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The Importance of Alertness and Attention in Developing Concentration

  • As I have grown in my meditation practice, I have been able to develop deeper and deeper levels of concentration and corresponding insight.
  • And yet, when I’ve read about some of the various deeper levels of jhana (deep concentration, or samatha) I’ve sometimes wondered about my progress and whether I’m going “deep” enough.
    The stimulant effects of caffeine, achieved through the consumption of beverages such as coffee, may be altered by the addition of various substances such as sugar. As past research has shown, sugar has excitatory effects on our mental alertness and so too little or no sugar in the bloodstream decreases the energy available for the brain to utilize and hence this causes one to be tired, sleepy, and unable to concentrate2. Conversely, too much sugar will suppress orexin, a biochemical substance that stimulates mental vigilance3 which may reduce the wake-promoting efficacy of caffeine. Previous studies only focused on the effects of a single amount of sugar4. However, there are no studies on how the different levels of sugar may affect caffeine's ability in stimulating mental alertness and consumers frequently overlook that an excessive amount may actually reduce its ability to stimulate wakefulness. We conducted an experiment to find out both the ideal amount of sugar required in consumption with caffeine for maximum mental alertness and the amount of sugar that could bring about slower reaction time. In addition, we want to determine if there is a difference in the results obtained between male and female.

    This great essay by Thanissaro Bhikkhu was really helpful in terms of keeping a skillful perspective on the relationship of concentration and insight in meditation. I hope it will be helpful to you, as well. SG

    Thanissaro Bhikkhu

    Jhana Not by the Numbers

    Thanissaro Bhikkhu

    When I first went to study with my teacher, Ajaan Fuang, he handed me a small booklet of meditation instructions and sent me up the hill behind the monastery to meditate. The booklet—written by his teacher, Ajaan Lee—began with a breath meditation technique and concluded with a section showing how the technique was used to induce the first four levels of jhana.

    This paper is organized as follows. Section 2 describes the participants, materials and experimental procedures. The result of the tests is presented and analyzed in Section 3 while the conclusions are covered in Section 4.

    In the following years, I saw Ajaan Fuang hand the same booklet to each of his new students, lay and ordained. Yet despite the booklet’s detailed descriptions of jhana, he himself rarely mentioned the word jhana in his conversations, and never indicated to any of his students that they had reached a particular level of jhana in their practice.

    Prior to the test, a minimal uninterrupted sleep duration of 4 hours on a Saturday from 0200 hrs to 0600 hrs was allocated to simulate sleep deprivation and the participants were expected to abstain from food and beverage for 8 hours. Participants were given 2 hours to travel to Nanyang Technological University, School of Physical and Mathematical Sciences Building, MAS Computer Laboratory 1. The participants were strongly encouraged to reach the stipulated venue at least 15 minutes before the actual commencement of the test.

    When a student told him of a recurring meditative experience, he liked to discuss not what it was, but what to do with it: what to focus on, what to drop, what to change, what to maintain the same. Then he’d teach the student how to experiment with it—to make it even more stable and restful—and how to judge the results of the experiments.
    This essay has been submitted by a student. This is not an example of the work written by our professional essay writers.

    If his students wanted to measure their progress against the descriptions of jhana in the booklet, that was their business and none of his. He never said this in so many words, but given the way he taught, the implicit message was clear.
    The experimental procedure was conducted once per week over a six-week period. In Week 1, the participants arrived at the school computer laboratory by 0800 hrs. At 0815 hrs, a single session of PVT was first conducted before coffee consumption. At 0830 hrs, they were then each given 200-ml of coffee with no sugar added, after which the test was carried out at 30-minute intervals over a span of 3 hours i.e. 0900 hrs, 0930 hrs, 1000 hrs, 1030 hrs, 1100 hrs and 1130 hrs. Each 30-minute interval started with a 10-minute PVT followed by 20 minutes of relaxation time where the participants were allowed to read, study or surf the net in the computer lab. This was to help them stay awake. For the subsequent weeks, the procedure was repeated with the following changes: 1, 2, 3, 4 and 5 teaspoon(s) of sugar was added to the coffee, for weeks 2, 3, 4, 5 and 6 respectively.

    Ajaan Lee Dhammadharo

    As were the implicit reasons for his attitude. He had told me once about his own experiences as a young meditator: “Back in those days you didn’t have books explaining everything the way we do now.

    Sixty packets of 15 g 'Kopi-Kosong' black coffee powder, ten 200-ml cups and 100% cane sugar were used in the experiment. To record the participants' reaction times, we used the Psychomotor Vigilance Test (PVT) which is a common standard used in assessing alertness levels and attention after prolonged sleep loss5. It is a 10-minute visual test which continually displays a visual prompt at pseudo-random gaps ranging from 2 seconds to 10 seconds. The subject presses a button as fast as possible and the time reading is recorded. As research has found that the caffeine salivary level peaks between 35 to 120 minutes6, the test was conducted every 30 minutes for 3 hours.

    When I first studied with Ajaan Lee, he told me to bring my mind down. So I focused on getting it down, down, down, but the more I brought it down, the heavily and duller it got. I thought, ‘This can’t be right.’ So I turned around and focused on bringing it up, up, up, until I found a balance and could figure out what he was talking about.” This incident was one of many that taught him some important lessons: that you have to test things for yourself, to see where the instructions had to be taken literally and where they had to be taken figuratively; that you had to judge for yourself how well you were doing; and that you had to be ingenious, experimenting and taking risks to find to ways to deal with problems as they arose.

    So as a teacher, he tried to instill in his students these qualities of self‐reliance, ingenuity, and a willingness to take risks and test things for themselves.

    During the Second World War, US soldiers and aviators were given benzedrine, an amphetamine drug, to increase their alertness during long periods on duty. While air force pilots are able to use the drug to remain awake during combat flights, the use of amphetamines by commercial airline pilots is forbidden. British troops used 72 million amphetamine tablets in the second world war and the RAF used so many that "Methedrine won the Battle of Britain" according to one report. American bomber pilots use amphetamines ("go pills") to stay awake during long missions. The Tarnak Farm incident, in which an American F-16 pilot killed several friendly Canadian soldiers on the ground, was blamed by the pilot on his use of amphetamine. A nonjudicial hearing rejected the pilot's claim. Amphetamines are used by college and high-school students as a study and test-taking aid. Amphetamine increases energy levels, concentration, and motivation, allowing students to study for an extended period of time. These drugs are often acquired through ADHD prescriptions to students and peers, rather than illicitly produced drugs. Cocaine is also used to increase alertness.

    He did that not only by talking about these qualities, but also by forcing you into situations where you’d have to develop them. Had he always been there to confirm for you that, “Yes, you’ve reached the third jhana,” or, “No, that’s only the second jhana,” he would have short‐circuited the qualities he was trying to instill.
    The objective of this study was to investigate how the varying amount of sugar would affect caffeine's ability in inducing mental alertness. Our findings indicated that an addition of 1 to 4 teaspoons of sugar worked in conjunction with caffeine to boost mental alertness, with the addition of 2 teaspoons of sugar being the most effective in improving alertness. However, the addition of 5 teaspoons of sugar blocked the capability of caffeine to promote alertness. This could be due to the suppression of orexin which may have been so significant that it blocked the excitatory effect of caffeine. Lastly, there is no significant difference in the improvement of mean reaction times between male and female participants.

    He, rather than your own powers of observation, would have been the authority on what was going on in your mind; and you would have been absolved of any responsibility for correctly evaluating what you had experienced.
    The experiment examined the sugar concentration in coffee that would bring about the maximum improvement of mental alertness as well as the amount that could block the stimulatory effect of caffeine. In addition, the experiment compared the improvement in mean reaction times of both genders.

    Ajaan Fuang

    At the same time, he would have been feeding your childish desire to please or impress him, and undermining your ability to deal with the task at hand, which was how to develop your own powers of sensitivity to put an end to suffering and stress.

    Due to time constraints, we focused on the effects of 5 different amounts of sugar added to coffee. Therefore, the effect of more than 5 teaspoons of sugar is not known. In addition, it is uncertain whether the activities during the 20-minute breaks in between each PVT session would significantly influence the participants' mental alertness.

    As he once told me, “If I have to explain everything, you’ll get used to having things handed to you on a platter. And then what will you do when problems come up in your meditation and you don’t have any experience in figuring things out on your own?”

    So, studying with him, I had to learn to take risks in the midst of uncertainties.

    Stimulating your mind each day by learning something new is another good way to increase your mental alertness. Whether you sit down and watch an interesting clip on The History Channel, read a new book about the Egyptians or do a crossword puzzle.

    If something interesting came up in the practice, I’d have to stick with it, observing it over time, before reaching any conclusions about it. Even then, I learned, the labels I applied to my experiences couldn’t be chiseled in rock.
    Further studies could be conducted to find out the effect on mental alertness when more than 5 teaspoons of sugar are added to coffee. Furthermore, possible ways to alleviate the suppression of orexin could also be investigated. In addition, we recommend conducting the experiment on a larger sample size that includes people from other age groups and of different Body Mass Index.

    They had to be more like post‐it notes: convenient markers for my own reference that I might have to peel off and stick elsewhere as I became more familiar with the territory of my mind. This proved to be a valuable lesson that applied to all areas of my practice.
    On the other hand, instead of coming home and plopping down in front of the boob tube all night, you could take your dog for a walk, lift some weights (simple soup cans or water jugs work quite well as weights), dance around with your kids (if you have any) or go for a bike ride. It's up to you. Figure out something that you like to do and do it.

    Still, Ajaan Fuang didn’t leave me to reinvent the Dharma wheel totally on my own. Experience had shown him that some approaches to concentration worked better than others for putting the mind in a position where it could exercise its ingenuity and accurately judge the results of its experiments, and he was very explicit in recommending those approaches.

    We compared the effects of sugar on both genders and found no significant difference between their results. As shown in Table 6 of Appendix 1, at an approximated degree of freedom of 40, the Ttable for the confidence interval of 95% is 2.021 and that of 98% is 2.423. Since Tcalculated = 2.2685 is less than 2.423, there is no significant difference in the mean reaction time for both genders at approximately 98% confidence interval.

    Among the points he emphasized were these:

    Strong concentration is absolutely necessary for liberating insight. “Without a firm basis in concentration,“ he often said, ”insight is just concepts.” To see clearly the connections between stress and its causes, the mind has to be very steady and still. And to stay still, it requires the strong sense of well being that only strong concentration can provide.

    To gain insight into a state of concentration, you have to stick with it for a long time. If you push impatiently from one level of concentration to the next, or if you try to analyze a new state of concentration too quickly after you’ve attained it, you never give it the chance to show its full potential and you don’t give yourself the chance to familiarize yourself with it. So you have to keep working at it as a skill, something you can tap into in all situations.

    Simply put... by getting the needed amound of sleep, you can expect your mind to perform at a higher level. Something you can't expect if you don't give it enough time to recuperate. All you need to do is allot the time necessary each night for this to occur.

    This enables you to see it from a variety of perspectives and to test it over time, to see if it really is as totally blissful, empty, and effortless as it may have seemed on first sight.

    The best state of concentration for the sake of developing all‐around insight is one that encompasses a whole‐body awareness. There were two exceptions to Ajaan Fuang’s usual practice of not identifying the state you had attained in your practice, and both involved states of wrong concentration.

    Psycho-stimulants are substances used to temporarily improve mental functions of an individual and are commonly used to relieve symptoms of tiredness such as reduced mental alertness. Identified as an effective psycho-stimulant, caffeine can antagonize sleep-inducing effects by preventing adenosine from binding to the adenosine receptors in the hypothalamus. This will then inhibit the release of gamma-aminobutyric acid (GABA). As a result, this prevents GABA's inhibitory effect on neurons involved in wakefulness, which helps one to stay more mentally alert1.

    The first was the state that comes when the breath gets so comfortable that your focus drifts from the breath to the sense of comfort itself, your mindfulness begins to blur, and your sense of the body and your surroundings gets lost in a pleasant haze.
    So, here is an easy way to incorporate these three ways into your day so that you maximize your mental alertness potential. When you come home after work, change into something comfortable. Jog, bike, rollerskate, rollerblade, etc. down to your local library. Get a book about a topic that interests you, go back home and read. Then, go to bed at an early time. The next day, do it again.

    When you emerge, you find it hard to identify where exactly you were focused. Ajaan Fuang called this moha‐samadhi, or delusion‐concentration.

    The second state was one I happened to hit one night when my concentration was extremely one‐pointed, and so refined that it refused settle on or label even the most fleeting mental objects.

    Of course, getting the necessary amount of sleep will also help you stay mentally alert. If you are only getting a few hours of sleep per night you will wake up fatigued and more prone to forgetfulness.

    I dropped into a state in which I lost all sense of the body, of any internal/external sounds, or of any thoughts or perceptions at all—although there was just enough tiny awareness to let me know, when I emerged, that I hadn’t been asleep.
    Our first objective is to determine the ideal amount of sugar in consumption with caffeine to achieve maximum mental alertness. We found that 2 teaspoons of sugar is most likely the optimum amount. This is as shown in Figure 1, that the overall improvement in mental alertness (A) is the highest at 7000 units when 2 teaspoons of sugar are added. We also found that 1, 3 and 4 teaspoons of sugar augment an improvement in mental alertness. This is shown in Figure 1 that the additions of 1, 3 and 4 teaspoons of sugar correspond to 'A' values at 6000, 6000 and 5750 units respectively, which are higher than the case when no sugar is added, with 'A' value at 5100 units.

    I found that I could stay there for many hours, and yet time would pass very quickly. Two hours would seem like two minutes. I could also “program” myself to come out at a particular time.

    After hitting this state several nights in a row, I told Ajaan Fuang about it, and his first question was, “Do you like it?” My answer was “No,” because I felt a little groggy the first time I came out. “Good,” he said. “As long as you don’t like it, you’re safe. Some people really like it and think it’s nibbana or cessation.

    The simplest way to improve mental alertness is to exercise. However, exercise is also the least utilized. This is because most people do not think of exercise as a tool to increase their mental alertness.

    Actually, it’s the state of non‐perception (asaññi‐bhava). It’s not even right concentration, because there’s no way you can investigate anything in there to gain any sort of discernment. But it does have other uses.” He then told me of the time he had undergone kidney surgery and, not trusting the anesthesiologist, had put himself in that state for the duration of the operation.

    In both these states of wrong concentration, the limited range of awareness was what made them wrong. If whole areas of your awareness are blocked off, how can you gain all‐around insight? And as I’ve noticed in years since, people adept at blotting out large areas of awareness through powerful one‐pointedness also tend to be psychologically adept at dissociation and denial.

    This section illustrates our experimental findings to (i) determine the ideal amount of sugar to add in consumption with caffeine to stimulate maximum mental alertness, (ii) determine the amount of sugar that could block caffeine's excitatory effect and (iii) determine if there is a significant difference in the effect of caffeine on both male and female.

    This is why Ajaan Fuang, following Ajaan Lee, taught a form of breath meditation that aimed at an all‐around awareness of the breath energy throughout the body, playing with it to gain a sense of ease, and then calming it so that it wouldn’t interfere with a clear vision of the subtle movements of the mind.
    Exercise releases a chemical in your brain that helps you to be more alert, not only while you are doing the exercise but for the rest of the day. This is why Joe down the street, who starts his day by going for a jog around the neighborhood, seems to have enough energy for two people.

    This all‐around awareness helped to eliminate the blind spots where ignorance likes to lurk.

    An ideal state of concentration for giving rise to insight is one that you can analyze in terms of stress and the absence of stress even while you’re in it. Once your mind was firmly established in a state of concentration, Ajaan Fuang would recommend “lifting” it from its object, but not so far that the concentration was destroyed.
    Our next objective is to determine the amount of sugar that completely inhibits the excitatory effects of caffeine. We found this amount to be 5 teaspoons of sugar. As Figure 1 shows, 5 teaspoons of sugar resulted in a lower improvement in the mental alertness at 4100 units, as compared with the case when no sugar was added. This could be attributed to the suppression of orexin brought about by the consumption of an excessive amount of sugar3. When orexin is suppressed, the excitatory effect of caffeine is counteracted.

    From that perspective, you could evaluate what levels of stress were still present in the concentration and let them go.

    In the initial stages, this usually involved evaluating how you were relating to the breath, and detecting more subtle levels of breath energy in the body that would provide a basis for deeper levels of stillness.

    Challenging your mind to take in new information not only means that you will learn new things, but as an added benefit, you will also acquire a higher level of mental alertness.

    Once the breath was perfectly still, and the sense of the body started dissolving into a formless mist, this process would involve detecting the perceptions of “space,” “knowing,” “oneness,” etc., that would appear in place of the body and could be peeled away like the layers of an onion in the mind. In either case, the basic pattern was the same: detecting the level of perception or mental fabrication that was causing the unnecessary stress, and dropping it for a more subtle level of perception or fabrication until there was nothing left to drop.
    It is not very difficult to change this pattern. It need not be a long drawn out workout regime. It could be as simple as getting up and stretching after sitting at your work desk or computer for 1/2 hour or grabbing a sip of water at the water cooler.

    This was why, as long as your awareness was still and alert all‐around, it didn’t matter whether you were in the first or the fourteenth jhana, for the way you treated your state of concentration was always the same.

    By knowing how the varying amount of sugar could improve or reduce caffeine's ability in inducing mental alertness, consumers in general can then make more informed decisions to determine the ideal amount of sugar that should be added in consumption with caffeine to help them stay alert and focused.

    By directing your attention to issues of stress and its absence, he was pointing you to terms by which to evaluate your state of mind for yourself, without having to ask any outside authority. And, as it turns out, the terms you can evaluate for yourself — stress, its cause, its cessation, and the path to its cessation—are the issues that define the four noble truths: the right view that the Buddha says can lead to total liberation.

    ♥♥♥

    37.871593 -122.272747
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    “As long as you don’t like it, you’re safe. Some people really like it and think it’s nibbana or cessation.

    Actually, it’s the state of non‐perception (asaññi‐bhava). It’s not even right concentration, because there’s no way you can investigate anything in there to gain any sort of discernment.
    We used the paired t test to determine if there was significant difference between the results for both genders.

    But it does have other uses.” He then told me of the time he had undergone kidney surgery and, not trusting the anesthesiologist, had put himself in that state for the duration of the operation.

    In both these states of wrong concentration, the limited range of awareness was what made them wrong. If whole areas of your awareness are blocked off, how can you gain all‐around insight? And as I’ve noticed in years since, people adept at blotting out large areas of awareness through powerful one‐pointedness also tend to be psychologically adept at dissociation and denial.

    Vigilance is an important trait for animals in order to watch out for predators. Typically a reduction in alertness is observed for animals that live in larger groups. Studies on vigilance have been conducted on various animals including the scaly-breasted munia.

    And also this, which has always seemed like the right focus of meditation to me:

    “By directing your attention to issues of stress and its absence, he was pointing you to terms by which to evaluate your state of mind for yourself, without having to ask any outside authority. And, as it turns out, the terms you can evaluate for yourself — stress, its cause, its cessation, and the path to its cessation—are the issues that define the four noble truths: the right view that the Buddha says can lead to total liberation.”

    Thank you for sharing this wonderful article.

    Metta,
    Duff

  • Not trying to be cute. But “no deep. No shallow” the conundrum of awareness seems to.me to be that when you try to get you don’t. ( grasping ) not that my concentration is all that good.

    • Hey brother Ed! Yes! “No deep, no shallow” is exactly it, like the Buddha’s simile about tuning the strings of a musical instrument — too tight, it snaps and breaks, too loose, it’s out of tune. We have to listen and experiment.

    As the article said:

    ““Back in those days you didn’t have books explaining everything the way we do now. When I first studied with Ajaan Lee, he told me to bring my mind down. So I focused on getting it down, down, down, but the more I brought it down, the heavily and duller it got. I thought, ‘This can’t be right.’ So I turned around and focused on bringing it up, up, up, until I found a balance and could figure out what he was talking about.” This incident was one of many that taught him some important lessons: that you have to test things for yourself, to see where the instructions had to be taken literally and where they had to be taken figuratively; that you had to judge for yourself how well you were doing; and that you had to be ingenious, experimenting and taking risks to find to ways to deal with problems as they arose.”

    Always great to hear from you. I have to get caught up on some very nice comments on my blog, including some older ones by you. Hope all is going well.

    Steve

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