The Nine Stages of Attentional Training
Updated: Oct 17
The mind is powerful. In Zen, training the mind is likened to training an ox. In Tibet, it is likened to training an elephant. In America, we can liken it to training a wild bronco or a dog.
In the 9 stages of training the mind, we move from distractibility to equanimity. In the beginning stages, it is common for the mind to wander. Meditation at this stage is like bronc riding for ten minutes. The meditator attempts to hold on to the object of focus for eight to ten seconds as the mind bucks. We get tossed, dust ourselves off and get back on.
This analogy is not foreign to the West. Likening the horse to the mind appears in Ancient Greek philosophy. In Plato's allegory of the charioteer, the soul is described as having three components: a charioteer (Reason), and two winged steeds: one white (spiritedness, the irascible element, boldness) and one black (the appetitive element, concupiscence, desire). The goal is to train the horses and ascend to divine heights.
With practice, we can rewire the brain to maintain effortless attention on an object of focus for hours without interruption. In Pointing Out the Great Way, by Dan Brown and The Mind Illuminated by John Yates, salient characteristics of each stage and milestones are outlined.
1. Beginner: Distractions, dullness of mind and other hindrances are common.
2. Beginner: The practitioner has established a daily practice and can maintain attention on the meditation object for about a minute.
3. Beginner: Practitioners can maintain attention on the object of focus for about 10 minutes. Distractions may push the object to the periphery, but a practitioner is able to detect mind wandering quickly and reorient attention.
Milestone: Uninterrupted continuity of attention marks the first stage of development of skilled concentration. The meditator is no longer a novice, prone to mind-wandering and falling asleep.
4. Skilled: Practitioner can maintain attention for an hour or more without losing her mental hold on the object of meditation.
5. Skilled: Develops continuous awareness to make corrections before subtle distractions become gross. Gross distractions no longer push the breath into the background. Breath sensations don’t fade.
6. Skilled: Subtle mental dullness or laxity is no longer a great difficulty, but now the practitioner is prone to subtle excitements which arise at the periphery of meditative attention.
Milestone: Sustained single-pointed attention to the meditation object.
7. Adept: Attention no longer alternates. Attention is stable. Although the practitioner may still experience subtle excitement or dullness, they are rare and s/he can easily recognize and pacify them.
Milestone: Effortless stability of attention, also known as mental pliancy.
8. Adept: In this stage the practitioner can reach high levels of concentration with only a slight effort and without being interrupted by subtle laxity or excitement during the entire meditation session.
9. Adept: The meditator now effortlessly reaches absorbed concentration and can maintain it for about four hours without any single interruption.
Milestone: Stability of attention and mindful awareness are fully developed, accompanied by meditative joy, tranquility and equanimity, qualities which persist between meditation sessions
At each stage, we set our intentions and let the intention do the work. We can only act in the present moment. A goal implies a future, imagined state. The intention orients the mind to the present such that, with clear focus, we can incrementally, moment by moment, walk toward the goal. Over time, results become more consistent and the qualities cultivated- such as patience and determination, become more persistent. We reach each milestone.
When addressing some audiences, I liken meditation to training a puppy. First, we must have the desire and commit the time to training our minds.
Stage 1: Establish a daily meditation practice. Committing to daily practice is not easy. Several qualities of mind must be established and dominant, among them are: 1. resolve, 2. discipline, 3. commitment, 4. time management, 5. faith. In stage 1, the trainer commits to working with his puppy-mind daily. A 2023 study found improvements in attention, memory, mood, and emotional regulation after 8 weeks of meditation for just 13 minutes per day. A 2016 study found that engaging in meditation over an extended period led to structural alterations in the brain's "white matter," responsible for transmitting sensory information. These changes may provide insights into how meditation aids individuals in remaining present and potentially mitigating age-related cognitive decline.
Stage 2: Appreciate the ‘aha moment that recognizes mind wandering. Intend to engage with the breath as fully as possible. Shorten the periods of mind-wandering and extend the periods of sustained attention. At this stage of trainer, we train our puppy-mind to sit and reward it with a dopamine snack. Celebrating those aha moments is key!
Stage 3: Invoke introspective awareness to make corrections before you notice distractions or dullness. Engage with the breath as fully as possible without losing peripheral awareness. Here, we're training the puppy-mind to heel. When it wanders or leads, as it inevitably will, we give it a gentle tug and, with time, train it to heel.
Stage 4: Remain vigilant. Introspective awareness becomes continuous. Notice and immediately correct strong dullness & gross distraction. Observe the process of how mental events arise without cognitive elaboration. At this stage, we train the puppy-mind to "drop it!"
Stage 5: Notice and immediately correct for subtle dullness. At this stage, we train the puppy mind to watch and remain alert.
Stage 6: Establish a clearly defined scope of attention, and completely ignore subtle distractions. At this stage, the puppy-mind is no longer distracted by squirrelly thoughts.
Adept (I have no attained the stage of an adept. These stages are reserved for monks and nuns who've sat multiple, multi-year retreats.
Stage 7: We approach the threshold of effortlessness. Purposely relaxing effort from time to time will let us know when effort and vigilance are no longer necessary. We surrender the need for control.
Stage 8: Meditative joy arises. The intensity can perturb the mind, becoming a distraction and object of craving.
Stage 9: Profound tranquility and equanimity persists even between sessions.
The Monkey Mind
That the mind wanders is normal. We take it as a gibbon. Buddhists liken the mind to a monkey swinging from tree to tree. Beginners get very frustrated with their monkey minds. We order our monkeys to sit quietly in a corner while we walk to the cushion to meditate. The monkey chatters; we get upset and lock it in a cage. The monkey bangs on the bars; we threaten it with a stick. The more agitated we get, the more difficult the monkey is to restrain.
This is not the way to train a monkey. Our relationship to our monkey minds matters most. Are we OK with a busy mind or are we waging an internal gorilla war? Bad puns aside, by letting thoughts be, we develop important qualities of mind that are as important as concentration... if not more so: 1. The ability to observe without getting caught up in the mind's monkey business, 2. the ability to remain equanimous even when the mind goes ape s***, 3. self-compassion, 4. patience.
Training a monkey will take years of diligent practice.
The mind secretes thought moment by moment. That's the nature of the mind. It is possible for adept meditators to keep single-pointed attention on an object of concentration for hours. This demands years of intense training. In the end, though, a well trained monkey is still a monkey. The teacher Nisargadatta Maharaj said: "Mind means disturbance. Restlessness itself is mind. It may go quiescent occasionally, but it does so only for a time and reverts to its usual restlessness. A thing that is essentially restless cannot be at peace. What you call peace is absence of disturbance. Real peace cannot be disturbed. The self does not need to be put to rest. It is not at peace; it is peace itself. Only the mind is restless."
A skilled meditator is as interested in cultivating awareness as they are in developing stronger powers of concentration. This requires a degree of patience and calm.
An instructor at the Monkey Training School in Surat Thani, Thailand, had this to say about training monkeys:
"The first task of the teacher is to make the monkey feel itself comfortable in its new surroundings. This is the most important and most difficult part of training monkeys. This is established by taking good care of the monkey and never punishing or hitting it."
Similarly, in meditation, the most important and difficult part of training monkeys is making it feel comfortable with the new routine. "This is established by taking good care of the monkey." Let your monkey be a monkey. Notice, we have objectified the mind here. We've likened it to a monkey. It seems to have its own nature. That we are not our minds is a common refrain you often hear practitioners say and seems self-evident.
So, who is the you that decided to train the monkey? Who is the you to whom a wandering mind seems self-evident? Who is this self? It cannot be objectified. Whatever can be objectified is not the Self. The Self cannot be known through reason. It precedes reason. Because "I am," reasoning arises. Now comes word slippage and paradox. Mind observes mind, Self observes self. Beyond words something sublime waits.
No one embarks on a journey without knowing the final destination. Stage 9 is not the terminus. The mind simply ceases to be an obstacle and impediment. Experiences of bliss, connectedness and peace become more persistent.
I came across an interesting study years ago by Dr. Jeffrey Martin on persistent non-symbolic experiences. It provides one of the clearer descriptions on the topography of inner landscapes.
Martin conducted an international study on persistent non-symbolic experience (PNSE), more commonly known as: enlightenment, nonduality, the peace that passeth understanding, unitive experience, and hundreds of other terms. The term persistent denotes a consistent, ongoing experience versus a transient one- however powerful, mystical or ecstatic. His research resulted in a classification system for these types of experiences. It also led to the discovery that these were psychological states that were not inherently spiritual, religious, or limited to any given culture or population.
Instead of levels or stages, Martin proposed 4 locations- where further is not necessarily better. At a particular stage in life, for example, location 1 may be preferable to 3 for some. Locations are clusters of experience that emerged from the data.
Location 1 participants experienced a dramatic reduction in or seeming loss of an individualized sense of self. Their minds seemed much quieter because of a reduction in the quantity and/or emotional strength of self-related thoughts, but there were still some emotionally charged thoughts that could pull them back into more active thought streams. They experienced a range of positive and negative emotions, but these emotions were much more transient and did not have the power over them that they once did. Conditioning could still trigger thought streams and stronger emotions, but even these passed in a matter of seconds. The overall change in their thoughts and emotions left them with a deep sense of peace and beingness. This beingness felt more real than anything previously experienced and made the external world and their former experience of an individualized sense of self seem less real by comparison. This deep peace could be suppressed by external psychological triggers, but would recover once the stimulus was removed. Their sense of self seemed larger and to expand beyond the physical body. There was a new sense of connectedness between what was formerly perceived as the internal and external worlds.
Location 2 participants experienced an increased loss of self-related thoughts as well as a continued reduction in the ability of the thoughts that did remain to draw them in, when compared to Location 1. As they progressed through this location the range of emotions they experienced became increasingly positive. Participants in Location 2 were more likely to feel that there was a correct decision or path to take when presented with choices. Participants who progressed to this location from the previous one reported an increased sense of well-being.
By Location 3, participants had shed their negative emotions, and now experienced one dominant emotion. This single emotion felt like a mixture of various positive emotions such as impersonal/universal compassion, joy, and love. Parts of negative emotions, which one participant called proto-emotions, were sometimes still felt but did not form into full emotions. The single remaining positive emotion was a constant experience and companion for Location 3 participants. The remaining traces of self-referential thought had continued to fall away. In Location 3, participants’ experience of inner peace and beingness continued to deepen. So too had their feelings of connectedness and union/unity. Participants at Location 3 often saw the world as unable to be any other way than it already is in the moment. While all participants expressed this to some degree it seemed to have grown very deep roots by this point. These participants generally did not place importance on choosing the correct decision or path like Location 2 participants.
Location 4. All remaining vestiges of self-related thoughts are gone by this point, as are experiences of emotion. Feelings of deep interconnectedness and union with God, an all pervasive consciousness, and so forth also disappeared. These participants reported having no sense of agency or any ability to make a decision. It felt as if life was simply unfolding and they were watching the process happen. Severe memory deficits were common in these participants, including the inability to recall scheduled events that were not regular and ongoing. Participants who progressed to this location from one or more previous ones reported the highest level of well-being. Often this amazed them as they did not imagine anything could have been better than Location 3.
Virtually all of the participants discussed a pronounced shift in the nature and quantity of thoughts. The nature and degree of the change related to a participant’s location on the continuum. On the early part of the continuum, nearly all participants reported a significant reduction in, or even complete absence of, thoughts. Around 5% reported that their thoughts actually increased. Those who reported thoughts, including increased thoughts, stated that they were far less influenced by them. Participants reported that for the most part thoughts just came and went, and were generally either devoid of or contained greatly reduced emotional content. Almost immediately it became clear that participants were not referring to the disappearance of all thoughts. They remained fully able to use thought for problem solving and living what appeared outwardly to be a ‘normal’ life. The reduction seemed limited to self related thoughts.
There do not appear to be negative cognitive consequences to this reduction in thought.
When asked, none said they wanted their self-referential thoughts to return to previous levels or to have the emotional charge returned to them. Participants generally reported that their problem solving abilities, mental capacity, and mental capability in general had increased because it was not being crowded out or influenced by the missing thoughts. They would often express the notion that thinking was now a much more finely tuned tool that had taken its appropriate place within their psychological architecture.
The amount of self-related thoughts as well as the percentage with emotional content
continued to decrease as participants moved along the continuum. During the earlier parts of the continuum participants could still be ‘grabbed’ by thoughts and have their mind pulled into thought sequences similar to what other research has shown in mind wandering (Smallwood & Schooler, 2006). They reported noticing this process occurring relatively rapidly and stated that this noticing led back to the experience of reduced thoughts. This ‘grabbing’ process also reduced as participants moved along the continuum. At the farthest extreme, participants reported no self-referential thoughts at all.
With PNSE, in a matter of seconds (reported as 2 to 90 depending on the severity of the incident involved, and usually on the extreme low end of the range if not life-threatening) their emotional state would return to a baseline of high wellbeing, and they were no longer reactive or bothered by the incident. They stated that prior to PNSE they would have remained upset much longer in similar situations. Commenting on the difference, they typically speculated that the lack of an individualized sense of self seemed to affect whether or not, and how long, they held onto the perceived injuries from these events.
All participants reported a significant increase in their experience of and focus on what was happening in the present moment along with a dramatic reduction in thoughts about the past and future.
As they moved deeper into the continuum, participants were increasingly able to control their reactivity to external events. As this progression continued this active control faded and became increasingly less necessary. Participants reported simply having fewer and fewer internal experiences arise in reaction to external events.
Many of the meditation techniques shared by participants can be found here: