‘Nothing Special’: Rohan Gunatillake on Mindfulness In Design

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Photo by Ashley Baxter

I don’t know how it works but there are moments in life when someone says something which stays with you forever. All of us will have our own different examples of this: wise advice from a friend, an inspiring phrase from a book, or even something from a political speech full of hope. Words which have that magical quality of our hearing them at what feels like the perfect time so that they resonate both in that moment and also when we remember them again and again in the future.

This is one from my life: “When you don’t make anything more special than anything else, then everything becomes special.”

It was several years ago and I was spending some time on a meditation retreat. If you have ever done any meditation you’ll know that a common technique is to pay attention to the breath. When speaking to the teacher on the retreat I was explaining to him how everything in me wanted to drop the focus on the breath and just let everything be my focus instead. He encouraged me to go with my intuition and shared these words, which have been so influential to me. Ever since two big themes of my meditation practice and my life in general have been expansiveness and inclusion. Letting everything be special, no matter however ordinary.

Now I am not only a mindfulness practitioner but also a maker of mindfulness apps. And those themes of inclusion and openness have continued to be central to our work, with the hallmark of all of the products that we make being the encouragement to avoid limiting mindfulness to being something you develop only in formal sitting meditation but opening up to allow all parts of your life to be an space for calm, kindness and self-awareness. And as the new year starts to really get going, I’ve been reflecting a great deal on the theme of how mindfulness can help us to be more inclusive in perhaps a time where we need those two qualities more than ever.

The first move is inside. My favourite definition of mindfulness is knowing what is happening in our experience — our bodies and minds — while it is happening. The more we look, the more we’ll see that just within ourselves we contain a universe of feelings, thoughts, habits, sensations, emotions, opinions. Some of what we see may not be particularly pretty. Some of what we see may be in conflict with each other. Recognising that, being ok with that, including that as a valid part of ourselves is a massive part of how mindfulness can help us grow.

The next move is outside. One of the most beautiful things I’ve noticed about learning about oneself, which I’ve seen both in myself and in others, is that there is a natural gravity to it, a natural movement outwards. Whether it’s mindfulness practice, therapy or any kind of awareness practice, we typically start it to solve a problem we have — stress, difficult emotions, inability to focus and so on. But what happens over time is that the more we see the patterns and tensions in ourselves the more we see them in others. This natural gravity towards care of others when we take care of ourselves is a lovely result and a good counterpoint to the common argument that self-care practices are inherently self-ish.

The movement to take care of others is something we as designers, makers, and entrepreneurs also need to prioritise. If mindfulness teaches us anything it is that the quality and nature of our attention has a direct impact on our wellbeing. So if you are working on a product that involves the attention of its users, then by definition you are having an impact on their mental well-being. One of my big hopes for the product design in the next generation, and the reason we recently launched our Designing Mindfulness manifesto is that designers and companies start to recognise the impact their products have upon the minds of those who use them and include well-being as something to optimise for. If we don’t follow the gravity of care for others and don’t include users’ well-being into what we do, then as an industry we’re effectively taking the position that people’s mental health is acceptable collateral damage in the mainstream digital economy. And I for one don’t think that’s okay. But I’m hopeful. Mindfulness is now so popular in technology companies of all sizes, that the natural next step is to move it beyond an internal well-being and productivity tool into something that affects the products that are made.

Mindfulness by itself is not enough to solve the problems that we face but if we use to make our own experience more inclusive and accepting — both of ourselves and of other people — then that is an important and valuable thing. But the emerging mindfulness marketplace is not without its inclusion problems itself. The areas where I feel we need to do more is in reaching more people outside of the English-speaking world and, in an app marketplace dominated by the subscription revenue model, reaching the vast majority of people who simply cannot afford to get behind Netflix-level paywalls. I personally don’t think that mental well-being should be a luxury good but by both accident and design that is the message much of our marketplace is putting out there so much of my year will be spent working on that challenge.

Whatever challenges you face to include more and more people into your life and into your work, I wish you all the best. May your year ahead be full of calm, wisdom and kindness and may no one thing be more special than anything else.


❔ Whois

Whether writing, talking or making products, Rohan is one of the most original and creative voices in modern mindfulness and meditation. His company Mindfulness Everywhere are the creators of Kara, Sleepfulness, Cards for Mindfulness and the best-selling hit app buddhify. He has just launched the Designing Mindfulness manifesto and Rohan’s first book Modern Mindfulness is published in the US in January. He is a trustee of the British Council and rightly or wrongly, Rohan was named by Wired magazine in their Smart List of 50 people who will change the world.

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One Comment

  1. I appreciate your sharing. As I am an author with my upcoming book your thoughts are a great reflection of my thinking. All Good Things.

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