Stage 4 Questions

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This topic contains 11 replies, has 3 voices, and was last updated by  Jacques Pierret 7 years, 10 months ago.

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    Hi All,

    I am presently on Stage Four. Along with a friend, we are wondering if you could further elucidate what you (the authors of The Mind Illuminated, or anyone else) mean by “the mind watching the mind watching the breath.” Do you mean this literally or is it a metaphorical pointer? I manage to hold the background sub mind simultaneously with the foreground meditation object. But it is sometimes like a rapid shifting from one to the other, involving a duality; sometimes it is all happening at once. Actually, that is not even accurate as it is hard to describe what is happening in words. Which leads back to my question. Could you give more pointers to what is meant?
    Moreover, when I attend to both the background observer and the breath, I can mostly do so by keeping a distance between the two. So the breath becomes more distant and less precise (in connecting) than if I put my full attention on it. Is this result acceptable?

    Also, once one is free from getting pulled into both gross distractions and strong dullness, are we set to move on to Stage Five? By that I mean, what about what is written concerning purification in Stage Four? Only a few issues have arisen. Does that mean I have to remain on this stage further until much more purification occurs? Or is it implied that this purification begins around this stage and thereafter continues. I am also referring to statements like: “This disruptive material comes from past emotional and psychological challenges, and the more of these you’ve faced, the more of it you’ll encounter.” Not all that much has surfaced (and I don’t have any major traumas from the past as far as I can tell). Does that mean I have to wait around in Stage Four until something more significant surfaces before moving on?

    Any elucidations and/or advice would be appreciated.


    Blake Barton

    Hi Jacques,

    In stage 4 you will work to more fully develop introspective awareness. This means you will still have an awareness of what the mind is doing while your attention is centered on the sensations of the breath. So you are literally aware of what the mind is doing while your attention is directed towards the breath. You will notice things like movements of attention, the way thoughts, feelings and other mental objects arise and pass away.

    When you were practicing in Stage 3 did you do the checking in practice where you were periodically using attention to check in on the mind? The goal of this practice is to improve introspective awareness, so you are aware of what your mind is doing while you attention is centered on the breath. In stage 4, the introspective attention is replaced by introspective awareness, so you don’t need to redirect your attention in order to be aware of what the mind is doing.

    This introspective awareness may involve an alternation of attention at first, and that is perfectly OK. Any time something clearly pops out of peripheral awareness it indicates that attention has shifted, however briefly. This is fine, when you notice that this happens, just center your attention back on the breath.

    The distinction between attention and awareness is important to explore in your practice. A good example that might help is vision. When you vision is focused on a point, you are still aware of other visual objects in your peripheral vision. The objects in peripheral vision will not be clearly in focus, but there is an awareness. When an object in peripheral vision becomes clear it means that your visual attention has shifted. The other senses work similarly.

    You say: “when I attend to both the background observer and the breath, I can mostly do so by keeping a distance between the two. So the breath becomes more distant and less precise (in connecting) than if I put my full attention on it.”.

    I would guess that this is actually quickly alternating attention instead of attention on the breath and awareness on the mind. This is natural, at first, as your mind figures out how to do this. Over time, as the power of your mind increases, would be able to maintain both sharp attention and introspective awareness at the same time without deliberately alternating attention.

    Different people will have different levels of purification at stage 4. I don’t think you need to wait for a certain level of purification in order to progress to stage 5. “You have mastered stage 4 when you’re free from both gross distraction and strong dullness.” When you can consistently do this you will be ready to move on.

    Hope this helps,

    Blake – Dharma Treasure Teacher in Training.


    Thanks Blake…Your pointers are indeed helpful.


    Hi again,

    I’ve moved on to Stage 5. The body scans have been very effective in general but I still seem to sometimes have problems with progressive subtle dullness.
    But there is more to this. I have chronic sleep problems. So on some days when I have gotten a not too bad night’s sleep, I am relatively awake and alert in the day. Consequently, I have meditations where dullness is not a problem. But because of poor sleep on other nights, the opposite occurs; progressive subtle dullness is present even if I try the body scan. In the end, I get a little confused as to what Stage is appropriate for me. Is this a problem that has been identified in other meditators, and if so, what guidelines could be suggested?

    I also ask these questions in the context of what is said concerning (possibly) going through different stages in one sit. I am referring to the explanations and drawings in An Overview of the Ten Stages: ” Figure 1. Progression through the stages is not linear: Expect to be moving between stages over several sits or even during a single sit.” So let’s take the second drawing relating to shifting from one stage to another during a single sit. If this happens like the drawing illustrates – and the meditator jumps around sporadically from Stage 2 to Stage 5 in a half hour (in a random rather than progressive manner) – then how is the person to adjust? Is it implied that each Stage should be accompanied by the appropriate practice during the short time interval of 10 minutes (as illustrated)? If, for example, I am doing a body scan appropriate to Stage 5 but, after a while, notice there is progressive subtle dullness present, should I therefore assume a shift to the Stage 4 level and apply the prescribed antidotes of that stage? And if the antidote(s) works, resume back to Stage 5 ?
    This is a precision not mentioned in the book, so I am wondering what conclusion and resultant course of action to take.
    Finally, in relation to the above, I wonder if someone could be more specific as to these sentences: “Don’t get ahead of what is actually happening. On the other hand, once you have overcome the obstacles for a given Stage even temporarily, then you can work with the obstacles for the next Stage.” Am I right to continue with Stage 5 even if there are occasional lapses of dullness that would suggest a Stage 4 level?

    Thanks if anyone can find the time to address these issues.



    Hey Jacques,

    As regards dullness, I’ve found sometimes it’s possible to overcome it by applying the antidotes or practicing things like mindfulness, patience, etc. But if I haven’t been sleeping well, have a cold, etc., I sometimes find I can’t overcome it. What I try in these cases is mindfulness of dullness. My students have often seen dullness as a true obstacle, something coming between them and the truth, but dullness, like any other phenomenon, is empty and therefore a suitable object for meditation. What I mean is, if you find you can’t overcome dullness (Plan A), see if you can notice the various components of dullness (Plan B). Do you notice goofy thoughts in your head? How does it feel in your body? What are you actually experiencing that makes you invoke the concept dullness? For me this has been a helpful insight practice and has sometimes helped reverse the dullness. Even when it doesn’t, it certainly relieves the suffering caused by trying to force my mind to be and feel a way it currently isn’t/doesn’t, as well as the suffering caused by the delusion that I’m sufficiently in charge of my mind that I ought to be able to tell it what to do.

    My experience of the stages is as you describe, that I usually travel through them during a practice. I almost always start in stage 2 – 4 somewhere, and on a good day I move up, on a bad day I stay put, and on a normal day there’s lots of forward & backward travel. Your idea of practicing with whatever stage you’re experiencing would be my suggestion. As in, if you feel you’re in “Stage 3” (in quotes because this is a concept, a model, rather than your actual experience), then your experience is probably one of inattention. So what to be done? Of course, see if you can focus your attention! And if you can’t, see how good you can be at radical acceptance of having a mind that only sometimes does what you ask it to. Remember, the Buddha says that craving things to be different than they presently are is the one cause of all suffering. So, when you find your mind won’t do what you want it to, see how much you can minimize the suffering this causes you.

    Tucker Peck


    Hi Upasaka Tucker,
    Thanks for your observations. I have also investigated dullness in a recent meditation, but there was little dullness as I did so. In any case, I’ll look into it further as you describe.
    More than goofy thoughts, I have found the apparition of hypnagogia to be a current and infallible flag for dullness. But what about the question of progressive dullness versus subtle dullness in terms of evaluating one’s appropriate stage? If progressive dullness still occurs (though I’m pretty sure it happens mostly because of a lack of sleep), does that mean one should forget about Stage 5 as a major rule and maintain one’s practice in Stage 4? I understand what you mean about moving around the practice of the different stages in one sit. In this question, however, it is more about being accurate in evaluating one’s current stage. I ask as it is a question of knowing when one can move on to the subsequent stage.
    I guess I’m still not clear about the question of sleep deprivation. If the lack of sleep is the reason behind one’s progressive dullness, but it is occasional because of this factor, is it still a good idea to practice at Stage 5 when progressive dullness is not a problem?

    Thanks again,


    Hi again,
    I was wondering if anyone could address my last question (above)?

    My predicament lies in knowing if one can move on to a subsequent Stage -in this case, from Stage 4 to 5 – when uncontrollable factors like a lack of sleep is confusing matters. In other words, if I can notice only subtle dullness when I have had proper sleep, is it a good idea to move on even if progressive dullness remains a problem on days when I have gotten (the recurring problem) of a bad night’s sleep?

    Any comments would be appreciated,


    I’m sorry Jacques! I just saw I never responded.

    I’m not entirely sure I understand the question. So let me give a stab at an answer, and if it’s not what you were looking for, let me know (and I’ll respond this time, promise!).

    Progressive subtle dullness (PSD) will both on a practical and definitional level prevent you from attaining Stage 5. There are several ways to overcome PSD, one of which is sleeping more. Other ways include the techniques listed in Culadasa’s book, and if neither sleep nor these are successful, you can also try mindfulness of PSD, which will sometimes make it go away — e.g. breaking PSD down into its components, etc. So I wouldn’t think of PSD as an “uncontrollable” factor. There are Zen retreats where people will meditate all night long and achieve great states of mind, and I’ve even heard of a Korean retreat where people don’t sleep at all for an entire week! So it’s not that bad sleep means you are certain to experience PSD or unable to surmount it, though it certainly increases the likelihood of it.

    A point Culadasa makes in his book is the risk of trying to move to higher stages of practice before surmounting dullness. So you don’t need a great night’s sleep to overcome dullness (or any sleep at all), but you shouldn’t attempt higher stages until the mind is more awake. My experience has been that simply practicing helps me get better at overcoming dullness until it becomes usually-but-not-always pretty surmountable.


    Hi Upasaka Tucker,

    Thanks for your answer. You certainly put PSD in a larger context, which is helpful. I think a big part of my problem is that dullness follows me around through much of my days. I have something akin to chronic fatigue syndrome. Have you heard of how to deal with this problem in dealing with other meditators?

    But I may have found at least part of the answer today. I usually meditate two to three times a day for about an hour each time. But it dawned on me to meditate when I just get up in the morning, and right after lunch which I follow by a brief nap. In both these cases I was much more alert and far less susceptible to any form of PSD right after sleep. Just a little subtle dullness which I noticed right away. So I’ll keep experimenting with this.

    I completely agree and understand to not move on to further stages while dullness is still a problem (which is mostly why I sent these questions). So in light of your last message, are my problems with dullness on the way to being solved if I mostly reserve sittings for after I wake up (from a night’s sleep or a nap)? Or should I keep chipping away and invite sittings when I know PSD will most surely show up?

    Sorry for dragging this out and many thanks for your time,


    And to drag things out further… :o) I forgot to omit the context of this thread from the very beginning. It has a lot to do with this paragraph from Stage 3 of Culadasa’s book:

    “The dullness and drowsiness we’re concerned with here are due specifically to meditation practice, and need to be clearly distinguished from dullness due to other causes. Obviously, if you’re fatigued by physical or mental stress, illness, or lack of sleep, you’ll be sleepy during meditation. So, regard a good night’s rest as an important part of your practice. When you meditate also makes a difference. Most people get drowsy after eating or strenuous physical activity, and the early part of the afternoon or late evening can be sleepy times as well. If you’re well rested and have taken all these other factors into account, but still find yourself getting drowsy, you’ll know it’s dullness related to meditation.”

    So maybe you can take this into account in your reply. Among other things, what I wrote concerning optimal meditation periods (directly after waking up)…”When you meditate also makes a difference.”


    I was trying to be vigilant not to take too long to respond to your thread, but I didn’t get an email that you had replied. Alas …

    I think the intention behind Culadasa’s paragraph (and maybe he’s reading this and can correct me if I’m wrong) is to create a balanced approach to PSD. On one hand, we do want to try to overcome it if we can. On the other, sometimes we can’t, and fighting reality as it is, the Buddha said, is the cause of all suffering. So if a meditator is trying to feel equally awake at all times, they will probably sometimes find themselves failing. But the basic premise (I think) towards all dullness is the same: See if applying the antidotes helps to overcome it, and if not, see how wholly and mindfully you can embrace it.

    I do like your idea of meditating at the times your mind is most likely to be awake.


    Hi U. Tucker,

    Thanks for your advice. Things are moving on and taking care of themselves.

    I’m writing this short note to mention that, indeed, the service (or technology) that is supposed to be sending us emails … Notify me of follow-up replies via email… is not functioning. I haven’t once received an email to my inbox since I have been sending messages.

    Take care

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