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Access concentration after a change in Morality?

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I have yet to reach access concentration. 
Daniel Ingram mentioned weak concentration can be a result of lack of sila / training of morality. 
I wonder if anyone has thoughts on this, especially if a change in their daily life or conduct may have led to better concentration. 
Related: Ingram also mentioned a possibility of awakened sociopaths out there. So how would that work out with the essentialness of the three trainings?

RE: Access concentration after a change in Morality?
Answer
11/17/18 11:00 AM as a reply to Jack.
I've thought about this as well, especially after reading Bill Hamilton's Saints & Psychopaths, which you might want to take a look at, it’s floating around on the internet somewhere.

For a neurotypical person, if your life is a mess due to your own immoral/unskillful behavior, you are going to have a difficult time sitting in silence for any period of time until you get your basic moral stuff together. There is just too much inner conflict at both the conscious and subconscious level to concentrate for long on anything. That's not to suggest it's impossible for those who have committed horrible crimes to do the work of awakening, even the suttas describe stories of murderers achieving enlightenment (see Aṅgulimāla). 

Personally, I know that the following helped in improving my concentration: resolving moral conflicts in my life that could be resolved, asking for forgiveness from others and forgiving myself for conflicts that were too far in the past/could not be resolved (as well as resolving to be more mindful of engaging in behavior that led to them again). My practice also led me to realize that some of these conflicts had to be resolved by being less "nice", by using anger skillfully, by being more proactive in defending my own boundaries and needs. 

You don't have to go out looking for moral quandaries to solve, anything that is creating conflict in your mind will bubble up at some point. If something keeps coming up again and again and ending your sits, you might need to address it in some way "off the cushion", though this is not always the case (especially in DN). 

Adhering to the five precepts has also helped practice blossom and eliminate a ton of baseline anxiety and stress. Many in secular modernity often look at religious moral principles with rightful suspicion, but with some lee-way and interpretation, they are just plain, dry instructions for a more straightforward, easier way of life. The other purpose they serve are to highlight your own ingrained conditioning and reactivity when it comes to those particular things that are cautioned against. 

As far as sociopathic personalities awakening, I think it falls into one of these:

- Sociopaths just don't have the particular moral "hardware" to be bothered by ethical dilemmas or troubled by their past and current behavior. This could make the awakening process even easier for these people.
- Those with sociopathic personalities who seem to be awakened may not be awakened but instead are just adept at emulating the language, posturing and rigmorale of what many people fantasize as “Awakened Beings”.
- Some combination of both of the above.

One doesn’t have to look very far to find numerous examples of all of these in certain spiritual circles, including sociopaths who did horrible things yet also seemed to have incredible depths of real insight.

RE: Access concentration after a change in Morality?
Answer
11/16/18 3:38 PM as a reply to Jack.
I tend to think morality does play a large part in one’s ability to quiet the mind.  Of the five basic precepts (no lying, killing, stealing, sexual misconduct, or intoxicants) I think lying is good example of a mind destabilizer.  If I ever have things I'm trying to hide from someone, it causes a lot of stress and my mind fixates on it.  

The only one of those five I have mixed feelings on is intoxicants.  I actually stopped drinking again recently and have noticed a much-improved ability to meditate.  That is because I really crave a beer or glass of wine, but when I quit entirely, then the option is deleted from my mind and I don't think about it.  I still smoke weed from time to time however, but that poses no discernable hindrance because I never crave it.  My view is that if you crave an intoxicant, then it’s going to be a hindrance.

RE: Access concentration after a change in Morality?
Answer
11/17/18 2:48 AM as a reply to Jack.
Based on my own experience I would say it is important even from a strictly utilitarian stance. If you are using noting to deal with the hindrances you will find you have fewer and more easily identifiable moles to whack.

RE: Access concentration after a change in Morality?
Answer
11/17/18 5:06 AM as a reply to Jack.
You got some pretty good answers in this thread, and in my humble oppinion, the thing is quite simple and straightforward.

So, daily meditation practise, especially when just starting out, can be a wonderful litmus test to diagnose the issues with your morality that need some work and improvement.

So usually same "stuff" will keep coming back to haunt you, until you realize your own folly, and change your ways, thus improving sila.

So for instance, in your daily sitting, one quite often gets some impressions, images and memories of particularry nasty and unskillfull things you said and did in the past, and until you realize that this needs to change, ask for forgivness(at least mentally) from the ones you've hurt, and forgive yourself, and most importantly behave more skilfully in the future, things will certailny stagnate.

If you on the other hand you do take the hint, internalize and integrate lessons from your daily practise, slowly but surely you will become a nicer, kinder, more compassionate and skillfull person, or at least less of an arsehole.

This slow but steady transformation of your bad habits will also bring about much more peaceful, pleaseant and stabile mind, and then access concentration and jhanas will become much more available, nice and steady, almost on demand, because now you wiil have much less "stuff" torturing you.

So in a nutshell, not improving sila/morality and still trying to keep up a daily meditation practise is akin to washing a car with one hand, and throwing slimy mud on it with another. kinda doesn't make sense emoticon

I've heard a quote that goes something like, "if your daily practise of prayer/meditation/spirituallity is not making you into a nicer person, than you're doing it wrong, and its all in vain", and that would sum it up perfectly. so realize the fact that Sila is a foundation, improve your morality, be a good boy, and your meditation practice will improve steadily, and life will become much nicer emoticon

Be well,

FranKo

RE: Access concentration after a change in Morality?
Answer
11/17/18 9:50 AM as a reply to Jack.
Great replies everyone. I'll enjoy thinking on them. All are very literal and direct interpretations of my quesiton and make a lot of sense.

I'm able to sit for an hour everyday, and sometimes get a 10-20 breaths in a row without getting hooked onto some thought (perhaps it will blip by, but no more than a second), or before nodding off.

When I get lost in thought, it's almost always either weiqi board patterns or a sexual fantasy. Neither seem related to being unkind. And I've been celibate for a month and playing less weiqi. Being lost to those lasts anywhere from 5 seconds to 1 minute.

I've tried longer sittings, and have gone on a retreat before. Tried different positions, breath counting, etc, and no access concentration yet (nor am I ambitiously seeking it, as that previous sentence might imply). There's no personal issue gnawing at my mind, nor would I say I'm an arsehole, though I don't go out of my way to do acts of kindness for others. I wonder if this is somehow indirectly related to my lack of progress. Is there someway, besides mending any conflict if it happens, to strengthen morality that will make a difference in practice?

RE: Access concentration after a change in Morality?
Answer
11/17/18 12:43 PM as a reply to Jack.
Hey Jack,

I was actually referring to myself when mentioning that practice tends to make one into a kinder person, or at least less of an arsehole, so sorry if it seemed like a criticism. just sharing my personal experience emoticon

The thing about morality is that it is a necessary prerequisite for peaceful and concentrated mind, but it is definitely not a direct cause for concentration.  good concentration takes alot of persistent work over a period of time, so even if your morality is top notch you will still have to work hard to establish good samadhi. no need to go out of your way to be kind, or pretend to be some kind of saint. just be nice - the golden rule (do unto others as you would have them do to you) applies here as well.

The issues you mention seem just like ordinary monkey-mind to me, and everyone has that to a certain extent, so the trick is just steady and consistent practise that builds your concentration muscles over time. unfortunately there are no shortcuts and ways around it. 

just go easy on yourself. when you notice mind has wondered off, just gently note "thinking", and bring it back to the breath. try to see the silky-smooth quality of the breath once the mind settles a bit. it helps to enjoy what you're doing, so dont consider this as some kind of task or chore that you have to do. just be with the breath, notice how beautiful, soft and ethereal it can really get. the trick it to be gentle with your self, keep returning back to the breath 100 times if necessary, and you will slowly get into the groove, mind will gradually grow silent, then you can drop the counting and just go with the flow.

I have found not tao's shamata method quite simple, useful and to the point:
https://www.dharmaoverground.org/discussion/-/message_boards/message/5666656

If you want faster progress, then a retreat is your best bet, or at least a short home retreat of couple of days of consistent practise. you can cultivate pretty good concentration in couple of days of retreat setting, the trick is intensive and uninterrupted practise. highly recommended.

Good luck,

FranKo

RE: Access concentration after a change in Morality?
Answer
11/17/18 1:23 PM as a reply to Jack.
A few more hopefully helpful hints for you:

When working with breath as the meditation object it can be helpful sometimes to dip briefly into another meditation style if you are feeling stuck. For example, you could start with focus on breath, then move into noting for a short time, working specifically with one of the hindrances, then go back to the breath and observe if your concentration has improved.

If you opt to try this there are a few things I would suggest:

1) pick the 1-2 hindrances you think are the biggest issue (Based on your post I would start with hindrances 1 and 4. 1 is obvious, but 4 can really help if you are a deep strategic thinker and hyperalert)
2) after moving your attention from breath to noting, open up your attention a bit and allow yourself to become aware of thoughts related to those hindrances. Gently note them, as neutral as you can with little self judgement. If you find yourself getting judgemental, you can adopt a playful, humorous take to it, remembering that everyone around you is suffering this way so no reason to be upset with yourself.
3) Try to get specific rather than general, and label in the present tense. For example, "Feeling anxious knowing my meditation timer is going to go off in x minutes" rather than "I was feeling anxiety today."
4) Just keeping doing that for a bit, allowing yourself to become gently aware of these thoughts and impulses, watch yhem rise and pass away when you note them.
5) return focus to your breathing. See if concentration has improved.

The other thing you can do is to pay extra attention to the pleasantness of the sensations of meditation. You can start with a body scan, relaxing your body physically. That way your mind won't build up aversion to sitting and try to take you elsewhere. There are lots of good guided meditations available for free on youtube that lead in to breath meditation this way. I recommend Leigh Brasington or Ajahn Brahm in the Theravadan tradition.

RE: Access concentration after a change in Morality?
Answer
11/17/18 1:14 PM as a reply to Milo.
Also one thing to note about the hindrances is that a lot of times the related thoughts are not surface level so you can feel like "Hey I've dealt with everything! Why isn't this working?"

If you dip into the noting technique and allow your mind to note openly, gently and non-judgmentally, the thoughts that were previously going unnoticed will tend to surface so you can let go of them. If necessary you can also actively think of letting go, or imagine letting go when you exhale.

RE: Access concentration after a change in Morality?
Answer
11/18/18 10:51 PM as a reply to Fran Ko.
Zero criticism interpreted, Franko. As I wrote, all these replies make sense emoticon 

Thank you so much for the link to not Tao. I read it all and this looks like exactly what I needed.

RE: Access concentration after a change in Morality?
Answer
11/18/18 10:58 PM as a reply to Milo.
Thanks Milo, this sounds like an interesting practice. I feel like at my level (not yet having access concentration) I would only fall into the content of the hindrances, rather than the sensations/feeling associated with them (if this is the right idea).

Is this a meditation you adopted after already coming to access concentration using breath?
Is its main benefit improving concentration, or does it actually effect your influenceability by the hindrances as well?

RE: Access concentration after a change in Morality?
Answer
11/19/18 1:15 AM as a reply to Jack.
Jack,

Reading your second post on the thread it sounded to me like you were getting some stretches of one pointed mind but having trouble stabilizing it into continuous access concentration. I started this slightly later in my samatha practice but I think it might still be useful for the stage you are at. I started experimenting with this after the first time I got 1st jhana, and at the time I actually thought my access concentration was pretty good. The next many sits however I was unable to enter jhana again, much to my frustation. It was like I had regressed, and it was immensely frustrating to achieve jhana once and then not be able to repeat it again afterwards. Eventually I was able to get 1st jhana again on a day I was particularly relaxed going into the meditation. I realized it came down to the fact I was not actually consistently establishing good access concentration. Why? In fact I had fallen into a subtle trap. A strong desire to get back into the 1st jhana caused me to bear down really hard on the breath but it wasn't working on its own and it had lost its pleasant quality. Examining a bit I realized that the strong desire to get into jhana caused me to put effort into actively ignoring and suppressing the more subtle destabilizing thoughts and emotions rather than acknowleging them, letting them pass, and letting myself incrementally relax further as they did. This led to a constant mental fog of low level anxiety and intrusive thoughts I had to devote a lot of my focus to suppressing, to the detriment of focus on the meditation object. Eventually, I would become exhausted from the continual effort and fall out of concentration, with frustration and monkey mind setting in. I read into the hindrances and found there was a lot of sutta material devoted to them and various remedies to them. So I tried the noting technique I mentioned, just opening up to any thoughts related to 1 or 2 of the hindrances. When I briefly turned my attention in this direction, I found that there were a lot of low level anxious thoughts that I was suppressing and previously unaware of gunking up my access concentration. The individual thoughts were actually really mundane things like "I have a bill I need to pay" or "I'm worried about a deadline at work" or "I haven't gotten enough done today." None of these things was too bad individually, but the combined weight really hurt my ability to concentrate and eventually became the conditions for the monkey mind thoughts once I got exhausted. After observing and letting go and then going back to my original meditation object, I felt better, the mind stopped having aversion to concentration, and access concentration returned in a more stable way. It's stable when the mind realizes it's pleasant, a positive feedback loop develops, and the amount of effort needing to be directly applied to maintain it drops. It's unstable when the mind slips into aversion. Developing that positive feedback loop is a recurring feature of samatha at each level, so I found that this technique can be useful in more and more subtle ways up through the jhanas to get deeper and more stable absorption.

YMMV, but perhaps it can help if you are feeling stuck.

Best of luck!

RE: Access concentration after a change in Morality?
Answer
11/19/18 1:18 AM as a reply to Jack.
To answer your last question,

It helps with concentration by removing the hindrances, but I think there is a feedback loop that as you become more familiar with the underlying conditions for the hindrances in your samatha practice, you are more aware of them all time, and hence you are less susceptible to them the next time you do samatha, or in your daily life. That's why combining samatha and vipassana can be a really powerful tool.

RE: Access concentration after a change in Morality?
Answer
11/19/18 6:54 AM as a reply to Jack.
Jack, a few questions to check what is actually going on in your practice.

1. What technique(s) are you trying to do? It sounds like you are doing some form of anapasati. Can you give us more details?

2. These distractions that you have, how long do they last? What do you mean exactly by "hooked by some thought"?

3. When you say that you haven't achieved Access Concentration, what do you mean by this? What standards are you setting for yourself for Access Concentration?

4. About the weiqi board patterns: Do you get brief (or not so brief) visual flashes of a weiqi board, or do you actually start thinking about fuseki, joseki, and Move 37? If you are actively thinking about weiqi, how long do you think about it before you go back to the breath? Does the breath vanish entirely from your conscious experience during this time, or does it stay in the background?

5. About the sexual fantasies. You say that you have been "celibate" for a month. I am guessing you mean that you haven't had sex nor masturbation, so no orgasms, for a month now. If this is the case, and it is a new thing for you, intrusive sexual fantasies are a totally expected thing to happen. You may have to strategise what to do about them, when they come up. You have a bunch of options ranging from ignoring the visual component of the fantasy but attending to the physical component of it, and watching it dissipate as you stop fuelling it with thoughts... to actually interrupting your celibacy and getting an orgasm, if that makes your meditation easier (and if that is compatible with the specifics of your current lifestyle and settings, I am not recommending breaking rules in monastic centres).

Hope this helps, happy to follow up on your answers!

neko

RE: Access concentration after a change in Morality?
Answer
11/19/18 1:29 PM as a reply to neko.
Hi Neko

1. I concentrate on the warm/cool of the breath in my nostrils, watching it as one continuous, smooth sensation. When I notice my mind wandering from the breath, I note "thinking" and return to the breath.

Based on experimentation, I've developed this method to start (only if I am having a hard time concentrating to start out with)
I count "1" for the outbreath, "2" for the inbreath, so on up to 10.
Then I count "1" for out-in, "2" for out-in, up to 10.
Then "1" for out-in-out, "2" for in-out-in. Up to 10. Then, four half-breaths per number. Finally, five half-breaths per number.
Then I am able to stay with the breath without counting for a while (for me, this is probably 30 seconds to 2 minutes). Visual distractions may blip in for a fraction of a second, but I'm able to stay on the breath. Eventually though, the blips grow longer, and one of them might hook me and I'm lost.

2. What I wrote above is a best-case scenario. A visual distraction will just flash in and out for 0.2-3 seconds (ish), but I'm more grounded on the breath. But if I get "hooked" by a distraction, it's more like I'm under control of the thought, not even recalling my purpose for sitting.

3. Tough one. I've posted this question myself here, everyone seems to have different answers. I think I read Ingram wrote "you'll know it when you get there", so I'm probably not there. Some have said it's when staying with the breath is easy and effortless. I might get this for 5-10 breaths at best. I read something like one should work up to sustaining it for an hour, before having a base to go onto vipassana or jhanas. For me, even ten minutes of staying with the breath without getting "hooked" would be a great accomplishment.

4. Cool you are a go player emoticon You know when you get into a fight on a corner of the board and you are just reacting impulsively, often in gote. Or in sente against an opponent during a close fight. In other words, not big-picture strategic thinking, but impulsive reactionary moves that might happen on a blitz game. When you're in atari, get out of it. Then they'll do that. Then I'll do this. Then they'll do that. Then I'll do this, and so on. Varies from 1 second to 15 seconds, breath is faintly in the background. Decided today to stop playing, at least for a while.

5. I feel any effort to ignore it only strengthens these distractions. No vows taken, so perhaps ending it would help. So far I feel fantasies are a very consistent kind of distraction regardless my lifestyle.

So far the main advice here seems is to relax, though I'm concerned if my concentration is less laser-focused on the continuousness of the breath, the more vulnerable I'll be to distraction. I'll give it a go though.

What are your standards for access concentration?

RE: Access concentration after a change in Morality?
Answer
11/20/18 11:55 AM as a reply to Jack.
I don't think you have a lot to lose by trying some things out for a session or two. If it doesn't work you can always go back to the tried and true method of patiently continuing the trajectory of the current practice : )

RE: Access concentration after a change in Morality?
Answer
11/20/18 3:11 PM as a reply to Jack.
Hi Jack,

some remarks.

So yes, that sounds like you have mind wandering every now and then. But if you are able to stay with the breath for 30 seconds to 2 minutes at a time, it is really not that bad. It could even be already Access Concentration according to some definitions, or maybe Preliminary Concentration according to others*. Or at least it may be time for you to switch things around a bit and try different techniques**?

It seems to me that you are agonising a bit over getting "weiqi blips". It is normal. Your mind will always be producing internal imagery. We are just wired like that.

The "I read something like one should work up to sustaining it for an hour" bit is definitely a standard that is unrealistically high for the vast majority of applications. Two minutes is already pretty nice. Perhaps it is time for you to switch to something new, to keep yourself interested**. 

* I don't have "my own" standards for Access Concentration. Different teachers use different standards. Different techniques work best different standards. And different goals require different standards for Access Concentration. So we could talk about AC to (some kind of) jhana, AC to Mahasi noting, AC to shootin' aliens... so what are your goals with Anapanasati? What do you want to do with it? More in general, what are your goals with meditation? What do you want to "get" exactly? This might go a long way towards deciding what Access Concentration might be for your goals.

** Why did you pick the breath sensations at the nostrils as a technique? Have you tried working with different objects than the breath at the nostrils? Did you try noting/labelling? Fast noting? Body scanning? Mindfulness of breath at the belly? Anything else, e.g. something from Shinzen's Unified Mindfulness system? Could it just be that that object you are using just isn't that easy or interesting enough for you?

Hope this helps!

n

RE: Access concentration after a change in Morality?
Answer
11/30/18 2:16 PM as a reply to neko.
Overdue response emoticon

I'm happy to read your reply. The weiqi blips have since disappeared since stopping the game (though since replaced with other stuff), I think you are right about making a big deal over it.

My main goal with meditation is to see reality really well, or experience it more directly—so I bet that would mean developing insight via Mahasi noting. Experiencing concentration jhanas would be cool too, as a side, but not my priority. AC is required before either of these next phases though, right?

For example, concerning the first jhana, Ingram first writes about developing access concentration "If you wish to attain this, I would try to stay as completely as possible with an object for perhaps 1 minute. When you can do this, try for 10 minutes. When you can do this, try for an hour".

As for objects, I thought scanning/noting was more a vipassana thing, rather than a means of getting to Access concentration. I've tried belly, and fire kasina (though the latter not for long). I guess I've been sticking with breath because so many others have attained greater concentration and insight using it, it's credible. But I haven't heard of the Shinzen thing, I'll look it up.

RE: Access concentration after a change in Morality?
Answer
12/3/18 6:30 PM as a reply to Jack.
Jack:
Overdue response emoticon

I'm happy to read your reply. The weiqi blips have since disappeared since stopping the game (though since replaced with other stuff), I think you are right about making a big deal over it.

My main goal with meditation is to see reality really well, or experience it more directly—so I bet that would mean developing insight via Mahasi noting. Experiencing concentration jhanas would be cool too, as a side, but not my priority. AC is required before either of these next phases though, right?

For example, concerning the first jhana, Ingram first writes about developing access concentration "If you wish to attain this, I would try to stay as completely as possible with an object for perhaps 1 minute. When you can do this, try for 10 minutes. When you can do this, try for an hour".

As for objects, I thought scanning/noting was more a vipassana thing, rather than a means of getting to Access concentration. I've tried belly, and fire kasina (though the latter not for long). I guess I've been sticking with breath because so many others have attained greater concentration and insight using it, it's credible. But I haven't heard of the Shinzen thing, I'll look it up.


Cool that there are so many go players here!

Jack, it's clear to me that you already have "access concentration." Check out MCTB2 on access concentration - Daniel takes back the "you'll know it when you get it" statement because it was just causing a lot of confusion.

Access concentration isn't anything special - it's not anything particularly noticable. It just means you've been meditating a little bit and it happens automatically as you start noting or working on jhanas.