Meditation is not easy. Quieting the mind in today’s day and age can be a difficult task.
You can compare meditation to learning to walk. You will learn to crawl, then stumble over and over as you start to get up.
In time, walking will become easier, and soon you will be able to run! Improving your meditation practice progresses in a similar way.
What stages of meditation will you go through?
- Start and maintain a practice
- Overcome distraction and mind-wandering
- Prolong attention and stay awake
- Overcome gross distraction and monotony
- Increase mindfulness
- Pacify subtle distractions
- Continuous attention and unify the mind
- Calm down your senses
- Moderate intensity of meditative joy
- Be tranquil and maintain composure
You may feel a little overwhelmed now, but don’t worry. Your meditative abilities build on each other; all you need to do is practice patiently and diligently.
Don’t put too much pressure on yourself. Keep in mind that you have to learn to walk before you can run.
The Ten Stages of Meditation
Below is a breakdown of each of the stages – the characteristics, goals, challenges, and techniques to master it.
These stages are divided into four parts:
- Beginner: Stages one to three
- Skilled: Stages four to six
- Transition: Stage seven
- Expert: Stages eight to ten
Stage One: Start and maintain the practice
You may think that this stage is going to be a piece of cake. Well, developing a new pattern of behavior is not easy. And, even if you have the best intentions of setting out time for meditation, life happens and can break your stride.
That being said, in this stage, it is recommended that you set a clear daily schedule for your meditation.
You should try to stick to it unless, of course, circumstances beyond your control get in the way.
In the beginning, you may convince yourself that the smallest of things count as ‘circumstances beyond your control.’
Break the habit of self-sabotage and replace it with regular mindfulness practice. Make sure you are passionate about the time you allocated for mediation. You don’t want to end up just sitting there daydreaming.
- Goal: Get consistent in your practice.
- Obstacles: Impatience, procrastination, no motivation, boredom, resistance
- Skills needed: Create a routine, set goals, stay motivated, cultivate discipline
- Mastery: Practice daily without skipping a session.
Stage Two: Overcome distraction and mind-wandering
Once you have mastered maintaining daily practice sessions, you can start to put extra focus on keeping your attention on your breath. It is a difficult task to overcome distractions and keep your mind from wandering.
When your mind is untrained (as it is at this stage), it will produce distractions that will lead to forgetting.
This, in turn, leads to mind-wandering where your mind gets flooded with various thoughts. This is why overcoming forgetting is a key skill to master.
The more you try to quiet your mind and get attention back, the louder it will become. You will be distracted from focusing on the meditation object (your breath).
This loud chatter will most likely continue for the duration of the session – it doesn’t matter if it is 20 minutes or two hours.
During this stage, you must realize mind-wandering is normal. To overcome distractions during your meditation, perseverance is vital. Patience and determination will move you to the next stage.
- Goals: Extend the time of sustained attention and shorten periods of mind-wandering.
- Obstacles: Mind-wandering and impatience.
- Skills needed: Learning to maintain attention. Become aware of the moment when you realize what you want to do (focus on your breath) is not what you’re doing.
Instead, your mind is thinking about something else. Appreciate this awareness because it will happen with more ease as you continue to meditate, and mind-wandering will get shorter.
- Mastery: You can keep your focus on the meditation object for a few minutes, and your mind wanders for only a few seconds.
Stage Three: Prolong attention and stay awake
As you enter this stage, the frequency of your thoughts will start to decrease. You will occasionally experience a mind free from thoughts.
It is during this quiet time that it will be possible for you to examine your mind instead of drowning in its noise.
These moments will be fleeting during this stage, but as you progress, it will become longer and longer.
One of the biggest obstacles you will face during stage three is boredom, and with boredom comes sleepiness. Your goal during this stage is to intensify your attention and to minimize forgetting. This will ensure that you don’t fall asleep.
- Goals: Don’t fall asleep. Overcome forgetting.
- Obstacles: Mind-wandering, forgetting, and sleepiness.
- Skills: Use concentration techniques to extend periods of uninterrupted attention on the meditation object.
Be aware of how forgetting happens and check-in with yourself to catch distractions before they give rise to forgetting and falling asleep.
- Mastery: Forgetting the breath happens less frequently, and you are not falling asleep during practice.
You can see that Stages Two and Three are very similar, but mind-wandering happens less frequently between the two.
Milestone One: Unremitting attention to the meditation object
You achieve this milestone at the end of stage three. Before achieving this milestone, you were a beginner, but now you are well on your way to becoming skilled.
You have developed the foundation abilities of stable attention and overcoming forgetting. You can do something that the average person on the street won’t be able to do.
Stage Four: Overcome gross distraction and monotony
Although you can stay focused on the meditation object for longer periods of time, your mind still wanders.
When your mind loses focus, the distraction becomes its primary focus. This means meditation gets driven to the background. We call this gross distraction.
On the other hand, when the mind is calm, it can lead to strong dullness.
During this stage, you should cultivate continuous introspective awareness that will alert you if you’re experiencing either.
- Goal: Defeat gross distraction and strong dullness.
- Obstacles: Distraction, pain, and discomfort, emotionally-charged visions and memories, intellectual insights.
- Skills: Make corrections before distractions become gross distractions, and before subtle dullness turns into strong dullness. Learn to work through the pain. Cleanse your mind from past trauma.
- Mastery: Gross distractions don’t continue long enough to push your breath into the background. Similarly, your breath doesn’t fade or distort due to strong dullness.
Stage Five: Increase mindfulness
After overcoming gross distractions and strong dullness, your mind will still slip into stable subtle dullness. When this happens, the breath sensation is less intense. This will cause your awareness to fade.
If you’re not able to recognize subtle dullness, you will most likely overestimate your abilities and move on to the next stage before you are ready.
If this happens, you will experience only a fraction of the later stages. To overcome subtle dullness, the goal is to sharpen your introspective awareness.
- Goal: Increase the power of mindfulness by overcoming subtle dullness.
- Obstacles: It is difficult to recognize subtle dullness as it creates an illusion of stable attention. It is also seductively pleasant.
- Skills: Nurture an even stronger introspective awareness to detect and correct subtle dullness.
- Mastery: Sustaining (or increasing) the power of your mindfulness.
Stage Six: Pacify subtle distractions
Your focus on your breath is fairly stable, but your mind still jumps from the meditation object to subtle distractions.
During stage six, your goal is to take your aptitude of attention to the next level. Subtle distractions fall away completely, and your attention will be single-pointed.
- Goal: Subdue the subtle distractions completely and advance awareness to a metacognitive level.
- Obstacles: Propensity of the mind to alternate to distracting thoughts and mental objects.
- Skills: Ignoring everything outside your set scope of attention until subtle distractions fade away.
Refine your selective awareness of the mind (metacognitive introspective awareness). Experience your whole body with each breath to further pacify distractions.
- Mastery: Subtle distractions have waned away almost completely. You can maintain exclusive attention and experience vivid mindfulness.
Milestone Two: Sustain Exclusive Attention
Mastering stages four to six becomes apparent when your attention doesn’t move between your focus on your breath to distractions. You are capable of focusing on the meditation object and exclude everything else.
Dullness has gone, and you are aware of the condition of your mind throughout your session.
After completing this milestone, you have achieved two major objectives of your training, namely, stable attention and powerful mindfulness. You can now call yourself a skilled meditator.
Stage Seven: Continuous attention and unify the mind
You are capable of investigating any object with a broad or narrow focus. It is, however, still important that you remain watchful and continue to ward off subtle distractions and subtle dullness.
Through diligent practice, continuous attention will become effortless. Practice will help you past any boredom and doubt that will occur during this stage.
- Goal: Sustain exclusive attention and powerful mindfulness without effort.
- Obstacles: Without exerting effort, distractions and dullness will return. When exclusive attention and mindfulness becomes automatic, you will no longer need to apply effort.
Boredom, restlessness, and doubt will also appear, and your body will make bizarre movements during this stage.
- Mastery: You can meditate without effort and still maintain a stable and clear mind.
Milestone Three: Effortless Stability of Attention
A state of mental pliancy categorizes this milestone. It is marked by complete pacification of a busy mind.
Sections of your mind are no longer preoccupied with other things but come together around a single purpose.
This unification means the mind is not struggling against itself but functions as a more harmonious whole. At this point in your journey, you are an adept meditator.
Stage Eight: Calm down your senses
With the mental pliancy you achieved in the previous stage, you sustain exclusive attention with little effort. Physical pain and discomfit, however, are limiting your ability to meditate for prolonged periods of time.
The involuntary movements that started in stage seven may intensify. You must continue unification of the mind and focus on the pacification of senses.
This will lead to physical pliancy, and any bizarre movements or sensations will disappear.
- Goal: Pacify the senses and experience, resulting in meditative joy.
- Obstacles: Don’t get distracted by extraordinary experiences. This can be anything from involuntary movements, unpleasant sensations, strong energy currents, and even intense joy. Let them come and go.
- Mastery: Your eyes perceive only an inner light, leading to your ears only hearing inner sounds. Your body experiences pleasure and comfort, and your mind is experiencing a state of intense joy.
Mental and physical pliancy means you can sit for hours without dullness, distraction, or any physical uneasiness.
Stage Nine: Moderate intensity of meditative joy
Meditative joy is a unique state of mind. With it comes great happiness and physical pleasure.
Through continued practice, you will become familiar with meditative joy. It will fade with continued practice and be replaced with tranquillity and serenity.
- Goal: Meditative joy matures into tranquillity and serenity.
- Obstacles: The intensity of the meditative joy can agitate the mind and become a distraction.
- Mastery: Call to mind mental and physical pliancy, accompanied by tranquillity and equanimity.
Stage Ten: Be tranquil and maintain composure
Stage ten is characterized by effortless attention, mindfulness, joy, and tranquillity.
As you continue the practice, these qualities will linger long after your meditation has ended. In time, they will become your normal state. Once you master stage ten, your mind is unsurpassable.
Milestone Four: Persistence of Metal Qualities of an Expert
The positive mental qualities experienced during meditation will be present even between sessions. Your life is filled with attention, mindfulness, joy, and tranquillity.
Mastering this milestone is the conclusion of the stages of meditation, and you are now an expert.
How These Stages Unfold
It doesn’t matter what kind of meditation practice you prefer, transforming your mind from restless to restful happens in stages.
Each stage comes with its own challenges, techniques, and benefits. Within the ten stages of meditation, you will also find four significant milestones. Achieving these will give a whole new dimension to your practice.
You can regard these stages as a map to guide you through your meditation. It shows you what you’ve already achieved, the best way to continue and well as your final destination. You have to get to destination A to move on to destination B and so on.
In order for you to move on to the next destination, you have to master the skills of the previous stage.
For you to be able to know where to go next, you have to know at what stage you are currently. You can do this by diligently using the techniques given and move on only when you’ve mastered them completely.
Don’t try to skip a stage; taking ‘shortcuts’ just creates problems. It will only prolong your meditation practice. Persistence is the only way to reach your journey fast.
A clear understanding of the ten stages and what to do while going through each will make your meditation more enjoyable. It will also be easier for you to navigate through your meditation practice by using this ‘map.’
Speed of Progress Through Stages
The stages of meditation are linear, but your progress won’t unfold in such a way. For example, if you’re a beginner, you will work on stage one and the second stage simultaneously.
As you progress, you will find yourself moving back and forth between several stages more often. This can happen over weeks, days, or in a single session.
It is also perfectly normal to jump to a more advanced stage during one session but find yourself back at the beginner stage the next.
The secret to moving forward is to continue working at the stage you’re at until you master the obstacles and goals applicable to that stage.
The earlier stages will take longer to master, but since each stage builds on the previous one, you will progress faster as you move along.
That being said, a lot of people will tell you that mastering these stages will take many, many years. Something which is not necessarily true.
If you practice patiently and diligently, it is possible to master these stages in a year or even a few months.
Consistency is key, but even then, there are other factors that help determine how fast you progress.
For example, some people have the natural ability to work with attention and awareness or are disciplined enough to practice regularly.
Life factors and stressful events also play a role. World events will not only affect the practice of beginners but even the most advanced meditator.
With an understanding of each stage of meditation, you will know what mental faculties you need to cultivate to overcome obstacles. Don’t get ahead of yourself but approach these stages in an orderly manner, and you will progress faster.
If you want an even more in-depth breakdown of the ten stages, we recommend The Mind Illuminate: A Complete Meditation Guide Integrating Buddhist Wisdom and Brain Science for Greater Mindfulness by Culadasa, aka John Yates.