The Path

When I first began meditating and read about things like the “path,” “way” and “journey” I assumed that these terms are just metaphors that describe a kind of personal growth that takes place on one’s spiritual quest. I had a vague notion that if I meditated I would gradually become a better person, and that it was this personal transformation that was referred to by the language of “paths” and “journeys.”

Boy was I wrong. What I did not know when I first started, and regrettably took me years to find out, is that there is a clear and richly detailed description of what happens to a meditator from their first sit all the way to enlightenment, and this is what is actually meant by the term “path.”

The map of the path has been developed collaboratively by many master meditators over thousands of years, and can be found in ancient meditation manuals like the Vimuttimagga (The Path of Freedom) and the Visudimagga (The Path of Purification). It is also in relatively newer guides like Mahasi Saydaw’s The Progress of Insight. Some modern-day descriptions are out there as well, and can be found in Jack Kornfield’s Living Dharma and A Path with Heart. However, the clearest modern descriptions of the path can be found in Mastering the Core Teachings of the Buddha by Daniel Ingram and In This Very Life by Sayadaw U Pandita.

What the map shows is that there are a series of predictable states and stages that constitute the “path.” Like signposts on the way to enlightenment, the states and stages are signals that one is doing the technique correctly and making progress. These signposts are universal, automatic and impersonal. They happen to everyone who does the technique correctly and have nothing to do with personal growth or individual needs. Rather, they provide a way of seeing clearly into the nature of reality. There are 17 stages on the path to enlightenment, and I will describe each one in detail, but first I would like to present the theory upon which the whole thing sits…

The Theory

To understand the map, and the path in general, it is useful (but not necessary) to understand the underlying theory. If the map describes what states and stages one experiences, the theory describes why one experiences them. In other words, the theory answers the question: what is it a map of?

To understand the theory it might help to start with what actually happens in meditation. Insight meditation, or Vipassana, is “clear seeing” of anything and everything that happens to us in the moment. So, when we do insight meditation we pay very close attention to our experience in the moment and try to see it as clearly as possible. When we do this we soon see that everything in experience follows a similar pattern of arising and disappearing in awareness. It doesn’t matter if it is a thought, feeling or a sensation, it arises and passes away in awareness in the same way. This might seem a little trivial at first glance, but it is actually a radical insight if you fully get it. Everything that you experience is impermanent in the sense that, no matter what it is, it follows the exact same pattern of arising and falling in awareness:

Any experience in awareness would roughly have that same shape through time, whether it was an itch, a thought, a craving for chocolate, or bad mood.

Our attention cannot clearly apprehend this arising and passing without special training, especially very quick successions of arising and passing away, and that is what meditation does: trains the mind to see how all things come and go in awareness at a very fine-grained level.

So this is all pretty geeky, but how does it lead to enlightenment? The reason that this knowledge is useful is because we can use it to experience Nirvana, and ultimately it is experiencing Nirvana which leads to enlightenment. Nirvana is essentially what you experience when you follow all sensations to their very end – they cease completely, and in that moment of cessation Nirvana is there. Nirvana is the unconditioned, the foundation, ground, background, the page upon which existence is written. All phenomena arise and fall out of existence, but Nirvana is always there when everything vanishes. By becoming an expert at watching phenomena closely and training your mind to follow all phenomena as they disappear, you are training the mind to catch a “glimpse” of Nirvana in that sweet spot when the sensations have ceased.

How does this actually work in practice? When we sit to meditate and begin noting our experience, the mind does a very surprising thing. All by itself, the mind begins to sync up on the arising part of the wave-form of all phenomena happening in that moment. For reasons that I have not yet fully understood, when meditation is done properly the mind begins to focus on just one part of the wave-form of phenomena, and it likes to start at the beginning. So, as you are sitting and you notice an itch, then a sound, then a thought and so on, the mind is actually noticing just the arising of those things, just the beginning. Then, an even more amazing thing happens, as you continue attention begins to move along the wave-like structure. You journey along and the mind syncs up on the peak of phenomena arising and passing, and rides the high crest of sensate experience. Then as you continue down the path the mind begins to sync up on the disintegration of phenomena in experience, noticing all the endings of things. Eventually, you get to the far end of the tail of the wave, and attention begins to focus on the instant where phenomena completely cease to be. When the mind fully syncs up with the complete ending of all phenomena it experiences a moment in which all phenomena disappear for an instant, and this is “the mind alighting upon Nirvana” as Mahasi Sayadaw put it so well.

The theory behind the “path” is that essentially it is a process of attention following the birth and arising of sensations, to their peak, their falling away, and utter disappearance. When the mind fully experiences their disappearance, or cessation, it experiences something that lays beyond all of the phenomenal world and which changes the mind of the meditator permanently. It is called it “Nirvana” in the ancient suttas, which simply means “extinction” or “to go out.” When the meditator experiences Nirvana enough times, a profound and subtle shift occurs within them, deep insights become permanently fixed in the forefront of awareness, and certain illusions are seen for what they are. This is enlightenment.

The Map of the Path

I divide the map in five overall sections, each with a series of stages. While the stages themselves are standard and can be found in the Vissudimagga and Mahasi Saydaw’s The Progress of Insight, the sections are my creation. I created the sections because they help to organize the path in a way that, I believe, makes the overall experience more understandable. The sections are the Physio-Cognitive Stage (which covers the initial rising arc of the wave-form), The Arising and Passing Away (which rests upon the top of the wave), Extinction (which covers the downhill side of the wave-form), Equanimity (which is at the leveling-off on the far tail of the wave) and Cessation (where the wave ends).

The overall path, from first sit to Nirvana, looks like this. To learn about a section of the path, click the name of the stage.

Physio-Cognitive Stage

1. Mind and Body

2. Cause and Effect

3. Three Characteristics

 4. Arising and Passing Away


5.     Dissolution

6.     Fear

7.     Misery

8.    Disgust

9.    Desire for Deliverance

10.     Re-Observation

11.  Equanimity


12.  Insight Leading to Emergence

13.  Adaptation

14.  Maturity

15.  Path

16.  Fruit

17.  Review

  1. I haven’t seen it explained like this before. Thanks!
    Looking forward to the rest of this. 🙂
    I notice the stages are not entirely the same as what I’ve read here and there. No ‘Disgust’ for example.

    • Whoops – good catch omni – I actually forgot disgust! It is in there now. Did I forget it intentionally? The shrink in me wonders…

  2. amazing amazing you have helped me to regain my faith again !!!!

    i am troubled by something if you could help me to answer- why do people become monks? I know they say they are alone with themselves as a mirror, but they are also escaping from the crazy aggessive jungle of real life to be among people that are also aiming to be peaceful ( easier to be with) so isn’t it easy to find peace while in a garden of eden kind of thing?
    is it not a cop out ? hope u can give me some insight.

    also dalai lama is not a vegetarian again. this angered me so much i almost quit when i heard that. i know life is suferring blah blah blah,.. but i dont add to it !!

    i dont kill people ! i dont kill animals and i dont kill bugs unless it’s accidently or in my veggie food. i do my best.
    and animals today are tortured ( my grandparents on my mother’s side were farmers ) also. when monks eat meat they also are saying it’s ok to others to do the same. horrible role models so many buddhist leaders make me angry.

    how can i be buddhist when my teachers let me down and have less compassion for sentient beings than i do ?

    oh and please spare me dalai lama’s excuses ( health pffff ! ) most of india is vegetarian and his health never did improve anyway from his meat eating- and what enlightened person puts himself his health before suffering of countless animals ( of other budhsits now too following his footsteps) what awakened one listens to buddhist precepts if they show lack of common sense and compassion or to doctors who are ignorant ??
    ps. i had a tibetan doctor tell me i needed meat also. i ignored him and i feel great. besides there are herbs and other things to supplement whatever defficiencies.
    sorry for my rant but im so troubled about this still.

    please help
    thankyou kindly,

    • Hi yeshe,

      Hang in there and don’t get too concerned about the behavior of teachers. A lot of the things that we think are “right” and “wrong” or “buddhist” or “non-buddhist” or “enlightened” or “asleep” eventually turn out not to be all that important once we wake up.

      The tone of your message shows that you’re frustrated with people you look up to – I’d bet that it is the ideals and expectations you’ve had that are the frustrating thing, not really the people. Even if they are famous teachers, they are still only people. Just watch that frustration arise and see what thoughts come with it. Do a little investigating. You might be surprised. The frustration will pass away like everything else and you don’t have to engage with it.

      PS – please read my post called “Sila:Getting Your Act Together” and let me know what you think.


  3. thankyou for your reply, but it’s not just that idealize them, it’s more that – how will i be assured that i will wake up, if say dalai lama has been at meditation his whole life and he still doesn’t get the basic idea of compassion ??

    and monks who sit in caves escaping the real world, they meditate all the time, ( i saw how some of them live- that is all they do and the only contact some of them have with people is through taking alms – or at the least the teach others ( easy to be a teacher and not INVOLVED with humanity)

    so it’s more like– how do i know meditation will even wake me up when monks and lamas are doing it all day and i don’t see any of them waking up to their own hypocrisy – after years and years of practicing medtiation- not even grasping simple tenets of buddhism? l

    ( i have started to wonder now if this is a hypocritical cult like any other ( be good be humble – religion as opium of the masses kind of thing)


  4. Ditto – I’ve never seen it put this way before, either. Breaking it down into where the attention goes with regard to the phase of the phenomenon’s arising and passing simplifies things a lot. I also notice the “rise” is more physiological in nature, whereas the crest and the fall are more psychological in nature. This helps.

  5. Why a picture of a normal curve, when you are talking about wave forms – would make sense to use a graph of a sine or cosine function.

  6. Actually, that is a sine wave.

  7. Would love to see a post about 2nd, 3rd and 4th paths.

  8. By far the best description of what enlightenment is. Thanks.

  9. I’m really chuffed i found this material. I’ve been recommending it to my sangha. Boy is there some evidence of dark night symptoms in our smalll group! We are lucky to be guided by an ex monk.
    I think these cycles are not necessarily exclusive to insight practice and are experienced by people in a very general fashion in a variety of capacities, regardless of meditation.
    I certainly know this to be true, although i am a meditator of 5 years as well.
    Great great resource!

  10. “I had a vague notion that if I meditated I would gradually become a better person”. I had this thought as well, and I’m surprised that many so called enlightened people doesn’t look to me like very good people. Yeah, enlightenment is about seeing how things really are, not about being a “good person”. But if someone gets rid of the notion of self, and realize how certain actions bear certain fruits, I have a hard time accepting they can behave in many stances with greed, lust, violence… For me, I think meditation has helped me to become a better person, to embody more closely the kind of person I would like to be.

  1. Pingback: On Diving Deeper Into the Mind of Terence McKenna Beyond the Screaming Abyss < ~C4Chaos

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