Have you ever wondered what regular meditators experience? What happens to people if they go into long retreats to meditate?
As people progress in meditation there is a great deal of similarity in what people experience. This has been mapped out by meditators of the past and verified by hundreds, maybe thousands, of meditators since then.
I was lucky enough to progress a little way along this path in my own 9 month retreat. Like the reassurance of having a map in your car, it is good to know you are on the right track when meditating. The “9 stages of meditation” is a wonderful explanation of what a meditator will experience and is illustrated by the picture “Taming the elephant mind” (see right) which can be found in many Tibetan monasteries around the world.
As we begin meditation we remove our attention from the world around us and turn our mind inside to our thoughts. This may be something that some of us have not done very often. We are surprised to see that it is as busy “in there” as it is on the outside. Thoughts, feelings, memories, fears and more come flashing past, moment by moment. The mind is like a train station at rush hour and we wonder how we are ever going to even start on the task of calming this wild elephant of a mind.
By seeing the chaos of our own mind we gain humility to realise that we are not so “in control” as we thought we were. We sense that this is going to be a difficult task but one that is worthwhile. In addition, we gain a sense of compassion toward ourselves because we wonder how we can function as sanely as we do with such a wild and chaotic mind. The difficulty we have with focussing on our meditation object demonstrates what little power we have over our impulses (like becoming stressed or frustrated). Finally, if we consider that others’ minds are likewise in a state of chaos, we gain a sense of compassion and even forgiveness toward some of their negative actions. What more can you expect from a person who has a mind that is possibly even more chaotic and unruly as our own?
If we make an effort to apply the technique of meditation, then it will not be long before most people will have short periods of relative calm, where for just a moment their mind slows down and stays on the meditation object. We continue to see our mind wander away, and time and again we bring it back to the meditation object. The thing to learn at this stage is that if you get frustrated each time you have to bring the mind back, it will stir up your mind with negative energy that will make it harder to control. So, the task here is to learn how to be content with bringing the mind back, time and again, even though what you want is for the mind to stay still on the object.
We are beginning to learn that it is our own anger and attachment that give negative energy to any situation, making it worse, like pouring petrol on a fire. Sometimes little incidents trigger us and our reaction is out of proportion to the gravity of the incident, showing that we are tapping into other built-up frustrations. We learn to build patience toward our own and other people’s emotional outbursts, seeing them as a sign that they also have a pool of negative energy that causes them more suffering than it does ourselves.
If we have kept our practice going for some weeks or months, it is possible that we may get to a stage where we are able to keep our mind on the meditation object about half of the time. It is less likely that external distractions will pull us away from our meditation object, because we will have learned that the energy of a distraction comes from inside – not outside. Even if someone slams a door, we see the distractions come from the story we make in our head about the slammed door, rather than the noise itself. In fact, the major change at Stage 3 is that we start to give up on the idea that distractions are our enemy and begin to think of them as our friend. This is an indispensable part of becoming calmer. What is calmness if it is not being at peace in the face of something we perceive as negative? And how can your peace be disturbed if you see all things as useful and beneficial?
Like in meditation, our mind is becoming so flexible that we begin to see that whether something is good or bad depends on how you see it. Being ill, losing your job or having to put up with someone you don’t like, might have hidden virtues you have not previously seen; not least of which is that they stimulate you to work on your mind, so it becomes more mature and calm.
By going on retreats and keeping up a regular practice it is possible for people with ordinary lives to reach Stage 4 during some meditations. Here, we are experiencing things at a whole new level. The same distractions come up but we are able to catch them as soon as they begin to arise – whilst they are at the level of thought rather than emotion. So, our reactions are very subtle and quick, as opposed to stewing over a situation for 5 minutes until we are in a furious lather, then trying to bring ourselves down. We also spend a lot of time dealing with subtle dullness (which is a wonderful yet slightly sleepy trance-like state) and subtle excitement (which is a feeling of joy and happiness about our achievements and our fortunate life situation). This excitement is like the opposite of depression, but it is still an obstacle to higher levels of meditation.
Apart from the enormous rejuvenating effect this has on our emotional and physical health, the experience of feeling so wonderful in meditation allows us to realise that happiness comes from within – not from the world around us. And with so much potential happiness, love and wisdom sitting within us, we no longer have to worry about that “empty” feeling that many people in the West feel. We also see the same potential in everyone else, making us rethink our labels of them as a “bad person” etc.
STAGE 5, 6 AND 7
At stage 5, our practice of mindfulness is mostly complete. We rarely lose the object of meditation. It is now a matter of transforming mental habits that keep coming up as distractions. We have to bring ever greater insight and wisdom into the meditation to transform the clinging which still exists within us. We begin to understand at a deep level that everything in our world is just a label projected by our mind. It is a story made up of “mind stuff”. But this “mind stuff”, at its source, is blissful. By stage 7 our meditation is so strong that we are meditating 24 hours a day in whatever activity we are doing.
STAGE 8 AND 9
These are the final stages of meditation where like ripples in a pond, we are allowing the last few habits of our minds to still themselves, bringing us to total one-pointed meditation.
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And if you would like an even more detailed explanation of this path, a video version is available in the “Learn Meditation” section of our member’s area.