Models that are Mostly Unhelpful

General Problems with Current Models   |  The Non-Duality Models

Now I am going to present multiple models of awakening that I largely don’t like and I will explain why I don’t like each one as they come up. Most of these models are too simple and unsophisticated to detail the wide variety of what we naturally find in the wild jungle of meditators. We may of course forgive the various creators of these models for speaking out from the perspective of their own time, place, culture, practice, goals for developing the model, and limitations. I will assume they were all doing their best with what they had. Still, I care most about contemporary utility, so that is the filter I will apply when explaining and critiquing them.

One major problem with most of these models is that we take this imagined something, this mental model, and project it or superimpose it onto our practice and then fixate on that mental construction of an ideal and attempt to imitate it rather than doing the practices that lead to the real deal, however defined. It is also very easy to use various models to script yourself into believing that you have accomplished what they are pointing to when in fact you have either done nothing of the kind, or accomplished part of the practice but left further possible depths of it entirely unexplored and unrealized. People can really get weird, stuck, and even totally flip out if they are using models that are too far out of touch with the circumstances within which they exist, and imitate an ideal that is not aligned with what is going on in their specific contexts and circumstances. I have seen more real-world examples of this happening than I care to count.

Thus, my distinct preference when practicing and when motivation and discipline are sufficient to motivate real practice is to assume that “enlightenment” is completely impractical, produces changes that are very limited in scope, carefully defined, and circumscribed, and has nothing whatsoever to do with the scopes of the other two trainings of morality and concentration. This means that I take it as a working hypothesis that it will not make me a better person in any way, create any beneficial mental qualities, produce any states of happiness or peace, and provide no additional clarity into any of the issues concerning how to live my ordinary life. I have experimented with adopting other views and found that they nearly always get in the way of my insight practice, which is perceiving the sensations that occur now, however they are, as well as ideals about them, which are just more transient sensations. Thus, it is not that this particularly pragmatic view is entirely true, as it obviously isn’t, but it really does work well when practicing, and practice that attains results is what I care about.

It is not that I can’t appreciate the traditions that realize that, since insight can arise on any object or quality of reality, those qualities of arising reality might as well be skillful, as this is a reasonable perspective. For example, if you are visualizing a field of buddhas and bodhisattvas who project their good qualities into your mindstream while you also try to see the essential nature of this luminous display, that can clearly be skillful practice. It is not that we can’t operate on two fronts at once, that of insight and that of skillful content and profound meaning, and most people find themselves doing this in their practice anyway to some degree. However, as content is so tempting, and insight often so counterintuitive, many who try to do insight practices that also equally focus on specific qualities of content will stray far to the side of content and miss the insight aspects. So, I offer my perspective as a counterbalancing measure, not as some absolute injunction.

Further, nearly all meditative practices and traditions are based at least to some degree on idealized views of how the specifics should be. Views so easily become reified, absolutized, and thus the temptation is to not investigate the sensations that make up thoughts about that view, but rather to imitate the ideal expressed in the content of that view. These traps are very easy for people to fall into. This attempt at imitative versus applied practice can seem so much like actual insight practice, but it is not. It is true that good outcomes and positive personal development can arise from this sort of practice, so it is not that I am criticizing those who focus primarily on positive qualities, meaning, and high ideals regarding the specifics their lives, but I am instead stating that many will miss what is more fundamental than these skillful emphases.

I realize that I am probably not doing a good job of advertising awakening here, particularly following my descriptions of the Dark Night. MCTB1 stopped there and said basically, “Good point. My thesis is that those who must find it will, regardless of how it is advertised. As to the rest, well, what can be said? Am I doing a disservice by not selling it like nearly everyone else does? I don’t think so. If you want grand advertisements for enlightenment, there is a great reeking mountain of them there for you to partake of, so I hardly think that my bringing it down to earth is going to cause any harmful deficiency of glitz in the great spiritual marketplace.” However, my not advertising awakening much has caused enough complexity that I have included more about the benefits of practice despite my strong reservations about doing so.

Bill Hamilton had a lot of great one-liners, but my favorite concerned insight practices and their fruits, of which he said, “Highly recommended; can’t tell you why.” It is traditional to advertise awakening or enlightenment in the negative in Buddhist and other traditions (for example, Christian contemplatives’ “via negativa”), either stating what it is not or stating what is lost at each stage. It is so very tempting to imagine that “freedom from suffering” will naturally translate into a fixed and unchanging state of mental happiness or peace, and this can tempt us to try to mimic that idealized state. That mimicking, in which we try to fix our mind on certain specific qualities that we privilege regardless of circumstances, would obviously be a concentration practice.

Having said all that, the fact is that the models of the stages of awakening are out there and available. Even when they are not explicitly mentioned, they influence how people describe realization. Stronger practitioners routinely use various conceptual frameworks when engaged in the “shop talk” of meditation. Scientists are starting to try to figure out how to use various models to put people into categories that make for meaningful contrasting studies by various measures—from behavioral studies to studies using data collected with instruments such as fMRIs and EEGs—but unfortunately much of what they have to work with is far less than optimal. Thus, I have decided to try to work with some of the traditional problematic models so that they might be used in ways that help rather than harm. This is more difficult than you might think and, as reality testing with MCTB1 has shown, routinely backfires.

There are days I wish the terminology for awakening didn’t exist, the models didn’t exist, and the whole process was largely unknown to the ordinary person so that it would be less mythologized and aggrandized, thereby making conversations about it more down-to-earth and less triggering. I wish we could start over, strip away all the mythical trappings and alienating cultural elements, create simple, clear terms, and move on. The longer I do this, the more I appreciate why some of my teachers wouldn’t talk about or use models at all in any explicit or defined way that I could tell, but I will bet, being humans with brains that can’t help but think in patterns and reductive terms, that they had models they used to evaluate students’ practices even if they didn’t credit those models.

There are other days when I think that at least people know it might be possible, even if most of what has been said about it is pretty fantasy-based. My greatest dream is that the current generation of accomplished and semi-accomplished teachers will go far out of their way to correct the descriptive errors and false promises of the past and lay the groundwork for the perpetuation of these reforms despite the economic and social pressures to do otherwise. One of the issues restricting reform is that unfortunately only a few have gone far enough to see how the majority of the golden dreams of awakening do not hold up to reality testing, and most have not seen the true, deep, and amazing benefits of correct practice. Another thing holding this back is that putting oneself on an artificial pedestal based on promising false hopes and dreams can be rewarding in many ways. One way or another, the number of voices trying to bring things back in line with what can actually be done is miniscule compared to the forces that want to make it into something so grand and thus largely unattainable yet paradoxically quite marketable.

Before I get too far into the details, I should explain that the most essential principle I wish to drive home is that this is it, meaning that this moment’s sensations contain truth. Any model that tries to drive a wedge between the specifics of what is happening in your world right now and what awakening entails needs to be considered with great pragmatic skepticism. With the simple exception of clearly perceiving sensations occurring now and seeing through the illusion of a separate, continuous individual, nearly all remaining dreams related to awakening, however beautiful, are problematic to some degree. This basic principle of this is it is essential to practice, as it focuses attention on the here and now, and happens to be true. Back to the complexities …

The mental models we use when on the spiritual path can have a profound effect on our journey and its outcome. Most spiritual practitioners have never really done a hard-hitting look at their deepest beliefs and assumptions about what “awakening” or “enlightenment” means or what they imagine will be different when they “get enlightened”. Many probably have subconscious or largely unconscious psychodynamics and ideals that have come from sources as diverse as family dynamics, religious or non-religious upbringing, education or lack of it, cartoons, TV shows (Kung Fu comes to mind), movies, legends, 1960s gurus, music, magazines, media of all sorts, and countless other aspects of pop culture and the cultural and temporal milieu of which we are the inevitable conditioned products. More formal and traditional sources include the ancient texts and traditions of Buddhism, Hinduism, Taoism, Sufism, Kabbalah, Christianity, Western mystical traditions (Alchemy, Theosophy, A∴A∴ and other Golden Dawn-related traditions, such as the various strains of Wicca, etc.), the ancient Greek mystery schools (including the fragmentary writings of those such as Heraclitus), and the non-affiliated or ambiguously affiliated teachers such as Kabir, Khalil Gibran, the Krishnamurtis (J. and U. G.), and many others.

Modern fusion traditions, such as the various new versions of Buddhism and other traditions available in the West, also have a wide range of explicit and implicit ideals about awakening. Plenty of people also seem to take their personal higher ideals for themselves or for others that have arisen from hard-to-track sources and made these a part of their working, if usually poorly-defined or unidentified, models of enlightenment. There is also a strong tradition in the West of believing that awakening involves perfecting ourselves in some psychological sense, though this is also prominent in certain Eastern and traditional models as well in slightly different forms. This trend also makes attempts at the scientific study of these mental transformations very difficult, as just attempting to explain what has changed so often gets lost in large amounts of cultural baggage. This can color study design, implementation, and interpretation, and might be termed some sort of “unconscious ideals of enlightenment bias”.

Just about all these sources contain aspects that at times may be useful and at other times not, even sending people in the wrong direction. It is hard not to be inspired by grand visions of how amazing we might become, chasing after the various archetypal masters’ legendary examples of excellence. Those extremely high ideals ring deep within our collective hearts and call us to find those qualities within ourselves. Thus, as a pragmatist, I have tried to strike some balance of presenting the good, the bad, and the ugly in a way that hopefully will work for my imagined readership. Here “work” means “facilitate results-producing practice”, and you as actual readers will have to figure out for yourselves whether any of my ways of presenting it does that. If not, you will have to figure out where you can find such practice, as it is entirely possible that my way of presenting this material may not work for you, or that it does not achieve that balance of reality-based models that yet speak to something deep in your own makeup and thus compel you to realize your own potential as a wise and compassionate person. 

To take on the models of the stages of awakening is a daunting task, but by breaking it down into simplified categories, some discussion of the mass of dogma of varying relevance and veracity is possible. The number of contradictions that can be found even within each specific tradition on the subject is much larger than I think most people imagine. For instance, those who attempt a systematic review of the dogmas of awakening within the Pali canon will find themselves tangled in a mass of widely divergent doctrines, myths, stories, and ideals, and this is only one tradition. Attempting to do this across the various Buddhist traditions leads to endless chaos, and attempting to do it across the rest of the world’s meditative traditions gets almost impossible, as the range of ideals out there is vast. I will use simple, broadly applicable models and discuss specific models that come from some of the more standard Buddhist traditions, and try to relate these to reality. In the end, relating them to reality or throwing them all out the window is part of the practice, and that falls to you. One of my favorite teachers was from a Thai Forest lineage and was at the very far end of the throw-the-maps-out-the-window school.

I consider this attempt to make sense of the models to be just one addition to an old and ongoing tradition of attempting to reform the dogma and bring it back in line with verifiable truths, albeit one that is more specific and comprehensive than any that I have found. Each new culture, place, time, and situation seems to need to do this again and again, as the forces within us and society that work to promote models that are out of touch with the truth of things are powerful and perennial, with money, power, fame, ideals of endless bliss and pleasure, the enticing draw of the ideals of self-perfection, and the pernicious inertia of calcified or unquestioned tradition being chief among them.

In that same vein, this chapter is very much a situation in which I explicitly claim a very high level of realization, write as if what I have achieved is sufficient authority to write a chapter such as this one, and then present it as if this is a definitive text on the subject, enough to contradict significant portions of 2,500 years of tradition and the teachings and writings of countless previous and current commentators. The previous versions of this book contained the line, “While it is hard from my current vantage point to not believe this to be true, anyone with sense will read this chapter with appropriate skepticism, and this, as I see it, is one of the strengths of properly applied Buddhism and rational thought in general.” That line needs revision, and explicit revision that compares it to the previous version. Here is something that I think is better than what I wrote before, and one day perhaps I will think this is wrong and write something else.

From this current vantage point I see an extremely broad range of various beneficial mental modifications that people have managed to accomplish, and they do not all look the same. Some upgrades occur out of the standard sequence that I would typically expect. Some practitioners seem to skip steps and go straight to perceptual modifications and upgrades that have surprised me. Some have suddenly lost previously available abilities after they managed to accomplish some interesting shift. There are further complexities that I will try to touch on as we go. So, take these models with a grain of salt. They are models—and reality, particularly the reality of the mind and perception, is very, very complicated. I do think there are some essential truths that people can realize for themselves with a fair degree of predictability, but within that there is a whole lot of variability about the specifics.

The Buddha asked people not to take his word at face value, but instead to do the experiment and see if they come to the same conclusions. I recommend the same. If you achieve something beyond what I state is possible, more power to you, and please let me know how you did it! I would feel real regret if this work in any way hindered another from achieving his or her fullest human potential. I am always looking for practices and concepts that are useful. While there is not much new under the sun, there are a few things on occasion that are, and if something you did worked to accomplish something beyond what is currently available and known, you should test it out for a while and, if it still performs as you think it does, let someone know.

Finally, to the models … Here is a list of the basic categories of models that I use, though most traditions contain a mix of most or all of these. There are probably other aspects of the dreams of enlightenment that I have failed to address, but this list should cover most of the basic ones. I look at each of these as representing some axis of development, and basically all of them are good axes to work on regardless of what they have to do with enlightenment. That said, from what I have already written, it will not be hard to pick out my favorites. These are components that are typically put together to form more complex, traditional models, but looking at these specific parts of these compound models allows us to really get to the nitty-gritty of each of the more complex models.

Non-Duality models: involve eliminating or seeing through the sense that there is a fundamentally separate and continuous centerpoint, agent, controller, watcher, doer, perceiver, subject, self, observer, or similar entity.

Direct Perception models: involve removing or seeing through some distorting or interfering factor in the way we perceive sensate reality.

Time and Space models: involve transforming some aspect of the way time and space are perceived and understood.

Fundamental Perception models: involve directly perceiving fundamental aspects of things as they are, including perceiving emptiness, luminosity, impermanence, suffering, and other essential aspects of sensations regardless of what those sensations are.

Specific Perception models: involve being able to perceive more and more, most, or all of the specific sensations that make up experience with greater and greater clarity during most or all times, and usually involve perfected, continuous, panoramic mindfulness or concentration at extremely high speed.

Emotional models: involve perfecting the emotions, limiting the emotional range, usually involving eliminating things such as desire, greed, hatred, confusion, delusion, and the like, or eliminating emotions entirely.

Action models: involve perfecting or limiting the things we can and can’t do in the ordinary sense, usually relating to always following some specific code of conduct or performing altruistic actions, or believing that everything we say or do will be exactly the right thing to have done in that situation.

Powers models: involve gaining abilities, either ordinary or extraordinary (psychic powers).

Energetic models: involve having the energy (chi, qi, prana, etc.) flowing through the energy channels in the proper way, the chakras spinning in the proper direction, clearing our aura, etc.

Sleep models: involve changing aspects of sleep, such as how much we sleep, what happens in dreams, and being conscious while sleeping.

Specific Knowledge models: involve gaining conceptual knowledge of facts and details about the specifics of reality, as contrasted with the models that deal with directly perceiving fundamental aspects of reality.

Psychological models: involve becoming psychologically “perfected” or eliminating psychological issues and problems, i.e. having no “stuff” to deal with, no neuroses, no mental illnesses, having perfect personalities, etc.

No-thought models: involve either limiting what thoughts can be thought, enhancing what thoughts can be thought, or reducing or stopping the process of thinking entirely.

God models: involve perceiving or becoming one with “God”, or even becoming a god oneself.

Unity models: involve becoming one with everything in some sense.

Physical models: involve having or acquiring a perfected, hyper-healthy, or excellent physical body, such as having long earlobes, beautiful eyes, a yoga-butt, or super-fast fists of steel.

Biological models: those that relate to the degree to which realization transforms our actual biochemical function.

Radiance models: involve having a presence that is remarkable in some way, such as being unusually charismatic or radiating love, wisdom, or light.

Karma models: involve becoming free of the laws of reality or the causes that make bad things happen to people, and thus living a blessed, protected, lucky, or disaster- and illness-free life, or perhaps creating no new conditions that could lead to any possible suffering for anyone.

Perpetual bliss models: involve saying that enlightenment is a continuous state of happiness, bliss, or joy, the corollary of this being a state that is perpetually free from any form of pain. Related to this are models that involve a perpetual state of jhanic or meditative absorption.

Concentration models: involve the various fruits of concentration practices and typically relate them to awakening in some way.

Immortality models: involve living forever, usually in an amazing place (Heaven, Nirvana, a Pure Land, etc.) or in an enhanced state of ability (angels, bodhisattvas, sorcerers, etc.).

Transcendence models: involve the idea that we will be free from or somehow above the trials of the world while yet being in the world, and thus live in a state of transcendence.

Extinction models: involve getting off the wheel of suffering, the round of rebirths, etc., and thus never being reborn again—or even ceasing to exist in any way at the moment of enlightenment, that is, the great “poof!” on the cushion, not to be confused with the more mundane atmospheric consequences of a legume-based diet, as anyone who has been on a vegetarian meditation retreat knows all too well.

Love models: involve us loving everyone and/or everyone loving us.

Equanimity models: involve awakening being characterized by a perfect, pervasive, perpetual state of equanimity.

No-preferences models: involve having no preferences, opinions, tastes, likes, or dislikes.

Special models: involve us already being or becoming special.

Social models: involve being accepted for what you may have attained, that you have attained something because people think you have, and variants on these themes.

Ultimate reality and unreality models: involve adhering to specific positions about questions of Ultimate reality and unreality as they relate to awakening and the true nature of reality.

Meaning models: involve advocating for an optimal set of values, goals, and meanings for practice, as well as the claim that awakening will result in a specific set of views regarding values, meanings, and the answers to key perennial questions.

Other models: involve a wide range of other effects that get described and tacked onto models of awakening, and I will try to sort through some of them.

Like me, you have probably run into most or all of these ideals of awakening in your spiritual quest and within yourself at some point in time, either consciously or not. Given these high ideals, it is not surprising that we find the task of awakening daunting if not preposterous or completely unattainable. Imagine yourself as the universally accepted radiant immortal angel bodhisattva bright-eyed yoga-butt-endowed all-loving one-with-the-universe perpetually mindful perfectly healthy emotionally perfected psychologically pure unimpededly altruistic non-thinking desire-free psychic-superhero starchild of love and light, and then notice how this image may be in some contrast with your current life. If you are anything like me, you may notice a slight discrepancy!

I will take on each model, relate each to a few of the traditions I’m familiar with, and try to make sense of where these ideals came from. I will also address which ones are realistic and helpful in our context and which are beautiful dreams that can either help you identify areas to work on or really screw up your spiritual quest if you are not careful. You will note that none of these model names so far come from any formal tradition. To relate them to the traditions, here is a list of some models from Buddhism:

1. The four-path model from the Theravada, which involves becoming a “stream-enterer”, second path (“once-returner”), third path (“non-returner”) and then “arahant”.

2. The five-path model from the Mahayana.

3. The ten-bodhisattva bhumi model from the Mahayana.

4. The ideal of Buddhahood from all the Buddhist traditions.

5. The “sudden” and “gradual awakening” schools.

There are other models from other traditions (e.g. St. John of the Cross’ “Ladder of Love” or “Divine Ascent”), and I have already mentioned these in “The Progress of Insight” section. I won’t go into much detail here about them, but when you are familiar with the models I am about to discuss then you should be able to make some sense of them.

General Problems with Current Models   |  The Non-Duality Models