55. Map Failure

Nirodha Samapatti   |  56. Wandering

I also had a problem, and that problem was that the Theravada path maps suddenly didn’t
seem so perfect to me anymore. Here I was, having gone through three very distinct, world-changing paths. Much of the transient sense field presented as luminous, largely happening on its own, and intrinsically aware or just simply manifesting where things were. That majority of the sense field seemed to be expanding by the week as the sense of luminosity and decentralized attention seemed to be permeating my whole perceptual space. This was clearly something beyond stream entry, very different from second path, and very different from anything Bill or Kenneth seemed to have any idea about, as far as I could tell, which added to the confusion.

I could reproducibly get nirodha samapatti with the right set-up, right entrance, right exit, with the right massive, long-lasting, deep afterglow, and it sure did stand out from everything else. It seemed I had some unusual ability to easily and naturally surf exotic sub-flavors of many fascinating mind states and ways of perceiving phenomena as I recombined and mixed ñanas and jhanas with various emphases just by gently inclining attention, intending, and mentally stating the state and sub-aspects I wished to experience. I found I could just think the numbers and off the mind would go to that state or stage. I also felt I understood deep dharma that was simply far beyond where I had been only a little over a year before and could clearly see it manifest while walking around, and yet there was the huge issue of the fact that there were still the defilements.

You see, as stated earlier (and as you probably already knew if you are enough of a dharma geek to read this book), the standard maps have stream entry eliminating the first three: personality belief, skeptical doubt, and attachment to rites and rituals: check! I clearly had mastery of the stages of insight: check! I could get repeat Fruitions through all three doors: check! I cycled naturally: check! Then second path (once-returner, sakadagami) is supposed to attenuate greed, hatred and delusion: check! Then third path (non-returner, anagami) is supposed to eliminate all greed, hatred, and delusion not bound up in the last five defilements that are eliminated at fourth path, arahantship, namely attachment to the formed jhanas, attachment to the formless realms, conceit (something subtler than just arrogance, and really meaning the perceptual sense that there is an “I” in any phenomenon), restlessness and worry, and the last veil of unknowing.

Let me make this clear: I relate to Buddhist practice as I would relate to any other educational system that produces achievable results. Specifically, Buddhist practices contain many time-tested and effective exercises that are designed to produce specific results. Just as I might say something like, “I got a BA in English Literature from UNC-Chapel Hill in 1991,” just so I might say, “On January 13, 1996, I got stream entry after doing meditation retreats with practices designed to produce stream entry.” I think similarly with respect to the remaining paths, jhanas, and other attainments, as we might proceed from getting a BA, to a Masters, to a PhD and post-doc fellowships, as well as further career development. Thus, I think nothing strange about answering a patient’s question about when I graduated from medical school and how long I have been a doctor, just as I don’t think of it as odd to have done Buddhist practices that lead to specific effects and had them work.

However, the problem at that time was, by no means could I possibly say that all greed, hatred, and delusion not related to the last five of the ten defilements were eliminated in me. The theory says that anagamis feel no lust, but I certainly felt lust. The perception of that lust was very different, but the physiological fact of the lust was still there. The tradition contained ideals that an anagami would be extremely calm at nearly all times, that they would not be able to do activities like work for a living, and so on. They say that anagamis are unable to become angry, but I could. Adrenaline still did what adrenaline does. Cortisol still did what cortisol does. Sympathetic tone ramped up in stressful situations. I still had plenty of worldly likes and dislikes, attractions and aversions in the ordinary sense: no check there. Houston, we have a problem. The maps that had worked with such remarkable precision began to break down, at least in my practice. I was suddenly in territory that I didn’t find directly described anywhere, or exactly in the way I was experiencing it, and so it was during this period that I started delving into the maps even more than I had before.

I started reading more books, poring through them to get a sense of “where I was”. The staggeringly obvious answer—right there—in all its profundity still partially eluded me. Bhavana Society had an English translation of the whole Pali canon (PTS version), and if there was something related to the maps in it, I read it. I cruised used bookstores and found various texts, such as Dharma Paths by Khenpo Karthar Rinpoche, which had a pretty good map of the early stages, and then it suddenly got vague as did the maps of the higher paths in the Pali canon. There was strangely little written about something that, from my vantage point, appeared more and more complicated. You see, there were all these new layers, all these subtle experiences to investigate that weren’t clearly revealed or documented by others: subtle background processes related to effort, to expectation, to wonder, to frustration, to questioning, to anxiety, to peace, to mapping, and other very core aspects about the sense of the centerpoint, controller, and observer. There were layers and layers and layers. I found that the middle paths made for mighty murky mapping.

I was cycling again and again, and sometime in early 1997, perhaps March or April, it seemed I went through yet another full path cycle, and yet this was the first time that I completed what felt like a whole new path, and the whole world and the way my brain worked didn’t change that much. It was a bit different in subtle ways, but the problem was that now that had been four paths, four path cycles, four clear path cycles, and yet to call myself an arahant would seem preposterous from all other points of view.

Confused and frustrated, I went on another retreat with Christopher Titmuss, Sharda Rogell, and Guy Armstrong. That retreat was mostly just about cycling and frustration, as I got the sense that there was something key that I should finally realize but I didn’t know what it was. This was the retreat where Sharda gave me the excellent advice to watch the motion of attraction and aversion that I didn’t have the good sense at the time to follow. While Christopher pointed very clearly and directly to an immediacy of freedom here and now, which was one of his strongest and most appreciated emphases, I was too immature in my practice to really get what he was talking about. I think that seeds from Sharda’s calm and straightforward advice and Christopher’s passionate awakeness were planted that would finally sprout about six years later. Christopher and Sharda weren’t map people, and I was highly mappy, so our interactions were not optimal. Map fixation prevented me from being able to hear or heed their wise words, which were stated with profound clarity, and likewise prevented me from seeing and appreciating their behavior, which deeply embodied integrity and kindness. Maps prevented me from truly accepting my own experience there and then. Avoid similar mistakes if you can, but if you make them, resolve to learn something from those mistakes and don’t repeat them.

Despite more cycles, I still wasn’t that different from what I thought of as third path, and at this point I was in the beginning of the twenty-seven or so full-blown insight cycles I now think of as “small path cycles” that would occur between early 1997 and April 2003. Some were quick, taking perhaps two weeks, others took a few months, but they were all nearly the same in most ways. After each one there would be a brief period of a few days when it seemed everything was sorted out, duality had resolved itself, everything was happening on its own, there was nobody in the assemblage of parts called “Daniel”, just the process of sensations occurring that make up “Daniel”. Then subtle signs of distortions in perception, of the subtle illusion of will, of the sense of separateness would begin to occur, and the understanding would come: nope, this is not yet it. Something was wrong, and I had no idea what it was. Bill Hamilton’s famous warning about “Twelfth Path” and that “the arahant fractal is vast” came in handy here, helping to normalize a process that otherwise could have been more frustrating than it was. So, the maps helped, hurt, empowered, and screwed things up. Such is the nature of all conditioned things.

I had started reapplying to medical schools at that time, but I didn’t get in, so I went to public health school, which was very engaging, useful, and hopefully would allow me to do something helpful about the health problems I had seen both up-close and personal working in India, and had spoken of with people at the CDC’s National AIDS Hotline. Graduate school also would allow me a reasonable amount of practice and Bhavana Society retreat time, as well as time to write. Practice at this point consisted of a lot of just paying attention to everything, a lot of cycling, a lot of jhana practice (cycling from jhanas one through eight most nights when lying down before going to sleep became part of my night-time ritual for about a decade), some jhana and ñana slam-shifting, and a whole lot of frustration, as I couldn’t finish the thing up. I also felt psychologically pretty stressed out.

I also seriously delved into phenomenology during this period. The reasons for this are many, but most significantly I wanted to restore my damaged friendships with Kenneth Folk and Bill Hamilton, both of whom were still convinced I was a hyper-delusional Dark Night yogi before first path. That disparity of dharma diagnosis between us combined with our own immature morality practices to turn the dharma into friendship poison for a very long time. In retrospect, with the benefit of two more decades of practice, Kenneth and I finally agree that our capacity to rationalize our own neurotic asshole-ishness was (and perhaps is) remarkable. However, at the time, I had this odd notion that, should my phenomenology be so airtight as to admit to no other possible dharma diagnosis than where I thought I was, they would be convinced, relax, and we would all have a great time talking about and sharing our experiences and dharma adventures, and would get back to being friends. Hopefully, nobody reading this will miss the obvious point that rigorous dharma phenomenology is hardly a basis for a real friendship or for resolution of deep conflicts of identity and role.

Bill died of pancreatic cancer before any such resolution of our conflicts could occur; and disagreements with Kenneth about the dharma would continue to add a toxic element to our old and deep friendship for almost two decades. The take-home here is: do your best not to have these sorts of issues ruin your human relationships. Unfortunately, as I have learned the hard way, preventing this is sometimes very hard. Pure insight into the fundamental nature of phenomena on its own is not enough to solve anything like this. To foster healthy human relationships in the face of dharma practice, I would look to underrated and often rare skill sets and personal characteristics, such as communication skills, morality, psychological health, forgiveness, and reasonably healthy boundaries, among other things.

I should mention that it is a true tragedy that Bill Hamilton died before he wrote much down, and certainly before he wrote down the depths of his meditation classification system and theory related to subjhanas, subñanas, fractals, and the like. One of the reasons I began writing was that I was scared that I too could die before having written down as much as possible of what I could share, including important and useful techniques and bits of theory that Bill taught me. Thus, reality found itself with a precocious, fearful, obsessed, hyper-intellectual, competitive, ultra-high-energy, immature brat writing a very unusual, hardcore dharma book. With this second edition, which benefits from many more years of practice and life experience, I have tried to add more balance, and, perhaps when my practice is more mature, I will manage to optimize that balance better.

Nirodha Samapatti   |  56. Wandering