Am I doing samathi all wrong?

Luke Grove, modified 8 Years ago at 3/8/15 4:06 AM
Created 8 Years ago at 3/8/15 4:06 AM

Am I doing samathi all wrong?

Posts: 9 Join Date: 8/5/14 Recent Posts
About half a year ago decided I could use some greater skills in concentration, and accordingly, started practicing samathi meditation instead of the noting I did in the ~6 months before. The theory is that I'd do 30 minutes timed every morning after grogginess wears off (and morning routine and sometimes some mild exercise to help me be alert), in practice, I manage about 5 days a week. Problem is, I don't seem to be making much of a progress, so it's time to check my plans. Am I doing anything wrong?

I take my zafu, sit on it cross-legged with a straight back, close my eyes then try to be aware where air enters and leaves my nostrils. The coldnesss and the sensation of air moving is very prominent when I inhale. It is a bit more subtle on exhalation, but it' reasonably easy to discern the feeling of warmth and the motion of the air.

This usually works for a few minutes, then all sorts of thoughts come up: about daily chores, about what I'll do when I am finished with meditation, about current problems in life, the mental tape loops I also have during regular life. Then I try to guide mind my back to breathing, with varying degrees of success. Sometimes I snap back with a "Hey, I haven't noticed anything about my breath for a good while" after a stream of thoughts whose beginning I don't even rememeber, sometimes I am more alert and arrest trains of thoughts pretty swiftly after one or two words. Sometimes it becomes like a fast-paced video game and it feels like I am on the lookout for thoughts just like one is on the lookout for things to shoot down in an arcade game or like one is scanning their environment on the highway while driving faster than it would be prudent. Then I can react pretty quickly and these moments are quite enjoyable, but they are pretty rare and don't last long and then I'm back to trains of thoughts it takes a long time to get out of again. As time passes, this generally becomes harder. Trying to return my mind to the breathing feels like trying to force myself to e.g. do the dishes when I don't really want do to it or trying to pay attention to a boring meeting at work. It feels like using force to counter the natural tendency of my mind to flit about all over the place.

Usually, when I get up, I get the feeling that it would have worked much better if only I had been able to put in more mental effort into forcing my mind off of verbal thinking. Sometimes I also emerge quite sleepy, which I suppose is not how it should be.

I expected the that I'd be able to stop trains of thoughts faster with time, but so far, this is not happening, and I don't think I made a lot of progress in the last few months. Am I just being too impatient, or I am doing something wrong?
Not Tao, modified 8 Years ago at 3/8/15 12:30 PM
Created 8 Years ago at 3/8/15 12:30 PM

RE: Am I doing samathi all wrong? (Answer)

Posts: 995 Join Date: 4/5/14 Recent Posts
Hey Luke,

I won't say you're doing it wrong, but you're definately expending a lot more effort than you need to.  If this is causing you frustration and making it difficult to keep up practice, then it might be useful to try something else. I have a thread where I outlined my own method here:

I think the main problem you might be dealing with is this idea that concentration is a forced activity. It's actually the exact opposite - concentration is just a lack of mental movement. This lack of mental movement comes from decreased interest in the contents of the mind, not increased focus on them while trying to bat them all away. Consider this: have you ever been watching a movie, playing a game, or reading a book and been so engrossed that you didn't even realize someone was talking to you? Or, in that same example, do you have any trouble paying attention to the story line or keeping yourself focused? The reason the attention stays still on the object is because you're so interested you just forget about everything else.

So when you're meditating for tranquility, you just want to stop paying attention to anything besides the object. There is no need to expend extra effort to stay on the object because it's the only thing you're not ignoring. If you're watching your mind for distractions, you're actually paying extra atrention to the content of your thoughts, and it's easy to get caught up in trying to fix them or change them when, really, all you have to do is ignore them.

Something that might also help is to realize that concentration is not a feeling. When you suddenly notice "hey, I haven't been concentrating!" do you tense up or feel some kind of clenching or thrusting towards the object? This kind of thing happens a lot, but it really has no purpose. If you feel a physical or emotional reaction when trying to concentrate, you should realize that this is actually the new object of your attention and drop it like any other distraction. By focusing on the tension to make it feel like concentration is happening, you're actually just distracting yourself from the object and taking that tension as an object instead. Our minds are tricky, eh? emoticon

So maybe the most helpful thing for you is a change in the way you think about concentrating. If you forget the word "concentration" completely, and use the word "tranquility" instead it might be helpful to you. If you are worried about something, or you feel angry or sad, what's the fastest way to escape these feelings? To forget about them. When you have a thought stream and you suddenly notice you haven't been watching the breath, take a moment to notice the tension attached to that thought stream, and watch how this tension goes away as you go back to the breath. That loss of tension is an increase in concentration - it's one less thing fogging up your attention. Going back to the breath changes from a difficult, boring, forced activity to a welcome relief from the tension of thinking and expending effort to solve problems. You start to realize that there relly is nothing required of you at that moment. You don't need to feel anything specific, you don't need to think anything specific, you don't need to resolve any problems or practice for future conflicts. You can just sit and watch the breath, what a relief! When thought streams start up, it feels like an invasion - something is hurting you so you notice it right away and let go. Distractions aren't something to combat, they're something that just don't feel very good, and dropping them completely (forgetting about them) feels good. As you become relaxed, the natural calm state of your mind is revealed to be complete serenity and this feeling creates a rapture that throws you into concentration effortlessly.
Luke Grove, modified 8 Years ago at 3/9/15 2:08 AM
Created 8 Years ago at 3/9/15 2:07 AM

RE: Am I doing samathi all wrong?

Posts: 9 Join Date: 8/5/14 Recent Posts

The "concentration as a forced activity" thing definitely rings a bell. It feels like effort is needed to keep the thought streams from invading, and it does feel like holding the city gates against a battering ram, that is, tension. When I realize that it did not work and I started verbally thinking again, it's not that I forcefully redirect my attention to my breathing, I simply forget about the thought stream and start looking out for new thoughts again. Which is, apparently, not very productive.

Leaving the thought streams does feel like a relief, but somehow my mind keeps being attracted to these nevertheless, and it sort of feels like said tension helps against this. I didn't quite think about the angle that the tension itself is also an object... I think once I get rid of this, the next problem will be how not to be sleepy. The "forced concentration" thing definitely helps against that.

Thanks for the reply and for the link! It definitely helped get at least one of the misconception out of my system emoticon
John Power, modified 8 Years ago at 3/9/15 3:25 AM
Created 8 Years ago at 3/9/15 3:25 AM

RE: Am I doing samathi all wrong? (Answer)

Posts: 95 Join Date: 3/16/14 Recent Posts
Heey Luke Grove,

I think that some quote's from Sayadaw U Tejaniya can help you.

22. The more you concentrate or focus on an object, the more energy
you use. This makes the practice difficult and tiring. Your mindfulness
may actually slacken. When you then become aware of
this, you will probably try hard to build up the level of mindfulness again.
Which, of course, means using even more energy.

23. When you put in too much effort to be mindful, you will spend
your energy too quickly and therefore you will not be able to
maintain mindfulness throughout the day. If you practise in a
relaxed way, you will conserve energy and be able to practise
for long periods of time. If you are a long term meditator you
cannot afford to waste your energy. Meditation is a life long
undertaking. It is a marathon, not a 100 metre dash.

24. See each and every moment as a valuable opportunity for the
development of awareness but do not take the practice too seriously.
If you are too serious about it, you become tense and are no longer natural.

25. Once you know how to relax, you become sensitive to your
own needs. You will then know when you are using energy
unnecessarily, and also learn to conserve your energy.

27. The wandering mind is a natural mental activity. If we keep
pushing it away we are not accepting what’s natural. Once we
accept this, i.e. have the right attitude, watching the wandering
mind be comes easier. In the beginning you may often lose yourself
in thought, but that is okay. Over time and with practice,
you will start observing the wandering mind as ‘just thoughts’
and get lost in it less and less often.

Because using to much effort, you will get sleepy and tired. So when you learn to relax and to have the right attitude, then automatically the sleepiness goes away.

Luke Grove, modified 8 Years ago at 3/10/15 2:12 AM
Created 8 Years ago at 3/10/15 2:12 AM

RE: Am I doing samathi all wrong?

Posts: 9 Join Date: 8/5/14 Recent Posts
They are indeed fitting emoticon
tom moylan, modified 8 Years ago at 3/13/15 4:01 AM
Created 8 Years ago at 3/13/15 4:01 AM

RE: Am I doing samathi all wrong?

Posts: 896 Join Date: 3/7/11 Recent Posts
howdy luke,
the things you are describing could be related to where you are on the continuum.  have you had distinct A&P experiences at any point?  what you are decribing sounds to me a classic stage 5 mind.  dissolution.  i know you are working on concentration at the moment but your current level of attainment will inform your experience.

for example, the things you are focusing on are pretty specific and narrow, which is right in the context of concentration of course but more diffiicult if you are in dissolution as compared to the 3Cs stage.  it doesn't mean that you shouldn't keep trying to improve your shamata but it may be helpful to open up and try a broader object for your practice...less center-focused, and see if that helps. 

one possibility is focusing more on the 'process' or 'flow' of the breath sensations in your whole body or abdomen instead of the brush of air or the tempereature of the breath.

so..A&P already?


CJMacie, modified 8 Years ago at 3/13/15 7:09 AM
Created 8 Years ago at 3/13/15 7:06 AM

RE: Am I doing samathi all wrong? (Answer)

Posts: 856 Join Date: 8/17/14 Recent Posts
Your routine and the results sounds familiar to aspects I experienced on a similar path.

A couple of things that helped break through that:

1) Try sitting 40, 50 minutes, an hour or more. Somehow the mind just has to run and play awhile until it's ready to settle down. Even now, when (hard) Jhana is usually readily accessible for me, is usually takes 30-40 minutes for things to quiet down (internally) to even approach access concentration. At 50-70 minutes unexpected calm can arise, and just continues to deepen (until distracted by joint aches or full bladder).

2) On the several retreats where I struggled along before a breakthru, and even after, it always seems the first sit of the day doesn't like to settle into concentration much. Similarly late at night when energy is drained. The most fruitfull times have been mid- to late-morning, and mid- to late-afternoon, after the post-prandial (after eating) drowsiness turns into alert and surging energy.

3) Guided meditation by someone who's mastered it for several decades also helped a lot; being shown step-by-step how the mind floats deeper, feeling more and more safe and secure, with more relaxed letting-go (but not of alertness), and how the object-nimitta (breath at the nostrils / lip) seems to get slowly closer and closer, ever bigger and bigger until, suddenly, it swallows the mind, the mind falls into (absorption).

4) Solitude / "seclusion of the senses" -- Relavent on "retreats". Four years or so I went on multiple 7-10 day "concentration" retreats, struggling all the way,  before noticing how much noise and other distraction comes with being in a room with 20-40 people, creaking chairs, people always coming late, coughing and sniffling, etc. And regimented schedule, with sitting periods most often only 40-45 minutes. And having it sink in how the sutta descriptions specify seclusion -- an abondoned hut, charnal ground, roots of a (big) tree, etc. Finally I started sitting in the bed-sleep room, or off somewhere unlikely to be disturbed; and more freely structuring time and being away from people altogether.

Once the ability for jhana is more established, I can easily create, or maybe re-discover the place of "seclusion of the senses" in the noisy meditation hall, during a talk, etc. But before that it was really annoying and frustrating.
Luke Grove, modified 8 Years ago at 3/14/15 4:20 PM
Created 8 Years ago at 3/14/15 4:20 PM

RE: Am I doing samathi all wrong?

Posts: 9 Join Date: 8/5/14 Recent Posts
As for A&P... people disagree:

It's certainly one interpretation of this experience.  It's also a fact that lately my emotional world in the everyday life became much more negative, but so far, I assumed that this is independent from my meditation practice.
Luke Grove, modified 8 Years ago at 3/14/15 4:25 PM
Created 8 Years ago at 3/14/15 4:25 PM

RE: Am I doing samathi all wrong?

Posts: 9 Join Date: 8/5/14 Recent Posts
That's a comprehensive answer emoticon I guess I'll try a few longer sessions and see how well it works. I have the luxury of doing this in an empty apartment (or with other people sleeping) so external influences are not a big problem.
tom moylan, modified 8 Years ago at 3/16/15 7:15 AM
Created 8 Years ago at 3/16/15 7:15 AM

RE: Am I doing samathi all wrong?

Posts: 896 Join Date: 3/7/11 Recent Posts
Hi luke,
i went back and checked your thread.  i even commented on that one!  my guess would be that you had not passed the A&P at the time of writing that post and that what you were describing are the first two stages of insight, namely: the knowlege of mind and body and the knowlege of cause and effect.

that you can enter them readily is great.  some people blaze over these without even noticing them.  i bet a good solid focused weekend retreat would push you over the A&P.
Luke Grove, modified 8 Years ago at 3/19/15 3:02 PM
Created 8 Years ago at 3/19/15 3:02 PM

RE: Am I doing samathi all wrong?

Posts: 9 Join Date: 8/5/14 Recent Posts
If I could emoticon I somehow lost the ability to tune into these things since then. Nothing lasts, I guess.

I am toying with the idea of doing such a retreat, but it turns out, it's remarkably hard to convince myself to do so. Cue the theory about the human mind having a hard time accepting the fact that nothing lasts...
b man, modified 8 Years ago at 3/20/15 12:56 PM
Created 8 Years ago at 3/20/15 12:56 PM

RE: Am I doing samathi all wrong?

Posts: 199 Join Date: 11/25/11 Recent Posts
Luke Grove:
I am toying with the idea of doing such a retreat, but it turns out, it's remarkably hard to convince myself to do so....

this is how I feel about going to the gym, doing a long run, going on a first date, etc etc. The key is the know that you will feel awesome after you have done it, (including going on retreat) and so just overrule yourself and do it anyway based on the fact you know it will make you feel amazing.