The Feedback Loop: Staying on Track

The Feedback Loop: Staying on Track

“How do I know if I’m meditating right?” –Every Yogi

Kenneth Folk: Something I think a lot about is the pedagogy of enlightenment, because I am trained as a teacher and I am a teacher by nature, and I have always been a teacher—teaching one thing or another. And so when I look at how awakening is taught, I think there is a lot of room for improvement. We are basically doing it the same way it has been done for thousands of years.

Joel Groover: Yes. I could not help but notice parallels between the traditional “32 parts of the body” meditation and what you call “the bystander,” where all four foundations of mindfulness are noted as a kind of symphony as they arise. You’re doing something similar there, without getting into a long discourse that could bog people down.

KF: My sense is that most of what is done isn’t necessary. I’m always trying to strip it down to its bare essentials and to be as efficient as possible. One of the things I think a lot about is how to have a feedback loop so that you know you’re doing the practice right.

One of the things people talk about, one of the things people worry about is “am I doing it right? Am I making the most efficient use of my practice time?” To some extent it is a legitimate concern because what people are doing on the cushion… who knows what they’re doing? For a lot of the time they are just daydreaming or spacing out. If there were some way to keep people honest to make sure that they’re doing it right the whole time—let’s say you have half an hour of practice. Well, what if you were actually practicing that whole time instead of daydreaming for 90% of the time and only practicing for 10%?

And actually there is a way to keep people honest with a feedback loop. It’s very low tech. It has to do with two people meditating together and reporting out loud just as you and I did the other day. This is one of the things I want to experiment with. I want to set people up in teams and have them meditate together. Whether it’s on the phone or in person, it doesn’t matter. What is important is that for the entire half-hour you actually pay attention to something, you actually objectify something, whether it’s body sensations or feeling tones or mind states or thoughts, and report aloud in real-time.

If people really did that for half an hour a day, the power of that is beyond imagining.

JG: I did this [noting practice] for maybe 40 minutes this morning. It is really interesting territory to start exploring.

KF: Yes. You get the momentary concentration going, the khanika samadhi. So, we know that there is a relationship between samadhi or concentration and how much progress you can make in this practice, and there is this aspect of khanika samadhi where you become concentrated just by noting over and over. So if I am saying—if I am meditating with a partner and doing this aloud and I am saying, “pressure… tension… softness… coolness… pressure… unpleasant… pleasant… neutral… anticipation… investigation… curiosity… annoyance… amusement… joy… dread” [Kenneth is reporting his experience in real-time, about one note per second], I become very concentrated, very quickly because my mind does not have time to wander.

It makes me think of a story that Sayadaw U Pandita told when I was meditating at his monastery in Rangoon in the early 1990s. He said mindfulness has to—he was actually talking about the word satipathana—and he said it has to be very quick. Think of it like this, he said: you go to an event like a concert and there are no assigned seats. So you want to make sure that you get in there quickly and sit down in the best seat before somebody else sits down in it. Your mindfulness should be like that. You have to get in there and put mindfulness in that place before something else sits down there. So by doing it in the way that we are doing it now and reporting in real-time, there isn’t any possibility for anything else to sit down there. I had no time for my mind to wander while I was reporting to you just now.

And if wandering mind does become an issue then I can simply objectify thoughts. Once I have some momentum going, because I worked up from bodily sensations to feeling tones through mind states, now I’m going to objectify thoughts. So I will say “anticipation thought… remembering thought… imaging thought… worrying thought… anticipation thought… wondering thought…”

There just isn’t any time for the so-called hindrances to arise. And I can imagine people doing that as pairs and going much deeper in a shorter time. In terms of actually gaining insight and moving up through the Progress of Insight and the Four Paths of Enlightenment, I can imagine them actually making more progress than when they sit by themselves because there’s so much more scope for spacing out when you’re by yourself; there’s no feedback loop and nobody knows what’s going on in your mind. There is no way to evaluate what percentage of that time was actually spent doing productive work and how much of it was spent spacing out.

JG: It is interesting to hear you say that because I think it was a Tami Simon interview that I heard where she was talking with someone who was using actually biofeedback technology with meditators and what he said was that at a certain point with a person you might realize that actually this person has been sitting there thinking for 15 years. Neurologically or whatever they were able to tell that the person was not getting into a meditative state as we would think of it. So it was the absence of that feedback that you are talking about that was the problem. The person wasn’t actually doing it right.

KF: That’s right. How would we know unless there was some kind of feedback loop? I suppose if you experimented with [high-tech biofeedback] you could really leverage that to get something good out of it, but what it is not telling us is, “Are you meditating on the Four Foundations of Mindfulness?” And so we have this easy way of finding out: ask the person to tell you! Just sit there with somebody else and have them say, “softness… pressure… warmth… coolness… pleasant… unpleasant,” whatever is happening for them in that moment. There’s no right or wrong answer, it’s just about noticing and reporting what’s going on.

The fact that we have not done that yet, the fact that that is not one of the main ways to teach and to learn enlightenment is rather bizarre to me.

JG: It may be increasingly relevant. Not to go too far out there, but people are using technologies like Hemisync or Holosync and inducing meditative states. But once you take the machine off, have you made any progress? Have you learned how to dis-embed in a way that becomes second nature?

KF: That is the point, right? So it may be that you can induce states by using the equipment that you’re talking about—I haven’t used it, so I don’t know—but some questions come up. Are you able to induce those states without the machine? And what is really being accomplished by inducing those states? Are you just finding another state to become embedded in?

This goes to the perennial concern about samatha meditation, about “concentration meditation” that leads to jhana. If all you’re doing is gaining new places in which to be embedded, that is not enlightenment. The whole point, if you want to awaken, is not to be embedded. It is to dis-embed. However, there is a real relationship between these deeply concentrated states and enlightenment because concentration gives us access to places in the mind that we would not otherwise have. We can then dis-embed from places in the mind that were previously unconscious.

If we cannot concentrate, we are always floundering around on the surface, in the froth at the top of the ocean of the mind. The ocean of the mind is so deep. You don’t just want to be on the froth on the surface; you want to be able to go plumb the depths of it, and concentration allows you to do that.

JG: But what is cool about the technique that you are teaching is that concentration is a byproduct of the process of dis-embedding itself.

KF: If by that you mean that momentary concentration allows you to go deep while simultaneously objectifying objects, then yes.

JG: Yeah. That is what I meant.

KF: Now it remains to be seen whether the “dry insight” technique that I’m suggesting will take you all the way by itself, because in practice what most people do is some combination of concentration and dry insight practice. Dry insight practice is when you note—Mahasi Sayadaw-style noting—and that is all you do. So you note the objects as they arise, but you never just sit and try to become concentrated and enter jhana.

But the people I know who have made real progress and have actually gotten enlightened by this particular Four Paths of Enlightenment model tend to be extremely good at entering deeply concentrated states. So they are not just doing dry insight.

JG: So this maybe gets to the idea of the three characteristics. I have heard people—I was at a Zen center, and someone was talking about the impermanence of objects and how they lack an inherent self, but the discussion was really sort of at an everyday, macro level. It was like, “The chair over there isn’t really a chair. It is food if you’re a termite. It is a chair to you, and it does not have an inherent self that will last forever.”

One of the students said, “Yeah, but none of this is news to me. None of this is particularly earth-shattering. I do not think that I’m going to live forever. I do not think that that chair is eternal. I do not see why this is so important.” I think the reason the person said that might have something to do with the fact that in, say, Burmese vipassana, you’re talking about developing concentration to a really refined degree and seeing objects at a level that is much more penetrating and almost subatomic. Does that make any sense?

KF: Yes. Enlightenment is not about thinking. No amount of thinking results in enlightenment. Just getting a new set of thoughts because you have become indoctrinated into the Buddhist way of thinking is interesting, but useless in terms of getting enlightened. So what is relevant about the three characteristics has nothing to do with my concepts about them. The three characteristics are basically a throwaway as a concept. You do not have to know them.

And so someone who sees deeply into the nature of phenomena can tell you things are impermanent, they are not self, and they are inherently unsatisfactory. So, in order, that was, in Pali, anicca (impermanence), anatta (not self) and dukkha (not satisfactory). So a person who is enlightened will tell you that because that is what they see. But as the student you just quoted said, who cares?

So the point is, how do you get this penetrating insight? If you do have this penetrating insight because you have done the practices that lead to it, it doesn’t matter what concepts you form about it.

JG: Just to give an example. I think, when did we talk last—just a few days ago here—and I have done the practice a few times and I already have some kind of very different relationship to unpleasant sensations. I cannot really—it would be hard for me to articulate that because it is a real-time thing. There is a sense of them not being me that is greater so that when my leg falls asleep when I’m sitting it is almost this thing that I’m interested in and exploring without that aversive quality so much. It is just very interesting, and I do not know how you can convey that to someone at the level of thinking.

KF: Right. You don’t convey it. And if you do, it doesn’t help. There is a story of Dipa Ma. If I remember the story correctly, she had a relative, maybe a niece, who was mentally retarded and she was able to guide this woman to stream entry, the first of the Four Paths of Enlightenment. Of course, she was not doing this by giving the woman a bunch of concepts, but by giving her the technique. The woman followed the technique and she was able to penetrate the objects and dis-embed from them. From my perspective, it always goes back to this process of dis-embedding.

The three characteristics are only relevant to the extent that when you really see them for yourself, you dis-embed from them: “Of course that is not me! How could it be when it is dissolving and unsatisfactory and so clearly isn’t me?”

JG: And yet the concept of dis-embedding is helpful. In our little sitting group it just so happens that one of the practitioners has just kind of discovered Mahasi Sayadaw on his own. We were discussing the whole idea of just really examining a bodily motion—lifting something and releasing every single step in that process. It could easily not make much sense to someone at first glance. But when you really think about what is happening with the dis-embedding process that you’re talking about, it starts to make sense. That phrase, “If I can objectify it or see it, it is not I,” that is very helpful.

KF: For me, that is the very essence of it, and I want to give yet another nod to Ken Wilber for that particular concept because I don’t see it anywhere else. I don’t see that in Buddhism. I don’t think they got that. This is the interesting thing—and this gets more and more refined over time: If you can look at all of the literature in all of the traditions through the centuries, and we can now, and try to tease out what is essential and what isn’t, it gets more and more clear what has to be done.

And so Wilber was able to figure out that this is really about dis-embedding from experience. Now on one hand this can be a little discouraging to people who like the comfort of religion and the mystery of it and do not want to be told that there is some mechanistic process that results in something we have always romanticized, which is enlightenment. And yet certainly at what I call the 1st Gear level, that is exactly what it is. It is very mechanistic. You just have to objectify the things arising in the mind and see that they are not “I”, and see that there is no place for the sense of self to hide until it gets kicked upstairs to some other, more subtle stratum of mind, which then has to the objectified. And when you put this 1st Gear practice, which is looking at the objects that arise in the mind—when you put that together with the 2nd Gear practice, which is objectifying the subject—asking “Who am I?” and turning the light of attention around to essentially bust itself, to bust this notion of “Here I am looking at these objects” and then you add in the Third Gear aspect, which is what I call “where practice”: so where is all of this happening? What is this awake space? And in fact there is no space.

That is the great mystery. The interesting thing here is that by the time you add in 2nd and 3rd Gear practices you are back to mystery. There is no shortage of wonder when you start looking at the “cognizant emptiness,” as the Tibetans would say. When you ask, “What is the awake space in which the subject and object are arising?”—that is wonderful. That is all the religion you need. You don’t need any new ideas. You just need to directly apprehend the remarkable reality of this life, this existence. What is helpful is to have a technology that changes the mind. Scientists are now finding that the brain is changing at the neurological level when people meditate.

JG: Oh yeah. Lots and lots of research there.

KF: That just validates what the Buddhists and other contemplatives have been saying all this time, that there is something very real going on here that is undeniable if you do this practice. And it is making it harder, because we now have the science, for people to pooh-pooh this.

JG: Right. I have a friend who is a neurologist and he is a hard-core materialist, but even he is interested in meditation because he has seen so much research. From his perspective, thought is just the brain acting on itself and is a material process 100%. So what he said was, “Meditators are really good at changing their brains.” So science sees it.

KF: That line, “meditators are really good at changing their brains,” is really useful. We are a materialistic, rationalistic culture and when you put it in those terms, suddenly people are willing to try it where they would not be otherwise. If people are going to conflate contemplative practices with ordinary religion, then it would be good to make this distinction between exoteric and esoteric spirituality. Esoteric spirituality is some kind of hands-on practice where you really are changing the brain. Exoteric spirituality is where you are talking about it and thinking about it. I like to say that spirituality is when you have an experience. Religion is when you talk about somebody else’s experience.

JG: Dipa Ma would say to her students “Are we practicing mindfulness, or are we just thinking about it all the time?”

KF: Right. Another teacher has this great quip, “Most people meditate from the neck up.” People are sitting and thinking about this. This is always a problem in meditation circles. There are people who, with all good intentions, become enamored of the ideas. And as a meditation teacher, part of the job is to keep reminding people that ideas aren’t enough, that they can be a useful support but you have got to apply these techniques. This comes back to the idea of keeping yourself honest by having a feedback loop and sitting with a partner and proving it. Sit there and prove it for 30 minutes.