Meditation: the screen-and-watcher model of the human mind, and how to use it

by femtogrammar5 min read1st May 202012 comments

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Background: I started meditating with the app Headspace in 2017, and started using the app Waking Up this past month at the same time I started meditating a lot more. (10h in the past month, vs 30h in the three years before that). I am not an expert, merely an amateur who's seen interesting improvements after relatively little effort.

Part I of this post is a comparison of the two apps, meant to justify why I think someone getting into meditation should start with Headspace. If you are not interested in meditation but enjoy thinking about the human mind, the description in Part I of what Waking Up teaches may still be interesting.

Part II describes my motivation for meditating and what I think other people can get out of it, Part III gives specific recommendations for meditation.

Part I. Headspace vs Waking Up

Note before I go on: Headspace and Waking Up are both paid apps. Headspace is $13/month. Waking Up is $100/year, but many redditors in threads I read about Waking Up before buying it assure me that the team really wants people to meditate and will give it to you for free if you produce a good reason, like “I cannot afford this but I find meditation helpful”.

I think I’m getting about five times more out of Waking Up because I started with Headspace. Some things that I think are very useful before starting Waking Up that Headspace teaches better:

  • Being sufficiently good at staying at your breath that you can by default stay with your breath for 3 cycles before you get distracted
  • Being sufficiently good at noticing when you're distracted that distractions are normally <=1m
  • Either finding body scan (moving your attention down the body, tuning into signals from different subsections) easy/intuitive to begin with, or being familiar enough that you just 'know what to do' when prompted

Headspace teaches you these in a more accessible way. Waking Up asks you to perform new mental motions in almost every session of the introductory sequence, and I think it’s hard to get something out of this if you’re busy struggling on the basics listed above.

Headspace has a 30-session introductory course, where each session is 10m. Even if you never do another Headspace pack, I recommend this. I also endorse speedrunning it by doing it 2/day and finishing in 2 weeks.

Each Headspace course (1 course = 10-sessions with a theme like ‘Anxiety’, ‘Mindful eating’, ‘Pain management’) has 1~3 of the following techniques associated with it:

  • Body scan (moving your attention from your head to your toes – practicing letting sensory data fill up your mind)
  • Noting (basically installing the TAP of noticing when you have a thought, emotion, or sensation that is not the thing you intend to focus on, and bringing your attention back to the object of focus, using the breath)
  • Reflection (Emptying your mind a bit first, then asking yourself a specific question, or rather letting the question sit in your head, letting potential answers come and go)
  • Focused attention (focusing on one thing, noting when something that is not that rises to your mind, watching the thought run its course, which it generally will much faster if you're watching it rather than running it, and then going back)
  • Resting awareness (think and feel ~normally without an object of focus, but have a watcher process that's looking at thoughts and feelings interleaved with the process that's actually having those thoughts and feelings)

I don't think Headspace is very good at articulating and teaching the last two techniques. Waking Up teaches those two better, and those are the interesting ones.

Waking Up's schtick, as interpreted by me, is that it asks you to

  1. Model your mind as a projector screen (or mirror, or ‘space’) on which things are appearing,
  2. Notice how much of what's on that screen appears there without your input (like bodily sensations or sounds),
  3. Notice an increasing set of things as 'things that appear there without your input',
  4. Notice the 'you' that is the watcher-entity / consciousness that is separate from everything on the projector screen, because the watcher is not producing mental phenomena

And once you have this model and a visceral sense of using this model to move your mind the same way you use the model of a car to drive a car, you can do things you couldn't do before when your model was "my mind is me, making choices and doing things", e.g. having greater control over how you react to a thought or emotion.

My current view is that focused attention is the practice you do to familiarize your mind with using the "the mind is a screen and watcher" model instead of the "the mind is me" model, and resting awareness is just the thing your mind will do a lot with normal life once it is used to using the model. Like constrained exercises in physical therapy vs normal walking.

Waking Up also teaches you to

5. Notice that the watcher does not really exist – that every mental effort to ‘locate’ the watcher will fail.

because part of what WU tries to teach you is to let go of the notion of the self, completely step out of the “my mind is me” model. The creator thinks that letting go of this is a fundamental component of the mental transformation the practice of meditation is for. I am personally not very interested in this and am electing to ignore this / not actively learn it.

Part II. What for?

My original motivation to meditate came from failing to meditate the first time I tried it, being aghast that it was so hard to do something as simple as focus on the breath for even one minute, linking it to my general lack of mental discipline, and deciding meditation was an obvious way to try to fix.

I have not seen tangible improvement in mental discipline. But after a month of meditation 20m/day on average, I’ve seen tangible improvement in emotional control and what I’m going to call a-freedom-to-choose-the-self.

  • I have several instances per day where I’m feeling frustrated or anxious or guilty, switch into observer mode, and kind of watch the observer process take up more and more CPU until the original process isn’t running at all.
  • I sometimes recognize when I’m lost in a thought or feeling that centers around a desire to control or set the course of the future – whether that’s on the scale of hours (will I get enough work done today) or years (am I going to get divorced in the next decade) – and immediately translate it to the present: will I do some work in the next minute, am I paying enough attention to my partner’s existence and needs today. You don’t need meditation to do this, exactly, but it really helps to have a visceral feeling of your entire life being composed of slices of ‘the present’, that the present is sort of the only thing you can control and be responsible for. And have that visceral feeling, it helps to have a lot of practice tuning into the present, which meditating trains you to do.
  • What I’m labeling freedom-to-choose-the-self is the process of
    • Having a thought that’s pretty tightly anchored to you – e.g. a sense of judgment about something you’re consistently judgmental of people (including yourself) for, investment in maintaining your status in your workplace or gaming forum that you’ve been part of for years,
    • Switching over to the mind-as-screen-and-watcher model and regarding the thought/feeling the same way you’d regard traffic noise that’s happened to arise outside your house,
    • Thinking “do I want this thing attached to me? Is it good for me? Do I like it?”,
    • If you don’t, letting the thought go with the same gentle indifference you’d let go of the traffic noise.
    • Crucially, you’re not rejecting the underlying drive that generated the thought, or severing it from the self – you’re just choosing not to make that particular thought an “I-thought”. Your future self may very well have a similar thought and choose to claim it as an “I-thought”, and that’s your future self’s prerogative.
  • Please note that I am still impulsive, undisciplined, full of stupid feelings, struggling with my job, and that I had a ridiculous fight with my partner just this week that was 90% my fault. I am merely happier and more in control of myself as I do all this.

Part III. Where do I start?

Here’s a prescriptive schedule. I have designed it for someone exactly like me.

  • Get Headspace for a month.
  • Do 10 minutes every day for a week. (Headspace says the first week is free, which might mean that you can cancel in the first 7 days and pay nothing.)
  • If you don’t hate it, kick it up to 10m twice a day for the rest of the month. The introductory 30 sessions teach Body scan and Noting, you should definitely do those. After that you can do whatever you want – Headspace’s courses are very similar to each other, despite the names. I liked Acceptance (Body scan, Reflection), Transforming Anger (Focused attention, Body scan), and Managing Anxiety (Body scan, Noting). If you want to try a Headspace course that teaches Resting Awareness you might want to try Pain Management (BS, FA, RA).
  • After the month is up you should have meditated for about 9h, which I think is a pretty good start.
  • If you’re still interested at this point, quit your Headspace subscription and get Waking Up, either by paying or asking politely.
  • Waking Up’s intro sequence made of 10m sessions. Do one a day, and follow it up immediately with 5~10m of unstructured meditation where you just set a timer and either meditate on the breath or continue practicing what the day’s WU session told you to do. The sessions are kind of dense, so do repeat or revert sessions as needed.
  • Do ramp up. Doing 40m every other day was the frequency at which I started seeing interesting mental shifts after several weeks. (40 consecutive minutes, but not continuous practice – I don’t have enough discipline/attention for that. I do 10m of a Waking Up session, and then 10m each of focusing on sound, breath, and body scan.) This is where I am right now, and where I intend to stay for a while.
  • ?? Other horizons.

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12 comments, sorted by Highlighting new comments since Today at 2:54 AM
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It strikes me that if one wants to become a naturalist about the function of the brain, maybe there should be a discipline of "anti-meditation," where you practice holding on to the notion that the screen-watching-self is a fiction, and expanding your sense of self to include the operations of the brain that make up what you are despite being no more individually conscious than a cell is a human.

The Buddhist teachings include the "three marks of existence" which are "Anicca" (pronounced [ah-NEE-cha], almost always translated as "Impermanence"; everything with a beginning has an end), "Dukkha" ([DOO-ka], usually translated as "suffering", maybe a closer English language equivalent is "stress"; no experience can really be deeply and permanently satisfying), and "Anatta" ([AH-nah-tah], usually translated as "non-self" or "no-self" or "not-self"; this is an observation of the non-personal nature of experience). The closest to what you are describing is probably anatta/non-self. When experiencing non-self, the boundaries between "me" and "not me" can seem to become less defined or disappear altogether. Using the screen/watcher model can be a step toward that experience as you move more and more of your experience from the watcher to the screen until you realize there simply isn't anybody there watching, just experience unfolding. That's pretty advanced stuff, tho. I've only had a few small glimpses of anatta after meditating pretty often for the last three years or so.

If you're interested, you can find talks from a number of excellent teachers on this topic at dharmaSeed.org [link to search results]. I generally find Mark Nunberg to give particularly accessible talks for some reason. He's conveniently just given a series on anatta, so at the time of this comment he's right at the top of the results.

Definitely sounds similar, thanks for the details. Not sure if I'll bother to delve into buddhism here, so I'll just ask - do you know if there's an even more direct analogue where you do the "motion" of anatta, but without first identifying your self with the watching self? So you'd notice how the patterns and abilities that make up what appears to be the watching self are already parts of the thought-generating self, without de-identifying yourself with the thought-generating self.

I don't think doing this would change your cognitive habits very much (compared to exercising your brain to change which thoughts get generated), so maybe it's not a thing.

There are at least two different approaches.

The first is to first spend time getting into the state where you de-identify with your thoughts, emotions, etc., and experience yourself as just observing them. This has the advantage that it lets you reduce the experience of there being a distinct acausal "doer" in the brain, as you see thought processes just emerging on their own, as opposed to "you" somehow willing them into existence. But as you point out, it has the issue that it still maintains the experience of a separate "observer".

The meditation teacher Michael Taft calls this "the observer trap" in that a lot of people get stuck at this point. His recommendation is that once you get to this point, use similar techniques that you used for deconstructing the doer, for deconstructing the observer:

Many traditions—especially mindfulness meditation—encourage you to observe your sensory experience in a neutral manner. Observe your breathing, observe emotions, observe thoughts, and so on, without reacting to them. This observer technique works really well because it gives you something like an outside perspective on your own experience. You can watch your own mind, your reactions, your emotions, your behavior almost from the perspective of another person, and that is tremendously useful feedback to have. It leads to equanimity, and the tremendous personal growth that mindfulness advocates are always talking about.

Taking this observer stance is so useful, in fact, that many teachers stop there and do not talk about the next important step in spiritual development. But there is a hidden problem with the observer technique, which becomes obvious once you think about it. Who is the observer? Who is this person who is behind the binoculars, watching your experience from the outside? This neutral observer you’ve created over time is actually just another—albeit smaller and less neurotic—version of the ego. It’s the sense of being a person who is doing the meditating. You could also call it a meditator ego or an observer ego. Creating this neutral observer is very useful, but the goal of meditation is not to create a new meditator ego, it’s to see through the illusion of the ego entirely.

It is quite common for even very dedicated students in observation-based traditions to get stuck in observer mode forever. I have seen it over and over in my experience. Being the observer, a neutral meditator ego, is not such a bad place to be; certainly it is much preferable to the unconscious, robotic mode of life lived without any self-reflection. However, it impedes all deeper progress toward real awakening. So the only way forward is to let go of the observer ego; to release the sense of being a person who is doing a meditation.

For example, spiritual philosopher Ken Wilber tells the story of his first awakening. It happened at a Zen retreat, in which he was in a deep state of observing his own experience. The Zen master said to him, “The [observer] is the last stand of the ego.” Wilber says that “something snapped” inside him then, and he was plunged into a deep state of awakening. He had let go of the observer ego, of being a meditator, and instead had become the activity of meditation itself. His story is not so unusual on the path of awakening. It can happen in many ways.

The second approach are techniques which, rather than going through the process of first creating a sense of a detached observer to identify with, attempt to more directly get into the realization of there being neither an observer nor a doer. These come in at least two different subtypes that I'm aware of.

The first subtype involves practices that aim to get you into a state of "doing but nondoing". Some of this would take quite a few words to describe, but a simple example are flow states. The sense of self tends to disappear in flow states, so that one experiences oneself as just the activity itself. There are practices which are intended to nudge the mind into something that resembles a flow state, so that the subsystem in the brain that generates the experience of there being a separate observer homunculus gets temporarily turned off. This helps one see that it was actually a constructed experience all along.

The second subtype involves practices where one pays attention to what that sensation of seeing the world feels like, in a way that draws attention to it actually being just a sensation that is added on top of the raw data. I personally like this one:

  1. Look at an object in front of you. Spend a moment simply examining its features.

  2. Become aware of the sensation of being someone who is looking at this object. While letting your attention rest on the object, try to notice what this sensation of being someone who is looking at the object feels like. Does it have a location, shape, or feel?

(leaving some space for people to try this out themselves before reading about my experience with it)

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When I do this kind of exercise, a result that I may get is that there is the sight of the object, and then a pattern of tension behind my eyes. Something about the pattern of tension feels like “me” - when I feel that “I am looking at a plant in front of me”, this could be broken down to “there is a tension in my consciousness, it feels like the tension is what’s looking at the plant, and that tension feels like me”.

Obviously "I" cannot be just a feeling of tension, so this practice helps draw attention to the fact that I normally identify with a random sensation in my consciousness, but that sensation is actually nothing special. If I want to identify with something in particular, I might as well identify with the whole content of my consciousness.

All of these approaches have the potential to produce cognitive shifts in how your machinery of identification works, so that you can get closer to being able to experience both the observer and the doer as fictions.

The usual move the teachers suggest is to imagine the mind as the sky with thoughts and feelings and sensations as clouds floating through it. You don't have to get involved with the clouds, just watch as they grow and change and float on by. Let them be. You could also use the ocean or a river if you like waves and eddies and fishes better than clouds. I like the ocean, myself, because the waves on the shore analogue pretty well with the breath (the breath is the standard meditation anchor, though you could actually use any sensation).

Another move would be to imagine the whole of experience as taking place on a stage, with each of the "sense doors" (sight, hearing, taste, smell, touch, thought) as an actor. The role of attention itself becomes more obvious here (maybe use a spotlight if you like concrete images), but it's a step back toward the movie/viewer metaphor. Come to that, tho, I've never heard a teacher talk about an audience...

As for changing cognitive habits, the effect is something like taking things less personally; stuff just unfolds and you can choose to get involved or not.

In my experience, even a little taste of anatta has helped me to better notice -- and take more advantage of -- the space between impulse and action. I've found that skill to be extremely beneficial, even at what I assume to be the lowest levels!

My imaginary naturalist discipline should avoid this usual thing, though, because if you want to imagine the function of your own brain in materialist detail, you can't be imagining "you" as something that can be uninvolved with your thoughts and feelings, or as something separate from the rest of your mind that watches what's going on. Instead, you have to be primed to imagine "you" as something emergent from the thoughts and feelings - if any watching is done, it's thoughts and feelings watching themselves. A play where the audience is the actors.

As I understand it, the sense of self eventually vanishes entirely, leaving only the immediate psycho/physiological phenomena that "know themselves", whatever that means. ;)

I pattern match this to the Buddhist idea of interdependence, where what you are is reliant on the environment and the environment is reliant on you (or embedded agency).

A book I like to recommend to people interested in getting started in meditation is "A Path With Heart" by Jack Kornfield. It's written by an author who is very decided not a rationalist and it's filled with lots of references to supernatural things, but it's also a very kind and gentle introduction to meditation and wider practice of the way. If you think of the supernatural stuff as metaphors rather than claims about physical reality, I think it can be quite helpful and teaches a lot of techniques and gives some good motivations for why and how they are useful.

Thanks for writing this. I'm likely to check out both app.

I have never used Headspace, but I can say that I found it highly valuable to repeat the introductory course on Waking Up, which does fit your assessment that it moves too fast to learn the concepts the first time.

I've been using Ten Percent Happier (app, podcast, and books) for a few years now. The app subscription is $80/year, and there are a number of ways to get free content, including a short free trial period on the app.

The app has guided meditations, short talks, and courses from a number of widely respected teachers. It tends toward the beginner-level stuff, but there's a ton of content available for a variety of interests and experience levels.