Mental stamina during longer sits / retreats

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Lark Larkington, modified 3 Months ago at 11/23/23 12:52 AM
Created 3 Months ago at 11/23/23 12:52 AM

Mental stamina during longer sits / retreats

Posts: 3 Join Date: 10/19/23 Recent Posts
 Hi all, I tried searching for this topic but didn't really see it being discussed before.

Lately I've been doing three hour sessions; 1 hour of sitting, 1 hour of walking, then 1 hour of sitting again. My practice right now is to train concentration and mindfulness. I'm mainly working on stage 4 of The Mind Illuminated, if you're familiar.

During these longer sessions I usually find that the first hour is the best hour, where concentration is keenest and distractions can be apprehended before they intrude too much. Then, during the latter two hours, distractions emerge in greater numbers, and attention grows increasingly dispersed (though never completely leaving the meditation object). It's not that I have very many thoughts of boredom, of wanting to stop meditating. It rather feels like the mental muscles which keep attention steady are getting tired. 

So I've been attributing this dulling of concentration to mental fatigue; I do not yet have the mental muscles to keep attention stable for longer periods. Then here's my question: Is it useful for someone like me, who doesn't yet have a lot of skill, to do these longer sits?

Part of me wants to 'toughen it out', just like when I first trained to sit for an hour. Another part of me suspects it might be more useful to do three separate, one-hour sessions throughout the day. And yet people, including beginners, can apparently benefit greatly from going on retreats. Doesn't 'mental fatigue' set in during retreats, to a point where you can't make progress anymore? Or am I wrong in putting the blame on mental fatigue; is it something else that passes if you keep going?
 
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Jim Smith, modified 3 Months ago at 11/23/23 7:42 AM
Created 3 Months ago at 11/23/23 7:28 AM

RE: Mental stamina during longer sits / retreats

Posts: 1624 Join Date: 1/17/15 Recent Posts
Lark Larkington
....
Doesn't 'mental fatigue' set in during retreats, to a point where you can't make progress anymore? Or am I wrong in putting the blame on mental fatigue; is it something else that passes if you keep going?
 


It depends how you meditate.

But I think you are right, some ways of meditating require you develop stamina and you physically can't make your brain do them more than the brain is physically capable of doing. In some cases if you push it too hard it breaks the brain and people have really bad problems.

But other ways of meditating don't require a lot of stamina when they are not too different from ordinary consciousness. Like watching the activity of the mind, watching the stream of consciousness. The stream of consciousness is going on most of the time for most people, you already have great stamina at that, so watching it doesn't require much extra effort. Or just noticing what's going on around you. You already do that all the time anyway so you just have to bring your focus of attention back to it if you get lost in thought or carried away by the stream of consciousness. 

Watching the stream of consciousness you can see the three characteristics and dependent origination. You see how thoughts emotions and impulses sensory experience, sense of self and sense of noself, are impermanent, constantly changing. You see anatta and dependent origination in that the stream of consciousness goes by itself as a chain of cause and effect without you having to be involved. The distractions that occur during meditation show you you don't control your mind. As you watch the mind you will notice when unpleasant thoughts and emotions arise - dukkha. 

So you don't need fancy techniques that require skill and stamina. You just have to notice what is already going on. You don't need cessation or jhanas. You just need to pay attention to your own mind.

​​​​​​​I find it helpful to do relaxing meditation to prepare (quiet the mind) for vipassana
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Lark Larkington, modified 3 Months ago at 11/23/23 8:06 AM
Created 3 Months ago at 11/23/23 8:06 AM

RE: Mental stamina during longer sits / retreats

Posts: 3 Join Date: 10/19/23 Recent Posts
Thanks for your reply. Personally, I'm not yet doing insight meditation. My priority lies with developing concentration. I'm instructed to watch the sensations of the breath, or the walking sensations at the soles of the feet, as closely as possible -- without losing mindfulness of everything else that's going on. I find that the detail and 'resolution' of the meditation object diminishes over time, as attention becomes less stable and more dispersed.
Martin, modified 3 Months ago at 11/23/23 10:10 AM
Created 3 Months ago at 11/23/23 10:10 AM

RE: Mental stamina during longer sits / retreats

Posts: 730 Join Date: 4/25/20 Recent Posts
Three hours is long by most people's standards. I take my hat off to you!

When I was first developing concentration (I wasn't using the TMI method) I broke my sitting up into three sessions, generally about 40 minutes each, over the course of the day. It was really clear to me that the quality of concentration was stronger in each sit. My guess is that you would not lose much by breaking up your sits/walks, and you might gain something, but the best way to decide about that is probably just to try it, and see which way works best for you.

Another approach might be to investigate why mental fatigue sets in. It could just be that three hours is too long at the moment. It could be that some factor is being used too strongly for that length of time. There is effort and there is allowing. Sometimes we effortfully hold on to the object of attention when a distraction is present. Sometimes we allow a distraction to pass through gently so that the object of attention is not lost. It's a dynamic balance and the second one is probably more difficult to do successfully but it is also less mentally tiring. 

A third approach would be to combine the previous two approaches. You could titrate the lengths of your sessions based on when dulling starts and, rather than having a specific length of time as your goal, you could aim for the longest time at which concentration is keen. That way, you might be able to see what factors impact that length of time and adapt.

Basically, there are a lot of ways to make this work, all of which will include some combination of gentleness and effort. Based on what you have said, however, it does not sound like the problem is not trying hard enough.
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Dream Walker, modified 3 Months ago at 11/24/23 2:18 AM
Created 3 Months ago at 11/24/23 2:18 AM

RE: Mental stamina during longer sits / retreats

Posts: 1643 Join Date: 1/18/12 Recent Posts
Doing crappy meditation is kinda a waste
Start being mindful of your meditation. 
How long till you loose it? 
Notice that time fact get a clock and quit when you peak.
take a break. Less time but more effective.
I found personally 45 minutes was my usual effectiveness. Then I did another 45 later.
Good luck,
​​​​​​​~D
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Bahiya Baby, modified 3 Months ago at 11/24/23 9:39 AM
Created 3 Months ago at 11/24/23 9:39 AM

RE: Mental stamina during longer sits / retreats

Posts: 371 Join Date: 5/26/23 Recent Posts
I have found throughout the years 30-45 minute sessions, a few times a day, are best. The times when I do more I tend to over exert myself and start to feel a little wigged out. 

I have never personally gone on retreat and have made reasonable progress in insight. I would also say the times I was doing the more intensive practice, 5-6 hours a day, were a bit intense and may not have been particularly healthy for me at that particular time.

​​​​​​​Listen to your body-mind and honor what you hear. 
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Lark Larkington, modified 3 Months ago at 11/25/23 9:28 AM
Created 3 Months ago at 11/25/23 9:28 AM

RE: Mental stamina during longer sits / retreats

Posts: 3 Join Date: 10/19/23 Recent Posts
Thank you all for sharing your personal experiences. I guess I've been reading/hearing Ingram talking about the 'momentum' you can build over longer sessions and took it to heart a bit to much. I'll try to experiment with shorter sessions dispersed throughout the day and see how that works.
Ben Sulsky, modified 3 Months ago at 11/27/23 11:24 AM
Created 3 Months ago at 11/27/23 11:24 AM

RE: Mental stamina during longer sits / retreats

Posts: 169 Join Date: 11/5/19 Recent Posts
"Doesn't 'mental fatigue' set in during retreats, to a point where you can't make progress anymore?"  -- The retreats I've been on alternate 30-45min sitting sessions with 30-45min walking sessions, with fairly long breaks for meals/naps/healing movement/ fucking off.  It's been important in this context for me to take it easy and not apply too much effort.  Stronger concentration arises periodically and comes and gos, but there's an art to building and sustaining it.  I get more sensations of fatigue or burn out following the times when I apply strong effort; the noticing of this feedback made me realize that the strong effort wasn't usually very useful on retreat.  'When Awareness Becomes Natural' by Sayadaw U Tejaniya talks a lot about right effort and might be interesting here.

"Or am I wrong in putting the blame on mental fatigue; is it something else that passes if you keep going?"  I've found both on and off retreat that strong effort creates future fatigue.  Just like sprinting.  

"Is it useful for someone like me, who doesn't yet have a lot of skill, to do these longer sits?"  That's probably a question to ask yourself.  All I can tell is that if you're meditating for 3 hours a day you probably have some strong factors that will probably end up serving you well if you pay attention to balancing the weaker ones too.

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