But The Mind Illuminated also talks about “connecting”, which is rather more like track-back meditation, in that it is training your ability to remember what has been happening in your mind, and tracing the causality of mental motions:
Once you can clearly discern and easily follow the sensations of the breath, you may need a new challenge to engage your attention. This is why we introduce connecting here, even though it’s a more advanced technique. Connecting is an extension of following that involves making comparisons and associations.
As you follow the entire breath cycle, begin connecting by observing the two pauses closely, and notice which is longer and which is shorter. Next, compare the in- and out-breaths to each other. Are they the same length, or is one longer than the other? When you can compare the lengths clearly, expand the task to include relative changes over time. Are the in- and out-breaths longer or shorter than they were earlier? If the in-breath was longer than the out-breath, or vice versa, is that still the case? Are the pauses between the in- and out-breaths longer or shorter than they were? Is the longer of the two pauses still the same as before?
Once you reach Stages Four and Five, your introspective awareness will have improved enough that you can start connecting the details of the breath cycle to your state of mind. When you find the mind agitated and there are more distractions, ask yourself: Is the breath longer or shorter, deeper or shallower, finer or coarser than when the mind is calm? What about the length or depth of the breath during a spell of drowsiness? Do states of agitation, distraction, concentration, and dullness affect the out-breath more or in a different way than they do the in-breath? Do they affect the pause before the in-breath more or less than they affect the pause before the out-breath? In making these kinds of comparisons, you’re not just investigating the breath to sharpen and stabilize your attention. You’re also learning another way to detect and become more fully aware of subtle and changing states of mind.
The noting instructions are saying that, when you are trying to focus on the breath, just briefly note any distractions and don’t try to analyze them, because if you start analyzing the distractions then you’ve been distracted from the breath. But this doesn’t mean that analyzing your thoughts would be a bad idea in general: it’s only bad if you’re trying to concentrate on something else. And the instructions for connecting explicitly tell you to stretch out your memory of recent mental events, applying a light form of analysis to them to become better aware of what affects your focus.
I feel like track-back meditation as described in this post, is very much in line with TMI’s goal of developing metacognitive introspective awareness:
Introspective awareness means being aware of the mental objects appearing in peripheral awareness, such as thoughts, feelings, ideas, images, and so forth. Metacognitive introspective awareness is the ability to continuously observe not just mental objects, but the activity and overall state of the mind.
In the ordinary, untrained mind, introspective awareness is much less developed. Thoughts or emotions arising in peripheral awareness tend to quickly become objects of attention, or else fade back into the unconscious as they are replaced by other thoughts. As a result of your meditation practice, however, you become more aware of the coming and going of these mental objects. For example, with your attention on the breath, you can be introspectively aware of a worrying thought, a mental image, or pleasant feeling. Then you can allow that thought, image, or feeling to become the focus of attention, or you can choose to ignore it until it goes away.
Metacognitive introspective awareness is not just awareness of individual thoughts, memories, and emotions arising and passing. It’s a much more powerful and useful form of introspective awareness. In this type of awareness, the narrating mind takes the individual mental objects in peripheral awareness, processes and binds them together, and then projects a description of the current state and activities of the mind into consciousness. These binding moments of introspective awareness provide a comprehensive awareness of the mind itself.
Developing this type of meta-awareness, being able to perceive the state and activity of the mind clearly and continuously, is at the heart of your future meditation progress. Just as peripheral awareness of sensations and mental objects was critical in the earlier Stages, metacognitive awareness provides the ongoing context for your meditations in the later Stages. Ultimately, in the final Stages, the mind itself becomes the object of your investigations.
Track-back meditation uses attention to analyze temporal and causal chains within the mind, and as TMI notes, once you use attention to explicitly tag things as important, awareness will learn to automatically monitor them more and summon attention to take a look at anything that seems relevant. Track-back seems like the kind of a thing that, like connecting, trains the mind to maintain an awareness of its own activity and to create mental objects containing a kind of a summary of the recent happenings in the mind; and I feel like some of the greatest benefits I’ve gotten from TMI’s system have come from developing this ability.
Yes, great points.
When I tried track-back meditation, it was a mess that didn’t seem to lead to anything but confusion and mind wandering. That was ~2 weeks ago, though, and in the meantime (i) my distractions have gotten briefer, so the chain of events leading to it has gotten shorter, and (ii) I have developed a smidgen of introspective awareness, which I used to lack. As a result, I sometimes take a second to trace back where a distraction come from while meditating, and can often do so in a controlled manner now. It’s really interesting how many chains of thought start from something I see or hear; you’d never know by looking at just the last thought in the chain.
So a lesson from my experience might be that if your track-back meditation is going poorly, regular meditation may help. Although the bigger lesson is don’t listen to me; read The Mind Illuminated :-).