What are these stages anyway?
I've mentioned the stages of meditation a number of times, and I just wanted to give a quick overview of the early stages for reference.
- You aren't meditating steadily. The obstacle here is figuring out that you want a steady meditation practice, and then having figured that out, figuring out how to get it to happen.
- You notice that your mind isn't quiet, because when you sit down it just takes off on you.
- You've started to get some traction on stabilizing the mind, but resistance to keeping the attention on the object is still pretty strong.
- You've learned to keep the thread of stability, but there's still a lot of resistance to staying on topic, and when you're successful at staying on topic, your mind gets so quiet that you start to get sleepy. When this happens it's not uncommon for a session to feel like it goes by very quickly. At this stage the mind is quiet enough that if you have any unresolved issues that are near the surface, they will start to come into the foreground, and you'll have to deal with them. This can be pretty challenging, but it's also incredibly fruitful.
- You've overcome sleepiness and resistance to stability, but there's still a tendency to dull the sharp edge of the mind.
- Things are very vivid and stable; thoughts and distractions still come up, but they just hit and vanish.
- Unification. This is the stage in the practice where the whole mind starts to get on the same page, and you start to experience the meditation doing itself without effort; indeed, the challenge at this stage is to not engage in effort, because effort destabilizes the meditation. Deeper issues that weren't dealt with in stage four can come up here, but you can also experience some incredibly blissful states of meditation called jhanas.
- At this point the mind is fairly well unified, and once you get into the groove the meditation just happens on its own. The mind is bright and happy, and you're not having to work on your meditation practice anymore—now it's fully developed and you can use it.
I should point out that meditation practice becomes beneficial quite early on—even at stages two and three, people often report experiencing major reductions in stress. Stage four can actually bump up stress a bit, as can stage seven, because of the psychological issues that tend to rise to the surface at these stages. But getting through those issues can be incredibly rewarding. The transformation that you see in someone who goes from stage three to stage seven can be pretty amazing. Just bear in mind that it's real work—it's not just a cakewalk.
This is a very sales-pitchy approach to the stages of meditation. There's a lot more to be said about them. In particular, this isn't meditation advice—you can't use these descriptions to actually practice the stages. But it's nice to have a sense of how a meditation practice can progress from absolute beginner to adept meditator; that's why I've shared these particular descriptions.