and mindfulness practice is one method for training. Whether it is extreme suffering such as veterans suffering from PTSD or a general sense of unease that comes with the digital revolution, mindfulness has proven to have restorative properties. From a scientific perspective it transforms the physical structure of the brain, while from a spiritual perspective it leads to transcendence and enlightenment. Additionally, the practice of meditation as mental training functions as a way to extend our perception beyond waking reality. According to environmental and medical anthropologist Tara W. Lumpkin, meditation—along with altered states of consciousness beyond waking reality such as trance, dreams, and imagination—allow for perceptual diversity, contributing to the development of polyphasic consciousness. Western, developed societies are primarily monophasic, with other states of consciousness “not considered valid processes for accessing knowledge by science.”1 Cultures that value perceptual diversity display higher levels of environmental stewardship, understand systems better, and are less destructive to ecological systems. Therefore, Lumpkin argues, in order to survive the global environmental crisis that we are currently facing, we must begin to value perceptual diversity.

1 Tara W. Lumpkin “Is Polyphasic Consciousness Necessary for Global Survival?” Anthropology of Consciousness, 2013 9

According to John Thackara, our minds are shaped by our environments as “mental phenomena emerge not merely from isolated brain activity, but from ‘a single unified system embracing the nervous system, body, and environment.”1 Thackara argues that this new perspective is incredibly important because it argues that our modern, dualistic perspective of dividing our self and nature dissipates. We become products of our environment and if this if the environment is that of a city, which approximately half the world’s population lives in, then it makes sense that we do not care about the natural environmental. There is now evidence showing that this disconnection from the natural has negative health consequences and that interacting with nature can increase well-being and offer healing properties. By living in what Thackara refers to as the “Desert of the Real,” “[w]e miss all sorts of natural phenomena because we use so few of our senses.”2 The fourth noble truth is the path that Buddha sets out for those who wish to end dukkha in favor of sukha, to restore to health and well-being, and to transform a life whose default mode is negative into a life of positivity. Given the increasingly complex world we live in filled with distraction and disconnected from nature, the cultivation of attention through meditation practice is critical. What better time to start on this path than now? 1 John Thackara, “Desert of the Real’, November 28, 2013, 2 Ibid. 10



The time will come when, with elation you will greet yourself arriving at your own door, in your own mirror and each will smile at the other’s welcome, and say, sit here. Eat. You will love again the stranger who was your self. Give wine. Give bread. Give back your heart to itself, to the stranger who has loved you all your life, whom you ignored for another, who knows you by heart. Take down the love letters from the bookshelf, the photographs, the desperate notes, peel your own image from the mirror. Sit. Feast on your life. -Derek Walcott




The goal of this thesis is to explore the healing properties of mindfulness while identifying opportunities for design intervention. I am interested in how products, services, and experiences can be shaped in a way that allow people to understand mindfulness, to pursue the practice, and to integrate it into their daily life as a way to heal and prevent suffering. The benefits of mindfulness are plentiful from perspectives ranging from medical to psychological to spiritual—and yet it remains difficult to achieve. I am specifically interested in behavior change from a psychological and scientific perspective and how localized behavior becomes habitual. By looking at strategies such as reward-based learning, this thesis aims to apply cognitive behavioral approaches to a design approach that encourages mindful experience. In other words, understanding the small nudges that result in positive behavior is the primary objective. Research shows that meditation practice itself is challenging. Although the benefits of it are plentiful many people struggle with the exercise. Dr. Judson


Brewer highlights many of the difficulties of mediation when he writes that, Core to many clinical and spiritual practices ranging from stress reduction to self-actualization to self-transcendence is the ability to pay attention in a nondistracted manner. Yet, many, perhaps even a preponderance of people who wade into these waters quickly return to shore as soon as they become even a little muddied, saying to themselves and others, ‘this is too hard,’ or ’I can’t concentrate,’ or ’how can this possibly lead to happiness, it feels quite the opposite.’ On my first weeklong meditation retreat, 2–3 days in, I found myself literally crying on the shoulder of the retreat manager, choking out these exacts words between sobs.1 Meditation practice is difficult and even five minutes of sitting still can bring many to tears. In contrast to these more intensive strategies, I aim here to research and develop new techniques for meditation practice that lower the barriers and ease beginners into the practice.

1 Judson A. Brewer, Jake H. Davis, and Joseph Goldstein, “Why is it so hard to pay attention, or is it? Mindfulness, the Factors of Awakening and Reward-Based Learning,” Mindfulness 4, no. 1 (2013) 15

For this study, I will focus on two major types of meditation practice: Focused Attention Meditation (FA) and Open Monitoring Meditation (OM). FA is defined as “practice involves intentionally directing and sustaining attention on a chosen object (like the breath, a visual object, or a sound) while “deselecting” other stimuli.” 1 OM, on the other hand, is a type of “practice [that] involves a continuous monitoring of any and all stimuli (thought, emotions, body sensations, sounds, etc.) that arise in experience without privileging any particular object.”2 FA is often used as a starting point for beginners. However, much of the focus is on breath control, leaving the other senses relatively unexplored. I believe that, because the structure of the brain is dependent on experience and experience is shaped by our senses, developing the other senses may have untapped potential as a focal point for meditation. Therefore, the goal of the thesis is to design new meditation products, services, and experiences for meditation beginners that articulate and develop the range of other senses. The primary goal of the offerings in this thesis will be to heightened awareness of those senses that shape our minds and brains. This thesis also takes into consideration the importance of the natural 1 Willoughby Britton, “Neurobiological Models of Meditation Practices: Implications for Applications with Youth,” Department of Psychology, Brown Medical School, 2013

2 Ibid. 16

environment for well-being while at the same time recognizing alternative states of consciousness, such as meditation, that help us to understand the value of nature. Environmental stewardship and utilizing meditation practice as a conduit for reconnecting to nature is integrated into the thesis as well.



This study is broadly directed at residents of Western, developed countries living in cities with populations exceeding one million. Further narrowing my scope, this thesis specifically focuses on two distinct urban populations: first, millenials and teens, and second, children in underserved communities. Other audience selection criteria include those with an awareness of meditation and/or who have begun to practice meditation but struggle to practice habitually due to the challenging nature of such training. In his theory of the diffusions of innovation, Everett Rogers explains that technology and ideas spread through cultures along an adoption curve made up of five population types: innovators, early adopters, early majority, late majority, and laggards.1 As an idea diffuses, the population sizes grow—the innovators are a very small percentage of the population and the early and late majority are the largest. The development of meditation and mindfulness practice in the West roughly follows this schema, having been brought to Western culture over two centuries ago but only becoming popularized in the mid-Twentieth Century.

1 Everett M. Rogers, Diffusion of Innovations (New York: Free Press, 1983). 18

The beatnik and subsequent hippie subcultures of the 1960s and 1970s explored Buddhism as a way to overcome what they perceived as a complex yet spiritually empty Western way of life. By the 1970s, mindfulness had been adopted by clinical psychologists, who began integrating and developing therapeutic applications of mindfulness as a way of treating forms of psychological distress such as anxiety and depression. The founder of the Mindfulness Based Stress Reduction (MBSR), John Kabat Zinn, has popularized mindfulness to a broader audience for the past forty years.



Habit and Happiness In the words of Matthieu Ricard, Buddhist monk and author of Happiness, Spiritual practice can be enormously beneficial. The fact is, it is possible to undergo serious spiritual training by devoting some might think do so, while leading regular family lives and doing absorbing work. The positive benefits of such a life far outweigh the few problems of schedule arrangement. In this way we can launch an inner transformation that is based in day-to-day reality. 1 Essentially, Ricard suggests a little bit of practice everyday. Similar to how brushing your teeth twice a day prevents gum disease, meditating a few minutes a day can develop our ability to pay attention. Many commercial apps and services haven take up this point of view and now offer consumers ways of managing this type of meditation practice. Andy Puddicombe, founder of the service “Get some Headspace” encourages

1 Matthieu Ricard, Happiness: A Guide to Developing Life’s Most Important Skill (New York: Little, Brown and Company, 2007), 29. 20

just ten minutes a day of meditation practice.1 BJ Fogg’s theory of “Tiny Habits” suggests that starting small—for example flossing one tooth a day, or doing one push-up a day—as opposed to setting large, overwhelming goals is the key to habit formation. Eventually, the tiny everyday habits become a ritual and can flourish. “Over time,” Fogg writes, “that minuscule task becomes a part of your day, rather than no part at all. You could think of that absurdly tiny habit as a skeleton for an extension of your routine—once it becomes ‘normal’ to your routine, you’ll glide right into it.”2 If spirituality, science, and psychology all make a strong argument for practicing mindfulness, and the solution to transformation comes down to a little bit of practice, then why is it still a challenge for many? According to Judson Brewer, one reason could be the way in which meditation is taught in Western mindfulness teaching, the emphasis has been on paying attention to the breath, and returning one’s attention to the breath when the mind has wandered. This is straightforward enough, but runs counter to our natural reward-based mechanisms of learning.3 1 Andy Puddicombe, “All It Takes is 10 Mindful Minutes,” TED Talk, January 11, 2013, 2 BJ Fogg, “Fogg Method,” 3 Judson A. Brewer, Jake H. Davis, and Joseph Goldstein, “Why is it so hard to pay attention, or is it? Mindfulness, the Factors of Awakening and Reward-Based Learning,” Mindfulness 4, no. 1 (2013) 21

Brewer argues that meditation should adopt strategies that utilize the reward system of our brain to reinforce desired behaviors. Habit formation is made up of three elements: a trigger, a behavior, and a clearly defined reward. Brewer suggests that we can use this schema to create a habit of mindfulness, forging a direct link from mindfulness to reward. Brewer further applies the Buddhist framework of “The Seven Factors of Awakening” to mindfulness practice; the awakening begins with mindfulness, which leads to investigation/ curiosity, followed by energy, joy, relaxation, concentration and finally equanimity. According to Brewer, mindfulness is the spark, difficult to attain but, once achieved, the other factors should follow without much effort: “we hypothesize that to the degree an individual is able to establish the initial factor of mindfulness through a comprehensive attentiveness to internal as well as external stimuli, the subsequent factors will arise without further intervention.”1 The momentum builds and eventually the individual becomes absorbed in what they are doing. Everyday Mindfulness Most of us have experienced mindfulness at one time or another, although we might not have categorized it as such. According to Brewer, mindfulness can be present even in mundane activities such as reading a book, and he draws connections between enjoy-

1 Judson A. Brewer, Jake H. Davis, and Joseph Goldstein, “Why is it so hard to pay attention, or is it? Mindfulness, the Factors of Awakening and Reward-Based Learning,” Mindfulness 4, no. 1 (2013) 22

ing a book and the Seven Factors of Awakening: Some crucial aspects of this progression through the factors of awakening can be illustrated with the everyday example of reading a good book. As we start to “get into” the book, energy naturally arises. When the book gets really good, we become enraptured, even finding ourselves reading until 3 AM. Once enraptured, we can sit and read for hours, as tranquility naturally arises.1 The momentum that builds—and the consequent energy, joy, and concentration that follows—is similar to psychologist Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi’s theory of what he calls “flow.” Csikszentmihalyi argues that flow is the opposite of entropy and is an optimal experience based on one’s ability to focus and become absorbed with whatever they are doing. In the book Flow, he argues that “the mark of a person who is in control of consciousness is the ability to focus attention at will, to be oblivious to distractions...And the person who can do this usually enjoys the normal course of everyday life.”2 At its essence, flow implies control over our attention during daily activities, from the exciting to the mundane. It is the ability to transform any situation into an optimal experience simply by changing our perspective that makes flow such a powerful concept.

1 Ibid. 2 Mikaly Csikszentmihalyi, Flow: the Psychology of Optimal Experience (New York: Harper & Row, 1990) 23

Csikszentmihalyi writes that A person can make himself happy, or miserable, regardless of what is actually happening “outside,” just by changing the contents of consciousness. We all know individuals who can transform hopeless situations into challenges to be overcome, just through the force of their personalities. This ability to persevere despite obstacles and setbacks is the quality people most admire in others, and justly so; it is probably the most important trait not only for succeeding in life, but for enjoying it as well.1 Mastering flow is thus, according to Csikszentmihalyi, crucial to self-development and personal identity: Flow helps to integrate the self because in that state of deep concentration consciousness is unusually well ordered. Thoughts, intentions, feelings, and all the senses are focused on the same goal. Experience is in harmony. And when the flow experience is over, one feels more “together” than before, not only internally but also with respect to other people and the world in general.2 Developing mindfulness as a habit is the most important key to experiencing its power to restore us. Identifying design interventions that nudge individuals in the right direction is primary to the thesis. Along with this I

1 Mikaly Csikszentmihalyi, Flow: the Psychology of Optimal Experience (New York: Harper & Row, 1990)

2 Ibid. 24

am also interested in the unique moments of transcendence, the special experiences and environments that inspire and awaken us, that are both cause and consequence of everyday mindfulness practices. A Wandering Mind While paying attention may be central to achieving happiness, it’s a surprisingly difficult characteristic to hone. According to a study conducted by Harvard psychologists Matthew A. Killingsworth and Daniel T. Gilbert, people spend an average of 46.9% of their waking hours not thinking about what they are doing but instead allowing their mind to wander. The research also revealed that people are unhappier when their mind is wandering. Yet, at the same time, mind wandering sets us apart from animals and is inherent to being human. While it may lead to unhappiness, mind wandering, or “stimulus independent thought” as Killingsworth and Gilbert call it, is also “a remarkable evolutionary achievement that allows people to learn, reason, and plan.”1 The paradox that mind wandering is both crucial to our development as humans and also our greatest source of unhappiness leads some to believe that there is no hope and to accept this behavior as inherent to human nature. However, neuropsychologist, Dr. Rick Hanson has a different perspective, writing in Buddha’s Brain that

1 Matthew A. Killingsworth and Daniel T. Gilbert, “A Wandering Mind is an Unhappy Mind,” Science 330 (12 November) 25

our vastly more developed brain is fertile ground for a harvest of suffering. Only we humans worry about the future, regret the past, and blame ourselves for the present. We get frustrated when we can’t have what we want, and disappointed when what we like ends. We suffer that we suffer. We get upset about being in pain, angry about dying, sad about waking up sad yet another day. This kind of suffering—which encompasses most of our unhappiness and dissatisfaction—is constructed by the brain. It is made up. Which is ironic, poignant—and supremely hopeful. For if the brain is the cause of suffering, it can also be its cure.1 Hanson argues that by changing our minds we change the neuro pathways of the brain and effectively “rewire it.” This is not a new idea, and is in fact at the core of Buddhist philosophy. However, because one could argue that science is religion for most Westerners, a scientific explanation might be the best way to illustrate the benefits of mindfulness and persuade people to participate. The Science of Mindfulness Science now suggests that the practice of mindfulness and meditation can change the physical structure of the brain. The principle of neuroplasticity is one of the most important paradigm shifts in science

1 Rick Hanson and Richard Mendius, Buddha’s Brain: the Practical Neuroscience of Happiness, Love & Wisdom (Oakland, CA: New Harbinger Publications, 2009) 26

and medicine. According to Dr. Hanson, When your mind changes, your brain changes, too...when neurons fire together, they wire together—mental activity actually creates new neural structures (Hebb 1949; LeDoux 2003). As a result, even fleeting thoughts and feelings can leave lasting marks on your brain, much like a spring shower can leave little trails on a hillside.1 Willoughby Britton, Assistant Professor of Psychiatry and Human Behavior at Brown University, researches the effects of mindfulness on hypofrontality, the weakening of the Prefrontal Cortex (PFC). Because the PFC is the part of the brain that controls many executive functioning including behavior in line with set goals and emotion, a weak PFC is associated with a host of psychological issues including depression. Cognitive Rehabilitation of the PFC utilizes attention training to reverse the effects of hypofrontality. Studies show that mindfulness and meditation practice as mental training has garnered many positive benefits including strengthening of the PFC.2 Where Does the Mind End? The longstanding question of where the mind ends and the environment begins is currently being answered by

1 Rick Hanson and Richard Mendius, Buddha’s Brain: the Practical Neuroscience of Happiness, Love & Wisdom (Oakland, CA: New Harbinger Publications, 2009) 2 Willoughby Britton, “Neurobiological Models of Meditation Practices: Implications for Applications with Youth,” Department of Psychology, Brown Medical School, 2013 27

swered by recent studies in neuroscience. According to Buddhism, mind and environment are one, a claim that science is now proving to be true. This science argues that environment shapes our cognition. In his influential essay “Desert of the Real,” John Thackara writes: Neuroscientists have discovered that the boundary between mind, body, and world far more permeable than we had thought. The mind is hormonal, as well as neural. The boundary between our bodies, and the environment, is porous. Two-way chemical communications—not just verbal or pictorial ones—shape the ways we experience the world.1 Thackara draws on the work of philosopher Teed Rockwell, who proposes that the mind and the environment are not separate but act as a “a single unified system embracing the nervous system, body, and environment.” Modern philosophy is based on believing that the mind and body are separate. This dualist point of view disconnects us from our environment and nature as a whole. Thackara then goes on to argue that an educational system, overly-focused on science, technology, engineering, and mathematics, further removes us from our natural environment and experiences. According to Thackara, “abstraction underpins a concept of progress in which the globe is perceived to be a repository of resources to fuel endless growth.” 2 The result of this process of abstraction is that Western, developed societies have become unaware of nat1 John Thackara, “Desert of the Real’, November 28, 2013,


2 Ibid. 28

ural systems and the impact of our collective behavior on the environment. Nature and Well-Being Approximately half the world’s population currently live in cities and this number is projected grow significantly. It is predicted by 2050, 7 out of 10 people will live in an urban environment. Recent research shows that there is a connection between interaction with nature and green spaces and the health of well-being of the population. In a long-term study conducted by U.K. Researchers at the University of Exeter it was found that people who live near green spaces in a city are happier than those who do not. Richard Louv, author of Last Child in the Woods, argues that connection to nature is necessary for healthy child and adult development. As Louv writes, the postmodern notion that reality is only a construct—that we are what we program—suggests limitless human possibilities; but as the young spend less and less of their lives in natural surroundings, their senses narrow, physiologically and psychologically, and this reduces the richness of human experience.1 Indeed, research by biologist Edward O. Wilson suggests that there is an instinct for humans to connect with nature. The biophilia hypothesis, as Wilson calls son call it, asserts in humans an innate “urge to affiliate with other forms of life.” 1 “Excerpt from Last Child in the Woods,” Richard Louv, accessed April 28, 2014, 29

Wilson’s claims echoe the sentiments of Richard Louv when he says that the dire comparison I make is between children brought up in a totally humanized, artifactual environment, urban or suburban, and cattle brought up in a feedlot. When you see cattle in a feedlot, they seem perfectly content, but they’re not cattle. It’s an exaggeration, of course, to compare those with children, but somehow children can be perfectly happy with computer screens and games and movies where they get to see not only African wildlife but, lo and behold, dinosaurs. But they’re just not fully developing their psychic energy and their propensities to develop and seek on their own.1 Wilson also believes that a disconnection from nature results in the depression and anxiety that is rampant in developed populations, especially amongst urban dwellers. Evnironment and Experience In the book Healing Spaces, Esther Sternberg explores the science and psychology of environment and it’s impact on well-being and healing. She writes that, “The notion that nature was important to healing had been around for thousands of years- going back to 2

1 Edward O. Wilson, “A Conversation with E.O. Wilson,” January 18, 2014. 2 Esther M. Sternberg, Healing Spaces: the Science of Place and Well-Being (Cambridge, MA: Belknap Press of Harvard UP, 2009) 30

classical times, when temples to Asclepius, the Greek god of healing, were built far from towns, high up on hilltops.�1 Sternberg goes on to describe a groundbreaking study that proved hospital patients healed quicker when they had a window with a view of nature then when they had a window with a view of a brick wall. She goes on to explain that there are different regions of the brain that are active when looking at different categories of objects: one part of the brain is activated when it sees faces, another for buildings, and so on. One possible theory for why patients heal quicker when they look at scenery rather than a brick wall is that there is a region of the brain that is stimulated when a person looks at a beautiful scene such as a vista. Sternberg recounts that, Professor Irving Biederman at the University of Southern California in Los Angeles has found that when people view scenes that are universally preferred-- a beautiful vista, a sunset, a grove of trees--the nerve cells in that opiate -rich pathway become active. It is as if when you’re looking at a beautiful scene, your own brain gives you a morphone high! Not only that, but as color, depth, and movement are added to the scene, more and more waves of nerve cells become active farther along this opiate-rich gradiant.2

1 Esther M. Sternberg, Healing Spaces: the Science of Place and Well-Being (Cambridge, MA: Belknap Press of Harvard UP, 2009) 2 Ibid. 31

Sternberg’s powerful argument led to questioning whether there are spaces that are more conducive to mindfulness practice. Is it merely a coincidence that monks typically practice in ashrams far away from the hustle and bustle of the city or that a simple google search for the word mindfulness results in a plethora of photos of sunsets? The research shows that identifying design interventions that look at environment and experience could prove to be fruitful. The Senses The theory of experience-dependent neuroplasticity centers on the idea that our brain is constantly being shaped by our experiences, and that it is the individual’s choice to decide which experiences they want to cultivate. An experience has many parts to it including the environment, the individual’s perception, and the person’s senses. If our five senses shape our experiences in the world and our experiences shape our brain, thenthis thesis proposes that individual senses should make a good focal point for meditation. According to philosopher and education reformer, K.B. Jinan because of modern civilization we have become disconnected to not only nature but our own senses. In India, K.B. Jinan responds to this problem by conducting Nature Sensitization workshops that reconnect children with nature through their senses. Jinan’s goal is to awaken the senses, which he believes “makes it easier for us to experience beauty and understand theworld around us.” Jinan describes “a fight in the modern mind to say that we are separate from the environment, but on a fundamental level we 32

are the same.� He argues that children are born with the ability to use their senses to navigate the world, but through education this sensitivity and receptiveness is weakened. Jinan believes there are two types of people— text cognites and sense cognites. Sense cognites include children and illiterate people and primarily use their sense and first hand experience to understand the world. Jinan believes that text cognites have a lot to learn from this population. Jinan explains that traditional education creates a virtual realistic understanding of the world. Rather than experiencing the world first hand education abstracts human experience. Jinan advocates rethinking how we teach children in a way that does not deprive them of their natural and powerful sense abilities. He also believes that adult text cognites need to reconnect with their senses in order to regain an authentic human experience.



Mindfulness (Sati) Investigation (Dhamma Vicaya) Energy (Viriya) Joy (Piti) Relaxation (Passaddhi) Concentration (Samadhi) Equanimity (Upekkha)




“The light which puts out our eyes is darkness to us. Only that day dawns to which we are awake. There is more day to dawn. The sun is but a morning star.”





The methodology of the thesis is to consistently conduct both primary and secondary research over the course of two semesters. The primary research is focused on phone interviews with experts in the field of mindfulness as well as attending mindfulness informational meetings, events, etc. I have also been conducting personal research by experimenting with different mindfulness exercises, servicess, applications, and recommendations. In addtion to the research, and as part of an exercise in lateral thinking and exploration the thesis is channeled through several lenses from speculative objects to videostorytelling to a branded object. The result is a suite of offerings that embody the process of investigation of the topic. The following section of this book is dedicated to the lenses of the thesis thus far.



Stethoscope Necklace: Speculative Design Seashell Headphones: Speculative Design Gramerci: Speculative Design C5Co: Service Design Play with Clay: Design Reaearch Sense Experiment: Design Research Synesthesia Experiment: Design Research FIVE Dinner: Experience Design Thinpoint: Web & Mobile Platform--



One of the most common forms of meditation is called foucsed attention wherein the practicitioner focuses on one object. Focusing on the breath is one method that is highly recommended as a good starting point. The stethoscope pendant necklace takes the method one step further and provokes the user to listen to their own heartbeat as a way of focusing attention on an object. A person’s heartbeat is a reminder of the very essence of being alive and encourages the user to make a connection with the body. The pendant of the necklace is an actual sthethoscope but suggests that it is made digital wtih a headphone jack which allows users to plug in their own personal earbuds.




Many commerical products for mindfulness include listening to white noise and nature sounds like rain and the ocean tide. However, the issue is that users have to connect to technology in orer to access the sounds. Given that technology is a number one culprit of distraction it might not be the best way to try and engage in meditation. Seashell Headphones allow the user to listen to the soothing sounds of the ocean when they need to pause from their busy life. Because the headphones are completely analogue they allow the user to also disconnect from the distractions of technology. The object raises questions as to whether utilizing technology to cure the negative impacts of technology is the best solution.


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Martin Seligman, founder of the branch of psychology referred to as Positive Psychology, proposes therapy should not merely seek to eliminate suffering but should identify and then grow the inherint talents and strengths that each individual possesses. According to Seligman, this encourages individuals to flourish. In the book Flourish, Seligman describes simple exercises for increased positivity. One of them is an exercise in gratitude in which the patient is asked to write a thank you note to someone in their life.1 Gramerci is a thank you chain letter that leverages the novelty of meaningufl “snail mail.� Six thank you cards are packaged into each other and then sent to one recipent who can then send along the next one. The product also lives online in the form of a social platform where users can upload their expriences of receiving a Gramerci.

1 Martin Seligman, Flourish, (N.S.W.: Random House Australia, 2011), 60-61


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The critter that lives in the brain of the main character, Tim, is a manifestation of Eckhart Tolle’s “painbody” which he describes as, “An accumulation of painful life experience that was not fully faced and accepted in the moment it arose. It leaves behind an energy form of emotional pain. It comes together with other energy forms from other instances, and so after some years you have a ‘painbody,’ an energy entity consisting of old emotion.” The character’s painbody/critter detracts from his personal well-being and distracts from the here and now. C5Co is a speculative service that can be ordered online and includes a series of exercises for silencing and taming their “critter.” The service is meant to be somewhat absurd and utilizes humor in an otherwise serious subject matter.


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As part of the research for C5Co, I asked peers to mold their personal “critters� out of clay and describe to me what the critter says and what features and qualities it has. The goal of the exercise was to create a taxonomy of critters but through this exercise it became apparent that the act of molding the critter had therapeutic elements. The tie to art therapy which uses art as a medium for therapy became apparent in the process. The action of stretching and shaping the clay was stress relieving; the tactile nature of the clay and malleable qualities served as a helpful focal point for attention; the creation of the critter served as a conduit for conversation about stress and negative thought pattern; finally, the ability to give the intangible nature of thought a visible form served as a useful metaphor. The technique led to a realization in this thesis. The insight gathered was that their could be other methods for practicing meditation beyond focusing on the breath. The tactile nature of the exercise also led to the insight that focusing on the senses could serve as a focal point. 48



As part of the research into the senses as a focal point for meditation I set up a public experiment in Washingtion Square Park on a loud and busy weekend day. The experiment included different techniques for meditatation based on the five senses. The clay method was integrated along with focusing on different scents, tasting fruit, listening to sounds, and using an eye piece to frame different views in the park. The experiment was successful with several participants expressing that the exercises did indeed make them feel more relaxed and at ease. The clay exercise garnered the greatest amount of positive reactions. One participant described that she had been feeling stressed due to worrying about an illness she might have and that the technique of forming the clay served as a helpful metaphor. The key insight from the experiment was that active methods of focused meditation on the senses were more successful than passive. Techniques where the particpant was simply asked to taste, smell, or look were not as successful as the clay method which asked the participant to actively engage in the exercise. 50





Synesthesia is a neurological phenomenon in which stimulation of one sensory or cognitive pathway leads to automatic, involuntary experiences in a second sensory or cognitive pathway. After recognizing the success of the clay molding clay, this experiment attempted to explore the connection with memory smell and visualization. Participants were first deprived of their sense of sight and sound. They then were asked to imagine a memory. Following this, they were given smells and prompted to match the memory with the smells. The smell was then matched to a color from the Olfactory Color Wheel. Finally, participants were asked to engage in the meditative process of marbling and tell the story of their memory. The exercise itself served as a relaxing technique for destressing but proved to be convoluted. The many steps and metaphors created confusion in what the exercise was trying to achieve.






A second attempt at an experiment that integrated elements of synesthesia explored the subject of cymatics which is the study of visible sound and vibration. The object included a box with two stereo speakers embedded within. Participant were then asked to choose a song or sound linked to an emotion. A sheet of paper was then places ove the box and charcoal sprinkled on top by the user. When sound played the charcoal dancesd across the paper in a mesmerizing pattern. The result was a beautiful pattern of visualized sound.






The exploration of the senses and synesthesia resulted in questioning whether the insights gathered could inform a designed experience. The proposal for a Five Sense dinner experience aimed to create a meditative experience with a group of people. Elements of interaction and delight were integrated by creating a ten person dinner table that played sound and at a point in the meal vibrated spices sprinkled on the table creating an artistic, social art peice and transformed the dinner table into a canvas. The Five Sense dinner included isolating spefic senses, meditation techniques of listening, touching, smelling, and tasting along with a five course meal. The meal itself was created in partnership with Chef Matteo Boffo and the space selected was the private event space, Suite Three Oh Six. Prior to arriving at the event participants were asked to submit a vocal Madlib that described one of their favorite memories along with descriptions of their favorite sights, smells, tastes and song. The recording then played through the embedded speakers of the table.












The principle of neuroplasticity is one of the most important paradigm shifts in modern medicine and neuroscienc and proves our minds are not rigid but rather malleable and can change based on experience. In the book Healing Spaces, Elizabeth Sternberg describes how there is growing scientific evidence that environment can also impact the brain. Studies have shown that patients with simply a view of nature as opposed to a brick wall, heal faster. She also writes about “thin places” which according to Celtic culture are locales where the space between heaven and earth becomes thinner. The branded object lens asks, how might a mindfulness practitioner pinpoint a place optimal for meditation? The solution is Thinpoint, an online platform that allows users to “pinpoint a thinpoint near or far.”













As a mobile application Thinpoint allows urban dwellers to reconnect with nature via their senses. Similar to the web platform users can search for thin places as well as archive the locales if they would rather keep them a secret. The search interaction allows the user to search for the thinpoints via their location but also their senses. Users can look for certain sights, sounds, smells and textures that they want to experience. When the participant arrives at a location they can sit in silence while the phone captures data such as coordinates, weather, and sound. The user can then add tags of other qualities related to the senses. They have the choice to share or not.










Right view Right intention Right speech Right action Right livelihood Right effort Right mindfulness Right concentration



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Davidson, Richard J., and Sharon Begley. 2012. The emotional life of your brain: how its unique patterns affect the way you think, feel, and live--and how you can change them. New York: Hudson Street Press. Gregoire, Carolyn, “How to wire you brain for happiness’” The Huffington Post, October 17, 2013, Hanson, Rick, and Richard Mendius. 2009. Buddha’s brain: the practical neuroscience of happiness, love & wisdom. Oakland, CA: New Harbinger Publications. Hiqque, Faisal, “Buddha Had It Right: Relax the Mind and Productivity Will Follow,” Fast Company, March 29, 2013, source=facebook Hochman, David “Mindfulness: Getting Its Share of Attention, New York Times, November, 2013,


Kabat-Zinn, Jon. 1994. Wherever you go, there you are: mindfulness meditation in everyday life. New York: Hyperion. Kabat-Zinn, Jon, “The Healing Power of Mindfulness,” Dartmouth talk, April 13, 2011, com/watch?v=_If4a-gHg_I Puddicombe, Andy, “All it takes is 10 mindful minutes,” TED talk, January 11, 2013, watch?v=qzR62JJCMBQ Ricard, Matthieu. 2006. Happiness: a guide to developing life’s most important skill. New York: Little, Brown. Rogers, Everett M. 1983. Diffusion of innovations. New York: Free Press. Seligman, Martin E. P. 2011. Flourish. North Sydney, N.S.W.: Random House Australia. Sternberg, Esther M. 2009. Healing spaces the science of place and well-being. Cambridge, Mass: Belknap Press of Harvard University Press. 88


Thaler, Richard H., and Cass R. Sunstein. 2008. Nudge: improving decisions about health, wealth, and happiness. New Haven, Conn: Yale University Press. Thackara, John “Desert of the Real’, November 28, 2013, http:// Tolle, Eckhart. 1999. The Power of Now: a guide to spiritual enlightenment. Novato, Calif: New World Library. Weiner, Eric, “Where Heaven and Earth Come Closer,” The New York Times, March 9, 2012, thin-places-where-we-are-jolted-out-of-old-ways-of-seeing-the-world. html?_r=0&pagewant Wilson, Edward O., “A Conversation with E.O. Wilson,” January 18, 2014.



Cassandara is a a designer/researcher/strategist. Cassandra’s background is in filmmaking and ethnographic, design research. As Associate Director of Research at Bassett & Partners, she had a keen eye for finding the emotional sweet spot in every interview and every project. Cassandra has led client-driven projects for Nike, Converse, Microsoft, PepsiCo, Dannon, SonoSite, MNML and agency-led assignments with Goodby, Silverstein & Partners, McCann, and TAG. Cassandra has conducted ethnographies in the US, UK, Italy, France, Germany, Spain and China with athletes, families, teenagers, experts, etc. In 2012, Cassandra became a candidate in the groundbreaking, interdisciplinary MFA Products of Design program at the School of Visual Arts where students are challenged to solve complex design problems. Course work spans across design disciplines including interaction design, design thinking, user experience, systems design, sustainability, social impact design, and brand identity.




Five +: An exploration of mindful experience through the lens of sense  

The Master's thesis book of SVA's Products of Design student, Cassandra Michel.