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Ed Ge's journey - a nonbeliever's exploration of meditation

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Despite getting interested about meditation a few years ago, I started practicing constantly 18 sessions ago. As I don't have access to a teacher, I hope users of this forum might drop in and give a piece of advice once in a while.


# PREAMBLE

What started my interest with meditation was getting exasperated with some episodes where late at night I was having trouble sleeping despite wanting it really badly, due to my mind being hopelessly stuck into "ruminating job problems" mode. This got me thinking who is this "me" stuck into ruminating despite the wiser prompts of the other "me". Also, "how to get this pesky mind under control?"

Building on some previous reading and an affinity with Japanese culture, I set my eyes upon Zen meditation (minimalism, less religious mumbo-jumbo, I thought). I got introduced into the practice at some local temple and went there for exactly two subsequent times since, over a span of one year or more; I didn't really felt a connection with the people there; they felt weird somehow, and not very communicative. When asking the "introductory" monk "what did zazen practice give to you?", he answered "lots of flexibility". It didn't look like I would learn much there (not at any acceptable pace anyway), so I relied more on books to inform my practice.

A few mentions:
- I'm not necessarily into Zen; it was merely my entry point. I am skeptical about their emphasis on a precise particular posture and I don't necessarily enjoy the chanting part. Ugh. Other than that, I take whatever is useful wherever I can get it; my interest it towards meditation in general, not a particular tradition.
- I'm a nonbeliever ex-believer (Christian for 18 years), an empiricist and antidogmatic.
- My current interest for meditation goes beyond a relaxation/self-control purpose.


# PAST PRACTICE

I practiced at home, 30 minutes zazen sessions, but not constantly; a few days in a row then I would drop it, then picking it up again later for another few days. Not much progress was made then, my time often spent with ruminating job problems and developing back pain (I used an improvised "pillow"). But when I DID manage to focus on my breath, a moderate blissful state of joy and calmness usually arose on its own.

Some other practices other than zazen, that I did in the past:
-  "Full body sweeping" on the cushion.
-  Mindful walking while travelling to and from my job: a detailed concentration practice focused on the sensation of walking, broken down into the tiniest details: how the fingers, soles, heels, ankles, calves, thighs, hips, spine and so on feel and move, where and how the skin touches the clothes and how do the clothes move, how the leg feels and moves as a whole, how the whole body feels and moves as a whole during walking. This could keep me occupied for quite a long time as you can imagine emoticon and usually couldn't be completed in a single session without rushing.
-  "Citizen's" Kinhin. My version of Zen Kinhin walking meditation, adapted for daily urban travel. Focus was on synchronizing breath with walking speed (breathe in for 4 steps, breathe out for 4 steps) while also paying attention to the posture, spine and overall balance. No shashu, of course.
-  "Backseat contemplation day". Inspired by something I read, for this practice I would "step out of the driver seat" of my own life and let my body on autopilot for a day, merely watching what happens as if sitting in a passenger seat. I was surprised how easy this was to do, watching with amazement how my body went through the motions, seemingly without any conscious command or effort of my own doing, dressing me up, walking me to job, working on projects and so on. It was quite relaxing and even entertaining. I did it for two days I think then I abandoned it. It probably felt like "been there, done that, time to move on".

I probably did more of these meditations-in-motion than I did cushion practice.


# RECENT PRACTICE

18 days ago I started doing breath concentration constantly, motivated by Daniel's "until you get access concentration you ain't got squat". "OK then, so I better get that first". Not much progress until I did the breath counting technique; and focusing on the hara (at least during the first session doing this, the mind was perceptibly rising from the hara before going to monkey around with thinking; so I could intercept it; on subsequent sessions the mind got "smarter", teleporting instantly out of the hara, so that technique got less useful).

I should mention that I'm doing (at least one, at most two per day) sessions of 40 minutes; I found 40 minutes to be long enough that my concentration gets some good workout and short enough that my cushioned ass and legs don't start bothering me too much.

A few days ago it felt like "OK, I think I got this access concentration", and according to descriptions it seems I indeed do: "being able to keep your attention on the breath for a sizable amount of time with maybe a minimal amount of thoughts arising and passing in the background without actually disturbing the focus".


# 20 July

I tried tackling the first jhana. But what pleasant physical sensation to focus on? None felt particularly pleasant. I tried focusing on the hands, as some meditators do, but there wasn't much pleasantness there. Then I tried the smile or the feeling of moderate bliss that usually arises spontaneously when I meditate. These seemed to get me somewhere: the pleasant feeling increased, but didn't get very far before the session ended.


# 21 July

I tackled the first jhana again; I focused on body warmth (cuddling my wife, because that was clearly pleasant). The pleasant feeling increased very very slowly at first, and I started wondering if this jhana thing is even possible, but after some minimal increasing and some setbacks, as I kept concentrating on it, the increase of pleasantness acellerated, up to a hefty amount; to the point of "WOW, so this stuff is really happening": intense tingling "excitedness" was sweeping in waves over my upper body (neck, shoulders, upper arms), accompanied by emotions of... uh, jumping joy let's call it. It was way over what this sensation should/would naturally offer. And it was all increasing in "plateaus" of intensity (staying at some level then unexpectedly rising) the more I was focusing. The session was interrupted at some point. It felt like it could go even higher, and I didn't get the full experience, but I think at least I got through the first jhana door and some steps in.


# 22 July

The way I usually start a session is to train concentration. As focusing on the breath (chest-abdomen area) has become easy, today I focused on the breath at the nose tip, a training which I did previously but found a bit difficult. Today I was sucessful with focusing on the nose tip breath. By success I mean access concentration.

Once I got that, I tried the first jhana again. I tried finding other pleasureable points to focus on than the previous session:
- Top of the head. I tried to imagine some pleasantness there. Didn't work.
- Warmth on contact area between butt and cushion. Didn't work.
- Hands again? Nah, scrap that.
- Smile. I did get some increase, but nothing spectacular. It seems to have a maximum point where it stops increasing, while I'm probably grinning on the cushion like an idiot.
- Mild blissful feeling that often appears while I meditate. Didn't appear this time, so I got nothing to focus on.

So right now I'm having problems finding some clear physical pleasure to focus on to enter the first jhana.

RE: Ed Ge's journey - a nonbeliever's exploration of meditation
Answer
7/23/17 12:06 PM as a reply to Ed Ge.
I think that the "pleasantness of concentration itself" can be used as an object for developing jhana - if you can tap into that relaxed well being satisfied focus feeling that comes when access concentration gets settled in. I'm not great at jhana (and dont practice it anymore) so this might be "wrong" but if i remember correctly this is something I used to do a few years ago when I practiced concentration more intensively

Also I think "pleasant" needn't be very strong, and the more subtle your focus, the more likely you are to find that neutral sensations might have some pleasantness in there; good luck

RE: Ed Ge's journey - a nonbeliever's exploration of meditation
Answer
7/25/17 11:06 AM as a reply to Ed Ge.
# 25 July

After some reading, I realized my concentration needs quite some more workout. Right now I need some sustained effort to maintain my access concentration. Ideally, only the gentlest effort should be needed.

45 minutes session:
Started with concentrating on breath at the nose tip, counting 1 to 10, then 10 to 1 a few times, then with no counting.
When my concentration felt satisfactory, I began first jhana training, focusing on shoulders this time (actually, right shoulder at first, for clarity of focus). The idea was, when I breathe, there is a tiny bit of clothing movement over the shoulders skin; an actual physical sensation I could focus on, and that is slightly pleasant.

Focusing on my right shoulder, I got increased sensitivity (moderate tingling sensation). Then my mind wandered somewhat, starting with the idea of why not focusing on both shoulders, as focusing on only one feels unbalanced. I returned to focusing on the both shoulders sensations. Got that to some moderate tingling, then I lost interest. I felt bored. After some thoughts wandering, I thought "OK, so you got bored, and are thinking to go back to nose tip breath concentration. Since you're already on the cushion, and want to train concentration, you might as well train concetration by focusing on shoulders sensations, whether you'll be able to enter jhana or not."

So I went back to focusing on the shoulders, increasing sensitivity moderately; by the end of the session, the tingling sensations spread to the neighbouring area of upper arms and back neck. Some numbness over the whole right arm down to the fingers, caused maybe by tense posture.

No signficant pleasant emotions present, other than calmness during breath concentration. The whole thing felt overall rather down-to-business.

Insight: the shoulders thing got me thinking that it's worth "learning your whole body", with maybe day-long exercises of observing one small area of it.