Friday, June 16, 2023

Is Meditation only Mindfulness? 7 Stages of Meditation

Mindfulness meditation--both the term and the practice--dominates the field, conversations, and clinical studies of meditation. Is the practice of mindfulness the sine qua non, the final definition, of meditation? Most certainly NOT! By my account, mindfulness is only the beginning: and, an excellent beginning at that. If, for many, it is also the end of meditation, then so be it. Its contribution is worthy of the effort. ("The laborer is worthy of his hire.")

In the long history of meditation which the yogis of the Far East specialized in, there is much, much more. I'll be the first to admit that it is better to meditate than to merely TALK about meditation (or WRITE about meditation!) But it is also useful for most of us to understand the WHY, HOW, and the PURPOSE of meditation.

Based on the teachings of Paramhansa Yogananda (author of "Autobiography of a Yogi"), I've identified seven stages of meditation. These stages align loosely with the Eight-Fold Path described by the sage Patanjali in the now famous YOGA SUTRAS. I will only make casual references to the eight-fold path because I want to focus more on the experience of meditation.

The stages parallel the process of growing self-awareness that we see during a human life and in the progression from lower life forms up to sentient life. This is to say, from the sub-conscious state to what Yogananda called the Superconscious state. But, lest I digress, let's talk about the stages. I will do so in twol articles rather than one large one.

STAGE 1 - MINDFULNESS When we sit in meditation and engage in the practice of simply observing our thoughts as those thoughts arise, we are peering down into the subconscious mind. This is not a clinical statement but, if you don't mind a pun, it is an observation! Where else would random thoughts come from when we are not engaged in activity or in conscious contemplation? The value of this form of meditation is potentially enormous, especially for those who have never meditated before and have generally not been living an intentional, conscious lifestyle. The movie, "Doing Time, Doing Vipassana" describes how some prisoners in Tihar Prison in India were transformed by their 10-day Vipassana meditation experience.This simple form of mindfulness can be very powerful for everyone at least to some degree especially in direct relation to the influence of the subconscious mind on one's thoughts, attitudes, and behavior. 

The principal challenge with mindfulness practiced in this way is that beginning meditators aren't generally able to detach from their own thoughts and emotions and calmly observe them with non-attachment. Accustomed as most people are with identifying themselves with their thoughts and feeling, it is difficult for almost everyone to resist not being fully engaged in the inner dialogue of the thoughts that do arise. 

For this reason, most mindfulness techniques are really more like Stage 2 meditations because the meditator is directed to focus elsewhere while calmly accepting the appearance of thoughts as a natural phenomenon. 

STAGE 2 - FOCUSED CONCENTRATION Here we find the vast majority of meditation techniques which engage our will, feeling, and mind. Broad categories include techniques using breath awareness and control; mantra; visualization; and affirmation. The bhav of any given technique might be predominantly mental, devotional, or energetic, or some combination of all three. Some are basic such as watching the physical breath while silently chanting a mantra or affirmation; others, are more advanced because focused on the subtle or energy body in the energy centers of the chakras, the flow of prana in the subtle body, or any of their many manifestations. While will power and concentration characterize all of these, some are more passive and others more active. 

They are all "aspirational" in that the technique employed affirms a state of consciousness higher than the subconscious or conscious mind. In the practice of the technique, there remains some level of awareness of the distinction between "I" the doer and what I am seeking. 

I should point out that at any time in meditation, one might be suddenly transported into a higher state whether consciously sought or not.

In the stages of Patanjali's Eight-Fold Path focused concentration includes niyama (positive action), asana (strength and determination), pranayama (calming of life force and purity of feeling), and pratyahara (focus of the mind away from the senses).

This stage constitutes the bulk of what most people associate with meditation. But it is by no means the final or higher stages.

In the next installment we will touch upon the higher stages beginning with inner stillness, moving to inner experience and rising toward cosmic consciousness.

Stay tuned...............................Aum, Shanti, Amen!

Swami Hrimananda