They say “practice makes perfect.” When it comes to meditation however, the rule doesn’t apply. “After twenty years,” warned a Zen master, “you can finally say you’ve begun to learn how to sit.” Practice skill in meditation (and its associated benefit) is slow to develop. Indeed, you can get even less effective with practice!
How is this possible? As a research psychologist interested in skill learning, the paradox drew me. I gave meditation a critical look and found the root of the problem. From this followed a solution so simple you’ll be amazed it hasn’t been seen before. Let me show you how feedback, added to meditation, accelerates progress and assures success.
What Is Feedback and Why Does Meditation Need It?
Meditation takes many forms. Some methods sit, some move, some are vocal, some silent. All methods however have one thing in common. All have the same “active ingredient.” It is attention. Attention (focused on a mantra, a candle flame or the breath for instance), makes meditation work. With sustained attention, practice skill grows and meditation moves mountains. Without attention you wander and while away time.
“Feedback” is known in psychology as the knowledge of results necessary for learning. Skill learning requires feedback, and attention is a learned skill. To see why feedback is necessary, imagine practicing darts wearing a blindfold. To become skilled at darts you need to see what you are doing -- you need feedback to correct your aim. Meditation without feedback is like shooting darts blindfolded. Your target is attention, but you can’t see your target. You may sit down to meditate with the best intentions, but attention slips away unseen. You lose attention without even knowing you are losing it. (You find out later when you wake from a daydream.) To become skilled at attending you need to see what you are doing. You need to monitor attention. You need feedback.
How Can You Add Feedback to Meditation?
Adding feedback to meditation is surprisingly easy. Indeed, visual feedback has been right before the eyes of meditators all along and unrecognized. You’ve heard of the “light” of enlightenment? If you’ve meditated with open eyes you may also have seen it -- visual distortion in the form of light. This light is feedback – proof of attention. It is caused by attention itself. It works like this. Attention holds the eyes still. This creates a stabilized retinal image. Photo pigment on the retina is used up, causing visual distortion. When you zero in and focus on the light, you literally attend to attention. Halos of light (or other distortions) are feedback signals confirming attention.
What are the Advantages of Feedback?
Now consider the advantages of feedback. First and foremost comes fast, sure-footed practice skill development.
Fast Practice Skill Development
In meditation, your aim is attention. As in shooting darts blindfolded, however, traditional methods offer no way to perfect your aim. Practice skill improves slowly, if at all. Feedback solves the problem. Seeing what you are doing, practice skill improves automatically, and great gains come from doing this better, not necessarily longer.
Buddhist tradition says: “Just sit… and eventually, maybe after many lifetimes, you will come upon the truth.” This assumes many lifetimes of drifting and dreaming. With feedback to harness attention, however, a butterfly mind takes a bee-line. Quality, not quantity of practice counts most here -- not hours spent meditating, but minutes on target. Beginners have instant success. Advanced practice has breakthrough intensity. Feedback prevents wandering, and when you don’t wander you cover ground fast and every second of practice time counts. This is straight-line meditation: the shortest distance between you and your goal.
Often, meditation students are taught there is no right or wrong way to do it. They sit passively, hoping for luck. Why is meditation so passive? Because it has to be. Being aggressive would be like running full speed when you’re not sure where you are going. Feedback lets you see where you are going. It lets you correct your course. With guidance from feedback you can run full speed to your goals.
You can tell if someone is driving blind. He is all over the road. Inconsistent results of meditation show the same directional instability. It is all too easy to meditate in circles. Some meditation teachers encourage students by saying there is no goal. Some even say there is nothing to be gained, but this puts a damper on motivation to practice. Who wants to work toward no goal? Feedback takes care of this too. You can set goals, you can move directly toward them, and you can aim high.
You Can Aim High
Many meditate for relaxation, but that’s like attending a banquet and eating crumbs off the floor. With feedback you feast at the banquet. Traditional meditation gets you into the banquet hall, but feedback sits you down at the table to feast. You can aim high, and most important of all, with feedback success is assured.
Success Is Guaranteed.
Meditation is a trial and error process but with traditional methods, most error goes undetected. Without confirmed attention there’s no guarantee of success. Use feedback to harness attention and success is guaranteed.
Today the feedback meditation method is fully developed, researched and presented in Straight Line Meditation: How to Restore Awareness and Why You Need to by Carol E. McMahon, Ph.D. with Master Deac Cataldo. With feedback you’ll “see the light” in more ways than one
As a National Science Foundation Trainee, Carol earned a Doctorate in psychology from Penn State University. Her book WHERE MEDICINE FAILS (paperback 2009), was a driving force in the holistic health movement. Carol is the author of STRAIGHT LINE MEDITATION: HOW TO RESTORE AWARENESS AND WHY YOU NEED TO with martial arts Master Deac Cataldo.