This is also the beginning of the second vipassana jhana. As in the second samatha jhana, the applied and sustained effort or attention begin to drop away, and meditation can seem to take on a life of its own. An overall general point about this stage is that it tends to be very impressive. When people say to me, “I had this big experience...”, 99% of the time it is almost certainly related to this stage. The description I give of it may not line up exactly with how it happens or happened for or to you, but pay attention to the general aspects of the pattern. I tend to describe it as it happens on retreat and with strong practice going on, but it may happen off retreat, in daily life, without warning, in people who don't think of themselves as meditators, and even in dreams.
In the early part of this stage, the meditator's 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. The traditional texts actually call this stage the beginning of insight practices, as from this point on there is a much more direct and non-conceptual understanding of the Three Characteristics.
This stage is marked by dramatically increased perceptual abilities when compared with the previous stages. For example, one might be able to hone one’s awareness to laser-like precision on the tip of one’s little finger and seemingly be able to perceive the beginning and ending of every single sensation that made up that finger. Spontaneous physical movements and strange jerky breathing patterns that showed up in Cause and Effect and became more pronounced in the Three Characteristics may speed up significantly. This stage explains where many practices such as Tibetan inner fire practices of the Yogic breath of fire come from. It can also reveal the source material that inspired teachings such as those about chakras and energy channels. Many descriptions of Kundalini awakening are talking about this stage.
Reality is perceived directly with great clarity, and great bliss, rapture, equanimity, mindfulness, concentration, and other positive qualities arise. Practice is extremely profound and sustainable, and there may be no pain even after hours of sitting. Unfortunately, the positive qualities that have arisen can easily become what are called the “Ten Corruptions of Insight” if the true nature of the individual sensations by which they are known are not understood as well, and until this happens a meditator can easily get stuck in the immature part of this stage.
The Ten Corruptions of Insight are: illumination, knowledge, rapturous happiness, tranquility, bliss, resolute confidence, exertion, assurance, equanimity and attachment. To quote the great meditation master Sayadaw U Pandita, from his great but very hard-to-find book, On the Path to Freedom, “As for the practicing yogi, he will at once recognize the above as imperfections of insight not representing dhamma breakthrough and are only to be noted off, remembering the teacher’s advice as to what is path and not path. Being disabled by the ten imperfections, he would not be capable of observing the triple characteristics in their true nature; but once freed from imperfections, he is able to do so.” In short, they may feel that they are now a very mighty meditator and that they should try to hold on to this forever, i.e. they stop actually doing insight practices and instead solidify these qualities as concentration practice objects. Thus, the advice given about deconstructing and investigating the positive factors of the samatha jhanas, particularly the second one, is also very helpful when trying to stay on the narrow path of the progress of insight.
Visions, unusual sensory abilities (such as seeing nearby things through one’s closed eyelids), out of body experiences, and especially bright lights tend to arise to the meditator, sometimes first as jewel-tone sparkles and then as a bright white light (“I have seen the light!”). The technical meditator may easily sit for hours dissecting their reality into extremely fine and fast sensations and vibrations, perhaps even up to forty per second or even more, with an extremely high level of precision and consistency. (Where the absurd and disheartening rumors of billions of mind moments per second come from is beyond me). Fine vibrations may spread over the body, revealing interference patterns between experiences, enabling one to know directly that when one thing is experienced, in that instant, something else is not.
It is very easy to confuse this stage with descriptions of stage eleven, Equanimity, especially as the stage before it, Re-observation, has some distinct similarities to stage three, The Three Characteristics. A brief discussion of the fractal nature of things that describes this will follow in the chapter called “The Vipassana Jhanas”. The big difference is that this stage is ruled by quick cycles, rapidly changing frequencies of vibrations, odd physical movements, strange breathing patterns, heady raptures, a decreased need for sleep, strong bliss, and a general sense of riding on a spiritual roller coaster with no breaks. The higher stages (ten and eleven) do not have those qualities.
As to the cycles, they tend to proceed as follows, with this description assuming that you are using the breath as object. The mind kicks in, follows faster and faster vibrations, things really engage and speed up, perhaps accompanied by more pronounced shaking or strange breathing patterns increasing in speed, and then finally half-way down an out-breath there is a shift, things drop down slowly, it takes work to stay with things as they slow down, and then things bottom out. The breath may stop entirely for a while. Then things come back up with the breath, attention tends to flag, things relax, and then the cycle begins again with things speeding up, etc. These breathing cycles may happen quite on their own and may even be difficult to stop when we are deeply into this stage. Those using visualizations as object, may notice that the objects begin to spin with the phase of the breath, or move in ways that they seem to have a life of their own, albeit a two dimensional one, as compared to the three dimensional visions that may arise later.
As this stage deepens and matures, meditators let go of even the high levels of clarity and the other strong factors of meditation, perceive even these to arise and pass as just vibrations, not satisfy, and not be self. They may plunge down into the very depths of the mind as though plunging deep underwater to where they can perceive individual frames of reality arise and pass with breathtaking clarity as though in slow motion. It can even feel as if we have been submerged in thick syrup and partially sedated with some strong, opiate-like drug.
At the bottom of these depths, however they present themselves, individual moments may sometimes have a frozen quality to them, as if sensations were stopping completely in the middle of their manifestation for just an instant, and this way of experiencing reality is unique to this stage. Somewhere in here is the entrance to the third vipassana jhana in U Pandita's model, though there is some controversy about exactly which insights line up with which vipassana jhanas from here on out. I prefer to think of the Arising and Passing Away being purely second vipassana jhana. I will discuss these controversies in the following chapter.
The meditator may be able to meditate with profound clarity even when asleep, and the need for sleep may be greatly reduced. Wild “kundalini” phenomena are very common at this point, including powerful physical shaking and releases, explosions of consciousness like a fireworks display or a tornado, visions, and especially vortexes of powerful fine “electrical” vibrations blasting down one's spinal column and/or between one's ears. These vortexes can be very loud. These sorts of experiences can occur quite unexpectedly and even off the cushion, such as in lucid dreams. They may be followed by various mixtures of wonder, excitement, bliss, extraordinary joy, and sometimes disorientation. It is not uncommon for those in the height of the rapture of this stage to associate some of these occurrences with those of an extended orgasm. None of these things are a problem unless their true nature is not understood or unless they happen when one is doing something like driving a car down an interstate at seventy-five miles per hour (a story for another time).
Strong sensual or sexual feelings and dreams are common at this stage, and these may have a non-discriminating quality that those attached to their notion of themselves as being something other than partially bisexual may find disturbing. Further, if you have unresolved issues around sexuality, which we basically all have, you may encounter aspects of them during this stage. This stage, its afterglow, and the almost withdrawal-like crash that can follow seem to increase the temptation to indulge in all manner of hedonistic delights, particularly substances and sex. As the bliss wears off, we may find ourselves feeling very hungry or lustful, craving chocolate, wanting to go out and party, or something like that. If we have addictions that we have been fighting, some extra vigilance near the end of this stage might be helpful.
This stage also tends to give people more of an extroverted, zealous or visionary quality, and they may have all sorts of energy to pour into somewhat idealistic or grand projects and schemes. At the far extreme of what can happen, this stage can imbue one with the powerful charisma of the radical religious leader.
Finally, at nearly the peak of the possible resolution of the mind, the meditator crosses something called “The Arising and Passing Event” (A&P Event) or “Deep Insight into the Arising and Passing Away.” This event marks a profound shift in the meditator’s practice, and from then on they will be somewhat changed by what they have seen, with this being the Point of No Return that I mentioned in the Foreword and Warning. The intensity of this event can vary, though it tends to be quite clear and memorable, particularly the first time one crosses it during that cycle. However, for some, there will simply be something that seems to have the general characteristics of the A&P territory that then fades without an obvious peak event.
It should also be noted that some people will have a big and obvious buildup to such experiences and for others they will suddenly just show up completely without warning, sometimes spontaneously and even without formal meditation training, as happened to me at around age fifteen. I have a number of friends who ran into these things without formal training and in daily life, others who ran into them when doing hallucinogens including mescaline and LSD, others during yoga practice, others while around powerful spiritual figures, including one who had it happen while hanging out with a Christian faith healer and a few who were hanging out with various gurus.
Whatever context the first A&P Event happens in, that context will tend to hold a special place in that person's heart from then on. For me it happened on my own, by my own meditation efforts and without a tradition, and so I have always associated my own practice with progress. My friend who had it happen with the Christian faith healer became the most hardcore Christian you could find, and many people who have had “born again” experiences have just crossed the A&P. Another friend who had it happen while on mescaline has since held a special place in her heart for shamanism. Those who had it happen with gurus tended to follow those gurus for some period of time, associating it with the guru’s presence. Some others who had it happen in an apparently random context usually had no idea what it was or what it had done to them, but most have realized that something was different and most, though not all, remember it with an uncanny clarity as somehow standing out from ordinary experiences.
Once one has attained this event, it is fairly likely that one will be able to attain the first stage of awakening sooner or later if one can navigate the Dark Night skillfully (read: simply keep practicing). Thus, a good first goal in insight meditation is to cross the A&P Event at one’s earliest possible convenience, with caveats given later in the section on the Dark Night.
The A&P Event can happen in three basic ways corresponding to the Three Characteristics, just as can the entrance to insight stage fifteen, Fruition, and the two are easily confused for this and other reasons. There is great variation in the specifics of what we are seeing and feeling when we cross this profound and intense event, but certain aspects of these events will be common to all practitioners. This event tends to manifest in a way that can mirror the Three Doors (described below) at about the middle of the out breath, leading to an unknowing event, followed by a few exceedingly clearer and more distinct moments imparting some deep understanding of the Three Characteristics before a second unknowing event at the end of the breath. It is not uncommon for the A&P event to occur during a particularly lucid dream or at least in the middle of the night.
Now, it should be noted here that it is unlikely in these extreme moments for the sense of the breath to be particularly clear, but this is how things happen regardless. In these moments, most, but not all, of the meditator’s sensate universe strobes in and out of reality, arises and passes. The subtle background and sense of an observer still seems to stay stable. In contrast to this, the entrance to stage fifteen, Fruition, is through one of the Three Doors, involves the complete sensate universe (background, time, space and all), happens at the end of the out breath, and does not involve two closely related unknowing events. (The usefulness of this information may become apparent later on.)
Those who have crossed the A&P Event have stood on the ragged edge of reality and the mind for just an instant, and they may know that awakening is possible. They typically have great faith, may want to tell everyone to practice, and are generally evangelical or excited about spirituality, religion, and/or philosophy for a while. They will have an increased ability to understand dharma teachings due to their direct and non-conceptual experience of the Three Characteristics. Philosophy that deals with the fundamental paradoxes of duality will be less problematic for them in some way, and they may find this fascinating for a time. Those with a strong philosophical bent will find that they can now philosophize rings around those who have not attained to this stage of insight.
They may also incorrectly think that they are enlightened, as what they have seen was completely spectacular and profound. In fact, this is common and they may stop practicing when they have actually only really begun.
This is a common time for people to write inspired dharma books, poetry, spiritual songs, and that sort of thing. This is also the stage when people are more likely to join monasteries or go on great spiritual quests. It is also worth noting that this stage can look an awful lot like a manic episode. The rapture and intensity of this stage can be basically off the scale, the absolute peak on the path of insight, but it doesn’t last.
Soon the meditator will learn what is meant by the phrase, “Better not to begin. Once begun, better to finish!” as they are now too far into this to ever really go back. Until they complete this progress of insight, they are “on the ride” and may begin to feel that the dharma is now doing them rather than the other way around, as they will progress inevitably and relatively quickly, usually within days, into stages five to ten, which as you will shortly see, are not always pretty. The rapture and all the bells and whistles die down quickly, and the meditator may even be left raw as if hung over after a night of wild partying. The clarity fades somewhat, and the endings of objects becomes predominant as they progress to knowledge of...
Additional Links and Commentary on the A&P: