Why is my access concentration so inconsistent? Weird pattern

Pavel Pek, modified 1 Month ago at 10/6/23 4:48 AM
Created 1 Month ago at 10/6/23 4:48 AM

Why is my access concentration so inconsistent? Weird pattern

Posts: 20 Join Date: 8/22/21 Recent Posts
Hello Dharma Overground,

I've been wondering over consistency as related to meditation in general. I have been trying to get into meditation practices for over 10 years now with extreme inconsistency, but I have been more serious about meditating for just the past year or so. I always fail at the same point, and now for the first time I have set it on myself to somehow get past this. I sometimes am able to achieve "access concentration", although briefly. My observations are that I get into a state of very low effort concentration, where I almost allow the breath to just come and go, I feel like I am not forcing anything, and yet the concentration is there. It usually does not last very long. However, I have realised two things.

First of all, I can always achieve this access effortless concentration only briefly. It feels great, but it does not last long (although sometimes I find myself in it for even 40 minutes, but mostly it does not last as long). 

And second of all, it comes and goes in cycles. Perhaps its just like working out, where you have a great workout and then perhaps a mediocre one or a bad one, but you still got to stay consistent. However, it feels that I can only access "access concentration" and focus effortlesly on the object of meditation (breath for me) whenever I have not meditated for a few days to a week. If I try to meditate for more than 2-3 days, I lose this access concentration and the meditation starts to be a drain, even if I try to not force anything, but I just sit down and expect access concentration to be accessible, but it is not and it feels like I focus on the breath to no veil. I also can only enter access concentration through the breath, nothing else feels this effortless and yet powerful at the same time. I also achieved this one or two times in the past with the sensation of hearing.

Am I missing something here? Am I approaching this incorectly? My thinking as a brazilian jiu-jitsu enthusiast is that once I achieve a certain level in BJJ then yes, I still do have better and worse sparrings, but that level seems to remain sort of consistent. However, in my meditation practice, I can only achieve access concentration when I don't meditate for a few days, but then if I am consistent, after 2 or 3 days, its gone and it becomes higher effort and much lower concentration that does not feel good.

Hopefully this is not a stupid question, but if I am missing something, or if I approach this all wrongly and am resembling of a person who goes to the gym one day, then is like "Ah, I had a great workout 4 days ago and now it sucks!" and thus I should just grind through it and stay consistent access concentration or not, I do not know. However, I feel as if this happens a lot in my other ventures in life as well. For example in the gym, I tend to burnout a lot for seemingly no reason even if I do not go stupid-hard at it and am aware of keeping things balanced to not get burned out. I always seem to get results quickly (access concentration, being able to get muscles fast in the gym, but then when I think I can get to a decent level, everything stalls completely and I am seemingly stuck in skinny-semi-muscular phase forever), but then they just stall for YEARS where I hit a plateau and cannot move past it. Maybe this pattern in my life may also be visible in meditation. However I am a psychologist and a counscelor and do not understand this pattern in my life myself. 

If anyone of you experienced something similar or if you have a clue what could be going on, I would be very grateful for any answers, although I know this may also be highly subjective and perhaps even unique to me and my personality.
Pavel Pek, modified 1 Month ago at 10/6/23 4:55 AM
Created 1 Month ago at 10/6/23 4:52 AM

RE: Why is my access concentration so inconsistent? Weird pattern

Posts: 20 Join Date: 8/22/21 Recent Posts
Also I maybe wonder about my general approach here, whether I am not viewing meditation too much in the "it should be effortless" light and whether I should not just grind it out more, being more "hardcore" with it as Daniel Ingram would maybe say.
Dream Walker, modified 1 Month ago at 10/6/23 5:43 AM
Created 1 Month ago at 10/6/23 5:43 AM

RE: Why is my access concentration so inconsistent? Weird pattern

Posts: 1610 Join Date: 1/18/12 Recent Posts
Try googling this-
site:www.dharmaoverground.org [search term without brackets]
There are a lot of posts about concentration here as you might imagine
Here is a link to my hack to get into 1st and second jhana (BTW I don't really believe in access concentration)
RE: Soft Jhana Thread

Good Luck,
Jim Smith, modified 1 Month ago at 10/7/23 2:59 PM
Created 1 Month ago at 10/6/23 5:47 AM

RE: Why is my access concentration so inconsistent? Weird pattern

Posts: 1590 Join Date: 1/17/15 Recent Posts
"Why is my access concentration so inconsistent?"

Because your mind is influenced by a biological organism that has varying levels of stress hormones, sex hormones, neurotransmitters, endorphins, blood sugar, amino acids (tryptophan), need for sleep, etc etc. the levels interact in various ways resulting in a nearly infinite combination of mental states.

Monks live a very secluded regimented life to help manage these factors.

And slight variations in meditation technique that you might not be aware that you are changing (possibly caused by the variying levels of factors mentioned above) also add to the complexity.

There is also an effect where you you have to develop mental stamina - you have to practice and develop stamina to continue doing the meditation technique effectively over a longer session length. Until then you will be limited by mental fatigue.

If you live a normal stressful life it is normal for it to take a while for the mind to calm down when you meditate. This is true even if you have been meditating regularly for a long time. So first you have to let the mind quiet down, then you have to keep going to develop stamina. And some days your mind might not quiet down in the time you have to meditate making it harder to develop stamina. It takes a lot of time and effort.

What I try to do is notice the stages I go through as I meditate and the mind calms down. At least that way I kind of know were I am even if I can't get to where I want to be.

I find this technique helps a lot in preparing the mind for meditation to get more consistent results:
When I have been on meditation retreats at a Buddhist monastery, we would do bowing practice and chanting practice before sitting meditation. This is how the monks normally prepare for meditation. If the monks who are professional meditators need to prepare for meditation, it seems reasonable that a lay person would also need to prepare for meditation.

Before I start a meditation session, I often prepare my mind for it by doing relaxation exercises first. This helps me to have better concentration and a more consistent experience when I meditate and it frequently eliminates any unpleasant emotions I might be experiencing at the time. Stress and mental fatigue are two main causes of poor concentration and mental turbulence. Relaxation exercises ease stress and mental fatigue.

These relaxation exercises can also be considered a form of meditation. If you try them you will see that they require concentration and attention to do them and that sometimes you may find yourself distracted by stray thoughts and you need to refocus your attention back on the exercises just like you do with meditation. If you are upset, or tense, or experiencing mental turbulence and you don't have enough time to do both relaxation exercises and sitting meditation, you might choose to do just these relaxing meditation exercises.
jhanic ceramic, modified 1 Month ago at 10/6/23 7:38 AM
Created 1 Month ago at 10/6/23 7:38 AM

RE: Why is my access concentration so inconsistent? Weird pattern

Posts: 39 Join Date: 7/25/23 Recent Posts
What you are asking is not a stupid question. A lot of this post has been written from a personal perspective because that's all I when giving advice but I hope it's useful to you. There's a TL;DR at the end with what I think is the most useful advice I've written in this post so skp to that if you like.

Some context: I have been (almost exclusively) a concentration meditator for 5 years, and only in the last 4 months have I seen very rapid progress. You remind me a lot of myself when I got into concentration meditation, heard about the "jhanas", and really want to attain them. 

This is going to sound counter-intuitive but I think your desire for balance is hiding an incredibly strong craving for getting back to the states you have experienced in the past or achieving "the goal". My hypothesis (because the exact same thing used to happen to me) is that whenever you quit meditating for some time and the achieve access concentration easily, it kick-starts your craving engine which had died down during your break. Your subsequent sits then are basically just exercises in striving and craving trying to get back to the mind-state which you attain the first day after a long break.  

For me, concentration is one of the most paradoxical meditation styles because I need to have a goal for deeper concentration to progress, but strong craving to achieve the goal basically tanks any progress towards the goal. We live in a society where are trained from a young age that to get anywhere in life, we have to work, sweat and grind to get what we want. This is totally counter-intuitive to how concentration actually develops, at least in my experience. Coming into right relationship to develop concentration is...a delicate balance that requires a deeper attitude shift. This is a great talk by one of my favorite teachers, Rob Burbea on attitude, effort, achievement, and view in the context of concentration practice: https://dharmaseed.org/talks/60861/ . I really recommend you listen to it. 

I took a 2 year break from hardcore meditation, practicing very lightly and not very much at all for a couple of years, but that time off totally transformed my practice. What worked for me, stupid as it may sound, is finding a creative hobby where I enjoyed the process of getting better while also having a goal for getting good at the hobby. For me, it's ceramics. Every time I step into the studio, I have a good time, even when I'm hard on myself because I didn't create a shape that was as beautiful as I wanted it to be. But the sheer joy inherent in having well centered clay in my hands, the smell of the studio, meeting my learning edge, making mistakes, and learning how to overcome them keeps me coming back. I haven't lost any interest, and I see this is as a lifetime cultivation. When I took this attitude into my concentration practice after a long break, the practice transformed and my concentration skyrocketed. 

I don't have to force myself to practice meditation every day, even on days I know it's going to be trash because I got like 4 hours of sleep. It's a joy and a gift to be able to practice and learn something about the workings of my mind and have faith that even this terrible sit is moving me in the direction I want to go in.

TL;DR: Listen to this dharma talk by Rob Burbea on attitude, effort, achievement, and view in the context of concentration practice: https://dharmaseed.org/talks/60861/