33. Review

32. “What Was That?”   |  34. The Vipassana Jhanas

Stage sixteen, Review, is really a phase of cycling again and again from the fourth through eleventh stages (A&P to Equanimity) plus Fruitions after Equanimity for those who can get those. In Review, we gain mastery of the territory that we have attained. This phase can vary a lot among people, and the descriptions I offer here are for those technical meditators who are aware of the stages and maps and have a formal practice. These days, as I meet people who may have attained stream entry and yet done it on relatively low doses of concentration, I often find it difficult to be sure what they have accomplished. If you find yourself having similar questions about your own practice, I strongly encourage you to go on a meditation retreat, get your momentary concentration strong, and then test out what you are capable of with that stronger level of concentration.

The first few times through the cycle after the path has been realized can be quite intense and even very disturbing for some of us, as the mind tends to be exceedingly powerful for a few days after a path has been realized and yet is navigating in territory that has not yet been mastered. In fact, the most barking crazy I ever felt during my whole practice history was during the three or so hours of Re-observation in the first Review cycle after my first Fruition, though luckily from the outside I just looked pissed off and managed to keep it mostly to myself until it passed, and then I got to Equanimity again and was okay. Three cheers for the inner monastery of morality that protects others and myself from my acting out of insight-induced yogi mind!

We are well-advised to be careful, low-key, and mindfully restrained in what we say and do during the few days and perhaps weeks after attaining a path or something that we think may be a path. However, it also sometimes happens that realizations are hardly noticed at all, or if they are noticed, there is simply the sense, “Well, I guess that’s done.” Powerful cycles and the sense that things have been completed are not sure signs that a progress of insight has been completed, as similar feelings can arise in the A&P and Equanimity before stream entry (or the next stage of awakening). I have a few friends who reached stream entry and kept practicing for a month or more waiting for stream entry to happen, as they had no idea that they had landed it, as they were expecting something much more “profound”. I also know plenty of people who thought they had stream entry but were totally wrong, having just crossed the A&P or not even that. Anyway, assuming you are in Review, the following advice applies.

First, there are various schools of thought on what to do after your first Fruition. Simplifying greatly, and ascribing names to these schools that they wouldn’t recognize except in generalities, there are at one extreme the “let it settle schools”, and at the other extreme the “master Review through strong technique and strong resolutions schools” (which I will abbreviate and call the “strong technique schools”), and plenty of schools in between.

By way of artificial dichotomy, the let it settle schools basically advise doing very little except to apply gentle curiosity and accepting meditative practice to your experience and notice what happens, letting the insights come and the stages unfold and flow in their natural, effortless way. If on retreat, just sit and walk according to the schedule while not trying to really do anything else and just notice how things go. The strong technique schools generally say something very different, such as to practice strong mindfulness every second with strong resolutions to induce rapid and frequent Fruitions with as long a duration as possible.

You would think that I would fall into the strong technique camp, but having done the experiment myself and learned the hard way, in practice I tend toward a modified version of the let it settle schools. Gentle resolutions are fun to play with in Review but are not necessary. Gently inclining the mind to Fruition and sending it sailing easily in that direction is a good idea if held lightly enough for Fruitions to be able to happen, as they involve letting our guard down; like throwing a paper airplane, you don’t keep pushing once you let it go—it just glides to the ground naturally.

I would modify this advice to suit the individual person, depending on your practice style, strengths, and weaknesses. If you are the sort of person who wanders easily and benefits from a bit more structure and direction, and you are having a hard time getting much out of Review, try moving in the direction of more moment-to-moment vipassana technique and resolutions. If, on the other hand, you tend to let too much power get out of hand and end up frying yourself, rest in the easy and natural wisdom of the let it settle schools, as you will likely do much better. I did, when I finally learned to follow their advice and gained enough confidence to back off on the power and let the mystery unfold on its own.

As Review sets in, it can seem that we can control these cycles and stages. It may seem that after we have some maturation of a path, we can call up insight stages in order (just say the number, or name them, and see what happens) and stay in them as long as we wish or even call them up out of order, with some traditions and teachers emphasizing this more formal version of Review practice. I give details of my own explorations of this mode of intentional review practice towards the end of this book in the section on my own journey. From one perspective, awakened beings can learn to master and manipulate the stages of insight, though such practices can take on much more of a shamatha feel than an insight feel, in that they have very specific agendas for the stage of meditation and the precise quality of mind and attention.

From a more wisdom-oriented angle, even that notion that we have any control is erroneous. Stages, cycles, and the empty intentions to manipulate them occur in a causal fashion, and if there is a sense that there is an independent self that is controlling them, then there is clearly more work to do. Now, there’s a high and worthy standard indeed! These cycles, as with everything else, simply belong to the nature of things. Investigating the urges and intentions to manipulate the process and to call up specific insight stages for specific durations is profound practice if done well and honestly.

When a progress of insight is completed, we may notice the mind simply not doing lots of the useless things it used to do, and it may seem impossible that it was even able to do them. However, it may take some time to figure out what the lasting implications of a path are and what are just products of that path’s lingering and transient afterglow. It is likely to take quite awhile to really integrate the realizations that come from a path into our way of being in the world.

Mixed in with the sense of what is different is also a growing sense of what hasn’t been changed at all, what aspects of reality or behavior are still basically unawakened or poorly perceived, not to mention what is not well integrated. After attaining the early paths, what has remained untouched by that level of understanding is usually fairly obvious. However, one of the difficulties with attaining higher levels of awakening is that the sense of what still needs to be done can become less obvious and eventually very subtle. Again, give things time. Be patient. It can sometimes take awhile, perhaps weeks, months, or even years, to clearly see which realizations hold up under the pressures of the world and which fade. You might not get a clear sense of the limits of a level of awakening until you are well on your way to the next one.

Speaking of the world, Review is a great time to re-engage with the specifics of our life. It is unfortunate but true that one of the possible side effects of relentless focus on the three characteristics that produces transformative insights is the habit of not giving attention to many other worthwhile aspects of our lives. These other areas and specifics are very important, and so now is a great time to give them close attention. Those around us may have noticed the side effects of the Dark Night or some of the other stages and, because of that, may be worried about or upset with us for how we behaved if we allowed too much bleed-through due to a lack of a solid or sustained foundation in morality. It is not always possible to make up for that sort of damage, but now is a good time to say you are sorry and try to make things better. Take the time to heal the old wounds you discovered or created in yourself, or in the lives of others, while you were in the Dark Night.

Also, go out and have some fun! Enjoy the richness of friendship, exercise, play, work, entertainment, service, and life in general. Or, if still on retreat, this is a great phase in which to give shamatha more attention and play with the depths of jhana. In short, do your best to make your life a great one in the conventional sense. You should have been trying to do this all along, but try to forgive yourself and learn from your mistakes if you were not able to. Remember, the kind of renunciation that brings insights is seeing the true nature of things. If you can see the true nature of the sensations that make up a fun and healthy life, there is no need for any other type of renunciation! In fact, buying into a dogmatic renunciation trip is well-known for making people quite bitter, difficult, and neurotic, and at that point the challenge is to see the true nature of the sensations that make up renunciation-induced neuroses. I’m not convinced that neurotic renunciation is an easier way to go. Interestingly, the Pali word nissarana that is typically translated as “renunciation” actually means something like “definite emergence”, “departure”, and “escape”, like you can and will get out there and do this and yet, when filtered through a puritanical Western filter, the word renunciation connotes something quite different, painfully restrictive and/or aversive.

After attaining a path, particularly one of the early ones, the feeling that we are particularly special is common, and from one angle this is true and understandable. However, what is truer is that something in the understanding of the relationship to ordinary phenomena is now “special”, or at least somewhat unusual. Some attention to the “special models” will be given later in this book. The attainment of stream entry or a new stage of awakening should be a cause for joy and celebration. Unfortunately, people who have never attained deep insight tend to react oddly, poorly, or even aggressively to such disclosures and sentiments. Strangely, many people are very excited about the idea of awakening or the wondrous effectiveness of the Buddhist path, but not the idea of you awakening or those techniques working for someone who isn’t them.

This reveals a significant lack of development with respect to morality, loving-kindness, empathy, and appreciation or taking joy in others’ successes, all of which, when cultivated consistently, can provide conditions for sustained realization of ever-higher paths. However, apply this criticism only to yourself; don’t go around pointing out a perceived lack of these qualities in others if you wish to be liked, as such criticisms of others’ practices will likely just make you seem arrogant rather than helpfully corrective, even if you have a very soft and gentle style. Thus, approach declarations of your assessments of your practice with delicacy and discretion unless you are in a mood to sail on rough waters.

Those with higher levels of understanding than you will know where you are coming from, but will also know from their own experience how much more there is to go, and their tendency to focus on that can be frustrating. Our teachers and more mature companions may find it amusing to be reminded of what it was like to be caught up in the fascination with and excitement over low levels of realization, but they know that eventually even those must be perceived in some other way. One of my favorite Chögyam Trungpa observations is that we will never be decorated by our guru. Even if you are, I doubt if it will be of any great benefit to you, and it might even be harmful. [Transcending Madness: The Experience of the Six Bardos, Shambhala, 1992, p. 170.]

Thus, two ironies of the spiritual life that we might encounter are that success can cause feelings of isolation and that the spiritual path can be a very lonely one indeed. Sometimes writing can help, as can finding those few people who seem to be interested in hearing the details of what we are going through without reinforcing an indulgent fascination with these in ways that make it harder to see successes in proper perspective. The emergence of online, open, high-level dharma communities has helped to create more of these beneficial settings.

It is also common to feel that what we have experienced is just so staggeringly profound that no one, perhaps not even our own teachers, has likely ever had such amazing experiences. The A&P can have a similar effect and is more prone to producing this notion than Fruition. However, if our teachers are the real deal and are qualified to teach, they very likely do have an extensive list of spectacular and profound experiences and realizations as well. Yet, as in most traditional dharma contexts, the specific attainments and unusual experiences of our teachers are so rarely discussed openly, we may have a hard time believing this.

As I have had to learn the hard way, those who are particularly prone to extroversion and immoderate speech in the face of recent insights can easily get themselves into embarrassing and humbling situations. Put another way, after stream entry I was a totally arrogant and possibly insufferable brat for a few months. To be honest, my first wife might say that it was longer than a few months, and I admit she would probably be right.

A take-home lesson from this period of my life: don’t assume that anyone you are in a relationship with cares about how much insight you have, and instead assume that they care how you treat them, how well you listen to them, how well you take their point of view into account, and whether you are a decent friend. While I am on the subject, if you have built an internal paradigm that judges your own practice based on high standards of practice, realize that it is tricky not to apply that same set of judgments to those around you even when you are trying not to. Watch out for this sort of judgment like a hawk in your own relationships, as it is poison.

Eventually, you may begin to outgrow or surpass some of your teachers in depth or scope of understanding and ability. This in and of itself can be confusing and frustrating, causing role reversals that not everyone is able to handle skillfully. You might be shocked at how easy it is to bruise the egos in the conventional psychological sense of those who have seen through some or even all of the illusion of an autonomous, stable, separate self in the high dharma sense. It can cause complex and unsavory power dynamics, particularly in lower-level local dharma communities, where roles, such as that of teacher, are often not based on deep insight, at least at this point in history. Remember, humans are pack animals with alphas and betas, and when alphas feel their alpha-hood is threatened, they can bite. Similarly, betas may defend the rights, roles, and dominance of their preferred alphas, so we should be savvy to these primal pack dynamics when it comes to how we speak of realization.

As Review progresses, we can get very familiar with the territory of our current path and its stages, and they may proceed more and more quickly and easily. As we begin to transition from Review to the next early stages of insight, it can even begin to seem that the only way to move through the Review stages of insight is not to investigate reality too closely. At some point, assuming we are one of those who can get repeat Fruitions, Fruition will no longer be as attractive, and we will feel that we really could be practicing more clearly and precisely. This is a strong sign that the next set of stages will soon arise or may even be arising already.

That said, there may be times when we simply don’t want to make progress, as we can’t afford to be risking another Dark Night at that particular point in our life. Strongly stated and deeply felt resolutions to stay in Review, refraining from precise investigation, and emphasizing concentration states can help us stay in a Review phase until we are ready to move on. However, progress of some kind can only be postponed for so long, and the dharma has a relentless way of pushing us forward. A stream enterer is called a stream enterer because they are now in the stream of the dharma, and its current will pull them. It is common for hints of the early stages (one through three) of the next path to start showing up relatively fast—general ballpark being weeks to months—with this being a very general and fluid guideline assuming continuity and consistency in practice. There is a bell curve to how people progress, with averages and outliers at both extremes, so any general discussions of timing given in this book must be taken as what they are, generalizations across populations, and not as absolutes.

32. “What Was That?”   |  34. The Vipassana Jhanas