A Bundle of Beginnings

Liam O'Sullivan, modified 10 Years ago.

A Bundle of Beginnings

Posts: 213 Join Date: 6/13/11 Recent Posts
Morning all! I'm Liam. Somewhat of a puritan given my 'spiritual' focus is purely on the Thai Forest Tradition, but with an appreciation for the DIY attitude that seems prevalent here at the Dharma Overground. It's been encouraging to find other traditionalists who want to get their hands dirty finding out what works for them. Thanks a lot to everyone who posts here in the spirit of sharing.

I'm only now establishing a systematic and formal daily practice after years of gathering speed. I have a lot of emphasis on sila and respect for the Three Refuges, but am not really one for rites and rituals. I've recognised from reading MCTB that my earliest practice was walking meditation as a child - focusing on the slap of my feet on the pavement, feeling how the legs seemed to move themselves. My main practice is mindfulness of daily activities, and I'm trying to discipline myself to do daily anapanasati.

I make no claims to any attainments. I hope other readers who are similarly finding their feet might find it useful to read about someone's first faltering steps, mistakes and all. It can be intimidating to post when there are so many obviously talented and accomplished practitioners on DhO! As such, and out of curiosity, I'd like to mention a few experiences and see if anyone has any thoughts as to whether these imply anything about my Dhamma practice, or whether they're irrelevant? Since some were a while ago I try to relate only what I remember and not exaggerate.

1. Doing a 'mindfulness of thoughts' style exercise when 17, I became more concentrated and calm- quite a pleasant feeling. It was pretty quiet, but suddenly I heard a plane overhead particularly take my attention. I was then struck with the feeling that there was a 'presence' in the room. Quite scary. (Bear in mind I'm not at all a believer in the supernatural!)

2. At age 20, I was sitting in a quiet room, thinking about something or other, when I heard a metallic noise that may have been a windchime, or just in my head, I'm not sure. Immediately I felt a sense of greater awareness of, and oneness with, what was going on around me. It felt a bit like bringing my head out of water so that everything was suddenly heard more clearly - though it was more a felt sense. They really struck me as being like nothing else at the time.

3. Two years ago, during an introductory meditation course, I felt that during anapanasati all physical sensations had disappeared and I was left only with my thoughts (fewer than usual).

4. On my first retreat, an intensive weekend, having been encouraged to 'drop my baggage'. The first time I'd ever spent a whole weekend continually cultivating mindfulness. Beginner's mind allowed me to stay pretty focused on the present, albeit with quite a fierce, not relaxed, concentration, with plenty of mind noise. Towards the end of the retreat, while sitting, I became able to follow the breath 'all the way up and all the way down' without distraction, almost visualising it. After a while I became aware that I was no longer controlling my breath and it was occurring on its own. It required sustained concentration, and thoughts felt very short-lived and peripheral. I remember thinking that the mind was like an unruly and upset child that I needed to take care of.

Thanks for reading my gibberings and I hope they might be of some benefit!
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Bruno Loff, modified 10 Years ago.

RE: A Bundle of Beginnings

Posts: 1094 Join Date: 8/30/09 Recent Posts
Hi Welcome Liam emoticon

— The presence(s), awareness(es), and oneness(es) are (and always will be) imaginary, though they "feel real". Regardless of how entertaining these experiences were, they are not very relevant in terms of insight.

— The sense of things happening "on their own" is one of the three characteristics, and something to look out for. How about impermanence and unsatisfactoryness, did you have any experience where these characteristics were salient?

You seem to have decent concentration — what is now the purpose of your practice? Why do you do it?
Liam O'Sullivan, modified 10 Years ago.

RE: A Bundle of Beginnings

Posts: 213 Join Date: 6/13/11 Recent Posts
Some excellent feedback, thank you Bruno. It's good to have that clarified so simply.

I can't recall any meditation that particularly drew my attention to dukkha. The experience of 'the body breathing itself' included the experience of thoughts quickly 'shooting through' the mind, which now seems like anicca to me. Perhaps I need a more investigative attitude when I sit; I've mainly been working to stabilise concentration recently.

Why do I practice? In a day to day way it's part of living better, but I want to see whether it's possible to cut off the suffering that matters at the root, basically.

Edit: Reading back, that's a bit cryptic. I try to walk my talk, and think that the right way to live is for the highest benefit of self and others. Experience however has taught me the limits and drawbacks of purely mundane approaches. Any gains are transient, usually involve just shifting the negative around or into a different form rather than eliminating it, and are laced with subtle suffering anyway - in other words, the three characteristics are very clear to me intellectually. This has become a source of frustration and demotivation in my life, but also has spurred me to investigate Dhamma. I now think the highest benefit I could offer to others and myself would be to learn to work with the inevitable in a more skillful and meaningful way via the greater acceptance and understanding of it.
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Ian And, modified 10 Years ago.

RE: A Bundle of Beginnings

Posts: 785 Join Date: 8/22/09 Recent Posts
Hello Liam,

Welcome to the DhO.

You wrote: "Immediately I felt a sense of greater awareness of, and oneness with, what was going on around me. It felt a bit like bringing my head out of water so that everything was suddenly heard more clearly - though it was more a felt sense."

The descriptions of "a sense of greater awareness" and feeling "like bringing my head out of water" so that everything was "heard more clearly," if I'm reading these correctly, could signify an increase in the intensity of mindfulness. If it was, that was a good thing. Something to work on becoming more consistent at.

The "I felt that during anapanasati all physical sensations had disappeared and I was left only with my thoughts" experience could have been a deepening of concentration (absorption perhaps?), although without personally interviewing you and gaining further clarification it's hard to say. I'm not really sure where Bruno is coming from in his comment about this. If he's thinking it is an experience of anatta, he may be reading more into this than is there.

The retreat experience where you mentioned being focused on the present "albeit with quite a fierce, not relaxed, concentration, with plenty of mind noise," is pretty indicative of the untrained mind needing to make a concerted effort to maintain mindfulness and concentration. Once you've been able to gain more practice, this should not entail as much "effort" as you experienced here. In other words, once you have a better hold on the mind, you should find maintaining mindfulness and concentration to be almost effortless. It just takes practice; a lot of practice. Although learning about and practicing jhana states can considerably shorten the length of time needed to gain the effortless feel.

One of the first things you may wish to focus on before heading for deeper waters in concentration practice is being able to quiet the mind at will. Having this one ability will speed things up tremendously. Getting rid of "mind noise" is essential to cultivating an undisturbed and undistracted mind that can be used during deep contemplation.

"Towards the end of the retreat, while sitting, I became able to follow the breath 'all the way up and all the way down' without distraction..." Very good. Keep cultivating that same level of concentration. It's likely that you will have good days and bad days with this, though. But don't be discouraged. Keep fighting the good fight. Eventually things will gel and come together.

"After a while I became aware that I was no longer controlling my breath and it was occurring on its own. It required sustained concentration, and thoughts felt very short-lived and peripheral." Letting go of controlling the breath is a typical ability that is learned during the beginning stages of a practice in meditation. It's something that everyone goes through. If at the same time you were also able to maintain your focus on the breath during this time, that would be a plus, and an ability that could very well lead you directly into practicing deeper concentration (jhana/absorption) states. That thoughts were "short lived and peripheral" is also a very good sign, as the mind is beginning to incline toward calm and less distraction.

"I remember thinking that the mind was like an unruly and upset child that I needed to take care of." Yes. That is the whole point of the training and mental cultivation. Regaining control of one's mental faculties so that it goes where you want it to go when you want it to. Having this ability is a prerequisite to successful insight practice.

"Why do I practice? In a day to day way it's part of living better, but I want to see whether it's possible to cut off the suffering that matters at the root, basically." That's the best reason in the world to consider practice. It is everything that Gotama ever said that he was intent on teaching: "Formerly, Anuradha, and also now, I make known just suffering and the cessation of suffering."

"Experience however has taught me the limits and drawbacks of purely mundane approaches. Any gains are transient, usually involve just shifting the negative around or into a different form rather than eliminating it, and are laced with subtle suffering anyway - in other words, the three characteristics are very clear to me intellectually." Very good. This indicates you are paying attention to the nature of your experience and endeavoring to make some sense of it. The fact that the three characteristics are "clear" to you "intellectually" is fine and well, but that doesn't stop them from affecting you in daily life, does it. In order to go beyond the mere intellectuality of this process you will need to re-wire the mind's reactionary circuits, and this involves working with the asavas (the mental outflows that are conditioned in the mind with regard to sensual passion, states of being, views, and ignorance). This is where the practice of satipatthana comes in. There is a sutta about this; two in fact (although they are virtually identical).

"I now think the highest benefit I could offer to others and myself would be to learn to work with the inevitable in a more skillful and meaningful way via the greater acceptance and understanding of it." Acceptance of what is and understanding it is part of the training. It is good that you recognize this at such an early stage of your training. "Working with the inevitable" means being able to remain mindful at all times and not letting the mind get away with it usual mischief of misdirection, distraction, and speculative proliferation of thought. It means being able to see things "as they are" rather than how one may have been biased or prejudiced to view them. In being able to accomplish this, one is able to deal with the real problem that faces one rather than running around in circles.

If you haven't come across it already, I would suggest that in order to obtain a more thorough overview of the Dhamma that you obtain a copy of Walpola Rahula's classic book What the Buddha Taught. It may help to clarify for you many of the significant subjects on which Gotama taught. After that, a reading of the translated Pali discourses would probably help you to begin seeing the totality of the Dhamma that was taught in addition to covering a lot of ground that most people have questions about. There's also quite a bit in there with regard to training instruction in meditation and whatnot. Some of it needs further explanation; but if you have the right books, the footnotes will do the heavy lifting for you.

In peace,
Ian
Liam O'Sullivan, modified 10 Years ago.

RE: A Bundle of Beginnings

Posts: 213 Join Date: 6/13/11 Recent Posts
Thank you both for your thoughtful comments. I always find it useful to have different views to draw on and have taken something from both.

If I'm going with my intuition and honesty, I think, Bruno, you're right in that I shouldn't read too much into these 'past experiences', especially the first two. You've both pointed out there there is a little investigation into the three characteristics there which reinforces my view that I'm going in the right general direction. It's been helpful to have been gently 'diagnosed' as right at the beginning of the progress of insight when there were a few rogue thoughts that I was somewhat further.

Ian, I like your style - you've given me evidenced, reasonable reasons to feel encouraged about my attitude and effort in practice, and beginner always appreciates encouragement!

Eventually I will read the suttas cover-to-cover, as it were, but for now I think I need to drop the books. Too much time spent on Access to Insight and not enough on the cushion, I reckon. It makes sense to me to start spreading my focus from sila to strong concentration as well. I've not been able to reproduce quite that level of concentration that I reached in my first retreat in which the 'body breathed itself', so my concentration is more erratic than might come across, but I've seen my concentration generally improve in a more consistent fashion. Trial runs of noting practice have just scattered my mind on recent retreats, so I think less of an emphasis on insight for now - the slow road to enlightenment - suits me nicely.

I am interested in the Jhanas, yes, as they'll be part of this integrative, 'slow and steady' approach, I suspect. It rings true that 'reducing mind noise' is a good start, as you suggested Ian. I'll have a look at your threads on concentration, but any particular advice wouldn't be refused, as I sense this is going to be a tough one.

One specific question: the 'fierce concentration' I mentioned obviously produced results, but it struck me as very unskillful and not very calming. Is this kind of brow-creasing necessary to begin with or is it over-effortful? Are there 'different flavours' of concentration that are all valid? I haven't decided, but Ian suggests it's necessary to begin with.

Thanks!
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Ian And, modified 10 Years ago.

RE: A Bundle of Beginnings

Posts: 785 Join Date: 8/22/09 Recent Posts
[quote=Liam O'Sullivan]I am interested in the Jhanas, yes, as they'll be part of this integrative, 'slow and steady' approach, I suspect. It rings true that 'reducing mind noise' is a good start, as you suggested Ian. I'll have a look at your threads on concentration, but any particular advice wouldn't be refused, as I sense this is going to be a tough one.
You are right: Slow and steady does it with this. I found it difficult to practice insight prior to being able to quiet the mind. From that experience, I assume that others will also find this difficult. So, slow and steady does it.

As far as particular advice is concerned, the most beneficial faculty you will ever develop in this practice is mindfulness (sati). Not only will this help you with being able to dispel any of the five hindrances to meditation, it will assist in increasing concentration, both inside meditation and outside. I would recommend obtaining a good understanding on what it means to be mindful and how to go about cultivating that faculty. Read (and reread as necessary) the thread on The Practical Aspects of Mindfulness. It will give many practical hints concerned with increasing mindfulness both in meditation and your daily life.

[quote=Liam O'Sullivan]
One specific question: the 'fierce concentration' I mentioned obviously produced results, but it struck me as very unskillful and not very calming. Is this kind of brow-creasing necessary to begin with or is it over-effortful? Are there 'different flavours' of concentration that are all valid? I haven't decided, but Ian suggests it's necessary to begin with.

Well, one out of two isn't too bad. Yes, intense concentration is not very calming, I agree, although I would differ in thinking that it wasn't very skillful because it produces positive results. While it is true that one can put in an over amount of effort and that a good argument can be made against such an expenditure, sometimes the occasion calls for such efforts. Is it always necessary to do this? No, I don't think so. But it is helpful to have the ability to fall back on when needed.

Ideally, you want to work toward an effortless quality in all aspects of the practice, but that, as was mentioned, will take time. This is where concentration states like jhana come in handy as they are able to help condition the mind toward that effortless quality just in the course of regular practice. The truth of this statement will become clearer once you are able to experience jhana (especially the samatha type of jhana as opposed to the vipassana type) and the effect it can have on reconditioning your mental abilities. It's quite a remarkable process. What I began to experience were longer and longer periods of time after meditation sessions where the mind was able to maintain passaddhi (a Pali word meaning "calm" or as I described it "a profound inner peace"). This experience was quite eye-opening, not to mention profound.
Liam O'Sullivan, modified 10 Years ago.

RE: A Bundle of Beginnings

Posts: 213 Join Date: 6/13/11 Recent Posts
Thanks for the encouragement to go back to basics, Ian. There's a lot of high-level practice around here and while it's impressive and inspiring, I sometimes feel like I'm opening a novel at chapter twelve and starting to read from there ;)

Ian And:
intense concentration is not very calming, although (...) sometimes the occasion calls for such efforts.

So there are different flavours of mindfulness as it were... perhaps I've been a bit simplistic in expecting to use just one or two practices, though it does make sense to me to develop a basic competency before working to be flexible, as it were.

Ian And:
What I began to experience were longer and longer periods of time after meditation sessions where the mind was able to maintain passaddhi (a Pali word meaning "calm" or as I described it "a profound inner peace").

Sounds like there could be a positive feedback loop there, sila reinforcing concentration reinforcing sila. Good stuff.

Some really important thinking has come out of reading this thread, thanks gents. I can be a bit more systematic with my reading and meditation now, and be a bit more investigative. I think I'm coming to appreciate how someone can be a technical traditionalist without leaving respect and sila behind.

One thing that is gently prodding me is the desire to know where I am on the vipassana map as a way to start anticipating next developments. Then again, I'm aware of the dangers of attaching too much to that. As much as I admire Dr Ingram's work, he seems to suggest that from my current 'avid seeker' mode I've accidentally crossed the A&P, whereas if I'm being honest the only stage I can confidently say I've realised is Mind and Body, due to an ability to recognise thoughts and emotions and disassociate from them. Perhaps it isn't really a big deal at this stage, given my focus on concentration meditation.
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Ian And, modified 10 Years ago.

RE: A Bundle of Beginnings

Posts: 785 Join Date: 8/22/09 Recent Posts
[quote=Liam O'Sullivan]Thanks for the encouragement to go back to basics, Ian. There's a lot of high-level practice around here and while it's impressive and inspiring, I sometimes feel like I'm opening a novel at chapter twelve and starting to read from there ;)

Ian And:
intense concentration is not very calming, although (...) sometimes the occasion calls for such efforts.

So there are different flavours of mindfulness as it were... perhaps I've been a bit simplistic in expecting to use just one or two practices, though it does make sense to me to develop a basic competency before working to be flexible, as it were.
You are correct with regard to "develop[ing] a basic competency before working to be flexible." Nothing wrong at all with approaching it in that manner. The basics seem not always to be emphasized in some quarters in favor of more "sexy" practices (emotionally affective and attractive, that is). But without being able to understand the basics, such practices as satipatthana become harder to grasp because practitioners lose contact with working with the mind and mental formations.

With regard to moments of practicing intense mindfulness, it was at one point an option I had in order to maintain mindfulness. I wasn't able to maintain it for very long during that time period without being intense about it in my practice. I didn't like that, and I was looking for a way to tone it down, and it took some time before I was finally able to let go of the high intensity of the practice in order to transition into a more effortless (less intense) practice. I think this had to do with the way I viewed these things during that period in my practice. As concentration ability grew stronger, it became easier to let go of the intensity I was putting into mindfulness. Gradually, I was able to let go of the intense practice as mindfulness became more a realizable habit in everyday life rather than something I had to continue striving vigorously after.

[quote=Liam O'Sullivan]
Ian And:
What I began to experience were longer and longer periods of time after meditation sessions where the mind was able to maintain passaddhi (a Pali word meaning "calm" or as I described it "a profound inner peace").

Sounds like there could be a positive feedback loop there, sila reinforcing concentration reinforcing sila. Good stuff.
Not sure exactly what you are referring to here, but there's no question that sila (morality and ethics) certainly does play an important role in assisting the mind in attaining calm states. It took some major mental changes in how I viewed reality in order to re-connect with sila. And this made all the difference in the world in terms of my practice because I could be honest with myself without being (feeling) like a hypocrite. This involved, to a great degree, establishing Right View about a great many things. A thorough mental make-over.

[quote=Liam O'Sullivan] I think I'm coming to appreciate how someone can be a technical traditionalist without leaving respect and sila behind.
There are times when some of the "technical" traditionalists I've encountered here could learn a thing or two about good bedside manner. Some of the basics (like right speech which cascades into right mindfulness with regard to respecting where others are at in their practice without coming across as being arrogant or condescending) are not as emphasized in the MCTB technical pursuit of the practice as they would be if one were in a monastic setting having to deal with other monastics with whom they had to get along. Coming from a monastic background myself, I found this annoying aspect quite eye-opening when I first made contact with a certain member of this group.

[quote=Liam O'Sullivan]One thing that is gently prodding me is the desire to know where I am on the vipassana map as a way to start anticipating next developments. Then again, I'm aware of the dangers of attaching too much to that. As much as I admire Dr Ingram's work, he seems to suggest that from my current 'avid seeker' mode I've accidentally crossed the A&P, whereas if I'm being honest the only stage I can confidently say I've realised is Mind and Body, due to an ability to recognise thoughts and emotions and disassociate from them. Perhaps it isn't really a big deal at this stage, given my focus on concentration meditation.
Ah, but that ability is a big deal. Being able to recognize thoughts and emotions as they arise in real time and being able to resist the unwholesome ones (or let go of them) in real time is part of the gradual training aspect of this practice as one begins to see the ways in which right speech etcetera can be abused. Given more time, even those thoughts and emotions which are unwholesome will cease to arise as one dispels ignorance. That's when things become really interesting (in terms of making progress with the practice, that is).
Liam O'Sullivan, modified 10 Years ago.

RE: A Bundle of Beginnings

Posts: 213 Join Date: 6/13/11 Recent Posts
Ian And:
With regard to moments of practicing intense mindfulness, it was at one point an option I had in order to maintain mindfulness.

Okay, that's put paid to me thinking overly about technique. I'll see what works and what doesn't to make the mind more concentrated.

Ian And:

Not sure exactly what you are referring to here, but there's no question that sila (morality and ethics) certainly does play an important role in assisting the mind in attaining calm states.

That's what I meant, yes. Then the calm assists one in keeping sila.

Ian And:

Ah, but that ability is a big deal.

I explained that badly. I didn't mean that disassociating from thoughts and feelings isn't a big deal, as it's obviously fundamentally useful. I meant that perhaps placing myself on the Theravada map of insight is unimportant, considering I'm not doing a lot of insight practice in particular yet. But we'll see.