32. “What Was That?”
Welcome to the world of models, states, stages, and visions of goals to attain. The curse and blessing of knowing all of this terminology and theory is that there is a natural tendency to begin to try to apply it to our own experiences (and those of others) and tease out what’s what. Beyond that, not only have I just provided enough information for a few of you to become master posers on the spiritual path, I have given some of you enough information to start obsessing way too much about “where you are” on the path. However, this is a trivial danger, and the reason why many senior dharma teachers never include crucial orienting details in their books and teachings is completely beyond me.
That it should be left to a young and cocky upstart like myself (who wrote the first version of this chapter in 1997 when I was 28 years old) to fill in this gap is less than ideal. My position in this second edition, being no longer so young or quite so cocky, remains the same in terms of my disappointment that clear guidelines are often unavailable or inaccessible or both. I know many teachers who have taught vastly more people than I have for many more years, and helped them to navigate these stages and sort these things out many more times than I have, and this is still true even two decades from the first time I wrote this chapter. I think that this book should have been written by one of them and not me. However, here we are, here is the book, so my ideals clearly haven’t come to much, which is par for the course in the world of ideals.
I changed this chapter’s name from “Was that Emptiness?” since I have realized that “emptiness” is a loaded term that is variously interpreted in different Buddhist philosophical systems. Those interpretations are then refiltered, distorted, and misinterpreted by some of those who study and expound on those tenets. Adding to that, the generally negative connotations in English of the word “emptiness” increases the confusion, which is why I have changed the chapter’s name for this edition.
There are all sorts of pitfalls that can occur, but perhaps the most significant is calling experiences “Fruition”, “stream entry”, “nibbana” or “nirvana”, or the next stage of awakening that simply were not those. It is a mistake that we are all likely to make more than once if we practice well, know these models, and care about them in the least, and even awakened beings with years of practice will sometimes wonder, “Was that Fruition?” or “Was that the next stage of awakening?” Some of us, such as myself, will be particularly prone to blowing this on a regular basis even if we are well along the path to awakening. Take heart, failure can be a great teacher.
The first and perhaps most important point is that from a certain perspective it is not an important question if you are practicing well and will continue to practice well, as good practice moves things along. Also, if you have awakened to some degree or attained a Fruition, the enduring benefits of that have occurred regardless of whether you are certain about it. On the other hand, if you haven’t awakened but believe that you have, it is worth being able to come back to reality. Continued social interaction with strong practitioners often helps with reality testing, and again, online communities are a great option for those who are isolated in the dharma diaspora that most of us inhabit.
The range of clarity with which the three doors to Fruition present themselves can be quite broad. Sometimes, even if it was the attainment of Fruition, there may not have been enough clarity at the time for us to remember the way that door presented, or of the depth of the discontinuity to be clear enough to satisfactorily answer the question.
There are also many possible momentary unknowing experiences that can present in ways that seem convincingly like the attainment of Fruition, even for meditators with years of experience with these issues. Again, by “unknowing experiences”, I mean experiences that seem to lose such a substantial portion of the clarity regarding sensations by which we might judge what occurred that we have a hard time knowing what just happened. I will mention some of the most common events that can be mistaken for Fruition here, though this list is far from comprehensive.
Momentary experiences of the formless realms that arise in Equanimity, particularly Nothingness and Neither Perception Nor Non-Perception, are common culprits. However, if we are this close, the real thing is very likely to occur sooner or later. The head-drops that occur in Equanimity are something else that can fool people, as they seem to involve a drop-out of sorts, like when our heads are nodding when we are trying to stay awake in the face of tiredness.
Speaking of Equanimity, there are also a reasonable number of practitioners who make it past the A&P, hit the Dark Night, and get to Equanimity. They may go through a few rounds of that, and finally manage to get relatively established in the high end of Equanimity and stay in that general end of the territory for some extended period and possibly even until they die. They don’t attain stream entry, but they have done something impressive. This attainment typically is relatively transformative. Many may mistake this for more formal awakening, but it should neither be underestimated as a spiritual attainment nor denigrated, as being relatively stabilized in Equanimity is vastly better than what most people achieve during their lifetimes; Equanimity can provide numerous valid insights as well as emotional and psychological benefits. Would I advocate that they push on into stream entry? Of course! Still, plenty of these practitioners derive enough satisfaction from this level of insight that motivation and inspiration to go further may drop off significantly, and they may continue to derive real and valid benefit throughout the rest of their lives from this achievement.
Formless experiences arising from pure concentration practices have for millennia fooled people into thinking they were Fruitions. Formless experiences can arise at many stages and during many states, as earlier stated (pun intended). Some experiences of the formless realms may be extremely brief, seconds or fractions of seconds, and these typically occur at the end of the out-breath, just to make things confusing. When in Equanimity, the near-miss that I call ñ11.j8 that then causes the P8JP (again, post-eighth jhana junction point) magick to occur which makes so many attainments, such as Fruition, much easier in its afterglow, can easily fool people into thinking it was Fruition itself. That activating dip into ñ11.j8 can be and often is extremely brief, as we dip into it as the breath goes down and come out as the next breath comes up. Regardless of how long ñ11.j8 lasts, the P8JP effect is the same, oddly. Misinterpreting ñ11.j8 as Fruition can be good, as it will cause some who are over-powering their practice based on maps and models to chill out, which itself often makes the occurrence of an actual Fruition easier.
As mentioned earlier, insight stage four, Arising and Passing Away, particularly the Arising and Passing Away Event itself (the peak of the A&P, again something not everyone who crosses the A&P will notice distinctly), is a pernicious trickster and has fooled countless practitioners throughout the ages into thinking it was Fruition or the attainment of a path. This may even fool accomplished meditators who are working on the next path. Note, the A&P typically shows up only once per path in the short term, with repeats typically taking a moderate period for us to fall back (months or years, speaking in general terms, possibly shorter if we are strongly intending to go back to that territory), whereas Fruition is likely to be repeated much more naturally.
Unusually heavy experiences of insight stage five, Dissolution, can be formless and murky enough to fool some meditators on occasion, as can any dramatic shift between any of the vipassana or shamatha jhanas, as these involve three or four “impulsions” or “mind-moments” followed by a momentary unknowing experience; see A Manual of Abhidhamma, referenced above. Even the first shift into insight stage one, Mind and Body, can fool some novices if it happens dramatically enough that they get fascinated with how unitive, pleasant, and clear the stage can be after the first shift into it.
Often it is not possible to make a clear call about what was what, even if it was a Fruition. While what follows is routinely considered to be dangerous information, I am happy to go to the far extreme of presenting largely taboo secrets if it helps to counteract the pervasive mushroom culture. Below are some basic guidelines that may be used when trying to honestly answer the question, “Was that a Fruition?”
• If there was any sense of an experience, even of nothingness or something that seemed incomprehensible, particularly anything involving the vaguest hint of the passage of time, it is not Fruition. This is an absolute rule. Repeating the film analogy, in Fruition it is as if a few frames of your life were simply edited out and not that they were replaced with something, even if that something seems profound, formless, cosmic, timeless, or whatever.
• If there was any sense whatsoever of a “this” observing a “that”, or a self of any sort that seemed present for whatever happened, it is not Fruition. If “you” were there, that wasn’t it.
• If there was not a complete sense of discontinuity and if it makes any sense to think of time, space, perspective, or memory continuing across the gap in relation to it, it is not Fruition. On the other hand, if the only way to remember what happened involves remembering just forward to the end of the door that presented and then remembering back to when reality reappeared, keep reading.
• If on continued repetition of the unknowing event over days or weeks it fails the above tests, write it off as something other than Fruition. Unfortunately, not everyone will be able to repeat the experience easily, as explained in a bit.
• If continued repetition of that kind of unknowing event over days or weeks fails to give any clear experiences of the three doors and to reveal something very paradoxical and profound about the nature of subject and object, be skeptical.
• If there was a double-dip into unknowing events with a few profound moments of clarity and altered experience between them, as is characteristic of the A&P Event, with one shift happening halfway down the out-breath and a second shift at the end of that out-breath, write it off immediately as more likely having been an A&P-related event or possibly the early stages of Equanimity (ñ11.ñ4).
MCTB1 used to say: “If the event cannot be repeated, write it off. Those who have attained a path will attain more Fruitions naturally, maybe one to many per day, as they basically can’t help but cycle.” This turns out not to be true of all stream enterers; I shall give an explanation shortly.
If there is not a rather predictable pattern of stages and perspective shifts that begins to become clear, specifically following the course of the progress of insight from stages four through fifteen as listed above with their accompanying shifts in perceptual thresholds, write it off as something other than Fruition. This brings me to the cardinal rule for sorting out experiences or attainments:
Repeat It Again and Again and Be Honest With Yourself
Any dishonesty with yourself about these experiences and their interpretations will come back to haunt, humiliate, and humble you. Again, it took me countless cycles through these experiences at many levels and over years to get to the point where I could even begin to think about writing a book like this one. I am still quite cautious about hanging my hat on interpretations of new and unusual experiences, or what seem to be non-experiences, until I have attained them fifty, one hundred, or more times.
If you don’t have the necessary level of clarity and mastery to repeat the experience of interest again and again, either do enough clear and diligent practice to attain the required mastery or don’t ask the question. Studying theory can only be useful to a certain degree for this. In the end and always, it is practice and continued direct experience that reveals and clarifies. While it is somewhat true that with clarity comes mystery, this maxim can easily and dangerously be used as a cop out.
A related question is, “Am I awake?” I have met many people recently who have exhibited a common but unhealthy fascination with this question, toying with the possibility that they were enlightened in “past lives” (whatever), were enlightened earlier in their lives and “repressed it” (not), were enlightened by interesting experiences that were bound up in time and space (oopsie daisy), such as A&P Events, formless realm experiences, visions of beings, unusual raptures, etc. For these sorts of people, as well as those working on higher paths who are stuck in the in-between stages, I offer the following.
Those familiar with the first edition of MCTB will notice some substantial revisions here. These are based on having access to hundreds of additional reports from people at various stages, which will hopefully provide a more accurate picture of the range of what is available and possible. When I first wrote this, the number of stream enterers I knew well was small. That has changed, and so, drawing on that significantly wider base of experience has helped me to add descriptive details regarding the range of what can occur in the wild, which you will now find included here.
This is probably a good time to introduce a complicated topic, and that is the grades of stream enterers. The complexity arises in that not all stream enterers are created equal, at least in terms of their perceptual abilities, exposures to theory and structured practice, ability to apply those theories, analytical abilities, inclination to investigate, distinguish, and name things, as well as concentration abilities. Some of this will be determined by the contexts in which they attained stream entry, some by their practice, and some seems related to their own innate wiring. There are obviously other ways in which they will vary, but for the question of whether you or someone you know has reached stream entry, this is a good start.
Specifically regarding Fruition, there are stream enterers who know they had a Fruition and got stream entry, and those who don’t know that they attained a Fruition and don’t know they got stream entry. There are stream enterers who can get repeat Fruitions and those who won’t have another one until second path, and this may change with various paths later. There are stream enterers who can get repeat Fruitions easily, even during ordinary daily activities, and those who can only get them under special circumstances, such as when on retreat or practicing formal meditation. There are stream enters who can only get one Fruition per day and those who can get multiples, sometimes even back-to-back, within a few seconds of each other. There is a much smaller percentage of stream enterers who can get what is known as “duration”, meaning that they can have the Fruition last longer than an instant of “external time” (though after reality restarts and in retrospect, it seems to them like a timeless discontinuity with no passage of time at all, or other reference points for time or other experience), and those who can’t.
As an aside, for all my meditation abilities and by way of full disclosure, I am not one of those people who is certain that they have ever been able to stay in Fruition for some period that in external time was more than a fraction of a second. Bill Hamilton used to talk about being able to be in Fruition for an hour, something that always impressed me. This was a feat I am not sure I have been able to replicate. Some schools of practice really strive for mastery of duration, and I think it is good to master this attainment, but, as of this writing, I haven’t been able, for whatever reason, to be certain I had done it. I can generally get multiple Fruitions back-to-back, as well as get them many times per day, often with a high degree of relative ease and with relatively short set-up, but duration has always eluded me, though I am not certain of this, as I haven’t been meticulous about clocking them, as a few people who are into this stuff have been.
The point is that, regarding Fruition, there seems to be something about people’s wiring that will give them specific talents and limitations regarding it, and so it is not that helpful (and can be problematic) to compare your Fruition skills (or any other skills for that matter) with others, as some of that may just be how you are built. Clearly, some balance of nature and nurture is at work here, and exactly how modifiable our nature is with practice is not entirely worked out.
There are those who can easily recognize the fine points of the micro-phenomenology of the moments that make up entrances to Fruitions through the three doors, and those who get Fruitions but can rarely or perhaps never really get a sense of how the entrance occurred with the analytical clarity of those more adept in this. That also should not be some source of unskillful comparison, as it just causes trouble most of the time.
Before awakening, we always had to develop access concentration, attaining Mind and Body, and working from there every time we meditated—unless practicing very strongly, often and well, when we may have been able to keep up enough momentum to avoid falling back to the beginning. After attaining a path, we begin meditation at the level of the Arising and Passing Away and proceed with much more skill and confidence. As a stream enterer or above, reflecting on reality even slightly will result in a nearly instantaneous shift to a Mind and Body–like state that rapidly progresses to show its more A&P-esque elements, with subtly or more strongly vibrating sensations available for investigation with even the lightest application of attention in that meditative direction. This can make honestly answering questions about “agency”, the sense that “I” am doing things, tricky, for, as soon as you decide to try to notice if “you” are controlling things, suddenly intentions are easily perceived as objects rather than something belonging to a subject.
On a whim, those who are at least stream enterers can begin meditating at the level of the A&P, beginning with the double-dip state shift at the middle and then end of the out-breath that is the hallmark of that stage. Thus, awakened beings can easily perceive vibrating phenomena. Here’s a fun trick to try at the beginning of meditation sessions for those of you who are at least stream enterers: when sitting, resolve to get to Fruition, incline the mind that way just by briefly thinking about it, and then drop down deep with an out-breath noticing subtle vibrations briefly at the beginning and flowing deeply as the breath descends, like you were following it down into Dissolution. Then, just gently let the stages unfold and pay attention as needed to navigate the third vipassana jhana territory up to Equanimity without any further inclination to anything except just what is going on as the cycles unfold.
In that same vein, the cycles of insight from stage four to eleven (and then fifteen for those who can get further Fruitions in Review) always influence the life of those who are awakened. They are inescapable. They occur as soon as we sit down to meditate. Much more than this, they cycle endlessly in waking hours and even when dreaming. This subtle or overt cycling colors mood, energy level, and perception of phenomena. As soon as a Fruition is attained, the cycle starts again and proceeds, though the timing and obviousness of this fact varies depending on how much we are practicing, what is going on in our lives, and how skilled we are at noticing the qualities of these stages. Even when doing concentration practices, these cycles are somewhere in the background. It is possible to ignore them to a large degree for a while when in deep shamatha jhanas, though it takes work to do so.
I remember lying down for a nap after lunch when on retreat in India a few days after my first Fruition. Before I knew it, meditation was occurring. The ñanas were showing themselves in succession without any effort or even invitation, as I was trying to sleep. They had their individual qualities much as I have explained above, though they moved quickly from one to the other, and about forty-five minutes later Fruition occurred. Soon thereafter, it was obvious that the cycle had started again.
A friend who erroneously thinks he is awakened once declared, “Oh, yes, I went through those stages once many years ago, but now I am beyond them.” Busted! Toast! Those who are awakened go through these stages hundreds if not thousands of times each year. There is absolutely no getting around them barring deep sleep, severe brain damage, strong sedation, anesthesia, or death.
Plenty of people who know map theory and who have gotten above the A&P, hit the Dark Night, attained to something Equanimity-esque, and have then had various further experiences will wonder if they have attained stream entry, formless realms, or just fallen back to the A&P and back to the same pre-stream-entry Dark Night. Even with the above criteria and a chapter like this one, it is not always easy to sort out. It is a lot easier on retreat when people have higher concentration, particularly if the person doing the diagnosing can see your progression and what happens when you practice diligently and do various techniques and report your results. It is a lot easier to diagnose in people who are good phenomenological reporters who can clearly describe their sensate experiences. It is a lot easier in those who are more easily able to attain Fruitions.
The counterpoint to this is that it is a lot harder to clarify questions about attaining stream entry or some higher level of awakening in people who are doing this in daily life, haven’t come up in a more technical meditative tradition, aren’t good phenomenological reporters, aren’t naturally talented at getting Fruitions, and aren’t that good at accurately applying meditation theory to their practice. So, if you are having a hard time answering the question for yourself regarding what has happened in your practice regarding these stages and really care about the answer, my best advice is to learn meditation theory well, go on a retreat with a competent, awakened teacher or dharma companion who knows that theory, and follow good technique in high dose for enough days to make it crystal clear what is going on in your practice.
However, it is fair to mention that plenty of awakened people simply don’t think about their practice in this way. They may have never noticed that they cycled, never picked up on the patterns, or were never exposed to the maps (there are plenty of awakened people who are coming from other traditions who think about these stages very differently or who don’t even know they are awakened). There are those who don’t have particularly strong concentration, don’t realize how they got there, are not particularly intellectually curious, or, if they are, never applied their intellect to investigating where and how theory meets practice, never really paid attention to the patterns of unfolding, and could not care less, and that is just fine for those who are satisfied with that. I trained in meditation with some of these people—who were quite wise and awake—and I got a lot out of sitting and studying with them.
Here’s a radical statement for all fellow map-freaks: realization is not about insight stages. The fundamental insights apply to all things, and are more essential than the stuff I am talking about here. While I consider this section to be important, I acknowledge that it is merely a support for the main point, which is seeing the true nature of experience, one small aspect of which are the stages of insight and the cycles. It is not that cycling doesn’t have something to do with learning about the true nature of phenomena, as it clearly does. However, what counts far more in the end is seeing the true nature of sensations regardless of anything to do with cycles, as we will come to shortly.
Thus, if someone is awakened, I brazenly assert they cycle like this, but that doesn’t mean they are aware that they do, and if their practice unfolded gently or slowly or without very intense concentration and a map-oriented focus, they may have no idea about most of the things I am discussing here, and yet these things still apply to them. Just because a pattern is occurring doesn’t mean everyone will notice it. I poured massive amounts of energy into practice, developed very strong concentration, and care incredibly much about the maps, but that doesn’t mean that others who are awakened did or do. Anyway, back to describing the stages …