Struggles of a new meditator

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This topic contains 8 replies, has 6 voices, and was last updated by  Chris Gagne 6 years, 1 month ago.

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    Chris Gagne

    Hello everyone!

    I had the great fortune of attending a refuge vows ceremony with Darin McFadyen and Claire in November of ’13. They provided my friend and I with a wonderful, 2-hour introduction to meditation based on Master Culadasa’s teaching, including giving each of us a copy of the Light on Meditation handout.

    I started my daily meditation practice about 6 months ago and have been relatively consistent in sticking with it… I’ve probably missed about 20 days of the last 180. I currently meditate for half an hour every night before bed, down from 35-40 minutes as I began to find that I was beginning to get too dull at the end of the sit.

    I think I’m somewhere between Stage 2 and Stage 3 when I sit, though one could argue that I am still at Stage 1 because I still miss days once in a while.

    My meditation has not improved over the last 6 months except that it is getting easier to stay seated for the full 30 minutes. I am a little concerned that I am focusing too much on my breath and not on developing peripheral awareness.

    I know that Master Culadasa suggests that I should be sitting for 1-2 hours a day. For a lay person with a job, what does that look like? I sort of envision a 30 minute sit, 5 minutes walking, 30 minute sit session twice a day?

    I would really love to find a teacher and/or sangha who can help me with my practice. I have explored a few different meditation options here in San Francisco, but I haven’t encountered any (beyond Daniel Brown’s retreats) that speak to these discrete stages.

    I have a rare opportunity to do 10 days of vipassana with Dhamma this December. It’s rare for me since it’s usually hard to take this much time off of work but I just started a new job and so was able to negotiate this into my contract. I’ve just heard of Dan Brown’s retreat and this reminds me much more of Master Culadasa’s teaching. If I do the vipassana, I won’t be able to go to Dan Brown’s retreat until later next year. Or I can cancel the vipassana and go sit with Dan Brown in January. I’m not really sure what to do here.

    I’d love to find more weekend retreats in the SF Bay area that would be compatible with Master Culadasa’s teaching. I’m bought into the notion of samatha first then vipassana. Are there any centers or sanghas in the SF Bay Area that can help support me?

    Any thoughts or advice?



    • This topic was modified 6 years, 1 month ago by  Chris Gagne.

    Hi Chris,

    My name is Tucker, I’m a dharma teacher trained by Culadasa. I teach a weekly Sangha over Google Hangout, a group video chat forum, in the style of Culadasa’s teachings. It meets Tuesdays from 5:30 – 7 PM US Pacific time. If this would be of interest to you, please let me know. My email is

    Upasaka Tucker


    Blake Barton

    Hi Chris,

    Welcome to the group! One way to know if you have enough peripheral awareness is whether or not you are noticing other things while your attention is on the breath. Does your attention alternate between the breath and sounds, or the breath and other body sensations. Do you notice thoughts?

    If you attention is overly focused on the breath, you will not notice much else until five minutes later when you realize that your mind has been wandering.

    It also sounds like you may have some expectations about the way you “should” be progressing. Do you notice this during or after your meditation session? Do you notice judgement or discontent? Are you giving yourself positive feedback when you remember to come back to the breath?

    It is possible to maintain 2 hours per day of meditation as a lay practitioner with a job and a family. I would get up an hour early and meditate before work. I would then get another 50 minute session in after dinner. After a while it becomes a habit, and it becomes much easier. If you are tired in the evening walking meditation can be really helpful. I now work part time so it is easier to find more time for practice.

    Richard Shankman teaches in the bay area. He does not teach the stages, but he does teach samatha.

    Best Wishes,


    Chris Gagne

    Tucker and Blake, thank you!

    Tucker, I would love to join you for the Sangha. I normally work until 6:30 most days, so I’ll figure out how to get this on my schedule. It is certainly more convenient than trying to drive anywhere.

    Blake, thank you for the insight. The way that Darin and Claire introduced it to me was that I can think of it like drumbeats. There is the bass line of the breath: B B B B B B… Eventually a distraction will come in: B B B D B D B… If I don’t notice it, it takes over: D D D D D D (forgetting, mastering stage 3 = overcoming this). Mind wandering would then look like B B B B B D B B D D D B D D D D D W D D W W W W W W (mastering Stage 2 = overcoming this).

    Is that a reasonable way of understanding it?

    I would estimate that for the first 20-30 minutes of a sit I’m doing a decent job of sticking with the breath with let’s say 20% forgetfulness and 10% mindwandering. Towards the end of a 40-minute sit I get tired and begin to slip into dullness or mind wandering.

    I am “praising the puppy” with a gentle “yes!” when I come back to the breath, both on the cushion and throughout the day whenever I think of becoming more mindful. For instance, I’ll give myself a “yes!” when I think of my breath or inhibit myself from toying with my phone when I’m going to the bathroom.

    I do notice the expectation most of the time off the cushion. The mental chatter goes along the lines with “Okay, so I know sitting every day is the hardest step. I’ve ‘mostly’ done that in that I’ve sat ~160 out out the last 180 days. So I’m frustrated with my progress since it feels like I’m still ‘stuck’ at Stage 2/3. On the other hand, Master Culadasa said that to make progress I should be sitting 1-2 hours/day and I’m only sitting 35 minutes, so what sort of progress can I really expect?”

    So it sounds like it would be ideal for me to sit 2 times a day for about an hour. Should I do something like two 30-minute sits with a break in between, or try to manage a long 50-minute sit and use antidotes for dullness.

    Thanks for telling me about Richard. I don’t think I can make his classes but I’m going to do what I cna to fit Tucker’s Sangha discussions in my life. Perhaps I can come to some of Richard’s day-long practices.

    Master Culadasa’s 10 stages resonated with me more than any other method. Should I mix this practice at home with 2-day Zen sesshins and/or the 10-day vipassana retreat?




    Judith Ring

    Hi Chris,
    If you’re eventually looking for a retreat to attend, Culadasa will be leading one in Massachusetts in June 2015. The dates are Jule 11-19, 2015. If you’d like to be added to the mailing list for updates about this retreat, please email me at


    Hi Chris,
    “There is no such thing as a bad meditation”. That has been my motto for the past four years as a beginner, and I still consider myself a beginner. The way that I was able in increase the length of my sits was to make the resolve to not get off of the cushion until the bell rang. I didn’t have to meditate, but I didn’t allow myself to do anything else. It is fine if you just sit there for the last fifteen minutes with your mind wandering, just don’t get off of the cushion.
    There is no separation between the mind and the body. I can physically feel when I am in deep meditation. Train the body and the mind will follow because the are one in the same.

    During the day I have found it easier to focus on the movement of my abdomen. I don’t focus on breathing, only the sensation of my gut rising and falling.

    Just know that there is always a way, and I have found that being creative with ways to bring yourself back into the present during the day, adds a little spice to your practice. It’s okay to have fun while training your attention.

    Just keep it up.

    Mitch Melton


    Tim Clark

    One of the great things about Buddhism is it’s openness to science. Some time ago I read and heard at a lecture by Hayward Fox that three 15 minute sits is far better than one forty five.

    I have searched and searched for the reference and cannot find it. Could someone else have a go?



    Blake Barton

    Hi Chris,

    The drumbeat analogy is a good one, and I think it is accurate based on my experience. Developing peripheral awareness is a skill you want to develop in parallel with attentional stability. As you improve the peripheral awareness you will notice when your attention moves to something other than the breath, and you can bring it right back before forgetting and mind wandering start.

    Have you tried following the breath closely, where you notice the beginning, middle and end of each inhale, and the beginning middle and end of each exhale. This can be a game that makes the breath more engaging. However, you still want to hold the intention to maintain peripheral awareness.

    As to the length of sit, I have heard Culadasa mention that you don’t necessarily want to sit for a long time just to be sitting for a long time. You don’t want to develop that habit of considerable mind wandering. Training attention is like training a muscle and you have to build up to it.

    I would recommend that you experiment with a shorter sit (20-30 minutes) followed by a short break and then another 20-30 minute sit. You can see how this works for you. Alan Wallace also teaches the stages of meditation, and he often starts beginners with more frequent 24 minute sits.

    Different people have different innate skills with attentional stability, and each person will progress through the stages at different rates. There is no “right” level of progress. There are people with ADD at one end of the spectrum and people for whom concentration comes very easily at the other end. Most of us fall somewhere in between, but closer to one end than the other.

    Is your life hectic outside of meditation? This can have an impact on your meditations.

    Every system of meditation has its strengths and weaknesses. The staged approach has many strengths, but in my opinion one of its weaknesses is judgement and grasping at one’s progress. It can make us feel that we have are a “self” that “should” be progressing at a certain linear rate. This is just the opposite of what we are trying to cultivate in this practice. We are trying to move towards less grasping. Acceptance and equanimity about our practice can be very helpful. When you sit I assume you are doing your best. If this is correct what more can you do?

    Often you can practice samatha at a vipassana retreat if you wish. I have done this before. The issue is that the teachers might not be very supportive. Some vipassana teachers feel that developing samatha is a waste of time.

    A retreat with Dan Brown could be compatible. Richard Shankman is leading a retreat March 21-29 entitled Steadying the Mind, Opening to Insight: The Practice and Path of Mindfulness, Jhana and Insight in Los Gatos CA.

    While it is not the exact method that Culadasa uses he is at least supportive of samatha, and he actually knows Culadasa. Coming to Cochise Stronghold for a self retreat with Culadasa could also be a possibility.

    Best Wishes,


    Chris Gagne

    Thanks everyone! There’s a lot to digest.

    I’ll break up my sits. I like the 24 minute sit idea from Alan Wallace; that feels like where I start to lose focus. I can set a goal of doing 4 x 24 minute sits a day in two sessions (2 x 24 in the AM and 2 x 24 in the evening). I think to start I will try to get to 1 x 24 minutes twice a day to start. Tim, if you ever find that or a similar reference I’d love to read it. 🙂

    I work in technology so there are a lot of constant distractions during work. I’ll start doing thing like limiting how often I check email. One switch for me will be not checking my smartphone so often…

    I work full-time and so have somewhat limited vacation days, but I’d rather meditate for a week than go to most places in the world… 🙂


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