The Circle of Existence: Chapter 10 – Awareness Over Discipline

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by DCH Park

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Kids Giving you problems? Hire an Elephant by peasap,

“Awareness is empowering.”
– Rita Wilson

“Buddha means awareness, the awareness of body and mind that prevents evil from arising in either.”
– Bodhidharma

“There is no such thing as cold, only absence of heat. There is no such thing as dark, only absence of light. There is no such thing as evil, only absence of connection.”
– anonymous

In my control class in college, we studied various ways to design and analyze dynamic control systems of various types, ranging from purely mechanical ones to electrical ones (which had no transistors) to electronic ones (which did). Analytically, all of these systems could be modeled and understood using the same principles. Mathematically they were identical in spite of the fact that completely different physical components and forces were in operation in different systems.

There are primarily two different philosophies or approaches to designing control circuits. One is called feedback and the other is called feed-forward. Most of the control systems in use in the world today are feedback systems.

In a feedback control circuit, a portion of the output of the system is fed back into the control circuit inputs. The control circuit combines this feedback with the operator control inputs (the other external inputs) to automatically adjust the system. For example, if you adjust the speaker volume in your car radio to a certain level, the volume setting is the “operator” or external control setting. As the volume setting is increased, the control circuit sends a signal to the speaker drivers telling them to work harder.

Since it’s a feedback control circuit, a portion of this speaker driver signal is also sent back to the control circuit and combined with the manual volume setting. Typically, the feedback signal is inverted so that as the volume goes up, the feedback causes the control signal to decrease and if the volume goes down, the feedback control signal increases. This type of negative feedback control tends to be very stable because it tends to push the output toward a stable center – down if the output gets too high and up if it gets too low. This is why it is used so widely.

In positive feedback control, the feedback is not inverted. Thus, it tends to further amplify the system’s outputs. If the output goes up, positive feedback makes it go higher faster. This is what happens when a microphone is placed too closely to the speaker it drives. The speaker output is picked up by the mic and amplified through the speaker, leading to an unstable feedback loop that usually results in screeching.

In a feed-forward control circuit, there is no return input that takes the output back into the system. Certain assumptions are made about the ways in which the external world behaves and the way in which the system should act. The (external) control inputs take these assumptions into account and are simply fed in. As long as the assumptions are accurate, the system behaves as expected, but if the assumptions are off, even just by a small amount, the system might become unstable. Outputs may become unpredictable or even destroy the system altogether.

This is what happens when a car suddenly loses traction on a patch of ice. The car’s behavior suddenly changes so that the driver’s assumptions about how the car will react are suddenly wrong. Control inputs that are normally safe – holding the wheel straight and pressing on the brakes – are no longer safe. Instead of producing normal results – straightening out the car’s trajectory and slowing down – they do something else – promoting a spin with locked wheels. One solution to this problem is to “close the loop” automatically and combine the external outputs of the system with the inputs. In other words, make the feed-forward system into a feedback system by adding a sensor that loops back to the inputs. This is what anti-lock braking systems do.

In exactly the same way, enhancing the feedback control in your body and life can enhance your stability and equanimity. The key is to develop your facility with awareness. Jon Kabat-Zinn, one of the seminal influences in bringing mindfulness and meditation into the medical establishment mainstream, points out that awareness, like thinking, is an inherent human ability. However, in this culture, unlike thinking, awareness is an ability that is not widely prized or even recognized, much less one that many people are trained in using.

Control via thinking alone is a form of feed-forward control. In the body, feed-forward control is essentially experienced as a kind of numbness that cuts you off from the external world. Without feedback, there is a tendency to slip into a perception that the external world is on the other side of an invisible and inviolable barrier – an impossibly fine and absolutely impregnable curtain that separates you from the external world.

In the body, Hansen’s disease, commonly known as leprosy, is an extreme example of what can happen when feedback is lost and only feed-forward control remains. Hansen’s disease victims lose sensation in their extremities. Loss of sensation starts in the fingertips and toes and progresses inward. Motor function control is unimpaired. However, because all sensation is lost, including pain, victims lose the ability to sense when they have damaged themselves. As a result, they inflict repeated trauma to affected tissues and the body begins to erode. Eventually fingers, toes, noses, and more can be lost to physical trauma.

Hansen’s disease is an extreme example, but the same mechanism is at work in less extreme situations every day. When you feel a headache due to stress or over-work and take an analgesic instead of a break, you are choosing to numb the pain and dampen your natural feedback in favor of a feed-forward control signal to keep working or work harder. You are choosing to ignore the feedback signal to take a break or that something is wrong.

Feed-forward control is experienced as numbness and expressed as discipline. In the absence of sensory connection and immediacy of feeling, exertion of will remains as the only means to gain control. It is like being on one side of a wall and trying to control what happens on the other side by pulling and pushing rods that go through the wall without being able to see, hear, or feel what is happening. Instead, you metaphorically rely on graphical progress reports that are projected on a screen, not knowing if those reports are accurate and timely and having no way to verify them since you blocked the feedback.

Cultivating your awareness is key to addressing this shortcoming. By becoming more fully aware of the many sensory cues (as opposed to cultural, traditional, and other “cues”) that are available to you, you strengthen your feedback loop. Your experience of your surroundings and even of yourself shifts. You pierce the barrier that separates you from your external world and feel the world more richly and subtly.

For example, when I wanted to lose weight, I noticed that it was a struggle as long as I approached it as a discipline. To make matters worse, I was keenly aware of flavor and the sensations of eating, swallowing, and feeling full, which became positive feedback signals that tended to amplify the unhealthy behavior and desire for unhealthy foods. However, once I began to notice other sensations, like the listlessness I felt after a food binge or unhealthy meal and the feeling of tightness and deflation I felt after just one bite of unhealthy food, my relationship with food and weight control began to change significantly. I no longer had to struggle to control something that I could grasp intellectually but not feel. I could cultivate awareness of what was going on in my body and how I felt. Healthy choices dropped out of that awareness effortlessly.

Losing weight and eating more healthily were no longer hard. They became the easiest things to do. Making unhealthy choices became hard because in order to make those choices I would have to ignore what I so clearly felt.

If you don’t have sensation, you might hit your thumb with a hammer and not even know it. Without strict discipline and rigid attention to specific details, you might keep hammering and actually break your thumb or worse. On the other hand, with your awareness and sensation intact, if you hit your thumb with a hammer, you stop pounding because your thumb hurts. Taking care of your thumb becomes the easiest thing to do.


More of the book, The Circle of Existence can be found at

© 2015, David Park. All Rights Reserved.

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”The Circle of Existence: Chapter 10 – Awareness Over Discipline” by DCH Park is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 3.0 Unported License.

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