The A&P

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.”

About Ron

To learn meditation, no matter where you are in the world, just send an email to: alohadharma@gmail.com

Posted on June 4, 2011, in buddhism, Dharma, Enlightenment, Meditation, Mindfulness, no-self, vipassana, Wisdom. Bookmark the permalink. 20 Comments.

  1. “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 …”

    This is good to know. I only learned about these different guises just recently.

    Lights and colors (sometimes very clear, often more subtle), involuntary movements (light or intense) (rocking back and forth, shaking of the body), rapturous feelings, sudden vibrating of the visual outside world …

    I’m glad I heard about the kriyas before I experienced them myself, because I believe this can be scary if you don’t know what’s happening.

    • Yeah that is a good point, that I think I left out – it can be scary for a lot of people. Especially if you have no idea what it is. I often forget about this potential effect of A&P because my own experience was so positive – but a lot of people are freaked out by it.

  2. Ron,

    thanks for describing the A&P in a matter-of-fact way. i seldom see these descriptions in mainstream meditation (self-help) books. there seems to be a taboo of talking about these kinds of experiences.

    in my case, i’ve recognized the A&P phenomena precisely because my teacher (Shinzen Young) described it explicitly in his audio series (The Science of Enlightenment).

    my experience of the A&P is similar to what you have described. whenever i really get deep down in meditation i plunge into a vibratory perceptual state wherein my body and everything around me are vibrating or pulsing. the best way i can describe the sensation is that i feel like a seaweed underwater. another description is that my body feels like a thin piece of cloth being blown by the wind. it has a pleasant massaging sensation to it. sometimes the vibration gets faster until it feels like electricity or champagne bubbles permeating my whole body. and for me, this is where my perception shifts into another “reality”. i shift into a lucid dream (or OOBE-like) while meditating. i usually lay down in the second-half of my meditation practice because i get more “access” to this state because my body is more relaxed as compared to sitting in half-lotus.

    i wrote about this experience on my blog and even gave it a term — Vipassana Induced Lucid Dream — see my practice journal http://www.c4chaos.com/2009/03/open-practice-vipassana-induced-lucid-dream-vild

    i understand that the Theravada school is not big on describing the dream (or bardo) realm (as compared to the Tibetan schools). my question to you is: have you experienced slipping into the lucid dream state in your practice? if yes, then how did you deal with it? any tips on how to breakthrough the appearances in the dream?

    thanks again for your no non-sense take on the dharma.

    ~C

    • Thanks for the comment man – I have not experienced lucid dreaming or any dream-like experiences during meditation myself – though I understand that they do happen to many people. I can totally see why you would lay down and “dig in” when in this state, there is so much richness and beauty to this part of the path and I recommend soaking up as much joy as you can when you are in it. The joy will sustain you in the darker times that lay ahead.

    • I know Dan Ingram mentions weird dream experiences in this phase as well, and I will have to second lots of this from back when I was in that zone. (Background, I did strict breath concentration first because I have ADHD and at first couldn’t remember to follow anything else without getting overwhelmed. Falling into jhanic absorption was quite a shock –complete with the visual lightning sign swallowing my viewpoint, plus sorta-unnerving rapturous back spasms, plus involuntary rapid blinking, plus a light show like the end of “2001”; the only reason I wasn’t scared was because youthful indiscretions made me think “okay, I remember what hallucinogens felt like.” But the sheer concentration power broke open A&P all on its own as soon as I used it to look at anything; two walking meditations later, the sky vibrated all the time and any noting practice at all would get me to where touch/taste/smell sensations were dissolving into fiery pinpricks).

      Throughout that whole near-obsessive couple of weeks that represented prime bloom of A&P for me, I couldn’t stop concentrating when I went to sleep. My concentration was so hard that it stuck through into naps and dreams, causing really crazy flickers and flashes in those in-betweeny states–all kinds of reality-shaking lucid dream near-misses. I would have whole nights that were half-sleep and half-meditation, but hard to say where the line was drawn. Unsurprisingly, it was precisely those flicker/flash patterns that took over in the daytime in the Dark Night, but by that time there was no longer the concentration-reward feedback loop that would suck me into meditation past the point of sleep.

      From my perspective, what your technique sounds like is something like getting into early jhana of some sort (the body-pervading tingle usually signals the start for me, followed by the shift into a quiet consciousness bubble), then letting the bliss take over and letting the hypnagogic aspect predominate until it runs itself–but your twist is to hold on with lucid awareness. Lots of Theravada traditionalists seem to call that kind of thing “wrong concentration,” but I think that’s partially because they assume you _won’t_ do it lucidly.

      Good luck on whatever path you’re on! I like your style.

      (And Ron, thanks for your great site, which I am totally blundering into and which really clarifies some things about Equanimity.)

      • Hi Apophatic,

        Very cool comments – you clearly have some experience. I think you have a pretty good understanding of the technique, and yep, some traditionalists would call it wrong concentration, but then again it depends on which Theravadin traditionalists you talk to. This is essentially a Mahasi technique with an emphasis on building concentration first. So it ain’t dry insight and it ain’t concentration either – you might call it a middle way. I did strict concentration for years so I’m pretty familiar with what you are describing. The stage where you are getting a nimmita is a good place to begin doing the noting because concentration is now at access level and your ready to rock. However, you can also go into jhana first, come out, then do noting (it will work either way).

        If you have any questions about equanimity, don’t hesitate to shoot me an email.

        Ron

  3. “The joy will sustain you in the darker times that lay ahead.”

    thanks, for the quick response and for the friendly warning 🙂 i hope the darker times won’t be as dark and as long.

    ~C

    • You seem to have a healthy sense of the path and ask good questions – and with SY guiding you along, the darker stuff will work itself out. My next post will be on the “Extinction” stage of the path or what many call the “Dark Night”

      • already looking forward to your next post. i hope you share some of your personal dark stuff and how you dealt with it (if you don’t mind sharing the things that can be shared publicly :)). as a new parent, i think this conscious/unconscious fear of the Dark Night is what’s holding me back from plunging head-first on the path and working diligently on stream entry.

      • “i think this conscious/unconscious fear of the Dark Night is what’s holding me back from plunging head-first on the path and working diligently on stream entry”

        Sounds familiar + the fact that kids require a lot of your attention and time. Monks don’t have to worry about this so much. 😉

  4. Ron,
    Great description! Spot on about gibberish beginning to make sense, and seeming obvious now. Love the sight, you’ve clearly put in a lot of work, thanks!

  5. It does! You’re doing good work here, so don’t sweat it!

  6. Hi Ron,

    So I’m at this point in my meditation: I sit in a chair, close my eyes, focus my attention on my exhale as it passes between over that spot above my upper lip. I count my breaths to 10 and then back down. As I’m doing this, if a sound, thought, sensation, emotion, etc. bubbles up, I use your post-it note method and it floats along, and I bring my awareness back to my breathing.

    The noise of these start to fade. By the third time I’ve counted up to 10 and back down, I’ve reached a certain clearness of awareness. My thoughts, emotions, physical feelings, sounds, etc. have given way, even my breathing. I feel like I’m under a blanket without a body and just this awareness, although I still have a connection to these if I want.

    At this point I feel like I’m at the beginnings of this A&P stage. I have what I’d describe as a floating, out of body, sensation. Bright darkness, if that makes any sense. I’ve reached this place a couple of times now, and my alarm usually sounds (I’ve been meditating for 14 minutes at a time now, maybe I need to up this to 20-30 minutes). I’ve had some peculiar sensations after opening my eyes, such as observing my body while still in this outer-body awareness.

    Aside from giving myself more time in meditation is there any more advice you have? I see you wrote this:

    “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.”

    So I’m just along for the ride at this point? Or is there something I can do to accelerate? Is there any type of direction/movement in awareness that I should be conscious of?

    I’ll keep you posted on my progress as I increase my meditation time.

    • Hey Herr Nervoso! Glad to hear from you.

      It is difficult to do a good dharma diagnosis for you without chatting with you about it for some time (I recommend that we do this via skype sometime soon). But what you are describing is certainly progress, and the fact that it is happening so soon into the sit is really good news. For beginners it can take some time to reach the stage of those interesting experiences.

      My guess (and it is a tentative one) is that you’re not quite along for the ride yet, but getting very close, so don’t let up on the effort you’re making. Definitely do increase the sitting time. You’ll find that it really helps. Another technique you can use to nudge yourself along is to use noting in daily life. So when you are off the cushion and up and around start noting sensations and thoughts and experiences just like you would in meditation. This builds a certain kind of momentum that helps a lot in the meditation.

      Let’s chat soon – this is exciting stuff!

      Ron

  7. Hello Ron,

    I have a question. Does A&P necessarily have to be a full body experience? So many seem to describe it this way. If I focus on the touch of the breath close to the nostrils, and this area ends up being experienced as rapid pulses and vibrations (including in those moments when I’m not breathing) and then various quick pulses are felt in the face, would you consider that A&P? My practice is often like that: Seems like a “facial A&P”.

    • It is hard to say without tracking what is happening over time (that’s the most reliable way to assess these things). If it isn’t it, then it is the seed of it starting to open. Continue to watch the pulses and vibrations, see what happens.

  8. Thanks Ron!
    I’m presently in intensive meditation schedule for seven days at home. Your last sentence made me realize I don’t normally continue to watch the pulses and vibrations. I go back to the breath after watching a few pulses. Today in my last sitting I decided to drop the breath entirely and really stay with the pulses. It got quite interesting. My face was showered by extremely rapid-fire but very subtle vibrations for a while.
    Thanks again and thanks for such a well organized and clear Dhamma site.

    • I did 10 days course of vipassana 2 years back.

      When I meditate, I don’t feel my body but flow of energy. During meditation, I wrap my body like what they do with mummies and I feel pain because it disturb the flow of energy. I am feeling a energy source in my body and I can break it into hundreds of small balls and feeling the sensation wherever they hit me inside my body. I am able to pierce my body with my thoughts and it pains. I can feel which part of my brain I am using and infact the exact location which is being used.

      Anybody having such experiences? Some times it’s scary.

      • Sometimes these experiences can feel scary, but they are important markers of deepening insight. Relax into it and if what you do is causing pain, investigate what that pain is and what it is that happens the instant before the pain arises.

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