4. The Arising and Passing Away

3. The Three Characteristics   |  5. Dissolution, Entrance to the Dark Night

This fourth insight stage, called the Arising and Passing Away, is also the beginning of the second vipassana jhana. As in the second shamatha jhana, the applied and sustained effort of attention begin to drop away, and meditation seems to take on a life of its own. As this is the second jhana, which has the basic attentional phase quality of having maximum clarity at the center of attention, this stage is noted for perceiving things clearly wherever the attention is directed. In fact, this is the stage where clarity of what is going on in the center of attention is greatest.

This focused way of working, in which you direct attention and perceive whatever is there very easily is understandably compelling and forms the basis of the stage. It also reinforces this way of relating to the meditation object, which is okay to a point, and in fact amazing to a point, but it can limit practitioners if they continue to try to apply this same attentional strategy and paradigm at later stages, as will be discussed when I get to the third vipassana jhana. Keep that in mind so you can compare this stage and attentional mode to later ones.

An overall general point about this stage is that it tends to be very impressive. When people say to me, “I had this big experience …”, ninety-nine percent of the time it is almost certainly related to the A&P. The descriptions I give of it may not line up exactly with how it happens or has happened for you, but pay attention to the general aspects of the pattern, as you will notice many elements described here that you won’t see described elsewhere. I tend to describe the A&P as it happens on retreat and with strong practice, but it can happen off-retreat in daily life, spontaneously, without warning, in people who don’t think of themselves as meditators, and even in dreams and to young children. Why some people seemingly spontaneously get into this territory early in life with no meditative training and some people who have done decades of meditation practice never get to this stage, I have no idea.

There can be an extremely broad range of variability in the A&P, and so it is not possible to match perfectly anyone else’s description of it to what happens or happened to you. For example, timing can vary widely; it can go on for seconds or months. Intensity can vary widely; it can occasionally be subtle, but the general trend is for it to be very intense, high definition, and dramatic. The A&P works the same way functionally in terms of insight and of moving practice along, regardless of intensity and duration, so don’t worry about those factors.

Just to make this point clear, I will give two brief examples from my own practice. One time my entire body and world seemed to explode like a fireworks display in a powerful lucid dream with my whole sensate world zipping around like fragmented sparks through space for a while until things settled down. Another time I had a small, second-long zap of lightning-fast energy through the back of my head while lying down on a couch in daily life, which was the whole of that A&P. My longest A&P phase was about three days of powerful shaking, sniffing, and energy craziness during a retreat, but I know people whose A&P stages lasted at the longest for a month or two.

For those who are practicing meditation (as opposed to experiencing an occurrence in daily life), in the early part of this stage, the meditator’s mind accelerates more and more, and reality begins to be perceived as particles or fine vibrations of mind and matter, each arising and vanishing utterly at tremendous speed. The traditional texts call this stage the beginning of insight practice, as from this point on there is a much more direct and non-conceptual understanding of the three characteristics. This can be confounding with respect to the numbering schemes, as some (such as the Visuddhimagga) will label this stage as insight stage one, whereas I number it insight stage four. As long as you know which numbering scheme is being used in a given context, this should cause no problems.

This stage is marked by dramatically increased perceptual abilities when compared with the previous stages. For example, we might be able to hone our awareness to laser-like precision on the tip of our little finger and seemingly be able to perceive the beginning and ending of every single sensation that made up that finger. Remember the exercise of the two fingers? Those in this stage can rock that practice like nobody else, even beyond those at higher stages of meditation.

Spontaneous physical movements and strange jerky breathing patterns that showed up in Cause and Effect and became more pronounced in Three Characteristics may speed up significantly. This stage explains where many practices such as Tibetan inner heat practices (tummo) come from, as a lot of heat and energy can be generated. Sweating is common for those who are having a lot of heat arise. This stage can also reveal the source material that inspired teaching systems involving the chakras, energy channels, and auras. Many—nay—nearly all descriptions of “Kundalini awakening” are talking about this stage.

Reality may be perceived directly with great clarity; great bliss, rapture, equanimity, mindfulness, concentration, and other positive qualities arise. Practice is extremely profound and sustainable, and there may be no pain even after hours of sitting. Unfortunately, the positive qualities that have arisen can easily become what are called the “Ten Corruptions of Insight” if the true natures of the individual sensations by which they are known are not realized as well, and until this happens a meditator can easily get stuck in the immature part of this stage. The trap is that these are all positive qualities, and in this stage, they may show up with surprising intensity, much to most meditators’ delight. It is understandable that people would not investigate those positive qualities too clearly and instead back off the investigation to bask in them, regardless of how conscious this backing off is. However, lack of investigation can convert positive meditation factors into more golden chains.

The ten corruptions of insight are: 

• illumination

• knowledge

• rapturous happiness

• tranquility

• bliss 

• resolute confidence

• exertion

• assurance

• equanimity

• attachment

To quote the great meditation master Sayadaw U Pandita’s excellent book, On the Path to Freedom, “As for the practicing yogi, he will at once recognize the above as imperfections of insight not representing dhamma breakthrough and are only to be noted off, remembering the teacher’s advice as to what is path and not path. Being disabled by the ten imperfections, he would not be capable of observing the triple characteristics in their true nature; but once freed from imperfections, he is able to do so.” [For a great, thorough treatment of the ten corruptions of insight, as well as lots more about vipassana, see www.vipassanadhura.com/sixteen.html#two (accessed October, 2017).]

In short, we might feel we are a very mighty meditator and that we should try to hold on to these qualities of experience forever; that is, we stop doing insight practices and instead solidify these pleasant qualities as concentration practice objects. Thus, the advice given about deconstructing and investigating the positive factors of the shamatha jhanas, particularly the second one, is also very helpful when trying to stay on the narrow path of the progress of insight, though in truth, and as noted before, basically everyone alternates to some degree from insight territory to concentration territory and back even if they are trying to stay to one side or the other; this is normal.

Visions, unusual sensory abilities (such as seeing nearby things through closed eyelids), and out-of-body experiences are common. Bright lights tend to arise for the meditator, sometimes first as jewel-tone sparkles and then as a bright white light (“I have seen the light!”). Some people will have the light persist and grow very bright and steady; just note it or notice every moment of its apparent steadiness and it will eventually break up and go away.

Experiences of other powers are also common here, with the list being too long to go into, and this is the most spontaneous-powers-prone stage of them all. I discuss the powers later and give plenty of advice about them, but just keep in mind that this stage is one source of many of those experiences. At points I personally could tell that I was about to enter A&P territory in daily life as I would suddenly find myself reviewing my old magickal references or buying new ones.

Meditation in dreams and lucid dreaming is common in this territory. The need for sleep may be greatly reduced. People often don’t recognize the A&P when it happens in dreams, because lots of weird stuff happens in dreams. This stage is a common time for first-time hyper-lucid dreaming, and out-of-body experiences (what I generally refer to as “traveling”) or, for those who have done that before, this stage makes it much more likely to occur. [My favorite book on the subject is Alan Guiden’s Traveling: An Accidental Expert’s How to Leave Your Body Handbook, Aeon Books, 2009. I thought about adding some tips for traveling here, but you should just check out his book, as it does a much better job than I could.]

As with a sudden interest in magick, it is also a common time for people to become highly interested in lucid dreaming and out-of-body traveling, a topic I cover in Part Six.

Skilled technical meditators (which make up only a small proportion of those who cross this) may sit easily for hours dissecting their reality into fine and fast sensations and vibrations, perhaps even up to forty per second or more, with an extremely high level of precision and consistency. (Where the absurd and disheartening rumors of billions of mind-moments per second come from is beyond me.) Fine vibrations, chills, and tingles may spread over the body, revealing interference patterns between experiences in the style of moiré patterns, enabling us to know directly that when one sensation is experienced, in that instant, something else is not.

It is very easy to confuse this stage with descriptions of stage eleven, Equanimity, especially since the stage before it, Re-observation, has some distinct similarities to stage three, Three Characteristics. A brief discussion of the fractal nature of insight stages and concentration states will follow in the chapter called “The Vipassana Jhanas”. The big difference between the A&P and Equanimity is that this stage is generally ruled by quick cycles, quickly changing frequencies of vibrations, odd physical movements, strange breathing patterns, heady raptures, a decreased need for sleep, strong bliss, and a general sense of riding on a spiritual roller coaster with no brakes. The higher stages (ten and eleven) do not have those qualities.

As to the cycles, they tend to proceed as follows, with this description assuming you are using the breath as object. The mind kicks in, follows faster and faster vibrations, attention engages and speeds up, perhaps accompanied by more pronounced shaking or strange breathing patterns increasing in speed. Finally, halfway down an out-breath there is a shift, our mind may drop down slowly with the breath. It takes work to stay with sensations as they slow down, and then the breath and attention bottom out. The breath may stop entirely for a while. Then the mind may come back up with the breath, attention tends to flag, things relax, and then the cycle begins again with investigation speeding up. These breathing cycles may happen on their own and may even be difficult to stop when we are deeply into this stage. Those using visualizations as objects may notice that the objects begin to spin with the phase of the breath, or move in ways that suggest they have a life of their own, albeit a largely two-dimensional one, as compared to the more strongly three-dimensional visions that may arise in later stages, though three-dimensional visions can occasionally also arise here, just to make things confusing.

As this stage deepens and matures, meditators let go of even the high levels of clarity and the other strong factors of meditation, perceiving even these to arise and pass as just fluxing sensations and/or vibrations, to not satisfy, and not to be self. Some will notice the slow variant of the A&P and may plunge down into the very depths of the mind as though plunging deeply underwater to where they can perceive individual frames of reality arise and pass with breathtaking clarity, as though in slow motion. It can even feel as if we have been partially sedated with a strong, opiate-like drug and submerged in thick syrup.

At the bottom of these depths, however they present themselves, individual moments may sometimes have a frozen quality to them, like garish snapshots of the bottom of a well, as if sensations were stopping completely in the middle of their manifestation for just an instant, and this way of experiencing reality is unique to this stage. Somewhere in here is the entrance to the third vipassana jhana in U Pandita’s model, though there is some controversy about exactly which insights line up with which vipassana jhanas from here on out.

I prefer to think of the Arising and Passing Away as being purely second vipassana jhana. Since the A&P is known for its speed of sensate perception, its slow variant way of manifesting may confuse some into not realizing it was the A&P, but functionally it works the same way and leads to the same results, which raises the interesting question: are all variants of the A&P functionally the same? I would say yes, in that they all lead to the next stages. However, some variants will obviously also lead to other real-world effects owing to the specifics of the possibly dramatic presentations and people’s reactions to them.

Wild “kundalini” phenomena are very common at this point, including powerful physical shaking and releases, explosions of consciousness like a fireworks display or a tornado, visions, and especially vortices of powerful fine “electrical” vibrations blasting up or down the spinal column and/or between the ears. These vortices can be very loud. Anything that might be described as a “vortex” is nearly perfectly diagnostic of this stage. If someone is describing some sort of fast, buzzy energy that seems to want to burst out or be darting around, the vast majority of the time they are referring to this stage.

While people generally think kundalini phenomena and energy will be great fun, not everyone finds them so. The energetics that can occur in the A&P can be disconcerting, painful, even occasionally excruciating, like we are being electrocuted. Sometimes energetic openings can feel like we are being ripped open and our nervous system fried. People can imagine that something is horribly wrong with them and some reasonable number will seek spiritual, medical, and/or psychiatric care. I dream that one day basic kundalini awakening phenomena will be taught in medical schools and other therapeutic institutions, but we are likely a long way from that level of sophistication on that front, unfortunately, being the primitive, materialist culture that we are. I have no idea why the A&P is extremely blissful for many and painful for others but, if you are looking for a PhD dissertation research topic, that might be a fun one!

In some of my more painful and jarring early A&P phases (which a map geek might correlate with the late aspect of the stage Three Characteristics), I have preferred reclining practice, as it not only helps with some of the pain, it also allows my mind to really get to the level of subtlety and fine buzzing investigation of the harder aspects of the pain and tensions to allow them to finally buzz through. Thus, if something feels really blocked, stuck, tight, you might try this type of practice. Really feel into the fine-grained nature of the sensations that make up those tensions, blockages, chakras, or however you think of them, open to them, relax around them, and gently and patiently allow them to do their thing, as this may help.

As mentioned earlier, the A&P can occur quite unexpectedly and even off the cushion, such as in daily life and lucid dreams. I know a woman who had a dream in which she was in a shop with brightly glowing jewel-tone crystals in display cases. She touched them and they had this powerfully blissful buzz to them that went up into her arms, and then she started twirling round and round, faster and faster, in a maelstrom-like vortex. This is about as classic A&P as it gets, and yet we might never know what it was if we didn’t know the theory and weren’t on the lookout for it. Why it is so important to identify the A&P when it happens will become obvious shortly.

None of these manifestations are a problem unless their true nature is not understood; unless they lack appropriate conceptual context and cause people to react poorly to them; or unless they happen when we are doing something like driving a car down an interstate at seventy-five miles per hour (a story for another time). A&P phenomena may be followed by various mixtures of wonder, excitement, bliss, elation, and sometimes disorientation. Occasionally they will also really freak people out, as most people who enter this stage have no idea what it is and are not in a context where those around them are likely to clearly identify it.

It is not uncommon for those in the height of the rapture of the A&P to associate some of these occurrences with those of an extended orgasm, and sexualized descriptions of this stage are very common. Hypersexual ways of looking at the world and people are common in this territory. It is the stage most prone to creating vipassana romances (VRs), in which people fixate on someone else on retreat (or in the office, class, gym, or whatever) as being extremely desirable in that all-consuming crushy-love sort of way. Portlandia, the TV show, has a funny episode about VRs. Similar VR phenomena can happen at a later stage in Equanimity (ñ11.ñ4, meaning the part of Equanimity that looks a bit like the A&P). Heightened libido and increases in sexual ability may be noticed during this stage. Affairs with other meditators, teachers, and other types of people become more likely. I am not making excuses for anyone, just giving a warning about what can happen in this territory. Those few who notice the ability to see and manipulate emotions and/or energy channels in themselves and others who combine this ability with lovemaking during this stage may temporarily be able to achieve some truly remarkable effects, however short-lived.

Strong sensual or sexual dreams are also common at this stage. These and their while-awake counterpart feelings may sometimes be non-discriminating gender-wise. Those that are attached to the notion of themselves as being something other than at least partially bisexual or just generically sexual may find these dreams and feelings disturbing. Further, if you have unresolved issues around sexuality, which we basically all have, you may encounter aspects of them during this stage. This stage can be particularly disconcerting for monastics and others who have repressed significant aspects of their sexuality.

The A&P, its afterglow, and the almost withdrawal-like crash that can follow it seem to increase the temptation to indulge in all manner of hedonistic delights, particularly substances and sex. As the bliss wears off, we may find ourselves trying to fill that chemical void, feeling very hungry or lustful, craving chocolate, wanting to go out and party, etc., as if we were suddenly in drug withdrawal. If we have addictions that we have been fighting, some extra vigilance near the end of this stage might be very helpful. There are some paradoxical and notable exceptions to this trend, specifically that some practitioners who cross the A&P will suddenly find substances far less appealing, as well as addictions lessened or even simply gone. Unfortunately, these effects are unpredictable and there is substantial variability among practitioners.

This stage also tends to give people more of an extroverted, zealous, or visionary quality, and they may have all manner of energy to pour into idealistic, grandiose, or ambitious projects and schemes. It is one of the most evangelism-prone of the stages. Ever talked to a hyper-excited Christian who just had their conversion experience, saw the light, and is now passing out pamphlets for Jesus and telling everyone to get saved? Very likely they are in this stage or just crossed it recently. At the far extreme of what can happen, this stage can imbue us with the powerful charisma of the radical and magnetic religious leader.

Finally, at nearly the peak of the possible resolution of the mind, at the peak of the A&P, some (but not all) meditators cross something called the “Arising and Passing Event” (A&P event) or “Deep Insight into the Arising and Passing Away”, sometimes just called “Deep Insight”, a term that may often generically be applied to this whole stage. For those who do have a specific event, it, or this stage in general, marks a profound shift in the practice, and from then on they will be somewhat changed by what they have seen, with this being the point of no return that I mentioned in the Foreword and Warning. The intensity of this A&P event can vary, though it tends to be quite clear and memorable, particularly the first time we cross it during that cycle. However, for some, there will simply be something that seems to have the general characteristics of the A&P territory that then fades without an obvious peak event. If you get into A&P territory and keep practicing and it fades out to something else, that still “counts” as it were, with the implications of “counts” hopefully becoming clearer in the next section on the Dark Night.

Some people will have a big and obvious buildup to the stage of the A&P. For others, this stage will suddenly just show up spontaneously and sometimes even without formal meditation training, as happened to me at around age fifteen. I have many friends, family members, and acquaintances who ran into these stages without formal training and in daily life. I know others who ran into them when doing hallucinogens, including mushrooms, mescaline, DMT, 5-MeO-DMT, bufotenine, salvia divinorum, and LSD; others had them happen during yoga or tai chi practice; others while in the presence of powerful spiritual figures, including one who had it happen while hanging out with a Christian faith healer; and a few who were hanging out with various gurus. My mention of drugs here as contexts in which people can cross the A&P is simply a description of things that can and sometimes do occur, not any specific endorsement of drugs, as plenty of people do drugs all the time and don’t get to the stage of the A&P on them.

In whatever context the first A&P event occurs, that context will tend to hold a special place in that person’s heart from then on. For me it happened on my own, by my own meditation efforts and without a tradition, and so I have always associated my own practice and exploration with progress. My friend who had it happen with the Christian faith healer became the most hardcore Christian you will find. Many people who have had “born again” experiences have simply crossed the A&P. Another friend who had it happen while on mescaline has since held a special place in her heart for shamanism. Those who had it happen with gurus tended to follow those gurus for some period, associating it with the guru’s presence.

Some others who had it happen in an apparently random context usually had no idea what it was or what it had done to them, but most have realized that something was different and most, though not all, remember it with uncanny clarity as standing out from ordinary experiences. One friend who had never meditated had it happen at age eighteen just after she walked onto the stage during a theatrical performance, and it was extremely disorienting. Another friend who was in her late sixties had it happen for the first time during a yoga class and she was so wound up after it that she crashed her car into a telephone pole on the drive home, though luckily wasn’t seriously injured. In the autobiographical section I talk about some of my own experiences with it, which have varied widely in intensity and other qualities, but all were fundamentally the same from an insight map point of view.

Once we have attained this event or crossed the stage of the A&P without a clear and defining event, it is likely that we will be able to attain the first stage of awakening sooner or later if we can navigate the Dark Night skillfully, meaning, if we simply keep practicing, which is easier said than done if we are Dark Nighting. Thus, a good first goal in insight meditation is to cross the A&P event at our earliest possible convenience, with some very important caveats given later in the section on the Dark Night. That said, if you are reading this book, you very well may have crossed the A&P event already even if you don’t know you have, as reading long and esoteric tomes on meditation while searching for something is the sort of thing that people who have crossed the A&P are much more likely to do, though this is not diagnostic, just highly suggestive.

When we do have a distinct A&P event, it can happen in three basic ways corresponding to some combination of the three characteristics, just as can happen at the entrance to insight stage fifteen, Fruition. The A&P and Fruition are easily confused for this and other reasons. There is great variation in the specifics of what we are seeing and feeling when we cross this profound and often intense event, but certain aspects of A&P events will be common to all practitioners. A&P events tend to manifest in a way that can mimic the three doors (described in a few chapters) at about the middle of the out-breath, leading to an “unknowing event”, which consists of moments about which we know little. During unknowing events, the sensory information available to us is very sparse or vague. This first unknowing event or state shift halfway down the out-breath is followed by a few much clearer and more distinct moments imparting some deep understanding of the three characteristics before a second unknowing event occurs at the end of the out-breath. This is what I call a “double-dip”, since we dip into something very deep twice as we travel down the out-breath. This will be important later when I talk about Equanimity.

In these profound and clear moments, most, but not all, of our sensate universe is perceived to strobe in and out of experience, arise and pass. The subtle background and sense of an observer still seem to remain stable. In contrast, the entrance to stage fifteen, or Fruition, is through one of the three doors, which involves the complete sensate universe (background, time, space and all), and happens at the end of the out-breath, and does not involve two closely related unknowing events. The relevance and usefulness of this information may become apparent later. During these potentially extreme experiences we may not be focused on the breath but on some other sequence of phenomena, the sense of the breath may not be particularly clear, such that the fact of these happening at the end of the out-breath may not be obvious or even discerned, but this is in fact how things happen.

Those who have crossed the A&P event have stood on the ragged edge of reality and the mind for just an instant, and some will feel certain that awakening is possible. The whole of the A&P stage can produce that feeling in some practitioners. Those in this stage and those who have recently left it typically have great faith, may want to tell everyone to practice, and are generally evangelical or uber enthusiastic about spirituality, religion, and/or philosophy for a while. This zealous or evangelical quality can latch onto all sorts of other approaches, like yoga, veganism, and whatever other cause, practice, setting, or movement they might associate with their experience. They will have an increased ability to understand dharma teachings due to their direct and non-conceptual experience of the three characteristics.

Philosophy that deals with the fundamental paradoxes of duality will be less difficult than it might once have been, and they may find this fascinating for a time. Those with a strong philosophical bent will find that they can now philosophize rings around those who have not attained to this stage of insight. Further, if you read about the lives of the great philosophers, many report episodes that are clearly the A&P at the start of their illustrious careers. René Descartes and many others come to mind.

Some who cross the A&P may also be incorrectly convinced that they are awakened, as what they have seen was completely spectacular and profound. In fact, this is strangely common, and those who are doing some meditative practice or other practice that got them into this stage may stop practicing, not understanding that they have only begun. I wish to create no false duality, no false split between our experience and awakening. Yet, if we aren’t yet awakened and yet think we are, there are reasons to heed warnings so that we can increase our investigation of what is going on right now to advance our practice, as mentioned previously in “A Clear Goal”.

The stage of the A&P is a common time for people to write inspired dharma books, poetry, spiritual songs, etc. If you are on retreat and suddenly creativity is pouring out of you, that song or screenplay or whatever is suddenly seemingly writing itself, then having a way to write the ideas down or a phone to record them on so you can remember them later can be helpful if it doesn’t take too much time away from the retreat. The level of creativity that the A&P can produce is astounding. A bit of journaling here and there can be helpful in the more dramatic stages of insight, as it helps get the ideas out of our heads and it can help to process them. When we see something on a written page, we think about it differently than when it is in our brains. If you are on a retreat and find yourself journaling a lot, perhaps discuss this with a meditation teacher so they also know what is going on.

This is also the stage when people are more likely to join monasteries or go on great spiritual quests. It is also worth noting that this stage can look an awful lot like a manic episode, and for those who are bipolar, can trigger manic episodes, albeit manic episodes that also have real insight mixed in with the real mania. Just because we have insight doesn’t mean we might not also be functionally nuts, to use the vernacular. Decisions about stabilization and intervention for those who get way out into Crazyland in the A&P need to be made based on issues of promoting safety for the practitioner and those around them and based on the degree of impairment of basic function. I talk more about that in Part Six.

However this stage manifests, the A&P is a major milestone on the path of insight. It is also a point of no return, since soon the meditator will learn what is meant by the phrase, “Better not to begin. Once begun, better to finish!” as they are now too far into this to ever really go back. Until they complete this progress of insight, they are “on the ride”, and may begin to feel that the dharma is now doing them rather than the other way around. They will progress inevitably and relatively quickly, usually within days, into stages five through ten, which as you will shortly see, are not always pretty. The rapture and all the bells and whistles die down quickly, and the meditator may even be left raw as if hungover after a night of wild partying. The clarity fades significantly, and the endings of objects become predominant as they progress to knowledge of Dissolution.

3. The Three Characteristics   |  5. Dissolution, Entrance to the Dark Night