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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18 comments, sorted by Click to highlight new comments since: Today at 10:29 PM

Promoted to curated: Something caused me to bounce off this post the first time I read it, but upon rereading it, I actually think it's a pretty exceptional post in how it tries to teach the reader a new rationality technique, while providing real examples and mental motions that I felt like I could follow along. I also found that I came back to this concept a few times in the last week, which is always a good sign.

I also appreciated the discussion, and how it helped me put the ideas in the post in the context of a bunch of prior writing both on the site, and in books that I've heard of.

While something about the beginning of the post felt a bit disjointed to me, I also quite like the overall structure of the post, and the way it gets to the point pretty quickly.

Ah, I just realized that The Mind Illuminated talks about "labeling", which is about noticing the distraction the moment you realize you are distracted, without tracing back.

(It's also what I talked about doing in my other comment: I probably took the technique from the book without realizing it.)

Up to now, you've relied on spontaneous introspective awareness---or what we've called the "aha!" moment---to alert you to forgetting and mind-wandering. When you positively reinforce these spontaneous realizations, awareness learns to catch mind-wandering faster and faster, so that now your mind only wanders for a few seconds. However, your awareness probably isn't strong enough for you to recall what distraction was occupying your attention before your "aha!" moment. You have enough conscious power to "wake up", but not enough to know what was going on in the mind. It's like when someone suddenly asks you what you're thinking about, but you just can't remember.

To strengthen introspective awareness, use labeling to practice identifying the distraction in the very moment you realize you're no longer on the breath. For example, if you catch yourself thinking about your next meal or something that happened yesterday, give the distraction a neutral label such as "thinking", "planning", or "remembering". Simple, neutral labels are less likely to cause further distractions by getting you caught up in the labeling. If there was a series of thoughts, only label the most recent one. Also, always avoid analyzing distractions, which only creates more distractions. Once you've labeled the distraction, gently redirect your attention back to the breath.

Often, the last thing you were thinking about when you woke up from mind-wandering wasn't what initially took you away from the breath. However, as mind-wandering happens less often, the distraction you identify and label in that moment will be the same one that caused you to forget. Eventually, the practice of labeling will strengthen your introspective awareness enough so you can consistently identify which distractions are most likely to steal your attention in the first place. Introspective awareness will eventually be strong enough to alert you to a distraction before forgetting happens. [Emphasis added.]

The bold parts are saying not to do what you've described. Of course, that's for the goal of the book, which is about mindfulness meditation, which involves stabilizing your attention and strengthening your peripheral awareness.

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 :-).

Since recently reading The Power of Now, which thoroughly and viscerally describes the perspective in which track-back would be harmful (because it distracts from the now), I want to elaborate on this some more.

Tho Power of Now did something interesting to my moment-to-moment awareness, but at least in the short term, it seemed to wreck my productivity. Returning to the track-back movement rather than the "now" type movement seems to help bring me back quite a bit.

No moment exists in isolation; anything which you can mentally label as a moment is an extended moment. Furthermore, although you can cultivate what feels like heightened states of awareness (as in The Power of Now), the only way to verify awareness is by checking whether you perceive more detail, and remember more accurately. To simultaneously be the observer and the observed is an illusion; you are always only observing a previous self, even if the delay is very slight.

So, checking whether you can remember what happened in your head over the past few seconds is a check of awareness. Furthermore, Shinzen Young suggests that awareness after-the-fact is in some sense as good for your practice, and more compatible with intellectual work. Furthermore, I find that paying attention to the train of thought/feeling which led to distraction is really helpful for maintaining focus and motivation.

I'm phrasing this as in opposition to "being in the now", but, I'm not sure to what extent I really mean that. I do think I learned things from The Power of Now; and, I'm not deeply experienced in either style.

I looked earlier at The Power of Now before, but decided not to buy it because in the Amazon preview of the first few pages, there weren't any Gears. Are there more gears later? Or does it live up to its promise in the introduction to use words loosely and be primarily a guide for intuition?

The Mind Illuminated is a 484-page textbook, organized by what should be useful to know at various stages of meditation. It's full of gears. For example, it gives increasingly complete models of the mind as you progress. I sure hope the gears are accurate; I suspect it will become more obvious whether they are or not later in my practice.

I'm trying to understand your comments. I'm going to try to phrase them in the terminology of The Mind Illuminated, if that works. (It's also possible that these two books have conflicting models of the mind, rendering any attempted translation moot.)

  • Attention is when you focus on one thing in particular. It tends to isolate that thing, and be analytical. It is more "self" centered.
  • Peripheral Awareness, or "awareness" for short, tends to take in a whole sensory field at once (e.g. everything you're seeing), is more contextual and involves less analysis, and is less personal and more objective.
  • Both attention and awareness can be introspective, centered on your thoughts and feelings, or extrospective, centered on your external senses (e.g., hearing or seeing, but not thinking).

As some examples of this terminology (that I hope I'm getting right):

  • Typical mindfulness meditation involves focusing your attention on your breath. The Mind Illuminated says that it's important to also allow awareness to all of your senses as you do this, but this hasn't been clear to me from other sources.
  • When you take in a scene, your attention is on particular part of it (e.g., the orange band around the setting sun), while your awareness is taking in the rest of the scene (the sky and trees). That is, for a few seconds until you get distracted.
  • When your mind wanders, your attention is on your train of thoughts, and you have no awareness. That is, your attention is introspective.
  • When you are performing trace-back meditation, your attention is also introspective, but it is focused on the memory of your past thoughts. (Though it's probably more complicated than this: for example, you're probably doing a mix of remembering past thoughts and thinking in the present "and what could have led to that?".)

It sounds like in your comment, you're saying one of these two things:

If you mentally label a moment as such, or try to verify your awareness (attention?) by checking to see whether you perceive more detail, then you must be thinking about that moment (as in, your inner voice is narrating and analyzing the moment). This can only happen after the fact, so you are no longer in that moment.

If you mentally label a moment as such, or try to verify your awareness by checking to see whether you perceive more detail, then your attention must be on that moment (as in, there is no inner voice, but you are noticing some particular part of the moment, seemingly in the present). This can only happen after the fact, so you are no longer in that moment.

If it's the latter, the "checking in" technique on page 103 of The Mind Illuminated seems relevant:

The second part of cultivating introspective awareness involves checking in using introspective attention. Instead of waiting for introspective awareness to arise spontaneously, as you've done until now, you intentionally turn your attention inward to see what's happening in the mind. Doing this check-in requires longer periods of stable attention. That's why following and connecting [other techniques, just introduced] are so important at this Stage. These techniques give you more stable attention, making it easier to momentarily shift attention and see what's happening in the mind.

Yes, checking in disrupts your focus on the breath, but when you pause to reflect on everything happening in your mind, attention needs to shift. At this Stage, this is not only completely okay, it's actually the key to cultivating introspective awareness. What you're really doing is training and strengthening introspective awareness by using attention, making awareness of the mind's activity a habit. Remember from the First Interlude that peripheral awareness filters through an enormous amount of information and selects what's relevant for attention. But attention also trains peripheral awareness to know which things are important. [...] In this case, if you take attentive interest in what's happening in your mind, in particular whether or not gross distractions are present, you're training awareness to alert you to their presence. [...]

In the next stage, however, you learn to phase out checking-in (i.e., introspective attention), which necessarily shifts your attention, in favor of introspective awareness. So this book is saying that you aren't stuck at always appreciating your mind's activity in the past. But doing so is a necessary stepping stone to appreciating it in the present. (One that I'm not ready for yet.)

The Power of Now did something interesting to my moment-to-moment awareness, but at least in the short term, it seemed to wreck my productivity.

I would expect it to decrease your attention and increase your peripheral awareness. And more specifically to decrease your attention on thoughts, and increase your peripheral awareness of external senses. Does that sound right? Something like this has happened to me in the past, so I may know what you're talking about. Fortunately, it's way easier to shift things back toward attention. Talking or thinking will do it; a thinking-heavy video game (hello Factorio) is very efficient IIRC. I can imagine track-back meditation being especially good at that too, as you say.

Left at this, it seems like a pretty bad trade-off: for me at least, attention on abstract thoughts is way more important to what I do than awareness of senses. But:

  • The Mind Illuminated says that meditation should give your more total attention+awareness, and eventually let you consciously balance the two as appropriate. It may take a while, though.
  • From my past experience, when I had more awareness I felt like I was way worse at things. I noticed every time I forgot something, and saw lots of dumb thoughts. But it seems likely to me now that that's just how things have always been, and that was one of the few times I was aware of it. Do you say your productivity was worse because you actually got fewer things done, or just because you noticed lots of awkward gaps and tangents that might've always been there, previously unnoticed?

The goal of mindfulness might be interpreted in different ways

The goal? The Mind Illuminated has a dozen different goals for the various stages. Overall, it says:

The two main objectives of meditation practice are:

  • Developing stable attention.
  • Cultivating powerful mindfulness that optimizes the interaction between attention and awareness.
From my past experience, when I had more awareness I felt like I was way worse at things. I noticed every time I forgot something, and saw lots of dumb thoughts. But it seems likely to me now that that's just how things have always been, and that was one of the few times I was aware of it. Do you say your productivity was worse because you actually got fewer things done, or just because you noticed lots of awkward gaps and tangents that might've always been there, previously unnoticed?

I got less done.

The Power of Now is not very gears-y. It does get a litte gears-y when it talks about concrete practices which aim to help you live in the now, but only a little. You have to fill in gears. I generated very charitable interpretations as I was reading. it. It's definitely a soft skills book.

It sounds like in your comment, you're saying one of these two things:

The comment you're referring to was making a more philosophical point that moments are only meaningful in their connection to other moments. I could have made the same point by pointing out that there is always a delay from when one neuron fires to when another fires in response. I was pushing against the strong Now-ish ontology in the power of now. Nonetheless, you response is not irrelevant, because part of what I was claiming was that one should do something much like "checking in" as you describe it, in order to see whether they were really conscious/aware/attentive of what was happening in the previous moment.

I would expect it to decrease your attention and increase your peripheral awareness. And more specifically to decrease your attention on thoughts, and increase your peripheral awareness of external senses. Does that sound right?

I think this is part of it, but another part of it is that The Power of Now recommends something like directly facing your suffering in order to transmute it into consciousness. This led me to nonlinguistically focus on any distracting feelings such as not wanting to be doing what I was doing and wanting to procrastinate instead. This was somewhat interesting, but disruptive of productivity.

I think this is part of it, but another part of it is that The Power of Now recommends something like directly facing your suffering in order to transmute it into consciousness.

The Mind Illuminated recommends the same thing. Its model is that the suffering from pain actually comes from your aversion to the pain, rather than the pain itself, and that putting your attention on the sensation itself tends to improve matters. Can confirm that stubbing my toe while not meditating involves cussing, while stubbing my toe while meditating involves my attention going to a particularly interesting sensation in my toe for a little while.

Aversion is... a "negative mental state involving judgement, reject, and denial. Includes hatred, anger, resentment, dissatisfaction, criticism, impatience, self-accusation, and boredom". As to weather a "mental state" the same or different from an "emotion", and if different what the difference is, I have no idea.

This led me to nonlinguistically focus on any distracting feelings such as not wanting to be doing what I was doing and wanting to procrastinate instead. This was somewhat interesting, but disruptive of productivity.

Ah, I wouldn't have expected that. Good to know!

Ah, I wouldn't have expected that. Good to know!

Thinking about your framing from TMI, perhaps I'm supposed to put my awareness but not my attention on the distracting thoughts. The reason it is tempting to do more than this is to "fully integrate the part of me that wants to not be doing this" -- IE, put full awareness onto it to dialogue with it, and decide what I really want to do with the fullness of what I want right now.

In your experience, is it enough to have awareness on the stubbed toe, or is it necessary to put attention on it? You describe your attention going to the toe.

For the stubbed toe, attention is definitely required. However, the mind sense is very different from the other senses. If I understand correctly, if you have attention but not awareness on your thoughts, that is thinking. And I don't know about you, but I personally have little mind awareness. (If I had more, I could notice that I was thinking thoughts before my mind wanders off while meditating, but I only ever notice after I've caught it.) The Mind Illuminated says that I'm going to develop more mind awareness in Stage 4, which I'm not at yet.

Anyhow, that was a tangent. The Mind Illuminated has a table of seven mental problems that might get in your way of meditating, and what to do about them. It sounds like yours is most similar to "procrastination and resistance to practicing", for which you are supposed to "Frequently recall the benefits of practice [in your case, your work], constantly refresh and renew your motivation, and 'just do it'. See Stage one." So, no special meditative solutions here, just ordinary ones.

Meta comment: are your upvotes worth 7 points?

Meta comment: are your upvotes worth 7 points?

Seems that way. I don't know what the exact formula is, but it is based on karma.

Note: normal upvotes are 1-3 points depending on karma. Strong upvotes are more variable.

I think there’s some looseness in the Mind Illuminated ontology around this point, but I would say: thinking involves attention on an abstract concept. When attention and/or awareness are on a thought, that’s metacognitive attention and/or awareness. For example, if I’m trying to work on an intellectual task but start thinking about food, my attention has moved from the task to food. Specifically my attention might be on a specific possibility for dinner, or on a set of possibilities. If I have no metacognitive awareness, then I’m lost in the thought; my attention is not on the thought, it’s on the food.

"mental noting" is a useful phrase if you want to look more into this.

Yeah, one might think I'm going against the grain, recommending something that more experienced meditators warn against. On the other hand (and imho), we could take it as a warning against ordinary distractedness and ordinary unmindful involvement in thoughts. Focusing intentionally on one specific mental motion is very different.

Of course, that's for the goal of the book, which is about mindfulness meditation, which involves stabilizing your attention and strengthening your peripheral awareness.

The goal of mindfulness might be interpreted in different ways (and I haven't read that book yet), but ender the interpretation of defusion, I think there's nothing particularly harmful about the track-back exercise. It is possible that it can get you caught up in history and therefore fused with the thoughts, but it is also possible that looking at the history helps put thoughts at a little distance.

For example, someone using mindfulness to deal with cigarette cravings (trying to quit) is supposed to pay mindful attention to the craving, and "ride the wave" until the craving is over. It is possible that tracking back to what gave rise to the craving helps contextualize it and thus put it at a remove ("I was stressed just now, and then I started having the craving"). It is also possible that it takes you away from moment-to-moment presence, and the next thing you know, you find yourself reaching for a cigarette. I don't know for sure.

If your goal is related to debiasing, though, I think it's a pretty good form of mindfulness: the question "why did I have that thought?" is closely related to epistemic hygiene. "Why am I thinking this plan is bad? Ah, I started out being annoyed at Ellen for her bad driving, and then she mentioned this plan. But, her driving is unrelated to this plan..."

I like this idea. I think I'll try it. It's similar to what I've been doing while meditating recently: every time I notice I'm distracted, I'll say the current thought that was distracting me, and count up by 1.

In more detail, for the past 10 days, I've spent an hour or so meditating while walking. I'll let my object of focus vary pretty freely between my footsteps or sounds. When I notice that I've been distracted, I'll say the immediate cause (without tracing back) and count up by 1. I'll count up to around 50 distractions in an hour or so (this is with practice: on the first day I don't think I got past 30 before things became... indistinct?). This has been fairly effective, to the point that today some of my distractions were short enough that I realized their original cause without even thinking about it. I'm interested to see what happens when I try to trace back my distractions.

Something like half of my distractions are thoughts about how awesome I'm going to be once I'm enlightened or whatever. It's ironic that this may be the main thing holding back my meditation practice right now.

I find walking much more effective than sitting. If I try to meditate while sitting, I'll inevitably get groggy. This isn't unique to meditating---I'll get groggy while sitting for a lecture too---I just generally focus better while standing. (Unless I'm coding, in which case sitting is fine? I'm not sure why it's different.)

Question for more experienced meditators: is it ok that I let my object of focus vary? Should I be more concerned about having a consistent object of focus?

Advice for less experienced meditators: "focus on the object of meditation" does not mean what I intuitively thought it did. When trying to do that, I try to focus on that to the exclusion of all else, and it goes poorly. Instead, it means what I would have described as "be present and aware of things in general, and also be aware of the object of meditation in particular". That is, focus on it, but not to the exclusion of other sensations. I learned this from The Mind Illuminated.

I've been trying this for a couple of weeks now. It's hard! I often will have a missing link in the distraction chain: I know something that came at point X in the distraction chain and X-n, for n > 1. When I try and probe the missing part it's pretty uncomfortable. Like using or poking a numb limb. It can be pretty aversive, so I can't bring myself to do this meditation every time I meditate.

I've been doing some ad hoc track-backs while trying to do anapanasati meditation and I found them quite interesting. Never tried to go for track-backs specifically but it does seem like a good idea and the explanations and arguments in this post were quite convincing. I'm going to try it in my next sessions.

I also learned about staring into regrets, which sounds like another great technique to try. This post is just a treasure trove, thank you!