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Difficulty achieving access concentration

Hello all,

I've been trying, and failing, to achieve access concentration for a few months now. Probably atleast 2 months of daily practise, maybe 3, I haven't kept a log. I've been doing four 30 minute sittings (2 hours in total) per day.

My practise involves concentrating on the sensations of the breath at the nose, and either counting until I loose concentration or sometimes just counting to 20, where I then stop and resume the counting if I get lost in thought.

So as I said, I have yet to achieve access concentration and other people I have talked to have said they achieved it in less than a month. My definition of access concentration is being fully absorbed with the breath with next to no effort required to hold the concentration. Thoughts arise but don't have any effect on the concentration. I would say i'm concentrated on the breath around 80% of the time, but there's still mind wandering and short periods of getting lost in thought, which end up disrupting the flow of concentration. If I don't count then my concentration is not anywhere near as good.

So i'm just asking for some advice. Am I doing the practise correctly? Should I have access concentration by now?


RE: Difficulty achieving access concentration
Answer
9/10/17 10:48 AM as a reply to Alex.
Quick question before I can say more -- are you really trying, straining or bearing down to concentrate? Does it feel like hard work?

RE: Difficulty achieving access concentration
Answer
9/10/17 12:34 PM as a reply to Chris Marti.
To some degree yes, but if i'm honest i'm sure I could try harder to not get lost in thought. I wouldn't say i'm being lazy though. I set an intention to stay on the breath as much as possible, and i'm quick to re-direct my attention back to the breath once I notice i've been mind-wandering.

The only reason i'm not overly straining or bearing down as you said, is because i've read that it's not helpful to force your mind to remain fixed on the object (Leigh Brasington). But rather just be diligent about recognising when you have become distracted. Is this the wrong approach?

RE: Difficulty achieving access concentration
Answer
9/10/17 12:56 PM as a reply to Alex.
Leigh Brasington is a guru of concentration practices.This process truly isn't about trying hard. The word "concentration" is kind of misleading in this context. Relax. Don't strain, don't push, don't work. Just rest your mind on an object gently and when (not if) it wanders gently bring it back to the object. The best way to get to access concentration is better described as calm abiding. Give it a try.

RE: Difficulty achieving access concentration
Answer
9/10/17 1:06 PM as a reply to Chris Marti.
Ahh ok. I thought you were insinuating that I should be trying harder to concentrate. There was a point where I was trying very hard to stay on the breath, but then, as I said, I read Leigh Brasington's book and read through some older posts on this forum and realised that wasn't the right approach.

Appreciate the advice. Cheers.

RE: Difficulty achieving access concentration
Answer
9/10/17 6:04 PM as a reply to Alex.
Depending on the source/author, this:

Alex:

My definition of access concentration is being fully absorbed with the breath with next to no effort required to hold the concentration.

could be more than access concentration. By Culadasa's definitions, for example, this would be stage 8, but access concentration is stage 6 IIRC.

RE: Difficulty achieving access concentration
Answer
9/11/17 1:44 AM as a reply to neko.
Interesting. I wouldn't say I have access concentration, but maybe i'm closer than I think. Thanks.

RE: Difficulty achieving access concentration
Answer
9/11/17 1:45 AM as a reply to Alex.
Alex:
So as I said, I have yet to achieve access concentration and other people I have talked to have said they achieved it in less than a month. My definition of access concentration is being fully absorbed with the breath with next to no effort required to hold the concentration. Thoughts arise but don't have any effect on the concentration. I would say i'm concentrated on the breath around 80% of the time, but there's still mind wandering and short periods of getting lost in thought, which end up disrupting the flow of concentration. If I don't count then my concentration is not anywhere near as good.

So i'm just asking for some advice. Am I doing the practise correctly? Should I have access concentration by now?

A framework to consider: getting lost in thought is natural.  You could think of the amount of time you spend in good concentration before getting lost in thought as a measure of how well you can concentrate.  But the practice that leads to good concentration is the noticing-of-wandering part, that's the muscle that needs practice.  I really like Cudalasa's trick: congratulate yourself when you notice the wandering.  If detecting wandering is disapointing, then some part of your mind will avoid the discovery.  If detecting wandering is a cause for celebration then the mind will incline towards that.

RE: Difficulty achieving access concentration
Answer
9/11/17 1:56 AM as a reply to Alex.
For most people, kasinas strengthen concentration more easily than the breath, not that the breath isn't a great object, as it is, but for some different reasons.

Might check out www.firekasina.org

RE: Difficulty achieving access concentration
Answer
9/11/17 2:12 AM as a reply to Daniel M. Ingram.
Thanks Daniel, i'll definitely look into it! 

RE: Difficulty achieving access concentration
Answer
9/11/17 7:32 AM as a reply to Alex.
Alex:
Hello all,
...I've been doing four 30 minute sittings (2 hours in total) per day...

.
You might try consolidating 2 of those sittings to 1 of 50-60 minutes.

Even given an ability to reach absorption ("hard" jhana), it still usually takes the mind more than 20-30 minutes to just settle down, exhaust the momentum of mundane mental activity; letting the tensions play-out on their own. Can be a big difference, how it s/w naturally quiets down after 40 min or more, and effortlessly slips into access concentration (upacara-samadhi, which I define as a sort of floating in the absence of hindrances, of pressing, bothersome mental activity -- not necessarily raptuous or whatever, just quiet, still).

After that, the mind is far more malleable. Attending and intently sticking to an object (nostril breath, kasina, etc.) is then far easier, and ripens gradually into forming a "counterpart" mental representation of the object (nimitta), which, if held steady in attention, grows larger, or seems to get closer, and at some point, with a certain kind of letting-go (but an unmistakable shift), the nimitta "swallows" the mind, or the mind falls into it, becoming fixed (as some call it), or absorbed; the nimitta (breath sensations, kasina image, etc.) then seems on the outside, surrounding the still center of consciousness. And it's like a bubble-shield, a barrier, where normal sound, sight, etc. sensations are still happening, but somehow just bounce-off, don't get through to grab the mind's attention, aren't reacted to. All motion seems exterior; the mind itself is still, and it's quite pleasant.

RE: Difficulty achieving access concentration
Answer
9/11/17 8:23 AM as a reply to CJMacie.
Thanks or the advice! I'll try to do some longer sits and see how it goes. 

RE: Difficulty achieving access concentration
Answer
9/11/17 11:35 AM as a reply to Alex.
Alex:
Thanks or the advice! I'll try to do some longer sits and see how it goes.
What I do is I get up if thoughts are swimming, do a version of walking meditation that is as painfully slow as it takes to pull the mind to notice:

1. each intention and movement that follows it, allowing for pauses to confirm, if necessary. (e.g. raising heel, moving feet forward, shifting weight, lowering feet, transferring weight, pressing feet down, sensation of both loss/gain of touch with floor.)
2. all sensations, including muscles, touch of clothing, touch of floor and shift of balance, plus force of contact and movement through the air the movements cut through.

You should be plenty busy enough not to be able to think...

Done slow enough, you will realize it is pretty hard to walk like a sloth and also the mind has nowhere to go. Resume sitting after a good mental concentration workout, being mindful of all transitions from walking to standing to sitting posture. Also do not give yourself ideas of what access concentration is. I will go as far to say that it is a mind state (of focus) which actually permits singular thoughts that do not proliferate, meaning the state of mind which is still is much more important than whether you are having thoughts or not.

After you maintain this state for a few occasions and after awhile, rapture should start to happen and you should be in this focused mind state to be able to notice them and not burn your attention on the meditation object and ignore all else. Remember it is the mind state and not the object...

Good luck! emoticon

RE: Difficulty achieving access concentration
Answer
9/14/17 6:38 AM as a reply to Chris Marti.
To back up a bit... we’ve beenswimming in multiple definitions of “access concentration” here:

Alex:
My definition of access concentration is
being fully absorbed with the breath with next to no effort required to hold the concentration. Thoughts arise but don't have any effect on the concentration.

cjmacie:
...access concentration (upacara-samadhi,  which I define as a sort of
floating in the absence of hindrances, of pressing, bothersome mental activity -- not necessarily raptuous or whatever, just quiet, still)...

Yulin Ong:
Also do not give yourself ideas of what access concentration is. I will go as far to say that it is
a mind state (of focus) which actually permits singular thoughts that do not proliferate, meaning the state of mind which is still is much more important than whether you are having thoughts or not.

Here’s a more-or-less traditional view, in a couple of aspects:

1: Basically it’s considered a mind freed, at least temporarily, of the “5 hindrances”, i.e. (1) not being driven by desire, pulled towards some satisfaction; (2) nor by aversion, pushing away some dissatisfaction; (3) not lazed-out, i.e. s/w alert; (4) not restless, fidgety, worrisome; and (5) not doubting, wavering in uncertainty.

2: According to the Mahasi Sayadaw, access or “neighborhood” concentration (upacara samadhi) is one (a) of the three basic forms of samadhi and specifically a sort of baseline and “gateway” to the other two forms – (b) fixed jhanic absorption (appana-samadhi), and (c) momentary concentration for insight (vipassana kanikha samadhi).

(I believe MCTB roughly follows this. Daniel Ingram has famously written (something like) “if you ain’t got access concentration, you ain’t got zilch.” That is, something like a basic, sine qua non, gateway to practice. He has, however as I recall, s/t characterized it also as “momentary” concentration, as a vehicle for insight. At least in MCTB1 terms; perhaps it’s more closely defined in
MCTB2.)

3: Elaborating on (2), access concentration is then a kind of stillness as being free of factors that would “bother” it, render it incapable of either letting-go into deep absorption (b) or the engaging in the active gnosis (“noting”) process of exercising insight practice. It’s also used as a sort of refuge, a baseline one might fall back into when absorption can’t be sustained (for whatever reason), or vipassana momentary work becomes overtaxing (likewise unsustainable).

Other shades of definition are possible, but should probably be made clear as variations of this traditional direction of thought, or as something distinctly different, IMO.

RE: Difficulty achieving access concentration
Answer
9/14/17 10:38 AM as a reply to CJMacie.
Thanks for that clarification CJ. But whatever access concentration is, I definitely haven't got it. I'm still just trying to stay on the breath for 5 damn minutes. It's frustrating, but i'm trying to just accept it as it is.

Sometimes i'll sit down and have very little mind wandering, other times I won't even be able to count to 10 breaths without loosing concentration. I don't understand. 

Also, the more I relax and don't 'strain' or 'work' to concentrate, the more I loose concentration. Maybe I just need to get used to this way of concentrating. Maybe i'm doing something wrong, I don't know. Not really sure where to go from here. I've put in so many houres I don't want to just give up now. I will persevere! 

RE: Difficulty achieving access concentration
Answer
9/14/17 12:06 PM as a reply to Alex.
Alex:
Thanks for that clarification CJ. But whatever access concentration is, I definitely haven't got it. I'm still just trying to stay on the breath for 5 damn minutes. It's frustrating, but i'm trying to just accept it as it is.

Sometimes i'll sit down and have very little mind wandering, other times I won't even be able to count to 10 breaths without loosing concentration. I don't understand. 

Also, the more I relax and don't 'strain' or 'work' to concentrate, the more I loose concentration. Maybe I just need to get used to this way of concentrating. Maybe i'm doing something wrong, I don't know. Not really sure where to go from here. I've put in so many houres I don't want to just give up now. I will persevere! 

Alex, you've only been meditating for a couple of months. That's nothing! I meditated for 10 years and never got close to access concentration until I went on retreat. I know plenty of monks who still spend much of their meditation fighting mind-wandering.  So don't be hard on yourself.  You already have the most important part down, something I couldn't  master during those ten years. A consistent practice. That's half the battle right there. 

Here are some other tips:

- Make sure the rest of your life is conducive to meditation. If you spend all day stressed out, or on Twitter, in arguments, browsing the net, all of that is detrimental to your ability to focus. Lack of sleep, same thing. Make sure you have your life handled for  the most part.

- Make sure you are positively reinforcing those moments when you 'wake up' and catch yourself mind-wandering. Go 'aha!" This reinforces your neural pathways to enjoy the moment of catching yourself mind-wandering and will make your brain more likely to do it again in the future. If you react with frustration that you have caught yourself mind-wandering, your brain will not want to do the wake up process. 

RE: Difficulty achieving access concentration
Answer
9/14/17 12:11 PM as a reply to Alex.
Alex:
Thanks for that clarification CJ. But whatever access concentration is, I definitely haven't got it. I'm still just trying to stay on the breath for 5 damn minutes. It's frustrating, but i'm trying to just accept it as it is.

Sometimes i'll sit down and have very little mind wandering, other times I won't even be able to count to 10 breaths without loosing concentration. I don't understand. 

Also, the more I relax and don't 'strain' or 'work' to concentrate, the more I loose concentration. Maybe I just need to get used to this way of concentrating. Maybe i'm doing something wrong, I don't know. Not really sure where to go from here. I've put in so many houres I don't want to just give up now. I will persevere! 
Tone down the expectations, it may be that your frustration is the biggest disturbance to your practice.  Seriously, it sounds like you might be experiencing significant (1-4 minutes) of noticing mostly only the breath?  That would be pretty good.  It's *normal* for our percieved quality of practice to change over time, understanding and being *comfortable* with *that* is a valuable attainment.  Along with all the other good information above, work on the skill of
  1. noticing the exact event (feeling, thought, memory, smell, whatever) at the exact moment that it arrises in your field of awareness. Another way to look at it is simply realizing your mind has wandered or is wandering.  Either will do.
  2. pausing for a second or two and savor that you just succeeded in the most important part of your practice!  
  3. return to your intended object of awareness (breath, whatever it is you decided to meditate on
For example, if you notice train of thought about relaxing, 'I should relax' or "I'm not good at this", do the 1/2/3 above, meaning
  1. say to yourself "I'm thinking about relaxing".  (if you've actually got a ton of muscular tension, release it)
  2. then say to yourself, "Oh, this is what that guy was saying!  I doing it, good!"
  3. then say, 'breath, where was I feeling that?' Oh yes, there you are, I'm on you again!
You can say this stuff outloud if it helps make it real.  Over time the goal is to make those 3 steps quicker, more automatic and a less invasive event.  It's like pull-ups, you don't get stronger by being unhappy about being weak, you get stronger by doing the pullups, one at a time, cleaner and smoother, less conscious effort at it as you build the skill.

RE: Difficulty achieving access concentration
Answer
9/14/17 3:40 PM as a reply to Alex.
Have you tried getting a massage?  See if you feel more concentrated meditating after a good massage.  If so, then you can probably use any technique that relaxes the body to help you become calm enough to concentrate.   Yoga, running, sex, massage, dance, etc. 

RE: Difficulty achieving access concentration
Answer
9/14/17 4:39 PM as a reply to Matt.
matthew sexton:
I really like Cudalasa's trick: congratulate yourself when you notice the wandering.  If detecting wandering is disapointing, then some part of your mind will avoid the discovery.  If detecting wandering is a cause for celebration then the mind will incline towards that.


An ex girlfriend gave me a book "When Things Fall Apart" by Pema Chodron, which had a similar method in it that always made me laugh. She saw a similar tendency to be critical when noticing the mind wandering and had mentioned this to one of her students. She told him to do his noting practise in a more friendly non-judgemental way. When she spoke with him soon after, her southern american student replied that he had replaced "thinking" with "thinking, good buddy". I tried it myself and it really did change the tone of the noting, though of course as soon as you get the point of it you'd drop the "good buddy" part. It was an amusing exercise.

RE: Difficulty achieving access concentration
Answer
9/14/17 10:21 PM as a reply to Alex.
I strongly agree with the previous posts saying "be positive about successes rather than beating you up for flaws". Good attitude to what you are doing is half the thing. You seem like in a spiral of self-doubt and self-anger.

Also, experiment with yourself if you "hit a plateau". Instead of 4x 30min try building up to a 1hr session, choose different places and times of day, what you ate and drank (caffeine...), tightness of cloth/cushion and other sensory input during meditation, .... Maybe try a certain time off or a retreat of 11hrs practice a day. Notice the difference and see what might make a change to the positive/negative. This also gives a kind of "gamification" to meditation which might help in getting a positive attitude towards it.

I consider meditation as an art of living and realising what has an effect on you part of the practice.