Train(ing)s of Thought: Mindfulness as a Self-Defamiliarization Technique

Considering theoretical descriptions of mindfulness practice and of the state of mind it strives for, the paper goes on to discuss how mindfulness changes meaning-making. Although a growing body of research has been carried out on cognitive implications of mindfulness, there is still very little scientific understanding of how mindfulness as a cognitive process actually “works”, and what changes in cognizing during practice and continuous approach to life with a mindful attitude.

A better conceptualization of mindfulness is necessary to order to “retrieve its cognitive implications, which are in danger of being lost in the rush to equate mindfulness with present-centred non-judgmental awareness.“ (Dreyfus 2011: 46) This paper adds a semiotic dimension to this inquiry, proposing a conceptualization of mindfulness as awareness of semiosis (metasemiosis).

Signs are constitutive in regulating the human psyche on both the intentional and the unintentional levels (Branco, Valsiner 2010: 6–7). Human beings are accustomed to act as “trains of thought”, because signs are unstable and incomplete and always being rendered into other signs (Arning 2009). The inability to step out of this cycle of interpretation is a source of suffering in the Buddhist sense. It is thus the aim of mindfulness meditation to sensitize the practitioner to their mind’s habits and thereupon open up an opportunity to change the habitual ways the mind is accustomed to contribute to accumulative interpretation.

Mindfulness is relevant for semiotics (and vice versa) because it can be viewed as a practice of becoming aware of the existence and the setting of one’s own meaning-making processes. Practice in the form of meditation is a way of creating “laboratory” conditions (Maex 2011) for observing automatic semiotic mechanisms in the psyche that usually remain unnoticed in the course of active engagement with either mental or physical phenomena.

Over time, perception naturally undergoes habituation, and as such results in mindless automatic “algrebization” by which “we apprehend objects only as shapes with imprecise extensions; we do not see them in their entirety but rather recognize them by their main characteristics.” (Shklovsky 1965: 11) Acts carried out unconsciously might be to the mind the same as acts not carried out at all. Like art, mindfulness – in its own manner – seems to possess the finesse to restore the seemingly obvious into awareness, to deautomatize habits and intensify experiences through “defamiliarization” – a technique that is set out to make it possible to apprehend things as they are actually perceived, not as they are known (ibid., 12). Defamiliarization in mindfulness is a technique of the self which consists of training the mind to alter ordinary semiosis and perceive without the habitual need for interpretation.

Arning, Chris, ‘Into the realm of zeroness: Peirce’s categories and Vipassana meditation’, Semiotica, vol. 176(1/4), 2009, pp. 95–115.
Branco, Augusto and Valsiner, Jaan, ‘Towards cultural psychology of affective processes: Semiotic regulation of dynamic fields’, Estudios de Psicología, vol. 31, 2010.
Dreyfus, George, ‘Is mindfulness present-centred and non-judgmental? A discussion of the cognitive dimensions of mindfulness’, Contemporary Buddhism, vol. 12(1), 2011, pp. 41–54.
Maex, Edel, ‘The Buddhist roots of mindfulness training: a practitioners view’, Contemporary Buddhism, vol. 12(1), 2011, pp. 165–175.
Petrilli, Susan, Sign Studies and Semioethics: Communication, Translation and Values, De Gruyter Mouton, 2014.
Shklovsky, Viktor, ‘Art as Technique’, Russian Formalist Criticism: Four Essays, eds. Lemon, Lee T., Reiss, Marion J., Lincoln, London: University of Nebraska Press, 1965, pp. 3–24.

Elli Marie Tragel

University of Tartu

PhD student in semiotics at Tartu University. As a believer in semiotics, her main interests lie in how to make use of semiotic theories in practice and discover ways towards more sustainable human semiosis. Her present research focuses on descriptions and strategies of mindful experiences – skillful ways of creating liminal experiences that provide an opportunity to step out of the cycle of interpretation.