versus Stages of Meditation
Swami Jnaneshvara Bharati
There are many Types
of meditation based on
the Object that is Observed by the Observer,
and these can evolve through Stages, from
Gross, to Subtle, to Subtler, and Subtle most.
Index of this web page:
Focal point of meditation
Stages of meditation
Breadth versus depth of experience
See also these articles:
Five stages of meditation
Five koshas or sheaths
Levels and dimensions
Mindfulness and concentration
50+ methods of meditation
principles: This article describes the interrelationship between
three aspects of the meditation process, and how these lead one to
experience not only the breadth, but also the depth of meditation:
Focal point as the
basis of meditation Types
Process of Observer, Observing, and
Stages of meditation
evolving past the focal point
point of meditation
Basis for the Type of
It is common for one to ask a meditator, "What type of meditation do you do?"
Usually, it is the Object on which one focuses attention that
determines the answer to the question. Following are some of the
examples (their popular names are excluded):
(mostly sense of touch or seeing)
Breath (many different
Energy (chakras or
channels of energy)
Mantra (various types
Stream of thoughts
(methods known by different names)
The styles, systems, or
types of meditation may go by different names, and they may be taught by
a wide range of schools, traditions, teachers, lineages, religions, or
paths, but the primary underlying discrimination between them is the nature of
that focal point.
Subtler than the
Gross Objects: What is often missed, however, is that meditation evolves in
stages (described in detail below). Some systems or schools of meditation deepen
beyond the Gross form of that Object of
meditation, while others remain focused on that single Object, and go no
further. In other words, some go very deep, while others remain in the
shallow waters of practice with that Gross Object, not recognizing the further reaches of
Another way of saying
this, is that some methods of meditation are only methods of relaxation,
and do not really pursue the depths of practice that lead to higher,
truer states of consciousness or being. Still others emphasize only the
surface meditation Objects as part of religious worship, not pursuing
the esoteric depth of
the practices. While these surface practices might be very useful, they are early stages from the
perspective of the whole of the meditative process.
As an example, meditation
on the mechanical aspects of breath may be the basis for a system of
meditation. This can be extremely relaxing and may bring some peace of
mind, as well as improved physical health. Yet, if the practice is limited to the
Gross breath alone, the
higher aspects will be missed. Beyond the Gross breath is the energy
(prana) that is behind the breath, as well as many levels of mental
process, the instruments of mind itself, and the Subtler aspects that
define our individuality. Beyond that is the true Self, the direct
experience of which is called Self-realization, or other names.
Similarly, one may
practice meditation on the sensory experience throughout the body, which
is a very useful practice. However, Subtler than the physical sensation
is the energy (prana), the senses themselves (as Objects of
examination), the mind which is doing the experiencing, and the deeper
mental aspects beyond the conscious thinking. If one chooses to progress
beyond the sensing stage, the sensory
meditation can be used effectively near the beginning of a specific
meditation session, following this with the Subtler meditation practices.
The same kind of Gross
versus Subtle meditation also applies with the Gross levels of mantra,
attitudes, and all forms of visualized images. Each of these surface
level practice are useful in their Gross forms, and each can be followed
to their Subtler sources, but only if the meditator is aware of the
process of meditation moving in stages.
Observing, and Observed
Three aspects: In
each of the examples above, there are three aspects to the process of
<--> Observing <--> Observed
is an Object being Observed, including visualized images, sensation,
breath, mantra, and attitudes, etc..
There is also a process by which that Observing occurs, which utilizes the
sensory and mental instruments.
Beyond the mental and sensory instruments, there is an Observer, who
is doing the Observing by means of those instruments.
1. Object Observed:
A Gross Object is composed of Subtler Objects. We are all familiar with
this process in the physical world, in relation to Objects being
constructed of compounds, molecules, and atoms. A similar process is
encountered in the Subtler meditations. In each case, there is an Observed
Object, whether that Object is the Gross Object itself, or one of its Subtler components.
<--> Observing <--> Observed
Gross Objects: The notion of
meditation on a Gross Object is pretty straightforward, including any
of the familiar Objects, such as visualized images, sensation, breath,
mantra, and attitudes, etc..
components: All of the Objects are constructed of five Gross elements
called bhutas, and these are earth, water, fire, air, and
space. These five also have five Subtle elements,
called tattvas, which are the Subtler aspects of earth, water,
fire, air, and space. Subtler than these are the mental processes and
three components out of which these arise, which are called gunas
(sattva, rajas, and tamas).
Although one may be
practicing meditation on Gross Objects, which is extremely useful, it is
also important to recognize that these Subtler explorations of the
component nature of the Objects is a further stage of the meditation
process. The particulars of how to do those Subtler meditations come
with practice and training.
Observing process: Subtler than Observing either the Gross Objects of
the various types of meditation, or the Subtler components of those Objects, is meditation on the process and
instruments by which that Observing or meditating is done. The process
and means of Observing is, itself, now the focal point of meditation.
<--> Observing <--> Observed
Meditation on the Observing
process includes meditation on the:
Indriyas: The ten
senses, including the five active senses (karmendriyas) and the
five cognitive senses (jnanendriyas).
The inner mental instrument includes the four
functions of mind, which are manas, chitta, ahamkara, and buddhi
Vayus: The five forms
of energy flow of prana, the
Subtle energy underlying the Gross breath
Notice that when
meditation is done with these inner instruments as the Object of
meditation, attention has shifted away from the other Objects, such as
visualized images, sensation,
breath, energy, mantra, and attitudes, etc.. This is a Subtler
aspect of meditation, and leads one further inward, moving in the
direction of the center of consciousness, the Self.
3. Observing the Observer: Here,
attention has shifted not only past the Gross Objects and their Subtle components, but also the sensory and mental processes by which they were
being Observed. Attention is now directed towards the Observer itself,
seeking to experience the Subtlest aspect of individuation.
<--> Observing <--> Observed
This stage is so Subtle
that it becomes extremely difficult to talk or write about. In this arena of individuated identity people can easily
find themselves in
philosophical debates with one another. Observing the Observer has to do
with Asmita, which is described as I-ness itself, which is Subtler
than the mental instruments through which Observing occurs. The function
of mind called Buddhi
(which knows, decides, judges, and discriminates) has levels of
functioning itself, and the finest aspect of buddhi can also considered
a part of the individuated Observer.
Going beyond relaxation:
An important point here is that when we discriminate between styles or
types of meditation on the basis of the Gross Object of meditation
(visualized images, sensation,
breath, energy, mantra, and attitudes, etc.), we can unfortunately
miss these Subtler levels of Observing both the Observing instruments
and the Observer itself. With awareness of this process, our inner
journey will not restrict itself to the shallower stages of meditation.
We will not then settle for mere relaxation stages, but will pursue the
depths of self-inquiry, so as to ultimately experience the eternal core
of our being, by whatever name you choose to call that.
Whatever Gross Object is chosen for
meditation (visualized images, sensation,
breath, energy, mantra, and attitudes, etc.), the process moves inward
through stages (Gross, Subtle, Bliss, I-ness, Objectless). All methods
of meditation, of all schools, traditions, teachers, lineages, religions, or
paths are experienced in one or more of the stages described below. This
is a universal framework for deepening meditation, and is extremely
useful to understand, in that it allows you to see where you stand, and
where you are going.
See also the summary page entitled:
Five stages of meditation
Stages of attention:
In going through the stages of meditation below (Gross, Subtle, Bliss,
I-ness, Objectless), it is useful to understand that the attention
process itself also advances in stages. This means the nature of attention
itself is also refined in subtler forms.
attention is meant to denote that awareness that we are all
accustomed to experience. While it might be a deep metaphysical
reflection to discuss the nature of attention, it is here being used
in a straightforward way.
effort to bring attention to a single point is called concentration
(dharana). The concentration is temporary, and is broken by
interruption of other thought patterns, impressions, or sensations.
attention turns into concentration on an Object (any Object, at any
stage), and when that concentration is unbroken for some period of
time, that is called meditation (dhyana).
the three part process of Observer, Observing, and Observed. When
meditation deepens to such a point that these three seem to collapse
into one experience, that is the meaning of samadhi. It is as if
there is no longer an Observer or a process of Observing, but
instead, all that exists is the Object itself. Thus, samadhi may
occur at levels. (Sometimes the word samadhi is used to connote
solely the highest state of consciousness, so it is important to
know that the word is also used at a variety of levels and in
relation to different objects.)
If the difference between attention,
concentration, meditation, and samadhi is not clear, it is best to think
of the stages below in terms of simple attention. The stages can be
viewed as the various levels one moves through on the inner journey, and
the matter of whether the attention is occurring as concentration,
meditation, or samadhi can be left for later, or allowed to come over
time through direct experience.
Stages of meditation: Below
are descriptions of four stages of meditation with a focal point, and
then a fifth stage of objectless meditation. (see Yoga
All of the methods of meditation described above (visualized images, sensation,
breath, energy, mantra, and attitudes, etc.) operate at the
Gross level of the world.
- Meditation on physical
sensation is at the Gross level.
- Meditation on mechanical breath
is at the Gross level.
- Meditation on the syllables of mantras is
at the Gross level.
- Meditation on visualized Objects is at the
- Meditation on stream of thoughts is at the Gross level.
While each of these might be
considered a different style or type of meditation, they are all
being done at the same stage of meditation, which is the Gross or
Savitarka stage (or level). If the meditator wants to go to deeper
meditation, samadhi, and Self-realization, these Gross Objects
must be experienced in their Subtle forms, along with the Subtle
instruments of our own makeup that allow them to be
In other words, you must let go
of the Gross level of the Object for meditation to deepen. You
must go beyond the Gross stage of meditation, regardless
of which style you are practicing.
For all of the Gross Objects above, the question is what is the Subtle
level or stage underneath. To not pursue the Subtler
aspect of these Gross Objects is to stay stuck in the most
surface level of meditation. The deeper experiences of samadhi
and Self-realization will totally elude one who emphasizes the
Gross meditations alone, without following those beginning level
practices into the field of experience out of which they come.
In the Subtle stage of
meditation, the Gross Objects are now experienced in their Subtle
- Physical sensation is replaced by exploration of
the nature of sensing itself.
- Mantra begins to be experienced
beyond the syllables.
- Visualized images begin to be
experienced in their Subtle or formless forms.
- Meditation on
streams of thoughts is replaced with meditation on the mind
which is doing the thinking.
There are two general ways in
which this Subtle level is utilized for meditation leading to
- First, the Gross Objects are explored in their
Subtle forms of shape, vibration, and light so as to determine
that they are not truly related to the Self, and can be set
aside with non-attachment as not worthy of further pursuit on
the inner path to Self-realization. (They may, however, be
useful in other ways related to the Gross world, such as
your physical health.)
- Second, the Subtle forms of our
own constitution are explored as Objects of meditation. They are
seen to be not-Self, and are also set aside with non-attachment.
This includes the instruments with which we experience the Gross
meditations. For example, the senses
of sight and touch (physical sensation), the pranas underneath
Gross breath, as well as the mind
which is doing the processing of all this data.
stage: Underneath, or Subtler than all of the Gross Objects,
the Subtle aspects of those Objects, and the Subtle Objects of Observing,
there still remains consciousness. When all of these subside, or
are transcended, there remains a feeling of Bliss or Joy that is
This Bliss is not a mere
emotion, as wonderful as emotions can be. It is a whole
different order of reality or being, Subtler than the mind,
which normally experiences emotions. This can be seen more
clearly by looking at the article on the
Koshas, where you can see graphically how the day-to-day
thoughts and emotions are at the mental level (manamaya kosha),
whereas the Bliss being described here is at a deeper level,
beyond the typical mental functioning.
One of the main reasons for
this Bliss is the fact that all of other levels and Objects have
been temporarily allowed to come to rest, or be transcended
during this period of meditation with Bliss.
Regardless of the Gross or Subtle Object on which you may have
been meditating, or even the meditation on Bliss, there is an
I-ness (Asmita), an individuality that is experiencing those
When meditation shifts
so far inward that the Object of meditation is the I-ness
itself, it is irrelevant what might have been the more surface
level of Object. It is also irrelevant to
consider the Subtleties of sensation, energies, lights and
sounds, etc. that existed at the Subtle stage just below the Gross.
Even the Bliss stage has been transcended, letting go even of the Latent forms
of the Gross and Subtle Objects.
At this stage, consciousness is wrapped
only around I-ness or individuality itself. This stage is not merely
an alternative to the grosser Objects of meditation; it
is an entirely different level of reality and self-being.
When attention is no longer wrapped around any Object whatsoever, that is
objectless meditation. This is called Asamprajnata or Nirbija meditation
This is not merely a conscious
state of mind like we typically encounter, where there are few Gross
thoughts. It is an extremely high order
of awareness, beyond or deeper than all of the Gross meditations, all of the
Subtle meditations, the meditation on
the Bliss, as well as the meditation on I-ness.
versus depth of experience
Breadth and depth of
meditation: The two dimensions of type and stage of
meditation also represent the breadth and depth of meditation
practices. There may be a great breadth, or diversity of Gross Objects
that may be used as focal points of attention (there are many objects in
the world and mind), but the deeper stages are Subtler than all of these surface level diversities.
Types or styles deal
with breadth: The different styles of meditation
usually emphasize different Objects of meditation. These various styles are all at the Gross level of
with depth: Each of the styles of meditation align
with the Gross level of reality, and their Gross form must be
transcended if one is to progress to the Subtler, deeper stages.
or types deal with Breadth: The different styles
meditation usually emphasize different Objects of
meditation. These various types are all at
the Gross level of reality, and there is a great breadth
of the number of such practices which are possible to pursue.
Sensations are experienced at the Gross stage.
breathing is at the Gross stage.
Emotional attitudes are at the
Reciting the syllables of mantra is at the Gross
Visualized images are at the Gross stage.
pictures and words are at the Gross stage.
deal with Depth: Each of the styles or types
meditation (above) align with the Gross level of reality, and
their Gross form must be transcended if one is to progress to
the Subtler, deeper stages.
Sensation shifts to awareness
of the instruments of sensation (the senses and mind itself).
Breath awareness is dropped as one encounters the underlying
pranic energy itself.
Emotional attitudes give way to serenity
beyond the mind.
The syllables of mantra fade away, as one
becomes absorbed in the deep feeling and meaning.
images give way to meditation on light itself, along with the
mental instruments of perception.
Streams of pictures and words
are dropped, as their building blocks, the Subtle elements of
earth, water, fire, air, and space are explored.
Gradually, the Objects themselves are dropped, at both their
Gross and Subtle stages, as attention goes to the ever Subtler stages of ones own being.
Instead of being
absorbed in the Objects, attention is wrapped around the deep
Bliss that arises when one is still conscious, yet has let go of
those Gross and Subtle images.
When that too is allowed to be
shed, attention wraps itself around I-ness itself.
Thus, the Observer, which was originally the one
Observing all of those
other Objects is now, itself, the Object pursued in meditation.
The meditator is at the doorway of the deepest meditation.
Meditation is systematic:
Meditation is a systematic
process that moves through stages. Meditation may begin with a Gross
Object that has shape and form. Gradually, the meditation may deepen
into the Subtler aspects of that Object. Systematically, attention then
explores the mental and sensory instruments by which that Gross Object is
Observed, experienced, and understood. Then, the individual Observer itself, the I-ness, becomes the focus of exploration. Finally, the
reality beyond the Objects, the Observing process, and the Observer is
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