I am often asked a really good question:
What can I expect as I begin to meditate, and how do I know I am making progress?
This week, with my new online meditation program, Mindbody Mastery, just days away from being released, it may be helpful to explain in some detail what happens as you begin to meditate and go deeper.
This information was collated using a series of extensive questionnaires filled in by many people whom I taught to meditate over several years in the late 1980s. The experiences recounted here match common experiences described by some of the great meditation traditions. It does seem that many people do advance in a steady progression through all of these experiences, but it is also not uncommon to leapfrog some milestones. Just because you do not have one or another of these experiences does not mean you are not meditating well.
However, particularly when relaxation is used as a lead-in to meditation, there are a series of key indicators of progress that are worth being aware of. Of course, by providing a measuring stick for meditation progress, there is a risk we will become anxious or judgemental, wanting to achieve a particular ‘level’, or becoming despondent if we do not seem to be making progress. Therefore we have to remind ourselves yet again of the need to approach all this in the right state of mind - engaged but non-judgemental!
However, many people do find it helpful to use the following information as one would use a series of signposts or significant milestones that appear during a journey. If we have a sense of where we are traveling to and know what signposts or milestones to expect, when we see them we can simply relax, knowing that we are on the right track and heading in the right direction.
All of this makes for a Blog that is much longer than usual, but maybe it is interesting and helpful!
i). Motivation and intention
By simply intending to meditate you have taken the first step and reached the first milestone.
ii). Establishing a practice
This second milestone is reached when you actually start to practise.
iii). Being able to sit still
Most people who start need to overcome some feelings of restlessness; they need to learn to sit still. Once you can do this, you have accomplished another milestone.
iv). Feeling heavy
As we begin to relax physically, often the body begins to feel heavy. This feeling usually affects the limbs, especially the arms. During this stage some people report that their arms feel so heavy they doubt they could lift them even if they wanted to.
v). Feeling lighter
As we relax more, heaviness often gives way to lightness. Sometimes people feel as if their arms are floating; sometimes the whole body. For some, this sensation can feel as if they are floating in space. Generally, using the Mindfulness-Based Stillness Meditation (MBSM) technique, we stay well grounded, and while the feeling of lightness does often come, it is a lightness of body that we experience, not a disconnected, troubling feeling. The lightness most people experience is very pleasant, very comfortable.
vi). Temperature changes
Often as we begin to relax and to meditate, we move through a phase where we feel hotter or cooler. For a small percentage of people, the feeling of heat can be accompanied by sweating. Sweating is more common if there is a localised area of illness or injury, but some very healthy people do sweat for a while too. Sometimes hot flushes are experienced.
If there are persistent feelings of cold, then warm clothes or a rug are recommended. Usually the feelings of temperature changes come and go fairly quickly, both in individual sessions and during the practice generally. These sensations are rarely around for more than a week or two.
vii). Sexual arousal
This is not so often discussed, but it is not uncommon for beginners to have some experiences of sexual arousal. While this is more common when techniques are used that focus on energy centres, particularly the chakras and their activation, it can occur when we simply relax. While often disconcerting because it is usually unexpected, this experience is another one to simply observe. It usually passes quite quickly, and is an unusual phenomenon for more experienced meditators; maybe that is a little disappointing for some, but it is the truth of the matter!
viii). Feeling the same all over—the hollow-body feeling
As we relax more deeply, more completely, we reach a point where we can scan our attention through our body and it feels the same all over. At this point we will have a clear sense of our body’s outer boundaries, as in the sense of where our skin is, but inside, everything feels ‘hollow’. Now this ‘hollow’ is not like an empty void; it is not a nothingness. On the contrary, it feels luminous and vibrant. It feels very much alive, and again, very pleasant.
ix). Changes in body awareness
There are two versions that commonly occur during this stage. The first is that we lose awareness of parts of the body, usually the hands and forearms. We can be sitting there, quite awake but not able to feel those parts of our body. Of course, if we were to open our eyes our body parts would be there, but it feels as if they are not.
Less frequently, people feel as if their body is expanding and becoming larger, as though it was being pumped up like a balloon, and becoming fuzzy around the edges.
x). Loss of body awareness
If we simply relax into and go along with either of the two changes in body awareness mentioned above in point ix), the next thing is that we lose awareness of our body altogether.
xi). Transitional experiences
By now, if we are experiencing a loss of body awareness, we are deeply relaxed and our mind is becoming very calm and relaxed as well. We now enter into what is called the transitional phase, which occurs in that realm between an active mind and a still mind. If the stillness we enter into is the stillness of the ordinary mind, just an absence of thoughts, then our experience is likely to be rather dull and nebulous. If we are more alert, more mindful, and more aware, then maybe we enter into the stillness beyond thought.
The transition occurs as we move from awareness of the thinking mind into that awareness beyond thought, the awareness of stillness. In this transitional phase, inner phenomena often, but not always, come to our attention.
The most common phenomenon is the appearance of inner light. This light will almost always be iridescent, of a primary colour like blue or red, though it could also be white. Usually the lights move. Most frequently they pulsate, often starting off in the distance and then moving towards us, only to fade away or to recede into the distance before pulsing back again. Sometimes they do the opposite, starting as a field of coloured light in front of our eyes, and then receding and pulsing back and forward. For others the light may move from side to side or swirl around.
The common reaction when we first see these lights is to be pleasantly surprised, to realise that something interesting is happening, and to try to analyse what the lights mean! This, of course, activates the thinking mind; we come up out of the depth of relaxation in which the lights appeared, and so the lights disappear. Then, if we consciously try to make them appear again, we are using our thinking mind, and so we do not relax enough, we do not let go deeply enough, and the lights do not reappear.
These inner lights are classic signposts and they can be very instructive as our meditation progresses. What their appearance tells us is that we must be deeply relaxed in both body and mind. Whatever has got us to that point of deep relaxation is working well.
Also, the lights demonstrate to us very directly that if we use our thinking mind we come out of that deep relaxation. At the same time, we come to learn that if we simply relax and go with the feeling of deep relaxation, we can move on past this transitional phase where the inner light appears, and into the deeper realm of stillness.
While inner lights are the most common phenomenon in this transitional phase, some people see images, like faces, and some hear music or other sounds. However, these phenomena are much less common than the frequently observed inner light. It is best to treat them all in the same way: simply be aware of them, resist the temptation to analyse or judge them, let go a little more, relax more deeply and flow on into a deeper stillness.
xii). Infinite space
Having moved through the transitional phase described, the next most common experience is to have a sense of being in infinite space. This ‘space’ is not a void or an emptiness. It is commonly dark, yet it has a feeling of luminosity and what is best described as an immanence. It feels as if it is a very creative, very alive space, yet empty of anything definable or recognisable as a specific object. Infinite space: Vast with no borders, no boundaries, and accompanied by a very expansive, warm, contented, blissful feeling.
xiii). Infinite consciousness
This feeling of infinite space can flow on to become a feeling of being connected to or part of an infinite consciousness. It is as if the luminous space described becomes more directly, more tangibly ripe with creative potential. This becomes a more mystical type of experience, a more direct experience of a spiritual truth. Often, the feeling that accompanies this phase is intense bliss. For some people this mystical feeling can be accompanied by visions. For all, it is a transcendent and transformative experience.
The experience of infinite space, and the experience of infinite consciousness, significant and wonderful as they both may be, still involve a duality. In other words, while these two experiences can only be found in the realm of stillness beyond the thinking mind, there is still a part of us that is observing the experience. There is a sense that I am experiencing, or I am observing, infinite space. I am experiencing or I am aware of infinite consciousness. There is me, and there is the experience. A duality. That which is the observer, and that which is observed. In this state of stillness, that duality may be quite subtle, but it is a duality nonetheless.
Meditation reaches its end when we transcend that duality, when there is simply a pure awareness. The duality merges into a state of union, and there is the direct experience of unity, a oneness.
Even a glimpse of this oneness, even a moment, or just a fleeting sense of what it is like, is deeply reassuring. Maybe this is just like being introduced briefly to a new person and we are yet to get to know them well; to become familiar with them. But even in a brief experience of that oneness we come to experience a profound inner truth, the truth of who we really are, and the truth of what is in our heart’s essence.
Use this information wisely!
It is tempting, especially as a beginner, to become eager and impatient at the prospect of experiencing all of this. So again, remember to temper this excitement with the knowledge that in meditation what will help us to advance is to avoid trying too hard, to avoid making it a source of a stress, to avoid judgement, and to concentrate on just doing it.
Where these signposts can be helpful is that when we do experience them, we can take comfort that we are heading in the right direction. They tell us we are progressing, and that we simply need to use the techniques and support them by letting go of judgement and reaction, and taking comfort in the knowledge that the techniques do work and that we just need to go with them.
Of course, the real answer to the question “How do I know if I am meditating well?” is this: ‘You know you are meditating well when you do not have to ask the question!’ What this means is that it is possible for us to reach a point in our meditation practice where we have an inner knowing that leaves us confident that all is well, that the meditation is going well. There is no longer any need to ask anyone; we just know.
This Blog has been adapted from “Meditation – an In-depth Guide” by Ian Gawler and Paul Bedson.
1. Sogyal Rinpoche will be in Melbourne for a public talk prior to Christmas - 20th December. What a great present! Take someone you care for. He is also in other cities are Australia - check the website.
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