A mechanistic model of meditation

Med­i­ta­tion has been claimed to have all kinds of trans­for­ma­tive effects on the psy­che, such as im­prov­ing con­cen­tra­tion abil­ity, heal­ing trauma, clean­ing up delu­sions, al­low­ing one to track their sub­con­scious strate­gies, and mak­ing one’s ner­vous sys­tem more effi­cient. How­ever, an ex­pla­na­tion for why and how ex­actly this would hap­pen has typ­i­cally been lack­ing. This makes peo­ple rea­son­ably skep­ti­cal of such claims.

In this post, I want to offer an ex­pla­na­tion for one kind of a mechanism: med­i­ta­tion in­creas­ing the de­gree of a per­son’s in­tro­spec­tive aware­ness, and thus lead­ing to in­creas­ing psy­cholog­i­cal unity as in­ter­nal con­flicts are de­tected and re­solved.

Note that this post does not dis­cuss “en­light­en­ment”. That is a re­lated but sep­a­rate topic. It is pos­si­ble to pur­sue med­i­ta­tion mainly for its or­di­nary psy­cholog­i­cal benefits while be­ing un­in­ter­ested in en­light­en­ment, and vice versa.

What is in­tro­spec­tive aware­ness?

In an ear­lier post on in­tro­spec­tive aware­ness, I dis­t­in­guished be­tween be­ing aware of some­thing, and be­ing aware of hav­ing been aware of some­thing. My ex­am­ple in­volved that of a robot whose con­scious­ness con­tains one men­tal ob­ject at a time, and which is aware of differ­ent things at differ­ent times:

Robot’s thought at time 1: It’s rain­ing outside
Robot’s thought at time 2: Bat­tery low
Robot’s thought at time 3: Tech­nolog­i­cal un­em­ploy­ment protestors are outside
Robot’s thought at time 4: Bat­tery low
Robot’s thought at time 5: I’m now recharg­ing my battery

At times 2-5, the robot has no aware­ness of the fact that it was think­ing about rain at time 1. As soon as some­thing else cap­tures its at­ten­tion, it has no idea of this ear­lier con­scious con­tent—un­less a par­tic­u­lar sub­sys­tem hap­pens to record the fact, and can later re-pre­sent the con­tent in an ap­pro­pri­ately tagged form:

Time 6: At time 1, there was the thought that [It’s rain­ing out­side]

I said that at time 6, the robot had a mo­ment of in­tro­spec­tive aware­ness: a men­tal ob­ject con­tain­ing a sum­mary of its pre­vi­ous thoughts, which can then be sep­a­rately ex­am­ined and acted upon.

Hu­mans are not robots. But I pre­vi­ously sum­ma­rized the neu­ro­science book Con­scious­ness and the Brain, and its global neu­ronal workspace (GNW) model of con­scious­ness. Ac­cord­ing to this model, the con­tents of con­scious­ness cor­re­spond to what is be­ing rep­re­sented in a par­tic­u­lar net­work of neu­rons—the global workspace—that con­nects differ­ent parts of the brain. Differ­ent sys­tems are con­stantly com­pet­ing to get their con­tents into the global workspace, which can only hold one piece of con­tent at a time. Thus, like robots, we too are only aware of one thing at a time, and tend to lose aware­ness of our ear­lier thoughts—un­less some­thing re­minds us of them.

In what fol­lows, I will sug­gest that like robots, hu­mans also have a type of con­scious con­tent that we might call in­tro­spec­tive aware­ness, which al­lows us to be more aware of our pre­vi­ous men­tal ac­tivity. (I am bor­row­ing the term from the med­i­ta­tion book The Mind Illu­mi­nated, which dis­t­in­guishes be­tween in­tro­spec­tive at­ten­tion, in­tro­spec­tive aware­ness, and metacog­ni­tive in­tro­spec­tive aware­ness. I am elid­ing these differ­ences for the sake of sim­plic­ity.)

I will also ex­plore the idea that in­tro­spec­tive aware­ness is a sen­sory chan­nel in a similar sense as vi­sion and sound are. The ex­pe­rience of sight or sound is pro­duced by sub­sys­tems which send in­for­ma­tion to con­scious­ness; like­wise, in­tro­spec­tive aware­ness is pro­duced by a sub­sys­tem which cap­tures in­for­ma­tion in the brain and then sends it (back) to con­scious­ness.

We can train our other senses to be­come more ac­cu­rate and de­tailed. Gilbert, Sig­man & Crist (2001), re­view­ing the neu­ro­science or sen­sory train­ing, list a num­ber of ways in which dis­crim­i­na­tion can be in­creased in a va­ri­ety of sen­sory modal­ities: among other things, “vi­sual acu­ity, so­matosen­sory spa­tial re­s­olu­tion, dis­crim­i­na­tion of hue, es­ti­ma­tion of weight, and dis­crim­i­na­tion of acous­ti­cal pitch all show im­prove­ment with prac­tice”; even the spa­tial re­s­olu­tion of the vi­sual sys­tem can be de­liber­ately in­creased by train­ing.

If in­tro­spec­tive aware­ness is a sen­sory chan­nel, can it also be prac­ticed to im­prove the num­ber of de­tails it will pick up on? One may feel that I am stretch­ing the metaphor here. But in fact, Con­scious­ness and the Brain sug­gests that all sen­sory train­ing is in a sense train­ing in in­tro­spec­tion. The ad­di­tional in­for­ma­tion that we get by train­ing our senses has always been col­lected by our brain, but that in­for­ma­tion has re­mained iso­lated at lower lev­els of pro­cess­ing. To make it con­scious, one needs to grow new neu­ral cir­cuits which ex­tract the lower-level in­for­ma­tion and re-en­code it in a for­mat which can be sent to con­scious­ness.

Thus, the brain already has the abil­ity to take nor­mally un­available sub­con­scious in­for­ma­tion and make it con­sciously available by prac­tice. What is needed is a way to point that learn­ing pro­cess at the kind of in­for­ma­tion that we would nor­mally con­sider “in­tro­spec­tive”, rather than on an ex­ter­nal in­for­ma­tion source.

From Con­scious­ness and the Brain:

… a fourth way in which neu­ral in­for­ma­tion can re­main un­con­scious, ac­cord­ing to workspace the­ory, is to be diluted into a com­plex pat­tern of firing. To take a con­crete ex­am­ple, con­sider a vi­sual grat­ing that is so finely spaced, or that flick­ers so fast (50 hertz and above), that you can­not see it. Although you per­ceive only a uniform gray, ex­per­i­ments show that the grat­ing is ac­tu­ally en­coded in­side your brain: dis­tinct groups of vi­sual neu­rons fire for differ­ent ori­en­ta­tions of the grat­ing. Why can’t this pat­tern of neu­ronal ac­tivity be brought to con­scious­ness? Prob­a­bly be­cause it makes use of an ex­tremely tan­gled spa­tiotem­po­ral pat­tern of firing in the pri­mary vi­sual area, a neu­ral ci­pher too com­plex to be ex­plic­itly rec­og­nized by global workspace neu­rons higher up in the cor­tex. Although we do not yet fully un­der­stand the neu­ral code, we be­lieve that, in or­der to be­come con­scious, a piece of in­for­ma­tion first has to be re-en­coded in an ex­plicit form by a com­pact as­sem­bly of neu­rons. The an­te­rior re­gions of the vi­sual cor­tex must ded­i­cate spe­cific neu­rons to mean­ingful vi­sual in­puts, be­fore their own ac­tivity can be am­plified and cause a global workspace ig­ni­tion that brings the in­for­ma­tion into aware­ness. If the in­for­ma­tion re­mains diluted in the firing of myr­iad un­re­lated neu­rons, then it can­not be made con­scious.
Any face that we see, any word that we hear, be­gins in this un­con­scious man­ner, as an ab­surdly con­torted spa­tiotem­po­ral train of spikes in mil­lions of neu­rons, each sens­ing only a minus­cule part of the over­all scene. Each of these in­put pat­terns con­tains vir­tu­ally in­finite amounts of in­for­ma­tion about the speaker, mes­sage, emo­tion, room size . . . if only we could de­code it—but we can’t. We be­come aware of this la­tent in­for­ma­tion only once our higher-level brain ar­eas cat­e­go­rize it into mean­ingful bins. Mak­ing the mes­sage ex­plicit is an es­sen­tial role of the hi­er­ar­chi­cal pyra­mid of sen­sory neu­rons that suc­ces­sively ex­tract in­creas­ingly ab­stract fea­tures of our sen­sa­tions. Sen­sory train­ing makes us aware of faint sights or sounds be­cause, at all lev­els, neu­rons re­ori­ent their prop­er­ties to am­plify these sen­sory mes­sages. Prior to learn­ing, a neu­ronal mes­sage was already pre­sent in our sen­sory ar­eas, but only im­plic­itly, in the form of a diluted firing pat­tern in­ac­cessible to our aware­ness.

Richard’s ther­apy session

We saw an ex­am­ple of in­tro­spec­tive aware­ness in my post on the book Un­lock­ing the Emo­tional Brain. In the tran­script, a man named Richard has been suffer­ing from se­vere self-doubt, and is asked to imag­ine how it would feel like if he made con­fi­dent com­ments in a work meet­ing. The fol­low­ing con­ver­sa­tion fol­lows:

Richard: Now I’m feel­ing re­ally un­com­fortable, but-it’s in a differ­ent way.
Ther­a­pist: OK, let your­self feel it—this differ­ent dis­com­fort. [Pause.] See if any words come along with this un­com­fortable feel­ing.
Richard: [Pause.] Now they hate me.

The ther­a­pist is ask­ing Richard to fo­cus his at­ten­tion on the feel­ing of dis­com­fort, gen­er­at­ing mo­ments of in­tro­spec­tive aware­ness about the dis­com­fort. No­tice that Richard be­comes more thought­ful and less re­ac­tive to the anx­iety as he does so. My guess of what is hap­pen­ing is some­thing like this:

When Richard is feel­ing anx­ious, this means that a men­tal ob­ject en­cod­ing some­thing like “the feel­ing of anx­iety” is be­ing rep­re­sented in the workspace. This ac­ti­vates neu­ral rules which trig­ger the kinds of re­sponses that anx­iety has evolved to pro­duce. For ex­am­ple, a sys­tem may be trig­gered which at­tempts to plan how to es­cape the situ­a­tion caus­ing the anx­iety. This sys­tem’s in­ten­tions are then in­jected into the workspace, pro­duc­ing a state of mind where the feel­ing of anx­iety al­ter­nates with thoughts of how to get away.

In­tro­spec­tive aware­ness is its own type of men­tal ob­ject, pro­duced by a differ­ent sub­sys­tem which takes in­puts from the global workspace, re-en­codes them in a for­mat which high­lights par­tic­u­lar as­pects of that data, and out­puts that back into the workspace. When a rep­re­sen­ta­tion of an anx­ious state of mind is cre­ated, that rep­re­sen­ta­tion does not by it­self trig­ger the same rules as the origi­nal anx­iety did.

As a re­sult, as rep­re­sen­ta­tions of the anx­iety be­gin to al­ter­nate to­gether with the anx­iety, there are pro­por­tionately less mo­ments of anx­iety. This in turn trig­gers fewer of the sub­sys­tems at­tempt­ing to es­cape the situ­a­tion, mak­ing it eas­ier to re­flect on the anx­iety with­out be­ing both­ered by it.

When Richard’s ther­a­pist asks him to feel the anx­iety and to see if any words come along with it, the sub­sys­tem for in­tro­spec­tive aware­ness was primed to look for any con­tent that could be re-pre­sented in ver­bal form. As Richard’s anx­iety had been pro­duced by an emo­tional schema in­clud­ing a pre­dic­tion that be­ing con­fi­dent makes you hated, some of that in­for­ma­tion had passed through the workspace and been available for the aware­ness sub­sys­tem to cap­ture. This brought up the ver­bal­iza­tion of what the schema pre­dicted would hap­pen if Richard was con­fi­dent—“now they hate me”.

Ther­a­pist: “Now they hate me.” Good. Keep go­ing: See if this re­ally un­com­fortable feel­ing can also tell you why they hate you now.

Ac­cord­ing to the GNW model, when a par­tic­u­lar piece of con­tent is main­tained as the cen­ter of at­ten­tion, it strength­ens the ac­ti­va­tion of any struc­tures as­so­ci­ated with it. As Richard’s ther­a­pist guides him to fo­cus on the ver­bal con­tent, more in­for­ma­tion re­lated to it is broad­cast into the workspace. The fur­ther prompt guides the aware­ness sub­sys­tem to look for pat­terns that feel like the rea­son for the hate.

Richard: [Pause.] Hnh. Wow. It’s be­cause… now I’m… an ar­ro­gant ass­hole… like my father… a to­tally self-cen­tered, to­tally in­sen­si­tive know-it-all.

The ther­a­pist then takes a pat­tern which Richard has brought up and helps crys­tal­lize it fur­ther, and throws it back to Richard for ver­ifi­ca­tion.

Ther­a­pist: Do you mean that hav­ing a feel­ing of con­fi­dence as you speak turns you into an ar­ro­gant ass­hole, like Dad?
Richard: Yeah, ex­actly. Wow.

In this ex­am­ple, we saw that hav­ing more mo­ments of in­tro­spec­tive aware­ness was benefi­cial for Richard. As as­pects of his mo­ment-to-mo­ment con­scious­ness were made available for other sub­sys­tems to ex­am­ine, the emo­tional schema caus­ing the anx­iety was iden­ti­fied and its con­tents ex­tracted into a for­mat which could be fed into other sub­sys­tems. Later on, when Richard’s co-worker dis­played con­fi­dence which oth­ers ap­proved of, a con­tra­dic­tion-de­tec­tion mechanism no­ticed a dis­crep­ancy be­tween re­al­ity and the pre­dic­tion that con­fi­dence makes you hated, al­low­ing the pre­dic­tion to be re­vised.

Un­der this model, the sys­tem which pro­duces mo­ments of in­tro­spec­tive aware­ness is a sub­sys­tem like any other in the brain. This means that it will be ac­ti­vated when the right cues trig­ger it, and its out­puts com­pete with the out­puts of other sys­tems sub­mit­ting con­tent to con­scious­ness. The cir­cum­stances un­der which the sys­tem trig­gers, and its prob­a­bil­ity of suc­cess­fully mak­ing its con­tents con­scious, are mod­ified by re­in­force­ment learn­ing. Just as prac­tic­ing a skill such as ar­ith­metic even­tu­ally causes var­i­ous sub­sys­tems to ma­nipu­late the con­tent of con­scious­ness in the right or­der, prac­tic­ing a skill which benefits from in­tro­spec­tive aware­ness will cause the sub­sys­tem gen­er­at­ing in­tro­spec­tive aware­ness to ac­ti­vate more of­ten.

Med­i­ta­tion as a tech­nique for gen­er­at­ing mo­ments of in­tro­spec­tive awareness

Just as there are differ­ent forms and styles of ther­apy, there are also differ­ent forms and styles of med­i­ta­tion. All of them in­volve in­tro­spec­tive aware­ness to at least some de­gree, but they differ in what that aware­ness is then used for.

In the ex­am­ple with Richard, his ther­a­pist asked him to imag­ine be­ing con­fi­dent and to then bring his aware­ness to why that felt un­com­fortable. In con­trast, a more be­hav­iorally ori­ented ther­a­pist might not have ex­am­ined the rea­son be­hind the dis­com­fort. Rather, they might have taught Richard to no­tice his re­ac­tion to the dis­com­fort, and then use that as a cue for im­ple­ment­ing an op­po­site re­ac­tion. Both kinds of ther­a­pists would ask their clients to gen­er­ate some in­tro­spec­tive aware­ness, but aiming that aware­ness at differ­ent kinds of fea­tures, and us­ing the aware­ness to trig­ger differ­ent kinds of strate­gies. The re­sults would cor­re­spond­ingly be very differ­ent.

Like­wise, sys­tems of med­i­ta­tion differ in how much in­tro­spec­tive aware­ness they pro­duce, what kinds of fea­tures the aware­ness-pro­duc­ing sub­sys­tem is trained to ex­tract, and what that aware­ness is then used for. For this ar­ti­cle, I have cho­sen to use the ex­am­ple of the sys­tem in The Mind Illu­mi­nated (TMI), as it is clearly ex­plained and ex­plic­itly phrased in these terms. (Again, TMI has a more pre­cise dis­tinc­tion be­tween in­tro­spec­tive at­ten­tion and in­tro­spec­tive aware­ness, which I am elid­ing for the sake of sim­plic­ity.)

In TMI’s sys­tem, as in many oth­ers, you start with try­ing to keep your at­ten­tion on your breath. In terms of our model, this means that you want to keep sen­sory out­puts cor­re­spond­ing to your breath as the main thing in your con­scious­ness.

The prob­lem with this goal is that there is no sub­sys­tem which can just unilat­er­ally de­cide what to main­tain as the cen­ter of at­ten­tion. At any given mo­ment, many differ­ent sub­sys­tems are com­pet­ing to make their con­tent con­scious. So one sys­tem might have the in­ten­tion to fol­low the breath, and you do it for a while, but then a plan­ning sys­tem kicks in with its in­ten­tion to think about din­ner. Such plan­ning has tended to feel re­ward­ing, so it wins out and the in­tent to med­i­tate is for­got­ten un­til five min­utes later, when you de­cide what you want for din­ner and then sud­denly re­mem­ber the thing about fol­low­ing your breath.

TMI calls this mind-wan­der­ing from for­get­ting, and the first step of prac­tice is just to no­tice it when­ever it hap­pens, con­grat­u­late your­self for hav­ing no­ticed it, and then re­turn to the breath. Be­ing able to no­tice for­get­ting re­quires hav­ing a mo­ment of in­tro­spec­tive aware­ness which points out the fact that you had not been fol­low­ing your breath. When you take satis­fac­tion in hav­ing no­ticed this, your aware­ness-pro­duc­ing sub­sys­tem gets as­signed a re­ward and be­comes slightly more likely to ac­ti­vate in the fu­ture. “Have I re­mem­bered to fol­low my breath or not?” acts a feed­back mechanism that you can ex­plic­itly train on.

As the aware­ness-pro­duc­ing sys­tem starts to ac­ti­vate more of­ten and ping you if you have for­got­ten to med­i­tate, pe­ri­ods of mind-wan­der­ing grow shorter.

Now, even if you stop get­ting en­tirely lost in thought, you still have dis­trac­tion: con­tent from other sub­sys­tems that is in con­scious­ness to­gether with the sen­sa­tions of the breath and the in­ten­tion to fo­cus on the breath. For ex­am­ple, you might be hav­ing stray thoughts, hear­ing sounds from your en­vi­ron­ment, and ex­pe­rienc­ing sen­sa­tions from your body.

To more ex­clu­sively fo­cus on the breath, you are in­structed to main­tain the in­tent to both at­tend to it and also to be aware of any dis­trac­tions. The sub­sys­tems which out­put men­tal con­tent can, and nor­mally do, op­er­ate in­de­pen­dently of each other. This means that the fol­low­ing may hap­pen:

Sub­sys­tem 1: I’m med­i­tat­ing well!
Sub­sys­tem 2: Hmm, what’s that smell.
Sub­sys­tem 1: I’m med­i­tat­ing well! No dis­trac­tions.
Sub­sys­tem 2: Smells kinda like cook­ies.
Sub­sys­tem 2: Mmm, cook­ies.
Sub­sys­tem 1: Con­tin­u­ing to med­i­tate well!
Sub­sys­tem 2: Say, what’s for din­ner?

That is, a sys­tem which tracks the breath can con­tinue to re­peat­edly find the breath, and re­port that your med­i­ta­tion is pro­ceed­ing well and with no dis­trac­tions… all the while the con­tent of your con­scious­ness con­tinues to al­ter­nate with dis­tracted thoughts, which the breath-track­ing sub­sys­tem is failing to no­tice (be­cause it is track­ing the breath, not the pres­ence of other thoughts). Worse, since you may find it re­ward­ing to just think that you are med­i­tat­ing well, that thought may start to be­come re­warded, and you may find your­self just think­ing that you are med­i­tat­ing well… even as that thought has be­come self-sus­tain­ing and no longer con­nected to whether you are fol­low­ing the breath or not!

There are all kinds of sub­tle traps like this, and re­duc­ing the amount of dis­trac­tion re­quires you to first have bet­ter aware­ness of the dis­trac­tion. This means more mo­ments of in­tro­spec­tive aware­ness which are track­ing what’s ac­tu­ally hap­pen­ing in your mind:

Sub­sys­tem 1: I’m med­i­tat­ing well!
Sub­sys­tem 2: Hmm, what’s that smell.
Sub­sys­tem 1: I’m med­i­tat­ing well! No dis­trac­tions.
Sub­sys­tem 2: Smells kinda like cook­ies.
Sub­sys­tem 2: Mmm, cook­ies.
Aware­ness sub­sys­tem: Wait, one train of thought keeps say­ing that it’s med­i­tat­ing well, but an­other is to­tally get­ting into the thought of food.
Sub­sys­tem 1: Oh. Bet­ter re­fo­cus that at­ten­tion on the breath, and spend less time think­ing about the con­cept of fol­low­ing the breath.

This kind of a pro­cess also teaches you to pay at­ten­tion to pat­terns of cause and effect in your mind. In this ex­am­ple, the smell of cook­ies caused you to think of cook­ies, which in turn made you think of din­ner, which could have ul­ti­mately led to for­get­ting and mind-wan­der­ing.

Catch­ing the train of thought af­ter “mmm, cook­ies” meant that three “pro­cess­ing steps” had passed be­fore you no­ticed it. If you prac­tice trac­ing back trains of thought in your mind, you seem to teach your aware­ness-sys­tem to col­lect and store data from a longer pe­riod, even when it is not ac­tively out­putting it. This means that at the “mmm, cook­ies” stage, you can query your aware­ness to get a trace of the im­me­di­ately pre­ced­ing thought chain.

You no­tice that you started to get dis­tracted start­ing from the smell of the cookie and can then use this as fur­ther in­put to your aware­ness sys­tem. You are es­sen­tially tak­ing the re-pre­sented smell of the cookie which the sys­tem out­put, and feed­ing it back in, ask­ing it to pay more at­ten­tion to de­tect­ing “things like this”. The next time that you no­tice a smell, your in­tro­spec­tive aware­ness may flag it right away, let­ting you catch the dis­trac­tion at the very first stage and be­fore it turns into an ex­tended train of thought.

Note that there is noth­ing par­tic­u­larly mys­te­ri­ous or un­usual about any of this. You are em­ploy­ing es­sen­tially the same pro­cess used in learn­ing any skill. In learn­ing to ride a bike, for ex­am­ple, at­tempt­ing to keep the bike bal­anced in­volves ad­just­ing your move­ments in re­sponse to feed­back. When you do so, your brain be­comes bet­ter at de­tect­ing things like “tilt­ing to­wards the right” in the sense data, in­creas­ing your abil­ity to ap­ply the right cor­rec­tion. After you have learned to iden­tify tilt­ing-a-lot-but-not-quite-fal­ling, your brain learns to back­trace to the pre­ced­ing state of tilt­ing-a-lit­tle-less, and ap­ply the right cor­rec­tion there. Once its pre­ci­sion has been honed to iden­tify that state, you can fur­ther de­tect an even sub­tler tilt, un­til you au­to­mat­i­cally ap­ply the right cor­rec­tions to keep you bal­anced.

Essen­tially the kind of a learn­ing al­gorithm is be­ing ap­plied here. In­creased sen­sory pre­ci­sion leads to im­prove­ments in skill which al­low for in­creased sen­sory pre­ci­sion. (See also this ar­ti­cle, which goes into more de­tail about TMI as a form of de­liber­ate prac­tice.)

Uses for mo­ments of in­tro­spec­tive aware­ness

I should again em­pha­size that the pre­ced­ing ex­pla­na­tion is only look­ing at one par­tic­u­lar med­i­ta­tion sys­tem. There are other sys­tems which work very differ­ently, but they all use or de­velop in­tro­spec­tive aware­ness to some ex­tent. For ex­am­ple:

  • In Shinzen Young’s for­mu­la­tion of “do noth­ing” prac­tice, you have just two ba­sic in­struc­tions: let what­ever hap­pens, hap­pen and when you no­tice an in­ten­tion to con­trol your at­ten­tion, drop that in­ten­tion. This trains in­tro­spec­tive aware­ness to no­tice when one is try­ing to con­trol their at­ten­tion… but it is also a very differ­ent sys­tem, since main­tain­ing an in­ten­tion to no­tice when that hap­pens would also be an at­tempt to con­trol at­ten­tion! Thus, one is in­structed to drop in­ten­tions if one spon­ta­neously no­tices them, but not to ac­tively look for them.

  • In not­ing prac­tice, you are try­ing to con­sciously name or no­tice ev­ery­thing that hap­pens in your con­scious­ness. In­tro­spec­tive aware­ness is trained to very rapidly dis­t­in­guish be­tween ev­ery­thing that hap­pens, but is not trained to main­tain at­ten­tion on any par­tic­u­lar thing.

  • In vi­su­al­iza­tion prac­tice, you might cre­ate a vi­sual image in your mind, then use in­tro­spec­tive aware­ness to ex­am­ine the men­tal ob­ject that you’ve cre­ated and com­pare it to what a real image would look like. This gives the sub­sys­tem cre­at­ing the vi­su­al­iza­tion feed­back, and helps slowly de­velop a more re­al­is­tic image.

Go­ing back to TMI-style in­tro­spec­tive aware­ness, once you get it trained up, you can use it for var­i­ous pur­poses. In par­tic­u­lar, once you learn to main­tain it dur­ing your daily life—and not just on the med­i­ta­tion couch—it will bring up more as­sump­tions in your var­i­ous schemas and men­tal mod­els. Think of Richard pay­ing at­ten­tion to the as­sump­tions be­hind his un­wanted re­ac­tions and mak­ing them ex­plicit, but as some­thing that hap­pens on a reg­u­lar ba­sis as the re­ac­tions come up.

Romeo Stevens de­scribed what he called “the core loop of Bud­dhism”:

So, what is the core loop?
It’s ba­si­cally cog­ni­tive be­hav­ioral ther­apy, su­per­charged with a men­tal state more in­tense than most phar­ma­ceu­ti­cals.
There are two cat­e­gories of prac­tice, one for cul­ti­vat­ing the use­ful men­tal state, the other uses that men­tal state to in­ves­ti­gate the causal link­ages be­tween var­i­ous parts of your per­cep­tion (phys­i­cal sen­sa­tions, emo­tional tones, and men­tal re­ac­tions) which leads to clear­ing out of old link­ages that weren’t con­structed well.
You have phys­i­cal sen­sa­tions in the course of life. Your ner­vous sys­tem re­acts to these sen­sa­tions with high or low valence (pos­i­tive, nega­tive, neu­tral) and arousal (sym­pa­thetic and parasym­pa­thetic ner­vous sys­tem ac­ti­va­tion), your mind re­acts to these now-emo­tion-laden sen­sa­tions with ac­tivity (men­tal image, men­tal talk) out of which you then build sto­ries to make sense of your situ­a­tion.
The key in­sight that drives ev­ery­thing is the knowl­edge (and later, di­rect ex­pe­rience) that this sys­tem isn’t wired up effi­ciently. Im­por­tantly: I don’t mean this in a nor­ma­tive way. Like you should wire it the way I say just be­cause, but in the ‘this type of cir­cuit only needs 20 nand gates, why are there 60 and why is it shunt­ing ex­cess voltage into the anger cir­cuits over there that have noth­ing to do with this com­pu­ta­tion?’ way. Re­gard­less of pos­si­ble ar­gu­ments over an ul­ti­mately ‘cor­rect’ way to wire ev­ery­thing, there are very low hang­ing fruit in terms of im­prove­ments that will help you effec­tively pur­sue *any* other goal you set your mind to.

Again, we saw an ex­am­ple of this with Richard. He had ex­pe­rienced his father as act­ing con­fi­dent and as caus­ing suffer­ing to Richard and oth­ers; sen­sa­tions which his mind has clas­sified as nega­tive. In or­der to avoid them, a model (story) was con­structed say­ing that con­fi­dence is hor­rible, and be­hav­iors (e.g. nega­tive self-talk) were cre­ated to avoid ap­pear­ing hor­rible.

Now, this caused prob­lems down the line, mak­ing him mo­ti­vated to try to ap­pear more con­fi­dent… mean­ing that there was now a mechanism in his brain try­ing to pre­vent him from ap­pear­ing con­fi­dent, and an­other which con­sid­ered this a prob­lem and tried to make him more con­fi­dent, in op­po­si­tion to the first sys­tem. See what Romeo means when talk­ing about cir­cuits that only need 20 gates but are im­ple­mented us­ing 60?

The ar­ti­cle “tune your mo­tor cor­tex” makes the fol­low­ing claims about mus­cle move­ment:

Your mo­tor cor­tex au­to­mat­i­cally learns to ex­e­cute com­plex move­ments by putting to­gether sim­pler ones, all the way down to con­trol of in­di­vi­d­ual mus­cles.
Be­cause the pro­cess of learn­ing hap­pens or­gan­i­cally, the re­sult­ing ar­chi­tec­ture of neu­ral con­nec­tions (you can think of them as “hid­den lay­ers” in ma­chine learn­ing terms) is not always perfectly suited to the task.
Some lo­cal op­tima of those neu­ral con­figu­ra­tions are hard to get out of, and con­stantly re­in­forced by us­ing them.
There is some pres­sure for mus­cle con­trol to be effi­cient, and the mo­tor cor­tex is do­ing a “good enough” job at it, but tends to stop a fair bit from perfec­tion.
By re­peat­ing cer­tain move­ments and po­si­tions over and over again (e.g. dur­ing sit­ting work), we in­vol­un­tar­ily strengthen con­nec­tions be­tween move­ments and mus­cles that don’t make much sense lumped to­gether.
E.g. con­trol of shoulders might be­come spu­ri­ously wired to­gether with con­trol of thighs (both are of­ten tense dur­ing sit­ting).

There are var­i­ous men­tal mo­tions which are learned in ba­si­cally the same way as phys­i­cal mo­tions are:

  • You learn to calcu­late 12*13 by a tech­nique such as first mul­ti­ply­ing 10*13, keep­ing the re­sult in your mem­ory, calcu­lat­ing 2*13, and then adding the in­ter­me­di­ate re­sults to­gether.

  • You learn that a par­tic­u­lar mem­ory makes you feel slightly un­pleas­ant, and that flinch­ing away from any­thing that would re­mind you of it takes the pain away.

  • You learn that this also works on un­com­fortable chores, teach­ing you to keep push­ing the thought of them away.

  • You learn that your father’s be­hav­ior is painful to you, and that any con­fi­dence re­minds you of that, so you learn nega­tive self-talk which blocks you from act­ing con­fi­dent.

  • You learn that say­ing “no” to peo­ple re­minds you of be­ing pun­ished for say­ing “no” to your par­ents, but that say­ing “yes” too of­ten means that you are con­stantly fulfilling promises to other peo­ple—so you learn to avoid situ­a­tions where you would be asked any­thing.

  • You learn that there’s some­thing you can do in your mind to stop feel­ing up­set, so you start ig­nor­ing your emo­tions and any in­for­ma­tion they might have.

  • You learn that if you feel bad about not get­ting the re­spect you want, think­ing “if only I was good enough at per­sua­sion, I would get what I want” gives you a sense of con­trol—even though this pat­tern also makes you feel per­son­ally at fault when you don’t get what you want.

  • You learn that it’s re­ward­ing to pun­ish peo­ple who have wronged, so you always want to pun­ish some­one when some­thing goes wrong—even if there is no­body but re­al­ity to pun­ish.

  • You learn that it feels good to men­tally pun­ish some­one who is munch­ing too loud, but ac­tu­ally com­plain­ing about it would feel petty, and you’ve learned that pet­ti­ness is frowned upon. So you also learn to block the im­pulse to say any­thing out loud, but con­tinue to get in­creas­ingly an­gry about the sound, caus­ing an es­ca­lat­ing cir­cle of both the an­noy­ance and the block­ing ramp­ing up in in­ten­sity.

As with phys­i­cal move­ments, these can form lo­cal op­tima that are hard to get out of. Many of them are learned in child­hood, when your un­der­stand­ing of the world is limited. But new be­hav­iors con­tinue to build on top of them, so you will even­tu­ally end up with a sys­tem which could use a lot of op­ti­miza­tion.

If you have more in­tro­spec­tive aware­ness of the ex­act pro­cesses that are hap­pen­ing in your mind, you can make more im­plicit as­sump­tions con­scious, caus­ing your brain’s built-in con­tra­dic­tion de­tec­tor to no­tice when they con­tra­dict your later learn­ing. Also, get­ting more feed­back about what ex­actly is hap­pen­ing in your mind al­lows you to no­tice more wasted mo­tion in gen­eral.

One par­tic­u­lar effect is that, as Un­lock­ing the Emo­tional Brain notes, the mind of­ten makes trade-offs where it causes it­self some minor suffer­ing in or­der to avoid a per­ceived greater suffer­ing. For ex­am­ple, some­one may feel guilt in or­der to mo­ti­vate them­selves, or ex­pe­rience self-doubt to avoid ap­pear­ing too con­fi­dent. By em­ploy­ing greater in­tro­spec­tive aware­ness, one may find ways to achieve their goals with­out need­ing to ex­pe­rience any suffer­ing in or­der to do so.

Of course, Bud­dhist med­i­ta­tion is not the only way to achieve this. Var­i­ous ther­a­pies and tech­niques such as Fo­cus­ing, In­ter­nal Fam­ily Sys­tems, In­ter­nal Dou­ble Crux, and so on, are also meth­ods which use in­tro­spec­tive aware­ness to re­veal and re­fac­tor var­i­ous as­sump­tions. In­creased in­tro­spec­tive aware­ness from med­i­ta­tion tends to also boost the effec­tive­ness of re­lated tech­niques, as well as re­veal more situ­a­tions where they can be em­ployed.

If in­tro­spec­tive aware­ness is so great, why don’t we have it nat­u­rally?

As with any­thing, there are trade­offs in­volved. Hav­ing more in­tro­spec­tive aware­ness can help fix a lot of is­sues… but it also comes with risks, which I as­sume is the rea­son why we have not evolved to have a lot of it all the time.

First, it’s worth not­ing that even for ex­pe­rienced med­i­ta­tors, in­tense emo­tional re­ac­tions tend to shut down in­tro­spec­tive aware­ness. If one of the func­tions of e.g. fear and anx­iety is to cause a rapid re­sponse, then ex­ces­sive amounts of in­tro­spec­tive aware­ness would slow down that re­sponse by re­duc­ing cog­ni­tive fu­sion. Many emo­tions seem to in­hibit many com­pet­ing pro­cesses from ac­cess­ing con­scious­ness, so that you can deal with the situ­a­tion at hand.

Another con­sid­er­a­tion in­volves trau­matic mem­o­ries. In the be­gin­ning of the ar­ti­cle, I sug­gested that anx­iety is a spe­cial kind of men­tal ob­ject which ac­ti­vates par­tic­u­lar be­hav­iors. In gen­eral, differ­ent emo­tional states have spe­cific kinds of be­hav­iors and ac­tivi­ties as­so­ci­ated with them—mean­ing that if you have some mem­o­ries which are re­ally painful, they can be­come over­whelming, mak­ing it nec­es­sary to block them in or­der to carry on with your nor­mal life. Med­i­ta­tion can be helpful for work­ing through your trauma, but it can also bring it up be­fore you are ready for it, to the point of re­quiring pro­fes­sional psy­chother­apy to get through. If you are bet­ter at notic­ing all kinds of sub­tle de­tails in your mind, it also be­comes eas­ier to no­tice any­thing that would re­mind you of things you don’t want to re­mem­ber. A de­crease in in­tro­spec­tive aware­ness seems to be a com­mon trauma symp­tom, as this helps block the un­pleas­ant mem­o­ries from be­ing too eas­ily trig­gered.

I have also heard ad­vanced med­i­ta­tors men­tion that in­creased in­tro­spec­tive aware­ness makes it difficult to push away pangs of con­science that they would oth­er­wise have ig­nored, caus­ing prac­ti­cal prob­lems. For ex­am­ple, peo­ple have said that they are no longer able to eat an­i­mal prod­ucts or tell white lies.

On the other hand, ex­tended con­cen­tra­tion prac­tice can also make it eas­ier to block things which you would be bet­ter off not block­ing.

So far, this ar­ti­cle has mostly fo­cused on us­ing in­tro­spec­tive aware­ness to no­tice the con­tent of your thoughts. But you can also use it to no­tice the struc­ture of the higher-level pro­cesses gen­er­at­ing your thoughts. Part of how you de­velop con­cen­tra­tion abil­ity is by main­tain­ing in­tro­spec­tive aware­ness of the fact that be­ing able to con­cen­trate on just one thing feels more pleas­ant than hav­ing your at­ten­tion jump be­tween many differ­ent things. This can give you an im­proved abil­ity to choose what you are con­cen­trat­ing on… but also to se­lec­tively ex­clude any­thing un­pleas­ant from your mind.

For ex­am­ple, there was an oc­ca­sion when I needed to do some work, but also had in­tense anx­iety about not want­ing to; in­tense enough that it would nor­mally have made it im­pos­si­ble for me to fo­cus on it. So then I tried to work, and let my in­tro­spec­tive aware­ness ob­serve the feel­ing of head-split­ting agony from my at­ten­tion al­ter­nat­ing be­tween the work and the de­sire not to… and to also no­tice that when­ever my at­ten­tion was on the work, I felt tem­porar­ily bet­ter.

After a while of this, the anx­iety started to get ex­cluded from my con­scious­ness, un­til it sud­denly dropped away com­pletely—as if some deeper pro­cess had judged it use­less and re­voked its ac­cess to con­scious­ness. And while this al­lowed me to do the work that I needed to, it also felt in­ter­nally vi­o­lent, and like it would be too easy to re­press any un­pleas­ant thoughts us­ing it. I still use this kind of tech­nique on oc­ca­sion when I need to con­cen­trate on some­thing, but I try to be cau­tious about it.

The nega­tive side of be­ing able to get bet­ter feed­back about your men­tal pro­cesses, is that you can also get bet­ter feed­back on ex­actly how pleas­ant wire­head­ing feels. If you like to imag­ine pleas­ant things, you can get bet­ter and bet­ter at imag­in­ing pleas­ant things, and ex­clud­ing any wor­ries about it from your con­scious­ness. Med­i­ta­tion teacher Daniel In­gram warns:

Strong in­sight and con­cen­tra­tion prac­tice, even when that prac­tice wasn’t ded­i­cated to the pow­ers, can make peo­ple go tem­porar­ily or per­ma­nently (or for the rest of that life­time) psy­chotic. The more the prac­tice in­volves cre­at­ing ex­pe­riences that di­verge sig­nifi­cantly from what I will crudely term “con­sen­sus re­al­ity”, and the longer one en­gages in these prac­tices, the more likely pro­longed difficul­ties are. It is of note that a sig­nifi­cant num­ber of the pri­mary prop­a­ga­tors of the Western mag­ickal tra­di­tions be­came mod­er­ately nuts to­wards the ends of their lives.
As one Burmese man said to Ken­neth, “My brother does con­cen­tra­tion prac­tice. You know, some­times they go a lit­tle mad!” He was talk­ing about what can some­times hap­pen when peo­ple get into the pow­ers. [...]
I re­mem­ber a let­ter from a friend who was on a long re­treat in Burma and was sup­posed to be do­ing in­sight prac­tices but had slipped into play­ing with these sorts of ex­pe­riences. He was now fas­ci­nated by his abil­ity to see spirit an­i­mals and other su­per­nor­mal be­ings and was hav­ing reg­u­lar con­ver­sa­tions with some sort of low-level god that kept tel­ling him that he was mak­ing ex­cel­lent progress in his in­sight prac­tice—that is, ex­actly what he wanted to hear. How­ever, the fact that he was hav­ing sta­ble vi­sion­ary ex­pe­riences and was buy­ing into their con­tent made it abun­dantly clear that he wasn’t do­ing in­sight prac­tices at all, but was lost in and be­ing fooled by these.

Now, it should be pointed out that “be­ing able to ex­clude any­thing un­pleas­ant from your con­scious­ness” is only go­ing to be a worry for ad­vanced prac­ti­tion­ers who spend a lot of time on the kind of prac­tice that in­clines you to­wards these kinds of risks. Be­fore you get to the point of some­thing like this be­ing a risk, you will get to re­solve a lot of in­ter­nal con­flicts and old is­sues first.

Here is Cu­ladasa, the au­thor of The Mind Illu­mi­nated, be­ing in­ter­viewed about this kind of a “first you re­solve a lot of is­sues, but then you can get the abil­ity to push down the rest” dy­namic:

Michael Taft: … and you’re us­ing the med­i­ta­tion prac­tice to help work with your stuff. But what about the other case that we both know of where peo­ple have reached very high lev­els of med­i­ta­tive ca­pac­ity, they’ve got a lot of in­sight, maybe they’re at some level of awak­en­ing, and they seem to have, in a way, missed a whole pocket of ma­te­rial, or sev­eral pock­ets of ma­te­rial. It’s like they think they’re do­ing fine, but maybe ev­ery­one around them is aware that they’ve got these be­hav­ior pat­terns that do not seem awake at all. And yet the med­i­ta­tion has some­how missed that.
Cu­ladasa: Yes, yes. [...] … there seems to be a cer­tain level of the stuff that we’re talk­ing about that it’s nec­es­sary to deal with to achieve awak­en­ing, but it’s sort of a min­i­mal level. [...] What I think that is in­dica­tive of is that if that hasn’t been suffi­ciently dealt with ear­lier, it has to get dealt with in one way or an­other at that point. That doesn’t nec­es­sar­ily mean that it’s go­ing to get re­solved; it may just get re­buried a lit­tle more deeply.
Michael Taft: Pushed out of the way.
Cu­ladasa: Yeah, pushed out of the way, or by­passed in some way. That al­lows a per­son to go ahead and [progress] and it’s un­re­al­is­tic to think that ev­ery­thing has been re­solved. [...] a lot of the things that change [...] ac­tu­ally help to push these things aside, to by­pass them in one way or an­other, whereas be­fore some­body has [made as much progress] these would have been suffi­ciently prob­le­matic in their life that, in one way or an­other, they would be aware of them, whether or not they did any­thing about them or were at a place of just tak­ing for granted that I have these, quote, “per­son­al­ity char­ac­ter­is­tics” that are a bit difficult.

I used to be very en­thu­si­as­tic about TMI’s med­i­ta­tion sys­tem. I still con­sider it im­por­tant and use­ful to make progress on, but am slightly more guarded af­ter some of my own ex­pe­riences, hear­ing about the ex­pe­rience of a friend who reached a high level in it, read­ing some cri­tiques of its ten­dency to em­pha­size aware­ness of pos­i­tive ex­pe­riences [1 2], and con­sid­er­ing both the in­ter­view quoted above and Cu­ladasa’s sub­se­quent ac­tions. (That said, the fo­cus on pos­i­tive ex­pe­riences can be a use­ful coun­ter­bal­ance for peo­ple who start off with an over­all nega­tive stance to­wards life.)

I con­tinue to prac­tice it, and would gen­er­ally find it safe un­til you get to around the sixth or so of its ten stages, at which point I would sug­gest start­ing to ex­er­cise some cau­tion. Off the couch, I mostly don’t do much con­cen­tra­tion prac­tice (ex­cept in a con­text where I would need to con­cen­trate any­way). Rather I try to fo­cus my in­tro­spec­tive aware­ness to­wards just ob­serv­ing my mind with­out ac­tively in­terfer­ing with it, In­ter­nal Fam­ily Sys­tems -style prac­tice, and other ac­tivi­ties that do not seem to risk ex­clud­ing too much un­pleas­ant ma­te­rial.

Fi­nally, de­vel­op­ing too much aware­ness into your mind may cause you to start notic­ing con­tra­dic­tions be­tween how you thought it worked, and how it ac­tu­ally works. I sus­pect that a part of how our brains have evolved to op­er­ate, re­lies on those differ­ences go­ing un­no­ticed. This gets us to the topic of en­light­en­ment, which I have not yet dis­cussed, but will do in my next post.

Thanks to Maija Haav­isto, Lumi Pakka­nen and Romeo Stevens for com­ments on an ear­lier draft.