Track-Back Meditation

In­tro—Look­ing Back on Look­ing Back

At a CFAR event, Anna once (iirc) put for­ward the fol­low­ing idea: when you no­tice that you are dis­tracted, try to think back to when you were last pay­ing at­ten­tion, re­call­ing as much as you can of the se­quence of where your at­ten­tion went as it wan­dered. At first you might only be able to think back a cou­ple of steps: “I was think­ing about trains just now; why was that? Ah, it was be­cause I was think­ing about how I have to catch the train later, and started think­ing about trains in gen­eral. I don’t re­mem­ber what got me on that topic.” How­ever, if you keep try­ing the ex­er­cise, you may even­tu­ally be able to re­call all the way back to what got you off-track in the first place. Once you have a habit of re­call­ing what got you dis­tracted, you can start to see pat­terns. “Ah, I was hun­gry, which made me start think­ing about food. Be­ing hun­gry seems to dis­tract me a lot.” Then you can keep peanuts at your desk, or what­ever.

Another story:

At one point a cou­ple of years ago, I no­ticed that I was us­ing a par­tic­u­lar vi­sual anal­ogy to think about some­thing, which didn’t seem like a very good anal­ogy for what I was think­ing about. I don’t re­call the ex­am­ple, but, let’s say I was us­ing a men­tal image of trees when think­ing about ma­trix op­er­a­tions. I got an­noyed at the use­less imag­i­nary trees, and won­dered why I was imag­in­ing them. Then, I no­ticed that I was phys­i­cally look­ing at a tree! This was fairly sur­pris­ing to me. Some of the sur­prise was that I took a ran­dom ob­ject in my vi­sual field to use for think­ing about some­thing un­re­lated, but more of the sur­prise was that I didn’t im­me­di­ately know this to be the case, even when I won­dered why I was imag­in­ing trees.

After I no­ticed this once, I started to no­tice it again and again: ob­jects from my vi­sual field end up in my imag­i­na­tion, and I of­ten try to use them as vi­sual analo­gies whether they’re ap­pro­pri­ate or not. It quickly be­came a fa­mil­iar, rather than sur­pris­ing, event. More in­ter­est­ingly, though, af­ter a while it started to seem like a con­scious event, rather than an au­to­matic and un­con­trol­lable one: I’ve be­come aware of the whole pro­cess from start to finish, and can in­ter­vene at any point if I wish.

This idea of mak­ing men­tal pro­cesses con­scious rather than un­con­scious, sim­ply by pay­ing at­ten­tion to them over time, seems in­ter­est­ing.

I was re­cently think­ing about what I might do to more fully in­stall the Re­plac­ing Guilt skil­lset. (I’ve had suc­cess with it for a sin­gle week af­ter do­ing an in­ter­nal dou­ble crux about it, but it didn’t stick… which was sad, be­cause it was re­ally nice.) After some think­ing, I set­tled on a short list of pri­ori­ties. At the top of my list was “look­ing back to see how I ar­rived at a cog­ni­tive state”—a skill which seems nec­es­sary for star­ing into re­grets to work well. I re­mem­bered Anna’s idea. I was ini­tially plan­ning to make a set of TAPs for what­ever skills I de­cided were most crit­i­cal, but in this case, prac­tic­ing the skill as a med­i­ta­tive tech­nique seemed ap­pro­pri­ate.

Why Try This?

Be­sides helping you stare into re­grets and reach the strate­gic level, and bring­ing un­con­scious pro­cesses into con­scious aware­ness over time, the skill of trac­ing back your thoughts could be good for mem­ory. I don’t have any stud­ies to back this up, but I’ve heard from a cou­ple of peo­ple that re­mem­ber­ing things is a skill which im­proves from use: if you are pa­tient with your mem­ory and wait for it to work, rather than giv­ing up right away, it starts get­ting no­tice­ably bet­ter.

(There are stud­ies which show that prac­tic­ing mem­ory skill does im­prove it, but, the ones I know of in­volve mem­o­riz­ing lists for later re­call rather than re­call­ing thinks more ran­domly with­out know­ing what you’ll need to re­mem­ber.)

I also think this is good prac­tice for de­fu­sion, the skill of de-iden­ti­fy­ing with your thoughts and feel­ings. Track­ing back on your dis­tract­ing thoughts helps you shift from think­ing “X” to think­ing “I had the thought X”. This is helpful for avoid­ing temp­ta­tions and man­ag­ing re­ac­tions (ba­si­cally, willpower), as well as metacog­ni­tion more gen­er­ally.

Re­call­ing rapid chains of thought which got you to where you are is also a nec­es­sary sub­skill of the tun­ing your cog­ni­tive strate­gies skill at be­well­tuned. The prac­tice I’m about to de­scribe is ac­tu­ally pretty close to the one at be­well­tuned, so that may be good read­ing ma­te­rial to help with this med­i­ta­tion. Differ­ences:

  • Bewell­tuned is de­scribing a more ac­tive ex­er­cise which you do while solv­ing a puz­zle. I’m do­ing it with my eyes closed and no task at hand.

  • Bewell­tuned is com­bin­ing the skill of rapid metacog­ni­tion about how your thoughts got to where they are with the prob­lem of credit as­sign­ment, notic­ing which thoughts were use­ful.

The Meditation

The idea is sim­ple: ev­ery time you no­tice that you’re dis­tracted, track back men­tally. What se­quence lead you here? Try to re­call in as much de­tail as pos­si­ble.

What is the “cen­tral fo­cus” which you are try­ing to at­tend to, so that you know when you’re dis­tracted? There are a cou­ple of op­tions here.

  • You could choose to fo­cus on your breath, as is com­mon, and only do a track-back when you no­tice that your at­ten­tion has strayed from your breath. I did this a lit­tle, but it re­ally means you’re switch­ing be­tween two pri­mary ob­jects of fo­cus: the breath, and the track-back men­tal mo­tion. This can be a lit­tle con­fus­ing.

  • Alter­na­tively, you can think of the track-back men­tal mo­tion it­self as the ob­ject of fo­cus. When I do it this way, the ob­ject of med­i­ta­tion which I re­turn to when I don’t have any dis­trac­tions to track-back is a track-back of the fresh mo­ment I find my­self in. How did I end up here?

  • A third op­tion is to do ab­solutely noth­ing when there aren’t any dis­tract­ing thoughts. Rest in the peace of your mind. Un­less you are an ex­pe­rienced med­i­ta­tor, you will very soon find your­self dis­tracted again, so don’t worry that you’re not prac­tic­ing track-back for a few mo­ments. This op­tion is re­ally hard (at least for me); it is difficult to keep med­i­tat­ing with no fo­cus to re­turn to. How­ever, I do find that I can some­times switch to this af­ter I’m a few min­utes into the med­i­ta­tion.

“Track back” can mean sev­eral things. One in­ter­pre­ta­tion is by-the-clock back-track­ing: re­call the se­quence of mo­ments lead­ing up to this one, as best you can. Another op­tion is causal back-track­ing: look for the ori­gins of the thought. For ex­am­ple, if you re­mem­ber a late bill, a causal back-track might go to the image of the bill sit­ting on your desk (which you might have seen ear­lier in the day, set­ting up the thought of the bill as an open loop in your mind). You might then think fur­ther back to putting it on the desk, and so on.

I sug­gest that you back-track in what­ever way feels nat­u­ral and rele­vant to you.

[ETA: I now think that causal back-track­ing prac­tices long-term mem­ory, whereas tem­po­ral back-track­ing prac­tices short-term mem­ory. Prac­tic­ing short-term mem­ory, if it works, effec­tively ex­pands your work­ing mem­ory; if you can quickly “touch” a lot of thoughts to main­tain them in short-term mem­ory, you will lose less in your train of thought. I find that this also helps me to main­tain pro­duc­tivity on a task. Very short-times­pan tem­po­ral back-track­ing also seems most use­ful for tun­ing cog­ni­tive strate­gies. Prac­tic­ing long-term mem­ory helps to main­tain broad rather than nar­row con­text; it might end up be­ing more com­pat­i­ble with an ex­plo­ra­tory rather than fo­cused state of mind. Causal back-track­ing seems most use­ful for the strate­gic level. Nonethe­less, I would recom­mend aiming at whichever men­tal mo­tion feels more amenable to im­prove­ment. If you are do­ing this with the goal of ex­tend­ing the set of men­tal pro­cesses which you are con­scious of, ori­ent to­ward what­ever you are not cur­rently very con­scious of.]

It’s very im­por­tant to keep a non-judge­men­tal at­ti­tude to­ward your dis­tract­ing thoughts and back-tracks. I’ve pre­vi­ously done a med­i­ta­tion in which I tried to “go meta” on ev­ery thought which arose, mean­ing take the out­side view and think about the thought as a part of a policy. This in­volves look­ing to­ward the source of each thought, like the med­i­ta­tion I’m de­scribing now, but it also in­volves judg­ing each thought. I found that this ex­er­cise left me in a manic state, which is a bad sign.

The tun­ing your cog­ni­tive strate­gies ex­er­cise which I men­tioned ear­lier also in­volves judg­ing the thought-pat­terns, but they give a warn­ing to stick to pos­i­tive judge­ments to re­in­force good pat­terns; pun­ish­ing use­less thoughts is un­nec­es­sary, and more dan­ger­ous than pos­i­tively re­in­forc­ing the use­ful ones. This also seems fine, but since my ex­er­cise is the track-back ac­tivity it­self, other thoughts are all dis­trac­tions any­way.

More Advice

If you get dis­tracted while you’re in the mid­dle of back-track­ing a differ­ent dis­trac­tion, should you try to re­turn to back-track­ing the ear­lier dis­trac­tion, or start back-track­ing the new one?

If you let your­self keep switch­ing which thought you’re back-track­ing, you’re not train­ing your­self to finish back-tracks, which is the goal. That be­ing said, if I find that I’ve been dis­tracted from the back-track for a while with­out notic­ing, it may be too hard to pick up back where I was, so I’ll just start back-track­ing from the pre­sent.

Also, some things seem more in­her­ently in­ter­est­ing to back-track than oth­ers. As long as you’re not let­ting a dis­trac­tion be a dis­trac­tion, I think it’s fine to fol­low your in­ter­est. Just try to keep with the back-track­ing men­tal mo­tion, rather than al­low­ing your­self to get in­volved in in­ter­est­ing thoughts in other ways.

How do you start? I don’t have any dis­tract­ing thoughts right when I start, so I don’t know what to do.

I set a timer right be­fore start­ing, so I tend to think back about how I set the timer, how I sat down be­fore that, how I got to the room I’m in… (I usu­ally don’t get that far be­fore notic­ing I’m dis­tracted.)

I have to­tally ran­dom thoughts or images which come in. They don’t have any iden­ti­fi­able source, so I can’t back-track.

Me too! Be pa­tient with your mem­ory, though. If you gen­tly ask “where did that come from?” and wait, an an­swer may come, even if the thought ini­tially seems re­ally ran­dom. Also, you can start analysing parts of the thing. Maybe you had a ran­dom flash of a sol­dier with black and white face paint stand­ing in a river. Where might the black and white face paint have come from? What might have made you you as­so­ci­ate face paint with war­riors? (Can you re­call in­stances?) Do you think of “stand­ing in a river” as a sol­dier sort of thing to do, and do you know why?

Or, you could do a tem­po­ral track-back rather than a causal track-back, so you just have to try to re­mem­ber what you were think­ing right be­fore the sol­dier thing.

What about false mem­o­ries? There are many stud­ies show­ing that we con­fab­u­late, and es­pe­cially that we con­fab­u­late our rea­sons for do­ing things. Why should I trust the back-traces which my mind gives me when I try to re­call what hap­pened lead­ing up to a cer­tain thought?

I think this is an in­ter­est­ing ques­tion. It seems to me like it isn’t that hard to avoid false mem­o­ries. A false mem­ory seems like the re­sult of a mis­take in figur­ing out what hap­pened. In some cases I’ve gen­er­ated a chain back from a thought, and then asked my­self “is that re­ally what hap­pened?”—and the an­swer some­times seems to be “no”. So, there is a differ­ence be­tween what my brain thinks just hap­pened and what it thinks when I ask it whether what it thinks is right. So the situ­a­tion isn’t hope­less! In fact, I would be sur­prised to learn that peo­ple can’t de­tect their con­fab­u­la­tions in or­di­nary situ­a­tions (IE, ex­clud­ing brain dam­age), in which there aren’t any real stakes mo­ti­vat­ing the con­fab­u­la­tion, if they ac­tu­ally try.

But then, I would think that, wouldn’t I?


I’ve found this med­i­ta­tion to be par­tic­u­larly easy to mo­ti­vate my­self to do. After try­ing it, I gen­er­ally feel… en­er­gized?… well, it’s hard to de­scribe, but I think it’s a more suc­cess­ful med­i­ta­tive ex­pe­rience than other things I’ve tried. Hope­fully some­one else finds it use­ful.

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