I realize that most people go into meditation looking for stability, happiness, and comfort in the face of their own existence...I have spent many years cultivating extreme experiential instability, careful awareness of the minutia of my suffering and the clear perception that I don't even exist as a separate entity...I can honestly say that these practices are without doubt the sanest thing I have ever done in my life. -Daniel Ingram
The path of insight is not known to be easy. There are said to be many ups and downs - ecstatic bliss and energy one moment and crushing fear and misery the next. There are many maps of this territory, all different on a superficial level, yet all containing many of the same fundamentals. In the words of Ingram:
One of the most profound things about these stages is that they are strangely predictable regardless of the practitioner or the insight tradition. Texts two thousand years old describe the stages just the way people go through them today, though there will be some individual variation on some of the particulars today as then. The Christian maps, the Sufi maps, the Buddhist maps of the Tibetans and the Theravada, and the maps of the Khabbalists and Hindus are all remarkably consistent in their fundamentals. I chanced into these classic experiences before I had any training in meditation, and I have met a large number of people who have done likewise. These maps, Buddhist or otherwise, are talking about something inherent in how our minds progress in fundamental wisdom that has little to do with any tradition and lots to do with the mysteries of the human mind and body. They are describing basic human development. These stages are not Buddhist but universal, and Buddhism is merely one of the traditions that describes them, albeit unusually well.
In this post I will discuss the map, known as the "Progress of Insight", which is originally derived from the Pali cannon in the Theravada tradition, as related by Mahasi Sayada and Daniel Ingram. The part of the map that I will discuss is "1st path" (there are four successive paths) which is basically the road to initial, but not complete, enlightenment, to a point after which insight generates itself automatically whether one practices or not, beyond the "plane of limitation". I will also relate this path to the first Four Valleys in the Sufi tradition, as commented on by Baha'u'llah: Search, Love, Knowledge, and Unity.
My motivation for doing this is simply to share something that has become a big part of my life. This is my own working model of spiritual development and I will relate some of my experiential reports traveling along this path.
It is important to note that many practitioners, such as those in the Zen tradition, eschew maps altogether. There is a worry that maps can lead to just another form of ego gratification or obsession. "The map is not the territory". On the other hand, as Ingram describes, many people get stuck in their path precisely because they don't know where they are and can't diagnose the right practice at the right time.
There are many different techniques of insight meditation, including "noting", "bare awareness", "self-inquiry", and "body sweeping". While I won't go into them here, they all boil down to methods of being aware and accepting of ones sensory and mental reality in the moment, of dis-embedding from narrative and "content" and recognizing the Three Characteristics of existence discussed in part2.
So here goes. After one has settled into their meditation using whatever technique, they will eventually get to the first stage of insight, called
Mind and Body.
Ingram describes that there is a "sudden shift" - "mental phenomenon shift out away from the illusory sense of 'the watcher' and are just out there in the world with the sensations of the other five sense doors."
As an aside, I first started trying watch my thoughts after reading "The Power of Now" by Eckart Tolle. As a leisurely exercise I was just successful enough to be intrigued - intrigued by the idea that I could escape temporarily from the dominance of thoughts and narratives that I seemingly had little control over. In my experience there are three different things that can happen when watching ones thoughts. The first thing is that they largely cease altogether. Gary Weber relates this to the Heisenberg principle in physics:
You may find that the very act of counting and noticing the thoughts slows them down, perhaps dramatically. Simple awareness seems to function like sort of a Heisenberg uncertainty principle from quantum physics. In quantum physics, a fundamental principle is that you cannot know both characteristics of a particle, position and momentum, simultaneously. If one is known perfectly, the other cannot be known. Somewhat similarly, if there is complete, total awareness of consciousness (position), then there is no energy (momentum) for thoughts to emerge, and surprisingly long periods can pass without thought.
A second thing that can happen is that one starts noticing in real time the more fundamental pulses of thought activity. Sometimes I am able to tune into a distinct voice or a distinct song playing over and over, or watch a series of images playing in my head, all things which seem to always be going on but are often just hidden from normal awareness. This ability to notice underlying activity usually occurs after say, about half an hour of insight practice, and it is a sudden shift as Ingram describes, mental objects seem to just float their in space, independent of "me", whereas before they unconsciously contributed to "my" experience. Here is an account of the challenges I had when initially trying to watching my thoughts, and how I was able to connect them with feelings in the body:
...thoughts seem to go away when you are intentionally looking for them. It is a constant effort to widen the field of awareness in order to "catch" any meta-thoughts that have escaped attention. Another challenge simply comes from the fact that thoughts don't exist in a place. I find that I am often "looking" for thoughts in the sensations of my head and face, there is a tendency to try and roll my eyes back as if by inverting them I will be able to see thoughts. I have to constantly remind myself not to look for thoughts so much as to let them come to my attention. One observation is that there was minimal imaging and talking unless I was semi-intentionally creating them in order to see them, and then they would kind of spring forth from a random image generator. There was however a lot of emotional processing that I noticed due to tension in parts of my body. I noticed tension that I related directly to envy that I have for classmates, tension that I associated with planning and worrying about things that I need to do, tension in feeling like I can't overcome my "issues", etc. Yet it was hard to pin these down to any particular thought, just a feeling in the body and an awareness of what they meant.
The next stage is called...
Cause and Effect
Ingram describes that in this stage, "motions such as walking or the breath may begin to get jerky, as there is the intention and the motion, the sensation and the mental impression of it, the cause and the effect..." Another characteristic of this stage is that one may start to get the sense that they do not have very much control, do not actually have "free will", that all of the sense perceptions and thoughts which lead to actions are based on previous sense perceptions and actions. According to Mahasi Sayadaw, one might reflect that:
"Intention and noticing result from previous experiences; feelings (sensations) of all kinds are the result of previous karma in the sense that material processes and mental processes ever since birth...the body and mind in the former existences were conditioned by the preceding causes, that in the following existences body and mind will result from the same causes, and apart from this dual process there is no separate 'being' or 'person', only causes and effects taking place"
Another characteristic of this stage is that uncomfortable bodily sensations may arise due to increased concentration. For example, I have noticed that I may feel slightly painful prickling sensations over the body. Ingram describes that some report a distinct tension in the jaw and a certain tightness and "robot like" feeling.
The Three Characteristics
In this stage one begins to experience the Three Characteristics of impermanence, suffering, and no self. Sayadaw describes this progressive realization:
He perceives in every act of noticing that an object appears suddenly and disappears instantly. His perception is so clear that he reflects thus: "All comes to an end; all disappears. Nothing is permanent; it is truly impermanent."...He reflects further: "It is through ignorance that we enjoy life. But in truth, there is nothing to enjoy. There is a continuous arising and disappearing by which we are harassed ever and anon. This is dreadful indeed. At any moment we may die and everything is sure to come to an end. This universal impermanence is truly frightful and terrible"..."All is pain, all is bad"..."This is a mass of suffering, suffering that is unavoidable. Arising and disappearing, it is worthless. One cannot stop its process. It is beyond one's power. It takes its natural course
This stage is not generally considered to be "pleasant". In addition to the negative feelings described by Sayadaw, physical tensions can also develop, Ingram describes that "there may be odd bodily twisting, obsession with posture, and painful tensions or strange other sensations, particularly in the back, neck, jaw and shoulders...people sometimes describe these feelings as some powerful energy that is blocked and seems wants to get out or move through."
On the other hand, Ingram mentions that it is in this stage when the speed and precision of noticing phenomenon really picks up to the level when the individual noting of individual sensations becomes unfeasible and a more bare awareness approach is more appropriate.
The Arising and Passing Away (A&P)
This is an important stage and corresponds to experiences that many people have spontaneously at certain points in their life. Ingram describes that ones mind "speeds up more and more quickly, and reality begins to be perceived as particles or fine vibrations of mind and matter, each arising and vanishing utterly at tremendous speed...Reality is perceived directly with great clarity, and great bliss, rapture, equanimity, mindfulness, concentration." Sayadaw mentions that "a brilliant light will appear to the meditator. There arises also in him rapture, causing 'goose flesh', falling of tears, tremor in the limbs...Then, there arises tranquility of mind and long with it appears mental agility...Both body and mind are agile in functioning swiftly..." and he continues along these lines.
I believe that I first experienced this stage when I was 17. I had been just starting to get into meditation and yoga. One night I was walking around a state fair and suddenly my whole world completely shifted. I felt incredibly powerful, energetic, ecstatic, and slightly hallucinogenic. This lasted for about an hour. The second time occurred when I was 18, I was at the tail end of an emotionally devastating break up with a 3 year girlfriend. I was not meditating this time but I was heavily involved with Baha'i activities and praying a lot. Suddenly, out of nowhere, I entered this state again. I am usually an introverted person, but suddenly the same experiences came up again and an incredible charisma, like I was an orb of energy drawing people in and weaving together a blanket of excitement. There were a couple of other times during my teens when this state was artificially induced, while I was on hallucinogens - mushrooms or LSD. Some of these experiences were incredibly frightening and eventually led me to jump head first into Baha'i community life and its laws.
More recently similar experiences have come up during meditation. At one point I described it like this:
I started insight practice and immediately became aware of lots of vibrations all over the body. Felt no need to note as choice-less awareness seemed to be working. At some point I started contemplating impermanence and something shifted... I started feeling waves of energy course through my body, my face and mouth started twitching and contorting involuntarily, had a heightened sensitivity to flickering vibrations and mental objects. In the midst of this I also felt very peaceful and somewhat indifferent, like I wasn't impressed - even though my normal self would have been incredibly excited at the "accomplishment".
In between these sets of experiences, about ten years lapsed. One way of describing this period is as a felt state of mediocrity, discontent, and frustration. No matter what was happening in my outer life, nothing seemed to match up with how I knew reality could be experienced. Using the map terminology I believe I was in the "Dark Night". This is actually Christian terminology but has been used to describe the next six stages which tend to run together. The stage of the (A&P) are described by Ingram as a point of no return. In the words of Ingram:
"Once someone has crossed the Arising and Passing Event, one will enter the Dark Night regardless of whether one wants to or not. It doesn’t matter if you practice from this point on; once you cross the A&P you are in the Dark Night to some degree (i.e. are a Dark Night Yogi) until you figure out how to get through it, and if you do get through it without getting to the first stage of enlightenment, you will have to go through it again and again until you do."
The six stages are named by Ingram as dissolution, fear, misery, disgust, desire for deliverance, and re-observation. As can be gleaned by the names, they are difficult stages, although Ingram notes that "some pass through the Dark Night quickly and some slowly. Some barely notice it, and for some it is a huge deal, regardless of the speed at which one moves through these stages."
Sayadaw describes that in this state "the arising of objects is no longer apparent to the meditator; he notices only their ceasing. They pass away swiftly. so also do the mental processes of noticing them...One comes to know by direct experience the truth of the wise saying: 'When a name or designation arises, a reality lies hidden; when a reality reveals itself, a name or designation disappears.'"
Ingram mentions that when the somebody enters dissolution, they might suddenly get the sense that their practice has degraded:
"feels like a very natural place to stop practicing, the only problem being that the later stages (Fear and the rest) tend to follow it soon enough even if one stops, though less intense practice leads to a less intense, if often prolonged, Dark Night. However, those who wish to keep doing formal practice may find Dissolution frustrating. Whereas just one stage ago they could sit for hours and perceive the finest vibrations of reality in exquisite detail, now reality appears to be slipping away, vague, and hard to get a handle on."
In Sayadaw's words:
...the meditator is likely to have an awareness of fearfulness. He reflects: "One enjoys life, not knowing the truth. Now that one knows the truth of continuous dissolution it is truly fearful. At every moment of dissolution one can die. The beginning of this life itself is fearful. So are the endless repetitions of the arisings. Fearful it is to feel that in the absense of real features and forms the arisings appear to be real. So are the efforts to arrest the changing phenomena for the sake of well-being and happiness. To be reborn is fearful in that it will be a recurrance of objects that are ceasing and vanishing always. Fearful indeed it is to be old, to die, to experience sorrow, lamentation, pain, grief, and despair."
Ingram describes it similarly:
The clarity and intensity begin to return, but now this stage can involve all sorts of frightening distortions of perception when sitting, accompanied by great feelings of unease, paranoia, fearfulness, and/or “the willies.” It can even sometimes seem that our body is falling in tatters through the floor or that we are rotting away. If we have strong concentration tendencies, we may see horrifying or disconcerting visions...Strangely, Fear can also be just a bit rapturous in the ways that a horror movie can be or in the way that riding a roller coaster at night can be simultaneously scary and exciting. However, the nice side of this stage tends to be greatly overshadowed by the dark side. We are being asked to accept the full range of life here as it is.
Sayadaw describes this stage as "nothing more than being unhappy at the awareness of fearfulness."
Ingram describes that:
This stage can be characterized by great feelings of sadness and loss... We are having our whole concept of self and the world as being permanent, able to satisfy, and even being us or separate from us torn down and violated by the now undeniable truth of the Three Characteristics. There can be a lot of grieving in this process. This is hard to accept, and our resistance to this process causes us misery. Becoming lost in the content of these sensations and being unable to see their true nature is a somewhat common cause of failure to progress and failure to live healthily. On the mild side, we may just feel a bit like after we do after we have been crying.
In Sayadaw's words:
While the meditator is noticing all that arises in his body and mind he is getting disgusted by it. Although he cognizes clearly their dissolution by a series of good noticings he is no longer alert and bright...So he become lazy to contemplate. For example, it is like one who feels disgusted at ever step when he has to walk on a muddy and dirty path and yet he cannot stop going. He cannot help but go on.
In Ingrams words:
We begin to feel completely tormented by our noisy and repetitious minds (a classic sign of this stage), by a body that is full of suffering and unpleasant sensations, and by a world that is falling apart. Perceiving thoughts as thoughts gets harder and harder, and thus getting caught by our stuff gets increasingly easier. On the mild side, one might just feel subtly revolted and disappointed with reality in general, or perhaps have the slightly creepy feeling of crawling skin. On the strong side, we see nothing to cling to, no self to be found, and we begin to wish the whole edgy thing would just end
Desire for Deliverance
In the words of Ingram:
No longer do we look forward to anything but the complete ending of all sensations, i.e. the first taste of Nirvana. We just wish the noise in our minds would stop cold, but are unable to will this to happen. We wish the vibrations, which can be quite intense, harsh and irritating by this stage, would all go away forever. If we fail to associate the pain ending with deep insights but instead falsely associate it with changing something in our ordinary life, we are likely to wander far and wide until we come to realize the limitations of ordinary solutions
Ingram's description of this stage is quite lengthy, I recommend reading the whole thing. Here is one part:
We must perceive the true nature of the sensations that make up all of our ideas of perfection, all of the ideals we cling to, all images of how the world should be and shouldn’t be, all desire for anything to be other than the way that it is as well as all desire for enlightenment that is anything other than this. It may seem impossible to sit for even a minute, as the levels of restlessness and aversion to meditation and all experience can get quite high...This stage is sometimes called the “rolling up the mat stage” and is when many who joined monasteries in the stage of the Arising and Passing Away now give up and disrobe. People on retreats tend to need lots of reassurance and often leave right then even with good guidance and encouragement. There can be the distinct feeling that it is impossible to go forward and useless to go back, which is exactly the lesson they should learn. Acceptance of right here and right now is required, even if it seems that this mind and this body are quite unacceptable and unworthy of investigation. No sensations are unworthy of investigation!...
Later he advises "balancing effort and acceptance". This is something that I have worked on a lot. Here are a couple of my records of this:
Yesterday was a little breakthrough, I have started reading and listening to some Tolle again, there is a line in one of his guided meditations that says: "most people are trying to achieve a particular state, not happy with the state they are in, its not the perfect state. The perfect state is the acceptance of Now". This is related to his other guidance to notice stillness, be present, etc. About 40 minutes into my mediation I started feeling my face and whole frontal awareness vibrate slightly. Naturally I started trying to pursue that sensation further but felt that I could only do it if I stopped breathing long enough to let it happen, else the breath would get in the way. I started getting a suffocating feeling and then just became frustrated. This was combined with frustration more generally at seeming lack of progress. At that point I just decided to accept that I was frustrated, accept everything about my experience. I had tried this before (conceptualized acceptance) but now I really felt it, and it was liberating. I felt like finally I could just relax and let whatever wanted to come in and meditate me. Also, I realized that acceptance is very tied to being able to notice experience, otherwise there is too much grasping and narrating the failure.
Did a lot of "noting" practice, also a lot of just trying to let things be. Had almost no problem sitting the full length of time, alternated between hints of despair and equanimity - not needing to get anywhere. Went deeper into my long held desire to experience release and my despair and sadness at feeling blocked. Felt some of it in my body, a lot of it in the back of my neck and head. As I opened up to the feeling my neck kept rotating back and forth slowly on its own. Allowed it to do its thing. Felt compassion for my despairing self, was not so wrapped up in its narrative.
Thus far I haven't made mention of the Sufi map commented on by Baha'u'llah called the "Seven Valleys". I tend to view all the stages, from the Arising and Passing Away through Reobservation as analogous to the Valley of Love. Baha'u'llah describes this stage in multiple ways. One way, which corresponds the the Arising and Passing Away, is of ecstasy: "In this city the heaven of ecstasy is upraised and the world-illuming sun of yearning shinesh, and the fire of love is ablaze.
Another, which corresponds to the Dark Night, is of pain, weariness of the world, and discontent:
The steed of the Valley is pain; and if there be no pain this journey will never end...Love accepteth no existence and wishes no life: He seeth life in death, and in shame seeketh glory...He drinketh the seven seas, but his heart's thirst is still unquenched, and he saith, 'Is there yet any more?'. He shunneth himself and draweth away from all on earth.
The Valley of Love ultimately serves to purify: "Wherefore must the veils of the satanic self be burned away at the fire of love, that the spirit may be purified and cleansed and thus may know the station of the Lord of the Worlds".
While a stage, equanimity is also a very important concept in Buddhism that is accessible to everyone. Shinzen Young describes equanimity as a balance point between two unhealthy states: "Suppression – A state of thought/feeling arises and we attempt to cope with it by stuffing it down, denying it, tightening around it", and "Identification – A state of thought/feeling arises and we fixate on it, hold onto it inappropriately, not letting it arise, spread, and pass according to its natural rhythm."
He diagrams what happens when equanimity is applied to pain, pleasure, and doubt:
(Pain x Equanimity) + (Pleasure x Equanimity) → Psycho-spiritual Purification
Don’t Know (Doubt, Indecision, Confusion) x Equanimity → Intuitive Wisdom
Ingram's often describes the stage in similar terms, a point where all the frustration built up from the dark Night goes away, and one accepts fully where they are in the present moment. He also describes that it is:
...about seeing the true nature of even more complex, inclusive, subtle and fundamental things, like space, awareness, investigation, wonder, expectation, anticipation, peace, ease, questioning, and those sorts of things in ways that cut through the center and include the whole background and foreground as well.
Later he continues:
Reality can now be perceived with great breadth, precision, and clarity, and soon with no special effort... For those with strong concentration and technique, vibrations may become predominant, and reality may become nothing but vibrations. Vibrating formless realms may even arise, with no discernible image of the body being present at all. It may feel like reality is trying to synchronize with itself, and that is exactly correct.
I view the Equanimity as analogous to the Valley of Knowledge. One way that Baha'u'llah describes the Valley of Knowledge is as the arrival of long sought clarity and perspective, the end of grasping:
He in this station is content with the decree of God, and seeth war as peace, and findeth in death the secrets of everlasting life. With inward and outward eyes he witnesseth the mysteries of resurrection in the realms of creation and the souls of men, and with a pure heart apprehendeth the divine wisdom in the endless Manifestations of God. In the ocean he findeth a drop, in a drop he beholdeth the secrets of the sea...they see the end in the beginning.
Baha'u'llah also describes the Valley of Knowledge as "the last plane of limitation". Equanimity is thought of in the same way.
Conformity, change of lineage, and path
These are quick intermediate stages representing the transition to initial enlightenment. Each of the Three Characteristics represents a doorway to this realm. An interesting discussion of The Three Doors is here.
Fruition and Review (a.k.a stream entry)
This is the first stage of enlightenment, when one has passed beyond "the last plane of limitation" into a non-dual type awareness.
This is the fruit of all the meditator's hard work, the first attainment of ultimate reality, emptiness, Nirvana, God or whatever you wish to call it. In this non-state, there is absolutely no time, no space, no reference point, no experience, no mind, no consciousness, no nothingness, no somethingness, no body, no this, no that, no unity, no duality, and no anything else. Reality stops cold and then reappears. Thus, this is impossible to comprehend, as it goes completely and utterly beyond the rational mind and the sensate universe. To “external time” (if someone were observing the meditator from the outside) this lasts only an instant. It is like an utter discontinuity of the space-time continuum with nothing in the unfindable gap.
Baha'u'llah has a similar description for the Valley of Unity:
...drinketh from the cup of the Absolute, and gazeth on the Manifestations of Oneness. In this station he pierceth the veils of plurality, fleeth from the worlds of the flesh, and ascendeth into the heaven of singleness. With the ear of God he heareth, with the eye of God he beholdeth the mysteries of divine creation...He looketh on all things with the eye of oneness, and seeth the brilliant rays of the divine sun shining from the dawning-point of Essence alike on all created things, and the lights of singleness reflected over all creation.Guidance beyond this point is a little confusing. Basically one cycles through all the stages again and again, until the realization is complete. For those interested, here is one description of "what's next" . I think it is plausible that these higher paths correspond to the remaining three Valleys: Contentment, Wonderment, and True Poverty and Absolute Nothingness.