Friday, 7 October 2011

Access Concentration - A Pragmatic Approach

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 ten years of experimentation with everything from raja yoga to ritual magick, but I thought that this was some major meditative accomplishment which would require months 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 map, I should be able to get access concentration through bare attention. This worried me and I thought, “Shit, maybe I didn’t really get 1st path at all, maybe I’m deluding myself here”, 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 while being more attentive to what happened.  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 ‘hard’ 1st jhana within a few seconds and mistaking this for access 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, which 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 true, but I don’t think I’m the only person who’s experienced this sort of misunderstanding and so 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.

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:
  1. 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, and allow yourself to settle and relax.
  2. Begin by shifting your attention to the area between the nostrils[1], 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 pay attention to this area.
  3. 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.
  4. 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.
  5. 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.

Now, what caused me some confusion was what actually happened 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 based on 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 as follows:

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 completely true 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 and turning it into something to achieve just creates a distraction from the simple process of applying the attention to one thing.

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”, 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’ll 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,

[1] I generally use anapanasati, mindfulness of the in and out breath at the nostrils, when doing concentration practice although you're free to use whichever approach works best for you e.g. observing the rise and fall of the abdomen or chest, the sensations of the breath at the base of your skull (this method is really good for getting into 'hard' jhanas in my experience, but I'll go into detail about this another time) or being aware of the breath filling the entire body. Find out what works best for you, then do it.

Edited - 27/10/11 - Added [1].


  1. Seems related to "flow" in positive psychology. I'm not saying access concentration is flow, I don't know, but it seems related at least.

    I followed the instructions 1-3, then read on. Fascinating how you captured this in words. Point in case: As I read on to where you write that access concentration is like what happens when one has an engaging conversation, how there's a shift of subtle exclusion of ones surroundings, I immediately recognized this. From when did I recognize it? Well, what do you know, from just a few seconds ago when I was doing the instructions!

    It should be said that I consider myself to possibly have attained stream-entry, and, as always, others' mileage may vary.

    As a last note I am now recognizing that even as I type this, carefully choosing my words, I am in this "state".

    Good post :)

  2. Great tips Tommy, thanks. It is so easy to get caught up in the mystique that one can forget the immediate truth that our minds are always cycling through various concentrated states, we don't have to try to concentrate, we let ourselves do it once we stop trying! But you said it better "If you've ever been to a party..." haha

  3. Cheers folks, glad you got some use out of it.

    Stian, I remember your thread about stream entry, the ease of entry into access concentration you describe seems fairly typical if you've landed 1st path so all in all it sounds promising. Nice one!

    Andrew, glad that was useful to you. I agree about getting caught up in the mystique of this thing, but, as you know, it's so much more fun when you find out that you can actually just do it for yourself.

  4. Hey,

    I dig the post.

    So, this seems like a basic question. And I know I'm probably overthinking this, but can you explain one thing to me (one that I've pretty much always missed)...

    Do you start over when you get so distracted by a thought that you lose track of the breath entirely? Or do you start over whenever a thought comes into your mind? I've never understood this. I can keep focus on the breath without losing count for a long time (with multiple tracks), but I can't even go one full cycle without a thought (or image, more likely) coming into my head. (If it's not a thought, or a story line, an image or memory will flash into my mind).

  5. Hey, can you explain to me how to meditate on the breath sensations at the base of the skull? as physically one can't feel the sensations there..