Category Archives: vipassana
In my work as a psychologist I rely on lists. A lot. What are “symptoms” really? Lists. They
are a rundown of the qualities of experience a person has when struggling with a problem. Depression, anxiety, trauma, and so on are actually baskets into which lists of qualities are placed. But what about the opposite of mental disorders? Can healthy states be thought of in the same way? The short answer is yes. Positive psychology has begun to group positive qualities into larger constructs such as “kindness,” “bravery,” and “wisdom.” While some dislike the reductionist overtones of such an approach, it is nothing new. In fact, Buddhism is one of the earliest examples of how to do this well.
Buddhism is, in my opinion, the oldest and most sophisticated psychological science in the world. So it is not surprising that so many parallels exist with modern psychology, which is, in many ways, reinventing the wheel the Buddha set in motion millennia ago. Lists play a large role in Buddhism, especially when it comes to “diagnosing” rare states and transformations of consciousness. One of these lists is especially important. Think of it as the psychological profile of someone ready to awaken. The seven factors of enlightenment.
The Seven Factors
The seven factors are: mindfulness, investigation, concentration, energy, relaxation, rapture, and equanimity.
These seven arise in the meditator at certain stages of development, building gradually toward awakening. Then, when the first moment of awakening (stream entry) is close, all seven reach a peak. Six of them fall into balance with each other. The odd one out is mindfulness, which does not need anything to balance it. I often imagine these factors as being like a dog sled team. Mindfulness is the lead dog at the front of the team, followed by three equally matched pairs that balance each other perfectly.
Mindfulness – this one stands alone. Mindfulness is not merely bare attention to the present moment, it is also intuitively recognizing the kinds of things that are coming up and their significance (that is the fourth foundation of mindfulness). It sees what is happening and its significance right this instant. Mindfulness knows insights as they arise (the insight knowledges), and remembers what to do (or not do) at each development of the insight path. At first mindfulness is effortful. It is the first factor to come up, and it needs to be deliberately called up and entrained. When it begins to gain strength the meditator experiences the first stage of insight (knowledge of mind and body). So one way to tell if you are developing mindfulness, versus bare attention, is to see if you are able to experience the first stage of insight. As mindfulness is practiced in and out of meditation it becomes more automatic, taking on a life of its own.
This is where the dog sledding analogy is helpful. Mindfulness is like the lead dog, and lead dogs are very special. People build very close relationships with them and gradually turn over more of the responsibility for knowing the trail to the lead dog. Once a lead dog has experience with a path, it intuitively recognizes where the soft spots are, where the ice is thin, where the snow looks wet and where it is firm. It knows which turn to take and keeps the team moving down the center of the path and away from the slippery banks at the edges. It takes time and patience for a lead dog to learn, but once it knows a path, it can guide you along automatically, and you can let go and allow the team to take you to your destination. This is how mindfulness works as it matures and deepens. As a meditator gains experience, she learns to trust mindfulness more and more and to allow it to take the lead.
Investigation/Concentration – Investigation is the process of looking at an object and seeing that it is not what it appears to be at first glance. It is looking at something mundane, like the the sensation of the breath at the tip of the nose, and seeing that it is not just a single sensation called “breath,” but a dynamic field of flickering vibrations (anicca), that are not the observer (anatta), and are uncomfortable to hold on to (dukkha). It is balanced by concentration, which is the ability to keep the mind still for long enough that objects can be seen with sufficient clarity. It involves building a calm focus that is unwavering. Investigation is like the focusing of a camera lens. Concentration is like holding the camera still long enough to focus. When both of these factors are strong and in balance things can be seen clearly for what they really are.
Energy/Relaxation – These may seem contradictory, but they are actually complimentary. The great meditation teacher Ayya Khema sometimes described “energy” as “willpower.” This makes sense, although it is a translation that has lost popularity. It is the sense of applying oneself, giving all of oneself to the process and not holding back. It is the raw impulse that puts the other factors to work. It is balanced by relaxation, which is just what is sounds like. If you apply yourself, but are tight and clenched in body or mind, then the meditation is likely to stall out. Relaxation is that which allows the process to run smoothly, while energy keeps it running. These two, in a sense, feel like surrendering to the meditation, no matter how intense it becomes, with great alertness. To get an idea of what a peak balance between energy and relaxation feels like, reflect on how you feel right after a good workout, when you are letting go and not striving any longer but still full of energy.
Rapture/Equanimity – Rapture is a combination of joyful feeling and physical “pleasure.” That word is in quotes because it isn’t pleasure in the normal sense. It doesn’t come from the five senses. A pleasant feeling fills the body in one of several different ways, electrical tingles, fine vibrations, pulses, warm light – it can be percieved differently by different people, but it is always very pleasurable. There is a kind of erotic feeling to it for many people, and this can throw off many westerners who read over and over about renouncing worldly pleasure and not becoming attached to anything. It is important to understand that this kind of pleasure is essential to the development of deeper meditation. However, it needs to be balanced with equanimity, which is that quality of mind which does not grasp or cling to experiences, good or bad. Of all the factors, equanimity may be the most odd one, because there are few experiences in normal life that are similar to it. It is a sense of calm that remains interested and focused, without feeling like anything occurring is consequential to the observer. As my teacher once put it, “you no longer feel like you have a dog in the fight.” And yet, with all the rapture you are still deeply interested in what is occurring. These two balance each other beautifully.
When all seven factors are working well, they feel almost as though they take over, pulling the meditator toward awakening. Along the way the meditator puts in work and effort to develop the insights and the factors, but once things mature the combination of factors seem to grow in strength, balance, and in a sense, it feels as though they take over. It is at this point that the admonitions to “do nothing” and simply “let go” make the most sense. With the right factors in place, the process can now do itself, you simply have to hold on and watch.
I’ve been thinking a lot about what “pragmatic dharma” is lately. This is partly because I’m trying to get my own head straight as I write about it, and partly because Jack Kornfield recently criticized it on Buddhist Geeks. Kornfield, in his usual gentle style, was mostly circumspect in his criticism, but he did say that the leaders of the pragmatic dharma movement (I’m assuming he means Kenneth Folk and Daniel Ingram) have redefined key concepts in Buddhism. He suggested that the attainments aimed for in pragmatic dharma are, in essence, not the real thing. Coming from the author of A Path with Heart, one of the most easy-going, downright cuddly dharma books out there (while also covering some deep wisdom), such direct criticism is pretty harsh stuff. He also pointed out that the idea that people could attain enlightenment in lay life, a key idea in pragmatic circles, is something that does not make a lot of sense to him and that the experiences and insights a person has in lay life are not the same, not as “transformative,” as what occurs in a more rigorous monastic setting like the Mahasi centers in Burma. He seemed to imply that he understood what goes on in those places while Kenneth and Daniel do not, and so they are redefining things out of misunderstanding. This is odd, because both Kenneth and Daniel spent significant stretches of time in the Asian centers Kornfield is referring to, in the exact same lineage as him, so something isn’t quite making sense. It really seems like a he said/she said sort of situation. I disagree with him here, so hope I didn’t just distort his point of view too much.
Given that Kenneth Folk was my teacher and I benefited immeasurably from the pragmatic approach he used, I was a bit taken aback by Kornfield’s critique. I love his work, and generally think he knows what he is talking about in such matters, so I wondered if there was a misunderstanding or clash of personalities at work rather than a substantial critique. I mean, does he really understand what pragmatic dharma is? Does anyone? What is it really? As I thought about this I came up with a handful of characteristics that I think give pragmatic dharma its shape at present.
Pragmatism – this one is so important it is right in the name. I think that it is the defining characteristic because it stands in contrast to the way the dharma is being taught in mainstream Buddhism in the west. The mainstream has key elements of the Buddhist practice, but it often seems to be more a kind of lifestyle, identity, or a spiritualized form of psychotherapy, rather than a focus on awakening itself or the working elements of practice. It strongly emphasizes uncoupling meditation from attainments, as a sort of de-stressing strategy for a harried western world. This is a very different version of Buddhism from the traditional approach, which strongly emphasizes attaining specific outcomes, like insight knowledges or stream entry, which are viewed as imminently practical. In the westernized version of Buddhism these practical attainments, and even awakening itself, seem to go out of focus and become a kind of aspirational concept rather than a reality. Kornfield actually said as much in his Buddhist Geeks interview, and what is interesting about this from a historical perspective is that he had a very important role to play in this transformation of Buddhism in the west, which is documented in the book Mindful America. This new style of dharma, unique to the west, was dubbed the “mushroom culture” by Bill Hamilton (the teacher of both Daniel Ingram, Kenneth Folk, and founder of the Dharma Seed audio library) who reportedly explained that this new western approach is like growing mushrooms, you “keep them in the dark and feed them shit.” Pragmatic dharma is a reaction against this new westernized style. It is a move to focus on what matters in the dharma – awakening and what leads to it – rather than the things that seem to be more lifestyle or therapy oriented. It is ironic that Kornfield critiques pragmatic dharma as redefining Buddhism away from the traditional meanings, because that is exactly the critique pragmatic dharma folks are making of mainstream Buddhism in the west.
Transparency – pragmatic dharma is big on breaking the taboo on talking about attainments. It means coming right out and saying so if you attained a jhana, had a cessation, or know what an insight is like because you had it first hand. The upside of this is that it invites people to see these things as real rather than fairy tales (which the mushroom culture seems to encourage). It also eliminates the weird game of spiritual marco polo that sometimes gets played when people talk around their own attainments rather than about them. The downside is that it provides an opening for people who simply want to make things up. If it becomes chic to say you attained jhana then no doubt people are going to start redefining jhana to match whatever they experience in meditation, that’s going to lead to a lot of confusion. So on this I can see the validity of the criticism. But does that mean we really need a taboo that leads people to not take these things seriously? Perhaps there can be a middle ground here. I can imagine a situation in which people are encouraged to be open about their attainments within select company. There are plenty of aspects of our lives that we keep private except with a close group, perhaps attainments can start to fall into a similar category. Not quite public, not quite taboo, but something we are open about with those who are going to understand and not overreact.
Digital – pragmatic dharma is a sangha in the cloud. There are communities, but they are mostly online communities. Message boards, forums, blogs, podcasts, and other online mediums are the spaces where ideas pop up and are explored. The Hamilton Project has a great list of pragmatic dharma sites. Buddhist Geeks has an online training program that looks fantastic, and pragmatically minded lay teachers (like myself) often teach people meditation online, via skype or other forms of live online interaction. Small groups meet in person in cities all over the world, but for the most part it is an online phenomenon. This gives it an interesting radical quality. There is something rebellious in spirit about pragmatic dharma that is found in many web-based movements. It is untethered to institutions and traditional hierarchies, and in this sense it is the dharma equivalent of Bitcoin or Wikipedia. A decentralized, crowdsourced fund of emerging wisdom and experimentation, that is unpredictable and destabilizing to established approaches. Some of the ideas that come out of it are destined to fail, like so many internet phenomena, but some are very good and deserve to be taken seriously. The internet is the perfect medium for this kind of experimentation.
Secularism – not everyone who is interested in pragmatic dharma is secular, but so many are it is difficult not to see a trend. Kenneth Folk is openly secular in his approach, eschewing the religious tradition and dogma for a more scientific and modern view of meditation as “brain training” or “contemplative fitness.” As he said in a 2013 article for Wired Magazine “All that woo-woo mystical stuff, that’s really retrograde.” This trend in pragmatic dharma makes sense because secularism is in essence a scientific perspective, and the scientific perspective is almost pragmatic by definition. From a scientific perspective things only cross the threshold from woo-woo to reality when they’ve been shown to actually work in some fundamental way. This is a version of what pragmatic dharma is doing by focusing on attainments. The moment one takes attainments seriously then one has a sensible way to gauge whether things actually work or not. The threshold is the attainment. And the test of whether something works is whether it leads one closer to the attainment or is merely, to use Kenneth’s phrase, woo-woo. A secular focus means that those aspects of practice that actually work to produce insight and awakening take primary importance, while dogma, doctrine, and cultural additions tend to fall away. This leads to pragmatic dharma’s focus on techniques, maps, or even practices outside of any tradition, while downplaying mainstream Buddhism’s lifestyle-oriented focus.
A focus on ordinary life – most people involved in pragmatic dharma fall into the category of lay practitioners, but what makes them different from lay sangha in the past is that they are not (for the most part) focused on building merit by serving a monastic community in the hope of awakening in future life. They are focused on awakening in this life. This is an idea taken whole from the vipassana revival in Asia that led to the mindfulness movement in the west (see The Birth of Insight for a history of this movement in Burma). Ledi Sayadaw, Mahasi Sayadaw, Goenka, and others spread the idea that lay people could practice Satipatthana meditation and learn Abhidhamma well enough to move along the path while also participating in ordinary life. As a result of this movement great lay teachers such as Anagarika Munindra and Dipa Ma, who were major influences on the western mindfulness movement, were able to teach and spread the idea that awakening is possible in lay life. As the vipassana movement landed in the west it brought this idea with it, and the idea that one could practice meditation and study Buddhism in lay life flourished. Yet the idea that awakening is possible in lay life is deemphasized as attainments take a back seat to a focus on de-stressing and coping with lay life effectively. Pragmatic dharma takes the idea that awakening is possible in ordinary life literally and seriously.
These five characteristics, pragmatism, transparency, a digital community, secularism, and focusing on awakening in ordinary life, are what gives pragmatic dharma its current shape. But there is something else that is worth understanding about them. They are occurring within a much larger picture that, I think, defines the disagreement that leads someone like Kornfield to criticize this upstart movement, and that is the presence of what I have come to call the “silent sangha.” Right now there is a vast group of people in the west who meditate regularly, practice mindfulness at the office, or are going through mindfulness based stress reduction courses on their doctor’s advice, who are gradually getting deeper and deeper into the world of meditation. They love meditation, but they really do not care much about Buddhism. There is a disconnect between them and a fuller understanding of meditation, beyond mindfulness, and in the coming decades the challenge for Buddhism will be to package and deliver the deeper teachings to them in a way they can understand and which will help them take the next step toward awakening. The silent sangha is a massive and paradigm-shaping group. More than any teacher, more than any blog, magazine, book or traditional institution, it is they who will shape what the dharma is going to look like in the west. What will Buddhism look like in the west when they start to take awakening seriously? If you think this is not a possibility, I’d urge you to read 10% Happier by Dan Harris and get an inside look at his transformation from skeptic, to mindfulness fan, to someone who tentatively wonders if awakening is possible in this life. I think there are millions of people just like Harris, and their minds are gradually opening to this possibility.
It is in this context that a new approach to Buddhism, a truly western approach friendly to the western worldview, is going to emerge. Will it focus on attainments and awakening in this life? Or will it remain lifestyle and therapy oriented? Will it find a way to combine the two? What will western Buddhism become once the silent sangha collectively decides to go deeper? These are the big questions that are the backdrop for the disagreement that Kornfield is having with pragmatic dharma, and that pragmatic dharma is having with mainstream Buddhism. It isn’t really about what Buddhism from Asia is, or whether particular claims about attainments are true or not, it is really about what western Buddhism is going to become. In this context these disagreements seem healthy and vital rather than divisive or harsh. They are a sign that bigger trends are on the move and growth is occurring.
I’m curious to see where it all goes.
I have been lax in writing for this blog because I have been writing a book. A year ago I predicted that I would have it done in a year. Well, I’ve learned a lot about my limitations since then, and now know that it will take a bit longer than that. But the reason why it will take longer is something that has fascinated me and may be interesting to others.
As I began writing the section of my book on what Buddhism is and how it relates to modern day insight meditation it began to dawn on me how little I know about what the historical and linguistic scholarship actually says about Buddhism. Having been an avid meditator and a lay teacher of insight meditation I have gobbled up the suttas and commentaries and popular interpretations of Buddhism, but these are really what Buddhism has to say about itself. It is the perspective that one gets from somewhere inside the bubble of the Buddhist worldview. But what does Buddhism look like from a point outside of that bubble? What do non-Buddhist scholars see when they look at Buddhism from a more critical or skeptical perspective? I realized that I actually had no idea what that perspective might be like, so for many months I have been digging deep into the academic literature, and what I have found has been eye-opening, to put it mildly.
The first thing I was curious about, since I’m a bit of a philosophy nerd, was how modern philosophers and linguists who study the history of religion make sense of the Buddha’s ideas. I don’t remember what I expected to find, but I assumed it would be something along the lines of an enthusiastic endorsement. After all, I love the Buddha’s ideas, who wouldn’t? What I found was neither an endorsement nor critique, but rather, a thoughtful study of how these ideas arose within their historical context. Something, I’m embarrassed to say, I hadn’t really considered. I’d read all the Buddhist books about Buddhism that present it as a timeless truth, a perfect realization of Reality with a capital “R,” but of course it had to be a product of a time and place, just like everything else. I became very curious about this.
I thought knew the story of the Buddha. That he was a prince who snuck out of his palace, saw suffering all around, decided to do something about it, and set off on his own to discover its cause. You know the rest. But that is who he is from inside the bubble of the Buddhist worldview. Scholars who look at him from outside this bubble focus much more on an aspect of the history that I peripherally knew about but which I had not given very much attention to. They focus on how he joined a radical group of what we modern people might call “social reformers” who were attempting to create an alternative to the Vedic view of life. Vedanta had already been in place for about a thousand years, and it kept the Brahmins, who were the ruling caste, in power. The social movement trying to change this called themselves the samanas. It was a revolutionary time. When the Buddha left his princely life to set out on his quest he did not simply go out on his own, he joined the samanas, and this was a very meaningful move on his part. The samanas were a mixed bag of freethinkers who were not just arguing against the Brahmins, most were arguing against each other. They were preaching all sorts of contrary ideas, like there is no permanent self, and that there is one, that one should remain skeptical of extreme positions, and one should be as extreme as possible in austerities, etc. The Buddha was not simply meditating during those years before his enlightenment, he was likely soaking up these ideas and inching closer to what would become his own realization.
The doctrines that became Buddhism, according to many scholars, seem to be a coherent system which blends samana and Vedic concepts, and this blend would appeal to those who wanted reform and those who wanted tradition. In fact, one scholar argues very persuasively that the doctrine of dependent origination is actually a thinly disguised version of the Vedic creation myth, but refashioned so as to undercut the core concept that gives the Vedic tradition its power: that the way to liberation is by finding one’s true self (atman) so one can unite with the ultimate source, Brahma. In the standard Buddhist mythology, after the Buddha’s enlightenment, when he looks into the links of dependent origination and sees that there is no atman to be found, Brahma himself shows up and bows down to the Buddha, begging him to teach the world. From a scholarly perspective this makes sense given that what the Buddha was trying to do was create an alternative to the Vedic cosmology that integrated the samana’s ideas with those that had already been fixed in the minds of his culture for a millenia, and he succeeded.
This way of looking at Buddhism is still new to me and I am still processing what it means, but it got me wondering about the source texts. The scholars kept referring to differing accounts in different early texts, and it struck me from what they were saying how little we actually know about the Buddha or early Buddhism. The pali canon is generally agreed to be the earliest source of information about this, so a lot of people who are eager to follow a “true” or “authentic” version of Buddhism are often drawn to it. Many will criticize the commentaries or Abhidhamma literature as inferior because they are not the “real” words of the Buddha, which are, of course, in the pali suttas. That makes sense until you find out how old the pali suttas actually are. Scholars do not agree on this, but even accounting for the disagreement, the earliest versions of the pali suttas date to somewhere between the first and sixth century CE, with the strongest evidence (gold plates with pali inscriptions found in Burma) favoring sometime around the 5th century. That means that everything we know about the Buddha and early Buddhism from the pali sources might come from writings made sometime nearly 1000 years after the Buddha. I am still learning about all this and if there are earlier sources I hope to find them. I always knew that the pali writings were copies of earlier writings, but I assumed that they were close enough in time to the Buddha to give a faithful account of what the Buddha actually taught. But now I’m not so sure about that. All scholars agree that from the earliest texts on there are changes made to the canon, some small, some large, and that many of the changes were not simply errors but deliberate additions, combinations, and redactions. Is there any reason to believe that these changes only began after the earliest texts we have found? Not really. It is much more likely that these kinds of changes were going on for centuries as differing groups of Buddhists developed differing accounts and interpretations of what came earlier, which was very likely a changed version of what came before that. When you add to this that the pali canon is merely the recorded outcome of 200 to 400 years of oral tradition during which time there were multiple schisms, the whole foundation on which people like me base their ideas of a “true” or “authentic” version of Buddhism becomes more than a little shaky.
There is one other line of scholarship that rocked my ideas about Buddhism, and I never thought about it before. I nearly slapped my forehead in a “doh” moment once I actually started looking into it – archeology. There has been some very interesting archeological work on the earliest sites in Buddhism and the physical evidence from these sites shows that the early Buddhists lived remarkably different lives from those depicted in the suttas or vinaya. For example, in one site archeologists found evidence that early Buddhist monks were coining money. That is a very different picture from that painted in the pali sources, and speaks to the early Buddhists having a relationship with the state and people that is completely unlike that found in the texts. There are a lot of other findings that I could go into but I am still in the process of absorbing this information.
So what have I learned from this excursion outside the Buddhist bubble? Essentially, it comes down to this. What we now take to be the authentic teachings of the Buddha are actually more likely to be a snapshot of what Buddhism evolved into after many centuries of changes and schisms. Those trying to limit themselves to the earliest parts of the pali canon in an attempt to adhere to a more authentic version of Buddhism are more likely to simply be practicing whatever Buddhism became sometime after the first century CE. This doesn’t mean one shouldn’t do this, but it is good to know what one is really doing. Overall, what Buddhism appears to be when seen from outside its own worldview is less a perfect source of unchanging wisdom than an evolving field of study, just like any other. It has branches, schools, factions, controversies, evidence and lack thereof for its claims, some of which stand up on their own, and some of which seem to address particular cultural and historical needs.
One could see all this and throw one’s hands up, deciding that there is no reliable source so there is nothing to be found, but this would be a big mistake. Because the thing that is unique about Buddhism, that is its real bedrock in light of all this information, is that it is something that one does not really believe but rather something that one does. As a field of study it is more like a science than an art, because it has specific claims (the three characteristics and nibbana) and methods for testing those claims (the three trainings). This is ultimately what matters, because these are the claims that are most independent of culture, history, worldview, and scripture. They are testable by ordinary people in today’s world. All one needs is the set of instructions for how to run the test, the motivation and curiosity to do it, and then you can see for yourself. So while most of what is called “Buddhism” is a body of knowledge that has changed over many centuries, it still has something at its core that matters in the sense that all things eventually matter: it is an accurate reflection of your reality here and now and you can see that for yourself. In the end, Buddhist meditation isn’t worth doing because we know exactly what the Buddha really taught, it is worth doing because it works.
Enlightenment is real. It is a real as anything else in life. It is real like love is real. It is real like the color blue is real. But there is something tricky about it – it is what scientists call “qualia,” that is, it is something that cannot be measured, quantified, or understood through the standard tools of science. But that may be changing, because science is changing.
Along with being real, enlightenment is very mysterious. It is very difficult to understand, and in a fundamental way, it cannot be understood rationally. Like any qualia, it has to be experienced to be known. And when something is both real and mysterious it won’t be long before science becomes curious about it, no matter how difficult it is to study.
In the past when something was both real and mysterious, we used the science of ages past to understand it. And that usually meant we worshipped it. That is what happened with enlightenment. We built temples to it, bowed down to it, erected monuments in our minds and in our hearts to it, and encased it layers of the best cutting-edge thinking available at the time – which we now call superstition. While these things are good at preservation, they are terrible at changing with better information. They ossify the ignorance as well as the truth. Luckily, within most enlightenment traditions, this is widely understood and so tradition is simultaneously respected and chided by the great teachers. Enlightenment became entangled with religion, with identity, and with belief a long time ago and that is not going to change anytime soon. But things are going to change. Call me optimistic. Call me crazy. But things seem to be changing gradually, and it could be that we are about to see a true science of enlightenment.
Why do I think this? There are a few reasons. The ballooning funding for meditation research, both in the NIH and from private foundations is one reason. The increasing number of scientists, industry and tech leaders, and ordinary people who are experiencing enlightenment for themselves (and becoming vocal about it) is another. But mostly it comes down to whether scientists themselves are serious about this idea, and it seems like that may be happening. For the first time in history, many people with serious funding and institutional resources are seriously considering whether enlightenment can be studied scientifically, and questions about whether such a thing is possible invites curiosity rather than opprobrium at scientific conferences. Some tentative studies are breaking new ground, and because enlightenment is real, they are finding something. But the quality of the research has not been very good. The fact that they are finding something is a clue as to what could happen next. As the quality improves and the questions become more sophisticated, the results of such research will do the same thing Galileo’s telescope did for our understanding of the world – confirm a vaster reality while overturning centuries of dogma. And that is something scientists love to do. If it begins to happen we may see a boom in the study of topics that were once thought off-limits to science – indeed we may already be seeing it.
A century from now people may look back and realize that ours was a time when the broader culture had the first inklings that enlightenment just might be real. When we began the slow exit from a long dark age, a time when we knew very little about our most fundamental nature, and entered a time when a reasonable, clear-headed view of spiritual enlightenment became as accessible as any other kind of knowledge. When people began to take it as seriously as some of the stranger ideas in psychology or physics. A time may be coming when people will have as much respect and awe for brain scans of enlightened minds as they have for Hubble deep field images. But I suspect getting there will not be easy. There will be a lot of arguing, and likely some very unenlightened behavior. We are already seeing the beginnings of this change, as some traditionalists deride the secularisation of Buddhist ideas, and others, like the Dalai Lama, are embracing the change. This is only the beginning of a much larger debate that we will be having in the coming decades.
We are nearly there. I’m keeping my fingers crossed that my grandkids will be able to enroll in Awakening 101 in their freshman year of college. Until then, we should all keep urging serious people to take enlightenment seriously.
The dark night is a series of insights in meditation also known as the “dukkha nanas” or “knowledges of dissatisfaction” in classical Buddhism. They are a series of stages where the meditator gets a good hard long look at suffering.
It is not fun.
There is an aspect of the dark night that I want to highlight because it is very important. It happens to everyone and is not discussed often. And it is this: once you see dukkha in yourself you begin to see it everywhere.
You can hear the sadness and anxiety in other’s voices. Feel the anger and cynicism in humor and sarcasm. See the ceaseless restlessness in body language. Read the guarded disappointment in the set of faces passing on the street. See the constant craving for escape in just about every behavior.
The deep dissatisfaction and restlessness that is embedded in everyone’s lives jumps out in sharp clarity. It is not just in the people you encounter either. You can hear it in music, see it in art, feel it in the layout of offices, and recognize it as part of normal life, from the highest expression of humanity to the lowest depths of depravity. Dukkha is there. You can’t avoid it. It is not just something you see in your meditation, it is something you see in the world.
There is a scene in the latest Cosmos series that really stood out to me, because it captures what this is like. It portrays the experience of Clair Paterson, the scientist who, while trying to determine the true age of the earth, accidentally discovered that lead from gasoline is everywhere, and it is poising people. *Click the picture above to see the video.*
Imagine what it must have been like to be him. You analyze the data, crunch the numbers, and come to a shocking realization that literally no one else on the planet knows – there is a toxin covering every surface. It fills the air, and is probably in all the food. What would it be like to make such a discovery?
Even though it is not fun to discover dukkha, it is important. In fact, I’d say that unless you really soak up the truth to be found in this insight, then real wisdom – reality-based, non-superficial, knowledge about the actual state of affairs – is not possible. Additionally, developing deep compassion is difficult without seeing dukkha up close and personal.
Like Paterson, you will feel the urge to do something about it. Not just for yourself, but for others. This is how compassion, a deep and universal form of compassion, can arise. You realize that everyone is struggling with the same problem in different ways.
You see that dukkha is everywhere, and for this reason, seeking for happiness in things soaked in dukkha just won’t help. This is how wisdom arises. Why obsess over the small stuff? Why spend time in distraction? Once the meditator sees the truth about dukkha, then a clear sense of what is and is not important arises.
The bright side of the dark night is the development of compassion and wisdom. These are impossible to imagine without a deep insight into dukkha. So while the dark night is not fun, it is worth it for the transformation that it can bring.
If you think that you may be in the dark night, please contact a teacher. For more information, you can contact the author directly. Don’t be shy. If you are in the Dark Night, reach out.
“The Buddhist revolution has not arrived yet, because no one realizes how radical the Buddha was talking…”
If you don’t know who Kenneth Folk is, do yourself a favor and watch this. He is my old teacher and I continue to learn from him every time he talks. In this fascinating interview he offers a secular perspective on awakening. The host, Rick Archer, has a background in nonduality and Kenneth’s approach is very different for him. So the questions are right to the point and really great.
The takeaway: This is not light reading. Venture into this only if you are serious about understanding what the Satipatthana actually says. Otherwise, read the more friendly summaries. Or just read the sutta itself, which is here.
Satipattana, The Direct Path to Realization is not one book, it’s two. The first book is in the text, and the second is in the footnotes, which sometimes take up half a page. Both books are full of detail. Both books are a challenge to the lay reader because the writing is scholastic, abstract and filled with exotic terminology. But it is abundantly clear that in both books the author knows what he is talking about. If you are serious about knowing what is in the Satipatthana, this is probably your go-to book.
Let’s back up a moment: what is in the Satipatthana Sutta that it merits a whole two books? The Satipatthana is a discourse found in both the Majjhima Nikaya and Digha Nikaya (two of the root texts of the Buddha’s original teachings) and it is special because it gives amazingly clear meditation instructions. A surprising fact about the original discourses: there are not many places in them where the Buddha gives nuts-and-bolts meditation instructions. The Satipatthana is unique among them because it stands out as the clearest, most complete, and the most unique to the Buddha’s teachings. So if you want to do “Buddhist” meditation, you can’t go wrong doing what is in the Satipatthana.
Another reason to study the Satipatthana is that after giving the meditation instructions the Buddha tops it off with a big promise. At the very end he explains that if anyone does this kind of meditation day and night diligently for just two weeks she can expect to reach awakening (stream entry). Think about that. If you get it together enough to put all your energy into this meditation for about the length of an average vacation, you can awaken. When he calls it the “direct path to realization” he is not joking.
Now, most of us, myself especially, cannot keep up the level of intensity he is describing for that long. This kind of meditation can wear you down. So two weeks of nonstop mindfulness is, well… aspirational. No problem. The Buddha adds that if you keep it up at a more moderate level you can expect awakening in 7 months to 7 years. That’s not very specific by modern standards, and some people might balk and putting in work on a such an open-ended project, but when you consider what is being promised, it is well worth the effort. So the Satipatthana sutta is especially interesting to folks who are ready to get serious about their meditation and see if awakening is real.
The Satipatthana translates as the “Foundations of Mindfulness,” and it is considered the source of what is now commonly called “insight meditation.” The sutta lays out two broad ideas: first there is a special technique of meditation invented by the Buddha (mindfulness), which one then applies to four categories of experience. Hence the “four foundations of mindfulness.”
The technique described in the sutta is to get focused, build some concentration (how much is the source of a lot of debate), and then to turn attention to ordinary things. And when I say ordinary I mean very ordinary. Itches. Sounds. Pressure. Mental images. The constant channel surfing of the body and mind in all their busy activity. What do we do when we look at these things? We simply “know” them. That’s it. That’s the technique. This is the counterintuitive part. He’s not advocating doing anything. Just “know.”
This is so simple it is mind-bogglingly hard to understand. We want to do something, change something, create something. But no. The Buddha is saying clearly over and over, just know what you are experiencing in your body and mind right this instant. That’s it. That’s all. Just do that and keep doing that as long as you can.
For anyone experienced in the natural sciences this should sound vaguely familiar. Consider how Jane Goodall studies chimpanzees. Or how natural scientists of all kinds study the behaviour of complex natural systems in their native environment. The very first step is to simply immerse yourself in the system and watch. That’s all. Don’t interpret. Don’t interfere. Don’t test. Don’t theorise. Simply watch.
The Buddha is explaining how to conduct the data collection phase of naturalistic study.
Everything that is called “insight meditation” today flows from this simple technique. Whether it is noting, body scanning, open awareness, or any of the other dozens of ways of doing insight meditation, they all are different ways of simply getting you to immerse yourself in the mind and body and then observe without interfering. The technique is simple moment-to-moment data collection.
So what do we collect data on? In the sutta these are the four foundations. To return to the Jane Goodall analogy, imagine that she were to sit with a pad and paper with four columns on it while watching the chimpanzees. Each column represents a different category of behaviour she wants to watch for, and each time she sees one she simply makes a brief note in that category. In this kind of meditation we are instructed to do something very similar. This is where Satipattana, The Direct Path to Realization really shines. The author gets into the nuances and subtleties of the four foundations in a way that is intriguing. It turns out that there is a lot of information packed into the sutta, even though is is relatively short. If you like deep study into Buddhist theory and deconstruction of language, then you will love this book.
I won’t go into a lot of detail about the four foundations here, because obviously you would need a whole two books to do cover everything, but there is one aspect of the four foundations that I love and it is hard not to share. It’s also one that really confuses people. So please excuse me for geeking out for a moment.
The first three foundations are straightforward. They roughly correspond to the body, the mind, and how you react to the contents of the body and mind. But the fourth foundation is my favorite. It is also the least understood. It is often translated as “mental objects” or not translated at all and left as “dhammas” with a small “d.” It always strikes people as a bit strange because it doesn’t fit at all with the first three, which are pretty intuitive.
The fourth foundation contains things like the five hinderances, the seven factors of enlightenment and the five aggregates. The reason I love this foundation is because it shows the Buddha’s humanity. This is what I call the “kitchen-sink” foundation, because it seems like it is the one in which he threw everything else that he couldn’t fit neatly into the first three.
Let’s return to the Goodall analogy. Imagine that on her pad the first three columns had items that any person would recognize as relevant for animal behavior, such as “feeding,” “sleeping” and “mating.” But then in the fourth category she had a wide-ranging list of things to watch for that were unique to chimps and were part of her theory of chimp behavior, such as “hierarchical posturing,” “selective grooming,” and “sharing resources.” You couldn’t really study chimpanzees without watching for such things, but they don’t fit neatly into the most basic categories. That is exactly the case with the fourth foundation. Anyone can easily watch for body sensations, mental activity and reactions, but there are subtle and important things occurring that are part of the natural behavior of the body and mind. They don’t fit neatly into the first three categories. And if you do the meditation long enough you are bound to come across them. That is the fourth foundation.
Overall, I would recommend Satipattana, The Direct Path to Realization for two kinds of people. The first are those who are true hardcore Buddhist geeks (if you listen to the podcast of the same name you are likely in this category). The kind who know the original Pali words for things, and consider studying the Visuddhimagga to be a good way to spend a Saturday afternoon. The second kind of person who would get something from this book are those who have been doing insight meditation for a while, and maybe something is starting to happen. Maybe you have had some unusual experiences, or something deeper seems to be working. You are becoming more serious about insight meditation and want to learn more about it from an in depth analysis. If that is you, I don’t think you can get much better than this book.
As an insight meditation teacher, reading Waking Up by Sam Harris was simultaneously joyful and shameful. It is a fine book that points to a weakness in the culture of awakening that is hard to look at directly. In his usual style, he is honest to the point of painful, and sometimes it can be hard to take.
Let me back up.
For those who don’t know Harris, he is a neuroscientist who became most well known for publishing The End of Faith, a book promoting the idea that what we believe influences how we behave, and that faith-based beliefs lead to rather irrational behavior. Like flying planes into buildings. He’s dry, technical, but funny and obviously not afraid of controversy. Apparently people really like that combination, because The End of Faith stayed on the New York Times bestseller list for over 30 weeks. Harris quickly moved from obscure neuroscientist to intellectual sensation, and was lumped in with Richard Dawkins, Christopher Hitchens and Daniel Dennett as the leading edge of a revitalized post-9/11 atheist movement described as “new atheism.” Together they were ironically dubbed the “four horsemen.”
But Harris is an odd fit among the horsemen. While Hitchens, Dennett, and Dawkins all rail against the privileged position that eastern spirituality seems to have among western intellectuals, Harris openly disagrees with them, making the case that despite the woo-woo clearly at work in the offerings of Deepak Chopra, The Secret, and similar new age flim-flam, there is something valuable to be found in the spiritual traditions of Asia that is being obscured, rather than revealed, by pop spirituality. He uses his public platform to urge people to dig a little deeper.
It turns out he is speaking from experience. Waking Up is not just an introduction to Buddhist meditation and the liberation that it leads to, it is a spiritual memoir told from the perspective of a consummate rationalist and skeptic. One who stumbles upon enlightenment.
After a few chapters of fleshing out why some spiritual practices are fruitful human endeavors and others are not, and correlating the claims of mystics with modern neuroscience, Harris gets down to the memoir part of his book and dishes on his own experiences. I was thrilled to read that Harris begins his spiritual search in U Pandita’s meditation center, where he practices a rigorous form of insight meditation. Harris is told that he is working through the progress of insight toward “cessation,” and will attain his first taste of awakening upon that strange moment of non-occurrence. For readers of my site, or fans of insight meditation, this should all sound very familiar.
When I read this part of the book I was rooting for Harris, excited to hear what he makes of the shift in consciousness that occurs after cessation. I looked at how many pages were left and anticipated that there would be a detailed account of how he reconciled his own encounter with nibbana with cutting edge brain science. This, I thought, is the book I’ve been waiting for.
So imagine my disappointment, shock really, when on the same page he reports that he couldn’t do it, and gave up.
No cessation. No stream entry. Zilch.
Something, I thought, went horribly wrong.
It is not exactly clear from the book what happened. In retrospect he reasons that moving toward a goal (cessation) did not feel like the right path to enlightenment, and that truth can be glimpsed no matter where one is on the path, and truth is not found in a state, cessation is not necessary and… his explanation started to feel fishy as I read it. Frankly, this sounds like a rationalization after the fact. Indeed, it sounds identical to what he was taught by the teachers and traditions that he encountered after he left Pandita’s center (Advaita and Dzogchen). So what was he really thinking and feeling at the time he threw in the towel?
A hint can be found in his description of the wall he hit during a year-long retreat:
“But cessation never arrived. Given my gradualist views at that point, this became very frustrating. Most of my time on retreat was extremely pleasant but it seemed to me that I’d merely been given the tools by which to contemplate the evidence of my non-enlightenment. My practice had become a vigil. A method of waiting, however patiently, for a future reward.”
Harris is describing an insight practice that has stalled out in one of the stages along the progress of insight. In another passage he points out that his movement through the progress of insight wasn’t very clear and although he had many interesting experiences he did not know if he was making any progress at all. Why didn’t he know?
What concerns me most about this is that Harris does not describe what would have been the best, most natural, and sensible antidote for his struggle: someone simply telling him where he was on the path and what to do to move on. I wonder what kind of book Waking Up would be if someone had simply taken him aside at that time and said “hey, relax, you are in lower equanimity. It goes on for a while and can sometimes feel uneventful. Here’s what you can do about it…”
Insight meditation, as a culture, is often one of information-restriction rather than transparency. A nascent movement, pragmatic dharma, has emerged largely in reaction to this, but it is still in its infancy and does not have much of a voice in mainstream meditation centers and media outlets (yet). The most traditional approaches still hold the biggest sway, and they are usually hierarchical, with the teacher knowing the details of the insight stages and which one the student is currently developing. The student’s role is to follow the instructions faithfully and not become too wrapped up in where they are on the path and when the cessation will come. There are many reasons why this approach developed, and many of them are very good reasons. But I don’t think these reasons work anymore, and Harris’s case is an example of why we can no longer afford to have an approach to insight meditation modeled on the norms of pre-modern hierarchical culture. It just doesn’t work very well. A few hundred years ago Harris may have stuck it out, not because it was a special time full of special people, but because his options would have been limited. In today’s world, he simply had better choices and felt empowered to pursue them. The important point is that Harris wasn’t failing as a meditator, he was most likely in a state of information-hunger about what was happening in his own mind. He deserved to know more. And as insight meditation grows and establishes itself in the west, we need to keep in mind that we can do a lot better than this.
I would recommend Harris’s book for a number of reasons. The skeptical approach to awakening, denuded of the dogma and superstition, is wonderful. It’s as if a portal into the future opened up and the reader can see what an approach to awakening will look like when we move beyond religion. The presence of neuroscience in a book about awakening is nothing new, but it is rarely presented so soberly and carefully (although the caution led to a lack of integration with the rest of the book). And finally, it is clear that Harris knows what awakening is from direct experience, and can discuss it as a field of human endeavor every bit as legitimate and practical as any art or science.
The book is a high wire act in a sense, where he balances between the assumptions of secular materialists on one hand and religious ideologues on the other. He invites each to see something in their direct experience that fails to fit into any dogma, and he does so with an understanding of both positions that is refreshing. I’m often frustrated with authors who are so intoxicated by spirituality that they’ve lost their mental footing and have succumbed to a kind of cognitive free fall, but equally odious are authors so rigidly skeptical that they refuse to look at the miracle of their own consciousness. Harris successfully creates an island in the gulf between the two perspectives. Hopefully, it will grow as others follow suit.
“Angie” is a grad student in London who has been skyping with me once a week to learn meditation. She has navigated through most of the stages of insight and is now in the low part of the Equanimity stage.
“I keep losing the plot” she reports. “Every time I sit it is nice, full of easy vibrations and happiness, but I’m lost.”
More effort, I instruct her.
A week later we skype and she explains that the spacing out is gone, but now there is a feeling “like a bounding pulse around my eyes.”
Less effort, I explain.
She looks at me, a bit frustrated. “Well?” she asks, “which is it!”
Building the Fire
There are few technical concepts in meditation as confusing as skillful effort. That elusive quality of leaning in to the meditation, focusing, attending, deliberately working… but not too much.
Skillful effort is like building a campfire. You need a little kindling, but not too much, blow on the coals, but gently. Do too much or too little of the right things and the fire will not start. And this is how it is with meditation. Too much or too little effort and your progress is suddenly brought to a halt.
Most meditators have had the experience of pushing too hard or too little, and finding that the meditation locks up under the weight of effort, or dissipates without enough of it. What it seems like from the perspective of the meditator is that the meditation either devolves into unfocused reverie or a tense, rigid striving, that is frustrating. If either of these is happening, try adjusting the effort.
It can be especially confusing if you read meditation instructions from different teachers answering student questions or from different styles of meditation. Some exhort you to practice like your hair’s on fire while others insist that there is nothing to do and never was, that all effort is unskillful. If you take all of it at face value, you’re likely to have trouble.
To help make sense of all of the contradictions, it is helpful to understand that the kind of effort that is skillful depends on what stage of meditation you are in. In other words, “skillful” effort is not a thing that you learn once and master. It is something that constantly changes during the meditation. You have to learn it fresh as new insights arise.
To discover what is skillful you need mindfulness. You need the capacity to notice how the meditation is changing this instant and remember from past meditations how to adjust your effort accordingly.
To use the analogy of the campfire again, imagine you get a small flame going by blowing hard on some coals, but then you keep blowing like that and the flame goes out. You try again and when the flame gets going you back off the blowing but forget to add more kindling, and it goes out. So then you go through the process and then add more kindling, and so on, until finally you have a fire that is sustaining itself.
This is how meditation on the insight knowledges proceeds up to high equanimity. It follows a predictable series of changes, and just like the changing conditions when starting a fire, how you balance effort needs to change depending on where you are in the progress of insight.
Roughly speaking, here is a very crude outline of how to apply effort by stage:
- Physiocognitive stage (nanas 1-3): Sustained applied effort. Objects are a bit dull and it is easy to drift off. Be wary of thoughts.
- A&P: Less effort needed. The level of interest naturally picks up and there is less need for one to stay present with objects. Surf on the pulsing, vibrating objects.
- Dissolution: more effort. It is easy to space out, or to get lost in a sense of frustration that objects are passing you by. Put energy into staying alert.
- Middle Dark Night (nanas 6 – 9): Less effort than dissolution, but more than A&P. There is a balance point right in the middle that is needed here. It is easy to slip into the avoidance tactics of daydreaming or analysis, but it is also easy to push so hard that the meditation becomes rigid, and stuck.
- Reobservation: more effort. The thing to do here is to try and keep up with what is happening, and it is all happening very fast.
- Low to mid equanimity: Much more effort. This is notorious place for getting lost and drifting off. Don’t allow your mindfulness, concentration and investigation to waft away in the pleasant hot tub of spacious vibrations. Stay focused and sharp.
- High equanimity: Much less effort. The meditation can almost do itself at this point.
- Very high equanimity: almost no effort. Surrender to what is happening. Trust the process and watch what it reveals to you. You will naturally look for what is not being seen clearly, but if you look to hard you won’t see it.
As you can see there is no single kind of effort that is “skillful.” If you were to follow a meditation teacher around for a day and listen to the advice she gives different students, you would come away pretty confused. Some students would be told to practice like their hair’s on fire. Others to surrender to what is and see through the illusion of doing. But the teacher would merely be tailoring the instructions to fit the student’s current situation.
And this is what it is like reading the many different meditation manuals, written by different teachers, in different styles, at different points on the questioner’s path. Understand that all meditation advice is situational, and effort is a constantly moving target. It gets better with practice.
Ron answers questions on a whole range of meditation and psychology related topics, from the online BG community.
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.
“Jill” is 32 and works as a lawyer in the southwest. She wrote to me explaining that during her meditation she sometimes feels a panic attack coming on and has disturbing mental images. She cannot control it and does not know what she is doing wrong. When we talk for the first time I ask her when it began. “It started a few months after my therapist taught me mindfulness…”
Third wave Cognitive-Behavioral Therapy (CBT) is the marriage of modern psychology and ancient buddhist meditation. It has grown rapidly in the past decade, and many psychologists and meditation teachers are enthusiastic about the development, seeing it as a blend of the very best of eastern wisdom with western psychological science. Third wave CBT goes under a variety of names such as Mindfulness-Based CBT (MBCBT), Dialectical Behavior Therapy (DBT), Acceptance and Commitment Therapy (ACT) and Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction (MBSR). There are also less structured approaches and informal sitting groups springing up in clinics across the country. It is the rare hospital or clinic that does not have a meditation group these days. This has resulted in a historically unique situation. Psychologists, medical doctors, social workers and counselors are rapidly becoming the vanguard of meditation in the west, introducing people who may have never meditated to the practice.
All these approaches have the common elements of CBT (recognizing and challenging maladaptive thoughts) and a version of meditation that goes under the moniker “mindfulness meditation” or sometimes just “mindfulness.” A review of the treatment manuals for DBT, ACT, MBSR and MBCBT suggest that “mindfulness meditation” is something close to a “soft-vipassana.” The person doing meditation in these treatment protocols is instructed to watch thoughts and feelings come and go on their own without judgment. This leads to the insight that one does not need to believe in, or act on, thoughts or feelings. This is perfect for CBT, which emphasizes the importance of thoughts and beliefs as the drivers of mood disorders. I call mindfulness meditation a “soft” version of vipassana because it stops short of instructing the person to see that everything in awareness is coming and going and is not owned. It also does not emphasize the kind of intense or rapid momentary concentration that marks some vipassana techniques. Instead, clinical mindfulness focuses on relaxation and gentleness (but not samadhi) and points the person to watch thinking and emotional reactions. I would argue that these differences are a very good thing because, despite popular opinion, traditional vipassana would be terrible medicine for a person who is emotionally distraught, unstable, and unable to cope.
That last sentence may be a bit shocking to some. If you are like most people, you associate meditation, all types of meditation, with happiness, relaxation, and maybe even bliss. The idea that it could produce difficulty is not only counter intuitive, it is anathema to how meditation is presented in the west. If anything difficult does occur during the meditation the meditator is likely to feel that they are doing something wrong. If he or she goes to a meditation teacher the advice will likely be to just “let it go,” “drop it,” or my favorite, “thank your mind for it.” This is patronizing. It gives the false impression that if anything distressing does occur during meditation, the problem is one of technique or reactivity on behalf of the meditator. In reality difficult experiences in meditation, ones that are remarkably similar to the symptoms of many mood disorders, are so normal that the most ancient surviving meditation manuals in Buddhism go into great detail about them, categorizing them into six distinct types that occur in a specific order. Far from being a sign of poor meditation, they are actually described as a sign of deepening insight. In other words, the most ancient manuals not only affirm that difficult experiences occur during serious meditation, they posit that these experiences are supposed to happen. They are a definite sign of one’s movement along what the famous Burmese meditation master Mahasi Sayadaw coined The Progress of Insight, and are known as the “dukkha nanas” or “insights into suffering.” This might sound bad, but the good news is that these more distressing insights only occur when one is well on the way and down the path. Meditators usually have to go through a lot of sitting time, develop strong concentration, and become very equanimous before they can enter into the later insights. For this reason it is unlikely that a soft-vipassana approach can get one very far beyond the initial insights and into the dukkha nanas. So in a clinical setting if you stick to the instructions and don’t overdo it, nothing unsettling is likely to occur. I do not believe mindfulness meditation is intentionally designed for this, but if it was it would be a damn clever modification of traditional vipassana.
Despite the limits of mindfulness meditation, there is a problem. A small number of people in clinical settings are unexpectedly good at meditation. With the barest instruction, some people are able to launch themselves deep into the rabbit hole of insights that vipassana is intended to produce. It is an experience that can be troubling and even destabilizing, particularly if one has no idea that it is coming. As third wave CBT has boomed in the past decade these people have become a significant minority in the meditation community. Introduced to meditation through therapy, they find themselves on an emotional ride to which they never agreed, encountering upheavals and difficult truths at the very moment in their lives when they are least able to handle them. That is bad enough, but much worse is that many of the well-intentioned clinicians who teach these techniques have no idea that anything troubling could occur.
Many of the developers of these approaches received their training in meditation through Zen, which eschews the more old fashioned stage-models of insight, and therefore does not formally recognize the predictable difficulties that arise (though every Zen teacher I’ve met is cognizant of them and is well-prepared to handle them). Additionally, for reasons too complex to go into here, traditional vipassana teachers in the west have elected to present the practice without much emphasis on the traditional stages of insight. And so, without intending to, they often leave the simplistic impression that there are no difficulties associated with insight, and that more meditation equals more happiness. The inspired psychologists who learn from these teachers come away greatly impressed with meditation, but with little to no knowledge of the dukkha nanas. They return to their clinics, offices and hospitals and find novel ways to integrate meditation into the treatments of unstable people. Most of these people get great benefit. Some have a different experience, one that is unsettling. And while many meditators may object to this characterization, pointing out that their own experience of dukkha nanas was not so difficult, I would argue that most people who go through it with little trouble are not in the midst of therapy or suicidal.
People who have had this unexpected experience are growing in numbers and are starting to share with each other and with more traditional meditators. They have come to call the dukkha nanas the “dark night” after the Christian experience (some teachers believe they may be in the same mystical family if not the same thing). They are sharing and seeking advice on internet forums and in settings such as the Cheetah House and Dark Night Project where they feel they will not be told to simply “drop it” but will be supported in gaining understanding. They are an unseen, and as yet unrecognized, growing minority of western meditators. Many have no sangha, no formal teacher, no texts or canon, no philosophy or anything resembling “faith.” They are frequently alone, searching the Internet for anyone like themselves, trying to sift through the overwhelmingly positive pitch for meditation for some nugget of information that can illuminate their experience. Like refugees with no home, they do not understand what is happening to them or why, and they often do not know what to do or where to go for help.
This issue is not abstract for me and perhaps my own experience will shed light on why I care so much. Two years ago I received the green light from my teacher to begin teaching insight meditation. I put up a website, told those who knew me what I was up to, and waited to see who would be interested. While I made an effort to write in my own voice, which can be irreverent, what I presented was right down the middle vipassana. However, I did do one thing that was unusual and for which I am very grateful. I went against the common practice of downplaying the insight stages and instead put them front-and-center on the site. I did this because my teacher was clear about them with me, so I followed suit and was candid about them in my teaching. I made sure to include a rich description of the dukkha nanas and cautions to those who may be about to plunge into them. Unbeknownst to me this one gesture of understanding came to define my experience of teaching for the next two years, as the great majority of people who contacted me, and continue to contact me, are in the dark night. Most got into it through formal practice (amazingly, it doesn’t seem to matter much which technique or tradition). But I was alarmed when it seemed that a significant number, perhaps a third, learned to meditate from their therapist or from a group in a clinical setting. Sometimes they were actively suicidal at the time they learned to meditate. Interestingly, the majority never discussed their negative experiences while they were in therapy. Like the therapists themselves, they wanted to believe that meditation was helping, and so they dismissed what was occurring or blamed it on the thing that brought them to therapy in the first place.
As a psychologist this is more than a bit embarrassing, it is troubling. It is one of the ethical principles of psychology that no intervention is done without fully explaining the risks and benefits of the treatment. If an intervention could possibly cause distress, even mild distress, psychologists are ethically obligated to inform the person of this possibility and gain their informed consent before proceeding. Psychologists are not doing this when it comes to mindfulness meditation, chiefly because they do not know there are risks. But more and more people who have participated in it know that there are. This is not a situation created by malice, but by ignorance. Psychologists simply were not told this could ever happen, and were given the impression that the results of meditation were exclusively happiness, calm, and increased wellbeing. They are not to be blamed for this situation, as they have merely borrowed a problem that already existed in the way meditation was being taught to students in the west. It is a problem that continues and in some ways defines what “mainstream” meditation teaching is in the west.
While this is not psychology’s fault, it is only a matter of time before the consequences lay squarely on the shoulders of psychologists who teach mindfulness meditation. Sooner or later, those who teach it will learn about the progress of insight and the dark night. Either from writings like this or from patients themselves. When they do they will face an ethical dilemma about whether to continue teaching meditation in clinical settings. While meditation teachers can essentially “get away” with not telling people about the dark night, psychologists do not have this luxury. Ethically, we are obligated to acknowledge the risks and be cautious. This is not happening yet, but it is my sincere hope that those enamored of third wave CBT will examine not only the manuals and the studies, but look deeply into the descriptions of insight in the pali cannon. Even better, talk with meditators who have experienced a dark night, researchers who study it, or best of all dive into it and see what it is like. Psychologists might benefit most from going beyond mindfulness meditation, breaking loose of the manual, and seeing how far this practice can go. Then there might be more respect for the powerful, and sometimes life-shaking, changes that vipassana can create in the heart and mind. It is my hope that psychology will soon lose its infatuation with meditation, and begin to evaluate it as a tool for change in a more mature light, seeing both the promise and the dilemmas. Until this happens I expect the community of mindfulness meditation refugees to grow.
The recent new-year celebrations were followed by lots of resolutions, and then in the weeks following, considerable resignation. Resolutions are used in meditation too, but they are very different from the kinds of resolutions people make at the start of a new year.
New year’s resolutions have a few characteristics that we all know. They can be vague and unrealistic (I’m going to get in “peak condition!”). But most important they are usually about gaining something, such as a slimmer figure, better health or a new skill (“I’m going to learn the piano and speak French”). And this is very different than the kinds of resolutions used in meditation.
A meditation resolution is fundamentally about losing something, not gaining. You lose the restlessness, stop indulging the list-making mind, let go of the expectations, or unclench anger. Later, more technical resolutions are about letting go of blissful states and eventually even the sense of self that is doing the resolving.
To make a resolution, do so at the beginning of each sit for a few days (less or more as needed). It is good to say it aloud, but if you have people in the next room and don’t want to sound crazy, just say it quietly to yourself. Say the resolution with as much earnestness as you can muster, imagine that this is a promise you are making to someone very important that is counting on you (it is). But here is where things are very different from new-year’s style resolutions: once you’ve made the resolution – forget about it.
This might sound counterintuitive. But it solves an important issue – the sense of self may appropriate the resolution for itself, glomming onto it and turning it into a hero’s journey. The self will fiercely strive to fulfill the resolution it now owns. This just makes more of a problem for the meditator. It may help to imagine that the resolution is like a line of code that you are putting into a computer program. You hit the enter key and then just walk away, forget it, and get on with life.
If the resolution “takes” what will happen is that in the moment when it most counts it will pop up all by itself, with no effort on your part. When sleepiness comes on you’ll automatically remember to investigate how it feels in the body or when that self-judging talk starts to pop up you’ll automatically remember to give it a funny name (“here comes Mr. Boss-Man”) and let go. The resolution is working, but it is waiting at the edges of the mind for its time to come to work. It orients you to do the appropriate action at the moment it is needed, and at other times gets out of the way.
If the resolution doesn’t take then it may be that you need to make it again. You may need to use different words to make it more memorable. However, it could be that the resolution was too big of a leap from your present situation. If you can barely sit for 10 minutes and your resolution is to enter jhana, that’s too big of a leap. Think instead about what is just one step ahead. What is holding you back right now? Focus on making a resolution that works for your situation as it is, not as you aspire it to be in the future. Another issue could be that the resolution is not clear. For example, if you want to increase your concentration, making a resolution to “be more concentrated” isn’t likely to do anything. Instead state what it is that you will do to be more concentrated and make it as concrete as possible: “I resolve to place my attention on the breath every time a thought about work comes up.”
To sum up, here are three recommendations for making resolutions:
1. Make it concrete and clear
Resolutions work best when they are crystal clear. This is easier if you know the path and hindrances. If you don’t, then you won’t know what to resolve to attain or drop. You can learn about the path and hindrances on this site.
2. Make it and drop it
After you have “entered” the resolution you are no longer running the show, so just let go and watch what happens. State what you wish to do and move on without any effort to carry out anything special.
3. Give yourself permission
In order to download the resolution and move on, you really need to give yourself a unique kind of permission– the permission to remember when needed and forget when needed. In other words, the permission to give it all away – the action is out of your hands. You are giving the action, and all of its fruits, away from the start. When resolutions work, they arise spontaneously. In other words, while you are in deep meditation the intention for something to occur will arise on its own. “You” in the conventional sense, have nothing to do with it.
The most important thing about resolutions overall is to make sure that they are used appropriately and not in the same manner as a new-year’s resolution. Most resolutions that people make are for the enhancement and profit of the sense of self, but for the meditator, resolutions are very different. Like stones of intention thrown into the lake of the mind, you simply throw them out and let them go, watching the ripples spread outward. No further action is needed and any further action would become a hindrance. Out of compassion for yourself and others, you follow through on your intention in the moment when it is needed.
The times they are a changin’. Well, at least the New York Times.
The national paper of record recently posted an op-ed piece by Jeff Warren describing an intense pragmatic dharma retreat that he took with Daniel Ingram. During the retreat he was shooting for stream entry and describes in detail how the stages of insight unfolded for him, and Dr. Ingram’s advice along the way. Well worth a read:
The article can be read here.
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.”