Where on the Stages of Insight am I?

Mark Groeneveld, modified 2 Months ago at 5/13/24 3:28 PM
Created 2 Months ago at 5/13/24 3:27 PM

Where on the Stages of Insight am I?

Posts: 4 Join Date: 5/13/24 Recent Posts

I’ve been on some sort of meditative/insight journey for 15 years, though it’s accelerated in the past 3 years. I’ve recently felt more interested in contextualizing this journey within existing models and learning from others, which led me to MCTB. Confusion over that book then led me here. I would appreciate others’ thoughts on where I am on the Stages of Insight, and what are the strengths and weaknesses of my practice. Here are the most important parts of my journey as I currently perceive it. I list some questions at the end.

I had no or little parental attachment in early childhood because my parents were emotionally absent and mentally ill. They also abused me in other ways. My mind adapted to that situation by constructing a large number of durable experience/belief/emotional-response structures that I call schemas (it’s the neuroscience term for the concept: https://www.lesswrong.com/s/ZbmRyDN8TCpBTZSip/p/i9xyZBS3qzA8nFXNQ). For instance, I might have developed the belief that no one loves me because that belief kept me from seeking the love of my parents in ways that would end with them hurting me. Or maybe that belief was a more acceptable explanation for their behavior than the actual fact that they were dangerous, and I couldn’t believe they were dangerous because I still needed them to take care of my basic needs or I would die. I find it’s always a bit tricky to piece together exactly how any particular schema helped me; most of this occurred when I was too young to form detailed memories.

Fast-forward into my late teens/early 20’s and now I have debilitating depression and anxiety that are impairing my ability to function. My childhood schemas have persisted into adulthood because I never knew what they were or how to unlearn them. There are few events which I think were particularly important to this story:
  1. I was profoundly moved by Practical Ethics, an introductory text to Utilitarianism. It has to two big ideas: all suffering is morally equal and the goal is to minimize overall suffering. That idea became foundational in my mind. Over then next 15 years (up to an including the present) I grappled with the difficulties and nuances of that. It pushed me to develop a pretty rigorous theory of change for the world. I also ended up dwelling on thoughts like “if I’m too depressed to do anything I should kill myself and donate my savings because my savings could do more good doing something more morally effective than keeping me alive”. In a way that’s true, but I also didn’t know I would eventually get better, or that that rumination was also somewhat an effect of my childhood schemas.
  2. I was quite good at physics in school and realized that our brains are just atoms bumping around. Free will doesn’t seem to be plausible or even definable. We’re also all just part of one giant system / differential equation / the wave function of the universe. That realization also interacted with my childhood schemas in distressing ways.
  3. A friend and I did psilocybin mushrooms in the woods once. I mostly spent the time hugging the trees, looking very closely at the trees, and feeling like I was one with the forest. I think this created some very intense feelings of persistent oneness with nature that persists to this day. Perhaps nature became a pseudo-parent to me to fill in the lack of human parents.

All those experiences combined to form a general feeling of needing to save the world to save myself. I spent a lot of time reading about how science/politics/people worked and what are the optimal ways to fix various large scale problems in the world. I generally felt alone and different and constantly ruminated on thoughts of “why did no one else care about the suffering of other beings, look at the big picture, take their head out of whatever little hole they had stuck it in, or think about how to improve things?” I got involved in activism and finally met a couple other people who I respected who also took moral action seriously and had mostly coherent world-models.

Somewhere along the way I began to find Buddhism interesting. Possibly because Buddhist Modernism seemed compatible with science and my existing beliefs. I may also have romanticized it along the lines of “ancient people actually could figure out true things; not all religions are bullshit.” I went on one week-long retreat where a lot of rage from my childhood came up. I didn’t know what was happening and none of the teachers knew either (or they didn’t tell me). At the end of the week of practice I had one experience of being stable in the present moment without the need for continual focus. It felt like bliss and the absence of all the painful, angry rumination that filled my regular life. For the next 5 years I always thought if everything else fails, I can become a monk and meditate all the time and that will help me heal. After the retreat I didn’t really keep up a meditation practice, perhaps because of depression or avoidance.

A few years later (2021) I try MDMA-therapy with a friend who is a guide. The first session I felt I could have been a goddess (I was socialized masculine but have never felt an attachment to any sort of gender identity. Why would anyone want a gender and stick themself in a box? What a dumb concept.) of compassion. I was so overflowing with inner safety I thought I could have watched everything I love burn to ashes in front of my eyes and I would still be ok inside. It became very clear to me that all the evil things everyone had ever done were because they were seeking some kind of love or safety but through old maladaptive patterns that they had never unlearned. I also realized all my pain and dysfunctional behavior were caused by the same thing. I heavily attached to the medicine as the thing that would save me, which ended up being an adaptive response because it kept me focused on healing through periods of doubt. For a week or two after the trip I was locked into present-focus. I actually couldn’t resume wandering mind even when I tried, and that was disconcerting. That ended after a week or two though.

The next MDMA session was rougher. No more infinite compassion, which I was very distressed about for a year or so until I healed some more. It was time to start digging into all the maladaptive schemas from my childhood trauma and reconsolidating them. When I say reconsolidation (memory reconsolidation is the neuroscience term for the unlearning process), I mean that while an old schema is activated and you have a second, contradictory emotion or belief, the brain permanently rewrites the old schema. It’s our built-in update mechanism. The only reason it is doesn’t naturally update all our maladaptive schemas is because we avoid those feelings in various ways (alcohol, internet, lack of resources, being overwhelmed, etc.) and interrupt the update process. MDMA provides present-focus and safety that enables focusing on the painful schemas, and then provides the mismatch of love, safety, and connection that reconsolidates them.

I did about 25 MDMA-therapy sessions over the next 2.5 years and made a lot of improvement. A lot of old schemas also attached themself to the therapeutic process itself and I went through periods of despair about therapy. Eventually I got to the point where I felt more stable and confident about the process.

I went through a variety of difficult experiences of despair, dissociation, depersonalization, derealization, panic, etc. They were difficult in the moment but continued reconsolidation practice solved all of them, thought it often took longer than I desired.

After 25 MDMA sessions I realized I could use the memory of my first trip (compassion goddess) as the source of contradictory experience for reconsolidation instead of the MDMA itself. So any time I felt any amount of distress (only in situations where distress is maladaptive; I knew not to try reconsolidating my fear of heights while I was standing near a cliff edge) or avoidance, I recalled that source of compassion and safety and sat with the two contradictory experiences until the old maladaptive schema reconsolidated. I could do this for about two hours each day. At that point I became exhausted and needed a full night sleep to recharge the ability. I practiced this 2 hours every day for a few months between the next 5 MDMA sessions.

At that point I realized I didn’t need to deliberately call up the contradictory memory any more. Any time I noticed avoidance or distress I could just flip a switch in my head and direct focus and compassion at the old schema until it updated. I stopped using MDMA altogether. I’ve done about 400 hours of this practice now.

At the moment I’m noticing that I may be slowly transitioning into a new phase: Sometimes any strongly activated schema just automatically reconsolidates without any focus or intent from me. All I need to do is be present and not avoid it.
Along the way I came to more deeply believe:
  1. Maladaptive schemas are the source of unnecessary suffering (or at least the only source we can do anything about).
  2. Reconsolidation practice is The Way to solve my suffering and most of the solvable problems of the world
  3. “I” am an adaptive system. By practicing reconsolidation, focusing on moral action for the benefit of all beings, and learning about how the world works, “I” will become best adapted to do good in the world. The “I” system will better align with the world system. This is an ongoing process as the world and my mind change over time.
  4. I sometimes feel like I have entered a metaphorical river that will take me where I (and the world) need to go. Earlier in my healing I was splashing in the shallows and might not have got caught up in the channel. But now I’m more in the main flow. As an example of this in action: I’ve been spending my time writing an MDMA-therapy manual with a colleague. My belief that I’m doing a good thing has been calibrated through all the people I’ve shared it with telling us that it’s wonderful.

I also think my skill of noticing subtle avoidance or distress has increased through my practice. Though my childhood also trained me to notice subtle signs of distress in others.

A few days ago I stopped perpetually dissociating (The autonomic nervous system flooding the body with opioids when it feels threatened and powerlessness. It’s when animals play dead). Now that I can think clearly a large part of the day I found myself reading about Buddhism again. The term stream-entry sounded a lot like my river metaphor and further reading increased my feeling of resonance. I started reading MCTB and the The Progress of Insight chapter, but that made things less clear for me. The description of many of the stages feels so lengthy and complicated to me that I think I could incorrectly pattern-match any of my experiences to the stages in the book. Like seeing a face in the clouds.
I have a few current questions and uncertainties I’m interested in your perception of:
  1. I already have a high-confidence model that describes many parts of the journey I’ve been on and is leading to good things: old schemas stick around past their period of usefulness and the practice is unlearning/reconsolidating them. I think this model even explains how I have resolved some of my distress about not being being a self, not having agency, and various uncomfortable moral-philosophical insights like how do I justify maiming millions of insects to keep myself alive. I’m unclear what another model like the Stages of Insight would add to my understanding. And yet I’m still writing this post on this forum for some reason. I seem to be missing something that I can’t put my finger on.
  2. Where might I be in the stages of insight? Reading The Progress of Insight chapter of MCTB didn’t really help. I don’t know how to translate my practice into the terms the book uses.
  3. For wherever I am on the stages of insight, what things should I do or not do? I’m aware that some meditation-adjacent practices can lead to lots of suffering.
  4. What are the strengths and weaknesses of my practice?

I have inevitably forgotten to include some important things here that I should have. I’m happy to answer clarifying questions!
Chris M, modified 2 Months ago at 5/13/24 4:08 PM
Created 2 Months ago at 5/13/24 3:57 PM

RE: Where on the Stages of Insight am I?

Posts: 5331 Join Date: 1/26/13 Recent Posts
Better question, IMHO - where do you think you are on the path of insight? Surely you've thought about this and have a more informed opinion than we could hope to have. Based on the nature of all you just posted I have trouble believing you can't figure out the path of insight based on what you've read in MCTB. It's about as clear a description as there can be.

I'm not trying to be difficult and ornery. I'm trying to better understand what you think this group can do for you that you can't do for yourself.
Mark Groeneveld, modified 2 Months ago at 5/13/24 4:22 PM
Created 2 Months ago at 5/13/24 4:17 PM

RE: Where on the Stages of Insight am I?

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Maybe I need to read more of the other parts of the book and let things percolate. I am pretty new to the concept of Stages of Insight. I did honestly find the Stages of Insight descriptions confusing. I find that quantity of metaphor hard to understand (not just in this context; it's a pattern for me), particularly as I don't perceive that I experience anything I would classify as energy, visions, vibrations, etc. But maybe there's just another thing for me to unlearn that's blocking my perception!
Chris M, modified 2 Months ago at 5/13/24 4:32 PM
Created 2 Months ago at 5/13/24 4:32 PM

RE: Where on the Stages of Insight am I?

Posts: 5331 Join Date: 1/26/13 Recent Posts
It took two readings of the book for the things presented to sink in, so I do believe a full read, and then another, is a good idea.

Welcome to DhO! Sorry to sound so negative, but I really believe you can help yourself based on what I read in your OP.
Mark Groeneveld, modified 2 Months ago at 5/13/24 4:46 PM
Created 2 Months ago at 5/13/24 4:46 PM

RE: Where on the Stages of Insight am I?

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Thank you for the recommendation! I think in hindsight I was/am also skeptical of the book and possibly looking for a second source of information via another human who has read it. In my life, when people talk about energy waves, it usually involves varying degrees of pseudoscience and magical-thinking coping mechanisms. So the book was hitting those discomfort triggers of mine.
Martin, modified 2 Months ago at 5/13/24 5:29 PM
Created 2 Months ago at 5/13/24 5:29 PM

RE: Where on the Stages of Insight am I?

Posts: 907 Join Date: 4/25/20 Recent Posts
It's possible that you are not at any particular point on the POI, which would actually be a great place to start from. If you want to do the kinds of things described in the book, then 90% of it will come down to developing meditation skills. If you put aside the whole notion of stages for the moment and look at what you can do as you work through the instructions in the book you will not be distracted, and are likely to make better progress than if you get sidetracked by questions of where you are. 
shargrol, modified 2 Months ago at 5/13/24 5:59 PM
Created 2 Months ago at 5/13/24 5:55 PM

RE: Where on the Stages of Insight am I?

Posts: 2564 Join Date: 2/8/16 Recent Posts
Welcome Mark!

One thing to remember about the stages of insight is that they are a pretty good and reliable map of what happens on a meditation retreat where someone is practicing some form of mindfulness meditation, alternating sitting and walking practice throughout the day, and practicing for several days in a row. The further away from those conditions, the less directly relevant the map will be.

For people practicing at home, the more relevant question is "have I been hitting my cutting edge of practice fairly consistently and slowly making progress?"  Basically during normal life, the nanas fall away and the answer to where we are is "nowhere in particular" emoticon But if someone has a consistent daily practice they will be able to regain their highest stage and maybe further refine their insights in the next sit. 

I'm a big fan of schema therapy -- it is a very practical way to diagnose and directly work on cognative blindspots and maladaptive habits. Meditation is a bit different in the sense that it is based on a belief that directly experiencing resistances will lead to their untangling. It really is a good companion practice for therapeutic methods. 

My three favorite books/resources are
Table of Contents – MCTB.org
Wake Up To Your Life: Discovering the Buddhist Path of Attention: McLeod, Ken: 9780062516800: Amazon.com: Books
and the article:
(edit, corrected link) Aro - Embracing Emotions as the Path (arobuddhism.org)

And you might like this description of somewhat traditional burmese style vipassina practice. Many of us have worked on versions of this, especially when we initially got serious about practice:
bp503s_Mahasi_Practical-Insight-Meditation.pdf (bps.lk)

But of course there are a million different resources out there. 

I have a hunch that you might like the "embracing emotions" article and the tantric idea of "fully experiencing" emotions... that article gives some ideas about that kind of practice.

Definitely keep asking questions, don't join a cult, and good luck with your exploration!  emoticon
Mark Groeneveld, modified 1 Month ago at 5/19/24 2:26 PM
Created 1 Month ago at 5/19/24 2:24 PM

RE: Where on the Stages of Insight am I?

Posts: 4 Join Date: 5/13/24 Recent Posts
Thank you. I tentatively agree, in that while I seem to be in the territory, the focus-based stages of insight don't seem to map well onto my practice, at least not in a way I can see at the moment. I guess I do have an insight practice: I spend a lot of time watching how my emotional reactions and associated beliefs arise and fade away. From that I’ve come to deeply feel that my mind is a collection of changing schemas. What seems potentially different than traditional insight is that when a distress schema arises, I permentanly unlearn (by juxtaposing it with a deep feeling of inner safety and compassion) it in the moment rather than just noticing it.

My practice has consistently been good for me and improved my functioning and emotional health. I made this post because I've started unlearning schemas of distress around not having a self and I've been having intermittent nondual-related experiences. I am mostly concerned with not accidentally getting in the deep end of the pool (MCTB and other resources have all sorts of warning about psychosis and mania at certain stages for certain people) before I'm ready, and not ending up at a point of no return before I understand what's going on.

I appreciate the links. I couldn't really make sense of the "5 elements" metaphore for emotions. 
Geoffrey Gatekeeper of the Gateless Gate, modified 1 Month ago at 5/19/24 3:42 PM
Created 1 Month ago at 5/19/24 3:42 PM

RE: Where on the Stages of Insight am I?

Posts: 415 Join Date: 10/30/23 Recent Posts
Howdy Mark!

Well, I think if you want to gauge where you are in POI, it might be helpful to try noting for a bit (maybe like a month or so), and just play around with it and see how it goes. The reason I suggest noting is that it gives a lot of little clues in the aggregate about what's going in general (like the tone of the mental voice can usually reveal how we are feeling about a sensation, or if youre noting lots of peace, annoyance, mind wandering, etc) these can help tune you into where you're at in the POI.

Then for you, just based off of how you speak and conceptualize things, it might be interesting to try and find the answer to these questions (in experience, not conceptually).

Maladaptive schemas are the source of unnecessary suffering (or at least the only source we can do anything about).
These brings up interesting questions. What exactly is suffering? How is suffering different from just unpleasant things or pain? Does suffering have anything to do with a feeling of "me" or "mine"? 

Phenologically, what exactly is a maladaptive schemas? If you're trying to note stuff, what would make you note "maladaptive schema"? Is it a particular emotion or thought? Or is it some combo of a bunch of stuff? If its some combo of stuff, where exactly is the "maladaptive schema" in the pile of stuff?  Is it something you could know in an instant or is it temporal? If its temporal, is it solid or are there gaps in it?
Pawel K, modified 1 Month ago at 5/20/24 10:21 AM
Created 1 Month ago at 5/20/24 10:21 AM

RE: Where on the Stages of Insight am I?

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So basically you don't meditate and don't recognize anything from the MCTB book...

...sounds really hard to diagnose...

Here is my enlightenment map:
0) You just read book about meditation and wonder what stage of insight you are. <- that is called not being enlightened

A) You feel supremely enlightened and surpassed all Buddha's... to hell with Buddhas, you surpassed all gods! You attained God's consciousness and Universe is your brain <- that is called Arising and Passing away nana / A&P

D) You cling to your imaginary supreme enlightenment and ignore it makes you miserable. Then you have brilliant idea: cling to it even more and you suffer even more. Then you only want relief and get confused about it as per usual with relief and you still cling to relief but now you don't know what you cling to. <- this is called Dukkha nana / Dark Night / DN

E) One moment you suffered and now you don't and forgot what you were clinging to. You still want to cling but it misses you. Everything feels funny with consciousnesses in everything but you completely ignore that fact, never do anything with it and have no insights regarding it but you say you have insight of formations because you read in dharma book something like this should be experienced and you experienced it therefore you have insight <- that is called Equanimity nana / EQ

1) You understand dharma by heart but you still struggle with this strange realization you aren't really doing anything and everything happens which you start struggling with, cause oneself some suffering and confusion. But then evening comes and you think "Nah, it's pointless to suffer..." and so you stop suffering without needing to do anything. <- that is called being Stream Enterer / 1st Path

2) You wake up and see beautiful sky-like field out of which jhanic experiences arise and to which they pass away with each experience self knowing while you aren't at all in control of any of it. The only control you seem to have is which jhanic pleaure you chose or if you do cessation of this or that part of mind but even that doesn't feel like you did or even thoughts about it aren't yours. You ponder if the suffering you had in the past was always jhanic and that is why your mind clinged to it <- that is called being Non Returner / 2nd Path

3) You and your sense of self are buddies again and this time without confusion so if just happily provides perspectives you had in the past but again without confusion. You spend your days experiencing pure jhanas, pure abodes... lots and lots of pure abodes and other pure states. You like this pure stuff so much you purity everything <- that is called being Anagami / 3rd Path

4) You experience being supremely enlightened and above all Buddhas and Universe is your mind. Then you think "maybe I am just in perpetual state of A&P emoticon" and after few moments rather than being worried think "Heck Yeah! Always wanted that to be and Enlightenment! emoticon". You also read what people write and think everyone else is at most 2nd Path but you are polite and say "yes, definitely Arhats have unresolved sense of self issues and why everything must be about it being gone, that makes perfect sense" <- that is called being Arhat / 4th Path

emoticon You realized you were son of the king and lived in luxury and because you made some bad life choices now you are homeless bum. So you figure "if I say word 'Liberation' heedless run-of-the-mill people will feed me for free!" <- that is called being Buddha

N) You always wanted to be a Buddha but you realized your father is not a king so you need to wait until you are born as king's son. You also don't like asceticism and think luring people with liberation is bad karma so being disappointed about your dream you instead talk about tired neurons and tricks that mind can do which you know because you think investigation is actually going deep in to phenomena to study it and insight is having meaningful ideas about what you study <- that is called being me

Hopefully this helps to clarify things emoticon

Metta Fruitions,