The Mind Illuminated: A Quick Reference to the Stages
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Stage (hover on me)
Worldly/Sense Desire
Aversion and Ill Will
Laziness and Lethargy
Agitation due to Remose and Worry
What Kind of Dullness You're Working WithFalling AsleepStrong Dullness / Progressive Subtle DullnessStable Subtle Dullness
What Kind of Agitation You're Working WithMind WanderingForgettingGross DistractionsSubtle Distractions
Level of effortHighestHighHighModerateLowLowLowNoneNoneNone
GoalDevelop a consistent daily meditation practice.Shorten the periods of mind-wandering and extend the periods of sustained attention to the meditation object.Overcome forgetting and falling asleep.Overcome gross distraction and strong dullness.Overcome subtle dullness and increase the power of mindfulness.Subdue subtle distractions and develop metacognitive introspective awareness.Effortlessly sustained exclusive attention and powerful mindfulness.Complete pacification of the senses and the full arising of meditative joy.The maturation of meditative joy, producing tranquility and equanimity.The qualities of śamatha persist after you rise from the cushion.
ObstaclesResistance, procrastination, fatigue, impatience, boredom, lack of motivation.Mind-wandering, monkey-mind, and impatience.Distractions, forgetting, mind-wandering, and sleepiness.Distractions, pain and discomfort, intellectual insights, emotionally charged visions and memories.Subtle dullness is difficult to recognize, creates an illusion of stable attention, and is seductively pleasant.The tendency for attention to alternate to the continuous stream of distracting thoughts and other mental objects in peripheral awareness.Distractions and dullness will return if you stop exerting effort. You must keep sustaining effort until exclusive attention and mindfulness become automatic, then effort will no longer be necessary. Boredom, restlessness, and doubt tend to arise during this time. Also, bizarre sensations and involuntary body movements can distract you from your practice. Knowing when to drop all effort is the next obstacle. But making effort has become a habit, so it’s hard to stop.The primary challenge is not to be distracted or distressed by the variety of extraordinary experiences during this Stage: unusual, and often unpleasant, sensations, involuntary movements, feelings of strong energy currents in the body, and intense joy. Simply let them be.The intensity of meditative joy can perturb the mind, becoming a distraction and disrupting your practice.
IntentionPut all your effort into forming and holding a conscious intention to sit down and meditate for a set period every day, and practice diligently for the duration of the sit.Appreciate the “aha” moment that recognizes mind-wandering, while gently but firmly redirecting attention back to the breath. Then, intend to engage with the breath as fully as possible without losing peripheral awareness.Invoke introspective attention frequently, before you’ve forgotten the breath or fallen asleep, and make corrections as soon as you notice distractions or dullness. Also, intend to sustain peripheral awareness while engaging with the breath as fully as possible.Be vigilant so that introspective awareness becomes continuous, and notice and immediately correct for strong dullness and gross distraction.Notice and immediately correct for subtle dullness.Establish a clearly defined scope of attention, and completely ignore subtle distractions.Continuously guard against dullness and distractionSimply continue to practice, using skills that are now completely effortless.Simply abiding in the state of meditative joy will cause profound tranquility and equanimity to arise.Just continuing to practice regularly will cause the profound joy and happiness, tranquility, and equanimity you experience in meditation to persist between meditation sessions.
Key Skills / MethodCreating practice routines, setting specific practice goals, generating strong motivation, cultivating discipline and diligence.Reinforcing spontaneous introspective awareness and learning to sustain attention on the meditation object. Spontaneous introspective awareness is the “aha” moment when you suddenly realize there’s a disconnect between what you wanted to do (watch the breath) and what you’re actually doing (thinking about something else). Appreciating this moment causes it to happen faster and faster, so the periods of mind-wandering get shorter and shorter.Use the techniques of following the breath and connecting to extend the periods of uninterrupted attention, and become familiar with how forgetting happens. Cultivate introspective awareness through the practices of labeling and checking in. These techniques allow you to catch distractions before they lead to forgetting.Developing continuous introspective awareness allows you to make corrections before subtle distractions become gross distractions, and before subtle dullness becomes strong dullness. Learning to work with pain. Purifying the mind of past trauma and unwholesome conditioning.Cultivating even stronger and more continuous introspective awareness to detect and correct for subtle dullness. Learning a new body scanning technique to help you increase the power of your mindfulness.Defining your scope of attention more precisely than before, and ignoring everything outside that scope until subtle distractions fade away. Developing a much more refined and selective awareness of the mind itself, called metacognitive introspective awareness. You will also use a method called “experiencing the whole body with the breath” to further subdue potential distractions.Practicing patiently and diligently will bring you to the threshold of effortlessness. It will get you past all the boredom and doubt, as well as the bizarre sensations and movements. Purposely relaxing your effort from time to time will let you know when effort and vigilance are no longer necessary. Then you can work on letting go of the need to be in control. Various Insight and jhāna practices add variety at this Stage.Practicing effortless attention and introspective awareness will naturally lead to continued unification, pacification of the senses, and the arising of meditative joy. Jhāna and other Insight practices are very productive as part of this process.Becoming familiar with meditative joy through continued practice until the excitement fades, replaced by tranquility and equanimity.Because the characteristics of samatha never disappear entirely, whenever you sit on the cushion, you quickly regain a fully developed meditative state.
MasteryNever missing a daily practice session. Do not procastinate while meditating.You can sustain attention on the meditation object for minutes, while most periods of mind-wandering last only a few seconds.Rarely forgetting the breath or falling asleep.Gross distractions no longer push the breath into the background, and breath sensations don’t fade or become distorted due to strong dullness.You can sustain or even increase the power of your mindfulness during each meditation session.Subtle distractions have almost entirely disappeared, and you have unwavering exclusive attention together with vivid mindfulness.You can drop all effort, and the mind still maintains an unprecedented degree of stability and clarity.When the eyes perceive only an inner light, the ears perceive only an inner sound, the body is suffused with a sense of pleasure and comfort, and your mental state is one of intense joy. With this mental and physical pliancy, you can sit for hours without dullness, distraction, or physical discomfort.Consistently evoking mental and physical pliancy, accompanied by profound tranquility and equanimity.The qualities of samatha persist for many hours after you rise from the cushion.
When to Move OnDon’t wait until you’ve mastered Stage One to begin Stage Two practices. As soon as you’ve succeeded in counting ten breaths and can follow several breaths before your mind wanders, start doing the Stage Two practices. If you find your mind becoming agitated, wandering again almost immediately after you return to the meditation object, or wandering for very long periods of time before you realize it, go back to Stage One. Work through the Four-Step Transition and then count the breaths at the nose.You can begin doing Stage Three practices whenever you have periods of 10 to 15 minutes without mind-wandering, even though forgetting still occurs and you may not yet have mastered Stages One and Two. When mind-wandering does occur, respond as in Stage Two.When mind-wandering rarely if ever happens and you have extended intervals between episodes of forgetting, begin doing Stage Four practices. When forgetting does happen resume Stage Three practices. Begin Stage Five practices whenever you have extended periods without gross distraction and strong dullness. When they return, just go back to doing the Stage Four practices for a while.Don’t wait until you have completely mastered Stage Five. Begin Stage Six practices whenever you have extended periods of high alertness and powerful mindfulness. If these fade, resume Stage Five practices until it happens again.Even before you have mastered Stage Six, when you have an extended period without subtle distraction and can sustain a high level metacognitive awareness, begin to work with Stage Seven practices.Whenever you have extended periods of effortlessness, even if they can’t be sustained for the entire sit, start experimenting with Stage Eight practices. If dullness or distraction begin to arise, resume the exercise of vigilance and effort until you effortlessness returns.

When you reach the end of Stage Seven, there’s enough unification to produce the effortlessness of mental pliancy, which always comes with some meditative joy. Joy seems to be the “natural” state of a unified mind, and the more unified a mind is, the more joyful it is. Joy is also the “glue” that helps keep a mind unified.

Experiencing joy while breathing in, he trains himself.
Experiencing joy while breathing out, he trains himself.
Experiencing pleasure while breathing in, he trains himself. Experiencing pleasure while breathing out, he trains himself.
Whenever you experience extended periods of physical pliancy and Grade V pīti, go ahead and experiment with Stage Nine practices.
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