Old Buddhist texts on meditation contain a lot of structure and progression. Not well communicated though, because of language barrier and assumption that the reader is embedded in a community of experienced practitioners. Authors goal is to produce a standalone text for a modern reader.
Since the guide is structured in progressive stages, I haven’t bothered reading too far ahead. These notes are incomplete.
Models presented in a ‘useful, whether true’ fashion.
Consciousness - whatever we are experiencing in the moment.
Attention - focus on something that dominates our conscious experience.
Peripheral awareness - general awareness of background.
Obvious analogy to visual focus and peripheral vision.
Stable attention - ability to direct and sustain the focus and scope of attention. As opposed to:
- Scanning - focus moving around to find something interesting
- Getting captured - some stimulus arises and becomes new focus of attention
- Alternating - experienced as simultaneous attention to multiple things, but is actually rapid switching
Mindfulness - optimal interaction between attention and peripheral awareness. Awareness operates as an efficient filter. Attention not overwhelmed by inputs, but not missing important context or background either.
Extrospective - external senses eg voices in the background. Introspective - internal processes eg angry loop. Introspective awareness is important because introspective attention is not a thing - can’t pay attention to what your attention is doing, can only pay attention to a snapshot of awareness.
Processes that direct attention aren’t under direct conscious control, but they can be influenced by conscious intentions and by training. Goal of meditation is to train stable attention and mindfulness.
Stage 1 - Establishing a practice
Goal: consistent, diligent daily practice.
Diligent - actually meditating, not just going through the motions. Strong conscious intent is an important part of training attention.
- Review motivations for meditating
- Set goals for this session
- Beware of expectations - hold goals lightly - don’t set yourself up for disappointment
- Commit to diligence
- Review potential distractions and resolve to set them aside if they arise
- Adjust your posture - aim to be a lump of soft clay
Choose a meditation object - something to practice focusing on. Sensations of breathing are traditional and recommended - always available, subtle detail, constantly changing.
- Focus on present sensations - any inputs as long as they are current and real
- Focus on bodily sensations - let outside inputs fade into background.
- Focus on sensations of breathing.
- Focus on sensations of breathing at the tip of the nose.
Try counting breaths. Restart if you lose count or miss awareness of an inhale or exhale. Easier to count exhale-inhale than inhale-exhale - avoids getting distracted in the long pause. Not much value in counting beyond 10.
Five hindrances and seven problems
The specific categories don’t seem that useful.
Inbuilt drives are often mis-calibrated. Being aware of them and being able to avoid identifying with them allows for conscious influence. Can choose not to endorse drives, or to redirect them.
Stage 2 - Interrupted attention and mind-wandering
Goal: only brief periods of mind-wandering, extended periods of sustained attention to meditation object.
As distractions arise, reward yourself for noticing them (to reinforce the noticing process) and then redirect attention to the meditation object.
Work smart, not hard. Use positive reinforcement rather than effort or willpower.
Use games to sustain attention. Eg following the breath - try to notice the exact moment that each inhale/exhale starts and ends.
Don’t try to limit peripheral awareness to drive out distractions - instead use it to notice potential distractions rising before they capture attention.
Look for the joy - notice all the pleasant aspects of the practice.
Deal with impatience or frustration by noticing but not identifying with them - “I am impatient” -> “hey, look, some impatience is passing by”.
Stage 3 - Extend continuity of attention and overcoming forgetting
Goal: no more forgetting the meditation object or falling asleep
Losing extrospective awareness contributes to drowsiness - need constant input to stay awake at this stage.
Connecting the breath - compare durations and sensations to each other over time eg is the in-pause longer than the out-pause, is my breathing slowing down or speeding up.
Label distractions at the moment you notice them eg thinking, planning, remembering. Use neutral labels. Don’t engage with distractions beyond labeling them.
Doing periods of sustained attention, practice quick introspective awareness checkins. Trying to develop this as a regular habit in general life. Priming awareness to pay attention to internal processes.
Deal with pain initially like impatience or frustration - just observe it. If you can’t avoid focusing on it, use it as the meditation object. If you really need to move to deal with it, formulate the intention first and then move slowly and deliberately. Don’t just react.
Dullness - states along the scale from drowsy to spaced out. When you catch it, need to wake yourself up again before returning to meditation. In order of drasticness:
- Take several deep breaths
- Tense all the muscles in your body
- Meditate while standing
- Meditate while walking
- Go splash cold water on your face
How mindfulness works
Less distracted by emotions, so we still have space to think calmly.
Moderating behavior - inserts pause between trigger and reaction so that you can recognize patterns and, over time, edit them.
Stage 4 - Continuous attention and overcoming gross distraction and strong dullness
Goal: continuous introspective awareness which counters gross distraction and strong dullness as they arise.
Powerful new distractions - insights, strong emotions. Possibly valuable, but a distraction from training your mind.
Insights - make a note and put them aside for later analytical meditation.
Strong emotions, memories, imagery - resist giving them attention as much as possible. If not possible - acknowledge, allow, accept. Maintain bodily and introspective awareness to avoid getting caught up.
Consciousness as a stream of discrete moments.
Each moment can contain either information from a single sense, or an abstract combining/binding/integration of previous inputs that are still in working memory.
Each moment is also either attention or awareness. Contain few objects vs many objects. Engage much conscious processing vs mostly background processing.
Non-perceiving moments - moments of potential but not actual consciousness. Dullness is the increase in fraction of non-perceiving moments.
Conscious intention to pay attention or maintain awareness reduces the number of non-perceiving moments. Non-perceiving moments are also non-intending moments, so in the absence of external interruptions they have the potential to cascade into drowsiness.
Goal in meditation is to:
- increase the number of non-perceiving moments
- increase the control over what moments of attention are focused on
- spread moments of awareness across all introspective and extrospective senses
Much missing content
Use sensation of feet on the ground as meditation object.
Start by walking as slowly as possible, breaking up the motion into individual movements - left foot up, left foot swing, left foot down, right foot up, right foot swing, right foot down etc.
When you catch yourself in distraction, stop walking for a moment and reengage with your senses.
- Prepare a problem, selecting important information and setting aside any irrelevant information.
- Begin with focusing on the breath until your mind is calm.
- Hold the problem in your head as the meditation object. Don’t apply effort to solve it, just roll it around and listen. Wait for something to jump out at you. Like gently picking at a tangled knot at random until something comes loose.
- Follow the thread that popped out and see where it leads.
- Evaluate the results. You may have found a solution, or a deadend, or some question that needs research. Go back to the step 3 for a new thread if necessary.
- Consolidate, verify and record the results.