Checking in in meditation
When you are learning to meditate, part of the process is learning to work with what is happening, rather than just doing some practice. What is happening will tell you what you have to do.
So for example, in Stage Four of the TMI stages, your goal is to cultivate introspective awareness. But let's think about this in the context of what is happening in Stage Four. In Stage Four, your attention is generally on the breath, and you almost never forget the breath or sink into mind-wandering.
What can happen in stage four is that you allow attention to dominate, and awareness to collapse, and this leads to dullness. What can also happen is that you allow attention to follow distractions that come up, and this leads to gross distraction.
It's important to understand that in stage four, your goal is not to completely overcome dullness, nor to completely overcome distraction. Don't set that as a goal. Your goal is to learn to notice dullness when it starts to progress, and to notice subtle distractions before they turn into gross distractions.
What allows you to develop introspective awareness is these two obstacles: distraction and dullness. You are trying to learn to notice something more subtle than forgetting or mind wandering. The trying to learn is what produces the result.
So your job in stage four is not to understand what introspective awareness is and turn that understanding into introspective awareness. It is to do the thing that produces introspective awareness. Introspective awareness is a result—it isn't the practice. Once you have introspective awareness working well enough to overcome gross distraction and progressive dullness, then you can use it as a tool, but right now it's a result.
So your task is to just sit there and be a target for the two obstacles. And then to notice the obstacles coming up. You just keep doing this. There are lots of techniques that you can use to make yourself a target, and to notice. Noticing is really just remembering that you wanted to do X, and noticing that you are instead doing Y. So you have to have an X that you want to do, and then you can notice that you aren't doing it. So e.g. connecting and following.
One of the practices in stage four is called checking in. Checking in is the process of periodically stopping the meditation and looking to see what was just happening. At first this can be like driving a car, and you stop the car, get out, and look around. Very disruptive. But as you do it more and more, you start to be able to treat it more like glancing in the rear-view mirror—something you do every so often, sort of automatically, that doesn't take a lot of effort and doesn't feel like a major interruption—just a little blip.
Eventually this little blip drops away, and you are left with introspective awareness: an awareness that is independent of attention, that just knows what is going on in attention. And when what is going on in attention doesn't match what is intended, then it makes an adjustment, without ever becoming a distraction.