Understanding the Progression of Stages in Meditation

Gunnar Malensek, modified 4 Months ago at 7/20/22 12:25 PM
Created 4 Months ago at 7/19/22 11:48 AM

Understanding the Progression of Stages in Meditation

Posts: 24 Join Date: 6/20/22 Recent Posts
Hey y'all, wanted to share more about where I'm at with my practice and get some more direct feedback. All thoughts welcome.

30-40 minute into a sit, I start to reach these phases below: 

1. Mindfulness becomes effortless, can see thoughts as they arise and fall away, bodily sensations strong all-throughout although not pleasant. It becomes this kind of heavy, aching, buzzing, unpleasant feeling predominantly in the back and neck, but also in arms and legs if i direct attention to them. This pain/aching wears me down a bit and I can get tired, so I might end up adjusting sitting posture after 40 min, or I may switch early to walking. (10 min)

2. Then, phase attention harmony seems to go out of wack. I start drifting into thought more frequently, things become less clear, I lose motivation. Feels like 3rd vipassana Jhana qualities of diffuse, out-of-phase awareness, feels like i'm taking a step back and practicing worse, noting becomes more difficult, become more spacey. (10 min)

3. I start to relax into the out-of-phase nature of awareness and slower noting seems to help but still get lost in thought and get spacey. (This is where I especially want to learn more about how to navigate this phase of practice and to know that it is part of the upward progression).

So here are my the main inquiries on my mind:

1. Daniel writes: "Before awakening, we always had to develop access concentration, attaining Mind and Body, and working from there every time we meditated." This said, I've found only a little on DhoG on cycling through stages on and off the cushion. I understand that on the cushion, you cycle starting from one, usually leading to your edge or farthest stage at that time. And then off the cushion, things cycle slower where you might be in a stage for a few weeks or months (wide range and depending on person) where the current stage may color some of your general, daily life experience. Is this right?

2. Also, I understand that if we work up through the insight stages in each sit and pass through A&P, will it be a very low-key version of A&P more simply qualified by second vipassana experiences (like stage 5 of my progression above) without the big fireworks of the first time we passed through A&P?

3. As far back as I can remember in my practice, I go back and forth between periods (3 days - a few weeks) where concentration is easy / strong and then very difficult / week. Is this typical and just a cycling through different stages? 

Edited on 7/20/22 for more clarity and concise-ness.
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Jim Smith, modified 4 Months ago at 7/19/22 10:08 PM
Created 4 Months ago at 7/19/22 9:58 PM

RE: Understanding the Progression of Stages in Meditation

Posts: 1218 Join Date: 1/17/15 Recent Posts
#6 Could be fatigue or you are getting into a deep state of relaxation. By fatigue I mean the part of your brain that pays attention is tired from the amount of meditation you have just done.

When I used to go to the Zen center for sitting meditation or retreats, we would do sitting meditation sessions for about 40 minutes with 5-10 minutes of walking meditation inbetween sitting sessions. The reason for that, I think, was to prevent what you are describing.

So I think it might help you to do the same thing.  If I read your post correctly you start getting foggy at about 40 minutes.

If you don't have space for walking meditation, you could try any type of relaxing, tai-chi, yoga, or qigong. I find that some type of physical relaxation helps with the meditation. Emotions effect the mind and body, letting go has a physical component that cannot be ignored.
Gunnar Malensek, modified 4 Months ago at 7/20/22 7:31 AM
Created 4 Months ago at 7/20/22 7:31 AM

RE: Understanding the Progression of Stages in Meditation

Posts: 24 Join Date: 6/20/22 Recent Posts
But isn't #6 similar to the 3rd vipassana Jhana compared to just being fatigued / very relaxed? What makes you discern it that way? Why foggy / tired instead of diffuse, out-of-phase awareness?

I do mix it up between walking and sitting and some stretching, and your perspective is helpful. During the sit, I think it's the pain that wears me down (but I wouldn't say tired; more-so restless, agitated, feeling 'done'), but it continues when I switch to walking/standing. The pain is often there after 30-40 min of any kind of practice (sitting, walking, standing), and so every 1.5-2 hr I either lay down and/or stretch to regather bodily resources. I try not to do it more than that so i don't get obsessed with it and just let it be as best as I can.
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Dream Walker, modified 4 Months ago at 7/20/22 7:43 AM
Created 4 Months ago at 7/20/22 7:43 AM

RE: Understanding the Progression of Stages in Meditation

Posts: 1478 Join Date: 1/18/12 Recent Posts
Gunnar Malensek

 It doesn't feel like I experience the dark nights in my sits, but rather as broader experiences in my daily life (Is this normal?).

What do y'all think?  -

Also, I understand that if we work up through the insight stages in each sit and pass through A&P, will it be a very low-key version of A&P more simply qualified by second vipassana experiences (like stage 5 of my progression above) without the big fireworks of the first time we passed through A&P? -

Is the best way to relate to the pain/aches I experience in stages 4-7 just to accept it, let it be, and not get obsessed with it?

 I gather that this kind of body pain/aching is can be normal for the dark night phases, especially leaning into re-observation?

Or are the dark night stages more of an emotional pain/aching/suffering?

- When doing a retreat period of kasina meditation, should one stay with the breath and/or note during walking meditation?

Or maybe closing the eyes as much as possible and walking slower to keep with the kasina?

- As far back as I can remember in my practice, I go back and forth between periods (3 days - a few weeks) where concentration is easy / strong and then very difficult / week. Do you find this is typical and just a cycling through different stages?

And in the weak concentration phases, I'm understanding it's best not to fight it and try to power through it with concentration but rather to accept it, let awareness be broader, and try a more relaxed approach generally speaking?

TL;DR
(wink)
You wrote a lot, Can you simplify ?
Doing a wall of text with a vague, whatcha think does not make people here likely to respond.
I cut out most of your text leaving just the sentences with a question mark.
Please number your questions and shorten them to add clarity.
Thanks,
~D
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Jim Smith, modified 4 Months ago at 7/20/22 8:15 AM
Created 4 Months ago at 7/20/22 8:06 AM

RE: Understanding the Progression of Stages in Meditation

Posts: 1218 Join Date: 1/17/15 Recent Posts
Gunnar Malensek
But isn't #6 similar to the 3rd vipassana Jhana compared to just being fatigued / very relaxed? What makes you discern it that way? Why foggy / tired instead of diffuse, out-of-phase awareness?

I do mix it up between walking and sitting and some stretching, and your perspective is helpful. During the sit, I think it's the pain that wears me down (but I wouldn't say tired; more-so restless, agitated, feeling 'done'), but it continues when I switch to walking/standing. The pain is often there after 30-40 min of any kind of practice (sitting, walking, standing), and so every 1.5-2 hr I either lay down and/or stretch to regather bodily resources. I try not to do it more than that so i don't get obsessed with it and just let it be as best as I can.


You wrote: "6. Then, phase attention harmony as you call it seems to go out of wack. I start drifting into thought more frequently, things become less clear, I lose motivation."

It sounds to me like you had good concentration but couldn't keep it going ("drifting into thought more frequently"). "Less clear"could mean "foggy".
​​​​​​​
According to this link, http://the-wanderling.com/jhana_factors.html 3rd janans in the suttas includes "clearly aware" as a factor but you wrote "things become less clear".

​​​​​​​But if I misunderstood what you meant, then ignore my suggestions. 
Ben Sulsky, modified 4 Months ago at 7/20/22 11:18 AM
Created 4 Months ago at 7/20/22 11:05 AM

RE: Understanding the Progression of Stages in Meditation

Posts: 157 Join Date: 11/5/19 Recent Posts
Slight derail, but I find some of the language in MCTB2 regarding insight stages (nanas) confusing, and it seems to come up often on here.

So, sense #1 is: a series of stages that occur on and off the cushion and that get moved through sequentially as the meditator completes paths.  Classic example being the highs of the A&P followed by the vagueness of dissolution and so on.  The meditator might be in a given nana for seconds, minutes, hours, days, weeks, months or years, and the canonical progression is that once the meditator gets the thing being taught in the nana, the next nana naturally arises (although in practice there's tons of backsliding, see e.g., the infamous reobservation-->equanimity --> reobservation loop).

Sense #2 is: a series of stages that occur within a single sit, e.g., what Gunnar describes in the OP "It seems in my meditation that I pass up through insight stages 1-3 (stages 1-4 above), then the A&P (stage 5 above), and the dark night stages and third vipassana jhana (stages 6-7 above). "  It seems clear from context Gunnar is referring to passing through multiple insight stage nanas within a single sit.

So here's my take (and I'm curious what others think).  No question that during the stage of Review, the meditator is going to go through the nanas of the previous path in rapid progression.  It also seems to be the case for nearly everyone that there's some degree of cycling that occurs consciously or unconsciously as practice continues, and the cycling effects how concentration works and how practice and life feels.  I believe the canonical Mahasi style view here is the meditator does review for awhile and cycles and then when they're ready to begin a new path they make a strong intention to leap out into the void and then they stop cycling and begin a new progression through the nanas at a deeper level of mind.  My personal experience was that what I think of as first path mapped very nicely onto the Mahasi maps and then afterwards the maps have worked less and less well.  It seems like there's a high level of individuality to these experiences and at some point the maps feel more like shoehorning and less like a helpful guidebook.  

Anyways, ^^ what I'm pointing to here is the intra sit cycling that obviously occurs during the insight stage of Review, as well as the intra sit cycling that might happen in weird fractal-y ways to practioners.  This is definitely a thing.

Another way one could be said to be progressing through the insight nanas during a single sit is when there isn't a clear distinction between insight stages and concentration states.  That's definitely my experience.  This is a really cool map from Daniel: https://static1.squarespace.com/static/5037f52d84ae1e87f694cfda/t/506fcc5c84aefb9a79a610b3/1349504092518/Pathways.jpg.  There's a clearly a second jhanic taste to say the A&P and a third jhanic taste to DN and a 4th jhanic+ taste to equanimity and so on.  So often when a meditator describes moving through insight nanas in a single sit, I imagine that what they're actually referring to is increasing concentration within their sit such that the insight nana they're in aquires a bit of a different flavor. 

Overall though, my experience, especially early on, was that I'd be in some insight nana on and off the cushion for a long time, typically weeks to months.  During my sits I'd investigate and over time practice would move on.  I found the maps most useful at describing this sort of multiple sit nana progression.

I guess what I'm getting around to saying here is that using insight stage terminology in all of these related but different senses seems likely to lead to a lot of confusion and I remember trying to be precise in my own practice about how I used lanaguage and having a lot of trouble.
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Jim Smith, modified 4 Months ago at 7/20/22 12:51 PM
Created 4 Months ago at 7/20/22 12:18 PM

RE: Understanding the Progression of Stages in Meditation

Posts: 1218 Join Date: 1/17/15 Recent Posts
Ben Sulsky
...

So here's my take (and I'm curious what others think). 
...

Overall though, my experience, especially early on, was that I'd be in some insight nana on and off the cushion for a long time, typically weeks to months.  During my sits I'd investigate and over time practice would move on.  I found the maps most useful at describing this sort of multiple sit nana progression.

I guess what I'm getting around to saying here is that using insight stage terminology in all of these related but different senses seems likely to lead to a lot of confusion and I remember trying to be precise in my own practice about how I used lanaguage and having a lot of trouble.


I think those terms are better used for describing various experiences that can occur at any time on or off the cushion without any implication that there is a longer term progression that everyone will cycle through multiple times. That's because I can understand the experiences they describe and I have them from time to time, but I never experienced anything like a path or a review where they happened in the order they are supposed to happen.

I actually think it is harmful to tell people to expect a dark night and that it is normal and you should just push through it. If it were just that people were told that meditation may uncover suppressed emotions or that when your worldview is turned upside down it can be disconcerting, I would not mind that, I do it on my own web site, but I don't think it always correct to tell people to just push through it. An ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure, and many times it is better to slow down, meditate less for a while than to push yourself into potentially psychologically damaging experiences.

​​​​​​​And there are other experiences that are also called dark night that should never happen and should definately not be "pushed through" - for example when someone, particularly a beginner, goes to on a retreat and uses their brain in a way the brain was never designed to be used in, and after meditating that way all day for several days they break their brain. That is not the POI dark night, that is abuse of the brain, it is a form of self-harm - self-induced brain damage - like sniffing glue (more does not help),  and should never have happened. 

I also think the POI presented as a path to awakening creates a kind of obsession with attainments and awakening that is harmful / counterproductive. The student should be learning to let go of attachments not encouraged to form them. Perception bias (believing is seeing) is one of the most powerful psychological phenomenon known and it seems to me the POI sets up students to get stuck trying to fit a theory to a reality that may not exist for them.

I understand these are probably unconventional maybe controversial opinions but I have tried to explain why I feel that way.
Ben Sulsky, modified 4 Months ago at 7/23/22 1:21 PM
Created 4 Months ago at 7/23/22 1:21 PM

RE: Understanding the Progression of Stages in Meditation

Posts: 157 Join Date: 11/5/19 Recent Posts
Hey Jim, I hear you.

I'm a pretty staunch universalist and pluralist.  Universalist meaning that variations of the same wordless experiences seem to happen to people from all kinds of different traditions and/or no tradition at all.  Pluralist meaning I think it's a good thing that people can tap into these experiences in many wildly different ways.

From that point of view, I appreciate you pointing out the big time shadow sides of mapping and the POI framework.  These are huge problems.  It's very very hard not to fetishize states, stages or attaintments when using the POI model and it seems like literal every practitioner using the POI framework falls into that trap one or more times.  I definitely do/did.  Maybe even worse is the harshness of some of the POI practices.  As you say, it's entirely possible to break your brain seriously and sometimes permanently.  There tends to be a vicious feedback loop where the discursive talking part of the brain says "you must do whatever it takes to get to state XYZ!," and then the meditator pushes themselves so hard they risk destroying themselves.  

That being said, my personal experience is likely a lot different than yours with noting and the POI.  It was and is really harsh sometimes, but overall it worked great for me.  Over time, I've softened a lot and now I do quite different things.  But the POI really got the ball rolling for me in a way I'm very grateful for.

I tend to think most or all of the paths have their own shadow sides, just like a lot of things in life.  I'm a big fan of pointing out these shadow sides.  But I don't think having major shadow sides disqualifies something from being useful.
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Dream Walker, modified 4 Months ago at 7/24/22 12:59 PM
Created 4 Months ago at 7/24/22 12:59 PM

RE: Understanding the Progression of Stages in Meditation

Posts: 1478 Join Date: 1/18/12 Recent Posts
I am so sorry that your "perception bias" has caused you to sniff dark night glue and break your brain. Indeed it must be one of the most powerful psychological phenomenon known to you to have had such effects.
Perhaps if you didn't believe in abusing your brain and causing self-harm - you would not have caused self-induced brain damage.
Thanks for pointing out that you don't think it always correct to tell people to just push through it.
I am also sorry that your belief in the POI presented as a path to awakening  has created a kind of obsession with attainments and awakening that was harmful / counterproductive for you. Let us try our best to keep everyone as ignorant as possible to protect them.
(wink)
Oh, were you speaking from direct experience or just being bombastic?

I do hope my attempt at humor is taken as the jest it is intended.
(smiles)
~D

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