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.