balancing concentration and mindfulness

Jon Bash, modified 4 Years ago at 12/2/17 6:45 PM
Created 4 Years ago at 12/1/17 2:38 PM

balancing concentration and mindfulness

Posts: 3 Join Date: 11/22/17 Recent Posts
Some notes that may or may not be useful before I talk about my experience today:
  • My past experience: [edit: I've been meditating off and on for about 4 years, though only in the past year and a half has it been what I would call "serious."] I've very recently come across MCTB, and am partway through reading about the Progress of Insight. I started meditation as primarily a therapeutic endeavor, as many probably have, but have slowly come to realize the much deeper benefits that can be found in it. I've used Headspace (currently in the middle of a 1-year subscription, but have realized that it is of limited benefit now that my goals have shifted), 10% Happier (better in many ways, but still misses the mark now), and Insight Timer (emptiness! ;) ) to support my practice, and have read various books. Never been on a retreat (yet).
  • My first time taking a cannabis edible a couple of years ago (I don't do this regularly), I experienced what I think may have been the Arising and Passing Away; colors were extremely vivid, I had what I experienced as insights into the nature of self and the universe, and I thought I had become enlightened. The afterglow lasted about 24 hours. I tried this a couple more times, and each time I reached a slightly lower high. I don't remember if I had any kind of dark night experience immediately afterwards. However, a couple of months ago I hit a point of very severe depression a couple of months after quitting my job, and between those points went through what I think are just the usual highs and lows of living in the world. Perhaps, though, this has been just a very long and drawn out dark night?
  • I have been diagnosed with ADHD (a semi-recent discovery, but long a suspicion), and have recently begun taking Strattera (a non-stimulant, from what I understand) to address that. It seems to be helping a little. Concentration and maintaining my attention are still difficult.
After reading pt. I of MCTB, I decided that I needed to strengthen my concentration practice. So today, I resolved to focus on my breath for an hour. As usual, various thoughts and some feelings would enter my attention, but I would divert it back to the breath. Occasionally I would get caught up in the thoughts and distractedly play through them for a minute or so before returning to the breath. This pattern seemed to only worsen as time went on. I tried focusing on sounds and on bodily sensations instead of the breath, but nothing seemed to be very helpful even after 20 minutes. I only seemed to be getting more scattered, less able to focus, and further away from any bliss-like experience I'd heard about in the descriptions of the jhanas.

I decided at this point to shift my practice and see if opening my awareness to all sensations would prove fruitful. It most certainly was. Almost immediately I began noticing all the different physical and mental occurrences in my awareness and gradually was overcome by a wave of blissful energy. I "saw" the physical objects and the mental objects as not me, as just events that were happening in awareness. This state very gradually dissolved as I slowly became distracted and began playing into these sensations and, I think, identifying with them. By the end of the session, I was just experiencing a spattering of thoughts coming and going along with some irritating tingling in my feet and legs.

My own diagnosis was that this was knowledge of mind and body, but it seems strange that I previously went through the arising and passing away (I think) but have been largely unable to re-attain that stage (though perhaps that is normal?).

It also seems strange that I had such difficulty with concentration practice and jhanas, but seemed to "fall in" to the aforementioned state. Perhaps I am holding the jhanas up on too much of a pedestal, and I'm reaching some of them without really realizing? If I just sit for a couple of minutes, I can relax my body and get into a state that feels nice, but it's also easy for me to get lost in thought if I sit for awhile in this state. Is that unusual, or no?

Anyways, sorry for this spattering of thoughts. Feeling a bit strange as just a few days ago I felt I was in a pretty "solid" place with my practice (funny, I know), but this is perhaps the most profound experience I've had from "bare" meditation (eg, unaccompanied by cannabis), and that alongside discovering this new approach to the dharma through MCTB has me in a place of mild but somewhat exciting confusion. I'm grateful for any and all guidance anyone might be able to offer! Thank you.

[edit: I realize I didn't really clearly articulate my actual question: does this all sound like an accurate assessment? Any parts that don't sound quite right, or where I may be off in my practice? How might I best proceed? Do I *need* to build up my concentration more, or does it sound like it's fine? As it stands, I feel that my concentration skills are much, much weaker than my mindfulness skills (though I'm not sure either are particularly high), and I worry it may be holding me back in my practice (as well as in my day-to-day life).]
Yilun Ong, modified 4 Years ago at 12/2/17 6:58 AM
Created 4 Years ago at 12/2/17 6:46 AM

RE: balancing concentration and mindfulness (Answer)

Posts: 623 Join Date: 8/7/17 Recent Posts
Welcome to DhO, Jon!
Occasionally I would get caught up in the thoughts and distractedly play through them for a minute or so before returning to the breath. 

If you have not returned immediately to the breath, stayed and observed distractions Arise & Pass Away, you would be doing Insight Meditation and thus arrived at: 
My own diagnosis was that this was knowledge of mind and body, but it seems strange that I previously went through the arising and passing away
Now I believe your question is where on the maps are you?

You could be at Stage 1: Mind & Body or any of the later stages. If you have read the warnings on Insight Meditation in MCTB and would like to proceed, you can find out your progress by the classic advice of: Keep Sitting. Notice the phenomena of the next few sits and you should be able to self-diagnose your progress. 

If I am you, I would continue doing what I am doing and climb the Insight ladder to Equanimity at least. The Samatha jhanas will be available to you naturally if you do so. If you decide to chase after the jhanas, you will need to return to the breath ASAP from distractions and stay on it for reasonably long, qualitatively, summon pleasure towards the process and "whole body breathing".
It also seems strange that I had such difficulty with concentration practice and jhanas, but seemed to "fall in" to the aforementioned state. Perhaps I am holding the jhanas up on too much of a pedestal, and I'm reaching some of them without really realizing? If I just sit for a couple of minutes, I can relax my body and get into a state that feels nice, but it's also easy for me to get lost in thought if I sit for awhile in this state. Is that unusual, or no?
Difficult to tell if you had entered jhana or not. There is a state shift accompanied by a conscious white or black-out (eyelids may rise to the ceiling, etc. -> it really varies from person to person), and raptures start to produce a dance of pleasant physical waves/vibrations. There are infinite levels of pleasantness in the 1st jhana alone, from the softest to painful and a 'hard' version. I wouldn't sweat too much over samatha jhanas, you can read more in MCTB or search for them here. Insight Meditation is the real gold, IMO.

Have fun, it's a wondrous journey! emoticon
Jon Bash, modified 4 Years ago at 12/2/17 11:30 AM
Created 4 Years ago at 12/2/17 11:30 AM

RE: balancing concentration and mindfulness

Posts: 3 Join Date: 11/22/17 Recent Posts
Thank you for offering your experienced guidance! I'm happy to have found this forum.

I suppose I keep coming back to wanting to explore the samatha jhanas because they require concentration as their basis, and this feels like a weakness to me. Perhaps I need not spend so much time/energy on it, though.

For now, I think I will keep exploring the phenomena that occur as I work towards insight.
Yilun Ong, modified 4 Years ago at 12/2/17 10:02 PM
Created 4 Years ago at 12/2/17 10:02 PM

RE: balancing concentration and mindfulness (Answer)

Posts: 623 Join Date: 8/7/17 Recent Posts
I'm not 'experienced' hahaha. Just spent the past 5 months doing close to nothing other than staying alive (am a monk) and meditation. It is normal to want to attain to jhana's and/or the stages of insight. Both requires concentration, the difference being fixed vs moving. I wouldn't waste time and suffer chasing jhana's, when they will come naturally afterwards. Some stuff that will be useful to know but is probably hard to implement (humans like to go through the hard way of learning, but heck why not yeah?):

1. The mode of operations to get you through from start to the very end is "Equanimity" + "Gentle Curiosity": basically stick your face in everything, especially the unpleasant and treat them all equally, like a flat-lining sensation, a signal is a signal, giving them  x weight makes them weigh x. Remember pain is not suffering - realize this amazing fact. Do not stop yourself from smelling the flowers though. Enjoy yourself a much as you can!
2. Do not obsess over the maps, attainments and progress, but you will. So learn the lessons, LAUGH and move on. Hint: This is a loser's journey, you have to keep Letting Go... (e.g. I stopped identifying with Dark Night or any other sensation/attainment. So whatever they do, pleasant/unpleasant - makes no practical difference after you know them - your only job)
3. All you can work with is all you can perceive, so there is no need to beat yourself over being incapable of anything. If being unsure of where to look causes distress, Drop 'Control' and let attention surf by itself. A gentle, comfortable curiosity in the basic form of being aware is the way forward.
4. There is nothing to believe, so trust no one. Being unsure is the fuel, burn it by investigating and know the truth via the only way and it is not via intellectual understanding. The more you read past this point, the more you will wonder/suffer and the longer/harder the path will become (but the lessons do leave a deeper, lasting mark!).
5. Tune your radio to Channel Suffering all-day-long. Use the energy created by suffering to turn the lights on itself - You are now the foremost scientist on the most important subject in the world - YOU. If you suffer, the answer lies in how you allowed yourself to. Investigate all Suffering, leave no stone unturned as they are the key to liberation!

May All Beings be Free from Suffering! emoticon
Jon Bash, modified 4 Years ago at 12/5/17 6:56 PM
Created 4 Years ago at 12/5/17 6:56 PM

RE: balancing concentration and mindfulness

Posts: 3 Join Date: 11/22/17 Recent Posts
This is some excellent advice. I'll do my best to put it into practice thoughtfully. Thank you!

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