Algorithmic Meditation Instruction

This entry is part 6 of 6 in the series Meditation and Algorithms

In the earlier posts in this series, we explored several meditation techniques that make explicit use of algorithms to optimize various facets of mindfulness and life. In this post, we’ll explore how algorithms can inform meditation instruction and the student-teacher relationship.

I teach meditation and mindfulness because it has been so helpful to me, and I want to share it with others. Because I am not enlightened, I consider myself a guide rather than a teacher. I excel at helping beginner or intermediate practitioners begin or deepen their practice, so that they can advance with the help of more experienced and advanced teachers.

My absolute favorite way to teach is on a on a one-to-one basis (in person or remotely). In a one-to-one setting, I can customize my instruction to the student’s goals, experience level, and current needs.

When I teach meditation, my goals are to help my students:

  • Establish a daily meditation habit that includes formal and informal practice
  • Become familiar with a broad system of practice, Unified Mindfulness
  • Develop a unique meditation strategy for their practice, based on their needs and goals

Wardley Map of my Meditation Instruction system

I take a one-size-fits-all approach for the first goal, establishing a daily meditation habit. All of my one-to-one meditation students are required to sit for thirty minutes of formal, seated practice a day. I have a standard contract that all of my students are required to sign, which includes this practice requirement and some other accountability structures. (If they agree to this agreement or we agree on a variation of it, I will teach them for free.)

For the second goal, becoming familiar with a broad system of practice, I teach a standard system: Shinzen Young’s Unified Mindfulness (formerly Basic Mindfulness). I’ve written about the advantages of Shinzen’s system for practitioners elsewhere. Although in my own meditation practice I’ve learned from many teachers in person and by reading, as a teacher, I’ve found myself teaching Shinzen’s system 80% of the time.

Usually, I try to meet with my students once a week in person or by voice or video chat for about thirty minutes. I try to teach them at least one new technique each week to work towards the goal of creating a basic familiarity and fluency with Unified Mindfulness.

Since I’ve worked with a number of students (I am currently working with four), it can be difficult to track who knows which technique. As an amateur software enthusiast, I built a tool to help me as a meditation teacher.

The program I wrote, simply called “meditation”, does three things:

  1. Maintain a database of meditation techniques
  2. Maintain a database of meditators, and which meditation techniques they know how to do
  3. Generate custom meditation “workout routines

The program is written in Clojure, uses the lovely Specter (like lenses for Clojure, or so they tell me) to read and write to a nested data structure, uses a simple file as a database. Since it’s a simple program, and I am the only user, it is built to be used at the REPL. The commands are a little idiosyncratic, and probably ugly, but it doesn’t matter. I remember them, and they work!

Imagine that your name is Jill. You have been meditating for a few months, and decide to work with me. You sign your agreement, and we meet for the first time for about your meditation practice. I ask you which meditation techniques you already know.

Like many of my students, you already know a few techniques: in particular, you can do a body scan, follow your breath, and do loving kindness meditation. After asking you about your interests and goals, I decide to teach you a noting technique: “Hear Out.” In this technique, you acknowledge and focus on sounds in the objective world, using a spoken or mental label, “Hear” or “Hear Out” or “Sound.” (The label is not arbitrary but not very important, either. Labeling, however, is useful.) After we practice together for a few moments, I tell you that I will send you a routine shortly after the call, and that you should practice the routine until we next meet.

After our call, I start my program, run a few commands:

I’ve told my program that you can do four techniques, your name is Jill (it can call you by your keyword, :jill), and that I’d like a routine for you to do with three techniques for thirty minutes. I then send you your routine:

You will do 3 techniques for 30 minutes:

Body Scan for 10.0 minutes.

Hear Out for 10.0 minutes.

Metta for 10.0 minutes.

Having a routine like this has a few benefits.

Having a pre-selected set of techniques that you are committed to doing makes it easier to actually practice for the time you have set aside to practice, and to know what to return to when you get distracted. By having multiple techniques in the same practice session, you get the benefits of variety. It’s like the difference between doing as many pushups as possible, and doing a well-rounded workout, that includes some push-ups, but also pull-ups and crunches and sprinting. It’s more fun, more interesting, and more effective.

Lastly, it means that my students will practice the techniques that I teach them, which gives them experiential understanding of practicing Unified Mindfulness. The routines change every time we meet, and it ensures that they are learning new techniques but also maintaining their knowledge of older techniques.

My students work with me for a minimum of one month, but they can keep working with me after that point if they like. Often, after two or three months of learning a new technique or more every week, my students have become familiar with a wide swath of Shinzen’s system. They not only understand the what and the why, but also know how to apply that knowledge. Usually, at around this time, they want to start setting aside the scripted routines and start making their practice their own.

At that point, it’s time for the third goal to begin: developing a unique meditation strategy for my students, based on their needs and goals. Having a strategy prepares my students for longer sessions and meditation retreats.

To build a strategy, we pick one or two techniques that the student enjoys and has found effective, that will help them reach their meditation-related goals, and and make a custom routine for them to practice daily. At this point, I’ll also teach them elements of the Forall Method, the system for practice that my primary teacher, Soryu Forall, and I described in our book, Maple Seeds. The Forall Method is designed to be practiced with any technique, and complements Shinzen’s system nicely.

I’m proud of the system that I’ve built to help teach meditation to serious meditation students. As an intermediate student myself, my instruction is no replacement for the instruction from a more advanced and experienced teacher, but it seems to help beginning meditation students build a deeper, more effective, and more enjoyable experience.

Using custom tools, consistent workflows, and established systems help me to teach my students more effectively. It’s a perfect example of integrating two aspects of Mind, Body, and Attention: intellectual skills and contemplative practice.

Closing Note on Instruction:

At the time of this writing, I am not taking on new students. However, you can still learn more about my teaching style here, and reach out to say hello.

If you’d like to practice in this style yourself, consider downloading the Brightmind app, which is designed to create custom, guided meditations in Shinzen’s system at scale- and using Shinzen’s voice! Brightmind is currently available for iOS. Disclosure: I used to work for the Brightmind team, and am personal friends with the co-founders. I still think Brightmind is the best-in-class meditation app that I’ve found!

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