how to do foreground/background meditation

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[Getting busy in current life situation; updates will be sparser. Or I’ll need to blow off steam and updates will frequent. Questions appreciated, to direct this blog where you want it to go.]

[UPDATED 12 JUNE 2015: A few things; First, I consider this post to be basically up-to-date and “core.” Second, I want to acknowledge that this post is really messy, off-putting, and confusing, especially the first few sections. I’m not ready to edit it. If you’re patient with it, the meat is in the the lettered points, which were written carefully. Second, I consider so-called Tacit Updating to currently be “canon.” Please consider reading the post linked below in conjunction with this one:

Finally, for an excellent complementary perspective, check out Culadasa’s work and, most likely, especially his upcoming book, which has hopefully been published by the time you read this. More Culadasa stuff, here: ]

[UPDATED 6 SEPTEMBER 2013: Added points N2 and O2.]

[UPDATED 5 SEPTEMBER 2014: Added point R]

[UPDATED 5 SEPTEMBER 2014: Added point S]

[UPDATED 25 NOVEMBER 2014: Added points N3 and O3]

We’ve come a long way…

  • I’ve given you a bunch of other resources to learn meditation that aren’t connected to me:

  • I’ve shown you an auxiliary meditation practice that I do:

  • I’ve shown you how I keep track of my own meditation practice:

  • I’ve given you some reasons to meditate:

  • I’ve given you some reasons not to meditate:

  • I’ve suggested stuff to do besides meditation:

So, at this point, I hope things will be a little anticlimactic. It’s time to start the meditating, thinking, reading, meditating, thinking, reading loop, if you’re down and you haven’t already. Concepts absolutely, positively guide the act of meditation. Your maps are critical. (Your capacity to forge ahead without perfect maps is critical, too.) But meditation is a transcognitive act. Meditation enfolds cognition.


As far as I know, my formulation here is novel. But the most direct inspirations are these resources, in no particular order:

Mindfulness in Plain English

Coming back to remember – Sati II: Theravada Practice Blog

Recollective Awareness

Distinguishing Phenomena and Pure Being

Upasaka Culadasa’s still unpublished book (Thanks, Jasen!)

(The bajillion other resources I’ve linked in previous blog posts have also inspired this practice.)

I wish I could say “firmly push this big red button exactly 20,010,173 times and you will experience supreme enlightenment.

But we don’t have that.

But what if you we could do dual fMRI and EEG on you, show you what your brain should look like, gamify that shit with a simple, objective scoring system and let you go to town?

Well, we don’t have that either.

But, even if we did, and even if we had nanomachines hanging out in neurons and synapses, and sweet-ass exocortices, and libraries of highly nuanced and tunable mind states designed by other people that you could load as desired…

I am recommending that even if we had that or will have that, you still need to be the final arbiter of your conscious experience. It’s a “thing” in a category by itself. You *experience* it. It *is* you, and all you’ll ever know *is* it. So, what’s there right now? How do you feel about it? What can you change and what can’t you change? What’s the cost and what’s the benefit? What might you become? How might you live and see and feel? On the other hand, are there things you care about that are more important than managing your internal state? Are there things more important than, e.g. “not suffering?” Evolution has “designed” us to really, really care about really real things. Are you going to fight that or roll with it?

I guess my point in this section is that, regardless of all the fancy, mindblowing stuff that may or may not be available in the near or far future, you can’t escape a) goal ambiguity, b) environmental isotropy, and c) enaction, with respect to your mindstream. To be less jargony, possible futures don’t come in tidy and discrete packages, paths to those future don’t come in tidy and discrete packages, and taking action changes the desirability of possible futures, the possible futures themselves, and the possible paths to those futures. All of that applies to doing, being, and having.

Even more succinctly, though perhaps this section has been totally incoherent, you need to make contact with the territory and get messy. Maps are not sufficient when you’re dealing with your mindstream. Experience has to be experienced. It’s in a class by itself.

So, here are the instructions, with some unpacking following them:

  • As you read these instructions, and as you experiment with the practice, of course your mind will furiously engage and try to figure out exactly what’s going on, what you’re supposed to be doing, what doing the practice is doing to you, how everything about this practice connects to everything else you know, etc. Great! Just don’t fixate on what you think is supposed to be happening, what you think you’re supposed to be doing, what you think you’re supposed to be experiencing, what “doing it right” means, etc. Keep an open mind and allow yourself to be surprised and confused and curious. UPDATE: What you think I mean, and what you think you’re probably supposed to do, your initial impulse, your initial carrying out of the instructions, and over and over again–let your understanding and doing evolve from there, be open to an evolving understanding…
  • Note that there is no precise algorithm. There are a series of touchstones that you can step through. There’s room for artistry, experimenting, finesse, curiosity…
  • In general, keep your critical faculties online while also openmindedly surrendering to whatever you’re experiencing instead of trying to force what you “should” be experiencing. You’re not mindlessly rowing a boat, and there’s no rush, rather, rushing misses the point. Quality not quantity, and all that. Light, minimalistic, deft touch, ever smarter over time, with lots of doing and thinking and reading and reflecting on what you’ve done and why you’re doing it.

So here we go:

A) Choose an object or process (breathing, body, site, sound, “the act of X”).

B) Gently allow awareness to rest on that object and gently stabilize awareness there. The asymptotic ideal is continuous, unbroken contact with the object. Pay attention, know that you’re paying attention, and remember you’re paying attention.

C) The boundaries of the “object” or “patch of space” or “sensation” or “collection of objects or sensations” you select are arbitrary. As your perception improves over hours or weeks, any boundaries you choose will start to get fuzzy. For example, you’ll start to see the phenomenal and temporal distinction between “what’s actually there” and “your abstracted and packaged mental impression of what’s there.” Don’t get hung up on where to draw the experiential boundary; Make some arbitrary choices or draw the line and pick something “out there” like a chair, a mark on the wall, a leaf on a tree, your breathing, the act of sitting, etc. You don’t have to get perfectly semantically clear about boundaries before starting. Ongoing ambiguity is fine and necessary.

D) Simultaneously with (B), balance awareness of the object with the entire rest of the phenomenal field, with all of experience and awareness, inside of you, outside of you, everything. Update: “That’s part of your meditation practice. And that. And that. And that… And that… Nothing is outside your meditation practice.”

E) The “goal” is to try to gently, “effortlessly” have both the foreground “object” and the background “everything else” be equally salient. Both the foreground and the background can have a lot going on, they can be dynamic. Update: Consider doing it, thinking about it, as Culadasa describes, “looking through the meditation object,” if that resonates with you a little better.

F) If you lose track of the foreground or background, or you get distracted, gently return to the protocol: stabilize on an object, become aware of everything, etc.

G) Balancing foreground and background is an active process, not a static end state. If you’re course correcting, you’re meditating. Course correcting, actively aiming, among other things, *is* the meditation.

H) To balance foreground and background, you’re continually remembering what you’re doing, adverting to the object, making choices if the boundary of the object is ambiguous, remembering to include the entire background, not getting “hooked” by objects in the background, noticing changing salience of foreground and background. Pay attention to what’s going on, what you’re experiencing, what’s going by. Use it, learn from it, think about it. Steal moments for micro-reflection or let cognition go on in the background or try micro-interventions or experiment with things you’ve noticed at a different time.

I) You can’t brute-force the balancing of foreground and background. The mind doesn’t seem to be really built that way. There’s sort of a stepping back, letting go, widening, listening feel to it. Exploring *how* to balance foreground and background is also part of the practice, is also meditating. Reflect on what you’re doing, reflect on how you’re doing it, reflect on more deft use of your mental “doing” and “not-doing” muscles, and whether you’re using too much muscle, or the wrong muscle, or what muscles need to be gently coaxed to greater strength and capacity for continuous application (or non-application) over time.

J) This balancing of foreground and background is partly just a default thing to do, something to give you something to do, something concrete to return to. Deviate from default: Experiment, explore, chase after things. Do whatever the hell you want. Know, though, that this “default mode” was chosen carefully, and it is strength training and observational-tool-refining. Over time it changes what you see and what experiments you’re capable of performing.

K) When you start a particular meditation session, begin gently. Don’t dispel what’s been going on prior to meditation, don’t banish that context, that sense of what you’ve been doing, what you need to do, what’s going on in your life. Let it be, let it continue to unfold or hang out; there’s plenty of space to let that continue on while you’re meditating.

L) You’ll go off into reverie or daydreaming. When you return from reverie or daydreaming, don’t slam back in; return gently. Don’t dispel the contents of your reverie or daydreaming, that sense of where you’ve been, what you were thinking about, or doing, or experiencing. Let it be, let it continue to unfold or hang out; there’s plenty of space to let where you were continue on while you’re meditating.

M) To elaborate further on the last point, reverie and daydreaming are not your enemy. As you gain more experience over weeks, months, and years, your mind will indeed wander less during meditation. And, over weeks, months, and years, those periods of wandering will become shorter. But they’re not something to eradicate, and you’ll have different “reverie needs” depending on what’s going on in your life at any given time.

N) The reason reverie-during-meditation is a good thing is that not all mental gears can turn while “you are there paying attention.” Lots and lots of gears *can* turn while you’re watching closely (i.e. actively meditating), and, over time, you develop a light touch so more and more gears can smoothly turn while you’re there to watch. But some gears *can’t* turn while you’re directly watching. Let your mind move forward on its own terms, if it wants to, by easing you into reverie. Honor what comes back by allowing it to continue on with you as you keep meditating.

N2) More on “gears”: There are mental gears, emotional gears, patterns-of-subtle-muscular-tension gears. You can fixate on a particular set of objects, perspectives, assertions, or viewpoints. You can “clench” around emotions and visceral states. Pushing things away is also a “clenching.” Over time you can have a lighter and lighter touch. You can’t make things go away (at least, I don’t try), but you can allow things to breath and shimmer and undulate and flow and ripple and move, and even wail and rage. You can find a steady place to rest your attention in the foreground, and without rejecting or pushing away anything that’s happening, you can let all that rage in the “background.” But remember you’re balancing “foreground” and “background” in salience. This should be the subject of an additional post, but you can use foreground background meditation as another choice for how to be with thinking and feeling. As your foreground attention is gently resting on something somewhat neutral, and you’re still attending to everything in the background with your “mental peripheral vision,” you get to experience thinking and feeling in its “natural state,” “in the wild” when it’s not “pinned to the wall” or frozen, or fixated by attention. There’s nothing wrong with applying foreground attention. But it can be moving, freeing, profound, to completely be with what you’re experiencing (because you’ve made the “background” salient) while allowing or surrendering to everything you’re experiencing (because the “freezing” aspect of direct attention is gently occupied with a neutral object).

N3) Sometimes, if I have a lot going on my life, with strong reverie and thinking needs, I’ll still want to apply myself in meditation a bit, too. In these cases, I’ll maintain the lightest of light touches on the meditation protocol and just sort of gently flicker back and forth between reverie and awareness of background, with just the barest hint of foreground, all of it kind of hanging out together on the edge of each other, lightly drifting, shifting, back and forth, letting the mental gears turn a bit, sometimes a lot, while still sticking around, hanging out, looking back, seeing, spending time with what just happened, letting it all be there at once, back and forth, keeping the process company and surrendering to it. The sounds like a lot, but it’s just a gentle shifting, flickering, back and forth, side to side, light, precise-yet-relaxed-touch, letting it all be, letting it happen, letting what wants to happen, happen, while periodically resurfacing and checking in.

O) Anxiety while meditating is a good indicator that your mind is trying to move something forward (and that “something” could be quite amorphous, initially or perpetually), and that “something” isn’t getting enough airtime or not all the gears that want to turn are able to turn. Anxiety can mean you’re being too rigid. Go off-protocol, use more mind muscles, think, poke, allow your mind to wander, etc. Maybe stop meditating and write in your journal, or make that phone call, or do that chore, etc.

O2) Sometimes anxiety can be moved forward by giving what you’re anxious about direct foreground attention (and reverie and off-the-cuff language and writing, etc.). This works great when you have concepts and language that adequately cover what you’re anxious above, or you have enough of a sense that you can eventually get the language you need by starting with not-quite-right language and eventually circling to words that more or less work. Alternatively, sometimes anxiety can be moved forward by allowing it spaciousness in the background, being with it with your “mental peripheral vision,” letting it be vague and amorphous and cognitively unboxed because you don’t have concepts that can “cover” it at this time or it’s still unfolding and evolving and it’s not a good time to be using conceptual machinery. It doesn’t have to be just anxiety, either. These foreground background choices also can work for hopes, dreams, frustrations, longings, desires, urges, doubts, ideas, drives, and subtle or not-so-subtle mental/emotional “energy” and “inner life” for which there isn’t words in your native language. There are, at times, very powerful behavioral drivers that seem to never make it into foreground attention, but they drive tremendous amounts of thinking and doing. It can be very freeing, and useful, and even fill you with relief, if you can spot this stuff at work in the background (remember, you need to use search around with your “mental peripheral vision”; looking around with foreground attention doesn’t seem to work.

O3) Of course, meditation doesn’t have a monopoly on insight. Really, there are much more direct tools for insight and understanding. Meditation is kind of a background muscle builder for the skills of insight and understanding. (Sure, meditation can make spontaneous insight more likely. And it’s great to incline towards and let that happen. But there’s much more you can add to the mix.) Check out Focusing, Internal Family Systems Therapy, Coherence Therapy, The Lefkoe Method, daydreaming, journal writing, conversation, long slow aimless walks, deep and dreamy sleep, lots of internet googling and reading, Radical Honesty concepts, tools from Dan Wile’s books… I’m still thinking about how to more directly integrate these tools with meditation. See also:

P) You can look at meditation in a few different ways: 1) As a controlled environment where you can observe and perform experiments. 2) As a stripped down training ground for daily life where you can practice inner behaviors that you want bring into daily life, and 3) Weight training–very general mental moves that have general positive *transference* to all sorts of daily stuff but aren’t meant to be actually performed or recalled in daily life. They are all useful perspectives.

Q) General heuristic: Don’t look *for* things, instead look at what’s *there*, in front of your stabilized awareness.

R) At some point, perhaps consider making the foreground object “action,” or “an action.” For example, the foreground object could be the act of sitting, or “doing sitting.” (Sit, keep sitting, keep it up, you’re doing great, onward with the sitting, sit really skillfully [seriously]…) (All the above applies with respect to the background.) And then, perhaps, more and more complex doings, more and more intense doings (or being done to you)… And an exploration of this in daily life. But, when in doubt, just live, act, do, without trying to add a layer of meditation on top of it.

S) As an alternative to (R) perhaps consider that, your foreground attention, of necessity, flits from object to object object during everyday, normal, day-to-day life. That’s how you function in normal day-to-day life. During that, throughout that, perhaps notice that the background is always, already, effortlessly there, effortless available… And, perhaps, consider what that makes available to you, always, already, effortlessly… At some point, you may start to get a sense of a foreground-background reversal, where your “foreground” attention swims within an ever-present, ever-salient background… Something to explore…


Ok, so you pick on object, stabilize on that object, open to everything, and try to roll with what happens. Piece of cake! Repeat fo-ev-a. Not.

Phase 1: no idea what you’re doing, distracted, forget what you’re supposed to be doing for minutes at a time

Phase 2: maybe anxious, breathing gets in the way, feels unnatural

Phase 3: get in the groove a bit, sort of get a sense of what you’re supposed to be doing, pretty on task

Phase 4: what you’re supposed to be doing sort of starts to get unclear again (you perception gets finer, you start to see subtle holes in the instructions where reality doesn’t seem to match up with them)

Phase 5: kind of drift back and forth between doing the practice and reverie, even in reverie there seems to be a momentum where “something” is still meditating even when you’re not all there, probably cycle back and forth between 2-30 seconds on protocol, then 2-30 seconds in reverie, with something tacit stable across both, maybe.

Phase 6: you own this shit. flexible, agile, multi-threaded, creative, relaxed, effortless effort, excitement, confusion, possibility, curiosity, jazzy riffs, ambiguity, auxiliary refinements, new moves in daily life, new ways of relating to self and world, only the beginning, lather, rinse, repeat…

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17 thoughts on “how to do foreground/background meditation

  1. Been looking forward to this post! Thanks. All the posts up until and including today make for a nice, conversational introduction/level 1 reading and path-setting.

    • Great; it’s my pleasure! Questions and comments on the content are always greatly appreciated, so I can efficiently improve how I communicate this stuff and choose the right stuff to focus on.

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  15. I have found that, if I am experiencing pain below a certain threshold, and I make the pain the foreground object and “everything else” remains the background, the pain loses any quality of suffering or aversiveness.

    So far this only works for pain below a certain threshold, say 6 or 7 on the pain scale. Sometimes I can get it to work on an 8 but it requires an exhausting amount of focus to maintain. Get into 9 or 10 territory and my nervous system stops coordinating properly.

    I’m specifically using this technique on migraine headaches. Perhaps this qualifies as “experiential avoidance” but I would argue that this is an appropriate time for experiential avoidance.

  16. I think if one is making a deliberate, informed, strategic choice then it’s no longer experiential avoidance? Semantics, leaky abstractions…

    Maybe a better way to look at is, experiential avoidance is trying to not experience what you happen to be already experiencing in that exact moment.

    Sorry if this gets lecture-y, I’m just riffing, not at you:

    I aggressively intervene at times while simultaneously surrendering to everything-all-at-once-before-during-and-after-and-ongoing, including the phenomenology of intervening. It can be a delicate balancing act and I explore the phenomenology of that balancing act too. You can also fully experience the phenomenology and texture and dynamics of your experiential avoidance, too, and the what’s-being-avoided around the edges of that.

    But, yeah, the rabbit hole goes deep, and I’m sure I can fool myself that I’m facing something when I’m actually avoiding it.

    Sometimes one just needs to medicate and pass out in front of the TV, or it hurts too much to even distract yourself. Especially for interoceptive stuff (headache, diffuse abdominal pain, cytokine release when immune system goes into overdrive) I find that sometimes I suffer less when I distract, and sometimes I suffer less when I remove all distractions. And sometimes managing suffering is incidental to achieving some valued goal in the world regardless of internal state…

    More brain-dumping:

    Dan Ingram, who has picked apart and achieved multiple versions of classical Buddhist enlightenment, describes having kidney stones:

    My own little take on suffering:

    Less Wrongers on suffering:

    Shinzen Young’s take on suffering and “resistance”:
    “Suffering = Pain x Resistance”

    Some resources I’ve used to keep plodding forward while teasing apart physical, mental, and emotional issues:

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