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What are the stages of Meditative Concentration?

What are the stages of Meditative Concentration?

" should know that all mundane and supermundane virtuous qualities, whether of shravakas, bodhisattvas, or tathagatas, are the result of meditative serenity and insight." —Samadhi-nirmocana-sutra

"An undistracted mind is mental one-pointedness, the serenity aspect, while accurate reflection on facts and meanings refers to discerning wisdom, the insight aspect. Thus, you must acheive all good qualities of the two vehicles through both (1) sustained analysis with discerning wisdom and (2) one-pointed focus on the object of meditation. You do not acheive them through one-sided practice of either analytical meditation or stabilizing meditation." —Tsong Khapa, The Great Treatise on the Stages of the Path

"Serenity is one-pointed attention; insight is proper discernment." —Ratna-megha-sutra

The Nine Stages of Calm Abiding

"Nowhere does it say anything else but this: if you hope to develop Insight (vipashyana), the training of wisdom (prajna), you must find Quietude (serenity, shamatha), that of concentration." —Tsong Khapa

The following information is intended to provide a very practical and simplified outline of an ancient and essential teaching on the development of meditative concentration, also called Dhyana or Shamatha.

This teaching outlines nine basic states of consciousness which equate to nine qualities of concentrated attention. Anyone can learn how to improve their own meditation practice by comparing their own experience with the states described here.

Moving from one state to a superior one is achieved by overcoming the obstacles present at each stage.  This is precisely the value of this teaching: it allows us to immediately discover how our practice is developing and what we need to do to advance it.

We can have great faith in this teaching, as it was given to humanity by a great Buddha, and has been continually practiced in Tibetan Buddhism for at least 1,700 years.

Concentration (shamatha) is the basis from which we clearly visualize (insight / vipashyana), and when combined, concentration and visualization give us access to wisdom, comprehension, prajna. Therefore, concentration practice is the ground from which the flower of meditation emerges.  However, concentration practice itself is not meditation.  Meditation begins once concentration has been established. Actual meditation (dhyana, samadhi) is defined as a state of consciousness within which we can retrieve information.


  1. Conducive place
  2. Have few wants
  3. Being content
  4. Completely abandoning demands of society: studying useless aspects of teachings
  5. Pure ethics
  6. Completely abandoning conceptual thought / desire

It is tragic to see meditators who in spite of practicing for years fail to have real progress, simply because they do not pay attention to the prerequisites for developing good concentration. Therefore, it is very wise to pay close attention to the prerequisites at all times, no matter how long we have been studying or practicing.

  • Conducive place: In general, this concerns the environment we live in.  A dangerous area or very noisy home prevent us from relaxing completely.  A place that is dirty or host to wrong or harmful actions will also surround us with difficult obstacles.  A home filled with dissension will not be peaceful. If possible, we should do our best to establish ourselves in a peaceful, clean, safe environment.
  • Having few wants: Too many desires keep the mind agitated and unhappy.  The simpler we can be, the fewer desires we have, the more peaceful we will be.
  • Being content: The less we own and are responsible for, the less there is to trouble the mind.  Being content with what we have instills peace.  Discontentment agitates the mind.
  • Abandoning the demands of society: Engaging in a lot of worldly activities keeps the mind agitated.  The more we can simplify our life, the more stable the mind will be.
  • Pure ethics: Harmful activities greatly disturb the mind.  In order to learn how to meditate, such activities must be completely stopped.  Harmful activities include any actions (even in the heart and mind) which cause harm to ourselves or to others.  Examples include ingesting intoxicants, engaging in sexual misbehavior (including masturbation), lying, stealing, killing, and more. All of these actions create karma and negatively impact the mind.
  • Abandoning conceptual thought: Intellectualizing the teachings will distract us and impede our practice.  Fantasy must cease in order for intuition to function.  Thus, daydreaming, conceptualizing, and any form of mechanical imagination must be stopped.

The prerequisites are critical for effective development of our practice.  Each one requires continual effort to observe ourselves.  Thus in synthesis, we can see that self-observation is the very foundation of developing concentration:

  1. Self-observation is how we discover the activities, thoughts and feelings that impede our concentration practice.
  2. Self-observation is an activity of directed attention, thus it is the very same activity that we are trying to develop in our concentration practice; the more we self-observe, the stronger our concentration becomes.

The Object of Concentration

In order to develop concentration, the practitioner adopts an object of meditation. Traditional objects include the breath, sacred images, or sacred sounds. We prefer to develop concentration by visualizing sacred images; this is because the acquisition of real comprehension demands the activation of conscious imagination.  Therefore, the sooner a student learns how to concentrate and consciously direct both attention (shamatha) and imagination (vipashyana), the sooner they will understand and access Samadhi (ecstasy), the doorway to comprehension.


Gnostic students are advised to place the body in a position that supports two essential qualities:

  1. Perfect relaxation
  2. Perfect concentration

Some students adopt a traditional seated position using a cushion, while others use a chair or bed. The key is to discover how you can be deeply relaxed but without falling asleep.

Setting the Stage

Practices of pranayama and vocalization will prepare the body and mind for practice. The length and type of practice should be experimented with until you discover what is most effective for you.  There are many varieties of these practices available on this website and in the books of Samael Aun Weor.

Illustration of the Nine States

The following image is common to all the schools of Tibetan Buddhism, and represents the teaching of Buddha Maitreya. Images like this one have traditionally been painted as murals on the walls of monasteries and places of instruction.

shamatha lg

Get a poster of this image.

Chart symbols (starting at the bottom right):

  • Temple: has many levels of meaning. Represents:
  1. The need for a place to practice
  2. The need to hear the teachings
  3. Our three brains
  4. The three vehicles or levels of the teachings
  • Monk: Represents the meditator. Is a monk because in order to practice effectively we need isolation from worldly demands, in other words renunciation
  • Winding path: back and forth of reaching for equilibrium. Is not an easy or short path; takes balance and attentiveness
  • Turbulent river: our own mind and the restless senses, thoughts, dullness, all of which toss our attention around

The Nine Mental States

1. Placement, or Fixing the Mind

In the graphic, we see the monk chasing an elephant and a monkey. These symbolize:

  • Grey monkey: our restless mind
  • Grey elephant: the dullness or heaviness of the mind

The objects that the monk carries represent:

  • Ax / hook: "clear understanding" or vigilance. Vigilance: detects the emergence of distractions.
  • Rope: mindfulness; continual awareness of what we are doing. Watches over mental focus of concentration.

We have yet to establish any control over our attention, thus the mind can go wherever it wants.

At this stage, we begin to evoke the visualization, yet cannot make it stay. Our attention is dispersed and distracted. Our ability to direct attention is very weak and we can only maintain the visualization briefly before we are distracted by something other than our object of meditation. At this stage, there is barely any continuity of attention, and we quickly forget that we are even practicing, and instead drift off into dreaming ("conceptualization").

Before we begin to practice, we generally have the idea that our mind is relatively "normal," and that we have sufficient control over its activities.  Sincere self-observation quickly leads to the realization that this is not so. Likewise, the effort to begin practicing meditation leads to the impression that somehow meditation is making the mind worse. This is not the case. In fact, at this level of practice, we are already beginning to see just how bad the true state of our mind really is.

What we need at this point is a tremendous effort to gain control over our attention; that effort is symbolized by the raging fire.

2. Continual Placement, or Fixation with Some Continuity

The monk still has not secured the animals, but the elephant and the monkey show a small patch of white. This indicates some progress in our effort to direct our attention at will.


We are able to hold the image for a short time, yet the periods of distraction are still longer than the periods of concentration. We still drift off into dreaming more than we remain focused on the object of concentration.

3. Patch-like placement

shamatha-03 The monk now has a rope around the elephant's neck. This indicates that mindfulness and vigilance are becoming more active.

Now our visualization is somewhat more consistent; our attention still becomes distracted, but we are now more aware of the object of attention than distractions. The periods of distraction are now shorter than the periods of conscious attention. We still struggle to stay focused, and are continually placing the attention back on the object; this is why it is called "patch-like," as patches on cloth. To completely conquer this level, we need more mindfulness: self-observation.  We need to develop the ability to always be consciously aware of what we are doing, whether in meditation or any other activity.

4. Close Placement or Good Fixation

The rabbit on the elephant's back symbolizes a form of laziness that invades our practice when we start to feel like we are doing it right. Suddenly, we are in danger of becoming lazy, and our efforts to direct attention may lessen.

shamatha-04 Now we never lose sight of the visualization.  It is at this stage that we never forget that we are practicing. Distractions still appear but no longer knock our attention away. Thus we see that the animals are becoming more white: the mind is stabilizing. Likewise, our raw exertion also relaxes, as concentration and directed attention become more natural. This is symbolized by the fire becoming smaller.

Distractions are no longer the problem. Now a new obstacle appears: the danger of excitement or complacency (dullness). With the stability of visualization comes the excitement that we are "doing it" or have reached Samadhi. Then we "relax" our attention, feeling that we "made it." This causes our awareness to become lax and our attention to become dull. This is called "gross laxity." To counter this, we need to strengthen our vigilance, and sharpen our awareness more. In other words, from now on, the visualization is easily maintained, and our focus shifts from WHAT we have been visualizing to HOW we pay attention to it.

5. Subduing, or Becoming Disciplined

shamatha-05 By applying greater vigilance (observation of how we observe), we overcome the coarse dullness of the fourth state, and thereby establish the fifth state. Here we never lose sight of the visualization, and our attention is sharp and focused. Distractions still arise but cannot take us away from the visualization. Yet now, excitement again poses a threat. The gross or more obvious laxity was conquered in the fourth state, so now we look for more subtle forms of laziness of attention, and more subtle forms of excitement.

6. Pacifying or Becoming Peaceful

Here the two primary obstacles are subtle excitement and subtle laxity. To advance, we simply need to more quickly address them by means of vigilance.

7. Fully Pacifying, or Becoming Very Pacified

shamatha-08 Now the excitement and laxity are very subtle. But vigilance is so strong that we naturally apply it as soon as these obstacles arise. Excitement and dullness can no long er over power us, but we still need to crush them.

8. Becoming Single-pointed

Attention is sharp and clear, with mindfulness and vigilance very strong, thus neither excitement nor laxity can even arise.  Yet, effort to concentrate is still required. To advance to the ninth state, we only need to practice more and become familiar with the eighth state.

9. Fixed Absorption or Meditative Equipoise

shamatha-09 The elephant is now resting peacefully beside the meditator: the mind is tamed. This does not mean that the ego is eliminated; it only means that the mind has settled into it's natural state.  This is not enlightenment: it is merely a foundation from which insight into the truth can be acquired.

No more exertion of concentration is required.  Concentration is now established and peaceful. To develop additional stages simple requires more practice and comprehension.

Truthfully, this is still a level of "approximate tranquility," relative to the "human plane of desire." In other words, to advance, one needs to enter into Initiation.

Higher Levels of Shamatha

Emerging from the meditator of the ninth state is a rainbow bridge with four colors: these correspond to the four levels of the Form Plane (Yetzirah), and the Four Levels of the Formless Plane (Briah), and the levels of meditative concentration developed therein.


Practical Advice

Having a stable foundation is essential to successfully practicing any meditation techniques. Therefore, we recommend students to begin by developing concentration at least until they can sustain the fourth or fifth state as described above. This ensures that the student is able to maintain continual awareness of any practice they engage in. Stated another way, in order to effectively practice psychoanalytical meditation (vipashayana) or enter into any type of Samadhi, stable calm abiding should be achieved first (anything above the fourth degree of concentration). This is best accomplished by working with a concentration practice until the student’s attention is able to remain focused on the object of meditation for the duration of the session, without ever losing mindfulness. Naturally, our practices will be even more effective and penetrating if we develop higher degrees of shamatha.

To learn more detail about this teaching, study: Meditation Essentials Course

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