The 3 stages of meditation

As I was scrolling through my Twitter feed after searching for #meditation, I noticed something. There is a lot of confusing information out there.

One tweet says meditation is about controlling the mind. Another says it's about watching the mind. Yet another says it has nothing to do with the mind.

I notice that when I describe meditation to different people, I myself use phrases and descriptions that may sound at odds with each other. (For example, in my Meditation For Everyone, I walk the meditator through a simple, 2-step process to ease into meditation. Yet, in this article I will soon describe the three stages of meditation. Is there a contradiction? Read on...)

Despite all the info I came across, there was one aspect of meditation that nobody was talking about. That's why I wrote this post.

I want to bring as much clarity to meditation as possible, because it is one of the most powerful introspective techniques there is. So let's get right to it.

First, what is meditation?

Meditation is an introspective technique that increases your awareness of who/what you are, and as a result, of what your abilities are.

Most people in our society are taught from a young age that they are a body, and perhaps, a mind. But we are not taught what the nature of the mind is, what its limits and capabilities are, and how it shapes our identity. We are not taught that the sense of identity we have isn't fixed, or that when that sense of identity shifts, we begin to recognize previously unseen aspects of ourselves. All this happens in the dance between mind and the core of our awareness.

Meditation isn't magic. It makes sense: Place more attention on you, and you will discover much more of you. The results are better than any magic trick.

Why is meditation important?

It's important because much of the unhappiness and frustration a person faces is because we are caught in a case of mistaken identity. We were told we are so-and-so, and we believed it. But the truth is we are also so-and-so, not only so-and-so. The rest of our identity is waiting in the background. Recognizing our full identity is like coming home. You know when you're driving home after a really long and exhausting trip and you're tired and your back hurts from being in the car so long and the Cheetos just aren't cutting it and the song you really want to hear just won't play???

...and then... you get home... and flop onto your bed... and just like that... everything shifts. It all becomes okay. When you wake up in the morning, everything seems different.

It's kinda like that. When the case of mistaken identity is solved, everything shifts, and it all becomes okay. Problems don't go away. Instead, they are put in a radically different context.

What are the 3 stages of meditation?

Now Iet's describe 3 stages of one of the most common types of meditation.

Stage 1: Observing thoughts and feelings.

This is often the most difficult stage for someone starting to meditate. Thoughts fly around with dizzying speed. Memories erupt. Frustration abounds...

"Am I doing this right?"
"I'm not doing this right!"
"How the hell do people actually meditate? This is impossible!"
"I will be the only person who never learns to meditate."
"Why did I do this?"
"How am I supposed to control this mind? It controls me!"

If you've had these thoughts, or are having these thoughts, give yourself a pat on the back. These are the symptoms of early success in Stage 1. No, really, I'm not kidding. Everyone has similar thoughts and frustrations.

By taking the time to watch your thoughts and feelings, just as someone might watch a movie, you are making an evolutionary leap. You are starting to learn how the control system works, how your inner GPS navigates.

As Stage 1 progresses, the incessant thoughts and feelings and memories that run together like a thick goo will slowly start to separate. Gaps will appear between them. What do you have to do? Just keep watching, nothing else. At some point, you'll notice the gaps as much as you notice the content filling the gaps. That's the beginning of Stage 2.

Stage 2: Observing silence.

This stage begins when attention shifts from content (thoughts, feelings, etc) to the silent gaps in between the content. You make an intention to ignore the content and instead focus on the silence. You see the canvas instead of the painting. You hear silence instead of music. You attend to the background rather than the foreground.

As Stage 2 progresses, the duration of the gaps will increase. Silence will seem louder than sound. The background will come to the foreground. The busy world of thought content will seem more distant, but still clear and relatable.

A point of clarification. Observing silence doesn't mean you are trying to be silent. You are simply noticing the silence between the episodes of content that play in the mind. Your attention is placed on silence. No effort is needed to increase or manipulate silence, or change your thoughts.

Sometimes you'll notice silence clearly. Often, you won't. Either one is success, as long as you continue.

This silence is the road home. 

Two roads diverged in a wood, and I —
I took the one less traveled by,
And that has made all the difference.
                 -Robert Frost

Travel the road of silence. It cannot but lead you home.

Stage 3: Losing yourself.

This is the stage of meditation that nobody tells you about, at least not the full story. Why not? Because it's not as sexy as the first two stages. You can't do something with it.

Observing thoughts and feelings (Stage 1) can be fun. It can even give you a sense of control. Who doesn't want control, right?

Observing silence too can be fun (Stage 2). It can give you peace. It can give you insight. You can become wise. You may develop new abilities and talents.

Stage 3 is about one thing: Losing your prior sense of identity. Nothing less. It's when silence empties itself into the unknown. There's a shift in the way you relate to everything, starting with your own personality. It's like freefall, without a parachute.

Sometimes Stage 3 is too easily glossed over by invoking a popular word: enlightenment. Enlightenment is a grand word, appropriately so. But to the personality, to the meditator, it can appear anything but.

Think back to the analogy of the weary traveler who finally reaches home and falls into bed. When sleep finally arrives, the traveler loses his/her identity. Another way of saying this is that identity becomes unbounded, instead of remaining bound around the frame of an individual.

What would it be like for a person's identity to remain unbounded even while awake, even while a parcel of that infinity continues as a personality in the world? It is unimaginable to the mind (because the mind is bounded), yet every wisdom tradition around the world speaks of it. This is where Stage 3 leads.

Meditation ends in Stage 3, because the meditator ends in Stage 3. The boundary around the meditator is seen through. Something continues, but it cannot be called meditation in the prior sense of the word.

Where does mindfulness fit into all this?

Some people call Stage 1 mindfulness. Some call Stage 2 mindfulness. It doesn't really matter. As long as the basic progression is understood, you have a good map of meditation. Use the terminology that works for you.

Ultimately, meditation is about you, all of you. The technique should be used and understood properly. It is not a cure all for the personality, though it certainly brings a sense of ease; it is an unveiling of the rest of our identity.

Now you have the map. The terrain of your consciousness is yours to explore.

Anoop Kumar, MD, MM is the author of Michelangelo's Medicine: How redefining the human body will transform health and healthcare. He is a practicing emergency physician in the Washington, DC metro area.