Value of 'wide open' focus practice

Sam s, modified 8 Years ago at 1/13/14 5:45 AM
Created 8 Years ago at 1/13/14 5:45 AM

Value of 'wide open' focus practice

Posts: 51 Join Date: 12/15/13 Recent Posts
Hi everyone,

I was hoping to get some feedback on my concentration practice. I am trying to establish a concentration practice to complement a vipassana practice. Having taken several vipassana retreats (one Goenka, one Mahasi), I feel I understand the Vipassana quite well (although make no claims of attainment). However with concentration, I get more confused what is best to do. This is partly because prior to coming to Vipassana I worked with many different practices which I would call mindfulness based but without a Buddhist or path context. I found these prior techniques very helpful for self-help, but felt a bit limited(ie. no end, no 'stream-entry' or jhana in sight). One of these techniques was called open focus.

To describe open focus, you start by feeling/picturing/hearing space in areas of the body, and gradually extending out, with the end goal of having a fully flexible attentional ability which can zero in on the minor sensations or open out to encompass everything that your senses can touch, including the empy matter between all things. As I understand it it is a little like Dzogchen. I've used it succesfully for working on pain, emotional stress, increasing my sense of awareness, etc.. and I used it for several years before for one reason or another becoming bored and looking for something with an endpoint and lineage, which brought me to Vipassana. Contrast this with the Buddhist instruction on concentration I've had, based on Anapasatani and Jhana. I'm currently reading Focused and Fearless, which I think is really good, and the core instruction so far is just to focus on the nostrils. When the attention wanders, gently bring it back, and begin again. Ok, I think I'm just about at access concentration level. Now here is my main problem: although I feel it's good and I'm making some progress, it isn't as potent as the open focus was, at least not at the level I'm at. So my question is:

'Open and wide' or 'narrow' for practicing concentration? I've read that narrow is best for truly strengthening the concentration muscles and eventually attaining real jhana. Does this mean that jhana can't be gained from an open style of attention? I've found that open focus has been more effective for me for destressing and appears to induce a more powerful physiological state, and one which I can also carry off pillow more. Even if I don't go all out open focus, what if I just focus on the geeral sense of movement of the ribs (for example)?

I'm currently in a stressful place in life, and it's important to me that I pick the path which will both bring the rewards and provide relief. To give example, I have a lot of interviews coming up, and new life challenges, which I really need to be strong for. Perhaps, it would be recommended that I cease all this 'path and jhana' search and just stick to 'mindfulness based coping strategies'. I'm having a hard time getting an answer from the literature, mainly because it's so vast. Can anyone help give an answer to this question?

Yours gratefully,
Sam
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old dried leaf, modified 8 Years ago at 1/13/14 9:54 AM
Created 8 Years ago at 1/13/14 9:54 AM

RE: Value of 'wide open' focus practice

Posts: 40 Join Date: 8/7/13 Recent Posts
It is extremely vast. When I have difficult reoccuring meditation problems, I usually cannot find specific information on it.

My thought on your question, "wide or narrow", I think that when beginning samatha, choose an object which is most stable for you. If awareness rests consistently over a narrow part of the nose, use that object. If awareness rests consistently over the wide area of the whole body, use that object. If you force yourself to only use one particular object all the time, the object may be too narrow or wide for awareness to stabilize over and you will not be able to practice samatha.

The first jhana, in my experience, is narrow in cognition (positioned over only the breath), but it is also very diffuse over the whole body. In the second, it is very wide and the quality of samatha loses a lot of its effort. Samatha becomes very wide as it is developed. The first jhana can be initially developed from a wide style of attention, if your awareness stabilizes in that way--more likely you will have to start with a narrow awareness and widen out slowly.
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Fitter Stoke, modified 8 Years ago at 1/13/14 11:24 AM
Created 8 Years ago at 1/13/14 11:24 AM

RE: Value of 'wide open' focus practice

Posts: 487 Join Date: 1/23/12 Recent Posts
Ok, I think I'm just about at access concentration level. Now here is my main problem: although I feel it's good and I'm making some progress, it isn't as potent as the open focus was, at least not at the level I'm at.


No, of course not, you don't have as much experience doing it as you have with the other practice.

In order to do jhana, you need to go inward, not outward. So you focus on a single object like the breath at the tip of the nose, and you do that until the object moves to the back burner and the jhanic factors arise. One of those factors - ekaggata or unification of mind - is the quality of mind being together with itself. This experience has a distinct, highly pleasurable flavor to it that you'll know once you encounter it. But it's something that - at least in my experience - is quite unlike the experience of pleasure you get from resting in outward awareness.

You could develop both of them. There's no reason you can't. You don't have to develop both of them at the same time, though you probably could. It depends on how much time and energy you have for practice and what is more important to you right now and in the long run - things which I can't answer for you.

Another option - since single-pointed concentration work requires you to be still - is to spend 45 minutes a day (or whatever) doing the concentration work, and then since open, outward awareness practices are more portable, that could be your off-the-cushion practice.

It's really hard to answer your question. It's a specific question about something which is really general.

Are you concerned that doing this "Wide open" practice is somehow less valid or won't get you to the goal as fast as bearing down on the breath? That may or may not be the case, depending on how you're doing the practice and your particular goal(s).

It also may be helpful to keep in mind what I just said in another thread, which is that for most of us enlightenment is a long-term project, and what you choose to do right now, this instant, is less important than it seems to be.

In any case, good luck, and let us know how it goes.
Sam s, modified 8 Years ago at 1/15/14 5:21 AM
Created 8 Years ago at 1/15/14 5:21 AM

RE: Value of 'wide open' focus practice

Posts: 51 Join Date: 12/15/13 Recent Posts
Hey old dried leaf,

Thanks for your response and insight. From what I'm reading I'm coming to a similar conclusion. Start narrow, build stability and absorption and go from there. Off-cushion I will give myself the freedom to do whatever feels good and helpful.

Hey Fitter Stroke,

Thanks also to you for your insights and advice. I haven't experienced ekaggata(had to google it) so I think (as per my response above) it would be best to go narrow and try and get there first. One thing I know you said '45 minutes or whatever' but do you think that is a good amount of time to practice, and in one or more sittings? Sorry I know there are no hard and fast rules but appreciate any suggestions you may have. I will go back to earlier instructions I've had and focus on the breathing and nostrils. I like Shaila Catherine's advice that it is not about supergluing the attention to the object but rather continually letting go and coming back until absorption happens naturally.

My worries with the narrow/wide are that:
1) I'm not getting the stress relief from narrow focus. Is this something which comes more over time? I know it is not the goal of practice, but as I said earlier I really need that right now and I think it would be beneficial to develop before going back to vipassana.
2) I'm not going to be getting the progress from the 'open' style as quickly as I would be from the narrow. But, as you've helpfully suggested I could formally practice shamatha, while off cushion practice open focus. It's been a very helpful to stay mindful by widening my field of focus, and has also helped me a lot with overcoming difficult emotions, so I'll keep it in my toolkit.

I expect I may not traverse the insight path while I'm doing this but right now, and for the next few months, I have some responsibilities to take care of, and didn't like the way I was getting knocked off balance further by practicing Vipassana.. I'm after the big E, but as you say it's a long term project so maybe no need to worry right now.
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old dried leaf, modified 8 Years ago at 1/15/14 10:04 AM
Created 8 Years ago at 1/15/14 10:04 AM

RE: Value of 'wide open' focus practice

Posts: 40 Join Date: 8/7/13 Recent Posts
For me, narrow focus is restricted, it isn't relaxing in a physical aspect, but it is pleasuring in the way of 'grounding, concentrating, the thinking mind.' A good thought about narrow focus is that it energizes 'mindfulness, cognition, the knowing faculty' so that you can then stabilize that cognition over a large field of sensations with the focused-narrow part of cognition--which will develop the relaxing physical effects.

In my understanding, you can have cognition in a small or large field, and it is naturally stable at some degree of openness, relative to every individual person. Find that.

I think you would benefit in trying to find where your cognition naturally rests with good consistency. If you find you cannot develop mindfulness when meditating on the nose area, try widening and opening your field of awareness.
Sam s, modified 8 Years ago at 1/15/14 10:20 AM
Created 8 Years ago at 1/15/14 10:20 AM

RE: Value of 'wide open' focus practice

Posts: 51 Join Date: 12/15/13 Recent Posts
old dried leaf:
For me, narrow focus is restricted, it isn't relaxing in a physical aspect, but it is pleasuring in the way of 'grounding, concentrating, the thinking mind.' A good thought about narrow focus is that it energizes 'mindfulness, cognition, the knowing faculty' so that you can then stabilize that cognition over a large field of sensations with the focused-narrow part of cognition--which will develop the relaxing physical effects.

In my understanding, you can have cognition in a small or large field, and it is naturally stable at some degree of openness, relative to every individual person. Find that.

I think you would benefit in trying to find where your cognition naturally rests with good consistency. If you find you cannot develop mindfulness when meditating on the nose area, try widening and opening your field of awareness.


Thanks, your explanation makes sense to me. Thanks for the suggestion to find the 'right' point, haven't had the chance to practice yet but I have a feeling that behind the eyes, the throat or solar plexus areas may make better targets for me. I will report back.
Sam s, modified 8 Years ago at 1/15/14 3:10 PM
Created 8 Years ago at 1/15/14 3:10 PM

RE: Value of 'wide open' focus practice

Posts: 51 Join Date: 12/15/13 Recent Posts
Using the solar plexus as the object seemed to work really well. Helped me keep my spine upright and breathing unrestricted, which I sometimes don't notice myself doing. Feels a bit closer to my normal perceptual field than the nostrils do, which makes it easier to draw my attention back when it wanders. It did seem like I was closer to sleep than usual, i thought maybe because of the focus on the diaphragm? I guess I'll need to stick with it a few times to know for sure, but first attempts seemed promising. Thanks again!
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old dried leaf, modified 8 Years ago at 1/15/14 3:43 PM
Created 8 Years ago at 1/15/14 3:41 PM

RE: Value of 'wide open' focus practice

Posts: 40 Join Date: 8/7/13 Recent Posts
"makes it easier to draw my attention back when it wanders"

That is great ! That is the sign which reflects cognition is energizing. I think you have found a good way now. Keep cultivating that technique. And to go even further, see if you can keep your cognition lucid over your area of focus (for now it appears to be the solar plexus) while also simultaneously cultivating a 'wider, receptive' background-cognition of the whole body.

Sleepiness could be caused by so many different factors. If I were to guess, perhaps the sleepiness reflected an increased level of relaxation.
Elijah Smith, modified 8 Years ago at 1/18/14 9:09 AM
Created 8 Years ago at 1/18/14 9:08 AM

RE: Value of 'wide open' focus practice

Posts: 71 Join Date: 4/14/13 Recent Posts
Hey, thought I would give you my experience, I actually went the other way and started with concentration type practices for about a year and a half and moved into open awareness type practices the last 6 months (not necessarily the "imagine the space between X" practice that you are probably talking about but the effects are probably similar). I would say that there is no reason you have to just do one, as I combine both and know of Buddhist teachers who talk about combining both. Tara Brach advocates open focus practice and talks about combining "being here" and "coming back" as both useful methods that can be used together.
Yongey Rinpoche also talks about combining the two in his book, he says they are both vital aspects of practice, and can be rotated.
I've also found the effect you are talking about, that open awareness can be stress relieving and is naturally conducive to equanimity.

I'm not an expert here but I've also found open awareness can lead me to highly altered states, perhaps jhana perhaps A&P. My breathing feels like it ceased, all thoughts dissipate, and there is a powerful rapture. I haven't managed to consistently get to these states, but they are oddly similar to what I felt occasionally from doing concentration practice.
Sam s, modified 8 Years ago at 1/22/14 6:25 AM
Created 8 Years ago at 1/22/14 6:25 AM

RE: Value of 'wide open' focus practice

Posts: 51 Join Date: 12/15/13 Recent Posts
Hey everyone, thanks for taking the time to reply to my thread and sorry for the late update.

ODL(hope you don't mind me calling you that!) I think I had a little bit of the placebo effect with this solar plexus. Although I've been away and having a stressful time so haven't been able to be consistent, I'm beginning to find the area not too different to the nostrils in terms of the success I've had in consistency. Being that I do and will get distracted for significant portions of the sit, I have tried during these times to move myself back gently and slowly to this area as an anchor point with my attention. Looking out at the other content, saying internally 'that's enough' and gradually moving back to 100% on the SP. This sounds good to me, but I'm having difficulty in keeping to it, which could be partly due to external factors which have prevented me being consistent.

It is beginning to feel like I am unravelling layers of difficulty in my practice. I realise more and more that meditation is actually really really difficult. Although I know this is part of the learning curve, it is also frustrating. Open focus feels like an absence of efforting where narrow focus feels somewhat excrutiating. However open focus feels easy to do wrong and fool myself, whereas at least I'll know if I'm achieving a narrow focus. All in all, it feels like balancing on the head of a pin. Too much effort, get stressed and tense, too little, fall back and stop practicing. I am sorry but i am beginning to think it may be better to go back to 'simple' Vipassana and just looking out(or in) at come what may, and try the jhana when I have made attainments in that.

Elijah thanks for your input. I wasn't aware of Tara Brach before, or other Buddhist teachers teaching a more open way. I've also experienced more feeling of progress from it(altered states etc) but then again as another poster said, because I've done it for a lot longer. Also, with the Westerner/self-help angle the Open Focus tend to mention only the positives of practicing regularly, whereas Buddhists are more open with the difficulties you face. This may have given me a little of the placebo effect in practicing open focus.

I'm still not sure to be honest and still on the fence with my practice. Maybe I could do both, maybe one or other, or maybe just get back to noting (which I think I may be leaning towards). I'm sure I am looking like a typical attention deficient Westerner who could do with a Zen stick to the behind, so genuine apologies to people reading and contributing if I am frustrating anyone with my indecision.
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Nikolai , modified 8 Years ago at 1/22/14 6:51 AM
Created 8 Years ago at 1/22/14 6:51 AM

RE: Value of 'wide open' focus practice

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CULASASA @ http://groups.yahoo.com/group/jhana_insight/message/3008

We have two different ways of "knowing" things that usually go on simultaneously - attention, and peripheral awareness. Mindfulness really means using peripheral awareness to be introspectively aware of what is going on in our own minds, and also the larger context of the situation we're in. Attention focuses in on details, so it can't observe the mind in an ongoing way, and it can't provide context. In conversations, intellectual tasks, and any kind of emotionally intense situation, attention becomes hyper-focused and peripheral awareness disappears. That is what causes us to lose mindfulness!

The second instruction Daniel gave you is all about this. It is quite possible to be observing your own mind in peripheral awareness at the same time that attention is focused on something else, like a conversation. When you do this, it gives you the feeling of "watching the mind" even while the mind is engaged in carrying on the conversation, or whatever else it is that attention happens to be engaged in. In other words, two ways of knowing, happening at the same time, provide the "mirror". It allows the mind's activities to be illuminated from "behind", or "within" or "above", or however you might like to describe it.

It takes practice to get good at doing this. And being grounded in body awareness is a great way to get into this place. But no amount of practice and skill will get you very far in intense emotional situations, because attention sucks up all of your capacity for consciousness, leaving none behind for peripheral awareness. This is where meditation really helps. The mind becomes more powerful, so, providing you have developed the habit of introspective peripheral awareness, you are able to mindful even in situations where you might otherwise not be.

The reason that some of us have acquired this skill at sustaining peripheral awareness and this enhanced conscious power of the mind is that we have been using it all along to help us succeed in our meditation. Early on, we noticed that when we became too focused, we either forgot what we were doing or we got dull and dozy. So we learned to avoid becoming hyper-focused by sustaining peripheral awareness while we focused. Then, the way we ultimately overcame dullness and distractions was by recognizing them as soon as they arose so that we could correct for them. And we did this by converting our peripheral awareness into introspective awareness so that we always knew what was happening in our minds. Eventually, not only introspective peripheral awareness, but the correcting process itself became automatic, and we were good meditators as a result. But sustained introspective peripheral awareness as a habit spills over into daily life as well. So we also found ourselves being much more mindful, even while working and talking to people and fighting with our partners. This was, of course, a tremendous bonus, and actually leads to Insight.

Those of us who have acquired this skill and ability have done it largely by accident. I know that my own successes in both meditation and life would have come about much more quickly if someone had explained these details to me. So that is why I am so happy to pass it along to you. Cultivate peripheral awareness both on and off the cushion. learn to sustain peripheral awareness even when you are focusing very closely. Transmute peripheral awareness from being all about what is happening outside of the mind to being about what is happening inside the mind as well. CULADASA
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Richard Zen, modified 8 Years ago at 1/22/14 8:12 AM
Created 8 Years ago at 1/22/14 8:12 AM

RE: Value of 'wide open' focus practice

Posts: 1656 Join Date: 5/18/10 Recent Posts
I hope I can answer your question. I think your entire post is full of stress. emoticon

The goal of open awareness is to allow anything in. The most important parts of mindfulness is to allow anything in (including uncomfortable situations in) and then to not add extra narratives. By paying attention to the body and watch the sensations pass away on their own the relief happens. Trying to make relief happen is aversion already.

The subtlety of meditation shows that you can be aversive to the results of the meditation practice as well. You can even have aversion to aversion which is common when making so much depend on meditation. The typical error is trying to "clean the mirror" constantly. It's what we do when we are starting but aversion is simply dislike of something you perceive/recognize/objectify. Seeing the mind strategize how it will stop stress is already a setup for more stress.

Another problem is the thoughts try to day-dream about being a meditator and identifying oneself as a meditator. Most day-dreaming is about wanting something or wanting to get rid of something so the stress starts up. Then we all have habits of doing this so trying to stop a wandering mind is more aversion yet again. The trick is to not add to what is habitual but to not repress the habit impulse when it arises. Be welcoming when it arises but don't add to it. emoticon

Here are some Shikantaza instructions Kenneth that can help (especially in daily life):

Practice becoming aware of the body sensations that correspond to a thought. Whenever a thought arises, feel the body. How do you know whether you like the thought or not? It's because the body sensations feel either pleasant or unpleasant. Notice that if you dissociate from this moment, i.e., step into the fantasy and leave the body, you will suffer. Suffering is not ordinary pain; ordinary pain is just unpleasant sensation. Suffering is cause by the dissociation, the stepping out of this moment, out of the body. Stay in the body and ride the waves of body sensation. Watch how the body reacts to the thougts and vice versa. See how the looping between body and mind IS the dissociation. Short-circuit this by returning to the body. Stay with the body as continuously as you can. You are stretching the amount of time you can stay in the body without being blown out of it by an event or a thought. To be in the body is to be free. To be in the body all the time is to be free all the time.
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"While you are practicing just sitting, be clear about everything going on in your mind. Whatever you feel, be aware of it, but never abandon the awareness of your whole body sitting there. Shikantaza is not sitting with nothing to do; it is a very demanding practice, requiring diligence as well as alertness. If your practice goes well, you will experience the 'dropping off' of sensations and thoughts. You need to stay with it and begin to take the whole environment as your body. Whatever enters the door of your senses becomes one totality, extending from your body to the whole environment. This is silent illumination."

-Master Shengyen
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Kenneth: See how the looping between body and mind IS the dissociation.

Mumuwu: Do you mean the moving out of the body to the mind and back?

I mean the creation of a third "thing," this pseudo-entity that is a composite of body sensations and mental phenomena. Living in this third thing is suffering because it takes you out of what is really happening in this moment; it becomes a proxy for experience. You can train yourself to stop living this proxy life of suffering by coming back to the body sensations in this moment. The body cannot lie. Being in the body is being present in this moment. Being present in this moment does not allow the pseudo-self to form. When the pseudo-self does not form, life is simple and free. It will be pleasant at times and unpleasant at times, but it is always free.

There is no conflict between noting and living in your body, by the way, whether you note silently or aloud. You can note or not note, think, act, talk, love, live; there is very little you can't do; you just can't suffer. If you choose to note, understand that there is nothing magical about the noting itself. The noting is simply a feedback loop to remind you to feel your body and observe your mind in this moment.
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Shinzen Young - Return to the Source

1. You don’t need to position your attention in any particular way.
2. Let whatever happens happen, but as soon as you notice that you are doing anything
intentionally, stop.


Examples of things that you can stop doing are:
 Intentionally thinking (as opposed to thinking that just happens to you)
 Trying to focus on a certain thing
 Trying to have equanimity
 Trying to keep track of what’sgoing on
 Trying to meditate


You want to be as normal as possible while decreasing the clinging habit. It's like forgetting on purpose. Of course any skills you need to develop you should always be practising. It's like gardening. Weed out the bad habits and plant flowers for the good habits. It's very easy to do mindfulness and forget more than you want to so there is a role for concentration/metta/practice practical skills.
Sam s, modified 8 Years ago at 1/25/14 6:19 AM
Created 8 Years ago at 1/25/14 6:19 AM

RE: Value of 'wide open' focus practice

Posts: 51 Join Date: 12/15/13 Recent Posts
Hi Richard Zen,

You're absolutely correct in your opinion, I am full of stress at the moment and it is probably coming through. So why do I want the jhanas? Probably mainly to catch a break. Actually things weren't going so badly with Vipassana before. I have a decent level of somatic awareness and am able remember to stay minful for most of the day(on a good day), so maybe I was already on the right path before this thought of obtaining jhana came up. I've spoken on my practice thread of feeling the need for more stability, both in practice and day to day life.

I can already quite effectively improve my wellbeing with meditation, I just considered jhana or at least access concentration a necessary goal for obtaining path. Perhaps I shall shelve that for the time being. I'm aware of resistance to mindfulness, and have found it effective to practice with this resistance (and the resistance to the resistance, and so on). I've decided to go back to Vipassana and noting as my central practice, only a mere 30 minutes a day, and spend any other free time playing with the other tools(/toys?) that I have, such as mindful movement, open focus, sustained focus, releasing emotions, etc etc... Thankyou for pointing out where I'm stuck and I will ask again if I can't get un-stuck.

Hi Nikolai,

I'm not 100% if I understand what your post is pointing towards. I try to be mindful as possible, and have played with peripheral awareness, and also watching the watcher style exercises. They've all be ok and I haven't rejected them. Thanks for the reminder of building the mind's strength of peripheral awareness especially during intense moments.

I'm getting back to the cushion now to note and stop worrying about meditating. Thanks all.
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Richard Zen, modified 8 Years ago at 1/25/14 6:19 PM
Created 8 Years ago at 1/25/14 6:12 PM

RE: Value of 'wide open' focus practice

Posts: 1656 Join Date: 5/18/10 Recent Posts
Please make sure you note throughout the day. You will get faster results when real life situations are met with noting. It's a bit like taking a cold shower but your body gets used to it. Make sure the noting is 99% noticing and 1% verbal noting. The noting is just to keep you honest that you still are noticing. You can make it more subtle (verbal in the mind) or out loud verbal depending on what's appropriate. When you do high mental processing work you can't note and you shouldn't mechanically note when talking to people.
Sam s, modified 8 Years ago at 1/27/14 5:12 AM
Created 8 Years ago at 1/27/14 5:12 AM

RE: Value of 'wide open' focus practice

Posts: 51 Join Date: 12/15/13 Recent Posts
Thanks Richard for the noting tips. I have a practice thread where I have now returned to noting practice. I have found noting 'back' or 'here' has been useful for keeping me present if I notice I've lost mindfulness. Also I'm playing with wide and narrow focus in Vipassana. Anyway I realise I'm now no longer discussing concentration so will leave it here for now.

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