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A Year of Concentration

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A Year of Concentration
Answer
3/1/15 1:24 PM
Hello,

I'm a 28-year-old college student, and I've been meditating off and on for about 10 years or so. I read MCTB about 3 years ago, was really fascinated and inspired by it, and started taking practice a lot more seriously. I sat more regularly and did several self-retreats lasting 1-2 days (with questionable discipline). I'd say this lasted about a year.

Since then, I've slowly been meditating less and less. So I decided I wanted to dedicate myself to a daily concentration practice for a year and see how well I do. Unless there's a really compelling reason not to, I want to stick with one practice for the whole year: following the breath at the nostrils. (I've tried the abdomen and I've tried feeling the breath throughout the body [as per Thanissaro Bhikku's method], and I've found that the nostrils more quickly and easily give rise to more powerful states of concentration and less mind-wandering.)

Right now, I meditate every morning for 25 minutes. I want to increase this to at least 40 over the next month or two. Evening meditations are typically low-quality for me, but I'd like to eventually start doing a shorter session before bed as well.

I also try to stay aware of the breath at the nostrils throughout the day. I think I should be more systematic and consistent in doing this, since otherwise I'm really not going to be meditating all that much. I've found that formal sittings make this constant breath awareness practice much easier.

My main goals in doing this are to reduce stress and anxiety, and increase peace and well-being. I also want the time I spend doing this practice to help me replace some of my addictive/unskillful behaviors (spending too much mindless time on the internet, mainly).

I plan to post updates every week or two, and a longer update every month.

Finally, I want to say that I got inspired to do this after watching this video of a guy practicing table tennis for a year. I saw it and thought it would be cool to make a practice log and see where I get in a year. emoticon

RE: A Year of Concentration
Answer
3/2/15 3:30 AM as a reply to bluefields.
i can definitely empathise re: the difficulty in maintaining a daily meditation practice. i have also had lots of similar thoughts 

some of my recommendations based on my experience would be

-don't worry about increasing from 25 min to 40 min within a month or two months
-it would be better to meditate 20 minutes a day consistently for a year, rather than 30 minutes for 2 weeks then intermittent practice. 
-better to sit for 5 mins than for 0 mins

im also interested to read responses to this as discipline for the long haul is not my strong suite.

RE: A Year of Concentration
Answer
3/6/15 5:13 PM as a reply to mysterie.
Thanks for your reply -- I agree that consistency is more important than sitting length. My first priority is to make sure I meditate every day.

Two pieces of advice regarding sitting length, from two meditation teachers (each written to the best of my recollection):

1. B. Alan Wallace says that, when starting a shamatha practice, it's good to start with around 24 minutes, and to really emphasize relaxation. He says it's better to end the meditation feeling like you could have gone a little longer, and this is how my sits have felt so far. It seems sensible to me to start out like this, to develop a strong daily habit and to promote relaxation over tension in the beginning.

2. Culadasa encourages extending the meditation to 40-60 minutes when one is ready, because most of the "deep/good/quality" meditation happens after the mind has settled down a bit (maybe after the first 10-15 minutes). I can certainly see the logic in this as well.


So far, I've meditated every day for 25 minutes, starting at around 7-7:30 AM. I want to keep doing this every day next week. The following week is Spring Break, so I'll have more time to experiment with longer sitting lengths.

RE: A Year of Concentration
Answer
4/3/15 9:03 PM as a reply to bluefields.
I just wrote a post, but it seems I got logged out before I could submit it. Anyway, the gist of it was:

My practice for the past month hasn't been great, and I want to turn that around. I also want to start posting more frequently, to better track my progress and stay motivated. I meditated twice today, listening to the same guided meditation, and the quality of those sits was way above my baseline. So I'm going to try to internalize the instructions from that guided meditation, and use those instructions as a basis for my practice.

RE: A Year of Concentration
Answer
4/4/15 9:26 PM as a reply to bluefields.
bluefields:
I'm a 28-year-old college student, and I've been meditating off and on for about 10 years or so.... My main goals in doing this are to reduce stress and anxiety, and increase peace and well-being. I also want the time I spend doing this practice to help me replace some of my addictive/unskillful behaviors (spending too much mindless time on the internet, mainly).

2. Culadasa encourages extending the meditation to 40-60 minutes when one is ready, because most of the "deep/good/quality" meditation happens after the mind has settled down a bit ...

Hello bluefields,

Besides reducing stress and anxiety and replacing unskillful behaviors to increase peace of mind, is there a reason why you've turned to the Buddhahamma, if indeed that is the case, to help you with these goals? Or are you only interesting in the practice of meditation for its own sake, because you've read that it can help you accomplish these goals?

I ask because the motivation you mentioned seems unclear, and sometimes people get caught up in the wrong view of things, expecting to change their outlook without understanding the real controlling factors behind their ability of achieving such changes.

Without the proper motiviation to continue down a path of development, all the well wishes and good intentions in the world aren't going to take you to the destination at which you wish to arrive. At some point that initial thrust, if it is not backed by something genuine, will give out, and then a person's motiviation for practice can easily dry up. I began my practice at the age of 28 (almost 35 years ago), and had it not been for the correct motivation, I might have stopped short of achieving my goal.

As for sitting length, the advice from the two teachers you quoted is very good advice for anyone who is actually serious about achieving their goals using meditation and the Dhamma as a tool to help them.

I am acquainted with Upasaka Culadasa (otherwise known as John Yates) with whom I have communicated and exchanged ideas in the past on many occasions. He is an excellent instructor of meditation, and well worth reading and learning from. As well, I agree with his assessment on the length of a practitioner's sits. In fact, I was encouraged to do the same thing when I first began following the instruction of the man who taught me.

At the beginning of a serious intention to practice meditation for self development, a person's mind, being untrained and undisciplined, can be difficult to rein in. Forty-five minutes to an hour per sit can provide the time necessary to allow the mind to quiet down so that, as Culadasa says, "deep good quality meditation can happen."

It also presents a challenge to the meditator to persevere in their practice, even when they think the session is not going well. There is no such thing as a bad session of meditation (although we all have our own perceptions and reactions to those times we consider to have been unproductive). Every bit of time that one puts in is grist for the mill of breaking down the "monkey mind" and disciplining it. Every person who has ever taken up the practice of meditation has experience this, and has had to overcome their inner demons, so to speak, about giving up.

Those who succeed, though, are those who take the time to learn about and develop the correct motivation for perservering and carrying on in their practice no matter what obstacles come their way. The correct motivation will carry a person through the bad times as well as the good.

Just some food for thought; that is, if you care to contemplate it.

In peace,
Ian

RE: A Year of Concentration
Answer
4/12/15 8:51 PM as a reply to Ian And.
Thank you for your post, Ian. Since I read it, I've been thinking about what motivates me to meditate, and I feel like I still have more thinking to do. I remember reading MCTB and getting very intererested in meditation, obsessively researching and trying new meditation techniques. That phase seems to be over now, and now I'm interested in devoting myself as much as I can to one technique, or a few techniques, sustaining that for a while, and seeing what happens.

As I said, what I would like to have happen is for me to become more relaxed, less anxious, and less prone to self-destructive habits and behaviors. I find the practice of training the mind to be intrinsically interesting, and when I do it well and see myself improving, it feels good. It also feels good to disentangle myself from transient, outside sources of happiness, and to move towards qualities like simplicity and inner peace (this sort of "viewpoint shift" seems to happen gradually as a byproduct of meditating and of having read about Buddhism, but it occurs to me now that I might want to focus on developing it more explicitly, through practices like renunciation and studying Buddhism).

If meditating purely "for its own sake" (just to learn the technique) lies on one end of the spectrum, and engaging in a holistic set of spiritual practices lies on the other, then I see myself as being closer to the "technique" end, and I can see how this could lead to my initial motivation petering out. As I said, I have more thinking to do.

As far as my practice goes: I've been pretty diligent with sitting every day for 20-30 minutes, but I could be doing better. I just finished up a busy week (school projects and being in my brother's wedding), but things will slow down starting on Thursday.

RE: A Year of Concentration
Answer
4/14/15 12:56 PM as a reply to bluefields.
bluefields:
I've been thinking about what motivates me to meditate, and I feel like I still have more thinking to do.... If meditating purely "for its own sake" (just to learn the technique) lies on one end of the spectrum, and engaging in a holistic set of spiritual practices lies on the other, then I see myself as being closer to the "technique" end, and I can see how this could lead to my initial motivation petering out. As I said, I have more thinking to do.

Might I suggest something to help you in gaining that needed motivation that I wrote of in my post above. When speaking about what the man we call the Awakened One (or Buddha) taught, I usually refer to this teaching as his Dhamma, or Doctrine of Truth. The Dhamma that Gotama taught is separate and distinct from the term "Buddhism" when I use that term. This is because in the real world, there are many forms of Buddhism (which has become formulated into a religion in the many primarily Asian cultures into which it has been introduced), but only one Dhamma as it was originally taught by Siddhattha Gotama. If you wish to study and practice the original teaching, unvarnished by certain modern spiritual and cultural interpretation, then you have to begin by getting back to the horse's mouth through a study and contemplation of the translated Pali Canon.

Once you become aware of the wealth of knowledge, both practical and empirical, that can be found there and have developed a personal appreciation of it, there is no turning back to anything else in this world of Maya. The realization of the profundity of the knowledge available through reading, studying, contemplating, and practicing this Dhamma was at the heart of my motivation to persevere until I accomplished the very goals you have outlined for yourself.

One of the books that had a deeply inspiring effect on that motivation when I finished reading and contemplating it was a small 120 page volume written by a Theravadin monk, Bhikkhu Bodhi, titled The Noble Eightfold Path, Way to the End of Suffering. One can find it online at the accesstoinsight.org website or download a PDF at either of the two links below.

http://www.accesstoinsight.org/lib/authors/bodhi/waytoend.html

http://www.buddhanet.net/pdf_file/noble8path6.pdf

However, before I discovered those links, I had already bought a soft cover copy of the book because I prefer having a physical book in my hand rather than an electronic ghost. This way I could make notes in the margins and bracket areas that deserved to be highlighted for the insights they shared. But to each his own; this is just my personal preference.

If by the time you finish this book you aren't head over heals infatuated with the teachings of the Dhamma and how they can assist you in achieving an end to worldly suffering and dissatisfaction, then nothing will ever win you over, or turn you into a devoted enthusiast for following the Dhamma to its inevitable end.

What particularly inspired my confidence in the pathway that Gotama taught was the fact that I saw (had an intense realization) of the truth of the path that was being espoused. I also knew that this wasn't going to be easy; however I did KNOW that it would work because I could see the light all the way through the tunnel to the end product, based on my previous experience in training with another man who promised this same end but who ultimately failed in delivering because he taught with a closed fist even though he taught me many of the same things. Gotama teaches with an open hand.  [closed fist = holding back information, not transparent]

When I speak of motivation, this is the kind of motivation I am speaking about. With this kind of motivation behind you, you cannot fail. Because you won't allow yourself to fail. That's the kind of intense confidence I had and have in the Dhamma that Gotama taught. And anyone who strives to gain a profound understanding of pattica samuppada or dependent co-arising will arrive at the same awakening that Gotama had.

I could not have expressed the depth of my realization about the efficacy of following this path better than Bhikkhu Bodhi did in the following passage from his essay "The Case For Study":

"If we have taken this step honestly, with correct motivation, it implies that we have acknowledged our need for spiritual guidance and have entrusted ourselves to the Buddha as our guide and to his teaching as our vehicle of guidance. By taking refuge in the Dhamma we accept not merely a technique of meditation that we can use at liberty for our own self-appointed purposes, but a profound and comprehensive teaching on the true nature of the human condition, a teaching designed to awaken in us a perception of this truth as the means for reaching the full and final end of suffering. The liberation offered by the Dhamma comes, not from simply practicing meditation in the context of our own preconceptions and desires, but from practicing upon the groundwork of the right understanding and right intentions communicated to us by the Buddha."

In peace,
Ian

RE: A Year of Concentration
Answer
4/16/15 1:58 PM as a reply to bluefields.
Bluefields - I think you have some good aspirations and goals there.  Ian And made several good points about motivation and I just wanted to chime in a bit, for what it is worth. 

(1) I would specifically cultivate a sense of metta/loving-kindness towards yourself.  It can be difficult to have a morning sitting, especially when setting a specific goal like you did.  For some people that works great.   It doesn't really for me.  I try to fit in practice on the bus, in the afternoon, etc.  I am not trying to dissuade you from sitting in the morning, but if you are not following your plan 100% you can still meditate later on in the day, or find some way to make it up.  My main point here is that it isn't all or nothing.

(2) your motivations may change or deepen over time, as you practice.   if you have a strong practice, you will start to get a small taste of why the practice is liberating and transcending.  meditation stops being like 'going to the gym for your mind' or just another thing to do on your list, and becomes something more.  your motivation can changes, you take a longer term view, and your conviction builds. 

(3) this may be an unnecessary point, but you are describing your practice of focusing at the nostrils to be a concentration practice.  that can definitely be true, but this is really a grey area.  the object or focus point of your practice doesn't make it entirely samatha or entirely vipassana.  even if you are not noting, you can still be doing insight practice.  and if at any time your focus at the nostrils becomes uncomfortable, you should feel ok changing it.  just don't change multiple times the same sitting - that is a bit too scattered.

overall, i think you have a laudable goal of trying to be dedicated to a meditation practice and do it consistently, instead of jumping around.  i think that is the way to get results, even if there are times when it is a struggle.  my main practice for a couple of years was to follow Mahasi Sayadaw's insight instructions as closely as I could (checking his books, making sure i was doing it to the letter).