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Evaluating my progress with Concentration

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I read MCTB less than two months ago, and decided to try Concentration meditation (I've decided not to start Insight meditation yet). I've been tentatively labeling various experiences as being various jhana's as I went. Tonight I experienced something which seems like it might have been 4th or 4th followed by 5th jhana, so I feel I should get some outside opinions. I'm not going to bother calling my labels tentative in the rest of the post, but I'm open to being convinced they are incorrect.

My practice has been very sporadic, basically whenever I happen to feel like meditating. I haven't used the breath as an object very often, as it felt difficult to me. My initial progress was using my body as the object, often focusing on the sensations of my muscles relaxing. I experiment occasionally, but if I have trouble concentrating I move on. I found that music seems to be a productive object for me to meditate on as well.

My concentration has improved over time, but it doesn't seem especially important that I try my utmost to only be aware of the object. A casual awareness is usually enough to at least maintain my position. Being more immersed in the object does seem important to move forward, though.

When I first sit, there is a period of physically and mentally settling down. Its partly muscles relaxing, but there is also a mental/perceptual shift, my body becoming slightly fuzzier or more distant. When using the body as an object sometimes I notice feeling like there is a shell over my body. Perhaps a kinesthetic mental image of the body. I've been calling this First Jhana.

The Second Jhana often seems to contain funny internal sensations, prickly feelings and that sort of thing. I'd notice my skin being tugged outward, and then notice that my muscles were unconciously tensing, so I'd loosen them, and shortly afterward feel more internal sensations. The exact sensations seemed to change often. As I mentioned before, there would often be muscle spasms, and physical twitching. I remember once feeling an internal quake somewhere along my spine, and shaking briefly. Entering the state was often accompanied by a pleasant wave, and a shift from holding the object very tightly to more loosely. Most of the time the shift from the first, to the second was automatic, though once I triggered it intentionally by purposefully increasing the perception of a shell, and then releasing it. One day, I noticed after sex, that there seem to be some common ground between post-orgasm and this state, though the overall quality of the experience seemed pretty different, at least due to context.

The shift into Third Jhana came the first time I used music as my object for meditation. This was also my longest sit so far, about an hour and twenty minutes long. I was in Second Jhana for most of that, and this is when I noticed that the various internal sensations seemed to cycle. They did get very tiresome, and then there was a sudden shift. At first it seemed like they were gone completely, but after a bit I realized they were present but much quieter. There was a definite sense of equanamity. I also noticed that it no longer seemed like I was pushing my attention into the music, instead it was more like I was leaning back and letting it come to me. I'm not very familiar with this state, since I haven't meditated as often since first reaching it. I think I've entered it one other time since then (not counting tonight, which I'll recount below), though the transition was not as pronounced, and the sense of equanamity wasn't as amazing. This was a bit dissapointing, and contributed to the fact that I didn't meditate very much, or intensely for a while.

Tonight I had my second successful session using music as an object. I was listening to Pandora, so I'm sure it was less than an hour, probably about 40 minutes. I'm not entirely sure about the order of most of these events. I remember settling in. At some point I switched from pushing into the music, to letting the music come to me. (this was a decision, I think). At some point I noticed a white dot out of the corner of my eye. It went away, and I noticed some other white dot. At first I was trying to ignore it, but then I decided it was fine, and this was followed by a larger blob of white crossing the center of my vision. At some point there was a shift from the music being the thing, to the whole stream of experience. The back of the eyelids, and the feelings in my body. I had noticed them before, but this was different. This wasn't a decision, though shortly after I decided that I should accept it. A little later I felt some vertigo, sort of like I was tumbling forward. It felt like my head was rotating forward into my chest, and my stomach was rotating upwards. This went on for a couple seconds, and then I was very small and very large. Its hard to describe, I think the sensation of largeness was because my left thigh was aching, and it felt far down below, but I'm used to thinking of my head as the center of my mind, so I subconciously calculated as being very large. But I also felt like a single point, floating in space.

I'm not sure what that was, but it seems like it might have been 4th followed by 5th jhana. On the other hand, I'm pretty unfamiliar with 3rd Jhana still, so maybe it was 3rd to 4th. Or just 3rd. Or crud, I'm a newb, maybe all of this is totally wrong, you tell me emoticon .

RE: Evaluating my progress with Concentration
Answer
11/20/09 9:03 AM as a reply to Daemon Shockley.
Hello David,

Welcome to the site.

Your foray into the samatha jhanas seems to be yielding interesting results. However, given the info provided, I can't personally confirm or deny anything specific. The descriptions do sound like various jhana, but some of them seem to overlap (which is often actually the case when subjectively experiencing them, so that is to be expected). Anyhow, that makes it tough to say "yes, this experience = this jhana."

There is a quality of attention itself which I feel is the most distinct difference between the various jhana. That being the "width" or "breadth" of attention. That quality also includes some spacial/temporal aspects and also some "focus" aspects (such as certain parts of your awareness being prone to being out of phase with the others). Most of these are mentioned in the various traditional commentaries as well as MCTB, but the emphasis is usually garbled and makes them seem less "telling" than they are.

So when you read about the jhanas, look for things to denote spacial qualities; words such as "one pointed" or "wide" or "frontal" or "donut shaped" and so forth and also things that denote "phase" or "focus". These aspects are, by and large, exclusively unique within each jhana (and, in my opinion, could be said to "be" the jhana itself).

Here's what I recall off the top of my head for the first 4, in brief (and I do mean brief!):

1st - one-pointed, frontal, sort of like your head is in the wide part of a cone, looking into the narrow part
2nd - frontal but wider than 1st, perhaps like a sheet or plane in front of you
3nd - wider than 2nd, much more 3 dimensional than the first 2 (includes space/time in a new way), donut shaped, middle is out of phase with the circumference
4th - wider than all of them, almost like the boundary of attention is a dotted line, whereas before it seemed more solid or dense; when comparing to the donut in 3rd, both the middle and circumference are now out of phase (hence, no more donut), which makes the jhana seem out of phase but in a way that doesn't seem awkward

Helpful?

RE: Evaluating my progress with Concentration
Answer
11/20/09 10:13 AM as a reply to Trent ..
You started concentration meditation two months ago and you are aleady at the fith jhana? I'm not about to deny your experience. emoticon
I read a lot of stuff like this on these forums and it always shocks me.
I've worked on concentration meditation many many times during the past 30 years or so -- sometimes for a year or more at a time with concerted effort -- and I never even got to where I thought I was in "access" concentration. I guess.
Note: this is not a complaint, I'm fine with whatever my abilities may be.
I think some people just have a natural ability to concentrate (people like Trent and David) and for some (like me) it takes way more work. In fact, I think that is probably one of the many reaons Trent progressed so fast in isight -- he must have great concentration skills. (I hope this didn't hijack your thread)

RE: Evaluating my progress with Concentration
Answer
11/20/09 10:27 AM as a reply to Trent ..
For the first two, yes definitely. (This is sort of off-topic, and hopefully I'm not making anyone uncomfortable by talking about it, but one of the reasons why I was so impressed by the similarity of that post-sex state with second jhana, was because I noticed the same width of attention.)

The first time I entered "3rd" I did look for something that might be related to that donut thing. The "letting the music come to me" seemed like it might be related.. If my attention had become a sphere, then I was pulling back so the music was in the rim. But maybe thats a stretch.

At first I was going to say I hadn't noticed anything like that, last night, and blame the fact that I had spent most of my thinking being bemused by the tiny/giant duality. While in that state I was trying to figure out why I seemed large. I came up with the theory that it was because I was used to thinking of my head as synonymous with where I was thinking from. Then I noticed that "I" wasn't up at all. I couldn't think of a good way to describe it last night, but "out of phase" sounds right. It was present, but not in the field at all, a step "back" but not spatially.

RE: Evaluating my progress with Concentration
Answer
11/20/09 11:29 AM as a reply to Mike Monson.
You started concentration meditation two months ago and you are aleady at the fith jhana?


I feel the same way, thats why I decided to post now. emoticon (Edit: by the same way, I mean I feel surprised (and a bit suspicious) that it could happen that quickly.)

I think some people just have a natural ability to concentrate (people like Trent and David) and for some (like me) it takes way more work.


I'm sort of inclined to disbelieve in it being talent.. I might be wrong of course. But you should consider the following points:

1. This is not the first time I've decided to try meditating. I've done so a number of times in the past, and given up. I think this time may be different because I decided to value what I was experiencing, rather than just thinking "Nothing impressive is happening! I guess I'm not Macho enough!". My current attitude is very non macho. I meditate on my couch, with the foot up and the back fully reclined emoticon.

2. In addition to explicit attempts at meditating, I have some odd habits that may have helped. Occasionally I like to sit and notice the sensation of my blood vessels pumping. When I have a tension headache or back pains, I usually respond by sitting and conciously playing with muscles. This is why "the body" seemed like an easy object to concentrate on, I already do it frequently.

3. I also play with guided hypnosis audios sometimes. I suspect that I had entered first jhana, or something akin to it already.

4. I actually didn't count First Jhana as anything important the first couple times I was looking. When I got Second, I called it First until I noticed there was something in between "sitting on my butt" and it.

But yeah, maybe I'm just lucky.

Edit: Oh yeah, 5. I'm unemployed and at home alone most of the day, being able to sit anytime I feel like it, for as long as I want to is certainly helpful.

RE: Evaluating my progress with Concentration
Answer
11/22/09 3:17 PM as a reply to Daemon Shockley.
David Lamar Gillis Shockley:
I read MCTB less than two months ago, and decided to try Concentration meditation (I've decided not to start Insight meditation yet)....

My initial progress was using my body as the object, often focusing on the sensations of my muscles relaxing. ...When I first sit, there is a period of physically and mentally settling down. Its partly muscles relaxing, but there is also a mental/perceptual shift, my body becoming slightly fuzzier or more distant. When using the body as an object sometimes I notice feeling like there is a shell over my body. ...The Second Jhana often seems to contain funny internal sensations, prickly feelings and that sort of thing. I'd notice my skin being tugged outward, and then notice that my muscles were unconciously tensing, so I'd loosen them, and shortly afterward feel more internal sensations. The exact sensations seemed to change often. As I mentioned before, there would often be muscle spasms, and physical twitching. I remember once feeling an internal quake somewhere along my spine, and shaking briefly.


Hi David,
Sorry to inform you that you have already started insight meditation. That was the purpose of concentration all along anyway. Insight is just staying with and investigating (not intellectually but experientially) the very subtle sensations that you are becoming aware of. So pursuing the insight side of things is simply to explore those prickly, internal sensations, the muscle tensing. Add in sensations of pain, emotions, and even looking at when your attention gets lost and caught up in thoughts – what happens there? So basically, the more you open up to experiencing your body as this field of sensations (and seeing through those that are compounded down to the most elemental level) and seeing how 'David' is created from these moment to moment – and just staying with it (this also builds concentration) - that is it. A key part of this process is finding a way to stay with those subtle sensations and to keep digging deeper into them. As this already seems to be part of your nature you can probably come up with all sorts of tricks to assist you. If not, there are endless practices available 'out of the box'.

Stay curious and enjoy your explorations.

-Chuck

RE: Evaluating my progress with Concentration
Answer
11/22/09 8:46 PM as a reply to Chuck Kasmire.
Chuck Kasmire:
Hi David,
Sorry to inform you that you have already started insight meditation. That was the purpose of concentration all along anyway. Insight is just staying with and investigating (not intellectually but experientially) the very subtle sensations that you are becoming aware of. So pursuing the insight side of things is simply to explore those prickly, internal sensations, the muscle tensing. Add in sensations of pain, emotions, and even looking at when your attention gets lost and caught up in thoughts – what happens there? So basically, the more you open up to experiencing your body as this field of sensations (and seeing through those that are compounded down to the most elemental level) and seeing how 'David' is created from these moment to moment – and just staying with it (this also builds concentration) - that is it. A key part of this process is finding a way to stay with those subtle sensations and to keep digging deeper into them. As this already seems to be part of your nature you can probably come up with all sorts of tricks to assist you. If not, there are endless practices available 'out of the box'.

Stay curious and enjoy your explorations.

-Chuck


Yeah, I was about to say that what you were describing sounded freakishly like Mind & Body and Cause & Effect. I hate to tell you that the Three Characteristics are likely to rear their ugly heads some time soon, but it's all a part of the process. If you really absolutely can't handle going through the stages of insight and having to deal with a dark night of unpredictable intensity and duration, then you would need to get to that place where the music stops being a thing you're listening to and becomes the experience, and then use concentration ability to solidify that feeling. This is Mind & Body, and solidifying it will put you in the first jhana. Due to lack of information, I can't form an opinion about whether your assessment of your progress in concentration meditation is correct or not, but I can tell you that the solidification of Mind & Body leads to first jhana. My experience with that is sparse, but it exists, and it's backed up by reports here on DhO.

If you progress to prickly feelings, body movements, awkward kinesthetic sensations, or observation of how your mind works, you're in Cause & Effect, and I don't think that will work as well for solidifying into jhana -- though I'm not sure.

If you can handle the stages of insight then by all means, continue what you're doing. It's actually quite natural that by practicing jhana, you would end up doing insight meditation sooner or later. Concentration and Insight practices were probably not separate in early Buddhism; you did one kind of meditation and that was jhana and you concentrated on anything that was part of the four bases of mindfulness (satipatthana) and the strong concentration helped you to see things closely enough that you gained insight.

So if you want to continue the path you're on, it's a very natural one. If you want to learn how to concentrate without insight then you'll need to learn how to stop your mind from observing reality so closely. If you want to be able to do insight practice without needing such depth of concentration, you can use stuff like noting and body scanning. It would probably be useful to you to be able to do concentration meditation without insight in case you need a break from something like the dark night or Three Characteristics. But the choice is yours -- faster progress through insight, or a more comfortable ride?

RE: Evaluating my progress with Concentration
Answer
11/22/09 11:01 PM as a reply to J Adam G.
Ha! I hadn't even thought to check my experiences against the stages of insight, rather than the concentration jhanas. Glad I decided to check in here. Not sure what I'm going to do about it, but its good to be informed.