The Non-linear Progression of the Meditative Process

authored by Jeff Siff

    Meditation has commonly been viewed as a means towards a goal. With this view, it is common to conceive of there being a linear path from ignorance to enlightenment, and all the meditator has to do is keep to the instructions for the goal to be realized.  This view has kept the whole area of a natural meditative process of development largely misunderstood.

     A natural meditative process, as I see it, is made up of three onward-leading internal activities: wearing away, cultivation, and unfolding. They can arise at any time, at any degree of intensity. Through the development of meditative skills your mind becomes better able to utilize these progressive internal activities when they arise.


     At the outset, it is not the purpose of the meditation to “eliminate” any negative qualities directly.  Instead, the direction is towards a “cultivation” of consciousness where an actual wearing away of negative and conflictual states of mind becomes possible.

     When you experience an “excellent” state of mind, one that you know is wholesome and sound, it can momentarily push aside states of mind that are not. When mental states that are not productive of well-being then arise, there can be a counter-balancing of those states with these “excellent” beneficial states.   This will not be accomplished through an act of will, such as intentionally having friendly thoughts towards someone when you feel anger at this person, but, rather, it will arise at times around the occurrence of anger, influencing you to behave in a different, kindlier manner.   For instance, a meditator may feel quite self righteous about his anger and later through much closer observation realize that expressing the anger causes more pain to himself and to others than containing the anger in full awareness, not allowing it to be expressed outwardly.

     Through cultivating wholesome states at the times when they naturally appear in meditation, unwholesome states will lose their dominance over the mind, and yet, they may still appear as frequently and as powerfully as before.

     This is what I have seen as “working.”  Other approaches, such as applying effort to let go of, or ignore, negative states, may temporarily free the mind of the preoccupation with such thoughts and feelings, but still offer no real solution.  For what we are talking about here is not a path of willful suppression, but a path of openness and honesty about one’s inner world, where through meditation there is the cultivation of qualities which are lacking in that world; and these “excellent” qualities can work like an anecdote for  the turmoil, trauma, and injuries found within us.

     Not all negative or unwanted habits and tendencies will be worn away in this process of meditation.  Some may even appear to grow stronger.  And that is because the roots of all these habits and tendencies are far more powerful and pervasive than we initially, and naively, believe.  If you think that you will conquer the three unwholesome roots (anger, desire, and confusion) early on in your meditation practice, you are deceived.  One sign of progress is knowing how far you are from a true elimination of these three roots and the depth and strength of all of them.

     Keep in mind that all significant change is accomplished through the natural and timely abandonment of views.  That is, it is not anger that will be worn away, but certain ways of seeing things that give rise to and perpetuate anger.  The belief, “I am always justified in abusing someone when I am angry,” will have to diminish in its power over you before anger itself can ever dwindle.


     Meditation progresses in a manner of entering into and emerging out of “phases.” Each phase is a more or less determined state of consciousness, where the mind will act in certain ways and not in others. In each phase, your ability to follow certain instructions changes.  In one phase you may experience thoughts and feelings coming and going very quickly, not sticking with you, and not forming completely.   In another phase, you may find that no matter what you do you cannot shake a certain mood.   You cannot work with these two phases in the same way.

     Each phase has an initial period where it is undeveloped and crude. The meditator at that time usually feels as though she has regressed or lost what was previously gained in the prior phase.  As the phase develops, new experiences (that are sometimes accompanied by the acquisition of new skills or learning) arise and make an impact on the meditator. Thus, the phases begin as gross experiences that tend to be glossed over, and, in time, with correct attention paid to one’s experience, they exhibit subtle characteristics and invite a more penetrating exploration.

     The progression of one phase to another is at times orderly and at other times, random. There may be periods when you exit one phase and begin another, only to find yourself plunged back into the earlier phase in the very next sitting. There may also be times when one phase, which has previously followed another phase, does not appear, and another emerges instead.  In future articles on this subject, I will give you some “likely” sequences which I have heard in the reporting of meditation sittings by several meditators.  However, I caution you to anticipate about equal amounts of predictable and unpredictable experiences, as there is no absolute certainty in the progression from one phase to another.

     The unfolding of meditation experience occurs as though something else, besides you, is doing it. There is no apparent reason for one’s sittings to unfold in a certain way, and our attempts to interpret this process and attribute causes to it often lead to theories that become removed from actual experience.  It is here that one develops trust in the direction that the inner world takes through meditation.   

Copyright © 1998 Jason Siff

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