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To note or not to note (while trying to concentrate)?

When I try to focus on the breath for the purposes of developing samatha I often also become more sensitive to all sorts of other sensations (itches, vibrations, heat etc), and it is usually very inviting to switch to vipassana. If I want to train my concentration more effectively, what is the best way of responding to these other sensations?

Should I note them and return to the breath, or just try to ignore them and return the the breath?

RE: To note or not to note (while trying to concentrate)?
Answer
4/11/10 10:31 AM as a reply to Aziz Solomon.
What works for me:

Stay with the breath, as you're trying to achieve some stability here.

And, staying with the breath for the purpose of pure concentration means observing it in one place, watching it pass by, instead of following it around.

Cheers,
Florian

RE: To note or not to note (while trying to concentrate)?
Answer
4/11/10 3:37 PM as a reply to Florian.
Do you think one should also try to ignore pain (obviously nothing that could do any real harm) while doing samatha meditation?

I vaguely remember Goenka advising against persevering with pure samatha if in much pain ... (i might be wrong about this though). He certainly emphasizes endurance for vipassana but warns against doing metta practice while in a state of discomfort.

RE: To note or not to note (while trying to concentrate)?
Answer
4/11/10 4:17 PM as a reply to Aziz Solomon.
Funnily enough Ive not long finished my evening sitting and the same question popped up for me.

Ive got to admit that I started noting tonight when my thoughts became quite strong and it helped to dispel them, although on reflection I think I need to be more clear about what practice im doing from the get go (ive been sitting samatha for about 3 years and just starting to read/experimenting with vipassana).

I guess im just trying to find my feet with practice (I feel like im only just starting after 3 years) and clarify when i should be doing what practice etc Something Im finding a little difficult without a teacher.

Im about a quarter of the way through Daniels book though and its been an amazing help so far! I cant recommend it highly enough!

RE: To note or not to note (while trying to concentrate)?
Answer
4/11/10 5:08 PM as a reply to Aziz Solomon.
Aziz Solomon:
Do you think one should also try to ignore pain (obviously nothing that could do any real harm) while doing samatha meditation?


Well, what is my goal with samatha? I want my mind to settle into a stable, concentrated, tranquil state. This requires that I don't get distracted - either by ignoring distractions or, if they can't be ignored, by removing them.

I wouldn't turn on the TV just to be able to heroically ignore it for samatha practice. Similarly, if one meditation posture is causing me pain, well, I use a different posture. Of course, we're not talking about the odd itch or pinprick sensation here. And of course, it's not possible to settle into a stable, calm, concentrated state when changing posture every few minutes.

Cushions, or sitting on a chair, or reclining on the back or side, informal postures like leaning back against a smooth tree trunk - there are many possibilities.

Oh, and formal resolve really helped me get into concentration practice. "Let a concentration state arise" was the phrase I used and still use when I'm not after anything more specific.

Another useful tool is doing a relaxation technique such as PMR as a "warm up" for samatha - basically you deliberately flex and then release the muscles in the body one after another, and remember how it feels when they relax. Then, when a cramp develops during the sit, the feeling of those muscles relaxing can be "replayed". Other tricks include actively encouraging the feeling "heavy" (i.e. relaxed), maybe with each in- and each out-breath. (This can be read into the Buddha's Anapanasati instructions of "calming the bodily fabrications")

Cheers,
Florian

RE: To note or not to note (while trying to concentrate)?
Answer
4/12/10 6:19 AM as a reply to Florian.
After 7 years of weak practice I also have found that reading Daniel's book has given me a definite sense of a new beginning and purpose. Part of the problem for me before reading his book was that I never seriously considered that enlightenment was anything but a somewhat mythical, imaginary goal.

Thank you, Florian, for your very helpful advice. I just tried doing samatha for an hour in the way that you suggested and it really felt like exercising a largely unused muscle! Ever since I learned to meditate 7 years ago, I have generally only used samatha as a brief preparation for vipassana, not as something to develop in its own right.

Another question did emerge from my experience though:

I tried to keep my attention fixed to a limited area of my nostrils, and after I settled into the meditation and the major distractions had receded into the background, I became sensitive to subtle vibrations in that area. I found it a increasingly difficult to differentiate between the sensations of the breath itself and these vibrations, especially as the breath did itself seem to me to be breaking up into its component parts as the meditation proceeded. If the aim is to develop samatha, is this a problem? At least between breaths, should I just keep focused on these sensations in the nostrils?

Also, I noticed a slight flickering light, intermittently, somewhere behind my eyelids at the times when I felt my attention was most clearly focused and calm. I have noticed this a few times recently in my more concentrated/ tranquil meditative states. I don't know whether this has anything to do with a possible 'nimitta' or whether it is just like any other vibrating, flickering sensation that meditation can make you sensitive to. I haven't generally had any of the vivid, visual experiences that many people report during meditation and that seem to be a sign that one might be entering a samatha jhana. But then I haven't spent much time doing pure samatha practice.

Anyway, when this faint flickering light appeared (it was very faint), I started considering what it might be and how to respond to it, and this disturbed the state of calm and one-pointed attention to a certain degree. Perhaps because of this, the flickering disappeared. The same pattern repeated itself a couple more times. Could what I described be a foretaste of a nimitta? Either way, how best to respond to it? I have read some samatha teachers say that one should shift one's focus to the nimitta, or maybe to some pleasant feelings, if you want to try to approach a jhana. Goenka's advice on the other hand is not to get drawn into engaging with these states in that way. I do think it would be a good idea for me to try to make some more progress with samatha/ samadhi, so it would be really helpful to get some more advice on how to proceed.

RE: To note or not to note (while trying to concentrate)?
Answer
4/12/10 2:27 PM as a reply to Aziz Solomon.
Hi Aziz,

Me, too, regarding Daniel's book.

Vibrations - no, not a problem at all. A nice thing to do at this point is expanding awareness to the whole body, and relaxing into a "bubble bath" of vibrating breath energy, tuning into the pleasant, soothing aspect of these energy bubbles. This "rapturous" feeling is one of the factors of first jhana btw.

Another approach is to actually focus on the volume of space in front of the nostrils, where the breath passes through. The breath is going either way through this volume, and if it's not noticeable ("between" breaths, or when it becomes very subtle), the volume of space is still there to focus on. (similarly, focussing on the entire body gives you something to focus on in these cases)

Oh, btw, another neat thing to try is to watch out for that little suction just when the breath "turns". There is a tendency to push or squeeze the breath at that moment. So one thing to try is to not squeeze the breath in that moment.

Light shows can be an indicator of access to second jhana. Enjoy.

Both the vibrations and the light shows arise with the concentration, and cease with it, which is why, when you started looking at the lights, they went away. The trick is to stay with the concentration object, and let the special effects do their thing - your job is to provide the concentration, not manipulate the lights. Once you are more familiar with them, and don't get excited when they show up, you can try to include them into your awareness of the breath, "look for the breath in them", so to speak.

Have fun,
Florian

RE: To note or not to note (while trying to concentrate)?
Answer
4/14/10 5:17 AM as a reply to Florian.
Hi Florian,

Thanks for those excellent pointers... I've been trawling through the discussion pages in search of answers to a variety of other similar questions, and have found many of your other comments really helpful too.

Likening access concentration to a glasshouse that shelters you from rain and lightening certainly resonates with me. So does your description of the jhanas as "shy, wild animals" to be attracted with the bait of stable concentration. The last couple of times I have sat down to meditate, it feels like the animals have been inching very slightly closer and the feelings of mutual apprehension have been subsiding a little.

I suspect that one of the things that delays many people's progress in meditation, certainly my own, is not really understanding or identifying the peculiar phenomena that one encounters. It is a gift to be able to find the right words for such exceptionally slippery, subtle, almost ineffable states!

Aziz

RE: To note or not to note (while trying to concentrate)?
Answer
4/15/10 6:01 AM as a reply to Aziz Solomon.
Hi Aziz,

I'm glad you got something out of my posts. Most of the good images and skillful analogies I just picked up. The "wild animals" for example come from one of the great Thai forest Ajahns (Ajahn Lee, I think). I got the glasshouse metaphor from a Dhamma talk by a German monk living in Thailand. The majority of practcal advice I give I got here at DhO in the first place, and I recommend it only because I find it useful myself.

Just so credit goes where it's due.

Cheers,
Florian

RE: To note or not to note (while trying to concentrate)?
Answer
4/20/10 10:41 AM as a reply to Florian.
Thanks Florian for your posts on this. I look forward to trying some of this out.

Florian Weps:
Another approach is to actually focus on the volume of space in front of the nostrils, where the breath passes through. The breath is going either way through this volume, and if it's not noticeable ("between" breaths, or when it becomes very subtle), the volume of space is still there to focus on. (similarly, focussing on the entire body gives you something to focus on in these cases)


Can you elaborate on this volume please? I listened to a buddhist geeks interview maybe a month or two ago where a Theravada meditation teacher insisted that anapanasati practice was not on the skin

Stephen Snyder:
Sure. Well, one of the best places to start is to look at it as a daily practice. The concentration practice as a daily practice, it’s the very same practice. It’s bringing the awareness to the breath as it crosses the Anapana Spot, which is that territory Tina referred to between the nostrils and the upper lip, which is also not the skin. So, I want to make that distinction.


In short, I don't get it, but here's a few reactions to it that I have:
-This means you aren't accessing physical sensations any more as this area has no receptors for sensing.
-This means you're having something akin to a chi sensation
-When I play with chi (in tai chi or in sitting/standing meditation), the feeling I get still seems to come from normal physical tissue, though it might be a bit smeared out.

RE: To note or not to note (while trying to concentrate)?
Answer
4/20/10 4:17 PM as a reply to Jeremy P.
Hi Jeremy,

Well, try it emoticon

To me, concentrating on the volume of space is a lot like concentrating on a visual object, such as a candle flame. Thus, no tactile sensations, but my sense of orientation or "space" is involved, and a bit of visualization (low-key), and the awareness of whether I'm "in" an in-breath or an out-breath. And yes, "breath energy" or, presumably, chi sensations show up for me, but they do so with pretty much any concentration object anyway. Since the spot I'm concentrating on is outside my physical body, this feels quite expansive.

By the way, I don't think that this spot is the One True Anapana Spot. It's just one of the many things possible with the breath. But that's just from my own, limited experience.

Cheers,
Florian

RE: To note or not to note (while trying to concentrate)?
Answer
4/21/10 12:41 PM as a reply to Florian.
Hi Florian,
thanks for the description, but I'm afraid I need more. I tried things out all of once today, but didn't really know what I was doing, so here's a few questions if you don't mind.

-I'm taking this as an eyes closed exercise. Correct?
-you mentioned "low key visualization." What are you visualizing? Something like a balloon-of-space under your nose? How big? apple-sized? Are you visualizing the breath filling the space/moving within it?

I read the "low key" as an implicit caveat not to get too lost in visualization. I have a bit of a prejudice against visualizing, though I'm not exactly sure why. Still willing to try it, just wanted to see if my read was correct.

I think I understand what you mean by a sense of orienting, but I seem to only be able to do that with my five senses. e.g. I can orient myself to the person walking behind me, but only if I can hear them initially. Then my mind will 'lean' to that area looking for the next sound. I can't find the signal from this volume to lean towards.

It's day 1 of something new, so I'm certainly not discouraged. I'd like to see what I can learn through this kind of exercise.

thanks again,
Jeremy

RE: To note or not to note (while trying to concentrate)?
Answer
4/21/10 3:14 PM as a reply to Jeremy P.
Hi Jeremy,

I'm happy to answer questions, but please realize that this is just comparing notes. I'm not a meditation master of any kind.

Eyes closed: yes, I keep them closed for this.

Visualization: a thumbnail-sized "gateway" positioned between upper lip and tip of the nose, through which the breath passes. It arises along with the sense of space/direction/orientation, i.e. I try to place my attention in that place, and the visualization is a product of this.

Here's a little exercise for moving attention around: with eyes closed, where is "behind me"? (attention leans to "back there"). Okay, where is "in front"? (attention swings around to "up in front"). Where is "below"? "Above"? "left, right"? That was the warm-up. Now: where is the tip of the nose? where is the upper lip? (these are easy, because there are sensations there, right?) Now, do the "behind, in front, etc" with the tip of the nose as reference point, with the lip... This way, you can zoom in on the spot.

BTW, in noting practice, sensations arising within the sense of space/orientation can be noted like any other sensation.

Cheers,
Florian

RE: To note or not to note (while trying to concentrate)?
Answer
4/27/10 2:18 PM as a reply to Jeremy P.
Jeremy Pronchik:

I listened to a buddhist geeks interview maybe a month or two ago where a Theravada meditation teacher insisted that anapanasati practice was not on the skin

Stephen Snyder:
Sure. Well, one of the best places to start is to look at it as a daily practice. The concentration practice as a daily practice, it’s the very same practice. It’s bringing the awareness to the breath as it crosses the Anapana Spot, which is that territory Tina referred to between the nostrils and the upper lip, which is also not the skin. So, I want to make that distinction.


In short, I don't get it, but here's a few reactions to it that I have:
-This means you aren't accessing physical sensations any more as this area has no receptors for sensing.
-This means you're having something akin to a chi sensation
-When I play with chi (in tai chi or in sitting/standing meditation), the feeling I get still seems to come from normal physical tissue, though it might be a bit smeared out.


Hi Jeremy,

It's not the skin per se; if it were just the skin per se, you could move your attention to the spot in a body-scan way without regard to the breath, or even while holding the breath. Locking on to just the skin in this way is what I do when I fall into efforting (which I'm prone to). No matter how many times I think I'm past this it usually manages to happen again.

If not the skin, then what? [quote= From Pa Auk Sayadaw's "Knowing and Seeing"]
...try to be aware of the breath as it enters and leaves the body through the nostrils. You should be able to feel it either just below the nose or somewhere around the nostrils. Do not follow the breath into the body or or out of the body, because then you will not be able to perfect your concentration. Just be aware of breath at the most obvious place it brushes against or touches, eithe the top of the upper lip or or around teh nostrils. (p 42)
(The authors interviewd in the podcast are student of and authorized to teach samatha by the Ve. Pa Auk Sadaw)

So the sensation of the breath at the spot is what you are aware of. This is what I have to lead myself back to when the efforting muscles its way in.

A bit more on what to be aware of:
[quote= Steven Snyder and Tina Rasmussen's "Practicing the Jhanas"]...allow your attention to be lightly placed where you notice the movement of breath between teh nostrils and upper lip-- the "anapana spot". Then object of meditation is the breath. You are to know the breath, as it passes teh anapan spot, on each exhalation and inhalation. (14-15)
You raise an interesting point about chi sensation. Somewhere Stephen Snyder refered to an "energetic knowing of the spot". I'm guessing his referring to it was not in the podcast that you are referring, and to my searching in their book "Practicing the Jhanas" didn't turn it up. My take on the "energetic knowing of the spot" is when you're on a roll with a good stretch of vicara (sustained application) your attention becomes more fixed on the spot than the movement of the breath across the spot. Sometimes I can get to this point and the breath is still there, but realize I don't know whether its the in breath or out breath, and determining which one it is entails too much effort and "poof"--it's all gone. So I see the chi thing as something that get transitioned to as one cultivated depth and capacity.

Where'd I get the "energetic knowing of the spot" reference from? Either I heard him say it live last summer at a retreat or it was in an audio teaching I downloaded from his and Tina Rasmussen's website http://www.jhanasadvice.com/. It's in five part and makes great IPod fodder. There is a another set of their audio teachings that cover similar material over at dharmaseed.org that was part of a longer retreat given by Pa Auk Sayadaw at the Forrest Refuge some time ago.

I hope my ramblings have been of some help.

RE: To note or not to note (while trying to concentrate)?
Answer
5/4/10 9:53 AM as a reply to Eric B.
Hi Florian and Eric,
Sorry about my late reply, I tried this out for a couple days, but got clobbered by a head cold and skipped this experiment until it passed. It has passed and I got back to experimenting tonight.

[quote=Eric Bause: From Pa Auk Sayadaw's "Knowing and Seeing"]...Just be aware of breath at the most obvious place it brushes against or touches, either the top of the upper lip or or around the nostrils. (p 42)
This was my interpretation of things for the most part. Whenever I'd talk with friends trying anapanasati, I'd ask the "so where are you focusing" question and in leu of a satisfying response, went with the breezy feeling in my nostrils or on my upper lip. There's plenty of hairs to get pushed which are plenty sensitive enough. However, what Florian's exercise is getting at has my interest.

Florian Weps:
Here's a little exercise for moving attention around: with eyes closed, where is "behind me"? (attention leans to "back there"). Okay, where is "in front"? (attention swings around to "up in front"). Where is "below"? "Above"? "left, right"? That was the warm-up. Now: where is the tip of the nose? where is the upper lip? (these are easy, because there are sensations there, right?) Now, do the "behind, in front, etc" with the tip of the nose as reference point, with the lip... This way, you can zoom in on the spot.

As I try things, I'm getting pulled into 1) body sensations and 2) dreams

1. When I think "what's in front of me," well, almost nothing comes up and I think it's because that's my normal experience of the world. So, when I think "what's behind me" I get a sense of "behind me" orientation, but I also feel a dull fluidy feeling in my back somewhere. This is what I'm calling the 'chi feeling,' since it's identical in feeling to what I get with microcosmic orbit training in tai chi. If I take this from "behind me" to "above me," I'll get a feeling of fluid traveling to my scalp.

Since I'm trying to hone this feeling of orientation, I'm actually looking for the stuff not in my body, but this feeling in my body is strong and pulls me back in. Maybe I'll find that it's necessarily linked to orientation (which'd be interesting for sure), but my goal for the moment is to find something separate from it.

When it comes to the gateway orientation, the breezy feelings in my nose and on my lip are too seductive for the moment and they win my attention.

2. Visualization is my buddy for now as I try to find the non-bodily component of this. Things seemed to be going nicely tonight until I found myself staring at the back of a tractor-trailer and realized I was dreaming (13+ hours of driving this weekend!). Dreaming was stronger than me and even when I'd get back to visualizing this spot, I'd only get a breath or two in before I was dreaming again. I'm probably underslept for now and we'll see how things go tomorrow, but I suspect that visualizing is going to fall easily into absorptive dreaming for me until I get used to it.

I expect these challenges to keep coming up, so it's just a matter of beating them. I'll keep you posted as I develop this now that I have a clear nose to work with again emoticon