Week of meditation "retreat" -- how to make it work?

J Adam G, modified 14 Years ago at 3/9/10 5:46 PM
Created 14 Years ago at 3/9/10 4:41 PM

Week of meditation "retreat" -- how to make it work?

Posts: 286 Join Date: 9/15/09 Recent Posts
My spring break is coming up next week, but rather than going home, I'm going to stay on my college campus while almost everyone else is gone, and I want to use a large chunk of that time as a meditation retreat to do concentration practice as described by Ajahn Bram in Mindfulness, Bliss, and Beyond. The only problem is that I have never done a retreat before. In fact, I tend to start reaching for the eject button after about 20-25 minutes of meditation. But that's no valid reason not to do meditation. In fact, the way I see it, it's a reason to do lots of meditation! It's a sign of how much aversion and restlessness are in my mind, and those two things are my biggest obstacles to insight, concentration, and living well in ordinary life.

The break starts with the weekend, and continues until classes start a week from Monday. I'm planning to spend the weekend and the first Monday during the break doing many light meditation sits throughout the day. Perhaps something like 15 minutes at the beginning of every hour. My real purpose on those days is to rest the body and mind so I don't have much sloth and torpor left by Tuesday. Sloth and torpor are not naturally predominant hindrances of mine, but I currently experience a lot of them due to sleep deprivation and mental exhaustion. When sloth/torpor combines with my innate restlessness (they don't do anything resembling "cancelling each other out") then meditation is doomed because I have a jumpy, monkey-like, dull, unfocused mind.

My real question is about what I'll be doing once the sloth/torpor is reduced enough for me to concentrate. I'm just going to start declaring right now that I have the self-control to meditate from Tuesday through Friday instead of spending all day on the internet, because I need that self-fulfilling prophecy. So, what advice do you guys have for first-time retreatants doing this kind of practice? I'm not expecting to actually reach jhana over this retreat, because Ajahn Brahm's style is based around first building up the ability to avoid distracting thoughts in a gentle, unforced style.I predict that's what I'll be spending most of my time on during the retreat. I can use willpower to force my mind onto the breath for about 5 minutes, and jhana factors start arising, then the willpower is gone and the rest of the sit doesn't seem to accomplish anything. So I plan to use a light touch with concentration, and save my willpower for keeping away from Wikipedia and YouTube.

How should I handle times where my concentration ability seems used up or drained? Even with a light touch, my mind seems to run out of steam after 20-25 minutes of concentration practice. Distracting thoughts just happen, and I begin to see that there isn't any "self" or "doer" who has the power to make them go away. The mind is just operating the way it's operating because of causality. If I keep meditating at that point, it turns into insight practice and I jump right past cause and effect and hit three characteristics. That is the absolute last thing I need when I'm trying to develop solidified states of serenity and peace. It's well and good to intellectually understand anatta and dukkha, but when you start seeing them for real, it's very agitating! That's why I want to have stronger concentration abilities, so I can make it through the Three Characteristics stage and the dark night without getting completely mired in hindrances. Until I have the ability to meditate with right concentration for longer periods of time, I plan to stay the fuck away from the dark night lest I should find myself up shit creek without a paddle. (My choice of language there isn't meant to offend; rather, it was meant to display just how strongly I believe I'm not yet ready to handle real insight in a mature way. There too many similarities between kids driving Ferraris and inexperienced meditators hitting the A&P event.)

Does anyone have any advice? Concentration just doesn't seem like the kind of thing that's successful when you force yourself to trudge through it. In particular, right concentration seems to require acceptance, and the application of the 4 right efforts with gentleness, goodwill, and acceptance. I don't think it's really the four RIGHT efforts if you're using them because of aversion to the unskillful mind states and greed for the skillful mind states.

So, if anyone has anything you think would be helpful, I'm all ears. Criticize any and all of my approach to this if it seems helpful! Just as long as the criticism is a form of encouragement to do the job right instead of a form of discouragement. I don't think I absolutely need advice about this, because it's meditation. Even if I screw everything up and don't get anywhere near my goal, I'll at least learn a lot about the hindrances and how not to meditate correctly. But I would be very grateful it if any of you guys' wisdom and experience helped me to actually accomplish my goal for this retreat.

In case it's useful information, here is the exact goal I've set for my concentration abilities on this retreat. By Friday, I plan to be capable of gently sustaining the attention fully on the breath, without any distracting thoughts, for several hundred breaths in a row. If I am noticeably drained by doing this, then I do not consider it correct shamatha practice. I expect correct practice to result in some variation of restoration and calm alertness afterwards. If I happen into jhana territory, it will be a very pleasant surprise. However, I don't have the 1st jhana set as a goal because I've observed that goal to cause restlessness with wherever the mind is at currently, and craving for reaching the jhana state.

With much gratitude,

EDIT: Oops, forgot to mention that on the actual retreat part of the break, Tuesday-Friday, I'm currently planning 14 hours of meditation a day. If I get to a point where it becomes impossible to maintain even the most basic concentration practice in Ajahn Brahm's book, which is non-silent awareness of the present moment, then I'll stop for 15 minutes and have absolutely no goals for doing anything with that time. Is that advisable?
Florian, modified 14 Years ago at 3/10/10 12:00 AM
Created 14 Years ago at 3/10/10 12:00 AM

RE: Week of meditation "retreat" -- how to make it work

Posts: 1028 Join Date: 4/28/09 Recent Posts
Nice plan.

A few thoughts and tips:

Since you mentioned self-fulfilling prophecies, you might want to reconsider the one regarding "I don't expect to reach jhana..." (knowing full well that Ven. Ajahn Brahm's standards are pretty high emoticon )

Experiment with concentration objects. I use: the breath, a kasina (grey cardboard disk, candle flame), and a meditation word ("buddho" - very useful when rambling trains of thought are distracting). Initially, I wanted to use the breath, and nothing but the breath. Once I started to experiment, I found that using a different object once in a while really made a difference.

Right effort and desire/aversion: not all desire is "bad". The Buddha explicitly singled out "the desire that leads to further becoming" as the bad guy. Right effort/the four right exertions (i.e. desiring the right qualities to arise, desiring the arisen good qualities to stay, desiring the bad qualities to cease, desiring them to stay that way) is motivated by a kind of desire, after all.

State your intent at the beginning of each meditation. "May a concentration state arise" works for me, for example. Experiment!

Look for small tensions and dissolve them, breathe through them, relax the gaze into them, whatever. When they disappear, a subtle, nice, fuzzy, warm sensation often replaces them. I.e. when breathing, after some time, look out for the tiny suction after an in- our outbreath, and try to leave it alone, not squeeze so hard, relax into it etc. When gazing at a kasina and closing the eyes after some time, there is often a bit of tension in the eyelids etc.

Keep a light, fun attitude. Yes, concentration means to stay glued to the object, but when that's done with a light, appreciative attitude, it's much easier. "Looking at a nice sunset" vs. "staring down demons", or "breathing clean morning air" vs. "mimicking Darth Vader".

While geared more towards insight practice, Tarin's "reformed slacker's guide" is full of good stuff. You can find it at the bottom of the Wiki main page.

Hoping that there was something useful in there for you, and wishing you great success with your retreat,

Ian And, modified 14 Years ago at 3/10/10 12:21 AM
Created 14 Years ago at 3/10/10 12:21 AM

RE: Week of meditation "retreat" -- how to make it work

Posts: 785 Join Date: 8/22/09 Recent Posts
Hi Adam,

Whew! That was a long and involved monologue, all over the place. It's nice that you have a lot of goals and stages that you'd like to reach. All of that is very good. But if I were you -- and since you've never been on a retreat before and it was unclear whether or not you've had the opportunity to work with anyone experienced in meditation practice and guidance -- I would just try to keep things simple during your retreat. Don't get your hopes up. Just try to be present throughout the time you spend.

You say that you "tend to start reaching for the eject button after about 20-25 minutes of meditation." That doesn't speak well about your concentration abilities. When I first began meditation practice under the guidance of a teacher some thirty years ago, I spent a minimum of thirty minutes a sit, and more often than not 45 minutes to an hour or more. There are things that you can do to build concentration. But you're not even at that stage yet. You're still taking baby steps, trying to break through half an hour's meditation.

Get some good Dharma books to keep your mind occupied when you feel the need to use your will power "for keeping away from Wikipedia and YouTube." Bhikkhu Bodhi's The Noble Eightfold Path, Way to the Ending of Suffering is a good one to start with. It can be had for free in PDF format online. I don't have a link handy, but you should be able to find a download by Googling it.

Another good book for you at this stage is Henepola Gunaratana Mindfulness in Plain English. It may help you with some of the nuts and bolts of beginning a practice in meditation. It can also be had for free in a PDF download.

By keeping it simple, I would recommend, as in Gunaratana's book, to just focus on maintaining contact with the breath (or whatever object you are using), bringing the mind back to the breath each time it wanders off. You will find that this is harder to do than it sounds. If you can do that and manage to sit for at least 30 minutes or more by the end of the week, I would consider your retreat a success. It is difficult enough to do just that simple exercise with any regularity when you are just beginning to learn about and practice meditation that this simple goal will be more than enough to test your effort on for the whole week.

Take it easy on yourself and learn the basics first. You will find that the basics are more difficult than you think when you are first starting out. It's good to have lofty goals. But for this week at least, just try to keep it simple. Okay?

In peace,
Ruth Laura Edlund, modified 14 Years ago at 3/10/10 1:07 AM
Created 14 Years ago at 3/10/10 1:05 AM

RE: Week of meditation "retreat" -- how to make it work

Posts: 32 Join Date: 1/13/10 Recent Posts
J Adam G:
Oops, forgot to mention that on the actual retreat part of the break, Tuesday-Friday, I'm currently planning 14 hours of meditation a day.

Your original message, which I have not reproduced in full here, says nothing about walking meditation. You might find it helpful, if you are resolved to meditate for 14 hours daily, to divide the time between sits and walks, e.g.:

6:00 am - 6:45 am - sitting meditation
6:45 am - 7:15 am - walking meditation
7:15 am - 8:00 am - sitting meditation
8:00 am - 8:30 am - make breakfast, eat breakfast, do dishes

etc. etc. if for no other reason than to avoid wrecking your knees.

I am wondering also if 10 hours of non-meditation in 24 is adequate time for you to prepare, eat, and clean up after three meals a day, obtain some physical exercise (walking meditation is probably not enough, especially if you move very slowly), and get enough sleep. You will have to be the judge of this.


J Adam G, modified 14 Years ago at 3/10/10 2:40 PM
Created 14 Years ago at 3/10/10 2:40 PM

RE: Week of meditation "retreat" -- how to make it work

Posts: 286 Join Date: 9/15/09 Recent Posts
All right, looks like some good stuff here!

First off, I'll clarify what I mean by "meditation" for 14 hours a day. I certainly won't try to sit still and glue my mind to the breath for 14 hours a day. You're exactly right that it would be bad for my body, and very frustrating. My experience with working with Ajahn Brahm's method have thoroughly convinced me to work on getting the basics down solid before I try to go to high concentration states.

He mentions 6 stages that happen before jhana. Stage 1 is present moment awareness, which means that you are only attending to sensory experience, and to verbal thoughts about the present moment. I can already do that quite comfortably. Next comes silent present moment awareness, which is where you drop verbal thoughts and stay at the bare level of the 6 senses. This is the stage I'm working on currently. I can keep the mind mostly quiet, but thoughts and music creep in periodically. Thoughts go away easily enough, but music is a pain in the ass to get rid of. Luckily, I'm also going on complete voice rest during the retreat to heal some damage to my vocal cords. Maybe if I'm not constantly singing and humming, I won't have music going through my head. But just in case, does anyone have tips for dealing with songs stuck in the head?

Returning to the stages, breath meditation starts with stage 3, and Brahm only advises that you try it once you can comfortably sustain stage 2 for a while, perhaps 30 minutes. Ian, you're soooooo right that breath awareness is much harder than it sounds! But I think building a strong silence in the mind will help, because then the mind goes into the breath meditation already knowing how to avoid distracting inner speech, and thoughts about the past/future.

So during the 14 hours (or less if I need to sleep more than 10 hours a night), I will stay at the highest stage of concentration that I can maintain without getting overwhelmed. During formal sits/walks, that might be focusing exclusively on the breath or feet. (Thanks Florian for suggesting to use more than just the breath as an object of meditation! I'll do that.) But I'll definitely drop down to stage 2 or maybe even stage 1 for things like showering and eating. That way, I can make every part of the day useful, without burning out. Even if I don't develop concentration very quickly by taking it so slow, I'll definitely develop mindfulness, and that helps everything!

Having said all that, I guess it's not accurate anymore to expect myself to be reaching for the eject button 20 minutes into the retreat. That happens in vipassana because the 3rd nana sucks, and if I try to establish access concentration before my mind is ready for it because it's too hard, and consistently failing is frustrating. But these pre-jhana exercises aren't frustrating because I can actually do them without feeling like I'm drowning in hindrances! Boredom shouldn't be an issue like it has in the past because there's plenty of stuff you can do while keeping the mind silent. Hopefully, the mind will be serene enough by the time I get to exclusive awareness of the breath that boredom won't develop.

Also, Florian's suggestion to gently dissolve tensions/problems instead of trying to smash them with a hammer should help too. So, I won't cultivate frustration or boredom or disenchantment with the present moment. This should prevent the desire to eject from arising, and if it still crops up, then there's always metta and walking meditation.

Thanks to all three of you for the great suggestions! If anyone else has something that might be helpful, those comments are still more than welcome.
Daniel M Ingram, modified 14 Years ago at 3/14/10 11:45 PM
Created 14 Years ago at 3/14/10 11:45 PM

RE: Week of meditation "retreat" -- how to make it work

Posts: 3275 Join Date: 4/20/09 Recent Posts
After getting stream entry, The Prisoner Greco wrote this:


Check it out: good advice.
J Adam G, modified 14 Years ago at 3/22/10 6:58 PM
Created 14 Years ago at 3/22/10 6:28 PM

RE: Week of meditation "retreat" -- how to make it work

Posts: 286 Join Date: 9/15/09 Recent Posts
Okay, update in case anybody was wondering.

The attempt at a retreat can be best described in two kinds of fail:

Turns out, I picked a horrible time to try to do a concentration retreat. Why? Because I'm in the dark night, and trying to find samadhi in Dissolution is essentially a wild goose chase. That explains why attention has felt "smeared around" the meditation object and the present moment, instead of focused clearly.

I either have been in Dissolution for a while, or I entered it Monday night after a DMT experience taught me that content is useless, a whole lot of suffering results from clinging, and everything is impersonal and causal. Yeah, I knew that stuff intellectually and I had some direct, non-conceptual experience of those things, but Monday night brought the non-conceptual understanding to a whole new level. This is what I get for trying to have mundane insights about everyday life without first formally resolving not to have any fundamental vipassana insights!

Word of advice: if you don't want to have fundamental insights, DO NOT resolve to remain equanimous and mindful during and after a psychedelic experience! And especially don't start noticing things that your mind does to create suffering, like craving and clinging. And if you start genuinely feeling like it makes more sense to say "the mind" instead of "my mind" or "I," not because it makes sense intellectually but because you just GET that that's the way it IS, then you're totally screwed. (When I talk fatalistically like that, it's just gallows humor; a way to gently poke fun at my own tendency to catastrophize. I hear that works great at avoiding bleedthrough!)

Anyway, I got about 6 hours of meditation in as opposed to my planned 50. Oh well. I'd complain, but that would make things suck more. Currently, I'm kind of chilling in the blandness and laziness of Dissolution. But I guess I'll have to start back at insight meditation, bite the bullet, and push through to equanimity! I don't have time for the dark night. I have 5 weeks left to pull my grades up from all the homework I didn't do during the first half of the semester. I guess I'll just have to stop caring about the eject button, huh? Just keep observing no matter what happens? The thing I didn't do back when I was at Three Characteristics stage? Well, I'll just have to believe that I can do it now that it really matters.

Hopefully this information will be useful for someone. When they say "You're probably a dark night yogi if you keep poking around the DhO," it's not a joke, and you're probably not an exception to the rule. Maybe, but probably not.

EDIT: Almost forgot to mention. I think my friend, whom I shared the whole spring break with, had an A&P Monday night. I don't know for certain, but I'm going to try and find out some time this week. He's done meditation before and I think he's pretty good at it, but he's not familiar with insight meditation. Is there anything I can do to help him out if he's a dark night yogi too?

Let me make it clear that I really DO NOT WANT to do the whole post-A&P-evangelizing thing. Like, I really really don't want to. He gets enough evangelizing from his fundamentalist Christian parents, and I don't have an interest in changing other peoples' beliefs to match my own. It takes all kinds, you know? I don't want everybody to be a secular Buddhist humanist. In fact, I kind of like having my own personal beliefs that aren't identical to anyone else's. What I want is to not have a friend turn into a chronic dark night yogi. Anyone have any advice?
Daniel M Ingram, modified 14 Years ago at 3/26/10 11:46 PM
Created 14 Years ago at 3/26/10 11:46 PM

RE: Week of meditation "retreat" -- how to make it work

Posts: 3275 Join Date: 4/20/09 Recent Posts
Well, that was an honest and insightful post.

Yeah, concentration while in the Dark Night is really hard for most.

Practice is also.

As to what to do with someone post A&P, I have the view that not giving them a heads up about what it can do to someone is irresponsible, as is not telling them what they can do about it, in general, and what they choose to do with that information is their business. If they want to stay Christian or whatever, that's no problem, as "Dark Night" is Christian terminology for that anyway, and there are many solutions from various traditions that one can employ.