52. The Great Stream Enterer
The retreat ended, and for the next few weeks, I, the great stream enterer, managed to
alienate almost every individual who had the misfortune to speak with me for any length of time. Worse, within four weeks I began experiencing the difficult physical raptures of the next set of early insight stages. In retrospect, I think that some of those early pre-second-path insight stages arose during the twenty-seven-day retreat but I just didn’t recognize them, as I didn’t have any theoretical or practical background on what Review vs. progress practice and stage transitions looked like or how to map that strange post-stream-entry territory.
New territory was showing up, probably because I was still practicing hard three or more hours each day and had made powerful resolutions to proceed further on the path of insight as rapidly as possible, and that new territory was kicking my gung-ho butt. My neck went so stiff in the next third insight stage that I could barely move my head for nine days—the pain was excruciating. Again, I had no idea what was happening. Many years later, I have concluded that the best thing to do after attaining a path is to chill out for a while or practice moderately and with good, balanced guidance, though you might need to modify this advice depending on your own assessment of your practice, strengths, and weaknesses. Hadn’t I noticed on that retreat that it was easiest to get a Fruition when I tried to take a nap after lunch? Why didn’t I learn from that?
No one had told me that the beginning of a new cycle of insight could arise so quickly, or what it could be like to be trapped in the odd in-between stages by pushing too hard. I was either having a very hard time in Three Characteristics or had crossed the A&P on the way to second path without knowing it and was Dark Nighting hard. Regardless, I was out of my depth and pushing further beyond my depth. Again, I wish I had had the advantage of knowing someone who wouldn’t have been alienated by my edginess, and was willing to talk honestly or listen empathically about these things. Despite my continued contact with senior meditation teachers, no one was willing to lay out the practical information that I needed desperately and which I present here. I had to figure it out the hard way by basically crashing into people.
Was I bitter? You bet I was. Am I still? Yeah, probably, though it’s easier to laugh from twenty years’ distance. At the time, though, it seemed like a very big deal. Was I also very grateful even to have these difficulties to be bitter about? Absolutely. Finally, during some very strange two weeks at IMS in late February 1996, when I tried to be on staff there but got kicked out due to having “too much rebellious energy” as one person put it (can’t blame them, really, as I likely would have kicked myself out, too, had I been them), I had the good fortune to get an interview with Joseph Goldstein. He said very little but did give me the excellent advice, “Nail down what you’ve got.” Within a few weeks of relaxing and letting things settle and inclining back to Review territory, I settled into mastery of the previous stages and got on with my life.
We moved back to North Carolina some time in March 1996, and a few months later we managed to get together enough money by doing some small construction projects to be able to rent a small apartment. I also got a job at the National AIDS Hotline and a part-time job doing data collection for a nurse’s PhD research interviewing VA patients about their nursing care. I was practicing at least a few hours each day and pushing hard for second path, as I had managed in the time from February at IMS until that summer to get quite good at the Review phase of stream entry, with relatively frequent Fruitions occurring easily and naturally, and the cycles giving me little trouble in daily life.
At that same time, Kenneth Folk had run into trouble with his relationship with his girlfriend and was now up in Maine. His plans had not worked out there, and, as he now needed a place to live and a job, I invited him to stay with us. He came down to live in North Carolina again so he could regroup and recover, and I was looking for help getting second path, which he said he had, so it seemed a fortuitous synchronicity. I should add at this point that my relationship with Kenneth Folk is very complicated, and our stories of exactly how it all went down do not entirely match up on some key points. I have tried to present events and the issues as neutrally and fairly as I can, but please realize that this presentation is a compromise, has powerful political underpinnings, and is highly edited and whitewashed. In the interests of fairness and dharma brotherhood, I have invited Kenneth to review this section, and this is as close as we can get to a mutually acceptable version of the story, yet this is clearly my retelling of the story from my point of view.
Kenneth gave me some dharma advice during this time that was a mix of very useful and somewhat unhelpful. By “this time”, I am referring to the brief period of about five weeks from late June through July of 1996. I think of this as a golden period of spirited and open dharma conversation that would have a substantial impact on my practice. Like all things, it didn’t last. Still, having seen that it can occur, however briefly, I have tried to advocate for and promote a culture of open and mutually supportive conversations in the dharma world today. I have also realized how fragile such things can be, and so I urge you to cultivate those qualities within yourself that are conducive to harmonious and beneficial interactions.
Shortly after Kenneth’s arrival in early July, I crossed the A&P of second path on the way home from a training class at the National AIDS Hotline, and during a subsequent sit on my couch had this cool experience in which I could see the little living room through my closed eyelids that looked almost perfectly identical to the “actual” living room except that my copy of the Oxford English Dictionary looked like a portal to another realm. It turns out that seeing through closed eyelids is common enough during the A&P, and I have had it happen a few times since then.
Shortly after, I got very anxious and irritable, and after a week or so of me trying to force myself up to Equanimity, with Kenneth and my wife getting extremely annoyed by my obnoxious behavior and edgy energy at that time, Kenneth gave me the very sound advice to stop practicing for three days, and two days later on July 27, 1996, in the break room of the National AIDS Hotline, everything swirled and vanished (mix of no-self door and suffering door) and I got second path, and that is when new troubles began.