Stages of Meditative Capacity
Based upon observation from many years of practice, I've noticed that a single sitting of meditation can be a recapitulation of the entire process of spirituality (at least to the pinnacle within the spectrum of consciousness that one has become matured to at that point), especially if there are a lot of discursive thoughts appearing at the outset of a sitting.
In the spirit of "ontogeny recapitulates phylogeny" (the process whereby the psycho-physical growth of an individual recaps the entire growth process of a species from simplicity to increasing complexity), meditation may take an individual from a very dark and difficult place to one of profound seeing and abiding in a matter of seconds, minutes or hours.
As with all things subjective, the stages are not hard and fast rules or steps that require the perfection of one in order to enter the next. Just a certain level of 'sufficiency' which, though impossible to measure, can be experienced easily by a natural progression within a sitting.
Generally speaking, depending upon the maturity or capacity of an individual, one may enter into a 'formal' sitting already in any one of the stages mentioned below. Overall, meditative sitting and spiritual practice in general involves increasing the capacity for stillness and calm abiding conjoined with more profound and acute awareness of what actually is existent and occurring (or not occurring).
Before even the possibility of calm abiding, which is signified by cessation of thoughts for various periods of time, some of the grosser energies have to settle down. First of all, sitting in one place for a period of time takes care of physical movement.
Once this occurs, it may be felt that one is caught up in one or several types of energetic movements flowing through in the nervous system. In our basic normal, work-a-day lives, what is considered normal speed is like a fast moving train. When one begins to sit, one may notice that there is no brake on the train! Over time, the speed of firing neurons begins to slow down little by little, and the hurricane of heterogeneous energies flowing through the body subsides enough so that one can begin noticing subtler processes such as the stream of discursive thoughts.
Depending upon the level of stress that which an individual enters into a formal sitting and the capacity of the individual, it could take an entire session just to slow down enough to be ready to become aware of anything deeper than the swirl of psychic, emotional and pranic/etheric energies that is felt through the body-mind.
Stepping out of the Stream
Once the winds of grosser energies have settled to some degree, one begins noticing the flow of discursive thought - or one notices that s/he has been swept into the flow of a thought stream, only to discover that a certain amount of time has passed in which nothing but the thought pictures, words and/or feelings were total reality (i.e. getting 'caught up' in thought), to the exclusion of one's physical setting (perhaps the leading cause of car accidents?).
Noticing the StreamAs one progresses in capacity, the tendency to find oneself immersed in the thought stream slowly subsides, and one begins to notice thoughts arising in the form of words, pictures, feelings, etc. Certain thought forms have particular charge or energies to be labeled as emotion. But the important point is that one now has the capacity to stand outside of the stream (identification with what is arising is no longer choiceless - a certain space has occurred). At this point thoughts are appearing like a movie in the theatre of one's being. One may also begin noticing that one is being aware.
In the beginning of this noticing, one sees that the appearance of thoughts is an almost continuous stream. Any attempts to stop the stream is as futile as herding kittens or puppies. One may try to focus, in a concentration exercise, on a religious or secular object of perception only to notice that the thinking process doesn't stop or may even seem to grow in strength, The lack of capacity to concentrate for more than a few seconds may be a bit humbling or diconcerting.
Once the capacity to stand apart from the thought stream occurs, time spent in meditation is often characterized by cycles of getting caught up in thought streams, then 'drying off' in the noticing of thoughts as objective experiences from the point of awareness. Then one gets caught up again, only to find time has passed and one begins noticing again, and so on.
This cycle will often repeat itself for entire sitting periods, but nevertheless, in the capacity to notice thoughts, there is an elevation to one's mood, an inexplicable, innate happiness that has occurred somehow, someway during a sitting.
Standing in the Gaps
As the noticing and 'immersion' cycles play out over time (within a sitting and within a lifetime), one begins to notice that in the flow of thoughts there are gaps between the end of one thought and the beginning of another. Noticing these gaps in the mind stream, one observes that there is simply just awareness of one's situation. It may not feel particularly 'special', but simply a relief from the constant, seemingly draining flow of thoughts. A quality of simplicity or uncomplicatedness may be perceived. Or perhaps there is a sense of relief or joy that arises. As the gaps grow longer over time, the joy may increase tremendously and the power of meditative awareness begins to become known.
Beginning to have some capacity of freedom in meditation, one may cycle in immersion, noticing thoughts and standing in the gaps for many, many years, slowly increasing meditative capacity and enjoyment.
Letting Go of Goals
One has worked through various stages of movement in the body-mind from gross energies to thought forms, and has found some sense of freedom and peace in the stillness.
Unfortunately, this is often accompanied by a tendency to become attached to stillness, or desiring stillness if there is no gaps in the mind stream. One then has to begin to let go of the attachment to reaching implicit goals in meditation. The desire to want something more or to want something other than what is presently occurring is extremely strong, and over time must be relinquished.
By continually coming back to mere noticing of mind forms (and thus standing in and as awareness), a capacity of evenness will emerge which lets go of goal-orientation, the wanting to have something particular to happen within a sitting. Within this evenness and calmness there is even greater joy and bliss that appears, and one begins to understand the freeing force of innate awareness.
Letting Go of the Strategy of Letting Go (Really Letting Go)
Once one notices that letting go of wanting particular outcomes, greater bliss can emerge, its easy to get caught up in a strategy of 'wanting to not want something in order to get something'. This puts one back in the previous stage, having constructed a strategy out of what was once true letting go.
Discriminative Detachment and IntelligenceOnce letting go has been established, there is a quality of detachment that informs the individual in their meditation sitting (and throughout life). Having had experience noticing the arising of thoughts, one develops the ability to not get caught up in their power to an ever greater degree. This basic intelligence to not be victim to what arises in the personal landscape through meditation eventually blends into interpersonal and social situations - whatever one is aware of as an objective arising one can stand free of.
Unraveling the Knots That Bind
As one sits and enjoys greater meditative capacity, various forms of purification will occur in the relaxation and releasing of deeply held knots in the body mind.
These knots may unravel slowly or in dramatic fashion, and in the midst of their release, large amounts of energies may be released, which may shake the body or generate a lot of mental and emotional forms.
The unravelling of knots may be emotional and archetypal constellations that signify the release of personal and collective material held in the body-mind. This stage requires some fruition in the earlier stages in order to have a balanced foundation to handle what may be very intense material coming forward. Often individuals may believe they are going backwards, as the calmness in meditation has led to stormier weather in the psychic landscape. But the understanding that meditation will lead to purification of unpleasant material will help an individual through this stage, particularly by becoming stable in discrimination and detachment from what arises.
Over time, deeper and deeper knots are unraveled that are held in the subtle bodies. Great blisses can occur from their release, and this only serves to further promote stability in meditation and to further increase the capacity of awareness to notice subtler activity - mosquito thoughts, paranormal and psychic activity.
Calm Abiding: Fruition of Shamatha
As awareness deepens, and the unbinding to objective appearance increases, greater space develops and appears. An individual has the capacity to sit in this space, with very little though occurring - the gaps between thoughts widens to a great extent. Easefulness and peace is now a reality within the context of meditative sittings, which spill over into general life experience, to one degree or another.
Understanding: Recognition of one's basic space
As awareness is stabilized and purification continues to deepen, it notices that it is standing free in its own space. Moreover, it has now shifted identification to that space - the self position previously assumed is now crumbling, as it is being seen through and overwhelmed by the profundity of the freedom of basic space.
In a summary event that may be dramatic, accompanied by powerful energies, or perhaps very simple and straightforward, awareness recognizes its own face and sees through the assumptions of a separate self that witnesses objective reality.
This seminal understanding is the dawning of Witness Consciousness or Rigpa, based upon a transcendent understanding that cuts through assumptions and appearances via a razor sharp wisdom arising from, though not separate from, the power of the promotion of awareness to a new, transcendent capacity.
Non-Duality: Abiding in the nature of all things
Once the Witness or Rigpa dawns (which are also known by many other names, such as basic awareness, intrinsic awareness, The Self, non-dual awareness, etc.), abiding takes on a whole new meaning - one is no longer sitting in a context of a subject-object, but one abides in the free space-like quality of the nature of things.
This capacity, which grows in strength over time, diminishes the view of solid, objective reality to open and empty appearances. This is due to the spontaneous and effortless ability to recognize the nature of all things, which consumes self and other.
Transformed Vision and RadianceAs abiding in non-dual awareness stabilizes and deepens over time, the landscape of appearances is transformed over time. Part of that landscape is the perceived self, which is seen to be a set of conditions and results (assumed to have a collective glue that is ultimately non-existence).
As maturity continues, awareness becomes increasingly fine tuned to a more profound transpersonal vision and the innate radiance of the nature of all existence becomes more dynamically Evident.