The Phases of Concentration
The following phases represent the possible places that we may find ourselves while doing concentration practice.
Every style of meditation moves through different phases as we practice it. Sometimes that movement appears to be a linear, we could call these stages of practice. At other times it seems to be circling around and around, cycling from one phase to the next, not really going anywhere that seems deeper or better. We could refer to these as cycles of practice. At still other times there’s no discernible pattern whatsoever, and it feels like we’re stuck in the same place, or randomly bouncing around. These are different states of practice, with no specific pattern connecting them, or at least not ones we recognize. No matter how it unfolds it can be useful to have a map of the various phases of practice that can show up.
In Phase 1 we find that we’re totally distracted. Our mind feels untrained. We’re like total noobs. Almost as soon as we’ve connected with our object of focus our attention bounces off of it, quickly flitting toward something else. This phase can be frustrating, and the frustration feeds the sense of incompetency. The upside of this phase is that if we spend time focusing on a single point, and continue coming back again and again to that point, eventually our attention starts to settle and we begin to be able to stay with the object for longer periods of time.
In Phase 2 there’s the sense that we’ve tuned into the object of meditation. It may still be shaky, and we may still get lost for periods of time, but those periods begin to diminish and there’s a sense that we’re really starting to get a hang of the process. If learning to concentrate were like riding a bike, this would be the phase where we’re still a bit shaky, and still fall from time to time, but we’ve basically learned to ride.
In Phase 3 we find that we’re totally locked into our meditation object. Attention becomes clear and stable, and the object becomes amazingly vivid. It’s like we’re staring down an electron microscope toward a universe that we never knew existed. Our bodies feel at ease, our interactions feel natural and easy, and we float on a cloud of effortless joy. This is the peak of the mountain phase.
In Phase 4 attention turns back on itself and destabilizes the sense of being the awareness, or watcher, or witness of what’s happening. The center of attention becomes blurry, even as the periphery expands. We find that it’s difficult to corral our attention into a small spot, it’s almost as if attention wants to be bigger, yet hasn’t found a way to stabilize in that bigness. This can be a difficult phase, especially if we’re just coming out of a period where things were more easy and blissful. It can feel like we’ve lost our previous abilities, but the reality is that they’re actually expanding to include more, while also becoming more subtle and refined.
In Phase 5 attention expands out to include the entire space of experience. It becomes panoramic and our point of focus becomes vast, even boundaryless. Instead of focusing our attention down on a particular point, as we did in the first few phases, our focal point becomes the point that includes all points. Concentration in this phase feels natural and effortless, spacious and formless. It takes only the slightest hint of effort to tune into the field of experience, to become one with everything. But this phase, like all phases, will eventually change. That’s what a phase is: a distinct period in a process of change.
As you continue to develop your concentration, and as you cycle through these phases, keep in mind that there is no final end point to this process. Rather, there’s a building and a scattering, an expanding and contracting, a deepening and a letting go. There’s something we can learn in every phase of practice. That’s why we call it practice.