Methods of Awakening - Access Concentration
[Edited January 27th 2020: Corrected a few bits and pieces, but I've generally left this one intact. I don't know for certain whether or not I've actually attained "Stream Entry", but it doesn't really change the nature of this post and the practical advice which has proven useful to many (based on the very kind e-mails I've received).]
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One of the things that threw me when I started seriously meditating and using the Buddhist framework was the concept of "access concentration". I had spent a long time working with other conceptual maps and meditative techniques, over a decade of experimentation with everything from raja yoga to ritual magick, but I thought that this was some major meditative accomplishment which would require decades of practice.
It was only when a more experienced yogi pointed out that, since I was claiming to have attained "Stream Entry", the first of the four paths of enlightenment of the Theravdan Buddhist model, I should be able to get access concentration through bare attention.
This worried me...I thought, “Shit, maybe I didn’t really get 1st path at all, maybe I’m deluding myself here” (Oh how we laughed in 2020 when editing this one), as I still thought that I should be able to see some major perceptual change happening once I got into (the seemingly miraculous state of) access concentration. Having this pointed out to me was a major turning point in my understanding of these techniques.
I sat down that night and, in a change to my normal practice, dropped the flame kasina and immediately focussed on attention itself. Sure enough, a shift did occur but it was far more subtle than I anticipated, and it happened within a second or two of focusing before a more pronounced shift into what turned out to be 1st jhana. I had been getting into 1st jhana within a few seconds and mistaking this for access concentration.....at this point, a facepalm occurred and a lesson was learned.
The shifts experienced early on in meditation can be subtle, sometimes almost negligible particularly if one is concentrated enough, so it’s easy to go looking for something that simply does not occur in actual practice. I’d like to try to provide a more pragmatic and down-to-earth description of one of the most fundamental parts of any good meditation practice: Access concentration.
It’s easy to over-think this stuff, depending of where you read about the various states and stages described by the Buddhist maps. This is the model I tend to use as it’s without a doubt the clearest and most straightforward I’ve ever worked with.
You could go away thinking that access concentration is either an impossible ‘attainment’ only available if you become a monk, or thinking that it’s some over-complicated state that will create some profound change in awareness. Neither of these is helpful because neither is correct, but I don’t think I’m the only person who’s experienced this sort of misunderstanding. I hope that this post will allow those interested to improve their own practice and take a step closer to awakening to the way things are.
How To Get Access Concentration
So, where do we start? Presumably, at the beginning, but I’m open to suggestion.
Sitting down, to use the standard example, although you’re free to assume whichever posture, asana, pose or stance you like, even lying down is fine (if you can avoid falling asleep), the easiest way to practice concentration is through counting the breath:
- Breathe naturally, don’t force the breath or try to get it into some yogic cycle thing, unless that’s what you’re doing of course; allow yourself to settle and relax.
- Begin by shifting your attention to the area between the nostrils, either the outside or inside, whichever works best for you and allows you to maintain the focus most easily. Feel the coolness of the air on this bit as you inhale, it happens naturally and you don’t need to do anything other than place attention on this area.
- Do the same with the exhale, the air feels warmer and less distinct but it’s there if you pay attention. Try to follow one whole cycle of inhale/exhale, keeping the attention on the spot between the nostrils.
- Each time you complete one whole cycle and manage to hold the attention on this spot without getting distracted by thoughts or any other sensation, count “one” as you complete the exhalation. If you get distracted, return to “one” and start again.
- Each time you get to “10”, start again at “One”. Aim to do this for at least five minutes without losing count and work your way up from there.
If you can follow three sets of ten whole breath cycles, chances are you’ll be in access concentration. It’s that simple. If you can maintain the attention on one thing for more than a few seconds, then you’re more skilled in concentration than the average person, and concentration is one of the most important aspects of the developmental process.
Concentration is the foundation of meditation practice and access concentration is the foundation of concentration. That’s how important but deceptively simple it is. This practice is excellent for working on concentration in general and can be integrated into your daily life whenever you’ve got a spare couple of minutes.
What Is Access Concentration Like?
What caused me some confusion was what would actually happen when I entered access concentration. Would there be a big change in how I felt? Would I, all of a sudden, become completely unaware of my surroundings? Would I no longer have a sense of my body existing in time and space? Once I learned to identify access concentration in my own practice, I could see that I had massively overcomplicated this whole thing and expected a change more typical of states more advanced than I had explored yet. In reality, it’s very simple and can be explained through this analogy:
If you’ve ever been to a party and found yourself talking to someone amidst the usual hubbub and music, you’ll probably be familiar with the experience of being entirely engaged in the conversation to the exclusion of everything going on around you. This is pretty much what access concentration feels like. It’s not that you’re completely unaware of what’s going on, it’s just that you’re so involved in your immediate interaction that you don’t notice, or aren’t distracted by, the environment or your own internal dialogue. In fact, it’s usually only after someone, or something has distracted you from your conversation that you realize just how involved you were. The same applies to access concentration: it’s not unusual to find that you’ve already been in access concentration only once you leave it.
Descriptions of access concentration where it’s described as like being in a bubble, or like being in a car with the windows rolled up are accurate but, like being engaged in a conversation at the party, it can happen without you even noticing it. For this reason, I don’t recommend making access concentration a “goal” in your practice. it will happen naturally with good practice, but turning it into something to achieve just creates a distraction.
In terms of how access concentration “feels” i.e. what happens in the body and mind when this state is entered: For me there is a feeling I would describe as being like warm sand running down beneath the skin on my face. (It’s much, much more subtle than this, but that fits well enough for descriptive purposes.) Mentally, the mind locks in on the breath and thought cannot get a foothold, so it just passes away to be replaced by another. There is no effort to “stop thought”, which is a common misunderstanding of meditative practice; thought just becomes far less interesting than the breath and so the attention will begin to rest on that. The bodily sensations are pleasant but subtle, muscles relax and one can sit with more ease than is often encountered at first, but this all takes a back seat to the breath itself.
If you’ve read this far then I assume that you’re at least moderately interested in this and have some stake in improving your practice. I’m not a teacher, as I keep saying; I’m just a guy who applied the techniques and verified the results for myself, so if I can help anyone improve their practice and end their own suffering, then I’m happy with that.
What I write about is based on my own experience, not on what I’ve read somewhere or what some guy said thousands of years ago so it’s subject to change, as is everything, but, for the moment, I hope that this post will be of use to someone.
Peace & Practice Well,
Design By Ident Production
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