The Process Of Meditation – How To Deepen Your Practice

[Originally published as a guest post on HighExistence.com (slightly adapted version)]

“I’ve been meditating every day for 20-30 minutes, for the past 6 months, but I feel my practice is now stuck, and I don’t know how to make it deeper.”

Have you ever felt like this? Maybe for you it’s two months, or two years, or ten years.

As a meditation coach and blogger, I get this type of complaint fairly often. Assuming that you have a clear understanding of the meditation technique you are practicing, there are basically three reasons why your meditation practice feels like it’s in a plateau, or is not going deep enough:

  • lack of preparation before practice
  • your daily life habits and attitudes are not supporting your practice
  • not enough intensity of focus during practice

The first point is about what you do before practice; the second is what you do outside of your seated practice. The third one is about the meditation process itself, the how of focusing attention, and is what I’ll explore in this article. Future posts will deal with the other two aspects.

In the beginning of one’s journey into meditation, the most important thing is simply to build up the habit, get used to sitting, and be comfortable with the posture of meditation. If you are still in the early stages of building a meditation habit, I’ll recommend reading the post of meditation for beginners instead.

Once the habit is already firm, then paying attention to actually improving one’s practice can take place, without the risk of demotivating the person. Which is what we will talk about now.

The Process Of Meditation

The reason why it feels our meditation doesn’t go deep, or is not clear enough, is due to lack of intensity of focus, which is a result of not fully understanding the process of meditation and “what we should be doing”. It is a form of torpor or sloth, which is one of the “five hindrances” of meditation, according to the Buddhist tradition.

The mind has two main functions, ‘doing’ and ‘knowing’. The way of meditation is to calm the ‘doing’ to complete tranquility while maintaining the ‘knowing’. Sloth and torpor occur when one carelessly calms both the ‘doing’ and the ‘knowing’, unable to distinguish between them. – Ajahn Brahmavamso

Suppose you meditate for 10 minutes (which is 600 seconds), focusing on your breathing. Let’s visually represent your meditation as a square on a paper, filled with 600 dots. When you are about to start meditation, they are all blank.

All empty

Each second of your meditation can only be spent in one of three ways: with the object of focus (in this case, the breath), with another object (for example, a thought or memory), or neither focused nor distracted, in a kind of “blanked out” state. Let’s represent these with colors:

  • For each second your attention is with your breathing, you get a green dot;
  • For each second where it is engaged in mental phenomena (thoughts, sensations, memories, etc.), you get a red dot;
  • For each second where it is neither paying attention to the object of your meditation, nor engaged in the mind, you get a gray dot.

Your objective is to fill that square with as many green dots as possible. The more green dots you have, the deeper and clearer your meditation feels; if it is filled with red dots, you would say your meditation was “noisy”, and all you get from it is simply bodily relaxation. If it is filled with gray dots, meditation is “calm but clouded”. Some people confuse this “gray state” with the real quietude of meditation, but it’s not (more about this later).

As a beginner – or as an advanced meditator in the first minutes of practice – our session may look like this

Beginner meditator

As time passes and you brush up your concentration skills, your meditation starts to look more like this

Intermediate meditator

The goals of the practice, for the beginner meditator, is to gently

  1. Decrease the number of consecutive reds (meaning the time needed for us to realize that we got distracted gets shorter);
  2. Increase the overall number of greens (pure concentration moments);
  3. Increase the number of consecutive greens;
  4. Decrease the number of grays.

For those familiar with the Hindu teaching of the three gunas (which are the basic characteristics of building blocks of all existence), we can say that:

  • green is sattva (purity, balance, serenity, openness, clarity, presence, awareness)
  • red is rajas (activity, dynamism, movement, agitation, restlessness)
  • gray is tamas (torpor, sloth, inertia, obfuscation, heaviness, forgetfulness)

I hope this gives you a better understanding of the process of meditation.

What happens to most people is that after 3 green dots, they relax their focus, and then the mind wanders. Thus, there is no intensity, and the results are limited.

Our attitude during meditation, then, should be to re-focus the attention second after second on the object of your meditation. At the “end” of each green dot you need to be particularly vigilant, because it is easy for the mind to slip to agitation or forgetfulness. Therefore, the key to deepening in meditation is to affirm and reaffirm your object of focus second after second, in a continuous flow of attention.

Of course, this is by no means easy, and takes long training to be achieved. But having a clear understanding of the process can help us progress faster. Unfortunately, I didn’t find this process laid out like this anywhere; it took me some time to connect the dots (intentional pun).

This process is true to mostly all types of meditation, since they are all an exercise in regulating attention. It’s applicable especially in concentrative practices and mindfulness.

  • In focused attention techniques, it is bringing back the attention to the single object of focus – be it the breath, a mantra, a chakra, feelings of loving-kindness, or anything else (external or internal, actual or imagined).
  • In open monitoring types of meditation (like mindfulness), the attention is constantly brought back to the perception of the present moment. The contents of the perception are constantly changing, but not the fact of perceiving itself.

In all these techniques, attention is constantly redirected to the practice, whatever form it takes. In the third type of meditation, in particular, it is very easy to confuse open awareness with gray states, which is perhaps why it’s not the best practice for most beginners.

Generating More Intensity

Energy, intensity and focus follow interest. Wherever we have a deep sense of interest, for that thing there is natural focus and intensity in our mind.

Sloth and torpor is overcome by rousing energy. Energy is always available but few know how to turn on the switch, as it were. Setting a goal, a reasonable goal, is a wise and effective way to generate energy, as is deliberately developing interest in the task at hand. A young child has a natural interest, and consequent energy, because its world is so new. Thus, if one can learn to look at one’s life, or one’s meditation, with a ‘beginner’s mind’ one can see ever new angles and fresh possibilities which keep one distant from sloth and torpor, alive and energetic. […] Sloth and torpor is a common problem which can creep up and smother one slowly. A skilful meditator keeps a sharp look-out for the first signs of sloth and torpor and is thus able to spot its approach and take evasive action before it’s too late. – Ajahn Brahmavamso (Wikipedia)

If your meditation is focusing on the breathing, you need to generate deep interest for the breath, with a mind of curiosity, of love for the breath. You need to want to know your breath deeply, in detail and depth; to experience it in many levels, again and again. Keeping the interest alive and intense, in the object of meditation, is the whole secret. You need to be more interested in exploring your breath than in rehearsing thoughts and memories in your mind.

As our focus goes deeper, what we before saw as a single dot (green, red or gray), we realise that it’s actually a collection of hundreds of mini-dots, of milliseconds of attentional movement. So when we say that we got a green dot, or a red dot, what it means is that for the majority of milliseconds of that dot, attention was green or red. But this is probably only relevant for more advanced meditators.

For this reason, also, choose among the traditional types of meditation one that your mind is naturally attuned to. That will help you keep your interest alive.

As a metaphor that can help us get a better experience of this feeling of intensity of focus, imagine you are walking on a rope, suspended over a cliff. You need your full attention every step of the way – every second of each step. A single moment of distraction, and your body loses balance and you fall.

intensity of focus

If we could “walk” our meditation with this level of intensity we would have no problem in attaining deeper levels of meditative absorption and clear vision.

To experiment this state of one-pointedness, you can also do the following experiment: balance a glass of  water on your head, and slowly walk around your home, without letting it fall. Second after second your attention needs to be there. Even though you may still have other thoughts, the glass never leaves your focus. In our meditation practice, we should “balance” our attention thus.

Here is another image that conveys intense continuous focus in the task at hand. Both these guys have only one task in mind.

one-pointedness

Get this intensity, minus the adrenaline and agitation, and you have the perfect attitude for deep meditation.

The main factor in dhyana is to keep the mind active in its own pursuit without taking in external impressions or thinking of other matters. – Ramana Maharshi (Talks, 61)

Keep your focus on your breath second after second, as if something extraordinary is about to happen at any moment, and you cannot miss it for the world. If you have this attitude, your meditation will be deep and beautiful, and thoughts will subside.

Your attention will get more and more subtle. You get increasingly aware of more subtle mental phenomena (perceptions, formations, fabrications, vrittis, whatever you call it), and let go of it, moving deeper and deeper. It is a continuous process of focusing in one point, and letting go of everything else. With practice, that one point becomes more stable and sharp, and the mental waves that you are perceiving – and letting go of – becomes more subtle.

Balancing Intensity With Gentleness

Having an idea of how intense meditation can be, and being able to actually go that deep, are different things.

We must not feel bad about our inability to concentrate, or about “how far we are” from ideal states. It’s important to have a good north in our practice, to know what is possible, so we keep pushing our boundaries. However, ultimately all we need to do is to simply give the best of ourselves at each step of the way.

Self-punishment, self-criticism, and feeling bad about ourselves are part of the obstacles that come – in meditation and in many activities in life. We must not give in to this type of thinking in meditation, but simply gently bring our attention back to our object of focus, as soon as we notice it has wandered. Slowly increasing the number of greens, and decreasing the reds, is what we are looking for. The trick is finding the perfect balance between effort and relaxation.

If you have a natural tendency towards self-criticism, Loving-Kindness meditation might be something you want to try.

Finally, even bad meditation is good. In a world where most of us are already constantly distracted, restless, agitated and busy, having a few minutes each day to just sit still will already, by itself, bring heaps of benefits, even if our focus is not that good.

There is transformative power in the meditation posture itself. Simply sitting moveless and trying our best to regulate our attention already goes a long way.

Gray States

When there is no understanding of the process of meditation, or no emphasis in concentration or regulation of attention, those that continue practicing for long get more into “gray states”. This happened several times in my meditation journey, especially in the beginning, so I speak from experience.

These states lack the one-pointedness and rock-solid aliveness of consciousness; instead, attention is more in a quiet, stand-by state. Sometimes discursive thinking is absent, but often there is a continuous thread of more “subtle” thinking, which usually goes unnoticed. Sometimes they transition into sleepiness or even napping.

Gray states also feel like peace, quiet, and rest, and many of the benefits of meditation – especially the physical ones – still happen. There is nothing inherently wrong with these states; but some meditation masters consider them a “waste of time”. Those that follow an “effortless” approach to meditation usually meditate like this for their entire lives. (See here for further discussion on effort and meditation.)

These states are often expressed in terms of “It was so quiet that I didn’t know anything” or “I don’t remember what was happening… it was like I was not there.”  The tricky thing is that people that are experiencing genuinely advanced states of meditation may express their experience in very similar terms – but the state is completely different. In the case of the advanced state of meditation that goes into a “no-thingness”, there is still a very intense of conscious presence and one-pointedness.

If you are looking for simply some inner calmness, relief from stress, deep rest, and other physical benefits, you’ll probably be happy with these states. But if you are looking for deep internal transformation, self-mastery, transcendence – they come back to the green as soon as you notice you have left the meditation focus.

Conclusion: effort must be directed to being with your object of meditation for as long as possible.

Advanced Stages

The advanced stage of meditative absorption known in the Hindu tradition as savikalpa samadhi is like a continuous flow of green dots in concentration. Effort is still there, although in a very subtle form.

Savikalpa Samadhi

At this point, though, it feels more like a continuous/unbroken stream, rather than a collection of individual concentration moments.

On the other hand, in the highest state, known as seed-less absorption or nirvikalpa samadhi, there is no more effort, no attention, no meditator, and no object of meditation. We can say (I speculate), that this is like having empty dots (neither green, nor red, nor gray).

These are states that very few meditators ever experience.

Parting Words

It is said that if you can meditate with perfect concentration for 10 minutes, on the 11th minute you will be in samadhi.

A completely green square is not to be expected. It’s simply a continuous process of exercising this muscle of attention, and my hope is that this article helped clarify the scope of this amazing exercise.

You may also enjoy reading my other tips on deepening your meditation practice and on how to prepare for a deep meditation.

Here are four very technical articles, from different contemplative traditions, that complement this discussion on the process of meditation

Are you an advanced practitioner? Your feedback will be more than welcomed. Is this how you perceive meditation as well? Leave a comment.

  • This post started as an answer I gave in Coach.me community forum. I felt it is so important, and rarely explained, that needed to be expanded.
    The seed of inspiration from this metaphor came from reading Swami Jnaneshvara’s comments on the Yoga Sutras (http://swamij.com/).

  • anapanasatisenough

    I like it. Good job. I’ve been meditating for 3 years now but have learned a lot from this article.

    • Yes. This is the type of thing I wished had been layed down to me clearly from the beginning of my journey.

  • Larry Frascella

    Giovanni…you are the man! Your blog is top notch brother! Keep up the great work!

  • Mary Butler

    Hi Giovanni, I have just found your blog and after ten years of meditation I very much appreciate your capacity to articulate the experience. I wonder whether you can spend a little time on the grey states. I know very well this state – however, it is such a major improvement on having thoughts that it is an enormous gift. I find that people ‘drop’ into these states, which feel like sleep, but are beyond this. In fact, I think that the ‘dropping’ (into the grey) is a real sign that the person has been gifted with some help in their meditation journey. They are ‘taken’ for that time. It is with time that we begin to recognise what effort really means – as a forceless force…..but try telling that to the beginning ‘try hard’ meditator (that is my beginning). So, it is good to recognise the grey areas – but be gentle with them. How do any of us awake, so that our focus is really where we say it is? how do we learn to value the breath, or the heart? Some do it immediately and others take longer. The grey is what helps us over the patches, when we are building the habit of meditation.

    • Hi Mary,

      Yes, the grey states are far better than the red ones. You experience rest, peace, and calmness. It replenishes the health and has several benefits. So they are definitely a progress in comparison to being in a restless mind state (red).

      I agree with most of what you say, and tried to capture that attitude in the section “Balancing Intensity With Gentleness”. This article is indeed probably more useful to people that have been meditating for a while (like yourself and other commenters so far), and have been spending some time in the grey states, and want to grow past them.

  • shwe

    Hi Giovanni, loved ur articles. I have been trying to do meditation on my own for years..believe me more than 15 yrs..but without much success. I hv always been interested in yoga and meditation. Lately I have been falling in the gray zone and that is very frustrating. I am doing 3rd level of reiki. Hv not been able to find the right meditation teacher. Thanks for your guidance.

    • Yet you must be deriving some benefit/satisfaction from your practice, to be doing it for so long.
      Feel free to send me an email (in About Me section) so we can talk about your practice.

  • Hello, Giovanni. Great article! As the commenter below me, shwe, pointed out, many people meditate without (much) success — some even falsely believe otherwise. Studies have shown that inexperienced meditaters are able to shut down the default network, the part of the brain that correlates with mind wandering, while meditating, but, afterwards, it fires right back up again. Extremely experienced meditators — Tibetan monks were the ones tested — did not have this network fire up again. One technique I found useful, and beginners may as well, is to use self-inquiry. When finding oneself lost in thought, inquire (ask yourself) from whence did that thought come from. This helps to shut down the default network on a long term basis. After this inquiry, concentration on the breath can be returned. Continous self-inquiry has a cumulative effect.
    Ramana Maharshi, who you quoted above, is also well known for his statement of self-inquiry: “Who am I?”
    As I plunge deeper, my dots get redefined.

    • The Self-Enquiry of Ramana Maharshi is the method I myself practice, and find it very powerful to drive to a state beyond thought. However, I’m not sure if it’s the best for beginners, as it’s very subtle. Great if it does 🙂
      What I find works really well for beginners – and even more advanced meditators – is to do some breath work (pranayama) right before meditation. Calming the body and breath before meditation helps the mind be more stable.

  • Ivan Petricevic

    Hi Giovanni! I absolutely loved your dots example. I meditate for more than a year now and this article perfectly summarizes the way every meditator, begginer or experinced one should try to go. When I am in that golden middle between relaxation and effort I feel my breathing in whole body, not just in my chest and belly. I feel my body rises and falls like one unit. Do you have any suggestions what to do next when I sharpen that concentration? I often concentrate on my chakras and feel real warmness (sometimes real heat) from front than inside and then to back of my body but that exercise is different from the one from your article because then I feel my breathing just in chakra area. Is there another way?

    • Hi Ivan,
      Glad you liked the article!

      Once you get to a point where body and mind are one, your intention is then to just stay in that point, for as long as you can. Basically deepen in that concentration. Once you can keep perfectly focused on your meditation object for minutes in a row, then meditation starts going into a whole new level.

      You can use the breathing as the object of meditation (wherever it’s felt in your body), or one of the chakras. The important thing is to choose one object and stick to it. The more you focus on it, the more it becomes “charged”, and thus it gets easier and easier to keep with it.

  • ali

    Wow thank u. I needed this article so much…as I felt like I was ‘plateauing’ after 3 mths of daily practice. Disappointment that my monkey mind was actually getting worse not better, and then losing motivation. But I didn’t stop which is good. But it’s been like a battleground. I had a sense that my intention was too vague & my energy too lax. I was confused about which practice I was doing and so on. Now looking forward to tomorrow morn & going for those green dots. Knowing I’m doing the best I can with my good north set. Yes! 🙂

    • Glad to hear this post helped you get more focus in your practice.
      And, above all, have patience. It’s a long process, and success comes little by little.

    • Ali

      Yes. Well, today was a little easier. Felt happy when I got a few green dots in a row and not so upset w my monkey mind. Bit more kindness w the process, thanks again! ????

  • Andreas Krasser

    Hi!
    Fantastic post, it really helped clear lots of thoughts, like why use closed or ope eyes. Switching between techniques etc. (i have been meditating 6 month 15-20 min every day morning and evenings and it sure have been a fantastic experience that i cant think i will ever let go of) One question i am thinking about is “focusing on the breathing”. When i meditate my breathing is quite calm and the only thing i can recognise is the little physical movement in my chest and stomach. Is this what i should focus on or try find some inner energy inside of stomach/chest?
    Thanks for geat post
    Andreas

    • You can focus on the movement of your chest and belly during breathing.

      Once that becomes easy, then move to focus on the breath as it crosses the bridge of the nose (more subtle).

  • I also enjoy Ajahn Brahm thoughts on meditation.