Confusions arising from the four Steps of meditation

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This topic contains 5 replies, has 3 voices, and was last updated by  Frederic 1 year, 1 month ago.

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    Ido H

    Hi everybody, I have been practicing meditation for the past couple of years, and have started practicing with Culadasa’s TMI book lately. I find the book very inspiring and helpful, however somehow I’m encountering various types of confusions when working with the four steps method described in stage one.

    Perhaps it is natural that I find this somewhat confusing. In years of practicing meditation, I have always started immediately in the fourth step (concentrating on the breath) so the four steps approach is new and unfamiliar. On the one hand, the four steps method makes sense as a way of learning to focus consciousness, but then on the other hand it seems to open the door to different types of confusions between what appears to be contradictions/misunderstandings when interpreting it.

    These confusions are often quite difficult to pinpoint and articulate, they might even seem somewhat petty, however since they do come up time and again in my practice and since I want to take this practice seriously, I don’t want to just shrug them off either. I’ve therefore compiled a list of these confusions and I hope that some of you would be kind enough to address these and help me gain a better understanding of this stage, as I’ve been struggling with these questions for some time now.

    1. Deciding when to move between stages — Generally I find it difficult to ‘decide’ when to move between the different steps. When am I ready to move from step one to step two, to three? And which occasions justify moving back the steps (for example, losing concentration, but for how long? And then should I go back all the way to step one? And if so, how long should I take to climb back up the steps). Unfortunately, I find my mind busy remembering which stage I’m currently in, and when to move to the next one. I realize all these questions seem petty, but generally I find that taking these decisions seems to take too much deliberation and too much thinking and I’m wondering how to simplify this.

    2. Drawing the boundaries between stages – Generally I find it difficult to draw the line between letting attention wander, and focusing it. It seems generally that in the first step one is supposed to allow the attention to wander, and in the fourth step it is supposed to be wholly focused. However, what happens in the 2nd and 3rd stages? In the 2nd step, one is supposed to ‘limit your attention to bodily sensations’ (p.50). Culadasa doesn’t say focus (and how would one focus attention at bodily sensations, since they are pread across the body?) however when a sound captures my attention I suspect I’m doing something wrong since my attention is not limited to bodily sensations , unless I intentionally focus it on particular elements of the body? I need help with understanding how to ‘limit’ consciousness without focusing it.

    Also, I find the question of where attention should lie in each stage quite confusing. Say I’m moving from step one to step two, but then my attention is immediately drawn to breath rather than the rest of the body, does that mean I am actually in step three, since it is only there that attention is directed towards the breath. Should one attempt to focus attention on the body specifically rather than breath in that case? Alternatively, if I am moving back to step one, it often feels the way to emphasize this is by moving attention to sound or sight (since these are the only elements that differentiate it from other steps) but then I am intentionally moving my attention which goes contra to instructions to let attention wander… Generally, when entering step one my consciousness tends to go to sound/vision to emphasize that it is in step one which is characterized by the inclusion of these. Then in step two, it tends to go to body, in order to emphasize that it is not in phase one or three, and in phase three it goes to general breath with emphasis on stomach, to emphasize that it is not in step four [nostril breath]. Unfortunately, this does not seem like the right way to go.

    3. Focusing attention vs. letting be – Culadasa says, whenever an object arises ‘let it come, let it be, let it go.’ I can see how that relates to objects in the first step, but what about when you reach the fourth step and you encounter say a pain in your body. If one lets it come, be and go, that means attention might stay with the pain for a couple of minutes, but then it is not focused on the breath, which is the instruction for step four. What should one do in that case?

    4. Finally. One easier fun question. What do you do when you are in step four and are suddenly overcome with feelings of presence, joy and happiness swamping your whole being. In previous meditation practices I’ve done, this would be awesome, but here I’m asking myself if I’m doing something wrong since in step four I’m ‘supposed’ to have my attention focused on breath only, rather than in full presence and joy.

    I realize these are a lot things to address. Would be very thankful for anyone willing to help me get my head around these issues. Thank you.



    Hi Ido,

    Lots of questions! I’ll try to answer about the things I know since your post has been unanswered to date.

    First thing, make sure you don’t get confused between the terms “steps” and “stages” in TMI-parlance. There are 4 *steps* in the initial transition exercise used to begin your meditation sessions. There are 10 *stages* in the overall TMI model, corresponding to the relative maturity of your practice. The distinction may seem petty but it’s important.

    I don’t know if there is a hard-and-fast answer on when to move between the steps in the initial transition exercise. I do know that Culadasa states in the book that some sessions may be taken up almost entirely just with the steps, or even the first couple of steps. I would say, experiement and see what works for you. You will likely find that your initial transition exercise will change over time. I know that I spend only a minute or two on them nowadays but in the beginning I would spend much longer. I know other folks who don’t even use it anymore, but they are well beyond me.

    As far as when to move from one step to the next, I personally just let it unfold naturally…there seems to be an intuition that tells me it’s time to move onto the next step. But you could always set a timer.

    When your’e on the 4th step and focused solely on the sensations of the body in the small area around the nose, and you notice a pain arise in the body, or maybe a sound come into awareness or attention…yes, you’re right…’let it come, let it be, let it go.’ Your attention may be caught for a moment but once you notice that, return gently to the area around the nose. I would say the same applies to whenever you notice feelings of joy or pleasure pop up. For me, the really intrusive things are not feelings or sounds, but thoughts. Maybe I just have an active mind but I often still find myself following thought streams (which is mind-wandering). And of course, the instruction is, when you finally notice that you’re no longer on the object of meditation (this is the “Aha!” moment), congratulate yourself, then relturn without beating yourself up in any way. Wash, rinse, repeat.

    Finally, you may get answers more quickly on the TMI Reddit: It seems to be more active than these forum, although the answers you get here tend to come directly from TMI teachers and teachers-in-training, while over at Reddit you’re going to get all sorts of people. Anyway, pertaining to your questions, I know many of them have been asked there before, so if you search on some key phrases like “steps,” you’ll see lots of content to consider.

    I’m sure others here with way more experience and knowledge than I can fill you in on more details.

    Best, Jeff




    I’m one of the new student teachers. I’m not yet qualified to answer but I can share my own experience with the 4-steps.

    First of all, I have to admit that it took me almost a year before starting my sits with it. I was used to breath at the nose immediately and kept doing it. Nothing wrong with that, it’s supposed to help you, not to give you confusion and a headache.

    Having said that, I now use it each time as a warm-up (albeit relaxing). First step is open, to relax and see if I’m present or tend to get lost in thoughts. It’s a moment of appreciation: I take some time for myself, I can relax, it’s nice to sit, etc. If there’s agitation, it’s okay, I can wait a bit for everything to calm down. Do I know I’m sitting?

    Then I start to slowly restrict my focus of attention and see what happens. First with the body in the foreground and then I wait a bit. Does my awareness collapse or can I keep my surroundings in the background? Can I restrict more what goes in the foreground without losing the background? Does the attention need more space?

    Like this, closer and closer to the breath at the nose while keeping the awareness open.

    Even though I talk about “restricting”, I found two things helpful:

    • Meditation is a going toward process, not a pushing away from process. We’re moving toward the breath, the four steps are here to give a direction.
    • Attention reacts better when it’s on a “leash”. I like to think that it’s why we call the breath an anchor. You can’t just say “stay here!” and expect it not to move, not before stage 7 at least! We give it a space to run in (like a paddock) and let it run there, and when we see it’s not going crazy, we reduce the space again. When it goes crazy, we give it a bigger space or we wait a bit longer. It’s really like taming an animal.

    So, this is my experience. Now, if I can share some advice I received: it’s okay if you don’t go through the 4-steps. You don’t have to. It’s here to make the whole process more pleasant, like taking a bath and relaxing before the work, but it’s by no mean a prescription.

    For your other questions:
    2. Does the image of a paddock help? The body here is the paddock. Don’t focus on the whole body at once, see it more like the playground where the attention can wander in. When it goes out, bring it back gently. If it goes naturally toward the breath, it’s great! Can you reduce the space around it? When you do, does it stay on the breath?

    3/4. Here, I would say to keep feelings of pain or pleasure in the background and to keep the breath in the foreground. Appreciate the joy, it’s a positive state of mind! It will help to keep the breath interesting. If the attention wanders, when you notice, bring it back.

    Finally, I would encourage you to try a guided meditation by Culadasa. You can find a few on the website and they really help to set the tone.

    Please let me know if you need clarifications. I wish you well.

    • This reply was modified 1 year, 1 month ago by  Frederic.

    Ido H

    Dear Frederic and Jeff, thank you so much for you answers. I found this very useful and will implement this starting in the next sitting and will come back if any confusions persist. Thank you!


    Ido H

    Hi Frederic, was wondering if you could post a link to a recommended guided meditation by Culadasa.
    I tried to use the link posted in podcast section of the website but my podcast app doesn’t seem to find anything there ( The audio files have lots of different talks with guided meditations but difficult to sift through, so if you have any recommendation that would be welcome. Thank you



    You may try the Soundcloud:

    I don’t have any specific recommendation, I only followed the ones for the retreat “Joy & Meditation”.

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