The 10 Stages of Meditation, according to Culadasa

The process of training the mind evolves through ten distinct stages – these are the ten stages of meditation outlined by Culadasa, aka John Yates, in his book, the meditation training manual The Mind Illuminated: A Complete Meditation Guide Integrating Buddhist Wisdom and Brain Science for Greater Mindfulness.

Even if you’re a novice meditator like me, understanding the ten stages helps you to see your current meditation challenges more clearly, and helps prepare you for future obstacles as your practice develops.

Each stage has distinct characteristics and challenges. To make progress, correctly determine your current stage, and work until you’ve mastered the skills of that stage before moving onto the next stage.

The secret is to work with the specific obstacles and goals appropriate to your current skill level.

The 10 stages and 4 milestones

The novice meditator – stages 1-3

1: Establishing a practice.
2: Interrupted attention and overcoming mind wandering.
3: Extended attention and overcoming forgetting.

Milestone 1: Continuous attention to the meditation object.

The skilled meditator – stages 4-6

4: Continuous attention and overcoming ‘gross distraction’ – where a mental or physical object becomes the primary focus of attention, and pushes the meditation object into the background but not out of awareness – and ‘strong dullness’ – a significant lack of mental energy, similar to extreme drowsiness.
5: Overcoming ‘subtle dullness’ – a slight dullness that makes the meditation object less vividĀ  and intense, and causes periphery awareness to fade – and increasing ‘mindfulness’ – optimal interaction between attention and periphery awareness (defined below).
6: Subduing ‘subtle distraction’ – brief moments of attention directed to distractions in the background of periphery awareness, while the meditation object continues as the primary focus.

Milestone 2: Sustained exclusive focus of attention.

The transition – stage 7

7: ‘Exclusive attention’ – ability to select and maintain a specific object or objects of attention in the face of distracting or competing stimuli – and ‘unifying the mind’ – bringing together of a large number of diverse, independent and unconscious mental processes and sub-minds in support of a consciously formulated intention.

Milestone 3: Effortless stability of attention.

The adept meditator – stages 8-10

8: ‘Mental pliancy’ – effortlessly sustained stable attention and powerful mindfulness – and ‘pacifying the senses’ – a temporary quietening of the physical senses during meditation.
9: Mental and ‘physical pliancy’ – allows a meditator to sit for hours at a time without physical discomfort – and calming the intensity of ‘meditative joy’ – a unique joyful state of mind arising from unification of mind in meditation.
10: ‘Tranquillity’ – a serene state of happiness and pleasure arising specifically as a result of meditation – and ‘equanimity’ – a non-reactive state in which pleasant and unpleasant experiences no longer evoke craving in the form of desire or aversion.

Milestone 4: Persistence of mental qualities of an adept.

More detail on each of the stages

Stage 1: Establishing a practice

  • Goal: Develop a regulator meditation practice.
  • Obstacles: Resistance, procrastination, fatigue, impatience, boredom, lack of motivation.
  • Skills: Creating practice routines, setting specific practice goals, generating strong motivation, cultivating discipline and diligence.
  • Mastery: Never missing a session.

Stage 2: Interrupted attention and overcoming mind wandering

  • Goal: Shorten the period of mind wandering.
  • Obstacles: Mind wandering, monkey-mind and impatience.
  • Skills: Reinforcing spontaneous ‘introspective awareness’ – awareness of thoughts, feelings, and states and activities of mind – and learning to sustain attention on the meditation object.
  • Mastery: You can sustain attention on the meditation object for minutes, whilst most periods of mind wandering last only a few seconds.

Stage 3: Extended attention and overcoming forgetting

  • Goal: Overcome forgetting and falling asleep.
  • Obstacles: Distractions, forgetting, mind wandering, and sleepiness.
  • Skills: Use the techniques of following the breath and connecting to extended periods of uninterrupted attention, and become familiar with how forgetting happens.
  • Mastery: Rarely forgetting the breath or falling asleep.

Milestone 1: Continuous attention on the meditation object.

Stage 4: Continuous attention and overcoming gross distraction and strong dullness

  • Goal: Overcoming gross distraction and strong dullness.
  • Obstacles: Distractions, pain and discomfort, intellectual insights, emotionally charged visions and memories.
  • Skills: Developing continuous introspective awareness allows you to make corrections before subtle distractions become gross distractions, and before subtle dullness becomes strong dullness. Learning to work with pain. Purifying the mind of past trauma and unwholesome conditioning.
  • Mastery: Gross distractions no longer push the breath into the background and breath sensations don’t fade or become distorted due to strong dullness.

Stage 5: Overcoming subtle dullness and increasing mindfulness

  • Goal: To overcome subtle dullness and increase the power of mindfulness.
    Obstacles: Subtle dullness is difficult to recognise, creates an illusion of stable attention, and is seductively pleasant.
  • Skills: Cultivating even stronger and more continuous introspective awareness to detect and correct for subtle dullness. Learning a new body scanning technique to help increase the power of your mindfulness.
  • Mastery: You can sustain or even increase the power of your mindfulness during each meditation session.

Stage 6: Subduing subtle distraction

  • Goal: To subdue subtle distractions and develop ‘metacognitive introspective awareness’ – introspective awareness in which the mind “stands back” and observes its own state and activities.
  • Obstacles: The tendency for attention to alternate to the continuous stream of distracting thoughts and other mental objects in ‘periphery awareness’ – a general cognizance of sensory information; mental objects like thoughts, memories, and feelings; and the overall state and activity of the mind.
  • Skills: Defining your scope of attention more precisely than before, and ignoring everything outside that scope until subtle distractions fade away.
  • Mastery: Subtle distractions have almost entirely disappeared, and you have unwavering exclusive attention, together with vivid mindfulness.

Milestone 2: Sustained exclusive focus of attention.

Stage 7 (the transition): Exclusive attention and unifying the mind

  • Goal: Effortlessly sustained attention and powerful mindfulness.
  • Obstacles: Distractions and dullness will return if you stop exerting effort. Keep sustaining effort until exclusive attention and mindfulness become automatic, then effort will no longer be necessary. Boredom, restlessness and doubt, bizarre sensations and involuntary body movements can distract you from your practice.
  • Methods: Practicing patiently and diligently, bringing you to the threshold of effortlessness.
  • Mastery: You can drop all effort, and the mind still maintains an unprecedented degree of stability and clarity.

Milestone 3: Effortless stability of attention.

Stage 8: Mental pliancy and pacifying the senses

  • Goal: Complete pacification of the senses and the full arising of meditative joy.
  • Obstacles: The primary challenge is not be distracted or distressed by the variety of extraordinary experiences.
  • Method: Practicing effortless attention and introspective awareness will naturally lead to continued unification, pacification of the senses, and arising of meditative joy.
  • Mastery: When the eyes perceive only an inner light, the ears perceive only an inner sound, the body is suffused with a sense of pleasure and comfort, and your mental state of one of intense joy.

Stage 9: Mental and physical pliancy and calming the intensity or meditative joy

  • Goal: The maturation of meditative joy, producing tranquillity and equanimity.
  • Obstacles: The intensity of meditative joy can perturb the mind, becoming a distraction and disrupting your practice.
  • Method: Becoming familiar with meditative joy through continued practice until the excitement fades, replaced by tranquillity and equanimity.
  • Mastery: Consistently evoking mental and physical pliancy, accompanied by profound tranquillity and equanimity.

Stage 10: Tranquillity and equanimity

You enter the stage with effortlessly stable attention, mindfulness, joy, tranquillity and equanimity.

Milestone 4: Persistence of the mental qualities of an adept.

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