When we practice meditation it is often helpful to have a step-by-step outline of the path. Today I’m going to provide you with an outline of beginning meditation practice. It can help you with your sessions and hopefully inspires some decent progress. The steps I’m showing you below are onward leading to the deeper levels of meditative absorptions. This should definitely be a great resource for beginners and intermediate meditators. Have fun reading through the beginning stages of meditation and enjoy your practice.
Stage Zero – The process of settling and relaxing into your posture
The first thing before settling into deeper meditation is to settle into your posture and your breath. You should mentally and physically arrive on the meditation mat before doing anything else. Sit comfortably upright with your head gently suspended from above and your eyes either closed or half-open. You can sit on a chair or crosslegged as long as you’re not leaning or slouching into your seated posture. If you want to learn much about your posture I recommend to visit a professional yoga teacher nearby and ask him or her about a suitable meditation posture for you. It often takes time to adapt to the new posture so a little bit of pain should be normal in the beginning of your practice. Always make sure to do sufficient exercise everyday to counteract long hours of sitting – including the hours at work of course.
Once you have arrived in your new posture, take a few deep breaths to suffuse your whole body with fresh oxygen. I personally take 10 deep breaths and make sure to empty my lungs completely before I fill them again. After that I would slowly breathe in until I can fit no more air inside of my lungs. This does not only feel refreshing but it also has the function of providing your brain with more oxygen and empty your lungs of residual stale air. I recommend you to try it out and see for yourself if you like doing that or not.
What we are cultivating: In stage one we are working on refining the mindfulness ever so slightly. We are directing it to what’s happening right now in the present moment. Bring your attention to the physical sensations while inhaling and soften or relax the feelings while you are exhaling. Here’s a progression I always use:
1. Breathing in I feel my legs. Breathing out my legs are relaxing
2. Breathing in I feel my belly. Breathing out my belly is relaxing.
3. Breathing in I feel my chest. Breathing out my chest is relaxing.
4. Breathing in I feel my arms. Breathing out my arms are relaxing.
5. Breathing in I feel my head. Breathing out my head is relaxing.
6. I rest my awareness on the sensations of the whole body
As we reach step six we are simply dwelling on all the physical sensations which are arising and passing within the body every moment. Every time you notice that your mind is wandering, gently bring it back. Once you’re fully mindful of how your body feels like right now you are aware within the present moment.
What we are letting go of: Once we are aware within the present moment we are automatically letting go of past and future thoughts. Like this we can taste the peaceful happiness of presence. It doesn’t take much to let go of the past and future and everybody can do it. I encourage you to try it out so you can enjoy the happiness of stage one whenever you want.
What we are cultivating: Even though you are abiding within present moment awareness from stage one and it’s a lot of fun it can still be improved. Our mindfulness is still with the feelings in the body and occasionally there might be some labelling going on. Your mind might still comment on what you are experiencing. Here we are refining our attention and direct it to the silent gaps between the comments. Consciously notice the silent experience of physical sensations. You got it right when you feel the body without any inner talk whatsoever. In the beginning these moments will be rare but through sustained effort you will notice more and more of them.
What we are letting go of: In this stage we are letting go of all forms of verbalization. There should be no comments, no labels, no words at all while you are still feeling the body. As we are letting go of all the inner noise which is normally harassing us throughout day and night we will experience the exquisite caused by the cessation of inner talk.
What we are cultivating: While enjoying the silent and peaceful present moment awareness we are now strengthening our mindfulness further by singling in on the breath. In this stage we will become particularly aware of our bubbling mind. The mind is still buzzing and hovering around within our entire body. It lacks stillness and strength. So in stage III we are beginning to create real inner calmness. When your attention wanders to anything else but the breath you have to continuously bring it back. What’s important is that you don’t force the mindfulness though. See every inhalation as another chance to rest right there with it. We are also not focusing on any body part. Instead we abide with the simple knowledge of inhalation and exhalation. Breathing in I know that there’ s the inhalation – Breathing out I know that there’s the exhalation. We are also not forcing our breath to be a certain way. Let it flow naturally and comfortably.
What we are letting go of: In stage III we are letting go off the minds coarse wobble. We are letting go of multiplicity and settling into a single-minded tranquility. As the mind slowly stops moving there arises the happiness of stillness. At first it is very faint and barely noticeable but it becomes increasingly stronger if we practice well.
What we are cultivating: This is simply a progression from the stage III. In stage IV we are slowly starting to notice the details of our breath. We are also establishing a continuous and unbroken awareness of the breathing process. The experience of breathing becomes really deep. At times it feels almost like diving into the universe of breath to the exclusion of everything else. In this stage our relaxed awareness is so acute that all our other senses and the experience of their various sense objects start to fade. Here the breath will become very gentle and slow down a lot. The body and mind are deeply relaxed and at ease. Every distraction is directly noticed as it disrupts the peaceful state of being significantly. Mindfulness will then quickly return to the far more pleasant and interesting experience of inhaling and exhaling.
What we are letting go of: It is here where we start to let go of our senses. Until this point there has been a continuous experience of all senses and their activities. From stage IV onward most of these senses will fade into temporary nonexistence. By now there is only the mental sense and the sense of touch left. Hearing, seeing, smelling and tasting are now slowly disappearing. This will start to reveal the intense happiness which exists at the cessation of sensual activities. At the completion of stage four meditation will have become so interesting that mindfulness returns to its object automatically. It is here where making effort comes to an end in your meditation sessions.
Stage Five – Pleasant Mindfulness of Breathing
What we are cultivating: Once your practice is easing into Stage Five there will not be much hard work left. From now on your meditation sessions will be quite pleasant. Here is the cultivating part slowly comes to an end. Any further cultivation in the sense of “doing work” or “directing the mind” will rather disrupt the peaceful sense of presence. So in this stage it’s all about letting go of doing and wanting and learning how to rest deeply.
What we are letting go of: We are starting to let go of the “Will” and the “Doer” at this stage. It’s those two which are now mostly disturbing the practice. Once you feel a sense of comfort and happiness arising with your breath the will is trying everything to increase it etc. The doer follows the wish of the will and starts doing things to keep the pleasure. That’s when the pleasure goes away – when you go: “WOW – this is amazing!!! I need more of this!!!” The pleasant sensation arises precisely because we are at ease with no further things to do – we want nothing and it’s all good until you “want to get there” or “want to keep it” or “want to get rid of something”. In this stage it’s all about trusting the pleasantness of the breath… and YES! You are definitely allowed to enjoy this stage 😉
Stage Six – Fading and The Luminous Appearance called “Nimitta”
What we are cultivating: Here we are also mostly resting into the meditation object further abandoning “doing” and “willing”. There’s a high degree of mindfulness and it stays with the breath until the breath becomes very shallow and eventually fades more and more often. The bliss and the pleasure experienced at this stage are quite phenomenal – unlike anything the 5 senses could ever provide.
What we are letting go of: The object that is left behind at this stage are the five senses. We are letting go of sounds, sights, smells, tastes and eventually – with the fading of our breath – we abandon the sense of touch. All that’s left at this stage is an undisturbed and radiant appearance of the luminous mind. Stabilising the knower by letting go of doing and willing further increases the stability of the radiant appearance beyond send input.
Stage Seven – Entering Jhana
At this stage you are entering deep meditative absorption in which there is a temporary cessation of intent and activity often lasting for several hours. Having reached this stage in meditation is truly an amazing accomplishment. The higher stages of meditation have their specific causes and the most important cause is to rely on a qualified spiritual guide. After that it’s consistent work and a very well structured life based on kindness, forgiveness and abandonment of too much sensual distractions. This way leads up to the peaks of bliss and happiness.
This is the path to empower the mind for deep insight.