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Beginning concentration

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Beginning concentration
Answer
6/8/20 10:36 AM
Hi. First post... I don't have any formal meditation training and have never studied with a teacher, so please excuse my inability to be technical.

My curiosity about the nature of mind and reality began in my late teens and intensified after I had a disturbing out of body experience (a state I have never been able to induce again, despite trying). In my early twenties I discovered Buddhism and had an awakening of sorts, the glow of which felt almost like being in love. It lasted a whole summer and I'm sure my friends thought I'd gone crazy. I went to Thailand and toyed with checking out monasteries but at the time I was a hedonist, a sensualist, a sofa Buddhist. So I stayed in the mainstream, partied, traveled, settled down, had kids.

Now, at fifty, I'm a husband, father and carer (my 21 year old daughter has autism and lives at home still) and the sole earner in our household. I do not have opportunities to attend retreats or spend long periods undisturbed.I try to practice in daily life - to maintain focus on the primacy of sensory impressions that arise, noting the transience, non-self and imperfection inherent in all phenomena. There have  been some insights over the years, though it's hard to tell if I have made progress. Life is easier in some ways - I can usually see through the stories that the mind creates, but I am also carrying emotional burdens of bereavement, loss, and neglect.

I think at this point in my life I want to be able to discover the peace associated with deep concentration (jhanas) but I am unable to hit the spot.

I have tried concentrating on the breath, sitting up to an hour, but have not been able to achieve anything beyond mild supression of mental chatter and slight feeling of spacing out. I would like to be able to reach a state of calm or pleasure but it never happens. I find the breath becomes coarser when I focus on it, almost like a heaving bellows - though does eventually smooth out if I remain in concentration for longer. I can also feel my heart pumping away and hear a constant high pitched ringing in my ears. I can't visualise anything - there is just a murky static-like noise in the field of view. The whole experience is markedly unsatisfactory and I find it hard to motivate myself to continue.

I really need some good vibes (internally generated). I have been in a depressed / disassociated state for some years and only fleetingly feel pleasure on a spiritual or mental level. Suggestions to improve concentration and also summon up energy / motivation gratefully accepted.

Thanks.

RE: Beginning concentration
Answer
6/8/20 12:02 PM as a reply to Martin Wheeler.
I have tried concentrating on the breath, sitting up to an hour, but have not been able to achieve anything beyond mild supression of mental chatter and slight feeling of spacing out. I would like to be able to reach a state of calm or pleasure but it never happens. I find the breath becomes coarser when I focus on it, almost like a heaving bellows - though does eventually smooth out if I remain in concentration for longer. I can also feel my heart pumping away and hear a constant high pitched ringing in my ears. I can't visualise anything - there is just a murky static-like noise in the field of view. The whole experience is markedly unsatisfactory and I find it hard to motivate myself to continue.


A very common problem!

Have you tried looking for a fairly stable pleasant sensation while you're sitting? For me, it's in the butt, the ass, the bottom. Right at the end of my spine. Maybe if you can zero in on something pleasant and just relax into that one sensation you can calm down and get some beginning concentration juices flowing.

RE: Beginning concentration
Answer
6/8/20 1:50 PM as a reply to Chris Marti.
That was the breakthrough for me too -- finding the pleasantness of it. For me, it's sensations in the face and breath itself. Leigh Brasington's Right Concentration is good in that regard, and might also help you to hit some jhanas.

RE: Beginning concentration
Answer
6/8/20 6:49 PM as a reply to Martin Wheeler.
If you find the jhanas elude you, metta meditation might be a good alternative.

I also think diet is important for the jhanas because your brain needs the right molecular building blocks to produce the neurotransmitters that produce those good vibes. 

I find that being relaxed is key to entering the jhanas so I start with physical relaxation exercises.

Then I move on to mental relaxation exercises.

Then I just meditate on the breath in a relaxing way.

This might also help:
https://www.dharmaoverground.org/c/message_boards/find_message?p_l_id=&messageId=21323270
Jim Smith:
I find it helps in developing concentration if you understand the stages the mind goes through as it calms down and use a calming technique appropriate for that stage. Once the mind is calmed, concentration is easier.

When I went on retreat first we would do bowing practice, then chanting practice, and then we would do alternate sessions of sitting meditation and walking meditation.

This is the way the monks practice. If they live in a monastery and they can't just sit down and meditate with good concentration it is not realistic for a lay person to think they can do it either.

When I am at home, instead of bowing,  I usually start with some other type of physical relaxation like a relaxing form of tai-chi, or yoga, or I just move each part of the body 10 times to release muscle tension.

Then, instead of chanting, I repeat a cycle of relaxation exercises: First I visualize an objects of different colors of the spectrum one after another (fruits and flowers are good objects because they come in a variety of colors - it is easier to remember an object you are familiar with than to visualize just a color), then I notice each part of the body, try to relax it, and notice if it is feeling relaxed, then I count ten breaths and repeat the process starting again with the visualization until I am so relaxed I feel like I am floating. 

Then I practice the jhanas. Metta meditation is not hard for most people to do, would be a siutable alternative for people who find the jhanas elude them.

Then I start vipassana practice. 

I never sit for more than an  hour without doing 5-10 minutes of walking mediation. If I know I am going to do a lot of sitting I will do the walking meditation after every 40 minutes of sitting meditation which is about what we did on retreat.

RE: Beginning concentration
Answer
6/9/20 6:23 AM as a reply to Jim Smith.
I'm on the same brainwave as Jim. We are in the same meditation gang. All I would add is that there's a cool book called _The Path to Nibbana_ that's all about easy, relaxed meditation where you cultivate saintly qualities like lovingkindness, compassion, sympathetic joy, and equanimity. Not sweating and striving, just sitting peacefully and letting go of more and more subtle layers of tension. Letting the brain learn how to get relief from not struggling. Gradually training the mind not to have so much craving.

RE: Beginning concentration
Answer
6/9/20 9:35 AM as a reply to Brian.
Brian:
I'm on the same brainwave as Jim. We are in the same meditation gang. All I would add is that there's a cool book called _The Path to Nibbana_ that's all about easy, relaxed meditation where you cultivate saintly qualities like lovingkindness, compassion, sympathetic joy, and equanimity. Not sweating and striving, just sitting peacefully and letting go of more and more subtle layers of tension. Letting the brain learn how to get relief from not struggling. Gradually training the mind not to have so much craving.

Hi Brian,

I'm glad to hear there are others who take this approach. 

I looked up the book you recommended and found the author studied with Bhante Vimalaramsi who I think is very good.  He is into smiling, relaxing, metta, jhanas.  

I found the website for the book
https://www.thepathtonibbana.com

has links back to  Bhante V's web site :
https://www.dhammasukha.org

If folks are interested in the book but want to see what that school is about before paying the money, they can have a look at those links.

(Oh, it's available to borrow as an e-book on hoopla.com if your local library provides access).

RE: Beginning concentration
Answer
6/9/20 1:29 PM as a reply to Martin Wheeler.
Hi, no expert here. Below my two cents.

Regarding visualizations, it worked for me having at my lap pictures of loved ones when they were kids. Smiling kids! Watched for 30 seconds or so, closed your eyes and smile back to the visual memory of the picture. When gone, watched it again, and repeat until a pleasant sensation arises in your body, probably the chest.

Of course, this works with old pictures of friends, or anything that makes you retrieve a happy moment. 

The picture trick works for Gratitude too, which I haven't seen written in Buddhist books as much as Metta. 

Off-cushion, be alert whenever you laugh/smile how the pleasant sensation in your mouth, cheeks, eyes, chest last for 10-60 seconds or more after your start smiling/laughing. See if you can recall that sensation later, because that would help you on-cushion to stabilize the arising pleasant sensation.

I found that a whole body scope works better than focusing in the breath. Pleasant sensations may (intermittently) arise anywhere in the body (even in the breath), so I pose the atention there but without total focus, just 'good-enough', keeping a broader scope surrounding that area.   

You may also check Shargrol's posts (a seasoned meditator) on the subject:

- Centering instead of Concentration
- Insight into what Jhanas actually are
- Forcing attention
- A gentler approach
- Awareness and counting of breath
- Lack of Concentration vs Aversion
- What Compassion is
- Meditation, Compassion and Morality
- Noting, Metta, Tranquility
- Metta is the heart of meditation

Hope this helps!


  

RE: Beginning concentration
Answer
6/10/20 1:57 AM as a reply to Martin Wheeler.
As a guy who is also named Martin, and also in his 50s, and also has a child with autism (24 year old son) who still lives at home, and who is also the sole breadwinner and so has no opportunity for long retreats, and also partied in Thailand in his 20s, and who recently broke though into the jhanas, I figure I should say hi.

Hi, Martin.

First, I have to say that you have a great goal. When life is demanding, meditation practice is a very healthy choice and concentration is, I now believe, particularly useful for those of us in the thick of householder life.

Although I had some interest in Buddhism since my teens, I only hit the cushion 15 years ago, and I was pretty on-and-off about it. So I am still a relative novice. I got pretty good a following the breath and was able to get up to what I now realize was access concentration but, as none of the teachers (sangha leaders, books, weekend retreats) ever mentioned anything about what to do with access concentration, it never went beyond the "that was interesting level." Basically, I just hung out doing low-level vipassana with low-level results. Then, like Chris and Brandon, I started to look for the pleasant sensation when concentrated. For me, it actually started with reading the book, Brandon mentioned (Leigh Brasington's Right Concentration).

My case may be a bit odd. As far as I can tell, I hit A&P at the same time as getting the first jhana (is that even a thing?), so your millage may vary. My experience was off the charts in terms of pleasure and happiness, and all kind of other A&P stuff that is not really part of the jhanas as far as I can tell, but now, six months later, I can still sit down and call up limitless, joy, pleasure and bliss as often as I like. That's all straight concentration stuff, and it works EXACTLY the way Brasington describes it in Right Concentration. It's funny, just last night my son was kind of wound up from reading social media and so we went out for a walk and I was noticing how much easier it is to be relaxed and emotionally available for things like that now. I had a joy-filled walk and my son unwound and got what he needed too, probably aided by his dad being so relaxed. And I was thinking, Man, meditation rocks for a guy in my position.

On top of that, the whole insight side of things is moving forward like nothing I imagined possible. Brasington says that insight without jhanas is like cutting through a table with a butter knife: possible but hard. Getting the jhanas is like getting a saw.

I hope that helps in terms of motivation. (Edit: I mean to say, it's doable by people in our circumstances, and it's totally worthwhile.)

In addition to motivation, you asked for suggestions to improve concentration. After reading Right Concentration, I have bumped into various other discussions of samadhi and have started to realize that this stuff can be approached in a less black and white manner than dropping into a numbered jhana. That's something I wish I would have known years ago. My general understanding is that there are numerous ways in, so it probably helps to poke around and try different ways and, once you find any kind of even slight entry, keep working with that. A small amount of concentration can be nurtured into more.

In my experience, reducing discursive thought is very useful in accessing concentration. That is to say, the reduction is both a cause and an effect of concentration. It's a virtuous cycle. You mention that you can somewhat supress metal chatter. Sounds like a stat to me. If you were to find a set of circumstances in which less discursive thought comes up, it might be an idea to try to reproduce that often. For example, I find it easier to get into the jhanas in the morning that in the afternoon or evening. I also find that concentration is cumulative, whether it's momentary concentration or absorptive concentration, it has a momentum. One sit massively boosts a second sit later in the day, a day off breaks the momentum a bit, a week off breaks the momentum a lot, and so on.

In my case, I had a dramatic breakthrough on non-residential a weekend retreat (just plain old vipassana). I have a feeling that, if I knew what I knew now, I might have been able to get there earlier and without the retreat but there is no question that retreats helped me (I only ever did the weekend ones). If there is some way to swing one, I'd go for it. Though the timing is bad for joining a face-to-face sangha, that can also help with interest and motivation.

RE: Beginning concentration
Answer
6/9/20 10:20 PM as a reply to Chris Marti.
Chris Marti:

Have you tried looking for a fairly stable pleasant sensation while you're sitting? For me, it's in the butt, the ass, the bottom. Right at the end of my spine.
Funnily enough, at the end of my sit today, the warmth (actually hot) grew from the bottom of the spine. Usually, there's the place where vibrations emerge (and then jump to the head), but not jhana elements. What was interesting is that this jhana element grows more stably than other zones (eg. legs, abdomen, breath). It just spreads. Is there a reason for this Chris? 

RE: Beginning concentration
Answer
6/10/20 12:49 AM as a reply to Martin Wheeler.
Martin Wheeler:
Hi. First post... I don't have any formal meditation training and have never studied with a teacher, so please excuse my inability to be technical.

My curiosity about the nature of mind and reality began in my late teens and intensified after I had a disturbing out of body experience (a state I have never been able to induce again, despite trying). In my early twenties I discovered Buddhism and had an awakening of sorts, the glow of which felt almost like being in love. It lasted a whole summer and I'm sure my friends thought I'd gone crazy. I went to Thailand and toyed with checking out monasteries but at the time I was a hedonist, a sensualist, a sofa Buddhist. So I stayed in the mainstream, partied, traveled, settled down, had kids.

Now, at fifty, I'm a husband, father and carer (my 21 year old daughter has autism and lives at home still) and the sole earner in our household. I do not have opportunities to attend retreats or spend long periods undisturbed.I try to practice in daily life - to maintain focus on the primacy of sensory impressions that arise, noting the transience, non-self and imperfection inherent in all phenomena. There have  been some insights over the years, though it's hard to tell if I have made progress. Life is easier in some ways - I can usually see through the stories that the mind creates, but I am also carrying emotional burdens of bereavement, loss, and neglect.

I think at this point in my life I want to be able to discover the peace associated with deep concentration (jhanas) but I am unable to hit the spot.

I have tried concentrating on the breath, sitting up to an hour, but have not been able to achieve anything beyond mild supression of mental chatter and slight feeling of spacing out. I would like to be able to reach a state of calm or pleasure but it never happens. I find the breath becomes coarser when I focus on it, almost like a heaving bellows - though does eventually smooth out if I remain in concentration for longer. I can also feel my heart pumping away and hear a constant high pitched ringing in my ears. I can't visualise anything - there is just a murky static-like noise in the field of view. The whole experience is markedly unsatisfactory and I find it hard to motivate myself to continue.

I really need some good vibes (internally generated). I have been in a depressed / disassociated state for some years and only fleetingly feel pleasure on a spiritual or mental level. Suggestions to improve concentration and also summon up energy / motivation gratefully accepted.

Thanks.

Hi Martin, and welcome to the DharmaOverground, or DhO as the hep cats call it to not type so much. You sound like a fellow sufferer of insight disease! Congratulations! You're in deep dukha now!

There's already so much good advice to pick from above that I will simply suggest that you might want to try a shorter meditation interval than an hour. If you're dead in the water in terms of keeping alive your curiosity, quiet attention, ease in the breat, and all the other things that reveal themselves as inherently juicy in meditation, look for an interval to start with where you CAN sense those things, or, failing that, an interval that at least is not so long that you end up dreading it. I am coming back after a major breakdown, and am currently at 8 and a half minutes or so per sit, all i can manage right now. Accepting the lack of glamor in that is part of the practice too. That's an extreme case, but many meditation traditions start with 20 minutes, so many that i tend to think of that as Standard Meditation Beginners Time, SMBT. it shifts in the autumn and spring, to and from Daylight Savings Beginner Meditation Time, DSMBT, but there will be people here to walk you through that when the time comes, if you haven't gone all OOBE on us by then.

Meanwhile, find a pixel of joy in the hope of peace, and follow it down through all the terror, horror, misery, and disgust that the path ahead of you will surely bring, it you do this right.

love, tim

RE: Beginning concentration
Answer
6/10/20 6:32 AM as a reply to Pepe.
Funnily enough, at the end of my sit today, the warmth (actually hot) grew from the bottom of the spine. Usually, there's the place where vibrations emerge (and then jump to the head), but not jhana elements. What was interesting is that this jhana element grows more stably than other zones (eg. legs, abdomen, breath). It just spreads. Is there a reason for this Chris? 

Um, anatomy and physiology?

Some would say it's due to kundalini energy, some would say it's the connecting of the body's chi, or the chakras. I say it's just what happens and run with - it because it works.