35. How the Maps Help

34. The Vipassana Jhanas   |  36. Beyond First Path (“What Next?”)

Now that I have presented the maps of the progress of insight and of the vipassana jhanas, I will reiterate a bit about how they help and why I went to all that trouble. I will try to do this in chronological sequence and tie it in with what has been said in Part One. (Remember Part One? I hope so.) 

The maps tell you clearly what you are looking for and explain precisely why you are looking for it, how that insight helps, and how that insight provides the ground for what follows. The same thing could be said of the concentration state maps. If the stages of insight didn’t tend to bring up all sorts of unusual raptures and produce such a wide range of potentially destabilizing emotional side effects, there would not be so much need for the maps. You could simply tell people to increase their perceptual abilities until they awakened, and they would likely have few difficulties in doing so by properly applying the techniques. However, the insight stages do tend to cause these sorts of effects, so the maps are very useful for keeping people on track in the face of them.

Remember the chapter called “The Seven Factors of Awakening” when I mentioned that the first factor was mindfulness and that this was really good for sorting out what is mind and what is body and when each is and isn’t there? That is because the first insight you are looking for, the one that allows you to see more deeply, is stage one: Mind and Body. Get it? This stuff is not random or arbitrary. It is all clearly laid out in a way that helps and fits with reality. In other words, the order is significant and worth respecting.

Remember how I said in that chapter that we should try to experience the intentions that precede actions and thoughts, as well as the mental impression or “consciousness” that follows all sensations? That is the key understanding in stage two: Cause and Effect. Thus, mindfulness is the first factor of awakening because it leads directly to the first two classic insights into the truth of what is going on. If you want insight into something, then looking precisely into that aspect of things is the best way to acquire that insight.

Once we have directly experienced these two insights, then the three characteristics begin to become obvious in stage three, which is exactly why the next factor of awakening is called investigation of the truth, i.e. Three Characteristics. The seven factors of awakening and the insight maps tell you exactly what you are trying to understand and why. You will not be able to directly understand the three characteristics without first being able to distinguish what is mind and what is body and the relationships between them. Without understanding the three characteristics, regardless of what you call them, you will not be able to advance. The Buddha laid it all out step by step. While this may seem unromantic, unpoetic, uncreative, and even dry, it is also extremely practical and without a doubt the clearest presentation of exactly how to wake up that I have ever seen presented in any spiritual system, just so my biases are made perfectly clear. In short, these maps and techniques can be profoundly empowering. 

Once the three characteristics become clear, the mind naturally speeds up and becomes more powerful. This is because it finally begins to draw on its tremendous power to see things directly and investigate without processing them through thought. Anyone who has driven a car, played a video game, or done just about anything else, knows that you just do it, but if you try to think about every little thing you are doing, the action would be impossible. 

This increase in mental power due to non-conceptual and direct experience is related to the third factor of awakening, energy. Energy may now even be blazing up and down the spinal cord, the mind gets bright and alert, and soon energy is flowing naturally, as we begin to enter the early part of stage four: Arising and Passing Away. Remember how this correlates with the second shamatha jhana, where applied and sustained attention or effort are no longer needed? They just happen on their own, to a large extent, and energy is naturally present. Thus, it all ties together. 

The next factor of awakening is joy or rapture, which comes to predominate in the second vipassana jhana and the Arising and Passing Away, just as it does in the second shamatha jhana. Thus, all the important advice about rapture given earlier applies to the insight maps in Part Four. We are generally advised to avoid becoming a rapture- or kundalini-junkie in this stage, although I suppose that if this is your primary reason for meditating, it is certainly your right to do so. Just be wary of the inevitable crash.

During the mature Arising and Passing Away, as well as in Dissolution (stage five), tranquility becomes important and more pronounced, but then becomes too strong in late Dissolution. Thus, it becomes important to build the sixth factor of awakening, concentration, and developing concentration is an oft-recommended strategy in the Dark Night.

Finally, when the Dark Night really kicks in, as it will once we can again find our objects and stay with them (Fear through Re-observation), then Equanimity in the face of all experience becomes vital for progress, as stated in Part One. Thus, Equanimity can arise and Path can be attained.

As mentioned before, the maps fill in the seemingly huge, frustrating, and nebulous gap from doing something like sitting on a cushion paying attention to the sensations of your breath and finally awakening.

The maps also tell you exactly what the common traps and temptations of each stage are. They warn people about not getting stuck in Mind and Body by solidifying it into a jhanic state, which it closely resembles. They provide comfort and explanation when things might get jerky, unpleasant, or even downright painful in stage three, Three Characteristics. They admonish people not to get too fascinated with how much of a mighty meditator they might feel like in stage four, Arising and Passing Away, and even to examine the sensations that make up the seemingly wondrous and tantalizing corruptions of insight such as equanimity and rapture. They warn of the possibility of thinking that we are enlightened when going though that stage, as well as saying that it is normal for wild and sometimes explosive experiences to occur.

I spoke with a friend who basically wanted me to help him rationalize that his recent A&P experiences occasionally allowed him to touch High Equanimity. My advice was that a much more helpful form of inquiry would be to notice the sensations of fascination with this issue and notice the sensations of the rest of his sensate universe come and go moment to moment. If he couldn’t manage this, he should be putting his time into trying to figure out how to get together enough money and vacation time to do another long retreat and/or how to increase his daily practice time and the thoroughness of his investigation.

The maps clearly state that the process is not a particularly linear one, and that after the highs of the Arising and Passing Away there usually follow times of difficulty when all the spectacular power of the mind and pleasure of meditation gained in the Arising and Passing Away are likely to fade dramatically. They warn of the numerous difficulties that may be encountered in the Dark Night stages, as well as provide lots of information about how to deal with them. The most common mistake is failing to investigate the truth of sensations deemed undesirable or unpleasant. It is hard to get on more intimate terms with reality when we feel a bit too emotional, vulnerable, raw, openhearted, or shaken, and so progress through the insight stages that make up the Dark Night is not always easy.

While I do generally wish to avoid biting the hands that have fed me, I must say that not telling practitioners about this territory from the beginning to give them a heads-up as to what might happen is so extremely irresponsible and negligent that I just want to spit and scream at those who perpetuate this warped culture of secrecy. While many teachers may not do so because they don’t think many people will ever get this far, that in and of itself is a scary assumption that should cause some serious questioning of their teaching methods, techniques, and perhaps even motivations.

Imagine that there is a medication called Damnital that is used to treat some form of suffering (perhaps it’s a pain medicine or an antidepressant). However, in a subset of patients its long-term use is known to cause pronounced anxiety, paranoia, depression, apathy, micro-psychotic episodes, a pervasive sense of primal frustration, pronounced lack of perspective on relationships, reduced libido, feelings of dissatisfaction with worldly affairs, and exacerbation of personality disorders, all of which can lead to markedly reduced social and occupational functioning. Imagine that these side effects are known to persist sometimes months and even years after someone stops taking the medication, with occasional flare-ups and relapses, with the only effective treatment being to restart the meds, perhaps increase the dose, add supportive care and counseling, and hope that these side effects pass quickly with little damage.

Now, imagine that you are living in the dark days of paternalistic medicine during which doctors prescribe these practices without fully disclosing the potential side effects despite being fully aware of them. Imagine that drug companies are not required to disclose known side effects. Does anything in this scenario make you even a bit uncomfortable? I should hope so!

Let’s say for the sake of argument that I am a fanatic who is blowing this way out of proportion. Let’s assume that Damnital only causes these effects in one out of every ten thousand patients. Would you have these side effects included on the little piece of paper that comes in the bottle? Let’s say it’s one in a hundred? At what point does it become absurd that those doctors and drug companies are being allowed to get away with this? Unfortunately, I must admit that I do not know the exact odds of these side effects happening to you. I do know firsthand that they happen and that if you cross the A&P you are likely to run into at least some of them.

These side effects are no fantasy. When they show up they are as real and powerful as if some dangerous drug had seriously skewed your neurochemistry, and I often wonder if that might be something like what happens. Thus, it seems only fair to have the same standards that we apply with such pronounced zeal and fervent litigation to drug companies and doctors also apply to meditation teachers and dharma books. For reasons unknown to me, this book is the first one I know of to spell out all of these things explicitly in language that everyone should be able to understand so that you can go into meditation having been fully informed of the risks and benefits and thus make informed decisions about your own practice. In the spirit of professionalism, I call on others who promote the dharma to immediately adopt a similarly high standard of open disclosure of risks, benefits, and alternatives for their own work.

These maps point out that people might get stuck for a little while in Equanimity if they do not investigate even the sensations that make up equanimity, peace, relief, space, ease, clarity, expectation, confidence, and so on. The models (presented later) also go into detail about what does and does not actually happen at each stage of awakening, though this aspect of the maps is much more controversial than the maps of the progress of insight.

Thus, the maps at their best inform the meditator in clear and systematic ways exactly what to do, what to look for, why, and exactly how not to screw up at each stage. They are no substitute for clear practice and investigation of the sensations that make up our experience, and they are poor aids for those who refuse to heed them and follow their advice. As I keep repeating, they can also be used as a basis for useless and even harmful competition between gung-ho meditators with insecurity issues and insufficient training in morality. It can and has been argued convincingly that we certainly don’t need to know these maps at all if we practice well. Despite the dangers of competition and hyper-intellectualization, the maps still have tremendous value when used as they were intended to be used. Still, give a poor rice farmer basic vipassana instructions and watch them practice well, gain insights, and run rings around some affluent intellectual westerner with the maps who can’t follow basic instructions and instead hyper-analyzes everything but the sensate phenomena they are supposed to be investigating. Just sayin’.

One other very valid criticism of the maps, as I mentioned already, is that people are often very susceptible to suggestion, called “scripting”. Describing these stages can cause people to report having experienced something that resembles what the maps describe. Bill Hamilton’s favorite example was that if you mentioned that some stages of meditation involved an itch in our elbow (there is no stage I know of that does, by the way), then suddenly everyone would start reporting lots of elbow itching. The part of the maps that deals with emotional side effects is notorious for causing this kind of mimicry. For example, it is basically impossible to sort out what is just fear and what is insight stage six, Fear, based upon the presence of fear alone, as fear is a very common emotion. The aspect of the maps that deals with unusual raptures (both physical and mental) is less suggestible and is a more reliable indicator of the stage of practice.

However, the fundamental increases and shifts in perceptual thresholds are extremely hard to fake, particularly if you have access to a map that goes into the extensive details presented here. Shifts in perceptual thresholds are the most reliable markers on the path of insight, the Gold Standard by which these stages are defined. For example, if you recently saw very fine vibrations that changed frequency with the breath, then had a big zap-through, spaced out for a while, now feel paranoid, and notice some relatively steady shamanic drum–beat like pulse that quickly leads to chaotic, edgy vibrations with complex harmonics, that’s very likely the insight stage of Fear.

Thus, increasing our perceptual thresholds in terms of speed, consistency, and inclusiveness should always be the focus of our insight practices. Skilled teachers who use and are very good with these maps will consider all three—that is, emotions, raptures, perceptual abilities, along with the patterns relating to these that have unfolded previously—and use these to arrive at an educated guess as to what is going on with a student. With years of experience, we may eventually get good at doing this for ourselves. I have found that my guesses about my own practice are usually more accurate after I have had a year or two to reflect on what occurred.

I will tell some stories later about how some of the maps made a huge difference in my practice and how other maps caused trouble. I am a firm believer that if there is enough good information out there, then it doesn’t have to be so hard for those that follow. Thus, I present these maps in the hope that they will help people to at least have some framework to understand the many and varied parts of the path. It is not that everyone uses maps well, that everyone will benefit from map theory, or that everone’s practice will fit the maps well enough to have them add value but, in general terms, I find that practice with maps is better than without them, and plenty of others have relied on them for thousands of years.

Further, as absurd as this may sound to some, the maps allow you to plan your spiritual path to some degree. True, there are ultimate points of view that would make this perspective seem quite ridiculous, but indulge me. A sample plan might be like this.

Go on a three-week retreat and really power the mindfulness and investigation all day long, consistently stretching your perceptual threshold and rate of investigation to its limits to maximize the chances of crossing the A&P. It is not that hard to cross the A&P even with imbalanced effort, so don’t worry about it. Remember not to be freaked out by the strange raptures around the A&P. Note, a two- to three-month retreat would give you a great shot at stream entry if you are ready to practice and able to follow simple instructions, so if you are at that level, go for it.

Once you have crossed the A&P, Dark Night stuff will come bubbling up soon enough, and the choice to deal with this on or off-retreat will depend upon how much time you can devote to retreats and how much intensity you can stand. My vote tends to be for retreat if you can take the heat, but not everyone can the first time around and not everyone can easily spare the time. On the other hand, that Dark Night might just be a cakewalk for you. Give it a go and find out! In the Mahasi Sayadaw tradition, they typically think that two to three months of diligent noting practice on intensive retreat is enough to get many people to stream entry, but perhaps you do not have the time or dedication to step to that level yet, or perhaps you will beat the odds and just be with what is happening, settle in to your experience, and nail it.

If you decide to deal with the Dark Night off-retreat, realize that you will likely fall back, but keep practicing an hour or two each day. Do your very best to realize that any of the odd feelings that you may experience are probably just Dark Night side effects. Try to imitate normal life as best you can and avoid rash decisions such as sudden and difficult-to-reverse renunciation of things you will want later. Try to be good to people and do your very best to keep your “stuff” from bleeding onto those around you. Find ways to honor and deal with your stuff that don’t involve projecting it out onto other people or making a mess of your life.

If on retreat, or the next time you can go on retreat, just keep practicing as consistently and accurately as you can and avoid indulging in the content of your stuff at all costs. Put worldly concerns behind you for that period and investigate bare sensations with acceptance and courage. 

Practice equanimity regarding whatever arises, but be wary of indifference or apathy. This is not always as easy as it sounds, but for some it could be strangely easy nonetheless. Once the weight lifts, just keep sitting or walking or whatever, with no sense of special effort, but keep up gentle, ordinary, and consistent attention to the open, flowing field of awareness, with gentle emphasis on the three characteristics of the full field of experience, of space and what is in it. After really getting into High Equanimity, stream entry should arise soon enough; if it doesn’t, repeat the above until it does.

From this point, you are “in there”, and progress of some kind is now inevitable. This first fingerhold on ultimate reality is extremely important, as without it you can wander far and wide and get nowhere. Advice for what to do next is given later.

In this way of thinking, there are only about five stages, and they are relatively easy to identify. The first is before you get any sort of strong concentration, and the advice is to get your momentary concentration stronger through good, present-centered insight technique. The second is the first vipassana jhana, which involves staying with your objects, getting faster and more precise, and working through basic hindrances. The third is when things get cooking, the A&P, the second vipassana jhana, which is usually obvious. The fourth is the Dark Night, which is also usually obvious. The fifth is Equanimity, which though usually obvious, can be confused with the A&P. The instructions basically are to continue practicing with some awareness of the standard traps of each stage, and let your attention get broader as each new jhana requires. Memorize this basic five-stage framework and the standard advice for each basic stage, and you will be a stronger, more independent, competent, and empowered practitioner.

34. The Vipassana Jhanas   |  36. Beyond First Path (“What Next?”)