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The Trick is to Keep Breathing

The Trick is to Keep Breathing
5/11/15 1:21 PM
Goal: short term: first jhana (or, as I've been calling it, getting out of my own way)

Breath as meditation object, with noting.

Most of my meditation sessions are timed; usually 30 minutes with at least 1 60 minute session per week.

Daily meditation since November 20, 2014.

I don't intend to post daily comments on my sessions, just things that seem to be significant occurrences or sticking points in my practice.

Current micro-goal is to be aware of as many sensations associated with the breath as I can, distinguish which are truly physical, which are mental creations, and note distracting thoughts as early as possible. (or, to get rolled less by passing thoughts)

So, to start,

On a recent business trip, I decided to break the flight up into 30 minutes of reading, 30 minutes of meditation. First few sessions I fell asleep during meditation, and I don't usually have that issue.
Happened again after I was meditating in my hotel room.

On reflection, I realized I'd gotten slack about establishing a resolution or goal for each session. Fixed that, and I'm amazed how important that is.

The night before my speaking engagement, I woke up in a panic (quelle surprise!). In response, I rolled onto my back, ran through my pre-meditation process, including resolution, and started to observe my breath.
Well, the panicky feeling was rather insistent, so I made that the object of meditation, with the intent to build as detailed a picture of "panicky feeling" as I could.
If anyone is interested, on that night, "panicky" is blue, somewhat of an irregular rectangle, with one side that extended out side my body on the right side, it sat on my chest, was moderately heavy but not crushingly so and had a strong rapid heartbeat (well I did).
The interesting part is that as I focused on 'panicky' and observed as many attributes as I could, the regular cast of distractions started to crop up (song fragments, sentences from books or emails, etc.)
I had the sudden realization "My mind isn't even interested in its own stories."
With continued attention the blue panicky thing got smaller, less distinct, wispy and eventually went away. Back to breathing....

Finally, for this post, I've been noticing (and noting) that I'm smiling slightly as I focus on the breath, and that when it's going well, I have a mental "posture" that is light, loose, attentive, ready to respond. 

RE: The Trick is to Keep Breathing
5/15/15 10:39 AM as a reply to Scott Kinney.
Based on a comment in another thread, I started this week attempting to consciously create the mental "posture" that I've associated with meditation going well.  Sometimes I can, sometimes I can't, sometimes it's only close to that same posture.

How I do that is that each time I focus on (or re-focus on) the breath, I set the entire state/posture/attitude.

RE: The Trick is to Keep Breathing
5/20/15 9:47 AM as a reply to Scott Kinney.
The reset practice is going well. From time to time I will also attempt to 'set' the same state outside of meditation; walking the dogs, cooking, etc.

Last night, while playing bridge, I noticed that I slipped into that state without consciously trying to establish it. Very interesting.

RE: The Trick is to Keep Breathing
6/4/15 1:46 PM as a reply to Scott Kinney.
A couple of things to note;

In meditation, some kinds of thoughts that had been interruptions (or stolen focus) in past sessions are now fading quickly away after an initial noting. Put in other words, where a snatch of music, for example would require some repeated notings before it would go away, now become fuzzy, indistinct and small after a single noting. They also, in general, seem less intrusive.

Starting to develop a sort of 'bestiary' of common distractions/thoughts, both in meditation and in walking around daily life. The recurring themes are interesting.

Listening to dharma talk on "Concentrating the Mind" I saw parallels between the quality of concentration and the qualities of grip strength/endurance for kettlebell/clubbell sports, (among other things). Holding a clubbell too tightly is exhausting and does permit the person to complete their training session (you can also get hurt), while adopting a more dynamic, responsive grip is more effective and efficient. Concentration in meditation has a similar quality.

(other people reading this probably already know all this, these are just things I'm discovering along the way.)

RE: The Trick is to Keep Breathing
6/15/15 1:43 PM as a reply to Scott Kinney.

I was feeling a bit out of balance a week ago and realized that I was zoning in on the technical practice of meditation, neglecting the spiritual. So, I started to dedicate some time each day to either reading, dharma talks or re-learning tonglen practice.

I'd been a little fuzzy on the concept of suffering, and then had a small insight one evening when I was trying to re-settle after waking up from sleep. My mind was just an absolute jumble of sounds and images, and I found myself saying something my wife says when my office is in shambles "How can you possibly work in here?" and it just felt sad and horrible. The contrast to how I feel when meditation is going well was startling.

I sat for a 1 hour session this weekend, first time in a couple of months. I noted a few things; I'm getting slightly better at early-phase noting, I think where other thoughts or feelings sneak in is during the pauses between inhale and exhale (because I wasn't paying attention to them!!), there were times where everything was all golden, and other times where there seemed to be a lot of richness to the breath. 2 last things of note from that session; I wasn't plagued with "has it been an hour yet?" or time-checking type thoughts, and, just about 2 seconds from the end of the hour, my eyes snapped open.

RE: The Trick is to Keep Breathing
7/15/15 1:48 PM as a reply to Scott Kinney.
A bit of a grab-bag from the past month...

I'm taking an online Pema Chodron course on shenpa, and having some seat-time in noting practice comes in very handy, as does the concept of a mental bestiary...

I had a week or so where my experience while sitting was as sharp or distinct as it had been in the past. Things seemed surrounded by a grey fog, and in some ways noticing the sensations of the breath seemed to be on autopilot.  Rereading Practical Insight Meditation, passages on becoming "lazy" leapt out. So, I reread those sections, sections of watching the breath from MCTB (I and II), and re-engaged myself.

Reading the Dhammapada, and re-reading some of my old Chogyam Trungpa books. (really a case of wishing I'd understood really what he was saying 20 years ago when I first read it.... tant pis)

When I added the practice of noting the changeover from inhale to exhale, and from exhale to inhale as "resting", I also noticed that I had the mental picture of these transitions being little silver tabs at the end of the breath, that I had to tag by noting.

Taking a step forward from 'noticing as many sensations associated with the breath as I can' to 'being clear about the arising and passing of each sensation',  I have to take a little step back; noting beginning and ending of sensations in just a couple parts of the breath in detail. As my capacity builds, I will add more parts of the breath sensations, with their arising and passing.  When doing this I feel my awareness slide down from my head into my torso, so it seems like I'm feeling things more directly, not so much being in my head.

I had occasion to laugh heartily at myself the last couple of days. In one sitting, I had the experience of a light opening up in the center of my forehead (so distinct that it made me straighten up in my seat). At one level, I noted it and went back to my breath. At another level, I was thinking "wow, this could be something". As soon as that second thought arose, the feeling faded. I noted that and went back to breathing. Then the next distraction was "how do I get that back",  which I had to note a couple of times before going back to the task at hand. I'll see if the temptation to chase the sensation dies down after repeated noting.

I have come up with a mantra of sorts for certain distracting thoughts. "F**k it. I have something else to do" and go back to the breath. I use it primarily to refocus during daily activities, and not during sitting meditation.

RE: The Trick is to Keep Breathing
7/21/15 2:47 PM as a reply to Scott Kinney.
I had one of those "Have I been doing this wrong?" moments this week. In re-reading some of the instructions in MCTB (including the updated versions), I thought, "I've not been focusing on the sensations per se, I've been focusing sensations occuring in specific spots" (So, the nostrils for example, or the tan tien, I can watch them twinkle on and off as the breath passes by, for lack of better terms)  Kind of like watching fish swim by a portal in a submersible, you're seeing fish for sure, but just the ones passing in front of the window, and sometimes really, you're just looking at the window itself.

So, I played with being somewhat literal, How many sensations associated with the breath can I be aware of on one inhale or one exhale, and can I catch the changeover.

First thing that happened, was that I became aware of the quality of the air; temperature, humidity, smells and so on. Second, was learning that no two breaths are alike; there are subtle differences, and different sensations take precedence on different breaths. This made it just like it just like the sort of engaging video game that Daniel describes; you just had to watch closely and be ready for anything, and willing to experience any thing.

Once that happend, two other things started happening; a sense of utter joy associated with the breath (particularly when coming back to it after a distraction), like coming back home. The other thing was that sense of light and pressure between my eyes, sometimes sufficienty strong that it corrects my posture...

Thanks to Ian And's General Purpose Jhana thread, I now have a better idea what to do with those 2 things... Thank you Ian And.....

RE: The Trick is to Keep Breathing
10/14/15 10:32 AM as a reply to Scott Kinney.
OK, it's been awhile.

Some bits and bobs; in addition to regular 30 minute sessions, I've added some 1 hour sessions to my practice, and sittings in places like planes, buses, ferries where I don't have textbook conditions.

Still working towards first jhana and have learned a lot about the qualitative differences in concentration for that. The threads discussing approach to jhanas have been very helpful. Yesterday's reference to the 6 Rs was quite timely, although reviewing them, I seem to have recreated the list in my own practice.

More later, have to go now...

RE: The Trick is to Keep Breathing
10/14/15 12:02 PM as a reply to Scott Kinney.
Part Two:

I now have a better handle on the conditions that promote nimitta. I can't quite produce it on demand, however, it's getting more reliable. I had an interesting experience on a recent bus trip to New York.  As we were pulling into the city, I was meditating and a decent feeling of nimitta. I tried to maintain it while walking to my first meeting of the day. Made it about 4 blocks before it faded.

The current thing about the practice is linking to the feelings of joy and bliss consistently. (I wouldn't have thought myself a dour person particularly, but....) working with the "Inner Smile" seems to be helping. (and it's one of the 6 R's!)

There's been beneficial cross-over between meditation practice and Systema practice. Systema encourages you to check in with yourself periodically during the day, identify areas of stress and tension, and allow them to release. It also encourages you, in moments of emotional stress or turmoil to link back to the physical feelings as a way of both gauging their intensity, and determining what it would take to release the same amount of stress if the source were physical instead of emotional.

I'm still consistently working the practices related to shenpa from the Pema Chodron course. It's a work in progress, sometimes I'm more successful than others. And I've noticed that some of my more troublesome habits have become incredibly sneaky.... clearly a sign that I don't know them well enough. 

Humorous noting/meditation story. After reading some material on the nature of concentration leading to first jhana, and listening to a dharma talk or two, I was watching an episode of Doctor Who.  I noted a couple of key things while doing that. 1. Watching the breath is like watching TV in a way, you aren't laser focused on a particular part of the screen or a particular character, you need a broad, relaxed frame of view in order to take it all in 2. I was happy and smiling to myself. From which I took the lesson that in meditation I can connect with even small happinesses to build the overall feelings of joy in breathing, and linking them to the spontaneous feelings of joy I experience on certain breaths.

As always, comments, tips, hints, suggestions or questions welcome.

RE: The Trick is to Keep Breathing
11/5/15 2:50 PM as a reply to Scott Kinney.
Possibly signposts on the road to 1st jhana, possibly not. (more accomplished folks please chime in)

I've noticed recently that when nimitta arises and the breath becomes fine, then the focus shifts from "whole body breathing sensations" to the anapanasati spot. When that occurs, the the breathing - bliss feedback loop gets very intense. I hadn't had that experience when I played with anapanasati as a point of focus before, so I was a little surprised that it happened of its own.

Also, some of the writings on first jhana talk about a white light. In my current sessions, I don't have a white light, however, everything turns white.

Finally, in one session, with the strongest feelings of nimitta and a concentration on the feelings of happiness, there was a distinct feeling of being pulled through a doorway. Of course you can all guess what happened next..... I thought, "I'm being pulled through a doorway." and then it was gone.

Are any of these actual signposts on the road, or just stuff that's happening now and will be replaced by other things later on?

RE: The Trick is to Keep Breathing
1/8/16 3:32 PM as a reply to Scott Kinney.
Some recent experiences.

I've been reading Leigh Brasington's "Right Concentration", and it is very instructive to see the line of development and the factors.
I'm sensitive to the jumping too soon to focusing on bliss or pleasure, however in practice that's self-correcting. If you shift too soon, the bliss isn't any more self sustaining than any other passing thought or sensation.

My working principle is that the happiness and bliss will develop to the point where they are pre-eminent, insistent, and developing like a feedback loop. So, at some point, I'm pretty sure my focus will shift when it must. That could change with practice.

using the appearance of nimitta as a sign post, I've learned that the quality of concentration needed for nimitta can even be momentary. For example, if I've noted a distracting thought or sensation, the instant where I've gathered my concentration back onto the breath, with all the other factors, then nimitta will arise, even if it's just on one momentary exhale...

I've learned more about the right kind of concentration needed. Just a better fine-tuning of loose-tight-loose quality of concentration and observation.  This became really obvious when I used a different object of concentration is a session.  One afternoon, i set my hands on my thighs and focused/watched how many sensations I could be aware of in any given moment. Nimitta did not arise until I was observing the sensations in my hands *and* my thighs (where my hands were resting) at the same time.

RE: The Trick is to Keep Breathing
2/3/16 1:32 PM as a reply to Scott Kinney.
In the past month, I've been able to do some longer sessions 60 - 90 minutes.

In one of the longer sessions, I felt the piti come on at first as a whole-body sensation, then changing to a more liquid-electric tidal feel, then shooting up my spine to light up my head (there was the white light people talk about). I couldn't say for sure if my hair was standing on end, but that's what it felt like. I watched that for a little bit, then it seemed to wash away. As I settled myself to restart concentrating on the breath, just the reset (relaxation, re-smile), revived the sensations of piti. Again, they built up to a very intense rush up the spine to the light, held for a bit, then subsided. That cycle repeated a few more times. Then it got more stable, still intense, but not fading away. 

I kept observing the piti, and watched it move around, opened up to be as aware of every feeling of piti that I could at any moment. There was one very odd image while seeing taking a 'whole body' view of where piti was and wasn't at that moment. My body seemed hollowed out, just a container for the liquid electric energy, then that passed.

At the end of that session, I closed out with another autogenic relaxation to bring the energy out of my head and back through the rest of my body.

The next day sitting, no piti, no nothing, just a session of concentrating on breathing.

The day after that, though, as soon as I'd settled myself, done my initial rituals, I barely started to exhale, when it seemed that my attention "saw" all the little bits of piti present, locked on them and there we were. This time it started more as "floating in a warm bath" bliss, persistent and pervasive, just less intense. I watched for a bit, then recalled Leigh Brasington's suggestion to see if you can turn the volume up and down on the piti. And I could! I could dial it up, dial it down and when it was dialed down, it didn't disappear, it was still there. 
I turned it up, felt the rush up my spine, lighting up my brain, making my hair stand on end, and then this liquid white light (sort of like honey) slowly flowed down from my crown. I stayed with the piti for about 30 minutes at varying levels of intensity. At the end, I closed out the same way I had before.

In subsequent sessions, I've been able to grab the piti right away and maintain it as the object of meditation; varying the intensity, watching it move. From the feeling of an electric liquid, the piti seemed to be more of an electric ivy that would speedily crawl up, with tendrils, leaves and sparkles.

Now, when not sitting, I have an incrementally higher level of basic happiness, smiling more, able to pay better attention to other people, better whole-body or kinesthetic sense while training. Also, the 'reset' protocol I used in the earlier stages is much more accessible in daily life, which has been pretty helpful in times of both physical and emotional stress.

Last night while sitting, when I dialed down the volume on the piti, I felt happiness come up and open my heart. It was like the happiness had been a core the piti-ivy was growing on, and now was accessible. It was a strong feeling, qualitatively way different from the electricity of the piti, more solid, more 'spread out', centered in my heart instead of my spine and head.

It was also a little wobbly. Thoughts that normally wouldn't distract me, now bounced me out of feeling that heart-happiness. When that happened, I reset, turned the volume up on the piti, then turned it down and let the happiness come back up. I stayed with that feeling for about 10 minutes of the session.

RE: The Trick is to Keep Breathing
2/19/16 1:59 PM as a reply to Scott Kinney.
Quick level set: I'm using the jhana descriptions from Leigh Brasington's "Right Concentration". I've found the book to be very helpful.

In what seems to be a relatively short time, 2nd jhana has become stable, and "dial-able". 3rd jhana followed quickly on, and now 4th jhana.

I think it was in MCTB that Daniel talks about after 1st jhana, the others want to show themselves to you. I didn't understand that when I first read it (or even the 2nd and 3rd times). Now I do (or think I do)

Mr. Brasington's suggestion of traversing the jhanas in a single session (1 - 2 - 3 -2 -3 - 4 -3, and so on) has been very instructive.

This week, I've been spending more time settling into 3 and 4, building more experience with them. So far, the more time I spend in 3 or 4, the less fun 1st jhana seems to be. While still electric and energizing, it seems more jittery and jangly.

Also, I had something of a lightbulb moment after one session where it occured to me that working with the jhanas sort of directly showed me  impermenance and not-self. Similar to, but stronger than the similar realization gained from watching the sensations associated with the breath.

In terms of personal life; it's easier for me to be happy, I find myself smiling while working more than I had before. When happy, I'm happier. I have more emotional room for people, it's easier for me to hear what other people are saying, and to step back from knee-jerk reactions. My buttons still can get pushed, just not as often as before, it seems.  Some habitual time-sucks have lost their appeal, others persist.

RE: The Trick is to Keep Breathing
3/28/16 1:16 PM as a reply to Scott Kinney.
Spending more time "resting" or relaxing into jhanas 1 through 4.

After resting in it for a while, 1st jhana isn't quite so jittery feeling. It just has a lot of movement and sensations to it. 

Typical session: autogenic relaxation, brief extension of relaxation, merit prayers, jhanas 1 - 2 - 3 - 2 - 3 - 4 - 3 - 4 - work on transition to 5.

The transition to 5 is challenging, it's a subtle feeling. I used to lose it completely and have to go back to 4th or 3rd to take a run at it again. Now if I lose it, I reclaim it pretty directly. Still haven't progressed to 5th yet. I did have a moment in one session where I seemed to have crossed a threshold into a big space. However, it was a big space with a definite boundary, not the "you can't miss it, it's infinite" description I've seen of 5th.

The work continues.

RE: The Trick is to Keep Breathing
4/11/16 9:46 AM as a reply to Scott Kinney.
Getting a better handle on the feeling of expansion, staying with it more. There are times during the feeling of expansion where I feel briefly fearful or anxious like I shouldn't be there. I take a moment to breath it and let it go and then carry on. The feeling is very very similar to a feeling I get when I look far into the distance, which I noted when I started doing vision training. I've been near- sighted most of my life.

Dedicating more time in meditation sessions (which are about 40-45 minutes long) to transiting from 4th to 5th.

Meditating more at night, or in early morning hours, driven by other demands on my time.

Also, playing more with meditating with eyes open (like in waiting rooms, or on a bus), also playing with going into 2nd or 4th jhana during daily activities. Not as absorbe as during meditation, however, it permits me to conduct myself more "skillfully".

Some people find 1st jhana somewhat addictive, if I was going to get hooked on a particular jhana right now, it would be 4th. It is still, without being dead or sleepy. I like to refer to it as being still and with the ability to respond or go however is necessary. It is a very useful state, particularly for martial arts. Looking forward to seeing what 5th is like.

RE: The Trick is to Keep Breathing
4/28/16 12:39 PM as a reply to Scott Kinney.
We're in the process of moving, and the stresses have sometimes gotten the better of me. Sometimes I have enough distance to avoid "biting the hook", sometimes I don't.  It's better on days when I've either meditated or done some other physical practice. 

I discovered that I could enter something like 3rd jhana while driving; calm, still, content, able to respond, sitting comfortably and without excess tension. Can't be completely absorbed in it, (hey, I'm driving), but it did make it more comfortable. A couple of times my wife would look at me while driving and want to know what I was smiling about...

RE: The Trick is to Keep Breathing
8/2/16 7:21 PM as a reply to Scott Kinney.
Practice over the past three months has been a mixed bag; progress that feels like progress, progress that feels awful, and some discoveries that have helped my practice.

Progress that feels like progress:
While I still haven't gotten to 5th jhana, I've developed a stronger feeling of the expansion. I'm spending more time letting 3rd and 4th jhana settle and deepen before devoting more seat time to attaining 5th.

Progress that feels awful:
I'm seeing more and more of my behavior that is either deplorable or unskillful (depending on how charitable I feel). I'm taken aback by how much of a jerk I can be when I let my immediate reactions fly.  I know this is progress of a kind because it feels very similar to a similar development phase in martial arts; "late phase recognition" you realized you were going to get hit literally right before it happens and you feel powerless to counter or escape. For a period of time it's just awful. Then you start to see things a little earlier, when there's a little more time to respond or change position, then earlier still, and so on. but that beginning phase is really just awful.

I'm going to use the word "refuge" to mean something like "resting in", or "embracing closely for comfort". It's the feeling I used to describe as relief or comfort when I came back to my breath after a distraction. It's the feeling I use to 'settle in' to a jhana and let it get deeper.  It turns out to be a tremendously good technique for insight meditation (at least for me). If I'm feeling a strong emotion like fear or anger; I breathe into it, I settle into it, really rest in it (I call it 'taking refuge'), and let it get as deep as it can. I can then see all the tendrils and connections to other thoughts and behaviors that connect to it. It makes me think of the T-shirt slogan "Sometimes I wrestle with my demons, sometimes we just snuggle."  I think I've done it well when, even if 'resting' in fear, I can feel that little half-smile that comfort brings.

It's what I imagine the technique of 'making friends' with strong emotions to be like. Recently I've begun to apply that sense of friendship to feeling strong emotions but not getting rolled by them.

As always, more accomplished people can correct me or nudge me in a better direction.

P.S. I'm off to a 4-day jiu jitsu camp later this week. I'm going to treat my free time as a meditation retreat; reading my new copy of "Manual of Insight" and having longer meditation sessions.

RE: The Trick is to Keep Breathing
8/3/16 12:06 PM as a reply to Scott Kinney.
Scott, I'm really digging your practice. You seem to be making steady progress. It's making me rethink my approach, making me want to focus more on generating really solid concentration and even getting into jhana before doing any sort of vipassana.

You said you found some threads about jhana that benefitted you, care to post any? I tried to search but the search function is broken. Also upon your recommendation I will be getting Leigh Brasingtons book. Seems really helpful.

RE: The Trick is to Keep Breathing
8/3/16 12:29 PM as a reply to Jake.
Here's the thread I kept going back to:

Once you have Brasington's book, you'll find an appendix titled "In or Out: The Relationship Between Jhana Practice and Insight Practice".

Thanks for the kind words, they come at a good time.

I realize that I neglected to write about my experiences with the merit prayer I say before meditation, that'll be for the next practice log entry.

RE: The Trick is to Keep Breathing
8/3/16 11:22 PM as a reply to Scott Kinney.
Thanks for the link. I was also curious about the resolutions you say before your sits but I did not want to intrude since it could be personal. I am beginning to implement resolutions as well, nothing formal just off the cusp and whatever I plan on doing that sit, and if I say a good one my body starts to tingle.

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