11. Equanimity

10. Re-observation   |  12. Conformity

Finally, we really begin to understand and surrender to the truth of things. We begin to accept, at a deep level, the truth of our actual human lives as they are. All the “stuff” that the Dark Night may have brought up may still be going on, but somehow it has lost its ability to cause real trouble. Equanimity is much more about something in the relationship to and among phenomena than anything specific about the phenomena themselves. It involves a real, down-to-earth, honest humanity, a real acceptance of ourselves just as we are. Figuring out how to manage the transition from Re-observation to Equanimity is one of the big keys to practice. Another key is to be real with yourself and keep up a gentle investigation of the three characteristics while you are being that honest in a broad and inclusive way that remembers something called “space”. Remember that space is just fine.

When in Re-observation you may think, “This totally sucks! Dang, I really want to get to Equanimity!” Feeling into that yearning, being very clear and honest about how you are feeling and thinking, as well as just continuing to practice, makes it all happen. Those sorts of thoughts and feelings are totally normal: when perceived clearly as they are, they become the foundation of progress. If they are not investigated gently at least somewhat at a basic sensate level, you are likely to stay stuck for longer than you need to be, as stated in “The Seven Factors of Awakening” when I mentioned being stuck in hell: this is what that section was referring to. If your practice stays future-oriented, goal-oriented, rather than just being with what is right now, what you wish for will not happen easily.

In Equanimity, there is a settling in, a rediscovery of what we seemingly always knew but temporarily forgot. Equanimity can have a rough start, strangely enough, as well as some mildly painful and irritating sensations, but the meditator feels that some barrier has finally broken, a weight has lifted, and practice can continue.

Equanimity can be such a relief after Re-observation that it is very tempting to solidify it into the fourth shamatha jhana, either because doing so is very nice or because of fear of falling back to Re-observation, which can easily occur. In this, many will shift to modes of attention that are much more in the realm of concentration practice, being more about the positive qualities than the three characteristics, meaning that they stop investigating those and rest in the equanimity. However, as I continue to mention, not gently investigating the qualities of this stage, such as peace, ease, and a panoramic perspective, prevents progress and makes falling back to Re-observation more likely. In fact, falling back to Re-observation is quite common, since important learning takes place in Re-observation, as much as we may not like it.

Strangely, some may find the openness, ease, and spaciousness of Equanimity disconcerting, disorienting, or ungrounding, particularly if they have spent a lot of time being in significantly more contracted modes of being. This may cause some to then retreat into those more contracted modes, such as the Dark Night, as that sort of familiar discomfort may actually be more comfortable to them in some strange way than the ease and openness of Equanimity until they get used to it. Milan Kundera’s book title The Unbearable Lightness of Being sums up well this surprising but understandable phenomenon. 

What I call “the standard pattern” involves people crossing the A&P, learning (if reluctantly) many deep and essential lessons in Re-observation, getting to Equanimity, but then falling back to Re-observation, learning more lessons of a similar nature, getting back up to Equanimity, and so on until the lessons hit deeply and finally Equanimity really predominates in its unobtrusive way. So, if this happens to you, be as grateful as you can be to go back and learn something that you clearly needed to learn more fully or deeply, such that when you get back to Equanimity, that lesson will endure and be better rounded.

The first vipassana jhana (Mind and Body, Cause and Effect, Three Characteristics) is about building up the basic skills of identifying what a physical sensation is, what a mental sensation is, how they are related, and what the three characteristics feel like in practice. The Arising and Passing Away (second vipassana jhana) is about seeing these very clearly and profoundly for the object of meditation and its naturalness of presentation. The Dark Night (third vipassana jhana) is about these insights coming around to the background and seeing more complex emotional and psychological constructs of mental and physical sensations as they are. The fourth vipassana jhana, meaning this stage, is about seeing the true nature of even more integrated, inclusive, subtle, and fundamental things such as space, awareness, investigation, wonder, expectation, analysis, knowing, wanting, anticipation, peace, ease, questioning, subtle fear, subtle doubt, etc., in honest, complete ways that cut through the center and include the background and foreground as well. It is also about gently teasing out these strands into the field of awareness, delicately, as though we were trying to coax out something fragile and shy.

I think of “core processes” as those aspects of experience that most deeply form the basis of the illusory sense of a “me” or “this” side of an investigator, a meditator, a continuous being, something that could be there to make progress, acquire, or attain something. Seeing those at a sensate level is the opportunity presented in Equanimity, and a remarkable opportunity it is for those who know what to do with it. In Equanimity, we can see the three characteristics in a way that applies to the whole field of experience: everything happens on its own, everything is shifting and ephemeral, everything that involves a “this” that seems to be watching “that” has this strange tension in it. Allowing that wisdom to come through and show itself naturally is key.

The early parts of Equanimity (ñ11.j1) can feel very familiar and “normal”, like we have remembered something simple and good from our childhood. If we felt weary of the world in the Dark Night, we may suddenly find that the world is just fine and we may even become more engaged with and excited about it than before. Again, these potentially radical mood swings can be very disorienting to those with whom we have close relationships. Try to be sensitive to this and their feelings. Confidence returns, but whereas there may have been a Rambo-like quality to it during the Arising and Passing Away, now there is more of the cool, easy confidence and competence of James Bond or Lara Croft.

At this stage, there can arise a tendency to see the world and those in it in very strange and unusual ways. Tremendous variation is possible here. One example from my experience, intended to convey a general concept: I remember looking around me at all the people on retreat and even at all the chickens, birds, and puppies in the monastery, and seeing them all simultaneously as little mush demons (little squat greenish creatures with big, sad mouths and eyes) but also as fully awakened Buddhas. [I have no idea where I got the image or name “mush demon”, it just showed up.] They were both. In fact, we were both. We were deluded and small, yet interconnected and luminous.

I could see in some very strange way exactly how each of them, including me, was caught in the world of form and confusion, trying to find happiness and doing so from such a small and frightened place, and yet all of this was vast Buddha nature, all of this was the natural, luminous, and compassionate divine dance. Such strange perspectives that try to resolve paradoxical insights do not always occur, but this is included here in case they occur for you and perhaps to prompt knowing laughter from those with their own unique stories from this part of the path. More sexual and stylized versions of these experiences can also explain where some of the more exotic tantric teachings come from, though a sexual component is generally more characteristic of the A&P.

Sometimes the early part of stage eleven can produce a real sense of freedom in the conventional sense, freedom from cares, worries, even responsibilities and social conventions. We may sometimes feel that we are simply beyond everything, and this is a wonderful feeling (ñ11.j2). It tends to fade quickly enough on its own, but it’s possible to get caught by it if we stop practicing entirely, which is a common occurrence in Equanimity: the charge is gone, the quest seems preposterous, we are okay, just this seems to be enough. Those who became spiritual fanatics, fundamentalists, or freaks after the A&P and during the Dark Night may now begin to behave more like their old selves, with their spiritual practice being much less of a big holy deal. About damn time …

Visions of bright lights may arise once more, but these are more typically associated with the A&P. If white lights arise in Equanimity, they tend to be much more broad, amorphous and/or diffuse than the pointed, train headlight of the A&P. Any images that form in this stage are much more likely to have more three-dimensional elements than those in the A&P. Again, as with that earlier stage, the meditator is able to sit for longer and longer periods and begins to perceive clearly the three characteristics with spaciousness and breadth. The big difference is that the A&P is more about the object of meditation and Equanimity is more about the whole sensate universe, though sorting this out at the time is not always straightforward, as the A&P can be so powerful, and manifests in many different ways. There is less rapture and more equanimity than in the stage of the A&P. There are rarely if ever the spontaneous physical motions and odd breathing patterns that come with that earlier stage.

Unfortunately, just to make things confusing, there is often a single double-dip state shift into some deeper version of early Equanimity in the manner of A&P territory, with one state-shift that may involve an eye-blink and shift in consciousness halfway down the breath and the other at the end of that same breath, very soon after the shift from Re-observation to Equanimity. [ñ11.ñ4 in ñana.subñana (insight stage.insight stage) terminology, the part of Equanimity that has a bit of the A&P phase in it. For those who really get annoyed or turned off by this sort of notation or fine-grained dharma theory, just ignore it, as you don’t need to understand that system of notation to be a great meditator, and that way of thinking about experiences is largely used by a relatively small group of us, influenced by Bill Hamilton.]

I should also note that occasionally at the stage of Equanimity I am prone to having an unusually strong memory of something that seems unrelated to what I am doing, such as a strong vision of some part of my past. It tends to last just a few seconds for me. I began noticing the recurrence of this during this phase of cycles much later in my practice, but I suspect it was happening all along, and you might watch for it to see if something similar happens to you. I notice this most in daily life when cycling through these stages, as the intensity of the memories is so striking, as though I am momentarily transported to that place and time for just a moment for no apparent reason. This may just be idiosyncratic, and if you don’t notice this, don’t worry about it. That same advice is true of much of this map stuff, as I describe a wide range of variants, only a few of which might apply to any one person in each cycle. If you are paying attention, after things repeat often enough, you will likely notice all the little quirky phenomena that manifest for you in each stage, like familiar little markers along a forest trail, a mossy stump here, a funny-looking stone there, etc.

In the early part of Equanimity, reality may appear a bit “chunky” for a while, like some half-way point between the irritation of the late part of the Dark Night and the flowing, open phase that happens as Equanimity more fully develops. Practice in this early phase may seem quite possible but may seem to require steady but sustainable work. If we are tired, we may begin having dropouts and head-drops that are like what occurred in Dissolution but more extreme, sort of like when we start to have our head nod while driving when extremely tired (something I have done way too many times and strongly advise against). [ñ11.ñ5 in ñana.subñana notation, or could be ñ11.j3.j1 in ñana.subjhana.subsubjhana terminology.] These head drops are among the things that people can mistake for Fruitions (described later), but Fruitions almost never involve the head dropping as these Equanimity head-drops do.

In this third subjhana phase of Equanimity (ñ11.j3), the broad, out-of-phase phase, it may be hard to read and pay attention, hard to hear people and listen, hard to notice where we are and what we are doing. It can have some resemblance to Dissolution but is less slothful and more diffuse and spacious and makes people more prone to “spacing out”. The arising of fear of madness and death is not uncommon in this phase of Equanimity, but usually does not cause too much trouble and may even seem comical or welcome. [ñ11.ñ6–ñ11.ñ10 in ñana.subñana notation.] For others, this mini Dark Night of Equanimity can make things complicated, and in the face of that seeming complexity some will either try to power the thing (unlikely to work well in Equanimity), or try to solidify the pleasantness they may have experienced right before it and turn something open, flowing, and accepting into a more stable and safe-feeling fourth shamatha jhana, which is equanimous but still more frozen and static than works well for reaching stream entry. In this way, people can stagnate in Equanimity.

We may get a sense that something strange and perhaps scary (namely, “reality” vanishing) is about to happen. A related and common feeling in the early part of this stage is the general sense that something big and exciting is about to happen, like kids on Christmas morning before they’ve opened their presents, like young couples on their first date, though this feeling is also common before an A&P Event. These feelings are worthy of sensate investigation in a broad and inclusive way, just as with other sensations. It is common at these times to apply familiar practice tactics that worked in previous stages, such as going for very fine details about small phenomena as we did building up to the A&P, powering investigation, or noting fast as we may have tried to do in Re-observation, or some other gamey strategy that we borrowed from an earlier part of the path. Few of these are likely to help and most will hinder, but many people will try them again and again until they learn this, and there is something to be said for learning for ourselves by trial and error. As Mahasi Sayadaw says in Practical Insight Meditation, we may feel that the noticing and the objects are not close enough. We are not yet recognizing that the “objects” know themselves where they are and on their own naturally.

Allow me at this point to introduce “The Analogy of the Kazoo Player”. Hopefully it will be as big a hit as “The Analogy of Shootin’ Aliens”. In “The Analogy of the Kazoo Player”, imagine there is a great symphony orchestra in a great concert hall and in front of it, like an absurd comedy act, sits a clearly nervous kazoo player with no music score in front of him. The orchestral introduction begins, and the poor kazoo player, who has no idea what piece will be played, tries to give his best rendition of the orchestra’s chosen symphony. He is about a half a second behind them, playing the notes just after he hears them. As he is a kazoo player, he can only play one note at a time, so his impression of the orchestra is a very crude one, hitting on selected highlights of the melody, making for a very small and very simple version of the rich and intricate multipart score of the symphony that this orchestra is playing beautifully in all its glory.

Now, imagine that certain audience members have been cursed to believe that they can only hear the symphony after the kazoo player plays his rendition of it. Beginning meditators are nearly all thusly cursed. Noting is like the kazoo player, and eventually we get good at noting (or noticing), and we hang on to the notes of the kazoo player, delighting in his performance, as crude, linear, and simple as it is. Remember that I am a noting technique fan, and a bit of a kazoo fan as well. However, at some point, some of us notice that we can also hear the symphony just as it is, just on its own, that the weave of sounds is coming in from the symphony also, and this is known without the kazoo player having to make a limited, absurd, out-of-time, delayed facsimile of it.

Soon, some of us concert-goers are going to begin to find the kazoo player silly, like some sort of joke that ruins the majesty of the symphony as it is. Finally, imagine that someone suddenly puts the music in front of the kazoo player, such that he joins the symphony, becomes just one more part of the grand sweep of the melody, largely lost amidst the grandeur of the hundreds of other players all giving it their all. Equanimity is like that, in that we finally are just caught up in the performance, without having to feel like we need some poor kazoo player to interpret and imitate the symphony for us, and definitely without having to feel like we have to be up on stage being the kazoo player ourselves.

One danger of this analogy is that it might cause beginning practitioners to try to jump up to the broad directness of the later stages without doing the work of the early phase that creates Equanimity. Specifically, if you are doing a technique like noting, which clearly is very kazoo-player-esque, don’t let this analogy dissuade you from noting in the stages of practice when it can be so very helpful. Noting is a great way to get to Equanimity, as most practitioners can’t notice just the symphony completely without going through some sort of kazoo-player-like stages.

You will notice that I don’t mention anything about the frequency of vibrations in this section, as it is not about that, but much more about flow, fluxing, synchronization, and inclusion. There might be pulses, shifts, arisings, and vanishings, but this is not about the specific frequency or counting beats or anything of the sort. That is all kindergarten stuff compared to what this stage is about, so don’t be tempted to apply that first vipassana jhana mentality and technique of linearly noticing individual pieces; doing this would be backpedaling, as this stage is far beyond that, even though it may seem so ordinary that it hardly seems as advanced as it is. It would be like trying to count the number of notes coming from the violins instead of getting fully into the beauty of the symphony in all its rich, full, textured, effortless, grandeur as it reverberates within the concert hall.

Speaking of pedaling, an analogy from the world of cycling comes to mind. In the early stages we exert effort, like pedaling up a hill. The A&P is what it is like to be flying along at top speed, totally rocking it, feeling the power of your legs effortlessly cruising along as you are now on a high plateau. The Dark Night is what it is like to suddenly have come to a steep, down-sloping, treacherous, and dangerous part of the road that is poorly maintained, with lots of crazy traffic, potholes, and other obstacles. We try to brake but we can only slow down so much before our brakes heat up too much and we must somehow hang on and navigate the craziness.

However, Equanimity is like now coasting along on an easy, open, flat, straight road in a beautifully scenic area with no finish line to cross, no specific goal in mind, just effortlessly coasting and enjoying the scenery. If we employ a biking style from any earlier stage, such as totally powering it, as in the early stages, or if we are braking hard and swerving around imaginary obstacles, as in the Dark Night, we will likely miss the simple, easy, open beauty of the scenic area we have managed to get to after our long, hard ride, and instead just exhaust or frustrate ourselves instead of noticing what Equanimity is all about.

As practice matures, reality can be perceived with great breadth, precision, and clarity, and soon with no special effort. This is called “High Equanimity” (ñ11.j4 or ñ11.ñ11). It is the loss of any sense of the isolated, individual, effortful kazoo player, and there is just the symphony of ordinary reality happening on its own, as it is. The odd thing about High Equanimity is that most of the time you don’t notice you are in it. In fact, not noticing that you are in it is part of its hallmark. It can feel so normal that it might feel like terrible practice, if we were even thinking about such things, which is not nearly as likely in actual High Equanimity. Obviously, the problem with this is that some will think, “I don’t at all feel like I am in Equanimity, so I must be in Equanimity!” when, in fact, they are not. So, such advice must be taken in context.

In Equanimity, our practice may feel that it lacks the speed and precision of the A&P, the drama of the Dark Night, the delightfully free wonder of the earlier phase of Equanimity, and as if it isn’t enough. When High Equanimity happens, it seems so ordinary that we may try to make it into something extraordinary. If we are attached to ideals about how amazing, blazing, bright, dramatic, powerful, sensational, and thrilling practice is supposed to be, we may keep seeking those qualities and prevent ourselves from being with the very ordinary-feeling but clearly extraordinary stage of High Equanimity.

High Equanimity can happen in many unexpected situations, such as walking to the bathroom after a sit, or just doing ordinary things like watching TV, as you lie down for a nap, daydreaming, brushing teeth, or during formal practice, though at that point practice is unlikely to feel much like practice or anything special or unusual. It can feel pretty boring, like we no longer care at all if we awaken, practice, or anything like that. Attempts to fake it are common if people know the map theory, but the real deal just shows up and pervades quietly on its own.

It is quite common to experience High Equanimity during walking practice, as most people mistakenly believe that walking practice is not as important as sitting, so they let the pressure off, which in this case is good. This phase may be very quick, just a few minutes or even a few seconds, but if we have set up our practice well, that is all it may need. If we have conditioned our minds to perceive the broad, interconnected, integrated world of phenomena however it manifests in the light of the three characteristics, then in this final natural letting go of everything, the mind does what we have trained it to do. By taking our whole world in, it takes our whole world out.

In MCTB1, this section caused considerable confusion and needless complexity: hopefully this version will clarify things. Vibrations in the higher part of Equanimity tend to be very different from how they were in earlier phases. In the A&P they tended to be fine, fast, of one clean frequency that tended to modulate its rate by the phase of the breath, and either localized in one small area or spread out across our skin and the like. In the Dark Night stages, vibrations start slower (the shamanic drum-like beat of Fear) and then later speed up, but in an edgy, irregular, irritating, complex way that is around the edges of attention.

However, in Equanimity, particularly as it develops out past the “chunky” phase, vibrations tend to be slower, more flowing, more volumetric, more about waves of moving attention-space-phenomena all together. Equanimity is more inclusive, almost like the graceful interpretative dance of attention and space creation itself. Many people don’t really notice much about the vibrations or flow and that is also okay. It is much more a question of flow, a shifting back and forth of attention like gentle waves on a beach, like tracking a falling leaf, like the easy settling of attention and phenomena into themselves on their own.

Here, to illustrate the point about how vibrations often manifest in this phase, I introduce a little quirky practice of my own. I call it “The Exercise of the Spinning Swords”. In it, I imagine two swords in two imagined arms twirling gently around and through my body and head, gently and easily sweeping through everything that I think of as myself, looping, dancing, and swirling around, being just a natural part of space and attention as those imagined swords are, almost like a lazy and whimsical baton twirler. I let the swords swing anywhere they want in a playful way that gently tries to move through everything I think of as “me”. This gently integrates the perception of everywhere that I think I am. They don’t hurt anything, and instead they are just attention realizing that it is simply all phenomena, with attention represented by the swords and everything else represented by itself.

After doing this for a while, the imagined swords may start to swing around on their own, sweeping up space with them, until the whole thing synchronizes naturally on its own and, just like that, it all vanishes and reappears. I think of it as a fun, stylized, fantasy-inspired personal variant of that already-mentioned good advice that Sharda Rogell gave me: “Just watch the motion of attraction and aversion.” They are basically the same exercise in some fundamental way, and if you prefer the one she proposed, it can be very helpful, particularly if you include everything you think of as “you” in that natural motion. If you don’t like swords, try lightsabers, batons, staves, rays of light, or whatever else has that basic shape.

I also add an analogy by Achaan Chah, perhaps one of his most famous, found in a compilation of his teachings by Jack Kornfield and Paul Breiter called A Still Forest Pool. While that book might seem to contradict much of what you find in this one, I like it a lot and highly recommend that you check it out as a valuable counterbalance to my style, which is not necessarily a sufficiently balanced style for everyone, including myself, that being one reason I found that book (and many others) helpful to my practice. In Achaan Chah’s analogy, practice is like sitting by a still forest pool in a jungle at twilight. If you sit quietly, all sorts of animals show up and drink from the pool and vanish back into the shadows on their own without you having to do anything. Equanimity is like that for the whole field of experience all the way through, including the pond, the forest, and yourself. Experience phenomena arise and vanish on their own, where they are, as they are, with no effort at all required to perceive them, as they contain the perception as a part of their being sensations: that is good practice advice in Equanimity.

The world in Equanimity is a very flexible place, and all sorts of odd things can happen, particularly for those with strong concentration abilities, though some will suddenly jump up to a whole other stratum of concentration in this stage, attaining to levels of concentration and their commensurate weird effects they had no idea they could ever do or see: 3D visions of fully-formed, intelligent beings, 3D shapes or other odd things, such as sacred geometry or vast landscapes and basically anything else you can imagine. It is also a time when some people will have other spontaneous powers and experiences. I detail those and my advice for relating to them later in Part Six, but they are truly not important, just more stuff that can happen.

Certainly, not everyone experiences these more unusual and often interesting types of experiences. If you do have them, the most important thing is how you relate to and interpret them, and the more you can see them just as sensate experiences and not buy into their story or a fixed way of interpreting them, the better things are likely to go. If you find yourself buying into their content and story, serious trouble can result, so just keeping a gentle rein on any impulse towards losing touch with ordinary points of view is helpful. If you do find yourself in strikingly unusual territory with odd ways of viewing the world, let some good, mature, and experienced dharma friends or a meditation teacher know what is going on, because, while Equanimity is generally benign, there are rare exceptions.

As Equanimity progresses, it may feel like reality is trying to synchronize with itself, or that subject and object are trying to synchronize with themselves, catch up with each other, and align, or that this side is trying to synchronize with all of space—and that feeling is basically correct. Gently investigate this feeling and any subtle, fluxing tensions in it as lightly as possible, leaving plenty of space for it to do its wide, flowing, easy, natural thing. Trying to force it is natural: feel this forcing, if it arises. You could note “forcing” if that helps identify it. Realize that you can’t do it, but, left alone, it may do itself. Basically, the less you mess with it and the more you just let it be and roll with it, the better. 

For those with more refined concentration, phenomena may even begin to lose the sense that they are of a specific sense door, and mental and physical phenomena may appear nearly indistinguishably as just vibrations of barely differentiated suchness. Vibrating formless realms may even arise, with no discernible image of the body being present at all. [I term vibrating formless realms ñ11.j6–ñ11.j8, now using ñana.subjhana (insight.concentration) terminology, meaning the Boundless Space through Neither Perception Nor Non-Perception sub-aspects of Equanimity.] Again, these are not necessary, just very interesting consequences of having strong concentration skills. Most gain stream entry or the next path without ever having experienced these more refined Equanimity variants, but if you do, they are pretty darn cool and the lessons they teach may be useful later on.

One of the other hallmarks of Equanimity is that the way reality presents is not made up of lots of little sensations occurring in some stable space, not broken up into lots of little, individual sense doors, but instead complete phenomena begin to be perceived as consolidated in a more integrated way, meaning that they are formed together, with space, awareness, and all the different types of sense qualities happening all together to make up the objects in the sensate world, and even all of those objects in the world arise in these integrated wholes, consolidated swaths of moving space that contain all those things within them. It is as though flowing space has textures, colors, sounds, tastes, smells all integrated into it, as part of it, and gradually attention and anything that really seems to be “us” finally gets integrated in the same way also, though we might not notice this at all. The thing about this integrated way of perceiving reality is that, at this stage, it just seems so normal that most people won’t have any idea that this is what is happening unless they are curious about the basics of the way attention and sensate information present themselves, or have been given a heads-up that this is what occurs at this stage. It sounds dramatic, but it is very undramatic. Many will get through this stage and have no idea that something was different, and that’s okay.

These put-together sense impressions, these formed things, are formally (pun intended) called “formations”, and they are the phenomena regarding which we come to Equanimity in this phase. The full formal name of this stage is Knowledge of Equanimity Concerning Formations. I put off writing about formations for a long time, since although the experience of them is very straightforward and natural, they are for some a conceptually difficult topic. Furthermore, the classical definition of “formation” is perhaps not so clear-cut, so I was concerned about imposing on the term my own functional and experiential definitions. Lastly, it seems that plenty of people will just get confused by this set of descriptions, and even plenty of talented meditators won’t be able to notice that these integrated formations are what is going on, and they clearly don’t have to for progress. However, as the topic comes up repeatedly, here we go …

Formations contain all the six sense doors, including thought, in a way that does not split them up sequentially in time or positionally in space. If you could take a 3D moving photograph that also captured smell, taste, touch, sound, and thought, all woven into each other seamlessly and containing a sense of flux, this would approximate the experience of one formation. From a fourth vipassana jhana perspective and from a very high dharma point of view, formations are always what occur, and when they are not clearly perceived, then we experience reality the way we ordinarily do. They contain not only a complete set of aspects of all six sense doors within them, but also include the perception of space (volume) and even of time, movement, and the sensate qualities that make up “duration”. This distinction between ordinary perception of formation and perceiving formations in the way that people do in Equanimity is a very subtle one, and so descriptions like those here can cause confusion if misinterpreted to imply some dramatic perceptual shift, as evidenced by the endless questions I received about this section after writing MCTB1.

When the fourth vipassana jhana is first attained, subtle mental sensations might again “split off” from “this side”, in much the same way as in Knowledge of Mind and Body, [ñ11.ñ1 in my notation scheme, meaning the Mind and Body phase of Equanimity.] but with the three characteristics of phenomena and the space they are a part of being breathtakingly clear. Until mental and physical sensations fully synchronize on “that side”, there can be a bit of a “tri-ality”, in which there are three things going on:

1) the sense of the observer on “this” side;

2) most of the sensations of the body; and

3) most of the sensations of the mind, with the latter two fluxing “over there”.

As mental and physical phenomena gradually integrate with the sense of luminous space, this experientially begs the question, “What is observing formations?” at a level that is far beyond the intellectual contemplation of it. [For you Kabbalah fans, these insights correspond to the three points of Binah, the two points of Chokhmah (when mind and body integrate on “that side” but there is still a “this side”), and finally the single point of Kether.]

Formations are so inclusive that they viscerally demonstrate what is pointed to by the concept of “no-self” in a way that no other mode of experiencing reality can. As formations become predominant, we are faced first with the questions of which side of the dualistic split we are on and then of what is watching what earlier appeared to be both sides. Just keep investigating in a natural and matter-of-fact way. Let this profound dance unfold. If you have gotten to this point, you are extraordinarily close and need to do very little but relax and be gently curious about your experience.

When experienced at very high levels of concentration, formations lose the sense that they were even formed of experiences from distinguishable sense doors. This is hard to describe, but we might try such nebulous phrases as “waves of suchness”, or “primal, undifferentiated experience”. This is largely an artifact of experiencing formations high up in the byproducts of the fourth vipassana jhana, the first three formless realms, as discussed earlier. This aspect of how formations may be experienced is not necessary for the discussions below nor is it necessary for stream entry. It is actually somewhat uncommon.

It is the highly inclusive quality of formations that is the most interesting, and leads to the most practical application of discussing formations. It is because they are so inclusive that they are the gateway to the three doors, stage fifteen, Fruition (see the chapter called “The Three Doors”). They reveal a way out of the paradox of duality, the maddening sense that “this” is observing, controlling, subject to, separated from, etc., “that”. By containing all or nearly all the sensations comprising one moment in a very integrated way, they contain the necessary clarity to see through the three fundamental illusions.

One of the primary ways that the illusion of duality is maintained is that the mind partially “blinks out” perception of a part of each formation that it wants to section off to appear separate, in control, or observing everything else. In this way, there is not enough clarity to see the interconnectedness and true nature of that part partially blinked out of reality, and a sense of a separate or autonomous self is maintained. The problem is not the arising of those sensations and patterns that the mind is partially blinking out to, it is that these sensations are not clearly perceived. It is almost as if the mind is placing some sensations in its map of space and what is in it, and then only partially doing that for other sensations that it wishes to turn into a sense of something stable and continuous. When the experience of formations occurs, it comes out of a level of clarity that is so complete that “blinking out” can no longer easily happen, as everything is mapped equally and completely to the same volume of our perceived sensate space and so, finally, the clear perception we have developed threatens the core illusion of a stable, perceiving, separate self. Yay!

Thus, when the clear, integrated perception of formations becomes the dominant experience, even for short periods of time, and even if we don’t notice that this is what is going on at the level of metacognitive conceptual analysis, very profound and liberating insight is close at hand. That is why there are systematic practices that train us to be very skilled in being aware of our whole mental and physical existence. The more we practice being aware of what happens, the fewer opportunities there are for blinking out. In practice, we gently work to integrate those subtle remaining processes that seem to be a “this” side, a practitioner, a practice, a self, and so on, into the rest of the clearly perceived sense field, basically just by being gently aware of the patterns of sensations that make up those qualities of space until they realize they are naturally aware of themselves and the thing flips over.

During the first three insight stages, we gained the ability to notice that mental and physical sensations made up our world, how they interacted, and then began to see the truth about them. We applied these skills to an object (perhaps not of our choice, but an object nonetheless), and saw it as it actually is with a high degree of clarity in the A&P. By this point, these skills in perceiving clearly have become so much a part of who we are that they began to apply themselves to the background, space, and everything that seems to be a reference point or a separate, permanent self as we entered the Dark Night. However, our objects may have been quite vague or too disconcerting to have been perceived clearly. Finally, we get to Equanimity and put it all together: we can see the truth of objects and of the whole background naturally and are okay with this, and the result is the perception of formations.

Formations contain within them the seeming gap between “this” and “that”, as well as sensations of effort, intimacy, resistance, acceptance, and all other such aspects of sensations from which a sense of self is more easily inferred. Thus, these aspects begin to be seen in their proper place, their proper context; that is, as an interdependent part of reality, and not split off or a self. These sorts of things are the core processes, those things that most feel like a “self”, “me”, or “mine”. Equanimity gives us a natural ability to see these core sensate patterns well if we turn attention to them. Questioning, analysis, expectation, practicing, remembering, subtle fear, subtle desire, real longing for release, excitement about success, wondering, mapping, comparing, knowing: these are all just sensate qualities. Notice them.

Inhabit them honestly, realistically, gently, feeling into them, accepting them, all through the head, face, neck, chest, back, and abdomen, noticing the shifting of attention and how the sensations are part of that flowing movement of effortless direct comprehension, with the comprehension being the manifestation itself and not something overlaid onto that or split off from it in a way that is at once intricate and integrated. This may sound like fru-fru, New Age bullshit advice, but is a very good idea in this phase and hopefully will make enough sense to be useful. Any last little subtle experience patterns that still seem to be self, me, or mine: notice them as being normal, ordinary, just fine parts of what is happening. Accept that they occur and notice gently where they occur and how they fit into the larger, flowing space. You could gently note these qualities that seem to be yourself, if that helps, and it just might, particularly if we spatially include the notes in our practice.

Remember, it is not that we are trying to get rid of these subtle patterns that seemed to be the most “us”—they are just fine and they never were a self, never are, and never will be. The point is to just perceive those sensations clearly, and the thing will flip over to another way of perceiving them in which they are just a part of all of this natural transience. Like so many categories of experience we gradually got used to in order to get to this point, these core processes learn to be seen automatically as they are by the simple repetition of gently bringing attention to the sensations that make them up, and finally nothing is left that doesn’t automatically know the truth of itself, including all the parts that were masquerading as a practitioner and a practice. These can be subtle, but in Equanimity we have the chops to do this, and they need not be blazingly strong or ultra-clear. No need to dissect them ruthlessly or catch every tiny detail of them: that sort of stuff worked well in the early stages, but Equanimity sacrifices a bit of that for the bigger prize: wide-open, total, all-the-way-through understanding. Just an ordinary, simple clarity, with the natural curiosity of a fascinated child, will do just fine at this phase of practice—a child who is willing to become wakefully absorbed in the daydream that is whatever the mind does and wherever it goes.

The level of clarity out of which formations arise also allows us to see formations from the time they arise until the time they disappear, thus illuminating clearly those transient, empty sensations that make up a sense of a self or of a sensate universe continuing coherently in time. In the first part of the path the beginning of objects was predominant. In the A&P we got a great sense of the middle of objects but missed subtle aspects of the beginning and end. In the Dark Night the endings are about all we could really perceive clearly. Formations once again put together all of this work we have done in a very natural and complete way that finally includes everything in experience.

Formations also explain some of the odd teachings that you might hear about “stopping thought”. There are three basic ways we might think about this dangerous ideal. We might imagine a world in which its ordinary aspects, which we call “thought”, simply do not arise, a world of experience without those aspects of manifestation. You can get very close to this in very strong concentration states, particularly the eighth shamatha jhana, but so what? You actually don’t need to do that at all. We might also think of stopping experience entirely, as happens in Fruition (when reality totally vanishes, a topic that will be covered shortly), and this obviously includes thought.

Formations point to yet another possible interpretation of the common wish to “stop thought”, as do very high levels of realization. The seeming duality of mental and physical sensations is gone by the time we are perceiving formations. Thoughts appear as a luminous aspect of the phenomenal world. I should mention that the word “luminosity” can cause lots of problems and angst if you erroneously believe that somehow the word means that sensations will be glowing more than their typical and ordinary sensate presentation entails. However sensations present is the luminosity, that is to say, for practical purposes (and ignoring questions of ontology), that “luminosity” refers to the fact that the knowledge of sensations is in the sensations of the things themselves and is the sensations themselves: there will be much more on this later. In fact, I challenge anyone to describe the bare experience of thinking or mental sensations in terms beyond those of the five “physical” sense doors. Thus, in the face of experiencing formations, it seems crude to consider thoughts as separate from visual, tactile, auditory, gustatory, and olfactory qualities, or even to speak in terms of these being discrete entities. Many will not notice that this is how they are experiencing reality, and that is just fine.

When perceived clearly, what we usually call “thoughts” are seen to be just aspects of the manifesting sensate world that we artificially select out and label as “thought”. Just as it would be odd to imagine that an ocean with many shades of blue is really many little bits of ocean, in times of high clarity it is obvious that there is manifesting reality, and it is absolutely inclusive. Look at the space between you and these words. We don’t go around selecting out little bits of space and labeling them as separate. In the face of formations, the same applies to experience, and experience includes the sensations we call “thought”.

Separating the early stages of Equanimity from its mature stage, there tends to be a “near miss” moment when we get very close to the fruit of the path, which serves to really chill us out, as it were. [I tend to call that a brief dip into ñ11.j4.j8 (equanimity.fourth vippassana jhana.eighth jhana), ñ11.ñ11.j8 (the eighth jhana phase of the high equanimity phase of high equanimity), or ñ11.j8 (equanimity. eighth jhana, the truly formless version of ñ11.j4.j8).]

From this point, awakening is likely to occur quickly as long as the meditator continues to simply practice and very gently fine-tune awareness and precision, paying gentle attention to things like thoughts of progress and satisfaction with equanimity. At some point even this becomes boring, and a certain cool apathy and even forgetfulness arise. Most won’t notice much about this phase.

Around this very mature part of Equanimity the feeling that we are not really here can arise, or that somehow we are completely out of phase with reality. Conducting our ordinary business may be difficult in this phase if we are out in the world rather than on the cushion, but it tends to last only tens of minutes at most, though rare reports involve it going on for somewhat longer. The sense that we are practicing or trying to get anywhere just vanishes, and yet this may hardly be noticeable at all. We sort of come back, with clarity again becoming more predominant. Then we get truly lost in something, some strangely clear reverie, vision, object, or flight of fancy. By really buying in, we get set up to check out. When understanding is completely in conformity with the way things are, this is called …

10. Re-observation   |  12. Conformity