A question to Culadasa

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This topic contains 10 replies, has 7 voices, and was last updated by  Blaz Simcic 9 years, 9 months ago.

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    Oleg Elkanov

    Good day, everybody!
    I’d like to know if it is possible to ask Culadasa or someone who teaches on his behalf a question online about my meditation practice? It is a tiny little question and won’t take long time to answer but would be invaluable for me. The general idea is that I’m having certain adverse effects with my practice and I’m not sure what would be the best way to deal with it.



    Hi Oleg,

    Many of the users on this forum have studied extensively with Culadasa and teach, or are in training to teach, on his behalf. If you’re comfortable, please feel free to post your question here. You’re very likely to get the answer you need.



    Oleg Elkanov

    It sounds like I’m at the right place then! So, I’ll cut to chase, here is my story. I’ll try to keep it short and relevant, in case some more details are required, please, ask and I’ll be happy to provide them.
    I started practicing in February 2014. By that time, I had read the meditation guide on Dharma Treasure and it really answered all the questions I had about the technique.
    For about 2.5 months I was doing 5 40min sessions a day of mainly breath counting. During some sessions, I was following the breath identifying its start and finish. During others, I was identifying if it’s long or short. I feel like it is pretty much the same, as what I’m really watching is not just the breath but primarily the quality of my attention and if it stays with the object or if it strays.
    Then, between sessions I started feeling some mind fog, some unpleasant sensations in the body (something like you want to yawn and stretch, except if you did, it wouldn’t go away) and generally feeling mentally drained (not emotionally but rather feeling like you wouldn’t want to engage in any type of mental activity that involves concentrating, even small talks with family and friends).
    However, I kept going with my practice and in a couple of days it led to somewhat of a full-scale breakdown. I remember I tried to count 10 coins in my hand to pay for a bus and I couldn’t.
    I made a 2 week break from meditating. The side effects were gone after 3 days, but when in 2 weeks I restarted they were back again. They were less drastic, something you can live with but you’d rather not. So I decided to limit the amount of my daily practice to mere 11 minutes a day hoping that the side effects will gradually subside and I’ll be able to slowly build up to at least 40min of daily practice. It’s been about 3 months now but nothing has changed really.
    I have my own theory about what’s going on, but I would rather hear your opinion first. My hope is that in your teaching practice you’ve met something similar and it was somehow resolved. I’m currently not doing any meditation at all, as it has become clear that the issue is not about to resolve itself and something needs to be changed.
    I appreciate you taking the time to read this and will really be looking forward to any advice I can get!


    Hi Oleg, my name is Tucker. I’m a meditation teacher studying with Culadasa. We talked about your question this morning and he suggested that I respond, because I had the same problem about 7 years ago.

    I think the problem you’re experiencing comes from hyperfocusing. First, this takes a tremendous amount of energy and leaves you feeling exhausted and as though all you’d like to do is watch TV. The goal of the practice is not to gain exclusive attention on the breath — although this may happen quite a ways down the road. In fact, if the entirety of your awareness is consumed by the breath, this probably means you’re exerting a lot of mental effort to ignore or subdue all the other things going on in your mind … the Buddha called this trying to “crush” the mind. This wears you out. It might be helpful to think that the idea in meditation is to TRY or INTEND to focus on the breath, but not to actually do it, necessarily. You set the intention to focus on the breath then largely relax and see what happens.

    Perhaps the bigger problem are the consequences of hyperfocusing itself. The mind becomes accustomed to only holding one thing at a time. Any everyday task involves multiple steps (remembering how much the bus costs, remembering how much each coin is worth, counting them, putting them in the machine, etc.), and if you’re training to only focus on one thing, you can get pretty dopey at doing daily tasks. Perhaps the biggest problem with hyperfocus is that when you’re entirely focused on one thing, the context collapses, which is the opposite of what we aim for in this practice. So imagine that some sadness comes up. If the mind is spacious, it’s easier to remember that you haven’t always been sad, won’t always be sad, and that both your mind and the world are awfully big, so this passing sadness isn’t too much of a problem. If you’re hyperfocused, this sadness feels as though it’s the absolute truth, the entire world, and that dulling the mind to get away from it is the only possible solution. Being able to keep the context during unpleasant mental and physical sensations is one of the mechanisms by which meditation decreases suffering.

    As far as how to get back to meditation without this problem, my first suggestion would be trying to keep the breath LIGHTLY in your attention while allowing everything else that’s happening to be in your background awareness. So while you’re watching the breath, make sure you can hear the electric noises in the room (air conditioner, refrigerator, etc.), the thoughts in your head, and anything else that’s going on. Experiment with letting go of the breath; at this point in your practce, it’s more important to relax your effort and notice the context than to center the breath in your attention.

    My favorite metaphor here is that of the teacher and the class. When you’re in class, you’re trying to focus on the teacher, but you can still see all the other students sitting in the room. At some point, one of the students will become more interesting than the teacher (because the student is cuter, or doing something new, etc.), and your attention will shift from the teacher in the foreground to the student in the foreground, with the teacher either in the background or completely gone from your awareness. This is the way we want to hold the breath. We want to aim to keep it in the front of our attention but ensure that EVERYTHING else that is happening (the other students) remains in your background awareness, which feels like a sort of “mental peripheral vision.” Inevitably and repeatedly, something else will be more interesting than the breath, and it will jump from the background to the foreground. That’s OK, that’s the way the process goes, just adjust your attention when you notice.

    You might find that, actually, the best way to keep the attention focused is by keeping possible distractions in your peripheral vision.

    If you’re not immediately able to do this practice of keeping the breath in the front and everything else in the periphery, you can also try expanding the scope of the meditation object. A big object, such as focusing on the whole body at once, won’t contribute to hyperfocus the way that focusing on just the breath will.



    Oleg Elkanov

    Hello, Tucker, it’s great to meet you! Did you literally have the same symptoms like me, like strange bodily sensations too? Had you meditated for a massive amount of time daily before that happened?
    So, I’ve read your post very attentively and I’ve been thinking a lot about it. I do put quite a lot of effort into my practice, the way I approach it I try to make sure that I notice all the breaths, I even anticipate each of them (well, I still miss like 5 in an 11min sit). One question that really bothers me is would I be in this situation I’m experiencing now if I was meditating for 20min, not 3.3hours a day? In other words was it a flawed technique that got me, or was it over-training?
    Is there such a thing in meditation as over-training? From a neurological perspective it is a process that abides by the same rules as any grow process in a human body, isn’t it? Stress induces adaptation but it needs to be alternated with adequate rest, is all that even relevant for meditation? I’ve never come across anything on this topic and many schools just say that the more meditation the better.
    If it was over-training maybe I should just take a rest from meditation for 3 months, then get back to it and take it easy?
    Or maybe I should try to be more relaxed and less focused on the breath and keep going and work through it? If despite my efforts to stay more relaxed I keep experiencing negative side effects between sessions will my practice eventually lead me to the stage of uninterrupted continuity of attention? Please, let me know if you still think that not making any breaks is the way to go.
    Today, when I meditated I tried to stay aware of the sounds around me while still keeping count of the breath. Normally I try to minimize audio distractions and don’t really hear anything, but this time I left the window open and while counting the breaths I was also hearing the sounds of the street in the background of my attention. The focus on the breath is definitely weaker this way and I lost count many times. But its hard to say if I am more relaxed and if the general amount of effort is less, I would say it is distributed differently. Every now and then I still have to remind myself to stay aware of the breath and the street noise and that is an effortful activity. I feel like I can only reduce the absolute amount of efforts if I’m willing to accept the fact that there will be more mind wandering and less awareness. Is this what I want to do?


    That’s right, Oleg. Essentially, you’re learning a new skill, so in one sense, you are starting from scratch. You should expect not to be as proficient at it and should expect more mind wandering.

    Another translation of “right effort” that is sometimes used is “balanced effort.” So for a meditator who uses poor posture and often indulges in and enjoys mind wandering, my instructions would be about increasing effort. In your case, though, learning to be more tolerant of mind wandering is probably a good idea. Remember, one of the capital-I insights to which the Eightfold Path can lead is that there is no self. Among other things, this means that there is nobody in control of your mind. You are not the guy in the driver’s seat who can decide what the mind will do; there is no such guy, and no such seat. Seeing that you cannot control your mind (other than temporarily in the “crushing” sense which increases, rather than decreases, suffering)is actually a pretty good insight. There are a bunch of techniques you can read about on Culadasa’s website (particularly the outline of the 10 stages handout) that can help gently increase focus, but being OK with being less able to control your attention than you believe you “ought to be” is probably the best way to go for now.

    Here’s the good news. The work you’ve been doing so far is a part of this training. So, while in a sense you’re starting over, in another sense you’ve already practiced one component of what you’re now doing, so I would expect it will go more quickly and easily than for a novice.

    I wouldn’t recommend a break from meditation; the practice you’re now doing sounds like it’s going in the right direction. As far as how much you should practice, I’d say the total hours of daily practice doesn’t matter so much as the intention. If you’re meditating 3 hours a day with a sense of gentleness, patience, and an acceptance of the mind as it is, then that’s fine. Or if meditating 3 hours a day just inherently leads to that sense of overeffort, hyperfocus, and rejection of your current mind in favor of the better one you’re sure you ought to have by meditating more, then cut back.

    I teach a free meditation class over group video chat on Tuesday evenings (8:30 – 10 PM Eastern time)that you’d be welcome to join. If you post your email address here, I can send you more information about it.



    Pat Arp

    Dear Tucker:

    I am interested in your Thursday evening meditation class, and will appreciate very much receiving more information about it at patsboro@gmail.com.

    Thank you!



    Oleg Elkanov

    Thank you for your answers, Tucker! I appreciate it very much. With regard to your meditation class, my email is elkanovoleg@gmail.com, I will be more than happy to join.


    J Ellis

    Hey folks,
    If there’s room for one more I’m interested in the class. Your advice to Oleg has been really helpful for my practice over the past few days. Sadly Tuscon is a £600 flight for me so a meditation class from someone close to Culadasa’s teachings would be invaluable.




    Jesse Fallon

    Great question and great responses, Oleg and Tucker.


    Blaz Simcic

    Paul, can you please explain how does it feel like when your introspective awareness »tends to collapse«? Is it possible that you experience (increasing) subtle dullness?


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