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Concentration practice
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10/28/19 5:01 PM
Hi friends. I'm new here and looking forward to being part of the community. 

Today I'm hoping some of you may have feedback on the questions I have below... I'd love some feedback.

1. When/how to add insight practice on top of a concentration practice  ~  I'm focusing my practice mainly on concentration, as when I try to sit and do insight work I find I go off the rails very quickly and end up only frustrated. My first question is, do any of you have any thoughts regarding how one determines if or when they are ready to effectively begin an insight practice? In other words, would a teacher likely tell someone to obtain a certain degree of competence with concentration before beginning insight work? And what does that level of competence look like? Are there good, in-depth texts out there on how to navigate this transition?

2. Tricks for maintaining concentration on an object (breath)  ~ I use some tricks, or crutches, to help with concentration when I'm really struggling to hang onto my breath-object, which is often.   e.g.: A dab of tiger balm on my nostrils to intensify breath sensations and make it easier to keep my attention there. Would a teacher chastize me for Three Stooges antics on the cushion? Are there better methods? The sensation the tiger balm creates fades gradually, so that 10-20 minutes into an hour session I'm on my own.
The second gimmick I'm trying is to hold a counter in the palm of my hand during a one-hour seated meditation, and click the counter each time I get through a full minute of steady focus on my breath (using a timer app set to chime quietly every minute). At the end of the session I can log how many minutes I made it through with constant attention to the breath. Over time I can track my progress, but more importantly this little trick is making it possible for me to be focused on my breath for 30 to 40 minutes during an hour, whereas without that device I'm lucky to be tuned into my object for more than 15 minutes total. 

I've been wondering, am I stunting my progress in the long run with these little tricks? Or are they validly helping get over the hurdles of establishing the ability to concentrate? 

Many thanks for any thoughst you all might have.

RE: Concentration practice
Answer
10/29/19 2:47 AM as a reply to Christopher Kit Maddox.
Hi chris, I hope I can be of some help.

1. When/how to add insight practice on top of a concentration practice  ~  I'm focusing my practice mainly on concentration, as when I try to sit and do insight work I find I go off the rails very quickly and end up only frustrated. My first question is, do any of you have any thoughts regarding how one determines if or when they are ready to effectively begin an insight practice? In other words, would a teacher likely tell someone to obtain a certain degree of competence with concentration before beginning insight work? And what does that level of competence look like? Are there good, in-depth texts out there on how to navigate this transition?

Its different for each person. I would work with concentration if that feels easier for you. It's more important to establish a heathy meditation routine at the beginning. If you have that, then work with concentration until a solid base level is gained. The stronger your consentration is the easier (for most people) insight will be to start gaining ground in.
2. Tricks for maintaining concentration on an object (breath)  ~ I use some tricks, or crutches, to help with concentration when I'm really struggling to hang onto my breath-object, which is often.   e.g.: A dab of tiger balm on my nostrils to intensify breath sensations and make it easier to keep my attention there. Would a teacher chastize me for Three Stooges antics on the cushion? Are there better methods? The sensation the tiger balm creates fades gradually, so that 10-20 minutes into an hour session I'm on my own.
The second gimmick I'm trying is to hold a counter in the palm of my hand during a one-hour seated meditation, and click the counter each time I get through a full minute of steady focus on my breath (using a timer app set to chime quietly every minute). At the end of the session I can log how many minutes I made it through with constant attention to the breath. Over time I can track my progress, but more importantly this little trick is making it possible for me to be focused on my breath for 30 to 40 minutes during an hour, whereas without that device I'm lucky to be tuned into my object for more than 15 minutes total. 

In my humble opinion I would recommend that you stop with the "tricks" you are useing. It may be helping right now, but it will only hurt you in the long run. I do applaud your enginuity, dont lose that. Simple is better at the start.

I would recommend using what people call a montra. A word you speak in your head over and over. It doesn't matter what word it is. Find one that feels right for you. Feel free to experiment with many words. A two syllable word works really well but, lt really doesn't matter. I like to use the word "relax". It just feels right for me.

So you have your word, now what does it look like to use it in concentration practice. To start out you will want to think your word with every in AND out breath, doing your best to focus concentration on the feeling of the breath as it comes in and out. Breath normal. The Montra word helps to interrupt the storys your mind is getting lost in. Once you feel you have gained some stability, say (in your head) part of the word on the in breath and the last part on the out breath (in) re (out) lax. Once that feels stable, drop the word altogether and just focus on the feeling of breath coming and going. 

I hope this helps 

RE: Concentration practice
Answer
10/29/19 4:22 PM as a reply to Christopher Kit Maddox.
I don't think you can really separate insight from concentration. Concentration calms the mind, slowing it down, making it easier to observe how it works. Every time your mind wanders or you notice faint thoughts in the background while you try to concnetrate, you are learning that you don't control your own mind. That tells you something important about "self". If you notice how interrupting thoughts make you feel, you learn something about the cause of suffering and about attachments and aversions. 

Once you start noticing and observing emotions during meditation you begin to notice and observe them more during daily life too - these observations help you learn about the cause of suffering and about attachments and aversions.

Understanding your own mind helps you to become more understanding of other people. Their minds are like yours, hard to control, causing suffering, attachments, and aversions.

(The only time insight is totally absent is if you have totaly perfect concentration and complete absorbtion. If that is the case, it might be a good time to add an insight practice.)

All of this learning is effective but the effects are not always recognized by the meditator because they accumulate gradually. I think this is why Shinzen Young finds that more people experience gradual awakening than sudden awakening and many of them don't know they are enlightened. Meditation is so powerful because trying to control the mind forces you to observe it - many different techniques will have the same deep influence on you, whether you know it or not.

And this article might be helpful:

https://www.accesstoinsight.org/lib/authors/thanissaro/onetool.html

One Tool Among Many
The Place of Vipassana in Buddhist Practice
by
Thanissaro Bhikkhu
...
In the few instances where [the sutras] do mention vipassana, they almost always pair it with samatha — not as two alternative methods, but as two qualities of mind that a person may "gain" or "be endowed with," and that should be developed together.
...
So the proper path is one in which vipassana and samatha are brought into balance, each supporting and acting as a check on the other. Vipassana helps keep tranquillity from becoming stagnant and dull. Samatha helps prevent the manifestations of aversion — such as nausea, dizziness, disorientation, and even total blanking out — that can occur when the mind is trapped against its will in the present moment.

From this description it's obvious that samatha and vipassana are not separate paths of practice, but instead are complementary ways of relating to the present moment: samatha provides a sense of ease in the present; vipassana, a clear-eyed view of events as they actually occur, in and of themselves. It's also obvious why the two qualities need to function together in mastering jhana. As the standard instructions on breath meditation indicate (MN 118), such a mastery involves three things: gladdening, concentrating, and liberating the mind. Gladdening means finding a sense of refreshment and satisfaction in the present. Concentrating means keeping the mind focused on its object, while liberating means freeing the mind from the grosser factors making up a lower stage of concentration so as to attain a higher stage. The first two activities are functions of samatha, while the last is a function of vipassana. All three must function together. If, for example, there is concentration and gladdening, with no letting go, the mind wouldn't be able to refine its concentration at all. The factors that have to be abandoned in raising the mind from stage x to stage y belong to the set of factors that got the mind to x in the first place (AN 9.34). Without the ability clearly to see mental events in the present, there would be no way skillfully to release the mind from precisely the right factors that tie it to a lower state of concentration and act as disturbances to a higher one. If, on the other hand, there is simply a letting go of those factors, without an appreciation of or steadiness in the stillness that remains, the mind would drop out of jhana altogether. Thus samatha and vipassana must work together to bring the mind to right concentration in a masterful way.

...

Samatha and vipassana belong to the category of the path and so should be developed. To develop them, one must apply appropriate attention to the task of comprehending stress, which is comprised of the five clinging-aggregates — clinging to physical form, feeling, perception, mental fabrications, and consciousness. Applying appropriate attention to these aggregates means viewing them in terms of their drawbacks, as "inconstant, stressful, a disease, a cancer, an arrow, painful, an affliction, alien, a dissolution, an emptiness, not-self" (SN 22.122). A list of questions, distinctive to the Buddha, aids in this approach: "Is this aggregate constant or inconstant?" "And is anything inconstant easeful or stressful?" "And is it fitting to regard what is inconstant, stressful, subject to change as: 'This is mine. This is my self. This is what I am'?" (SN 22.59). These questions are applied to every instance of the five aggregates, whether "past, future, or present; internal or external; blatant or subtle, common or sublime, far or near." In other words, the meditator asks these questions of all experiences in the cosmos of the six sense media.

This line of questioning is part of a strategy leading to a level of knowledge called "knowing and seeing things as they actually are (yatha-bhuta-ñana-dassana)," where things are understood in terms of a fivefold perspective: their arising, their passing away, their drawbacks, their allure, and the escape from them — the escape, here, lying in dispassion.


RE: Concentration practice
Answer
10/29/19 5:17 PM as a reply to Christopher Kit Maddox.
When I first began a vipassana practice I did both, each once a day. A period of insight practice in the morning and a period of concentration practice in the evening. That was a long time ago and yet I'm still doing it that way. Now... off to the jhanas.

RE: Concentration practice
Answer
10/29/19 6:00 PM as a reply to Michial N.
Responding to Michial, thank for very much for your feedback. I agree, my gorilla concentration tactics are likely superfluous and hampering the process. I like your advice to lean more on mantras. I've been confused by an apparent conflict between advice I've read to use mantras, and advice to limit or advance quickly beyond leaning on mental noting during concentration practice. I understand there's a distinct difference between mental noting and using a mantra practice. That's something I will look into further.

And responding to Jim Smith, thank you very much as well. This is very helpful.
I'm reading the writings you've shared. It's quite a lot of material so I'll take my time with it, but the general point you're making is clear and resonates with me. I can always try to look at what emerges during concentration practice as opportunity to experience and develop insight. Wow. Amazing.

Though I've been practicing sporadically for (9?) years, I'm approaching my practice as if I'm a beginner, because I've not engaged with anything so complex and profoundly rich as Vipassana/Insight, and it seems best to put what I think I know aside and begin anew.
Based on what you're saying, and what  I'm reading in the Thanissaro Bhikkhu texts, I understand it makes sense to explore and practice both concentration and insight daily. It kinda seems like that's going to happen regardless and allowing a certain flow and interplay is a significant part of this process.

I think I will try something like 60 minute sessions split into 30 minutes of concentration and 30 of insight. I'd also like to try doing two daily sessions, a 45 minute concentration session in the evening and a 20-30 minute insight session in the morning (when my mind tends to be a little less polluted) to begin with.

I recently read "Mindfulness in Plain English" by Bhante Gunaratana, as well as his "Four Foundations" book. I'll read "Beyond Mindfulness in Plain English" next, which, from the table of contents, looks like it will adress many of my emerging questions. After that I'll return to Daniel Ingram's book, which has been interesting and helpful so far. I appreciate that he's very generous with the reading recommendations.

All my best to you both for your kindness. Peace

RE: Concentration practice
Answer
10/29/19 6:05 PM as a reply to Chris Marti.
Chris Marti:
When I first began a vipassana practice I did both, each once a day. A period of insight practice in the morning and a period of concentration practice in the evening. That was a long time ago and yet I'm still doing it that way. Now... off to the jhanas.
That's just what I am going to work on next. My initial instinct is to do insight work in the morning as well, when my mind is quieter. 
Thanks Chris!

RE: Concentration practice
Answer
11/30/19 12:50 PM as a reply to Michial N.
Do you have any tips in regards to reaching the jhanas? I've practiced everyday for at least an hour for a few months now. My goal is to reach 4th jhana to do Insight. But, the 1st jhana is quite shy.