Inspired by the canonical and commentarial texts and by Bill Hamilton and Bhante Gunaratana speaking a lot—surprisingly—about nirodha samapatti, I started trying for it. Remember how on my retreat where I reached stream entry I had just inclined to jhanas and all eight of them showed up in order? That ability had faded rapidly off-retreat, so now it was time to relearn it, but now I wasn’t on retreat and my concentration wasn’t as strong, since I didn’t have as much time to practice as on retreat. The trick was how to get back into them. Attending to form is very compelling and habitual, so switching to formlessness is a trick that is not always easy to master.
My strategy involved giving in at times to the shamatha side of things, the smooth, flowing, present-but-less-vibrational side of things to build up the first four jhanas well. As someone post-stream entry, I naturally cycled up through the first four vipassana jhanas when I sat down, typically taking around fifteen to forty minutes, so it was largely just a question of inclining the mind as much as I could to smoothness and to anything pleasant as that pull onward to the fourth jhana occurred. Thus, by that sort of lateral inclination, I could transform what would ordinarily be a shift through the stages of insight into a drift up the first four jhanas, albeit still colored a bit by some fluxing and vipassana.
Then I would resolve to attain the formless realms, try to remember what it was like back on retreat, try to incline the mind that way, and let that go and stay gently present and see where things would take me. This following formula has worked well for many similar dharma puzzles and I highly recommend it.
1) Building a good foundation
2) Formal resolution
5) Repeating despite initial and subsequent failures
6) Studying and priming
I reread what dharma books I had that covered the territory I was interested in to further reinforce achieving my goal.
It took many tries over many sits, but after some weeks of failing again and again, I could finally reattain the formless realms in daily life as I had while on retreat. As a normalizing aside: attaining true formless realms consistently, where the body is absolutely gone in daily life, is something that I have had to relearn again and again over the years and have accomplished it by the same methods I used back then. At least for me, it is a skill set that I can get to with diligent work but will generally lose again if I don’t practice it often, as is true in general for most people regarding many of the higher concentration attainments.
It is often thought that the Mahasi Sayadaw schools of meditation don’t teach shamatha jhanas, but this isn’t true. They just don’t teach it initially, and by initially, I mean to people who haven’t typically attained to at least the first two paths. In back rooms and behind closed doors, you will find Mahasi monastics and talented lay-practitioners teaching and practicing the shamatha jhanas and formless realms, as well as occasionally things like the powers, but they just don’t talk about these much. They consider establishing a firm foundation in insight too important, and they greatly favor the insight-first approach before giving emphasis to the shamatha jhanas. It just so happens that their standards for what a firm foundation in insight is includes at least two paths, if not three. Anyway, back to the quest…
After those frustrating but finally fruitful weeks of re-mastering the formless realms, I could lie down or sit and consistently rise through the eight jhanas in about thirty to forty minutes. So it wasn’t that much of a stretch to follow the standard instructions and rise through them with just a bit of a vibrational aspect to them also and incline to nirodha samapatti and see what happened. It was only a few weeks later in mid-December while sitting on the floor of a supply closet before work at the CDC’s National AIDS Hotline that I first attained nirodha samapatti very briefly, about forty minutes into my usual one-hour sit. I am not sure how long it lasted, but it couldn’t have been that long. It is hard to remember now, two decades later, exactly how many times after regaining the formless realms I had tried for nirodha samapatti and failed before finally attaining it, but my rough guess is thirty to fifty consecutive tries, meaning thirty to fifty one-hour sits. In short, should you find yourself in a similar situation practice-wise with similar aspirations, don’t give up easily.
The afterglow was so stunning that I was nearly unable to work normally, as the calm that pervaded was so totally chill that I would have these long pauses of silence during calls that day, though somehow none of the callers made any comments or seemed to notice. It was hard for me, being in my mid-twenties, and not as psychologically or emotionally advanced as I was meditationally, not to be impressed with myself and, in fact, to be quite arrogant about what I had managed to accomplish. I would like to think that stating that these things are a problem would save someone else from the same fate, but I doubt that anything but your own personal experience and time can do that, as these are very heady attainments. It was some time in early 1997 that I bought a Mac and started writing, as I felt I had a lot to say, and some of those writings would morph into this book.