There is often a great sense of satisfaction when we manage to stay with the breath for more than a few minutes. This is a common feeling when starting out. The mind is generally so very busy, hopping about everywhere that a moment of sustained concentration can even come as a shock. The thing to realise about the process we are undergoing is that it is a very gradual path and its pace will be different for every one of us dependent on the conditions we bring to it. As soon as we notice a feeling like satisfaction or frustration arising we must simply accept it - even this, after all, is a straying from our object - before turning our attention gently back to the breathing. We should guard against trying to change anything. Try not to cling to the feelings that you like or push away those you do not. Just accept them as part of the experience and return to following the breath. We are not trying to keep anything away nor, within this meditation session, are we specifically trying to encourage positive states.
Your concentration will definitely improve with practice. Remember that this is bhāvanā -
cultivation, development. We are not expected to be perfect from day one. Work with gentle determination and you will surely feel that the attention to the in- and out- breath becomes more sustained. It is the nature of the mind to wander and we should try not to become tense and irritable when it seems particularly active in this regard. Just acknowledge that you have been drawn away from the object of your meditation allow yourself a knowing smile, `There it goes again!' - and return to focusing on the breath. The term `monkey mind' is often used to describe the continual distractions and mental chatter that takes place during our meditation sessions. There will be more stillness and the distractions, when they arise, will be more acceptable to us as we begin to practice regularly. Relative newcomers to meditation often feel that their minds are just too busy to meditate but, of course, that misses the point somewhat.
Often there is some residual idea that meditation is about blocking things out or making the mind go blank, but samatha meditation is more about acceptance of what is there, whilst working with gentleness and determination to stay with the object we have chosen - even amidst the cacophony of sounds, thoughts and sensations.
Until it is trained, we have to accept that it is the nature of the mind to wander. Once we have adjusted to the idea of how natural this is it becomes easier to give a mental shrug when it happens and to return to the object of our meditation. The mind is conditioned to crave stimulation and a small rebellion happens when we intentionally pull back from feeding it the stimuli it is used to. Concentration is a quality that can only be developed over time and trying to stick with such a simple process can initially seem very difficult. It will fall into place for you quite soon - the mind will still wander, but the moments of concentration will be more extensive, little by little. Don't worry if you can't currently make the count to 10, or 5, or 3... No one is checking but you, and meditation is not a competitive sport. There will be moments of boredom, moments of fatigue, moments of irritation and frustration. There will also be moments of pure concentration and one-pointedness, the like of which you have probably not experienced elsewhere, but for most people these will take a while to develop.
This meditation technique is from the samatha category and the general rule with any phenomenon or distraction that arises during such practices is to note it and return to the
meditation object. It is not possible to be fully aware of two separate objects at one time so we must be disciplined. The awareness of thoughts or external things, such as sounds and physical objects, takes place in momentary lapses of attention from the breath. We can only fully be aware of a single object at one time; as we refine our awareness we will begin to see that, rather than being simultaneous, these occurrences actually happen subsequently to each other. The approach is to notice the straying, rather than trying to forcibly ignore the distraction, and resolve to return to the object of meditation.
In our case this is currently the breath, but this rule applies also to the other samatha techniques we will introduce. It is important that we do not spend time analysing the nature of the phenomena that arise. Our job is to wholly concentrate on the meditation object we have chosen.
There is also a danger in attaching too much significance to images that occur: they distract us from the task we are undertaking. It is easy, and tempting, to stay with images which seem far more interesting than the breath. Our resolve must be, however, to acknowledge their presence and simply return to the work we are doing. Some days anything can seem more interesting than focusing on the breath! Different images of colour, people or places occur frequently for most people in meditation. As with our dreams, they can be rooted in many sources - memory, fantasy, and imagination. They are undoubtedly interesting, but we must be resistant to their attractions.
Samatha meditation is only concerned with one pointedness upon the object we have chosen. Here we are working toward total concentration on the breath. This is a whole-time activity that cannot profitably be shared with other pursuits. The images that arise, whether they are colours or people, have no intrinsic essence. They are transient and we cannot control them. If we like them we will be let down when they don't appear. If we dislike them we will try to push them away. If we spend time engaging in colour analysis or in examining scenarios for the characters, however entertaining this may seem, we are wasting time that would be better spent on the object of our meditation. Liberation does not lie in the interpretation of signs: often the signs are simply the mind up to its old tricks trying to find us something more interesting to do.
This may seem very harsh and unintuitive, but it is actually rooted in kindness. Our objective is to overcome suffering for all beings and ourselves. This necessitates that we
work effectively to build the skills that are required: one of which is single-pointed concentration. We must guard against anything that distracts us during the short periods that we have set aside for meditation. Try not to attach significance to them and avoid getting involved in working out scenarios. There is no need to get annoyed or frustrated when they arise: simply see them as they are, acknowledge them, note they are not the object of the meditation, and return to the meditation object.
Try to put aside the concepts and teachings of other traditions for a while. Often we can try to replicate the experiences that others have described rather than appreciate that the set of parameters that we work within are unique to us. It is not that there is anything necessarily wrong or incompatible about theories and explanations from different spiritual paths; but it is better if we can simply experience for ourselves what arises during our practice rather than trying to make them fit what we have read or has been described to us by others. It's difficult, I know! Within this tradition of meditation there are signs (known as nimitta) that may arise during our practice but these occur only when we are well established in concentration. If we are still processing thoughts, or looking for explanations during a sitting, then this should be taken as evidence that the required degree of concentration for such nimitta to arise has not yet been achieved.
The important thing is to gently bring the mind back each time it strays rather than trying to push the thoughts and distractions away. Acknowledge that it is the nature of the mind to stray and don't get annoyed when it happens. Over time, as practice continues, we will
stray less and less; but often if we try to suppress the thoughts at this early stage they will
come bouncing back more prominent than ever. Note that they are there; don't see them
as some great barrier. The inevitability of the wandering until we are well established in
these concentration practices should be remembered in order that we don't attach feelings
of failure or despondency to this very ordinary tendency.
The wanderings may currently be occurring for you more frequently in some sections than in others, but this is not important - there will be other meditators who find that they are less focused in the sections that you currently find easier. As our practice deepens the ability to remain with the object of meditation will improve, and any irritation or animosity we have towards distraction will lessen. We do not need to fight off the distracting thoughts. If we acknowledge their existence but are gently determined that they are not the focus of our session their presence will be less prominent.
Sometimes people become frustrated at how fragmented particular sections are for them and rationalise that it would be better to get up from the cushion and take a break. I would not recommend that you take breaks between sections unless you really have to. The old monkey mind will soon catch on to the idea that this is an easy way of regularly interrupting your sessions. Work steadily but gently through the sections - don't try too hard. So much energy can be expended in fighting off that of which we do not approve. Accept that our development will be gradual and that it will be a certainty if we balance dedication to the practices with a gentleness of approach.
You may find that you are noticing the subtle ways in which the breath changes. It is always amazing to me that even such a simple action - inhaling and exhaling - can be so interesting if we take care to fully observe it. It is relatively common at first to find that there is some subtle attempt to control the breathing. If this applies to you, then each time you become aware of control taking place simply acknowledge it and return to the observation of the breath. This control is very much like any other distraction: we acknowledge that it exists but, determining that it is not the focus of the technique we are using, we must return to the sequence of observing the breath rather than the control mechanism.
When we later work with vipassanā techniques in essence the `distractions' whatever arises - become the `object' of our meditation and are ripe for further attention. The discipline of coping with the narrowness of ānāpānasati should pay dividends even though it may seem frustrating to you at present.
As we become more used to the practice we notice links between mental states and the breath, but it is better, for now, not to attach too much importance to them. In Mindfulness of Breathing as we become aware of the arising thought, we should resist the temptation to analyse it unnecessarily, instead we simply begin again watching the breath. Only if the thought is overwhelming and we are unable to settle should we spend much time with it. There is a danger that if we habitually seek the motivation or meaning behind particular thoughts we will be practising something else entirely. This sort of contemplation has its merits, but it is not ānāpānasati.
As our concentration grows stronger - and particularly if this is combined with ethical behaviour outside of our meditation periods - we will find that the distractions quite naturally occur less, and those that do arise will have much less significance for us. It will be far easier to simply get back to the practise each time. With this level of familiarity we will find no need to anticipate possible distractions, but rather take them as they come (which in any case will be less frequent) and deal with them by gently letting them go and returning to the breath. So, in time, the process will be something like: you glimpse the start of a ßwanderû sooner and sooner, realise that it's a natural part of the way things are, note that it's not important in itself, remember that you have resolved to focus on the breath, gently let the thought go, and return to the job in hand - Mindfulness of Breathing.
Of course, this will all happen in a split second.
Dhammapada Contemplation - Day 7
Mindful among the heedless,
alert among the sleeping,
the wise advance like a race horse
outpacing a weak hack.
Mindfulness crowned Indra the ruler of the gods.
Mindfulness is ever praised,
heedlessness always condemned.
Delighting in mindfulness,
that bhikkhu advances like fire
burning all obstacles great and small.
Delighting in mindfulness,
that bhikkhu cannot fall back -
he approaches Nibbāna.
Reach for the moon, if you fail, you will land among the stars
~ Jalaluddin Rumi
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