Concentration on a Solo?

Sean Lindsay, modified 10 Years ago.

Concentration on a Solo?

Posts: 46 Join Date: 11/3/09 Recent Posts
I'd benefit from some thoughts about the (in?)advisability of pursuing jhana practice while on a solo retreat.

Some background, in case it's relevant: I've meditated consistently for about 5 years, usually 5-6x week, usually 45 minutes per sitting (three std. deviations run about 30-75 minutes). I've sat several vipassana retreats at Spirit Rock, ranging from 5 to 10 days long. A couple of years ago, stream entry was realized, and I've just emerged into equanimity again after a much-more-difficult-than-the-first-time-through Dark Night. (Side note, I had a distinctly non-dual experience at the end of my last retreat, after finally making it out of Reobservation and into Equanimity, so not sure where things stand at present, but I seem to have ready access to stable equanimity at this point, and I'm glad to be here.)

My practice has always been the "dry" version of vipassana -- that is, I think I may have entered first jhana once or twice in my life, but my version of access concentration is typically the moment-to-moment concentration of seeing sensory experience (including thoughts) arise and pass away.

One of my working hypotheses is that I'd find somewhat greater ease -- and possibly better progress -- in my insight practice if I were to get a bit better at concentration. So last fall and again this winter, I tried to sign up for 10-day concentration retreats at Spirit Rock. Both times I got wait-listed. The first time, by the time they called me to see if I wanted in, I'd already allowed work and other parts of life to over-fill the time I'd originally planned to be away. I'm presently wait listed for the April-May concentration retreat.

What I'm wondering is this: in the event that I don't get into the April-May Spirit Rock retreat, would it be realistic (and wise) to take the time that I've already got reserved away from work (which is hard to come by) and do a 10-day concentration retreat solo? I have access to a relatively remote cabin where I could find solitude. I think I have the self-discipline that I expect would be needed to stick with the practice each day for that period of time. In advance of the retreat, I could probably cobble together evening dharma talks on concentration from dharma seed. I could use the instructions in Practicing the Jhanas by Snyder and Rasumussen to guide daily practice.

But I don't know if there are aspects to concentration practice that could make it ill-advised to try this solo. I've had enough experience with certain pranayama practices to know that I'd be foolish to try them without the close guidance of a teacher, but because I've experienced so little of concentration, I don't know whether the same is true of that practice.

Any thoughts would be deeply appreciated.
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Ian And, modified 10 Years ago.

RE: Concentration on a Solo?

Posts: 782 Join Date: 8/22/09 Recent Posts
Sean Lindsay:
I'd benefit from some thoughts about the (in?) advisability of pursuing jhana practice while on a solo retreat.

Some background, in case it's relevant: I've meditated consistently for about 5 years, usually 5-6x week, usually 45 minutes per sitting (three std. deviations run about 30-75 minutes). I've sat several vipassana retreats at Spirit Rock, ranging from 5 to 10 days long.

My practice has always been the "dry" version of vipassana -- that is, I think I may have entered first jhana once or twice in my life, but my version of access concentration is typically the moment-to-moment concentration of seeing sensory experience (including thoughts) arise and pass away.

One of my working hypotheses is that I'd find somewhat greater ease -- and possibly better progress -- in my insight practice if I were to get a bit better at concentration.

Pursuing jhana is always a good choice in practice. Especially for someone with your background in meditation. You have plenty of experience, enough to be able to achieve absorption if placed in the right environment for its practice and following good instruction. The difficult part will be in developing enough confidence in your ability to discern the jhana state when you hit it.

If you are able to attain "moment-to-moment concentration of seeing sensory experience ... arise and pass away" then you have enough samadhi to attain jhana. Jhana practice will only help you to lengthen the time periods for this ability of concentration, so that you are able to keep your mind in concentration for longer and longer time spans, whether in meditation or normal consciousness.

Sean Lindsay:

What I'm wondering is this: in the event that I don't get into the April-May Spirit Rock retreat, would it be realistic (and wise) to take the time that I've already got reserved away from work (which is hard to come by) and do a 10-day concentration retreat solo? I have access to a relatively remote cabin where I could find solitude. I think I have the self-discipline that I expect would be needed to stick with the practice each day for that period of time. In advance of the retreat, I could probably cobble together evening dharma talks on concentration from dharma seed. I could use the instructions in Practicing the Jhanas by Snyder and Rasumussen to guide daily practice.

Sounds like a perfect opportunity. Seclusion is the perfect atmosphere for learning how to enter jhana concentration. Being secluded from the normal distractions of day-to-day living in a retreat setting is what is needed in many cases for success.

Sean Lindsay:

But I don't know if there are aspects to concentration practice that could make it ill-advised to try this solo. I've had enough experience with certain pranayama practices to know that I'd be foolish to try them without the close guidance of a teacher, but because I've experienced so little of concentration, I don't know whether the same is true of that practice.

Concentration is like any other quality of mind. Once you realize you've gained a deeper, more consistent level of it, there's really nothing to it. It won't bite you. And it's excellent for being able to examine phenomena, or contemplating the truths of the Dhamma.

Practice toward attaining the samatha jhanas, calming the mind and mental movement. That's a relatively safe practice. When you get into a solid meditative state where you feel like you could effortlessly go on forever, then you can pretty well assume that you have hit jhana.

The only thing you need to be aware of is not to become overly attached to any blissful sensations that you may encounter while learning to enter jhana. Always establish mindfulness before attempting to meditate, and make sure that you keep it established throughout your meditation so as not to slip into a dull, semi-hypnotic state, and you will do fine. If you ever sense a dull state of mind coming on, ramp up the mindfulness and that should overwhelm any dullness that creeps in and keep you from heading into a semi-hypnotic state.

If you haven't already, read the sticky thread about the Practical Aspects of Establishing Mindfulness on the Recent Posts page and endeavor to follow the advice given there. Establishing strong sati is a good cure-all for almost anything in Dhamma practice. You can never go wrong doing that.
Sean Lindsay, modified 10 Years ago.

RE: Concentration on a Solo?

Posts: 46 Join Date: 11/3/09 Recent Posts
Thanks very much for the guidance. I'm looking forward to pursuing this, whether at Spirit Rock or on my own.
Sean Lindsay, modified 10 Years ago.

RE: Concentration on a Solo?

Posts: 46 Join Date: 11/3/09 Recent Posts
Ian And, thank you for putting together the Practical Aspects materials. I've read them several times, as well as the linked-to materials.

One follow-up question in preparation for the solo:

In recent weeks, I've converted my daily practice into 75-100% concentration practice, the reminder (if any) vipassana. While I have ready access to jhana-style access concentration, typically that's followed by 2-10 minutes of moderate-to-very-strong pitti. Typically, that's followed by a quieter state that can last from 5-35 minutes. In the past, I've thought of the pitti-heavy state as 1st jhana, the quieter state as 2nd jhana, even though the second state usually doesn't have any strong feelings of joy. But while I find both states easy to access at this point, in neither of them are external sensory input completely absent -- only diminished -- like they're a bit farther away than they are in off-the-cushion mind frames.

But every now and again while I'm in the second state, the mind will *very briefly* experience a highly distinctive mind state in which the mind's quality of focus seems orders of magnitude stronger, but which disappears as rapidly as it arises, and it seems as different from the second state I mention above as ice is different from water. I've never successfully been able to stay in that state, nor to will myself back into it after it's passed.

The recent occurrence of that unusual mind state has made me begin to wonder whether my 1st jhana-pitti/2nd jhana-calm thinking has just been variants of access concentration, with the unusual mind state indicating *real* jhana. It raises a couple of questions:

Am I on the right concentration path? Is the latter condition something that there are techniques to practice toward directly? Is greater depth just a function of more constant and steady practice (which a retreat will help with)?

Does this make any sense to anyone who's traversed jhana practice?
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Ian And, modified 10 Years ago.

RE: Concentration on a Solo?

Posts: 782 Join Date: 8/22/09 Recent Posts
Hi Sean,

Before I get to your questions, Sean, from what I can gather overall, based on your descriptions, you are in good territory with your practice. The only thing you're lacking is good, competent guidance that will assist you in beginning to confidently make some of these determinations for yourself. Hopefully, a few of my comments can help out with this latter.

Sean Lindsay:

The recent occurrence of that unusual mind state has made me begin to wonder whether my 1st jhana-pitti/2nd jhana-calm thinking has just been variants of access concentration, with the unusual mind state indicating *real* jhana. It raises a couple of questions:

Am I on the right concentration path? Is the latter condition something that there are techniques to practice toward directly? Is greater depth just a function of more constant and steady practice (which a retreat will help with)?

From your description, it sounds as though you are on a fruitful path in concentration.

If by the reference to "the latter condition" you are referring to the second state that you describe as "jhana-calm thinking," the techniques that work to maintain such states all have their basis in the establishment of mindfulness. I would recommend practicing equanimity when you contact that state in the future, and just try to stay with it. As your sati becomes stronger, your natural ability to remain in that state on a more constant basis will increase proportionally. You will likely understand what I'm suggesting here once you gain more experience with this, i.e. with more maturity in your practice.

As for the third question above, the short answer is "yes." Greater depth is just a function of more constant and steady practice with being able to maintain mindfulness (sati) while in contact with these states.

Now on to some comments regarding the descriptions you provided.

Sean Lindsay:

One follow-up question in preparation for the solo:

In recent weeks, I've converted my daily practice into 75-100% concentration practice, the remainder (if any) vipassana.

While I have ready access to jhana-style access concentration, typically that's followed by 2-10 minutes of moderate-to-very-strong pitti. Typically, that's followed by a quieter state that can last from 5-35 minutes.

Your description here is typical of beginners learning to practice jhana according to the way it has been described in the suttas. While I cannot comment on the method you are using in order to contact these states, the description you provide might well suggest a difference between the first, second and third jhanas as opposed to the fourth jhana. There's really not enough to go on here in the description to be sure.

That "quieter state" is usually indicative of fourth jhana (as it is described in the suttas). And the following comments should help shed some light on why this is.

Sean Lindsay:

In the past, I've thought of the pitti-heavy state as 1st jhana, the quieter state as 2nd jhana, even though the second state usually doesn't have any strong feelings of joy.

But while I find both states easy to access at this point, in neither of them are external sensory input completely absent -- only diminished -- like they're a bit farther away than they are in off-the-cushion mind frames.

First sentence: Trying to figure out the difference between first, second, and third jhana in the beginning of my practice gave me a problem, too. The difference between first and second, once you gain some perspective, is fairly easy to determine. It has to do with the amount of effort being expended to maintain the jhana. In second jhana, typically, the amount of effort is less because the jhana evolves into a "positive reinforcement feedback loop" which maintains one's ability to remain in 2nd, 3rd and 4th jhanas effortlessly. So, look for that positive reinforcement feedback loop which becomes established in the second jhana. In this regard, Leigh Brasington's description should suffice to provide you with a better model to follow:

Brasington:
Entry into the first Jhana from a physiological perspective proceeds something like this:

1. You quiet your mind with the initial and sustained attention to the meditation subject (vitakka and vicara).

2. By shifting your attention to a pleasant sensation (piti), you set up a positive reinforcement feedback loop within your quiet mind. For example, one of the most useful pleasant sensations to focus on is a smile. The act of smiling generates endorphins, which make you feel good, which makes you smile more, which generates more endorphins, etc.

3. The final and most difficult part of entering the First Jhana is to not do anything but observe the pleasure (sukkha). Any attempt to increase the pleasure, even any thoughts of wanting to increase the pleasure, interrupt the feedback loop and drop you into a less quiet state of mind. But by doing nothing but focusing intently on the pleasure, you are propelled into an unmistakably altered state of consciousness (ekaggata).

Your comment about external sensory input not being absent is a good observation. Sometimes they can "seem" to be absent, and other times they remain present in the background or on the periphery of awareness. The difference between these two perspectives depends on the depth of the absorption in the object of meditation. Generally speaking, you don't want much depth in terms of absorption in the object when practicing an insight type of meditation. What you want to cultivate in insight meditation is concentration: the imperturbable nature of the mind to remain focused on its object of observation in order to see it more clearly. Clear seeing is where liberating insight is born.

Sean Lindsay:

But every now and again while I'm in the second state, the mind will *very briefly* experience a highly distinctive mind state in which the mind's quality of focus seems orders of magnitude stronger, but which disappears as rapidly as it arises, and it seems as different from the second state I mention above as ice is different from water. I've never successfully been able to stay in that state, nor to will myself back into it after it's passed.

That emphasized passage above is indicative of fourth jhana, a state in which the mind is unified, clearly aware, mindful, and imperturbably focused on whatever object is in its view, all of which lends itself to the unfolding of insight.

The way to maintain that state is to practice equanimity about it once it is entered. After more experience, this will become a second hand ability, and easily achieved. Equanimity attenuates any excess emotion that might cloud the mind resulting in a dissipation of the state. So, remain equanimous.

Hopefully this discussion has provided some useful food for thought and reflection.

Be well,
Ian

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