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How to sustain concentration outside of retreat

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Hello there,

I just came back from a 10 day vipassana retreat and am now in the midst of trying to integrate my practice into my daily life. Part of that is doing two hours of meditation each day. This is going great in terms of my ability to sit for two hours each day but naturally the depth of my concentration starts to decrease. I understand that it is not possible to stay on a retreat level in terms of concentration ability but I feel like my concentration has worsened so much that it is now interfering with my insight practice. 
To to get to my question; how do you sustain your concentration outside of the retreat environment and still find time to do your regular insight practice? I understand that I could just do Samatha practice instead of insight practice but it is actually the insight practice I want to get deeper into, only that this is now hindered by my decreasing ability to concentrate. I hope this question is intelligible. Any thoughts are appreciated! 
Best,
lukas 

RE: How to sustain concentration outside of retreat
Answer
3/4/18 8:12 PM as a reply to lukas lohr.
At two hours cushion time, you’re doing well for daily life. You can get an added push by doing mindfulness practices off cushion, for example using the sensations in the soles of your feet as a focus while walking, noticing sensations in your bottom while seated (both of these good grounding practices), just being aware of what is going on in your body throughout the day. You can work in some noting practice while doing routine things (washing dishes, brushing teeth, even driving). It may sound like a burden, but in practice it can give you a sense of continuity between on and off cushion. You can segment your two hours in a number of ways, devoting half of the time to concentration and half to insight, or change up the percentages from day to day. Above all, don’t fret about daily life being a letdown from your retreat experience. You are getting good practice at integrating your life with your practice. 

RE: How to sustain concentration outside of retreat
Answer
3/4/18 10:15 PM as a reply to lukas lohr.
Hey Lukas,

first, keep Goenka's and Laurel's words in mind: "Continuity of practice is the secret of success", "practice does not end when you leave the cushion", "stay mindful throughout the day", ...

Second, I totally get you. After my first retreat I found that all my "superpowers" where gone about two to four weeks after retreat. Mindfulness plumited, body awareness was low, ... The way I went was deciding that my concentration was not good enough to do Vipassana properly, so I went to practice Samatha using "The Mind Illuminated". You seem to dislike Samatha, maybe because you think it's boring and like training wheels, but I can say it went to be quite interesting. It improved my concentration on as well as off cushion. Now, half a year later, I am at a stage where "The Mind Illuminated" introduces it's body scan. It is similar enough to the Goenka one in my opinion, starts simpler and builds it up slow, as compared to Goenka who throws you into the deep end straight away.

The other approach you could take it continuing the body scan as is. Over time it will as well build your concentration, but in my opinion you spend your time doing inefficient Vipassana practice that does not lead you far and use it as a tool to develop concentration where better ones (e.g. Samatha practices) are available.

My 2 cents, other's opinion may differ.

First and foremost, everyone is different and what worked for me might not for you and the other way around. So generally the best advice I can give you is experiment with yourself. Put body scanning aside for a month completely, do only concentration practice, see how that feels and if you might even like to do it for longer. Go back to body scanning if you feel the desire to do so after said month and see if your concentration is now good enough and if you can keep it up for a few weeks. Nothing beats broadening your horizon and finding it out yourself. Don't get too lost in trying everything and everything at once though ;-)

RE: How to sustain concentration outside of retreat
Answer
3/5/18 4:31 AM as a reply to David Starflower.
Hey David, 

thank you for your reply and input! I get that Samatha practice can be very interesting and actually that is why I am a bit cautious with it. I read a lot about how it can be "too" pleasurable and thus become addictive. There is nothing wrong with enjoying practice, I get that, but it is wisdom ie. insight into the three characteristics of phenomena that I am after and I feel like that line of inquiry would come to a hold when devoting more time to Samatha practice. Now I have read in MCTB that having cultivated the first Samatha jhana is necessary for progressing on the path of insight and I guess I am just looking for how people have gone about integrating concentration practice into their daily life while having insight as their primary goal of practice. 

RE: How to sustain concentration outside of retreat
Answer
3/5/18 3:38 PM as a reply to lukas lohr.
lukas lohr:
... Now I have read in MCTB that having cultivated the first Samatha jhana is necessary for progressing on the path of insight and I guess I am just looking for how people have gone about integrating concentration practice into their daily life while having insight as their primary goal of practice. 

I also started out with Goenka and transitioned to MCTC and various pragmatic sources a few months after my first retreat.  I feel that the concentration that comes out of the body scanning retreat is fantastic and a great basis for moving right along.

2 hours a day of hybrid of:
  1. concentration (focused awareness on specifc body parts) and
  2. investigation, redirecting that concentration/awareness into the broader nature of experience as informed by various traditional and pragmatic sources
was all I needed to make progress on the path of insight.  Concentration is needed for insight so there is no conflict in always practicing for more concentration, which includes falling into bliss, recognizing the trap and shifting focus to the nature of the bliss.

I got a lot out of the advise to stick with what was readily apparent untill my conenctration/awareness 'sees through' it.  This advise meant I spent less time feeling like nothing good was happening, more time in active/interesting investigation.

When having a moment to reflect in daily life, the freedom to sit a moment, close my eyes, and ask 'how/where/what/when is my experience of this very moment' is a great daily life practice.  So I consider that a kind of daily life insight practice, to 'know' what's going on, but it can also lead to specific objects for concentration in the moment.  For example, I might become aware that my mind is on something that I did not know my mind was on, or that I have a pain somewhere that I did not know was coloring my experience at that moment, or a vague feeling that I have no idea where it came from.

On the concentation side: 

When walking down the sidewalk, practicing putting my attention on a specific visual landmark near where the horizon would be and keeping my eyes pointed there, but of course tasking my visual system to keep me safe from bumping into or stumbling over nearby objects is an interesting concentration practice.  The thing to notice is when you are actually only looking at the center of vision on the horizon and are ignoring the more important stuff in the nearby peripherial field, or in fact not processing the visual field at all.  This can work with moment to moment shifts in visual targets that takes place walking around the house, grocery store etc.  Whenever I bump or stumble is when I learn to recognize that my attention was in fact not on anything at all visual at that moment.

Sometimes at bedtime, I'm in the walk-in closet changing my clothes and it's dark so I have to carefully shift my attention from wandering to precise balance or awareness of dim visual clues to avoid bumping or tipping over and waking everybody up.  It's a bit of effort to shift everything to that kind of balance, that's concnetration.

Speaking of balance, balancing no-hands and one-footed atop an elliptical trainer, or walkng along the top of a 1 foot retaining wall, or precicely along a thin line of crack in the concrete sidewalk are all opportunities to shift all attention/awareness to specific visual clues and physical posture so as to stay on your feet.  

Here's another favorite: when approaching a wall switch to turn off/on the lights in a room.  The unconcentrated thing is for it to be a very sloppy event with random parts of my finger or hand actually doing the switch flip.  The concentrated version is for the very tip of my pointer finger to land on the very tip of the switch, and just the right amount of pressure to make the switch click down with out the finger slipping off before the switch 'clicks'.

All that said, I feel like I have not been super precise about 3 characteristics, and that led to a more general awareness of the automaticness of experience, and that led to less automatic'ness of various things, and *that* is interesting, impactful but not necessarily always a good thing.  So practice carefully! emoticon

Addition: "be here now" is such a common piece of advise for daily life.  It never did much for me because being here/now, for me, was being either awash in a sh*t storm of 6 senses unable to disern one thing from another (monkey mind), or floating along on some kind of mental fabrication that has spun off of just one sense event from a minute , hour or day ago (obsessed with something).  Thats why I play with specific practices as I mention above, at least then it's cleaer to me when I'm doing what I want to do vs what I don't want to be doing.  That said, everybody is indeed different, so maybe my experience does not make sense for you Lukas.  I think that problem happens between most askers/answer'ers. :-{

RE: How to sustain concentration outside of retreat
Answer
3/5/18 8:41 AM as a reply to lukas lohr.
You can’t do “concentration” practices per se off cushion without derailing whatever activity you’re engaged in, but mindfulness both requires and enhances focus, so just working on awareness as much as possible will help with concentration. I like David’s advice about building concentration for awhile, and Culadasa is a great resource. I worked on samata for about 6 months and then plunged into noting, which was intense, but also worthwhile as I made rapid progress. You will find the approach that works best for you. 

ETA: Cross-posted with Matt, whose specific recommendations are excellent.

RE: How to sustain concentration outside of retreat
Answer
3/5/18 2:56 PM as a reply to lukas lohr.
lukas lohr:
Hey David, 

thank you for your reply and input! I get that Samatha practice can be very interesting and actually that is why I am a bit cautious with it. I read a lot about how it can be "too" pleasurable and thus become addictive. There is nothing wrong with enjoying practice, I get that, but it is wisdom ie. insight into the three characteristics of phenomena that I am after and I feel like that line of inquiry would come to a hold when devoting more time to Samatha practice. Now I have read in MCTB that having cultivated the first Samatha jhana is necessary for progressing on the path of insight and I guess I am just looking for how people have gone about integrating concentration practice into their daily life while having insight as their primary goal of practice. 
Did you notice that joy is one of the seven factors for enlightenment (and a Jhana factor as well btw)? So it's not only non-conductive for progress, it is actually necessary. The trap of joy becoming addictive is there, which is craving, one of the five hindrances. On the other hand you show aversion, agitation due to worry, and doubt towards joy and craving for Insight, so here are some hindrances you are facing right now ;-P

Experiencing joy in practice is actually very conductive, as it creates a positive feedback loop that keeps you practicing. You just should not get attached to it, only practice for the sake of generating joy or get frustrated when it inevitably is not joyful at times. "As it is, not as you want it to be", to quote Goenka.

The experience that joy is impermanent, craving for joy is suffering and the causes for joy are no-self is something you can investigate too btw and thus gain insight into the three marks of existence through the vehicle of joy.

The Samatha-Vipassana approach of "The Mind Illuminated" starts out with Samatha practice in the first half of the book and then gradually develops the very same practice into Vipassana and adding further Vipassana techniques as well. But it trains you to develop concentration and makes you stick through practice by positive feedback loops first. It also nudges you to make positive changes in your life, which relates to the Nobe Eightfold Path. All of this generates a smoother groundwork for the trauma that Insight can cause. Dry-Vipassana practices like Noting on the other hand are more prone to overwhelm you as they throw you into the deep end straight away. Again, a choice you have to make. I am prone to catastrophising and have some other flaws that would probably cause me not to deal too well with hard and fast Insight. I want to even myself out a bit along the path first. I want to get Insight, but I am not in a rush.

Shinzen Young has a nice article called "An Outline of Practice" where he gives some awesome examples on how to integrate practice in your daily life. He of course teaches Noting, but the practices themselves can be applied to any technique really. And from my point of view especially off cushion practice can not discern between concentration and insight, as you usually observe yourself in a specific situation and your reactions to it, which gives you insight about yourself.

RE: How to sustain concentration outside of retreat
Answer
3/5/18 11:30 PM as a reply to David Starflower.
Hi Lukas,

I suspect you have a misconception of concentration and are actually having trouble with getting into Access Concentration? It will help others help you better, if you be a lot more specific about what issues you are facing.

Example: Through sustained effort, I find that distractions disturb my attempt to focus and I cannot achieve stillness of mind because I keep alternating between being focused and distracted. The desire to want to be somewhere else (on a retreat, with a quality of mind that seems like high concentration. BUT I cannot put a finger on what it is.) other than where I am, causes me to go into an intellectual mode of conceptualizing what I should be doing instead of focusing on the breath. I am lacking in faith (holding wisdom at bay) that it will lead me to where I want to be. I realize the desire for a certain type of practice is not 'Right View' and I will bring my attention to the simple task at hand (observing the breath). My mind is smarter than I am, when it enters into Access Concentration, it will work on what I am lacking, it will feel right and that is what I should comfortably observe and not attempt to control so much. I will watch how the mind works and know what people mean by Samatha vs Vipassana - something that is not mentioned by the Buddha at all...

RE: How to sustain concentration outside of retreat
Answer
3/6/18 3:34 PM as a reply to lukas lohr.
In one of the Appendixes of Culadasa's "The Mind Illuminated" he describes a practice called "Mindful Review" that has the objective of making the mind more prone to become spontaneously mindful throughout the day, thereby increasing ones continuity of practice and ones overall level of mindfulness (which I think is the most important daily life factor for your question of how to keep concentration high outside of sitting itself).

A basic summary of the Mindful Review is to take 10 minutes at the end of your day, perhaps at the end of your evening sit, and review the highs and lows of the day and to check, analyse or "review" how mindful you were at each of those events. This trains the mind to see the causality of how mindfulness contributes to wholesome outcomes and lack of mindfulness to unwholesome outcomes and makes the mind more prone to be mindful.

Maybe that'd be useful.

For your sitting practice, you might also want to look into Khanika Samadhi as part of the Dry Insight route.

Basic explanation: Khanika samadhi, which means "momentary concentration" is a type of samadhi that you build through observing objects continuously change. It is what you develop with dry insight practices, because you are focusing on the continually changing nature of phenomena. This is in contrast to Ekagatta samadhi, or "one-pointed concentration" which is generally what you develop when doing pure shamatha practices with a single object.

And so this could be one option to explore for how to develop concentration while still focusing primarily on insight cultivation. It's also an option that has a lot of historical precedent behind it, it being the preferred method of masters such as Mahasi Sayadaw and the other masters who practice in his lineage (Sayadaw U Pandita, etc). So works by those two teachers are a good source to learn more about that (and their explanation of the 5 Controlling Faculties model is great too).

If you understand jhana stage-development to be the development of the jhanic factors, (and thus the criteria for "entering" a jhana is: the presence of whatever jhanic factors are necessary for that jhana) then its possible to see that you can use the development of the jhanic factors to develop through the vipassana jhanas instead of the shamatha jhanas (because in some sense they can be considered parallel or analogous) if one is practicing an insight technique instead of a shamatha technique (this is what they taught us on the 60day vipassana retreat at Sayadaw U Pandita's centre in Burma last December).


TLDR: you can just continue to deepen your concentration through insight practice itself, if you understand that it is also a concentration practice.

RE: How to sustain concentration outside of retreat
Answer
3/14/18 8:15 AM as a reply to Matt.
Thank you Matthew!
Your advice to stick with what is readily available has already helped me a lot to accept my experience and to be able to investigate it. Also being here now is something I am working on now, it doesn't just come all of a sudden but I can see a gradual improvement already. Thank you!

RE: How to sustain concentration outside of retreat
Answer
3/14/18 8:20 AM as a reply to David Starflower.
Thank you for your input David, I will look through what you recommended!

RE: How to sustain concentration outside of retreat
Answer
3/14/18 8:25 AM as a reply to Andrew S.
Thank you for your help and inspiration Andrew!
A lot to go through but I am happy to do so!