MCTB How the Maps Help

Now that I have presented the maps of the Progress of Insight, I will reiterate just a bit about how they help and why I went to all of that trouble. I will try to do this in chronological sequence and tie it in with what has been said in Part I.

The maps tell you clearly what you are looking for and explain exactly and precisely why you are looking for it, how that insight helps, and how that insight provides the ground for what follows. The same thing could be said of the concentration state maps. If the stages of insight didn’t tend to bring up all sorts of unusual raptures and produce such a wide range of potentially destabilizing emotional side effects, there would not be so much need for the maps. You could simply tell people to increase their perceptual abilities until they got enlightened, and they would likely have few difficulties in doing so by properly applying the techniques. However, the insight stages do tend to cause these sorts of effects, so the maps are very useful for keeping people on track in the face of them.

Remember long ago in the chapter called “The Seven Factors of Enlightenment” when I mentioned that the first factor was mindfulness and that this was really good for sorting out what is mind and what is body and when each is and isn't there? That is because the first insight you are looking for, the one that gets you in a position to see more deeply, is stage one, Mind and Body. Get it? This stuff is not random or arbitrary. It is all clearly laid out in a way that helps and fits with reality.

Remember how I said in that chapter that one should try to experience the intentions that precede actions and thoughts, as well as the mental impression or “consciousness” that follows all sensations? That is the understanding in stage two, Cause and Effect. Thus, mindfulness is the first factor of enlightenment because it leads directly to the first two classic insights into the truth of what is actually going on. If you want insight into something, then looking into that aspect of things precisely is the best way to acquire that insight.

Once one has directly experienced these two insights, then the Three Characteristics begin to become obvious in stage three, The Three Characteristics, which is exactly why the next factor of enlightenment is called “investigation of the truth”, i.e. the Three Characteristics. Both the Seven Factors of Enlightenment and the insight maps tell you exactly what you are trying to understand and why. Their order is not arbitrary in the least.

You will not be able to understand the Three Characteristics directly without sorting out what is mind and what is body and the relationships between them. Without understanding the Three Characteristics, regardless of what you call them, you will not be able to go further and will not be able to get enlightened. The Buddha laid it all out step by step. While this may seem unromantic and perhaps even dry, it is also exceedingly practical and without a doubt the clearest presentation of exactly how to wake up that I have ever seen presented in any spiritual system, just so my biases are made perfectly clear. In short, these maps and techniques can be profoundly empowering.

Once the Three Characteristics begin to become clear, the mind naturally speeds up and becomes more powerful. This is because it finally begins to draw on its tremendous power to see things directly without processing them through thought. Anyone who has driven a car, played a video game or done just about anything else for that matter knows that you just have to do it, but if you tried to think about every little thing you were doing it would be impossible.

This increase in mental power due to non-conceptual and direct experience is related to the third factor of enlightenment, energy. Energy may now even be blazing up and down one's spinal cord, the mind gets bright and alert, and soon energy is flowing naturally, as one begins to enter the early part of stage four, The Arising and Passing Away. Remember how this correlates with the second samatha jhana, where applied and sustained attention or effort are no longer needed? They just happen on their own to a large extent, and energy is naturally present. Thus, it all ties together.

The next factor of enlightenment is rapture, which comes to predominate in the second vipassana jhana and the Arising and Passing Away just as it does in the second samatha jhana. Thus, all of the important advice about rapture given earlier applies to the insight maps in Part III. One is generally advised to avoid becoming a rapture or Kundalini-junkie in that stage, although I suppose if that is your primary reason for meditating, it is certainly your right to do so. Just be wary of the inevitable crash.

During the mature Arising and Passing Away, as well as in Dissolution, tranquility becomes important and more pronounced, but then becomes too strong in late Dissolution. Thus, it becomes important to build the sixth factor of enlightenment, concentration.

Finally, when the Dark Night really kicks in, as it will once one can again find one's objects and stay with them (Fear through Re-observation), then Equanimity in the face of all experience becomes vital for progress, as stated in Part I. Thus, Equanimity can arise and that Path can be attained.

As mentioned before, the maps fill in the seemingly huge, frustrating and nebulous gap from doing something like sitting on a cushion paying attention to the sensations of your breath and finally getting enlightened.

The maps also tell you exactly what the common errors of each stage are. They warn people about not getting stuck in Mind and Body by solidifying it into a jhanaic state, which it closely resembles. They provide comfort and explanation when things might get jerky, unpleasant or even downright painful in stage three, Three Characteristics. They admonish people not to get too fascinated with how much of a mighty meditator they might feel in stage four, Arising and Passing Away, and to even examine the sensations that make up the seemingly wondrous and tantalizing corruptions of insight such as equanimity and rapture. They warn of the possibility of thinking that one is enlightened when going though that stage, as well as saying that it is normal for wild and sometimes explosive experiences to occur.

I spoke with a friend who basically wanted me to help him rationalize that his recent A&P experiences occasionally allowed him to touch High Equanimity. My advice was that a much more helpful form of inquiry would be to notice the sensations of fascination with this issue and the sensations of the rest of his sensate universe coming and going moment to moment. If he couldn’t manage this, he should be putting his time into trying to figure out how to get together enough vacation time and money to do another long retreat and/or how to increase his daily practice time and the thoroughness of his investigation.

The maps clearly state that the process is not a particularly linear one, and that after the highs of the Arising and Passing Away there usually follow times of difficulty when all of the spectacular power of the mind and the enjoyment of meditation gained in the Arising and Passing Away is likely to fade dramatically. They warn of the numerous difficulties that may or may not be faced in the Dark Night, as well as provide lots of information about how to deal with them. The most common mistake is failing to investigate the truth of sensations deemed undesirable. It is hard to get on more intimate terms with reality when we feel a bit too emotional, vulnerable, open-hearted or shaken, and so progress in the Dark Night is not always easy.

While I do generally wish to avoid biting the hands that have fed me, I must say that not telling practitioners about this territory from the beginning so as to give them a heads up to what might happen is so extremely irresponsible and negligent that I just want to spit and scream at those who perpetuate this warped culture of secrecy. While many teachers may not do so because they don’t think many people will ever get this far, that in and of itself is a scary assumption that should cause some serious questioning of their teaching methods, techniques, and perhaps even motivations.

Imagine that there is a meditation medication called Damnitall that is used to treat some form of suffering (perhaps it’s a pain medicine or an anti-depressant). However, in a subset of patients its long-term use is known to cause pronounced anxiety, paranoia, depression, apathy, micro-psychotic episodes, a pervasive sense of primal frustration, pronounced lack of perspective on relationships, reduced libido, feelings of dissatisfaction with worldly affairs, and exacerbation of personality disorders, all of which can lead to markedly reduced social and occupational function. Imagine that these side effects are known to persist sometimes months and even years after someone stops taking the medication, with occasional flare-ups and relapses, with the only permanently effective treatment being to increase the dose, along with supportive care and counseling, and hope that these side effects pass quickly with little damage.

Now, imagine that you are living in the dark days of paternalistic medicine during which doctors are prescribing this stuff without fully disclosing the potential side effects despite the fact that they are fully aware of them. Imagine that drug companies are not forced to disclose known side effects. Does anything in this scenario make you a bit uncomfortable? I should hope so!

Let’s say for the sake of argument that I am a fanatic who is blowing this thing way out of proportion. Let’s assume that Damnitall only causes these effects in one out of every ten thousand patients. Would you have these side effects included on the little piece of paper that comes in the bottle? Let’s say it’s one in a hundred? At what point does it become absurd that those doctors and drug companies are being allowed to get away with this? Unfortunately, I must admit that I do not know the exact odds of these side effects happening to you. I do know firsthand that they happen and that if you cross the A&P Event you are fairly likely to run into at least some of them.

These side effects are no fantasy. When they show up they are as real and powerful as if some dangerous drug had seriously skewed your neurochemistry, and I often wonder if that might be something like what happens. Thus, it seems only fair to have the same standards that we apply with such pronounced zeal and fervent litigation to drug companies and doctors also applied to meditation teachers and dharma books. For reasons unknown to me, this book is the first one I know of to spell out all of these things explicitly in language that everyone should be able to understand so that you can go into meditation having been fully informed of the risks and benefits and thus make informed decisions about your own practice. In the spirit of professionalism, I call on others who promote the dharma to adopt a similarly high standard for their own work.

Maps point out that people might get stuck for a little while in Equanimity if they do not investigate the sensations that make up even equanimity, peace, relief, space, ease, clarity, expectation, confidence, etc. The models also go into great detail about what actually happens in each stage of enlightenment and what does not happen (presented later), though this aspect of the maps is much more controversial than the maps of the progress of insight.

Thus, the maps at their best tell the meditator in clear and systematic ways exactly what to do, what to look for, why, and exactly how not to screw up at each stage. They are no substitute for clear practice and investigation of the sensations that make up one’s experience, and they are poor aids to those who refuse to heed them and follow their advice. As I continue to mention, they can also be used as a basis for useless and even harmful competition between gung ho meditators with insecurity issues. It can and has been argued convincingly that one certainly doesn’t need to know these maps at all so long as one practices well. Despite the dangers of competition and over-intellectualization, the maps still have tremendous value when used as they were meant to be.

One very valid criticism of the maps, as I mentioned before, is that people are often very susceptible to suggestion, often called “scripting.” Describing these stages can cause people to have something that resembles these experiences just because they have been told that they are expected. The part of the maps that deals with emotional side effects is notorious for causing this particular kind of mimicry. For example, it is basically impossible to sort out what is just fear and what is insight stage six (Fear) based upon the presence of fear alone. The aspect of the maps that deals with unusual raptures (both physical and mental) is less suggestible, and is a more reliable indicator of the stage of practice.

However, the fundamental increases and shifts in perceptual thresholds are extremely hard to fake, particularly if you have access to a map that goes into the extensive details presented here. Shifts in perceptual thresholds are the most reliable markers on the path of insight, the Gold Standard by which these stages are defined. For example, if you recently saw very fine vibrations that changed frequency with the breath, then had a big zap-through, spaced out for a while, and now feel paranoid with some steady 5-7 Hz stuff that quickly leads to chaotic, edgy vibrations with complex harmonics, that’s very likely the insight stage Fear.

Thus, increasing one’s perceptual thresholds in terms of speed, consistency, and inclusiveness should always be the focus of one’s insight practices. Skilled teachers who use and are very good with these maps will take into account all three, i.e. emotions, raptures and perceptual abilities, along with the pattern of these that has unfolded previously, and use them to come up with an educated guess as to what is going on with a student. With years of experience, we may eventually get good at doing this for ourselves. I have found that my guesses about my own practice are usually more accurate after I have had a year or two to reflect on what has occurred.

The best, most consistent practice I ever did was during a two-week Mahasi Sayadaw-style retreat in Malaysia. This was my third retreat ever, and I knew nothing whatsoever of the maps of the progress of insight, very little theory, and had done almost no reading of the old texts. I was simply doing noting practice. I had been told by a friend that if I noted quickly and accurately all day long from the time I got up until the time I went to sleep without breaks then good things would happen. Well, from my point of view, all sorts of strange and largely irritating things happened. However, I just kept noting quickly all day long regardless. Things were getting pretty wild, then things calmed down a bit, and finally I hit a wall. I could barely practice at all. I would sit down and try to note and be walking away from the cushion within a minute and before I realized what was happening. My mind was so tight, irritated and buzzy that I felt I would soon explode. It was immensely frustrating.

That night the abbot played a scratchy old tape of a Burmese monk with a thick accent describing the stages of insight. It blew my mind, as he described exactly what I had gone through in the previous thirteen days. I could clearly see how the stages he was describing had unfolded, exactly where I was and what I had to do. I was also astounded that the path could be so reproducible and straightforward, that I could just follow moronically simple instructions and have it all happen. Those who want to get lost in the reaction, “No, it isn’t so simple. Awakening is a great and intractable mystery! You are lying! It mustn’t be so!” should take a few moments to seriously question exactly how this disempowering and inaccurate view helps them feel good about themselves. They should then take a few moments to find another, more empowering view that helps them feel good about themselves, step up to the plate, and hit a home run.

With a very high level of faith in the technique and despite the extremely irritating restlessness that arose the moment I sat down, I resolved to sit on the cushion until I had passed Re-observation. It was horrible. I noted like crazy anyway. Within five minutes it broke, everything opened up, and fundamental formations arose. Thus, knowledge of these maps is absolutely not necessary for progress but it may be helpful if it keeps one practicing and helps one realize that what is happening may be perfectly normal.

Unfortunately, the story continues on a dark note. I did not know these maps well at the time. I didn’t really appreciate what was happening, how close I was to a real breakthrough, and the possible implications of not doing so. The retreat ended one hour later, and I had very little time for practice when my rigorous travels resumed. I fell back, back into the Dark Night, and it began to really screw up my life. I won’t go into details, but I will say that I wish I had had access to a friend with a solid understanding of these maps to help me keep what I was going through in perspective. As it was, I was largely blindsided. Since then I have met numerous people in similar unfortunate situations. The wish to help others avoid such difficult situations was one of my primary motivations for writing this book.

It was another six months before I went on retreat again, and luckily by that point I wanted nothing in the world more than release. In the month before I arrived, I was lucky enough to have a friend clearly explain the importance of noticing impermanence at a very fine level and show me some of the finer points of the maps. I hit the retreat determined to practice to the very best of my ability or die trying.

I powered up above the Arising and Passing Away again on day three, hit the Dark Night on day four, faltered for a few hours, and then simply noted. I knew I was beaten, but I noted. I was weary, tight and yet volatile, and I noted. I felt I was cracking at the seams, but I noted. I stayed with what was happening, clearly perceiving and reluctantly accepting the sensations that made up my world, the weight lifted, and then the little mush demon buddha thing showed up. Soon thereafter, I soared effortlessly in realms of pure vibrating suchness, free from the ordinary cares of the world. Soon this became boring, and then I just sat and walked. On day six of my fourth retreat, I got the first taste of what I was looking for (read, “stream entry”). There is no way to explain the waves of gratitude that washed over me, except that one small ripple of them was the other part of the motivation for writing this book.

As promised, the spiritual path is not a linear one. During the next few days, I swung wide from the greatest spiritual highs to the extremes of what can happen during Re-observation. My mind was powerful beyond reason, and yet I was a complete novice at this new territory. I was a bit like a sixteen year-old who has just been given a Ferrari with no brakes and a pair of night vision goggles. I simultaneously saw myself as being staggeringly wise and also as a complete basket case. For the remainder of the retreat, I worked to stabilize, ground and regroup so that when the retreat ended I wouldn’t make a complete mess of things. I was only moderately successful.

For the next few weeks, I, The Great Stream Enterer, managed to alienate most of the people who had the misfortune to speak with me for any length of time. Worse, within four weeks I began experiencing the difficult physical raptures of the next set of early insight stages. New territory was showing up, probably because I was still practicing hard three or more hours each day, and it was kicking my gung–ho butt. My neck went so stiff in the next third insight stage that I could barely move my head for nine days, and the pain was excruciating. Again, I had no idea what was happening. Many years later, I have come to the conclusion that the best thing to do after attaining a path is to chill out for a while. I did have a senior teacher tell me that much, but he didn’t tell me why. Further, I had been advised by a good friend to do otherwise. Lord, help us when meditation teachers give us blatantly contradictory instructions, particularly in intensive practice situations.

No one had told me that the beginning of a new progress of insight could arise so quickly, or informed me of what it could be like to be trapped in the odd in-between stages by pushing too hard. Again, I wished I had the advantage of knowing someone who was willing to talk about these things honestly. However, despite my continued contact with senior meditation teachers, no one was willing to lay out the practical information that I present here. I had to figure it out the hard way. Was I bitter? You bet I was. Was I simultaneously very grateful to even have these things to be bitter about? Absolutely. Finally, someone gave me the excellent advice, “Nail down what you’ve got.” Within a few weeks of relaxing and letting things settle, I was able to backslide to mastery of the previous stages and get on with my life.

Despite these rough beginnings and a rough journey beyond them, do I have any major regrets? No. It has been so very beneficial that I cannot possibly explain it. I wouldn’t be going on and on about these things if they weren’t worth it. However, I am a firm believer that if there is enough good information out there, then it doesn’t have to be so hard for those that follow. Thus, I present these maps with the hope that they will help people at least have some framework to help them understand the many and varied parts of the path.

Further, as absurd as this may sound to some, the maps allow you to plan your spiritual path to some degree. True, there are ultimate points of view that would make this perspective seem quite ridiculous, but indulge me. A sample plan might be this:

  1. Go on a three-week retreat and really power the mindfulness and investigation all day long, consistently stretching your perceptual threshold and speed of investigation to its limits to maximize the chances of crossing the A&P Event. It is not that hard to cross the A&P with fairly imbalanced effort, so don’t worry about that. Remember not to be freaked out by the strange raptures around the A&P. Note, a two to three month retreat would give you a great shot at stream entry if you are ready to really practice, so if you are at that level, go for it.
  2. Once you have crossed the A&P, Dark Night stuff will come bubbling up soon enough, and the choice to deal with this on or off retreat will depend upon how much time you can devote to retreats and how much intensity you can stand. My vote tends to be for on retreat if you can take the heat, but not everyone can the first time around and not everyone can easily spare the time. On the other hand, that Dark Night might just be a cakewalk. Give it a go and find out! In the Mahasi Sayadaw tradition, they typically think that two to three months of diligent noting practice on intensive retreat is enough to get many people to stream entry, but perhaps you do not have the time or dedication to step to that level yet.
  3. If you decide to deal with the Dark Night off retreat, realize that you will likely fall back, but keep practicing an hour or two each day. Do your very best to realize that any of the odd feelings that you may experience are probably just Dark Night side effects. Try to imitate normal life as best you can and avoid rash decisions such as sudden and permanent renunciations of things you will want later on. Try to be nice to people and do your very best to keep your “stuff” from bleeding onto those around you. Find ways to honor and deal with your stuff that don’t involve projecting it out onto other people or making a mess of your life.
  4. If on retreat, or the next time you can go on retreat, just keep practicing as consistently and accurately as you can and avoid indulging in the content of your stuff at all costs. Put worldly concerns behind you for that period of time and investigate bare sensations with acceptance and bravery.
  5. Attain to equanimity regarding whatever arises, but be wary of indifference. This is not always as easy as it sounds, but it could be strangely easy nonetheless. Once the weight lifts, just keep sitting or walking or whatever, with no sense of special effort, but keep up gentle, ordinary, and consistent attention to the open field of awareness, with gentle emphasis on the Three Characteristics. After really getting into high equanimity, stream entry should arise soon enough; if it doesn’t, repeat the above cycles until it does.
  6. From this point, you are “in there,” and progress of some kind is now inevitable. This first finger-hold on ultimate reality is extremely important, as without it you can wander far and wide and yet get nowhere. Advice for what to do next is given later on.

It should be noted that in this way of thinking about things, there are only about five stages, and they are relatively simple to identify. The first is before you get any sort of strong concentration, and the advice is to get your concentration stronger through good technique. The second is the first vipassana jhana, which involves staying with your objects, getting faster and more direct, and working through basic hindrances. The third is when things get cooking, the A&P, the second vipassana jhana, which is usually obvious. The fourth is the Dark Night, which is usually obvious. The fifth is Equanimity, which is usually obvious, though can be confused with the A&P. The instructions basically are to continue practicing with some awareness of the standard traps of each stage, and let your attention get wider as each new jhana requires. Memorize this basic five-stage framework and the standard advice for each basic stage, and you will be a stronger, more independent, competent, and empowered practitioner.

One more thing I should mention, and that is what I call the “Standard Pattern.” This is the typical way that people progress through these stages, realizing that there is a great range of variation. Typically people are into meditation because they have already had some sort of experience that has started them on the path, though they may not remember that experience. It was typically at least Mind and Body, some samatha jhana, or more often they got all the way to the A&P and are now a Dark Night Yogi without realizing it. Others have gotten into meditation for some other reason, such as a difficult emotional event or intellectual curiosity, and then did some sits and/or went on a retreat, and now they are Dark Night Yogis. While not hard science, I will claim that few that are really interested in the material in this book are not at least Dark Night Yogis.

Once one has crossed the A&P in any context, one is likely to cross it again, even if one doesn't practice, though it may be years between events. Thus, they cross the A&P, get all excited about all sorts of things, and then they enter the Dark Night, and cause all sorts of trouble, may be interested in retreats and practice, may be hard to be around or live with, etc. Unless on retreat, the chances of them getting to Equanimity with enough strength of practice to get Stream Entry are low, and even on retreat many will get lost in their stuff and stop practicing effectively. Thus, they will end the retreat often worse than they began, but not always. Off retreat, these effects fade, the pressures of the world reassert themselves, and people reintegrate to some degree, at least until they cross the A&P again.

Typically, this goes on for some number of cycles and years. Some will go on to get Stream Entry, and those that do tend to do well so long as they realize that they must face the whole thing again and again at each new level of mind beyond that and compensate for those effects. Some will actually have a pretty hard time as the Dark Nights that follow at the higher paths blindside them. Overall, those who have good instruction, have their morality trip together, and practice well will do better than those who don't.

One last bit of advice for those coming off retreat who are Dark Nighting hard: stop practicing for a while and do things to ground down, such as sleep more, eat heavy foods, go to movies, do hard physical work or exercise, and the like if you need to function in the real world. It will help the Dark Night fade more quickly. There is not much useful to be gained for doing just enough practice to stay caught half way in and half way out, as that's a tough place to be. Sometimes letting go of letting go is okay.

Another concept that helps make the maps make sense is that of “shifting baseline”. This is easier to see on retreat, though can be noticed in daily life as well, albeit more gradually. While the standard maps say that a practitioner below Stream Entry must, on each sit or meditation session, begin by attaining access concentration, then work up to Mind and Body, Cause and Effect, etc. in a linear fashion, getting as high as they can go on that sit and then falling back, what actually happens is somewhat different.

The initial stages of practice, those of finding the breath, feet, or other object, typically go on for a while until suddenly Mind and Body arises, which is usually pretty cool the first time it happens, but it quickly fades in intensity and profundity in subsequent practice periods. Then, while the practitioner may have to build up to it again and again, they may notice it less and less as their baseline shifts to the next stage, in this case Cause and Effect, which will then predominate in sits and situations, until they gradually move on from there. In this way, their baseline, meaning the dominant place where they are in the insight cycles, will move forward, sometimes with rapid jumps, other times with long pauses in one area. The predominant emotional, energetic, and perceptual experiences will take on the quality of the meditators current baseline ñana.

Thus, by the time one is in the A&P, one may barely notice the shifts through the earlier stages, and when one gets to the Dark Night, the bliss, focus and clarity of the A&P may feel far away. In Equanimity, even though one in theory has to go through all the stages each time one sits, one may barely notice any of them, as Equanimity may become the dominant experience of things. Others on retreat may find that they can power up through the A&P and into the Dark Night day after day, only to flounder when they hit the Dark Night, and the next day they start again. Even they will gradually notice a shifting baseline, as the earlier stages fade and the later ones show more and more of themselves. However, once one leaves retreat, things tend to rapidly regress, though the effects of whatever stage one ended on will tend to linger for a while, and those have crossed the A&P who did not manage to get Stream Entry or the next path will tend to have some Dark Night element in there somewhere until that fades and they cross the A&P again, which as I said can happen off retreat.

All this changes on Stream Entry, and is one of the marks of it. Suddenly, rather than a generally upward going baseline with regressions when one leaves retreat, the thing cycles with great clarity and rapidity, all the way from A&P territory to Fruition through one of the Three Doors and then round again. Thus, this would be a good time to discuss the Three Doors.

MCTB The Three Doors