Understanding excitation and stimulation in practice
I'm writing this on the penultimate day of a jhana retreat that my teacher Leigh Brasington and I have been running through Gaia House. Over the course of the retreat I've been noticing patterns in the challenges that come up in regard to settling the mind sufficiently for the jhanas to become available, and so I'm going to share a model that I use to understand what's going on here.
(While the article will be focusing on concentration/samadhi practice, I think the model actually works for any form of practice, or even any activity in general - I first started to notice this phenomenon in another context entirely. So even if samadhi isn't your bag, it might still be worth a read.)
Excitation and stimulation
There are two key aspects which come together in any meditation practice. For want of a better term (if you can think of better words, please suggest them!) I'm going to call them 'excitation' and 'stimulation'.
Excitation is a measure of how 'activated' we're feeling at the time. If you're having a stressful time at work, your level of excitation is likely to be pretty high. If you're several days into a relaxing holiday, your level of excitation is going to be much lower. In a nutshell, excitation is a measure of how 'shaken up' we are inside (in the sense of shaking up a Coke bottle). In other words, excitation relates to you, the meditator, and the inner condition that you're bringing to the present moment. It runs on a continuum from 'peaceful' (low excitation) to 'excited' or 'stressed' (high excitation, depending on whether positive or negative in nature).
Stimulation is a measure of how 'interesting' the current external situation is - whether that's the meditation object you're working with, or anything else. Going to a rock concert is very stimulating, sitting silently in an empty room facing a blank wall is not at all stimulating. Stimulation thus also runs on a continuum from 'subtle' (low stimulation) to 'intense' (high stimulation).
So excitation represents your inner condition, while stimulation represents the outer condition. The coming together of the two is the present moment.
Why does this matter? Because it's much easier for the mind to engage with something that's stimulating enough but not too much. If you're in a highly excited state and you try to move straight into a very subtle practice, it'll feel 'boring', and the mind won't want to stay there. By comparison, if you're in a very quiet, peaceful state, you may find a rock concert to be overwhelming - just too much to handle right now.
Compensating for a mismatch of excitation and stimulation with effort
It's very common for people to come on a jhana retreat and have a hard time at first. They're arriving from jobs, families, travel, all sorts of highly stimulating things, and so they're showing up with a fairly high level of excitation. Then we tell them to pay attention to the sensations of the breath, and do nothing else until the mind stops wandering, at which point they might be able to start trying to get into the jhanas. So they're coming from a place of high excitation, being offered something that sounds very cool (these altered states of consciousness called jhanas) - and then being asked to do something which, relative to the moment, is extremely boring, yet somehow they have to find a way to get through it to get to the cool thing on the other side that they're here to learn.
Needless to say, this can be a recipe for frustration.
A very common response to that sense of frustration is to apply more effort. 'OK, my mind is wandering, but I can't get into the first jhana until it calms down, so I'm damn well going to make sure it stays put!' Sometimes this is even consciously expressed, more often it's an unconscious manifestation of the practitioner's sincere wish to enter the jhana.
(As an aside, this is why the jhanas get a bad rap sometimes, because detractors will say 'Oh, that's just craving, it's unhelpful, don't do it.' But the jhanas are a powerful asset on the spiritual path, and in my view there's nothing wrong with wanting to learn a skill which will help someone in their practice. Yes, any craving that's present will need to be addressed, but the 'nice' thing about the jhanas is that you can't get in if you're craving too much, so that has a way of working itself out through practice.)
So does it work? Can we 'nail our attention to the breath'?
The answer is... kinda, but you probably shouldn't, and if you overdo it, it won't work at all.
Using a totally unscientific numbering scheme for effort, where 5 is maximum effort and 0 means you didn't even sign up for the retreat, we see this sort of thing:
5: Tight mind, no possibility of progress
Just as the body has a stretch reflex that kicks in when it feels it's in danger of being over-stretched to the point of injury (which is why we generally have to stretch gently if we want the body to open up), it seems that there comes a point where the mind is being pushed too far and it refuses to cooperate any longer. The mind becomes very tight, useless for concentration or meditation of any kind, and it generally feels pretty crappy to boot. When the mind has reached this stage, the only thing to do is to step away from the practice for a while. Go for a walk, take a break, do something else for a bit until you can relax internally.
4: Unpleasant glass ceiling
A lot of effort actually can take you some of the way - but usually it only goes so far. A lot of people find that they can get 'kinda concentrated', but not enough so to get into the jhanas. They'll arrive at a place of indistractibility, maybe even feel a sense of the body's energy (piti, see this page for more details) starting to gather, but it never really takes off. This is a really frustrating place to be, and it's very natural to feel that just a little more effort will surely tip it over the edge - but just a little more effort is going in exactly the wrong direction.
3: Workable concentration with unpleasant side effects
At the next stage, the mind is loose and mobile enough that it's possible to get concentrated and even enter the jhanas. However, it's unlikely to be the uncomplicated experience of bodily bliss and emotional joy that's described in the suttas. Instead, people will report strange muscle tensions, headaches and other unpleasant side effects.
I can relate to this very much. Historically, I've never been much of a 'middle ground' kind of person. Fortunately I wasn't at effort level 5 when I went on my first jhana retreat (that would come later, but that's a story for another day!), but I started out squarely at level 4. Fortunately I was able to chill out enough to get down to level 3, at which point jhanas started to happen - and so I stayed at that level for many years, basically doing my best to ignore the unpleasant side effects for as long as I could. These days the overall tone of my practice is much gentler, but because of the way I learnt the jhanas, I still find that doing a lot of jhana practice can trigger that more effortful mode of practising quite easily, so I have to keep an eye out for that.
2: Balance. Concentration develops in its own time, without being forced
This is where we want to be - just enough effort to keep the practice moving forward, not enough to cause ourselves problems. My sense is that 'level 2' is actually a pretty broad category, with some people more at the 'just let it happen' end of the scale while others are more 'on it'. Essentially what we're looking for here is the balance that Leigh calls 'relaxed diligence'.
1: Wandering, drifting, practice not firmly established
I'm mainly focusing on too much effort in this article, but of course the equal and opposite error is not to bring enough effort to the practice. You've got to do the work - it isn't enough to come on retreat and then spend the time 'goofing off', as Leigh would put it. If the retreat is turning into more of a holiday, the 'diligence' part might be lacking. It's always a shame when this happens, because clearly the person was interested enough to sign up for the retreat in the first place (and take a space away from someone else!).
(In case anyone from the present retreat is reading this, I'm not talking about anyone in particular here! I don't think anyone on this retreat has been goofing off - on the contrary, you've all done really well in the circumstances you've been working with, and it's been a pleasure to practise with you all.)
So if more effort isn't the answer, what is?
Coming back to the 'excitation' and 'stimulation' model, we still have this problem that you may be coming into your practice in a highly 'excited' state, relative to which a meditation practice like noticing the breath is much too subtle to hold your interest - as a result, the practice is boring, your mind wanders, and nothing much happens. What can we do about this?
In a retreat context, the problem will actually often 'solve itself' after a few days. When you're on retreat (particularly a residential retreat), you've removed yourself from most of the sources of stimulation that are present in your daily life. Just like a snow-globe is busy right after you've shaken it up but gradually settles down if you just leave it alone, your mind and body will gradually settle (i.e. your excitation level will decrease), and eventually you'll arrive at a place where the breath is a more accessible object. The breath hasn't become any more stimulating than it was, but because you're now less excited, the breath appears more interesting than it did.
This solution has some appealing qualities, particularly if you're prone to over-efforting. Going on a retreat knowing that your first few days will be spent settling down, and all you have to do is to allow that process to happen, can really help to create an attitude of openness rather than one of forcing. The drawback is that you're still working with a 'too boring' object for those first few days, which can potentially trigger frustration and restlessness, slowing down that process of settling.
An alternative is to vary the meditation practice over time. Leigh and I will offer a variety of 'aids' to settling the mind for people who have chosen to work with the breath as a means of settling the mind - for example, counting the breaths, visualising an ocean wave coming in and out with the breath, using a mantra in time with the breath, noticing the parts of the breath (beginning, middle, end, gap) or noticing the lengths of each breath (shorter than average, longer than average? shorter than the last, longer than the last?). Other teachers have suggested a wide range of similar approaches - imagining that you're breathing in a pleasant scent, feeling the movement of breath as a pleasurable sensation, relating to the breath as the breath of Buddha, all sorts of different ideas.
What all of these have in common is that the breath goes from the very subtle, very unstimulating 'in, out, in, out' to an experience which is richer and more engaging. As a result, people generally find it easier to rest the mind on this more highly stimulating object. The drawback is that, because the object is now more stimulating, it may limit how calm the mind can become. What was initially perceived as interesting can start to become irritating, noisy, 'too busy'. At this point, if the meditator moves to a less stimulating version of the object - for example, if they've been counting each in-breath and out-breath, shifting to just counting out-breaths, or even dropping the count entirely - then the mind can settle even more deeply. There's sometimes a moment of instability and disorientation, because some of the landmarks of the previous stage of practice have now gone away, but the mind typically settles down again and now goes deeper.
Developing sensitivity to excitation and stimulation
Perhaps the trickiest aspect of all this is that our excitation levels can be unpredictable, even on a retreat. While the overall trend on a retreat for most people is towards gradually decreasing excitation of mind and thus gradually deepening subtlety of object, it can vary day by day, or according to time of day (my mind is busier in the mornings and quieter in the afternoons), or even from one sit to the next (a 'good' sit will often lead to a more distracted next sit because the excitation level has risen).
While I have a deep appreciation for the simplicity and profundity of the 'just let it happen' approach to practice, I do think that there's great benefit to be had from developing an awareness of our internal condition and a sensitivity to how that condition is interfacing with the stimulation offered by the practice we're working with, and learning how to tweak the practice to meet ourselves where we are rather than where we'd like to be. Over time this will start to happen intuitively, and will need less and less conscious attention and intervention - you'll just start to feel 'Oh, needs a few more details right now to stay with it' or 'Ahh, mind getting settled - relax, simplify'.
I hope these reflections prove helpful in your meditation practice.
Matt teaches early Buddhist and Zen meditation practices for the benefit of all. May you be happy!