Overview of Meditation Stages


Introduction and Material

Welcome to the introduction to this series of posts on Stages of Meditation. In this post, we will discuss experiential learning, the road map, goals, and milestones of meditation as well as how to practice meditation off the mat. Meditation is a buzzing word today that not a lot of people understand. They think it is meant to be therapeutic and relaxing, And although that is true, and it does have many scientific benefits, the goal of meditation is to cultivate a deep sense of awareness in our daily life. Often we are consumed by our internal conflicts and mental conditioning, thus we act out of habitual patterns. These patterns are often flawed or lead to our affliction. Through the practice of meditation, we develop a mind that is clear and concise: it is not regulated by our previous conditioning, rather it is governed by the present moment's authenticity and satisfaction. 

I have greatly discussed the rationality behind meditation in previous blogs, so I will not say much about it here. The bottom line is that meditation leads to a higher mind, and higher happiness, both of which are extremely useful in our exotic and busy work schedules. The book, I will be using to describe these stages of meditation is called, Mind Illuminated by John Yates Ph.D. John Yates is a long-time neuroscientist and a cognitive psychologist, who has practiced Buddhist meditation very extensively. His road map of meditation is derived from various models presented in Buddhism. He states that meditation is a science of the mind, and the Buddha's only goal was to teach this science to people so they could better live their lives. In other words, we can say we are dealing with Buddhist Psychology here, and meditation is the ultimate prescription for all suffering in our life. I highly recommend purchasing this book, because it has a very detailed explanation of each step of meditation. Yates states that it is important that we have a concise and clear view of the path of meditation because this allows you to analyze your progress and improve based on the antidotes and anecdotal experience. 

Experiential Learning

Alongside these stages, and the book, it is always important to be open to personal experience. Many people don't follow dogmatic beliefs or specific spiritual practices to achieve a meditative mind. Instead, they sit down, shut up and meditate. This is often the Zen practice of meditation, where we are told to observe our breath and be introspective about what comes and goes. The practice leads to equanimity because you see the past and the future clearly, but are not shaken by them. Rather you focus on the present and experience each moment with gratitude. Alongside your meditation practice, you must apply this experiential learning concept to your daily life. Regardless of what doubts you may have, if you truly experience a phenomenon, then it is worthwhile to analyze it and understand what it is that you experienced. This is why we cannot say emotions are invalid or that our conditioning is somehow doomed to make us suffer. Instead, we can say all that experience, whether it be painful or pleasurable, is bound to transform us into a better person if we remain silent and nonjudgmental. Each experience has the potential to Awaken us, so it is important to value each moment and try our best to experience it instead of judging it in a way. 

Goals of Meditation

So why do meditation? Meditation leads to Awakening, but that can take years and years of practice. What can people who have doubts or are impatient about the practice do to train their minds to be more resilient and patient? This concept of Awakening, though, real in a way, is also just a misconception. There is no goal of meditation. Awakening is a natural process that happens as you meditate for elongated periods, but it isn't caused by meditation. It simply arises and the person experiences ultimate bliss. So if you hold this view of always trying to judge your practice and become conscious of self-progress, you lose the whole point of meditation. The entire process of meditation itself is rewarding, and each step gives us different abilities to improve our relationships as well as our daily life. So rather than fixating on a goal, it is important to embrace the journey and be open to the various good and bad experiences that come your way. Once you can remain steady and equanimous in all situations like when you are meditating on the mat, then you can claim to master the art of being still, the art of meditation. In short, meditation is a process that has no beginning or end. It is simply a practice that we follow to deeply reflect on ourselves and remain steady regardless of our environmental circumstances. But this is often not what people want to hear; they want to know the benefits, and to them, I would say meditating for 20 minutes every day will cure you of all mental and physical ailments and increase your motivation, attention span, and emotion regulation. If these are convincing benefits, I encourage you to continue meditating and see what else you can get out of the practice. Chances are you will find something even more enchanting, even more alluring, yet peaceful in the practice.  

When it comes to the actual practice, one may ask how am I supposed to remain steady when all the thoughts and feelings cram into my mind and make me uncomfortable. The two main factors that improve your meditation concentration are Sati and Samadhi. Sati is mindfulness of whatever comes to mind, and Samadhi is the tranquility that arises from detachment and concentration. Sati and Samadhi can be considered the 'goals' of meditation because that is what you are working on daily. You are habituating your mind to be free of attachment when a thought or feeling arises and then redirecting your mind back to the breath. The practice can be further divided into peripheral awareness and introspective attention. Mindfulness increases when there is a proper balance between awareness and attention. For example, you are aware of the sounds going on outside the room, and even the wind blowing on trees, but your attention is still on your breath. This combination of introspective attention and peripheral awareness leads to better deconditioning of the mind's tendency to attach and hold on. In other words, you give your mind a job of observing the surroundings but coming back to the breath, and this job hinders the mind's ability to get caught in the thoughts and feelings. When Sati and Samadhi work in tandem, there arises Samatha and Vipassana. Samatha is pure tranquility and equanimity. It is the result of the Noble Eightfold Path. This equanimity, alongside Vipassana, which is Insight into the true nature of existence, naturally and subtly leads to Awakening. Insight about existence is different from Awakening as insight is some sort of wisdom, while Awakening is a modality that allows you to live each moment with a whole different perspective. Wisdom is the more abstract knowledge, while Awakening is the aftermath of wisdom that is present in behavior. 

Stages of Meditation

"Taking shortcuts just creates problems and ultimately prolongs the process- so they're not shortcuts" (Mind Illuminated, John Yates). Having a structured way of meditation is useful because it avoids you from taking shortcuts. You are given exactly what you need to do and how to do it, now you just simply do it. Of course, it isn't as easy as that, but the point is finding shortcuts to happiness or even tranquility does not yield anything. Religions that claim to cleanse all sins and give merit to people who get converted or visit a particular place are only spreading propaganda. Real cleansing of the mind requires practice and dedication. And no wonder, the first stage of meditation deals with motivation. Without a clear motivation, you cannot practice diligently, hence the first step is to improve conscious intention and develop a strong motivation to follow the path of meditation. Note that it is also important to practice on the mat and off the mat. Postural meditations are practices where an individual notices what posture he is in and what his body is doing at any given moment of the day. So this sort of mindfulness can help you improve your concentration on the mat. In general, off mat mindfulness in daily life directly improves mat concentration and awareness. 

There are ten stages of meditation, according to John Yates, and each stage has goals, obstacles, skills, and mastery points. These help you find the stage you are at and then figure out how you can move forward. I will briefly explain the milestones after each stage. Information is from our source material. 

Stage 1: Establishment of Practice

Stage 2: Hinderances and Mind Wandering

Stage 3: Objectives of Meditation and Forgetting

Stage Four: Mindfulness and Gross Distractions. 

Stage Five: Overcoming Subtle Dullness and Increasing Mindfulness

Stage Six: Subduing Subtle Distractions

Stage Seven: Exclusive Attention and Unifying the Mind

Stage Eight: Mental Pliancy and pacifying the Senses

Stage Nine: Mental Pliancy and Calming the intensity of meditative joy

Stage Ten: Tranquility and Equanimity

These milestones are vague but they show a good picture of the progress you make. In general, you start with working on mind wandering, then go on to overcoming forgetting, and then work on gross and subtle distractions. When mind wandering, forgetting and distractions are all clear, you start to unify the mind and it becomes extremely energetic, so you work on calming the energy and finally reach tranquility and equanimity. That is the basic agenda of the meditation practice. And sometimes, it is important to go to retreat centers or take days off simply for the sake of this practice. Though this comes later in the stage, it is recommended to visit retreat centers at least once in 3 months. This will allow you to test your daily practice as well as improve it in the retreat session. 

Conscious Intentions

With this said, it is time to get started with the first stage, and that is establishing the practice and making sitting meditation a routine. This requires intrinsic motivation, which is fueled by the right view and right intentions. Intrinsic motivation deals with doing something not because you get a reward for it or because there is an external consequence. Rather, it is doing something for the sake of personal satisfaction. So stage one is all about improving motivation and training the mind to slowly accept this new form of motivation through a routine of meditation. We must always have conscious intentions to improve ourselves and reach the end of the stage we are working on. Conscious intention means having patience, and dedication regardless of whether you see immediate benefits or not. The right view suggests all things arise and fall according to their nature, thus I will view the world with a balanced attitude. The right intention suggests I will do my best to clean my mind from the three poisons of the world: greed hatred, and delusion. With the right view, and the right intention, meditation becomes a practice devoid of force. Instead, it leads to personal purity and happiness. 

Road Map for the Meditation Steps

* Don't worry about the details of each step at the moment. This visual is just a summary of the entire process. We will analyze the entire metaphor as we go along in each stage. 

Gratitude toward the Teacher

I sincerely present my gratitude to the Buddha, who taught the path of virtue, compassion, meditation, and wisdom in a simple, yet profound way. I also present gratitude to John Yates, who has been an unorthodox teacher for me through his book, Mind Illuminated. With the guidance of the Buddha and my teacher, I hope to share this wisdom with all that seek freedom from their suffering. May all be at peace.