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Cannot find exhale

Cannot find exhale
access concentration breath awareness
11/13/17 2:30 PM
For months I’ve been using the sensations in the nostrils as an object, with a goal of access concentration. There is sensation on the inhale, but more than half the time no sensation on the exhale. With no sensation to focus on, I can’t help but “imagine an exhale” or my focus diverts to the sound of the exhale or gives up and tries a different part of the body, only to eventually return the nostrils. This leaves me in great frustration (which I note)! Using frustration as an object doesn’t seem to work either.

I love MCTB, but a few points I don’t understand:

“Many people begin practicing and really want to solidify something like the breath so that they can actually pay attention to it. They become frustrated when they have a hard time finding the breath or their body or whatever. The reason they can’t find it is not because they are a bad meditator but because they are having direct insight into how things actually are! Unfortunately, their theory of what is supposed to happen involves really perceiving something solid and stable, so they get very frustrated.”

Yet he also writes:
“Stay on that object like a rabid dog”
“Focus your attention on the object as completely and consistently as possible for the duration of that practice period, allowing as few lapses in concentration as possible”

It’s okay to “not find it”? Yet you can’t stay on no-object like a rabid dog. Something needs to be there.

He writes about perceiving individual sensations:
“If you can perceive one sensation per second, try for two. If you can perceive two unique sensations per second, try to perceive four. Keep increasing your perceptual threshold in this way until the illusion of continuity that binds you on the wheel of suffering shatters. In short, when doing insight practices, constantly work to perceive sensations arise and pass as quickly and accurately as you possibly can.”

But he later writes:
“Try not paying too much attention to the individual sensations themselves, but conceptualize the breath as a coherent and continuous entity, with many different types of sensations all being thought of as being the breath. It is important to know that really getting into a sense of the breath as a continuous entity for 10 seconds will do you more good than being generally with the breath on and off for an hour. Tune into the illusory smoothness of things by purposefully and calmly working with illusions of solidity or fluidity.”

For access concentration, should is it best to observe individual instances, or feel a continuous thing?
I don’t know what’s with my obstinance to stick with the nostrils. My dabbling with other sense objects just don’t last long.

Has anyone had success reaching access concentration with other objects / kasinas?
Can anyone explain what I find contradictory in MCTB?
Should I just stop nostril practice if I can’t observe sensations on the exhale?

RE: Cannot find exhale
11/13/17 4:07 PM as a reply to Jack.
To be honest the feelings described in MCTB are probably not attainable for me. "Vibrations", "pulsations", "flickerings" etc. are mentioned perhaps more than hundred times but so far I have not been able to observe any single "vibration". I think the best description of concentration on the nostrils is in Henepola Gunaratana's book "Meditation in plain English". Shaila Catherine in her book recommends not to focus on the sensation but just on the breath only. And again this gives no sense to me. "Breath" is just a word, you can't concentrate on it. Leigh Brasington describes the concentration in a very similar way to Henepola Gunaratana and it is perfectly comprehensible for me. I have the same experience like you: The sensation in the nostrils caused by the air during breathing is much more intensive during in breath than during out breath. What helpes me is to breath similarly to when you are sleeping: The speed of the air in the nostrils is higher and the sensation is stronger so it is easier to focus on it. It is true that many authors don't recommend to manipulate the breath but I think there is no universal authority on how to concentrate and everyone has to find what suits him best. If I am more concentrated the breath is sometimes very shallow and almost dissappears. If I have a good day and luck and I am not taking too much sedating medications I am able to have the sensation in the nostrils in my mind continually without a mistake for 30-60 minutes (and distractions run in the background). If I have worries if I am too sick or if I have "mental gallop" I just count the breaths.  

RE: Cannot find exhale
11/13/17 4:16 PM as a reply to Jack.
There is a famous and simple maxim of John Searle: "If you can't say it clearly you don't understand it yourself". For me it is very freeing and useful principle. 

RE: Cannot find exhale
11/13/17 6:42 PM as a reply to Jack.
It's been about a year and a half since I've read MCTB so someone correct me if I'm mistaken but it sounds like you're comparing passages where Daniel describes concentration meditation with passages which describe insight meditation.  My understanding is that when you attempt to percieve as many individual sensations as possible, that's vipassana meditation which yields insight into the nature of reality.  If you focus on the illusory solidity of an object that is samatha meditation which strengthens concentration and can eventually lead to accessing the jhanas.

RE: Cannot find exhale
11/14/17 4:48 AM as a reply to rik.
I am going to try explaining and suggesting a few things to try, so bear with me if they seem all over the place. It seems to me that neural pathways open up when one succeeds in deepening capabilities in stilling the mind. Sensitivity increases along with perception prowess. In the beginning, I struggled with sensations around the nose. Now, it becomes natural for whole body breathing, which means that when I take an in-breath, the mind registers all the sensations (as subtle as skin on your legs raising a nanometer) and with the out-breath, propels the mind (picking the relevant mind strata) to jhana. There are numerous ways to progress, here's 2:

  1. It is easier to go deeper when the area is smaller thus nostril-watching is recommended. BUT you could use the abdomen area instead of the nostril area to begin. The key is not dismissing it as boring or that you perceive it all – you don’t. There are many things going on, many sensations with a large area but keep letting your concentration go deeper, with a gentle, probing curiosity. Access concentration happens when you are not excited and absorbs you when it starts to be effortless and rapturous.  
  2. Begin with deep breathing and/or exaggerated exercises. Breathe hard so you can feel the air brush against your nostrils. Slow down to feel the air on the same spot or moving across an area. Keep exploring – you cannot go wrong with any kind of manipulation to perceive more. Pay attention to it, like it is the most interesting thing in the world right now. Once you find the sweet spot, slow your breath down to a whisper and get into the rhythm – make love to it if you can, read the Anapanasati Sutta regarding "whole breath body" - 2 explanations: understand both. Keep going and raptures will hit you and just keep going – paying more and more attention to pleasure naturally, let it guide you and do not switch by your will.
The difference with what Daniel wrote in MCTB refers to samatha/vipassana. Imagine a sneeze.

With Samatha, you combine all the sensations to deliver the sneeze.
With Vipassana, you perceive all of them individually, effectively breaking down the sneeze.

Finally, may I suggest not to separate the 2 in the beginning. As Ajahn Chah mentioned, they are both ends of a plank. It is not possible to lift the whole plank, one end without the other. You cannot go far trying to lift one end exclusively. To really progress, you need to lift both. Know the difference but let the mind go where it wishes. Forcing things doesn’t really work well with meditation.

All the best! emoticon

RE: Cannot find exhale
11/14/17 10:46 AM as a reply to Yilun Ong.
Thanks for your answers.

I like what S. says about focusing on “increasing checkings per second” instead of expecting “sensations per second” to increase (I will try).

That said, the “If you can perceive one sensation per second, try for two” bit is under the “Three Characteristics” chapter, so I suppose it refers to insight meditation afterall. My current goal is access concentration, being the first step for insight, so I guess I ought to focus on the “illusory solidity”, right?

To do this, I suppose I should try a different, more constant focus object to give me a better fighting chance at solidifying its (illusory) fluidity, since the out breath is faint at best. I imagine access meditation is a solid line, whereas with only the in breath, I have a dashed line.

Yilun Ong, what do you mean by “go deeper” and “keep exploring”? Is there a greater intensity of sensate investigation I can simply will myself to explore?

RE: Cannot find exhale
11/14/17 7:46 PM as a reply to Jack.
Hi Jack!
I think I had and partly still have a similar issue with the out breath, only recently found a way to deal with it.

The root of the problem in my case is sensory clarity, meaning that the sensations on exhale are less sensible and the attention naturally jumps to stronger sensations, often somewhere around the nose area but not exactly at the nostrils and those jumps are hard to notice.

What really helps me is to try to be as skillful as possible instead of using brute force in finding the right sensation and, most important, set an intention on constantly keep periferal awareness, meaning to stay aware of everything what happens in the senses while the main focus stays on the nostrils. This helps a lot to locate the right spot when looking for the breath sensations.

I was confused with exactly the same passages from MCTB while I find the general approach presented in the book great.

I really recommend to check Culadasa's The Mind Illuminated, specifically Stage 2 (but better to read also the chapters before and after). The book contains very helpful explanations of how the mind and the attention actually work and gives exceptionally good advices on very many issues that can appear when kicking off the breath concentration practice.

Good luck!

RE: Cannot find exhale
11/14/17 9:15 PM as a reply to Konstantin Alexandrov.
Konstantin Alexandrov:

The root of the problem in my case is sensory clarity, meaning that the sensations on exhale are less sensible and the attention naturally jumps to stronger sensations, often somewhere around the nose area but not exactly at the nostrils and those jumps are hard to notice. <- Go deeper. e.g. staying with the sensation aka Samatha.

What really helps me is to try to be as skillful as possible instead of using brute force in finding the right sensation and, most important, set an intention on constantly keep periferal awareness, meaning to stay aware of everything what happens in the senses while the main focus stays on the nostrils.  <- Explore. Open awareness and simply follow where attention wants to go and investigate them aka Vipassana. 

Hi Jack, See above in red. With both practices, you will be powering yourself towards achieving "Access Concentration". Infinite exercises you can do to achieve that, see MCTB and really anything works e.g. when sitting: feel your left butt on chair - feel right sole on floor - feel back in contact with shirt - hear sound - see movement in peripheral vision, feel abdomen rise, on and on it goes. You have 5 seconds? Use it.

Off-the-cushion awareness is very important. All of life is filled with moments where full concentration isn't required on the task at hand, e.g. queuing, walking, reading, etc. Use the spare attention to observe breathing or move your 'senses' around, feel the skin where it can be felt, (hear the sounds, see the lights/colours) - [Do not conceptualize them, e.g. figuring what sound or image]. Go into a mode of experiencing in a pure sensate level, whatever is happening right now, whenever you can. In the beginning, you will need to summon concentration to this mode of operation in contrast with for e.g. walking down the street with thoughts blazing. Make a habit of being a gatekeeper of your thoughts, simply being able to know whenever you are thinking is a great achievement

In formal practice, begin by focusing on the breath, if it gets difficult, let the mind shift its focus but maintain continuous concentration on differing sensations - both tasks require the mind to concentrate and both will get you to Access Concentration: can you see the similarity? Both requires improved concentration in terms of depth and duration. It doesn't matter that you keep shifting techniques in the same sitting, just keep the concentration going - I suggest to aim for 90 minutes of uninterrupted concentration - after you succeed in this, you are most likely capable of Access Concentration - a moment where it feels like going into a 'zone'; background seems to fade, sensations absorb you (less effort required), you start 'seeing' deeper - sensing what you have never sensed before:

Welcome to the party! emoticon

RE: Cannot find exhale
11/14/17 9:58 PM as a reply to Jack.
Im also dissatisfied with the sensation in the nostrils not being continuous but constisting of at least two parts (in-breath and out-breath) but this concentration object is useful because it is always with me and I can use it in every situation: If I am anxious before a medical procedure, before an important phone call etc.

However, there is one continuous object of concentration.To quote Ajahn Amaro:

Nada is the Sanskrit word for “sound,” and nada yoga means meditating
on the inner sound, also referred to as the sound of silence. (Interestingly,
nada is also the Spanish word for “nothing.”)
To detect the nada sound, turn your attention toward your hearing. If
you listen carefully to the sounds around you, you’re likely to hear a continuous, high-pitched inner sound like white noise in the background.
It is a sound that is beginningless and endless.
There’s no need to theorize about this inner vibration in an effort to
figure out exactly what it might be. Just turn your attention to it. If you’re
able to hear this inner sound, you can use the simple act of listening to it
as another form of meditation practice, in the same way one uses the
breath as an object of awareness. Just bring your attention to the inner
sound and allow it to fill the whole sphere of your awareness