Stage 3: Objectives of Meditation and Forgetting


In stage 2, we learned to reduce the gap between the mind and scattering attention, now in Stage 3, we are finally starting to control the mind with the rope of mindfulness. A rabbit also appears in the picture, and this indicates dullness that naturally comes in when you meditate for extended periods. After working on the hindrances and the distractions, the mind starts to become calm and this is when a depressive episode can arise. It is important to balance the meditation practice with exercise or some sort of uplifting event to balance the brain activity. 

The last stage was mainly focused on mind wandering and doing our best to follow our breath and catch ourselves before we get into the loop of thoughts. Now, we will explore a more subtle error that occurs during meditation: forgetting. Oftentimes, we are good at catching ourselves when our mind drifts away from our meditation object, but this only happens after forgetting. The period of forgetting occurs before mind wandering, but it is hardly noticed. If we can work on noticing the forgetting, then not only can we catch ourselves more quickly, but we will have a lesser number of mind wandering periods. Before we discuss how to overcome forgetting our meditation object, we need to discuss the objectives of meditation. 

Objectives of Meditation

We have been talking a lot about focusing on the meditation object and trying our best to remain in the present moment, but what we are doing is maintaining stable attention. Intentionally directing our attention to the object of meditation trains our minds to reduce the scope of attention. It is almost like you are blanking out everything in your vision except what is right in front of you. As you start to intentionally focus your attention and maintain it on the meditation object such as your breath, your mind tends to have various spontaneous movements. These are not broad categories of hindrances such as desire or aversion, but rather mechanisms in which the attention alters during meditation. Noting down when these mechanisms are occurring helps you understand your mental landscape and the cognitive tools your mind is using. This understanding is often known as metacognitive introspective awareness, which is focusing the mind on itself, thinking about thoughts, and paying attention to the agent of attention. 

The first kind of disturbance in attention is when the mind scans from one object to another in search of something interesting. And when the mind does find something interesting, it forgets the meditation object and clings to that interesting thing. The mind does this very spontaneously, so instead of judging yourself, just note when this happens and redirect back to the breath. Another type of disturbance is getting captured by some external or internal stimuli. Unlike scanning, which is a volitional activity of the mind, getting captured is more receptive. This happens when the mind reacts to internal or external stimuli and in turn, loses its concentration on the breath. Again, just note when this happens and try to figure out whether your mind was scanning or getting captured. This analysis helps train the cognitive tools to become confident in their ability to find the distractor and eliminate it. Finally, the third type of spontaneous mind movement is alternating attention, which is when you alternate your attention on various thoughts, but thinks that you are flowing through them continuously. I have personally experienced this and it is quite vivid to take a step back and realize how spontaneous the thoughts occur in the mind. A mind is an incredible machine that rapidly fires various thoughts to the surface of consciousness and as we get better at introspective awareness, we start to see these thoughts clearly without entangling in them. Multitasking is an example of alternating attention. Your mind thinks it is focused on one thing, but it is distributing its mental effort on two activities very rapidly. Even when you are doing one activity, the mind is getting prepared to do the other, and so forth. If you can observe this as a third person and have introspective awareness of these various types of spontaneous actions of the mind, that is a sign that you are improving your awareness skills. This will then help later on with the unification of mind and also with reducing dullness. 

Mindfulness is different from meditation, and this can get complicated. Mindfulness is the optimal interaction between attention and peripheral awareness. Meditation is more focused on the mediation object, while mindfulness is more centered on that whole concept of introspective awareness. So as you are paying attention to the breath, try to be aware of the fact you are paying attention to the breath and the fact that your mind is spontaneously changing. This can be difficult but the goal is to create this optimal connection between your attention on the breath and the awareness of your mind. Peripheral awareness refers to anything outside the brain, such as tactile information, muscle sensation, or external sounds. Later in Stage 5, you will learn the difference between internal and external introspective awareness, but for now, just try to improve this awareness of how the mind is changing spontaneously and when you are redirecting it back to the breath. The image below is a good summary of the difference between awareness and attention and how their optimal relation leads to clear mindfulness. The two objectives of each meditation practice are to develop strong attention of the breath and to be aware of incoming information in the body and mind. 


Mind-wandering is the aftermath of forgetting, so if we work on forgetting, we will naturally reduce our mind wandering periods and have a better chance of a successful meditation session. In reality, there is no such thing as a successful session because anytime you meditate, you are improving ever so significantly. But in general, a successful session is one where there are little to no periods of mind wandering, and there is strong introspective awareness. This is what we need to accomplish by the end of this stage, but there is no need to rush. Take your time and work through the material gradually. You will start to realize the profound changes that occur outside your meditation as you will be more aware of your thoughts, feeling, and sensations. This new powerful ability to be aware of things going on will give you intrinsic confidence and joy.  

Forgetting happens mainly due to scattered attention, which is similar to the alternating activity of the mind that is discussed above. Alternating attention leads to scattered attention causing our mind to have background sensation even while we are trying our best to focus on the meditation object. There are two types of distractions: gross and subtle. Gross distractions easily lead to forgetting our objectives of meditation, while subtle distractions stay in the background and hinder our ability to unify our thoughts. As with everything else, let the processes occur by themselves without judging yourself. When they occur, take a mental note of them occurring and be aware of how they manifest themselves. Obviously, in the earlier stages, you won't know when you forget your objectives and get distracted so there are particular techniques to help improve your attention and reduce forgetting. 

 We mentioned following the breath in the last stage, and that is useful in this stage as well. Being aware of each inhalation and exhalation and noting the breath's quality can avoid the mind to scan for other distractors. The other technique is connecting with the breath. This is where you compare the course of breathing and note down any differences you see in two breaths. You also note the feeling that arises in the mind and the way the body feels in response to various breathing patterns. A similar mechanism is used in therapies with biofeedback. Here the individual starts to learn how their body is responding to the various thoughts they are having, and upon volitional control, they start to learn how to enjoy their moments of relief and shift from their moments of stress. Another technique that can be used is labeling. The aha moment that was discussed in Stage 2 is an excellent way to work on mind wandering, but we need something more subtle and quick to work on forgetting. Introspective awareness can help us reduce forgetting, but it is very receptive. So instead of waiting for something to come up, and then using awareness, we use a method called Checking In. The meditator checks in with their mind periodically. This strengthens introspective awareness because each time you check in, the process leads to better results. In this way, each checking-in session improves your introspective awareness (metacognitive), and finally when this reaches a threshold, forgetting stops occurring. The goal of this stage is to develop a strong introspective awareness that helps reduce our forgetting. 


With enough practice, you start to encounter a strong urge to fall asleep or lay down because of how tranquil the mind has become. Our introspective awareness has made it so that any thought or sensation that arises is quickly observed and deemed as neither positive nor negative. In other words, we have learned physiological and psychological safety and the mind no longer requires stress or effort for anything. In this state, the natural response is to sleep, as there is no brain activity, no cognitive effort involved. But sleeping can only disrupt our meditation, so we need to work on it right away. 

There are a couple of ways to work on this, and the best way is to do a walking meditation. Getting your body moving not only improves blood circulation and body alertness but also keeps your mind from being too relaxed. Other methods include taking breathing out quickly with your mouth as if you were panting. Progressive muscle relaxation can help as well, but it is inconsistent as it can lead to drowsiness. It is basically where you build up tension in muscles and then relax slowly. This is often used in sleeping disorders but can be experimented with while meditating. Finally, if nothing works, try splashing some water or coming back to practice at another time. Our goal is not to fall asleep, but to train our awareness and attention so that we reach higher states of consciousness. With enough practice, we will get to a state where the mind will be as clear as the blue sky, and that is when we will be able to attain the highest wisdom about ourselves and the universe. The end goal sounds skeptical only because our path is just getting started. 

So in summary, this stage is geared towards improving our introspective awareness to reduce forgetting. Techniques such as following the breath, checking in and labeling can help improve our awareness. When dullness arises, it is best to move the body or come back to meditation at a later point. You have mastered this stage when you are consistently able to sustain attention on the meditation object without having too much dullness. This is the first milestone achievement of the entire path, so Congratulations! If you have practiced this far, there is no returning now. The profound changes in your life you experience because of your practice will only make you more interested in meditation and keep bringing you back to the mat to unfold more of your inner landscape.