MCTB 10. Re-observation

This stage may not sound like much of a problem, as it has such a boring-sounding name, but this stage is often, though not always, like a brick wall, particularly the first few times we run into it. It can be as if all of the stages of the Dark Night converge again for one last important lesson, the lesson of Re-observation. 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 and part of stage three (The Three Characteristics) can share some common features. This should be seen as a strong warning to those who are prone to being overly certain about “where they are.” I get a reasonable number of emails from people who claim they are sure they are in re-observation, and shortly thereafter they are describing A&P territory, meaning that they had just been in The Three Characteristics territory, not Re-observation. Continuing to investigate the true nature of these sorts of sensations and our map theories is often difficult, and this is a common cause of failure to progress.

Now, I am about to describe all sorts of emotional or psychological manifestations that can sometimes happen at this stage. The more extreme the description of a possible side-effect of this stage, the rarer that side-effect is likely to be, particularly those that sound like descriptions of mental illness. For someone who is staying at the level of bare sensate experience, as I strongly recommend, the only difficult manifestations that seem to be quite common are a strong sense of aversion to formal meditation and experience, and a deep sense of primal frustration, though these tend to fall quickly in the face of good practice, and if our concentration is strong enough and our other factors are in balance, we may move through this stage with no problem at all.

The aversion to meditation and experience are due to the fact that the vibrations by this point can be quite fast and harsh and the noise in our repetitive minds quite irritating. Some of my own descriptions of this stage while on retreat have included such phrases as “the mindstorm” and “a bracing work in D minor for six sense doors, hailstorm and stuttering banshee.” If we are very powerful meditators, it can literally feel as if we will be torn apart by these vibrations, and this is exactly what we are trying to accomplish. Even if the other odd manifestations do arise, if we are practicing well they should not last very long at all, at best minutes, at worst hours or days.

All of that said, and before I go on, those who are crossing this territory with strong concentration abilities and using some very rarefied object, such as a complex visualization on sacred geometry as one of many possible examples, may, if they are very good, pass through this stage with little or no difficulty at all, and all they may notice is that the thing gets wider and wider, the patterns get more complex and attain to wider, more spherical dimensions and perhaps manifold symmetries, and that it comes around to encompass basically the whole field of experience, kind of like watching an IMAX movie of a moving technicolor spirograph in the front row, or some similar thing. I use this example partly due to my own experiments and partly to illustrate general points. Different objects will produce different specifics, such as colors, images, etc., while some universal aspects of what happens during this stage will remain basically the same.

You see, Re-observation is actually all fluff and no substance, but if you confuse fluff for substance, the effect will be the same as if it actually had substance. It is like a toothless dog with a ferocious bark. If you run screaming or faint from fear when the dog barks, then it needed no teeth to prevent your progress. The primary sign that the negative side effects that may occur in the Dark Night are actually not associated with insight stages but instead are due to other processes is that they do not change much in the face of strong and accepting investigation or stopping practice entirely. That said…

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!

One of the hallmarks of the early part of this stage is that we may begin to see clearly exactly what our minds do all day long, see with great clarity how the illusion of a dualistic split is even created in the first place sensation by sensation, moment to moment, but somehow there is not yet enough spaciousness of perspective and equanimity to make good use of this information. This can be very frustrating, as we wonder how many times we have to learn these lessons before they stick.

Great feelings of frustration and disenchantment with life, relationships, sex, jobs, moral codes and “worldly” responsibilities may sometimes emerge at this stage in ways that can cause all sorts of disruption and angst. These aspects of one’s life can temporarily seem bland and pointless at this stage, though it may seem that this will always be the way one feels about them. This stage can mimic or perhaps manifest as some degree of clinical depression. Beware of making radical life changes that cannot easily be undone (such as a divorce), or firing off angry emails to your boss based upon the temporary feelings that may arise during this stage. For those that recognize that they are in this stage, some sort of active mental compensation for these potential effects can be helpful so as to keep one’s life functioning. It can help one appear more “together” than one feels, and thus maintain relationships, jobs, studies, etc., at some sort of functional level. This can be very skillful if it is also combined with practice that allows the experiences of this stage to be acknowledged and understood as well.

Layers of unhelpful and previously hidden expectation, pressure and anxiety can show their true uselessness, though this beneficial process can be very confusing and difficult. We may get the sense that we have never had such a strong feeling-life, and until we get used to this new awareness of our previously subtle emotions, this stage can be quite overwhelming. Occasionally, people can also have what can seem like full psychotic breaks during this stage, though if these are truly a side effect of insight practices they should pass quickly. The big trick here is to continue to acknowledge and accept the content but also continue to see the true nature of the sensations that make up these natural phenomena. This can be extremely hard to do, especially if people have chanced upon this stage without the benefit of the guidance of a well-developed insight tradition and teachers who can recognize this territory.

Those who do not know what to do with this stage or who get overwhelmed by the mind states can get so lost in the content that they begin to lose it. This is the far extreme of what can happen in this stage. Fear is frightening, misery is miserable, and seemingly psychotic episodes are very confusing and destabilizing. In the face of such experiences, we may swing to the opposite extreme, clinging desperately to grandiose images of ourselves. These things can easily perpetuate themselves, and this can become a blatantly destructive mental habit if people persist in wallowing in these dark emotions and their deep and unresolved issues for too long. It can be like cognitive restructuring from Hell.

If the content continues to be bought without the ability to see its true nature, then the mind can spiral down and down into madness and despair. When people mention “touching their own madness” on the spiritual path, they are often talking about this stage. This stage can make people feel claustrophobic and tight. If they push to make progress, they can feel that they are just getting wound up tighter and tighter. If they do nothing then they are still suffering anyway.

The advice here is: stick with it but don’t try to force it. Pay attention to balancing effort and acceptance. Remember that discretion is the better part of valor. Practice in moderation as well as maintaining a long-term view can be helpful. Think of practice as a life-long endeavor, but do just what you can each day. Stay present-oriented. Walks in nature or places with large, expansive views can help, as can exercise. This stage has the power to profoundly purify us, given sufficient commitment to just trying to sit with it, be clear, precise and accept all this despite the pain and anguish, both physical and mental, that it can bring. If on retreat: sit and walk according to the schedule, apply the technique as prescribed every second if humanly possible, and do not leave early!

This stage is actually a profound opportunity to see clearly the pain of the dualistic aspect of our attachments, aversions, desires, hopes, fears and ideals, as all this has been amplified to an unprecedented level. It is this stage that makes possible the path of heroic effort, diligent investigation of this moment based upon the powerful desire for enlightenment, as at this stage all of the unskillful aspects of this desire are beaten out of the meditator with a force equivalent to the suffering caused by them. You can actually get very far on highly imbalanced and goal-oriented practice, and it can give sufficient momentum and meditation skills so that, should you get your ass kicked in this stage, one continues making progress quickly anyway.

Again, if the meditator stops practicing here, they can get stuck and haunted by this stage in the whole of their life until they complete this first progress of insight. Their lack of practice will deprive them of the primary benefits of this stage (i.e., the increased perceptual abilities that allowed them to get this much insight in the first place) and reduce their chances of getting beyond it, and yet the emotional consequences can remain long after the skills in meditation have faded.

They can become “Chronic Dark Night Yogis,” meditators that somehow just don’t figure out how to get past this stage for very long periods of time. You would be surprised by how many of these people there are out there. Their failure to unstick themselves may be due to their own psychological makeup, poor instruction, imagining that the spiritual life is all about bliss and wonderful emotions, believing in absurd models of spirituality that do not allow for the full range of the emotional and mental life, or chancing upon this stage outside of a well-developed insight tradition, which is what happened to me at about age fifteen. I was a Chronic Dark Night Yogi for ten years without having any idea what the hell was happening to me, so I can speak on this topic with some authority. Further, I have gone through numerous other Dark Nights at the higher stages of awakening and come across the same issues again and again. Being stuck in the Dark Night can manifest as anything from chronic mild depression and free-floating anxiety to serious delusional paranoia and other classic mental illnesses, e.g. narcissism and delusions of grandeur (my personal favorites). Dark Night Yogis may act with a strange mixture of dedicated spirituality and darkness.

I mentioned that the A&P Event could impart a bit of the inspirational, radical religious leader quality to those prone to such things. For these same individuals, stage ten can sometimes have a bit of the paranoid, apocalyptic cult leader quality to it, a confused whirlwind of powerful inspiration and despair. Just because someone has borderline or antisocial personality disorder doesn't mean they can't make progress in insight, and when they hit these stages it can be pretty wild.

We may all have our own particular neurotic tendencies that come out when we are under stress, but if you feel that you are really losing it: get help, particularly from those who know this territory firsthand and are willing to talk honestly about it! Don’t be a macho meditator and get stuck, and don’t imagine that spiritual practice can’t cause some wild and sometimes unpleasant side effects. One of the best things about working with a thoroughly qualified and realized insight meditation teacher before we get into this sort of trouble is that they will have some idea of our baseline level of sanity and balance and thus know what we are capable of.

That said, I suspect that both the Mushroom Factor and the dharma jet set culture of teachers popping in and out with little chance for students to have meaningful contact with them off retreat contributes to the non-trivial number of Dark Night Yogis out there. I suspect that there are fewer problems with Chronic Dark Night Yogis in traditions where the maps of what can happen in this territory are well known and in which there are teachers who are very accessible and honest about their humanity and the possible range of the spiritual terrain.

On the other hand, sometimes genuine mental illness or unrelated emotional or psychological difficulties can show up in people’s lives. Blaming it all on the Dark Night may not always be accurate or helpful, though if you have recently crossed the A&P Event and not completed an insight cycle or gotten into the next stage (Equanimity), there is going to be some Dark Night component mixed in with whatever else is going on.

Meditation traditions tend to attract what can seem like more than their fair share of the spiritual, emotional and mental equivalents of the walking wounded. Sorting out what is what can sometimes get murky and may require the help of both those who know this insight territory and those who deal with routine mental illness and emotional and psychological difficulties. The best combination would be someone who knows both. I have a highly enlightened friend who has found it very useful to take medication to treat his bipolar disorder. There is something very down-to-earth and realistic about that. These practices won’t save us from our biology. They merely reveal something in the relationship to it.

On the other hand, there are those that are so deeply indoctrinated by the models of “working through” our “dark stuff” that whenever it comes up they turn to psychotherapy or a whole host of other ways of getting their issues to “resolve” or go away. This view implies false solidity and an exaggerated importance to these things that can make it very hard to see the true nature of the sensations that make them up. The trap here is that we turn a basic crisis of fundamental identity into a witch-hunt for the specific things in our life that we imagine are making us this dissatisfied with our basic experience. If someone has gotten to this level of practice, no amount of tinkering with the specifics of our life will ever solve the fundamental issue.

That doesn’t mean that some of the dissatisfactions with specific aspects of our life may not be valid, and in fact they often are quite valid. However, these relative issues get mixed in with a far deeper issue, that of who we really are and aren’t, and until this progress of insight has been completed, this mixture tends to greatly exaggerate our specific criticisms of those things in our life that could actually stand improvement and work. Learning this lesson can be very hard for some people, and the dark irony is that they may wreck their relationships, careers and finances, as well as emotional and physical health, trying to get away from their own high level of insight into the true nature of reality. It can also make them have strong reactions to their meditation teachers and dharma friends, either being very dissatisfied with them or being very demanding that they somehow save them or more likely both. Until they are willing to work on a more direct, sensate level, there is no limit to the amount of angst and negativity they can project onto their world. I have seen this play out again and again in myself and in the lives of my dharma companions. It can be a very ugly business.

My advice for such situations is this: if, after careful analysis of your insight practice leads you to the conclusion that you are in Re-observation, resolve that you will not wreck your life through excessive negativity! Resolve this strongly and often. Follow your heart as best you can, but try to spare yourself and the world from as much needless pain as is possible. Through sheer force of will, keep it together until such time as you are willing to face your sensate world directly and without anesthesia or armor. I have seen what happens when people do otherwise, and have come to the conclusion that, in general, things go badly if people do not follow this advice, though some unexpected good can always come from such situations.

The framework of the Three Trainings and the three types of suffering that is found within each of their scopes can be helpful here as well. Since people are generally not used to facing fundamental crises of identity, i.e. the basic issue in Re-observation, they are not familiar with the pain of fundamental suffering. Being unfamiliar with the pain of fundamental suffering, they are likely to imagine that it is actually suffering produced by the specifics of their ordinary world. However, if you have gotten to Re-observation, in short, if you have found these techniques to be effective, have faith that the remaining advice may be of value and try to fulfill this part of the experiment. That is, if you are in Re-observation, the task that confronts you is to dissociate the fundamental suffering you now know all too well from the specifics of your life in an ordinary sense.

Following this advice may sound dangerous, heartless or bizarre to some people. It is a valid criticism. In an ideal world, we would not have to go around second-guessing ourselves and the sources of our suffering in the specific way that I advocate here. In an ideal world, we would really have our psychological trip together, be able to stay with the practice during these stages, and thus cross quickly through the Dark Night and finish this practice cycle. It definitely can be done.

However, we are not always ideal practitioners, and thus the Dark Night often causes the problems mentioned above that need to be dealt with somehow. My solutions to what happens when we cannot or will not do insight practices in the face of the Dark Night are also not ideal. However, the outcomes are likely to be much healthier in the short and long term than those that come from simply allowing unrestrained Dark Night bleed-through. Strangely, I have come to the conclusion that simply practicing is often much easier than trying to stop Dark Night bleed-through if we are willing to just try it, though it can easily seem otherwise. The old kindergarten evaluation, “Follows instructions, plays well with others,” is still a valuable standard in the Dark Night.

Not restraining one’s negativity and reactivity in the Dark Night is a bit like getting stinking drunk and then driving in heavy traffic rather than just sitting down and waiting to sober up. Not continuing to do insight practices in this stage is like going into surgery, opening up an incision, making some repairs, and then freaking out because the patient now has a big, bleeding incision and running away from the operating table, leaving them there to suffer. You could think of many ways to make the patient happy and try them all, but until you close up that wound they are gonna be pissed! Unfortunately, in this case you are both the surgeon and the patient. Face the wound and close it up! You obviously have the necessary skills, as you have gotten this far. Use them. The operation is nearly over.

There are also those who try to investigate the true nature of their psychological demons and life issues but get so fixated on using insight to make them go away that they fail to hold these things in a wider, more realistic and appropriate perspective. This subtle corruption of insight practices turns them into another form of denial rather than a path to awakening. Drawing from the agendas of training in morality, in which there is concern for the specific thoughts and feelings that make up our experience, they fail to make progress in insight, whose agenda is simply to see the true nature of all sensations as they are. Both are important, but it is a question of timing.

I have come to the conclusion that, with very rare and fleeting exceptions, 95% of the sensations that make up our experience are really no problem at all, even in the hard stages, but seeing this clearly is not always easy. We tend to fixate on strong sensations when they arise, those that are very painful or very pleasant, and in these times we can miss the fact that most of our reality is likely made of sensations that are no big deal, thus missing many great opportunities for easy insights. Further, the Dark Night can bring up all sorts of unfamiliar feelings that we rarely if ever have experienced with such clarity or intensity. Until we get used to these feelings, they can frighten us and make us reactive because of our unfamiliarity with them even if they are not actually that strongly unpleasant.

I highly recommend using physical sensations, such as those of the breath, as the objects of inquiry during the Dark Night whenever possible, as plunging into emotional content, even with the intention of investigating it, can sometimes be a very hard way to go. Remember, whether we gain insight through investigating physical or mental objects is completely irrelevant! Insight is insight. Choose objects for investigation by which you don’t get caught whenever possible. The best thing about reality, particularly in the Dark Night, is that you only have to deal with one little flickering sensation at a time. Staying on that level when doing insight practices is an unusually good idea. Pay attention to what is right in front of you, but keep your attention open.

All of that scary stuff said, there are people who breeze straight from the Arising and Passing Away on through the whole of the Dark Night in as little as a few easy minutes or hours and hardly notice it at all, so don’t let my descriptions of what can sometimes happen script you into imagining that the Dark Night has to be a gigantic problem. It absolutely doesn’t. These descriptions of what can sometimes happen are merely there to help those who do encounter these sorts of problems to realize that these things can happen and so be more able to deal with them skillfully. There is no medal awarded for having a tough time in the Dark Night or for staying in it for longer than necessary, much to my dismay.

One of the more bizarre potholes we can fall into in the Dark Night is to become identified and fascinated with the role of The Great Spiritual Basket Case. “I am so spiritual that my life is a non-stop catastrophe of uncontrollable insights, disabling and freakish raptures, and constant emotional crises of the most profound nature. My spiritual abilities are proven and verified by what a mess I am making of my life. How brave I am to screw up my life in this way! Oh, what a glorious and holy wreck I am.” Both my sympathy and intolerance for those caught in this trap is directly related to the amount of time I have spent in that trap being just like them. Whereas we should not try to pretend that the Dark Night hasn’t made us a basket case if it has done so, we should neither revel in being a basket case nor use the Dark Night as an excuse for not being as kind and functional as we can possibly be.

One way or the other, when we finally give up and rest in things as they are without trying to change them or be them, i.e. are very accepting of our actual humanity as well as clear about the Three Characteristics of mental and physical phenomena, there arises...

MCTB 11. Equanimity