How narrow is the focus of access concentration?

Stian Gudmundsen Høiland, modified 11 Years ago.

How narrow is the focus of access concentration?

Posts: 296 Join Date: 9/5/10 Recent Posts
When you are stably on the object of concentration, what is the spatial quality of that? How tight/narrow is the attention? And also, how long would you say that you have to stay stable in this manner for the appropriate nimitta to arise?

I ask this because I managed after about 2 hours of concentrating to "sink in" and stay exclusively with the "anapana spot" for 10 straight seconds. Then I overthought it, fell out of it, managed to get back in again for 3 seconds, overthought it, back for 2 seconds and that was it. I also seemed to percieve a "splash" of light in the center of my perception, and I think I could choose to look at eithter that or the anapana spot, even though they were in the same place. This spalsh of light was also very unstable and I couldn't focus on it without it "fading out" as I did.

It felt as tight as when you stare at the tip of your nose for some while, but without the eye strain and headache that would follow staring like that.
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Ian And, modified 11 Years ago.

RE: How narrow is the focus of access concentration?

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Stian Gudmundsen Høiland:
When you are stably on the object of concentration, what is the spatial quality of that? How tight/narrow is the attention? . . . It felt as tight as when you stare at the tip of your nose for some while, but without the eye strain and headache that would follow staring like that.

Not quite sure what you mean by "spacial quality" with regard to concentration unless you are using an actual object at some distance from you (or mentally) to focus on. I use the breath, so I'll go with the other references you make.

First, lets make sure we're on the same page with regard to "access concentration." You realize that the term "access concentration" is a translation of the Pali term upacara-samadhi, and in the exegetical tradition is marked by the suppression of the five hindrances, the manifestation of the jhana factors, and the appearance of a luminous mental replica of the meditation object called the counterpart sign (patibhaga-nimitta). Although I don't necessarily always go by the exegetical tradition, I sometimes use it as a loose guide. In the present case, it might be helpful. Now, that so-called "counterpart sign" could be anything, either visual in nature or sensual (by touch) in nature, like a bodily sensation. If you use an actual object in nature, such as a kasina disk or some such, that's fine. I use the breath, to which I find the sensation of pressure in the center of the forehead to be the equivalent of the counterpart sign. When that sensation arises, I know the mind is concentrated firmly on the breath. The same, for you, might be true using a visual object as a counterpart sign.

In attempting to describe these processes, I personally endeavor to keep things as simple as possible, something that the ordinary reader can readily relate to. I don't differentiate between the three levels of samadhi — preliminary concentration (parikamma-samadhi), access concentration (upacara-samadhi), and absorption concentration (appana-samadhi) — as many instructors do; I simply refer to it as "establishing concentration" (or samadhi). In other words, concentration is concentration is concentration. Yes, I recognize the subtle differences pointed out in the three levels mentioned. But the way this is described in the discourses, the term concentration (or samadhi) is usually the only term used, since concentration is concentration is concentration. It would seem that Gotama wanted to keep things simple also.

If you are able, as suggested above, to "stare at the tip of your nose for some time," without unnoticed interruption or distraction for at least two minutes, then you have acquired a sufficient amount of concentration for further exploration of your practice.

Stian Gudmundsen Høiland:

And also, how long would you say that you have to stay stable in this manner for the appropriate nimitta to arise?

I ask this because I managed after about 2 hours of concentrating to "sink in" and stay exclusively with the "anapana spot" for 10 straight seconds. Then I overthought it, fell out of it, managed to get back in again for 3 seconds, overthought it, back for 2 seconds and that was it. I also seemed to perceive a "splash" of light in the center of my perception, and I think I could choose to look at eithter that or the anapana spot, even though they were in the same place. This spalsh of light was also very unstable and I couldn't focus on it without it "fading out" as I did.

The time might vary. With some, it may only be a few seconds. With others it may take several minutes. The temporal dimension just depends upon how quickly the mind is able to establish concentration on the object before the arising of the nimitta. For example, with the breath as object, it can often take but a few seconds of concentration on the breath for me to experience the counterpart sign sensation. If the mind is particularly active and unsettled, it may take a little longer. Generally speaking these days, I can usually acquire the counterpart sign rather quickly within a few seconds to a minute or two, shortly after beginning concentration on the breath.

I hope that answers the question you were asking.

In peace,
Ian
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Michael For me to know and you to find out Kich, modified 11 Years ago.

RE: How narrow is the focus of access concentration?

Posts: 170 Join Date: 9/14/10 Recent Posts
I can maintain my attention on the breath for quite some time, but the intensity of my attention cycles in and out. Must it first get to the point that that wavering doesn't occur?
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Ian And, modified 11 Years ago.

RE: How narrow is the focus of access concentration?

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Michael For me to know and you to find out Kich:
I can maintain my attention on the breath for quite some time, but the intensity of my attention cycles in and out. Must it first get to the point that that wavering doesn't occur?

In a perfect world, that would be nice. And eventually, you will want to achieve a consistent intensity. That usually comes with time and practice.

But truth be told, calm and insight work together all the time. Generally speaking, one can work with insight subjects as long as one can recall the insight that arose.

Edit: I should add that one can work with insight subjects as long as one can recall the insight that arose and examine it without getting lost in discursive thinking or any other distraction and losing the insight. What you are working toward is an overall clarity of mind which can pick up objects and subjects with ease in order to examine them in their original suchness.
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Michael For me to know and you to find out Kich, modified 11 Years ago.

RE: How narrow is the focus of access concentration?

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emoticon Thank you sir.
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Michael For me to know and you to find out Kich, modified 10 Years ago.

RE: How narrow is the focus of access concentration?

Posts: 170 Join Date: 9/14/10 Recent Posts
I feel by this point I'm getting very close to achieving jhana; it's pretty easy for me to get the sensation of gentle pressure like a dot in the space between the eyebrows. It's tuning into the pleasure of the breath to carry me into to real absorption that's giving me issues. The pleasure of the breath is detectable, yes, but I'm having difficulty cranking up the intensity, it's just too subtle. Any advice on how to tune into that more readily?
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Ian And, modified 10 Years ago.

RE: How narrow is the focus of access concentration?

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Michael For me to know and you to find out Kich:
I feel by this point I'm getting very close to achieving jhana; it's pretty easy for me to get the sensation of gentle pressure like a dot in the space between the eyebrows. It's tuning into the pleasure of the breath to carry me into to real absorption that's giving me issues.

The pleasure of the breath is detectable, yes, but I'm having difficulty cranking up the intensity, it's just too subtle. Any advice on how to tune into that more readily?

The difficulty you're having has to do with the establishment of sati. Do you know what I mean by sati?

If not, go here and read about it.

Intensity increases as you become more actively alert. That only occurs when you have something to become alert to: like paying full, unbroken attention to the present moment. There are many ways to help bring on this level of alertness. Bottom line is: it has to happen from within yourself. You generate it yourself.

Modern life has made us feel too secure and heedless in our own skin. We don't develop the same intensity of sati (mindful alertness) that previous generations of humans needed to develop in order to just survive in the middle of the wilderness. So think about what it may have been like for a monk during the Buddha's time who had to go into the forest to meditate. He had to be on watch for snakes and tigers and all sorts of critters just in order to meditate in the wild. It is that kind of alertness that you are endeavoring to attain to that needs to be accomplished.
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Michael For me to know and you to find out Kich, modified 10 Years ago.

RE: How narrow is the focus of access concentration?

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Thank you for the advice and the link, I've read them both thoroughly. One thing I don't understand very well is how one can strive for a survival-level of sensory alertness and also let oneself sink into a tension-less calm...calm for me usually entails not drowsiness but definitely not a sort of "combat ready" style of awareness. I can see the value of Sati though.
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Ian And, modified 10 Years ago.

RE: How narrow is the focus of access concentration?

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Michael For me to know and you to find out Kich:
One thing I don't understand very well is how one can strive for a survival-level of sensory alertness and also let oneself sink into a tension-less calm...calm for me usually entails not drowsiness but definitely not a sort of "combat ready" style of awareness.

The example provided was only to give you an idea of the kind of sati required. It was used as an example in order to communicate an intangible state, which, had I not provided it would have been difficult to explain otherwise. Words are sometimes inadequate. You just have to be able to connect with a similar experience from your own life in order to understand.

Do you know how to play chess? If you've ever played chess, you may have noticed that there are times during a particularly competitive game where you have to remain mentally alert so that you can figure out what your opponent is likely to do next. It doesn't necessarily mean that you're life is in danger. But, you could lose the game if you make the wrong move. So you have to be on your "mental toes," so to speak. You don't have to be in "survival mode," but you do need to be mentally alert. That's all. There's a difference; do you understand?

You're going to have to figure this out for yourself. How well do you know yourself such that you can generate enough energy (sati) to stay alert yet calm. It has to do with developing levels of concentration and with staying in the present moment. You're going to have to figure that out for yourself.

I'm only pointing the way. You asked, and I pointed. The rest is up to you.
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Michael For me to know and you to find out Kich, modified 10 Years ago.

RE: How narrow is the focus of access concentration?

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Oh ok, yes I understand. It was just the first example that was a little misleading. Yeah I understand, it's the sort of "in it" in the moment concentration that sort of envelops your complete, constant attention. You're not particularly tense, but you're definitely alert, at least to the task at hand. It's essentially the quality of mind that anybody practicing a martial art or something requiring intense care, for example, should cultivate.

I guess I don't know how I would have wanted you to explain it, but when I asked the question originally I was asking more along the lines of a technique, or, "is there a specific type of sensation to tune into when you're on the verge of absorption but just not quite making the cut." I have this idea in my head that there's an almost secret mental sensation of some sort on the border between access concentration and the real deal, which if I could just stumble over accidentally at some point would allow me to instantly be transported into jhana. Sound like wishful thinking? I'm almost certainly not making my point very well, which is bound to happen considering what we're talking about. In any case, don't worry about it if there isn't a very good answer, I was just kinda curious.

Oh, and thank you for your considerate answer. emoticon
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Ian And, modified 10 Years ago.

RE: How narrow is the focus of access concentration?

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Michael For me to know and you to find out Kich:

I guess I don't know how I would have wanted you to explain it, but when I asked the question originally I was asking more along the lines of a technique, or, "is there a specific type of sensation to tune into when you're on the verge of absorption but just not quite making the cut."

If you haven't read it yet, look at the General, All Purpose Jhana Thread. You might find something of interest in there. The sensation I tune into is the sensation of pressure in the center of the forehead between the eye brows, a sensation that I've always associated with strong levels of concentration. Jhana is difficult to explain, even when you're talking to someone in person. If you can experience it once to get the "feel" of it, you'll know what to pursue the next time you attempt to enter them, and then it won't seem quite so mysterious.

Another interesting read might be Jhanas Solved. There are five parts to this series (look at the side navigation bar for July, August, and September) that may also help to explain and de-mythologize the practice for you. The longer I've practice the jhanas, the more I'm inclined to second this man's opinion. Jhana is not some kind of "altered state of consciousness" as many people seem to want to describe it. It is a very steady, solid, workable, imperturbable, established, fixed state of concentration. That's all. All the hoopla about the pleasantness and the sometimes overwhelming aspect that piti (rapture or elation) can have on the practice is somewhat overblown (although not to say that it cannot be experienced as such). The experience of piti and sukkha may only last a few seconds (if you know what you're doing) on the way to fourth jhana. I find them more of a hindrance (because of the sometimes intense pleasure of the experience) to have to put up with than anything else, and much prefer to reach, as quickly as possible, a deep level of concentration in equanimity and mindfulness wherein contemplation can take place.

Michael For me to know and you to find out Kich:

I have this idea in my head that there's an almost secret mental sensation of some sort on the border between access concentration and the real deal, which if I could just stumble over accidentally at some point would allow me to instantly be transported into jhana.

If you are experiencing the pressure in the center of the forehead, you're likely in samadhi already (what some would call "neighborhood" or "access concentration," that is, upcara samadhi). If you want to enter into the jhanic level, you will have to fabricate (induce) the experience to some extent, seeking the pleasure of the breath as it envelops either pleasant sensations in the region of the head or, if expanded, the whole body or parts of the body. Which areas of bodily sensation one experiences depends on the instruction one follows. You will be manufacturing the experience rather than experiencing it as a naturally occurring phenomenon.

While I have a tendency any more of not wanting to linger in the experience of the "pleasure" or "bliss" of the jhanas as I endeavor to reach the fourth jhana, I do think it is important for those just beginning to learn about jhana to experience these things in order to learn about them. No doubt, the first several times, depending on what kind of experience you have, you may become overwhelmed by the bliss factor. It can become an intoxicating sensation or state of mind to explore. But this is ultimately not where you want to linger for very long if awakening and liberation are your goal. You will want to be able to reach strong levels of fixed concentration (appana samadhi) in order to do the contemplation work necessary for awakening. Contemplation on the body (rupa), feeling (vedana), mind states (citta) and mind objects (dhammas), that is.
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Michael For me to know and you to find out Kich, modified 10 Years ago.

RE: How narrow is the focus of access concentration?

Posts: 170 Join Date: 9/14/10 Recent Posts
Thank you again for a well considered response. Well one thing's for sure, jhana's pretty completely mysterious outside of those who have directly experienced it. The "Jhanas Solved" link you offered contains some interesting passages, though some of them seem contradictory, so essentially there are two diametrically opposed views on what it's generally like to enter jhana. On one hand, you have quotes like,

"When the nimitta is radiant and stable, then its energy builds up moment by moment. . . . If one can maintain the one-pointedness here by keeping one's focus on the very center of the nimitta, the power will reach a critical level. One will feel as if the knower is being drawn into the nimitta, that one is falling into the most glorious bliss. Alternatively, one may feel that the nimitta approaches until it envelops the knower, swallowing one up in cosmic ecstasy. One is entering Jhana. . . ."

This passage not only implies jhana's a happening that occurs suddenly, almost like a nuclear chain-reaction the way it's described, but also that it's a pretty "holy shit!" moment...it was once described to me as being as unmistakable as being kicked by a mule. That makes it sound like the most radical thing that can happen to a human being short of enlightenment. Can you understand how that sort of thing's easy to romanticize?

On the other hand, you and others claim that it's not an altered state of consciousness at all, that it's instead simply pretty pointed concentration without the sudden appearance of bright lights, being enveloped in cosmic ecstasy, and similarly utterly fantastic descriptions. I suppose the question arises, if some monks and others throughout history have played it up way too much, why would they do that?

I should make clear here that I'm not asking for another concrete, definitive answer, because there isn't any. Instead I'm just kinda pointing out something I find interesting.
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Beoman Beo Beoman, modified 10 Years ago.

RE: How narrow is the focus of access concentration?

Posts: 2198 Join Date: 10/27/10 Recent Posts
Michael For me to know and you to find out Kich:
Thank you again for a well considered response. Well one thing's for sure, jhana's pretty completely mysterious outside of those who have directly experienced it. The "Jhanas Solved" link you offered contains some interesting passages, though some of them seem contradictory, so essentially there are two diametrically opposed views on what it's generally like to enter jhana. On one hand, you have quotes like,

"When the nimitta is radiant and stable, then its energy builds up moment by moment. . . . If one can maintain the one-pointedness here by keeping one's focus on the very center of the nimitta, the power will reach a critical level. One will feel as if the knower is being drawn into the nimitta, that one is falling into the most glorious bliss. Alternatively, one may feel that the nimitta approaches until it envelops the knower, swallowing one up in cosmic ecstasy. One is entering Jhana. . . ."

This passage not only implies jhana's a happening that occurs suddenly, almost like a nuclear chain-reaction the way it's described, but also that it's a pretty "holy shit!" moment...it was once described to me as being as unmistakable as being kicked by a mule. That makes it sound like the most radical thing that can happen to a human being short of enlightenment. Can you understand how that sort of thing's easy to romanticize?

On the other hand, you and others claim that it's not an altered state of consciousness at all, that it's instead simply pretty pointed concentration without the sudden appearance of bright lights, being enveloped in cosmic ecstasy, and similarly utterly fantastic descriptions. I suppose the question arises, if some monks and others throughout history have played it up way too much, why would they do that?

I should make clear here that I'm not asking for another concrete, definitive answer, because there isn't any. Instead I'm just kinda pointing out something I find interesting.


Something I believe is that, were you to enter a deep jhana right now without any warning, you would definitely feel like you were kicked in the head by a mule. It would just be a "Woah what is happening?!?!" moment. I know because I believe I randomly got into the 5th jhana about 1 month after I started meditating, and it was a stunning experience.

However, if you build it up bit by bit, you will eventually reach that same state, except you will be used to it when it arises, and won't be so surprising.

Another theory I have is that certain drugs get you into certain jhanas, in that sudden way, and that is why they can be so fascinating and captivating.

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