30. The Progress of Insight

Part IV: Insight   |  1. Mind and Body

The progress of insight (borrowed from the title of one of Mahasi Sayadaw’s classic books on the subject) is a set of stages that diligent meditators pass through on the path of insight. These stages initially appear in the Buddhist literature in the Abhidhamma section of the Pali canon written around the third century BCE. [The Abhidhamma is available in English in several translations and explanatory summaries, one of the best of which is A Comprehensive Manual of Abhidhamma, edited by Bhikkhu Bodhi.] Some of the “content-based” or psychological insights into ourselves can be interesting and helpful, but when I say “insight”, these stages with their specific perceptual shifts and upgrades are what I am talking about. The formal names of the stages of insight in order are:


1.Knowledge of Mind and Body (ñ1, M&B) The pre-vipassana stages 1st jhana
2.Knowledge of Cause and Effect (ñ2, C&E) 1st jhana
Knowledge of the Three Characteristics
(ñ3, 3C)
1st jhana
Knowledge of the Arising and Passing Away (ñ4, A&P)
Vipassana formally begins 2nd jhana
5.Knowledge of Dissolution (ñ5) The Knowledges of Suffering, aka Dark Night or dukkha ñanas 3rd jhana
6.Knowledge of Fear (ñ6) 3rd jhana
7.Knowledge of Misery (ñ7) 3rd jhana
8.Knowledge of Disgust (ñ8) 3rd jhana
Knowledge of Desire for Deliverance
(ñ9, DfD)
3rd jhana
10. Knowledge of Re-observation (ñ10, Re-obs) 3rd jhana
11.Knowledge of Equanimity (ñ11, EQ) 4th jhana
12. Knowledge of Conformity (ñ12) 4th jhana
13. Change of Lineage (ñ13) 4th jhana
14. Path (ñ14) 4th jhana
15. Fruition (ñ15) Nirvana/Nibbana (one of two meanings)
16. Review (ñ16)

I will give detailed descriptions of these stages shortly, referring to them by their shortened names, their numbers, and occasionally shorthand slang and acronyms. These are formally known as “Knowledge of” or “Insight into” and then the stage, such as “Knowledge of Mind and Body”, or “Insight into Mind and Body”, but I will just use the part after the “of” or “into”. They are also called ñanas, which means “knowledges”, and I will say, for example, “the first ñana”, or abbreviate it as “ñ1”. Notice that I use the word stage rather than state. These are stages of heightened perception into the truth of all phenomena, opportunities to see directly how sensate reality is, but they are not seemingly stable states like those cultivated in concentration practice. The above jhanic groupings refer to the vipassana jhanas, which will be covered in more depth later, but they borrow core attention shapes and phase characteristics from their shamatha jhana equivalents. In other ways, they may diverge significantly from the experience of pure shamatha jhanas.

One of the most profound things about these insight stages is that they are strangely predictable regardless of the practitioner or the insight tradition. Texts that are 2,000 years old describe the stages just the way people go through them today, though there will be some individual variation with respect to the individual specifics today as then. The Christian maps, the Sufi maps, the Buddhist maps of the Tibetans and the Theravada, the maps of the Kabbalists, and many non-Buddhist traditions of India are all remarkably consistent in their fundamentals. I chanced upon these classic experiences before I had any training in meditation, and I have met many people who have done likewise. These maps, Buddhist or otherwise, are talking about something inherent to how our minds progress in fundamental wisdom that has little to do with any tradition and much to do with the mysteries of the human mind and body. The maps are describing basic human development. These stages are not Buddhist, but universal, and Buddhism is merely one of the traditions that describes them, albeit unusually well.

The progress of insight is discussed in many good books, such as Jack Kornfield’s A Path with Heart in the section called “Dissolving the Self”, which I highly recommend. A very extensive, thorough, accessible, and highly recommended treatment of it is given in Mahasi Sayadaw’s works The Progress of Insight and Practical Insight Meditation, a partial version of which appears in Jack Kornfield’s Living Dharma. As mentioned before, Practical Insight Meditation is my favorite dharma book of all time with no close competitors. If you ever lay your hands on a copy, do so; fortunately, it is now easily available on the web. Even the section of it that appears in Living Dharma is much better than having access to none of it at all. Again, Mahasi Sayadaw’s Manual of Insight is highly recommended.

Sayadaw U Pandita’s In This Very Life also covers this territory, and is a must-read for those who like lists and straight-up Theravada, but he leaves out a lot of juicy details. The previously mentioned fifth-century text Visuddhimagga by Buddhaghosa also has a great treatment of these stages, and contains some interesting and hard-to-find information. However, it focuses largely on the emotional side effects and thus does not include many other useful points. Shaila Catherine’s Wisdom Wide and Deep: A Practical Handbook for Mastering Jhana and Vipassana, is a modern re-explanation of the Visuddhimagga and is very worth reading.

Venerable Sayadaw U Jotika’s A Map of the Journey is a fascinating and traditional fusion of compilation, summary, and elaboration of the traditional stages of the path. It also contains solid foundational vipassana meditation advice. Another good but brief map appears in Venerable Khenpo Karthar Rinpoche’s Dharma Paths. Though he labels the stages differently, the territory is the same. You can also check out Bhante Gunaratana’s The Path of Serenity and Insight if you would like to know the traditional explanations well. It is a thorough and scholarly work.

Matthew Flickstein’s Swallowing the River Ganges gives a light treatment of basic Buddhist concepts and contains a superficial treatment of the stages of insight. It is kind of like what would happen if you dumbed down a medical school textbook for a fifth grader, focusing almost entirely on the emotional side effects and thus leaving out so much that is worthy of discussion, but it comes from a good place. While it is not nearly as comprehensive as the other sources mentioned above, it is easy to read and good for beginners who like their dharma simple.

There are many less accessible maps of insight as well. The Tibetan Book of the Dead: The Great Liberation through Hearing in the Bardo requires some prior familiarity with this territory to sort out the wild symbolic imagery. A twelfth-century Sufi map is given in Journey to the Lord of Power by Ibn ’Arabi, but again the medieval symbolism is hard to untangle unless you are already personally familiar with these stages. It also provides a very interesting, if quite cryptic, description of the higher stages of realization. St. John of the Cross’ Dark Night of the Soul does a good job of dealing with the most difficult of the insight stages. His map is often called “The Ladder of Love”. Unfortunately, the translation of the medieval Spanish and thickness of complex Catholic dogma make it somewhat inaccessible to non-native readers of Spanish. Still, there is true value in reading it, particularly to gain an appreciation of the depths of practice attained by some of the medieval Catholic contemplatives and that some aspects of meditative practice are universal and arise across very different traditions. While the Theravada typically calls the middle stages of insight the Knowledges of Suffering, I prefer the term “Dark Night”, so I use it here for those stages.

I strongly recommend that you consult some of these other sources, particularly the first ten mentioned. While I consider the treatment of the stages of insight that follows here to be the most comprehensive and practical yet written, there are still many great points made in those books, and you should check them out. I certainly don’t reproduce every useful thing you will find there, as that would make this great hog of a book even heftier than it already is. There is a huge amount of valuable information necessarily left out in all these sources, perhaps due to some of the difficulties in describing the myriad nuances of the subject in its myriad possible variations and, on occasion, perhaps due to the mushroom factor. Thus, working with a qualified teacher or good, qualified friends who have personal mastery of these stages (regardless of what they call them) is an extremely good idea.

This model is used mostly in Burma but also to some degree in the other Theravada traditions. Zen is quite aware of these stages in their non-labely way, as all Zen Masters had to go through them and continue to do so, but they tend not to name them or talk about them, as is typical of their style. This can be helpful, as people can get obsessed with these maps, turning them into just another form of useless content, imprisoning identification, and competition. This is the ugly shadow side of goal-oriented or map-based practice, but it often (though not always) may be overcome with honest awareness of this fact. That said, Zen’s persistent lack of attention to them can cause other problems, and plenty of modern reality testing has shown that some balance between intentionally ignoring them and obsessing over them works better than either extreme.

Luckily, if the meditator really is into insight territory, then continued, correct, sensation-based practice has a way of facilitating progress given time. Also, when the proverbial crap is hitting the fan, having a map can help the meditator not make too many of the common, tempting, and occasionally disastrous blunders of that stage, as well as provide the meditator with encouragement that they are on the right track when they hit the grueling, weird, or captivating stages. Contextualization and knowing that some of the strange or hard stuff is expected, normal, and doesn’t last can be extremely important to help people find the courage and perspective needed to persevere. These stages can significantly color or skew a meditator’s view of their life and experience until they master them, and it can be alleviating and even life-saving to remember this when navigating rougher waters while trying to remain functional in our endeavors and relationships. Those who do not have the benefit of the maps in these situations or who choose to ignore them are much more easily blindsided by the psychological extremes and challenges that may sometimes accompany stages such as the Arising and Passing Away and those of the Dark Night.

While many people don’t want to know the maps for various reasons (such as their own unexamined insecurities, biases, givens, beliefs, and traditional silos), the experiment has been done and it has shown clearly that, in general, people get further in their practice when they know the maps and have good guidance about how to use them properly and avoid their traps. I don’t know why people persist in thinking that ignorance is so much better than a solid grounding in practical theory. When you think about it, many adult meditators have already witnessed thousands of people killed in the media and maybe killed in real life, likely have had sex, may have given birth to children, may have themselves killed people in war, dealt with pain, illness, and modern life, and yet somehow can’t handle insight maps? This bizarre view needs serious questioning and exploration.

At the very least, the maps clearly demonstrate that there is vastly more to all this than just philosophy or psychology. They also clearly and unambiguously point to how the game is played step-by-step and stage-by-stage, what we are looking for, and, more importantly, why; and they provide guidelines for how to avoid screwing up along the way. Why people wouldn’t want to know all this is completely beyond me, but there are entire meditation traditions dedicated to keeping people in the dark concerning the maps.

The maps fill in the juicy details of the seemingly vast gap from doing some seemingly boring and simple practice to getting awakened. Further, providing this extremely precise information on exactly what to do puts the responsibility for progress or its lack clearly on you, the meditator, which is exactly where it should be. If after reading this book you don’t put this extremely powerful information into practice, the fault is yours alone, or perhaps is the better part of valor if you feel you are currently too unstable to attempt these sorts of practices and strive for the effects they create.

There is considerable evidence that the lack of this information in insight traditions that don’t consult the maps has been one of the primary obstacles to progress. On the other hand, the maps can sometimes cause furious competition and arrogance in the followers of traditions that do use them (who have not trained sufficiently or adequately in morality), as well as harmful fixation on purely future-oriented goals, both of which are basically spiritual poison. Please, do your very best to avoid these sorts of problems by applying the various remedies given here and in other fine works on meditation, but recognize that problems and complexities often go with the territory, sort of like injuries in the world of athletics: common, unfortunate, but not a reason to ban all sports.

The more intense, consistent, and precise the practice, the easier it is to see how the maps apply. The more energy and focus are dedicated to practice, the more dramatic and even outrageous these stages can be. If these stages unfold gently over long periods of time, it can be more difficult to discern the progression through them, though it does happen. Certain emphases in practice, such as Mahasi Sayadaw–style noting practice, particularly on intensive retreats, seem to produce a clearer appreciation of the maps, and some individuals will have an easier time than others seeing how these maps apply.

Each stage is marked by very specific increases in our perceptual abilities. The basic areas we can improve in are: clarity, precision, speed, consistency, inclusiveness, and acceptance. These improvements in our perceptual abilities are the hallmarks of each stage and the gold standard by which they are defined and known. Each stage also tends to bring up mental and physical raptures (unusual manifestations). These are predictable at each stage and sometimes very unique to each stage. They are secondary to the increase in perceptual thresholds by which we may judge whether we are at a specific stage.

Each stage also tends to bring up specific aspects of our emotional and psychological makeup. These are also strangely predictable, but not as reliable for determining which stage is occurring. The emotions that might show up are suggestible, scriptable, ordinary, and will show more variation from person to person. However, when used in conjunction with the changes in perceptual threshold and the raptures, they can help us gain a clearer sense of which stage has been attained. Further, these stages occur in a very predictable order, and so looking for a pattern of stages leading us to the next can help us get a sense of what is going on. Thus, when reading my descriptions of these stages, pay attention to these distinct aspects:

1) the shift in perceptual threshold;

2) the physical and mental raptures;

3) the emotional and psychological tendencies; and

4) the overall pattern of how that stage fits with the rest.

So, we sit down (or lie down, stand, walk) and begin to perceive every sensation clearly as it is. When we gain enough concentration to steady the mind on the object of meditation, something called “access concentration”, we may enter the first jhana, now called the “first vipassana jhana”, which is in some ways the same initially for both concentration practice and insight practice. However, as we have been practicing insight meditation, we are not trying to solidify this state, but rather trying to penetrate the three illusions of permanence, satisfactoriness, and self by understanding the three characteristics.

We try to sort out with mindfulness what are physical sensations and what are mental sensations, and when these are and are not present in our direct experience. We try to be clear about the actual sensations, just as they are, that make up our world. We try to directly understand the three characteristics moment to moment in whatever sensations arise, be it in a restricted area of space, such as the areas in which the sensations of breathing arise; or a moving area, as in the case of body-scanning practices; or in the whole of our world, as is done in what are generally called “choiceless awareness” practices, using some other technique or object, such as noting, or just by being alive and paying attention. Thus, this first stage has a different quality to it from that of concentration practice, and we attain direct and clear perception of the first knowledge of Mind and Body. 

Part IV: Insight   |  1. Mind and Body