Meditation for sustained stable attention: takeaways from the Mind Illuminated

I'm not interested in enlightenment, but I am interested in achieving samadhi (concentration or stable attention). Here are the first seven out of ten stages from The Mind Illuminated - a roadmap for mastering meditation - which focus on achieving effortless sustained attention to whatever your object of focus may be.

I practice stable attention while using my work as my meditation object, with the intention of becoming extremely productive in less time so I can enjoy a better work-life balance.

Already these techniques have made one massive difference: Stage 2 describes the "aha" moment when you realize that there's a disconnect between what you're thinking about and what you're supposed to be doing (introspective awareness):

"Our natural tendency is to quickly return to the [meditation object], often forcefully and with self-judgment... But this wasn't something you did. Nor can you voluntarily make it happen. The process that discovered this disconnect isn't under your conscious control. The way to overcome mind-wandering is by training this unconscious process to make the discovery and bring it into consciousness sooner and more often. Yet, how do you train something that happens unconsciously? Simply take a moment to enjoy and appreciate "waking up" from mind-wandering... Cherish your epiphany and encourage yourself to have more of them."

That's a much gentler and more sustainable approach than my previous strategy of beating myself up.

Stage 1: establishing a practice.

Obstacles: fatigue, lack of motivation, procrastination

Goals: develop a regular practice.

Skills: setting goals, generating strong motivation, cultivating discipline.

Mastery: never missing a daily session.

Stage 2: shorten periods of mind-wandering, extend periods of sustained attention to meditation object.

Obstacles: mind-wandering, monkey-mind

Skills: reinforcing spontaneous introspective awareness (the "aha" moment when you suddenly realize there's a disconnect between what you want to do and what you're actually doing). Appreciating this moment causes it to happen faster and faster, so periods of mind-wandering get shorter and shorter.

Mastery: you can sustain attention on the meditation object for minutes, while most periods of mind-wandering last only a few seconds.

Stage 3: extended attention, overcoming forgetting

Goals: same as 2

Obstacles: distractions, mind-wandering, forgetting

Skills: use the techniques of following the breath and connecting to extend periods of uninterrupted attention. Cultivate introspective awareness through labeling and checking in. This allows you to catch distractions before they lead to forgetting.

Mastery: rarely forgetting the breath or falling asleep.

Milestone: basic stable attention.

Stage 4: continuous attention, overcoming gross distraction/strong dullness

Attention still shifts rapidly back and forth between focus object and gross distractions. Also, once the mind is calm, you need to deal with strong dullness.

Goal: Overcome gross distraction and strong dullness.

Obstacles: distractions, intellectual insights, emotionally charged visions/memories.

Skills: developing continuous introspective awareness allows you to make corrections before subtle distractions become gross distractions, and before subtle dullness becomes gross dullness.

Mastery: sensations don't fade or become distorted due to strong dullness, and gross distractions no longer push focus object to back of mind.

Stage 5: overcoming subtle dullness

Goal: overcome subtle dullness

Obstacles: subtle dullness is difficult to recognize, creates illusion of stable attention, and is seductively pleasant

Skills: cultivate even stronger and more continuous introspective awareness to detect and correct for subtle dullness

Mastery: you can sustain/increase power of mindfulness during each meditation session

Stage 6: subduing subtle distraction

Attention is fairly stable but still alternates between meditation object and subtle distractions in background.

Goal: subdue subtle distractions

Obstacles: tendency for attention to alternate to the continuous stream of distracting thoughts and other mental objects in peripheral awareness

Skills: defining scope of attention more precisely than before, ignoring everything outside that scope until distractions fade away.

Mastery: subtle distractions have almost entirely disappeared, and you have unwavering exclusive attention.

Milestone: Skilled Meditator. You can focus on the meditation object to the exclusion of everything else, and your scope of attention is also stable.

Stage 7: effortless sustained exclusive attention

You can now investigate any object with broad or narrow focus, but you have to stay vigilant and make continuous effort to keep subtle distractions and dullness at bay.

Goal: effortlessly sustained exclusive attention.

Obstacles: distractions/dullness return if you stop exerting effort. You must keep sustaining effort until exclusive attention become automatic. Boredom, restlessness, and doubt tend to arise during this time. Also, bizarre sensations and involuntary body movements can distract you from your practice. Knowing when to drop all effort is the next obstacle. But making effort has become a habit, so it's hard to stop.

Methods: practicing patiently and diligently will bring you to the threshold of effortlessness. Purposely relaxing your effort from time to time will let you know when effort and vigilance are no longer necessary. Then you can work on letting go of the need to be in control.

Mastery: you can drop all effort, and the mind still maintains an unprecendented degree of stability and clarity.

Milestone: Adept Meditator. Mental chatter and discursive analysis have stopped. Different parts of the mind are no longer so resistant or preoccupied with other things, and diverse mental processes begin to coalesce around a single purpose. This unification of mind means that, rather than struggling against itself, the mind functions more as a coherent, harmonious whole.