Orienting myself in practice

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This topic contains 7 replies, has 3 voices, and was last updated by  B Arnold 2 months ago.

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  • #2953

    Josh
    Member

    Hi,

    My question is about orienting myself and my practice within The Mind Illuminated’s framework.

    This is a long post, so I really appreciate your taking the time to read it and help me out 🙂

    A little background:

    I started meditating about 5 years ago, and pretty consistently for the last 3 or so.

    From the beginning, I found that although my concentration wasn’t particularly good I could produce a state of samatha (I think) that would stick after dropping effort, or even for 30-60 minutes after meditating. It was/is virtually the same as a deep flow experience I’d been able to occasionally access through other activities.

    Until about a year and a half ago, that was basically all I did: try to produce that state and get it to stay longer. I tried lots of guided meditations from various apps too.

    A year and a half ago I did a 10-day Goenka retreat. I felt like my concentration was very good after the first few days and I’d have many sits where I’d feel totally focused and at ease and felt no resistance to the pain of sitting, nor any impulse to get up when the formal sit ended. I also felt some minor free energy flow from the scanning technique, and then an experience of being a point of consciousness in space with sensations arising and passing. To my knowledge, I had no purification experiences other than a really disturbing dream, and really nothing else unusual happened.

    About a year ago I stumbled across TMI and have been doing my best to follow the Stages ever since.

    My experience with TMI:

    It was a little strange at first trying to orient myself within the TMI framework because my concentration was bad (thus far I had more just waited for my body and mind to settle, rather than cultivating any sort of concentration).

    I started out doing Stage 2 practices, then Stage 3, 4 and so on. Again, it was difficult to orient myself because after sitting for a while I seemed to experience stuff from the later Stages (exclusive attention, effortlessness, joy, pacification of the discriminating mind, etc.) but also seemed to miss a lot of checkpoints (for example, no purification experiences at all).

    Because I seemed to be able to achieve that effortless focused attention and mental pliancy that wraps up Stage 7 (after sitting for 30-60 minutes), I started doing some of the early Stage 8 practices like Choiceless Attention, noticing chains of Dependent Arising and Shinzen Young’s “Gone” Practice. These were interesting and I seemed to have the clarity and stability of mind to do them just fine.

    After an adept meditator (non-teacher, not familiar with TMI) told me he thought I was still thinking and analyzing too much, I decided to investigate and see if I needed to further still my mind (and perhaps I was deluding myself thinking I was in Stage 8).

    I looked closer, and realized my narrating mind was still going to some extent. For example, “okay now I’m exclusively focused on the breath”, or “okay, now effortlessness has set in, maybe I should try Choiceless Attention”. I decided to try to let that go. I also noticed that my mind was still attaching images to most body sensations and sounds (I seem to be a very visual person), so I tried to let those go too.

    During long sits (1-2 hours) I seem to be able to let those two things go too. This last week or so is the first time I’ve really tried it, but the first time it happened I felt like I got to observe a true free-flow of experience without any labeling, which felt like a minor insight into impermanence and stuck with me for a few hours afterwards. I had similar experiences in the next few sits, but they felt less impactful.

    Orienting myself within the TMI framework:

    Given all this, I’m having trouble pinning down where I’m at or what I should be working on.

    Considering the long, winding description it’s a little difficult to pin down specific questions other than “where am I? what do I do now?”, but I’ll do my best.

    1. Despite reading through the book several times, reading posts on this forum and listening to many of Culadasa’s lectures, I’m still having trouble pinning down what characterizes exclusive attention, subtle distractions, peripheral awareness and so on. If my discriminating mind is pacified and the ability to stay effortlessly focused arises, is that always exclusive attention? If I feel like my mind is anchored to the breath, but I can still notice my reactions or “explore” my mind, is that metacognitive awareness or continued distraction?

    2. Even after sitting for 2 hours, spending more than an hour either a) doing early Stage 8 practices mentioned above or b) letting go of subtle mental narrating/labeling and subtle images attached to sounds and sensations, I’ve yet to experience physical pliancy. (I usually don’t have pain, and if I do it’s pretty easy to ignore even high levels of pain at this stage.) The only indicators I’ve had are so small body twitches, but they don’t necessarily increase in frequency as my concentration/relaxation deepens. What steps should I take here?

    3. I’m also having a little trouble understanding the arising/cultivation or joy vs deeper concentration. I seem to have the most joy arise when I just let the mind settle without really trying to concentrate much, or doing a metta practice. Diligently doing the aforementioned Stage 8 practices, or instead trying to completely let go of narrating/labeling and images produces a more intense state of focus, but it feels more like driving a racecar or playing an intense videogame and little joy arises. Is this normal, or am I somehow losing the “lubrication” of samatha?

    4. Finally, the one thing that gives me a lot of doubt with my practice (and makes me worried that I’m somehow deluding myself) is that I’ve experienced almost no strange phenomena. No purification experiences, no dramatic body sensations, sounds or visions, no paranormal events and so on. I don’t really mind,because these aren’t goals for me, but not encountering any of these “checkpoints” worries me. What should I make of this?

    Again, thanks for reading such a long post and being willing to help 🙂

    Josh

    • This topic was modified 2 months ago by  Josh.
    #2955

    Peter W
    Member

    Haha, I’m pretty much experiencing exactly what you’re going through. Although doubtful I’m near Stage 8. Everything you’ve described from what you’ve attempted, to what you’ve listened to, and your overall state of practice and results from it. Same here bro.

    Ditto!

    #2956

    B Arnold
    Member

    Hey Josh,

    I understand where you are – I too came to TMI from years of experience with other kinds of meditation practice, and I was initially bewildered by the wide array of concepts and terms, unable to really pinpoint where I should be practicing. Be patient and diligent, and you will eventually find greater clarity.

    To better help you, I’d be curious to know your experience with a couple of the practices in earlier stages. For example, have you practiced much with the “Following and Connecting”, in stage 3? If so, what was your experience like? Also, I’m curious to know if you worked with the body scan in stage 5, and what that experience was like?

    Regarding your question about exclusive attention – I’m curious what you mean by being able to “explore your mind”, even though attention is anchored to the breath. What does this exploring entail? Are you clear which faculty you are using to do this “exploring” – whether it is attention or awareness? If not, I would advise you to go back to at least stage 6 or stage 5 practices and work with the body scanning practices and the “experiencing the whole body with the breath” practice in stage 6. By the end of stage 6, you should have a pretty firm sense of the difference between attention and awareness.

    Also, if you are not doing the four step transition, I would highly recommend you start. Begin every sit with it, and you will over time develop a much more clear understanding of the distinction between attention and awareness. Without developing a sense of this distinction, I think it would be pretty difficult to gain a firm sense of whether you had developed exclusive attention or not.

    I hope this helps,

    Bobby – DT Teacher in Training

    • This reply was modified 2 months ago by  B Arnold.
    #2958

    Josh
    Member

    @Peter – Haha, glad to know I’m not the only one 🙂

    @B_Arnold – Thanks for the super comprehensive response. I’ll try to answer your questions as well as I can.

    1. Regarding Stage 3 following/connecting + the body scan

    I find that when I first sit down (first 5-10 minutes) trying to very clearly observe subtle sensations feels very difficult and tiring, and feels like I’m trying too hard + losing awareness. I do much better with calmly counting my breath, which prevents mind wandering, so I’m starting out by gently dealing with forgetting. I try to just let the mind do it’s thing and stay focused on the breath.

    The method that’s been most helpful for me is to first make sure I’m not mind wandering at all, then make sure I’m “there” for every breath (never wake up to having missed a count or two), then make sure I’m there for every part of the breath. Consistently being with each in-out breath might take 10 or 15 minutes, and being with it totally from start to finish every time might take 20 or more. I don’t really start with close following and connecting until that 15-20 minute mark; like I said, before that point that close investigation seems to tire me out and make it harder to maintain introspective awareness.

    Once I reach that point, close following becomes rather easy. I can observe subtle characteristics of the breath and it feels far less conceptual. I can also easily do the Stage 5 body scan at this point (would have felt tiring like close following) in the beginning.

    I did the body scan a bunch in the Goenka retreat (after 3 days of breathing focus/attention stabilization). I’ve also tried it a few times in my daily sits when I reach about this Stage of stabilization, but not often. I was able to scan up and down my body and feel a lot of subtle sensations, but I didn’t have any qi/prana/inter winds experiences. Admittedly I haven’t worked with it much since the retreat though — I seemed to have spent less time on Stage 5 because I feel very alert/engaged once I have stable attention and effortlessness sets in.

    2. Attention and Awareness, and Exclusive attention

    I’m making a point to notice these differences more in daily life. It’s clear at some points and not at others.

    I can tell when I lose peripheral awareness because I feel like my attention “closes in” and I can be startled easily. I can also be very engaged with the breath but still be noticing whether I’m trying too hard or my intent is getting weak, or if I’m becoming slightly dull.

    However at other times it is still pretty unclear. If my discriminating mind stops and I feel like I can just watch the free flow of experience, is that happening in attention or awareness? I have no idea.

    I’m almost positive I reach exclusive attention in my practice, but it’s just unclear to me where the formal cut off is and how deep I should be trying to go with pure concentration before doing some of the vipassana practices.

    =======

    I’ll take your advice on the 4 step transition process. Thanks, I think further making the distinction between the two faculties will help. I’ll also make a point to distinguish between the two in everyday life.

    Thanks again for all the help!!

    #2959

    Josh
    Member

    Update:

    I tried the 4 step transition this morning. It’s helpful — especially now that I’m specifically trying to tease out what’s in attention and what’s in awareness.

    (It’s actually interesting, the breath-counting method I came up with on my own actually has served a similar purpose but with less clarity around where attention was actually going and what I was aware of.)

    Anyway, it was pretty hard. I guess I should have expected that because it normally takes me 20+ minutes to be fully aware of each part of each breath… meaning that until that point my mind is still jumping to other things.

    Some tentative thoughts:

    1. This is really good because I have something really useful to work on for the first 20-30 minutes. I’ll do the transition and keep identifying what’s in attention vs awareness.

    2. I still think I’ve been reaching exclusive attention later on in the meditation, but I also seem to be able to bring about joy and effortlessness without exclusive attention. Maybe it’s because that was the main focus on my meditations for the first few years.

    3. I’ll give it a week or so to see how much clarity things brings to the practices later in my meditation when my mind is really settled, and “where I’m at”.

    One more question:

    What’s a “normal” timeline for the mind settling period? It’s one thing that the book itself doesn’t really address. Right now it takes me 30-45 minutes to reach what appears to be early Stage 8. Is this how it works for most people? And what speeds up the transition? Is it mostly increased concentration power, or just acclimation over time?

    Thanks so much!

    #2962

    B Arnold
    Member

    Hey Josh,

    Regarding timeline for “settling period”, I think it can certainly vary for individuals, but nonetheless it’s not unusual to experience several different stages in the course of a sit. Though I will say candidly that not having greater sensory clarity for the first 20+ minutes of your practice suggests to me that it might be of use to you to engage more in the stage 5 body scan practice. I haven’t done Goenka scans, but my impression is – please correct me if I’m wrong – is that it may differ from TMI body scanning in that it doesn’t place as much emphasis on scope of attention – alternating between small and large body regions, for example. Be sure you note those differences and be mindful of the scope of your attention when engaged with the TMI body scan practice.

    I do get the impression from your reports that there is some continuity of attention, and I like that you are also able to detect that quality of imbalance that can occur, where there is perhaps too much attention and not enough awareness – but I suspect that there is perhaps more subtle distractions occurring than you are aware of or able to identify, and suspect that there may be some subtle dullness impacting your sensory clarity. That isn’t to say that you can’t quickly remediate with the right tools – but it will take vigilance to engage with the right tool at the right time.

    Once sensory clarity seems better – or even simply after 10 minutes of diligent effort at the body scan practice, try returning to the breath sensations at the nose, and try noticing the parts of the breath again. Notice if there is any improvement in the sense of clarity regarding the parts of the breath.

    Ultimately, if you really feel you should be practicing at stage 8, or you want to practice at stage 8, I say go for it. Give yourself a while to become familiar with the practices. I would just advise – be honest with yourself. If you still feel, after spending some time with the stage 8 practices, some confusion or uncertainty with the practices, then reevaluate. Don’t feel that it’s some kind of failure or loss to go back to an earlier stage and work another practice that you feel you have more clarity or certainty with. Ultimately the most effective and efficient way for to you practice will be to work with the optimal stage for your current skill level.

    As another DT teacher once said recently, “meditation is a self-correcting vehicle”. Ultimately, reflecting on the feedback from your own practice will be your best teacher.

    I hope something of what I have offered here helps! Best of luck with your practice!

    Bobby – DT Teacher in Training

    • This reply was modified 2 months ago by  B Arnold.
    • This reply was modified 2 months ago by  B Arnold.
    #2966

    Josh
    Member

    Bobby,

    I can’t tell you how helpful your feedback has been, and how grateful I am to have found resources like TMI and this community. I really think I could have ran around in the dark for 25 years if not for some of this specific feedback.

    —-

    So, I figured it out.

    I was making a few mistakes that were really confusing me. First, I was worried my concentration wasn’t good enough (which turned out to be true) but I ended up slipping into more of a dry vipassana sort of practice to try to remedy this, which lead to a lot of confusion.

    I also made the mistake of trying to “see” awareness but not really see how attention was moving. It felt like I was yanking my attention back to the breath rather than gently watching it wander slightly, then coaxing it back.

    This led me to misunderstand exclusive attention. I think sitting solidly in stages 4 and 5 with glimpses of stage 6.

    I had also mistaken the calming, pleasant effect of Samatha in Stage 4 or 5 (and the relative pacification of the discriminating mind) for the unification of early stage 8 and grade I piti.

    At first I was a little bummed being “set back” a few Stages, but today I had an awesome meditation that actually reflected the TMI map appropriately.

    -Somewhere in Stage 4-5 I experienced a few actual strong/weird body sensations. They weren’t extreme, but they’re the strangest thing I’ve yet experienced in meditation.

    -I also experienced some blinking/vibration/light in my visual field which I’ve never experienced before.

    Anyway, I’m really excited and I definitely feel like I’m on the right track now. A lot of confusion has been lifted… so thanks again.

    —————

    One last question.

    1. What causes/effects the rate of mind settling in Samatha? It seems to take me 30+ minutes to really settle in. I know that life outside of meditation is a big factor, and I’m constantly working on that, my stress levels are very low. Is there anything in particular I can work on to speed this transition up?

    THANK YOU SO MUCH!!! 🙂

    #2973

    B Arnold
    Member

    Hey Josh,

    Regarding mind settling, all I can tell you is based on experience from my own practice – but I have tended to assume consistent and diligent practice were the most important factors. Over a period of time, your average baseline that you start with might change as a result of applying yourself to the practice diligently.

    What frame of mind are you starting practice with? In addition to the four stage transition, you might also include the 6 point preparation (another list!), to properly balance your attitude regarding goals and expectations. Make sure to notice something pleasant in the process as you begin your sit, will also help settle the mind and bring it to the task at hand.

    I’m glad I’ve been able to help you – best of luck!

    Bobby – DT Teacher in Training

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