36. Beyond First Path (“What Next?”)

35. How the Maps Help   |  Part V: Awakening

I t can be easy for meditators to think they have completed a full cycle of insight and gotten
stream entry when in fact they have not. It is also possible for meditators to have completed a cycle of insight and yet think otherwise, but this is much less common, at least in traditions that have good maps and in practitioners who have good dharma friends with whom to discuss their practice. Sometimes practitioners will be correct in thinking that they have achieved what they believe and say they have, but their friends and teachers may remain unconvinced. At times, a teacher or friend may think that the student has done it and yet be wrong. Regardless, just keep practicing and see what happens. This is the most fundamental principle for all these stages. A particularly useful and traditional guideline is to wait a year and a day before completely making up your mind. This is slippery stuff sometimes, and many states and stages can easily fool a practitioner, friend, or teacher into thinking that they are something they are not, as has happened to me more times than I can count.

When meditators successfully complete their first cycle of insight, they have permanently debunked certain illusions to some degree, but many remain. Those that remain tend to include a new fascination with the understanding that has arisen from that path. However, if our “awakening” doesn’t endure the test of time, or if there is not a fundamental and sustained reduction in suffering, write it off and keep going. Even if we do complete a full cycle of insight, it is easy initially to imagine that more has been debunked than actually has been, so continue to practice training in morality throughout your life, as before, to avoid being bitten by the unskillful potentials that remain but are often hidden in the form of our own blindspots. Strangely, the internal obstacles that can tempt us to screw up become more subtle and seductive as practice deepens. These temptations tend to be at their worst during the next new Arising and Passing Away or during the next Re-observation.

An extended series of progressions (cycles) of insight tends to proceed as follows. They may be called “paths” in the Theravada and “bhumis” in the Tibetan system, though there are some problems that arise in trying to resolve the inconsistencies in these two models that will be touched on a bit later. Thus, a more general treatment follows, and the descriptions of the stages here are not taken directly from any specific tradition but are influenced by a number of them. From one angle, none of this is necessary information, as continued practice just as before will move things along quite naturally. From another angle, this information might be useful if we have expectations of what might come next that are not in accord with reality, or that interfere with practice.

Meditators can master this stage of awakening by continued practice as before. Stronger practitioners in Review can quickly learn to move through all the stages, starting from the Arising and Passing Away, through the Dark Night, up to Equanimity and possibly Fruition in a single sitting or even during some of the activities of daily life. Merely sitting down on a cushion, or being awake in the ordinary sense for that matter, will involve naturally moving through these Review cycles. The speed and clarity can vary widely depending on the practitioner, their specific practice, and other circumstances. We may even find it interesting to purposefully hang out in some of the stages of the Dark Night just to learn more from and about them, as they have very important lessons to teach and are very interesting territory. However impressive all this may seem, we may also come to realize that this is just a new beginning in some ways, like graduating from high school but then becoming a lowly freshman in college.

The period after completing a cycle of insight and after gaining some strong sense of mastery of its stages is also a great time to work on concentration practice abilities. The reason for waiting is that concentration practices and insight practices tend to have inertia to them. If you have recently been trying to get into very stable shamatha states, this can sometimes make it harder for a while to see things flicker, although, after stream entry, there will always be some sort of flickering somewhere, as that is what stream entry does. Likewise, if you have recently been training hard to perceive flickering, it can be harder to get into very stable shamatha jhanas. Thus, what you don’t want to do is gunk up the natural mastery phase of your practice until you are comfortable enough with these stages to get stuck in one and not have it be a big deal. This usually takes at least a few weeks, but this is a very crude guideline, and everyone is different regarding timing. Judge for yourself how well you handle stages such as Re-observation and decide if you would be all right if you got stuck in it for a few hours.

The time after gaining some mastery of these stages is also a great opportunity to work on our stuff. Doing concentration practices and working on our stuff go very well together, as mentioned elsewhere, since concentration states tend to bring our stuff to awareness more clearly so we can then work with it. The time during a mastery phase is also great for making sure that our daily life is functioning well, particularly if we made a mess of it while trying to become awakened or more awakened.

Mastery of these stages tends to peak at some point, and the sense can arise that we definitely “got it”. For many, Fruitions tend to occur quickly, clearly, and easily—though again—not always. Given time and practice, we may begin to get bored with our current level of attainment and with our ability to attain these stages and Fruitions. Practice can begin to seem sloppy, and the quiet bliss wave after Fruitions can diminish unless we do not attain it for some longer period (which would probably require resolutions to that effect).

The realization grows that there is more suffering still to uproot. We begin to see more layers of reality that are not well-understood or illuminated by our current understanding, hints of which probably revealed themselves very soon after attainment of that path. Subtle thoughts and mental patterns may be noticed at the edge of our perceptual threshold. Attention begins to incline towards the next level of reality that must be understood and away from familiar territory. More fresh insights begin to show up.

We begin to investigate reality with more effort and clarity, as we did before, and so begins a new cycle of insight from the beginning: that is, access concentration, and then Mind and Body and the rest. This might play out as follows: soon after the sense of strong mastery, we will simply be meditating along, perhaps a Fruition will occur, and then suddenly the mind drops into this new state rather than a new review cycle beginning again. It is stable, interesting, and jhana-like. It is sort of like reinhabiting our life or reconnecting with the sense of the observer. It is also likely the next Mind and Body. This could also happen when we are just going about our day. Plenty may not notice it at all, as it can seem so ordinary and may feel very familiar.

The postural obsession, odd movements, strange tensions and pains (second to third insight stages), emotional volatility, vibratory phenomena that seem new, a fresh and clearer sense of what dualistic perspectives remain, and all the other early progress of insight stuff may arise in its time naturally and perhaps sooner than we might wish. The phrase “leading onward” is often used to describe the wisdom that arises from dharma practice. Strangely, it is a phrase and a fact that I have cursed just as often as blessed, and entering new insight territory at inopportune times or before we feel ready reveals my reasons for this. Insight cycles can sometimes be traumatic, and it is often advisable to take a break to recover your sense of humor and appreciation of life before plunging on if you lost them along the way. However, at this point the dharma waits for no one and may propel you onward regardless of your wishes.

Note well, for those in between stages, there is still the ability to easily attain any of the previous stages, starting at the level of the current Arising and Passing Away and moving up from there, so things can get quite murky when trying to figure out what stage we are in or attain specific new stages. It can be as if the early stages of the next large insight cycle are arising, whereas for a while practice always started out at the level of the Arising and Passing Away.

Fixating on thoughts about what stage we are in is guaranteed to cause some degree of suffering that is worth investigating, especially in the in-between stages, though a gentle awareness of the maps can be useful if those sensations can be investigated. You might note “mapping, mapping” when thoughts of mapping arise. There can be a sort of fork in the path for a while, when the meditator is seemingly able to choose whether to review previous stages or press on. It can seem as though the background is solidifying and the mind is growing noisier as well as less predictable, less stable, and less skillful. More of our stuff may suddenly bubble to the surface. We may notice subtler thoughts and mental images, many of which we may wish we hadn’t. We may feel less “awakened”, as if our realization was fading. Clear and consistent insight practice, that is, understanding the three characteristics of all types of sensations, including thoughts regarding maps and goals, is the only thing that finally helps, just as before.

After we cross the next A&P, which may happen relatively quickly if we practice well and often, we will tend to have a very hard time re-attaining Fruition for a while, again assuming we were able to before. We may meditate along and then get stuck in a stage that seems to lead nowhere and is sort of like Low Equanimity, in that there are clear vibrations that are not varying with the breath or any other movement, and yet the background is too dense, noisy, and poorly perceived for clear and complete formations to show themselves.

Finding the fork in the road back to familiar meditation territory can now be quite tricky, and even if we do find the way back, the old territory is unlikely to be particularly appealing. Fruitions may arise, but they may do so in a way that is less reliable or certain. Suddenly, we are “on the ride” again, and will soon have to face the fullness of the next Dark Night with all its implications. It may even be more challenging than before, but could just as easily be less so. One friend of mine sailed through one Dark Night in about six minutes, and the next one took him many years. There is no way to predict durations or degrees of difficulty of the next big cycle of insight. 

It can happen that many times we will try to meditate to Equanimity but fall back when we get to Re-observation. We may thus try to reattain previous stages, as we may feel that we are in over our heads. We may get into the next stage of Desire for Deliverance, wish very strongly to go beyond all of this, and do so by reattaining Fruition of the current path instead of attaining the next one.

However, even if we can retreat into the old territory, we will still be haunted to some degree by the Dark Night in our lives and will have to learn to navigate skillfully in this territory one way or another. Sometimes re-mastering the current path—supported by resolutions to backtrack to Review—is helpful for building a sufficient foundation from which to proceed well into the new territory. Eventually, there is no way to go back, and we are simply left facing the new territory without an obvious skillful escape route.

There can arise an odd phenomenon that Bill Hamilton referred to as “Twelfth Path”, though this phrase is not in common usage. It is, however, a common phenomenon for those who have attained at least stream entry and is probably the most important concept in this book for those working on the higher paths, particularly beyond second path. 

“Twelfth Path” is making a joke about the fact that there are at most four stages of enlightenment in the Theravada map and five to about seventeen (their path and bhumi counts vary by source) in the Mahayana and Vajrayana maps. However, it can easily seem that more brand-new and full-blown cycles of insight have been completed and yet there is still farther to go. If we are going to get obsessed with the fractal model that I mentioned earlier, it is likely to happen around here. Unfortunately, the fractal model is even more useless now than it was earlier, and so I strongly recommend avoiding it like the plague if you think you are in a new progress cycle rather than a review cycle. It is only by understanding the immediate moments that seem to make up the “fractal” that you will gain the understanding you seek, so, as suggested in the section “A Clear Goal”, keep your practice focused on the here and now, one part of which may be thoughts and sensations about fractals and maps.

Things might proceed as follows. It seems certain that a cycle has been completed. Next, there seems to be a clear mastery stage that withstands the most rigorous tests, then more early progress of insight stuff shows up, the cycle begins to go around again, perhaps with more backsliding, moving forward, falling back again, remastering the old territory, more progress, and suffering shows up with its associated struggles and rationalizations. Then comes a sense of there being no option but progress and acceptance, and finally the sense that the cycle has completed itself. Soon enough there is a clear sense of a mastery stage, and so on. In this way, it may seem that some large number of paths have been attained, “twelve” in the joke, when in fact they have not. Or have they? Unfortunately, this is a tough question, and one that cannot easily be resolved.

We may think that we are now at a higher stage of realization that is clearly different from before, but the “magic numbers” four, five, ten, or however many stages of awakening you think there are, simply may not seem to apply to our journey. It can also happen that, with increased clarity and progressive deepening of our practice, distinct progress of insight patterns may seem to be repeating within each of the smaller units of the larger pattern of the progress of insight, very much in the way of fractals, as detailed earlier. Beware! Do not get fooled into identifying with these idealized stages as actually being “where you are”. Fresh, luminous, transient textures and colors of space occur on their own. That is all. Try to perceive that directly rather than imagine that there is some continuous entity with some merit badge.

New progress cycles and their accompanying vagueness can be very confusing if we are fixated on models but are not aware that the in-between territory is nearly impossible to successfully map in real-time. We may sometimes feel that we have just gone through the larger progress of insight cycle when we may have gone through just a small part of it. We may begin to think we see first, second, third, and fourth vipassana jhana aspects of each of the four larger vipassana jhanas. We may even begin to see patterns like those of a full progress of insight within each of the stages of the larger progress of insight or even within parts of each stage. A similar observation can arise in concentration practice with the shamatha jhanas, but this tends not to be nearly as problematic or dramatic.

I have concluded that fear, anxiety, confusion, indecision, and even certainty about these issues are clear markers of what needs to be investigated: that is, these sensate patterns of emotional phenomena themselves. Noting “fear”, “confusion”, “frustration”, “doubt”, and the like can be very skillful to help us develop a metacognitive awareness of those patterns until we can delve more deeply into the sensations that make them up. In this way, these aspects of suffering have become trusted friends, clear signposts, and red flags, as well as aspects of the goal, which is the path in the end. The more we realize that those very processes are it, those very sensations are it, the closer reality is to understanding itself. The closer reality is to understanding itself, the less fundamental suffering there is.

Additionally, I have concluded that the best reason to take these detailed maps to this extreme is that eventually they become too cumbersome. Thus, eventually they can be laughed at, even after having made useful points, while leaving us with no option but to be with reality, one aspect of which is the sensations that make up thoughts about maps. We can learn to laugh at ourselves and our deep-seated but futile desire to simplify fresh patterns of sensations and solidify them into a sense of an attainment that “we” have, or believe that they are “ours”.

On the darker side, when we are unable to laugh at our deluded attempts to fix or freeze a sense of what some illusory “we” has done or attained, the phenomenon of “Twelfth Path” and the complexity of the territory between paths can cause considerable doubt, pain, frustration, and cynicism, the flip side of which is narcissism or grandiosity. The more afraid we are of not making progress, the worse these sorts of feelings can become. The more we compare our practice to the misunderstood sensations that make up the sense of “others”, the more needless suffering arises. These sensation patterns must be investigated clearly and seen as they really are, as always.

A long-term view is very helpful, particularly if it paradoxically takes the pressure off and thus helps us to settle into what is happening right now. It will often not be clear which event was actually the new A&P or which event was really a new path until we have the benefit of a few more months or years of practice. We may experience many strange events, state shifts, insights, and profound openings, all of which can be very compelling for some period. However, there tend to be just a few of these memories that, on careful reflection, stand out in the mind as being significant and by which we can clearly mark permanent shifts in our fundamental relationship to life and the world.

In the next part of this book, I will lay out some models of awakening that involve various numbers of shifts in understanding. We may be tempted, as I foolishly have been, to count the landmark events in our practice and try to correlate them with these models based purely on how many times they seem to have occurred. This is a set-up for trouble, so please learn from those of us who have done so the hard way, and do not try it, as tempting as counting paths can be. A vastly superior form of inquiry and investigation is to carefully examine anything that seems to involve a sense of a split, of a this and a that, particularly at the rate of one to ten times per second or even faster if you can pull it off. Which sensations seem to be the watcher, and which sensations seem to be watched? Try to see the true nature of these sensations one by one as they occur.

It must be said that after three or four of what seem like complete insight cycles or paths it can take quite awhile to get a clear sense of what subtle dualities remain. You might find yourself walking around for days to months thinking, “Dang, I’ve really got it now. I’m just seeing it no matter what happens. Cool! I might have cracked the thing! Dude!”

Give things time and beware of assuming you have attained more than you have. It is a very common and embarrassing problem, especially because it often goes unrecognized, but those who are mature, honest, and familiar with this territory understand it well. However, those who do not know this territory may not be so forgiving, so beware of claiming a specific level of realization, particularly some “final” realization, however you define it, until you have carefully checked out how it performs in real-world tests for a very long time. I would advise thinking along the lines of, “Well, my working hypothesis is that it seems I have achieved whatever, but I will keep an open mind and be cautious in what I say and write.” 

Use the descriptions of the more reproducible of the models of realization that follow to give yourself a general sense of the territory and what tends to need work and investigation. Avoid whenever possible the traps mentioned here, but when you realize you have fallen into any of them, which is ever so human and common, accept it, learn from it, and laugh! Should you realize that you have failed to heed this advice, that you have bought into some limited definition of yourself as a realized being of some defined rank or level despite the warnings, you can try to deny it for a while, that’s okay. You can imagine that you are very sure you know “where you are”, as that sort of artificial solidification of reality is common enough. You can get pissed off at yourself, that’s normal. You can beat yourself up if you think that it will help, though it rarely does. You can get bitter, though such responses tend to wear out their welcome. You can pump yourself up, dwelling on “your” imagined or real successes, though this tends to ring hollow soon enough. You can try to pretend you don’t care what stage or level you have achieved, though eventually this gives itself away. However, when you feel you are done with these things, accept, learn, lighten up, and laugh! Repeat as necessary and then get back to investigating those sensations.

All that said, for those who have made the mistake of making some claim they later realize is inaccurate, I offer the following from a post on the Dharma Overground, slightly edited:

“The known problems with goal-oriented practice are many, with open disclosure and a culture of labels, stages, states, levels of attainment, and the like causing predictable benefits along with predictable trouble. The situation that comes to mind is as follows: We are all excited about practice. We practice hard and well, aiming for a very specific goal. We achieve something that, at the time, really feels like we have done it. We are not consciously trying to fool ourselves or anyone else, but just honestly feel we have attained whatever state, stage, realization, or transformation based on our best understanding of the criteria and our best internal (and possibly some external) assessment. We make the claim that we have done it. We receive whatever social benefits and downsides result from having made that claim. Time passes …

Things begin to show up that clearly are not as well seen as we thought they were, not as transformed as we thought they were, and we begin to feel that we were wrong about what we had done. Assuming our new assessment that we were wrong is itself correct, which it isn’t always, the questions arise: Was I totally delusional? Am I a bad person? Was it just that, at that time, it really seemed to have been what I thought it was and anyone would have been fooled as I had been? Was it really that I had done that thing at that time, but that transformation of perception was not as irreversible as I thought it was? Could I have possibly known at the time that it wasn’t that attainment or that it wouldn’t last? These are hard questions to answer, but that is not really the important issue.

Where the real problem comes is the let-down, the embarrassment, the shame, the strange role reversals we might find ourselves in if that attainment turned us into some sort of teacher, expert, or authority, the personal confusion about what is suddenly happening and why, the disappointment that comes when we worked so hard and things didn’t work out as we thought. All of that can cause the worst part of it all: isolation. If we find ourselves unwilling to admit to others that we were wrong, or feeling like we are unable to do so, or that we will be ridiculed, blamed, or ostracized if we reveal what we know to have not been true—then real damage is done, for it is in those times that we most benefit from friends who can help us put it back together, go back to basics, regroup, retool, or modify our practice, learn, grow, and move on.

Instead, we may find ourselves feeling like outcasts, failures, victims of our own hubris, afraid of being thought of as liars, fools, or both. We may disconnect from our fellow dharma companions, communities, teachers, friends, family members, and wander lost and confused, which is something that very few handle well in the shadow of some feeling of past glory, achievement, and even widespread recognition and authority. That isolation is where the real damage happens.

As one who has gone through lots of cycles over the years that led to lots of plateaus, many of which were quite impressive for some period but later faded or reality-tested at a lower level than first impressions seemed to indicate, I can totally empathize, as I have been there and done that and very well may do it again. It can be very painful and disorienting.

Realize though that these challenges are not only going to happen, they are very normal in this open-disclosure world of states, stages, names of levels, and achievement-oriented culture. If we recognize this as a community and can encourage conversations about it, then when it happens, which it will and perhaps often, members of the community who are dealing with all the complexities that these strange phases can cause won’t have to deal with the additional stigma of feeling like people think we are freaks, losers, or knowing or unknowing charlatans when we face the likely outcome of blowing it and making some grand claim that didn’t turn out to hold up over time. We will also get to benefit from the reality testing and other benefits that good dharma companions provide.

Those wise dharma companions who supported us through admitting to error also get the benefits of living in a culture and community that is realistic and kind, such that, when they make their own mistakes, they can stay connected and be helped also, and you may be surprised at how much people who make mistakes like this can grow to be amazing practitioners and wise beings later. Much can be learned from falling down, and hopefully we will be lucky enough to have good and kind people around to help pick us back up such that we can later do the same for them or others.

Thus, I urge each of you, should you run into someone who has this happening to them, who has claimed something and then renounced that claim, to have similar empathy, to wish that person well, and to realize that, if you are in this rarified business long enough, it will likely happen to you. When it does, think about how you would want to be treated and pass that on ahead of time if you haven’t already been in their shoes, realizing that you might very well be soon enough. This is the mark of a mature community of practitioners and it leads to more healing, mutual respect, kindness, renewed progress, inspiration, and harmony than negative, defensive, condemning, demonizing, and other immature reactions, not particularly well guided by the morality, loving-kindness, and compassion that the Buddha advocated. Hopefully, by recognizing this potential shadow-side of gung-ho, technical, stage- and state-based meditation culture, we will be better prepared to handle it well when challenges arise.”

Speaking of models, states, and stages, here are some more…

35. How the Maps Help   |  Part V: Awakening