The intend/release/notice loop
I mentioned something on reddit today and used the term “intend/release/notice loop” and realized that there wasn’t a great place to point to to explain what that is, so I’m explaining it here in hopes that it’ll be useful.
The developmental technique that I use for training people to meditate follows the method described in The Mind Illuminated. The book breaks the practice of learning how to meditate down into ten stages. The early stages, up through stage seven, are developmental stages: you are learning how to meditate. Of course, learning how to meditate, fortuitously, is also meditating, but it’s like learning how to ski—yes, you are skiing while you are learning how to ski, but at the beginning of the process you spend a lot of time doing things the hard way.
Nevertheless, there are themes that are applicable through the process of learning, and in the case of meditation, one theme is the intend/release/notice loop. This loop is used as a training technique in various ways throughout the learning process; once you have become an adept meditator (particularly in stages eight through ten), the loop is still there, but it’s happening automatically, in the same way that an expert skier automatically skis down a steep mogul run without having to deliberately ski each mogul one at a time.
The loop consists, as one might gather, of three steps:
Intend: form an intention to do something.
Release: let go of the intention and see what happens.
Notice: notice what actually happened.
You can think of this as an example of the scientific method: come up with an experiment, try it, see what happens. Learn from what happened, and then either repeat the experiment, or come up with a different experiment. Of course, in the scientific method, the apparatus shouldn’t change, whereas when doing meditation practice, the apparatus is different over time; over time the apparatus (your mind) learns how to do the loop automatically. When this happens, you’re ready for the next stage.
So for example in stage one, you might simply intend to sit down and meditate every day for at least five minutes. You set that intention, and then you release it see what happens. If you wake up the next morning and realize that you forgot to meditate, well then the intention didn’t work, and it probably needs to be tweaked. If you did do your meditation, maybe it did work, or maybe you just got lucky. Repeating it for a while will tell you which it was. If your intention isn’t working, then there’s a debugging process—reviewing what happened, trying to identify what went wrong, setting a slightly different intention next time that includes an antidote for whatever went wrong.
In stage two, your intention is simply to follow the breath with your attention, and notice when you aren’t following it. When you notice, that’s actually good—there’s not a lot that can go wrong in stage two, because noticing is the whole job. In stage two you start to develop introspective awareness—the ability to be aware of what your mind is doing—but it’s very weak, and so all you can do is just try to have introspective awareness, which you do by intending to follow the breath, and then see how long it lasts. If you repeat this process with a good attitude, not feeling like you’ve failed when you notice, then over time your introspective awareness will grow, and then you’ll be in stage three.
In stage three, your intention is to follow the breath with your attention, and to notice when gross distractions are happening, or when you’ve lost the breath entirely. If you notice gross distractions, this is introspective awareness at work, and it’s great—at this point your goal is to gently release the distraction. This can be surprisingly difficult to do, but that’s another story. If you notice that you’ve forgotten to follow the breath, you just set the intention again and continue, and maybe wonder a bit why you didn’t notice the gross distraction that lead to forgetting. Over time this trains your introspective awareness to automatically notice gross distractions before they become forgetting. When this habit is pretty firmly established, you are in stage four.
In stage four, you have two obstacles to contend with: gross distraction and dullness. So your intention is some variation on “notice when a subtle distraction comes up that’s going to turn into a gross distraction, and also notice when dullness is setting in.” And then you release and just follow the breath until you notice something. In stage four, you’ll be following the breath without forgetting, but gross distractions can come up that feel a lot like forgetting, because there can be this ongoing progression of thoughts. Notice that you haven’t actually forgotten to follow the breath, though—you’re just distracted. When you automatically notice that dullness is starting, before it gets at all bad, and when you automatically notice subtle distractions before they turn into gross distractions (and of course do what it takes to counteract the dullness or distraction), you’re on to stage five.
In stage five, you are intending to increase the clarity of the breath sensations, either directly or by doing the body scan practice. So now the loop goes something like this: intend to increase the clarity and intensity of breath sensations; follow the breath; notice if clarity and intensity have increased. If just intending for this to increase doesn’t work, try the body scan and see if that helps. If not, maybe you haven’t sufficiently overcome stage four dullness yet.
I could continue, but I think you get the idea. In each stage of practice, this same theme appears; what you notice changes, what you intend changes, and your experience during the release part of the practice changes, but the basic flow of the practice is largely the same. Which is good, because of course when we move forward to the next stage, it’s often the case that we haven’t really perfected the previous stage, so knowing what the loop looks like and what practices to plug in at each stage is really handy.