Four Stages to Meditation Practice
There are four basic stages to meditation practice — like the four movements in a beautiful symphony, they flow together in a great concert of higher awareness. Within these four general stages, Patanjali’s eight limbs provide specific practices.
A simple guide to the stages — my four-part formula — for meditation practice is this: foster, focus, flow, and finish.
- Foster: Establish a conducive environment, both externally and internally. This includes posture, breath awareness, and internalization of attention.
- Focus: Use a concentration technique to focus attention on a single point.
- Flow: Let go into the peak experiences of meditation and Oneness.
- Finish: Consciously bring your attention back to mind and body with a sense of appreciation, renewal, and empowerment.
Stage 1: Foster
The first stage of meditation practice is arranging conditions that are conducive to meditative awareness — both internally and externally. To meditate, choose a quiet place where you will not be disturbed — shut the door, turn off the phones and computer, sit down, and intentionally direct your attention within.
As a beginning meditator, one of the first challenges I faced was my fear of being alone with myself! Sounds strange, yet when I look back, I can see how it took a while to settle in and get comfortable with the deep, and raw, connection that meditation brings. Don’t get me wrong; I have always enjoyed being alone. Yet by continually staying busy doing something, I remained distant from myself. Meditation was different. Finding the willingness to be undistracted and uninterrupted — to be truly alone with myself — took courage. I had lived for decades distracted from my Self, disconnected from what I truly felt and what I deeply knew to be true. But divine grace has a way of bringing us back to our Self, helping us rediscover our wholeness. When I was ready, meditation provided the way.
Hesitation to be alone with oneself can show up in subtle or obvious ways, like leaving the phone just out of range — in case someone important calls! Or, taking a problem to be solved with us into meditation. Thus, the first stage in meditation is fostering or cultivating an environment conducive to letting go of such distractions and embarking on the inward journey.
Ideally, find a private space where you can meditate — whether that’s a room dedicated to meditation or a shared space that can be reserved for, or kept private during, meditation. In this space, consider setting up a simple altar, one arranged with anything that helps to elevate and quiet the mind — a candle, incense, photos of your teacher or the saints. Whenever we catch fire with determination to meditate, we find a space for it.
One determined student I knew lived with roommates in a full and active household. Where was he going to find any quiet space? He set up his meditation altar on the dashboard of his car. Every morning, he went out to meditate in the garage, where he would not be disturbed. After getting clear about your intention to set aside time to meditate, and arranging a suitable environment, turn your attention to your posture.
When the sage Ramana Maharshi was asked about the best posture for meditation, he replied that it is the posture in which the mind is still. When the body moves, the mind moves. Find the posture that is best for you, one where you can easily remain still for an extended period. This is Patanjali’s third step, posture.
Meditation can be practiced seated on the floor, on a cushion, or in a chair. The posture should be relaxed but firm, with the spinal column straight. Sitting still with the spine straight and head erect encourages vital force to flow upward into the higher energy centers and helps us remain alert. An upright posture also reflects the quality of mind that is most conducive to meditative awareness — a firm intention to experience God or Truth, balanced with peaceful surrender to divine grace and timing.
The sage Patanjali notes that our meditation posture should be one that is “steady and sweet.”1 Say goodbye to any stereotypical ideas that your meditation posture needs to be some foreign form of bended legs, leaving you more conscious of the body’s aches and pains rather than freeing you from bodily awareness. Be comfortable. Be still. That is the advice of the sages.
Kindle the Light of Awareness
Let us meditate on the radiant light of Supreme Consciousness.
May it purify our hearts and illumine our minds.
May it guide and inspire us. — Gayatri Mantra
After being seated — gently, mindfully, and lovingly close your eyes and draw your attention within. Offer a prayer of attunement, acknowledging the presence of Spirit, the saints and sages, the divine nature of all beings, and the spiritual nature of your own soul. Most importantly, feel your connection to Ultimate Reality and to all of life. Inwardly walk through the temple door of God’s omnipresence and experience yourself praying “in” God rather than “to” God. Know that divine Ultimate Reality is nearer than your heartbeat; indeed, it’s the essence of your being.
The next step of meditation practice is conscious expansion of vital force through regulation of the breath. Breath is intimately tied to vital force. Vital force is the connecting link between body, mind, and spirit. By enhancing our awareness of vital force, we can follow the energy flow into deeper aspects of our being. Breath becomes our vehicle.
Notice the easy and natural sensation of inhalation through your nostrils. Along with the physical perception, intend to draw your awareness within. As breath moves into your body, feel as if you are pulling your attention within, diving into the infinite ocean of divine consciousness. With the out-breath, let go of any distraction — clinging to any external disturbance or thought activity. Don’t resist external disruptions or thoughts; simply let them be. With each breath, draw attention more deeply within. This is Patanjali’s fifth limb, introversion of attention by withdrawing the senses from their objects.
To meditate, the mind must turn back upon itself instead of flowing outward toward involvement with sense perception. To help us continue that inward journey, we introduce an anchor for our attention. We are ready for the second stage of meditation practice. We focus.
Stage 2: Focus
With concentration, bring your attention to a single point of focus. When your attention wanders from that focus, gently bring it back.
There are many different techniques for this stage of meditation. We can focus our attention by observing the flow of our breath; inwardly reciting a prayer; offering a prayer word or mantra; contemplating a scriptural passage; focusing attention at one of the chakra centers; visualizing a deity; or many other practices. The purpose of introducing an object for concentration is to give our attention something to land on — to interrupt the mind’s normal tendency to wander and move restlessly between thoughts and perceptions.
We’re familiar with the mental field growing quiet when we concentrate deeply, such as when reading a good book, listening to a concert, or even threading a needle. We become absorbed in what we are concentrating on. Awareness of what we are focused on is heightened, and we become impervious to other things happening around us. We apply knowledge of that skill in this stage of practice. We intentionally introduce something uplifting and captivating to concentrate on. Something soothing to the mind, not stimulating. We direct our attention to that, and when our attention wanders off, we redirect it (again and again).
This stage of meditation practice is likened to the flow of a stream of water. If you look closely, you’ll see that many drops bounce out of a running stream. We try to concentrate, but attention bounces away with stray thoughts. When this happens, return to the inward-flowing stream.
Despite your attempts to concentrate, your attention will naturally wander. Especially at first, don’t expect your attention to be unwavering, or you may become frustrated or disappointed. One of the first things meditation teaches is the relentless, restless nature of the mind. Training the mind to focus in meditation is like training a wild horse. Be firm but gentle.
An easy, natural, and readily available tool for concentration is our breath. Here’s how to use it: As you inhale, notice the feeling as cool air moves through the nostrils, touches the back of the throat, fills the lungs, and expands the abdomen. Observe the tiny peak of the breath as it changes, almost imperceptibly, from inhalation to exhalation. Then notice changes during exhalation, as your abdomen gently contracts and warmer air exits the nostrils. Stay tuned to the breath. Follow it. Watch as it becomes slower and subtler. You’ll notice that when the breath becomes quiet, so does the mind. When that happens, you’re ready to meditate, and you will naturally move from focus to flow, the third stage of practice.
Stage 3: Flow
A time will come when the mind will stick to one point alone,
like the continuous sound of a church bell. This is meditation,
the fruit of constant and protracted practice of concentration.
The joy will be indescribable. — Swami Vishnudevananda
Concentration naturally becomes meditation. After a while, breathing slows down, becomes subtle and shallow; thought activity decreases; and moments of calm, pure awareness are revealed.
Sages have compared the difference between concentration and meditation to be like the difference between a stream of water and a stream of oil. A stream of water has errant bouncing drops taking side trips away from the flow, while oil flows in an integral, steady stream. There is a palpable shift in our mental field when we move from concentration to meditation.
Watch for It
With concentration, there is some effort required. We use our will to continuously return our attention to our point of focus. When attention becomes steady, it begins to flow; no effort is required to hold it on point. Watch for this natural shift. Notice when it occurs and what it is like. Awareness flows, and expands, in a steady stream. It is peaceful and effortless.
This is meditation: a conscious, one-pointed, undisturbed flow of attention and awareness.
As the experience of peace deepens, let go of watching the breath and rest in the heightened awareness that is superconsciousness. Look within, listen within. Be open, receptive, and curious. Contemplate your essential nature. Steadiness in meditation naturally flows into Oneness — samadhi — or identification with what is contemplated. Consciously rest in being.
When the attention wanders to thoughts again, you can return to the breath, and refocus, or begin to conclude your meditation by bringing awareness back to body and mind to enter the final stage of practice.
Stage 4: Finish
It’s not advisable to eat a lovely meal, then jump up from the table and run around. Better to take a little time to savor the experience and begin digesting. In the same way, sit for a few minutes after meditating to absorb and enhance its benefits. Before concluding, make a conscious effort to deeply feel the peace you experienced within. Invite the soul’s peace with its healing influence to pervade the mental field and the body, taking time to feel it.
The conclusion of your meditation is the best time to pray for others and our world. From our peace, we share peace. We see others in the light of Spirit and call forth awareness of their wholeness. Rather than give attention to any changing condition, problematic as it may be, we bring our attention to unchanging spiritual Truth and affirm the activity of divine grace. We consciously affirm the graceful unfolding of divine purpose and the highest good for all. All is well, all will ever be well.
Refreshed, renewed, with peace as our companion, we carry the effects of meditation with us.
1 Yoga Sutra 2:46, author’s translation.
Ellen Grace O’Brian is the author of The Jewel of Abundance and director of the Center for Spiritual Enlightenment in San Jose, CA. Ellen is a yogacharya (an esteemed yoga teacher), a radio host, and an award-winning poet who weaves poetry into her teachings on spiritual matters, pointing to the mystical experience beyond words and thought. Ordained by a direct disciple of Paramahansa Yogananda, she has been teaching Kriya Yoga philosophy and practice nationally and internationally for over three decades. Visit her online at www.ellengraceobrian.com.
Excerpted from the book The Jewel of Abundance: Finding Prosperity through the Ancient Wisdom of Yoga. Copyright ©2018 by Ellen Grace O’Brian. Printed with permission from New World Library — www.newworldlibrary.com.