Attentional stability and spaciousness

A few years ago I had an insight experience while doing the Finder’s Course. At the time I was meditating in stage 3 or 4, and getting a lot of benefit from the practice. Afterwards, it was really difficult to orient myself in the practice again. I’ve done a lot of exploring of how things are, and I have been having some conversations in with participants in the Saturday morning meditation meetup recently that seem to be crystallizing into some new understanding, which I want to try and capture here.

When I first experienced meditation using the techniques described in The Mind Illuminated, it was pretty easy to tell when I was experiencing obstacles like mind wandering, forgetting, gross distraction and dullness. The reason it was easy to spot is that they were happening to me. The container was me.

After the insight experience, this changed quite dramatically. It felt like the meditation was happening in a much larger container. I’ve struggled with various ways of thinking about this, but the simplest way to put it is simply that when i meditate, it always feel like I’m meditating, whereas before when I was meditating, I felt like I was meditating when I was present with the practice, and it felt like I wasn’t meditating when I wasn’t present with the practice.

The effect of this is that up to the point of the insight experience, I had a natural alarm that would go off when the meditation was off-course. And after the insight experience, the alarm wasn’t present anymore.

This has a good side and a bad side to it. It means that I can mindfully experience mind wandering and forgetting. But it means that my meditation can easily fall into mind wandering and forgetting, and I still feel like I’m meditating. And indeed I seem to get benefit from meditating, even when mind wandering is happening, because mind wandering is just this little thing happening over there, and not the entire experience.

What has been working for me recently is to do a variation on Nick Grabovac’s micro-intention practice. Nick’s practice is to set intentions frequently, even more than once per breath. When I tried it in retreat, I found it to be extremely stressful, and I’ve had a horror of it since then, but recently I had an insight about it, which was that I hadn’t actually been doing it. Instead, I’d been holding the intention, and the stress came from that. When I do the intend/release/notify process using micro-intentions, it’s no longer stressful.

And then the practice really does a nice job of keeping attention in the center of the field of awareness, where I can see what’s happening in attention very clearly. I’ve been able to watch myself have mind-wandering, forgetting and gross distraction. And I’ve been able to clearly see dullness happening.

The way dullness starts is with a feeling of disengagement with the object. I’m still paying attention to it, but there’s a lack of interest in it. If I don’t correct for this right away, it very quickly turns to dullness, and I find myself thinking about something. Any turning-away from the object quickly leads in that direction. By doing the micro-intention practice, I am able to notice this turning-away before it becomes an obstacle, and then the meditation stays on track very nicely.

I used to think that this was a fairly esoteric problem, but I’ve been noticing more and more people describing it on the meditation meetup, which either means that I’ve been training people to have this problem (quite possible, unfortunately) or that I’m just better at identifying it. Either way, it seemed appropriate to share my experience.