Category Archives: Dharma
The takeaway: This is not light reading. Venture into this only if you are serious about understanding what the Satipatthana actually says. Otherwise, read the more friendly summaries. Or just read the sutta itself, which is here.
Satipattana, The Direct Path to Realization is not one book, it’s two. The first book is in the text, and the second is in the footnotes, which sometimes take up half a page. Both books are full of detail. Both books are a challenge to the lay reader because the writing is scholastic, abstract and filled with exotic terminology. But it is abundantly clear that in both books the author knows what he is talking about. If you are serious about knowing what is in the Satipatthana, this is probably your go-to book.
Let’s back up a moment: what is in the Satipatthana Sutta that it merits a whole two books? The Satipatthana is a discourse found in both the Majjhima Nikaya and Digha Nikaya (two of the root texts of the Buddha’s original teachings) and it is special because it gives amazingly clear meditation instructions. A surprising fact about the original discourses: there are not many places in them where the Buddha gives nuts-and-bolts meditation instructions. The Satipatthana is unique among them because it stands out as the clearest, most complete, and the most unique to the Buddha’s teachings. So if you want to do “Buddhist” meditation, you can’t go wrong doing what is in the Satipatthana.
Another reason to study the Satipatthana is that after giving the meditation instructions the Buddha tops it off with a big promise. At the very end he explains that if anyone does this kind of meditation day and night diligently for just two weeks she can expect to reach awakening (stream entry). Think about that. If you get it together enough to put all your energy into this meditation for about the length of an average vacation, you can awaken. When he calls it the “direct path to realization” he is not joking.
Now, most of us, myself especially, cannot keep up the level of intensity he is describing for that long. This kind of meditation can wear you down. So two weeks of nonstop mindfulness is, well… aspirational. No problem. The Buddha adds that if you keep it up at a more moderate level you can expect awakening in 7 months to 7 years. That’s not very specific by modern standards, and some people might balk and putting in work on a such an open-ended project, but when you consider what is being promised, it is well worth the effort. So the Satipatthana sutta is especially interesting to folks who are ready to get serious about their meditation and see if awakening is real.
The Satipatthana translates as the “Foundations of Mindfulness,” and it is considered the source of what is now commonly called “insight meditation.” The sutta lays out two broad ideas: first there is a special technique of meditation invented by the Buddha (mindfulness), which one then applies to four categories of experience. Hence the “four foundations of mindfulness.”
The technique described in the sutta is to get focused, build some concentration (how much is the source of a lot of debate), and then to turn attention to ordinary things. And when I say ordinary I mean very ordinary. Itches. Sounds. Pressure. Mental images. The constant channel surfing of the body and mind in all their busy activity. What do we do when we look at these things? We simply “know” them. That’s it. That’s the technique. This is the counterintuitive part. He’s not advocating doing anything. Just “know.”
This is so simple it is mind-bogglingly hard to understand. We want to do something, change something, create something. But no. The Buddha is saying clearly over and over, just know what you are experiencing in your body and mind right this instant. That’s it. That’s all. Just do that and keep doing that as long as you can.
For anyone experienced in the natural sciences this should sound vaguely familiar. Consider how Jane Goodall studies chimpanzees. Or how natural scientists of all kinds study the behaviour of complex natural systems in their native environment. The very first step is to simply immerse yourself in the system and watch. That’s all. Don’t interpret. Don’t interfere. Don’t test. Don’t theorise. Simply watch.
The Buddha is explaining how to conduct the data collection phase of naturalistic study.
Everything that is called “insight meditation” today flows from this simple technique. Whether it is noting, body scanning, open awareness, or any of the other dozens of ways of doing insight meditation, they all are different ways of simply getting you to immerse yourself in the mind and body and then observe without interfering. The technique is simple moment-to-moment data collection.
So what do we collect data on? In the sutta these are the four foundations. To return to the Jane Goodall analogy, imagine that she were to sit with a pad and paper with four columns on it while watching the chimpanzees. Each column represents a different category of behaviour she wants to watch for, and each time she sees one she simply makes a brief note in that category. In this kind of meditation we are instructed to do something very similar. This is where Satipattana, The Direct Path to Realization really shines. The author gets into the nuances and subtleties of the four foundations in a way that is intriguing. It turns out that there is a lot of information packed into the sutta, even though is is relatively short. If you like deep study into Buddhist theory and deconstruction of language, then you will love this book.
I won’t go into a lot of detail about the four foundations here, because obviously you would need a whole two books to do cover everything, but there is one aspect of the four foundations that I love and it is hard not to share. It’s also one that really confuses people. So please excuse me for geeking out for a moment.
The first three foundations are straightforward. They roughly correspond to the body, the mind, and how you react to the contents of the body and mind. But the fourth foundation is my favorite. It is also the least understood. It is often translated as “mental objects” or not translated at all and left as “dhammas” with a small “d.” It always strikes people as a bit strange because it doesn’t fit at all with the first three, which are pretty intuitive.
The fourth foundation contains things like the five hinderances, the seven factors of enlightenment and the five aggregates. The reason I love this foundation is because it shows the Buddha’s humanity. This is what I call the “kitchen-sink” foundation, because it seems like it is the one in which he threw everything else that he couldn’t fit neatly into the first three.
Let’s return to the Goodall analogy. Imagine that on her pad the first three columns had items that any person would recognize as relevant for animal behavior, such as “feeding,” “sleeping” and “mating.” But then in the fourth category she had a wide-ranging list of things to watch for that were unique to chimps and were part of her theory of chimp behavior, such as “hierarchical posturing,” “selective grooming,” and “sharing resources.” You couldn’t really study chimpanzees without watching for such things, but they don’t fit neatly into the most basic categories. That is exactly the case with the fourth foundation. Anyone can easily watch for body sensations, mental activity and reactions, but there are subtle and important things occurring that are part of the natural behavior of the body and mind. They don’t fit neatly into the first three categories. And if you do the meditation long enough you are bound to come across them. That is the fourth foundation.
Overall, I would recommend Satipattana, The Direct Path to Realization for two kinds of people. The first are those who are true hardcore Buddhist geeks (if you listen to the podcast of the same name you are likely in this category). The kind who know the original Pali words for things, and consider studying the Visuddhimagga to be a good way to spend a Saturday afternoon. The second kind of person who would get something from this book are those who have been doing insight meditation for a while, and maybe something is starting to happen. Maybe you have had some unusual experiences, or something deeper seems to be working. You are becoming more serious about insight meditation and want to learn more about it from an in depth analysis. If that is you, I don’t think you can get much better than this book.
There is this phrase that is used in Buddhism to denote when big changes happen: “a turning of the wheel.” It’s always struck me as a little cryptic and eerie-sounding. Wheels, after all, don’t care what they run over. But it fits when things in Buddhism start to change as though something large and outside of anyone’s control is on the move. Now might be one of those times.
The first turning of the wheel happened when the Buddha gave his initial instructions to a group of close friends. The second and third had to do with the expansion of those original teachings to include Mahayana concepts. These days there is a lot of talk that a fourth turning may be coming soon, and much speculation about what it would look like.
People who are into this sort of thing (I’m looking at you, Integral folks) are excited about how technology, neuroscience and the internet are all converging on meditation in a way never seen before. And I think they may be on to something. A big change is coming, but I actually think it already came and we missed it. Or rather, we are only now beginning to feel it. Because when you step back and look at what is going on, one of the biggest experiments in history is already well underway.
Like any good experiment, this one has mostly to do with the numbers. Consider that during the lifetime of the Buddha he taught large gatherings of people just about every day for forty years. Historical records are sketchy, but if we are very generous and grant that he taught an average of 100 brand new people every day of those forty years, then he reached around 1,500,000 people directly in his lifetime. That is about the population of Phoenix.
Fast forward to today. Approximately 31 million americans meditate every day. That’s right. Every day in the US more people are meditating than he could have reached in twenty lifetimes. The equivalent of four New York Cities. While global estimates are not available, it is not unreasonable to believe that there are more people meditating every single day than were alive on the planet in the Buddha’s lifetime.
Even stranger is the fact that this all happened in the blink of an eye, historically speaking. It is reasonable to think all those new people meditating gradually built up in a nice predictable sloping graphed-out line over centuries. But no, as is usually the case, things aren’t reasonable. Just consider that it wasn’t that long ago in the west that meditation was a fringe activity restricted to beat poets, hippies, and other creative riff-raff. But that creative riff-raff went on to invent ipods and run countries. And so now meditation is about as mainstream as little league and pizza. Meditation’s growth in the past half century has been astonishing. It went from something artists did alone in the woods to something written about alongside the recipes in the Ladies Home Journal, and all that change happened in about the same amount of time that it took the Buddha to reach those 1,500,000 people.
All experiments start with parameters, and that is the first parameter of this experiment: a sudden, and massive, increase in scale. A vast new sangha has been created in a flash. We have little information about it, but we can be sure it is very different from the sanghas of the past. So let’s call it the “beta sangha.”
The second parameter has more to do with quality than quantity. Who are all these new people in beta sangha? We don’t really know for sure, but what is clear is that the betas are nothing like stereotypical meditators of the past. It is now normal to hear CEOs talk about mindfulness. Celebrities, pop stars, and even presidents talk breezily about their daily meditation practice. Soldiers are taking audio instructions for meditation on deployment. Children are learning meditation in grade schools. Corporations are starting to give employees meditation breaks. Hospitals, social workers, and school counselors are teaching people how to to meditate. I could go on.
The world of meditation has not simply increased in population, it has dramatically diversified. Not only are more people meditating than ever before, wildly different types of people are meditating. The ultra religious and the hardcore atheists. Business folks and spiritual people. Conservatives and liberals. To say that meditation has become inclusive would be an understatement. And that is the second parameter of the experiment: people who never would have meditated in the past are now doing it in large numbers.
The third and final parameter is, I’ll admit from the start, a little heretical. It has to do with the quality of the meditation being done. In the world of religious Buddhism it is often thought that things have degenerated over time. That the teachings have become weaker and less effective. But is that really the case? If you think of the Buddha as an omniscient conduit of perfect information then it is perfectly reasonable. But if you take him at his word, that he was just a normal person who woke up, then he was a person who made a discovery that has become the foundation for further work. He was the Galileo of awakening, and since his time an army of forgotten meditation experts and engineers have moved from handmade telescopes to Hubble Deep Field Imaging. The last two turnings can be thought of as sudden leaps forward in the the work of successive refinements in the technology of awakening discovered by the Buddha. If anything, the technology has become more powerful, simpler, and easier to learn.
By the time the betas emerge in our century there are literally hundreds (possibly thousands) of extremely powerful meditative techniques that people can learn in a very short amount of time. The technology of awakening is now so powerful that if an average person commits the same amount of time and energy to meditation that they do to getting a college degree, they can experience profound change, and awakening is certainly possible. That is the third parameter of the experiment: the opportunity to awaken in lay life is greater than ever.
So when we put all the parameters together, in context, the experiment looks like this: we have recently moved from a point in history in which meditation was the lifetime task of a few elite dedicated monastics living in special conditions in relatively remote areas, to a globalized interconnected world filled with many millions of diverse people using very powerful meditation techniques every day in their normal lives. The people carrying out this experiment surround us. Ringing up our groceries, delivering our mail, making our laws, telling us the news on television, learning in our schools, and raising children at home. Beta sangha is a colossal and diverse new group, with no particular lineage, no particular faith, and even no particular interest in the religious and cultural aspects of meditation. They love meditation. But in a very real way they could care less about things like a fourth turning, and they are the ones most likely to deliver it.
Nothing like this has ever happened.
With more diverse people using powerful meditation techniques an interesting new paradigm emerges: a full curve. There is, and probably always has been, a bell curve of meditation. On one tail of the curve are people for whom meditation has meant becoming a little more relaxed. In the large middle are most people, for whom there is both relaxation and some insight, a glimmer of awakening. And at the other tail are the people who have taken it very far and some who have awakened. And at the farthest end are the outliers. The Dogens, the Milarepas, and Mahasi Sayadaws. These are the folks who have an uncanny talent for taking meditation to a far and deep place. In the past they have all been monks. But with the emergence of beta sangha this is about to change. The curve has recently flooded with millions of lay people. Some of them will have exceptional talent. A handful will see into the deepest insights discovered by past masters, and perhaps farther. The future outliers will probably be schoolteachers, mechanics, or bus drivers. We are quickly coming to a time when the most profound wisdom will come from the most unexpected sources.
The past turnings of the wheel had to do with the qualities of the teaching in some way, such as the meaning of “emptiness,” or whether “nibbana” was outside of day-to-day life. But the next turning will be less about the qualities of the concepts and more about what I call “the qualities of quantity.” The sheer force of numbers will shape the dharma to become more egalitarian. More open and easier to understand. To use a phrase from the world of technology, it will become more “user-friendly.”
I would expect that if beta sangha creates a fourth turning it will not give us a new insight into anything like emptiness. Instead of a new insight, we will get a new attitude. A more playful attitude. A lay attitude. An attitude about meditation more comfortable in jeans than robes. An attitude that recognizes wisdom without taking itself too seriously. It will be an attitude that rejects mystery, secrets, and ritual. It will be extremely pragmatic and intolerant of hierarchy. In short, if a fourth turning is coming, it will likely knock the dharma off its pedestal and bring it closer to daily life. A fourth turning will not be about getting a higher teaching. It will be about getting real.
Predictions like this are likely to be wrong. There is so little to go on. The bulk of this new sangha still hasn’t made their particular thoughts on the matter very cogent. Indeed, they’ve only begun to clear their throat. I am eager to hear what they have to say.
As an insight meditation teacher, reading Waking Up by Sam Harris was simultaneously joyful and shameful. It is a fine book that points to a weakness in the culture of awakening that is hard to look at directly. In his usual style, he is honest to the point of painful, and sometimes it can be hard to take.
Let me back up.
For those who don’t know Harris, he is a neuroscientist who became most well known for publishing The End of Faith, a book promoting the idea that what we believe influences how we behave, and that faith-based beliefs lead to rather irrational behavior. Like flying planes into buildings. He’s dry, technical, but funny and obviously not afraid of controversy. Apparently people really like that combination, because The End of Faith stayed on the New York Times bestseller list for over 30 weeks. Harris quickly moved from obscure neuroscientist to intellectual sensation, and was lumped in with Richard Dawkins, Christopher Hitchens and Daniel Dennett as the leading edge of a revitalized post-9/11 atheist movement described as “new atheism.” Together they were ironically dubbed the “four horsemen.”
But Harris is an odd fit among the horsemen. While Hitchens, Dennett, and Dawkins all rail against the privileged position that eastern spirituality seems to have among western intellectuals, Harris openly disagrees with them, making the case that despite the woo-woo clearly at work in the offerings of Deepak Chopra, The Secret, and similar new age flim-flam, there is something valuable to be found in the spiritual traditions of Asia that is being obscured, rather than revealed, by pop spirituality. He uses his public platform to urge people to dig a little deeper.
It turns out he is speaking from experience. Waking Up is not just an introduction to Buddhist meditation and the liberation that it leads to, it is a spiritual memoir told from the perspective of a consummate rationalist and skeptic. One who stumbles upon enlightenment.
After a few chapters of fleshing out why some spiritual practices are fruitful human endeavors and others are not, and correlating the claims of mystics with modern neuroscience, Harris gets down to the memoir part of his book and dishes on his own experiences. I was thrilled to read that Harris begins his spiritual search in U Pandita’s meditation center, where he practices a rigorous form of insight meditation. Harris is told that he is working through the progress of insight toward “cessation,” and will attain his first taste of awakening upon that strange moment of non-occurrence. For readers of my site, or fans of insight meditation, this should all sound very familiar.
When I read this part of the book I was rooting for Harris, excited to hear what he makes of the shift in consciousness that occurs after cessation. I looked at how many pages were left and anticipated that there would be a detailed account of how he reconciled his own encounter with nibbana with cutting edge brain science. This, I thought, is the book I’ve been waiting for.
So imagine my disappointment, shock really, when on the same page he reports that he couldn’t do it, and gave up.
No cessation. No stream entry. Zilch.
Something, I thought, went horribly wrong.
It is not exactly clear from the book what happened. In retrospect he reasons that moving toward a goal (cessation) did not feel like the right path to enlightenment, and that truth can be glimpsed no matter where one is on the path, and truth is not found in a state, cessation is not necessary and… his explanation started to feel fishy as I read it. Frankly, this sounds like a rationalization after the fact. Indeed, it sounds identical to what he was taught by the teachers and traditions that he encountered after he left Pandita’s center (Advaita and Dzogchen). So what was he really thinking and feeling at the time he threw in the towel?
A hint can be found in his description of the wall he hit during a year-long retreat:
“But cessation never arrived. Given my gradualist views at that point, this became very frustrating. Most of my time on retreat was extremely pleasant but it seemed to me that I’d merely been given the tools by which to contemplate the evidence of my non-enlightenment. My practice had become a vigil. A method of waiting, however patiently, for a future reward.”
Harris is describing an insight practice that has stalled out in one of the stages along the progress of insight. In another passage he points out that his movement through the progress of insight wasn’t very clear and although he had many interesting experiences he did not know if he was making any progress at all. Why didn’t he know?
What concerns me most about this is that Harris does not describe what would have been the best, most natural, and sensible antidote for his struggle: someone simply telling him where he was on the path and what to do to move on. I wonder what kind of book Waking Up would be if someone had simply taken him aside at that time and said “hey, relax, you are in lower equanimity. It goes on for a while and can sometimes feel uneventful. Here’s what you can do about it…”
Insight meditation, as a culture, is often one of information-restriction rather than transparency. A nascent movement, pragmatic dharma, has emerged largely in reaction to this, but it is still in its infancy and does not have much of a voice in mainstream meditation centers and media outlets (yet). The most traditional approaches still hold the biggest sway, and they are usually hierarchical, with the teacher knowing the details of the insight stages and which one the student is currently developing. The student’s role is to follow the instructions faithfully and not become too wrapped up in where they are on the path and when the cessation will come. There are many reasons why this approach developed, and many of them are very good reasons. But I don’t think these reasons work anymore, and Harris’s case is an example of why we can no longer afford to have an approach to insight meditation modeled on the norms of pre-modern hierarchical culture. It just doesn’t work very well. A few hundred years ago Harris may have stuck it out, not because it was a special time full of special people, but because his options would have been limited. In today’s world, he simply had better choices and felt empowered to pursue them. The important point is that Harris wasn’t failing as a meditator, he was most likely in a state of information-hunger about what was happening in his own mind. He deserved to know more. And as insight meditation grows and establishes itself in the west, we need to keep in mind that we can do a lot better than this.
I would recommend Harris’s book for a number of reasons. The skeptical approach to awakening, denuded of the dogma and superstition, is wonderful. It’s as if a portal into the future opened up and the reader can see what an approach to awakening will look like when we move beyond religion. The presence of neuroscience in a book about awakening is nothing new, but it is rarely presented so soberly and carefully (although the caution led to a lack of integration with the rest of the book). And finally, it is clear that Harris knows what awakening is from direct experience, and can discuss it as a field of human endeavor every bit as legitimate and practical as any art or science.
The book is a high wire act in a sense, where he balances between the assumptions of secular materialists on one hand and religious ideologues on the other. He invites each to see something in their direct experience that fails to fit into any dogma, and he does so with an understanding of both positions that is refreshing. I’m often frustrated with authors who are so intoxicated by spirituality that they’ve lost their mental footing and have succumbed to a kind of cognitive free fall, but equally odious are authors so rigidly skeptical that they refuse to look at the miracle of their own consciousness. Harris successfully creates an island in the gulf between the two perspectives. Hopefully, it will grow as others follow suit.
“Angie” is a grad student in London who has been skyping with me once a week to learn meditation. She has navigated through most of the stages of insight and is now in the low part of the Equanimity stage.
“I keep losing the plot” she reports. “Every time I sit it is nice, full of easy vibrations and happiness, but I’m lost.”
More effort, I instruct her.
A week later we skype and she explains that the spacing out is gone, but now there is a feeling “like a bounding pulse around my eyes.”
Less effort, I explain.
She looks at me, a bit frustrated. “Well?” she asks, “which is it!”
Building the Fire
There are few technical concepts in meditation as confusing as skillful effort. That elusive quality of leaning in to the meditation, focusing, attending, deliberately working… but not too much.
Skillful effort is like building a campfire. You need a little kindling, but not too much, blow on the coals, but gently. Do too much or too little of the right things and the fire will not start. And this is how it is with meditation. Too much or too little effort and your progress is suddenly brought to a halt.
Most meditators have had the experience of pushing too hard or too little, and finding that the meditation locks up under the weight of effort, or dissipates without enough of it. What it seems like from the perspective of the meditator is that the meditation either devolves into unfocused reverie or a tense, rigid striving, that is frustrating. If either of these is happening, try adjusting the effort.
It can be especially confusing if you read meditation instructions from different teachers answering student questions or from different styles of meditation. Some exhort you to practice like your hair’s on fire while others insist that there is nothing to do and never was, that all effort is unskillful. If you take all of it at face value, you’re likely to have trouble.
To help make sense of all of the contradictions, it is helpful to understand that the kind of effort that is skillful depends on what stage of meditation you are in. In other words, “skillful” effort is not a thing that you learn once and master. It is something that constantly changes during the meditation. You have to learn it fresh as new insights arise.
To discover what is skillful you need mindfulness. You need the capacity to notice how the meditation is changing this instant and remember from past meditations how to adjust your effort accordingly.
To use the analogy of the campfire again, imagine you get a small flame going by blowing hard on some coals, but then you keep blowing like that and the flame goes out. You try again and when the flame gets going you back off the blowing but forget to add more kindling, and it goes out. So then you go through the process and then add more kindling, and so on, until finally you have a fire that is sustaining itself.
This is how meditation on the insight knowledges proceeds up to high equanimity. It follows a predictable series of changes, and just like the changing conditions when starting a fire, how you balance effort needs to change depending on where you are in the progress of insight.
Roughly speaking, here is a very crude outline of how to apply effort by stage:
- Physiocognitive stage (nanas 1-3): Sustained applied effort. Objects are a bit dull and it is easy to drift off. Be wary of thoughts.
- A&P: Less effort needed. The level of interest naturally picks up and there is less need for one to stay present with objects. Surf on the pulsing, vibrating objects.
- Dissolution: more effort. It is easy to space out, or to get lost in a sense of frustration that objects are passing you by. Put energy into staying alert.
- Middle Dark Night (nanas 6 – 9): Less effort than dissolution, but more than A&P. There is a balance point right in the middle that is needed here. It is easy to slip into the avoidance tactics of daydreaming or analysis, but it is also easy to push so hard that the meditation becomes rigid, and stuck.
- Reobservation: more effort. The thing to do here is to try and keep up with what is happening, and it is all happening very fast.
- Low to mid equanimity: Much more effort. This is notorious place for getting lost and drifting off. Don’t allow your mindfulness, concentration and investigation to waft away in the pleasant hot tub of spacious vibrations. Stay focused and sharp.
- High equanimity: Much less effort. The meditation can almost do itself at this point.
- Very high equanimity: almost no effort. Surrender to what is happening. Trust the process and watch what it reveals to you. You will naturally look for what is not being seen clearly, but if you look to hard you won’t see it.
As you can see there is no single kind of effort that is “skillful.” If you were to follow a meditation teacher around for a day and listen to the advice she gives different students, you would come away pretty confused. Some students would be told to practice like their hair’s on fire. Others to surrender to what is and see through the illusion of doing. But the teacher would merely be tailoring the instructions to fit the student’s current situation.
And this is what it is like reading the many different meditation manuals, written by different teachers, in different styles, at different points on the questioner’s path. Understand that all meditation advice is situational, and effort is a constantly moving target. It gets better with practice.
The recent new-year celebrations were followed by lots of resolutions, and then in the weeks following, considerable resignation. Resolutions are used in meditation too, but they are very different from the kinds of resolutions people make at the start of a new year.
New year’s resolutions have a few characteristics that we all know. They can be vague and unrealistic (I’m going to get in “peak condition!”). But most important they are usually about gaining something, such as a slimmer figure, better health or a new skill (“I’m going to learn the piano and speak French”). And this is very different than the kinds of resolutions used in meditation.
A meditation resolution is fundamentally about losing something, not gaining. You lose the restlessness, stop indulging the list-making mind, let go of the expectations, or unclench anger. Later, more technical resolutions are about letting go of blissful states and eventually even the sense of self that is doing the resolving.
To make a resolution, do so at the beginning of each sit for a few days (less or more as needed). It is good to say it aloud, but if you have people in the next room and don’t want to sound crazy, just say it quietly to yourself. Say the resolution with as much earnestness as you can muster, imagine that this is a promise you are making to someone very important that is counting on you (it is). But here is where things are very different from new-year’s style resolutions: once you’ve made the resolution – forget about it.
This might sound counterintuitive. But it solves an important issue – the sense of self may appropriate the resolution for itself, glomming onto it and turning it into a hero’s journey. The self will fiercely strive to fulfill the resolution it now owns. This just makes more of a problem for the meditator. It may help to imagine that the resolution is like a line of code that you are putting into a computer program. You hit the enter key and then just walk away, forget it, and get on with life.
If the resolution “takes” what will happen is that in the moment when it most counts it will pop up all by itself, with no effort on your part. When sleepiness comes on you’ll automatically remember to investigate how it feels in the body or when that self-judging talk starts to pop up you’ll automatically remember to give it a funny name (“here comes Mr. Boss-Man”) and let go. The resolution is working, but it is waiting at the edges of the mind for its time to come to work. It orients you to do the appropriate action at the moment it is needed, and at other times gets out of the way.
If the resolution doesn’t take then it may be that you need to make it again. You may need to use different words to make it more memorable. However, it could be that the resolution was too big of a leap from your present situation. If you can barely sit for 10 minutes and your resolution is to enter jhana, that’s too big of a leap. Think instead about what is just one step ahead. What is holding you back right now? Focus on making a resolution that works for your situation as it is, not as you aspire it to be in the future. Another issue could be that the resolution is not clear. For example, if you want to increase your concentration, making a resolution to “be more concentrated” isn’t likely to do anything. Instead state what it is that you will do to be more concentrated and make it as concrete as possible: “I resolve to place my attention on the breath every time a thought about work comes up.”
To sum up, here are three recommendations for making resolutions:
1. Make it concrete and clear
Resolutions work best when they are crystal clear. This is easier if you know the path and hindrances. If you don’t, then you won’t know what to resolve to attain or drop. You can learn about the path and hindrances on this site.
2. Make it and drop it
After you have “entered” the resolution you are no longer running the show, so just let go and watch what happens. State what you wish to do and move on without any effort to carry out anything special.
3. Give yourself permission
In order to download the resolution and move on, you really need to give yourself a unique kind of permission– the permission to remember when needed and forget when needed. In other words, the permission to give it all away – the action is out of your hands. You are giving the action, and all of its fruits, away from the start. When resolutions work, they arise spontaneously. In other words, while you are in deep meditation the intention for something to occur will arise on its own. “You” in the conventional sense, have nothing to do with it.
The most important thing about resolutions overall is to make sure that they are used appropriately and not in the same manner as a new-year’s resolution. Most resolutions that people make are for the enhancement and profit of the sense of self, but for the meditator, resolutions are very different. Like stones of intention thrown into the lake of the mind, you simply throw them out and let them go, watching the ripples spread outward. No further action is needed and any further action would become a hindrance. Out of compassion for yourself and others, you follow through on your intention in the moment when it is needed.
Recently I was following a debate between two meditators (yes, we do debate). It ended with one of the debaters, whose views had been soundly taken to task, accusing the other of “wrong speech.”George Orwell, I thought, could not have imagined a more ironic outcome.
For those who are not familiar, “right speech” is a Buddhist concept, and is one of the steps in the Buddha’s eightfold path. Although the intent behind right speech is to help people behave skillfully by being truthful and not hurting others with words, in practice it can be anything but useful. In fact, it can be used to squash dissent, shut out alternative views, and put the brakes on important and revolutionary ideas. Wrong thinking about right speech can be a hindrance to innovation and authentic sharing.
The Wrong Speech Accusation
Few things stop a person in their tracks faster than accusing them of wrong speech. For those protecting their attachment to a deeply held view, such an accusation can be a trump card, a way to hold off challenges to beliefs that have become an identity. This is especially true when the person accused of wrong speech is persistent, critical and direct. This is often when the wrong speech card gets played in Buddhist circles, and staying with right speech actually takes some guts.
Sometimes a person can be rough, or even harsh, but still be engaging in right speech. To some folks this might sound crazy, but it is totally true. In reality right speech can be both gentle and kind or strong and challenging. It can be encouraging or dissuading. It can comfort and it can push others out of their comfort zone. It can make you feel great and give you a boost, or it can challenge who you think you really are. The Buddha himself was extremely compassionate, but he also jumped into many heated debates to give his two cents, and even called people “stupid” when they made ridiculous assertions (MN 4.8).
How can this be so? Right speech is not determined by how it looks to others. It is determined by the intent of the speaker and the context in which it is spoken. It can look divisive, harsh and anything but compassionate. But if it nudges the listener and the speaker in the direction of honesty, self-examination and awakening, then it is skillful.
(One caveat: if you’re reading this you’re not likely a Buddha (harsh, I know). So, be cautious with the name-calling and attitude when debating others. If the mythology around the guy was any indication, he was likely perceived as being compassionate even when calling a person “stupid.”)
The Wrong Speech Cop-Out
Some people use right speech as a cop-out, as an excuse for not confronting bone-headed superstitious thinking or even injustice when it presents itself. For example, deciding not to tell a person that they are hurting others, when they clearly are, is an example of wrong speech. This is not at all academic. Consider for a moment the many scandals in Sanghas that began with a teacher verbally harassing and belittling students. The most common question after such scandals is: why didn’t anybody say anything? In such instances right speech would be considered harsh and divisive if it were done at the appropriate time.
Another example is not confronting a person when they are speaking or behaving in a bigoted manner, or staying silent while public figures espouse hateful views. We have all too many instances of this in our recent history. Not openly disagreeing with these views when you have an opportunity to do so is not skillful. People who are genuinely on the fence about racism, homophobia, sexism and other social ills hear your silence as agreement – and that is absolutely wrong speech.
The point is that silence is likely the most common form of wrong speech.
How Do I Engage Socially, Politically, and Still Use Right Speech?
If you want to engage in right speech you need to think before you speak. In particular you need to consider a few things before you say something:
Is this false?
Am I trying to hurt this person?
Am I trying to serve my ego? To boost myself up in some way, to make myself look important, smart, or cool?
Is saying this just serving a favored identity of mine?
Am I confused and trying to hide it?
If you answered yes to any of these, then it’s best not to say anything. In other words, check your motivations for speaking. If it is selfish, hurtful, or comes from a place of confusion, then abstain. However, I would add one caveat. Before abstaining ask yourself this question:
Am I simply avoiding speaking up because it will be uncomfortable?
If you answered yes to this, then reconsider. Don’t let misguided ideas of right speech get in the way of doing the right thing.
At the 2012 Buddhist Geeks Conference I facilitated a small workgroup to brainstorm a Dharma Student’s Bill of Rights. While the workgroup was small (6 people) it sparked great interest at the conference and I was approached by many people in the days following the workgroup offering their ideas and encouragement.
The idea for the workgroup was hatched just one night before, when I saw a senior and well respected Dharma teacher say something to a young student that struck me as patronizing and disrespectful. The teacher’s statement was very public and rather than be upset at the teacher’s behavior, the crowd that witnessed it applauded. I realized that this kind of disrespectful behavior happens all the time, and that many of us have become so accustomed to it that we actually applaud when we see it. Many have come to see it as the sign of a confident and accomplished teacher rather than a sign of dysfunction in our communities.
The instance disrespect at the conference is not the only one that I have personally come in contact with. As a teacher myself, I’ve been privy to the stories of many students who have shared their difficulties, humiliations and outright violations when seeking the advice of a teacher. This is an important problem.
The goal of a bill of rights is to place limits on power. Teachers hold a great deal of power and can easily be abusive with it if not given clear limits. In fact, teachers can hold so much power that students can be exploited unless the limits of that power are clearly stated. Teachers, even those who are awake, are human. We are all familiar with the scandals that have hurt students in recent years, and in each case that I have examined there were no clearly articulated limits on the teachers in their relationships with students.
We are in a time of transition in Western Dharma communities. The hierarchical student/teacher roles that fit so well in other cultures are not working. A new formulation is needed, one that is modeled on mutual respect and a clear recognition of the rights of students and limits of a teacher’s power.
These are a brief list of the rights that students themselves agreed that they want in their relationships with teachers. This list is only a beginning and a living document. It will be added to over time and I urge anyone who reads it to contribute their thoughts by email or in the comments section below.
A Dharma Student’s Bill of Rights
I. I have a right to be free from the sexual exploitation.
Sexual advances of a teacher are not part of the teaching and are not allowable. If I as a student I begin to develop a mutually respectful romantic relationship with my teacher, it is the teacher’s duty to formally end the teacher/student relationship and support me in finding another teacher to continue practice.
II. I have a right to be free from economic exploitation.
It is understood that different communities and teachers have different methods for compensating teachers and financially supporting the teaching. Whether the compensation is donation-based or fee-based, I as a student should be able to openly discuss these matters with a teacher without concern that I will be judged for openly talking about money. Discussing financial compensation is not shameful to the student or teacher and should be transparent, not secret.
As a student, I should never be asked to give to the point that it causes me severe financial hardship. If I am unable to compensate a teacher or organization because it would cause me hardship, it is the responsibility of the teacher to create an atmosphere in which discussing these matters is welcomed, and fair arrangements can be made for everyone.
Financially supporting a teacher or organization should never make me dependent on that teacher or organization to meet my own needs for housing, food and other necessities.
In cases where I as a student am unable to compensate a teacher for teaching, and offer to barter services in lieu of financial compensation, I have a right to have my labor honored at a fair market value.
III. I have a right be made aware what qualifications a teacher has for claiming expertise.
It is not disrespectful for me, as a student, to inquire into the teacher’s claims of expertise and question the teacher on their knowledge. I have a right to know what kind of training the teacher has had, who the teacher’s teacher was, and whether the teacher has been given permission by a well recognized teacher or organization to teach. I also have a right to know whether the teacher has ever had permission to teach revoked.
In cases in which a teacher does not have recognizable qualifications I have a right to three sources of information:
- What the teacher’s claims are to attainment or realization (if this is appropriate in the teacher’s tradition)
- A statement of the teacher’s principles by which she/he can be evaluated
- Contact information for other students who can speak to the teacher’s level of expertise.
IV. I have a right to respectfully express my disagreement with a teacher.
If in the course of teaching the teacher expresses a view that I cannot agree with, I have a right to express disagreement without fear of repercussion.
It is the teacher’s responsibility to create a context that supports safe disagreement.
V. I have a right to be free from verbal harassment.
As a student I have a reasonable expectation that my teacher will speak respectfully to me and will not use their greater knowledge or expertise as a reason to treat me dismissively, harshly or without regard for my dignity as a person.
The teacher may not treat me harshly in order to free me from self-concepts or delusions that I may have. Realization is not an excuse for cruelty. If I feel that my teacher is unable to teach without resorting to verbal attacks, then it is the teacher’s responsibility to refer me to another teacher at my request.
VI. I have a right to privacy.
As a student I have a reasonable expectation that my teacher will respect the confidential nature of the teacher/student relationship.
The personal information that is shared with the teacher is to remain private and strictly between the teacher and student.
Teachers may share private information about a student only when the student has given the teacher permission to do so.
It is recognized that there may be instances in which a teacher needs to share information about a student with others, when seeking consultation from another teacher or when illustrating an important aspect of the teaching for other students. In those instances the teacher is expected to take every reasonable precaution to de-identify the information being shared.
It is also recognized that in instances in which a student’s safety is at risk, the teacher may break the student’s privacy in order to protect the student from harm. For example, if a student becomes suicidal or homicidal, it is reasonable for the teacher to seek help for the student and disclose the nature of the relationship in which the teacher obtained the information.
VII. I have a right to a second opinion.
As a student I have the reasonable expectation that I can request another teacher to provide guidance or evaluation without fear of repercussion.
The teacher should create an atmosphere in which the input of other teachers is welcome, even if that input is from different traditions or perspectives.
If I ask the teacher about obtaining a second opinion, the teacher should support me in finding an appropriate source.
Shinzen Young gives one of the best analyses of the use of dharma maps I’ve yet heard. Maps are good, but there are downsides worth considering.
What do people mean when they say they are “on the path?” In this talk the 16 stages of insight are described in a clear and down to earth way.
- Insight Leading to Emergence
So far on the path, there has been a gradual development of insight and letting go of everything you once thought of as “me.” You began in a small way, looking at body sensations and thoughts and seeing them clearly as different but interdependent phenomena that aren’t really “me” (physio-cognitive stage). You then experienced rapturous joy and peak experiences as everything arose and passed away on its own (A&P), and then sunk down into the lowest lows as you discovered that nothing lasts and nothing can really be held onto (Dark Night). Now you are watching as all of reality wavers in and out of existence before you (Equanimity).
Take a moment to reflect on all this and thank yourself for sticking it out. You have come very far. Some mysterious truths have become real to you in a way that goes far beyond theory or ideology. Your understanding of life itself is maturing in ways that you could not have anticipated when you started meditating. Now in these final moments of High Equanimity you are ready to have the culminating insight, the experience of Nirvana itself: Cessation.
Insight Leading to Emergence
At this point you are deep in Equanimity, all of reality is vibrating before you and you are taking it all in with a calm and clarity that is miraculous. As the mind continues to concentrate you notice that you are compelled by the moments during the vibrations when there is nothing. It is as if something about these gaps in reality are pulling you in… and then the mind “leaps” into Nirvana, as a great mediation master once put it. The next four stages are not really stages in the sense that you have experienced them up to this point, but rather, the description of the path zooms in on the next four instants that occur during this leap and divides them into four distinct stages: Adaptation, Maturity, Path and Fruit.
Adaptation and Maturity
According to the theory, just before the moment of the leap into Nirvana, the mind shifts from being trapped in illusions to being in full conformity with reality. This is called adaptation here, and is also called “conformity” in some commentaries. It represents the first moment of being fully awake, and Mahasi Sayadaw describes it as the “end of the purification by knowledge.” In other words, the mind now has enough insight to let go completely and make the leap into Nirvana.
Immediately following adaptation comes the stage of maturity, which is when the mind “falls for the first time” into Nirvana. This stage is the perception, however brief, of a moment when the cessation was beginning. This can be very hard to pick up and may not become clear even after it has happened.
Path and Fruit
Now that you have reached the culmination of insight knowledge (adaptation) and the mind falls into Nirvana (maturity), the next thing that happens is the critical moment of apprehending Nirvana itself. This stage is called “path” and it represents the complete switch from the mundane level of reality to the supramundane. In the four-path model of enlightenment, this is the exact instant that the person goes from being unenlightened to enlightened. In the ten-fetters model of enlightenment, the path moment is the exact instant in which certain things that hold one back from enlightenment (fetters) are completely uprooted and eliminated. No matter which model you use, the important thing to know is that this is the moment when everything changes for you. You will never be the same again. The path moment is an instant in which the mind is reset, or as my teacher described it “the circuit of the first path is completed.” It is what finishes the first journey down the path.
Directly following the path moment is “fruit” and this actually gets a bit mixed up in the commentaries and among meditators. It is described by Mahasi Sayadaw as a moment directly following path which “dwells in” Nirvana.” And though there is a lot of conflicting stuff written about “fruit”, it is merely the moment of experiencing Nirvana that comes directly after the path moment.
So you might be thinking, “Why even divide it up and make fruit different from the path moment?” It turns out that what is great about the fruit moment is that while the path moment happens just once on the way to a first path, the fruit moment can reoccur many times in the future. For example, after a meditator has reached first path they are (usually) able to experience cessations again and again, and these cessations are technically not “paths” but “fruitions.” It is not unusual to hear advanced meditators describe “calling up fruitions” as part of advanced practice. Technically, they cannot be re-experiencing a path moment each time that happens (then they would be able to journey the entire way to Arahat in just three more moments!), they are calling up the fruit moment and re-experiencing it. Being able to call up fruitions is a sure sign that a path occurred, even if you weren’t fully aware of it. It is also a sign that something fundamental about the mind has changed.
Enough Technical Stuff, What’s it Really Like?
The obvious question that most people have at this point is: what is it like? After all, it’s Nirvana – which is synonymous with “heaven” in the minds of many. There are a lot of confused ideas about what it is (or isn’t). My recommendation is to expect nothing – literally.
Practitioners who have experienced the moment of Nirvana struggle to put it into words, because describing it can make it seem anticlimactic even though it is truly extraordinary. What it feels like is that there is “click”, “blip”, or “pop” that occurs for an instant. When it first happens it is so quick that the meditator could even miss it. However most people do stop and ask themselves “what was that?” It can be a bit baffling because it seems like nothing happened, and that is exactly right. For an instant absolutely nothing happened. There were no shining lights or angels, no pearly gates or choruses of joy, no transcendent experiences of unity with the cosmos or the divine. It is nothing like that at all. It may not be until you really think about it that you realize what an extraordinary thing that instant of absolute nothing really is.
As you reflect on it you see that there was something truly amazing about that moment. In that instant everything disappeared, including you. It was a moment of complete non-occurrence, the absolute opposite of everything that has ever happened in your life up to this moment, because it could not really be said to have happened to you. No doubt, it is a weird realization, but there it is. Following the experience of this absolute nothing is what my teacher aptly calls a “bliss wave.” For some time following this moment of alighting upon Nirvana you feel really relaxed and fresh. These two experiences, seeing that you disappeared and that you also feel great because of it, lead to a very important discovery that will shape how you view yourself from this point forward. You begin to understand in a very deep way that there really is something to this whole idea that the cravings of a “self” are the root of suffering. When it was gone, even for an instant, life suddenly got much better.
For me, when this moment first happened it felt as if all of reality “blinked.” Another way I put it at the time was that “emptiness winked at me.” It’s a funny way to put it, but it actually felt that way. As if a shade was quickly drawn or an eyelid closed from the top of the field of awareness down to the bottom and then suddenly released. At first I thought it was a moment in which I just lost focus and the meditation fell apart. But the bliss wave hit a few moments later and I started giggling and laughing out loud. My wife was in the other room and I was trying not to sound crazy. I kept wondering if this was really it. For some reason I couldn’t believe it actually happened. In the hours following the blink-out I felt more ease and energy than I had in a long time. For example, I’m a morning person, not a night person (I go to bed embarrassingly early), but I stayed up almost all night and still felt amazing the next day. I walked around with a big grin on my face for quite some time after that. I just felt wonderful.
There is an important insight to be had regarding cessation, and it is worth pondering though no conclusions are readily available. During the moment of cessation you were utterly gone, and yet there was an awareness there to witness it happen. What does that mean? In Buddhism, as well as other contemplative traditions, the interpretation of this has been an issue of deep debate among the great mystics and masters. Whole lineages and traditions have clashed on differing understandings of this deepest dharma. Is emptiness really empty? Is everything awareness? There is no consensus as to what it means, or if finding a meaning even makes sense. Frankly, I am not fully comfortable with any of the explanations out there. What is important for you to know as the person on the cushion is that for an instant you were there, then you “went out”, and yet you have a memory of it happening. This implies something profound about existence that you will need to explore. Fortunately, you will not be the first one to be flummoxed by this paradox, and there are a variety of profound interpretations out there to support your integration of this experience.
After you have experienced path and fruit, you have wrapped up first path, and are now ready to work toward second. But before you get onto second path there is an “in-between” stage that occurs called review. The review stage is essentially what it sounds like, you are reviewing the mental territory of first path.
During review you realize that you truly did master all the mental territory leading up to first path, because it is accessible to you like never before. When you sit to meditate you do not start out at the stage of Mind and Body, rather, your starting point is the Arising and Passing. This is pretty distinct in practice and it can be one way to find out if you got a path, if it is in question. When you sit you immediately go to the lights, joy and pulsing of the A&P. Then you quickly run through the Dark Night with very little stress or difficulty, then up into Equanimity and have a fruition. In review, this can happen in a really short amount of time, say 20 minutes (though sitting times like this vary a lot for people).
Another thing that happens in review is that you discover that you now have access to the Jhanas, the states of concentration that the Buddha himself used to work out the paths (according to the Pali suttas). For some people the Jhanas after a path are very strong while for others they are like a weak radio signal, you can tune into them but they aren’t very clear. Don’t worry if this is the case. You will develop deeper concentration as you make your way through second path. What will amaze you though is that the mind seems to know all by itself how to access a Jhana, even if you have never deliberately cultivated them before. All you have to do is direct the mind to, say, first Jhana and it tunes to that Jhana immediately. At the time it happened to me I described the mind as being “like a well-trained dog,” all I had to do is tell it to fetch a Jhana and it seemed to bring it to me with no effort on my part.
Another amazing thing that happens during review is that now that you have access to Jhanas, you discover that you can access any of the (rupa) Jhanas at any time in any order. You can start with the 3rd Jhana and then jump to the 1st and then to the fourth and so on. Normally a meditator who is practicing the Jhanas must first build up concentration, then access them in order from the first to fourth, but that is no longer the case. Review is a wonderful time to experiment with Jhana and find ways to combine and explore these amazing states.
Finally, if you are like most people you will be able to call up fruitions starting in review. This means that you do not have to go through the stages and up to equanimity to have a cessation. This takes a little practice, and once you have it mastered you will be able to simply dip right into to a cessation for an instant, wherever you are, anytime. This can be a great perk of the path. However, not everyone can do this after first path. I could not do it until third path for some reason, so don’t worry if it isn’t available to you.
During the review phase after first path the mind is extraordinarily powerful. A lot of wise people have recommended that you make resolutions at this point, because they have some extra oomph. Why is this the case? I simply do not know. But the mind has an amazing capacity to get things done at this point. The instructions for making an effective resolution are to come up with a clear concrete positive goal (something you will do, rather than not do), and clearly say that you resolve to do it. Saying it aloud is better than silently. At this point you could make a resolution to attain second path, and it could go something like, “I resolve to attain second path as quickly as possible.” If you are working on your compassion, you may wish to add “for the benefit of all beings” at the end. This may sound a little strange and way too formal for many people and I totally get that (I’m the same way), but give it a try. The worst that could happen is that it doesn’t work and you sound a little silly to yourself for a second.
Eventually the review phase resolves into the beginning of second path. You will know when this occurs because when you sit to meditate you will no longer start at A&P. Instead, every thing will feel solid and you will recognize the stage of Mind and Body. Do not be surprised if you jump back and forth between review and second path for a few days before the mind finally settles down to business and gets to work on the new path. This happened to me during every review phase. As you begin the new path you can do so with much more confidence than you did at first path. As the insight stages arise you will recognize them, and having been through the territory once you will be very skillful in navigating it this time. In the second and third paths new and more complicated challenges arise, and again, it is worthwhile to seek out a teacher or a group of dharma friends to get some advice on how to manage, or simply to vent about it and share.
Life After Path
Life changes in some subtle ways after first path. It is very difficult to put into words, but as time goes on you will know that this is so. There is a clear sense that something is different, but you just can’t pinpoint what it is. Some of the old habits of mind and even old behaviors simply don’t come up anymore. Things that seemed important lose their luster, and your confidence that enlightenment is real and practical skyrockets.
According to the ten fetters model of enlightenment, at first path three fetters are eliminated: belief in a self (sometimes called “personality belief” in the commentaries), skeptical doubt, and faith in rites and rituals. While I’m no fan of the ten fetters model, and think many of the claims in the model do not withstand reality testing, there really is something to these first three. I would not go so far as to say that these things are completely eliminated, but they certainly are illuminated, and you no longer buy into them the way you once did.
You’ll find that you are less concerned about the self, and if you had insecurities like anxiety about your appearance, intelligence, accent, etc., these things tend to lose a lot of their sting. They simply take up less mental real estate in your day than they used to. This does not mean that all that personal “stuff” vanishes, far from it, but when it comes up you can see it for what it is, know it refers to an illusion, not take it personally and drop it. For some people this can be a huge relief. For others, who may have had some grandiose personality traits, they’ll find that they are humbled in a way that is not harsh or difficult. It feels as if the gravity that the “I” belief had over awareness has weakened, and this is liberating.
You will also notice that you really have lost a lot of doubt about the path. Up until this point you may have had some unconscious notions that enlightenment was more of an aspirational principle than something that was real. Those doubts are gone. You may continue to have doubts about new things that come up as you make your way through the higher paths, but any doubt that enlightenment is real diminishes significantly.
Finally, letting go of rites and rituals is one of the things the ten fetters model got dead right in my opinion. This was a big one for me personally, and it had an impact on my practice. Being in a post-modern world, many meditators aren’t clinging to the kinds of rites and rituals that used to have mass appeal, like the idea that certain blessings or merit will get you enlightened. But we still have rites and rituals in our own way, and they can be shockingly obvious after first path.
The most clear rites and rituals of post-modern meditators are the subtle but pernicious beliefs that owning certain things will help you out in your meditation. There is a whole industry devoted to catering to this. Look through any popular magazine targeting meditators to see what I am referring to here. There are special cushions, chairs or benches to meditate on, incense, timers, lanterns, statues, prints of Tibetan mandalas, beads, CDs and MP3s that tune your brainwaves toward enlightenment, and lots and lots of books that purportedly give you the special key to deeper meditation. Don’t feel bad if you bought a ton of this stuff, lots of people do, and I bought my fair share of it! But after first path your interest in those things just falls away. In fact, it all seems a little absurd, and you just want to tell people to stop relying on all that stuff.
Not long after first path I donated just about all of my books on meditation, the little statues I had, and lots of other meditation knick-knacks that I had accumulated over the years. As I went through it all I couldn’t believe how much faith I was putting into these things, how magical they seemed when I first got them, how hopeful I was with each purchase that I would finally make progress. At the time I was buying these things I would have totally denied that I was putting any faith in them. I knew the party-line: “Be a lamp unto yourself.” But that is what I was up to, and I now realize that I couldn’t really help it. The hungering for rites and rituals is a natural part of the confusion and growing pain that we experience on the path. I share all this to point out that if you are finding yourself in the midst of this kind of mindset, do not be too hard on yourself. We all go through it.
As this process unfolds for you, you will get an insight into how profound conditioning really is. You get an intuitive sense that you are programmed to look outside yourself for solutions to things that happen within you, and upon reflection you realize that this is the result of thousands upon thousands of interactions with a world that keeps promising to deliver happiness if you simply know what to do. This very moment, and your reactions to it, are conditioned by everything that came before it, and not seeing or understanding the misleading trends in these conditions is a prison we are all in. But now you have had your first peek outside the prison, and you know for certain that there is a way out.
As the deep changes of first path settle in on you, gradually, like snow building up on a roof, you realize these truths and your life changes to line up with them in a more harmonious way. You begin to understand the concept of a “homeless life” that the Buddha talked about in a new way. I always wondered why on Earth the Buddha advocated not having a home. But that was a misunderstanding. What he advocated was not relying on a home, or anything in the world, to deliver happiness. For the modern meditator, what is important is that you understand that liberation is not having the world give you what you want, it is finally being free of the wanting.
At this point you can rest assured that if you have finished first path you can finish the second, and then the third, and reach Arahathood, what my teacher aptly calls “the happiness beyond conditions.” You can do this.
You’ve been making your way through the Dark Night, and have been working through reobservation. Now a subtle but remarkable shift begins to happen: there is the clear sense that while all the aches and pains are still occurring, you have stepped aside and are simply watching them. Welcome to the stage of Equanimity.
The Buddha described equanimity as one of highest experiences a human being can have, a Brahma Vihara, or “divine abiding.” For someone who has just slipped into equanimity the idea that it is a divine abiding might not make a lot of sense at first, because it seems like nothing has really changed. You are simply watching everything in meditation just like you’ve always done, but now it just seems like you are doing it really well. But the reason that the Buddha pointed to this as a divine abiding is that in equanimity you are getting your first taste of real liberation.
This can actually be easy to miss, because the shift into equanimity is very subtle. Unlike A&P, which was stunning in its joy and otherworldly rapture, equanimity is very cool and calm. One gets the sense that everything is just fine as it is, and no matter what difficulty comes up in meditation you can observe it calmly and let it go.
Among some practitioners you will hear equanimity described as being one of two kinds, either “lower” or “higher.” While you will not find this division of equanimity in the ancient suttas or even in many of the commentaries, it makes a lot of sense once you have been through the stage yourself. This is because there is a gradual maturing of this stage, and the mature phase of equanimity feels very different to the meditator than the initial phase.
Equanimity begins with a subtle shift that occurs during the Dark Night. At this point you are in the midst of reobservation, which feels as if all of the Dark Night is coming at you at once. You probably feel overwhelmed by the discomfort and are continuing to meditate despite how it feels. You are learning to accept the experience rather than fight it. If you are using the noting technique you will be noting “itching”, “frustration”, “aching,” “desire for it to be over”, etc. Then at some point you notice that you are no longer bothered by the negative things that are happening. They are still happening, but you feel fine anyway. What you are noting doesn’t change. The content of the noting is still negative. But somehow it doesn’t bother you. It is as if you have stepped back from everything and are now watching it from a slight distance. Needless to say, this can be a big relief.
Along with the realization that you are fine despite the negative feelings comes the realization that everything in awareness has become crisp and clear. Many meditators actually stop noting at this point because it is slowing down attention, which is now capturing virtually everything that is happening, observing it clearly and dropping it immediately on its own. Meditators describe this part of the path as the moment when the ability to see phenomena arise and pass away became effortless. It is as if everything is simply marching up and presenting itself to you. All you have to do is let it happen.
Astute meditators who are investigating their experience can get an important insight into the nature of suffering when this shift first occurs. In this initial step into equanimity the pain and discomfort of reobservation are all still occurring but you are no longer suffering from them. Why? Upon reflection the meditator realizes that only one thing has really led to this relief: there is a sense that the meditator is merely watching the experience, and is not really involved in it. It’s all just happening on its own, and the belief that it is happening “to me” seems to have vanished. That makes all the difference. Suffering goes away when the belief that it is happening to a self goes away too. This is a powerful insight that foreshadows enlightenment itself, and when it is fully understood liberation is close.
As the forward progress continues the aches and pains of the Dark Night fade away completely, and you move into full equanimity. What replaces the negative phenomena is a calm and clarity that is remarkable. However, although you may feel calm and clear, you don’t necessarily feel anything wonderful. There is no joy or amazement. People sometimes describe this phase of equanimity as “just sitting.” And that is exactly what it feels like. No bright lights or big surprises, but rather a simplicity and clarity that have never been experienced before.
As the calm and clarity of equanimity sinks in, and the discomfort of the Dark Night fades away completely, the meditator begins to have some experiences that are reminiscent of A&P in that they are rather mystical.
Please keep in mind as I describe this that everyone’s experience of high equanimity is different, and while some people have mystical experiences so extreme that they literally hallucinate (check out Daniel Ingram’s description of “mush demons”) others like myself have very mild experiences. Neither is better or more desirable than the other and having a particular kind of experience will not move you through equanimity more quickly. Regardless of what you experience in equanimity the most important thing you can do is exactly what you have been doing that got you here: stay mindful and alert, allow the process to happen without forcing it, and balance concentration with investigation.
In high equanimity the meditator moves from “just sitting” to noticing a subtle and pervasive sense that the objects of meditation are vibrating. For example, you notice an itch on your cheek and it seems as if it is composed of thousands of fizzing bubbles rather than a single thing called an “itch”, you notice a feeling of tension in a muscle and it is almost sizzling with vibration, you notice a distant noise and it has a distinct humming quality about it like a microphone picking up dead air. For every object there is a clear visceral sense that it is vibrating.
Another important characteristic of this stage is that the vibrations are very fine and subtle. Reflecting on the speed at which things are vibrating, you’ll be amazed that you can detect them at all. Interestingly, while this would certainly qualify as a mystical experience, the crazy joy that first accompanied a mystical experience like this back at A&P is absent. The meditator is watching all of existence vibrate and hum along with a deep and noble calm that gives this stage its name. Along with this vibratory quality it is not unusual for meditators to experience lights and other similar phenomena that are like the A&P. Rather than be fascinated by them, you will simply notice that they too are vibrating.
As this experience matures another important shift occurs, and it is a very subtle one: it no longer seems as if the objects alone are vibrating, but rather that the entire field of awareness itself is vibrating. When this occurs the meditator begins to take the whole field of awareness itself as the object. All the things that are normally taken as objects still pop in and out of awareness, but now they are only part of what now constitutes the object, which is the vibratory nature of the whole field of awareness itself.
At this point you may be asking yourself what is meant by “field of awareness.” Admittedly, it is a pretty geeky term, but it is a very useful one to know at this stage of development. A useful analogy is a movie projected onto a screen. You can pay attention to anything in the movie, the characters, the scenes, the dialogue, etc., but the one thing all these things have in common is that they all are happening on the screen. When the mind shifts from taking individual things in the field of awareness as the meditation object to taking the entire field of awareness itself as the object, it feels as if you have gone from watching the movie to looking at the screen. There is a pulling back, a sense that you are taking it all in at once.
As one continues observing the entire field of awareness hum along in high equanimity, a substantial increase in concentration occurs. You’ve already acquired a good deal of concentration in order to get this far, but now it jumps in power quite a bit. Part of the reason that this happens is that in higher equanimity the mind stops moving from one object to the next and begins to focus on a single object, the field of awareness itself. Please keep in mind that this happens all by itself. There is no special technique or effort involved. At this point very little effort is needed and all that is required is that you allow the process to happen.
In theory, at this point the mind naturally takes a characteristic that all the objects and the field of awareness have in common and focuses in on that one thing, and as a result concentration increases even further and the meditation becomes very deep. Which characteristics can the mind take? It can focus in on the fact that the stuff you are aware of is clearly not you, or that everything is impermanent and whizzing in and out of existence, or it can focus on the characteristic that doing anything except letting go of any of it is very uncomfortable. Voila! – the three characteristics. When attention syncs up on on one of the three characteristics, concentration jumps, the power of the mind jumps, and the mind is readying itself to jump to something beyond awareness – Nirvana is at hand.
This is why the three characteristics are also known as the three “doors” to Nirvana. The reason why the three characteristics are so important is that in these final moments before complete cessation they are the only things that are stable enough to be taken as objects. If you are focusing on the entire field of awareness as it zooms in and out of existence, the only thing to take as an object is one of the three characteristics. Again, this is not a conscious process, and it is happening on its own at this point. You are just along for the ride.
That is the theory, and it makes sense, but in practice what it actually feels like is that the vibratory nature of everything gets stronger and stronger. You do feel as if you are focusing in on something, but in the moment you would not likely point to one of the three characteristics as the object of meditation (though some folks do). Rather you would simply say that the fact that all of awareness was humming in such a profound way was fascinating and you were zeroing in on that humming quality more and more.
As the mind gets stronger and stronger a few things begin to happen. The first is that the meditator begins to feel some excitement and anticipation. It is as if the mind knows that something profound is about to occur and is getting ready. This excitement can be an obstacle to progress, and I know this first hand. I stayed in high equanimity for some time, revisiting it over and over, and each time I became so excited and anticipated it so much that, like a kid in a candy shop, I couldn’t help myself and would impulsively try to hold onto the experience – bad idea. The forward momentum stalled under my interference and the concentration fell apart. After a while I got the message and learned to keep myself calm and focused on the moment.
The anticipation is a good sign though, and along with it you will experience a few other things that let you know you are very close. The whole field of attention begins vibrating in a way that is stronger and more clear in the mind. Some people describe a “tapping,” “silent popping” or “rushing in and out” that occurs at this point. What is happening is that the mind naturally begins to focus on the moments in the vibration when there is nothing rather than something. As equanimity matures the mind begins to focus in on the absolute moment of complete extinction. When the “nothing” in the vibration becomes fascinating, you are getting very close.
In the commentaries this point is described as the mind “inclining toward Nibbana.” At any moment your mind will fully sync up with the complete cessation of things, and when that happens, you find an amazing thing: not only do the objects of meditation disappear into a blissful nothingness – so do you. What this teaches the mind and the imprint that it leaves on one’s view of the self is extraordinary. The next section of the path is called Cessation, and it is all about this life-changing moment.
9. Desire for Deliverance
As the meditator moves along the path and has already experienced their attention syncing up with the arising of phenomena, then the peak of phenomena, it then moves to the passing away of phenomena. I call the next section of the path the “Dark Night” and in the commentaries it is also called “the knowledge of suffering.”
As you can gather from the name, this is a pretty difficult part of the path. It is so difficult in fact, this is where most meditators get into trouble, and can become stuck. The sheer discomfort and negativity of this part of the path may lead the meditator to conclude that they are no longer “doing it right,” and they may decide to just quit meditating. After all, why keep at it when it pretty much hurts to meditate? In the Zen tradition, this part of the path is called the “rolling up of the mat” for just that reason – the meditator just wants to throw in the towel and stop.
This actually makes a lot of sense if you do not know the map. The memory of the rapturous A&P is still fresh in the mind of a meditator who initially steps into the Dark Night. Compared to the joy and wonder that was only just experienced, the Dark Night is a horrible let down. But it is important to know that the difficulty being experienced is a sign of progress – it means that you are doing the meditation correctly. Another important thing to know is that even though this section of the path is not pleasant, it is very important for insight into the nature of reality (which is not always very pleasant!).
What follows is a description of the stages that make up the Dark Night. These are not comprehensive and will not match everyone’s experiences. Some people have very strong and painful experiences while others have a very mild experience that they hardly notice at all. These descriptions capture some of the experiences that an average, moderate experience would encompass.
If you believe that you may be experiencing any of these, I strongly advise you to discuss it with a teacher. Experienced Dharma teachers know this territory very well and the best ones know how to guide people through it with care and understanding. Up to this point it has been pretty safe to be a bit of loner in meditation, but when it comes to the Dark Night, you should seek advice from someone more experienced.
As the meditator moves through the A&P they notice that the excitement and joy gradually diminish, and what takes the place of those emotions is a feeling of slowing down or sinking. For those who are very mindful and aware, they will notice that the mind is now having trouble noticing anything but the endings of things. The way that this is sometimes experienced is that the meditator feels like they can no longer do noting correctly, that they can only note something once it has already passed away. Many people describe feeling lethargy and cool sensations on the skin while on the cushion, and difficulty keeping up with conversations or remembering things off the cushion.
The ways in which dissolution can be experienced vary a lot, in that for some it is a negative experience while for others it is quite pleasant. Some meditators describe a sinking feeling that accompanies an almost fatalistic awareness of the eventual aging, decay and death of all things. My own experience was more typical in that it was mild and pleasant. I can be a fairly hyperactive and over-committed person in general, and during this stage it was as if I was given a mild tranquilizer. I slowed down physically and mentally and took my time about everything. I found that I had trouble keeping up with things that normally were not a problem. There was a vague sense of the impermanence of things, and I wanted to savor life.
At some point when the meditator is in the midst of the sinking, slow and cool feelings of dissolution they will suddenly experience the stage of fear. Unlike dissolution, which feels like a gradual shift away from the thrill of A&P, fear does not come on gradually, but suddenly. One second you are feeling chilled out in dissolution and the next you are suddenly experiencing alarm and anxiety. For some this can seem like a panic attack, but for others it feels as if they are suddenly on edge and much more worried than usual.
It often comes out of the blue, but occasionally the shift from dissolution to fear can be triggered by something in the environment. I first experienced fear when meditating in a park and hearing a dog bark in the distance. When the dog barked, a warm tingling ran up the front of my body, my heart beat faster, and I became convinced that the dog was after me. It was a striking experience because it was so out of the blue – it sprang up in the midst of being so calm and chilled-out in dissolution. I realize now that the barking was merely a trigger that started the next stage, which would have started on its own anyway. I say all this to point out that you can easily confuse yourself and become a bit paranoid during this stage if you keep looking outside yourself for the source of fear. The fear was caused by the meditation and not the dog. When I opened my eyes to take a look, the dog was chasing a squirrel.
What is actually happening, down deep, is that as your attention is syncing up with the dissolution of phenomena you are finding that there is nothing in experience that the sense of “me” can hold onto as stable and permanent. It just can’t get any footing. You do not realize it at a cognitive level, but you are getting a deep insight into the impermanence of all phenomena, and along with that, into the impermanence of the self. This is something that is terrifying to one’s very roots. Needles to say this initial stage can be a great source of distress and people can become stuck here for some time if they do not have good guidance.
Following the panicky, anxiety-inducing stage of fear, the meditator begins to move into the stage of misery, which is aptly named. The stage of misery feels awful both physically and psychologically. Aches, itches, weird pains and difficult thoughts arise and fly through body and mind so quickly that the meditator has little time to note or really notice them. There is only a strong sense of being in anguish, and it is common for meditators to grimace while sitting in meditation when they are in the midst of this stage. In my experience the stage of misery was a bit like having a bad case of flu, but without the sneezing or stuffiness. Mostly, there was the inescapable feeling that something was simply not right with me, but I couldn’t quite put my finger on what it was, and nothing seemed to help.
At a deeper level, the mind at the stage of misery has already got insight into the impermanence of self and this stage can best be conceived of as a terrible sense of grief that follows on the heels of that insight. Again, you may not “know” that this is happening at a cognitive level, but deep down there is a growing awareness that everything is impermanent, including the self and this is profoundly disturbing.
Following on the heels of misery is disgust. When disgust arises in meditation for the first time the grimace of misery is replaced by a scrunching around the eyes and nose – a face that clearly says “I’m grossed out.” In meditation the bodily sensations go from being irritating in the stage of misery, to feeling unbearably nasty in disgust. The mind can be flooded with images of filth and foulness that are revolting. Off the cushion the meditator can find themselves disliking things that they would normally crave. In many cases the thought of sex seems gross, food, and the whole act of feeding seems to have a surreal nastiness to it, and even entertainment and art that you normally love may seems empty and pointless. At this stage I personally felt mild nausea and had an overwhelming sense that my skin was filthy. Disgust typically does not last that long compared to misery, and it quickly resolves into desire for deliverance, however, do not discount the importance of this stage. Disgust is a clear insight into the unsatisfactoriness of the body and mind.
At this point, the difference between cognitive “insight” and contemplative insight should really be sinking in: the insights on the path do not just change how you think about things, they change how you are in the world. The insights of the Dark Night are experienced more than they are thought through. They seem to arise and happen on their own, and they seem to be altering your experience of life in ways you could not have anticipated when you began this journey.
Desire for Deliverance
You have felt terrible panic, and you’ve felt like you’ve been through a miserable flu. You are feeling disgusted with all of existence. What is the next logical thing to follow? A strong desire for it to just be over with already. Desire for deliverance is the next stage on the path following disgust, and it is the most pitiful of the insight stages. At this point you really just wish the insights and the path would just stop and that things would go back to the way they were at A&P. In some cases you might wish that you’d never started to meditate at all, and might feel resentful that all this negativity is part of the path. It is not uncommon for meditators to unconsciously make little whining or grunting noises during meditation when going through this stage. There is a vague sense that all of this is just unfair and too terrible for words. Like disgust, this stage typically does not last very long, and many people can fly through it without realizing that it happened. It could be as fleeting as a single thought wondering when this will end, or as strong and lasting a strong bought of crying. Each person’s experience will be different.
With a nerdy name like “re-observation,” how bad can the next stage be? As it turns out, really bad. My teacher warned me ahead of time that re-observation is “the king-daddy of the dukkha nanas” and I’m glad he let me know. This stage is called re-observation because the meditator experiences all of the previous stages, one on top of the other, in quick succession. In other words, it is a stage in which all the previous dukkha nanas are wrapped up in one. When it starts you know something has changed because the whole field of awareness, body sensations, mental activity, everything, suddenly seems to be cycling through dissolution, fear, misery, disgust, and desire for deliverance over and over again. In the space of a few moments you can experience panic, aches, itches, nausea, disgusting mental images, crawling sensations on the skin, and an irritating sense that you can’t keep up with it all. At this stage in my meditation I described the experience as feeling like I was tumbling around in a clothes dryer full of negative mind-states.
It may seem cruel, but there is a very important insight to be gained through the experience of re-observation. You would not have reached this stage in the path if you were not strong enough to be here, and what you get out of all of this misery is a very very critical ingredient for your eventual liberation – equanimity.
At some point there is a shift in perspective, and the meditator feels like they are no longer tumbling around with the negative mind-states, but are simply watching them, and this is their first taste of equanimity. Moving through the dark night and into equanimity successfully requires a few things, but chief among them is the will to stick with it and not give up. Keep going and watch the experience evolve and change with as much mindfulness as you can muster. Along with this quality of sticking to it, which we might call resolve, determination, or stubbornness, we need a balancing quality that softens us and allows us to be open to the experience, as negative as it is. What is needed is acceptance. A lot of misunderstandings exist about the role of acceptance in meditation, and I hesitate to include it at all because it can be misconstrued to mean a vague sense that “everything is OK.” This is not at all what acceptance means in this instance. Rather, in this case, acceptance means a whole-hearted willingness to be with things just as they are, even if they are awful. The determination to carry on the meditation, along with the willingness to accept what it reveals, are valuable tools for skillfully moving through the Dark Night.
Remember that technical point about meditation that you discovered back at the A&P? That you seem to cycle through the path to your cutting edge throughout your day? This is the stage where that little detail has huge implications for your life. This is because if you are moving along the path and cycling up to a really nasty experience a few times or more each day, it can seriously wreck your mood. If you do not understand why this is happening to you, then you may end up constructing a lot of elaborate stories about why you feel so rotten all the time, and could end up engaging in some pretty unskillful behavior. People who are going through this and do not understand why might blame their jobs, their relationships, or some other facet of their life for how they are feeling. The result could be some poor decisions. At this point in the path it is very important to keep the practice and the rest of your life separate.
This is one of the most important reasons why I feel sharing the map is helpful for people who are starting to meditate. If you meditate according to the instructions and make progress you will inevitably head into this very negative experience. If you do not know it is coming and do not understand what is happening to you when it begins, it can be much worse than it needs to be. Sharing with students that this is a natural part of the path and giving them an informed choice about whether to proceed or not is what sharing the map is all about.
The fact that the Dark Night exist has, to my mind, serious ethical implications. Doctors are obliged to discuss the potential negative side effects of any medication that they recommend to their patients. Researchers must ensure that research participants are aware of the potential negative effects of their research. Yet meditation teachers often do not tell students up front about the negative effects of meditation. This is understandable in that teachers do not want to drive students away or scare them before they have any insight, and they also do not want to create any expectations that having a negative experience is part of what being a “good” meditator is about. But choosing not to tell beginning students about the Dark Night also raises the question of whether the student was given the information they needed to make an clear choice about whether this path was right for them. This is particularly important for students who have a history of depression or anxiety. There are many awakened practitioners that I know personally who made it through these stages just fine while they were also coping with depression or anxiety, but there is the potential that these stages could exacerbate those conditions. And that is just dangerous. This is simply a lengthy way for me to say that everyone deserves to know about the Dark Night up front. No one should find out about it when they are in the midst of going through it.
If you have crossed the A&P, then you are headed for the Dark Night. For meditators going through this I highly recommend having a teacher that understands this stuff. A good teacher will help you to move through these stages with greater ease and will also help you to get a clear understanding of the insights inherent in the experience. Navigating the Dark Night without a teacher is possible, but it is not recommended.
The next part of the path is the stage of Equanimity.
The next stage of the path is called the Arising and Passing away (A&P). At this point on the path the meditator’s attention has already synced up with the beginnings of phenomena. Now the attention moves along and syncs up with that point at the top of the arc where all observed phenomena are peaking. It is the point at which phenomena can be said to be both arising into and passing out of existence at once.
During the A&P the meditator begins to have their very first taste of what could be called “mystical” experiences. Exciting sensations run through the body: tingles, electric-like sensations run along the skin or percolate up along the body’s midline, lightness or feelings of floating occur, and in some of the more extreme cases even rapturous pleasure that can be difficult to handle. Along with these physical sensations the meditator might also perceive a sensation of light while their eyes are closed. This visual experience can be powerful and amazing. It may seem as if there are lights being turned up in the room, or that a flashlight is shining directly at you. Some people describe seeing what appear to be headlights, stars, or orbs of light of different colors. Needless to say, all this can be pretty exciting, and powerful emotions are another aspect of this experience. Joy, happiness, wonder, amazement – a full palette of positive emotions begins to color experience. The ways in which crossing the A&P can be expressed in an individual’s meditation are many and varied, so do not worry if your own experience does not line up with everyone else’s (or even with this brief description). However the most common experience, the one that really defines A&P, is a swift pulsing, flashing, flickering or tapping felt in the center of experience, as if everything is cycling in and out of existence very quickly.
Needless to say, reaching the A&P can be amazing. It often marks a milestone in one’s life. People can tell wonderful stories about the time when they first began crossing the A&P in their meditation. From that point forward you know with absolute certainty that there is something real about all this meditation stuff. That it isn’t just relaxation or self-hypnosis. That there really is something deep and wonderful about this practice, and to a larger extent, something beautiful and mysterious about life itself – and that you have directly touched it. It is as if you have discovered a secret world that is hidden right within the normal everyday world. This discovery can be extremely energizing and joyful. People who are experiencing the A&P are notorious for not getting enough sleep and being ridiculously cheerful (I was probably pretty annoying to my grad school cohort at that time, who were going through a lot of stress). A&P meditators often have a hard time not telling everyone about what they are experiencing and if they aren’t good at respecting others’ boundaries they could end up evangelizing about meditation to anyone who will listen. They can also become pretty self-righteous with other meditators if they are not careful. This is particularly true for folks who are just meditating to relax or are simply engaged in a basic mindfulness practice. There will be a part of you that wants to jump up and down, grab them by the shoulders, shake them and scream “you have no idea what you’re missing – here let me show you how to really do this!” Please resist this impulse – it’s just obnoxious. Respect others’ individual process. They may not even be interested in having a real mystical experience (even if they talk new-agey). Just focus on your own journey along the path, because the hardest part is still ahead.
You begin to notice something new about your meditation practice: when you are off the cushion there are moments when you are experiencing A&P-like phenomena. They are not as strong or overwhelming off the cushion as they are when you are in the midst of meditation, but they are there. You are discovering a technical aspect of the path that rarely gets communicated to new meditators: throughout your daily life you will automatically cycle through the path to whatever your “cutting edge” is in meditation. It could happen many times in a given day and even while you sleep. It will strike you that this has actually been happening all along, but usually the experiences are so faint that you haven’t noticed them, until now, when the powerful sensations that accompany A&P show themselves to you in daily life. Why does this happen? I simply don’t know. But it has profound implications for you on the next stage of the path and for others in your life.
Another interesting effect from the A&P is that you finally start to understand what mystics are talking about. What once sounded like gibberish begins to make sense. Many great artists, musicians, poets and of course religious mystics throughout history have gone through this rapturous stage and they write about the experience of the A&P with great reverence and even romance. Often what they describe (e.g. “seeing the light”, “touched by the divine”, etc.) is taken as metaphorical language by lay people or academics who have not had this experience. But for an A&P meditator the words of poets, hermits, monks and other mystics are suddenly recognizable in terms of direct personal experience. You feel like you finally know what they are talking about, as if you were finally let in on the secret that seemed to be just out of reach in their haikus and aphorisms.
Along with this discovery comes another one: there have been a vast number of people who have had this experience throughout history, and they come from every conceivable background. This is not a Buddhist thing. It’s not even a meditation thing. It’s part of the human experience. You have simply followed one of many paths that lead to it. You begin to appreciate the pointers they left behind for others to find, as cryptic as they first appear, and you feel a grateful connection across time with these generous teachers. Some of them literally risked their lives to write down descriptions of this experience and how it can be enjoyed and fully integrated into life. This discovery is only the beginning too. The further along the path you go you will find that the words of even more accomplished mystics will resonate with you, and you will find deeply mysterious writings opening to you, yielding up powerful truths that clarify your own direct experiences. It is a wonderful part of the path that few discuss, but for me, part of the joy of waking up was finding fellowship with so many great people across time.
Once one crosses the A&P some other interesting things begin to happen, and one of the most common is that the meditation seems to take on a life of its own. The meditator no longer has to put so much effort into being mindful in the moment, into paying close attention to the instructions, because there is some mysterious momentum that has built up and is now moving one along the path. When one sits there are fewer distractions, fewer stories that are built up around sensations and thoughts, and it is much easier to stay with the moment, watch the sensations, feelings and thoughts and be content to do just that. One reason for this is that you are getting very good at it by this point, but another is that it literally feels good to do so. Each moment of meditation is rewarding in a very literal, behavioral sense. You are reinforced for doing the technique and doing it right, and when this happens it becomes effortless. The positive feedback of the A&P helps you to know right away if you are really meditating or just daydreaming, and with this kind of feedback your skills grow very quickly.
In ancient meditation manuals like the Visudimagga insight meditation does not actually begin until one reaches the A&P. It is considered the initial step into Vipassana. Once one has crossed this threshold they have traversed into very rarified territory that is strange and nothing like normal meditation. Before you have gone through the A&P you might disagree with this perspective, and perhaps even feel resentful at the suggestion that you are not really doing Vipassana. But, if you have gone through the A&P this perspective makes a lot of sense. After all, up until this point the meditation actually seemed quite mundane, required quite a bit of self-discipline and effort, and was frequently boring or even unpleasant. It was mostly a lot of work. Sort of like running each morning: for a while it is very difficult and you have to force yourself to do it, but at some point a wonderful thing happens and the running seems to do itself. Long-time runners might consider this to be the time when they really became a “runner.” This is what happens with meditation, and it seems to happen at the A&P. However, that does not mean that if you have not crossed the A&P you should not do the Vipassana technique – just the opposite! It is by doing the technique with diligence and right effort that you reach that A&P. So don’t give up and don’t fudge on the technique – really do it and give it your very best shot.
Don’t worry if you are not at A&P yet, if you know how to meditate and you do it properly, you will make progress and the A&P will be part of your meditation. However, don’t wish for it too soon, because directly following the A&P comes the stage of meditation that I call Extinction, and which has also been called “The Dark Night.”
- The Physio-Cognitive Stage
- Mind and Body
- Cause and Effect
- Three Characteristics
I call the first phase of mediation the physio-cognitive stage because the insights associated with it are primarily about the body, mind, and their connection and characteristics. This stage can feel pretty mundane, and practioners often don’t even know that they are in this stage. I had no idea that I had gone through it the first time it happened. It wasn’t until things got exciting that it became clear that I must have already gone through these and it wasn’t until I went through them many times that I was even able to see them clearly.
Mind and Body
The physio-cognitive section of the path begins when the meditator enters into the stage of Mind and Body. During this stage the meditator’s mind begins to sync up with the beginnings of phenomena, and when they note whatever comes into awareness the meditator begins to distinguish their thoughts from their bodily sensations. This can seem pretty mundane and uneventful, but it is actually pretty valuable information. It is an understanding that is needed before any further insights are possible. For those who are particularly attuned to their own states, they may notice a subtle shift from being the thoughts and sensations to watching them.
The primary insight that is gained in this stage is that the mind and the body are truly different. Of course we all know that this is so on a cognitive level, but there is a big difference between knowing this and seeing it in real time. Actually seeing these truths as they are happening has a profound effect on the mind. Oddly, while the effect can be profound, in that certain doubts vanish, it is an effect that can be easy to miss. This is often true of many of the insights that occur. This is because the insights do not leave an imprint on us at a cognitive level, but at a much deeper level.
Cause and Effect
As the meditator continues to see the mental and physical phenomena arising in awareness, a moment happens (and it often is just a moment or two) where some connection or interaction between mind and body becomes apparent. For example, let’s imagine that a meditator is doing noting -style meditation where they make a brief note of whatever arises in experience. The meditator sees that there is an image in their mind of the car that cut them off in traffic that morning, they may note “image”, then directly following that is “anger” and then the next notes are “tightness”, “ache”, “tension”, etc. In that instant a connection between what the mind does and the body experiences becomes obvious (so obvious that we often miss it). Here we see that thoughts are connected to feelings are connected to behaviors are connected to thoughts and so on, in a chain of cause and effect.
Beginners usually do not know that they have even been through cause and effect, not only because it is brief and uneventful, but because this is usually stuff that we think we know already. But we only know it at a cognitive level, and if you haven’t guessed it already, I don’t give the cognitive level much respect when it comes to the path. Knowing something at the cognitive level can make it seem like we understand something, but the big difference between a cognitive understanding and a deep insight is that cognitive understandings change what we think, but deep insights change how we are.
An important thing to note about the stage of cause and effect is that some people can easily get stuck there. Because cause and effect is all about the connections between things, it can be a quagmire for one’s individual mental content, in other words, your “stuff.” But please remember that the path is not about understanding your stuff (though that can be a nice side-effect), it is about understanding reality itself. Getting caught in your stuff can be a very tempting distraction. For example, during this stage it is not unusual to think about something insensitive that you did or said and then notice tension in the face, or burning in the chest or abdomen. Before you know it, you’ll be spinning out scenarios about how your relationship issues or family problems are leading to emotional and physical distress. Will these scenarios be wrong? Not necessarily. But will they support you in seeing reality clearly? Not at all.
At some point the meditator begins to notice three things about the mental and physical phenomena they are watching: none of them are really “me” (because “I” am watching them), all of them are impermanent, and almost all of them are actually pretty unpleasant or at least unsatisfactory in some ways that are obvious and some that are pretty subtle. These three insights do not usually occur at a cognitive level (though they sometimes do). A meditator who has gone through this stage might not be able to name what it has taught them, but if they hear about these three characteristics they will instantly recognize the truth of them. From this point forward, there will be something compelling about the three characteristics – they will just make intuitive sense.
For some, this stage can be pretty unpleasant. The effects of seeing the three characteristics can lead to negative emotions for some meditators. It is impossible to tell ahead of time how strong the possible negative effects of this stage might be, but there is the potential to get stuck in the negativity that this stage can summon up in the meditator. If you are experiencing difficult emotions and wonder if they might be related to this stage, it is worth working it out with a meditation teacher. Don’t stay stuck in any stage longer than necessary to get the insights needed and move on.
The Physio-Cognitive Stage and Modern Psychology
A couple of interesting points about these three stages are worth noting before moving on. First, people who are familiar with psychology and with cognitive-behavioral theory in particular will recognize that the first two stages constitute what is called the “cognitive model.” The cognitive model is the notion that thoughts, feelings and behaviors are directly linked and that if you change one of them the other two must change as well. It is the foundation of most modern psychotherapy. Needless to say, getting some direct experience of this and seeing the reality of it can certainly help one to see how to get into and out of problems. Modern CBT, sometimes called “Third Wave CBT”, takes advantage of this by encouraging people in treatment to practice mindfulness and see how thoughts, feelings and behaviors are connected in the moment.
Because the first two stages are essentially covering the ground that is the foundation of modern psychotherapy, most of what constitutes “mindfulness” training in most clinical settings is actually the experience of these two initial stages and sometimes the third. Mindfulness therapies like MBSR, DBT and ACT emphasize these three insight stages and the therapeutic benefit that can come with them. These kinds of therapies are particularly good at helping people to recognize when they are getting caught in cause and effect, and moving them on to three characteristics. I’d would venture to say that most basic mindfulness trainings that occur outside of clinical settings tend to cover just these three insight stages and end there. Sometimes these stages are even presented as the whole path. However, as you will discover, there is far more.
Once one has gained insight into mind and body, cause and effect and the three characteristics, the attention moves on and syncs up with the peak of sensate experience. The next stage is the Arising and Passing Away.
When I first began meditating and read about things like the “path,” “way” and “journey” I assumed that these terms are just metaphors that describe a kind of personal growth that takes place on one’s spiritual quest. I had a vague notion that if I meditated I would gradually become a better person, and that it was this personal transformation that was referred to by the language of “paths” and “journeys.”
Boy was I wrong. What I did not know when I first started, and regrettably took me years to find out, is that there is a clear and richly detailed description of what happens to a meditator from their first sit all the way to enlightenment, and this is what is actually meant by the term “path.”
The map of the path has been developed collaboratively by many master meditators over thousands of years, and can be found in ancient meditation manuals like the Vimuttimagga (The Path of Freedom) and the Visudimagga (The Path of Purification). It is also in relatively newer guides like Mahasi Saydaw’s The Progress of Insight. Some modern-day descriptions are out there as well, and can be found in Jack Kornfield’s Living Dharma and A Path with Heart. However, the clearest modern descriptions of the path can be found in Mastering the Core Teachings of the Buddha by Daniel Ingram and In This Very Life by Sayadaw U Pandita.
What the map shows is that there are a series of predictable states and stages that constitute the “path.” Like signposts on the way to enlightenment, the states and stages are signals that one is doing the technique correctly and making progress. These signposts are universal, automatic and impersonal. They happen to everyone who does the technique correctly and have nothing to do with personal growth or individual needs. Rather, they provide a way of seeing clearly into the nature of reality. There are 17 stages on the path to enlightenment, and I will describe each one in detail, but first I would like to present the theory upon which the whole thing sits…
To understand the map, and the path in general, it is useful (but not necessary) to understand the underlying theory. If the map describes what states and stages one experiences, the theory describes why one experiences them. In other words, the theory answers the question: what is it a map of?
To understand the theory it might help to start with what actually happens in meditation. Insight meditation, or Vipassana, is “clear seeing” of anything and everything that happens to us in the moment. So, when we do insight meditation we pay very close attention to our experience in the moment and try to see it as clearly as possible. When we do this we soon see that everything in experience follows a similar pattern of arising and disappearing in awareness. It doesn’t matter if it is a thought, feeling or a sensation, it arises and passes away in awareness in the same way. This might seem a little trivial at first glance, but it is actually a radical insight if you fully get it. Everything that you experience is impermanent in the sense that, no matter what it is, it follows the exact same pattern of arising and falling in awareness:
Any experience in awareness would roughly have that same shape through time, whether it was an itch, a thought, a craving for chocolate, or bad mood.
Our attention cannot clearly apprehend this arising and passing without special training, especially very quick successions of arising and passing away, and that is what meditation does: trains the mind to see how all things come and go in awareness at a very fine-grained level.
So this is all pretty geeky, but how does it lead to enlightenment? The reason that this knowledge is useful is because we can use it to experience Nirvana, and ultimately it is experiencing Nirvana which leads to enlightenment. Nirvana is essentially what you experience when you follow all sensations to their very end – they cease completely, and in that moment of cessation Nirvana is there. Nirvana is the unconditioned, the foundation, ground, background, the page upon which existence is written. All phenomena arise and fall out of existence, but Nirvana is always there when everything vanishes. By becoming an expert at watching phenomena closely and training your mind to follow all phenomena as they disappear, you are training the mind to catch a “glimpse” of Nirvana in that sweet spot when the sensations have ceased.
How does this actually work in practice? When we sit to meditate and begin noting our experience, the mind does a very surprising thing. All by itself, the mind begins to sync up on the arising part of the wave-form of all phenomena happening in that moment. For reasons that I have not yet fully understood, when meditation is done properly the mind begins to focus on just one part of the wave-form of phenomena, and it likes to start at the beginning. So, as you are sitting and you notice an itch, then a sound, then a thought and so on, the mind is actually noticing just the arising of those things, just the beginning. Then, an even more amazing thing happens, as you continue attention begins to move along the wave-like structure. You journey along and the mind syncs up on the peak of phenomena arising and passing, and rides the high crest of sensate experience. Then as you continue down the path the mind begins to sync up on the disintegration of phenomena in experience, noticing all the endings of things. Eventually, you get to the far end of the tail of the wave, and attention begins to focus on the instant where phenomena completely cease to be. When the mind fully syncs up with the complete ending of all phenomena it experiences a moment in which all phenomena disappear for a moment, and this is “the mind alighting upon Nirvana” as Mahasi Sayadaw put it so well.
The theory behind the “path” is that essentially it is a process of attention following the birth and arising of sensations, to their peak, to their falling away and utter disappearance. When the mind fully experiences their disappearance, or cessation, it experiences something that lays beyond all of the phenomenal world and which changes the mind of the meditator permanently. It is called it “Nirvana” in the ancient suttas, which simply means “extinction” or “to go out.” When the meditator experiences Nirvana enough times, a profound and subtle shift occurs within them, deep insights become permanently fixed in the forefront of awareness, and certain illusions are seen for what they are. This is enlightenment.
The Map of the Path
I divide the map in five overall sections, each with a series of stages. While the stages themselves are standard and can be found in the Vissudimagga and Mahasi Saydaw’s The Progress of Insight, the sections are my creation. I created the sections because they help to organize the path in a way that, I believe, makes the overall experience more understandable. The sections are the Physio-Cognitive Stage (which covers the initial rising arc of the wave-form), The Arising and Passing Away (which rests upon the top of the wave), Extinction (which covers the downhill side of the wave-form), Equanimity (which is at the leveling-off on the far tail of the wave) and Cessation (where the wave ends).
The overall path, from first sit to Nirvana, looks like this. To learn about a section of the path, click the name of the stage (currently under construction).
1. Mind and Body
2. Cause and Effect
3. Three Characteristics
9. Desire for Deliverance
12. Insight Leading to Emergence
Instructions for Vispassana
What to do with your body
One thing that beginning meditators often get confused about is the importance of posture. It simply isn’t as important as it is often made out to be. Forget what you may have been told about sitting in full lotus and becoming like a Buddha statue – you don’t need any of that. There is nothing magical about difficult sitting poses, and if they are painful for you please don’t use them. They are the product of a particular culture and time, and have very little to do with waking up itself. If you find that sitting on a meditation cushion gets you in the right frame of mind, then go for it, but please don’t think that the cushion or the particular posture does anything special to wake you up. It doesn’t.
What is needed for productive meditation is to simply strike a balance between being comfortable and alert. You should not be in pain and you should not be too comfy. You don’t want to spend the whole meditation session gritting your teeth and wishing it were over, and you also don’t want to be so relaxed that you fall asleep. I prefer to meditate on a folding beach chair that is not very cushy. It is comfortable enough that I can sit for extended periods of time, without being so comfortable that I snooze.
Pick a spot to meditate where you aren’t going to be too disturbed by what others are doing. If you are sitting in a room where everyone likes to come and watch TV, then you’re setting yourself up to veg-out with TV, not meditate. However, you do not need to go into a cave or to a mountain top. Just go to your own room. I prefer to meditate on a on my back porch (called a “lanai” in Hawaii). I can usually get a solid 20 minutes of quiet time there.
How long should I meditate?
If you have never kept a regular meditation, you’ll find it hard to sit for very long at all. Five minutes will seem like a lot of time, and you’ll be checking your watch in disbelief after three minutes. I recommend being kind to yourself and not pushing too hard (that could end up backfiring in the meditation). So if you are finding it hard to sit for longer than 10 minutes, then make 10 minutes your goal. Do 10 minutes once a day for four days. Then add five minutes and maintain that for four days. Keep adding time gradually until you are at 30 minutes. A daily 30-minute sit, accompanied by periodic longer sits should be your goal in the beginning. Once you are more advanced, you can explore lots of ways to vary sitting times and work retreats into your schedule (however, retreats are not necessary).
What to do with your mind
So you’ve got a good chair and a nice secluded spot. You are committed to sitting for at least 10 minutes and want to work up to 30. But once your butt is on the chair, what do you actually do?
First, Build Some Concentration
Concentration is the ability to put the mind on one thing, called an “object”, and leave it there. It is not Vipassana, but it is part of Vipassana, and you need it to get the meditation going. If you were to think of Vipassana as running, getting concentrated is like the warm-up. You need to get stretched and moving before you can run a few miles, especially if you are not used to running. With Vipassana, you need to get the mind steady, stable and strong before you start using it for Vipassana, and that is what concentration does.
To concentrate the mind watch the breath go in and out at one spot (you pick the spot – I watch it at the upper lip or at the tip of the nose, but you can watch it at the abdomen or anywhere), and count 10 breaths. If you can count ten breaths without getting lost, then you are building concentration pretty well, but if you are a beginner then a lot of thoughts will pop up and distract you. You may even lose count of the breaths. No problem. Just go back to 1 and start counting back up to 10. No one needs to know but you, and it is certainly not a competition, so don’t worry about it. If you notice a thought popping up but haven’t lost count, make a brief note in your mind of what the thought is. Give it a label, such as “memory” or “planning” or “fantasy.” As soon as you give it a label just get right back to counting. By giving it a label you are taking away the thought’s power to pull you into a story and get you off-track in the meditation, so practice labeling often! You will need it in the next part of the meditation.
Continue with the counting meditation until you can count up to 10 breaths without losing track, and once you have done so then continue from 10 back to 1. This practice helps to increase your mindfulness of what is occurring in the present moment by giving you instant feedback if you are being unmindful (you’ll forget what number you’re on). This practice also builds concentration by helping you to focus on one thing: the breath. Once you have been able to go up to 10 and back down to 1 several times without losing track of what number you are on, then you have sufficient concentration to begin Vipassana. (This is a bit of an arbitrary cut-off. Each person’s need for concentration practice will be a little different and I highly recommend getting with a teacher to work these things out).
Next, Make Some Notes
Now that you can keep your mind stable enough to stay with one thing for a short period of time, you are ready to use that stability to investigate reality and do Vipassana proper.
When we think of “investigating” something what normally comes to mind is asking lots of questions, and “investigating reality” can sound like a philosophical exercise, but it is not – it is the opposite. Philosophical contemplation requires discursive thinking where the mind is allowed to follow a line of questioning wherever it goes. In meditation though, you want to NOT follow your thoughts, but rather just watch them arise and drop them. This is a subtle shift, but it is fundamental. It is a very different thing to have a thought and take it up and get interested in it, and to have that same thought but simply to recognize that it is only a thought and not get caught up in it. The same with body sensations. You can experience a body sensation as something of great interest or simply watch it. Same with emotions, and the same with liking, disliking and being neutral to things. All of these things can be objectified and transformed into meditation objects that the mind simply watches without getting caught up in them. This is the essence of Vipassana: you objectify whatever you experience in the moment, watch it dispassionately, and don’t get caught up in it. By doing this, the awareness that is doing the watching becomes “disembedded” as my teacher describes it. As disembedding happens you begin to experience liberation from all the things that the body and mind are normally caught up in, what the Buddha described as “samsara.” The more effectively you disembed the more powerful the experience of liberation.
To disembed from thoughts, sensations, emotions and preferences, you only need to do one thing: note them. Simply make a mental note of the experience as it is happening. For example if you have a thought, note “thought”, if you have an itch, note “itch” and so on. It may sound too simple to really work, but it does. By making a note of what you are experiencing in the moment you are taking a clear snapshot of that split second of reality and seeing it for what it is. You are not getting caught up in the story of what is happening, you are simply watching the process of what is happening. At first it will feel a little awkward, and you may have difficulty finding the right words to note what you are experiencing, but don’t worry, keep trying. It takes some time and practice to get to a point where it feels easy and natural.
So, you’ve got the right chair, you have a place to sit, you’ve sat and counted your breath up to 10 and back to 1 several times and you are ready to begin Vipassana. You begin by noting what it is that you have been focused on thus far: the breath. Note “breathing”, or “rising” or “falling” or whatever suits you. Now that you have shifted to Vipassana you do not have to keep the mind on the breath, so let it wander, but use the breath as an anchor object and return to it periodically. You notice a sound outside, so you note “hearing”, and the mind immediately recognizes that the sound is the dog barking and an image of the dog pops into the mind and you note “image.” You love that dog, and begin experiencing warm feelings. You note “love” and as memories of the times you have played with the dog come up in your mind you note “remembering.” Then you remember that the neighbor has complained about the barking, and you note “irritation” and an image of the neighbor comes into your mind and you note “image.” You notice the breath leaving your nose and note “falling”, and then notice the feeling of the chair on your legs and note “pressure.” And so on…
This is the technique for Vipassana: note your experience as it happens in the moment. Imagine that reality is sending thoughts, sensations, and emotions to you down a conveyor belt and you have to put a post-it note on each one as it goes by, and on each post-it note is a one or two-word phrase summarizing what it is. You do not take anything off the conveyor belt, and you do not get caught up in any new shiny thing that comes down the conveyor belt. You simply do your job and note it and let it go.
Why is it called “practice?”
When we sit in meditation we are building up skills that we will use all day long. During a period of sitting meditation you are practicing concentration and practicing Vipassana, but when you get up from meditation you are no longer practicing them – you’re using them. Noting seems awkward at first and you are likely to only do it during sitting meditation, but the goal is to note your experiences throughout your day, to be more mindful, more aware and awake, during each moment of our lives. This transition, from practicing the technique “on the cushion” to using the technique “off the cushion”, is an important turning point for a meditator. When this begins to happen, first with great effort, then with more and more ease, the effect of the meditation becomes very powerful. One makes swift progress along the path, and soon insights begin to arise during wakeful moments throughout the day. If you have managed to take your sitting practice and use the skills in daily life, you are well on your way to waking up.
As a therapist and a meditation teacher, I live a surreal life. At the office I’m helping people to gain greater self-esteem, more positive self-regard, and encouraging them to see themselves as competent, empowered and strong. But when I teach meditation I strongly encourage people to see that the self is an illusion. On the outside it could seem as if I’m working against myself.
It’s the same for a lot of people who meditate. Most meditators accept that no-self is a core truth of reality. But many have also taken intro to psychology classes and have read a lot of self help books that promote healthy acceptance of the self. It is not unusual for people who regularly attend meditation retreats to also do a lot of self-development, such as adult education and travel. Clearly, in meditation circles, it can seem like we are pretty mixed-up about ourselves. It’s as if we have a love-hate relationship with the “self.”
How are we to make sense of this apparent paradox? The self is indeed an illusion, but why care for and cater to it?
The Psychological Self vs. No-Self
The self in Western psychology is viewed as that function of the mind that helps us to organize our experiences. It takes raw sense data, memories, and other cognitive functions and turns them into recognizable narratives. It is critical for everything that we do. Without a strong sense of self, we literally could not make sense of anything that happens to us.
What is fascinating is that in the western psychological view, the “self” or the “executive function” is actually a process and not really a thing. It waxes and wanes all the time, goes into the foreground and background of awareness depending on how much we need it, disappears when we sleep, is not the same as it was when we were little, much less the same as it was last year, and is even subtly different than it was last week.
So far, this should make a lot of sense to both psychologists and meditators. But here is where things get interesting: we all know that processes are not solid and change all the time, yet in this particular process there is a nagging sense that there is a solid permanent “me” hiding in that process somewhere. As if the process itself were a real solid thing in the same way that a table or chair is.
It is this unshakable sense of a solid “me” in the midst of this process that is the “self” that is referred to in the Dharma. When we talk about “no-self” in Buddhism, we are pointing to this sense of a solid self in and calling it an illusion. The process of “selfing” is real, the belief that it is somehow a permanent “me” is not.
To help understand how important this illusion is imagine that another mental process had this same illusion tied to it. Take memory for example. When we experience a memory we know that it isn’t “real” in the sense that it does not have a reality outside or our mental functioning. We know that memories come and go, are subject to change and can be forgotten. But what if every time you remembered something you assumed that the memory itself was “real” in the same way that a table or chair is real. That it was substantial and lasting. Even though you could not literally see or experience the memory with your five senses, you still had the unshakable belief that it was a real and solid thing that is supposed to last. Wouldn’t this be a set-up for frustration? Memories slip and slide out of consciousness and like every other mental function they are subject to dramatic change. If we expected them to never go away and always be there, we would constantly be in distress. This is exactly what is happening with us in terms of the self-process.
While the self-process creates narratives that organize our experiences into something recognizable, the illusion of self is inserted as a main character into all these narratives. We expect the character to be the same all the time, to never change or go away, to be “real.” And yet each moment we are running into a stark reality: the self is not as real as we believe it to be, and it certainly does not last. Over time this sense of solid “me” becomes the most salient feature of all of our experience and our greatest source of anxiety. The fact that we see this constantly changing process as a solid “me” creates endless problems for us because it sets up a never-ending fight between us and reality (and reality never loses).
What is odd is that according to psychology, this sense of a solid self is not an issue. In fact it is not really addressed at all. One part of the psychological literature explains that the self is a cognitive process like any other, and then another part of the literature goes on about protecting and promoting a healthy “self.” The fact that we are taking a process and turning it into a solid thing in our minds is simply not addressed.
In psychology, this point may have been missed because of the bias to study and theorize about pathology rather than health. The illusions and problems inherent in a “normally” functioning mind just don’t get a lot of research lab-time. So most theory in psychology works to get damaged selves back to “normal functioning.” Buddhism on the other hand, starts with the assumption that normal functioning is full of suffering caused by a false sense of self, and works to get people from a state of “normal” to enlightened.
Joining the Psychological Self with No-Self
In the book Transformations of Consciousness Jack Enlger, a psychologist and meditation teacher, attempts to reconcile the eastern and western approaches to self by proposing that these two traditions should be joined in a “spectrum model of self development.” The central idea being that the illusion of a solid self is a necessary developmental step that supports people in their learning and growth, but that once resilient mental health has been attained the direction for further growth lies in the shedding of this illusion.
What is great about this model is that it proposes that you can support someone in building their self-esteem and support another person in seeing through the illusion of self, and you are really doing the same thing: encouraging growth along the spectrum of self development, but from two different points. Further, Engler suggests that movement along the spectrum is a fairly linear process. People must begin with a strong solid self in order to move to the next developmental step of seeing it as an illusion. Engler is famous for boiling this idea down into the phrase: “you have to be somebody before you can be nobody.”
I see a lot of value in Engler’s model, but given my own experiences I would change it sometwhat. Rather than a linear model where the person goes from developing a self to seeing through the illusion of self, I would propose a dimensional model, where self development and insight develop concurrently. This can be imagined as an x/y axis with self development and insight development as separate axes.
This model makes more sense for a number of reasons. First, people who attain very high levels of insight also tend to be greatly engaged in further self development: travel, education, career changes, relationships, etc. They also tend to make the same mistakes that go with self development that people without insight make (any review of the scandals of meditation teachers should confirm this). This is something that you really wouldn’t expect with the linear model, because self development should stop when you reach that part of the spectrum where you are attaining insight into no-self.
In my personal experience, growth in insight has in no way inhibited or stopped self-development, rather it has made the process more fun and easier to understand. At the core of this dimensional model is an assumption that is somewhat different than Engler’s: seeing through the illusion of self does not make the self disappear. The self remains, it continues on in the lived experience, but it is no longer the center of experience anymore. It is put in its proper perspective, as a simple, natural process of the mind, like any other. The sense that this organizing process is a real permanent “me” diminishes with insight. Even with great insight the natural process of growth and change, of what we would call “self development” continues to unfold, but the self is no longer believed to be “real”, it is simply an experience like any other.
So, while on the surface it can seem like we in the enlightenment traditions are pretty mixed up about the self, the opposite is actually true: we are clear about who we are. That does not stop us from growing, having fun and being human. It simply gives us greater awareness of the process.
In this video Willoughby Britton PhD from Brown University gives a presentation on a very important topic: The negative effects of meditation.
I am currently collaborating with Willoughby to collect data on this phenomenon, which is often called the “Dark Night” in meditation communities. If you have experienced a Dark Night and would like to discuss it, please contact me at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Mindfulness has become a wildly popular concept. It is rare that a term from a contemplative tradition breaks into popular culture with such vividness and recognition. Self-help sections in bookstores are now chock-full of guides on mindfulness for everyday living. In psychology, an alphabet soup of therapies capitalize on mindfulness, such as MBSR, MB-CBT, ACT, and DBT. It is no longer unusual to hear business gurus describe mindfulness as a way to increase productivity, sports trainers claim it as way to get in the zone and or celebrities tout it as fashionable. Mindfulness has struck a nerve in our popular culture, and people are looking to it for answers to their problems.
Mindfulness is sometimes presented as a panacea, a magic bullet that will strike down our illusions in a moment and make us smarter, happier and stress-free. This hype around mindfulness, while bringing greater attention to meditation, also blurs mindfulness in the public imagination into a vague cure-all. This snake-oil approach to mindfulness is what I call the Myth of Mindfulness.
With so much hype about mindfulness, it would be easy to assume that everyone knows what it is. Students who are new to meditation are often not clear on what mindfulness really is, and are too embarrassed to ask, because they assumed that if everyone is talking about it, then everyone else gets it. But in reality, pop culture definitions show that it is greatly misunderstood. So sincere practitioners get confused and are too embarrassed to ask about it. It sometimes gets defined as “attention,” “focus” or “being completely in touch.” In more mystical writings I have seen it described as “presence,” “surrender” or “being in the here and now.” In the psychological and stress reduction literatures there is a focus on mindfulness as being “nonjudgmental attention” and “radical acceptance.”
This is where meditators are often left scratching their heads. If mindfulness boils down to nonjudgmental acceptance of everything, and paying full attention in the moment, then how does it liberate us from our illusions? After all, someone deeply engrossed in a rampage during a game of Grand Theft Auto has great mindfulness by that definition. Someone breaking into a house is very mindful of every little noise they make, and is totally “present”. If you stop to think about it, I’m sure you can imagine many scenarios in which people can be “mindful” and do awful or even stupid things. So for someone trying to awaken, mindfulness by some of the most popular definitions doesn’t make a lot of sense. In the context of Buddhist meditation what does mindfulness really mean?
Mindfulness in four easy pieces
The reason why the popular definitions confuse beginning meditators is because they are meant to serve totally different ends than those in meditation. In the therapy literature mindfulness is intended to help the person relax and get in touch with their feelings, which is not the focus of mindfulness in Buddhist meditation (though it is often a nice side-effect). In the self-help literature mindfulness is often intended as a way to help the ego accomplish something or get something – which is actually the opposite of what mindfulness is used for in contemplative traditions. It may be cynical to say, but celebrity versions of mindfulness are simply meant to enhance a public persona and will remain in the public eye until mindfulness has jumped the shark. If the meditator relies on pop concepts of mindfulness, they will be working against the path rather than moving forward.
Many definitions of mindfulness that are out there leave out three-fourths of the picture. They have it right when they include attention, so we can think of that as the first piece. What follows is a discussion of the other three missing pieces.
Piece 2: Mindfulness of… a meditation object
In order to pay attention, accept, or be nonjudgmental you need something to pay attention to and be nonjudgmental about. What you need is called an “object” in meditation. An “object” has a special place in the world of meditation; it is what the meditator selects as the focus and centerpiece of the meditation. Objects come in all shapes and sizes. Just about anything (and literally “no-thing”) can be an object. Objects are what the mind uses to get the meditation going and keep it going. Some traditional objects are the breath, sensations in the body, a repeated word or phrase, a question, the flow of thoughts, mental images, painted discs called kasinas, emotions and hundreds of other things. In some traditions the goal of the meditation is to maintain an awareness of the object through literally every waking moment. In specialized practices the mind is allowed to freely wander and whatever it naturally focuses on becomes an object for an instant, before it moves on to something else. In the context of practice it is important to remember that mindfulness is always “mindfulness of…” there is always an object to which the attention is applied. This crucial piece is what is often missing in pop definitions of mindfulness, as if it were a disembodied process with nothing to anchor it in reality.
Piece 3: The Quality of Attention – Falling in love with the object
But this is not the whole picture. Mindfulness is not just being present in the moment. It is not simply attention, and it is not the object either. And it is not both. It is an intimacy between the meditator and object that is unique depending on the person and object. At this point, the attitude of the meditator plays a great role in mindfulness. The meditator begins to build a relationship with the object, to learn about it, understand it, and become deeply alive to it. The meditator needs to generate curiosity, interest and affection for the object. I once heard the concentration meditation teacher Tina Rasmussen describe this process as “falling in love with the object.” This is a perfect way of describing it.
Piece 4: Remembering to remember
Adding to the complexity, and depth, of this practice-oriented view of mindfulness is that it also includes the act of remembering – the last piece of the picture. Staying focused on an object, even for a few minutes, can be difficult. There is effort involved in staying with the object, especially at first, because the mind likes to wander off. What is needed is a constant act of remembering to pay attention to the object. This act of remembering is also referred to with the shorthand: “mindfulness.” This is the work of meditation and it can be very difficult for some meditators. I have been meditating for years and I still need to put effort in each time I choose an object and “put mindfulness before” me, as the Buddha described it. That initial effort gets easier and easier as time goes on, and eventually you will even take joy in that effort, as if the act of remembering brings with it the inspiration to keep at it.
A mature practitioner will see that though mindfulness does indeed include attention to the present moment, it is so much more. Mindfulness is the gentle, recurring, building of a relationship between the mind of the meditator and an object of meditation. To build this relationship the meditator constantly guides the mind back to the object and surrenders as much attention to the object as they can. In this process, the mind becomes quiet and still, and the object starts to become more and more joyful to watch. Once the meditator begins to master mindfulness, they will find that they are wondering “…is this it? There must be more than this.” And the answer is that there is much, much more. When mindfulness increases, so do the other factors of meditation, particularly concentration, energy and investigation. At this point, two things can happen, the meditator can increase attention so much that they experience “absorption” with the object, in which the object seems to absorb the whole of experience, or the meditator can begin investigating the object to see if the teachings of the Dharma are true (check out the General Dharma page for more). What the meditator will inevitably discover though, is that mindfulness is not all that there is to meditation and awakening. Mindfulness is the foundation upon which more complex and subtle meditative techniques rest. It is the first skill a meditator learns, the one that is done throughout all of one’s practice as a supporting background, and the one that continues to need refreshing even after enlightenment.
Once the meditator has mastered mindfulness, they may be surprised by what he or she is not experiencing. The meditator finds that mindfulness does not translate into a complete lack of stress, or a solution to the problems of life. The meditator will not become more beautiful, begin to make genius business decisions or suddenly dunk baskets like a star. In fact, becoming even more sensitive and attentive in general might make you more irritable, not less! This might seem like a let down to those who have bought into the myth of mindfulness, but that is only because the myth caters to the very thing that all of pop culture caters to: the ego. In developing and truly experiencing mindfulness, the meditator cannot help but gradually shed illusions, and the biggest illusion of all is the self. This can happen in a sudden wallop of absorption, on through the gradual erosion of illusion that insight produces. Either way, if you engage in a sincere practice of mindfulness you will find that while the myth sounded nice, the reality is far far better.