Levels of meditation: relaxation, concentration, contemplation, awareness…

Richard asked on my last post:

How do you usually distinguish contemplation from meditation?

I’d say contemplation is a type of meditation: a type with more thought than most. To explain the matter as well as I understand it (can’t do better than that after all), I think I have to categorize all types of meditation – or what’s usually called meditation. I looked up the subject in the Yoga Sutras, which I’ve been studying lately. I also turned to what works of Ken Wilber I have in my library, asked my twitter friends, and of course I looked online.

There are various ways of categorizing meditation practices. One way is by looking at what purpose people have in meditating. For instance @Cherylbinstock suggested I meditate to create angels. I believe there is only one type of angel we might create – and that is to become angels to others ourselves. There are of course people who meditate because they think it will bring them more success in life, or peace of mind, or help cope with stress. The traditional object was – at the opposite end of the spectrum: Nirvana, Enlightenment – ultimate release from all human suffering.

Ken Wilber noted, about traditional forms of meditation, that they aim at different transpersonal realms. “Some aim for psychic experiences, some for the deity mysticism of the subtle realm, some for the formlessness and Freedom of the Causal Witness, and some for nondual Unity of One Taste.” (A Brief History of Everything, p. 255)

Since Richard asks my personal opinion – I feel that the quality of meditation should be measured, at least in part, by the answer to the question: are you awake when you meditate? Does your meditation resemble more a slumber, or a piercing light of awareness? The first hardly deserves the name meditation. It’s a form of relaxation that may help one to live a less stressful life, but so may an afternoon nap.

Awareness can be an ingredient in any kind of meditation. In the highest types of meditation, awareness becomes empty. Not the emptiness of mindlessness, but more the stillness of a mind not bothered by repetitive thought and useless chatter.

Levels of meditation

I think then that the following summary fits the various types of meditation we see today rather well – not in aim, but in method.

  1. Relaxation – meditation music for instance fits this level
  2. Concentration. Examples of this include:
    1. visualization
    2. affirmations
    3. mantras
  3. Contemplation
  4. Awareness

I’ve organized them by what I consider their level. But the levels do mix and merge. These are after all merely words – and this kind of stuff transcends words almost by definition.

The first – relaxation – is on the list because much that people call meditation falls into this category. It is not what I would call meditation, but I’m not one to ignore popular opinion. As I’ve said though – there is nothing wrong with it either.

The second – concentration – is one that does deserve the name meditation perhaps a bit more. I think it’s necessary to be able to learn to concentrate on one subject for a longer period of time, if one is to progress spiritually. However, a study of math would serve the purpose just as well as learning to visualize a Buddha God form. Affirmations may be very useful to become conscious of what you unconsciously feel about yourself, and learn to alter that. But psychotherapy may serve that purpose just as well.

Coming to mantras I’m a bit mixed. I’ve been warned frequently that mantras may, especially if overused, open people up to unconscious forces that they aren’t ready for. Actually, this is probably true for all kinds of meditation. Proceed with caution – and preferably under the guidance of a qualified teacher. I was very surprised to read in the Yoga Sutras that real meditation on the mantra Aum included thinking about it’s meaning…

Very suitable to my story that – because that brings me to the next level of meditation: contemplation.

Contemplation, or jnana yoga, is the type of meditation Blavatsky felt was best for Westerners. Jnana Yoga is a type of thinking about subjects that includes intuition. It’s a calm kind of thought, where the stillness of awareness is brought to whatever subject is being studied. Or at least – that’s how I understand it. This is the kind of meditation that I do myself – I’ve been taken off that path by my university studies, but now that I’m no longer having to try to fit the scientific train of thought, I find my mind is slowly finding it’s way back to its natural channels. Which is a relief.

The next step is one that I’ve only read about. I’ve tried visualisation, but aside from noting that I’m quite capable of it, it bores me. Meditation to music sends me to sleep – or more boredom. Various types of concentration: again, I can concentrate alright – but concentration on books does seem a tad bit more useful to me than concentration on mantras for instance. And, as I think I’ve made clear, too much concentration on books doesn’t work for me either. I’m finding a middle path in the form of contemplation.

So – what IS the next step. The step beyond contemplation? It’s one that many these days would seek without having even tried the previous steps. I think for those that can, the others aren’t necessary. But for those that end up failing would be safer off trying one of the others (or none).

Awareness ultimately needs no object. From concentration to contemplation is a step that includes turning inward – listening to the still small voice. The next step is realizing that between observed (thoughts and feelings) and observer there is no difference. That is: ultimately all is ONE. Ken Wilber puts it as follows (though Jiddu Krishnamurti might as easily have been quoted).

Rather, as you calmly rest in this observing awareness – watching mind and body and nature float by – you might begin to notice that what you are actually feeling is simply a sense of freedom, a sense of release, a sense of not being found to any of the objects you are calmly witnessing. (A Brief History of Everything, p. 252)

In front of you the clouds parade by, your thoughts parade by, bodily sensations parade by, and you are none of them. (A Brief History of Everything, p. 253)

This of course explains the duality of most meditation quite well. I’m sure anyone who has tried Zen Sitting Meditation recognizes this experience. It is the prelude to the next step – described as fulcrum 9 and 10 in Wilber’s ‘Sex, Ecology, Spirituality’. I confess, I don’t get the difference between fulcrum 9 and 10. But let me take a description from the last stage: the nondual stage of meditation:

Abiding as I-I, the world arises as before, but now there is no one to witness it. I-I is not “in here” looking “out there”: there is no in here, no out there, only this. It is the radical end of all egocentrism, all geocentrism, all biocentrism, all sociocentrism, all theocentrism,  because it is the radical end of all centrisms, period.  … As Dzogchen Buddhists would put it, because all phenomena are primordially empty, all phenomena, just as they are, are self-liberated as they arise.

I don’t know whether that’s a true description of that ultimate state, or whether the words of Ken Wilber the author outran the knowledge of Ken Wilber the mystic. But since it is surely beyond my experience, I will not bother with it any further. Instead let me share some of the interesting links my twitter friends shared when I asked what I should write about meditation. Each is far easier to attain than the exulted ground just discussed:

5 thoughts on “Levels of meditation: relaxation, concentration, contemplation, awareness…”

  1. Pingback: spiri2al.com
  2. I’m really happy to have stumbled upon your blog from twitter. Rudolf Steiner mentions the purpose of meditation is to distinguish the essential from the non-essential. Although that doesn’t have much to do with the list of stages of meditation I thought it fit in there somewhere.

  3. That is a nice description of meditation, but I am unsure why the word itself is excluded from the levels. It is also etymologically ‘thinking’ and a few less important definitions, so Patanjali’s levels make much sense to me. That also includes something after contemplation… but I would not know what else to call samyama besides illumination. I suppose relaxation is also like pratyahara, but ‘relaxation’ itself does not completely seem like meditation without redefining ‘meditation.’ That can be useful to do.

    Also, some Dharma philosophies use the term ‘non-dual,’ but besides ‘single’ it can as easily mean ‘triple,’ ‘fourfold,’ etc., so in a way the term ‘monist’ is sometimes more helpful. Maybe Advaita Vedanta still accepts the idea of atman being atma but atma having 5 vehicles (‘koshas’ in this case.) If you made a 2nd post about such ‘principles in man’ I think I missed it: I was quite busy at the end of last school term….

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  5. without much verbalization.j k starts teaching at university whereas most of his students at primary level.j k meditation “choiceless awareness”.how to reach there?can u jump?that why the concept of applied thought and sustained thought emerged but just as boat to cross river not to carry further.poining attention at one place is concentration.concentrate on breathing .see the division ,one who wintessing and other form of being is breathing.think that as a third angle witnessing has no power to change the pattern of breathing .it itself work to subsidise and witnessing have the experience of lapsing breathing.feeling of joy and complete peace start occuring but not based on perception.if anyone has understood anicca or inpermanance and anitta or no self.automatically equanimity arises as there is is nothing to hold.nature of consciousness is flowing.it may move in a state which has no registering on memory but valuble to being .even this state is also subject to pondering from understanding as sariputta the formost buddha disciple suggested .

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