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Notes from First Class - Feb 9, 2016
Joichi Ito
Joscha Bach

Notes during Principles of Awareness - February 9, 2016

Tenzin absent, Joi present. Notes by Joscha Bach.
The class has been conceived of in the context of Media Lab Wellness initiative.
Last year, we covered a range of topics — awareness, meditation, sleep and dreaming, the importance of continuous practice.
One of our visitors last year was Alan Wallace, an expert on meditation and lucid dreaming, who realized that lucid dreams happen in real time (he also communicated via eye movements to students while being in a lucid dream himself).
There is a crisis in mental health, manifesting as unhappiness and stress, in our society. Eudaemonia, human flourishing, means to start a process in which we can address the things that affect us. One of the things we did: we have set up pair connections between people to address one of the topics in their lives.
Non-duality is a concept in which we acknowledge the non-separateness of our existence, a perspective in which we re-think our relationship to the world.


In this class, we recommend you to start or continue a daily meditation practice. There is an application — headspace — that works well. You may also borrow a headband measuring brainwaves from Joi’s office, to get feedback about the state that you are in (you might find the auditory signals distracting, though). (It also has an API, if you are interested in developing applications.)
Qi Gong is recommended, and you can see it as a form of movement meditation; you quickly feel the movement of energy. You can also see it as a warm-up exercise for Tai Chi. It is sometimes said that containing the energy in the form takes 10 years for Tai Chi, but in Qi Gong, you see results almost right away.
We have started a 100 day challenge for practicing Qi Gong, in which you are welcome to join in.
Note that meditation does different things to different people. Be mindful of its effects for you.


In our daily lives, we tend to compress our perception of the world into the patterns that we know, and skip over focusing on the actual experience. Becoming aware of the actual experience requires to attend to and waking ourselves up to the sensations of every moment.
We usually do not perceive moments as unique. Instead of engaging with what can actually perceive, we use our symbolic capabilities to compress our lives.
This interacts in unfortunate ways with the drive for efficiency that dominates our society. The most efficient way to get through with your life is to die immediately, though. What matters is the path itself, the experience of what actually happens.
We ask you to keep a journal. We are using PubPub, reachable via the class site ( If you are uncomfortable journaling publicly, you can of course do this in private.


You should really sleep at least seven hours every night. We make this a class requirement. This has been the thing that seemed to have had the biggest impact on last year’s participants. The time spent in sleep is more than made up for with increases in productivity. More importantly, sleep is required for organizing what you learn during the day, and commit it to long term memory. You won’t learn much from your Media Lab experience if you do not sleep properly. Experiments show that this applies equally to tennis and problem solving. Sleep also facilitates metabolic house-keeping, during which toxins are flushed from your brain.
Unfortunately, you get used to sleeping poorly, and adapt to working in a sub-optimal mode. Monitor what affects the quality of your sleep, such as alcohol after dinner, late-night espresso, etc.


We are focused on anticipated reward, not on the results for our happiness. The actual experience of rewards is often dramatically mismatched with the anticipated reward, promised by our dopaminergic system, that makes us strive. (Think about buying a beautiful new car; it is going to make you happy the day before you buy it and a couple of days afterwards, but it does not affect you much beyond this.) The impact of more of the same thing also often does not scale very much.
Understanding how our minds work, especially how we construct reality and what controls our behavior, will help in addressing the many ways in which we make ourselves unhappy.


The Media Lab is preparing a new journal on the relationship between science and design. Can we get science to interact with principles of responsible design? And how can we design research, technology, communication in ways that incorporate more awareness, integrate the users of a technology into the design process. How can we tap into our sense of meaning to contribute to the design of the systems we make? The AI oriented initiative of the Media Lab will actually be under the headline of the “Extended Mind”.

On the interaction between awareness and attention

Attention may get in the way or help in what we do. Reflective attention involves the symbolic mechanisms and may insulate you from experience that is required for learning experiencial things, such as playing music. Direct attention is key to learning, it governs the interestingness of what is actually going on, rather than our interest in what we think that should be going on. Learning tennis in 30 minutes


What things are meaningful to me depends on what particular self I cultivate; for instance, there are things that might feel very different to our childhood self than in later phases of our life. We can decide to some degree what person we are constructed into, and incorporate different values and trajectories that are meaningful to us.

Meditation, resistance and motivation

You may find it difficult to kill the chattering monkey, because it is sly and may even pretend that it is currently trying to help you kill it. Different parts of your mind tend to be in conflict. Acknowledge them as what they are, do not judge them, do not approach any part of yourself with ill intent. Integrating the distracting loops requires you to accept, not judge them, because they will fight back.
Some people in last year’s class feel that they lost some their edge by turning of the self-loathing and anxiety that pushed them. It may be important to replace these motivators by ones that direct you on good things that you want to achieve, to supply the energy to go forward with the things you find meaningful.

Class work

Please visit the website for requirements. We will also be using the Media Lab Slack awareness slack for communication. Media Lab students can sign up automatically. Non-Media Lab students should email Joi for access. Everyone on the Etherpad should have received invites. Please also see the Etherpad from the first class.
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