Digity wrote:I've been meditating consistently for a few months now. I'm up to 25 minutes of sitting meditation, which I do after I wake up. Before I go to bed I do 20 minutes of walking meditation. I want to start including metta meditation in my day too. I'll probably start off with 15 minutes per day and gradually increase it along with my other meditation practices.
Anyway, I've been meditating over the months and a handful or so of times I've been able to reach what I believe is "access concentration". My experience is that I'm absorbed with the breath and thoughts are still there, but they're faint and in the background. I feel very zoned in with the breath and focused there. However, I've only been able to achieve this level of concentration a few times and it's usually what I'm striving for each time I sit down to meditate. If I get up from a meditation session and didn't achieve access concentration, which is the case most of the time, I feel a little upset. The thing is, it's very rare that I even achieve it. So, most of my experiences of meditation are moments of concentration mixed in with distracting thoughts. I don't know what to do....should I just continue as is? Is it wrong for me to strive for access concentration? Am I doing something wrong that I can't achieve it more consistently? Should I just learn to sit with what is? Thoughts?
First off, congratulations on putting together a sitting schedule - the fact that you're meditating consistently at all is worth being joyful about.
Anyway, your question about "striving" for access concentration is an important one. The Buddha does tell us to "cultivate, develop, and pursue" the pleasure of meditation:
MN 66 wrote:Now, any pleasure & happiness that arises dependent on these five strings of sensuality is called sensual pleasure, a filthy pleasure, a run-of-the-mill pleasure, an ignoble pleasure. And of this pleasure I say that it is not to be cultivated, not to be developed, not to be pursued, that it is to be feared.
"Now, there is the case where a monk — quite withdrawn from sensuality, withdrawn from unskillful mental qualities — enters & remains in the first jhana ... [the Jhana formula] ... This is called renunciation-pleasure, seclusion-pleasure, calm-pleasure, self-awakening-pleasure. And of this pleasure I say that it is to be cultivated, to be developed, to be pursued, that it is not to be feared.
So first off, I would like to make it clear that you should, indeed, be excited by and interested in finding access concentration and generally moving forward on the path towards Jhana and its myriad pleasures.
Furthermore, in the Buddha's awakening story in MN 36, he states:
"I thought: 'I recall once, when my father the Sakyan was working, and I was sitting in the cool shade of a rose-apple tree, then — quite secluded from sensuality, secluded from unskillful mental qualities — I entered & remained in the first jhana: rapture & pleasure born from seclusion, accompanied by directed thought & evaluation. Could that be the path to Awakening?' Then following on that memory came the realization: 'That is the path to Awakening.' I thought: 'So why am I afraid of that pleasure that has nothing to do with sensuality, nothing to do with unskillful mental qualities?' I thought: 'I am no longer afraid of that pleasure that has nothing to do with sensuality, nothing to do with unskillful mental qualities, but that pleasure is not easy to achieve with a body so extremely emaciated."
With this in mind, I would first just like to reiterate that there is no problem with enjoying and even desiring
meditative absorption and pleasure; don't feel as though access concentration or other heightened states are somehow 'naughty' or unwholesome. They form a concrete backbone to the practice and are a wonderful object towards which to be motivated.
Many Buddhists today seem to be afraid to give meditation a point beyond pure, unbroken equanimity, but the Buddha clearly saw meditation as an activity of more than just passive awareness; we are to direct our attention towards that which leads to dispassion and strive with energy towards the absorptions that blind Mara. Respectfully, I'm going to have to disagree with Ben's statement that you should "just observe"; I think it is clear that there is a more active role in Buddhist meditation than that. So no, to your first question, it is not wrong to strive for access concentration or Jhana - in fact, striving earnestly for Jhana is about the most wholesome thing any being in existence can do!
The problem, as Ben does correctly point out, is that often that wholesome desire (or motivation, as desire is somewhat of a loaded word in Buddhism) to find a non-sensual pleasure can itself be a barrier if it becomes a clinging to the expectation of that experience. The desire to run a marathon is a good one, but your practice can be sidelined quite quickly if you believe you'll go all 26.2 miles in the first try; in the same way, it is important and necessary to strive for Jhana (and access concentration) but the expectation that it will always be there is a great way to bring about frustration and failure.
Unless you're commonly breaking your precepts, I doubt there is much you are doing that causes access concentration to elude you on occasion. In my daily practice, I can have very productive sits interspersed with days or even weeks of middling ones - but that is the name of the game. Ajahn Brahm likes to use the metaphor of the monthly paycheck; you put in a lot of sometimes unrewarding, even exhausting sits so that every once in a while, it pays off with an energizing and beautiful experience, in the same way that a man might put in days of work at a factory knowing that his hard work will bring an even bigger paycheck soon in the future.
So don't learn to just sit with what is, but don't consider any sit without access concentration to be a failure. Find a happy medium, where you see the value in every session but still strive with wholesome energy towards those periods which lead to greater samadhi. It's a hard balance, and being too complacent with a middling sit or too strenuous in your pursuit of Jhana can both derail your progress. I've been meditating for a few years now, and there are times when access concentration still eludes me, sometimes for days at a time! I tell you this not to discourage you, but to let you know that everyone faces these problems. Such is the life of a meditator. The most important thing is to keep your eyes on the goal while still understanding the reality of the situation.
Finally, I'd just like to reiterate again that it is valuable to reflect on the progress you have made up to this point and take joy from that. If you'd like to discuss specifics of your meditation "routine", I'm always available for PM.
Good luck friend.
Gain and loss, status and disgrace,
censure and praise, pleasure and pain:
these conditions among human beings are inconstant,
impermanent, subject to change.
Knowing this, the wise person, mindful,
ponders these changing conditions.
Desirable things don’t charm the mind,
undesirable ones bring no resistance.
His welcoming and rebelling are scattered,
gone to their end,
do not exist.
- Lokavipatti SuttaStuff I write about things.