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Practical vipassana jhana
Answer
8/13/15 5:33 AM
Hey, everybody. First of all, since it's my first post, I should say thanks for all the great resources on this forum. Despite having been meditating and doing some sort of enlightenment work almost all my life, I don't feel like I've really gotten anywhere (buy me a drink some time and we can talk about the problems with modern Hinduism that caused this). Fortunately, I happened upon MCTB a couple of months ago, and I've been working a lot harder and more effectively since.

My question is: I've been trying to develop the first samatha jhana and finding it very difficult and a bit frustrating to achieve. I'm still working, but it occurs to me that it might be worthwhile trying to develop the vipassana jhanas first, since 1) stream entry is the most important goal for me right now, 2) this will develop my concentration along with insight, and 3) everyone seems to be saying that it's easier to develop concentration after stream entry anyway. My question is: what should I actually be doing in my sits to try and develop vipassana jhanas? I read in MCTB and various other places the suggestion that I just sit down and observe my experience, but what does that really consist in? Does it basically just mean noting like it's going out of style?

What I've been doing is sitting down, focusing on the breath for a moment to quiet the mind, and then noting everything while using the breath as an anchor. I get distracted a lot, but whenever that happens I just note it. I've tried doing a bit of choiceless awareness, but I found that I got sidetracked from noting a lot more when I did that. I also tried the MCTB exercise of concentrating on the two index fingers, but I don't really feel like I know what to look for. If it helps, I'm also trying to do Mahasi-style noting all day long.

Thanks a lot for your help. I feel like this is the kind of support I've been looking for for years.

[edited for a confusing typo]

RE: Practical vipassana jhana
Answer
8/13/15 7:38 AM as a reply to Ram Subramanian.
hey ram.. ;--)
the vipassana jhanas is simply another way of breaking down, or framing, the "stages of insight".  In my case, this framework tends to mirror the experiences of my sits better than focusing on the 16 stages.

This means that the method one uses is the same, whether noting, open awareness, counting breaths .....

It is really about noticing what your experiences are and then trying to match these to whatever "pattern" you care to. You could use Tibetan maps, the 16 stages of insight, the vipassana jhanas or non-buddhist maps.

And even this is simply a way to track your progress against such formats.  In the end it is the method that works for you which counts and not necessarily the map you use to track your progress.

So, if you are noticing that using noting for example, is moving you through various states (whatever you call them) THAT is the point and tells you that your method is working...or not.

Noting like its going out of style works for me.

Keep posting, especially details of your sits.

Cheers,

tom

RE: Practical vipassana jhana
Answer
8/13/15 10:03 AM as a reply to Ram Subramanian.
Hi Ram

An alternative approach to straight vipassana or straight jhana meditation is offered by the folks over at DSMC (Dhamma Sukha Meditation Center, http://www.dhammasukha.org/). According to the abbot there (Bhante Vimalaramsi), the Buddha's original teachings as documented in the suttas differ from the later teachings described in the commentaries. The original teachings actually yoked the two faces of meditation practice (concentration & insight) together. This 53 minute talk provides a much better description than I can give: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=USJPI7MP3Tw.

I have a similar story to yours, although it sounds as if you have a lot more experience than I do. I started "trying to meditate" about 18 months ago, and really started getting serious about it at the beginning of this year, incorporating concentration practice into my daily schedule. I tried the standard breath meditation techniques that you find on the web and in various books, and was making slow progress, trying to develop one-pointed concentration by focusing on my breath at the tip of my notrils. I had basically resigned myself to the fact that my concentration was just really lousy, and I started to think that I must have ADHD because I could not get my mind to calm down and stay with the breath. I could hold concentration on the breath for MAYBE 10-15 seconds before a hindrance would arise and pull me away. Very frustrating, and it seemed like I was putting in a lot of time and effort for very little return. Needless to say the idea of nibbana seemed pretty far away.

I have been using the "TWIM" (Tranquil Wisdom Insight Meditation) technique now for about 6 weeks, and I feel like I've made more progress in this time than I have in the past 6 months. It's also a lot more fun, very joyous. I can enter into a state of very strong joy (piti) quite easily now, whereas before I was wondering if I would ever make it into the 1st jhana. I can see definite progress on an almost daily basis. And I look forward to practicing (which I'm now doing twice a day) instead of almost dreading it. It is also said that this practice will lead to nibbana if followed as taught (which is as the Buddha taught), and since, like you, I have the goal of stream entry, I feel blessed to have discovered a path that can get me there while increasing the happiness and joy in my life.

Take a look and see what you think. Hope this helps.

Jeff

RE: Practical vipassana jhana
Answer
8/20/15 2:22 AM as a reply to Jeff Wright.
Lots of good advice here! Thanks to both of you. I'm looking into this while continuing to work on noting in daily life.

RE: Practical vipassana jhana
Answer
8/20/15 9:13 AM as a reply to Ram Subramanian.
Be aware, both the Brasington approach and Vimalaramsi's are interpretations created in the last 30 years or so, on the basis of a sort of 20th-century commentary on the sutta-s, heavily influenced by fashionable modern scholastic techniques, and these authors / interpretors tend to express a negative attitude towards the commentarial traditions.

'Jhana' (and Sanskrit 'Dhyana') means most generally something like just 'sitting' with some kind of meditation, so one can call almost anything 'jhana'. This modern interpretation derived in the 1980's, believes that 'jhana' starts off with some vague degree of piti.

The traditional Theravadan interpretation of 'Jhana', rooted in a couple of millennia of lineage transmitted practice, holds that it is marked by a very distinct experience of 'absorption', something very clearly, unmistakably "entered into and abided in".

Run with whatever experiences seems to lead to tranquillity and insight, but be aware that you will run into varying definitions of jhanic experience, which might be confusing at first.

RE: Practical vipassana jhana
Answer
8/20/15 12:05 PM as a reply to CJMacie.
hello chris, 
i dont think the implication that because those teachers are not 2000 years old that their teaching and methods should be suspect.  this place was started in 2009 but i find it t be an invaluable forum.

i like both of the teachers mentioned for different reasons. 

i find leigh brasingtons teachings based solidly on the buddhas' descriptions of the jhanas if couched in non-pali terminology.  his descriptions also mirror my own experience.

my recollection of vimilaramsi's focus is that he uses, chiefly, the satipathana sutta but puts more emphasis on the "calm" phase of the bodily contemplations, which he feels have been given short shrift in modern times. 

its not like there are huge doctrinal or practical differences between what they teach and what the buddha taught in my opinion.  narrowly defining jhanas as something like a well, which, when fallen into, is unmistakeable, is a bit too narrow a definition for me to get behind.

tom

RE: Practical vipassana jhana
Answer
8/20/15 2:05 PM as a reply to CJMacie.
Chris J Macie:
Be aware, both the Brasington approach and Vimalaramsi's are interpretations created in the last 30 years or so, on the basis of a sort of 20th-century commentary on the sutta-s, heavily influenced by fashionable modern scholastic techniques, and these authors / interpretors tend to express a negative attitude towards the commentarial traditions.

'Jhana' (and Sanskrit 'Dhyana') means most generally something like just 'sitting' with some kind of meditation, so one can call almost anything 'jhana'. This modern interpretation derived in the 1980's, believes that 'jhana' starts off with some vague degree of piti.

The traditional Theravadan interpretation of 'Jhana', rooted in a couple of millennia of lineage transmitted practice, holds that it is marked by a very distinct experience of 'absorption', something very clearly, unmistakably "entered into and abided in".

Run with whatever experiences seems to lead to tranquillity and insight, but be aware that you will run into varying definitions of jhanic experience, which might be confusing at first.
Vimalaramsi's interpretation may have been made in the past 30 years, but his claim is that it is closer to what was originally taught by the Buddha, since it is derived directly from the suttas rather than the later commentaries. Whether or not that is true is hard for me to tell. I know there is a lot of fairly heated discussion on whether or not his interpretation is 'correct' (a lot of the argument centering around translation of specifi Pali terms and how they fit into the larger picture of the suttas), but I will stand clear because they tend to turn into flame-wars. I have no vested interest in either of the two interpretations, being as I am a relative newbie to all this stuff. What I can tell you, though, is that the Vimalaramsi method (using Metta as an object of meditation, and the "6R" technique) has been easier and more enjoyable for me to follow than the traditional concentration methods. I can also state that I have experienced very strong joy during these sits, whereas my previous attempts at one-pointed concentration were exercises in frustration.

One attractive element of V's approach (to me, at least) is that nibbana may be realized through this same practice of jhanas. (Please note that V defines "jhana" as "level of understanding," a bit different than some other definitions.) He claims that moving up through the jhanas beyond the mundane leads to supermundane territory: infinite space, infinite consciousness, no-thing-ness, neither-perception-nor-nonperception. Then cessation and nibbana. I have no reason to disbelieve this, but of course I'm nowhere close to this level of realization and attainment, so I can't comment one wy or the other on it.

I agree with your last sentence: "Run with whatever experiences seems to lead to tranquillity and insight."

Jeff

RE: Practical vipassana jhana
Answer
8/21/15 11:45 AM as a reply to tom moylan.
The nice thing, I think, about the commentarial practice is that it leaves little room for guess work. No nimitta, no full absorption? Probably not jhana of any sort. Otherwise, you get all sorts of strange claims like, "I flew out of my chair and into the top of the room, looking down on everyone. I felt happy. Probably second jhana."

The drawback is that it sets a very high bar outside of retreat or super serious @home practice.

Why not lay the claims to one side and simply work on feeling the experience of practice, learning to describe it well, figuring out the way to reliably reproduce the sensations?

RE: Practical vipassana jhana
Answer
9/7/15 8:42 AM as a reply to tom moylan.
re: tom moylan (8/20/15 12:05 PM as a reply to Chris J Macie.)
"i dont think the implication that because those teachers are not 2000 years old that their teaching and methods should be suspect.  this place was started in 2009 but i find it t be an invaluable forum."
What's suspicious is the implication that they (we), suddenly now in our Western appropriation of Buddhism, have discovered the "real" meaning of what the Buddha taught, whereas 2000+ year-old lineages of person-to-person transmission got it all wrong (to paraphrase both Leigh Brasington and V. Vimalaramsi).

Now there are other factors also in play here. Exposure to the older (Asian) traditions has been s/w slow and difficult in the West. Access to competent teachers from those traditions was, until relatively recently, quite limited, and further clouded by cultural barriers, in terms of language and teaching-learning conventions. There's also the matter that fruitful learning and practice is often inherently difficult.

So a lot of effort has gone towards improving accessibility, and a perhaps natural tendency is also to make things easier, which in some cases results in over-simplified interpretations.

The brilliance of the DhO forum ("this place") is in part (IMO) that it encourages practice and dialog at a broad range of levels and interpretations. If DhO were limited to dogmatic following of MCTB it would probably be as popular and active as most of the other forums (i.e. limited to true believers, exchanging a couple of posts per day, or less). That's also because the MCTB approach itself (as also the original Mahasi training) is basically not that easy.

But we all (at least most of us – or maybe I should just speak for myself) started-out with relatively simplified notions and easy steps, the gratification of which fed motivation to go deeper and take on heavier challenges.

"… narrowly defining jhanas as something like a well, which, when fallen into, is unmistakeable, is a bit too narrow a definition for me to get behind."
The metaphor of flying I would prefer to falling into a well – unmistakable but exhilerating, as well as having an aspect of risk. But I was describing an experience more than asserting a definition.

Again, the jhana/dhyana notion allows a broad range of interpretation, of experience. We each go with what works, and that often changes with prolonged practice and the opening of further possibilities – in following Leigh Brasington's, or Vimalaramsi's or any other teaching.

RE: Practical vipassana jhana
Answer
9/8/15 1:04 AM as a reply to CJMacie.
I second Chris' sentiment that I prefer this place to have a diversity of pragmatists and practitioners to those who give precedence to MCTB, not that I don't like MCTB, as I obviously wrote it, but still, what works for you is more important than anything I wrote.

The samatha+vipassana or samatha vs vipassana or samatha then vipassana or vipassana then samatha or vipassana=samatha debates are really, really old, so far as I can tell, and appear in may guises across many interpreters of ancient things. You find the Tibetans debating this independently of the Theravadans. You find the Burmese of various strains debating with the Sri Lankans. You find various Thai Forest masters debating these points among themselves. In short, it is a rich, complex and vibrant continuing conversation that is best informed by practice and exploration and deep contemplation of the correlation between these models and our own adventures.

I personally think of them on a spectrum, a continuum, as noted here in my video about my graph of stages of insight and jhanas: you might find that interesting in some way. You are welcome to think of them any way you like that helps you get to know your reality better and train your mind to perceive what you wish to perceive and attain to what you wish to attain.

RE: Practical vipassana jhana
Answer
9/10/15 2:08 PM as a reply to Ram Subramanian.
Ram Subramanian:

What I've been doing is sitting down, focusing on the breath for a moment to quiet the mind, and then noting everything while using the breath as an anchor. I get distracted a lot, but whenever that happens I just note it. I've tried doing a bit of choiceless awareness, but I found that I got sidetracked from noting a lot more when I did that. I also tried the MCTB exercise of concentrating on the two index fingers, but I don't really feel like I know what to look for. If it helps, I'm also trying to do Mahasi-style noting all day long.

Thanks a lot for your help. I feel like this is the kind of support I've been looking for for years.

[edited for a confusing typo]
Ram - i am not an expert on the historical/academic debate about the suttas, so i won't talk about that, but i did want to chime in on your question here.

Echoing some of the earlier responses here, I would suggest looking up Leigh Brasington and also Ayya Khema.  You can find record talks online from both of them (he was her student, fyi) specifically about the jhanas and how to attain them. 

Their instructions really helped transform and improve my practice about two years ago.  If you listen to them, you will see that during the 'ramp up' or access phase, you want to focus more narrowly on the breath (or metta phrases, or whatever).  don't just note everything under the sun.  narrow the 'scope' of your attention to the particular object. 

i quoted your language above, because you still seem to be using a broader focus which is going to make any jhanas more difficult.  as the suttas mention, jhanas are a 'happiness born of seclusion' or something along those lines.  your mind is happy because you are relaxing into the meditative object to the exclusion of worries and craving.  your current practices that you describe are not going to be getting you into jhana territory very easily, they are more for insight.

After doing this jhana practice for a while, you will hopefully get proficient at working with feelings of piti, sukkha, etc. that arise in the material (rupa) jhanas (jhanas 1-4).  I would just focus on those four at first, trying to solidify/strengthen/lengthen them.  That is the advice I received.  Just keep doing the practice over time and you will improve slowly. 

If I can give you my own personal two cents, I would recommend focusing on having a good, strong transition from access concentration to 1st jhana.  (Granted, we aren't talking about some super-strong retreat level of concentration here).  Focus your eyes (w/ eyelides closed) down sort of towards the tip of your nose, without crossing your eyes.  (This point about the eyes was another valuable tip I received)  continually place your attention on the breath and, as Brasington recommends, actually smile.  I find that the feelings of piti (pleasantness) start to arise around my face and are tied to that sensation of smiling.  You are really relaxing and taking enjoyment in the concentration.  But piti can spread elsewhere of course. 

Also, you may need to just focus on the breath in access concentration for a while.  Brasington talks about doing it for 20 minutes or so, if i recall.  After some practice, I find that the jhana factors arise quicker in a particular sitting.  however, you want to just stay in 'access' concentration on the breath for a while to really have that good transition into 1st.

If you focus on building up access concentration on the breath and then getting a strong 'running jump' into piti sensations then you have a better chance at going up the "ladder" to the 2nd, 3rd, 4th jhanas.  A weak start in 1st jhana makes the rest much harder.  By the way, once you get past 1st jhana, the gaze will probably want to defocus, soften, or move elsewhere.

Furthermore, feel free to acknowledge that you are only partway there with any particular jhana, or that you are kind of having a messy, distracted sitting.  maybe just try to get into 1st jhana.  or if you are working on 3 and it still feels incomplete, just give yourself a few minutes of trying to settle into 3rd jhana instead of giving up because you didn't 'stick the landing' immediately.

My last tip would be doing this in a quiet place (or a place where the noises are not distracting, like a train ride), when you are not too tired, and you could also try a coffee beforehand so you don't drift off. 

hopefully you find my comments helpful.  this has been a very valuable practice for me. 

RE: Practical vipassana jhana
Answer
9/11/15 2:43 PM as a reply to Mike H..
Mike H.:
Ram Subramanian:

What I've been doing is sitting down, focusing on the breath for a moment to quiet the mind, and then noting everything while using the breath as an anchor. I get distracted a lot, but whenever that happens I just note it. I've tried doing a bit of choiceless awareness, but I found that I got sidetracked from noting a lot more when I did that. I also tried the MCTB exercise of concentrating on the two index fingers, but I don't really feel like I know what to look for. If it helps, I'm also trying to do Mahasi-style noting all day long.

Thanks a lot for your help. I feel like this is the kind of support I've been looking for for years.

[edited for a confusing typo]



If I can give you my own personal two cents, I would recommend focusing on having a good, strong transition from access concentration to 1st jhana.  (Granted, we aren't talking about some super-strong retreat level of concentration here).  Focus your eyes (w/ eyelides closed) down sort of towards the tip of your nose, without crossing your eyes.  (This point about the eyes was another valuable tip I received)  continually place your attention on the breath and, as Brasington recommends, actually smile.  I find that the feelings of piti (pleasantness) start to arise around my face and are tied to that sensation of smiling.  You are really relaxing and taking enjoyment in the concentration.  But piti can spread elsewhere of course. 

Also, you may need to just focus on the breath in access concentration for a while.  Brasington talks about doing it for 20 minutes or so, if i recall.  After some practice, I find that the jhana factors arise quicker in a particular sitting.  however, you want to just stay in 'access' concentration on the breath for a while to really have that good transition into 1st.

If you focus on building up access concentration on the breath and then getting a strong 'running jump' into piti sensations then you have a better chance at going up the "ladder" to the 2nd, 3rd, 4th jhanas.  A weak start in 1st jhana makes the rest much harder.  By the way, once you get past 1st jhana, the gaze will probably want to defocus, soften, or move elsewhere.

Furthermore, feel free to acknowledge that you are only partway there with any particular jhana, or that you are kind of having a messy, distracted sitting.  maybe just try to get into 1st jhana.  or if you are working on 3 and it still feels incomplete, just give yourself a few minutes of trying to settle into 3rd jhana instead of giving up because you didn't 'stick the landing' immediately.

hopefully you find my comments helpful.  this has been a very valuable practice for me. 
Thanks! Very helpful. (at least to me)

RE: Practical vipassana jhana
Answer
9/14/15 2:20 PM as a reply to Scott Kinney.
you're welcome!   i am happy to talk about jhanas openly, to the extent my experience can help others.  But DHO is pretty much the only place i will do it emoticon