Levels of meditation: what you need to know

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‍Are you wondering about what the levels of meditation are and where you are at right now in your practice?

I know I was! I started meditating a few years ago, but I was very on-and-off when it came to my practice.

A couple of weeks ago I started to wonder what my level of meditation might be, so I did some research.

I stumbled upon a book, “The Mind Illuminated: A Complete Meditation Guide Integrating Buddhist Wisdom and Brain Science for Greater Mindfulness” by Culadasa (John Yates).

In it, he outlines the 10 levels of meditation perfectly, so I figured I’d let you in on the secret!

Level 1: Establishing a practice

When you first start a meditation practice, it is very important that you create a daily practice schedule and stick to it.

We are creatures of habit, and if we don’t create a good habit of meditating, we may never get started at all!

When you first sit down to meditate, you will be learning how to deal with the constant thoughts running through your head.

You will be learning how to let thoughts flow through your mind without getting wrapped up in them, and you will be learning how to remain present in this moment.

The best beginners’ technique for dealing with thoughts is to label them as “thinking” and then gently return to your breath or whatever object you are using as your focal point.

You can also try letting go of thoughts by observing them and then letting them go.

Now: this is really the number one key, establishing a practice for yourself. Everything else will be built upon this moment.

The goal here is to do everything in your power to establish a regular practice.

Of course, you will face a bunch of obstacles, too.

When I first started motivating, days 1 and 2 were fueled with motivation. However, at about day 3 I started to get a bit bored.

I figured, “Hey, I’ve been meditating for a week, I’m already good at it! I should be at level 2 by now!” But that’s not how it works.

If you’re going to stick with it, you need to know that this is just the beginning and it’s okay if you don’t feel like you’re getting anywhere fast.

It will take time to establish the practice and the habit.

The thing is, at first, feelings of impatience, boredom, resistance, and procrastination will make it really difficult to stick to regular practice.

But that’s the point! If you can stick to it even through these feelings, then you will have a practice that is strong and stable.

That means that when life gets hard and you’re feeling a lot of suffering, you’ll be able to fall back on your practice to help deal with it.

Now: establishing a regular meditation practice is like building any other good habit – you can’t rely on willpower alone to get the job done.

Willpower comes and goes, as does motivation. So how can you make something a habit?

Start small!

Instead of being overly confident and wanting to meditate for 30 minutes a day, tell yourself that you will meditate for at least 2 minutes a day.

Sure, 2 minutes is not your end goal and you might feel motivated to do more than that, especially during your first days, but once the motivation starts to slack, you’ll be glad that you have a 2-minute practice to fall back on.

That way, when you’re feeling unmotivated, you can just do those 2 minutes and then call it a day.

After all, there’s no rule that says that you have to do a lot of meditation in order to get results.

In fact, meditation is not about doing more of it; it’s about doing it properly.

And the best part?

Once you get your brain into acknowledging that this is something you do every single day (whether that’s 2 minutes or 30 minutes), it will be easier to transition to longer meditations.

When you have established a regular practice to the point where you never really miss a session, you are probably already at level 2!

Level 2: Interrupted attention and overcoming mind wandering

As you continue to practice and get more comfortable with meditation, you will notice that you will have to interrupt your attention less often.

You will also notice that your attention will be less interrupted by the thoughts that previously seemed to take your attention away.

At this level, your attention will be interrupted by thoughts less often, and you will also be able to return to your attention more easily after it is interrupted.

This is a beautiful sign that progress is being made in your meditation journey.

I know how frustrating it can be at first, to sit down for your meditation session, ready to really have a go at it, but to be constantly distracted by your grocery list or anything else your mind wanders to.

But I have some good news for you!

It’s not just frustrating, but also a great opportunity for growth.

The more often you notice your mind wandering, the more often you will be able to notice that it is wandering, and the better you will get at bringing your attention back to focus.

Mind wandering is a major part of meditation, and it’s very important that you understand that.

As I mentioned before, meditation is about awareness.

When your attention wanders off into thoughts about anything else besides the present moment and the breathing practice, and you notice it, this is a great sign that your awareness has kicked into high gear!

When this happens in meditation, it means that you are now aware of your mind wandering away from the present moment and back into thoughts of the past or future.

Now: I know your goal is to be as focused as possible for as long as possible, but as humans, we will never be able to fully escape a wandering mind.

Sure, we can prolong the periods of focus through continued practice, but you need to shift your mindset and use these wandering episodes as a teacher.

What does your mind usually wander to?

Is it your to-do list?

A loved one or pet?

Or maybe a conversation that you had earlier in the day?

Whatever it is, it’s important that you become aware of this tendency, and that you make peace with the fact that this is a normal part of being human.

This awareness will help you deal with the next level of the process.

Plus, the more often your mind wanders, the better you will become at figuring out ways to bring your attention back.

What we call mind-wandering is also often referred to as the monkey mind.

A monkey mind is the tendency of your mind to jump from thought to thought, without any rhyme or reason, and without your control.

As you begin to notice this happening during your meditation practice, it’s important to realize that you have a choice:

You can either try to push away these thoughts and keep trying to stay focused on the breathing practice.

Or you can embrace the fact that your mind has wandered off into thoughts about something else, and let them go.

It’s important to know that the goal of this level is not to fully stop mind-wandering, it’s to shorten the periods of it.

So, in order to move on to level 3, you simply need to be able to sustain your focus for a few minutes, while the periods of mind-wandering only last a few seconds.

Level 3: Extended attention and overcoming forgetting

At this level, you may be starting to forget what it feels like to be interrupted by a thought.

This is an important milestone in your meditation journey. You can hold your attention for extended periods of time.

Not only are you experiencing less interruption from thoughts, but you are also extending the amount of time it takes for a thought to be forgotten.

This means that, after you have interrupted your attention from thoughts and forgotten them, you can return to your meditation without any problem.

It also means that you are now experiencing a very strong flow of uninterrupted attention.

This is when you can start learning how to “ride the wave of your breath” and let the thoughts come and go while your attention remains on your meditation.

Now: what are the challenges of this level?

Well, the challenge is not to forget about your practice and to not fall asleep during your practice.

Falling asleep during meditation is actually relatively common.

It’s a very common reason why many people stop their practice.

But, if you’re going to fall asleep during your meditation, it’s usually not because your practice is too hard or too easy for you.

It’s usually because you are not giving yourself enough time to get used to the practice of being still and having a quiet mind.

If this happens, you need to be patient with yourself and give it more time before moving on to level 4.

The thing is, you can overcome falling asleep with enough focus on your breath. If you have something to focus on, then falling asleep is not necessarily an option.

Now: I get it, if you meditate in the early morning or late at night, it might be inevitable that you fall asleep.

In those cases, it’s not even too bad to fall asleep, meditation can even become a tool to deeper sleep.

However, my number one tip here is to rely on techniques that focus heavily on the breath and try to not forget about your practice.

Once you have mastered different breathing techniques, you’ll notice that your attention span will be much longer than anticipated.

That’s when you’ll be ready to move on to level 4!

Level 4: Continuous attention and overcoming gross distractions and strong dullness

As you approach this level, you will notice that you are experiencing fewer gross distractions and less strong dullness.

This is because you’ve gotten much better at maintaining attention on your meditation and your mind is becoming less restless.

At this level, you are working on not letting gross distractions lead your mind astray during meditation, and you learn how to not feel strong dullness during your practice.

If you are struggling at this point, it is helpful to have a teacher. You can use a meditation teacher to help you work through any problem or obstacle that arises in your meditation.

Or maybe you know someone who is much more experienced in the field of meditation than you are.

In those cases, reaching out and asking for help is a great idea.

It’s important to be able to notice when you feel dullness or gross distractions during your practice.

That’s when you need to be the most vigilant and alert.

It’s at that point where you’ll have the most power over your experience.

If you are feeling fully distracted, then it is best to just sit there and be with it for a while.

Don’t try to go back to focusing on your breath immediately, because that will only make things worse.

If you are feeling dullness, then you need to do something about it right away!

Usually what will happen is that you’ll start getting sleepy or drowsy while meditating, and then your mind will start drifting off into other random thoughts like what’s for dinner tonight.

If this happens, it is best to bring your attention back to your breath as soon as possible because this is not the time for random thoughts!

It’s better to stay with your meditation even if it seems boring than to give in and let yourself get distracted by stupid thoughts about food.

If these types of gross distractions keep happening over and over again (which they probably will until you master them), then there are some other techniques that can help out in dealing with them.

One of the most important steps is using continuous introspective awareness in an attempt to overcome distractions before they become big.

Another great thing you can try out on this level is working with pain and discomfort.

You see, pain and discomfort will be a part of many meditation sessions, especially in the beginning.

The important thing is to not let this pain and discomfort take over your mind and distract you from your meditation.

It’s best to accept the pain for what it is, and then just let it be there without letting it bother you too much.

Pain or discomfort can be an incredible teacher during meditation – it allows you to become very present and mindful of what is happening in the moment.

This can be a great opportunity to learn some lessons about how you perceive pain and discomfort in your life.

But if you let it distract you, then it’s not really a good learning experience at all.

The key is to separate yourself from the pain and discomfort as much as possible, while still remaining aware of it.

If you are able to do this, then meditating becomes a very powerful experience!

Once you aren’t distracted by big things anymore and continuously focus on your breath, you are ready for level 5.

Level 5: Overcoming subtle dullness and increasing mindfulness

At this point, you’ve probably forgotten what it feels like to be interrupted by thoughts, experience gross distractions, and be experiencing strong dullness.

At this level, you are experiencing fewer gross distractions and less strong dullness.

At this point, you are probably experiencing subtle dullness.

Subtle dullness is an absence of focused attention. It is important to understand that this type of dullness is different from mind wandering.

When you are experiencing mind wandering, you are paying attention to your thoughts, and you are aware of the fact that you are thinking.

When you are experiencing subtle dullness, you are slowly starting to get bored with your practice, but not in any major way.

This is a great opportunity to work on getting to know yourself a bit better.

In Level 5, you will also work on increasing your mindfulness, both during and after your practice.

During your meditation, you can use body-scanning techniques to get this done.

Body-scanning involves moving your attention slowly throughout your body, one part at a time.

You can do this by starting with your toes and working your way up to your head, or you can start at the top of the head and work your way down to the toes.

The important thing is that you stay focused on one body part at a time and don’t let yourself get distracted from the object of meditation.

This will make you more aware of how subtle dullness feels, which in turn will help you become more mindful of it in everyday life.

During meditation, it’s also important to stay aware of how subtle dullness feels after meditating as well.

You’ll want to pay attention to how you feel for several minutes after meditating, especially if you are going through some negative emotions or thoughts right after meditating.

In this case, it’s important that you learn how to detach yourself from these emotions and thoughts while still being aware of them.

After meditation is over, simply bring awareness into the present moment while experiencing whatever thoughts or emotions come up for you.

This can be a great opportunity for self-discovery!

Most importantly, try to become more mindful throughout your days. Drop into the present moment more often.

Once you increase your mindfulness during each meditation session, you are ready to move on to level 6.

Level 6: Subduing subtle distractions

At this level, you’ve probably forgotten what it feels like to be interrupted by thoughts, and experience gross distractions, strong dullness, and subtle dullness.

At this level, you will still experience subtle distractions. Subtle distractions are a subtle form of thinking.

At this point, you need to be careful not to confuse subtle distractions with your meditation object.

In level 6, you can focus on developing what is called “metacognitive introspective awareness”.

In simple terms, you will learn how to get your mind to observe its own activities from a third-person perspective.

This will allow you to begin to realize when you are experiencing subtle distractions.

At level 6, you will also learn how to direct your attention away from the object of meditation and back onto the object whenever you realize that your mind is wandering.

You can use any technique for breathing meditation that you learned in previous levels.

Your goal here is to be even more focused on your scope of attention and to let everything outside of that fade away during your practice.

This means that you will no longer be distracted by subtle distractions.

It also means that you will be able to maintain your focus on breathing for a longer period of time each time you meditate.

Now: distractions will always be there, no matter how skilled you are or how many years you’ve been doing this practice.

You notice that you have mastered this level, however, when subtle distractions almost completely disappear and you can hold your attention on the object for a longer and longer period of time each time you meditate.

Also, your mindfulness will drastically increase during this level, as well.

Once you are ready, you can move on to level 7!

Level 7: Exclusive attention and unifying the mind

At this level, you are experiencing almost no gross distractions, dullness, or subtle distractions.

At this point, you are experiencing only subtle distractions and dullness when your efforts slack off.

The difference between this level and the level before is that, now, you have the possibility and skill to overcome any distractions, you simply need to put in the effort.

This is exactly what you want to be doing.

You want to be able to overcome any distractions that arise so that your mind can unify as one and stay on your meditation object.

You will want to continue with this practice until your mind is completely unified, and you are able to ignore any and all distractions.

The good news? If you work on it long enough, there will be a point where exclusive attention and mindfulness will be so automatic that you don’t need to exert any more effort.

Now: even though you’ve been practicing for a while, you might still experience dullness or boredom from time to time.

That’s okay, simply keep practicing. The key here is to stay disciplined and actually reach this “effortlessness” that will make meditation so much easier.

The goal? Well, once you are able to drop your effort completely while still maintaining a clear, stable mind, and you are able to stay on your object without any effort at all, you have reached the next level.

The reason that the above levels are in order is that, as you progress through them, the effort required to reach each one will increase.

If you are having trouble reaching any of these levels, don’t hesitate to ask a meditation master or teacher for help.

They can help you figure out what’s going wrong and why your mind is stuck in a lower level of practice.

Once you know what’s holding your practice back, it will be much easier to move on!

Don’t worry, there is always a solution to how you can overcome your own personal obstacles, you simply need to find it.

Level 8: Mental pliancy and pacifying the senses

At this level, you are experiencing fewer gross distractions, less dullness, and subtle distractions. At this point, you are experiencing only subtle distractions from time to time.

Unlike the level before, at this level, you are focusing on pacifying your senses and reaching meditative joy during some practices.

This is a very important step in becoming a skilled meditator.

You need to be careful not to be too critical or judgemental about what you see.

Instead, you should be open and curious about the distractions that arise in your mind.

By being open to your distractions, you will learn from them.

You will see what your mind is doing, and you will be able to work with these strong points of focus and transform them into powerful tools that can be used in your daily life.

The first time you experience meditative joy is comparable to other states of flow, such as a runner’s high, for example.

It can take a while to get to that point, but once you’ve reached it, it will make all your practice feel worth it.

Now: there isn’t anything specific you need to do in order to get to this point, you simply need to keep practicing.

Once you’ve reached this state of pure joy during your practice, that’s when you will be ready for level 9.

Level 9: Mental and physical pliancy and calming the intensity or meditative joy

At this level, you should continue to observe your meditative joy and work on prolonging it.

This means you do not ignore it, but you do not get too involved with it, either.

At this level, you will really start to experience the joy and intensity of your meditation.

You will notice that your mind is quiet and still, and your body will be relaxed.

This is a beautiful sign that your meditation is progressing. But, don’t get too excited yet, because there is still one more level to go.

The obstacles here? Well, when you experience meditative joy, it can actually become a distraction if you get too involved in it.

You should be careful not to get too involved with the experience of joy, because it can become an obstacle to your practice.

At this point, you need to keep the intensity of the joy in check and focus on calming your mind and relaxing your body.

In order to do this, you need to be aware that the meditative joy is coming and going, but you don’t attach to it or get too involved with it when you feel it.

The best way to do this is by observing your sensations with a curious mind, without judgment or criticism.

This means that when you feel joy during meditation (or any other state), just sit there and enjoy it, don’t attach any meaning to it!

Once you are able to do that during your practices, that’s when you’ve likely reached the final level of meditation!

Level 10: Tranquillity and equanimity

At this level, you are experiencing pretty much no more distractions.

At this level, your mind is completely unified, and you are experiencing a beautiful flow of uninterrupted attention.

And the best part?

At this level, you will experience tranquility, and your body and mind will be relaxed.

And, you will experience equanimity.

You will be able to maintain your attention on your meditation object while experiencing joy, intensity, and tranquility.

You will be able to let go of distractions while remaining equanimous.

You will be able to experience the joy of meditation without getting too excited or too stressed out about it.

You will also be able to let go of distractions without getting too caught up in them or too stressed out about them.

This is the mark of a skilled meditator, and at this point, your only goal is to maintain this level and maybe continue to prolong your sessions.

There are no more big obstacles to overcome here but remember: once you slack off your practice, you will immediately find yourself a few levels back again.

But that’s not a bad thing, it’s what life is all about, we are continuously learning!

So, if you have already reached this stage, congratulations!

If you haven’t yet reached this level, don’t worry, keep practicing and enjoy the journey!

Life is a journey of self-discovery.

What are the 4 milestones?

We talked about the 10 levels of meditation, but there are also 4 major milestones that you could keep in mind to see where you are at.

Milestone 1: Continuous attention on the object of meditation

Your first milestone is simple, you are able to hold your attention on your object of meditation for a few minutes or more without any major distractions.

You may have some minor distractions at this stage, but nothing too big.

At this stage, you are still likely to get caught up in your thoughts and emotions, but you are able to maintain your attention on the object of meditation for a prolonged period of time.

Your goal is to keep practicing until you reach the next milestone.

Milestone 2: Sustained exclusive focus of attention

The second milestone is that you are able to hold your attention on the object of meditation for a prolonged period of time.

This is not a very easy milestone to reach and you may need to practice for a few weeks in order to achieve it.

At this stage, you are able to let go of distractions without getting too caught up in them or too stressed out about them.

Milestone 3: Effortless stability of attention

Once your actions become effortless, you’ve reached milestone 3.

At this stage, you are able to hold your attention on the object of meditation for a prolonged period of time without requiring any effort or diligence.

You could say that at this stage, you are able to “be” in your meditation.

This is the mark of a skilled meditator and at this point, you are already far along on your journey.

Milestone 4: Persistence and mental clarity

Last but not least, milestone number 4 is that you are able to hold your attention on the object of meditation for a prolonged period of time with persistence and mental clarity.

At this stage, you are able to let go of distractions without getting caught up in them or too stressed out about them.

You are able to see the distractions clearly and let them go without much effort.

This is perhaps the most difficult milestone to achieve and it can take a few months or more to reach it.

The path to enlightenment and bliss

As you climb the levels of meditation and progress on your journey, you will notice that your meditation becomes easier.

Your meditation will become easier to start, easier to sustain, and easier to end.

You will also begin to notice that your mind is becoming clear, and your emotions and thoughts are becoming more balanced.

Your meditation will continue to improve as you become more skilled, and you will eventually reach the last level.

Now: I’ve told you all about the levels of meditation, but I hope you remember that no matter where you are in your journey, you are doing amazing.

Meditation can be tricky at first, so don’t give up on it! Once you’ve reached level 10, you will notice that it was all worth it.