Five Experiences of a Meditator

In this teaching, Phakchok Rinpoche introduces the five experiences of a meditator. As we practice meditation, we observe different results. These are progressive experiences and they mean that we are slowly improving. These five experiences work as road signs. By understanding them, we see our progress on the path of calm abiding meditation.

Five Experiences

We describe these experiences by using common natural references.

  1. Waterfall
  2. River gorge
  3. Calm river
  4. Ocean without waves
  5. Mountain

Five Experiences: Waterfall

When we first begin, we notice that our minds are very noisy, and very fast moving. Seeing this waterfall of thoughts is the first step to becoming a meditator. We see how our minds rush in a constant, crashing and powerful flow! Thoughts seem to tumble down without any control.

Experience 1: The Waterfall.

Five Experiences: River Gorge

After some time of practice, we notice a change. Teachers refer to this as a river gorge. Those of you who have white-water rafted or kayaked can relate to this right away. Gorges have rocks and corners that pop up unexpectedly. We experience turbulence. Rivers flow quietly through gorges, but then suddenly, situations change. Similarly, in meditation, we may experience periods of quiet. And then, out of nowhere, thoughts start crashing around and create distractions.

Five experiences
Experience 2: The River Gorge.

Five Experiences: Calm River

After some more time practicing, we see some more improvement. We may believe that our minds are very calm. Indeed, we may think that thoughts have completely subsided. However, let’s consider the example. A calm river looks very still, doesn’t it? But, often, a big river hides a deep and strong current below the surface. And this expresses what happens in our minds. We’ve definitely made progress–all the crashing and noise and swirling of thought has calmed. But, below the surface, we have undercurrents of thought.

Five experiences
Experience 3: The Calm River.

Five Experiences: Ocean Without Waves

Gradually, as we continue to sit, we then experience a fourth stage. Now we’ve reached a deeper calm. We see some movement, but much less than before. Thoughts arise, but we don’t see strong currents of thoughts.

Experience 4: The Waveless Ocean.

Five Experiences: Mountain

Finally, we become very steady in meditation. Mountains represent steadiness and lack of motion. After we spend months meditating regularly, we experience this heavy, deep, non-moving mind.

Five experiences
Experience 5: The Mountain.

Other Experiences

Additionally, as we practice calm abiding meditation, we might experience other states. Rinpoche explains these common types of experiences. Again, he reminds us that these descriptions were given by meditators after they practiced.

  1. Bliss
  2. Luminosity, clarity or “sharpness”
  3. Non-thought

We may have one or more of these experiences. But the important thing to remember is not to attach to any of these sensations. We shouldn’t hope for any of these. And, if they occur, we should not try to “hold” onto them. Remember that attachment to even these good experiences leads to continued cycling in saṃsāra!

  • At this point in your study, how would you describe your mind? Which of the five experiences most accurately represents your meditation? Note this in your journal. And remember not to judge! We’re merely observing where we are. And if we are currently waterfalls—that is great! Isn’t in amazing to realize that? You only know that if you are taking time to practice.
  • Now, over the course of the year, keep coming back to these images. As you work through the different meditation practices, do you fluctuate? Notice what happens if you miss a few meditation sessions. And if you start dedicating more time and intention to practice, what happens? Throughout the year, make notes of your experience. You may find that your powers of observation become sharper.
  • Are there currents of thought or waves that you previously did not notice? Congratulations—that means you’re becoming more aware. And remember, we’re not racing here—we want to understand what’s really going on in our minds.
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Suggested Reading

Dudjom Rinpoche, The Nyingma School of Tibetan Buddhism, trans. and ed. by Gyurme Dorje and Matthew Kapstein (Boston: Wisdom Publications, 1991), vol. 1, pages 468–474.

Ngawang Zangpo, Guru Rinpoche: His Life and Times, Ithaca: Snow Lion, 2002.

Nyoshul Khenpo, A Marvelous Garland of Rare Gems: Biographies of Masters of Awareness in the Dzogchen Lineage, trans. Richard Barron (Junction City: Padma Publishing, 2005), pages 41–48.

Padmasambhava, Legend of the Great Stupa, Berkeley: Dharma Publishing, 1973

Padmasambhava & Jamgön Kongtrul, The Light of Wisdom, trans. by Erik Pema Kunsang (Boudhanath: Rangjung Yeshe Publications, 1986-1999), pages 43-47 & Appendix 5.

Taranatha, The Life of Padmasambhava, Shang Shung Edizioni, 2005

Tulku Thondup, Masters of Meditation and Miracles, Shambhala, 1996.

Yeshe Tsogyal, Life and Liberation of Padmasambhava, translated by Kenneth Douglas and Gwendolyn Bays (Emeryville: Dharma Publishing, 1978, republished 2008).

Yeshe Tsogyal, Lotus Born: The Life Story of Padmasambhava, Rangjung Yeshe Publications, 2004.

‘The Life of Guru Padmasambhava’ in A Great Treasure of Blessings, The Tertön Sogyal Trust, 2004.