The Nine Stages of Attentional Training
Updated: Aug 13, 2021
In Zen, training the mind is likened to training an ox. In Tibet, it is likened to training an elephant. 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. 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. Briefly, they are as follows:
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
Stage 5: Notice and immediately correct for subtle dullness
Stage 6: Establish a clearly defined scope of attention, and completely ignore subtle distractions.
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.
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.