I normally don’t like any “lists” or “stages” finding them too simplistic, but it is just a convenient way to give you some idea about what to expect if you practice meditation over a long time. There are a lot of different classifications in different traditions, this one is based on my personal experience but, probably, can be shared by many other people. These stages are not necessarily sequential in time, and not everyone will get any mystical glimpses or be even interested in the Existential, and yet for the others, they might be the primary focus of interest.
I started practicing meditation at the age of 19, my first method was transcendental meditation, over the years I have tried various Tibetan Buddhism methods, different types of Vipassana and, finally, Zen (both Koan and Shikantaza). My primary motivation was escaping intense emotional suffering and also the burning questions “What is the meaning of it all?”, but it changed with time…
Stage 1. Personal benefits
I have written about the beginning stage in my previous post 26 years of meditation: Beginning. Basically, at this stage, we are looking to improve our daily life. To feel better, to become more productive, more successful, more creative, more peaceful, more whatever… It is about personal benefits, at least on the apparent level of our consciousness. And meditation (if you actually doing it consistently) definitely does help, I can totally vouch for it! You will feel more balanced emotionally, very likely it will improve your memory, problem-solving power, ability to come up with interesting “out of the box” solutions, help you with insomnia and stress.
The main difficulty at this stage is establishing meditation routine, as the results will not be apparent initially (for at least few months, maybe longer) and it might feel that meditation doesn’t work and “there is no point”. It takes time, just like learning any other skill, be very clear that most likely you will NOT experience anything significant in the beginning, changes will be very gradual and you might NOT actually notice them for a while.
Stage 2. Magical or Mystical
Our brain can be compared to a radio receiver with an extensive capacity to tune into many different “radio stations” – energy waves and dimensions in which the Reality (Universe, God, Eternity, Emptiness, etc.) is broadcasting. Habitually, we only functioning in the very limited range of conceptual thinking, but through practicing meditation, we can develop the capacity to perceive different aspects of the reality, which can sometimes appear to us as “magical, mystical” or “supernatural”. In our mainstream conceptual framework, there is a lot of controversy about this, ranging from fascination to blatant denial and ridicule.
Since I am only talking from my personal experience, without regard to the wide range of other opinions, I can say with certainty – there is a whole world of fascinating “mystical” things out there, which is very interesting to explore. In my case, it manifested mostly through very vivid “prophetic” dreams, visions and premonitions – occurrences of “just knowing” something without any regard to logical reasoning and “common sense”.
I have experienced my first very powerful vision after practicing meditation for about 5 years. I might write about it later, just now can only say it was a very clear preview of an event (a sudden death of a family member) that took place a month AFTER the vision.
Over the years, and especially during long meditation retreats I had many chances to explore the capacity of my mind to perceive a range of various “broadcasts”. Probably, I have indulged in it a bit too much, all the time being aware of Buddha’s warning: Siddhis (mystical, supernatural powers) are to be expected if you practice meditation seriously, but they are not the end, and can actually lead you astray from your search for the Real.
Siddhis are extremely seductive, not only in term of feeling “special” or “superior” but just because of their magical nature. Habitually, we live in a grey boring world where everything is labeled and well-known. When you suddenly became aware of so much more than your “normal” limited world of conceptual, logical thinking… it feels extremely exciting! We can talk about the dangers, but the truth is – when you get the glimpse all the warnings will be forgotten. It is just too good to say “no” (and you might not even realize how to say “no”)!
If I am to say anything at all about it – enjoy them, explore, but be aware that this is not the end. There is still more. These experiences are still just experiences – they are impermanent, they will come and go, they will frustrate your logical mind (which is probably a good thing), and if you get attached a bit too much – they will bring another twisted form of suffering – insatiable longing for the magical.
Stage 3. Existential or Awakening
With some life experience, (if we actually observed what works and what doesn’t in our practical life), we arrive at the stage of “nice manageable duality” (Adyashanti) when we can function in the world pretty well, without too much stress. Meditation can help with that a lot.
But at some stage, there might be a dawning awareness of a longing, dissatisfaction, deep inside of us, that is not cured by good lifestyle, good relationships, positive thinking, accumulated (including mystical) experiences, or anything that we know… it is deeper than the simple need to feel better or improve our life.
It really starts when the question “Who am I?” comes to the foreground of our consciousness. Many times we probably asked this questions, but more in terms “Where do I belong? What should I do? What is my purpose in life?” – and all of these are in the realm of abstract notions of “Me” and “My life”.
The real existential question is a bit different – it is about that which is looking through your eyes, hearing through your ears as an immediate experience, as a mystery, something bigger than you. It seems like it is about you, but really, it is not.
The dawning of the Existential stage comes when the brain is prepared by meditation practice and there is also some life wisdom accumulated that helps to see things in a wider perspective, deeper than the simple need to favorable adjust our self-image or get some personal benefits. There is something more, we kind of feel it but can’t really formulate it or explain.
Really, at this stage, it is all out of your hands. There is something bigger at play, and you start to understand it, and gradually learn to surrender… Wise, sane surrender is another learning path – and a long one! What we can do is just to clear the way for it through self-inquiry (clearing old patterns of conceptual thinking) and continue meditation, which at this stage becomes very natural and effortless, just like a state of just being, state of deep listening without doing anything.
At this stage, the focus on impermanent experiences (good or bad ones) is replaced by the focus on the PERMANENT, eternal Emptiness, which has no conceptual reflection, no attachment to an individual self-image, and manifests as blissful inner silence, radiance, love, the sense of never dimming inner sunshine and a quiet power.
This is the real magic, that very tangible relief, the powerful shift that was absolutely worth the endless hours spent in meditation, the boredom, the back pain and the torture of relentless self-inquiry. It is incomparable, difficult to describe and absolutely sublime. It is simple, natural, stable, absolutely sane, totally functional and longing for nothing.