The stages of a meditation session (a lightweights guide)

I get the impression there's a fair amount of confusion about what meditation practice is like.  Some people seem to think that it 'should' be really easy, and therefore become frustrated when they can't achieve their goal quickly.  Others seem to think that it's incredibly difficult and therefore they don't try.  A lot of people feel they are doing it 'wrong' or struggle with the fact that they aren't as good at it as they feel they should be.

I've done quite a lot of meditation over the years, and it's a regular part of my practice.  I would, however, say I'm not a particularly brilliant meditator – not at the moment anyway.  To achieve really good things with meditation takes some real effort, regular practice, and a time commitment that currently I can't put in.  That doesn't, however, mean I don't feel I get something valuable from my practice – it's just important to have realistic expectations about what meditation will be like and what you can expect to achieve.

I therefore present the following as a 'lightweights' guide to the stages of a meditation session.  If you're advanced in your practice you won't need this at all, but this is how meditation often feels to 'the rest of us'.

Stage one – Catching up

I find it difficult to go from 'normal life' to 'focused concentration'.  If I stop to have a meditation session I usually find that for the first little while my mind keeps shooting off in different directions.  I have now come to accept this as a 'stage' of my meditation practice, and not something I fight too much.  As I see it I often have to 'catch up' with my thinking before I can completely clear my mind and deal with the practice at hand.  If I sit to begin meditation I'll often discover what feels like a 'back-log' of thoughts that need to be thought.

This catching up phase will often prove useful in and of itself – just not in a terribly spiritual way.  I may remember a couple of things I've forgotten.  I may quickly run through a plan for the rest of the day.  A way to approach an important task may come to mind.  This is what many people describe as being the thoughts that come to them in the shower – such a person just isn't giving themselves enough 'quiet time' to catch up with their thoughts so the shower is the only time it can happen.  The initial period before meditation is a great time to just catch up with some thinking, creative thought and remembering.

How long this 'catching up' phase lasts will depend on how much meditation practice I'm doing.  If I last meditated a few hours ago the chances are that the catching up phase will last no more than a few moments.  If, however, I haven't meditated regularly in months it may actually be a few sessions of 'meditation' before I'm able to entirely set aside the process of thinking and get down to some 'real' meditation – I've got a backlog of thoughts that need to be cleared before my mind is at peace enough to really settle.

However, it should be noted that we are all a bit lazy and meditation takes effort.  If I'm not careful my catching up can ramble on and on and I'll never get on with the real practice.  I therefore watch my thoughts during this phase, as there are some things I consider useful (remembering things, realisations about my day, working out what has to happen next) and there are those thoughts which I know aren't real catching up, they are just me being lazy.  If I find myself day-dreaming, or thinking repetitive thoughts (e.g. having the same mental conversation I've had earlier in the day) I'll redirect my thoughts and consider it's time for phase 2.  Generally I won't let 'catching up' go on for more than ten minutes, and less time is better (unless it really has been a long time since I've given myself the chance to sit and think).

Phase two – the descent

This is where I actually start to do something closer to meditation.  At this stage I will make a conscious effort to take control of my thoughts and direct them in a particular direction.  The first thing may be to decide what kind of meditation practice I'm going to embark on – am I going to do concentration practice on my breath, or use a mantra, and I going to do insight practice, or perhaps explore my energy system.  At this stage I will seek to take full conscious control over my thoughts – to be fully 'present' with my thoughts at all times.  If I find my mind has wandered without me (i.e. I'm thinking about something I don't recall making a decision to think about) I'll quietly take back control of my stream of consciousness and direct it where I want it to go.

I think of this stage as the descent because as I take control of my thoughts I'm usually able to relax more and I will feel myself starting to slip down into a trance state.  I may begin to regulate my breathing in order to speed up the process and I will now resist any urge to move, or to think about something pressing – the idea is that I'm fully in control of my thoughts and I have chosen to meditate.

Phase 3 – Arrival

And so full meditation begins.  At this stage I'm now in control of my mental processes (my internal dialogue isn't wandering off to chat about random ideas) and I'm in a reasonable trance state.  I will now begin the serious work.  If this is a concentration practice I'll direct my thoughts in a single direction and hold them there for as long as possible – if I notice them I'll draw them back to where I want them. If it's insight work I'll do a practice like 'noting' or if I'm doing something more 'magickal' I'll start to focus on whatever principle or energy I'm working with.  At this stage I'll want to keep my mental chatter to a minimum (or, if some mental chatter continues, I should manage to stop identifying with it – a curious process I'll write about at some other stage) and I'll want my focus to be steady and consistent.

This is the 'actual' meditation, but I'm careful not to have an expectation that I can jump right into this phase without taking some time to 'warm up' – with regular practice I can, and it's a hell of a lot easier when life is calm and free of stress, but going from 'normal life' to this stage takes a little bit of time.

Phase 4 – Returning

I often find the process of leaving a meditation a little peculiar, as I'm often not entirely sure which part of me made the decision to stop meditating.  I don't like to use a timer during meditation because I find that if I do a part of me will keep wandering off and going 'is it over yet?  Is the timer about to go?' and I find that very distracting.  Instead I tend to meditate until a part of me says 'enough' and I re-emerge.  Oddly I'm very consistent in my timing – it's almost always 30 minutes (give or take a minute or two) or 60 minutes (if I've started by initially committing to a 'long' session).

I 'come up' from a trance state pretty quickly, but I do find it useful to just sit for a minute or two at the end of a session and contemplate what happened.  Did I experience anything unusual?  Did the technique I used work effectively? Was my unconscious mind trying to attract my attention to anything?  I find if I don't give myself these few moments of contemplation I tend to forget the deeper content of the session quite quickly – leaving me with that nagging feeling of a part remembered dream.

Then it's back to 'normal' life…

My key message here is this – a lot of writing on meditation gives the impression that the way you 'have' to do it is to sit and instantly switch into a terrifyingly focused mode of being where there is no room for thoughts or wandering.  I say that is absolutely terrific, and is certainly what one should aim at if one is practicing regularly.  However, for those of us who are a little bit more lightweight it might be worth being aware that it's okay to start gently with a meditation session and give yourself time to 'clear out the junk' of the day before trying to press deeper into a trance state – failing to do so may just make the process more frustrating, which means you're less likely to stick with it and get the really cool effects when you get better at it.

One Response to "The stages of a meditation session (a lightweights guide)"

  1. […] ill.  I noticed it most immediately when I sat to meditate for the first time mid-move.  As I've previously discussed, the early stages of meditation do tend to involve a certain amount of 'emptying out' of my mind […]

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