5. Dissolution, Entrance to the Dark Night
So begins what is called the “Knowledges of Suffering” or “The Dark Night of the Soul” (to use St. John of the Cross’ terminology, which has such a nice ring to it). I consider this the entrance to the third vipassana jhana, though U Pandita considers this the entrance to the fourth vipassana jhana. I’ll give my arguments for why I think this later in chapter thirty-four, “The Vipassana Jhanas”. The Dark Night spans stages five through ten in this map, namely:
9.Desire for Deliverance, and
Stages five through nine tend to come as a package, with one stage leading fairly quickly and naturally to the next. Stage ten, Re-observation, tends to stand out as its own distinct and often formidable entity, like the icing on a very creepy cake.
It should be noted that some pass through the Dark Night quickly and some slowly. Some barely notice it, and for some it is a huge deal, regardless of the speed at which they move through these stages. Some may get run over by it on one retreat, fall back, and then pass through it with no great difficulties some time later. Others may struggle for years to learn the lessons of these stages.
I am going to describe the Dark Night largely in extreme terms, but please understand that this is just to give a heads-up about what is possible, not what is necessary, required, expected, or guaranteed. This is in response to and to counterbalance the culture that has tried to ignore, minimize, or otherwise cover-up these stages, and it may be, admittedly, an overreaction. Sometimes it is by overreacting that some synthesis, understanding, and integration can occur, so I like to believe this description will facilitate that process. As before, on retreat these experiences are likely to be more intense and clear, though those on retreat who can keep practicing are likely to make much faster progress as well. On the other hand, practice in “daily life” can be powerful and sometimes very speedy. These things are strangely unpredictable. Enough disclaimers!
Once we have crossed the Arising and Passing Away (and if we don’t suddenly die or get severe brain damage due to some unfortunate life circumstances), we shall enter insight stages five through ten regardless of whether we want to. It doesn’t matter if we practice from this point on; once we cross the A&P, we are in the Dark Night to some degree and become what is sometimes called a “Dark Night yogi”, or simply “darknighter”, until we figure out how to get through it. If we do get through it without getting to the first stage of enlightenment, we will have to go through it again and again until we do. I mean this in the most absolute terms. It appears to be a hardwired part of human physiology as far as I can tell. I have a very large and growing body of case studies and a wealth of shared experiences among meditation friends and acquaintances to back this up, and I am not alone. Tens of thousands of meditators have noticed these stages in their own practice and countless teachers have noticed them also.
As the meditation teacher Sean Pritchard says, some skillful teachers will at least give meditators a heads-up after the A&P that what might be coming next can be challenging, and that on the other side of it is good stuff, namely Equanimity. Even if they don’t explicitly use these maps or specific stage labels, I will assert the odds are that most practitioners will do much better if warned ahead of time about what is about to happen after they cross the A&P.
You see, the Dark Night typically begins with just about all the profound clarity, mindfulness, concentration, focus, equanimity, and bliss of the A&P dropping away. This is one of the hallmarks of Dissolution. So also ends the cause-and-effect-like phenomena of the breath or walking, the shaking or jerking up and down in a way related to attention and noting, as well as all the fine vibrations and vortex-like raptures. People who are all into the kundalini stuff are often left wondering why it just vanished. In contrast to the A&P, early on in the Dark Night stages, the frequency of vibrations disconnects from the cycle of the breath, remaining largely stable at whatever frequency is going on at that stage once they can be perceived again (in late Dissolution or Fear).
Whereas we might have felt that our attention had finally attained the one-pointed focus that is so highly prized in most ideals of meditation during the Arising and Passing Away, during the Dark Night we will have to deal with the fact that our attention is quite diffuse and its contents unstable. Further, the center of our attention becomes the least clear area of experience, and the periphery now predominates. This is normal and even expected by those who know this territory. However, most meditators are not expecting this at all and so get completely blindsided and wage a futile battle to force their attention to do something that, at this part of the path, it won’t do well at all. It is simply a third vipassana jhana thing, so you’d better get used to it. Those who try to go all first jhana with strong effort and narrow concentration will often find that the third vipassana jhana kicks their ass. Those who try to figure out how to work with the third vipassana jhana on its own terms are likely to do vastly better.
If we have ever been meditating in a place with lots of mosquitoes buzzing in our ears in a way that made it very hard to concentrate on the primary object, we can get a sense of what our attention will be like in the Dark Night, particularly in its later stages. As the Dark Night progresses, it tends to get broader and more irritatingly buzzy. Rather than fighting this and ignoring the metaphorical mosquitoes, we should try to understand what it feels like to allow our attention to be however it is. Just as listening to discordant, chromatic jazz with lots of jarring harmonies and instruments playing more at odds with each other than in synchrony takes some getting used to, the quality of attention in the Dark Night is an acquired taste. The sensations that arise tend to be very rich, complex, broad, and unsettling.
Those who obsess over staying tightly one-pointed will suffer more than those who learn to stay with what is going on regardless of whether it feels like “good meditation”, and those who idealize “good meditation” as being very focused, stable, and pleasant will need to revise their expectations, as mature concentration is much more broad and inclusive, and it takes mature concentration to do well in these stages. Remember how I mentioned in the section on the A&P that the linear, center-of-attention-is-really-clear second jhana attention-mode won’t work well later? This is that later.
In that same vein, those who are using some other object as a focus will notice the same phenomenon of the attention being broader and the basic sense that attention seems to be out of phase with phenomena. Those doing visualizations may notice that they see a very dark spot in the center of their attention with some sort of patterns or visions around the edge of it spreading out farther and farther into the periphery. They may also find visualization suddenly much more frustrating than when they saw nice clear things like bright dots. Remember my descriptions of the murk in the kasina section? The murk is the immature phase of the third jhana.
Those using a mantra may feel that the mantra is out of phase with attention, wide and complex and yet hard to stay with, and may acquire more complex harmonics and harmonies if it is in any way musical, like listening to a large, ghost chorus that is in an orchestra pit off to the sides, whereas before the mantra may have felt centered in the stereo field of attention. There will be individual variation in some aspects of these features, depending on object, focus, ability, and each person’s proclivities, but some basic aspects will be universal, and I will talk more about these in chapter thirty-four, “The Vipassana Jhanas”.
There are two basic patterns of vibrations in the Dark Night, and they are the Dark Night’s defining characteristics, though again, plenty of people are not that good at perceiving the patterns or pulses of sensations, and few are good at counting frequencies. These are learnable skills, like anything else, but, if you don’t acquire them, fear not, as most people who go through this stuff will do so without those analytical abilities and do just fine. We may get overwhelmed by the descriptions of emotional difficulties, but keep these patterns in mind and try to stay on that level. The first re-emergence of vibrations is somewhat regular and chunky, at perhaps five to eight Hz, without much else going on. It’s an early Dark Night phenomenon that happens mostly in Fear, and it tends to feel like a shamanic drum beat.
The later pattern is faster, perhaps ten to eighteen or more Hz, more irregular and chaotic, with faster and slower harmonics in the background and at the periphery of our attention. It tends to make us feel very buzzy and edgy in a scattered, diffuse, ungrounded, restless, irritated way. The fact that the background is beginning to shake is a good sign of progress, as this needs to happen for the cycle to be complete. Remember when I said the goal was to see the three characteristics of the whole field? This is a truly essential, if often painful and confusing, step towards that happening. On the other hand, it is exactly the fact that the background has begun to shake, crumble, and dissolve that can cause people to freak out.
Things were all fun and games when the primary object was shaking, but when the sense of the observer, subjectivity itself, starts to fall apart, that can be creepy all the way to utterly terrifying. Simply pay careful attention to exactly what is happening, staying with each pulse of each vibration as clearly as you can, trying to see each from its beginning to its end. Chances are you will be just fine.
There are two basic challenges that occur during the Dark Night: one emotional, the other perceptual. The emotional challenge is that our most disturbing and difficult psychological issues tend to come bubbling up to the surface with an intensity that we may never have known before. Remembering what is good about ourselves or our lives can be extremely difficult if not seemingly impossible in the face of this. Our reactivity in the face of our dark stuff can cause us and those who must deal with us staggering amounts of needless suffering.
The perceptual challenge is that we also begin to experience directly the fundamental suffering of duality, a suffering that has always been with us but which we have never recognized with this level of intensity, never mind ever clearly comprehending its deeper existential implications. We face a profound and fundamental crisis of identity as our insight into the three characteristics begins to demolish part of the basic illusion of there being a separate or permanent “me”. This is a kind of suffering that has nothing to do with the circumstances of our life and everything to do with a basic misunderstanding of all of it. It occurs when we are in this strange in-between territory where everything is having a wrecking ball brought to it, but something better to resort to hasn’t yet surfaced.
In short, some of the Dark Night stages can feel like we are up serious shit creek without a paddle and headed immediately over the waterfall. My apologies for the swear words that appear in this section, but they convey a gritty emotional honesty that I feel more polite language can’t capture.
Dealing with either of these two issues, that is, our dark stuff and our fundamental identity crisis, would be a difficult undertaking, but trying to deal with both at once is at least twice as difficult and can sometimes be so overwhelming as to preclude normal functioning. It goes without saying that we tend not to be at our best when we are overwhelmed in this way.
The frequent knee-jerk response is to try to make our minds and our world change to try to stop the suffering we are experiencing. But, when we are deeply into the Dark Night, we could be living in what others might consider paradise and not be able to appreciate this at all, and so this solution is guaranteed to fail. How many emails have I received from miserable Dark Nighting meditators who are now recovering from their retreat on a beach in Thailand and still having a wretched time in that gorgeous, peaceful place? Way more than makes any sense if you don’t know meditation map theory. Thus, my strong advice is to work on finishing up this cycle of insight and then work on your stuff from a place of insight, clarity, and physical and emotional balance, rather than trying to do so in the reactive and disorienting stages of the Dark Night. I cannot make this point strongly enough.
As Kenneth, who has a gift for precise language and teaching, so aptly put it, “The Dark Night can really fuck up your life.” This stage is what curse words were designed to honestly illuminate. Allow me to give you two hard-won pieces of advice that I have found make all the difference in the face of these stages. First, make the time to do basic insight practices. Do your very best to get enough insight into the three characteristics to understand these stages well enough so that they move on to what comes next. Make time for retreats or solitude and don’t get stuck in the Dark Night. You and everyone around you will be happy that you did.
The second piece of advice is to have a “no-bleedthrough” policy when you suspect you are in the Dark Night. This is how strong skills in training in morality can save your ass. It might best be expressed by two simple mantras, “Do no harm,” and “Keep your shit together.” This is obviously great advice for life in general and it applies doubly here. One might reasonably add, “Fucking get over yourself!” People can get insufferably and narcissistically wrapped up in their pain during this stage, thus severely reducing their capacity for empathy toward others. Intentional service given to those less fortunate than ourselves can help lessen these effects and allow some more realistic perspective to develop in some, but not all.
Simply refuse to let your negativity bleed out onto everyone and everything around you. Keep your life functioning. Failure to do so can be disastrous, as your profound lack of perspective, fixation on negativity, and the suffering from your fundamental identity crisis can easily get projected onto things and people that simply did not cause that suffering. No one appreciates being blamed for your subjective misery at all, and so you will just generate more animosity and suffering. While simple in theory, it is often hard in practice, but there is advice to help make this easier, which is why this section is a long one.
Combining these two pieces of important advice,
I have recently crossed the A&P and I know this by the many directly experienced signs of that stage.
Now I am feeling highly reactive and negative about things that I ordinarily can handle with more balance and clarity. I know that much of this is due to the inevitable stages that tend to highlight and exaggerate suffering that follow the A&P.
I realize that I am in a less than ideal position to deal skillfully with the personal issues that are driving me crazy, since I am likely to project the suffering from the illusion of duality and the odd side effects of the Dark Night onto people and issues.
I have been warned by master meditators who have successfully navigated this territory that projecting my stuff out onto phenomena is an extremely bad idea (and an even worse experience), and I have faith that those meditators know what they are talking about.
Even if these issues seem very real and valid, I am likely to blow them way out of proportion and not be able to bring balance, compassion, or kindness to resolving them.
By contracting into my own reactive misery and confusion, I could easily and unnecessarily hurt others and myself.
Thus, I resolve to keep my darkness to myself, tell only those who are skilled in navigating Dark Night territory, or otherwise share it in a way that protects others and does not project it out onto my world and them.
This way, I will spare those around me needless suffering which they do not deserve.
In short, I will use the meditation map theory to keep the reins on my dark stuff and deal with it in ways that are known to help rather than harm.
I will make time for insight practices and retreats during which I will simply see the true nature of the sensations of whatever arises, however difficult, painful, extreme, or compelling, and not indulge in the spin cycle of ruminating on content for one skinny minute.
I affirm that doing this is within the scope of my strength, capacity, and power.
In this way, I will be able to navigate this territory skillfully and not damage the fragile and therefore precious relationships and routines of my daily life.
Should I fail, I will actively seek counsel or help from those who are skilled in guiding others to maintain a healthy perspective in the face of Dark Night issues until I can traverse the insight stages of the Dark Night as recommended by clear sensate investigation of my immediate experience.
When I have attained to the first stage of awakening (or the next stage of awakening), that will be a great time to see how much of my negativity was valid and how much was due to my own lack of clarity and the side effects of the stages associated with the Dark Night.
From that place of clarity, I will be much more likely to address those aspects of my life and character that really do need addressing and attending to and be able to dismiss those paper tigers that I have created for myself.
By not trying to take on all of this at once, that is, by gaining deep insights before tackling the personal issues, I am more likely to lead the happy and wise life I wish for myself and others.
I will attain to both liberating insights and insights into my issues, and this will be of great benefit to myself and all beings.
One of the primary reasons that I wrote this book was to provide this important resolution. I myself and those I love have suffered needlessly and sometimes profoundly from failure to follow this resolution. Were you hearing me say these things to you in person, you would see tears in my eyes right now and hear me choking up with sorrow as I recall those past events and reflect on what is happening around me as I write this. I beg you, for the sake of all that is good in this world, please make every effort to heed this advice.
Unfortunately, not everyone seems to be able to do so. In fact, not everyone is even willing to attempt to follow this advice, particularly those who buy into the dangerous paradigm that “whatever I feel right now is real”, in the sense that their feelings at that moment must be the only possible valid perspective on their current situation, and thus those feelings are completely justified, along with the reactions to those feelings, and actions issuing from those glorified feelings. There are those who simply don’t believe that such a wondrous and holy thing as insight practices could produce such profound difficulties. There are also those who do not believe in the maps or that the maps could possibly apply to their own very special and unique life. Lastly, there are a few whose pride and insecurity will not allow them to admit that they might be affected by the Dark Night in this way.
I would therefore warn such people to stay the fuck out of the Dark Night until they come to a place where they are able to adopt at least some aspects of the above-mentioned resolution or apply the basics of the theory behind it. If you are not willing to at least try to make or live by some version of my recommended resolution, you should not attempt insight practices and should not cross the A&P, as doing so could promptly deliver you more harm than good, particularly if you have a nonexistent to flimsy foundation in the first training of morality. I write about these stages much more as a lifeline to those readers who are currently in them than as some temptation to those who are not and who are not ready for them yet. I take this as a calculated risk, realizing that some will not realize they are not ready for these practices and will do them anyway.
I am a big fan of fast sports cars, but I wouldn’t give one to a six-year-old. Just so, as you may have guessed, I am a big fan of insight practices, but I have concluded that those who do not use them responsibly, ethically, and intelligently should not use them at all, as doing so is too dangerous for themselves and others, causing too much trouble in the world to be of any significant benefit. This is not likely to be a popular view, particularly for those who want to sell meditation to a mass market, but I have experienced too much of what can go wrong when people refuse to try to live up to such a resolution.
One problem is that some people cross the A&P and enter the Dark Night without doing formal insight practices. I did so when I was a teenager and had no idea what was going on. How to reach these people I have no idea, but they tend to come wandering into spiritual communities soon enough. I hope they find people there who can help them sort out what has happened to them and provide appropriate contextualization and guidance.
In my naive dreams, I imagine that one day there will be training on the maps and basic generic, non-sectarian attentional, contemplative, and meditative development in elementary school, just as we learn about biology and math, such that it would be just another ordinary, accepted, standard part of human educational curricula. Then, everyone would know these stages for the ordinary, natural, human things they are. We are clearly a long way from that now, but hopefully a few who run into this spiritual technology will help spread it and help people who have crossed the A&P to recognize it and handle it properly.
Here’s an analogy that arose in conversation with Dr. Willoughby Britton: imagine if we didn’t tell preadolescent females about menstrual periods, because somehow society in general had totally missed a pattern in which, somewhere around their teenage years, females started having approximately monthly episodes of vaginal bleeding, cramping, and mood instability. In this dystopian world, all these women would be wandering around dealing with this on their own, having no idea that this was totally normal and that billions of others were experiencing the same thing.
A very similar analogy can be constructed relating to pregnancy. Imagine if women didn’t know about pregnancy and labor pains, so they start having sex, it feels good, and then they start to gain some weight, then feel these strange movements in their enlarging abdomen, and, all of a sudden, they start having these horrific pains that feel like pooping out a bowling ball that’s going to split their pelvis in half. That’s stressful enough, without having no idea what the hell is going on or that you are having a baby. The Dark Night is like that for most people who go through it. They started meditation to gain relief (or just paid enough attention to their ordinary daily life to cross the A&P), hit the Dark Night, and are now like a pregnant woman who doesn’t know what pregnancy is or what caused it.
That same exact situation is what is happening globally with the A&P to Dark Night cycle, which is a strangely common part of human attentional development. How many people have crossed the A&P and entered Dark Night territory? I have no idea, but I do know that the number is vastly higher than what most people would think, as most people have never even heard of this basic, human progression of cultivated attention and its accompanying side effects. In the circles in which I run, the percentage is high. If you are reading this book, then it is likely to have happened for you, as reading a book like this and getting this far into it is the sort of thing that people above the A&P are much more prone to do.
I rarely pull out the physician card in this meditation business, but I am pulling it now and throwing it down hard on the table. As a physician and trained scientist, I know as undeniable fact that the cycles of insight are an innate part of human development, occur on a broad scale, and cause profound physiological and psychological effects in significant numbers of people. I have seen it hundreds of times in others and experienced it many, many times myself. I also know for certain that meditative practices and map theory can help those in these stages. One day it will be part of standard psychological and medical curricula. Until then, needless, blind, un-contextualized suffering and chaos continue. How many people have been diagnosed with having bipolar II rapid cycling when they are just going through the A&P to Dark Night cycle I have no idea, but it has happened to a few friends of mine who, later, suddenly were fine when they got further along in their practice.
The resolution presented here and the spirit conveyed by it are an aspect of training in morality, and this sort of morality is one of our best friends in the Dark Night. When we adopt the spirit of this resolution, we do our conscious best to craft our way of being so we’re kind and compassionate and, if that’s not possible, non-harming to any being or object. Many people have commented that insight training is a “monastic practice”. If we can build our own virtual monastery through skillful speech and skillful action, then we do not need a monastery to protect us and the world from the potential side effects of our practice. We can live skillfully in the ordinary world and still make progress in insight.
There are those who, while willing to conceptually buy the theory and spirit conveyed by the above resolution, are so completely overwhelmed by their personal issues and circumstances that they simply cannot follow through on the above advice after they get into the Dark Night despite their kind and skillful intention to do so. My advice to them is to diligently and quickly seek qualified support and/or professional help in the form of psychotherapists and their ilk until they can follow something like the above-mentioned resolution. Good friends and family can be helpful also.
Realize that this is not an optimal way to go, as a lack of perspective and understanding of the Dark Night makes aspects of the therapeutic process more difficult, but for some there will be no other option and this solution is better than simply floundering. Further, only a small number of psychological professionals are currently aware of these very straightforward and predictable stages, something that I hope changes immediately. On the other hand, at least such people have tons of stuff bubbling loudly up for them to deal with, making some aspects of the therapeutic process easier, as it does break down some defenses against our deeper stuff. However, I would try to do just enough healing so that you can push on to the first stage of awakening with minimal bleed-through and then finish whatever therapeutic process you began in the Dark Night only after you are out of it, as it is a heck of a lot easier for most.
A related question is the role of pharmaceuticals in meditation, such as SSRIs, SNRIs, other antidepressants, mood stabilizers, anti-psychotics, and the like. Reports from the field so far have been mixed. Unfortunately, we have nothing like enough data at this point for definitive recommendations. Hopefully, someone soon will do that science and try to sort out what optimal blend of meditation and medication helps various populations best in the Dark Night. Unfortunately, you and your prescriber will have to do your own personal experiment and hope for the best. I have a general prejudice, based on not much information, that people should continue their medications and stay in close contact with their mental health practitioners, meditation teachers, and dharma friends. I wish I could say more, but this science is still in its infancy. Also, exercise, a good diet, and just trying to maintain a sense of humor can go a long way sometimes.
There is another seemingly positive way of looking at the Dark Night, or the Knowledges of Suffering, and it is one that doesn’t really fit well with our mainstream ideals of how life should be. It is the view of the renunciate, which basically says, “Ah, now I see the pain of my superficial and materialistic life, of my cravings that will never bring me happiness, of my worldly attachments, and that faulty house of cards I called a life. Far better to give it all up and take up the way of the dharma.” In fact, if you read the Buddhist texts, particularly the Pali canon, you will come across this point of view again and again.
While I have generally advised doing otherwise, I can completely understand why someone would renounce their ordinary householder life and go forth to follow the dharma. The problem comes when we have things like debt, children, spouses, sick or aging parents, and the like, and sorting out the ethics of these conflicts is complex. Regardless, the Dark Night does teach important lessons, and learning them is essential for moving to what comes next. These lessons do not require specific lifestyle choices for mastery, though the Dark Night does tend to call like a siren to people to make radical, renunciate lifestyle choices. Instead, it is a question of clear perception of—you guessed it—the three characteristics of the sensations that occur during those stages regardless of where you find yourself and how complex and overcommitted your life is. As I mentioned in Part One, in anticipation of this section, each training has a specific kind of renunciation associated with it, and they could not be more different.
Speaking of Part One, now is a good time to go back and read the section on morality, as morality really helps in these stages, as at all other times. Behave well. Speak well. Earn a livelihood well if you can. Be polite, helpful, patient, proactive, skillful, generous, compassionate, and honest as much as possible. Avoid unskillful coping mechanisms, such as escaping into alcohol and drugs or just a needless sullen blue funk. Face your life proudly with poise and panache. Laugh. Play. Be brave, like a spiritual warrior, like a ninja. You can even wear those cute little black tabi toe socks if this helps you. Be impeccable. Give to and help others. You will be happy you did so. Morality, morality, morality, meaning skillful living in all its everyday aspects: this is the key before, during, and after. This is the “during” part. Learning to be functional in the face of the Dark Night is learning something of extreme value: practice this way to make this knowledge your own.
It is time to get back to describing Dissolution specifically. As the stage of the Arising and Passing Away ends, meditators may be left feeling raw and incompetent even though they are continuing to make valuable progress into deeper and deeper levels of profound insight. This feeling that something is very wrong when practice is getting better and better can cause all sorts of problems during the Dark Night, especially to those not familiar with the standard maps.
On the other hand, for those who found A&P territory disconcerting, such as those who endured unpleasant kundalini experiences, having come through to Dissolution can seem a welcome relief. Some will stop practicing here, as they feel they have “released the kundalini”, and so are done for the time being. Their body is no longer tense. The weird energetic experiences are gone. The strange movements have stopped. No lights or images are arising. Motivation may fall away. The fireworks have finished. Dissolution feels like a very natural place to stop practicing, the only problem being that the later stages (Fear, and the rest) follow it soon enough even if we stop, though less intense practice leads to a less intense, perhaps more diluted, if often prolonged, Dark Night.
However, those who wish to keep doing formal practice may find Dissolution frustrating. Whereas just one stage ago they could sit for hours and perceive the finest vibrations of reality in exquisite detail, now reality appears to be slipping away, out of focus, vague, and hard to get a handle on. Whereas we may have had stellar posture in the A&P, now we go back to being run-of-the-mill mortals. Images of the body may become vague or even seem to disappear completely, similar to that which happens in formless realms but without the clarity.
Practice is likely to be more difficult, and we may experience pain from sitting that was basically completely absent during the previous stage. This can be extremely frustrating for those who don’t know that this is normal, and the desire to recover a fading past can greatly interfere with being present. In the face of these difficulties, I highly recommend noting practice. It may seem like backsliding to those of us who abandoned noting during the glory of the A&P when our minds were way too fast to formally note all we could perceive, but the spiritual path is not a linear one. In the face of Dissolution and the stages that follow, noting practice can be very useful and powerful. Additional notes to add at this point include things such as, “vague”, “dissolving”, “vanishing”, or Shinzen Young’s famous “gone” for when things disappear again and again in Dissolution. Speaking of Shinzen, definitely check out his The Science of Enlightenment, as well as his videos and other resources, such as Five Ways to Know Yourself.
In short, if we can keep practicing (familiar theme yet?) and adjust to having to work in some more subtle way to perceive things clearly, we will begin to make further progress. This time the effort will have to be with a lighter and broader touch. Further, there are remarkable opportunities to notice that there can be a high degree of clarity in Dissolution concerning very vague phenomena and mental wandering. I recall one meditator who was frustrated by his practice and talked to Christopher Titmuss about this during a “Sit and Enquiry” session on retreat.
The meditator explained, “Christopher, I am so confused. I have no idea what is going on in my practice.”
Christopher responded, “You are quite certain?”
“Absolutely!” the practitioner went on. “I am totally lost, floundering, like I have no idea what I am doing.”
“You are quite sure?” Christopher again asked, pointing directly to the clarity in this man’s mind as he properly identified key, if frustrating, elements of his experience.
“Oh, yes!” said the frustrated man who didn’t yet get what Christopher was pointing to, even while people around him began to see the funny aspects of this exchange and gently laughed knowingly and with sympathy for his plight. “I am utterly lost, like I can’t figure anything out at all …” and so it went.
That we can be very clear about vagueness is something that takes time to learn for most of us, but Dissolution is one great opportunity to notice this more fundamental clarity that has little to do with how clear things are in a relative sense. Still, despite this often hidden opportunity, Dissolution can be very frustrating, causing people to suddenly lose interest in meditation.
Note well, if they give up in the stages of the Dark Night (or any time after the A&P), the qualities of the Dark Night will almost certainly continue to haunt them in their daily life, sapping their energy and motivation, and perhaps even causing feelings of unease, depression, paranoia, and even suicidal thoughts. Thus, the wise meditator is very, very highly encouraged to try to maintain practice despite potential difficulties, to avoid getting stuck in these stages.
I think of Dissolution as “the couch potato stage”, though it can also have a sense of sensual languor to it. A hallmark of Dissolution is that it is suddenly hard to avoid getting lost in thought and fantasy when meditating. We may feel somehow dissociated or disconnected from our life, as if we were ghosts.
Another effect that can be very noticeable at this stage is that actions just don’t happen easily. For instance, you might be going to lift your hand to turn off your alarm clock, but your hand just doesn’t move. You could move your hand, but somehow things just tend to stop with the intention and get nowhere. Eventually you move your hand, but it might have been just a bit tiring to do so. You know you should get up for work (or for that first early morning sit if on retreat), but somehow you just continue to lie there like a stone anyway: that’s what Dissolution can feel like. Meditation can be the same way, and until we break out of this, things can get a bit mired down in the overstuffed cushions of Dissolution. However, when the perception of sensations ending becomes clearer again, there arises …