Stage Three Question

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    I’ve been practising mindfulness of breathing, and occasionally cultivating the Brahmavihara, for the past eight months or so. Prior to that, I’d been practising a more secular style of mindfulness meditation. About a month ago I became interested in Culadasa’s teachings—which I happened upon via Matthew Immergut’s YouTube video—and now I’m working through his book “The Mind Illuminated”. When I came upon Culadasa’s teachings, I’d already established a pretty regular daily practice lasting 45-60 minutes, and it took me just a couple of weeks to pick up the key skill in Stage 2. Re Stage 2, I definitely felt I’d mastered a new skill which had evaded me until then. Re Stage 3, I’m less clear whether I’ve mastered the requisite skills, however.

    Skills/concepts I’ve picked up on Stage 3:

    – I’m able to “tether” my mind to the breath for a full sitting of 45-60 minutes. I never forget the breath but, for example, I could quite easily (with my eyes closed) stand up, reach for a cup of water, or scratch an itch without breaking this tether. Mind-wandering no longer occurs.
    – I’m able to maintain extrospective awareness or attention (I’m not sure I really and truly understand the difference yet), e.g., I can still hear the birds singing outside or planes passing overheard all the while my mind is tethered to the breath.
    – Arguably the key skill I’ve learned is to tighten my focus on the breath just before I’m completely subsumed by a gross distraction. I think following the breath in this way is what enables me to fend off forgetting.

    Skills/concepts I’ve picked *not* picked up on Stage 3:

    – I can perceive the beginning and middle of the in- and out-breaths. And, with much greater attention, I can perceive the pauses between the in- and out-breaths. But I can’t really perceive the ends of the in- and out-breaths (how are these different from the pauses?) and I can’t perceive the different points of the breath in continuous succession (that would take a huge cognitive effort for me). Furthermore, I can’t perceive the different sensations that make up the in- and out-breaths.
    – I can ‘connect’ by comparing different phases of the breath but only for a few cycles: it doesn’t hold my interest any longer than that.
    – I can ‘label’ but almost all distractions come from within and I feel like I could fairly accurately label all as noise. For this reason, I’ve difficulty sustaining the practice of labelling.
    – I don’t really grok ‘checking in’ at all. If I pay attention to any distractions this promotes them into ‘gross’ status (risking forgetting the breath). Furthermore, I’ve the feeling that paying attention in this way actually generates distractions in the first instance.
    – I do understand what falling asleep means, and I don’t have a problem with that. However, I don’t really understand what gross or subtle dullness are, except that the former precedes falling asleep.

    My question is, given the background above, have I mastered the skills in Stage 3 sufficiently well such that I could say I’ve achieved the First Milestone (continuous attention on the meditation object) and am ready to move onto Stage 4? If no, which skills/concepts should I work on further?


    Blake Barton

    Hi Patrick,

    Welcome to the forum. I will attempt to explain extrospective awareness. Attention tends to analyze and investigate a single object while awareness is more holistic and inclusive. The easiest way to understand this is to focus your visual attention on an object such as your finger. While you attention is on your finger, you will notice you are still aware of other things in your peripheral vision. They are not particularly clear unless you shift your attention (visual focus) to one of these objects. At that point it becomes clear, and your finger may be a fuzzy object in your peripheral vision. The other senses work similarly.

    If an object stands our from peripheral awareness, then your attention has shifted. If often happens that your attention is actually alternating between the breath and other objects in your awareness, and this is perfectly alright. We are not trying to overcome alternating attention at this point. Sometimes when your attention shifts you may realize that you were peripherally aware of that object before your attention actually moved. There is a subtle distinction between alternating attention and peripheral awareness, and you will need to investigate this for yourself.

    For this example, lets just talk about the end of the out breath. When you are breathing out you feel a series of sensations. This is how you know you are breathing out. When this series of sensations ends, this is the end of the out breath. So the end is when you notice the absence of the previously occurring sensations. It might take you a moment to realize that they are gone. The end immediately transitions into the pause. The end of the in breath works the same way.

    You state “I can’t perceive different points of the breath in continuous succession (that would take a huge cognitive effort for me)”. When you attempt to notice more sensations in a breath it should not take a large amount of effort. You merely have the intention to notice more sensations. At first you may only notice 2 or 3 distinct sensations during an in breath. As you continue to practice and your mind sharpens up, you may notice 4 or 5, and so on. Try to have acceptance with whatever you feel, and this will lessen the striving. It takes a while to learn to do things through intention without putting in unnecessary effort.

    With this practice we are learning to direct our attention without necessarily being interested in the object of attention. Most people can keep attention on an interesting movie or book, but we are trying to go beyond that. So you can learn to work with the connecting practice even after you lose interest.

    Even though all distractions are a form of noise. there is more you can learn about your mind by using a more specific label. For example are your distractions in the form of worry, remorse, planning, auditory sounds, anger etc.

    Checking in is an “intentional” movement of attention to check in to see what your mind is doing. It need only take a second or two, and then you can move attention back to the breath. You are doing this practice to eventually develop continuous introspective awareness, so that even though your attention is centered on the breath you will have an awareness of what the mind is doing.

    Dullness is a lack of clarity with the meditation object. For example you may notice 1/4 of the in breath and then you have non perceiving moments for the next 2/4’s of the in breath, and then you notice the last 1/4 of the in breath. It may not occur in such large chunks. When you are at your most clear you may notice 4 or 5 sensations on the inhale. When you are dull you may notice only 1 or 2 with non perceiving moments interspersed.

    I would recommend spending more time doing stage 3 until these concepts become more clear to you through your direct experience.

    Hope this is helpful,

    Blake – Dharma Treasure Teacher in Training.



    Thank you for making the time and effort to respond to my question. I really appreciate it and will heed your advice to spend more time doing the practices in Stage 3 until, as you say, the concepts become clearer to me through direct experience.

    The subtle distinction between alternating attention and peripheral awareness definitely still eludes me. (Right not, the analogy of how vision works doesn’t really help me because (a) it seems to me that vision is still vision whether it’s in focus or at the periphery [unlike attention and awareness, as I hope to one day perceive] and (b) I can’t help thinking that I only really perceive the periphery of my vision when I alternate my attention between it and my in-focus finger; a further source of confusion for me at the moment is that all the senses, including vision, seem to require attention to be perceived–I don’t yet understand how to perceive awareness without paying some attention to it!)

    Your comment about just holding the intention to notice the different points of the in- and out-breath is a great encouragement to me, however. I recall just holding the intention to stop mind wander and it seemed to work almost like magic, without any stress whatsoever. This will be my way forward both with understanding attention vs. awareness and with paying attention to the different sense points in the in- and out-breath.



    Hi Patrick,

    Maybe another way of explaining the difference between alternating attention and peripheral awareness is to take the example of sound. You might be walking down a typical downtown city street and just hear the background hum of all the traffic as well as other activities. Meanwhile, as you continue walking, let’s say you are busy thinking about a concern that happened at work yesterday.
    In this case, the downtown hum of the city (created by multiple noises) is in your peripheral awareness. Your attention, however, is on the discursive thoughts racing through your mind. Maybe you have trouble recognizing the city noise as situated in peripheral awareness because you don’t seem to be conscious of it. In fact, you hardly even notice the background hum because you are focused on your thoughts. Yet this hum is nonetheless present, even if you don’t consciously put your attention there. Your (peripheral or more expanded) awareness nonetheless hears or is aware of the background noises. Does this not identify the misunderstanding you speak of?
    To go on with this, a noisy van goes by, which captures your attention. You then think that you would prefer to be in a quiet place as you hear the ringing of bells of a railroad crossing a few blocks away. Your attention has ‘alternated’ from your thoughts about the office, to the noise of the van, to the thoughts of preferring silence, to the noise of the railroad crossing. All the while your peripheral awareness was still conscious of the general hum of all these and the other city noises combined. But again, you might not be aware of what is going on in your peripheral awareness because your attention is alternating from one thing to the next.

    The next time you walk down such a street, see how your attention can move to the sounds coming from one vehicle to another. This attention is focused on one thing at a time. However, if you choose to do so, you will notice that you are both focused on these vehicles moving from moment to alternating moment, as well as more generally aware of the hum of city activity going on in the background.
    The same goes for all the senses in other situations.

    Hope this helps,


    Thanks Jacques. That does sort of help. If I were walking down the street thinking about work and suddenly all the background noise were to go away, I am confident I would be aware of that strange happening, and in the next few moments my attention would move away from my thoughts of work and onto the absence of street noise. I can understand that, and I agree in some sense I must have been both attendant to thoughts of work and aware of background street noise at the same time. However, I have the impression from reading The Mind Illuminated that I should be able to be able to be *conscious* of being attendant to one thing and aware of another simultaneously. In other words, if I were practicing my meditation on the mythical street, I should eventually be able to be conscious of attending to my thoughts of work (or my breath) and conscious of being aware of the street noise (or some other introspective going on), not sub-consciously but actually consciously attendant and aware at the same time. Is that actually what I am shooting for in Stage 3? I am definitely not there yet.


    Hi Patrick,
    First of all, just to be clear, I am a beginner (not to meditation but to this book) myself. I simply figure that I have sufficiently understood and assimilated the difference between peripheral awareness and attention.
    That being said, one thing that has helped me is to go over the book several times. This is definitely not a habit as I rarely – if ever – read a book twice. But there are so many details and content to assimilate in this book, that in this case I think the exception is well warranted. If you haven’t done this, maybe you can give it a try.

    As for the last part of your comments, first of all, you might literally try out the experiment of walking down the busy city street in the flesh. If you try this, make sure you verify if you are only “subconsciously” aware of peripheral awareness while putting your attention on some other factor (like a moving car). What I was getting at is that some part of your mind(s) IS conscious of both operations…you just don’t know it. To fully understand what I mean, I suggest you read the Fifth Interlude: The Mind System. (No worries, you don’t need to be on Stage 5 to read this. It won’t hamper your progress to read the Interlude and then go back to Stage 3). This Interlude explains how different sub-minds are all operating successively without you necessarily being conscious of it…as are perceiving moments and non-perceiving moments. So part of the solution is to go out and experiment while holding the INTENTION to be conscious of both peripheral awareness and attention.

    I have only written what has helped me while studying this book. Maybe it can be of assistance to you as well.

    Take care,


    Thanks Jacques. I will read the Fifth Interlude also as you suggest. I have already copped that The Mind Illuminated is the kind of book which needs to be studied more than just read through once. It has a *lot* content.

    More experimentation (with a smidgen of theory to make some sense of observations) is definitely the way to go for me, which I think is what both your and Blake’s advice boils down to. This morning I observed my attention alternating between the breath and a beautiful bird song outdoors. It definitely wasn’t the case that I was only aware of the bird and fully attendant to the breath, so that’s my starting point to begin this experiment.



    Blake Barton

    Hi Patrick,

    I think it will take some time and mental development to fully distinguish the difference between alternating attention and peripheral awareness. I struggled with this also, because I often didn’t feel that I had an awareness of something unless my attention alternated to it. But, I have since had some experiences that helped clarify it. On several different occasions, I have had an experiences when my attention alternated to something that was in peripheral awareness, and once this happened I knew that I had been peripherally aware of this object before my attention alternated to it.

    I would like to further discuss the example with vision. Vision, like all senses, has and attentional component (focus) and a peripheral awareness component (peripheral vision). When you focus your vision closely on an object, this is attention. Anything else that you notice in your visual field is awareness.

    Please try the following experiment. Keep your visual attention on your finger for 10 or 20 seconds. During this period, don’t “try” to notice anything else, or think about peripheral vision. After you have done this, answer the following question. Was I aware of anything in my visual field (however fuzzy) other than my finger? If you were, then this is peripheral awareness. This is a common enough experience that we use the term “peripheral vision” to describe it.

    Please note that the objects in peripheral vision (awareness) will probably not be focused or clear, but they are typcially there.

    Sometimes with peripheral awareness we have to ask ourselves after the fact if we were aware. If you try to check in on it during the experience it often causes the attention to alternate.

    Good Luck in your explorations,

    Blake – Dharma Treasure Teacher in Training


    Thanks, Blake. As you say, it will take me more time before I am confident I can distinguish between attention and awareness. I do feel I am moving forward again, however: I have been paying (closer) attention to the breath while simultaneously holding the (strong) intention to be aware of background noises within and outside the room I am using for my practice. It does feel like I am beginning to be conscious of both breath and noises, in a way that is different from alternating attention. (It also feels like the intention to be aware of background noises is itself something I am holding in my conscious awareness.) It is a very delicate balance however: as soon as I zoom in to confirm my perception, i.e., to pick out the noises from the background, well, then the awareness is gone. (I also now realize that the direction to practice following the breath while maintain extrospective awareness is there clearly in The Mind Illuminated. As Jacques pointed out, this book requires reading many times; it has so much content.)

    Two more questions:-

    1. Right now I am more or less dividing up my practice into (a) following the breath while holding the intention to maintain extrospective awareness in my consciousness and (b) following the breath while frequently checking in and labelling. Does that sound about right? There would be a lot (too much) going on if I were to practice (a) and (b) simultaneously at my skill level. Would I eventually want to practice both (a) and (b) simultaneously before completing Stage Three?

    2. What do the individual points/senses in the in- and out-breath actually feel like? I think I can perceive a kind of jumpiness or evenness during both the in- and out-breath, which I attribute to the non-smooth movement of muscles in my diaphragm and consequently uneven movement in the breath. I just wanted to make sure the book is not suggesting I should be able to perceive individual moments of consciousness or something else in this Stage.

    Thanks again,


    Blake Barton

    Hi Patrick,

    It sounds like you are making some progress in understanding the difference between alternating attention and awareness. You state the following: “as soon as I zoom in to confirm my perception, i.e., to pick out the noises from the background, well, then the awareness is gone.” That is actually an insight, because that is exactly one of the purposes of attention. It zooms in and analyzes things in more depth.

    Another way of looking at this is to de-focus or soft focus your eyes so you see numerous things at once, but you are not really focused on anything. You are aware of numerous things in your visual field, but none of them are clearly focused. This is an example of awareness, and often our attention will shift to one of the objects and it will come into focus and you can see it clearly.

    To answer your question #1. Please remember that the labeling practice is only done when your mind wanders and you forget the breath. So it doesn’t really go on simultaneously with the other practices. The checking in with the mind is only done every six or so breaths (no need to count) and it should only take a moment or two. So most of your time will be spent with your attention on the breath with an intention to also maintain peripheral awareness.

    Question #2. The way the breath sensations feel depends on where you watch the breath. When I watch the breath at the nostrils I feel a series on tingling sensations. When I watch the breath at the abdomen I feel sensations that are related to expansion and contraction. Sort of like a balloon being filled and released. Try to let go of any preconceived notion of what the breath should feel like, and examine what you actually feel. Pretend like you are a child feeling the breath for the first time.

    The sensations of the breath will probably be mixed in with concepts about the breath. For example, the mind labels one series of sensations as the inhale, and another as the exhale. Inhales and exhales are concepts that the mind places on the sensations associated with breathing. As you progress you start to get more in touch with the sensations without as much conceptual overlay.

    Good Luck with your explorations,

    Blake – Dharma Treasure Teacher in Training



    I really appreciate your feedback. My understanding of attention and awareness has for sure increased. I’m now fairly certain I can simultaneously both pay full attention to the breath and hold background sounds in the practice room in conscious awareness. When it’s happening well, it really does feel different from alternating attention. It still takes extra effort to maintain this arrangement but this past week I’ve found the effort required has lessened a lot. I still do “forget” about awareness, fairly often, even if I manage not to forget about paying attention to the breath, i.e., a realization pops in my consciousness that I actually don’t know what sounds have been playing out in the practice room over the preceding seconds or minutes.

    I do have a question about “checking in”, however, if you can bare another. This past week particularly, I’ve noticed a greater ease with the practice, i.e., it seems less technical and more “I just know what to do”—except in regards to “checking in”. (I think it’s also helping a lot by practicing for longer each day.) That still feels awkward and artificial. One doubt I have about “checking in” is that when I do this I usually only observe fairly trivial thoughts, mostly memories/images of not too powerful scenes. I actually have the impression that some part of my subconscious halfheartedly puts forward a trivial thought just to satisfy my need to check in, but my subconscious keeps all the really juicy distractions for other times in my practice. In other words, I don’t manage to cut off or catch any gross distractions when checking in; the gross distractions or the subtle ones that have the potential to become gross all occur in the periods between checking in. I’m actually doing better at managing those gross distractions, not letting them grow too distracting and tightening my focus on the breath before that happens. So my question is, is there any way to do “checking in” differently so I can practice on the actual kinds of distractions that have the potential to grab my attention, rather than on the trivial memories which I have the feeling are just being made up in response to my checking in.



    Ted Lemon

    Patrick, I’m going to take a shot at answering this, although I would certainly encourage you to take Blake’s answers as more authoritative. It sounds like what is going on for you with checking in is that when you are fully in the hands of a distraction, your mind doesn’t have enough energy/attention on checking in to actually do it; it’s when there’s a lull in the energy from the distractions that you are able to check in. In other words, the intention to check in is waiting in the wings the whole time, but doesn’t actually generate any activity until there’s space for it.

    If that is the case, then I think you are probably actually doing the right thing, and it may be that as you continue to do this practice, you will find that the checkins are able to happen even when the distractions are fairly strong. To encourage this, make sure that you don’t allow yourself to be disappointed that the checkins are only happening when the distractions are weak. Be happy that the checkin happened at all, and renew the intention to have the checkin happen again soon. Try to be aware of what is happening–see if you can confirm or disprove my theory, for example. Bringing this analysis into your attention when the checkin happens will get your unconscious mind working on it, and may result in the checkins happening more dependably.


    Thanks for your input, Ted. Your theory sounds entirely plausible to me. I was thinking I could test it by trying to hold the intention to check in *more regularly* (i.e., almost to a beat) but I am also aware of the caution in The Mind Illuminated not to actually count the breaths between check-ins. My thinking goes that if check-ins are more synchronised to time (or to the breath as a proxy for time) rather than to the falling away of gross distractions then I am more likely (or at least equally likely) to encounter the start of a gross distraction when I check-in as I am between check-ins. I will practice on this.


    Michael Dunn

    Hello Patrick,

    Another bit of input on your query re: checking in. Your language suggests that you want to use checking-in as a method to catch gross-distractions. That is in some ways a secondary result of checking-in. Remember that what you are training the mind to do with the checking-in practice is to develop awareness which will then be able to identify gross distractions. Ultimately, checking-in is a tool for this stage, but later on you will use awareness, not checking-in.

    When you are checking-in at this stage, take a whole snapshot of the mind, ask yourself “how am I doing?”, where is my focused attention? where is my peripheral awareness? Try not to worry about how trivial or not the distraction is, that would involve some form of analysis, stick to an objective, non-judgemental snapshot of what is happening in your mind, let awareness do the rest.

    This trains awareness to notice what is happening in the mind and to catch gross and subtle distractions early on. We are training the mind for the optimum balance of attention and awareness, which leads to mindfulness.

    So, a bit of a technicality here. Checking-in is the tool to develop the long term goal of developing awareness of everything going on in the mind in the present moment; then catching gross distractions is the job of this newly enhanced awareness, not checking-in.

    Hope this helps,


    Blake Barton

    Hi Patrick,

    Think of checking in like having a still camera set up at an intersection that takes a picture every 2 or 3 minutes. Sometimes it will capture something of interest, sometimes it will capture something that is not of interest, and sometimes it will capture nothing.

    You will have roughly the same experience with checking in with your mind. Sometimes you will notice a recurring gross distraction. Sometimes you will notice a “trivial memory” and sometimes you will not notice much of anything. All of this is OK. As Michael said “Checking-in is the tool to develop the long term goal of developing awareness of everything going on in the mind in the present moment”. It doesn’t really matter what is occurring in the mind during the check in.

    I remember discussing this with Culadasa. Sometimes when we turn our attention towards thoughts they immediately stop. He said you are really want to take a snapshot of what had been happening in your mind in the moments just before you check in. They are still in short term memory.

    I hope this is helpful.

    Blake – Dharma Treasure Teacher in Training

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