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First (ish) steps

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First (ish) steps
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10/8/12 9:13 PM
I've been trying to develop regular meditation for a while now. Like losing weight, or flossing one's teeth, I find it hard to build the habit. I'm trying again.

All I'm doing for now is sitting on a seiza bench, eyes closed, and trying to do what I understand many people refer to as "Mahasi noting". I merely try to stay aware of the rising and falling of my tummy as I breathe, and say into myself "rising, rising" or "fallin, falling".

Is that enough to be getting on with for now? I have a few things on my mind in asking.

First, I see a lot of differing opinions on whether one is best to do "samatha" first before doing "vipassana". What am *I* doing, with the noting thing? If it's vipassana, is that OK, or should I start with something else more samatha-ish?

Next, from time to time, I experience what I can only describe as a lava lamp just inside my eyelids. It corresponds with it getting dramatically easier than normal to not get distracted. Sometimes it gets quite intense and it feels like I'm moving very fast, like the traditional scifi effect when a space ship goes to warp speed and the points of light that are stars suddenly become lines. I don't want to overstate this -- I'm not getting high or anything. I'm fully aware of myself and can easily stop it all by opening my eyes, or even by simply stopping it internally. But it's quite peaceful and relaxing so I tend to just "ride it". I wondered if perhaps this was some kind of jhana thing, but one of the books I'm reading suggests that achieving even first jhana would usually take many years and isn't likely to be what I'm experiencing. Is it *anything*? What should I do with it? I can think of at least four things:

1. Note it, stop it, and go back to noting my tummy
2. Stop it, and go back to noting my tummy
3. Note it, and keep noting it (i.e. suspend noting of my tummy) for as long as it lasts
4. Note it, and keep noting, *and* keep noting my tummy
(no doubt there are other options)

Third, If I'm sitting for only 30-60 minutes a day, how long would I continue for before deciding I'm not doing it right (i.e. assuming I see no development in my ability).

Finally, I often find it difficult to sleep and am up into the small hours. Is there any point in using that time to do some more meditation? The aim wouldn't be to get to sleep (although if someone can tell me how to use meditation for that, I'd be grateful). Rather it would simply be to use what is otherwise dead time to advance my practice. Ditto other small chunks of time, like cleaning one's teeth, or taking out the trash.

Thanks for any help.

RE: First (ish) steps
Answer
10/8/12 10:24 PM as a reply to Robert McLune.
If you develop strong concentration and jhanas it will keep you awake. The ego likes to resist so I sometimes do reverse psychology and try and stay awake with reading or some other activity (not meditation) and then I go to sleep. With strong jhanas I've stayed up to 4:00am with little need for sleep. It wasn't too bad because meditation retrieves a portion of your overall sleep but I could tell it would be better if I had a full night of rest instead. I've heard of Kenneth Folk knocking himself out with Nirodha Samapatti but you have to be super skilled to do that. It's important to get good sleep because if you lack sleep it will affect the quality of your meditation.

Vipassana does train you in concentration but I liked mastering a couple of jhanas first. Concentration practice (when you relax your body and facial muscles first) is enjoyable and can create some mental peace that can last throughout the day (though it ultimately fades). Once you get past the first jhana then I would move into insight practice. Don't get caught up in lucid dreaming or retina displays (happens when you practice lots of concentration and when you sleep the concentration continues from conditioning leaving you partially conscious of the dreaming state). The eye doctor can do that just with a light. Sunlight will add some fireworks for the same reason. It's just more causes and conditions. You might notice an off white light as you attain jhanas. That is just a feedback loop (nimitta).

BTW I achieved first jhana in months. I don't see why it has to take years. Try and and stay with your breath throughout the day (otherwise act normal) and keep the practice from being compartmentalized in sitting practice. You should start right away trying to reap life benefits from increased concentration. Insight practice leads to a smoother result in the long run but there's no need to rush to insight. Concentration states are a relief and what's enjoyable can easily build into a new habit. Remember your brain is like a muscle. You will get tired of too much striving. The brain needs breaks and some normal time so it can adjust and it will adjust. emoticon I also recommend walking and running with concentration.

Check out these videos:

Guided tour to 13 jhanas

It's good to know how jhanas will help you stay concentrated:

1. Applied thinking (Vitakka) is the opponent of sloth and torpor

(Thina-middha);

2. Sustained thinking (Vicara) is the opponent of doubt

(Vicikiccha);

3. Rapture (Piti) is the opponent of ill-will (Vyapada);

4. Bliss (Sukha) is the opponent of restlessness and worry

(Uddhacca-kukkucca);

5. One-pointedness (Ekaggata) is the opponent of sensual

pleasure (Kamachanda).


What vipassana does is it gets you intimate with the 3 characteristics. The easiest part is just confirming in your senses the impermanence of everything. The second part is to notice the vice clenching in your head when you attach to anything with clinging obssessive thoughts about craving or aversion and because everything is impermanent you should start developing strong dispassion for clinging to anything since nothing is permanently solid. The not-self concept is that nothing in your experience is a permanent self. It's just impersonal causes and conditions that a "you" doesn't have control over. Even thinking about an "I" is just more thinking. The "I" basically is likes and dislikes translated into mental projections that you identify as an I. As you get good at noting you'll feel great (A & P) and then you'll also grow dispassion for your meditation practice as you notice how fast things are moving. These are all good signs of progress of the dark night. You need to keep practicing the same way with all discomfort or strong desires to eventually hit equanimity. Noticing reactivity and being ho-hum about it will be a big relief after the dark night. The dark night is like withdrawal symptoms because the old attachments are habitual and naturally influenced by the amygdala. Try not to manipulate anything but to see it arise and passaway on it's own. Because it passes away unpleasant reactivity also passes away. Those little bits of relief should let you know that actions don't have to come after reactivity. You can let go of the clinging thoughts as soon as they arise (basically they arise whenever you feel craving or aversion) so your face and scalp (or other body tightening) will relax and you can continue on with your goals. Basically manipulating your experience with noting is just more concentration practice. Concentration practice interferes with thoughts. In vipassana thoughts are let in and looked at to understand. You'll cycle back and forth between equanimity and the dark night until you are more equanamous by habit, and as others have discovered, especially when you land 1st path. The end goal (4th path or beyond) is to not really need much meditation again because you understand your underlying nature in great detail. Jhanas are optional.

With concentration I would count the breath and when distractions appear I would simply acknowledge the distraction and ASAP go back to the breath. Do not bash your self for distractions since that is just another distraction. You'll know you are getting progress when the concentration starts going by itself from conditioning and inertia. It's like a letting go of an emotional load. "Hey I don't have to think about this problem. All I have to do is follow the breath. Relief!"

With mindfulness I would note phenomenon (95% the experience 5% labeling) so that you can see the 3 characteristics for yourself. Don't stop thoughts when doing this practice. Don't add to automatic thoughts but don't stop all thoughts. Letting go is more like understanding impermanence and choosing not to add to the chain of thoughts. Impermanence is obvious but sometimes throughout the day it's important to remind yourself of dependent origination to get that dose of dispassion when needed if you're clinging. Sister Khema Dependent Origination

There's lots of free instructions on the "For Students" section of Shinzen Young's website:

Shinzen Young

Hopefully this will help you on the right track.

RE: First (ish) steps
Answer
10/14/12 2:57 PM as a reply to Robert McLune.
The lights are probably the first vipassana jhana. It's really easy to get into and does not take years.

My advice is to note your butt off until you get the A&P. Don't restrict noting to the breath. Note whatever comes up. If at that moment you notice your weight on the cushion, note "pressure". If at that moment you notice something behind the eyelids, note "seeing". If there's a thought, "thinking". If there's doubt, "doubting". If there's a noise, "hearing".

In other words, do the "First Gear" practice from here, exactly as written.

It doesn't have to be that precise. Don't agonize over what word you use to label what sensation. And if you do agonize, just note "agonizing" and move on to the next thing.

Do this out loud if it's convenient. Hearing your own voice will keep you honest and ensure that you don't slack off.

Also, do the practice when you're not formally meditating. Do it in the car. Do it while on line at the store. Do it while going for a walk. Just get in the habit of noting all the time.

Also, keep a journal of your meditation sits, recording how long you sat, what the technique was (in this case, noting), and what the results were in the approximate order they rose (e.g., "Five minutes into the sit, I settled into a groove where my mind wasn't distracted as much, and I was able to note that thoughts were occurring. I heard a noise in the other room, and there was a sensation in my chest about a quarter second afterward. About 15 or 20 minutes in, I started feeling really hot and then really cold, so I kept shifting my posture. I got distracted for the next 10 minutes or so, daydreaming about my job, but then I returned to the feeling of my body in the chair. I was able to note pretty persistently for the next 10 minutes until the alarm went off.") This way you or others here can track your progress and troubleshoot problems.