Access Concentration - How to?

Darrell, modified 5 Years ago.

Access Concentration - How to?

Posts: 143 Join Date: 2/22/15 Recent Posts
It seems the acquisition of concentration is something that comes with difficulty for most everyone. I've read of a few different approaches to getting access concentration. There's the focus on an object, as well as focus on an object with some type of counting. Then there's the method suggested in MCTB that you just hold on to the breath or other object of concentration like a rabid dog. Thinassaro Bhikkhu likens this to trying to hold a ball under water, and that it will back fire on the person trying to make that approach work.

In the experience of you folks who've crossed that boundary, what do you believe to be the most direct and/or effective method?

I recall hearing Culadasa say that he felt it was simply a matter of just having to keep doing for an given number of hours. That after a given time, enough practice would just push a practioner over the line. That sounds somewhat unreliable to me, as a person could go on indefinitely waiting to arrive at the desired destination.

Thank You
C P M, modified 5 Years ago.

RE: Access Concentration - How to? (Answer)

Posts: 219 Join Date: 5/23/13 Recent Posts
If I remember right, Culadasa says that a student can get a good level of concentration with a year of persistent practice.   It took me longer than that, but I got gradual improvement with persistent effort.

I found there are always lots of subtle adjustments that you have to make, along with the continuous monitoring.   It would be difficult for me to describe to someone else what needs to be done to drop all thoughts and stay with the breath.  It's just a matter of the practicing.  Occasionally you can sometimes pick up good pointers from others that may help.

Around the same time I started meditating, I was pursuing a hobby of trials bicycle riding.  One of the first techniques to learn is something called a track stand.  That's where you sit on the bike, feet on the peddles, balancing – without actually moving –.

This is very hard to do when you first try. It took me one or two seasons of consistent practice to be able to stand on the bike for a minute or two without losing my balance.  I saw a lot of similarity in this skill development with meditation development.  When the “balance” is right, everything works great.  But in the same way, I wouldn't be able to tell someone how to do a track stand.  You just have to spend the time, trying, watching, lots of subtle adjusting and tweaking...
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Jon, modified 5 Years ago.

RE: Access Concentration - How to? (Answer)

Posts: 7 Join Date: 7/17/15 Recent Posts
Hi -- I'm a student of Culadasa's and did a pretty long retreat with him recently. He used to say that any diligent student could master the ten stages of samatha-vipassana, as he delineates them, within six months or at most a year. He no longer says that and is generally more circumspect about laying out timetables for how long certain measurements of progress should take.

To my knowledge, he still feels that anyone without serious mental problems can eventually reach the highest stages of concentration with diligent and consistent practice, even if the time it takes may vary. I have pretty serious ADHD, and I was still able to develop pretty strong attentional stability. When I described my experience to Dan Ingram last year, he said it was hard jhana. Culadasa applies different definitions and called the same experience pre-jhanic, possibly a light form of access concentration. 
C P M, modified 5 Years ago.

RE: Access Concentration - How to?

Posts: 219 Join Date: 5/23/13 Recent Posts
I admire Culadasa's teaching.  I'm curious, how long was your retreat, and how did it go?
Darrell, modified 5 Years ago.

RE: Access Concentration - How to?

Posts: 143 Join Date: 2/22/15 Recent Posts
CPM and Pucchaka,


Thank you, that's very helpful. It's encouraging and msomething to work with and from. I can relate to it terms of practice, having years of practice with an unrelated disicpline and seeing results over time. And to know that it is understood that the amount of time varies reminds me to be patient, while remaining diligent.

It's been about a decade of regular meditation. The problem for me was the idea of concentration didn't come up until the last year. Early on I was part of a Soto Zen sangha early on. There the training was basically, sit like this, when thoughts arise allow them to arise and pass on their own, unimpeded, keep your focus in between your eyes about an inch in front of your face. Nothing, and I mean *nothing* about concentration ever came up.

Good thing all of you are here. Thanks to everyone else for their input as well, there's a lot of great input, ideas and insight in this thread.
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Vuthy Ou, modified 5 Years ago.

RE: Access Concentration - How to?

Posts: 24 Join Date: 3/8/15 Recent Posts
Hi Darrell,

I just got easy, consistent access concentration a couple of months ago after struggling since January. I don't know if it is more just a function of effort and time or if it was a change in how I practiced. 

Here's what I did when access concentration became a given.

10-15 minutes of heartfelt metta at the beginning of a sit. It shifts me from active/doer-mode to listen/observe-mode. After that, I notice how nice and blank the visual field is and I notice some corresponding relaxation in the body. I check out the mental chatter - if it is there, I ask myself - "What will it think of next?" and really watch out for it - like a hawk. Then it almost always keeps quiet. I keep shuffling attention between visual blank, mental-chatter blank, and body relaxation and - bam - the breath is super-easy to "hold on to" and piti arises within a few minutes.

I want to emphasize the shift in mode - from "doer" to "listener". Heartfelt metta just puts me in that space and these days, that's all I need to get access concentration and piti.

Best of luck!
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Don Merchant, modified 5 Years ago.

RE: Access Concentration - How to?

Posts: 202 Join Date: 6/9/15 Recent Posts
Vuthy Ou,

Thanks for this post. You are onto something, I believe.

Just today in my session before bed, I was trying for concentration on the breath. My efforts were on and off, and I started to feel frustrated. So I asked, what now? How do I get past this? I suddenly felt a shift, and I started doing some metta. It just came on and felt so natural that I went with it. After a bit of that I was able to fall right into breath concentration. Can't explain how or why it happened, it just seemed to slide into the metta after I asked a few questions.

So, I believe there is more to this metta than we might think. For me, it would be more than I'm sure I know about metta. Still learning so much on so many things.
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Vuthy Ou, modified 5 Years ago.

RE: Access Concentration - How to?

Posts: 24 Join Date: 3/8/15 Recent Posts
Another thing that made Metta really resonate for me was the creation of a "custom" set of verses. The standard phrases can now get some good feelings going, but at first they seemed a little hollow and clunky, so I made up my own. Goes something like this:
  • May X be forgiven for any harm X has done, any harm X is doing, any harm X will do, may X accept that forgiveness, may my/his/her/their heart be free of guilt and shame.
  • May X forgive all beings for any harm they have done, any harm they are doing, any harm they will do. May X's heart be light and unbounded.
  • May X be shown unconditional love and compassion. May X be understood. May X accept that love, that compassion, and that understanding.
  • May X radiate unconditional love and compassion. May X understand. May X's heart be full and generous.
  • May X's suffering come to an end. May X's heart be free of fear, anger, hatred, clinging, shame.
  • May X find true happiness. May my/his/her/their heart be full of love, joy, courage, and rest. May X be truly happy.
  • May X be free. May X be free. May X be free.
I normally start with me, some particular person who I know is suffering, my loved ones/friends in general, people that have caused great harm, then - finally - all beings.

It helps me to whisper or mouth these phrases - makes it more real. The more I visualize faces, bring up memories of suffering, stories of war, images of animal torture/slaughter, imagine the mental anguish of those that actively hurt others, the more physical sensations associated with compassion arise. Likewise, it's helpful to visualize smiling faces, remember feelings of peace and rest and joy to back up the appropriate phrases. When I get to "May X be free", I "send" out whatever tingly compassionate energy or pressure has built up in my body in all directions. By the time I'm done, all that's left is quiet and contentment - easy to watch breath after that, but piti does come in quick.

Doing this shifted me from "pushing" in my meditation to "being pulled". I hope it's helpful for other realtively new yogis. 

HA! Here's hoping this doesn't come across as hollow and clunky. Point is to come up with phrases/phrase order/visualizations that resonate with you and get that good will pumpin'.

Best wishes.
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Don Merchant, modified 5 Years ago.

RE: Access Concentration - How to?

Posts: 202 Join Date: 6/9/15 Recent Posts
Vuthy Ou,
Thanks for that reply :-) That helped even more than your first post.

I like what you have come up with for your metta. It seems more natural to me than what I've read so far on "what to say".

I also get what you meant by being pulled instead of pushing. Thats how it felt to me. I just slid into it with very little effort.

Thanks again, this was helpful.
Darrell, modified 5 Years ago.

RE: Access Concentration - How to?

Posts: 143 Join Date: 2/22/15 Recent Posts
Vuthy Ou,

I'm curious - how does the metta practice shift from active/doer mode to listen/observe mode? I can see how watching like a hawk for the mental chatter would cause that, but the metta practice doing so doesn't compute.
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Vuthy Ou, modified 5 Years ago.

RE: Access Concentration - How to?

Posts: 24 Join Date: 3/8/15 Recent Posts
Not entirely sure. I suspect that it shifts my focus away from a place of lack and want and agitation - "man, I want a good meditation today", "hope I get stream entry", "I hope (insert regular life problem here) goes away or resolves itself", "man I'm tired", etc. - to a place of giving.

When I'm truly giving, it seems that the heart doesn't want anything, it's content, it's open and everything is fine.

Relationship seems to go like this. It's like in order to send out metta, the mind/heart needs to be content. When the heart/mind is content, it just wants to send out metta. Nice self-perpetuating cycle. When i utter final "May all beings be free". It's like, boom, mission accomplished. And now all I've got is this super pleasant, content mindstate. What do I do with it? Well, nothing I want at the moment, so I might as well chill out, listen, and observe.

To me, real listening to anything - breath, sensations, and people, requires a calm, content heart/mind. Not one with an agenda/desires/requests/demands.

Bonus - this content heart/mind state happens to be very malleable. The mind just does whatever I ask it to do - watch breath - okay, gladly. Watch piti - ok gladly. Much better than having to wrestle or discipline the mind. Nice to start Vipassana here although DN territory brings back some agitation for me.

I hope this helps. Take whatever I say with a grain of salt. Haven't been doing this stuff very long and am likely deluded.

Best of wishes.
V
Darrell, modified 5 Years ago.

RE: Access Concentration - How to?

Posts: 143 Join Date: 2/22/15 Recent Posts
I enjoy your humility, but even if I take what you say with a grain of salt, I take note of everything as I never know when it might prove helpful. And those things that never come back up (it's really surprising how much I remember, even if I have forgotten it, and something comes along that triggers recall) weren't a waste of time, so it's all to the good.


If I were to consolidate into one, and sum up what everyone has had to say here, it would be this: Consistent, diligent practice, done with setting aside striving, will eventually, even inevitably, result in concentration. The variable is time based on the particulars of each persons unique circumstances.
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Chris J Macie, modified 5 Years ago.

RE: Access Concentration - How to?

Posts: 863 Join Date: 8/17/14 Recent Posts
re: Darrell (7/20/15 10:10 PM as a reply to Vuthy Ou.)
" If I were to consolidate into one, and sum up what everyone has had to say here, it would be this: Consistent, diligent practice, done with setting aside striving, will eventually, even inevitably, result in concentration. The variable is time based on the particulars of each persons unique circumstances."

Great thread, good insights and leads…

Some further aspects:

'Access'  or 'neighborhood' concentration seems, across its various interpretations, to imply asort of gateway to different sorts of deeper concentration. Ingeneral it includes a sense of (temporary) seclusion from extraneous, particularly disturbing, distractions.
 
In the Mahasi-type approach, it seems a gateway to intense momentary (khanika) concentration, mentalfixation on some phenomenal (sensate) process, notably the changing nature of it, with a view towards deconstructing ("knowing") the mental activity – aka vipassana jhana.

(Momentary concentration is also commonly known as that of the musician, the b rain surgeon, the safe-cracker, the sniper, etc.; it's intense and in itself pleasant, as secluded from all other concerns, but doesn't necessarily implyvirtuous (kusala) purpose or outcome.)

In the Visudhimagga-type (e.g. PaAukSayadaw) approach, it's considered the gateway to absorption ('hard') jhana, where the mind becomes absorbed in the image of a fixed, motionless object of attention. Technically, access is said to be seclusion from the '5 hindrances' (sense desire, aversion,dullness, aggitation, and uncertainty). That means the mind, temporarily, feels totally safe, secure. And that's a precondition for this kind of absorption that involves a profound 'letting-go', which is impossible with any kind of lurking insecurity.

As for metta used for absorption concentration, there are a couple of aspects not often mentioned in standard teaching contexts.
 
All the material in the Sutta-s points to cultivating an extended, unbounded state of mind immersed in goodwill. The texts mention radiating goodwill in all directions, to all types and sizes of beings, without preference or personal association / relationship (hence unbounded). And it is said to invoke (hard) jhana, as signified by the term frequently used: 'ceto-vimutti' ('liberation of the mind').

The method of using repeated verbal metta phrases with reference to a series of particular (human) individuals, on the other hand, evolved in the Pali commentaries (but is not found anywhere in the Sutta-s) as a sort of alternative pragmatic approach to help develop and lead into the unbounded state of mind. (Modern, especially Western Buddhism has latched onto this method, rather then the other perspectives in the Sutta-s, asmore accessible, more psychologically appropriate to lay practitioners.)

At a recent retreat, the teacher (a Western-born monk with 35-years training and practice in Asia) gave some insight into technique that bridges these two approaches. He said that the image of a particular person can be held in mind, as a vivid but static picture, as the object of concentration. Given seclusion from disturbance / distraction, this image, and the associated feeling, can become a nimitta, or counterpart sign, a purely mental image, into which the mind can absorb into har djhana. In terms of practice, I found this very useful.
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Paul Kinkade, modified 5 Years ago.

RE: Access Concentration - How to?

Posts: 19 Join Date: 8/4/14 Recent Posts
I got serious about practice in January, practicing 1 hr/day in the spring and 3+ hrs/day this summer. I'm not there yet but I definitely notice a horsepower and confidence that wasn't there before. At this pace I could be at access concentration by fall or the end of the year.

What has been working for me is learning very clearly, in a direct experiential way, the difference between effort and striving. The MCTB rabid-dog approach works great if the effort is pure effort, but the problem is that for most people it comes along with tons of other stuff like physical tension, thoughts of self-judgement, analyzing their meditation, loathing their distractions, trying to push distractions away, etc. None of that stuff has anything to do with meditation because meditation means returning to your object. So develop a lot of mindfulness for sorting out exactly what is your actual physical object, and what is something else. And then learn to let those physical sensations arise without forming tension in the body. If the other thoughts keep arising, let them, just keep developing a tangible sense of what your actual object feels like in contrast to everything else.

Practice consistenly and with determination.

-Paul

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