There are moments in life that decide your fate. They ripple into the future and dictate how you experience the world in the moments that follow; either positive and uplifting, dark and chaotic, or flat and dull. What if you could recognise these moments before they seized control of your life? What if you could use them to set sail for a better future? What if all moments, big and small, could be harnessed this way?
Dr Danny Penman is a qualified meditation teacher and award-winning writer and journalist. In his new book, Deeper Mindfulness he reveals how the latest advances in neuroscience, combined with millennia old wisdom, can be used to transform your life. These discoveries open the doors to a deeper layer of mindfulness known as the ‘feeling tone’. This sets the ‘background colour’ that tinges your entire experience of life. It is also the tipping point from which you can reclaim your life in an increasingly stressful and chaotic world.
In this interview, I speak to Danny Penman on Deeper Mindfulness, and how the latest advances in neuroscience, combined with millennia old wisdom, can allow us to explore life with renewed strength, vigour, resilience and peace.
Q: How does the concept of living in a simulation apply to the model through which we experience our world?
[Danny Penman]: Central to our discussions are the works of two pioneering individuals: Lisa Felderman Barrett from the U.S., who delves into the construction of emotions, and Andy Clarke, a philosopher and neuroscientist. Their ground-breaking concepts formed the basis of our work.
One particularly rapid area of development is the concept of living in a simulation. It’s not akin to the “Matrix” film, where reality is a sophisticated alien-made illusion. Instead, it’s about how we comprehend the world in real-time. Consciousness demands a significant mental effort and must occur instantly, in the present. Nature’s solution is a process called predictive processing.
In predictive processing, the brain doesn’t simply absorb information passively, like a video stream entering our eyes and being interpreted. This outdated notion has been replaced by a more dynamic understanding. Our brains actively construct a model of the world, which is our actual experience. Incoming sensory data serves mainly to verify and correct this internal model.
A familiar example is predictive texting on smartphones. You start typing, and the phone anticipates the rest of the word. This process mirrors how our brains handle sensory input, triggering various internal models. These models, encompassing all our senses – sight, taste, smell, and touch – create our perceived reality.
Initially, I found this concept disheartening. It seemed to suggest a disconnect from the real world, as if we were merely living inside our heads, our brains isolated in our skulls. But it’s not a detachment from reality; rather, it’s about the mechanisms through which we interact with the world and each other.
Q: How can errors in our simulation cause mental distress?
[Danny Penman]: Firstly, as I mentioned, the sensory data we receive primarily serves to correct our internal simulation. This means that if we’re not attentive, these corrections don’t happen effectively. In more primitive societies, say 500-1000 years ago, people were constantly engaged in this error correction process as a necessity for survival, using their wits and senses actively. However, in today’s world, it’s far too easy to exist within a bubble, becoming disconnected from others, our work, and the environment.
What this leads to, practically speaking, is the accumulation of small errors in our simulation. These errors, minor as they may seem, can build up over time – day by day, week by week. As a result, our internal model of the world becomes less accurate. It’s not a drastic departure from reality; we won’t suddenly make irrational actions like pouring hot water on our feet instead of into a cup. The simulation remains sufficiently accurate for everyday functioning. However, the issue arises in the form of mental distress.
These accumulating errors can foster feelings of the world being against us, a sense of continuous misfortune, and the magnification of everyday stresses and unhappiness. In earlier, more primitive times, external factors would often interrupt these negative mental states, snapping us back to a more grounded reality. Unfortunately, in the modern era, this natural reset occurs less frequently. The hypothesis here is that much of the mental distress and possibly mental health issues we face today stem from these uncorrected errors piling up within our internal simulations.
Q: What are feeling tones, and how can we best access them?
[Danny Penman]: Let’s take a step back. For years, people have been curious about why practices like Cognitive Behavioural Therapy (CBT) and mindfulness are so effective. It turns out, their efficacy lies in helping people to ‘de-centre.’ This means becoming aware of one’s thought processes and recognising how they might lead one astray. CBT, for instance, encourages questioning one’s thoughts and mental state – questioning the reality and validity of these thoughts.
This process of de-centring is incredibly effective. Our starting point was to explore whether it’s possible to delve even deeper, right to the moment just before thoughts, feelings, and emotions emerge in the mind. And it appears it is possible. There’s a moment when the unconscious crystallises into consciousness, leading to all our thoughts, feelings, and emotions. In ancient texts, this moment is referred to as ‘vedana‘, and we describe them as ‘feeling tones.’ These feeling tones are the mind’s initial acknowledgment or categorisation of experiences as pleasant, unpleasant, or neutral, using a quick, broad-brush approach.
These feeling tones then influence subsequent thoughts and emotions. For instance, a pleasant tone might lead to more positive thoughts and feelings, whereas an unpleasant one could trigger negative thoughts and emotions. A neutral tone often results in a state of inaction, with no clear motivation to move in any direction.
These feeling tones are a fundamental, primal reaction to everything, constantly flickering in and out of existence. They set the tone for our entire state of mind and body. They’re fleeting and typically go unnoticed unless one is trained to detect them.
Interestingly, ancient meditations, particularly those from Buddhist traditions (not necessarily as a religious practice but as part of a philosophical tradition from the Far and Middle East), focus on these feeling tones. These practices, now largely forgotten even by Buddhists, involve tuning into these feeling tones and are surprisingly straightforward.
Our 8-week course aims to teach this practice. The first two weeks are similar to most mindfulness courses, focusing on becoming attuned to the body and mind. In the third week, we introduce the practice of tuning into feeling tones. This practice is simple but requires learning and practice, which is what we offer in our course.
I’ve found these practices to be revelatory. Despite decades of practice, I only became aware of feeling tones five years ago. Realizing this base layer of our consciousness and feelings is profound. Tuning into these feeling tones reveals their powerful influence – they often control our lives in ways we’re completely unaware of.
… that’s the beauty of these practices – their versatility. You learn them in the context of meditation, as it provides a clear and simple setting for initial learning. But the real power lies in being able to apply these techniques in everyday life. Whether you’re on the subway, stuck in traffic, or taking a stroll in the park, these practices are accessible.
The key is learning to tune into this ever-changing layer of feeling tones. Once you start paying attention, you realize just how influential they are. People experience these feeling tones differently; some may not feel them physically, but many do. For instance, I feel them quite strongly in my abdomen, but they could manifest anywhere – in your neck, feet, or elsewhere. They’re potent.
Once you learn to pinpoint where you feel these tones, it becomes an effective tool for gauging your underlying state of mind. It’s like having an internal barometer that helps you understand and navigate your emotions and reactions in real-time.
Q: How do we make sense of the overwhelm we are facing?
[Danny Penman]: Nowadays, we are constantly bombarded with 24-hour news cycles and social media, which can be incredibly overwhelming. But if you take a step back and consider the bigger picture, you realize that while there may be terrible events happening far away, they’re thousands of miles distant, and our daily lives, filled with ordinary tasks, continue.
If we turned back the clock to 120 years ago, we wouldn’t even be aware of many conflicts and crises when they occurred. It might take days before reading about a distressing situation in a distant land in a newspaper like the Times. You’d learn about conflicts between neighbouring countries that have been ongoing for decades. This isn’t to say we should ignore the suffering of others, but rather to understand these events within a larger framework. It’s about gaining perspective on how we process and react to information in our highly connected, yet overwhelming world.
One significant impact is the dampening of our reactivity. This recalibration means we’re less at the mercy of our emotions, which is a crucial, fundamental shift.
But beyond this, it’s essential to recalibrate our internal simulation, which is a topic we previously touched upon. The functioning of this simulation is influenced by our inputs. If most of these inputs are negative, they inevitably paint a distorted picture of the world. Yes, the situations in the Middle East and Ukraine are tragic, but they represent just a fraction of the global scenario. As heart-breaking as these events are, they involve only a small percentage of the world’s population. In reality, about 97% of people are living in peace.
Furthermore, on a broader scale, most people are experiencing gradual improvements in their quality of life. Nowadays, the majority have access to necessities like sufficient food, clean water, and electricity. These are significant advancements made over the past 50 years. Yet, we often overlook these positive developments, mainly because we’re immersed in an ‘artificial simulation’ shaped by selective and often negative inputs. This skewed perception can obscure the broader, more balanced view of the world and its progress.
Q: How should we curate the information we are exposed to?
[Danny Penman]: It can indeed make a difference, because when we pay close attention – and I mean truly pay attention at a fundamental and visceral level – to everything we experience, whether it’s what we see, taste, feel, smell, or eat, it enables us to connect more deeply with the positive aspects of life. Now, this might sound like I’m advocating for a perpetually optimistic, Pollyanna-like outlook, but that’s not my intention. What I’m emphasising is the importance of recognising the full breadth of our experiences.
Our lives are filled with ordinary yet beautiful moments – the sensation of a breeze on our skin, the flavours of our food – and these are the aspects that truly matter in our day-to-day existence. Yes, there are terrible events happening in the world, and it’s tragic. It would be wonderful if we could put an end to these hardships, but if we allow these negative aspects to dominate our entire lives, our existence becomes miserably skewed.
These practices I’m discussing enable us to live as we should, balancing our awareness of the world’s harsh realities with an appreciation for the simple, yet profound joys of everyday life. This balance is key to a more fulfilled and grounded existence.
Q: Can this form of deeper mindfulness help us be better leaders?
[Danny Penman]: Firstly, being able to connect with people on an emotional and basic level can significantly enhance leadership qualities. When you understand and resonate with what others are feeling, they are more likely to trust and believe in you. This emotional connection is a key component of effective leadership.
But there’s another aspect to consider. If you’re entangled in a chaotic, complex, and disordered mental state – or ‘simulation’ as we might call it – it becomes challenging to recognize your best ideas. In the midst of this tumult of random thoughts and feelings, it’s easy to overlook the quieter, subtler ideas that may surface in your mind.
However, if you manage to cultivate a calmer state of mind, you’re more likely to notice these gentle, unassuming ideas that quietly emerge. And it’s often these quiet, unobtrusive thoughts that have the potential to change the world. They can be easily missed in the chaos, but with a more tranquil and ordered mindset, you can capture and nurture these potentially transformative ideas.
Q: How do we take a step into this practice?
[Danny Penman]: The intriguing aspect of these ideas, particularly the concept of spotting vedana, is that they are inherently part of mindfulness, yet they are not usually explicitly taught. This is partly because an 8-week course can only cover so much. However, as we delved deeper into ways to enhance mindfulness, we realised that this aspect, though often overlooked, is absolutely fundamental to the practice.
It doesn’t matter whether someone has been practicing mindfulness for a short time or many years; any level of experience with mindfulness provides a solid foundation. This foundation becomes a starting point for adopting the practices we discuss in our new book.
Another fascinating discovery emerged during our clinical trial: these practices are equally beneficial for complete beginners to meditation. While many of the techniques are similar to traditional mindfulness practices, there’s a unique twist in our approach that enables practitioners to tap into the layer of feeling tones, or vedana. This makes the practices in our book highly accessible and beneficial, not only for seasoned meditators but also for those completely new to the concept.
Q: Can this practice help us with discomfort?
[Danny Penman]: The intriguing aspect is the ability to perceive experiences as mere sensory data. The process involves receiving data from our bodies, upon which our internal simulation then imposes meaning and significance. This interpretation of sensory data might sound overly simplistic, particularly to those who have endured chronic pain or depression. It might even seem as if their experiences are being trivialised, but that’s not the case at all.
Their experiences are undeniably real. The concept of the simulation merely explains the mechanism through which they perceive their pain or emotional distress. Although their perception might be a distorted version of reality, it’s still a genuine experience for them. They truly feel the pain, the stress, and the depression.
What our practices offer is a method to alleviate these intense sensations of pain, unhappiness, or stress. These individuals are indeed experiencing these challenging states, but through the practices we advocate, there is a potential solution. The aim is not to invalidate or dismiss their experiences but to provide a way to manage and potentially reduce the impact of these sensations on their lives.