Message Boards Message Boards

Concentration

Why can't I leave my breath alone?

Toggle
Why can't I leave my breath alone?
Answer
12/7/16 10:51 PM
I'm very new to formal meditation practice, but fairly well read on the topic. I'm attempting to achieve access concentration, as described in Daniel Ingram's book, and I've chosen the breath to be my object. I've achieved access concentration once, and only once. I don't know how I did it, or what my practice was at the time.

For those interested, I started my formal practice because of a run of MCBT training. Great stuff.

My current problem is that I can't seem to focus on any expression of the breath, i.e. the sensations of the breath in any part of the body, without starting to consciously control my breathing. This is bad for a number of reasons, and extremely frustrating.

Any advice for a relative beginner? Is this normal? Should I choose a different object?

RE: Why can't I leave my breath alone?
Answer
12/7/16 11:13 PM as a reply to Kieran Sedgwick.
There is really no need to "focus" on the breath. All that is necessary is to keep the mind silent, flexible & awake (free from obstacles). The naturally quiet mind will naturally converge with the breath & know it. The mind knowing breathing is a "sign" that the mind is in a state free from craving & the other mental qualities that Buddhism instructs to give up & abandon. For the properly established mind, there is no choice that the breathing becomes its primary object. 

...

RE: Why can't I leave my breath alone?
Answer
12/7/16 11:43 PM as a reply to Kieran Sedgwick.
+1 for what Nicky said but I would add that you may not have access to such a refined approach yet.  If so, just pick a different object (noting, general somatic awareness, 2nd gear, etc) and attend to that.  Understand the underlying mechanics of the Samatha-Vipassana balance and learn to think of the whole thing in process oriented terms to encourage fluidity between techniques.

I had the same problem with the breath fyi.  It's common, no need to worry.

RE: Why can't I leave my breath alone?
Answer
12/8/16 2:13 AM as a reply to Kieran Sedgwick.
When I first started, the Dalai Lama's instructions helped a lot. He said that the best students, as soon as they found their mind wandered, bring it back to the breath. Most beginners (even advanced practioners) have too much dialogue measuring how bad they are at meditation when the mind wanders. (This is why 45 min to an hour is helpful for deeper meditations). The good students abandon self-recrimination and just go back to the breath. The jhanas happen with letting go of successive layers of tension. So it happens on it's own from the constant letting go and getting back to the breath. Tension is throughout the head and body so relax as much as your sensory field can relax.

Your manipulation of the breath comment was insightful. It helps to notice that your attention span is the problem and the fact that it manipulates the breath means it manipulates other things it focuses on. Make your breath more comfortable (more air or less air depending on what feels good at that moment and adjust as necessary). This way your attention span gets more comfortable at the same time.

A more advanced secret would be to notice that there's a little bit of pain when the attention span moves to control things (including controlling the breath). These are intentions to control. Any intention to control is going to have a little tension/stress involved. Feeling it happen in real time and relaxing the mental movements (and any muscle contractions you are feeling in the head and body), and then returning to the breath can help the concentration. The Buddha's instructions is to relax body and mental fabrications (tensions). The insight is that the negative reinforcement the brain naturally creates is to control what is desirable. It's withdrawal symptoms you feel when you resist. It's like the brain is punishing you for not looking for quick hit of pleasure. By making the concentration enjoyable, and by making the breath enjoyable, feeds the brain a blameless pleasure until you get to the point where you don't fabricate/feed/create tension anymore (if you get that far). Now notice the addiction slide below. You are trying to relax that negative reinforcement. Now imagine anything you could like or get addicted to (used to etc). It's not just drugs and alcohol. It can be relationships, activities, anything you like. Anything you like that is easily taken away from you will elicit a flight or fight response. The strongest addiction is intermittent reinforcement. This is where rewards are more random. The mind stays in anticipation mode expecting a reward a lot longer. Whether it's a slot machine or whether it's interruptions in your meditation. A mind wandering is because it's going back into anticipation mode and hoping to act on something interesting. And that's dopamine that's doing this. It's not just released when you get a reward. It's there during anticipation. It's like that feeling of looking forward to something. Try to look forward to the next enjoyable breath instead.



Another way to improve concentration is a metta practice. Giving love to yourself is extremely healing. Doing psychology for healing wounds in your past can give you the same result as a good meditation, and with less repression. Healthy self-love means you can spread that love to others because you have enough for yourself and can share it with others. Self-love is less competitive than competing for love, attention, approval and security from others. What can't be taken away from you adds to your sense of security, therefore less tension related to control.

Metta

RichardZen

RE: Why can't I leave my breath alone?
Answer
12/8/16 2:16 AM as a reply to Kieran Sedgwick.
That is called Cause and Effect, an insight stage where your attention seems to interfere with the breath. Similar effects can occur with walking practice also and other movements if you notice them very carefully. That is a normal stage, and it passes.

It provides lots of opportunities to notice cool things about attention, intention, movement, and their relationships. Yes, if we have the ideal that the breath must be some specific way it gets annoying for some, but for those who know it is ok, it can be fascinating.

See here: http://www.dharmaoverground.org/dharma-wiki/-/wiki/Main/MCTB+2.+Cause+and+Effect

Thus, unstead of worrying what the breath is doing, just pay attention, and you will notice that the breath does things related to attention. Just keep paying attention, and eventually this will change to the next insight stage when insight matures.

Enjoy the process. These are normal insight meditation effects.

Daniel

RE: Why can't I leave my breath alone?
Answer
12/8/16 6:27 AM as a reply to Kieran Sedgwick.
howdy,
yes..normal and a sign of progress.  the more you breath, the more you stay out of the realm of concepts and notice, just notice the breath as a natural activity that need no support, is always there, doesn't have or need a name you will continue to learn form it.

at some point this will become a very beautiful pastime. you won't be worrying about doing it "right", you may even fall into the beauty of it and some of your questions about it will fall away andyou will slide into a refined state of gentle sensation and an ever deepening refined and uncomplicated experience.

the next stages you will likely encounter will probably be a little more energetic and jagged and surprising though. 

progress happens though by continuing to do what got you to where you are.

RE: Why can't I leave my breath alone?
Answer
12/8/16 9:46 PM as a reply to Kieran Sedgwick.
I struggled with this too when I began practicing. What eventually helped me was two things. First, my teacher at the time (a monk in Mahasi lineage) simply said it was not a problem, and that there is even a vipassana technique in Burma (Sunlun style) that uses active control of the breath. He said we also control the movements of the feet when we do walking meditation and this is not a problem, so why should it be with the breath.
The thing that helped me a lot was to note the control as just another thing to, well, note. You can note "control" or "intending". I was happy to discover this because to me it meant I succeeded in not only observing the body (breath sensations) but also the mind that relates with it (desire to control, intention, etc).

Daniel, wow, I never realized that this issue was a manifestation of cause and effect. The so-called problem is actually really an insight into cause and effect! Makes so much sense. I would be curious to read a description of of how the breath is experienced at each nana stage. I think I'll start a thread on this..

Regards,

Benoit

RE: Why can't I leave my breath alone?
Answer
12/8/16 10:20 PM as a reply to Daniel M. Ingram.
Thanks for the support everyone. Definitely helpful! 

I should have been more specific about a couple of things. I can't recall the exact practice that got me into access concentration, but it was recent and a part of my MCBT training. The techniques are recorded meditations that start strongly guided and progress to the occasional prompt in the latter stages. All of them are mindfulness-based, and some use a milder form of noting. I was performing one of these variations when I achieved access concentration, where distractions were generally gone and focusing my awareness was easy and natural.

Also, the reason I claim this conscious control of my breath to be "bad" is that I've found it very physically unpleasant. I find that when I am controlling the breath myself, I engage muscles that have no business being involved in the breathing process. I've come away from short noting-meditation sessions with soreness in my abdominals. It seems apparent from everyone's feedback that this is from a lack of practice.

Might I have skipped a few steps by jumping cleanly into noting practice? My success before came from more general mindfulness that seemed closer to concentration training than insight, at least as far as I can tell.

All of the feedback from everyone here is extremely encouraging, even when it wandered into the realm of esoteric language that I can't quite relate to. I'm happy to know there's a community around this practice and you will hear from me again! When I have a little more time I'll try to respond to as many of you as I can in this thread. 

Cheers,
Kieran

RE: Why can't I leave my breath alone?
Answer
12/9/16 2:14 PM as a reply to Kieran Sedgwick.
Kieran Sedgwick:
It seems apparent from everyone's feedback that this is from a lack of practice.


It seems apparent from everyone's feedback, except mine, that this is from a lack of practice.

My feedback was that this over controlling & unbeneficial controlling is from too much (contrived) practice.

Regards 

RE: Why can't I leave my breath alone?
Answer
12/9/16 2:41 PM as a reply to Nicky.
Hi Nicky,

I was referring to bad breathing technique being something that can be improved on with practice, since most of the feedback I got indicated that this is a normal part of the path. Having re-read your post I now see I was mistaken about a consensus on that point. That'll teach me not to engage in these discussions while half asleep!

I take your point about a more general state of mindfulness being a more helpful starting point, allowing the mind to settle on the breath when it's ready. At least, that's what I understood from what you said. This matches my first experience with access concentration, where I wasn't doing firm noting practice and was trying to foster a general state of mindfulness like you describe. 

RE: Why can't I leave my breath alone?
Answer
12/9/16 2:57 PM as a reply to Noah D.
Thanks for the response! What is the 2nd gear?

RE: Why can't I leave my breath alone?
Answer
12/10/16 3:56 AM as a reply to Kieran Sedgwick.
Kieran Sedgwick:
 This matches my first experience with access concentration, where I wasn't doing firm noting practice and was trying to foster a general state of mindfulness like you describe. 

This was also my point. Often, the more one tries, the less progress; the less one tries, the more progress. 

There is a difference between practising "yoga" and "Buddhism". 

"Yoga" practice intentionally manipulates the breathing while Buddhism gives up craving (gross intentions). 

Best wishes

Nicky 

RE: Why can't I leave my breath alone?
Answer
12/10/16 1:51 AM as a reply to Kieran Sedgwick.
Kieran Sedgwick:
Thanks for the response! What is the 2nd gear?

1st gear = observe objects
2nd gear = observe subject 
3rd gear = observe total process (both)

Per Kenneth Folk (too lazy for link)

RE: Why can't I leave my breath alone?
Answer
12/10/16 8:50 PM as a reply to Nicky.
Actually, certain stages make it nearly impossible to pay attention to the breath without affecting it in some way: this is normal, and is called the stage of Cause and Effect. It should not be pathologized, just is what it is. Even the sense of controlling things is itself empty, arising on its own, but this is not obvious at this particular stage, so don't worry about it, just keep practicing and it will sort itself out.

RE: Why can't I leave my breath alone?
Answer
1/7/17 8:14 AM as a reply to Kieran Sedgwick.
Kieran Sedgwick:
I find that when I am controlling the breath myself, I engage muscles that have no business being involved in the breathing process.
This occurs for me also.  What has helped me is shifting into doing samatha.  What I did not realize was that I was always doing vipassana when I meditated on the breath.  I was trying to keep up with the breath's sensations as they kept changing at the nose.  This made my body clench uncontrollably, especially in the abdomen and forehead.  The longer I meditated the worse it got, until I was prevented from continuing from headaches or the overwhelming clench effect.  When I distinguished meditating into vipassana and samatha, I noticed that the clentching-controlling of breath reduced the more I used samatha over vipassana. 

RE: Why can't I leave my breath alone?
Answer
1/7/17 8:30 AM as a reply to old dried leaf.
Old Dried Leaf, I'm curious, how did you switch to samatha? Also, the clenching you mention while doing vipassana may be related to the third nana. Or maybe to too much effort trying to notice many sensations. Did you note and investigate those clenching sensations? 

RE: Why can't I leave my breath alone?
Answer
1/7/17 6:22 PM as a reply to Ben V..
@Ben

Before switching from vipassana to samatha, I am focusing on the changing sensations of the breath in the area of the nose entrance.  Once switched to samatha, the focus remains in the same area, however I disregard the changing sensations of breath.  The breath sensations still emerge in experience, but it now feels fluid and in the background, as opposed to being vivid and bubbly as with using vipassana.

The idea that reducing vipassana for samatha to relieve clenching is just what I have noticed, I am not actually certain why the clenching occurs, and what actually reduces it, so you could be right.  When I have used vipassana in the past on the tense sensations in the body, it becomes very unpleasant (: I tried to avoid that.  But I see what you're saying, I think I will try that again.