Beginner Zen

Daniel Lebowski, modified 11 Years ago.

Beginner Zen

Posts: 3 Join Date: 3/17/10 Recent Posts
I have been practicing daily meditation -- following the breath for about 1/2 hour -- for about a year now. While I appreciate the calmness and spaciousness I often feel after meditation, I have not become any better at subduing the monkey mind.

The guidance offered at my sangha (a local Zen group) has basically been: Let the thoughts go, return to the breath.

After a frustrating year, I am wondering if there are other Buddhist meditation practices that are better for beginners who have trouble following the breath. If so, can you please let me know?

With gratitude,
Lebo
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Jackson "awouldbehipster" Wilshire, modified 11 Years ago.

RE: Beginner Zen (Answer)

Posts: 97 Join Date: 5/6/09 Recent Posts
Daniel Lebowski:
After a frustrating year, I am wondering if there are other Buddhist meditation practices that are better for beginners who have trouble following the breath. If so, can you please let me know?

With gratitude,
Lebo


Hi Daniel,

For situations like this, it might be best to make use of the old saying, "if you can't beat'em, join'em." If mind-chatter is distracting, learn to use it instead of letting it use you.

This is one of the benefits of Mahasi Sayadaw style vipassana, which is a 'noting' practice that is widely used by many (if not most) of the Dharma Overground sangha. You can find basic noting practice instructions on the Mahasi Noting page of the DhO Wiki. By using the mind to make fast mental notes of what you're experiencing moment to moment, you can develop greater momentary concentration and begin to notice the objects of experience in a way that will lead to real insight. Instead of expending all of your energy on suppressing thoughts, use some of that energy to note and investigate your experience.

Practice well!
~Jackson
Daniel Lebowski, modified 11 Years ago.

RE: Beginner Zen

Posts: 3 Join Date: 3/17/10 Recent Posts
Thanks for the very thoughtful advice, Jackson, I'll check out Mahasi Sayadaw right away.

Thanks!
Lebo
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Hannu Tapio Seppälä, modified 11 Years ago.

RE: Beginner Zen

Post: 1 Join Date: 3/24/10 Recent Posts
Hi! A total zen beginner here. I've been doing daily zazen practice for just a few months now. I've been having the same problem Daniel wrote about. I tried the Mahasi Noting and it seems to be helping me. Thanks, Jackson. This is an amazing site by the way! I found it through Buddhist Geeks. emoticon
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Bruno Loff, modified 11 Years ago.

RE: Beginner Zen (Answer)

Posts: 1094 Join Date: 8/30/09 Recent Posts
Jackson's advice is great. In mahasi-style noting meditation you can use the thoughts themselves as object, and learn very interesting things. For instance, here is a question you might try to answer by systematically noting thoughts:

--- Why is it that some perceptions are very easily noticed, while others seem to be very hard to catch?

E.g., if someone where to whisper your name during your meditation practice, you would certainly notice it. However, even though mental chatter might be just as intense as a whisper, or even more (to the point that it interferes with whatever you are trying to do), still, despite this, you will often not notice your thought stream until you are in the middle of very strong currents.

Why?

If you investigate very insistently and carefully, you will discover that the mind has a mechanism to "hide" certain perceptions. This mechanism is what Buddhist literature calls Ignorance, and is just one among three annoying things that the mind will do, and which help it maintain the illusion of a separate self; these three things are what Buddhists call Aversion, Attachment and Ignorance.

Ignorance works like this: as a perception arises, the mind will very quickly "touch" the perception, and "blink". (Here I don't mean the "awareness" aspect of the mind, but the "phenomenal" aspect of the mind, i.e., your brain and nervous system)

That's it, touch and blink. The reason that you have such a hard time being aware of your thoughts live as they happen is because the mind will systematically touch and blink thoughts. There is a way to have the mind not touch and blink out a thought. Try to think intentionally: "my name is Daniel". Notice how clearly and vividly the thought appears in your mind. If all those thoughts that interrupted your meditation where to seem this loud, then you would never drift off. However, what you might have not noticed was that the "touch and blink" thing still happened! Can you guess where? Well, where you aware of your intention of thinking the thought? Probably not, and if so, then it was exactly for the same reason: as the "intention of thinking" arose in your mind, the Ignorance mechanism touched it and blinked it out.

Now try the following exercise: stand on your feet, with the purpose of eventually making one step forward. The idea of the exercise is to catch the intention of stepping forward as it arises. Just stand there, wait a little, eventually you decide to step forward. Catch this decision-intention as it arises. If it seems hard to catch, maybe actually go on and take a step or two, paying a lot of attention to the whole process. Experiment with this. Eventually you will find out two things:
1) The intention is very subtle and hard to be aware of, but it is there, and forms as a sort of "condensation" of very subtle proto-thought happening on the background of the mind.
2) The intention is not you; you are that which is aware of the intention arising (primordial awareness, pure bliss consciousness, emptiness, zen, shiva, empty space, etc, whatever you want to call it). So the intention actually arises by itself, just like every other phenomenon, following a causal chain of previous events (e.g. you having read this post).

The other two mechanisms, attachment and aversion, also work by "touching" a perception and "distorting" it in some way. Attachment will make your mind "incline towards" the perception as if it wanted the perception to be more intense and abundant than it actually is, and aversion will make your mind "push away" the perception, as if it wanted to make the perception to go away by pushing it really hard. I can't suggest a specific exercise for catching aversion and attachment "in action," but being able to do it with ignorance should help.

Equanimity = zero attachment + zero aversion

The less "ignorance" there is, the deeper will your consciousness go. You will actually become conscious of things that used to be subconscious. Of course there are other ways of being unconscious of stuff, such as too much mental noise, stuff that is too subtle, etc. Mental noise will decrease as the nervous system gets purified. Although the purification process may occasionally release stuff which adds more noise, the tendency is for greater inner silence, and thus deeper consciousness.

So that's what I have to say about thoughts. Mind you this is just my personal interpretation of my own experience, I may be getting a lot of stuff wrong or inaccurately.

One more thing: using thoughts as concentration-object isn't the only way to use thoughts productively in meditation. There is a form of meditation called "mantra meditation" that can be used to do just that. Basically you think a specific thought-sound in repetition. This thought sound, called "mantra," is chosen for having specific properties.

To me mantra meditation is the most powerful method I know of to purify the nervous system, but of course that might vary from person to person. You can find a nice, practical, easy description of such a meditation at www.aypsite.org

Good luck, I'd love to hear it if you try the exercise, and see if our experiences match :-)

Bruno
Daniel Lebowski, modified 11 Years ago.

RE: Beginner Zen

Posts: 3 Join Date: 3/17/10 Recent Posts
Thanks, Bruno! I will try the exercise you recommended. One question: Can you explain the concept of mind blinking a little more? I think I know what you mean, but am no absolutely positive.

thanks!
Lebo
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Bruno Loff, modified 11 Years ago.

RE: Beginner Zen

Posts: 1094 Join Date: 8/30/09 Recent Posts
Well I can't say I understand it very well either, I don't do this exercise often. It is as if the perception, more exactly the vibration that is the perception, became fuzzy and indistinct, "in the background, behind" somehow. Although this doesn't quite fit because you can be completely aware of distinct, fuzzy sensations without this ignorance thing happening.

I think it is what happens when you space out on your own mental chatter, chasing trains of thoughts, and unaware that you're doing so. I would think that it will not disappear with anything short of 24h awareness (which I guess if added with 24h equanimity is what zen people call every-minute zen?).

Let me re-emphasize that mantra meditation is a very powerful way to get that inner silence going.

Thanks :-)
Bruno
J Adam G, modified 11 Years ago.

RE: Beginner Zen

Posts: 286 Join Date: 9/15/09 Recent Posts
Wow, amazing discussion here. Bruno, thank you so much for taking the time to write out all this material!

Trying to find how intention works is the first thing that got me close to the A&P. I kept looking, and I never found any actual intention that is making the movement happen. It seems that upon closer examination, the statement "I moved my arm because I decided I wanted to, and then I intended for the motion to happen, which made it happen" appears to be false.

What looks more likely is "The perceptions that make up the I-feeling can include desire to move the arm all day long, but those desires are not cause for motor movements to arise. The movement arises on its own because of some causal process that is not currently part of the I-feeling or I-belief." In other words, I've yet to notice being conscious of whatever makes the movement happen, but it's definitely not the desire to move, and it's also definitely not a thought about movement. (Though thinking really hard about moving can cause a little bit of muscular twitching.) I can be conscious of the desire to move, and of the movement itself, but I haven't been able to watch a motor intention arise and do its thing.

Is ignorance masking the motor intention? Is there a certain character of attention that can notice it, if it's noticeable? I.E., sharp attention, or very very mindful, or panoramic, or concentration with a light tough? Is there a particular thing that I need to lock on to before the intention can be seen mindfully, or would it work better to try and widen the attention and look for the motor intention in places I wouldn't expect it?
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Bruno Loff, modified 11 Years ago.

RE: Beginner Zen

Posts: 1094 Join Date: 8/30/09 Recent Posts
Wow adam, very detailed questions! I think that when our attention eventually becomes very stable and refined (at least I am planning to develop it until it is: everyday life becomes so much common-sense-better when you can concentrate), we should be able to perceive the whole process happening in minute detail. Until then, maybe someone in this forum knows the answer.

For myself I hadn't even thought of sensing that connection, I mean, I saw the intention arise, and after felt the leg/arm beginning to move, but getting the actual nervous impulse connecting the intention-perception to the motor-instruction, that I did not do!

It could even be the case that the causal relationship isn't "intention perception causes impulse/something causes arm-movement perception". It could be something like: "very-subtle motor-intention causes less subtle intention perception AND arm-movement perception" (let's not distinguish "arm movement perception" from "arm movement itself").

This is basically mapping out how the motor cortex feels subjectively, cool emoticon emoticon
J Adam G, modified 11 Years ago.

RE: Beginner Zen

Posts: 286 Join Date: 9/15/09 Recent Posts
Haha, I'm thinking that in order to have a strong enough subjective experience of motor cortex activity to actually notice it, some rewiring may be necessary. That means more insight meditation! Thank goodness I need to do that anyway to get out of the dark night... Though it probably won't be until Equanimity that I'm anywhere near capable of noticing the motor impulse arising. I suppose the motor impulse could be considered a formation (I don't know whether it would be considered bodily or mental or both), and Equanimity is when awareness of formations becomes a dominant factor of the experience.

Though I did get close to it around Cause and Effect, or at least, closer than I am now in Dissolution where I can hardly see anything. It's hard to see motor intention arise when I don't really have much motor intention at all! My ass was lazy enough already, I didn't need to get stuck in the lazy insight stage!

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