Fruition (phala in Pali) is the fruit of all the meditator’s hard work, the first attainment of ultimate reality, emptiness, nirvana, nibbana, ultimate potential, or whatever extrapolative and relatively inaccurate name you wish to call something utterly non-sensate. In this non-state, there is absolutely no time, no space, no reference point, no experience, no mind, no consciousness, no awareness, no background, no foreground, no nothingness, no somethingness, no body, no this, no that, no unity, no duality, and no anything else. “Reality” stops cold and then reappears.
Thus, this is impossible to comprehend, as it goes completely and utterly beyond the rational mind and the universe. In “external time” (if we were observing the meditator) this stage typically lasts only an instant (though the question of “duration” will be addressed below). It is like an utter discontinuity of the space-time continuum with nothing in the unfindable gap, exactly like what happens when someone edits out a frame or sequence of frames of a movie. It is not that you see a blank screen for a while where they edited the frames out, instead that part of the movie is just not there.
The initial aftershocks following the first time this happens at stream entry (or the first time it happens at the beginning of a higher level of awakening), however, can go on for days, and may be mild or spectacular, fun or unsettling, or some mixture of these. There are times when it is fun to show off, and this is one of those times. (Particularly mature? No. Honest? Yes.) Aftershocks I have noticed after paths include but are not limited to:
• the brief visceral feeling that sensory reality is so intense that the nerves in the forehead and upper neck may not be able to handle the strain;
• the feeling that new brain pathways are now being infused with vibrant life they lacked before, as if new nerve channels are tingling into life;
• the feeling that we have become diffused into the atmosphere without a center, purpose, function, sense of direction, or even will;
• a feeling of joy and gratitude bursting through our being beyond our usual sense of appreciation;
• the sense of having at long last discovered what we most needed;
• the profound sense of coming home, a quiet awe like the stillness after a great storm;
• rapturous transcendent highs that make anything that happened after the A&P seem like dry toast;
• the profound feeling that something pressed a reset button on reality, causing it to reboot as new, clean, clear, bright, pristine, and fresh.
All that said, there are those who won’t recognize it, particularly those who chance upon it outside of a meditative tradition that can recognize it. There will also be those for whom it happens within the context of their practice tradition, who can recognize it, but who fail to identify it as being what it is. Sometimes the afterglow is not so spectacular, though for most the series of insights, connections, syntheses, and the like that burgeon forth is impressive. Others will just go on practicing, not realizing what has just happened.
Just after the attainment of a path, particularly the first path, is a time when formal resolutions have an outrageous amount of power. The Buddha said that the greatest of all powers is to understand and then teach the dharma, meaning to attain full realization, however you define it, and then to help others do the same. I had been advised to use this unique period in my practice well, and I resolved to attain this awakening for the benefit of all beings as quickly as was reasonably possible. Despite all the complex consequences of having done so, I do not regret my decision in the least and highly recommend that you do the same.
On subsequent passes through Fruition of that path, the mind tends to be refreshed, bright, quiet, and clear for a while, and milder forms of the above-listed phenomena may occur. The afterglow can seem to clear out all the junk for a little while. There is a nice bliss wave that tends to follow and may take a few seconds to develop. You can take that bliss wave as a shamatha object if you wish and intensify it, as a possible option. If you have not learned the concentration states yet, doing so in the afterglow of a Fruition can make them much easier to attain and master. The breath may change on the reappearance of “reality”, being a bit deeper, slower, easier, and more fluid. The total synchrony of the sense sphere that leads to a Fruition shows a fun physiological fact: Fruitions always occur at the end of the out-breath, and reality always reappears at the beginning of the in-breath, which is one of the cool reasons that finding the end of the out-breath can be powerful practice.
For those who really want to get to know something interesting, notice exactly how reality reappears or re-manifests, and how the mental processes resume at an extremely fine level. This is best done by intending to notice it some time before the Fruition happens. Most people who have a Fruition are so relieved by it that the relief is most of what they notice, but those who can pay attention to more detail than that and do this well are afforded a rare treat—getting to see the processes that make up the functioning of our brains as they come online and orient to the surroundings, as well as to see the restarting of the sense of the illusion of duality, and exactly what makes that up in that powerfully clear attentional mode. It is fascinating stuff, and can lead to some serious clues about essential parts of the puzzle that help later. I recommend doing this again and again, as it generally takes going through it a good number of times to see what is really happening clearly and notice the assumptions we make about those processes and how they relate to things like “me”, “time”, “space”, and the like.
Please note that there are at least two uses for the term nibbana, one of which is Fruition. The reference for this comes from the Abhidhamma or higher (abhi) dhamma (“teachings”, in this context), accessible in English as A Comprehensive Manual of Abhidhamma, by Narada Maha Thera, available free online and in print form. This is the standard Theravada literature on Buddhist mind-moment (Pali javana) theory and many other technical points, and it details that there will be three or four pulses of phenomena (typically called javanas, or “mind-moments”, “impulsions”, or dhammas) which, when they occur the first time, are Conformity, Path, and Change of Lineage, and then the mind will turn to nibbana and then the stream of ordinary sensate awareness will resume.
[See A Comprehensive Manual of Abhidhamma, III §8 (12), p. 124, for more.]
For those who actually do check out the Abhidhamma, which is a very good idea if you want to give more context, background, and support to your practice, you will notice that some of the biology seems pretty archaic, so don’t get derailed by that. The meditation theory remains quite helpful. Those who sometimes mention online and in person to me that they think that Mahasi Sayadaw or I made up this stuff about the ñanas, jhanas, stages, or other Buddhist theory, should read the Abhidhamma, or get your practice to the point where you yourself can perceive directly what these early followers of the Buddha perceived, and you will be satisfied by direct knowledge. At that point, the texts those followers wrote might make a lot more sense to you, and you may gain even more benefits by appreciating them based on your own practice instead of dismissing them based on ignorance.