Stuck in stage two and three-ish

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This topic contains 17 replies, has 5 voices, and was last updated by  dcurtis 3 months, 1 week ago.

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  • #3108

    dcurtis
    Member

    Approximately a year ago, I posted here looking for help with my practice. I was stuck in stage two, and as of this writing, still have not met the exact requirements for mastery of stage two as defined by Culadasa at the end of the chapter for stage two. I’m close, but not quite there. It was suggested I begin to incorporate some stage three practices into my sitting. That’s what I have done since that time, although I’m having difficulty with following the breath, and even some difficulty with labeling (remembering to).

    So here’s some of what I’m experiencing during meditation, that I’ve been noticing –

    * I’m unable to keep the attention on the breath for more than three cycles, at most. One to three cycles, and it’s forgetting into mind wandering.

    * Frequently, the breath stays in the background, and the attention is jumping from one thought, image or feeling. Often so quickly I couldn’t tell you what those things were that I thought, felt or saw.

    * Difficulty keeping peripheral awareness. Trying to keep peripheral awareness up/open leads to attention bouncing back and forth from breath to sounds going on around me.

    * About halfway through an hour of sitting, an energy/tension comes up that causes forgetting to occur, and the attention usually winds up bouncing very quickly from one thing to another. As opposed to the usual mind wandering that follows from one thing to the next in a more relaxed, connected/causally related fashion.

    * Checking in? Forget about it. The book says check in every twelve breaths. I’m lucky to make three.

    * I’m still having trouble seeing the start and end of breaths clearly, distinctly and vividly, per Culadasa. Particularly the start of the in breath. No matter how I try, it doesn’t seem to be there, with few, rare exceptions.

    * There’s a sense of having to work to ‘keep all the balls in the air’ as it were – See the start of the in and out breaths, follow the breath between the start and end of the in breath, (I haven’t become skilled enough to do the follow the breath between the start and end of the out breath yet), see the pauses between breaths, keeping peripheral awareness from collapsing, labeling, remembering to appreciate the “aha” moment. Sure feels like a lot.

    I’m probably forgetting something, but those are the biggest points that come up when I watch my meditation in real time, and consider it off the cushion.

    Thank you for your help. I’m grateful for this community.

    Darrell

    #3109

    Alex K
    Member

    Hello dcurtis,

    You are very keenly observing many things. Let my try to tackle them one by one.

    >> * I’m unable to keep the attention on the breath for more than three cycles, at most. One to three cycles, and it’s forgetting into mind wandering.

    I quickly scanned your post from last year. In relation to what Blake wrote, do you still agree with your assessment that you are sure this is mind wandering? It took me some long face to face discussion with a teacher to realize that I did not forget the breath, but that I was actually having gross distractions and the breath was still in awareness. Which is especially tricky in the beginning because my understanding of attention of awareness was (and is) still developing. One thing that helped me was a sort of delayed checking in: when I woke up from mind wandering, I first congratulated myself and appreciated the aha moment – and it can’t be stressed enough how important it is to do that. Then I asked myself, was I aware of the breath, was there any kind of breath sensation that I noticed. If not, fine. I would move on: how is awareness, can I allow it to open it up a bit more? Sometimes I started again with step 1 or 2 of the 4 step transition and set my intention again.

    I like to think that asking this question when coming back from mind wandering sends the message to my subminds that I really would like to know about the breath and encouraged my mind to provide me an answer. After a while (many sits actually) I got a positive answer, yes actually the breath was there. Another reason to be happy! Then I open awareness, set intentions and do the whole thing again.

    Another things is the importance of awareness. I tend to hyperfocus the attention on the breath, and that happens especially when I try to work with following or connecting. I learned in my case to never go for attention at the cost of awareness. I am actually putting more emphasis on awareness at this point in my practice. I make sure to have open peripheral awareness and try to find the breath in there. If I forget the breath but my awareness is still open, that is preferable to me, than following the breath but having awareness collapse.

    >> * Frequently, the breath stays in the background, and the attention is jumping from one thought, image or feeling. Often so quickly I couldn’t tell you what those things were that I thought, felt or saw.

    As long as the breath stays in the background then that sounds like stage 4. With your attention jumping quickly from one gross distraction to the next. But breath in the background is not forgetting the breath completely. Stage 4 is often not recognized, see my previous comment.

    * Difficulty keeping peripheral awareness. Trying to keep peripheral awareness up/open leads to attention bouncing back and forth from breath to sounds going on around me.

    This is also fine until stage 4 as long as the breath is not forgotten. Stage 4 is where you start to deal with movements of attention to / between gross distractions.

    >> * About halfway through an hour of sitting, an energy/tension comes up that causes forgetting to occur, and the attention usually winds up bouncing very quickly from one thing to another. As opposed to the usual mind wandering that follows from one thing to the next in a more relaxed, connected/causally related fashion.
    Sorry I do not have to say much about this. It sounds like the monkey mind is calming down?

    >> * Checking in? Forget about it. The book says check in every twelve breaths. I’m lucky to make three.
    Also I am not sure. I mean you could check in every two breaths, but that is not the idea I guess. My understanding is you should first try to be able to have a couple more breaths without forgetting…

    >> * I’m still having trouble seeing the start and end of breaths clearly, distinctly and vividly, per Culadasa. Particularly the start of the in breath. No matter how I try, it doesn’t seem to be there, with few, rare exceptions.
    That does not matter, you are trying to look for the exact point, clearly, distinctly, vividly. If you actually find it is not up to you. You can not control this. And it is in no way a prerequisite to move on to the next stage. See also my answer to the next question.

    * There’s a sense of having to work to ‘keep all the balls in the air’ as it were – See the start of the in and out breaths, follow the breath between the start and end of the in breath, (I haven’t become skilled enough to do the follow the breath between the start and end of the out breath yet), see the pauses between breaths, keeping peripheral awareness from collapsing, labeling, remembering to appreciate the “aha” moment. Sure feels like a lot.

    Remember that following and connecting are just games to play to keep the mind enganged, they are just a tool that can help. They are not the main technique and they are certainly not the goal of the stage. This is in response to your last point. When you are overwhelmed with the demands of the technique and have a feeling of doing to much, you will put a lot of effort in it. Try this: Go back to something simple, just know the breath. Just know that you are breathing. And keep the periphal awareness open. Forget about the exact moment of the in breath or out breath. And if you mind wanders appreciate the aha moment. And notice how good that feels, it is easy. Only add the following when this feels relaxed instead of effortful.

    If you start with the following then do it simply. Just the exact moment of the beginning of the in breath. Then add just the beginning of the out breath. Now, are you tensing up when doing this, efforting or losing periphal awareness. Then back of.

    Connecting really is hard for me, and makes me conceptualize a lot so I leave it alone unless when doing stage 2 and stage 3 practices. And I rarely combine following with connecting that is just too much for me.

    I hope there is something in here that can help you. To sum it up: don’t try to do so much, just know the breath everything else can be sorted out later 🙂

    #3111

    Upali U
    Member

    Hi Dcurtis,

    It sounds like you have some misconceptions both about the stages of TMI and about attention vs awareness. While this sounds critical, I actually think you are more advanced in the practice than you are giving yourself credit for. I would highly recommend working 1:1 with a teacher because I think you will find that much more inspiring and productive than an internet forum at this point.

    Here is a list of teachers in training with Culadasa: https://dharmatreasure.org/teachers-in-training/

    Much love,
    Upali

    #3112

    dcurtis
    Member

    Thanks for the reply.

    I’ve tried to be very specific about the use of attention vs awareness, per the descriptions in TMI. That being the case, I don’t doubt I could still be mistaken/confused. Would you mind clarifying what you’re referring to specifically?

    I’d love to work 1:1 with a teacher, but really don’t have extra funds to spare currently. I had been working with an ex-monastic for a couple of years, but it was of little to no use when it came to meditation and especially the TMI method/techniques.

    I’d also appreciate it if you could elaborate as to what confusion you see me having with regards to the stages.

    These questions are meant with an open mind, not to be challenging. I’d really like to know what you see.

    I’ll go through the list of teachers. Perhaps there’s some way to get help without creating financial strain.

    Thank you.

    #3113

    dcurtis
    Member

    Hi Alex,

    Hello dcurtis,

    I’ll respond in the same fashion –

    >>>I quickly scanned your post from last year. In relation to what Blake wrote, do you still agree with your assessment that you are sure this is mind wandering? It took me some long face to face discussion with a teacher to realize that I did not forget the breath, but that I was actually having gross distractions and the breath was still in awareness. Which is especially tricky in the beginning because my understanding of attention of awareness was (and is) still developing. One thing that helped me was a sort of delayed checking in: when I woke up from mind wandering, I first congratulated myself and appreciated the aha moment – and it can’t be stressed enough how important it is to do that. Then I asked myself, was I aware of the breath, was there any kind of breath sensation that I noticed. If not, fine. I would move on: how is awareness, can I allow it to open it up a bit more? Sometimes I started again with step 1 or 2 of the 4 step transition and set my intention again.

    There are times when it isn’t mind wandering, as the breath isn’t lost. But yes, there are times where the breath is long gone, nowhere to be found. I have been doing what you described, although it never occurred to me that it was akin to a check-in. But yes, when waking to scattered attention or mind wandering, I learned to to notice if the breath was completely forgotten or not. Sometime sit is, although it is more frequently scattered attention. But it’s worth applying your method and seeing if perhaps the breath is not entirely forgotten after all.

    >>>As long as the breath stays in the background then that sounds like stage 4. With your attention jumping quickly from one gross distraction to the next. But breath in the background is not forgetting the breath completely. Stage 4 is often not recognized, see my previous comment.

    Several people have said as much to me, that I was in stage four. But (and this may be some of what Upali was getting at) There are still criteria for stage two and three I have yet to meet, per Culadasa’s descriptions in the book. So How could I be at stage four, when I’m still not able to master stages two and three?

    >>>Sorry I do not have to say much about this. It sounds like the monkey mind is calming down?

    More like monkey mind having returned after going to take some amphetamine. I understand your not being able to comment on it. It may just be something I have to investigate more deeply.

    >>>Also I am not sure. I mean you could check in every two breaths, but that is not the idea I guess. My understanding is you should first try to be able to have a couple more breaths without forgetting…

    I concur.

    Your comments are very helpful. Thank you for responding.

    #3114

    Blake Barton
    Keymaster

    Hi Darrell,

    Your following statement makes me think you are at stage 2-3 somewhere.

    “I’m unable to keep the attention on the breath for more than three cycles, at most. One to three cycles, and it’s forgetting into mind wandering”

    I recommend highly simplifying your practice for awhile. Just rest your attention on the breath without trying to do anything else. If you notice anything that takes your attention away from the breath, label it with a simple mental label. Like thinking, hearing, emotion, feeling (for body sensations). Then bring your attention back to the breath.

    So you will just be knowing if you are feeling the breath or if attention is moving to something else. Don’t worry about beginning, middle or end of the breath, or maintaining peripheral awareness. The labeling should take care of peripheral awareness.

    This practice will be building the skills of directing and sustaining attention and the labeling should help develop introspective awareness. The big key to stabilizing attention is knowing when it moves. Labeling a thought also has the benefit that it usually stops when you label it.

    Please give it a try and let us know how it is going.

    Best Wishes,
    Blake – Dharma Treasure Teacher

    #3115

    dcurtis
    Member

    Blake,

    Thanks for your help. What you say jives with my hunch, based on what Culadasa has stated in TMI.

    I’ll be putting your suggestions into use, and will report back at some point.

    Meanwhile, how do you suggest I know when it’s time to begin moving forward in the practice, and what do you suggest the next moves would be when that time arrives?

    Thank you for your help,

    Darrell

    #3116

    Upali U
    Member

    Hi again Darrell,

    Sorry to be vague and to only leave you with more questions! I agree with what Blake has put here, that simplifying your practice would be beneficial. It stood out to me that you feel like you have a lot of ‘balls in the air,’ when the practice is actually quite simple: keep your attention at the sensations (or lack of sensations) of the breath, when the attention moves, kindly bring it back.

    I’d also be curious to know more about the distracting energetic sensations you are having. Why do you think those are there?

    Upali

    #3117

    dcurtis
    Member

    Upali,

    I wish I could say about the sensations. It’s currently a mystery to me. At first I attributed it to caffeine, or supplements taken, due to the irritated quality this sensation has. But when those are eliminated as a cause, the sensation remains. What’s interesting is that it seems to happen approximately at the same time in every session. It always seems to appear somewhere around the 1/2 to 3/4 mark of an hour sitting.

    All that to say, I don’t know. It hasn’t always been there. It has developed sometime during the last year or so. Or perhaps I wasn’t aware of it before.

    I figure the best I can do is investigate it carefully.

    #3118

    Alex K
    Member

    Dear Darrell,

    I’m wishing you well in your practice.

    I have recently started working with the TMI book (stage 2-3). As someone who can be very goal orientated I find that I often put too much exertion into my attention on the breath. This can lead to all sorts of undesirable mental states such as agitation/dullness as well as so called monkey mind. One thing which I have found helpful is to sometimes completely stop making any effort for a little while and just enjoy being in the present moment free from my usual day-to-day concerns. Paying attention to the breath but still being present to sensations, sounds etc. can highlight the difference between over exertion and just being present. I’ve found it can be quite helpful in finding the right intensity of effort needed.

    “And what do you think: when the strings of your vina were too taut, was your vina in tune & playable?”

    “No, lord.”

    “And what do you think: when the strings of your vina were too loose, was your vina in tune & playable?”

    “No, lord.”

    “And what do you think: when the strings of your vina were neither too taut nor too loose, but tuned[1] to be right on pitch, was your vina in tune & playable?”

    “Yes, lord.”

    “In the same way, Sona, over-aroused persistence leads to restlessness, overly slack persistence leads to laziness. Thus you should determine the right pitch for your persistence, attune the pitch of the [five] faculties [to that], and there pick up your theme.”

    AN 6.55
    Sona Sutta

    #3120

    Blake Barton
    Keymaster

    Hi Darrell,

    I would recommend staying with this simplified practice until you have mostly overcome mind wandering, and you gain a clear awareness of where your attention is moving moment to moment. At that point you can let go of noting all distractions and just focus on the ones that are the strongest, like thoughts. When you notice a subtle distraction (brief movement of attention to something) you can simply redirect attention at that point without necessarily labeling it.

    I am finding that there is a percentage of TMI students who do better with a simpler practice. For some students using the “Following” practice helps them stay engaged, but for others is leads to over efforting, and a loss of awareness. You could fall into this latter category. I am hoping this noting practice will increase your introspective awareness. I am also hoping that you can learn to see that “You” don’t have to make awareness happen, you just have to keep from zooming in on the breath so closely that you block it out. I am guessing that you also have quite a bit of analysis going on that is further splitting attention.

    You may have already read this, but I would refer you to Culadasa’s post on attention and awareness.
    http://dharmatreasurecommunity.org/forums/topic/questions-and-clarifications-about-peripheral-awareness

    You might also experiment with walking meditation as described in the appendix. It is sometimes easier to see how peripheral awareness works, because if you don’t have it you will run into things or trip. Walking is developing the exact same skills as seated meditation.

    As for the energy sensations, these come up earlier than predicted for some students. This can cause an agitation that can make it difficult to connect with the meditation object. It could also be caused by excess tension. You might want to spend the first couple of minutes of your sit relaxing, and notice if tension arises during your sit, and if so note it. I would definitely include this agitated energy in your noting.

    I am happy to give you more advice in the future as you try this different approach.

    Best Wishes,
    Blake – DT Teacher

    #3121

    dcurtis
    Member

    Blake,

    Okay, I’ll just keep to your instructions and post a follow up when I’ve become able to mostly overcome mind wandering, and gain a clear awareness of where my attention is moving moment to moment.

    I’ve had some profound results from walking meditation in the past, so I’ll integrate that back into my practice.

    Yes, the energy sensations make it extremely difficult to keep attention on the meditation object, although it often remains in awareness in the background. It might be due to excess tension, although I almost always start off each sitting fairly relaxed and calm. But that doesn’t mean it isn’t below the threshold of awareness until after I’ve been sitting for a half hour or so.

    I can’t thank you enough for all your help.

    Gratefully,

    Darrell

    #3122

    dcurtis
    Member

    Alex,

    Thanks for the help and input. I was unfamiliar with that sutta. That was very helpful to see that these issues have always been with us.

    Best to you,

    Darrell

    #3137

    Blake Barton
    Keymaster

    Hi Darrell,

    You are welcome and I hope things work out. I wanted to add that the energy (piti) can cause muscle contractions or tension. You might notice if this may be the cause of the tension. If you relax it, and it immediately comes back this could be the cause. If the tension only arises with the energy then this could also be an indicator.

    Blake – DT Teacher

    #3225

    Alex K
    Member

    Hi Darrell,

    I was listening to a retreat audio between Culadasa and a student about being stuck and I found it very helpful as it made me realise that its more important to focus on the development of qualities like, peripheral awareness, stable attention, introspective awareness etc rather than following a particular method to the letter. People vary in there ability to discern details in breath sensations but it doesn’t stop one from developing say introspective awareness enough to move on to practices in a higher stage. The other thing that struck me is how important it is to be inquisitive and just try things out to see what happens.

    The audio file is here:

    http://s3.amazonaws.com/dharmatreasure/151231-winter-retreat-d-culadasa.mp3

    and the discussion starts at about 28:30.

    All the best,
    Alex

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