When you sit on your meditation pillow, close your eyes, inhale and exhale – what happens? Many people are familiar with the benefits of meditation, how to do it, and where to do it, but few really understand what happens during meditation and the stages you go through.
Yes, it stills the mind and relaxes us, but there is more to it. A meditative state happens in stages. As you let go of all the distractions and your mind stills, you reach more profound levels of meditation.
The fact that there are stages of meditation is predominantly undisputed; however, there are conflicting opinions on the number of stages and what happens in each. When looking at meditation from a medical perspective, it is easier to see what happens to the brain. Scans and measurements have revealed plenty of interesting insights. But, when we consider what happens on a more spiritual level, these stages are influenced by beliefs passed down through centuries of sacred meditation practice. For example, according to Buddhist Zen meditation, there are generally believed to be three or four stages of meditation, and according to psychologist Shawn Tassone of Psychology Today, there are nine.
The number of stages isn’t what matters when considering meditation. Instead, knowing that your practice will deepen and strengthen with consistent practice will allow you to receive more significant benefits. Let’s compare it to therapy. If you are seeing a therapist, the number of sessions is not important; instead, the focus is on achieving milestones throughout your healing journey.
As we review the stages of meditation, you will notice that although they are segmented differently, they share many of the same principles. Let’s examine this in greater detail by reviewing the 4, 7, and 10 stages of meditation.
The 4 Stages of Meditation
Yoga and meditation traditions typically refer to four stages of meditation. These are also the four stages of awakening or four stages of enlightenment. Ancient Buddhist texts refer to four stages and are a central pillar in Buddhist teachings. In some texts, these go much deeper and are further divided, like the five stages in the Visuddhimagga.
The first stage is considered the “stream-enterer” and is called the Srotāpanna. The term translates to “one who enters the stream,” with the stream referring to Dharma. In Buddhism, Dharma is cosmic law and order. It is the universal truth and could be considered life’s purpose. When you enter the stream, you are aware of Dharma, and your eyes are open to Universal law.
The second stage is Sakṛdāgāmin. This is a Sanskrit term that translates to “once-returner.” In this stage of being, you have returned to a higher state of being. You are no longer held by feelings of hate, lust, or delusion – you are on your way to awakening.
The next stage is the “nonreturner” called Anāgāmī. You are closer to enlightenment in this stage but not quite there yet. In this stage, you have overcome sexual desire and urges and are above the human world. You have also abandoned ill will and will experience rebirth once more but in a heavenly realm. The final stage is Arahant – a fully awakened person. In a stage of enlightenment, you have left the human realm and are on the path provided by Buddha.
Although meditation isn’t the only way to achieve enlightenment, it is a critical step. Buddhism uses meditation as a vehicle for attaining enlightenment, learning to observe the human condition. Meditation is a noble truth and the way in which one accomplishes the eightfold path to enlightenment.
The 7 Stages of Meditation
In 1951, Ajahn Brahm, a monk at the Abbot monastery in Australia, wrote a book entitled Mindfulness, Bliss, and Beyond: A Meditator’s Handbook. In it, he described the seven stages of meditation. According to Brahm, the first stage is when you are in the present moment. When you are fully present, you are free from thoughts, concerns, or judgment – you are at peace and have let go. In this first stage, you are someone who has no history. Nothing in the past is holding you back or weighing on your mind, and the future doesn’t concern you.
The second stage of meditation is the “silent present-moment awareness.” In this stage, there is no inner chatter. Brahm believes that our internal dialogue causes suffering. It separates us from others and creates enemies and attachments. Essentially, it causes the negative feelings we experience. This is overcome in the second stage. It’s a peaceful inner silence that we can achieve through meditation, and the more we meditate, the longer this silence lasts.
The third stage is “silent present-moment awareness of breath.” When learning to meditate, you are often called to focus on your breath. In this stage, you are fully experiencing it. It is believed that when you focus on your breath, you experience greater bliss, peace, and a higher level of consciousness. The fourth stage is similar, referred to as “full sustained attention on the breath.” The key difference is your awareness is heightened even further, fully aware of each inhale, pause and exhale. Once you reach this stage, you start to dive into a greater blissful state.
The fifth stage is “full sustained attention on the beautiful breath.” You continue to place your attention on the breath but it changes. It becomes slower and smoother. You don’t need to focus on it but rather observe it passively. Here, in this stage, you feel an incredible sense of calm. He referred to it as a beautiful breath; you could sit here in this timeless experience forever.
The sixth stage is “experiencing the beautiful Nimitta.” As you continue to sit on your meditation cushion, your body lets go. Your five senses are no longer present; all that remains is Nimitta. Nimitta is a state of mind, and when you reach this stage for the first time, it can feel strange. It is often described as seeing only white light. This is not so much a visual experience but the mind's manifestation. Others describe this stage as a state of ecstasy. Nimitta comes after sitting with the “beautiful breath” for a long time, then disappears. The sense is absent, and the mind is silent.
The final stage of meditation is Jhana. In Jhana, you will feel more fear and exhilaration. The fear comes from the power and bliss when you leave everything behind. Once you enter the door of Jhana, it disappears, and there is no turning back. Buddha has said this state, also referred to as enlightenment, should not be feared by followed. A higher form of Jhana will last several hours and can take a long time to get to. It is also said that during this stage, it is impossible to feel physical pain or sense anything from the outside world.
The 10 Stages of Meditation
Culadasa is a seasoned practitioner of Buddhist meditation from Arizona. He has spent four decades studying Buddhist meditation and Tibetan and Theravadin traditions. He believes there are ten meditation stages that are broken up into four milestones.
Before you hit milestone one, you must succeed through the first three stages. In stage one, you establish your practice. Then, you continuously spend time on your zafu meditation cushion, becoming routine. The next stage is when you overcome mind-wandering; the third is extended attention and overcoming forgetting. Once you have accomplished these three stages, you move on to the first milestone.
The first milestone is “continuous attention to the meditation object.” You are now a skilled meditator, and when in meditation stage four, you overcome gross distractions. In stage five, you overcome subtle dullness and have an increasing sense of mindfulness. The final stage in milestone one is stage six, which is subduing subtle distraction.
Following this, you move into the transition phase and reach milestone two with a sustained exclusive focus on attention. This is stage seven. After the transition, you become an adept meditator, moving on to milestone three.
Milestone three is summarized by “effortless stability of attention.” In stage eight, you experience mental pliancy and pacifying of the senses. This also occurs in stage nine, in addition to calming the intensity of meditative joy. And the last stage within milestone three is stage ten which is the stage of tranquility and serenity.
After you achieve all these ten stages, you enter the final milestone. Milestone four is persistent in the mental qualities of an adept. This means you maintain the same sense of calm, oneness, and enlightenment even when you are not meditating.
Whether you practice seated on a zafu meditation pillow or kneeling on a yoga cushion – the more time you spend meditating, the more milestones or stages you will reach. For Buddhist monks, it can take a lifetime and countless hours spent in meditation to reach these higher stages, and many will not reach these states of enlightenment. But, if that is not part of your spiritual journey, that is okay. Even if you just sit in meditation for 10 minutes each morning, you can benefit tremendously.