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Michael's Practice Log

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Michael's Practice Log
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Answer
1/1/14 1:12 AM
I have the ordinary hopes for my practice log (recording progress, tracking insights, receiving advice, etc.), and a few unusual goals. But first, I should introduce myself and my practice.

History
I have been meditating for three years now (since December 2010). It has always been aimed at real achievement (read: enlightenment), although I have had various ideas about what this means and how to accomplish it. Moreover, while I think I have had real benefits from my practice, I don't think I've advanced in the progress of insight on any map. So, so far it has been largely touchy-feely, and I hope to make real, significant progress in the near future.

My practice has been somewhat unusual so far in that I have largely emphasized daily practice over retreats. I use the Equanimity iOS program to stay accountable to a minimum amount of time for daily practice, which has gradually increased from 15 minutes per day to 2 hours. As such, I have some basic statistics about how much I have practiced over time, although no real data about the quality or kind of practice. I am about to reach 700 hours.

(As an aside, I have a working hypothesis that enlightenment will occur at around 10k hours. Does anyone have any ideas / thoughts about whether or not significant development in insight conforms to other areas of expertise?)

I started by paying attention to my breath; I am not sure whether I was emphasizing concentration or insight. I was likely conflating the two practices. After doing a Goenka retreat in August of 2011, I used his techniques, especially the Body Scan technique, from 2011 to 2013.

In 2013, I read Daniel's MCTB, and Shinzen Young's "Five Ways to Self-Knowledge." I also did a retreat in Burlington, at the Shinzen-associated Center for Mindful Learning. I'd be interested in hearing from others, such as Tarver, who have "worked with" (literally or metaphorically) teachers like Daniel (and Kenneth Folk, and co.) as well as Shinzen.

At first, I had a little bit of confusion as to how these two related to each other and also to the rest of the ideas that I had about meditation (both the practice and my motivation), but they have largely been converging. I also realized retroactively that Goenka's Body Scan includes what Shinzen calls Feel In, and that I could do similar techniques with other areas of my experience, e.g. Hear In / Hear Rest, See In / See Rest, all of which had been coming up in my practice for years but I had been unequipped to deal with them except by brute force.

When I first started doing two hours a day (after said retreat at CML), I was splitting it into four half-hour units, where I would do Focus Out, Focus In, Focus on Rest, Focus on Flow (Shinzen's terminology for his first four "Ways"). For the last two months or so, though, I have been switching to "Note Everything," which is Shinzen's terms for Mahasi-style Noting. I use his (one word, not two word) terminology for labels, too, in addition to the others that I add (emotions, blinking, pleasure, pain, etc.).

In terms of the Three Trainings, I have largely been focusing on insight / wisdom. I am under the impression from something either/or/both Daniel and Kenneth said that it will be easier to make progress on concentration after I reach First Path; also, I am under the impression from those two as well as Shinzen that it is actually possible to increase concentration and insight simultaneously. I currently believe that I am capable of at least access concentration.

Goals

My long term goal for meditation is the Big One, enlightenment. I appreciate Daniel's advice that one focus each session (via resolutions) on this big goal.

The most pertinent thing to this post/thread, though, is my short / mid-term goals towards accomplishing this long term goal.

I am still new to map-based practice, so I hope to make my current assumptions and reasoning explicit so that others can evaluate and adjust these assumptions and goals.

I am under the impression that:
  • The first stage of insight for an absolute beginner is First Path's Arising and Passing.
  • The First Path Arising and Passing can be achieved in somewhere between one week and one month, with diligent, consistent practice (every day, all day).
  • (I have the ability, motivation, and will power to work this hard.)*
  • The second step after the A+P is Stream Entry / First Path, which can take up to three months or more of diligent practice (all day, every day).


* Historically, my main obstacles towards hard work at meditation have been four-fold: 1) not being on retreat for most of my practice 2) understanding of what I'm doing 3) concentration and 4), most importantly, lack of lower-back strength / the assumption that meditation progress can only be made in a good sitting position. I mention this mostly for people to evaluate / adjust my newfound belief that I can make good progress in meditation in any position whatsoever, provided I do not fall asleep or get distracted. As such, of late, I have mostly been sitting lying down and on chairs (as well as walking meditation), because it is more convenient and comfortable at this time. If you believe that I am wrong, please let me know. (Also, as an aside, for those with weak lower backs, I have found plank exercises to be extremely efficient at quickly developing a stronger back.)

Given these assumptions, my (practical/directly related) mid-term plan for my meditation is two-fold: maintain my practice at two hours per day on average, and do at least one, if not two, long term retreats in 2014 (26-day at Wat Rampoeng). I will try to attain the First Path A+P on this retreat, if not full Stream Entry / First Path.

Do any of these assumptions seem questionable? Are my goals unrealistic? If so, please explain; if not, please give any relevant advice or suggestions.

Character of thread

With respect to meditation alone, I would like this thread (both from my writing a log, and from interacting with the DhO community) to help me achieve the highest standard of excellence in practice that I can, as well as the highest attainment (read: enlightenment). I want to record specific attainments, changes in my thinking, and related progress. I hope the community will interact with this thread, especially people who have experience with Basic Mindfulness in addition to DhO-oriented practice.

I may also post relevant statistics from my data, as I become increasingly able to analyze it. Moreover, I would like this to be a place where we can talk about how to log data in practice, not just with quantity, but also qualitative data, phenomenological or measured. I want my practice and this thread to find ways to converge different disciplines: not just meditation, but also yoga, phenomenology, computer science, mathematics, science, and psychology. I am extremely ignorant of, but very interested in, all of these areas of thinking, and suspect a high-level, modern meditation practice can include all of these disciplines. I talk about some of these things in this blog post.

That said, these are intellectual interests, something that can be complementary to or obstructive of actual practice, and practice comes first. So much of this thread should be about that.

Please let me know what you think of all of this. I'll post updates as they are relevant.

RE: Michael's Practice Log
Answer
1/1/14 4:38 AM as a reply to Michael Fogleman.
Welcome to the community Michael. I am from the GTA as well.

Michael W Fogleman:

Do any of these assumptions seem questionable? Are my goals unrealistic? If so, please explain; if not, please give any relevant advice or suggestions.


Goals seem ok. But you seem to have an assumption that there is some sort of direct correlation between hours spent on the cushion and enlightenment...

(As an aside, I have a working hypothesis that enlightenment will occur at around 10k hours. Does anyone have any ideas / thoughts about whether or not significant development in insight conforms to other areas of expertise?)


Insight isn't a skill like playing the piano.

It is more like playing where is waldo. It doesn't have to take lots of time to find if you investigate at it in the right sort of way.

Conversely it is also definitely possible to sit for 10,000 hours and get no where if there is no genuine investigation of subjective experience.

RE: Michael's Practice Log
Answer
1/1/14 4:47 AM as a reply to Michael Fogleman.
I am under the impression that:
The first stage of insight for an absolute beginner is First Path's Arising and Passing.
The First Path Arising and Passing can be achieved in somewhere between one week and one month, with diligent, consistent practice (every day, all day).
(I have the ability, motivation, and will power to work this hard.)*


The first stage of insight is not the A&P (arising and passing), it is Mind and Body. Mind and Body is a fairly easy state to get to in the range of 30 minutes to a day's worth of meditation. A&P can be reached in the range of about three days to perhaps two or three weeks. A month seems like a pretty long time to get to the A&P, but perhaps is true for some practitioners who have things unfold more gradually.

The second step after the A+P is Stream Entry / First Path, which can take up to three months or more of diligent practice (all day, every day).


This seems to be even more variable than the time to reach the A&P. Many people could probably get first path in the range of a week to three months, though there are certainly instances of people taking longer.

* Historically, my main obstacles towards hard work at meditation have been four-fold: 1) not being on retreat for most of my practice 2) understanding of what I'm doing 3) concentration and 4), most importantly, lack of lower-back strength / the assumption that meditation progress can only be made in a good sitting position. I mention this mostly for people to evaluate / adjust my newfound belief that I can make good progress in meditation in any position whatsoever, provided I do not fall asleep or get distracted. As such, of late, I have mostly been sitting lying down and on chairs (as well as walking meditation), because it is more convenient and comfortable at this time. If you believe that I am wrong, please let me know. (Also, as an aside, for those with weak lower backs, I have found plank exercises to be extremely efficient at quickly developing a stronger back.)


It is possible to make meditative progress from any position, but in my experience there is something mysterious and powerful about the sitting posture that is very conducive for more rapid progress. If you can find a way to mimic the attitude and ritual that goes into taking the sitting posture then perhaps that may be enough to counteract whatever declines in momentum you may experience from not using the sitting posture. Experiment with postures that are comfortable for you and find a specific one you find to be conducive for more rapid gains and use all other postures as secondary to this primary and that would substitute for the normal primary sitting posture. If you are comfortable with this, then do the sitting posture but only for very short time periods and then move to sitting in a chair or laying down. Thus you are using the momentum from the sitting posture to carry you over to sitting in a chair or laying down.

(As an aside, I have a working hypothesis that enlightenment will occur at around 10k hours. Does anyone have any ideas / thoughts about whether or not significant development in insight conforms to other areas of expertise?)


I think this is just a limiting belief. The amount of sitting meditation needed to reach 4th path varies wildly from individual to individual. This is even pointed out in the old texts. One of the Buddha's original disciples, Moggallana, reached full Arahatship in as little as a week. Sariputta also is said to have reached Arahatship almost as quickly.

See http://www.accesstoinsight.org/lib/authors/nyanaponika/wheel090.html
once the Venerable Maha Moggallana went to see the Elder and said to him:

"There are four ways of progress, brother Sariputta:

difficult progress, with sluggish direct-knowledge;
difficult progress, with swift direct-knowledge;
easy progress, with sluggish direct-knowledge;
easy progress, with swift direct-knowledge.

RE: Michael's Practice Log
Answer
1/1/14 9:28 AM as a reply to (D Z) Dhru Val.
Thank you both for your quick and helpful replies!

D Z:

Goals seem ok. But you seem to have an assumption that there is some sort of direct correlation between hours spent on the cushion and enlightenment... Insight isn't a skill like playing the piano. It is more like playing where is waldo. It doesn't have to take lots of time to find if you investigate at it in the right sort of way. Conversely it is also definitely possible to sit for 10,000 hours and get no where if there is no genuine investigation of subjective experience.


Tom Tom:

I think this is just a limiting belief. The amount of sitting meditation needed to reach 4th path varies wildly from individual to individual.


OK, I guess I should assume that it is possible to make rapid progress (as you point out), and that I should aim for that. Intensive, deliberate practice seems better than long, mediocre practice. That said, I am not yet convinced that insight is not yet a skill. Maybe it is not like being a concert pianist, but you can probably be better or worse, and more practice, with the right mindset, cannot hurt.

D Z:

Insight... is more like playing where is waldo. It doesn't have to take lots of time to find if you investigate at it in the right sort of way.


OK. Any suggestions for how I can orient my daily practice towards "the right sort of way"? It seems to me that the noting technique is helping me look in the right direction, but I still don't know where Waldo is.

Tom Tom:
The first stage of insight is not the A&P (arising and passing), it is Mind and Body. Mind and Body is a fairly easy state to get to in the range of 30 minutes to a day's worth of meditation. A&P can be reached in the range of about three days to perhaps two or three weeks. A month seems like a pretty long time to get to the A&P, but perhaps is true for some practitioners who have things unfold more gradually.


Yes, I remember now. I know that A+P comes later, but I guess I was thinking that it is a feasible goal (even if there are four [right?] stages before it) for my long retreat. It is good to know that you think I can get to Mind and Body within a day, or even less. Should I check back in MCTB to see whether or not I have had this experience?

Maybe it would be worthwhile to schedule a day retreat (either at a center or at a safe, quiet location where I won't be bothered) to try to attain Mind and Body. What do you think?

Tom Tom:

It is possible to make meditative progress from any position, but in my experience there is something mysterious and powerful about the sitting posture that is very conducive for more rapid progress. If you can find a way to mimic the attitude and ritual that goes into taking the sitting posture then perhaps that may be enough to counteract whatever declines in momentum you may experience from not using the sitting posture. Experiment with postures that are comfortable for you and find a specific one you find to be conducive for more rapid gains and use all other postures as secondary to this primary and that would substitute for the normal primary sitting posture. If you are comfortable with this, then do the sitting posture but only for very short time periods and then move to sitting in a chair or laying down. Thus you are using the momentum from the sitting posture to carry you over to sitting in a chair or laying down.


OK, this is a good clarification. I suspect that investigating my aversion to long-term sitting would actually help, not hurt, my practice. I will adopt the assumption that the sitting posture is conducive to rapid progress, and try to think of the sitting posture as my primary posture, especially when I am trying to make rapid progress.

This reminds me of a related assumption that may be hindering me: for some time, I have been thinking as my daily practice as a way to maintain whatever level I achieved at my last retreat, not necessarily as a way to progress. But maybe I should be explicitly be trying to progress at every sitting, especially if Mind and Body could be achieved in < 1 day.

Thanks all! Back on the cushion tomorrow.

RE: Michael's Practice Log
Answer
1/1/14 3:50 PM as a reply to Michael Fogleman.
Yes, I remember now. I know that A+P comes later, but I guess I was thinking that it is a feasible goal (even if there are four [right?] stages before it) for my long retreat. It is good to know that you think I can get to Mind and Body within a day, or even less. Should I check back in MCTB to see whether or not I have had this experience?

Maybe it would be worthwhile to schedule a day retreat (either at a center or at a safe, quiet location where I won't be bothered) to try to attain Mind and Body. What do you think?
.


There are three stages before the A&P: Mind and Body, Cause and Effect, and Three Characteristics. A day retreat would probably get you there, though I am of the opinion you could get to Mind and Body in an hour or two of sitting if you set your mind to it.


See http://www.dharmaoverground.org/web/guest/dharma-wiki/-/wiki/Main/MCTB%201.%20MInd%20and%20Body;jsessionid=6267AF6690879FEEB3E41BD190AFA254?p_r_p_185834411_title=MCTB%201.%20MInd%20and%20Body
MCTB 1. MInd and Body

There is this sudden shift, and mental phenomena shift out away from the illusory sense of “the watcher” and are just out there in the world with the sensations of the other five sense doors. This is an important insight, as it shows us clearly and directly that we are not “our” mind or “our” body. It is also a really nice, clear and unitive-feeling state (it really is still more state-like than stage-like), and people can try to hold on to it just as with the first jhana and get stuck. Reality can seem just a bit more brilliant the first time one chances into Mind and Body. We may feel more alive and connected to the world. For some it may hit with unusual force, filling them with a great sense of unity or universal consciousness. For others it may not seem very profound.

With the sensate experience of both mental and physical phenomena being clearly observable, the relationships and interactions between the two begin to become obvious. What is meant by “the dualistic split” is very obvious during this first stage.

Somewhere around the first stage, either just before it or shortly after it, there may arise odd jaw pains on one side, throat tensions, and some other such unpleasant physical occurrences. Regardless, it soon becomes easy to see that each sensation is followed by the crude mental impression of it, and that intentions precede actions and thoughts (see the discussion of impermanence in Part I, The Three Characteristics). Thus, we come to...

MCTB 2. Cause and Effect

RE: Michael's Practice Log
Answer
1/1/14 7:07 PM as a reply to Michael Fogleman.
Try paying attention to the three marks of existence. All phenomena (everything you can note) are impermanent, unsatisfactory, and not-self. I found these started to make more sense the more I paid attention to them. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Three_marks_of_existence

I've found it's possible to make significant progress outside of retreats by trying to practice at all times in everyday life. It has also helped to break up by formal sitting practice into several sessions a day to keep the momentum going. If you have two hours a day to practice, one hour in the morning and one at night is probably better than two hours at night.

RE: Michael's Practice Log
Answer
1/3/14 10:22 PM as a reply to green tea.
green tea:
Try paying attention to the three marks of existence. All phenomena (everything you can note) are impermanent, unsatisfactory, and not-self. I found these started to make more sense the more I paid attention to them. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Three_marks_of_existence

I've found it's possible to make significant progress outside of retreats by trying to practice at all times in everyday life. It has also helped to break up by formal sitting practice into several sessions a day to keep the momentum going. If you have two hours a day to practice, one hour in the morning and one at night is probably better than two hours at night.


Thank you both for the reminder to keep the three characteristics at the forefront of my practice. Yesterday, I tried two of the four techniques Daniel recommends for the "impermanence" characteristic, and am trying to pay attention to all three of them in daily life when possible.

However, I am a bit confused at the moment about how several things relate:

  • The "standard" Mahasi noting technique, or, in Shinzen's terms, "Note Everything," which I had been doing as my main technique for some time
  • The several techniques recommended by Daniel in the chapters on the Three Characteristics
  • The Three Characteristics
  • Mind and Body


Should my goal be to achieve Mind and Body, or to focus on the Three Characteristics-- or are those two sides of the same coin?

When I make this goal explicit, which technique(s) should I be using when I do formal practice? Which techniques should I be doing in daily life?

Thanks, all, for the help.

RE: Michael's Practice Log
Answer
1/4/14 12:57 AM as a reply to Michael Fogleman.
Should my goal be to achieve Mind and Body, or to focus on the Three Characteristics-- or are those two sides of the same coin?


Your goal should be both as doing any of these techniques will cause the stages to arise in order, starting with Mind and Body. The noting technique is helpful for enhancing mindfulness as well as "dis-embedding" from phenomena (meaning noticing the characteristic of selflessness).

Experiment with the techniques and see what works best for you in whatever current situation you find yourself.

To be clearer,
-Mind and Body is a stage and not a technique or characteristic of experience.
-The three characteristics are ultimate truths about experience/phenomena. Noticing them causes the stages of insight to arise in order.
-Noting is a technique for enhancing mindfulness and noticing the ultimate truths (the three characteristics) about experience/phenomena (particularly selflessness and impermanence - by the time something is noted it is usually gone or "transformed").

RE: Michael's Practice Log
Answer
1/15/14 6:44 PM as a reply to Tom Tom.
I am a bit overdue for an update. I have been hesitant to reply because there has been little progress.

I have been sitting 2/3 days each day for about two hours, usually one hour in the morning, and one hour in the afternoon/evening.

I have been using the first "impermanence"-centered technique mentioned in MCTB, namely using two fingers and trying to see in each instant which of the two finger has physical sensations. I think it is currently difficult for me to see what "Basic dharma theory tells ," namely "that it is definitely not possible to perceive both fingers simultaneously." Ingram talks about this as an axiom, but it seems to me like I should try to investigate this.

Anyway, it does feel like a lot of work, and I do get lost in thought a lot, often for what I estimate to be about 30 seconds to five minutes. Also, I have difficulty knowing what rate I am going at, and I am not really perceiving the arising or passing of each sensation. I try to say "left" or "right" to myself with each sensation, but I am finding it difficult to sustain this, because of the speed and concentration (or rather, my slowness and my monkey mind).

I am doing best at maximizing concentration if I try to ask myself periodically "How is my concentration?" I will keep doing this, because it seems to help.

At the beginning of each session, I try to remember, via Daniel, to say a resolution that is something like this: "For the next hour, I will try to perceive every sensation that I can in my left and right index fingers, as fast as I can, so that I can increase concentration, speed of perception, and notice the fundamental characteristic of reality, impermanence. I am doing this to get to the stage of insight Mind and Body, and to begin my progress towards enlightenment."

TomTom's assertion that I should be able to get to Mind and Body in about 30 minutes in an hour two if I really apply myself has been confusing me, because I'm not clear what "applying myself" means. In fact, when I notice my mind wandering, it is tempting to think that this is a sign of anatta, no-self, because it's not really like I chose to have my mind wander. Does applying myself mean having sufficient speed and concentration, so that my mind is like the race driver that Daniel describes?

It seemed to me that in certain respects, I was doing better with "Note Everything," but at the time I wasn't trying to concentrate on Impermanence/Suffering/Selflessness, nor on trying to improve speed / concentration. I think I should stick with the finger exercise, even though it is frustrating for me right now, because it helps me make my practice oriented on these characteristics in the simplest possible way.

Here are some thoughts about where I am right now. Thank you all so much for your advice and suggestions.

RE: Michael's Practice Log
Answer
1/15/14 8:12 PM as a reply to Michael Fogleman.
Some cause for encouragement this morning. I was able to concentrate for most of the first half an hour, and achieved speeds that I would estimate were about three to five perceptions per second. When I meditate later today, I will try to replicate this success, potentially for the full hour.

When I was reaching that speed, I noticed a phenomenon that I had noticed before, but forgot to mention in my previous post. Specifically, it felt as if my fingers were moving around-- almost like they were being pulled in circles by magnets. I have noticed this maybe four or five times before, while doing this technique.

Is this related to the insight I am supposed to have during Mind and Body, namely "that each sensation is followed by the crude mental impression of it," and in this context, that if I am feeling both fingers at once, one of those "fingers" is simply a mental impression of previous sensations?

While I am mentioning experiences I have had during this technique, I vaguely remember having a somewhat positive experience for thirty or sixty seconds about a week ago, which is reminiscent of the description "a really nice, clear and unitive-feeling state ... Reality can seem just a bit more brilliant."

Also, I have definitely experienced my "mental phenomena as [perceptions that].. are just out there in the world with the sensations of the other five sense doors."

However, I am not sure that any of these experiences, recent or previous, constitutes me having experienced / attained Mind and Body. So I'll just keep plugging away at the finger technique, trying to notice Impermanence/Suffering/Selflessness, and trying to improve speed and concentration.

RE: Michael's Practice Log
Answer
1/20/14 2:07 AM as a reply to Michael Fogleman.
For the next sessions after my last post, I continued to be able to perceive about three to five seconds, although my concentration was more scattered.

Yesterday, I read Alan Wallace's The Attention Revolution-- I guess that adds me to a growing list of meditators on this site who are trying to sort out the relation between the claims made by Wallace and those made by Ingram and co. I don't know if Wallace is right to emphasize that attaining shamatha is necessary or nearly necessary for the attainment of genuine insight, but it would be fair to say that my practice has been suffering because of the weakness of my concentration.

On the one hand, I feel confident that in Wallace's scheme, following Kamalashila, that I have attained at least the first two stages of concentration, directed attention and 'continuous attention'. The first is "simply being able to place your mind on your chosen object for even a second or two"; the second is where you experience occasional periods of continuity, but most of the time your mind is still caught up in wandering thoughts and sensory distractions.

'Continuous' attention is achieved by the power of thinking-- sustaining interest between sessions by thinking about the instructions, or by counting. (p. 30) That certainly speaks to my experience.

[In the first of many explicit retractions, I want to retract my earlier claim that I have access concentration. Wallace's description of 'continuous' attention is far more accurate; I can't claim to have "the ability to stay consistently with your chosen object with relative ease to the general exclusion of distractions." (Ingram)

Note that this log is probably a bad place to look for advice for your own practice!]

At any rate, I've decided that it would be overly hasty to resolve to spend 10k hours, as Wallace suggests, trying to attain shamatha as a prerequisite for nirvana, but that I will devote my time for the foreseeable future, and possibly until my next retreat, becoming more stable in continuous attention. (Wallace seems to think the third stage is not attainable in daily life / with only an hour or two a day.)

See Ingram:

"There is an important shift that happens in people's practice when they really make the commitment to developing concentration and follow through with it. Until one does this, not much is likely to happen in one’s meditative practice! If you decide to do a concentration practice, stay on that object like a rabid dog until you have enough stability and skill to let the mind rest on it naturally."

I've picked an object- breath for now; I'm continuing doing two hours / day or more (contra Wallace, who suggests starting with 24 minutes, because I'm fine sitting). Some helpful recommendations I'll be following from Wallace:

- Lying down is “especially helpful” for those who “tend toward excitation,” because it “relaeases the tightness and restlessness of your body and mind.” (p. 19)
- Wallace polarizes excitation and laxity. The theme of shamatha practice is loosening up when we are excited, and arousing ourselves when we are lax.
- In shamatha practice, it is tempting to tighten up, which can work for a bit, but it isn’t sustainable. Instead, we need to loosen up. (p. 14 -15 ) Furthermore, when we notice distractions, rather than being angry, be happy that you've noticed the distractions.

So, that's the plan. I should note that my most recent session was one of the most pleasant sessions in memory.

RE: Michael's Practice Log
Answer
1/25/14 9:40 AM as a reply to Michael Fogleman.
Super strong concentration, like the higher levels about by Wallace, isn't necessary for insight, though it certainly can help and it provides its own benefits.

If your sessions are becoming more pleasant, then that sounds like progress, though it's hard to say for certain without knowing the actual phenomenology.

RE: Michael's Practice Log
Answer
1/25/14 6:00 PM as a reply to Michael Fogleman.
TomTom's assertion that I should be able to get to Mind and Body in about 30 minutes in an hour two if I really apply myself has been confusing me, because I'm not clear what "applying myself" means. In fact, when I notice my mind wandering, it is tempting to think that this is a sign of anatta, no-self, because it's not really like I chose to have my mind wander. Does applying myself mean having sufficient speed and concentration, so that my mind is like the race driver that Daniel describes?


Hi Michael,

My experience is that I spent a couple years meditating before I discovered the progress of insight. Thus I already had the mind wandering under control (when I meditated). You might want to spend a few months just practicing keeping your attention on your object without the mind wandering. When you can do an entire sit without the mind wandering then move onto insight progress. It should be surprisingly easy, at that point, to get to the Mind and Body stage by using the noting technique. An alternative to this would be just to note like crazy as this seems to counter the mind wandering without having to previously conquer it for some people. Thus some people are able to get to stream entry just by noting their ass off and then stream entry endows them with a basic mindfulness without having to previously train the mind to stay on an object for several months.

I also noticed that you wrote that when you do the noting practice you feel that you are not simultaneously paying attention to the three characteristics. This is not true as the noting process, by its nature, includes noticing the three characteristics whether that is what you realize you're doing or not. The noting technique is particularly helpful at the beginning of practice as it rapidly produces some of the earlier stages and gives you some progress to see where you're headed.

Helpful?

RE: Michael's Practice Log
Answer
1/26/14 2:48 PM as a reply to Tom Tom.
Tom Tom:
Experiment with the techniques and see what works best for you in whatever current situation you find yourself.


Yes.

RE: Michael's Practice Log
Answer
1/27/14 3:37 AM as a reply to Tom Tom.
green tea:
Super strong concentration, like the higher levels about by Wallace, isn't necessary for insight, though it certainly can help and it provides its own benefits.

If your sessions are becoming more pleasant, then that sounds like progress, though it's hard to say for certain without knowing the actual phenomenology.


Well, my first concentration session was extremely pleasant; I have not experienced that again. That said, I am pretty confident I am making progress in concentration. I return to the object quickly, and am able to stay with it longer and longer in the session; outside of the session, I am returning to concentrating (either on the breath, or the experience of being aware) frequently. Some sessions are better than others, but I am mostly progressing.

Tom Tom:

Hi Michael,

My experience is that I spent a couple years meditating before I discovered the progress of insight. Thus I already had the mind wandering under control (when I meditated). You might want to spend a few months just practicing keeping your attention on your object without the mind wandering. When you can do an entire sit without the mind wandering then move onto insight progress. It should be surprisingly easy, at that point, to get to the Mind and Body stage by using the noting technique. An alternative to this would be just to note like crazy as this seems to counter the mind wandering without having to previously conquer it for some people. Thus some people are able to get to stream entry just by noting their ass off and then stream entry endows them with a basic mindfulness without having to previously train the mind to stay on an object for several months.

I also noticed that you wrote that when you do the noting practice you feel that you are not simultaneously paying attention to the three characteristics. This is not true as the noting process, by its nature, includes noticing the three characteristics whether that is what you realize you're doing or not. The noting technique is particularly helpful at the beginning of practice as it rapidly produces some of the earlier stages and gives you some progress to see where you're headed.

Helpful?


TomTom, your clarifications were extremely helpful, thank you. I will try to continue to spend my practice time being able to stay with the object for the whole session-- that would be Wallace's third stage, meaning that I am currently at the first stage.

Thanks also for the clarification that noting builds in the three characteristics by default. It is not hard for me to see that with impermanence and no-self, but I can't really see how that is the case with unsatisfactoriness-- clearly, I do not understand the Three Characteristics yet! emoticon

Tarver, thanks for the reminder of TomTom's earlier advice. emoticon

RE: Michael's Practice Log
Answer
1/31/14 3:43 AM as a reply to Tarver .
Time to report on a couple of experiments with concentration.

1. I tried out a ten minute diagnostic the other day-- could I pay attention for ten minutes straight? And I was largely able to, so I'll try 15 minutes sometime soon.

2. Today, given my circumstances (thanks TomTom and Tarver), I decided to sit for twelve ten minute intervals, and count how many times my mind wandered off after each session.

The strict stats are: 9 9 5 8 3 6 6 6 5 3

So, that's anywhere from 3 to 9 wanderings (far from a strict unit) per ten minute session. Not bad, not great-- the good news is I'm catching the wanderings pretty quickly.

For my next experiment, I'll try what Tarver recommended to me (by email):
"To develop concentration, have you tried counting missed breaths on your fingers? Every time you space out, and can't remember the last breath, lift a finger. Get through your session with fewer and fewer fingers moved, until you get to zero. I have gone an hour many times."

RE: Michael's Practice Log
Answer
3/6/14 10:07 AM as a reply to Michael Fogleman.
I've been playing Tarver's game for about a month now. Certain life circumstances made it easier to devote continuous attention to the development of my concentration. Overall, I feel I've made some progress, but that
I'm stagnating a bit right now. On the one hand, I've had zero sessions for half an hour. I also think I've reached the third level of concentration, access concentration (by Ingram's terminology, not Wallace's, which I forget). When this happens, it's extremely pleasant, and easy to sustain my attention. I suspect I actually have had this before this bout of concentration practice, contrary to my previous claims, but that I wasn't noticing the distinctions finely enough / in the context of an informed, intentional concentration practice.

On the other hand, I am not reliably accessing this third level. Moreover, I haven't had a "zero fingers" session for a full hour. On average, I tend to get anywhere from 0 to 7 per half or full hour. Additionally, I've experimented several times over the last few days in doing insight practice for a sustained period, and while it seems I've improved somewhat on concentration, my concentration is not as continuous as it needs to be (i.e., being able to concentrate for 0.5 to 2 hours straight each session, reliably and consistently).

So, I think I should keep practicing on concentration for a while, until I reach this goal, and wanted to ask everyone's advice. On some days I've done 2.5 hours a day, and I think that would be helpful to me to continue doing that, if not to do even more.

One problem, with some obvious solutions, is that I've had some trouble falling asleep during sessions in the last week or so. This is partially due to lack of sleep (travelling), and partially due to me lying down. I think the lying down has been less helpful than I want to think it is, so I am going to try sitting in a chair for the next few sits. This should allow me to stay comfortable without falling asleep.

Ingram says that "The gold standard for training in concentration practices is how quickly we can enter into highly altered states of consciousness, how long we can stay in them, and how refined, complete and stable we can make those states." I have several questions about this claim, at this point in the development of my concentration: How can I increase the frequency, rapidity, duration, and stability of my ability to access access concentration? And, assuming I want to develop my concentration practice even further, how do I get to the next stage of concentration? How will I distinguish the third from the fourth stage?

I know Wallace provides some answers to this in his book, but I don't have a copy handy right now. I am trying to re-read Ingram's book, slowly, to augment my concentration practice now, and in preparation for an insight retreat later this year. Thanks, everyone, for their help.

RE: Michael's Practice Log
Answer
3/6/14 10:26 AM as a reply to Michael Fogleman.
With this level of effort and engagement, you cannot help but make progress. Keep practising. There is such a thing as wasting one's time, but there is also a certain inherent difficulty in having perspective on one's own practice whilst in the midst of it. What feels at the time like thrashing around sometimes turns out later to have been a period of tremendous growth. Looks to me like you're doing great.

As for posture, the more you look like a statue of the Buddha sitting in a perfect lotus, the better. If you can't do that, do what you can. What else is there to do?

RE: Michael's Practice Log
Answer
3/6/14 10:28 AM as a reply to Michael Fogleman.
I just did a little digging and found a copy of Wallace's Attention Revolution online.

The third stage is Resurgent Attention, which is defined as "Swift recovery of distracted attention, mostly on the object." It's achieved by mindfulness--which, if I'm remembering correctly, I'll look at this more in the next day or so--is remembering that you want to be paying attention, both in terms of the present moment and in terms of future (prospection). Hence the relation to lucid dreaming. The problems of Resurgent Attention are that one still forgets the object entirely for brief periods..

The fourth stage is Close Attention, which is defined as "One no longer completely forgets the chosen object." It is achieved by "mindfulness, which is now strong." The problems--presumably I don't have these yet--are "some degree of complacency of Samadhi." And the one after it is achieved by Introspection, which I completely forget, and will review in the next day or two, too.

So, I need to look more at mindfulness, introspection, and his descriptions of these stages, so as to see how I get my mindfulness to be 'stronger'. I suspect the answer is by doing concentration meditation all day, every day, for several days in a row. My fear is that if I dedicated my time to something like that, my concentration would grow significantly for several days, but retract weeks or months later.

I'll keep sitting for 2+ hours a day right now, but am ready to spend some more time sitting if I think it's a good idea.

RE: Michael's Practice Log
Answer
3/8/14 2:22 AM as a reply to Michael Fogleman.
Michael Fogleman:
So, I need to look more at mindfulness, introspection, and his descriptions of these stages, so as to see how I get my mindfulness to be 'stronger'. I suspect the answer is by doing concentration meditation all day, every day, for several days in a row. My fear is that if I dedicated my time to something like that, my concentration would grow significantly for several days, but retract weeks or months later.


So, I looked over Wallace's descriptions of mindfulness and the third and fourth stages (but not introspection). Here's a quote, which confirms my suspicion about Wallace's answers:

"The major challenge at this stage of the practice is to adopt a lifestyle that supports the cultivation of attentional balance, rather than eroding it between sessions. To achieve stage three, the dedicated meditator will need to take up this practice as a serious avocation, spending days or weeks in this practice in the midst of a contemplative way of life in a serene, quiet environment. If we practice only a session or two each day while leading an active life, we may occasionally feel that we’ve reached the sustained attention of the third stage, but we’ll have a hard time stabilizing at that level. The busy-ness of the day intrudes, the mind becomes scattered, and the attentional coherence gained during meditation will likely be lost."

My life at the moment is not particularly/consistently active, but I am doing busy-type things (computer, traveling, eating and socializing with others). Wallace's description is spot-on: "we may occasionally feel that we've reached the sustained attention of the third stage, but we'll have a hard time stabilizing at that level."

So, again, I'd be happy to spend more time meditating each day, or even to schedule a mini-retreat (and my circumstances right now would make that feasible), but I would prefer to do so for a minimal number of days (at best, one-- at worst, three or four).

A good short term solution seems to be ensure that I am doing at least three, if not four or five sessions a day, and that at least one of these is one hour. That would mean, at minimum, one one hour session and two half-hour sessions. I think three or four sessions might allow me to glimpse the third level more often, if not to stabilize in it.

What do you folks think?

RE: Michael's Practice Log
Answer
3/9/14 6:04 AM as a reply to Michael Fogleman.
adopt a lifestyle that supports the cultivation of attentional balance, rather than eroding it between sessions.

Yes, this is a very effective concentration practice (not that I have actually done this really sincerely since 2011) and can land one in very concentrated mind in the middle of the day.

Anyway
: A good short term solution seems to be ensure that I am doing at least three, if not four or five sessions a day, and that at least one of these is one hour. That would mean, at minimum, one one hour session and two half-hour sessions. I think three or four sessions might allow me to glimpse the third level more often, if not to stabilize in it.

What do you folks think?
This is a useful plan, in my opinion and experience. From my perspective, like last fall when a few of us gathered online for 4hours ever day (two 2-hr sits, morning and night), firstly, it obliged me to organize my day better (that's 28 hours a week for six weeks and even missing several sits, my mind still planned the day differently around that carve-out of time). And there's also nice Pali-text historic story for this in the Anguttara Nikaya, (of which Bhikku Bodhi has a new translation) in the shopkeeper story AN 19: http://books.google.com/books?id=lt7kFlVNONcC&pg=PA214&lpg=PA214&dq=anguttara+nikaya+shopkeeper+concentration&source=bl&ots=hm1LEyWkvU&sig=dJuhm1VOEQjBE8q5zLTr98K3wZc&hl=en&sa=X&ei=k0IcU-WfDKXb0wGVyIDYAg&ved=0CD8Q6AEwAw#v=onepage&q=anguttara%20nikaya%20shopkeeper%20concentration&f=false Paraphrased: to practice in the a.m., midday, and p.m. is a good idea, has helpful outcomes. There's no mention of how much time one should do this. I suppose everyone goes through rigorous periods and more casual periods based on need, temperament and conditions.

Good luck. Thanks for inspiring my own little renewed spring efforts

RE: Michael's Practice Log
Answer
5/28/14 8:07 AM as a reply to Michael Fogleman.
This post is an account of two recent periods of my meditation practice: my independent concentration practice, and a recent insight meditation retreat that I did.

Having just emerged from a retreat where I was not supposed to write about my experience, I give myself full permission to engage openly and at length with my thoughts, memories, and questions about my experiences. Besides being pleasurable for my memory, it may lead to helpful and practical developments for my practice. I also resolve to have compassion for myself about my current doubts and confusions, and about any errors that I probably made and stumbled into. Failures and mistakes are normal, and an essential part of growth of any kind.

Concentration

When I last posted, I had resolved to shift my daily meditation practice from insight meditation to concentration meditation. This was in hopes that I could attain / solidify the ability to attain access concentration. Tarver had helpfully suggested counting how many times I drifted off and returned to my concentration object in a given session, tracking this over time, and trying to lower it, in the hopes that it would be more exciting and that what was measured would get managed.

I quickly noticed some progress on this account, and indulged in the newly-found pleasure that has traditionally been associated with concentration practice. However, my "scores" ultimately plateaued, as was to be expected.

I reinvigorated my progress again my inverting the game. Instead of trying to get a golf-like low score in a fixed-time session, I would try to see how long I could maintain focus in an open-ended session, and maximize the count.

I started by confirming that I could maintain focus for at least ten minutes, so as to assuage my doubts. I took pride in remembering Daniel's sentence, "If you can learn to hold your attention completely on your chosen object for even one solid minute, you have some strong concentration skills."

Then I moved on to actual open-ended sessions, and quickly confirmed / attained the ability to concentrate for longer sessions. Eventually, I reverted back to a fixed-time session, and was able to confirm that I could maintain focus and continuity for one hour, at least to the standard provided by Daniel: being "aware of every single breath at least in part." At this point, it seemed to me that I have access concentration, but I have claimed that before and since retracted it, so I should be careful about this. Besides, if "the gold standard for training in concentration practice is how quickly we can enter into highly altered states of consciousness, how long we can stay in them, and how refined, complete, and stable we can make those states," I still have plenty of room for improvement, no matter what!

Throughout all of this, Daniel's advice about continuity was very helpful, so I will reproduce it here: "It is important to know that getting into a sense of the breath as a continuous entity for ten seconds will do you more good than being generally with the breath on and off for an hour."

"If you are using the breath as an object, you might try purposefully visualizing it as sweet, smooth waves or circles that are peaceful and welcome. Try breathing as if you were in a garden of fragrant roses and you wish to experience the fullness of their fragrance."

However, having achieved my goal to my present satisfaction, and being a little caught up with my daily life, I dropped practicing concentration consistently, and in the days and weeks before my insight retreat, I did not practice at all. I think that in this respect, I dropped the ball, although it does seem to me that the efforts paid off to some extent in my ability to concentrate at the retreat. In my previous (second) meditation retreat, I had at least one day where I was unable to concentrate. While I had brief periods at this most recent retreat like that, they rarely lasted more than one session. Similarly, I often had the ability to really use some concentration power.


Wat Rampoeng

For some time, I had planned on doing a retreat at Wat Rampoeng, Thailand. (Their official website is here; you can read some helpful posts about the place in this thread.) For various external reasons, the month of May, 2014 was a convenient time for me to practice for an extended period. As will be immediately or shortly obvious, this was not externally a convenient time for practice. I had planned on doing 27 days at Wat Rampoeng, but ended up completing 18 days, leaving on my 19th day.

The main idea was to follow the first step of Daniel's "sample plan" for my "spiritual path": "Go on a three-week retreat and really power the mindfulness and investigation all day long, consistently stretching your perceptual threshold and speed of investigation to its limits to maximize the chances of crossing the A&P Event. It is not that hard to cross the A&P with fairly imbalanced effort, so don’t worry about that."

I planned to follow andreab's plan to disregard the WR advice and just do Daniel's program for the whole time. This of course disregarded Daniel's advice to "follow the instructions," but andreab's contrary advice is quite sound for WR. They are not interested in you attaining stream entry, and their technique is showy and unhelpful. WR is a good place to eat, sleep, sit, and walk.

As it turned out, andreab was actually in town at the time. We met up before my retreat, and made plans for Andrea to sneak in periodically and help me out. He was quite helpful, and this was fun for both of us. Moreover, while I was reporting to the WR folks each day, Andrea was far more helpful and on my page, so I considered these times my real reporting sessions.

Unfortunately, I did not attain the A+P during this time.

One problem I had to do was the friction between WR's norms, both in terms of the practice and the daily life/schedule, and that of the Daniel/Andrea plan that I was actually carrying out. This was very distracting for me for the first few days.

Another was that I left the retreat early. My father called me, informed me about Thailand's coup, and requested that I leave Thailand. I heeded his advice by leaving for Singapore for that day, to the dismay of the monks and Andrea. Part of my reasoning was to put my parents at ease, and avoid practical problems, but there is no doubt in my mind that part of me was relieved to escape the reality that I was flailing around at Wat Rampoeng, and that I was really not making progress at all.

So, these two facets are excuses, and unrelated to the practice, and specifically, to my lack of progress. I'll devote some time to some reflections about what worked, what didn't, and some thoughts and questions about my future goals.

To start out with some good things. It became increasingly clear to me that I was looking for and at bare sensations, not some altered state. I think I made progress in looking for the three characteristics. Impermanence was particularly prominent, and in the last few days, Suffering also became more prominent. I also had some specific moments of insight, although it could very well be I was just getting wrapped up in thoughts.

I think it is possible that while I did not attain the A+P, I got through Mind and Body, Cause and Effect, and The Three Characteristics. I had an experience on the second day that seemed to me at the time to be Mind and Body. It was pleasant, but brief, and I don't remember precisely what it felt like.

The main reason I think I might have been getting somewhere in the region of Cause and Effect / The Three Characteristics is that I started to develop some of the jerkiness that Daniel talks about in those passages. When I was noting quickly and accurately, I would start having involuntary jerkings in different parts of my body. This happened more frequently during sitting meditation, but I also noticed it becoming more and more prominent during walking meditation.

Moreover, I developed some good habits and practices while at the retreat. As you might have guessed from the beginning of this post, I started using formal resolutions regularly, as Daniel suggests. Before beginning a session, I would state clearly to myself what I was doing and why. Afterwards, I would do something else that helped: doing a brief period of concentration meditation, as Kenneth Folk and some others recommend. It seemed to me that the sessions where I did both of these were more focused and consistent than the ones where I did not.

In general, WR's practice of alternating walking and sitting meditation proved quite helpful. I noticed little or none of the back pain I have experienced in my previous retreats, and I noticed higher ability to maintain mindfulness between activities, especially when "out and about." On this note, Andrea had some related advice to always start and end the day with walking meditation. This proved essential at combating sleepiness. Relatedly, Wat Rampoeng's practice of decreasing sleep was helpful. The days where I slept less, had higher continuity of practice. I suspect, as does Andrea, that they take it too far in the later days of the retreat, but I didn't get to try this for myself.

Finally, in the last few days I began playing more and more with Shinzen's noting technique, "Just Note Gone." Auditory and visual vanishings were especially prominent. I like this technique because it is easier for me to see how the noting relates to the Three Characteristics.

Now, for the disappointments, problems, and mistakes.

People often suspect that I am thinking and analyzing too much, and warn me before a retreat about thinking too much. I maintain that I wasn't thinking too much, but it is very possible that I was. This long post might testify to just that.

Here's Daniel's words about this issue:
"In my experience, there is no comparison between retreats I have done when I really powered the investigation from the time I awoke until I went to sleep at night, causing fast and profound progress, and when I took breaks here and there to think about things such as my issues and meditation theory, generally causing moderate to slow progress."

I think I strived to keep to the "power" standard, but it is likely that I failed at this.

A meditation teacher that Andrea consulted while I was inside also hypothesized that my lack of progress could be due to analyzing during meditation, or that it "could be one of the five hinderances popping up without him noticing." As an antidote, he suggested "One thing he could try is focus only on body sensations for a while and see if that makes a difference. Another is to note out loud as quickly as he can. Both of these approaches helps ground the person a bit better and keeps the analyzing from taking over." Good suggestions. It seems likely I was being hindered by doubt, at the very least.

Another possibility for my lack of progress is that I don't actually have access concentration, or that I can't access it quickly / integrate it thoroughly into my insight practice, and, as such, I "ain't got squat."

Another, less likely, possibility is that I am actually in the Dark Night, but have not remembered / recognzide an A+P event. Sometimes Daniel's descriptions of the Dark Night remind me of the way I feel on a semi-daily basis: getting annoyed by little things, having sudden bouts of fear. Often, usually after waking from a nap, I'll feel a kind of existential fear or dread. And I have been exposed to meditation and other things that might have brought about the Dark Night. Still, this seems pretty unlikely to me. A more likely explanation is that I just have my fair share of neuroses like everybody else, and that I was doing the insight meditation practice incorrectly.

Relatedly, it's possible that I was "falling into repetitive, imprecise, mantra-like noting habits, that I wasn't keeping my speed up, that I was misguided about how to pay clear and fast attention to the Three Characteristics.

Finally, it's more than likely that my problems were a result of a combination of these factors.

In general, I want to report a couple of frustrations.

I regret that Daniel does not cover the Five Hindrances in depth. (Does anyone know of a good resource to learn more about these in a thorough and practical manner?) This also seems symptomatic of something I feel Daniel's book is *not* really sensitive to, which is the possibility that his reader might not have had the A+P, and is actually going to have a hard time carrying out the instructions / achieving the A+P. Daniel, Kenneth, and some other folks seemed to already have had the A+P, whereas it seems to me that I have not. Anyways, should he be reading him, bless him for the rest of this book, despite this failing which is probably only my own.

Similarly, I feel frustrated about my own unrealistic expectation about the character of insights. Specifically, I know that I am expecting a kind of light to flash, or voice to speak, that says "HEY! THIS IS THE A+P!" or whatever stage it may be. Instead, I have to develop a sensitivity to understanding my experience.

Let me finish this big post with a couple of thoughts and questions about my future practice.

I resolve to learn more about the hindrances, especially doubt, as it seems likely that these were obstructing me. I resolve to take the little pieces of advice Daniel *does* give about them, especially the Shootin' Aliens analogy, the advice to "When in doubt, note it out", and the broader suggestion that hindrances are not intrinsically obstructive.

I think it would be a wise idea to take Daniel's advice, and to "try to limit yourself to a few minutes of reflection per hour of meditation." If I leave that to the end of the session, as is suggested by some other teachers, this habit might provide a nice complement to the resolution/concentration routine at the beginning. Relatedly, I noticed that some teachers recommend experimenting with keeping a meditation journal. I'm already doing that here, but so far, this log has taken the broad view, and is generally not an account of particular sessions. In addition to having practical benefits for my practice, I think it might nicely complement my interest in relating meditation to phenomenology.

The characteristic of suffering mostly became apparent to me during the retreat in terms of fidgeting and discontent. I have sat with "strong determination" in the past, especially at the Goenka retreat, and think doing that again and more often would be helpful for confronting this characteristic.

Similarly, I can easily and pleasurably integrate mindfulness into my life by trying to eat more mindfully, and, when I am eating with people, looking at / listening to / smiling at them, as TNH recommends. I am not sure this will help me achieve the A+P, but it is a Good Thing.

Relatedly, I think I have a lot of work to do on the training of morality. It is worth keeping this in mind, and I might find it helpful to pick up a good book about this, too.

In terms of insight practice specifically, I think Andrea's teacher's recommendations are good, and resolve to try to note physical sensations out loud when I am alone, and to note physical sensations wordlessly by moving my mouth when I am around other people.

I also resolve to push past my present disinclination to practice, and whatever difficulties my current life activities (travel) may present, to practice insight meditation each day.

Finally, the questions:
1) Again, does anyone know a good book, two or three about the hindrances?
2) How do the Three Trainings relate? It seems like Daniel talks more about how their assumptions and practices are different than how they help each other, come together, and relate to form one life.
3) Any thoughts, generally, about all this, and about my practice for the future?


RE: Michael's Practice Log
Answer
5/28/14 9:39 AM as a reply to Michael Fogleman.
Hi, Michael,

I don't know what's happening inside your mind as you meditate, so I can't comment on your practice. However, I did read in your post that you are very concerned about how far you've gotten on the path. By coincidence, I came across this warning on a website the other day:

"Some meditation teachers feel that the following information should not be made available to the general public. That isn't because these teachings are for members of a select group, must be specially transmitted, or are in any sense esoteric; but because, due to the tricky nature of the mind, learning about these insights before acquiring personal meditation experience might cause you to anticipate results, thereby slowing your progress."