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Experience with concentration and questions

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Hello, I'm new to posting here, but I've been lurking for a while. It's great to be able to learn from this community, so thank you for the effort you put into it.

I usually do noting meditation, but lately I've been trying to cultivate a more active concentration practice. I have some questions about the things I've experienced and about where to go with them, so I hope this is the right place to post. This is what I experienced during a 30 min sit recently, and I'll also throw in how this experience has changed since I've started this practice about a year ago.

I sit and count exhales up to 10, then repeat. If I put effort into it, I find this pretty easy to do. When I was starting to practice, I would find myself counting on one "thread" and thinking other random things in the background (to use a computer analogy). Now, I'm a lot better at paying attention only to my breath.

This goes on for a few sets of 10 breaths. I can see thoughts start to form, but I return to counting breaths and don't get caught in the thoughts. Sometimes I'm not sure if I'm paying attention to the breath or paying attention to keeping my attention on the breath, which is a slightly different thing.

When I think about attention, what keeps coming to mind is the metaphor of my attention as a periscope, so I'll go with that. What I see through the periscope is what I'm focusing on. If I'm not paying attention to the periscope, I'm not focusing on anything.

So, sometimes I'm more focused on orienting the periscope in the right direction than looking through the periscope at the breath. Either way, it seems to not really matter in the end (or, I'm more focused on my breath than I think), because after a few "warm up" sets of counting to 10 breaths, something changes.

Now, I feel like I'm sitting in a small room. It's dark and my breath is, for lack of better words, closer to me than before. Everything outside the view of the periscope is much more distant. I feel very focused. If I stay focused in this state for too long/too intensely, I suddenly get a really intense headache between my eyes and up slightly (I guess people call this the third eye). This hurts a lot, but if I relax, then things change again leaving me some place new, and the headache disappears entirely. Lately, more often than not, things change on their own automatically after some time without causing the headache.

While things change (during the space of one breath), it physically feels like water flowing over my awareness. Someone has opened the sun roof on the little room, and the walls have fallen to the sides. Recently, I've become aware that I can sort of focus on the openness that is evident here to make the transition happen more readily if I see a glimpse of it. It doesn't really take effort to look at my breath anymore, and the periscope has become irrelevant. But it must require some effort that I'm missing, because after a while, I'm back at the beginning, fumbling around with this periscope that is no longer oriented on my breath.

Sometimes, though, from this bright open place I feel a pull towards the periphery. It's like my awareness is being pulled in opposite directions. I'd say it's like I'm looking in two directions at once, but it's more than just looking, it affects all my senses and there is a wrenching physical sensation with it. It's weird, and I can't sustain it for very long. I'm not really sure how I get here, it just seems to happen automatically, and after a few breaths, I fall out of it. During the previous transition, there is something (openness) to grab on to to make the transition happen more completely, but here I don't know what to do. It's like it requires anti-focus or something -- *focusing* on this pulling sensation seems to be the wrong verb.

After falling out of one of these states, I find it easier to get back to them and can do that around 2-3 more times within 15 minutes. Then the next 15 min are very difficult. I'm distracted by my back hurting, my leg falling asleep, my face itching. All that physical stuff is basically manageable, but the real distraction comes when my brain starts explaining to myself what it has just experienced. I thank it for being observant and articulate, and try to keep focusing on my breath, but it's very persistent. The persistence is the main reason for me to write this -- maybe it will quiet down if I tell someone what's going on. I get back to the bright room maybe once or a couple more times, then the timer goes off.

Based on reading descriptions of the jhanas, this sounds like I'm getting to first and second jhana, then maybe touching on third. What do you think?

I don't seem to have a separate experience of access concentration. Is my experience of 'first jhana' actually access concentration? Or am I not (noticing that I'm) experiencing access concentration as a separate state? Or am I not even getting there at all, I'm just influenced by the descriptions of the jhanas that I've read and am deluding myself that I'm having the experience that I'm expecting?

I've read that the jhanas are often experienced as emotional states. I only very rarely experience this. (Even so, I always find myself feeling better after meditating, anyway.) Once, I found extreme, overwhelming, bubbling happiness in what I'm guessing is first jhana, but after a second it dissolved into a massive headache, and it only happened that one time.

Anyway, I'd be interested to hear any thoughts you have, and any advice on how I can be more effective in this practice.

RE: Experience with concentration and questions
Answer
4/22/13 1:04 PM as a reply to mynah ..
mynah .:
This goes on for a few sets of 10 breaths. I can see thoughts start to form, but I return to counting breaths and don't get caught in the thoughts. Sometimes I'm not sure if I'm paying attention to the breath or paying attention to keeping my attention on the breath, which is a slightly different thing.

When I think about attention, what keeps coming to mind is the metaphor of my attention as a periscope, so I'll go with that. What I see through the periscope is what I'm focusing on. If I'm not paying attention to the periscope, I'm not focusing on anything.

So, sometimes I'm more focused on orienting the periscope in the right direction than looking through the periscope at the breath. Either way, it seems to not really matter in the end (or, I'm more focused on my breath than I think), because after a few "warm up" sets of counting to 10 breaths, something changes.

Now, I feel like I'm sitting in a small room. It's dark and my breath is, for lack of better words, closer to me than before. Everything outside the view of the periscope is much more distant. I feel very focused. If I stay focused in this state for too long/too intensely, I suddenly get a really intense headache between my eyes and up slightly (I guess people call this the third eye).


This is access concentration. The other things you describe sound like jhana, but you need to get more control over it for it to be useful. When you reach the "small room," try to find a pleasurable aspect of the experience of the breath (a body scan can help with this, but you might want to avoid the head if it causes the head tension), and rest attention on that. Then try spreading the attention to other regions of the body.

"Just as if a skilled bathman or bathman's apprentice would pour bath powder into a brass basin and knead it together, sprinkling it again and again with water, so that his ball of bath powder — saturated, moisture-laden, permeated within and without — would nevertheless not drip; even so, the monk permeates, suffuses and fills this very body with the rapture and pleasure born of withdrawal. There is nothing of his entire body unpervaded by rapture and pleasure born from withdrawal...

RE: Experience with concentration and questions
Answer
4/22/13 1:30 PM as a reply to mynah ..
I think Fivebells' response is spot on. I wanna add just one more thing below.

mynah .:

I sit and count exhales up to 10, then repeat. If I put effort into it, I find this pretty easy to do.
...

If I stay focused in this state for too long/too intensely, I suddenly get a really intense headache between my eyes and up slightly (I guess people call this the third eye). This hurts a lot, but if I relax, then things change again leaving me some place new, and the headache disappears entirely. Lately, more often than not, things change on their own automatically after some time without causing the headache.


Seems like this is starting to clear up on its own but it's worth mentioning. You mention effort, intense focus and a headache. You already see how they are connected, great! I'd like to encourage to see if you can let go of the effort and intensity a little bit more. Concentration practice is a practice of calming the mind and allowing it to settle. We're used to thinking of concentration as something with need to do: focus! pay attention! Instead, this practice calls for allowing the mind to settle onto its object and remain there. It may be difficult to do now but the more you practice, the easier that becomes.

RE: Experience with concentration and questions
Answer
4/22/13 1:50 PM as a reply to Eran G.
Thanks for the replies!

I'll work on this some more (resting attention on a pleasurable aspect of the breath, letting the mind settle) and let you know how it goes.

RE: Experience with concentration and questions
Answer
4/22/13 5:53 PM as a reply to mynah ..
How many times have you experienced this stuff?
If something happens once then ...cool but whatever.
If it keeps reoccurring then... cool lets see what it is.
If it is a temporary shift then keep checking it out til you figure it out.
If it's a permanent shift....Yay you did it....(repeat)

The jhanas take a while to recognize the shifts and what they mean.....keep experiencing them and they will get consistent and there will be sign posts.
My signs
1st jhana - concentrated
2nd- pleasure in tummy
3rd - ears ring
4th - visuals
The arupa jhanas are pretty obvious
good luck
~D

RE: Experience with concentration and questions
Answer
4/23/13 3:33 AM as a reply to Dream Walker.
Everything I described above I've experienced several to many times. The focused state and the more open state happen most times that I meditate, but as the previous posters commented, I don't have a lot of control over when they happen or how long they happen for. When I studied tai chi, my instructor would always tell us to "Relax harder!", and I think the same advice applies here.