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I started to read Mastering the Core Teachings of the Buddha (the PDF, version 3).

Before page 22, there's some text which says that (I paraphrase) sensations are fleeting and that consciousness-of-sensation is consciousness just of the echo of an already-previous sensation.

Then, on page 22, there's is a description of an exercise, which I quote below.

He introduces it as being "useful for jump-starting and developing insight into impermanence"; later, says that this same exercise promotes concentration and stability; and finally says that it was the only technique he used for five years.

Can you tell me more about this?

Is it some hybrid/mixture of insight and concentration?

Is it at unusual exercise? It seems to take 'two-pointed concentration' as its object, which I haven't ever read about before.

Are you aware of any specific advantages or disadvantages of this technique (or, whether and when it ought to be recommended or not recommended)?

Is there something it does well, too well, not well enough, not at all?

In one of these exercises, I sit quietly in a quiet place, close my eyes, put one hand on each knee, and concentrate just on my two index fingers. Basic dharma theory tells me that it is definitely not possible to perceive both fingers simultaneously, so with this knowledge I try to see in each instant which one of the two finger’s physical sensations are being perceived. Once the mind has speeded up a bit and yet become more stable, I try to perceive the arising and passing of each of these sensations. I may do this for half an hour or an hour, just staying with the sensations in my two fingers and perceiving when each sensation is and isn’t there. This might sound like a lot of work, and it definitely can be until the mind settles into it. It really requires the concentration of a fast sport like table tennis. This is such an engaging exercise and requires such precision that it is easy not to be lost in thought if I am really applying myself. I have found this to be a very useful practice for developing concentration and debunking the illusion of continuity. You can pick any two aspects of your experience for this exercise, be they physical or mental. I generally use my fingers only because through experimentation I have found that it is easy for me to perceive the sensations that make them up.

In another related exercise, I do the same sort of thing, sitting quietly in a quiet place with my eyes closed, but instead I concentrate on the sensations of the front and back of my head. With the knowledge that the illusion of a separate perceiver is partially supported by one impermanent sensation incorrectly seeming to perceive another impermanent sensation which it follows, such as the sensations in the back of the head incorrectly seeming to perceive the sensations of the front of the head which they follow, I try to be really clear about these sensations and when they are and aren’t there. I try to be clear if the sensations in the head are from the front or the back of the head in each instant, and then try to experience clearly the beginning and ending of each individual sensation.

This practice also requires a table tennis-like precision. Half an hour to an hour of this can be quite a workout until the mind speeds up and becomes more stable, but this sort of effort pays off. When I am engaged with this practice, there is little room to be lost in thought. I have also found this a very useful practice for developing concentration and debunking the illusion of continuity and the illusion of a separate self (more on that later).

The section ends with (one page 25),

For five years of my practice I was basically a One Technique Freak, and that technique was noticing how sensations flicker. I would do it as often as I could, i.e. basically whenever I didn’t have to be doing something that required concentration on the specifics of my life. I would be riding an elevator, just trying to see when I could feel each foot, or lying down to sleep and noticing how many times I could experience the sensations of my breath in each second. I also tried to notice this aspect of things for every single sensation that occurred during my formal practice. I used lots of objects, usually those that were presenting strongly at that time, and would use some variations on the above techniques as well as some others that I will mention shortly to keep me from getting stuck, but the aspect of my world that I tried to notice, things flickering, was always the same. I found that by making this sort of commitment to understanding one of the most basic assumptions of insight practices I was able to make fast progress and gain the ultimate insights I was looking for.


Earlier (e.g. on page 20 and 21) it was talking about becoming aware of some number of sensations per second ("maybe up to forty times per second") which he calls "vibrations", and combines with a breath meditation,

[...] It is also useful to check out exactly what happens at the bottom, middle, and top of the breath if you are using the breath as an object, and to examine if the frequency stays stable or changes in each phase of the breath. Never assume that what you have understood is the final answer! Be alert! Explore carefully and precisely with openness and acceptance! This is the door to understanding.

One last thing about vibrations: looking into vibrations can be a lot like any other sport. It can be thought of the way we might think of surfing or playing tennis, and this sort of game-like attitude can actually help a lot. We're “out to bust some vibrations!” as a friend of mine enthusiastically put it. [...]

I searched this site for the word "vibrations" thinking someone might have written something from this perspective already (if this were a well-known technique or "basic dharma theory"), but no, I don't see this mentioned in any previous topic.

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My take on what Daniel is trying to describe here is a deepening appreciation of the granularity of perception. The use of the word 'vibrations' in this context is a bit unorthodox hence your search coming up short. In some of Burmese Vipassana traditions, emphasis is placed on the experiencing of arising and passing of phenomena at very subtle levels. In this context this is a powerful insight practice into impermanence at a fundamental level - arising and (complete) cessation. Ajahn Brahm mentions this in Mindfulness, Bliss and Beyond (p. 203):

One now realizes that just as the stream of consciousness is granular, so is that component of the stream that is the citta. As noted earlier, sand on a beach appears continuous. Looking closely, however, one sees that the beach consists of tiny grains of silica. Looking even closer, one can see spaces between each grain, so that they aren’t even touching. The citta has this same granular quality. Instead of appearing as a continuous entity, it is now clearly recognized as made up of series of individual “knowings,” cittas or mind events, packed closely together and related to their neighbors by cause and effect. One can even discern that there is a gap between the mind events, between each knowing, where the citta has completely vanished from existence for a while.

Awareness of the granular nature of reality is not immediately obvious and Daniel's practice of the two-finger technique cleverly serves to concentrate the mind to notice at increasing frequency the arising of the perception one finger and then the other. Mahasi Sayadaw's noting technique has the same effect but is more open ended.

Is it at unusual exercise? It seems to take 'two-pointed concentration' as its object, which I haven't ever read about before.

I think this is an unusual practice. I certainly haven't seen reference to it anywhere else.

Is it some hybrid/mixture of insight and concentration?

This is Kanika Samadhi - moment-to-moment concentration.

Are you aware of any specific advantages or disadvantages of this technique (or, whether and when it ought to be recommended or not recommended)?

Like noting, I find the technique very useful in developing Kanika which in turn is essential for insight practice.

As a side note:- having been on a Goenka retreat myself, the use of the word 'vibrations' in a Goenka context is different. Goenka actively discourages noting as a technique. According to Goenka, noting increases our separation from raw sensate experience. From what I could glean from the Goenka discourses, what we experience at subtler and subtler levels beyond the gross bodily sensations are Kalapas (he actually uses this term and sticks to the Visuddhimagga doctrine that they extremely fast vibrations - billions of time per sec - of subtle reality). Our experience of these sensations at a body level has a vibratory quality to it.

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He introduces it as being "useful for jump-starting and developing insight into impermanence"; later, says that this same exercise promotes concentration and stability; and finally says that it was the only technique he used for five years.

Can you tell me more about this?

It promotes concentration since it narrows the focus of the mind during the meditation practice -- it's not a single meditation object but the focus is still narrow. By resting the mind on specific experiences and making it the main interest of the mind it also helps weaken the hindrances, thus it promotes the stability.

Is it some hybrid/mixture of insight and concentration?

Yes. His main practice is insight, but because his focus is sufficiently narrow and on subtle experiences, his concentration also develops.

Is it at unusual exercise? It seems to take 'two-pointed concentration' as its object, which I haven't ever read about before.

I don't think it's unusual (in the sense of "unorthodox"). I think it's a sound experiment and exercise. Maybe having two fingers as his domain of interest is not too open ended (allowing him to develop enough concentration and use some degree of sharp penetration) but also not too narrow as to lose interest easily and sleep, e.g. by having sufficient/enough things going on to observe (and he says he finds this to be an engaging exercise). Maybe it also gives some base for contrasting experiences, helping to perceive the minutia of viññāṇa workings.

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This seems to me to just be the Goenka method of Vipassana restricted down even further in terms of where you direct your awareness. So in essence, a partial Satipatthana practice? He states you can do this with any physical or mental aspects, although I'm not sure how you would manage juggling mental objects like this. Perhaps this is just beyond my capacity.

Are you aware of any specific advantages or disadvantages of this technique (or, whether and when it ought to be recommended or not recommended)?

Having started my meditation "career" with a Goenka retreat, in my opinion at least, restricting awareness down like this can be helpful for a beginner, as you aren't bombarded all at once with having to be mindful of EVERYTHING that can arise. But it can also leave you unprepared for having to be mindful of really powerful emotional/mental stuff that WILL eventually make its way to the surface.

Is it some hybrid/mixture of insight and concentration?

It definitely does boost both faculties really well, in my experience.

  • Thank you for the reply. I don't know "the Goenka method" but your telling me a keyword like that will help me search for more. – ChrisW Aug 8 '15 at 21:24
  • I don't know what you mean by a "a partial Satipatthana practice"? When I read the Maha-satipatthana Sutta and The Satipatthana Sutta and Its Commentary, I thought it didn't seem to mention: single-pointed nor multi-pointed awareness; nor sensation having faded before consciousness arises; nor several-times-per-second phenomena; nor even a "hybrid" of impermanence and concentration. So are you using another, different definition of "Satipatthana"? – ChrisW Aug 8 '15 at 21:28
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    "partial Satipatthana" in that his practice isn't holistic of all the foundations of mindfulness, he is restricting it to just body and feelings, which is the same that the Goenka tradition does. This makes it more user-friendly for beginners as it's less to wrap your head around all at once. – Ryan Aug 9 '15 at 0:18
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    heres a description of the Goenka method aka "body scanning" : zendog.ca/index.php?page=vipassana-meditation – Ryan Aug 9 '15 at 0:30

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