Category Archives: no-self
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.
In 1976 Richard Dawkins published The Selfish Gene, a book in which he proposed that as human beings we are not the pinnacle of the natural world (an idea to which we are comically susceptible) but instead are merely hosts for genes, who are actually in charge. These genes have employed us as their clever and self-obsessed instruments to one purpose: to copy themselves into immortality. The theory was a Copernican-style displacement of our collective egos, and while it is a commonly accepted idea today, Dawkins’ gene-centered view of evolution opened many minds at the time and created new conversations about what it means to be human. Oddly, one of the most powerful ideas in the book is just a bit of an afterthought toward the end. In a chapter called “Memes: the new replicators,” he proposed that another part our nature behaves exactly like genes: beliefs. Dawkins used the term “cultural unit of information” rather than “belief” and he called these self-replicating units “memes” (from the greek “mimeme,” or “imitator”). Today, memes are usually thought of as pictures of cats with punch-lines written beneath them. However, the serious study of memes emerged as a new body of theory and speculation in the past twenty years. As a discipline it had its coming out party in the 1990s with the first issue of the Journal of Memetics – Evolutionary Models of Information Transmission.
The term “meme” is not used as often as it once was, probably because of all those pictures of kitties deadpanning on the internet, but the core concept, that mental constructs are essentially self-replicating agents, has not diminished with time. In fact, it has shown remarkable staying power for such a radical idea. A number of influencial variants on meme theory have arrived on the scene in the past couple of decades, including philosopher Daniel Dennet’s “rough drafts” theory proposed in his book Consciousness Explained, and psychologist Susan Blackmore’s “memeplexes” in her book The Meme Machine. What all the differing theories suggest is that, just as with genes, we are merely the self-obsessed hosts of beliefs that have us unwittingly convinced of our primacy. We think we are using beliefs to navigate the world and thrive, but actually they are using us, or to be more accurate, it is an exchange. To get a glimmer of how profound is this exchange, and how favorable it is for us, think about what the belief in germ theory has done for your longevity. The radical idea that beliefs use us as much as we use them, and those that help us are helped by us, is slowly gaining ground in mainstream science. However, it is still on the sidelines. It is my guess that once we can track and study beliefs in the same way we do genes, through direct observation, then the field will likely explode into a fertile ground for new discovery. By then we will likely call them something other than “memes.” After all, we’ll want to leave something for all those adorable cats.
What Dawkins and some of his colleagues do not delve into (and which meditators face each day) is an existential correlate of meme theory: if my beliefs are using me and I’m using them, then what am I? Taking meme theory seriously, even a little, leaves one in a very uncomfortable position in this regard. Most of us no longer create an identity exclusively based on familial, tribal, city, state or career affiliations. However, most of us do make an unconscious assumption that what we believe in, have faith in, or “stand for” is actually us. We think that some deep version of our thoughts are who we are. Meme theory proposes that this is a tremendous (if adaptive) mistake. Consider the following thought experiment. Someone asks you who you really are. They insist it must be the “real you” beyond what can be seen by other people. It can’t just be something you do or a role you have in relation to others. Who are you in your deepest self? If you are like most people then you would likely answer this question with a worldview, moral code, or religion. In other words, with a belief. I’ve done this experiment with friends, and most respond along the lines of “I am a Buddhist,” “I am an artist,” or “I am an environmentalist.” While we think that these are the deepest expressions of ourselves, meme theory proposes the disconcerting notion that this cannot be the case. Instead, our beliefs have done something remarkable (and a bit crazy if you consider it), they have convinced us that we are them. Through a clever trick that is not fully understood, we not only accept some beliefs to be true, we assume that they are us. This is the default position of the mind, and it is the most comfortable state for us. Therefore, if you pause and consider the implications of meme theory, you should start to feel a bit anxious. If that last bastion of the “real me, deep down” is seen as just another natural process of the mind, then what is left to be me? The psychologist and popular author Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi saw this connection early on in the 1990s when he tied meme theory directly to the sense of self in his provocative book The Evolving Self. This connection between what we think and what we feel ourselves to be is normally hidden from sight, but it is powerful.
Where does meditation fit into all this? If you are a meditator you already see the connection as clear as the words on this screen. As it turns out, insight meditation practice appears to confirm some aspects of meme theory. With meditation you discover that your thoughts are quite independent of your will and come and go as they please. Even just a minute of calmly watching what the mind produces will reveal that very little of its activity is under your control. Sudden images, memories, plans, judgments, wishes, fantasies and internal lecturing come and go as quickly and as uncontrollably as a babbling stream. There are good neurological reasons for this. It is estimated that the brain processes 38 thousand trillion operations per second. If even a tiny fraction of these operations are what we colloquially call “background noise” then hundreds of thousands of them are occurring within a second. Of those, perhaps only a small fraction fire together in a pattern recognizable enough for us to be conscious of them. Of those, if only a small percent survive in our awareness for longer than a second then we are still left with dozens of flashes of cognitive activity each instant. And of that remaining set we may become fully aware of just one or two. Anyone who has sat in serious meditation for even moment can confirm that a quiet mind is actually very noisy. I have often compared it to a clown car at a circus constantly spinning out of control and revealing new absurdities at every turn. When you sit with this reality long enough the resulting insight is unmistakable: I am not my thoughts. They are not me. They happen on their own, without a controlling agency on my behalf. I can nudge them, judge them, hold them in contempt, dispute them, and distract myself from them. If I am a trained academic, I can make the mind follow a disciplined line of thought for a small amount of time, until exhaustion sets in. But what I cannot do is control thoughts in an ultimate sense. There are simply too many and they are rushing in and out too fast. The mind often gets compared to a garden that we cultivate, but really it is more like a dark and riotous jungle into which we have a few inroads provided by civilization, education, and if we are lucky, meditation. If we look deeply at this cognitive ecosystem we see that it is teeming with all manner of phenomena flashing in the dark and disappearing. An earnest look at this can be both disturbing and awe inspiring.
But although a meditator can see that the many thoughts winking in and out of the mind each instant are not “me,” she or he can still take beliefs as self. This is actually common. Meditators can simultaneously hold: “I am not my thoughts” and “I am a believer” in mind, not realizing the the first dismantles the second. This is because beliefs are felt to be special types of thoughts. They are more fixed, stable and make up a kind of internal cognitive architecture. But they only got that way by being copied and recopied. Beliefs are nothing more than thoughts that have found a footing in the mind and have set up dominion there. They did this because they serve a very important function that can be seen clearly, but is often missed. It is seen when, as one watches the coming and going of cognitive phenomena, a signal arises in the noise. The layers of randomness become a background upon which patterns emerge. Some thoughts repeat themselves, or newer drafts of themselves, over and over again. In other words, some of them are “sticky.” Why is this? Meme theory suggests that the stickiest thoughts either fit well into the existing cognitive ecosystem or offer something useful to the meditator. In other words, our “beliefs” act as selectors, winnowing out what is incompatible and recopying what is in harmony with the existing architecture of thought. With continued investigation a new insight becomes unmistakable: all these thoughts and their sponsoring beliefs have to do with… me. If a thought begins with the phrase “I am…” or is just a few links in the chain from “I am,” then it has pride of place in the cognitive environment and is preserved and copied and re-copied. It begins to seem as if the mind is just repeating different iterations of what it perceives to be “me.” This can become very elaborate and intellectual. Very philosophical and deep. But a dispassionate look at the thoughts will show that any new thought that reinforces “I am” is kept, copied, and can even spun out into a story in the mind. If the thought or belief is particularly adaptive it will have encoded in it the instructions for copying itself. You will feel “called” to share it with others.
This is why meditation is such a rebellious act. Through meditation one begins to do something that threatens the constant trance of the babbling mind: you begin to witness beliefs instead of becoming them. Upon awakening, it is as if you realize you have been tricked into believing that you are the main character of a play only to find that you are in a seat in the theater. You begin to see, sometimes to your astonishment and dismay, that beliefs are just scripts, and if you observe them critically you see that they are empty of self. You have no ultimate interest in them. Even more disturbing, meditative investigation will show that the thoughts you took to be yourself do not survive in the mind by whether they are conventionally “true” or “false”, but rather by whether they play well with other beliefs. You begin to realize that your internal compass for belief was not set to look for truth, but for “self.” This insight upsets everything, because now you begin to understand that all beliefs could be wildly off the mark, and often this is exactly the case. The implications for this are astonishing. In the most extreme cases, we can believe things that are not only mind-bogglingly contrary to the world around us, but positively harmful to ourselves and others. This is in no way an unusual thing. Most of us know, or are, the hosts of some patently false and disturbing ideas. Just to cite some of the more vivid examples: there are people alive today who are convinced that the Earth is flat and others that it is hollow. There are those who sincerely think that air can be food. That if they think about something hard enough it will manifest. That sitting inside of a pyramid will cure illness. How can that be? Because those beliefs serve their hosts in some way and have convinced them of their truth. I have met people who literally believe that they have a cosmic karmic bank account in the red. Or that they receive instructions for what to have for lunch from an invisible being. Or that they have a long neck because they were a giraffe in a prior life. They believe these things sincerely and whole-heartedly, and they are no different from myself or anyone else. They simply became host to some particularly strange beliefs. How it happens is still being worked out, but if you would like to learn some of the science behind it look into Michael Shermer’s excellent work on the topic.
Meditation changes everything, because if it is done with sufficient strength and honesty it reveals the process of self-making through belief and therefore makes non-belief, rather than belief, the default position of the person. Seeing the process of identification with thoughts as it is happening is one of the things that meditation does for us, and simply seeing it happen shakes the very roots of belief. You will never see thoughts the same way again. This is something that meditation masters in virtually all the traditions have been professing for thousands of years, and ideas like meme theory may be the west’s initial attempt to catch up. I am not proposing that ideas like meme theory are “correct” or “true” in an ultimate sense. That would simply create another belief to hang the self on. To return to the analogy of the play, meme theory, or the meditative insight that “I am not my thoughts” is like a character walking onto the stage and talking directly to you in the audience about the play itself, “you know you’re not in this play, right?” It is a disrupter, a protester that crashes the show and keeps one from suspending disbelief and getting lost in the drama. Notions like this are nicely described by the Buddhist phrase “skillful view.” Meme theory is not so much an idea as a very skillful way to view ideas, and it is skillful because it supports us in breaking loose of all views. It changes how we think, not just what we think. The more we can view beliefs in a way that distances our sense of self from them, the easier it is to experience the kind of liberation that comes from being free from the constant demands and expectations they place on us and our world. This is the most skillful thing we can do. Ultimately, we come to see that not only is there no self in the play, there was never one in the audience either. The whole theater was a prop.
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.
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.
Instructions for Vispassana
What to do with your body
One thing that beginning meditators often get confused about is the importance of posture. It simply isn’t as important as it is often made out to be. Forget what you may have been told about sitting in full lotus and becoming like a Buddha statue – you don’t need any of that. There is nothing magical about difficult sitting poses, and if they are painful for you please don’t use them. They are the product of a particular culture and time, and have very little to do with waking up itself. If you find that sitting on a meditation cushion gets you in the right frame of mind, then go for it, but please don’t think that the cushion or the particular posture does anything special to wake you up. It doesn’t.
What is needed for productive meditation is to simply strike a balance between being comfortable and alert. You should not be in pain and you should not be too comfy. You don’t want to spend the whole meditation session gritting your teeth and wishing it were over, and you also don’t want to be so relaxed that you fall asleep. I prefer to meditate on a folding beach chair that is not very cushy. It is comfortable enough that I can sit for extended periods of time, without being so comfortable that I snooze.
Pick a spot to meditate where you aren’t going to be too disturbed by what others are doing. If you are sitting in a room where everyone likes to come and watch TV, then you’re setting yourself up to veg-out with TV, not meditate. However, you do not need to go into a cave or to a mountain top. Just go to your own room. I prefer to meditate on a on my back porch (called a “lanai” in Hawaii). I can usually get a solid 20 minutes of quiet time there.
How long should I meditate?
If you have never kept a regular meditation, you’ll find it hard to sit for very long at all. Five minutes will seem like a lot of time, and you’ll be checking your watch in disbelief after three minutes. I recommend being kind to yourself and not pushing too hard (that could end up backfiring in the meditation). So if you are finding it hard to sit for longer than 10 minutes, then make 10 minutes your goal. Do 10 minutes once a day for four days. Then add five minutes and maintain that for four days. Keep adding time gradually until you are at 30 minutes. A daily 30-minute sit, accompanied by periodic longer sits should be your goal in the beginning. Once you are more advanced, you can explore lots of ways to vary sitting times and work retreats into your schedule (however, retreats are not necessary).
What to do with your mind
So you’ve got a good chair and a nice secluded spot. You are committed to sitting for at least 10 minutes and want to work up to 30. But once your butt is on the chair, what do you actually do?
First, Build Some Concentration
Concentration is the ability to put the mind on one thing, called an “object”, and leave it there. It is not Vipassana, but it is part of Vipassana, and you need it to get the meditation going. If you were to think of Vipassana as running, getting concentrated is like the warm-up. You need to get stretched and moving before you can run a few miles, especially if you are not used to running. With Vipassana, you need to get the mind steady, stable and strong before you start using it for Vipassana, and that is what concentration does.
To concentrate the mind watch the breath go in and out at one spot (you pick the spot – I watch it at the upper lip or at the tip of the nose, but you can watch it at the abdomen or anywhere), and count 10 breaths. If you can count ten breaths without getting lost, then you are building concentration pretty well, but if you are a beginner then a lot of thoughts will pop up and distract you. You may even lose count of the breaths. No problem. Just go back to 1 and start counting back up to 10. No one needs to know but you, and it is certainly not a competition, so don’t worry about it. If you notice a thought popping up but haven’t lost count, make a brief note in your mind of what the thought is. Give it a label, such as “memory” or “planning” or “fantasy.” As soon as you give it a label just get right back to counting. By giving it a label you are taking away the thought’s power to pull you into a story and get you off-track in the meditation, so practice labeling often! You will need it in the next part of the meditation.
Continue with the counting meditation until you can count up to 10 breaths without losing track, and once you have done so then continue from 10 back to 1. This practice helps to increase your mindfulness of what is occurring in the present moment by giving you instant feedback if you are being unmindful (you’ll forget what number you’re on). This practice also builds concentration by helping you to focus on one thing: the breath. Once you have been able to go up to 10 and back down to 1 several times without losing track of what number you are on, then you have sufficient concentration to begin Vipassana. (This is a bit of an arbitrary cut-off. Each person’s need for concentration practice will be a little different and I highly recommend getting with a teacher to work these things out).
Next, Make Some Notes
Now that you can keep your mind stable enough to stay with one thing for a short period of time, you are ready to use that stability to investigate reality and do Vipassana proper.
When we think of “investigating” something what normally comes to mind is asking lots of questions, and “investigating reality” can sound like a philosophical exercise, but it is not – it is the opposite. Philosophical contemplation requires discursive thinking where the mind is allowed to follow a line of questioning wherever it goes. In meditation though, you want to NOT follow your thoughts, but rather just watch them arise and drop them. This is a subtle shift, but it is fundamental. It is a very different thing to have a thought and take it up and get interested in it, and to have that same thought but simply to recognize that it is only a thought and not get caught up in it. The same with body sensations. You can experience a body sensation as something of great interest or simply watch it. Same with emotions, and the same with liking, disliking and being neutral to things. All of these things can be objectified and transformed into meditation objects that the mind simply watches without getting caught up in them. This is the essence of Vipassana: you objectify whatever you experience in the moment, watch it dispassionately, and don’t get caught up in it. By doing this, the awareness that is doing the watching becomes “disembedded” as my teacher describes it. As disembedding happens you begin to experience liberation from all the things that the body and mind are normally caught up in, what the Buddha described as “samsara.” The more effectively you disembed the more powerful the experience of liberation.
To disembed from thoughts, sensations, emotions and preferences, you only need to do one thing: note them. Simply make a mental note of the experience as it is happening. For example if you have a thought, note “thought”, if you have an itch, note “itch” and so on. It may sound too simple to really work, but it does. By making a note of what you are experiencing in the moment you are taking a clear snapshot of that split second of reality and seeing it for what it is. You are not getting caught up in the story of what is happening, you are simply watching the process of what is happening. At first it will feel a little awkward, and you may have difficulty finding the right words to note what you are experiencing, but don’t worry, keep trying. It takes some time and practice to get to a point where it feels easy and natural.
So, you’ve got the right chair, you have a place to sit, you’ve sat and counted your breath up to 10 and back to 1 several times and you are ready to begin Vipassana. You begin by noting what it is that you have been focused on thus far: the breath. Note “breathing”, or “rising” or “falling” or whatever suits you. Now that you have shifted to Vipassana you do not have to keep the mind on the breath, so let it wander, but use the breath as an anchor object and return to it periodically. You notice a sound outside, so you note “hearing”, and the mind immediately recognizes that the sound is the dog barking and an image of the dog pops into the mind and you note “image.” You love that dog, and begin experiencing warm feelings. You note “love” and as memories of the times you have played with the dog come up in your mind you note “remembering.” Then you remember that the neighbor has complained about the barking, and you note “irritation” and an image of the neighbor comes into your mind and you note “image.” You notice the breath leaving your nose and note “falling”, and then notice the feeling of the chair on your legs and note “pressure.” And so on…
This is the technique for Vipassana: note your experience as it happens in the moment. Imagine that reality is sending thoughts, sensations, and emotions to you down a conveyor belt and you have to put a post-it note on each one as it goes by, and on each post-it note is a one or two-word phrase summarizing what it is. You do not take anything off the conveyor belt, and you do not get caught up in any new shiny thing that comes down the conveyor belt. You simply do your job and note it and let it go.
Why is it called “practice?”
When we sit in meditation we are building up skills that we will use all day long. During a period of sitting meditation you are practicing concentration and practicing Vipassana, but when you get up from meditation you are no longer practicing them – you’re using them. Noting seems awkward at first and you are likely to only do it during sitting meditation, but the goal is to note your experiences throughout your day, to be more mindful, more aware and awake, during each moment of our lives. This transition, from practicing the technique “on the cushion” to using the technique “off the cushion”, is an important turning point for a meditator. When this begins to happen, first with great effort, then with more and more ease, the effect of the meditation becomes very powerful. One makes swift progress along the path, and soon insights begin to arise during wakeful moments throughout the day. If you have managed to take your sitting practice and use the skills in daily life, you are well on your way to waking up.
As a therapist and a meditation teacher, I live a surreal life. At the office I’m helping people to gain greater self-esteem, more positive self-regard, and encouraging them to see themselves as competent, empowered and strong. But when I teach meditation I strongly encourage people to see that the self is an illusion. On the outside it could seem as if I’m working against myself.
It’s the same for a lot of people who meditate. Most meditators accept that no-self is a core truth of reality. But many have also taken intro to psychology classes and have read a lot of self help books that promote healthy acceptance of the self. It is not unusual for people who regularly attend meditation retreats to also do a lot of self-development, such as adult education and travel. Clearly, in meditation circles, it can seem like we are pretty mixed-up about ourselves. It’s as if we have a love-hate relationship with the “self.”
How are we to make sense of this apparent paradox? The self is indeed an illusion, but why care for and cater to it?
The Psychological Self vs. No-Self
The self in Western psychology is viewed as that function of the mind that helps us to organize our experiences. It takes raw sense data, memories, and other cognitive functions and turns them into recognizable narratives. It is critical for everything that we do. Without a strong sense of self, we literally could not make sense of anything that happens to us.
What is fascinating is that in the western psychological view, the “self” or the “executive function” is actually a process and not really a thing. It waxes and wanes all the time, goes into the foreground and background of awareness depending on how much we need it, disappears when we sleep, is not the same as it was when we were little, much less the same as it was last year, and is even subtly different than it was last week.
So far, this should make a lot of sense to both psychologists and meditators. But here is where things get interesting: we all know that processes are not solid and change all the time, yet in this particular process there is a nagging sense that there is a solid permanent “me” hiding in that process somewhere. As if the process itself were a real solid thing in the same way that a table or chair is.
It is this unshakable sense of a solid “me” in the midst of this process that is the “self” that is referred to in the Dharma. When we talk about “no-self” in Buddhism, we are pointing to this sense of a solid self in and calling it an illusion. The process of “selfing” is real, the belief that it is somehow a permanent “me” is not.
To help understand how important this illusion is imagine that another mental process had this same illusion tied to it. Take memory for example. When we experience a memory we know that it isn’t “real” in the sense that it does not have a reality outside or our mental functioning. We know that memories come and go, are subject to change and can be forgotten. But what if every time you remembered something you assumed that the memory itself was “real” in the same way that a table or chair is real. That it was substantial and lasting. Even though you could not literally see or experience the memory with your five senses, you still had the unshakable belief that it was a real and solid thing that is supposed to last. Wouldn’t this be a set-up for frustration? Memories slip and slide out of consciousness and like every other mental function they are subject to dramatic change. If we expected them to never go away and always be there, we would constantly be in distress. This is exactly what is happening with us in terms of the self-process.
While the self-process creates narratives that organize our experiences into something recognizable, the illusion of self is inserted as a main character into all these narratives. We expect the character to be the same all the time, to never change or go away, to be “real.” And yet each moment we are running into a stark reality: the self is not as real as we believe it to be, and it certainly does not last. Over time this sense of solid “me” becomes the most salient feature of all of our experience and our greatest source of anxiety. The fact that we see this constantly changing process as a solid “me” creates endless problems for us because it sets up a never-ending fight between us and reality (and reality never loses).
What is odd is that according to psychology, this sense of a solid self is not an issue. In fact it is not really addressed at all. One part of the psychological literature explains that the self is a cognitive process like any other, and then another part of the literature goes on about protecting and promoting a healthy “self.” The fact that we are taking a process and turning it into a solid thing in our minds is simply not addressed.
In psychology, this point may have been missed because of the bias to study and theorize about pathology rather than health. The illusions and problems inherent in a “normally” functioning mind just don’t get a lot of research lab-time. So most theory in psychology works to get damaged selves back to “normal functioning.” Buddhism on the other hand, starts with the assumption that normal functioning is full of suffering caused by a false sense of self, and works to get people from a state of “normal” to enlightened.
Joining the Psychological Self with No-Self
In the book Transformations of Consciousness Jack Enlger, a psychologist and meditation teacher, attempts to reconcile the eastern and western approaches to self by proposing that these two traditions should be joined in a “spectrum model of self development.” The central idea being that the illusion of a solid self is a necessary developmental step that supports people in their learning and growth, but that once resilient mental health has been attained the direction for further growth lies in the shedding of this illusion.
What is great about this model is that it proposes that you can support someone in building their self-esteem and support another person in seeing through the illusion of self, and you are really doing the same thing: encouraging growth along the spectrum of self development, but from two different points. Further, Engler suggests that movement along the spectrum is a fairly linear process. People must begin with a strong solid self in order to move to the next developmental step of seeing it as an illusion. Engler is famous for boiling this idea down into the phrase: “you have to be somebody before you can be nobody.”
I see a lot of value in Engler’s model, but given my own experiences I would change it sometwhat. Rather than a linear model where the person goes from developing a self to seeing through the illusion of self, I would propose a dimensional model, where self development and insight develop concurrently. This can be imagined as an x/y axis with self development and insight development as separate axes.
This model makes more sense for a number of reasons. First, people who attain very high levels of insight also tend to be greatly engaged in further self development: travel, education, career changes, relationships, etc. They also tend to make the same mistakes that go with self development that people without insight make (any review of the scandals of meditation teachers should confirm this). This is something that you really wouldn’t expect with the linear model, because self development should stop when you reach that part of the spectrum where you are attaining insight into no-self.
In my personal experience, growth in insight has in no way inhibited or stopped self-development, rather it has made the process more fun and easier to understand. At the core of this dimensional model is an assumption that is somewhat different than Engler’s: seeing through the illusion of self does not make the self disappear. The self remains, it continues on in the lived experience, but it is no longer the center of experience anymore. It is put in its proper perspective, as a simple, natural process of the mind, like any other. The sense that this organizing process is a real permanent “me” diminishes with insight. Even with great insight the natural process of growth and change, of what we would call “self development” continues to unfold, but the self is no longer believed to be “real”, it is simply an experience like any other.
So, while on the surface it can seem like we in the enlightenment traditions are pretty mixed up about the self, the opposite is actually true: we are clear about who we are. That does not stop us from growing, having fun and being human. It simply gives us greater awareness of the process.
One of the hardest lessons that I have learned in life is how not to be nice. Not that I’m a jerk or anything. After all, I’m a therapist and I put a high premium on the healing power of basic kindness. But when I started out in my therapy training, I was under the illusion that all I had to do was sprinkle the magic ingredients of “warmth” and “caring” and presto! People would see the way forward and get better. It took a little while, but I did find out that I was being more than a little naive.
A lot of my training in therapy has been one hard lesson after another that being “nice” to people is often code for avoiding the things that make them uncomfortable. Avoiding the uncomfortable often makes people’s psychological health no better, and in some serious cases can actually make it worse. Not that anyone should be downright mean, but there needs to be a brave moment where the “stuff” gets put out front. It’s vulnerable. It’s painful. I still hate doing it. But it is how healing happens. I’m a chronic “nice guy” who had to learn to get comfortable with making others uncomfortable. If I didn’t, therapy would become an empty self-serving exercise rather than a real opportunity for change. Time and again when I ask patients what helped them most in therapy they say something along the lines of “you were real with me” or “you really called us on our BS.”
In my life as a meditator, I’ve run into a parallel phenomenon: a whole army of “nice guys” and “nice gals” in the spiritual scene. Like me, they have an almost instinctive reaction to be warm and caring (a whole bunch of them are therapists too). We are big on things like “compassion” “right action” and “right speech”, which for many means speaking, acting and refraining from action all in a spirit of kindness. For the most part, I love this. I could do a lot worse than to be a part of a community that wants everyone to become happy and stay that way. But I’m beginning to suspect that there is a serious shadow side to all this niceness, and that we might be taking it way too far. Our obsession with compassion and right speech may have become our way of avoiding painful truths about ourselves.
Take a look at any best selling book on meditation and you’ll see what I mean. The language that is used is, well, “cheezy ” (right now I’m cringing a little at how mean that sounds, and that only goes to show how deep this problem can be with me). Hallmark has nothing on these books, in which the most common metaphors for meditation and awakening are hearts, flowers, and rainbows (I’m not kidding – these are the most common metaphors used). My instinct as a therapist is to detect BS quickly, and my alarms go off in a big way to most teachers and dharma books. It makes me (and probably a lot of other folks) very mistrustful of a lot of the dharma as it is presented in the west. After all, this “hearts and flowers” approach is a historically new thing and runs counter to how the dharma was first taught. The Buddha’s first teaching after his enlightenment was: “Life is suffering.” Yikes! In other words, if he were on the teaching circuit today he would open with: “stop pretending that everything is hearts, flowers and rainbows, because it just isn’t.” He chose to make that the very first thing he taught. If that isn’t meant to make us uncomfortable then what is?
Buddhism started out with such a harsh and direct truth and got even harsher and more direct from there. The second teaching of the Buddha was that the cause of suffering is none other than ourselves. Life may be suffering but don’t blame life. The “self” that we all work so hard to improve and maintain (by being compassionate and nice) is where all of the problems of life really come from. It doesn’t get any more harsh and personal than that. If the Buddha were to try and publish this in the modern dharma scene he would be laughed right out of Borders and told to learn some compassion.
So if this is how the dharma started, how did the tough-love approach used by the Buddha get lost in a blur of hearts and flowers? My best guess is that we are doing to the dharma what so many people do in therapy: try to turn it around to serve the problem rather than call ourselves on our BS.
Tough-Love for the Self
Suffering happens because we believe that the self is real. The object of meditation is to wake up out of that. The focus on kindness and compassion to the exclusion of the harder truths of Buddhism can act like a lullaby that keeps us asleep, and we remain stuck in the dream of the self. We have only made the dream a nicer, gentler one. What is needed is an alarm to go off, a bit of a shock to our system that disrupts our dream and wakes us up. That is partly what Buddhism is intended to be, but instead of waking from the dream, we are often picking and choosing parts of the Dharma for self-soothing.
For enlightened teachers, this situation is increasingly awkward. One teacher (who will go unnamed) has a wonderful analogy about the pervasive weirdness in the western dharma scene: imagine that enlightenment is a full stomach and everyone is hungry. Now imagine that the people who are full aren’t allowed to tell anybody because people might get upset, so everyone has to guess who they are by how they act. People can kind of tell who they are because they act contented, rub their stomachs and burp. Now imagine that everyone who is still hungry goes around rubbing their stomachs, pretending to be content and burping in the whole-hearted belief that this will lead to a full stomach.
The situation with enlightenment is identical. Many people are trying to get rid of the suffering caused by a belief in the self by getting the self to act enlightened, or at least what they think is enlightened, which is, well, “nice.” Our obsession with niceness fools us into believing we are getting enlightened when we are not, and helps us to avoid confronting our own suffering. The roots of the self just grow deeper the more we try to act like a compassionate enlightened being.
Embrace the Grouch
What can be done? A good place to start would be to go back to basics and start with the first noble truth – that life is suffering. You’re human, you get angry, you get cranky, and you have a right to that. Don’t deny it, accept it as your life and really own it. Confronting this harsh truth about life is the bravest thing you can do and is your birthright as a human being.
Once you get comfortable with being grouchy (and it could take some time to de-socialize from niceness), ask yourself just what it is making you so unhappy in the first place. Investigate it, rather than try to deny or repress it. Really dig into the truth of your dissatisfaction. You will see that the common denominator of all suffering is none other than your “self” or to be more precise, the concept of “me.” It is the self, the myriad identities and stories that make up “me”, that constitute the framework into which sensations and thoughts are sorted out as “good” or “bad” which leads to craving and suffering.
This truth can be seen just from a shallow intellectual perspective. Knowing it just won’t make a difference. Instead you have to do something about it, and that is where a practice like meditation comes in. If you do meditation right you will gradually pry your awareness loose from the “self.” Do it long enough and with a strong enough effort and you will pry it free completely, and that is what enlightenment is.
I speak from personal experience when I tell you that the freedom of getting even a little loose from the self is a far greater happiness than any that comes from being a “nice” or “compassionate” self. So don’t avoid it any longer. Embrace your inner grouch and then you can do the work of letting go completely.