1. Mind and Body

30. The Progress of Insight   |  2. Cause and Effect

There is a sudden shift; many mental phenomena, particularly the main narrative thought stream, shift out away from the illusory sense of “the watcher” and are just out there along with the sensations of the other five sense doors. This is an important insight, as it shows us clearly and directly in some basic way that we are not “our” mind or “our” body. It is also a pleasant, clear, and unitive-feeling state (it really is still more state-like than stage-like), and people can try to hold onto it just as with the first shamatha jhana and thus get stuck. That first taste of a little space around thoughts can be a huge relief for those who have never noticed they could observe their thoughts as thoughts, and the emotional benefits can be profound for some people. It is this early insight that provides the benefits of some of the shallow-end-of-the-pool techniques, such as Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction (MBSR).

Mind and Body—the start of the first vipassana jhana—is very close to the first shamatha jhana, just as aspects of the stages of the Arising and Passing Away, Dissolution, and Equanimity are close to their respective shamatha jhanas. Reality can seem just a bit more brilliant the first time we chance into Mind and Body. We may feel more alive and connected to the world. For some it may hit with unusual force, filling them with a great sense of unity or universal consciousness. For others, it may not seem particularly profound or noticeable except that now they suddenly feel they are practicing better than before, assuming they were practicing in the first place, as the first three stages in particular commonly arise during daily life, as plenty of activities in daily life cultivate factors such as precise attention and concentration that are sufficient to generate these insights.

With the sensate experience of both mental and physical phenomena being clearly observable and distinguished, the relationships and interactions between the two start to become obvious, and what is meant by “the dualistic split” is more easily comprehended here.

Just before or just after the first stage, there may arise odd jaw pains on one side, throat tensions, and similar unpleasant physical occurrences. Multiple other unusual experiences can arise early at the start of the first vipassana jhana, such as feelings related to what is called the “homunculus”, in which our lips and mouth, as well as hands, feel very large, and our bodily shape feels like it corresponds closely to the size distribution of the way parts of the brain map onto parts of the body. The sense of other similar body distortions can occur, such as feeling very large or small, long or compacted, or feeling like we are sinking slowly into the floor or rising into the air.

Also, it is not uncommon for people on retreats who are doing walking meditation around first vipassana jhana territory to notice things like faces in the wallpaper or marks on the floor, much in the way that we might see faces in clouds and, in fact, I have often speculated that seeing shapes in clouds correlates with extremely light first vipassana jhana territory, which is why it is nice to do that. Regardless, it soon becomes easy to see that each sensation is followed by the crude mental impression of it, and that intentions precede actions and thoughts (see the discussion of impermanence in Part One, “The Three Characteristics”), meaning we see what causes what. Thus, we come to …

30. The Progress of Insight   |  2. Cause and Effect