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    To “close out” this thread, here is the advice I would give to myself of almost two years ago. (Since then, progress has been slow, but I’m now working in Stages 4-5 mostly, and I do feel I’ve learned some definite skills along the way.)

    1. A more solid understanding of attention versus awareness will come with time, much in the same way as an understanding of how to follow the breath without controlling it came eventually. Put a lot of diligence into holding onto external sounds (with awareness) while following the breath closely (with attention). (Imagining a “bubble of awareness” surrounding you may help in the early days.) This is a really an important skill. Eventually you will use awareness of external sounds to enliven the mind and stave of dullness — at least keep it in check.

    2. Checking in is also a really important skill, and you can’t skip it (even though you may want to go on believing you can for a lot longer). As a bridge to checking in “spontaneously” (i.e., setting a strong intention to check in spontaneously and hoping for the best), put a lot of diligence into holding onto the intention to check in “after a short while” — and don’t forget this intention while following the breath as closely as you can. (The traffic speed camera analogy above helps a lot too, at least conceptually.)

    3. Following the breath closely is different from following it in a vague sense. You can indeed perceive the six individual points of breath, and some individual sensations that make up the in and out breaths — but not always right away. It may take time to settle into this level of mental clarity, every sit. It may also be a lot easier to do this when the breath slows down, after meditating for a while (being patient until this happens actually makes the goal of perceiving individual sense sensations, in continuous succession, achievable).

    4. As said above, apart from sleepiness (which you may not experience until several stages later), dullness means not being able to perceive the meditation object clearly — as if there is a thin film covering it and “blunting out” its features. Continuing to put a lot of diligence into perceiving the meditation object clearly, as well as maintaining strong extrospective awareness (e.g., of external sounds), can go a long way to sharpening your perceptions, however.

    5. Connecting how the breath cycle “feels” to those subtle annoyances or stresses that persist until you are well into a sit is an interesting exercise. (You don’t necessarily have to spend a long time connecting but it’s a worthy exercise to try — I’m still at the early stages of its appreciation.)

    You may find that progress comes in starts, e.g., especially while on holidays, and there may be a significant novelty factor to a recently realised skill, which may make it seem like you’ve mastered it more reliably than you actually have. Over time, however, real progress — even if slow – is discernible. Be prepared for the long haul! (Maybe that last part would be discouraging to myself of almost two years ago.)


    Hi Sasha,

    I thought it might be useful to you to relay my own experience overcoming morning grogginess.

    My usual practice time is 5:30 AM, and I do my best to get enough sleep the night before. A couple of months back, however, I was getting frustrated as it often happened when I sat down to meditate, 10 minutes after waking up, my mind felt thoroughly addled. This was a familiar feeling from daily life, sort of like how it feels trying to solve a maths problem first thing on a Monday morning. Although my intentions were in place, I found it difficult to get a purchase on my breath and I noticed I couldn’t sense any subtle distractions whatsoever. I wondered for a while what this phenomenon might be. At first I thought it couldn’t be dullness because it wasn’t induced by the meditation itself. I thought it was just one of those weather patterns in my brain, which I would have to accept (somewhat dispiritingly). I tried the antidotes for dullness recommended in the TMI and while they did have some effect I didn’t feel like they really solved my particular problem. Then I had the ‘brainwave’ to try a bout of walking meditation before sitting. This has fixed the problem totally for me: I walk for 15 minutes and then sit for another 45 minutes. As I begin walking, at first I notice the absence of subtle distractions but then slowly they start to appear so that when I sit down they are fully present – in the background and occasionally jumping out into the foreground. I can usually have (what feels to me like) a fairly ‘productive’ practice afterwards.

    This same kind of dullness doesn’t typically arise later in the day. I don’t think walking meditation would make up for too much lost sleep, however, not for me at least.



    Hi moln1,

    Like a lot of meditators, I have found the routine of getting up an hour earlier to practice, before anyone else in the household has awoken, works very well. I don’t feel like I’m “robbing” time from my young family, I can be reasonably assured of not being interrupted, and it doesn’t feel too tightly time-boxed (it doesn’t feel that way, even though it really is time-boxed at least on one end). Without the peace of mind these three conditions bring, I find it very much more difficult or sometimes even impossible to enjoy a session. The cost to me of getting up an hour earlier is going to bed an hour earlier. This end of the routine was harder to establish, mostly because initially it was acutely perceived as “robbing” an hour in the evening (especially by my spouse). The compromise is that I ease off from the rigidity of this routine on weekends, and my “weird” bed-time is now mostly accepted. On weekends, I usually manage to fit in one decent session each day, sometimes two, always opportunistically as there is more family time available. On weekdays, a second sitting, if it happens, is again always gained opportunistically, e.g., my spouse is going out with friends or I have a bit of odd idle time at work and spend it in the multi-faith room there. Right now, I don’t have a reliable means of sitting twice daily, day in, day out. I’m comfortable with this arrangement, for now, as it feels sustainable and doesn’t put undue stress on my relationships with others.

    In a similar vein to Dan Harris’s “10% Happier”, being chronically under slept (more than 2 days) makes me feel at least 20% more miserable (from a good baseline!), so swapping sleep for meditation practice would be a lousy deal for me, at least right now. Having said that, sometimes when my routine has wobbled, there is nothing more stabilizing than ignoring how well rested or not I am, gritting my teeth, and getting up anyhow for my morning practice. Such grit is to be applied sparingly, however. Sleep is really, really important.



    I think I do now understand what checking-in means. I practiced it earlier today with my new understanding — actually, the understanding came to me while practicing, but the concepts I read on this forum triggered it, I’m fairly sure — and it definitely was not what I had originally understood and tried out for. What I actually had been doing before was to try to clear some space in my head to carefully watch whatever thought then popped into my mind afterwards. As Ted pointed out, I was probably doing so only when all the other distractions had quietened down and I had enough mental energy to clear the space in the first place. I wasn’t all that sure what I was clearing the space for or *where inside* I was supposed to look, however, and that made it feel all very awkward and kind of useless. What I now understand is that I’m just holding the intention to periodically turn my attention towards what had been in the focus of my attention just in the moment before and what had been in the field of awareness just in the moment before. When my attention shifts in this way I then get a very strong, immediate, and clear impression of just how much of my focus had been on the breath and how much had been on something else, and of course what that something else was (which I should label simply). It does now feel very light and very quick in the way The Mind Illuminated described checking-in (my incorrect earlier practice felt heavy and slow, by comparison).

    The speed camera imagery from Blake (especially that the snapshot is being taken of what was there just moments before), the articulation of what the targets are from Michael (focus of attention, field of awareness), and the remark from Ted that ultimately I need to have the mental energy to be able to take snapshots in all kinds of traffic (to extend the metaphor!), this has all really helped me a lot. I realize I still do need to practice this technique to build up some expertise and mental energy in applying it, but now I at least know what I’m doing, and I can totally imagine how this leads to continuous introspective awareness (I may be mangling terms here).


    Thanks for your input, Ted. Your theory sounds entirely plausible to me. I was thinking I could test it by trying to hold the intention to check in *more regularly* (i.e., almost to a beat) but I am also aware of the caution in The Mind Illuminated not to actually count the breaths between check-ins. My thinking goes that if check-ins are more synchronised to time (or to the breath as a proxy for time) rather than to the falling away of gross distractions then I am more likely (or at least equally likely) to encounter the start of a gross distraction when I check-in as I am between check-ins. I will practice on this.



    I really appreciate your feedback. My understanding of attention and awareness has for sure increased. I’m now fairly certain I can simultaneously both pay full attention to the breath and hold background sounds in the practice room in conscious awareness. When it’s happening well, it really does feel different from alternating attention. It still takes extra effort to maintain this arrangement but this past week I’ve found the effort required has lessened a lot. I still do “forget” about awareness, fairly often, even if I manage not to forget about paying attention to the breath, i.e., a realization pops in my consciousness that I actually don’t know what sounds have been playing out in the practice room over the preceding seconds or minutes.

    I do have a question about “checking in”, however, if you can bare another. This past week particularly, I’ve noticed a greater ease with the practice, i.e., it seems less technical and more “I just know what to do”—except in regards to “checking in”. (I think it’s also helping a lot by practicing for longer each day.) That still feels awkward and artificial. One doubt I have about “checking in” is that when I do this I usually only observe fairly trivial thoughts, mostly memories/images of not too powerful scenes. I actually have the impression that some part of my subconscious halfheartedly puts forward a trivial thought just to satisfy my need to check in, but my subconscious keeps all the really juicy distractions for other times in my practice. In other words, I don’t manage to cut off or catch any gross distractions when checking in; the gross distractions or the subtle ones that have the potential to become gross all occur in the periods between checking in. I’m actually doing better at managing those gross distractions, not letting them grow too distracting and tightening my focus on the breath before that happens. So my question is, is there any way to do “checking in” differently so I can practice on the actual kinds of distractions that have the potential to grab my attention, rather than on the trivial memories which I have the feeling are just being made up in response to my checking in.



    Thanks, Blake. As you say, it will take me more time before I am confident I can distinguish between attention and awareness. I do feel I am moving forward again, however: I have been paying (closer) attention to the breath while simultaneously holding the (strong) intention to be aware of background noises within and outside the room I am using for my practice. It does feel like I am beginning to be conscious of both breath and noises, in a way that is different from alternating attention. (It also feels like the intention to be aware of background noises is itself something I am holding in my conscious awareness.) It is a very delicate balance however: as soon as I zoom in to confirm my perception, i.e., to pick out the noises from the background, well, then the awareness is gone. (I also now realize that the direction to practice following the breath while maintain extrospective awareness is there clearly in The Mind Illuminated. As Jacques pointed out, this book requires reading many times; it has so much content.)

    Two more questions:-

    1. Right now I am more or less dividing up my practice into (a) following the breath while holding the intention to maintain extrospective awareness in my consciousness and (b) following the breath while frequently checking in and labelling. Does that sound about right? There would be a lot (too much) going on if I were to practice (a) and (b) simultaneously at my skill level. Would I eventually want to practice both (a) and (b) simultaneously before completing Stage Three?

    2. What do the individual points/senses in the in- and out-breath actually feel like? I think I can perceive a kind of jumpiness or evenness during both the in- and out-breath, which I attribute to the non-smooth movement of muscles in my diaphragm and consequently uneven movement in the breath. I just wanted to make sure the book is not suggesting I should be able to perceive individual moments of consciousness or something else in this Stage.

    Thanks again,


    Thanks Jacques. I will read the Fifth Interlude also as you suggest. I have already copped that The Mind Illuminated is the kind of book which needs to be studied more than just read through once. It has a *lot* content.

    More experimentation (with a smidgen of theory to make some sense of observations) is definitely the way to go for me, which I think is what both your and Blake’s advice boils down to. This morning I observed my attention alternating between the breath and a beautiful bird song outdoors. It definitely wasn’t the case that I was only aware of the bird and fully attendant to the breath, so that’s my starting point to begin this experiment.



    Thanks Jacques. That does sort of help. If I were walking down the street thinking about work and suddenly all the background noise were to go away, I am confident I would be aware of that strange happening, and in the next few moments my attention would move away from my thoughts of work and onto the absence of street noise. I can understand that, and I agree in some sense I must have been both attendant to thoughts of work and aware of background street noise at the same time. However, I have the impression from reading The Mind Illuminated that I should be able to be able to be *conscious* of being attendant to one thing and aware of another simultaneously. In other words, if I were practicing my meditation on the mythical street, I should eventually be able to be conscious of attending to my thoughts of work (or my breath) and conscious of being aware of the street noise (or some other introspective going on), not sub-consciously but actually consciously attendant and aware at the same time. Is that actually what I am shooting for in Stage 3? I am definitely not there yet.



    Thank you for making the time and effort to respond to my question. I really appreciate it and will heed your advice to spend more time doing the practices in Stage 3 until, as you say, the concepts become clearer to me through direct experience.

    The subtle distinction between alternating attention and peripheral awareness definitely still eludes me. (Right not, the analogy of how vision works doesn’t really help me because (a) it seems to me that vision is still vision whether it’s in focus or at the periphery [unlike attention and awareness, as I hope to one day perceive] and (b) I can’t help thinking that I only really perceive the periphery of my vision when I alternate my attention between it and my in-focus finger; a further source of confusion for me at the moment is that all the senses, including vision, seem to require attention to be perceived–I don’t yet understand how to perceive awareness without paying some attention to it!)

    Your comment about just holding the intention to notice the different points of the in- and out-breath is a great encouragement to me, however. I recall just holding the intention to stop mind wander and it seemed to work almost like magic, without any stress whatsoever. This will be my way forward both with understanding attention vs. awareness and with paying attention to the different sense points in the in- and out-breath.


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