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Can't concentrate and relax at the same time?

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Towards the ends of my sits, I’m getting to a point where I can stay aware of one spot in my nose constantly and smoothly moment-to-moment. When this happens a certain kind of intensity, and at rare times a slight buzz, starts to develop.

The catch is, when I’m putting all my concentration on one spot as constantly as I can,  my diaphragm impulsively tenses up, so I can only sustain this concentration for two breaths before I need to gasp and release the tension—breaking this intense concentration.

I feel like if I focus on constant attention, my diaphragm tenses. But if I focus on staying relaxed, I lose this constant attention. Has anyone had this problem, and found a good practice to solve it?


RE: Can't concentrate and relax at the same time?
Answer
8/16/19 12:04 PM as a reply to Jack.
Jack:
my diaphragm impulsively tenses up, so I can only sustain this concentration for two breaths before I need to gasp and release the tension

One approach would be to try to deconstruct this "needing to gasp". What happens if you don't gasp?  What are the sensations that make up "needing to gasp"?  Can you handle it for an extra breath or two longer than normal?


Another approach which is probably gentler and the better call is to accept that right now you don't have tight focus in a sustained relaxed way, and see how you can use positive reinforcement and relaxation to gradually increase your ability to sustain narrower focus.  Have you read The Mind Illuminated yet?  Culadasa talks a lot about different strategies for cultivating an intention to return attention to the breath when you notice that you've gone off with a distraction or mind wandering.  Concentration practice happens primarily when you remember to return attention to the object.  You might have periods where attention doesn't waver as a result of past practice that you've done, but the real work is in the sessions where you don't have consistent attention but are still working on it anyways.

RE: Can't concentrate and relax at the same time?
Answer
8/16/19 1:19 PM as a reply to Jack.
[quote=The catch is, when I’m putting all my concentration on one spot as constantly as I can,  my diaphragm impulsively tenses up, so I can only sustain this concentration for two breaths before I need to gasp and release the tension—breaking this intense concentration.
]

 I get this same stuff when doing kasina disc concentration and about 40 minutes into noting practice. I was talking to a freind the other day that suggested looking at it with the 3c's which I am doing now but I also plan on adding a more relaxing concentration due to the tightness it causes in daily life. Thanks for bringing it up.

RE: Can't concentrate and relax at the same time?
Answer
8/17/19 8:46 AM as a reply to Dustin.
Interesting... What are the 3 Cs? And by relaxed concentration, do you mean starting with a basis of relaxation then only adding concentration as long as you remain relaxed, or what exactly?

RE: Can't concentrate and relax at the same time?
Answer
8/17/19 8:50 AM as a reply to JP.
I read the Mind Illuminated up to about stage three or four. Mind wandering isn't a big problem for me at the moment, just keeping attention constant in subtle ways-- sometimes it will move to follow wherever the sensations are the strongest, instead of staying constant in one spot. But once I get there, this tensed-upness happens. But I'll try observing the need to gasp more, see what happens...

RE: Can't concentrate and relax at the same time?
Answer
8/17/19 8:54 AM as a reply to Jack.
If focusing on one tiny spot gets too intense, maybe it would be a good idea to spread your focus on a larger area? Have you tried that? What happens if you allow your awareness to embrace your whole body? Can you do that and remain concentrated?

RE: Can't concentrate and relax at the same time?
Answer
8/17/19 8:59 AM as a reply to Jack.
The need to gasp is very common when one is on the verge of entering first jhana, and that’s exactly what you shouldn’t do if you want to go there. Focusing on one tiny spot can both be too intense and it is fragile. Such a narrow focus can easily tip over into distraction, at least according to Thanissaro Bhikku. I find that I need to focus on my whole body in order to enter first jhana, but Ayyka Khema says that different people may have different triggers.

RE: Can't concentrate and relax at the same time?
Answer
8/17/19 2:13 PM as a reply to Linda ”Polly Ester” Ö.
Interesting. I'll definitely give this a shot. 

I thought I heard something like your attention can only be at one spot at a time. Dan wrote something about placing hands or fingers on his legs/knees (I forget the exact details) and that you can't keep your attention fully on both simultaneously, though it may seem the case, your attention is really rapidly alternating back and forth. So imagine that when you let awareness embrace your body, it's really a rapid bouncing around of attention from one spot to another.

Any other details about staying aware of the whole body? Is there still a focus on staying smooth and as moment-to-moment as you can?
THanks

RE: Can't concentrate and relax at the same time?
Answer
8/17/19 2:18 PM as a reply to Jack.
Jack:
Interesting... What are the 3 Cs? And by relaxed concentration, do you mean starting with a basis of relaxation then only adding concentration as long as you remain relaxed, or what exactly?
The 3c’s are the three characteristics. Not- self, impermanence and suffering. Relaxed concentration for me is as follows. I start by following the breath at the nasal cavity wherever I hear it and feel it pretty good. I take 3 in and out breaths and drop the breath and go into the felt sense of the body and just kind of check in. From there I notice the space around me and the space in the room and then I come back to the breath and follow it for 5 breaths in and out and then go back to the body and then space around me and then back to breath 7 in and out and then body then space and then repeat the whole process. The thing for me is I notice more space within the body and out side the body when I practice it. I do this for 10 to 20 minutes and then go to vipassana. Also when I do the space around me part I get real interested in my mind about how far the walls are from me or how much space is in front of behind and right to left. Also I’ll think about the space outside. Like how far certain thing are from where I’m meditating, work, a lake down the road or the grocery store. Just get interested in the idea of space and it will relax you because it’s not totally focused on one point. Let me know if this helps. 

RE: Can't concentrate and relax at the same time?
Answer
8/17/19 3:02 PM as a reply to Jack.
Jack:
Interesting. I'll definitely give this a shot. 

I thought I heard something like your attention can only be at one spot at a time. Dan wrote something about placing hands or fingers on his legs/knees (I forget the exact details) and that you can't keep your attention fully on both simultaneously, though it may seem the case, your attention is really rapidly alternating back and forth. So imagine that when you let awareness embrace your body, it's really a rapid bouncing around of attention from one spot to another.

Any other details about staying aware of the whole body? Is there still a focus on staying smooth and as moment-to-moment as you can?
THanks


According to Culadasa, attention and awareness are different things. According to Shinzen Young, a wide focus is possible. I assume he is referring to awareness rather than attention. Attention isn’t always needed, if I understand it correctly. Staying with one tiny spot is effective for investigating attention. That is valid practice that teaches you a lot about your mind. You are already noticing some of the dukkha, it seems. Going into jhanas and taking the investigation from there is valid practice too.

RE: Can't concentrate and relax at the same time?
Answer
8/18/19 8:42 AM as a reply to Linda ”Polly Ester” Ö.
Attention and awareness aren't the same, but isn't attention still the key to going into jhanas... Culadasa wrote that sustaining some bodily awareness while focusing attention on one spot was a useful way of reducing forgetfulness, but can one go into jhana with awareness alone?

RE: Can't concentrate and relax at the same time?
Answer
8/18/19 9:20 AM as a reply to Jack.
Good question. Hm, I’m not sure about this at all, but maybe it is something like this: when one is doing shamatha, the exact details of every little change are not what one is looking for. One sort of smoothes things out in order to focus on the pleasant sensations of for instance the breath. That has a cost. That cost is allowing oneself to temporarily buy into some of the delusion. That gets one into states that enables one to see things more clearly later on, as one switches into vipassana, or combines them into very lite jhanas that can coexist with vipassana.

I have heard from different sources that some people benefit more from focusing on one tiny spot, but with introspective awareness to prevent mind wandering or dullness like Culadasa suggests, whereas others need to focus on the breath in the whole body in order to even get into the jhana. Different triggers work for different people. Maybe when the focus is wider, attention is still in play but one smoothes it out to focus on the pleasant sensations rather than being annoyed by all the jumping in-between spots. The jumping would contain too much obvious dukkha to get one into jhana, I suspect.

I guess you need to decide whether you wish to go into jhanas or see all details about attention. Both choices are valid. Since you wrote about concentration, I assumed that you wanted to work on your concentration primarily for now.

I guess a third option might be to keep working strictly according to the method and wait for your concentration to grow strong enough to work with one tiny spot. I just didn’t see that as an option since you found that it causes too much tension and contraction.

RE: Can't concentrate and relax at the same time?
Answer
8/18/19 10:51 AM as a reply to Linda ”Polly Ester” Ö.
Just finished a session in which I tried focusing on the whole body. I liked it. Easier to maintain awareness between breaths than when focusing on a spot in the nose. Thanks, I'll continue with this and see where it goes...

One more question: when focusing on the "body", I feel I can't feel every millimeter of the body at once, i.e. including pinky toes and eyebrows and elbows. I was just lightly aware of my arms and stomach and legs. Does it suffice to just be as present as possible with whatever is immediately apparent within your body, or does jhana only come from 100% of your body flooded with awareness?

RE: Can't concentrate and relax at the same time?
Answer
8/18/19 11:14 AM as a reply to Jack.
I don’t think anyone, except maybe for arahants (?), can feel every millimeter of their body at once. I think the important part is staying with the breath and finding ways to make the breath interesting and delightful enough for the mind to unify around it. The mind likes to be occupied with something in order not to get bored. A wider range of sensations makes it easier. Just remember to stay with the breath, whether it’s in your nostrils or in your toes as energetic stuff.

RE: Can't concentrate and relax at the same time?
Answer
8/18/19 11:29 AM as a reply to Jack.
Jack --

I feel like if I focus on constant attention, my diaphragm tenses. But if I focus on staying relaxed, I lose this constant attention. Has anyone had this problem, and found a good practice to solve it?

One can, indeed, have looser, more relaxed concentration and hold that longer with less tension. People struggle with how to remain focused but they tend to make the mistake of thinking this means "focused like a laser beam" on something narrow or minute. I suspect you're in this category. Note that when you tried wider and more relaxed attention you felt better. I suggest you run with that.

RE: Can't concentrate and relax at the same time?
Answer
8/18/19 11:39 AM as a reply to Chris Marti.
Thanks for chiming in! I was just thinking that I should be clear about the fact that I’m not as far ahead in my journey as many others here. I was getting a bit worried of leading Jack astray. It’s a relief that you give the same advice.

RE: Can't concentrate and relax at the same time?
Answer
8/19/19 8:35 AM as a reply to Chris Marti.
Yes, 'focused like a laser beam' had definitely been my objective. I'll practice with looser, wider focus for a while. Thank you.

RE: Can't concentrate and relax at the same time?
Answer
8/19/19 8:58 AM as a reply to Jack.
Jack:
One more question: when focusing on the "body", I feel I can't feel every millimeter of the body at once, i.e. including pinky toes and eyebrows and elbows. I was just lightly aware of my arms and stomach and legs. Does it suffice to just be as present as possible with whatever is immediately apparent within your body, or does jhana only come from 100% of your body flooded with awareness?

You can also think of this as insight into the subjective experience of the body --  your body exists only to the degree that you're experiencing it.  So if you're just aware of your arms/stomach/legs in a period of time, that's what your body consists of during that period of time.  And if you drop the temporal resolution even lower, you might notice just an arm or a leg at a time.  Even lower, and you'll notice that it's just individual sensations of tension or tingling or pressure that you assume means "my leg" or "my arm".

RE: Can't concentrate and relax at the same time?
Answer
8/23/19 8:53 AM as a reply to JP.
Hi, Jack. I practice daily TMI as well, and am currently typically working in Stage 6. If you're currently working Stage 3/4, I honestly wouldn't be thinking about jhana right now. It can happen, sure, but it's more likely that you don't yet have adequate concentration for it, so I'd suggest sticking with the goals for your current stage, as they're there to ensure that you DO end up with strong/consistent enough concentration to move into such things as jhana work. There's a good reason that jhanas aren't addressed until Stage 5/6. If you happen to find that you can consistently enter jhana, then you're well past Stages 3 and 4 with your concentration.  :-)


As far as your original issue, I think it sounds like you're kicking butt and are briefly reaching exclusive attention at the end of your sits. I think if you stick with the stages, your mind will eventually learn how to untangle the knot that it has made with exclusive attention and your tight diaphragm. It'll learn that the tightness isn't at all necessary for exclusivity to happen.

I think the issue is that your mind currently associates the two phenomena together, but that'll be unlearned in time. I had/have a similar issue with ever so slightly unconsciously tightening my eyes up to achieve strong concentration. This used to lead to an annoying twitch of the eyelid, and sometimes still does. Recognizing the problem is half the battle, and once recognized, the mind starts to work on the issue almost automatically. Not to say that improvement is immediate, but it starts the ball rolling. 

Someone mentioned Thanissaro Bhikkhu (I looooove his talks!!!), and to illustrate this process, he often uses the metaphor of a baby just learning to walk. At first, the baby is using far more muscles than necessary, so it staggers and sways awkwardly as it toddles along. Eventually he learns that all those muscles aren't needed for walking, and are actually counter-productive, and he eventually whittles things down to the point where he is only using the muscles needed to walk, and the gait becomes fluid, natural and effortless. That's what we're trying to do in our TMI prtactice. Hope this helps, and have a good weekend!   :-)