Category Archives: Enlightenment
I’ve been thinking a lot about what “pragmatic dharma” is lately. This is partly because I’m trying to get my own head straight as I write about it, and partly because Jack Kornfield recently criticized it on Buddhist Geeks. Kornfield, in his usual gentle style, was mostly circumspect in his criticism, but he did say that the leaders of the pragmatic dharma movement (I’m assuming he means Kenneth Folk and Daniel Ingram) have redefined key concepts in Buddhism. He suggested that the attainments aimed for in pragmatic dharma are, in essence, not the real thing. Coming from the author of A Path with Heart, one of the most easy-going, downright cuddly dharma books out there (while also covering some deep wisdom), such direct criticism is pretty harsh stuff. He also pointed out that the idea that people could attain enlightenment in lay life, a key idea in pragmatic circles, is something that does not make a lot of sense to him and that the experiences and insights a person has in lay life are not the same, not as “transformative,” as what occurs in a more rigorous monastic setting like the Mahasi centers in Burma. He seemed to imply that he understood what goes on in those places while Kenneth and Daniel do not, and so they are redefining things out of misunderstanding. This is odd, because both Kenneth and Daniel spent significant stretches of time in the Asian centers Kornfield is referring to, in the exact same lineage as him, so something isn’t quite making sense. It really seems like a he said/she said sort of situation. I disagree with him here, so hope I didn’t just distort his point of view too much.
Given that Kenneth Folk was my teacher and I benefited immeasurably from the pragmatic approach he used, I was a bit taken aback by Kornfield’s critique. I love his work, and generally think he knows what he is talking about in such matters, so I wondered if there was a misunderstanding or clash of personalities at work rather than a substantial critique. I mean, does he really understand what pragmatic dharma is? Does anyone? What is it really? As I thought about this I came up with a handful of characteristics that I think give pragmatic dharma its shape at present.
Pragmatism – this one is so important it is right in the name. I think that it is the defining characteristic because it stands in contrast to the way the dharma is being taught in mainstream Buddhism in the west. The mainstream has key elements of the Buddhist practice, but it often seems to be more a kind of lifestyle, identity, or a spiritualized form of psychotherapy, rather than a focus on awakening itself or the working elements of practice. It strongly emphasizes uncoupling meditation from attainments, as a sort of de-stressing strategy for a harried western world. This is a very different version of Buddhism from the traditional approach, which strongly emphasizes attaining specific outcomes, like insight knowledges or stream entry, which are viewed as imminently practical. In the westernized version of Buddhism these practical attainments, and even awakening itself, seem to go out of focus and become a kind of aspirational concept rather than a reality. Kornfield actually said as much in his Buddhist Geeks interview, and what is interesting about this from a historical perspective is that he had a very important role to play in this transformation of Buddhism in the west, which is documented in the book Mindful America. This new style of dharma, unique to the west, was dubbed the “mushroom culture” by Bill Hamilton (the teacher of both Daniel Ingram, Kenneth Folk, and founder of the Dharma Seed audio library) who reportedly explained that this new western approach is like growing mushrooms, you “keep them in the dark and feed them shit.” Pragmatic dharma is a reaction against this new westernized style. It is a move to focus on what matters in the dharma – awakening and what leads to it – rather than the things that seem to be more lifestyle or therapy oriented. It is ironic that Kornfield critiques pragmatic dharma as redefining Buddhism away from the traditional meanings, because that is exactly the critique pragmatic dharma folks are making of mainstream Buddhism in the west.
Transparency – pragmatic dharma is big on breaking the taboo on talking about attainments. It means coming right out and saying so if you attained a jhana, had a cessation, or know what an insight is like because you had it first hand. The upside of this is that it invites people to see these things as real rather than fairy tales (which the mushroom culture seems to encourage). It also eliminates the weird game of spiritual marco polo that sometimes gets played when people talk around their own attainments rather than about them. The downside is that it provides an opening for people who simply want to make things up. If it becomes chic to say you attained jhana then no doubt people are going to start redefining jhana to match whatever they experience in meditation, that’s going to lead to a lot of confusion. So on this I can see the validity of the criticism. But does that mean we really need a taboo that leads people to not take these things seriously? Perhaps there can be a middle ground here. I can imagine a situation in which people are encouraged to be open about their attainments within select company. There are plenty of aspects of our lives that we keep private except with a close group, perhaps attainments can start to fall into a similar category. Not quite public, not quite taboo, but something we are open about with those who are going to understand and not overreact.
Digital – pragmatic dharma is a sangha in the cloud. There are communities, but they are mostly online communities. Message boards, forums, blogs, podcasts, and other online mediums are the spaces where ideas pop up and are explored. The Hamilton Project has a great list of pragmatic dharma sites. Buddhist Geeks has an online training program that looks fantastic, and pragmatically minded lay teachers (like myself) often teach people meditation online, via skype or other forms of live online interaction. Small groups meet in person in cities all over the world, but for the most part it is an online phenomenon. This gives it an interesting radical quality. There is something rebellious in spirit about pragmatic dharma that is found in many web-based movements. It is untethered to institutions and traditional hierarchies, and in this sense it is the dharma equivalent of Bitcoin or Wikipedia. A decentralized, crowdsourced fund of emerging wisdom and experimentation, that is unpredictable and destabilizing to established approaches. Some of the ideas that come out of it are destined to fail, like so many internet phenomena, but some are very good and deserve to be taken seriously. The internet is the perfect medium for this kind of experimentation.
Secularism – not everyone who is interested in pragmatic dharma is secular, but so many are it is difficult not to see a trend. Kenneth Folk is openly secular in his approach, eschewing the religious tradition and dogma for a more scientific and modern view of meditation as “brain training” or “contemplative fitness.” As he said in a 2013 article for Wired Magazine “All that woo-woo mystical stuff, that’s really retrograde.” This trend in pragmatic dharma makes sense because secularism is in essence a scientific perspective, and the scientific perspective is almost pragmatic by definition. From a scientific perspective things only cross the threshold from woo-woo to reality when they’ve been shown to actually work in some fundamental way. This is a version of what pragmatic dharma is doing by focusing on attainments. The moment one takes attainments seriously then one has a sensible way to gauge whether things actually work or not. The threshold is the attainment. And the test of whether something works is whether it leads one closer to the attainment or is merely, to use Kenneth’s phrase, woo-woo. A secular focus means that those aspects of practice that actually work to produce insight and awakening take primary importance, while dogma, doctrine, and cultural additions tend to fall away. This leads to pragmatic dharma’s focus on techniques, maps, or even practices outside of any tradition, while downplaying mainstream Buddhism’s lifestyle-oriented focus.
A focus on ordinary life – most people involved in pragmatic dharma fall into the category of lay practitioners, but what makes them different from lay sangha in the past is that they are not (for the most part) focused on building merit by serving a monastic community in the hope of awakening in future life. They are focused on awakening in this life. This is an idea taken whole from the vipassana revival in Asia that led to the mindfulness movement in the west (see The Birth of Insight for a history of this movement in Burma). Ledi Sayadaw, Mahasi Sayadaw, Goenka, and others spread the idea that lay people could practice Satipatthana meditation and learn Abhidhamma well enough to move along the path while also participating in ordinary life. As a result of this movement great lay teachers such as Anagarika Munindra and Dipa Ma, who were major influences on the western mindfulness movement, were able to teach and spread the idea that awakening is possible in lay life. As the vipassana movement landed in the west it brought this idea with it, and the idea that one could practice meditation and study Buddhism in lay life flourished. Yet the idea that awakening is possible in lay life is deemphasized as attainments take a back seat to a focus on de-stressing and coping with lay life effectively. Pragmatic dharma takes the idea that awakening is possible in ordinary life literally and seriously.
These five characteristics, pragmatism, transparency, a digital community, secularism, and focusing on awakening in ordinary life, are what gives pragmatic dharma its current shape. But there is something else that is worth understanding about them. They are occurring within a much larger picture that, I think, defines the disagreement that leads someone like Kornfield to criticize this upstart movement, and that is the presence of what I have come to call the “silent sangha.” Right now there is a vast group of people in the west who meditate regularly, practice mindfulness at the office, or are going through mindfulness based stress reduction courses on their doctor’s advice, who are gradually getting deeper and deeper into the world of meditation. They love meditation, but they really do not care much about Buddhism. There is a disconnect between them and a fuller understanding of meditation, beyond mindfulness, and in the coming decades the challenge for Buddhism will be to package and deliver the deeper teachings to them in a way they can understand and which will help them take the next step toward awakening. The silent sangha is a massive and paradigm-shaping group. More than any teacher, more than any blog, magazine, book or traditional institution, it is they who will shape what the dharma is going to look like in the west. What will Buddhism look like in the west when they start to take awakening seriously? If you think this is not a possibility, I’d urge you to read 10% Happier by Dan Harris and get an inside look at his transformation from skeptic, to mindfulness fan, to someone who tentatively wonders if awakening is possible in this life. I think there are millions of people just like Harris, and their minds are gradually opening to this possibility.
It is in this context that a new approach to Buddhism, a truly western approach friendly to the western worldview, is going to emerge. Will it focus on attainments and awakening in this life? Or will it remain lifestyle and therapy oriented? Will it find a way to combine the two? What will western Buddhism become once the silent sangha collectively decides to go deeper? These are the big questions that are the backdrop for the disagreement that Kornfield is having with pragmatic dharma, and that pragmatic dharma is having with mainstream Buddhism. It isn’t really about what Buddhism from Asia is, or whether particular claims about attainments are true or not, it is really about what western Buddhism is going to become. In this context these disagreements seem healthy and vital rather than divisive or harsh. They are a sign that bigger trends are on the move and growth is occurring.
I’m curious to see where it all goes.
Enlightenment is real. It is a real as anything else in life. It is real like love is real. It is real like the color blue is real. But there is something tricky about it – it is what scientists call “qualia,” that is, it is something that cannot be measured, quantified, or understood through the standard tools of science. But that may be changing, because science is changing.
Along with being real, enlightenment is very mysterious. It is very difficult to understand, and in a fundamental way, it cannot be understood rationally. Like any qualia, it has to be experienced to be known. And when something is both real and mysterious it won’t be long before science becomes curious about it, no matter how difficult it is to study.
In the past when something was both real and mysterious, we used the science of ages past to understand it. And that usually meant we worshipped it. That is what happened with enlightenment. We built temples to it, bowed down to it, erected monuments in our minds and in our hearts to it, and encased it layers of the best cutting-edge thinking available at the time – which we now call superstition. While these things are good at preservation, they are terrible at changing with better information. They ossify the ignorance as well as the truth. Luckily, within most enlightenment traditions, this is widely understood and so tradition is simultaneously respected and chided by the great teachers. Enlightenment became entangled with religion, with identity, and with belief a long time ago and that is not going to change anytime soon. But things are going to change. Call me optimistic. Call me crazy. But things seem to be changing gradually, and it could be that we are about to see a true science of enlightenment.
Why do I think this? There are a few reasons. The ballooning funding for meditation research, both in the NIH and from private foundations is one reason. The increasing number of scientists, industry and tech leaders, and ordinary people who are experiencing enlightenment for themselves (and becoming vocal about it) is another. But mostly it comes down to whether scientists themselves are serious about this idea, and it seems like that may be happening. For the first time in history, many people with serious funding and institutional resources are seriously considering whether enlightenment can be studied scientifically, and questions about whether such a thing is possible invites curiosity rather than opprobrium at scientific conferences. Some tentative studies are breaking new ground, and because enlightenment is real, they are finding something. But the quality of the research has not been very good. The fact that they are finding something is a clue as to what could happen next. As the quality improves and the questions become more sophisticated, the results of such research will do the same thing Galileo’s telescope did for our understanding of the world – confirm a vaster reality while overturning centuries of dogma. And that is something scientists love to do. If it begins to happen we may see a boom in the study of topics that were once thought off-limits to science – indeed we may already be seeing it.
A century from now people may look back and realize that ours was a time when the broader culture had the first inklings that enlightenment just might be real. When we began the slow exit from a long dark age, a time when we knew very little about our most fundamental nature, and entered a time when a reasonable, clear-headed view of spiritual enlightenment became as accessible as any other kind of knowledge. When people began to take it as seriously as some of the stranger ideas in psychology or physics. A time may be coming when people will have as much respect and awe for brain scans of enlightened minds as they have for Hubble deep field images. But I suspect getting there will not be easy. There will be a lot of arguing, and likely some very unenlightened behavior. We are already seeing the beginnings of this change, as some traditionalists deride the secularisation of Buddhist ideas, and others, like the Dalai Lama, are embracing the change. This is only the beginning of a much larger debate that we will be having in the coming decades.
We are nearly there. I’m keeping my fingers crossed that my grandkids will be able to enroll in Awakening 101 in their freshman year of college. Until then, we should all keep urging serious people to take enlightenment seriously.
The takeaway: This is a high-level dharma book about a complex topic that baffles many who study it. The book is a good one for those who want to get serious about studying the doctrine of dependent arising.
In 2000 I started attending a Sri Lankan Buddhist Vihara in Washington D.C., where I learned to meditate and also discovered the joy of Sri Lankan Buddhist books. I was a naive american who bought most of his books from Borders, and at the vihara’s little bookshop I discovered a whole new world of Buddhist thought and philosophy that was much more compelling than anything I encountered before. Eventually I travelled to Sri Lanka, stayed in meditation centers there, and returned with a pretty serious meditation practice – and a suitcase full of books. These were the kinds of books that wouldn’t make the Oprah book club, or crack any bestseller lists. They were never meant to. They were the hardest of the hardcore dharma, and I learned a lot from them. This experience taught me something about modern Buddhist culture that everyone should know, the best writing on Buddhism is not happening in the states, or anywhere in the west. The best books, even in english, come out of Buddhist countries. Within Sri Lanka there are many independent presses that regularly put out some the best books on Buddhism. These books, often written by monks or advanced lay meditators, specialize in the deepest and most perplexing aspects of Buddhist philosophy and meditation. For those who like (or need) such things, these books are absolute treasures. They are traded among friends and cherished, and given as gifts to build merit and show respect to the recipient. Palitha Mapatuna’s new book Dependent Arising, available from The Buddhist Cultural Centre in Sri Lanka, falls squarely in that category.
Dependent Arising is just like it’s name – clear and to the point. Mapatuna wastes no time dressing up the ideas or watering them down, but instead he lays out the case for this particular aspect of the Buddha’s teaching like a professor laying out a geometric proof, step by patient step. Keeping up with him can be a little difficult, and at times I found myself rereading sections several times in order to make sure I understood before moving on. This is important, because each point builds on the next, and so if you dive into this book I would advise taking your time. It is not a long book, but it is information-rich. Have some scratch paper handy too. At times the only way I could follow the logic was to literally diagram it out for myself on paper. Mapatuna takes on a complicated topic here, and he clearly assumes that the reader is ready to handle it’s deepest complexities.
For those unfamiliar with the doctrine of dependent arising (or if, like me, you need a refresher), it is the Buddha’s most complete expression of why things are the way they are. It shows how, in a chain of linked phenomena, hooked together like train cars rolling down the track of time, past lives connect to this present moment, and how we end up in so much distress.
A couple of big points to keep in mind about dependent arising. First, it is not a chain of cause and effect, but rather a chain of interdependence. The links in the chain are not caused by the preceding links, but rather depend on them, the same way the leg of a table depends on all the others to remain standing. Second, and this is the biggest issue I hear about from many westerners, this doctrine goes explicitly into past and future lives. For some, this has led them to dismiss it out of hand. That would be a big mistake. Even if you don’t believe in past lives you can still find use in dependent arising, because many of the links occur in this very instant. You can observe them happening even as you read this. This model represents one of the most nuanced examinations of our present-moment psychology to come out of Buddhism.
Here are the 12 links summed up as I understand them (Mapatuna does a much better job of it in his book):
- Ignorance – in our past and present lives we mistake things that cause us unhappiness for things that make us happy. This links up to:
- Determinants – because we didn’t know better (in past lives and in this one) we build a momentum with “determinants,” which are things like intentions and volitions, that keeps the mind running after the things that make us unhappy. This momentum links up to:
- Consciousness – a primitive form of raw consciousness, carried by the momentum of past volitions, jumps from one life to the next, linking to:
- Mind and Matter – In this model we’ve just arrived in the here-and-now and are in the world that everyone, Buddhist or not, can agree exists. The raw stuff of our subjective experience. These two basic elements then link to:
- The six senses – Don’t be thrown by “six” senses, Buddhists include the mind as a sense along with sight, touch, hearing, etc. With the link of mind and matter, along with the six senses, the next link is:
- Contact – Mind and matter and the six senses come in contact. For those who are heavy solipsists and think that Buddhism is an expression of that, think again. The Buddha is clearly demarcating internal and external phenomena here, otherwise “contact” would be meaningless. This link is the world of flowing experiences you are in right this second. Thoughts, feelings, moods, sensations and other normal experiences are in this part of the model, which then links up to:
- Feeling – All of these flowing phenomena are automatically put through a lighting-fast sorting process which puts them into one of three basic categories: we like it, don’t like it, or don’t care. This is usually expressed as “pleasant, unpleasant, and neutral.” Feeling then links up to:
- Craving – Once something is sorted into one of the three baskets we want more of it, less of it, or ignore it. This is the part of the model that is most critical for insight practice, because up until this point things were happening so quickly and automatically that we could not really do more than observe, but at this critical link we can actually get to work. There is a subtle pulling toward pleasant feelings, pushing away of unpleasant feelings, and this push and pull often goes on at the edge of awareness. With awareness of what is happening to us we can see this craving as it occurs, put it front and center in our minds, and make a deliberate choice about how to respond, a lot of the practice has to do with how we make these choices. Craving links up to:
- Grasping/Taking up – this is action. In Buddhist philosophy this is where new karma is made. Grasping is usually habitual and automatic. It happens all the time at a very subtle level, driving our behavior. But if we are watching craving closely and not reacting automatically, we can hold off on the grasping. Grasping links up to:
- Becoming/being – The model exits the immediate world that both Buddhists and non-Buddhists can agree on, and posits that grasping links up to the creation of future experiences and outcomes, including future lifetimes. Becoming is the link that connects what we do here and now to our next life. Becoming links to:
- Birth – you are born again.
- Aging and death – Because you are born again you go through the same painful struggles again.
These are the spokes on the wheel of samsara, going round and round, and Mapatuna’s reflection on it in Dependent Arising points out how rich this model really is. It fits perfectly with the other aspects of the teaching, such as the four noble truths, the five aggregates, and most of the other Buddhist descriptions of our condition. That makes sense, because this model is (according to the Pali texts) the very thing that the Buddha realized under the Bodhi tree on the night of his enlightenment, discerning the links in the first watch of night, followed by the links in reverse order in the second. To understand this model is to grasp something crucial about what the Buddha experienced on the night of his enlightenment, but understanding it isn’t easy. Every time it seems clear, another mystery about it comes into view. Indeed, when Ananda told the Buddha that he understood it the Buddha admonished him to think again, saying that he had not really grasped its profundity.
If you want to grasp it, this book would be a good support to your efforts. I’d recommend this book if you are already familiar with the model of dependent arising, know its importance, and are ready to get serious about understanding it. Mapatuna’s particular skill in this book is not merely describing the links, but showing how they link together, and what evidence shows those connections. It is a book for a serious reader, ready to grapple with some profound ideas.
“The Buddhist revolution has not arrived yet, because no one realizes how radical the Buddha was talking…”
If you don’t know who Kenneth Folk is, do yourself a favor and watch this. He is my old teacher and I continue to learn from him every time he talks. In this fascinating interview he offers a secular perspective on awakening. The host, Rick Archer, has a background in nonduality and Kenneth’s approach is very different for him. So the questions are right to the point and really great.
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.
Something weird is happening in the liberal, interested-in-spirituallity-and-enlightenment world. An in-group purge is occurring that is so ugly and vitriolic that seeing it occur publicly is a bit like seeing a fistfight at a yoga studio. A gathering mob of angry intellectuals and left-leaning public figures is encircling Sam Harris and attacking him with a viciousness rarely seen among progressives.
This got my attention because Harris recently wrote Waking Up, a book about Buddhist meditation and Harris’s own realization of non-self through Dzogchen practice. To say I was interested in this book would be an understatement. I’d always felt that of the new atheists, there was something different about Harris. His style intimates an inner contentment that I only see among people who have experienced deep transformation through meditation. So when a friend gifted me a copy of Waking Up and asked that I share my thoughts, I was excited to do so.
But then Ben Affleck happened.
When Harris made an appearance on Real Time with Bill Maher to discuss Waking Up Affleck was also at the table, and was clearly fuming with hatred for Harris. I never got to hear Harris discuss meditation because Affleck began attacking him before he had the chance. He called Harris a racist for his open (and very strident) criticism of Islam. When Harris calmly responded, explaining that Islam is not a race, Affleck’s anger, now mixed with confusion, only became worse. Everyone watching, including me, realized that they had seen something unscripted and very strange.
But what followed in the days and weeks after Harris was Affleck-ted was even stranger. Religious scholars and public figures began piling on the insults and attacks, and the attacks occurred with such vitriol that it was hard to see this as a debate over ideas. It was a character assassination. A mob of bloggers and celebrities gathered to bring the fear of God to Harris for what essentially amounted to thought crimes.
The event reminded me of something I once witnessed as a child. A boy in my second-grade class who was outspoken and a bit of loner, but who was undoubtedly brilliant, had a habit of hurting people’s feelings with his honesty. He won all the spelling bees and science fairs, got the best grades, and even corrected the teacher on more than one occasion in front of the class. One spring day during recess the most popular, most well-liked, and best-looking kid in the school punched him in the mouth for “smarting-off.” What stands out in my memory is what happened next. The nerdy kids emerged from the gathered crowd and took turns punching him while he lay curled up in a ball. Later, my best friend in grade school called it “the day of the nerd-swarm.” It was primal and startling. The rumor mill ground to an uncharacteristic halt for a day, and no one talked about what happened after school. I think we all felt ashamed.
What is happening with Harris is the grown up version of the day of the nerd swarm. Instead of recess it is Real Time, instead of the popular kid it is Affleck, and instead of the teachers pets and grammer geeks it is progressive religious scholars and liberal pundits. Sam Harris is guilty of the crime of sharing his honest insights whether they hurt others feelings or not, and it is clear that there has been a resentment building against him among the intelligentsia. They are seizing the moment to attack.
Leading the swarm is Reza Aslan. Aslan and Harris, I’ve recently discovered, have a history. They had public debates about Harris’s books on atheism and what stands out about the debates is that Aslan is soundly trounced in all of them. Shortly after Harris’s appearance on Real Time Aslan published an op-ed in the New York Times that, without mentioning Harris, argued against him by asserting that criticisms of Islam, or any religion, do indeed amount to a variety of racist hate because religions are not just ideas, they are identities. And besides, he argues, people believe what they want regardless of their religion.
And this is where I decided to hold off on reviewing Harris’s book and write something of my own to defend him. Not that he needs help from someone like me, but because the things Aslan and others are saying are so egregiously wrong that their views could truly harm people. As my grandpa once said “you’ve got to have a lot of education to be that wrong.” These ideas have a direct bearing on awakening. And I would argue that what it means to be liberated from illusion has a lot to do with how seriously one takes propositions like Aslan’s.
While attempting to brand Harris a racist Aslan seems unaware that he is pointing out the very thing that makes ideologies, all ideologies whether they include the supernatural or not, toxic beyond imagining: they take the healthy psychological process of identity formation and hack it like a computer virus.
One does not just think that it is true that Jesus is the son of the creator of the universe, one becomes a “Christian.” One does not merely think that Mohamed met with an angel, one becomes a “Muslim.” One does not just believe that the proletariate will eventually seize the means of production, one becomes a “Communist.” And in my own little corner of the world, one does not just believe that the Buddha discovered an exit from being born over and over again, had psychic powers or was omniscient, one becomes a “Buddhist.”
If we step back and consider what is occurring here, it is startling. Some ideas, no matter how far outside reality they venture, thrive and spread by convincing those that take the leap of faith and believe them that the thinker has now become the thought. You don’t just think an idea is an accurate reflection of reality, you become the idea. When this happens the idea is sheltered from criticism because to criticize the idea is to attack the person. The person’s sense of identity becomes the idea’s armor from rational inquiry.
It is not overstating the case to say that if we used the same critical faculties to evaluate such claims that we use to choose car insurance, all superstitious and utopian ideologies would disappear in a day. But because these kinds of ideas disrupt the process of identity-formation, taking it over, we refrain from saying, or even thinking, the obvious to avoid offending others or frightening ourselves.
Imagine if we did this with other claims about reality. Is there anyone on earth who has become a “Germian” after accepting the germ-theory of disease? Who changes their identity to become a “Higgsian” after accepting the existence of the Higgs Boson? Where are the converts to Heliocentrism handing out leaflets at the bus stations?
In every other part of our lives we intuitively understand that what we think is true about the nature of reality and who we are as a person are not the same thing. When we operate in this way our internal world is governed by a mix of love and reason. Love in that we recognize in others something real in the here-and-now that is beyond the boundaries of any in-group ideology, reason in that our thoughts are no longer the source of our well being, so we can be free to let them go if they are not true.
But there is a special class of ideas that masquerade as identities, and when we allow them to govern who we are our world is also governed by irrationality of the highest order. It is no coincidence that the ideologies that take over the sense of self are also the most disconsonant with our lived reality. By forcing us to choose the ideology over reality, moment-to-moment, we engage in what psychologists like me call “effort justification”, and reinforce the acquired sense of self. That process is lauded as a virtue by folks like Aslan, who seems oblivious to the terrible nature of the very thing he expertly describes. This process of ideological identity-theft is the reason why Affleck became so confused when Harris pointed out that Islam is not a race. In Affleck’s mind, they are the same thing, and that is exactly how such ideas remain so potent and immune from rational critique.
The truth is this: we are not what we think. We never were. This instant it is possible to be in the world just as you are without being anything in particular except aware. All you have to do is see that you are not what you believe. You simply are. That’s it. To experience this directly and rest in it is to find happiness untouched by the contents of the mind. The closest thing in life people experience to it is being in love.
From a position of just being, without beliefs, it is much easier to think critically about whether ideas are really true. Because you no longer have a dog in the fight, if they are not true, that’s fine. If they are, that’s fine. This is one of the marks of awakening: the contents of the mind are no longer identified with that which holds them.
So, I hope it isn’t taken the wrong way when I say this, but I sincerely hope that Harris continues offending people. By attacking the ideologies that are masquerading as identities, he is, in his own brilliant way, bringing folks a little closer to awakening. And while I didn’t get the chance to hear him discuss his book, I think I got the chance to see him put his realization into service.
A student recently asked about the relationship between psychedelics and awakening. “It’s kind of like…” I thought for a moment, searching for the right analogy and coming up short. But as so often happens in these situations, the next thing out of my mouth surprised us both, “it’s like …eating pizza in Siberia.”
Of course, that one needed some explaining.
Weirdly enough, I once lived in Siberia. I won’t bore you with the details of how I got there or what I was up to, but I was in a small town near the center of Siberia for close to a year.
In a shopping plaza in the center of town was a pizzeria, which promised authentic New York style pizza. It even had a statue of Liberty painted on the sign out front. This was before Pizza Hut had ventured beyond Moscow into the frozen interior, but there were lots of Pizza Hut commercials on TV. No one in town really knew what pizza was supposed to taste like, but they did know what it was supposed to look like, and everyone was very curious to try it. Being the token American in town, I had to make a visit. But when I got my first slice I immediately realized something was amiss. For one thing, it had corn on it. Corn.
But it wasn’t until I tasted it that I realized what I was really eating. And it wasn’t pizza. It was an undercooked piece of dumpling dough with barbecue sauce. It was topped with fresh dill and salty cheese. After months in the cold of Siberia, far from home, I was eager to have some pizza. It was so disappointing.
But it occurred to me that I was disappointed only because I knew what pizza was supposed to taste like.
As I looked around the restaurant I saw lots of Russians hungrily eating the pizza, nodding to each other, and seemingly enjoying it. I realized that if you’ve never had pizza before, this stuff might not taste so bad. It might be kind of interesting. Maybe even pretty good if you have no expectations on your first bite.
It’s kind of like that with psychedelics and awakening. You’re told that a psychedelic experience is a kind of awakening to reality, and naturally you’re curious. You try it and get a wild light show, energy fluxing through the body, and a radical shift in perspective. It seems to match what the texts describe as awakening. And it’s really interesting because it is so different from the normal way the mind usually functions. If you don’t know what awakening is, then this can seem like the real thing. You may even take up a meditation practice to try and replicate the experience.
But if you keep meditating long enough you’ll find that psychedelic experiences aren’t the same thing as awakening. They just look like it. It’s like eating pizza in Siberia.
None of this is said to diminish anyone’s good time or bash psychedelics. If they inspire you, that’s awesome. I’ve heard from far too many people about how their first big psychedelic experience inspired them to meditate to dismiss them out of hand, and I’ve had enough wonderful trips of my own to know their value. Some meditation teachers discuss their own psychedelic experiences openly and compare the two experiences favorably. I get that. I see the connection. But it is important not to overlook the differences as well, and they are significant.
The first difference is that awakening is not a state. Tripping comes and goes. So its a state. Awakening is not a state. The second is that awakening is a livable experience. That is, it is not like tripping for the rest of your life. You can pay your bills, do your taxes, raise your kids, do your job, and lots of other normal activities from a place of awakening. Not so with psychedelics, which pretty much bring a halt to all normal functioning. Additionally, when psychedelics go bad they bring out deep fear and ugly visions. By the time awakening occurs, those difficulties have been outgrown and left behind.
Finally and most important, awakening is seeing mundane life, the ordinary boring details of our humdrum lives, as they really are, and not wanting it any other way. It is a contentment that allows the mundane to become exquisite. Normalcy does not go away. The ordinary is still ordinary. But one’s contentment and love for being itself brings a sweetness to normal life that no drug ever could.
So have fun. Enjoy the thrill. Get inspired. But understand that when you come home for real, it feels different than any state may have led you to believe.
The times they are a changin’. Well, at least the New York Times.
The national paper of record recently posted an op-ed piece by Jeff Warren describing an intense pragmatic dharma retreat that he took with Daniel Ingram. During the retreat he was shooting for stream entry and describes in detail how the stages of insight unfolded for him, and Dr. Ingram’s advice along the way. Well worth a read:
The article can be read here.
Months ago someone asked me about the relationship between parenting and meditation. At the time I really couldn’t say much about it. Yesterday, while changing the fourth poopy diaper of the day, I realized that these days I do see some connections between practice and parenting.
First, a little context. I became a new father in September 2010. So at the time of writing this, my son is just over a year old. Awakening finally happened not long after becoming a new dad, when the kiddo was just starting to transition from being a jelly roll of unfocused gazes and impolite noises, to an engaging little human that reached out when you approached and giggled when kissed. Wonderful times. It felt like we were both waking up at the same time.
Before becoming a parent, I was both worried and optimistic as to how this would impact practice. On one hand I thought that having a kid was going to be a big drag on the process. After all, how long can I really sit each day with a baby frantically trying to stick his fingers into electrical outlets and pull down the drapes? Wouldn’t most of my time be spent running interference? On the other hand, I had some idealistic notions about awakening (and as it turns out, about kids). Wouldn’t it be like having a little bodhisattva around? My own personal little bundle of enlightenment, who could teach me a thing or two? The truth, as is always the case, is that everything that my mind projected onto both parenthood and awakening missed the mark entirely. If meditation has taught me one thing about my mind, it’s that whatever it tells me about the future should pretty much be ignored.
Parenting has turned out to be, so far, mostly a cross between being a 24-hour in-home care nurse and a really bad lounge act. Changing diapers, washing off mystery gunk, taking temperatures, spoon feeding and taking him to appointments are done while also being the primary source of entertainment and socialization, which for me means playing music horribly and singing even worse, making funny faces and slapstick humor of the eye-crossing and tumbling on the floor variety. The audience can be pretty tough on some days too.
As time has gone on, I’ve seen how being a parent can and does intersect with meditation and the overall practice of working toward enlightenment. The parallels can actually be pretty striking. The first connection that has become absolutely clear is that the techniques that one masters in order to meditate are central to being a halfway functional parent. Learning to meditate means being 100% accepting of whatever comes up in the moment. For example, you’re sitting and suddenly there is back pain, or a horrible memory, or inexplicable fear. In meditation you learn over time to work with these things it instead of working against them; you try to understand them and get insight into them, instead of trying to get rid of them or change them. You hold the suffering in awareness, acknowledge it, and give it all of your attention compassionately without judgment. I shouldn’t have been, but I was pleasantly surprised to discover that this is actually a core skill of parenting too, so I came to it with a home-court advantage. In some ways, parenting felt really familiar.
Unfortunately, babies are not little bundles of enlightenment. They, just like everyone else, come with suffering built-in. The only difference between them and everyone else is that they don’t know how to cope with it, so it can completely dominate their experience. What would be a small disappointment to an adult is a major heartbreak for a baby, and what is mildly irritating to most of us is an instance of absolute rage. Babies are not “pure” in the sense that they are in a perfect state all the time, but they are pure in the sense that they fully express their state at each moment. This can be pretty illuminating about the overall human condition.
Babies suffer a lot. They have a hard time of it many days. Worse, they have no idea of what to do about it, and even worse than that, they have no sense of a future, meaning that whatever they experience now may as well be forever. For these reasons, as the parent your primary job is to be the emotional regulation system for your baby. Sometimes this is as concrete as changing a diaper when the baby is uncomfortable, feeding him when he’s hungry, or entertaining him when he’s bored. But often what is wrong cannot be changed. A parent cannot stop the process of teething, make a shot not hurt, or make it suddenly easy to fall asleep when your brain won’t slow down. When this is the case, you just have to hold the baby and provide compassion. Just being a witness to the suffering, acknowledging it, being with it fully and watching as it passes away is the job that needs to be done, and doing it well can be really hard because being a parent means wanting to fix everything. Letting go of that and just being with things as they are can be the hardest job – and it’s a job that meditators have the perfect training for.
Of course, the baby isn’t the only one suffering. Being a parent is really hard some days. You just want to go out and see a movie on your own, and really wish there was something like a get out of diaper-changing free card that you could use when he was sick. The emotions that parents feel most are love, frustration, confusion, exhaustion and worry. As you can see, it’s four-fifths suffering (but that one-fifth really makes up for it). What is called for most in parenting is a cocktail of patience, compassion and acceptance.
I’m discovering that a good parent can soothe their baby’s suffering, but a great parent can remain compassionate to the baby’s suffering and their own at the same time when soothing isn’t possible. A wise parent can see that their own suffering and the kid’s suffering is not at all different and requires the same response: attention, compassion and understanding that even the difficult moments are still important and deserve all you have to give. Leaning into the hard moments, the difficult times, and fully experiencing them allows the experience to transform from suffering to growth and insight. If I have any advice to give to parents on the path it is this: don’t let the hard times pass you by, they’re rough and difficult, but they are where you sharpen your meditation skills and become a stellar parent at the same time.
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
People meditate for a lot of reasons. I’ve heard people explain that they meditate to be a “better person”, or as a kind of low-cost alternative to therapy, or simply to relax. However, there is a big difference between what is often promoted as meditation and real insight meditation. Many versions of meditation that are taught are not much more than mystical versions of self-soothing. However, if you learn to do insight meditation properly you will find that there is a huge difference between what we are told meditation is for and what it is actually like. We find that with true insight meditation we do not necessarily become a better person and it is likely that we will become a lot less relaxed (at least for a time).
With real insight meditation you will find yourself identifying less and less with the very idea of being a “better” person. All those personal goals that might have prompted you to meditate in the first place will start to ring hollow. If you do the technique properly you will indeed relax somewhat at first, and this a great thing. However, this will be a prelude to moving along the progress of insight and right into what St. John of the Cross called the “Dark Night.”
The Downside of Meditation – What you need to know
The “Dark Night” in Christianity, also known as “the knowledge of suffering” in Buddhism, is a stage in which the meditator experiences “misery”, “fear” and “desire for deliverance.” During this part of the path you are likely to be a pretty unhappy camper, and for those living with you, they’ll likely wonder why on earth you chose to meditate in the first place. As my wife once diplomatically explained, living with a meditator in the midst of the Dark Night “is the opposite of fun.” Not only will you not be a better person or more relaxed, you may seem a lot worse off than before!
So if good meditation leads to misery, makes you cranky and disconnects you from what you once thought were valuable personal goals, why would anyone ever do it?
Enlightenment: The purpose of meditation
Forget what you have been told about meditation making you more relaxed, less irritable, or a better person. Forget about any goal related to “me” in meditation. Because ultimately, the reason to meditate is to outgrow all of that, and completely let go of “me.” The reason to meditate is to become enlightened.
Enlightenment is the completion of the process that is started when one begins to meditate seriously. Enlightenment happens when the process of waking up to the truth of non-self becomes irreversible. It is the shift from being all-consumed by the drama of a “self” to the realization that the self and all its problems and fantasies were never real in the first place. Being a better person? As insight deepens the idea of becoming a better self seems a bit laughable. After all, who becomes better?
Making a Fully Informed Choice
Why would you, a self, want to wake up? What is the benefit of enlightenment? A lot of the sales-pitches of meditation out there make it sound like a great thing for the self: being more relaxed and a better “me”, who wouldn’t want that? But now that you know that the sales-pitch is essentially BS, you have to ask yourself, why meditate? The path is not easy. Like any other serious goal in life – getting a college degree, running a marathon, raising a family – it is a lot of work and not always a lot of fun. The truth is that, to a “self,” there really is no tangible benefit at all. From the perspective of the self it just makes no sense at all to wake up, in the same way that it makes no sense to the dreamer to get out of bed. The dream is awfully interesting, so why wake up?
If you are not interested in waking up – then don’t. If you simply cannot understand why anyone would ever want to see the self as a fiction, do not start meditating. This might seem like radical advice, but it really isn’t. If you have not started down the path of awakening in earnest, and you really aren’t interested in enlightenment, I’d recommend not getting started at all.
The reason that I give this advice is because there is what I would call a “point of no return” on the path, where the meditator has to finish. Unfortunately, this point comes right at the Dark Night, and if you don’t finish the path you remain stuck in the Dark Night. That sucks. You cannot go back to sleep, so to speak, and yet you aren’t fully awake. You know something is wrong, and feel terribly out of sync with reality. If you stop meditating at this point you stop making progress and stay in misery.
The reason to meditate that most experienced meditators give is “to end suffering.” And though it is correct to understand this to mean the suffering of life itself, there is also a deeper meaning: that the reason to meditate is to end the suffering inherent in the path itself. Advanced practitioners want to awaken because they are tired of being on the path, tired of being stuck in the twilight between awake and asleep. If you aren’t prepared to work your way through that twilight, don’t begin the path, and do not take up a meditation practice.
So Why Do It?
Ultimately, the answer to the question “why meditate?” is “I don’t know.” That is meant very literally. The “I” cannot know.
Even though the sense of “I” doesn’t know why, there is still a drive that impels some people to meditate. It is an undercurrent in your life that nags at you that is much deeper than the “I.” You may not fully understand what it is, and you will likely express it in all kinds of ways, but when you hear that there is a way to wake up from the dream of the self, you will be intrigued.
If you are one of these people, you just know it. For you, the reason to practice is because you are driven to do so. You’ve likely tried to be a “better person” and that seems empty. Trying to relax seems like a temporary fix to a problem with no name. The drive that moves you to meditate is the same one that has moved thousands of enlightened folks over centuries: you know something isn’t right but you can’t quite put your finger on it.
This is what is meant by the first noble truth of Buddhism; that life is “suffering.” More accurately, the dream called “me” is dissatisfying. If you feel that in your heart, if you are tired of being in the dream, you don’t need any more reason than that to meditate.