Backing up a bit, during the second half of 1996 and through the summer of 1997, I was still working only about twenty-five hours per week, so I had a lot of time to practice, and that is what I did for about three to four or more hours every day when I could, and at least two each day, with meticulous mindfulness during daily life when I could get it. My lunch break was dedicated to practicing vipassana while doing walking meditation and the brahma viharas of loving-kindness, compassion, appreciation, and equanimity. I also started buying and reading as many dharma books as possible and reading everything I could about the maps and meditation. Kenneth and I weren’t talking much about dharma (he had moved some time in October 1996), and the internet was nothing like what it is today, so books were what I turned to.
As there were no meditation teachers in Chapel Hill who seemed to know anything about what I was looking for and experiencing, I started going on retreats at Bhavana Society in West Virginia with Bhante Gunaratana (whom I also consider an arahant). The drive there from Chapel Hill was not too long, and I am not sure exactly how many retreats I went on during the period of late 1996 to 2002, but adding up all the four- to seven-day retreats and the seventeen-day retreat over winter break in 2001, I am guessing I went on about three months of retreat there in total. Basically, if I had a break of some sort, I was there for retreat.
I went on my first retreat at Bhavana Society in October 1996 for about a week and crossed the A&P of my third big insight cycle. The Dark Night wasn’t that significant or memorable, and caused little disruption. Why some Dark Nights at various phases of practice cause varying degrees of difficulty is still a mystery that hopefully will be resolved some day. The general theory that I learned from Bill is that at various levels you might have more “stuff” related to that “layer” of mind, and if you had more “stuff”, then you were likely to stay at that level longer and have a harder time. This is hardly good science, but I guess it is a good enough working model until we have something better. That said, it does play to the issues model of awakening, which has the problems I mentioned already. The other explicit dharma point here is that some people can get some paths very rapidly and easily, some rapidly and with difficulty, some slowly but without much difficulty, and some slowly with a lot of difficulty.
Anyway, I was starting to regain my abilities to attain the formless realms, and was starting to experiment with rising through the jhanas with a light ñanic flavor and coming out of eighth and getting a Fruition, and then on November 20, 1996, while brushing my teeth, I attained what I thought of at the time (and still do in most ways) as third path. Suddenly everything was very different. Before that moment, I had thought of Fruition as being nibbana and reality being something you examined to get a Fruition. Now, everything seemed to be It, everything was at once ultimate reality and relative reality. Form was just form, and that form was empty. This was a real transformation of perspective and paradigm, a whole different way of perceiving things. In many ways, that shift was as big a deal as stream entry. The November 20 Fruition changed my world. After that, realization was about waking life in a way that it simply hadn’t been before except for a few brief phases. The sense of the centerpoint, doer, controller, subject had been seriously damaged and at times seemed basically gone.
I also began to suddenly get what was meant by terms like “luminosity” in a way that was completely different from before. While brief phases in Equanimity [a stage I would call ñ11.j4.j6, meaning the formed but boundlessly consciousness substage of Equanimity] and in the sixth jhana had given transient glimpses of this, now it was much more obvious in most objects. As the weeks and months went on, this seemed to pervade experience more and more. It was a very different way of relating to ordinary sensate reality, a much more direct way, a way that had a vastly increased appreciation for the light in things, the localized nature of awareness that was intrinsic to sensations where they were. The implications of this would take about six years to really sink in, but it was a major shift of great importance.