“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 teacher and writer, 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.
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
As time passes and you brush up your concentration skills, your meditation starts to look more like this
The goals of the practice, for the beginner meditator, is to gently
- Decrease the number of consecutive reds (meaning the time needed for us to realize that we got distracted gets shorter);
- Increase the overall number of greens (pure concentration moments);
- Increase the number of consecutive greens;
- 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 realize 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.
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.
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.
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, standby 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.
In the Yoga contemplative tradition, these are called laya, and are seen as an obstacle.
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.
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.
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.
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.
Here are four very technical articles, from different contemplative traditions, that complement this discussion on the process of meditation
- Developing Single-Pointed Concentration (Gehlek Rinpoche – Tibetan Buddhism)
- The Path of Concentration & Mindfulness (Thanissaro Bhikkhu – Theravada Buddhism)
- Yoga Sutras 3.1~3.3 (Swami Jnaneshvara – Himalayan Yogis)
- Dharana, Dhyana, Samadhi and Meditation (Swami Nirmalananda Giri – Hindu Yoga)
Are you an advanced practitioner? Your feedback will be more than welcomed. Is this how you perceive meditation as well? Leave a comment.
[Originally published as a guest post on HighExistence.com (slightly adapted version)]