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Absorption/samatha for people with mental health issues

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Instructions for how to do absorption practice for people with mental health issues

If you have mental health issues you should avoid engaging in "dry insight." (see http://www.vipassanadhura.com/jhana.html). The problem with this is that the DhO as well as KFD have evolved into largely dry insight traditions. Believe it or not, there are long spaces of time in human history where people did not do dry insight and mastery of samatha was done before doing insight practices. Dry insight is popular with lay westerners because pure samatha is difficult without these conditions that westerners like to think of themselves as not having: spaces of several hours by yourself in a place with little to no external noise and distractions. If you have mental health issues and you would like to meditate then you need to figure out a way to create these conditions for yourself. EDIT: While I previously stated this was not optional, I am rephrasing this to say this is highly recommended if you find it helps you in your current circumstance and as a form of insurance.

There is an extremely dry insight attitude of "there is no such thing as a hindrance" and it can all just be noted and there is no need for attaining access concentration or any level of absorption as some level of concentration will occur naturally through noting anyways. Yes, this is (sort of) true, but if you have any mental health issues such as depression/anxiety/mania/disabling hypomania/psychosis then brute noting will generally cause more harm than good Actually, any method of noticing the three characteristics or dis-embedding from phenomena without first attaining a level of absorption will cause more harm than good. This means, if you have mental health issues and are pre-first path, then completely stop noting. Stop noting throughout your day and stop noting while you're sitting.

On the word "concentration": There are many issues with it that confuse people. One problem is that the word "concentration" implies a sense of straining and there should be no straining in samatha practice. Another problem is the fact that people use the word to describe being "concentrated" in both vipassana and samatha jhanas. This causes confusion to people who do not fully understand the difference between samatha and vipassana.

This link explains the difference: http://kennethfolkdharma.wetpaint.com/page/Dynamic+Jhana+vs+Static+Jhana

If you have mental health issues then you need to start out more like the guy on the right than trying to immediately be the "dynamic" yogi on the left.

Dynamic jhana = vipassana jhana
samatha jhana = static jhana.

If you have mental health issues (and are pre-first path) then you should learn to do static jhana. Become a "jhana junkie" before starting insight practices. Yes, I'm serious.

Try to focus on the word "absorption" as this word is much better at describing what to do than the vague and confusing term concentration.

Here is a book written by a "jhana junkie" that you should purchase and put into practice: http://www.amazon.com/Mindfulness-Bliss-Beyond-Meditators-Handbook/dp/0861712757/ref=sr_1_1?ie=UTF8&qid=1350764924&sr=8-1&keywords=mindfulness+bliss+and+beyond. Just read the practice instructions and ignore (or not take seriously) a lot of the other stuff in the book.

If you have significant clinical depression and/or anxiety problems - become a "jhana junkie."
If you have bipolar type II - become a "jhana junkie"
If you have bipolar type I and/or two or more episodes of psychosis - then it is not quite as simple as to become a "jhana junkie", though you should have some significant level of mastery of at least the first and second jhana (and should be sitting less number of hours than the above two cases), also you should be spending less time in the fourth samatha jhana (as that is the base of the psychic powers and too much time there at earlier stages in practice can lead to psychotic breaks later on). High dosages of vitamins such as niacin can prevent psychosis from occurring. See this post for detailed instructions on how to practice in this situation. I would also recommend that anyone with mental health issues read this post, regardless of what their "diagnosis" may be: http://www.dharmaoverground.org/web/guest/discussion/-/message_boards/message/3373753

I'm not saying you need to become as absorbed as B. Alan Wallace or Ajahn Brahm says you need to be absorbed in to actually be in "jhana," but the closer you can get to this ideal, the better. If it's anything but pleasant, you're not doing it right, and you should stop sitting immediately!

Once you have some obvious significant level of mastery of the formed jhanas, then you can either do insight practices within the jhana, or you can emerge from them, come back out at access concentration and start doing insight practices from there. Light noting can now be done at this point, but no brute noting!

Also, check out this post where I describe in slightly more detail what a jhanic state should be like: http://www.dharmaoverground.org/web/guest/discussion/-/message_boards/message/3589907

EDIT:

Here is a tip: When sitting down to do samatha don't think about jhanas as numbers, actually don't think about jhana at all. When you are done with your samatha practice then you can retroactively think about what jhana might have been what, but don't do it during the sitting period. Also, set a timer and increase to several hours of completely absorbed sits. If you get really good at it you can just program a "mental" timer to come out of jhana after such and such period of time by just using your mind.

RE: Absorption/samatha for people with mental health issues
Answer
10/20/12 6:11 PM as a reply to Tom Tom.
Tom, maybe you can give a step-by-step guide to concentration that avoids the progress of insight. Apart from Ajahn Brahm's link. What worked for you?

I'm a bit skeptical that avoiding dry insight is mandatory for anyone with a mental health problem. Without more evidence from different people with various kinds of mental illness, I don't think we can say more besides "it could be a problem".

Here is a tip: When sitting down to do samatha don't think about jhanas as numbers, actually don't think about jhana at all. When you are done with your samatha practice then you can retroactively think about what jhana might have been what, but don't do it during the sitting period.


I agree with this, buuuuut...if someone meditates Ajahn Brahm's way and does it strictly, but isn't getting to full absorption, it doesn't strike me that any way of matching the states experienced to jhanas is especially helpful, whether during or after. Ajahn Brahm's model is just about increasing levels of attention and ease, if I remember correctly.

RE: Absorption/samatha for people with mental health issues
Answer
10/20/12 6:50 PM as a reply to End in Sight.
End in Sight:
I'm a bit skeptical that avoiding dry insight is mandatory for anyone with a mental health problem. Without more evidence from different people with various kinds of mental illness, I don't think we can say more besides "it could be a problem".

Although I don't think I have any mental ilness, there were many times after or during my meditation/mindfulness practice that I felt "energetically charged", and sometimes "imbalanced"(they are all in quotes because I describe it as a generic feeling, not necessarily literal), and usually when this happened my hunger and sex urges seemed much higher, and even though I could just "note" it, it would come back again and again and again, making it really hard to resist.

RE: Absorption/samatha for people with mental health issues
Answer
10/20/12 11:46 PM as a reply to End in Sight.
I'm a bit skeptical that avoiding dry insight is mandatory for anyone with a mental health problem.


Yes, but I've seen enough people come on here, do the noting technique, and either give up meditation altogether or never get path. I think it might be good insurance for those starting or still in the first cycle of insight. At the very least it would give them more relief and some measure of "control" over their symptoms.

Ajahn Brahm's model is just about increasing levels of attention and ease, if I remember correctly.


Honestly, I haven't read the book in a couple years, but found it worked well for me at the time. I remember him having a very high standard for what he considered to be "jhana," equal to about what B Alan Wallace says jhana is. So I don't think it was just about increasing levels of attention and ease. Although I think it is definitely possible to increase levels of attention and ease, without investigating sensations, or doing insight, or entering jhana/samadhi. It's probably best not to overdo really hard jhana states as I'm not sure what the long term consequences of that might be, but they can definitely help curtail mania/hypomania/depression if someone with these issues feels preliminary symptoms of these types of episodes coming on (actually, the jhana does not have to be that "hard"). It's definitely a good skill to have in case you need it. This is particularly true if the person is in the first cycle of insight and does not yet have the paths/insight necessary to do this the insight way. I'll try to write another post about how to do basic meditation/pre-jhana/jhana without investigation later when I have more time.

RE: Absorption/samatha for people with mental health issues
Answer
10/21/12 12:02 AM as a reply to John P.
my hunger and sex urges seemed much higher, and even though I could just "note" it, it would come back again and again and again, making it really hard to resist.


If someone is finding their hindrances growing stronger from samatha after coming back from being suppressed they should stop doing sitting for the time being and try again later after these symptoms go away, next time not being so heavily concentrated and with a shorter sit. If there was no period of suppressed hindrances, and this happened near immediately after sitting then the person should stop practicing for a while. Honestly, the whole thing is definitely tricky and fairly individual to specific conditions and circumstances at the time being. I have had periods where where what was incredibly helpful at one stage of practice became incredibly harmful at other stages several years later. So, yes, it was a bit too absolutist to say this is not optional, so I edited and rephrased it above.

RE: Absorption/samatha for people with mental health issues
Answer
10/21/12 3:57 PM as a reply to Tom Tom.
Thanks Tom - I'm definitely gonna take your advice and try and focus on samatha and the early jhanas and not proceed with any more insight practices for some time.

My only question, though, is that without some degree of noting (labelling thinking as 'talk' a la Shinzen Young) I would've never even got to access concentration in the first place. My thoughts would still be swarming and proliferating like a hive of angry bees behind the breath and I would've given up some time ago...

Do you think it's still ok to note 'talk' occasionally to extricate oneself from a flight of memory/plan/fantasy or is even this an inherently 'deconstructive'/insight process which could cause trouble for the mentally fragile? I figure this is a world away from Mr Ingram's 100 mph rapid-fire noting which has been identified as potentially mania-inducing?

RE: Absorption/samatha for people with mental health issues
Answer
10/21/12 4:08 PM as a reply to Tom Tom.
What about using a kasina as a concentration object?

RE: Absorption/samatha for people with mental health issues
Answer
10/21/12 6:15 PM as a reply to Tom Tom.
Some training in concentration before embarking on insight work is certainly a good idea. Insight work is destabilizing and can really mess with you mentally, so tuning into a jhana can provide much-needed relief. Also, Daniel notes in MCTB that concentration by itself cultivates six of the seven factors of enlightenment.

Dry insight work is understandable in societies where we are thoroughly immersed in samsaric modern life. Then again, maybe we should all be setting our alarms an hour early and doing some concentration training before noting throughout the day.

RE: Absorption/samatha for people with mental health issues
Answer
10/22/12 9:46 PM as a reply to Eric Michaels.
Does anyone know of research looking at levels of brain serotonin, noradrenaline, dopamine etc., when practising absorption meditation?

Thanks,