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Access Concentration and Limited Practice Time

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Hi everyone,

I'm looking for answers and I'm not sure where to start...

I spontaneously developed a strong interest in Buddhism over six months ago for no discernible reason. After a lot of reading and contemplating, I decided to pursue Enlightenment. However, I had no idea how to go about this... until I stumbled upon this website and MCTB.

I am interested in obtaining the lower concentration states for the sake of mental stability before diving into Insight territory. I believe I have obtained access concentration. I have done concentration exercises and sporadic meditation for about two years now, ever since hearing about out of body experiences and wanting to have one. I have had the feelings of rapture, joy, bliss, etc on a few occasions, though at the time I did not understand what was happening. I don't believe I made it to the second jhana because it took sustained effort to maintain these feelings.

My biggest obstacle is limited practice time. I have three children, one of which is special needs, so the second I come home from work I have little to no downtime. I usually manage about twenty minutes a day, which I believe is going to make for veeeeery slow progress.

The only way around this problem is setting my alarm an hour early. Meditation cuts back on my need for sleep so that should be fine. However, my infant daughter is a *very* light sleeper, and my wife would literally kill me. (Just kidding, she'd probably just maim me.) I tend to be a deep sleeper so programming myself to wake up through self-hypnosis hasn't been successful so far.

I can't help but feel pangs of jealousy when others talk about going on retreats and all that... emoticon

I practice mindfulness throughout the day, which certainly helps, but I haven't hit any jhanic states by mindfulness alone. I have managed to cultivate very intense concentration which lasts for only a few moments. I feel like I'm on the downhill of a roller coaster and my head is getting sucked into a vacuum, which is kind of cool, but I doubt there's any practical use for such a sensation.

Any tips or pointers? How much time per day should the average person set aside for meditation in order to experience progress?

RE: Access Concentration and Limited Practice Time
Answer
10/16/12 3:39 PM as a reply to Eric Michaels.
Eric Michaels:
HI tend to be a deep sleeper so programming myself to wake up through self-hypnosis hasn't been successful so far.


You could get a Zeo. It has an alarm which wakes you when it senses you are in a lighter phase of sleep. I have never used it, though I have a Zeo, because I don't use an alarm to wake up. But it sounds like it might help in your case.

RE: Access Concentration and Limited Practice Time
Answer
10/16/12 4:07 PM as a reply to Eric Michaels.
Hiya Eric,

Welcome to the DhO.

I am interested in obtaining the lower concentration states for the sake of mental stability before diving into Insight territory. I believe I have obtained access concentration. I have done concentration exercises and sporadic meditation for about two years now, ever since hearing about out of body experiences and wanting to have one. I have had the feelings of rapture, joy, bliss, etc on a few occasions, though at the time I did not understand what was happening. I don't believe I made it to the second jhana because it took sustained effort to maintain these feelings.

Chances are you've probably already got access concentration, if you're able to 'lock-in' to the breath, i.e. stay with the whole breath as it comes and goes as if it's one fluid movement, for three cycles of ten inhalation/exhalations then you've definitely got it. I wrote a blog post on this a wee while ago which might be of use to you: Access Concentration

The basics of jhana are actually quite straightforward once you know what sort of basic sensations are involved. Nikolai from this site writes an excellent blog called The Hamilton Project and, serendipitously, has just posted a really good article about accessing these strata of mind. It's originally from this site but he's added some other fantastic advice from some other highly-experienced yogis which is well worth repeated readings. I've also got an article on the basics of getting into 1st jhana specifically which may be of use to you too: Stop! Jhana Time.

As far as limited practice time goes, I'm a father too and have a fairly active life outwith meditation practice so I can speak from experience on this one. Clearly your situation is more trying than many people's, but I've found that, for me, bringing practice into daily life allowed for serious progress and, if you really want to do this, your ability to find opportunities to practice at work, on the train, in a bar, or anywhere at all that doesn't involve formally sitting, increases dramatically. A good formal practice routine would be ideal and if you're only able to squeeze in 20 minutes a day then it's better than nothing at all; consistency and discipline are important, getting stream-entry seems to be a lot to do with momentum so every minute, if spent completely committed to the practice while you're sat there, is worth it. Like I said, bringing practice into your daily life, even something as simple as breath-counting, can be incredibly effective and so it's worth considering this from a different angle.

Retreat-wise, I've done one three-day solo retreat at a friends cottage on Arran in Scotland. That's it. Some people on here who are seriously highly realized haven't even done that much, but they've practiced like their heads were on fire both on and off the cushion. Some people can spend years on retreats and get nowhere other than into strong concentration states with little or no insight gained in the process, it's not the be all and end all so don't put yourself in a place mentally that will just end up leading to more suffering. Unlikely as it may seem right now, your current situation is packed so full of wisdom and loaded with so many opportunities to really makes serious progress that, with a few months of good practice, even 20 minutes formal practice a day, you'll be amazed that you ever thought otherwise.

The fact that there are people on here from all walks of life, all different traditions and different personal situations should be enough to demonstrate that, contrary to what some may tell you, this is completely possible and is worth whatever it takes, as well as however long it takes, to see it clearly for yourself.

The 'tools' are available and this site, as well as a handful of others including The Hamilton Project mentioned above, put those basic techniques - explained in a hands-on, pragmatic way with emphasis on the phenomenological side of practice - at your disposal. All you need to do is learn how to use those 'tools' and you'll find that all of this is considerable more down-to-earth and practical than you might have imagined.

Good luck with it all anyway and I hope this helps in some way.

T

RE: Access Concentration and Limited Practice Time
Answer
10/16/12 5:49 PM as a reply to Eric Michaels.
You could get a Zeo. It has an alarm which wakes you when it senses you are in a lighter phase of sleep. I have never used it, though I have a Zeo, because I don't use an alarm to wake up. But it sounds like it might help in your case.


Hey fivebells,

I've heard of gadgets like this. Unfortunately my financial situation is a little tight so it will take some consideration, but it is certainly an option. Thanks for this.

Hi Tommy,

It's nice to hear from you, your posts are always informative.

Chances are you've probably already got access concentration, if you're able to 'lock-in' to the breath, i.e. stay with the whole breath as it comes and goes as if it's one fluid movement, for three cycles of ten inhalation/exhalations then you've definitely got it. I wrote a blog post on this a wee while ago which might be of use to you: Access Concentration


Okay, so it sounds like I have Access Concentration. Does it matter if there are minor disturbances of mind during meditation? I never leave the breath, but I do have some monkey-chatter that goes in "in the background," so to speak. I suspect this isn't a problem as long as I stay with the breath.

I will look into the links you posted. emoticon

As far as limited practice time goes, I'm a father too and have a fairly active life outwith meditation practice so I can speak from experience on this one. Clearly your situation is more trying than many people's, but I've found that, for me, bringing practice into daily life allowed for serious progress and, if you really want to do this, your ability to find opportunities to practice at work, on the train, in a bar, or anywhere at all that doesn't involve formally sitting, increases dramatically. A good formal practice routine would be ideal and if you're only able to squeeze in 20 minutes a day then it's better than nothing at all; consistency and discipline are important, getting stream-entry seems to be a lot to do with momentum so every minute, if spent completely committed to the practice while you're sat there, is worth it. Like I said, bringing practice into your daily life, even something as simple as breath-counting, can be incredibly effective and so it's worth considering this from a different angle.


It's good to know that there are others in the same boat as me as far as practice time goes.

I've actually included meditative techniques in daily life on a sporadic basis. I've done mindfulness of breath while driving and working, as I mentioned before. I've also counted breaths while at work. I will definitely bring more practice into daily life and see how that goes.

Retreat-wise, I've done one three-day solo retreat at a friends cottage on Arran in Scotland. That's it. Some people on here who are seriously highly realized haven't even done that much, but they've practiced like their heads were on fire both on and off the cushion. Some people can spend years on retreats and get nowhere other than into strong concentration states with little or no insight gained in the process, it's not the be all and end all so don't put yourself in a place mentally that will just end up leading to more suffering. Unlikely as it may seem right now, your current situation is packed so full of wisdom and loaded with so many opportunities to really makes serious progress that, with a few months of good practice, even 20 minutes formal practice a day, you'll be amazed that you ever thought otherwise.


Phew, that's a relief. Retreats really aren't practical at this point in my life.

Good luck with it all anyway and I hope this helps in some way.


It certainly does help, thanks for this. emoticon

RE: Access Concentration and Limited Practice Time
Answer
10/17/12 3:54 AM as a reply to Eric Michaels.
This is a Thread I've been working on, I took out my notes from two books on concentration and placed them in here. High Equanimity & Access Concentration are the same level.

There are two definitions of access concentration in the Buddhist world, if your a dry insight practitioner its probably easier to not worry about this debate and ignore this, but if you really want to understand Access Concentration & Jhana read these two books! I'm still filling out these notes with direct quotes in the above thread. The ones without quotes are my summary of the books points on the stages of development to jhana.

Notes from, 'The Attention Revolution' by B. Allan Wallace, on The 10 stages of Jhana in the Tibetan Shamata Yanika Tradition.

"the sequence of shamatha training begins with relaxation, then stabilising attention., and finally maintaining relaxation and stability while gradually increasing vividness… If you want to develop exceptional vividness, first develop relaxation, second develop stability, and finally increase vividness." pg.68.

1st stage: "directed attention... is simply being able to place your mind on your chosen object of meditation fro even a second or two. If you are directing your attention to a... complex visualization, this may take days or weeks...But if your chosen object is your breathing, you may achieve this stage on your first attempt.", pg.13.

2nd stage: "In the 2nd...stage, continuous attention, you experience occasional periods of continuity, but most of the time your mind is still caught up in wondering thoughts and sensory distractions." pg.30. "For most people.., the problem is...excitation." there are, "...three levels of excitation. The 1st is called coarse excitation, which we typically encounter during the initial stages of attention training. The 2nd two levels of excitation, medium excitation and subtle excitation, become apparent only during more advances stages of attention training." pg.29.
"...on the second stage, although you experience periods when your attention was continually engaged with the object for as long as a minute, most of the time you were still caught up in distractions." pg.43.

3rd stage: "When you reach.., resurgent attention, during each practice session your attetnion is fixed most of the time upon your meditative object. By now, you will have increase the duration of each session beyond the initial 24mins to perhaps twice that." "When you reach teh 3rd stage, your attentional stability has increase so that most of the time you remain engaged with the object. Occasionally there are still lapses where you when you completely forget the object,.. The third stage is achieved only when your mind remains focuses on the object most of the time in virtually all your sessions. " pg.43. "...coarse excitation is the predominant problem during the third stage of attentional development." pg.47. "The further you progress in this practice, the subtler the breath becomes. At times it may become so subtle that you can't detect it at all. This challenges you to enhance the vividness of attention." pg.48.

4th stage: "called close attention… due to the power of enhanced mindfulness, you no longer completely forget your chosen object,.. your sessions may now last an hour or longer, your attention can not be involuntarily drawn entirely away from the object. You are now free of coarse excitation." pg.59. "While your attention is no longer prone to coarse excitation, it is still flawed by a medium degree of excitation and coarse laxity. When medium excitation occurs, you don't completely lose track of your object of attention, but involuntary thoughts occupy the centre of your attention and the meditative object is displaced to the periphery." pg.62.
"Bhante Gunaratana"'s, "description of the Vipassana view of mindfulness in his book, 'Mindfulness in Plain English'." is a "bare attention,.. is present-time awareness…if you are remembering,.. that is memory. When you become aware that you are remembering… that is mindfulness."33" this "description is representive of the current Vipassana tradition as a whole, it is oddly at variance with the Buddha's own description of mindfulness, or sati: "And what monks, is the faculty of sati? Here, monks, the noble disciple has sati, he is endowed with the perfect sati and intellect, he is one who remembers, who recollects what was done and said long before."…it is weel known that the Pali term sati has its primary meaning in 'recollection', or 'memory,'… in addition to its connotations of 'retrospective memory,' sati also refers to 'prospective memory,'" pg.60-1.
"Buddhaghosa…wrote: "Sati's: characteristic is not floating; its property is not losing; its manifestation is guarding or the state of being face to face with an object; its basis is strong noting or the application of mindfulness of the body and so on. It should be seen as like a post due to its state of being set in the object, and as like a gatekeeper because it guards the gate of the eye and so on. 36" " pg.61.

5th Medium and subtle excitation occur, subtle excitation are thoughts going on in the background also we have coarse laxity meaning you can't stay awake sometimes.

6th There is some satisfaction here without resistance: excitation is subtle, but it you don't use introspection (of laxity & excitation) it may quickly become coarse dragging u back to 4th or 5th lvl. Laxity becomes moderate, meaning the object just isn't clear if it isn't clear you try to hard or you concentration fades for lack of an object and you fall back into with and there is resistance i.e. some difficulty maintaining this pleasant ease.

I should note here that concentration is considered to be built upon relaxation; the foundations, stability;the wall & vividness the roof.

7th Excitation has gone but may return at a subtle lvl. Laxity is now subtle things start to get really good around here you can sit for 2 and half hours or more.

This is where you are in comparative terminology in my opinion after the fast flowing vibration push upwards lifting the body in the insight janas.

8th There is no excitation and laxity, maybe a bit at the start of the sit. any effort but the slightest here may ruin the relaxation, lose the stability and evaporate the vividness.

9th is access concentration and one can sit for at least 4hrs with pliancy & ease.

10th is Jhana

I state these last 3 levels are hard to acquire and very subtle and directly applicable to letting go into high equanimity.

These notes about Jhana from Ajahn Brahms book are basically how the Theravada Samatha Yanika tradition views Jhana: The 7 stages of Jhana In the Thai Shamata Yanika Tradition. When I get another copy of the book will try to quote directly from it.

Stage1:
Present Moment Awareness: Be here now, listen, look, feel body awareness.

Stage2:
Silent Present Moment Awareness: Bring the mind to the now, free from the past, future & elsewhere. Sense the space & silence of mind.

Stage3:
Silent Present Moment Awareness of the Breath: Spacious silent Awareness, in the now relaxing the body, starting to follow the breath. Breathing in the now calmly…Breathing out the now calmly, allow the natural breathing.

Stage4:
Full Sustained Attention on the Breath: Attentive moment to moment awareness of the in & out breath.
This is reached by letting go, relaxing into the attentive moment, not through forceful attentiveness
You do not do reach this stage the mind does. this is where the doer, the major part of one's ego, starts to disappear & unity and peace start to become present.

Stage5:
Full Sustained Attention on the Beautiful Breath: The beautiful breath is when we maintain the unity of consciousness by not interfering the breath which will begin to become subtler, smooth and peaceful. Take time to saviour the sweetness of the beautiful breath (as Piti needs to be developed). You do not do anything, if you try to do something at this stage, you will disturb the whole process, from now on the doer has to disappear. In the later stages the breath will become very subtle and eventually disappears, all that's left is the beautiful, the mind is now taking the mind as its own object.

Stage6:
The Beautiful Nimitta: When one lets go of the body, thoughts and the five senses (including awareness of the breath) so completely that only a beautiful mental sign remains. Also the Breath and Space can be a Nimitta though this is not described much in this book. Some see a white light, some a gold star, some a blue pearl, for others perception chooses to describe this in terms of a physical sensation such as intense tranquillity or ecstasy; these are not physical perceptions associated with the body or the eyes.

Qualities of the Nimitta:
1) It appears only after the meditator has been with the beautiful breath for along time.
2) It appears when the breath disappears. (Some argue this is merely the perception of the breath which has become extremely subtle others that it has stopped all together)
3) The external 5 senses are completely absent.
4) It only manifests in a silent mind.
5) Strange but powerfully attractive.
6) It is a beautiful simple object.

If the nimitta is dull or unstable, flashing and disappearing in both cases one should go back to the previous stage.
The weak nimitta is caused by not enough depth of contentment and wanting, let go of the doer and enjoy, let the mind incline where it wants, which is usually the centre of the nimitta. If no nimitta arises after the breath disappear and instead peace, space, nothingness or emptiness is left, (this is not jhana) this could be because there isn't enough piti or sukha. Within the calm-space, cultivate the contentment into delight, delight is generated by letting the energy flow into the knower, strengthening present moment awareness, which will increase bliss and then the nimitta will appear. It is possible the nimitta is a feeling nimitta, of strong bliss, but this nimitta is more difficult to gain access to jhana with (in this situation space may be associate).

Stage7:
Jhana: Attention gets drawn into the centre of the nimitta or the the light expands to envelope you, let the mind merge into bliss, then let the jhana occur. The obstacles of exhilaration and fears need to be subdued in favour of complete passivity to attain.

The qualities of Jhana:
1) It usually persists for many hours. (Scriptures state proper Jhana or full accomplished Jhana is 24 hrs, I think 10-12 may be enough for the first time.)
2) Once inside there is no choice, emergence occurs naturally when the accumulated fuel of relinquishment is used up.
3) It is impossible to perceive the body, sound, think or perceive time.
4) It is not a trance but a heightened state of awareness of bliss that doesn't move.