Concentration Meditation: Find the Object, Be With the Object
After the last post many questions arose in the comments section. I gave a customized answer to each individual, attempting to meet them where they were at in their experience to lead them forward. This can be very confusing for the general reader however as I might appear to be giving different advice each time. Even the individual to whom the advice is targeted might struggle to make an actual plan from it, because I describe so much that is going on.
There are however common themes in each reply I gave, and in this post I am going to spell them out in the most simple way possible. Furthermore, to actually put this advice into practice your mind requires one or two very simple commands – the things you ask it to do during the meditation in order to get the results I’m describing. I am about to give you those commands in the clearest and most unambiguous way, therefore eliminating any question of, “So, what am I actually doing?” during your session.
The mind is extremely programmable. It can do just about anything you ask it to do. These commands are called “intentions”. To program the mind, you set an intention by saying it out loud in your mind. Then you wait, breathe, and let it happen. During the “letting it happen” phase the mind will begin its own processes toward manifesting your intention. You have to trust that it knows what it’s doing. This is called letting go.
You have to know which commands to send to your mind to get the outcome you desire. These have to be very simple commands, especially for a beginner.
- Find the object.
- Be with the object.
Finding the Object
The single thing that most distinctively separates a concentration state from your regular waking state is flow.
Flow is a state of perception in which something appears to move continuously. However, the movement is also regular and predictable (meaning it doesn’t dart around too much) and the result is that the object appears stable despite inherently being in motion. A river is a good example. It is always moving, and it is always different water you are seeing move by. However, because the water flows in the same shape channel (over the riverbed between the banks), your mind identifies the object as “a river”. It becomes stable and continuous. It flows.
Concentration meditation is the act of finding flow within the object of meditation and continuously noticing that flow. The mind is extremely susceptible to absorbing into flow because it always feels good to do so. When things flow, they feel blissful. The mind very much wants to enter flow states and it feels at home within them. You have already experienced this while playing video games or even just “getting into” some work. Even if you don’t much like your job, if you have a lot on and really get into the task at hand then it starts to feel good because you enter a state of flow within that task. An inertia is built within these activities whereby once you are in flow with them, you don’t want to stop.
To have the mind enter flow you just need to point it towards something that is already flowing and it will absorb into that existing flow and become one with it. This is why flowing objects such as rivers and flames have always been used as meditation objects since the dawn of time. Even without meditation training, if you gaze at a campfire for long enough you will fall into a trance (which is just another word for “flow state”).
The only difference between these everyday flow states you are already familiar with (video games, sex, work, gazing at campfires, watching clouds go by etc.) and jhana is that in jhana the mind is more profoundly absorbed in the flow of the object to the exclusion of other things. This is made possible through the training of concentration meditation. Concentration meditation involves simply noticing the flow that is already present in the object (e.g. in the breath) and allowing your mind to absorb into that flow at higher and higher levels. It is simply the time you spend in the quiet surroundings of your practice that allows the mind to feel safe enough to let itself go more and more into the flow of the object, crossing new boundaries each time, into ever more profound states of absorption.
Flow is present in the breath – you just have to find it. The mind is so highly programmable that you can simply ask it, “Find flow within the breath!” and wait a few seconds, and it will find it. It might find a spot in the visual field where the breath appears to be moving as waves of visible energy. Or you might instead find a sense of flow in the sound of the breath. Or you might find a flowing physical sensation in the breath, somewhere in the body, or somewhere on your nose, that seems to move smoothly and predictably.
Wherever you find flow in the breath, in whichever sensory system, that is now your object. Your object becomes the area of flow that you found in the breath.
Your first task is therefore clear: You must find an area of flow within your meditation object, then stay with that flow.
“Find the object; be with the object.”
Finding Your Preferred Sensory System
In meditation we consider you as having six senses:
- Sight / visual / images
- Hearing / auditory / sounds
- The feeling body (which includes touch, pain, movement, and emotions)
- The thinking mind
You will inherently favour one system over the others in certain tasks, and this is especially true in meditation.
Your second task is therefore to find your strongest sensory system and to then work exclusively with that system going forward in your concentration practice. You do this by noticing which sensory system the object appears in most clearly. Specifically, you are looking for which system contains an area of flow within the object.
So, we already have three jhana meditators we can look at, each using three different sensory systems to perceive the breath:
- LuminousBliss meditates exclusively on the sensations of the breath at the columella (the fleshy bit between the nostrils). (Feeling body)
- Absolutus meditates exclusively on the sound of the breath. (Auditory system)
- Illuminatus meditates exclusively on the flow of the breath at a point determined visually. (Visual system)
Each of these techniques will perceive flow in the breath within the preferred sensory system. So, LuminousBliss will begin to experience the breath as continuous flowing sensations at the columella. Absolutus will begin to hear the sound of the breath flowing continuously. I literally begin to see the breath as flowing energy.
To find your preferred sensory system you should first just have a think about it – you will often instinctively know which one you tend to favour. Then you can try to meditate while perceiving the object only in that sensory system, to test whether you get a clearer signal on it. Alternatively, you can do a test run of five minutes spent in each system (seeing / hearing / feeling) then decide roughly which system produced the clearest perception of the breath.
Seeing, hearing, and feeling are likely the most common sensory systems used for breath meditation. Something can also be done with smell – for example, I have a post called Jhana: Smell the Air. Alternate nostril breathing pranayama can be used to sensitize the smelling system, too. I also occasionally use an auto-suggestion that I am smelling freshly cut grass to introduce some pleasure to the breath. However, these methods require adding an additional mind-made property to the breath (sweetness), so it is complicating the method. I therefore do not recommend this for beginners, but have included it for completeness. Something can be done with taste in a similar fashion.
So, the only sensory system we have not yet mentioned is the thinking mind. The breath can be perceived as an object using the thinking mind in a number of ways, and the method usually involves turning the breath into a concept such as a sine wave (as discussed here: Jhana: Waves and Breathing).
Another way is to notice how the breath affects the thinking mind. For example, there are certain phases naturally occurring within the inhale–exhale cycle of the breath wherein verbal–conceptual thought ceases. These moments are usually very short (perhaps a few milliseconds for a beginner meditator). However, if you can learn where and when those moments of thoughtless awareness occur (via constant observation), and then train yourself to notice them without fail during each breath cycle, your attention itself will fall into flow (caused by the constant, rhythmic noticing of the gap between thoughts) and this will cause those gaps to expand – and, when the gap expands to several seconds at a time, you are hitting access concentration.
Thinking-mind breath perceptions are quite difficult to describe and usually require tailoring for each individual. I therefore am not keen on pushing them as a main method unless the student has already shown an inclination towards that sensory system. However, once a system has been found that is a good fit, thinking-mind breath perceptions can create incredibly rapid absorption and jhana.
Combined modalities are also somewhat common. For example, my car windscreen absorption I reported in the last post involved the “thought gap” (thinking mind) system with the visual system, wherein I noticed that the more attention I paid to the visual field the more the gap between thoughts opened up (until thoughts stopped entirely).
However, to reiterate: I am recommending you seek flow in the breath in the seeing, hearing and feeling modalities first and foremost.
Examples from Students
The inspiration for this post came from working with a couple of students on Skype. Here is what they told me they had observed in their practice, and what my recommendations were for working with their object:
- PP told me that, after energy work and pranayama breathing as a warm-up before concentration practice, what most stood forward while meditating was a perception of flowing movement in his forehead area. I identified this as an energy object (rather than a breath object) manifesting in the feeling body system. I advised that, from now on, he work exclusively in those modalities. His commands are: 1) Find the object (locate the sense of flow in the forehead area). 2) Be with the object (stay with that sense of flow). As much of his practice as possible is now to be spent doing only that.
- CK told me that, while sitting, he noticed a small gap of time between his exhalation and next inhalation where there were no thoughts. Realizing this, he began paying attention to this gap, and became calm very quickly and lights appeared. He then shifted his attention to the lights, and both the calm state and the lights disappeared. I advised him that the lights are called the nimitta and are a sign that concentration is deepening. However, he should keep doing the thing that caused the lights in the first place, rather than switching attention to them. In his case, this means continuing to notice the gap where there were no thoughts (which occurred between breaths) each time it happens. Do not try to force the gap wider, but instead just resolve to notice its presence in each and every breath cycle. So: 1) Find the object (the gap with no thoughts). 2) Be with the object (be with the gap when it happens). This will cause a sense of flow in attention itself related to noticing the regular appearance of the gap. Eventually the mind will absorb into the gap and jhana will arise.
The advice is always: “Find the object; be with the object.” The manner in which the object is found is what will vary from student to student.
Being with the Object
Once you have found the object, now you must simply continue to be with the object.
These are the only two mental commands you need to use while meditating. If you lose the object, find it again then be with it. You will probably lose it again quickly, and have to find it again, then be with it for a short while, before losing it again.
This might happen a hundred times before you are able to be with the object for several seconds at a time (access concentration). That is completely normal and is all part of the training. By working with only these two commands however, frustration is limited, as is mental wandering. There is very little doubt in the two commands, “Find the object; be with the object”, and the mind will become very compliant in following them.
Whatever sensory modality you follow the breath object in, the progression to jhana will tend to be the same:
- Noticing flow in the breath – even for a moment! – brings sudden pleasure, relief, or gratitude, depending on how you perceive the upward shift toward positive emotion at the time. There may also be the appearance of a light at this point, though it may be subtle at this stage.
- There may be a tendency to want to “grab” the moment of pleasure, or to want to switch attention to the light. Doing either of these things will tend to make both the pleasure disappear and the light begin to fade. Instead, you must gently bring attention back to the flow in the breath object.
- At some point the pleasure/light will no longer distract you from the flow in the breath object and you will be able to stay with it for several seconds at a time. This is the start of access concentration.
- The pleasure will be thicker and heavier, perhaps occurring tangibly in the abdomen, and the light will become significantly brighter and larger at this point. The tendency to want to pull into the pleasure or the light will sabotage many meditations at this point. The instruction is the same as always: “Find the object; be with the object.” Return to the flow in the breath object.
- At some point this previous distraction will vanish and you will be able to stay with the flow in the breath object uninterrupted. This is access concentration proper. During this time the light will become clear, very white, and very large. The thick heavy pleasure in the abdomen will thin out and become consistent and uniform “healing energies” flowing upward into the mind. In access concentration proper however these things will tend not to distract, as this is now a clear slope to jhana.
- All you must do is stay with the flow in the breath object and the light – the nimitta – will become all-encompassing and “suck you into” jhana. This may occur gradually (i.e. the nimitta just ramps up its intensity over time) or it may reach “critical mass” and suddenly flash hard, marking the crossing of the threshold into jhana. In my experience I usually see the flash, though I suspect the gradual ramp-ups may result in even deeper absorption.
- The intensity of the “healing energies” is increased by orders of magnitude on entry to jhana. However, they are refined (thinned-out and uniform) so they are well tolerated by the body. This will almost certainly be the greatest bliss you have ever experienced.
- The breath flow object, the nimitta, and the blissful emotions arising have all become one single experience at this point, so neither of these things can distract you out of the meditation. The emotions are enjoyed full force because they have become united with the breath itself. There are no thoughts in the everyday sense of the word. At this point the meditation basically runs itself, although there is clearly still a process of effort being applied towards the breath flow object (this effort only disappears on entry to the second jhana).
The progression for non-breath objects such as energy or kasina is the same in terms of how concentration organizes itself progressively around the object, and the healing energies which manifest. The only major difference tends to be in the manifestation of the nimitta.
In energy objects, the nimitta will tend to produce an ostentatious light show with one or more colours dominating. Purple, gold and green light are all common. The colours may be mixed (with purple and gold being a common combination I experience). The colour “particles” may also tend to become more refined as the meditation progresses, with smaller particles correlating with a refinement in the healing energies.
In kasina objects (such as a flame afterimage) the nimitta will tend to manifest as an intense point of light at the centre of the object.
Summary on Previous Advice
What I have written here does not negate my previous advice. What the “Find the object; be with the object” commands achieve, rather, is to consolidate that advice into simple, actionable points – something you can “do” without overthinking it.
Suppression of thoughts, suppression of eye access cues, introduction of pleasure, mental techniques to sync with flow, and mental grabbing and releasing of the object, still happen under this system. The problem is, when I was writing about those things I was giving you too much to do. The mind responds to very simple and succinct commands. “Find the object; be with the object” delegates those other processes to the mind’s own autopilot ability to find its way through things. They will all happen; but now you don’t have to consciously induce them. The practice itself will train all those things behind the scenes, since they have to happen anyway when following “Find the object; be with the object”.
More on Mental Commands
I don’t want to labour the point or create distractions at this point, as you have plenty to be getting on with. However, it is important to understand how the “Find the object” command works, as this facet of the mind is the basis of more advanced meditations (such as creating complex objects) and I will inevitably return to it in future. So, I will attempt to be brief.
The mind is extremely programmable, especially when it comes to meditative experiences. The way commands are given (and then manifest) however is probably very different to how you think it would work logically.
When you ask the mind to “Find the object”, you are asking it to find something in sensory awareness. In terms of the above meditation, you are asking the mind to find something connected to the breath which is flowing. The mind does exactly what it is told. Even if there is nothing flowing, it will pick something out that “might” be flowing, and perceive it as flowing, and then perceive it as flowing with the breath!
- So, if you are a visual person, a patch of the dark stuff behind your eyelids might be noticed to be flowing. And then it might be noticed that it flows in sync with the breath.
- You might instead notice sensations of movement at the nostrils with each flowing into the next.
- You might instead notice that the sound of each exhalation can begin to flow seamlessly into the sound of the next inhalation. The “gap” between them might in fact begin to break down as your mind enters this flow and co-opts the breath itself into the flow.
Now, many of those phenomena might well be connected to the breath. However, many of them might well just be random sensations that the mind has grabbed and brought into the experience of a flowing breath!
The mind just does it. You asked it to find flow, so it did.
Usually a few seconds pass between asking to find the object, and your mind finding it. Once it learns what that object looks like however, it can start finding it more quickly. That is how your gaps between losing the object and finding it again become shorter.
A non-breath example is how my kundalini meditations start with me asking my mind to find an upward-flowing stream of energy in the visual field. There is a lot of crap already going on in the visual field. After a few seconds however, my mind “decides” that some of that crap is indeed an upward-flowing stream. I have found the object. Now I simply be with the object. It persists as an upward-flowing stream and begins to flow into a nimitti which forms at my third eye then grows bigger and brighter the longer the meditation is allowed to continue, eventually culminating in jhana just as the breath meditation did.
If you know you can find a mental object simply by asking your mind to find it, then waiting till it does, you will never struggle to find your meditation object again.
This is completely the backwards way most people would approach the problem. They would look for certain aspects of the breath as if they were already out there waiting to be found. This is how you end up with people sat on the cushion for years with nothing going on, and no pleasure, no object and no nimitta to be found.
For example, there is very little “sweetness” in a regular breath. Yet if you sit there and assume, with full knowledge of the tricks the mind can play on itself, that the next breath in will be filled with sweetness, then with a knowing smile and closed eyes begin drawing breath in slowly through your nose, you will find it smelling as sweet as a spring meadow. This is why I never had any trouble finding piti (pleasure) on the breath. Assume the air around you is filled with sweetness and watch as your nose comes to life, hungrily sniffing it from the air, searching for and finding it as your brain squirts dopamine at these phantoms.
The mind can pluck meditation objects from essentially random sensations going on in any of your sensory systems. It reminds me of how, even in an empty vacuum, there is a “vacuum energy” which means a particle can spontaneously arise out of that vacuum.
The same rule applies for creating visual objects, too. For example, if you wish to experience the colour blue, you can close your eyes, expect to see it, mentally relax into the dark stuff behind your eyelids, and after some time it may well turn blue. Then you can move onto more complex visual objects, such as intending some symbol to arise then watching in awe as the symbol manifests within the dark stuff behind your eyes. Such symbols can then be used for magickal purposes.
Entire complex scenes can be rendered in the same way – the only deciding factors are your time, your patience, and your faith. This is the opposite way around from visualizing something in ordinary waking life, in which you attempt to “push” the scene into working memory, only for its fuzzy content to fade quickly and be difficult to maintain. Scenes created in meditation have the benefit of persistence and an eerie “more real than real” quality.
We might call this formula “Will, wait, experience.” You will the colour blue (the mental command to find blue in your experience). Then you wait patiently for it to be found. When it is found, you experience it fully.
In a broader sense, this is the same pattern that appears in magickal experiences (a.k.a. intention-manifestation). The universe can put together your desired situation using combinations of “stuff that is happening anyway”. But I suppose that’s a conversation for another day.