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

by femtogrammar5 min read1st May 202012 comments



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.