Impasse at an early stage

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This topic contains 16 replies, has 9 voices, and was last updated by  Blake Barton 6 years, 1 month ago.

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    I’ve been reading TMI for around 18 months. I appreciate the attention
    to detail in the book and have read the relevant sections countless
    times. However, I feel I’m at an impasse.

    I appreciate we shouldn’t seek progress but I feel I am permanently stuck
    in stages 2 and 3. I have had glimpes at 4 but they
    were fleeting. For a lot of my sits I feel like I’m not actually doing
    anything and mostly arise a bit fed up and frustrated. I haven’t seen
    any improvement in the stability of my attention to the breath. I try
    to take mindfulness into daily life, and enjoy walking meditation,

    Currently, I sit for one hour in the mornings. After ten minutes of
    prep, I turn to the breath. I have trouble maintaining attention to
    the breath for even one cycle. I think I’m mostly forgetting but I
    think there’s occasional mind wandering. If I forget the breath for
    over 30 seconds, I take it to be mind wandering.

    I check in – though there’s not usually anything there. I try to
    maintain peripheral awareness and tune into this every couple of
    breaths. I think my introspective awareness is lacking.

    Even writing these phrases now makes me doubt them – I have become
    confused with mind wandering, distractions etc and find the
    definitions quite slippery.

    I’ve read the relevant sections so many times that I find it it hard
    to read the book anymore. I’ve lurked and read a lot of posts on this forum.
    I listen to talks on patreon. I think I’m suffering from
    some sort of analysis paralysis and can’t move on. I would like to try
    another method, but I suspect I may hit a similar roadblock. It just
    seems silly to continue to do something that doesn’t seem to be having
    any discernible benefit.

    I really feel like like I am doing something obvious wrong,
    and I think I could do with a teacher though
    there aren’t any close by here in Ireland.

    Sorry for the long first post and if anyone has any help it would
    be gratefully received.

    • This topic was modified 6 years, 1 month ago by  Adrian. Reason: spacing

    Ted Lemon

    One thing that I would suggest you consider is that you may not be meditating at stage 2/3. It’s pretty common for new practitioners to mistake stage 4 for stage 2 or 3 because they don’t know the distinction between forgetting and distraction. So the first thing I would suggest is that you make sure you aren’t doing this. If you aren’t, then we can debug further.

    The difference is that with forgetting, you are sitting on the cushion but you’ve forgotten the breath. There is no attention on the breath. It’s still there, but you aren’t paying attention to it, and you don’t remember that you’re supposed to be paying attention to it. And then eventually you remember, and that’s the time to rejoice.

    If you are distracted rather than forgetting or mind wandering, you still notice thoughts coming and going, and you may find yourself thinking at length on some topic, but the whole time, you are also attending to the breath in the background. And you have some sense that you are meditating, and not just gathering wool or thinking about stuff.

    If this is the case, then applying the antidote of remembering and rejoicing won’t help you to make progress. It’s still fine to do, but you need to do more. If you are not experiencing significant dullness, then the thing to do is start noticing subtle distractions. You’re not trying at this point to stop having subtle distractions—the goal is simply to notice the distraction before it sweeps you away into a gross distraction. There’s a nice picture describing this practice at the beginning of the chapter on stage four. Of course there’s more to the practice than that, but this is a place to start if this is what’s going on for you.



    I would echo what Ted has said, this sounds a lot like Stage 4 to me, not only based on the phenomenology of the distractions, mind wandering and the breath, but also your emotional affect and attitude towards the practice. I’d strongly recommend reading the Stage 4 section on “Persistent Distractions: Pain, Insights, and Emotions”.

    Having to grapple with these overwhelmingly powerful distractions can undo all the satisfaction you felt at finally being able to pay continuous attention to the breath. You may feel impatient or skeptical about the benefits of meditation or your ability to practice. However, you don’t need to worry or judge yourself. At this Stage, the arising of strong and persistent distractions is actually a sign of progress! You’re coming into contact with primal drives, untapped capacities, hidden archetypes, and powerful emotions arising from deeper parts of the mind. Just remember that, whether you’re dealing with pain, brilliant insights, or powerful emotions, the goal is always the same: to overcome distractions with the right antidote, re-engage with the breath until attention becomes stable, and cultivate ever-stronger introspective awareness.

    There follows in the book more specific advice for dealing with the specific types of distaction. But I’d mainly like to emphasise that this is actually good and to keep going! Even though it might be unpleasant, it can be extremely interesting to observe what your mind is doing in this state, the stories your mind is telling itself about your abilities and the practice, knowing that this mental state is impermanent and dependent upon certain conditions.

    – Will (TMI Teacher in Training since January 2018)

    • This reply was modified 6 years, 1 month ago by  Will. Reason: formatting


    Thank your for your replies Ted and Will.

    Based on those descriptions, I’d say most of my meditations are concerned with forgetting rather than distractions. I have on a couple of occasions encountered the subtle distractions you mention, but only rarely. I don’t have a sense of attending to the breath in the background, nor have continious attention on the breath.



    I hope you don’t mind me joining the conversation, Adrian, but I have found this conversation so helpful, as I think it is describing exactly where I am at. I have been at stages 2/3, with consistent attention to the breath, but then just lately I have found myself frustrated and concerned with my lack of progress as I seem to have moved backwards. There is some forgetting, for sure, particularly when I sit at night and get tired and dull more easily, but I think it’s possible that for my longer morning sits I am distracted, as there is still peripheral awareness on my breath. I’ve in fact found myself wondering about how to tell when I get to stage 4, and your descriptions have really helped me. I’ll read stage four. Thanks, all, for the thoughts, as well as for getting me out of lurker mode!




    Thanks for posting this. I too, am at almost this exact same place. It helps so much to know I’m not the only one going through it.





    Adrian, what helped me when I couldn’t grab onto the breath initially was on page 98, Sustaining Attention Through Following and Connecting. It included going back to Stage Two briefly, when he refers to it in the firzt paragraph of FOLLOWING.

    I had missed doing that in Stage Two.

    Notice on page 99, …recognize three or four distinct sensations every time. To help this to happen I would pulse my attention.

    I didn’t use connecting as much.

    Good luck. Persevere and be patient.

    Disclaimer. I have no training as a meditation teacher. Therefore, I use the book in looking for solutions.



    Blake Barton

    Hi Adrian,

    I agree that introspective awareness is the skill that you want to develop, along with more acceptance. You want to learn to know when your attention moves away from the breath. I recommend doing a version of the labeling practice from Stage 3. With this version, I recommend labeling everything that captures your attention with a simple label, and then gently returning to the breath. This will give you a good idea what your attention is doing, and hopefully allow you to notice distractions sooner before they turn into forgetting. In particular make sure you label any frustration or judgment about your meditation practice. Long term this should build your introspective awareness.

    Please note that this is different than the labeling practice from Stage 3, because with that practice you only use labeling after you wake up from forgetting.

    You state that “I try to maintain peripheral awareness and tune into this every couple of breaths”. Peripheral awareness should be happening simultaneously with attention, without effort on your part. It sounds like you are probably moving attention to see if you have peripheral awareness.

    When your attention is centered on the meditation object, are you aware of other things like sounds, body sensations and thoughts? If so, then you have peripheral awareness. If not, I would suggest you are zooming in and focusing too closely on the breath which makes it very difficult to stabilize attention. You want to take a mental step back and zoom out slightly so that your attention is centered on the breath, and you are still aware of other things in the background or alternating with the meditation object. Think of how focused vision and peripheral vision work together automatically.

    I recommend keeping things simple and not overthinking it (coming from an over thinker). Either your attention is on the meditation object or it moves to some distraction that is not the meditation object. Just notice and label when your attention moves to a distraction, and direct your attention back to the meditation object. Try to let go of any judgment about what should be happening and get curious about what is happening.

    Best Wishes,
    Blake – Dharma Treasure Teacher


    Michael Dunn


    In addition to what has already been posted, a “soft” skill that you can use to move through times when you feel stuck or when you just can’t past something is to reaffirm your intentions a lot more. I sometimes write down my intentions on a sheet of paper in front of me to remind me during the sit, in a very overt way.

    This has the benefit of training the mind on an unconscious level to do the practices as instructed and then I am confident the results will follow.

    Dharma Treasure TinT



    @arieljoy & @dcurtis no problem, good to hear I’m not alone!

    @tjansen I’ll go back and read the relevant sections, thanks.

    @blakebarton Thanks for your response. At present when I label, it’s ‘thinking, planning or memory’. I’ve been reading about see/hear/feel – could I try that? Sometimes I feel that labelling generates thoughts. I do feel that I have to repeat my intention to maintain peripheral awareness every few breaths – it fades otherwise. I tried zooming out, then felt that I wasn’t devoting enough attention to the breath. I’ve found it very difficult to get that balance right; I thought it might have came right over time. I can hear sounds OK – it’s thoughts that lead me away.

    @Michael_Dunn That’s interesting about intentions. I feel I have to constantly repeat mine every couple of breaths. It does feel jarring at times.


    Blake Barton

    Hi Adrian,

    Yes, you can use see/hear/feel labels, and the see/hear label works well to deconstruct thoughts.

    When you say labeling generates thoughts, do you mean the label itself is a thought, or that you have thoughts about the label, or labeling in general just tends to lead to more random thoughts? You don’t want to label the label, but if you have thoughts about the label, or additional thoughts, you can simply label them.

    Labeling is more discursive then silent noticing, but it is just a means to an end. At some point you will let go of the labeling once your attention has stabilized.

    When you say peripheral awareness fades if you don’t renew your intention regularly, what exactly happens? Are you only aware of the breath at that point? Are you not aware of sounds or your body sensations? It is natural for some people to turn peripheral awareness into something that they have to do. The following clarification from Culadasa might be helpful.

    Think about how you intend to do other things in your life. How do you intend to walk or read? Do you consciously need to constantly renew your intention to do these things, or only once you have stopped walking or reading.

    You might also spend time in the first step of the four step gradual transition to the meditation object. This practice is good for seeing how attention and awareness work, and you can also use labeling with this practice.

    Thoughts are the distractions most likely to capture our attention, and that is why I think it is helpful to get to know them instead of fighting against them.

    Best Wishes,



    Thanks Blake,

    In relation to labelling I spend a short amount of time working out if the label is correct eg am I thinking or planning? With see/hear/feel perhaps the labelling is more neutral so we’ll see how that goes. It’s probably another example of my overthinking TMI.

    If I don’t renew my intention to keep peripheral awareness ‘bright’ it means I am not aware of sounds or body sensations. I try to then follow breath sensations amidst sounds/body sensations. Am I making sense? I have been spending more time on the first stage of the four step transition – maybe this will bear fruit. I’m going to study that clarification from Culadasa (again) .

    Intentions are sticky. I thought repeating them helped me to return to the breath more easily? Again, I spend more time than necessary wondering which intentions to repeat (follow & connect; renew peripheral awareness; check in – quality of breath sensations/what was just happening?) Perhaps I need to stop mentally repeating these sensations as often as i do, if as you suggest, they should come naturally.

    Sometimes, when I’m watching a movie or reading a good book, I notice my breath sensations. I can tune into them easily whilst I’m ‘doing’ the other task, and it feels like this is close to what I’m after. I think I’m still forcing the breath a little at times, so maybe that’s another part of the problem.

    TMI does seem like a straightforward system if you stick to the given instructions; somewhere along the way I’ve overcomplicated it and I’m not sure where – somewhere inbetween 3 and 4 I think.

    • This reply was modified 6 years, 1 month ago by  Adrian.


    “I would suggest you are zooming in and focusing too closely on the breath which makes it very difficult to stabilize attention. You want to take a mental step back and zoom out slightly so that your attention is centered on the breath, and you are still aware of other things in the background or alternating with the meditation object.”

    Wow, i thought the goal was to zoom in as much as possible without losing peripheral awareness. There are times when i sense the entire nose-upper lip area and decide to focus on a tiny spot because that area is too big. Is this wrong then? Can focus on a big area still lead to access concentration/jhana/nimitta?

    Now i’m lost, i thought the point was to zoom in or, get sharper while perceiving the sensations, as much as possible.


    Blake Barton

    Hi Adrian,

    I recommend not spending much time trying to determine if the label is correct, and you don’t want to label the labeling process. For you, it seems like simpler more generic labels like see/hear/feel may be best.

    When you don’t renew the intention to keep peripheral awareness “bright”, you say you are “not aware of sounds and body sensations? So is the breath the only thing in your consciousness at this point? Are you aware of any thoughts, particularly about the meditation process? I have a feeling that your attention is alternating between the breath and thoughts, analysis, and judgment about the meditation process. This may not allow much awareness of anything else. I went through a similar phase in my practice.

    Trying to keep peripheral awareness “bright” might be part of your problem. I encourage you to experiment with focusing you vision on your finger (attention) and then noticing the process of peripheral vision (peripheral awareness). Do you have to keep renewing the intention to have peripheral vision or does it just happen? Is peripheral vision “ bright”, or are things a bit fuzzy and indistinct?

    Another experiment would be to put your hand very close to your eyes with your eyes open. In this case it is difficult to have peripheral vision because your hand is blocking it. If you move your hand a distance from your eyes then peripheral vision starts happening again. This is what I mean by zooming out on the breath a little bit to allow more awareness.

    Intentions are important, but it sounds like you are trying to put another layer of effort and “doing” on top of them. Any time we do anything, it means that there was an intention to do it (some of these may be unconscious). If you are feeling the sensations of the breath, if means you had an intention to do it. As soon as you notice that your attention has moved away from the breath, you have the intention to bring it back. You don’t necessarily need to verbalize this intention, the noticing just starts happening again.

    As an experiment, raise your arm above your head.

    If it happened, it means you had an intention to do it. Did you have to constantly renew the intention while the arm was being raised? Did you need to think about “how” to raise your arm? Did you need to verbalize something like “raise my arm” to get it to happen?

    I certainly empathize with you as I have spent a great deal of time over thinking and analyzing the process. There are quite a few things to do in TMI, and for some of us we overdo trying to get everything just right. I recommend moving towards simplicity as much as possible.

    Best Wishes,
    Blake – DT Teacher


    Blake Barton

    Hi Filipe,

    I think one needs to view my advice to Adrian in context. He stated the following “I have trouble maintaining attention to the breath for even one cycle”. To me this indicated a lack of peripheral introspective awareness.

    For most of us, in the early stages, when we attempt to notice more detail we tend to lose peripheral awareness. We want to find a balance between the two. If we lack introspective awareness, we might notice a great deal of detail about the breath for a few seconds, but then we will not notice that our attention is captured by a thought. Culadasa defines mindfulness as the optimal interaction between attention and awareness, and he says many people have an awareness deficit disorder.

    You don’t necessarily need to zoom in on a small physical area. You can develop great stability and clarity using a larger physical area. TMI uses this fact in Stage 6 to help help develop exclusive attention.

    So my advice really depends on where you are in the stages. If you can notice a great deal of detail and still keep peripheral awareness then this advice might not apply to you.

    Best Wishes,

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