To most people, meditation has almost no meaning. You sit on a pillow with your legs crossed for 20 to 40 minutes to achieve a state of dopey mindlessness — if you achieve anything at all. Every day, for years and years and years. What’s the point of that?
It turns out that there is a lot more to the process than that, for those who take it seriously and persist.
In the space below, I will provide two short outlines of paths to enlightenment, step by step. These two outlines each describe 10 stage journeys to enlightenment in the Vipassana meditation tradition. Each 10-stage pathway to bliss may require 5 to 10 years to achieve, involving many thousands of hours of meditation (up to 10,000 or more). Some people may require much less time.
Outline #1 from The Mind Illuminated by Culadasa (Touchstone Books)
Stage 1: Establishing a Daily Practice
Mastery of Stage 1 — Never miss a daily practice session
Stage 2: Interrupted Attention and Overcoming Mind-Wandering
Mastery of Stage 2 — You can sustain attention on the meditation object for minutes, while most periods of mind-wandering last for only a few seconds.
Stage 3: Extended Attention and Overcoming Forgetting
Mastery of Stage 3 — Rarely forgetting the breath, rarely falling asleep
Stage 4: Continuous Attention and Overcoming Gross Distraction and Strong Dullness
Mastery of Stage 4 — 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, Increasing Mindfulness
Mastery of Stage 5 — You can sustain or even increase the power of your mindfulness during each meditation session.
Stage 6: Subduing Subtle Distraction
Mastery of Stage 6 — Subtle distractions have almost entirely disappeared, and you have unwavering exclusive attention together with vivid mindfulness.
Stage 7: Exclusive Attention and Unifying the Mind
Mastery of Stage 7 — You can drop all effort, and the mind still maintains an unprecedented degree of stability and clarity.
Stage 8: Mental Pliancy and Pacifying the Senses
Mastery of Stage 8 — The body is suffused with a sense of pleasure and comfort, and your mental state is one of intense joy.
Stage 9: Mental and Physical Pliancy and Calming the Intensity of Meditative Joy
Mastery of Stage 9 — Profound tranquility and equanimity.
Stage 10: Tranquility and Equanimity
Mastery of Stage 10 — Tranquility and equanimity persist for many hours after rising from the cushion.
Note: Terms such as “subtle dullness,” “subtle distraction,” “mental pliancy,” etc. are explained in the book, and are a type of jargon intrinsic to the practice — but are easily understandable with time and thought. Note the progression from basic practice at Stage 1, where very little is expected, all the way to Stage 10 where the practitioner experiences tranquility and equanimity for as many days or years afterward as he continues his practice. Apparently his biggest problem at that point is to suppress the powerful upwellings of pleasure and intense joy, so that he can get in his daily sessions of sitting practice.
Outline #2 Taken from The Attention Revolution by B. Alan Wallace (Wisdom Publications)
Stage 1: Directed Attention
You have attained the first stage once you have been able to sustain your attention on the breath for even a few seconds.
Stage 2: Continuous Attention
When you can occasionally maintain continuity of bodily sensations for about a minute, you have reached the second stage.
Stage 3: Resurgent Attention
The third stage is achieved only when your mind remains focused on the object most of the time for all of your sessions.
Stage 4: Close Attention
At this stage you attain the mental faculty of maintaining attention without forgetfulness or distraction, on a familiar object. You are now no longer a beginner, but are an experienced trainee.
Stage 5: Tamed Attention
This stage involves achieving a delicate balance of attention “between excitation and laxity.” This is necessary in order to proceed to the more difficult stages of meditation.
Stage 6: Pacified Attention
At this stage, a wide range of deep and powerful emotions may well up, including a fear of the loss of personal identity and a feeling of hovering over an empty luminous space devoid of personhood.
Stage 7: Fully Pacified Attention
The practice itself now fills you with joy and enthusiasm. On reaching the seventh stage, the mind is so refined that sessions may last for two hours or longer without significant mental distractions.
Stage 8: Single Pointed Attention
Wherever you direct the attention, the awareness is coherent and highly focused. The overall quality of this state is one of stillness. It is achieved with minimal effort and sessions may last well over three hours.
Stage 9: Attentional Balance
Persons who achieve this ninth stage describe it as “perfection.”
Stage 10: Shamatha
This is described as like a butterfly emerging from a cocoon, initiated by a sudden feeling like that of a human palm on a shaved head. This is followed by a physical and mental energy, bliss, and clarity, which subsides into “perfect stability and clarity.”
Note: Allowing for a certain amount of poetic license in the descriptions, the two different outlines of ten-stage, several years-long trainings to enlightenment are quite similar.
The books below provide two other example paths toward enlightenment, along with alternative explanations for what is required and what is likely to happen along the way.
The Relaxed Mind by Dza Kilung Rinpoche (Shambhala Publications)
Mindfulness, Bliss, and Beyond by Ajahn Brahm (Wisdom Publications)
Stories of what 10,000 hours of meditation does to the life and the brain.
It is important to remember that meditation is an adjunct to life, rather than life itself. The changes in brain function that accompany a long practice of focused and disciplined meditation provide a superior platform for apprehending and engaging with your life as it evolves more intentionally.
Meditation would seem to be an excellent tool to provide to children, as soon as their minds settle enough for them to apply their attention to the practice. The clarity, independence, and equanimity that comes from this discipline is a welcome counter-point to the brainwashed groupthink indoctrination of grievance and victimhood that is forced upon students in many high schools and most universities.
Note that the first few stages can be achieved within a matter of months with diligent practice, with many beneficial side effects to health and mental well-being. But you need to weigh the pros and cons for yourself, and make that decision.
Free to all, meditation is a fountain of youth for mental aging. The human brain naturally begins to deteriorate in your 20s. Maintaining a healthy brain can be supported with the powerful practice of meditation.
Meditation is shown to thicken the pre-frontal cortex. This brain center manages higher order brain function, like increased awareness, concentration, and decision making. Changes in the brain show, with meditation, higher-order functions become stronger, while lower-order brain activities decrease. In other words, you have the power to train your brain.
Sara Lazar, a neuroscientist from Harvard Medical School, found consistency with meditation is key. In her study, she discovered that experienced meditators 40-50 years old had the same amount of gray matter as an average 20-30-year-old. In this older group, the health of the frontal cortex was maintained.Source
Mindful meditation can create physical changes in the brain through neuroplasticity.
I can say that too many adults I know are walking masses of brittle defenses, threatening to crack and blow at any moment. For those whose brains grow older and more brittle with the years, any credible promise of neuro-regeneration should be considered carefully.
The two 10-stage outlines provided at the top of this posting are the best I have found so far, as quick descriptions of a very long and disciplined process. I will continue to study the different approaches that are available to the public via open sources, in the attempt to find pathways that are compatible with the western mindset, but still providing the crucial payoffs of equanimity and a resilient buoyancy of pleasurable peacefulness rising above a broad sea of pettiness and meaningless suffering.
If any readers have discovered comparably well-described paths to achieving advanced states of thinking or consciousness without chemicals, please comment below.