By an anonymous reader (this was sent by someone who was formerly deeply skeptical of the Symmetry Theory of Valence. The experience described below made them reconsider QRI’s explanatory frameworks and paradigms. In their own words: “[this experience I] recently had made me think “hmm so maybe there _is_ something to the STV”).
There was a sequence of going back into old experiences, each of them somehow positive or negative. The very earliest one that came to mind was a memory of my mother talking to me with love and delight when I was maybe one year old. There was a sense that my mind and body had been in a particular kind of position when that had happened. Ever afterwards, they had been trying to shift themselves back into that same position, on the theory that the same internal configuration would recreate the same external environment and recreate the same experience of being loved.
There was a sense of the bodymind holding a pattern that was a snapshot of that moment of love, and that the bodymind had been trying to also align the external world into the same kind of a position, out of an understanding that the pattern could only be completed – the puzzle piece matching the rest of the puzzle – if the external world provided the right fit for the bodymind’s internal configuration, letting them interlock in the way that would recreate the old pattern.
In the moment of completely seeing this, there was an understanding of the wisdom that the stuck pattern held – it had correctly seen and recorded a facet of reality, of what I had been like and how that had gotten me love – and also of the fact that its vision had only captured an incomplete facet, with it being impossible to go back to being a baby and replay the same experiences.
As this was seen, seeing the pattern that the stuck energy had been trying to complete caused it to be completed, the parts interlocking once more. There was a sense of the stuck energy pattern being released and melding back into a pattern of universal harmony and love that could be felt in the body. There was an understanding that the stuck pattern had previously acted as a constraint, trying to repeatedly pull the bodymind into a particular configuration whenever possible in order to recreate the original harmonic pattern, when the harmonic pattern had actually been available all along.
Something shifted and the legs felt like they opened and spread out, a pull relaxing that the mind hadn’t even known was there.
There was a sense of tapping into the universal harmony that could now be felt in the body, as a stream of energy trying to run up from the root chakra to the top of the head. As the body tried to upright itself to align with the energy, it found more stuck patterns interrupting the flow, each of them associated with a past experience and a particular configuration of the bodymind that was at odds with the one that the stream was trying to upright the body to.
There was a seeing that the bodymind’s configuration would affect the bodyminds of the people around it, all other people also moving in a constant process of trying to recapture particular configurations, trying to pull their environment into shapes that would complete specific patterns. In seeing this, there was a sense of testing possibilities. If this bodymind wanted to upright itself, what positions would that pull the bodies of others into? How would those positions constrain this body’s positions, and what was the shape that it would be pulled towards in turn?
Each of those considerations brought up a new pattern of stuck energy, a time when the bodyminds of others had been in a particular position, and this bodymind had learned to adapt or avoid a particular position in response. Whenever such patterns were found, they temporarily turned into reality, with the bodymind reliving the experience and seeing both how the pattern held within a piece of wisdom – a true fact about what reality had been like – and how that pattern was at the same time incomplete and unintegrated with the rest of the bodymind’s knowing.
Sometimes that lack of integration caused the pattern’s understanding to be a mistake overall. There were situations when an energy pattern had been scanning for signs of others reacting negatively and stored that as the primary interpretation of the experience, seeing only that and missing out on the way that the thing had been too minor to matter, or missing out on the way that others had been able to see the positive aspects as well.
There was a sense that the act of trying to assume specific configurations required selectively taking in information, so as to not see things that would destabilize the desired postures. There was a sense that the content of consciousness gets selectively filtered so as to create particular mindstates, to allow certain configurations to be reliably recreated.
There were fears around the possibility of being seen, a sense that others would not necessarily take well to a bodymind that was standing upright, and would try to bring it back down. There was a sense that the configurations of their bodyminds had constantly been pulling this bodymind back into more cramped positions, as a way for it to stay safe.
There was a sense that many of the configurations the bodymind has been trying to contort itself into have been physically impossible, different people requiring different physical positions that have been impossible to satisfy at once. There was a thought that it’s no wonder that this bodymind has been grinding teeth at night, given all the contradictory expressions that the jaw and the face have been trying to take at once.
There was also a sense of how some other people’s erratic behavior had been a result of them trying to twist themselves into impossible sets of overlapping configurations. There was a sense that bodyminds will allow the tension of the physically incompatible postures to tear themselves apart, so that different parts of the whole can get split off to adopt different postures at once.
There was a sense of people occasionally catching from the corner of their eye a glimpse of something that a part of them thinks they absolutely cannot be allowed to see, their bodymind instantly making a sharp angle to rotate away from the sight of it and blocking all line of vision, in a single movement of pure terror.
There was a perception that despite everything, the positions of other people didn’t need to matter, and that if this bodymind could tap into the universal resonance of harmonious energy, then that resonance would pull at the body stronger than any other bodyminds can.
There was a sense that if the bodymind tapped into the universal resonance, it wouldn’t need to contort itself to others, but would rather dance together with others who were part of the same resonance, standing effortlessly upright at all times if it so desired.
The bodymind tries again to align with the resonance, to find a stable flow of energy going up from the pelvis through the body.
As stuck energies stored in different parts of the body are released, those parts test whether the rest of the body is capable of holding their full energy. The body parts trash against their restraints, then relax as they become assured that it is safe to do so. Waves of laughter and contented sighs bubble up through the system, a flavor like warm pleasant honey.
There’s a seeing that all the different holds and stuck energies have been attempts to capture the universal resonance and that the way to relax them is to lean into them until they meld back into the resonance, each of their energies containing a fragment of home that shows the way back.
As one leans into them they each become more like reality, are reality, and then there is a recollection and recognition of their essential truth as it’s merged into the whole. Each such merging allows one constraint to be released, for the dynamic system that is the bodymind to move more fluidly between positions, no longer forced to twist and contort itself into a particular rigid shape whenever it comes near to that region of configuration space.
Rather it can do what bodyminds exist to do, weave a smooth and graceful path between configurations that make sense in any given situation, dancing in a way that still repeats specific configurations but with a fluidness that is every human’s birthright.
To have too many constraints is to be torn apart; to have no constraints is to be a newborn incapable of action; to have just the right amount of constraints, pulling the bodymind into configurations that are the right expressions of its essential self, is to be a mature and competent adult.
As this happens, it is as if resonance patterns spread across the body, connecting parts that were previously disconnected. The feet start drumming together, remembering that they are brothers who can do their own thing. The throat spontaneously joins the chants and the song of the people around. The pelvis finds more of its energy, though large parts of it still feel blocked off.
As constraints are dropped and the bodymind manages to better tap into the universal harmony, it begins looking for a new shape, one that would be harmonious both with the universal resonance and the bodymind’s own pattern of energy. Parts of the body try tuning themselves into the song and music and try what it’s like to be in harmony with the universal resonance, what it’s like to generate their own resonance patterns that are separate from the universal resonance but harmonious with each other, how to create something of one’s own that combines with that which is not one’s own. The bodymind explores a role and an identity as a bard-shaman of earth, song and myth, sees where parts of that would fit and where they would not.
There is a sense of harmonious delight and love, of everyone in the room being connected to the same universal resonance that is pulling everyone together, each of them also contributing a piece of their own unique essence into the whole. There is an experience of seeing this bodymind from the outside, and a feeling of it being beautiful and lovable. These new patterns are absorbed into the bodymind to act as the foundation for a new way of being.
Healing Trauma with Neural Annealing might help explain this quote: “There was a sense that the act of trying to assume specific configurations required selectively taking in information, so as to not see things that would destabilize the desired postures.” In particular, note the proposed duality between physiological dissonance and resisting information discussed in that article (special emphasis on “denial”).
Buddhist Annealing: Wireheading Done Right with the Seven Factors of Awakening (video). This might help explain: “As stuck energies stored in different parts of the body are released, those parts test whether the rest of the body is capable of holding their full energy.” Namely, that one key aspect of equanimity is increasing impedance matching between various parts of the nervous system so that one part can process the stress stored in another one.
Non-Linear Wave Computing: Vibes, Gestalts, and Realms. This video provides a conceptual framework capable of making sense of “stuck patterns” that “need to be completed by environmental circumstances”. In brief, these are stored non-linear patterns of resonance that require their oscillatory complement in order to become harmonious. Dissolving them allows you to instead rely on the natural harmonics of your nervous system and thus to not be dependent on external circumstances for positive valence.
There is a problem in philosophy of backwards rationalisation, where people feel intuitive pulls towards certain conclusions, and then try to justify why their intuition is correct. We can say this is putting the cart before the horse. If we are to philosophize well, we shouldn’t start with the conclusion. However, the pull to side with your intuitions is so incredibly crucial to decision-making that it basically can’t be ignored. In fact, at the heart of trying to know anything fundamentally hinges on a feeling quality of ‘this seems/feels right’ in relation to a proposition.
Now, this isn’t to say that all intuitions don’t have truth value, it’s just that we need to be subjectively sensitive to when we are totally being led by a feeling (which I think in many cases some philosophers aren’t aware). At the end of the day, we go off of whether an idea sits right with us at some particular level(s) of the mind, and all the justificatory attempts in favor of this idea serve to shift that feeling in us one way or the other.
Leading on to the discussion of identity: in a lot of thought experiments and attempts to understand where identity starts and stops we find an appeal to intuition. This is often done by conjuring up convoluted scenarios of teletransportation machines, or brain transplants, or Men-In-Black-style memory wipes and then reflecting on whether we feel that identity stayed the same or not. A good way to press people’s institutions is to get them to consider suffering, as personal identity is the great motivator of avoiding suffering (no self = no problem, as they say). Depending on where and at what time suffering is endured by which collection of atoms gets people to consider really fast and more confidently, say, where they think the bounds of identity lie.
Along with the epistemological problems of resting an argument on intuition or ‘gut feeling’ mentioned above, intuitions differ not just from person to person, but from moment to moment (in the same person). And if you haven’t become privy to how your intuitions can change, you may not question the truth value of the signal they are transmitting. So, I write this to highlight the problems of trying to solve identity issues by appealing to a felt-sense of where it lies.
Two Ways of Talking About the Self
Now I see an obvious split in how to approach this topic:
(1) We can talk about identity as a raw experience – what in the experience space do I feel numerically identical to (one and the same as) – and in Buddhistic fashion forgo metaphysical claims here after.
(2) Try to extrapolate beyond immediate experience and argue for a position of what the self is or how identity functions in a metaphysical sense. I call (2) the conceptual self as it is about the content within concepts you believe refers to you.
To make this distinction clear I’ll give an example of a potential answer to (1) and then to (2). If asked: “What am I?” along the lines of (1) one may answer: “I feel like I am my thoughts.” – thoughts arise in experience and there is a fused impression of ‘me-ness’ to those thoughts. While (2) is concerned about the content of those thoughts and if asked: “What am I?” one may answer and even fervently believe: “I am a brain.” However, they don’t have any direct experience of being a brain – it is an extrapolation of ideas beyond direct phenomenological perception.
Sorry for all the set up! This is my framing and to give you the best response I needed to spell this out. Now, let me answer personally what I believe identity is in terms of (1) and then (2). However, (2) is informed by (1), and (1) is made sense of by (2); so although the distinction is very useful, like all separations, their boundaries seem to always breakdown – that there is a hint about my metaphysical beliefs.
Phenomenological Senses of Identity
For me, this has changed throughout the years as I’ve meditated more and more. I have shared these images with you before and they represent the transition of intuitions of personal identity throughout my journey.
They seem to match up quite nicely with how Frank Yang lays out his stages. Depending on which stage someone is in, we hear different metaphysical explanations of identity. (This is where (1) gets easily conflated with (2)).
How I’ve seen Frank spell out his stages (I realize neither of us came up with these on our own):
When it comes to identifying with awareness (the second picture/stage) this is when you hear talk of the sort of there being one universal consciousness and that’s our true nature. When I was identifying with awareness, I could suddenly relate to what people meant by ‘we are all one universal consciousness’. However, I got the sense that people were failing to differentiate between something being numerically identical and qualitatively identical. When you become ‘aware of awareness’ there is a sense that this is a pristine dimension and is not personal. It doesn’t seem to belong to the notion of Roger (as it is perceived causally before the very idea of Roger), nor is it trademarked by Roger’s beliefs or memories. There is an insight that this perfectly equanimous layer of being is part of everyone’s experience, they just don’t see it. Yet it couldn’t be ruled out whether we are all in touch with the same one pure light of consciousness, or if each sentient organism has its own and our consciousnesses (plural) were just qualitatively the same. I think people often miss this distinction.
Stage 2 does not obviously lead to open individualism yet. There is still a sense of the duality between the radiant awareness and everything else to be aware of.
Although, I think that anyone (even those without emptiness insights) could be talked into believing closed, open and empty individualism at a conceptual level, this doesn’t mean their phenomenological experience of identity would change, or would their instinctive, non-inquisitive gut-intuition on the subject.
I would hypothesize that those who have no insight into the 3 characteristic are intuitively most swayed by closed individualism. And those who have sufficient enough insight into impermanence (but not no-self) may intuitively side with empty individualism. And then with a deep enough insight into no-self, open individualism becomes a no-brainer.
Experiencing God (and a message to Leo)
At stage 3 is when open individualism is most likely to begin to intuitively feel right. This is also when talks of being God come out of people’s mouths and, as in terms of (1), they phenomenologically perceive the sense of ‘I’ in everything they experience, and they (2) conceptually infer there is just one thing, call it ‘God’. God is everything. I am everything. Because the understanding of moving from (1) to (2) (from experience to conjecture) is often lost on people, all kinds of wacky metaphysical beliefs come about – supposedly self-validating by higher consciousness or direct cosmic download.
While on stage 3, if you inject some metta into your experience space, you come to see what people mean when they say: “God is everywhere and all loving” or even: “God is love”. Having the feeling of being everything in your experience is like you don’t feel separate from anything, thus there is a deep intimacy with the world which construes love. You feel like you are the body, the thoughts, the emotions, the trees, the hills on the horizon, the air in between all of it, the sky and the awareness field which contains all these things. However, going from ‘the experience of feeling identical to everything you are aware of’ to ‘I am everything (even that which I’m not currently aware of) and therefore I am God/the universe’ requires an unfounded leap – which I admittedly made at some point.
I remember an incredibly stark moment I had when I was in stage 3, where being ‘God’ felt like the most real thing (I can sympathise a lot with where Leo Gura is coming from – though I think he’s lacking some phenomenological discernment). Because at stage 3 the sense of ’I’ is so prevalent, due to it being perceived everywhere in experience, I was investigating this quality a great deal. I was trying to distil the sense of ‘I’ down to its rawest form. “Yes, I feel identical to the trees and the sky and other people, but what is that common element that can be found in all these things which I call ‘I’?” After whittling away all the other unnecessary phenomenological baggage piled onto this ‘I’, I arrived at a clear perception of ‘I’ in its rawest form. The ‘I’ I call the epistemic agent, the pure sense of ‘a knower of experience’.
It became obvious that once the epistemic agent was singled out in experience that this perception of ‘I’ can only manifest in one way. What I mean by this is unlike with milk where the formula can be tainted slightly and result in versions of milk with slightly different colors, or tastes, or smells and yet they are all still milk, it is impossible for the epistemic agent to have a slightly different perceptual ‘flavor’ to it other than it does. This is because the qualia recipe only consists of one ingredient and if that’s missing or different, then it’s not the epistemic agent (the rawest sense of ‘I am’). Once I clocked this, I realized that all iterations of ‘I’ wherever and whenever, in all beings at all times, experience the sense of ‘I am’ exactly the same way. Then, and I remember this moment so clearly, it hit me: if God or the universe is self-aware – which it is just by dint of me being of the universe and self-aware – and has an experience of ‘I-ness’ then my experience of ‘I-ness’ in this relative body is the same as God’s and through a sharing of experience there is a direct link and so… ”Oh my god, I am God!”
(I am not suggesting that this line of reasoning is sound. It was simply the series of steps I went through which brought upon this profound experience).
Again, the numerically versus qualitatively identical distinction could be parsed, however there is a way to get around this, for when you remove the sense of time and space from the equation then that difference collapses. To say that something is qualitatively identical to something else, but not numerically identical doesn’t make sense if two things can’t be differentiated by existing in separate moments of time or space. So in my “Oh my god, I am God!” epiphany, the sense of time and space had been shunned from attention and numerical identity was presumed.
I can imagine that someone has this epiphany moment as I did, but then when they return to a more ‘timey/spacey’ existence they retain credence in the belief that they are God and not just a single, distinct instance of experience of ‘I’ (which would be more of an empty individualist thought). They do this because they are basing their beliefs off of a very profound mind moment, even if the majority of their waking hours don’t suggest the same message.
If I could tell Leo Gura one thing it would be this: “Profundity does not equate to truth.” Just because something felt so real and epic, does not mean that experience is giving you the most accurate representation of greater reality. Truth be told at stage 3 I didn’t have anywhere near the attentional clarity, precision of view, and metacognitive abilities that came later; and so while I was having all these profound experiences I was not totally clued into the subtle ways I was manipulating my experience and was biased to certain perspectives, while overlooking certain things that became clearer to me later on.
Self, Not-self, and Neither Self nor Not-self
When it comes to personal identity, I want to distinguish three things the mind can do here:
It can project a sense of self onto parts of experience – “I feel like I am this chair.” – said the man on salvia.
It can project a sense of not-self onto parts of experience – “I don’t feel identical to that person over there.” – said sober Joe. I want to emphasize here that I don’t mean there is just a lack of ‘feeling’ associated with something, but rather there is an actual new ‘feeling’ of not identifying with something.
Stage 4 (my 4th picture) was living a life with the constant signal of ‘not me’ being coupled with everything I pointed my attention to.
It can stop projecting any sense of self and not-self – “I neither feel like I am everything, nor I’m not.” said Roger. Here, I mean the lack of projecting a sense of self and even a sense of not-self.
To go into a little more detail on what is meant by 3: ‘Neither self, nor not self’… essentially there is just no transmission of data on this subject. No reading. When asked “What are you?” it’s like the question doesn’t even compute. Before, there were qualia indicators to be able to judge what is self and what is not-self. And now it’s like the mind pulls a blank. It is not because the answer is obvious that ‘I am everything’, or ‘I am nothing’. It’s almost a bit like asking a person who is blind from birth “Do you just see blackness?” – it can be really hard for sight-abled-people to get their head around the fact that some blind people don’t see anything at all (and what that really means). 4th path is akin to becoming blind to identity in a way. Although, I wasn’t identity blind from birth, memory of the qualia of ‘me-ness’ and ‘not me-ness’ is incredibly faded.*
*There is subtle nuance to get into with retaining semblances of individuality just to be able to function in the world.
The Ship of Theseus, Threshold Emptiness Insight and Losing the Ability to Buy into Nouns
At a certain point, once enough insight into emptiness was established, the ability to seriously believe in separate entities became near impossible. I remember with my beginner’s mind, closed individualism was the default position. And when nouns were comprehended, they were firmly believed to be distinct, real partitions in reality. “The world is made of things that are tables and things that are not.” (As if a table is an actual thing, lol). However, now I can never fully think that a table is anything more than a mind-made construct. It is perceived as so porous, airy, hollow…. empty. And this applies to all nouns: ‘atoms’, ‘being’ ‘non-being’, ‘life’, ‘death’, ‘mind’ and including the idea of ‘The Now’ (I’ll get into that later).
One time in philosophy class we were going over the ‘paradox’ of The Ship of Theseus. People in my class had all kinds of differing intuition. Some said, ‘as soon as over 50% of the ship parts have been replaced then it’s a new/different ship’. Some said, ‘as soon as you replace one part of the ship it’s a new/different ship’. And others said, ‘as soon as one atom changes it’s a new/different ship’. They were going back and forth arguing about identity, which was the point of the class. And meanwhile the whole time I was thinking there is no ship of Theseus to begin with, there never was, it’s not a thing. And so there is no paradox. There is no conundrum to solve.
I had been reading ‘The Master and His Emissary: The Divided Brain’ at the time, and it occurred to me during the class that what I was witnessing were people with all very different brain chemistries and either left or right hemisphere biases, and this is what is leading them to different conclusions (me not being an exception) – the philosophical quibbling had little to do with it. (This is not to resort to any postmodernist conclusions. I do think some positions contain more truth signal than others.)
4th Path Putting the Nail in the Coffin for Empty Individualism?
There is no ‘now’, as there is not enough time for even a single isolated self to form. At 4th path insight into emptiness is so stark that you realise that to conceive of ‘The Now’ as a thing is wrong view. I used to experience things as arising and then a moment later passing; as manifesting and then slightly there after defabricating. But now I can see how phenomena are already disappearing the moment they are appearing. This leads to kinds of visions of super-positions – simultaneous 1 and 0. With such perception a ‘now’ as a moment can’t even consolidate – there truly is no ground for things to rest on.
Finally (2) My Conceptual Beliefs About Identity! (Prepare to be disappointed)
Keeping in mind what I said about ‘neither self nor not self’, when the intuition of personal identity is so lacking the question of ‘What is me and what is not me?’ just becomes ‘What does it mean for something to be its own individual entity?’ or even more simply ‘What exists?’. Does there exist one thing or more than one thing? And does it even make sense to consider there being ‘things’ (nouns) at all?
(Take this next part as me applying a cosmic lens).
So, is there more than one thing? Engaging my scrupulous, philosophical, inquisitive mind, I can’t conceive of how there being more than one thing would be meaningful. But I don’t even really believe in things at all (if ‘thing’ is taken as a noun), so one thing isn’t quite getting at it either. There is something and it seems to be something so magical that it defies categorical comprehension. But the fact that there is change suggests this is not unitary, yet nor do I wish to say it is legion. Not noun, but verb? A process? But to where and how?
Heidegger often wrote in double negatives; I believe because when you construe something in the negative you bring to mind both the thing and its negative simultaneously. There is a greater potential for the mind to grasp a seeming paradox, but the conceptual mind can never fully do it, it can only approximate. Kierkegaard tried as he put it: “The self is a relation that relates itself to itself or is the relation’s relating itself to itself in the relation; the self is not the relation but is the relation’s relating itself to itself.” But words can only serve to point to something outside of their grasp.
This is why:
“The Toa that can be named is not the eternal Toa”
However, when I stop thinking (disengage the conceptual mind) and simply be, I get an intuitive sense of a super-position. Simultaneously, neither one nor many. Neither now nor not now. Neither existing nor not existing. Neither conscious nor not conscious. And this is apprehended in a way that is not confusing or jarring, but as the most sensible stance.
Still I have a sceptic bone in my body, and I am always open to being schooled.
Halfway In, Halfway Out The Great Door of Being
Imagine a great conundrum that people have been debating over for centuries. “If a man is stepping through his front door and he has one foot in his house and one foot out of his house and his body is exactly in the middle, is he inside or outside?” People can’t seem to agree. Some say he is clearly inside because he is already under the door frame. Others say, he is still outside because he hasn’t fully entered his house yet. People squabble about whether it matters if he is coming or going. The real question is when he is exactly 50% in and exactly 50% out what is he? Inside or outside? The reason people can’t come down on a solid answer is because whenever they find someone passing through their front door the moment they go to make a judgement they miss that 50/50 moment and either witness him too early or too late at 60/40 or 40/60 in and out. In which case, they either decide he was definitely inside or definitely outside, accordingly. You have been trying to solve this issue too and feel like you have come close. One time you saw a guy in the act at 51/49 in and out. And then another time you saw a man who was 49/51 in and out. But no one ever is precise enough to make their judgement when he is exactly 50/50 in and out. Because true 50% in and 50% out hasn’t been witnessed, so people can only speculate that ‘well if we were to catch a man who was exactly at 50/50 in and out of his front door, we would conclude that maybe he was BOTH inside and outside.’
One day, it just so happens you see a man coming home from work. He’s approaching the front door, keys in hand. You’ve been practicing for this moment your whole life. Finally, are you going to be able to solve this great conundrum? He unlocks the door. He opens it. He steps through. And that was it! You witnessed it. You clearly clocked the 50/50 moment.
“I saw it! I saw it!” you yell. Bystanders hear your cries and come up to you.
“What did you see?” they ask.
“I saw the precise moment he was exactly 50% in and 50% out!”
“Well…” they say “what was he, inside or outside then?”
And you respond “No”.
“Huh? Oh, you mean he was both inside and outside?”
“No” you say again.
“I don’t get it.” respond the bystanders. And in fact, you don’t even really get what you mean, because it doesn’t quite make sense to you either and yet it was as clear as day.
“He wasn’t inside or outside, because he simply vanished.”
Working with Feelings of Pleasure and with the Subtle Body
Encouraging feelings of well-being
The method just described, of focusing primarily on the sense of the whole body, involves the development of a sensitivity to what could be termed ‘the subtle body’ or the ‘energy body’.
Almost from the start in this approach we deliberately but gently work at nurturing a sense of comfort, pleasure, or well-being in the body.
This can be done through the way we pay attention to the subtle body, as described above – opening out the awareness to encompass there the whole body space, and tuning into the more pleasant frequencies of feeling that are perceivable.
It is also possible to use the breath or the mettā to help elicit and support the pervasion of this sense of well-being. Simply sensitizing to, and enjoying, the way we feel the energetic resonances of the mettā or the breath throughout the whole space of the body – opening to and finding delight in their reverberations there – can gently move the experience in the direction of a more expansive well-being.
And when there is a state of agitation or anxiety, we can play with ways of breathing or practicing the mettā, and also ways of sensing the breath or mettā, that feel as if they soothe the subtle body and smooth out its energies. Delicately tuning into the felt experience of these qualities of soothing or smoothing-out will help them to gradually gain strength, and help the agitated energies to slowly subside.
The imagination, too, can be skillfully employed in order to gently encourage this sense of pleasure or well-being in the subtle body. While simultaneously pervading the whole body space with an awareness sensitive to the texture and tone of the energy of that whole field, it is possible, for example, to imagine the subtle body as a body of radiant light; then to open to and explore what that feels like. Any image formed in this way does not necessarily need to appear in precise detail, or even completely distinctly. It is, rather, the energetic sense of pleasure or well-being which it supports that is primary, since this is what primarily supports the samādhi.
Likewise, one may experiment with imagining various luminous lines of energy in the body – for example, between the perineum and the crown of the head, or from the lower belly out through the legs – and sense how any such lines of energy supports the whole body to feel upright, open, and energized. The imagination here may be visual or kinesthetic, or a combination of the two. And it need not always follow exactly the anatomical contours of the physical body or its posture. For instance, if sitting or kneeling with the legs crossed or bent, the luminous lines of energy imagined radiating from the lower belly or base of the spine need not bend with the legs, but may instead continue and extend straight out at the knees, if at that time that feels more supportive of openness, energization, and well-being.
If there is tension, or even pain, in one area of the body, rather than always conceiving of it in anatomical or physiological terms, it can sometimes be more helpful to conceive of and perceive that area in energetic terms, and to play with the perception of lines of energy in order to support a degree of comfort and ease.
There are many ways we may discover to bring about some sense of energetic openness and well-being in the subtle body. And as it is accessed more and more, this altered body feeling is one that eventually we can ‘remember’ and learn to deliberately recall – to summon by gentle intention. We can then move, usually gradually, into the focused steadiness of samādhi from that basis, by incorporating this perception of pleasure or well-being more centrally into the meditation.
Whether it has arisen through being deliberately recalled, or through focusing on the breath or mettā, there are again a number of possible ways of using the sense of pleasure or comfort to help guide the citta into the unification of samādhi.
Once it is easy sustaining for some minutes, we can gently begin to take that bodily feeling of well-being as the primary object of our focus. It is important not to ‘snatch at it’, but rather to ease the attention toward it gracefully, and gradually let it take up the full focus of attention. Then the attention and the citta can be encouraged to enjoy it as fully as possible.
The attention can at times probe it, burrowing into one area of the pleasure, perhaps where it feels strongest.
Or, at other times, a mode of ‘receiving’ it, really trying to open up to it, can be employed.
Either way, one attempts all the while to remain intimate with its texture, and actually to relish the pleasure as much as possible. In these ways (and in others that can be discovered) we can delicately work to gently sustain the bodily feeling of well-being, and to absorb the attention more fully into it.
Alternatively, it is possible to mix the sense of pleasure with the perception of the breath or the mettā, in order to support and deepen the quality of the samādhi.
Then it may seem, for example, as if one is breathing the pleasurable energy; or it may seem as if one is breathing into and out of that area of well-being.
In mettā practice, it may seem as if the mettā and the pleasurable energy have become fused, so that the feeling of the mettā at that time is the feeling of the well-being. And this can become the ‘flavour’ of the energy of mettā that is radiated outwards towards beings, or that wraps around and permeates one’s own body and being.
The area of pleasurable energy may also be perceived as the source of the mettā.
Steadiness of feeling is more important than strength
We should point out once more that sometimes the sense of well-being is really quite subtle. Although the feelings of pleasure might also be very strong at times, this is actually not necessary in order to use them in a helpful way. Over time, their strength will in fact vary naturally (and anyway, as the practice matures, at a certain stage they begin to mellow). What is more necessary is that they sustain relatively steadily for more than a few minutes. Then we can learn to sustain them for longer.
Within this larger steadiness, any perceived waves or movements of the energy are not at all problematic. We can try to open the space of the body to these inner currents as much as possible, allowing and fully enjoying them (and if they feel very intense, even playing with surrendering and abandoning our whole body and being to them). Doing so, their intensity will in time calm down.
Suffusing and saturating the whole body
Along with the steadiness of the feelings of well-being, and of the attention on those feelings, we are also gently aiming at eventually having the whole space of the body suffused by and saturated with the feeling of well-being or pleasure. Sometimes this happens by itself. But sometimes the sense of pleasure, when it arises or when it is recalled, only pervades one area of the body. There are a number of viable responses then.
One is to simply enjoy it in the area where it is located, in the ways that we have described, without pressuring the feeling to spread. It may then expand naturally at some point to pervade the whole body.
But even if it does not spread then, that need not be regarded as a problem. A vital aspect of the whole relationship with samādhi practice is to enjoy what well-being is there at any time, not to measure it and view it through a lens that somehow demands, even subtly, that it be ‘better’, bigger, stronger.
Having said that, it is in fact also possible at times to gently encourage the feeling of pleasure or well-being to spread – for instance by simply opening up the space of the awareness to embrace a larger area of the body. Sometimes then the pleasant feeling will automatically start to expand to fill that space.
Alternatively, the breath may be used to gently ‘massage’ the sense of well-being into other areas of the body. Although there is not space to enter into a full description of possibilities here, with practice the breath energy may be felt and perceived throughout the body, entering and flowing in all kinds of ways beyond the strictly anatomical movement of air into the wind-pipe and lungs. We can learn to sense the breath energy in and through the whole body. And as alluded to earlier, the breath energy can be mixed with the pleasure, so that the perceived movements of breath in the whole body space move and spread the perception of the pleasure.
There is also, again, no reason why one cannot just imagine the feeling of well-being permeating the body space more fully. The perception then often begins to follow the image.
These are some of the possibilities, but with repeated practice over time it will anyway become normal for the pleasurable feeling to effortlessly pervade the whole body whenever it arises.
Unblocking and smoothing out the subtle body energies
The harmonization and unification in well-being that is characteristic of samādhi can also be regarded as a harmonization, alignment, smoothing out, and opening of the flows of energies in the subtle body [emphasis mine]. All day and all night long our energy body is moving in and out of states of alignment and openness, constriction and blockage, in response to a whole range of conditions, physical, mental, and emotional. This is completely normal, and with attention and sensitivity to the experience of the body we notice these fluctuations more and more. Although they may be felt in any region, perhaps most commonly a block in energy will be felt as a constriction somewhere along the central axis of the body, anywhere from the perineum to the top of the head. As we move into a state of more samādhi there is an unblocking, untying, aligning, and harmonizing of the subtle body energies to some degree.
When the subtle energies are blocked and agitated, samādhi is to some extent blocked. And when the subtle energy is unblocked and unagitated, samādhi is not so far away. (Perhaps all that is needed then is a steadying of the attention on enjoying the pleasant feelings of the ‘unblocked’ subtle body, as described). In addition, therefore, to the ways of working to smooth out and soothe the energy body suggested earlier, it can be useful to learn means for gently unblocking the energies when there is any sense of energetic constriction, in order to open up again the potential of a degree of samādhi at that time. Again, with a light and playful attitude of experimentation, a variety of ways of working in meditation can be discovered.
For example, sensitive to the whole subtle body sense, the breath energy or mettā may be perceived and conceived in any way that feels helpful, as alluded above:
We may breath into and out of an area of blockage.
Or we may, perhaps gently, breathe the breath energy through that area.
In mettā practice, we may experiment with situating the centre or source of the energy of mettā right at that point of constriction, and explore what effects that has.
If these strategies prove difficult, it is again quite feasible to imagine the breath, the body energies, or the mettā flowing more freely through the area of blockage, or even flowing out of the body, and opening and unblocking in that way.
The Relation Between Samādhi and Insight
Insight brings samādhi
As well as those described above, there are many other practicable means to unblock the subtle body energies. In particular, most of the insight ways of looking that we shall introduce in the course of this book may also be used in the service of opening and deepening samādhi. Mindful observation will reveal that any craving or clinging is always accompanied by, and reflected in, blocks and knots in the subtle body [emphasis mine]. Now, insight, we have said, cuts that on which dukkha depends. And dukkha depends on craving. Thus, according our definition, insight is any way of looking that releases craving. As the insight and emptiness practices are developed, therefore, they can also be used at times to deliberately undo the craving that is mirrored in the knots in the energy body. This might involve using the insight practices ‘on’ the experienced subtle energy blocks themselves, as ways of looking at those perceptions and feelings. Or it might involve engaging these insight ways of looking just more generally in regard to any experience in the moment. Either way, the dissolving of craving to whatever extent will, at the same time and to a similar extent, untie the knots in the subtle body to unblock those energies and so deliver the possibility of some samādhi. Ha!
With more practice our skill grows and we find that it is in fact possible quite often to use the ‘letting go’ that insight brings to deliberately unblock the energies and the felt sense of the sublet body in this way. The pleasantness, openness, well-being, delightful and alive stillness, or joy that comes with this unblocking can be felt in the space and texture of the body sense. We can then tune into that. It is this tuning in to the frequency of the pleasant, and delicately attending to it, that ‘filters it out’ of the field of awareness, so that it begins to become more palpable and more prominent.
Then we can rest in it, allowing it to spread throughout the body space. And if, as before, we continue to tune in to and focus on the felt sense of the energy of this well-being, gently intent on allowing and opening to an enjoyment of it, and encouraging the attention to become absorbed in it, to fill up with it, this can carry us to the threshold of some samādhi.
Such a skill is useful for even the most experienced meditators. There are times in meditation when we may be trying to bring the mind to some unification, working with the intention for samādhi, and despite all our patience and adeptness in attempting different things samādhi does not come. We may need some insight to help us let go of some craving or clinging, perhaps even a craving we were unaware of, and then some samādhi becomes possible.
In addition to the opening and transformation of the energies of the subtle body just described, there is another, related aspect to what is occurring that can be pointed out. To a degree proportional to its strength, the push and pull of craving pushes and pulls the attention. It thus agitates the mind and makes it restless; or saps its energy and makes it dull [emphasis mine]. Relaxing craving through insight will therefore allow the mind to settle more naturally and easefully into stillness and a steadiness of attention. We can see then that the quality of steadiness of attention does not only come through holding the mind to one object.
Aside from being a skillful ‘trick’, however, all this suggests a number of things. One is that although usually we might conceive that ‘samādhi leads to insight’, (and clearly a certain amount of steadiness is generally needed before any insight can arise), as we explore we discover more and more that they can lead to each other.
 We can freely use a term like ‘subtle body’ or ‘energy body’, without needing either to assert or to deny the ‘reality’ of such a concept. It is enough for us that it is a perception, a way the body can be perceived which can be helpful. In fact, a little reflection reveals that the same could be said of concepts like ‘attention’. Is there really some ‘thing’ called ‘attention’ that can ‘go towards’ some other thing (or mental representation of an object) or ‘receive’ that thing? These are all ways of conceiving and perceiving useful on the path to freedom. Perceivable, useful, and, as we will come to see, thoroughly empty.
Re-observation may not sound like much of a problem, as it has such a sanitized and boring name. However, friends have suggested renaming it with various four-letter Anglo-Saxon vernacular terms, usually in some grammatically problematic but emotionally cathartic string. This stage is often, though not always, like a brick wall, particularly the first few times we collide with it. It can be as if all the worst aspects of the Dark Night stages converge for one last important lesson, that of Re-observation.
We must perceive the true nature of the sensations that make up our ideas of perfection, all the ideals we cling to, all images of how the world should and should not be, all desire for anything to be other than exactly the way it is, as well as all desire for awakening to be anything other than this. It may seem impossible to sit for even a minute, as the levels of restlessness and aversion to meditation and all experience can get high. The sudden complete inability to sit on the cushion for even a few minutes is a classic mark of this stage. As a physician, I speculate that at some point they will find some physiologic commonality between this stage and the pathways of restless leg syndrome, but the whole-body version.
This stage, and part of the stage of Three Characteristics share some features. In other words, be warned, particularly those of you who are prone to being overly certain about “where you are” on these maps. I get a reasonable number of emails and calls from people who claim they are certain they are in Re-observation, and shortly thereafter they are describing A&P territory, meaning that they had just been in Three Characteristics territory, not Re-observation. Continuing to investigate the true nature of these sorts of sensations and our map theories is often difficult, and this is a common cause of failure to progress.
Now, I am about to describe all sorts of emotional or psychological manifestations that can sometimes happen in Re-observation. The more extreme the description of a possible side effect of this stage, the rarer that side effect is likely to be, particularly those that sound like descriptions of severe mental illness. For someone who is staying at the level of bare sensate experience, as I strongly recommend, the only difficult manifestations that seem to be quite common at this stage are a strong sense of aversion and resistance to formal meditation and experience, and a deep sense of primal frustration, though these tend to fade quickly in the face of good practice. If our concentration is strong enough and our other factors are in balance, we may move through this stage with no problem at all at the level of vibrations or even pure, abstract patterns of light and/or sound, bypassing all the potential complexity I am about to describe.
For those using more ordinary objects, aversion to meditation and experience can arise as we react to the vibrations in this stage, which can be fast, chaotic, and harsh. The noise in our repetitive minds can be quite irritating. By repetitive, I mean that this stage can involve repeating thoughts, songs, and stories, like we have a horrible case of the evil earworms (in the metaphorical sense of annoying songs that get stuck playing in our heads). Ever had a fever and had some irritating thought circling again and again in your head? This stage can produce similar experiences.
Some of my own descriptions of this stage while on retreat have included such phrases as “the mind-storm” and “a bracing work in D minor for six sense doors, hailstorm, and stuttering banshee”. If we are very powerful meditators who yet lack enough equanimity and tranquility (remember the seven factors?), it can literally feel as if we will be torn apart by harsh vibrations. At some illusory level of the sense of continuity and stability, this is exactly what we are trying to accomplish.
However, even if very difficult manifestations arise, if we are practicing well, they should not last long at all, at best minutes, at worst, hours or days. Once I began to get what this stage was about and what it was useful for, a perspective that had a hard learning curve, I would intentionally amplify the sense of being torn apart, directing this stage’s sharp and cutting ability to shred reality at anything that appeared even the slightest bit stable or continuous anywhere in the body, mind, or experience in general. That is a skillful use of the perspective that this stage allows us.
In a similar vein, and as mentioned before, those few who are crossing this territory with world-class concentration abilities and using a very rarefied object, such as a complex visualization on sacred geometry, may, if they are very good at it, pass through this stage with little or no difficulty. It can be fascinating and subtly rapturous, as this is the peak of the third vipassana jhana. Strong practitioners fusing insight and concentration practices may notice that the proportion of the visualized field that is organized into clear images gets broader and broader. The patterns may become more complex. The phase problems get more and more bizarre. The visual field may take on more spherical dimensions, with curving images beginning to encircle (or “ensphere”) you. The images may appear to have manifold symmetries and repetitions, and these generated images and sounds may come around to encompass basically the whole field of experience.
This can be like watching an IMAX movie of a moving technicolor spirograph in the front row. As mentioned earlier, I have also seen gigantic fields of hyper-detailed, repeating, shifting patterns of things like spiders, mushrooms, snakes, skulls, fingers with claws, and other creepy and disconcerting things but, on careful inspection, they were beautiful, vibrant, and amazing in their intricacy. I use this example partly due to my own experiments and partly to illustrate general points.
Different objects and practitioners will most definitely produce different specifics, such as colors, images, etc., while some aspects of what happens at this stage will remain the same, and are therefore universal. It goes to illustrate a basic point: Re-observation need not be a problem if you have very solid meditation skills. Even if you don’t, it still need not be a big deal if you know what to look for, what to expect, how to handle it, and that it too shall pass. Dry insight workers get through this stage all the time just fine with good practice. Further, if you are reading this book, you probably already crossed the A&P as mentioned already, and so you have probably already handled it at least once and may not have even known it, and even if you haven’t yet, you still may do just fine. We’ve all been through hard times, and this is just one more phase that might be potentially challenging.
You see, Re-observation is all fluff and no substance but, if you confuse fluff for substance, the effect will be the same as if it actually had substance. Bodily sensations of creepy revulsion, disgust, or profound existential angst may arise, and yet, those with wisdom will notice they are like confetti, like sparkles of light, like raindrops, albeit seemingly acid raindrops. Still, they are not harmful. In fact, they apparently do something great to the mind, since Re-observation leads to the next stage, Equanimity. This normalizing knowledge is power.
Re-observation is like a toothless dog with a ferocious bark. If you run screaming or faint from fear when the dog barks, then it needed no teeth to prevent your progress. It is like a hologram of a snarling demon that you can just walk right through and it can’t touch or harm you at all. There is a curious freedom when you deeply realize that you are safe in Re-observation, that you can go deep into the pit, and the pit is just fine. In Review stages, a period when it can be easy to call up specific stages and stay in them to get a better sense of them, I have again and again called up Re-observation just to check it out and learn its secrets.
On a somewhat different note, however bad Re-observation is, we can’t always blame it for everything. The primary sign that the negative side effects that may occur in the Dark Night are not associated with insight stages (but instead are due to other, ordinary, real-world processes) is that they do not change much in the face of strong and accepting investigation or when we stop practice entirely. Remember, you have two sets of effects going on: insight-related, and other circumstances and psychological aspects of your life. If good insight practice, done well and bravely, with strong investigation and good technique, is not fixing your life situation, then you may instead have standard, ordinary problems to be dealt with by ordinary, real-world methods.
As you can likely already tell, the Dark Night tends to get practitioners strategizing, trying to figure out the best way to crack it and get to Equanimity. This has led to various teachers and practitioners developing their own distinct schools of thought that may deem some techniques and approaches the most optimal, typically the techniques that have worked best for them. However, those who have gone through the Dark Night enough times and with a range of approaches, techniques, attitudes, and practice conditions will eventually realize that there are many, many ways to skin this cat, to use an un-Buddhist metaphor. Exercise often helps. Loving-kindness practices get recommended often for good reason. Strict vipassana and ultra-rapid noting work well for those with a high tolerance for pain. Slower noting might work for those with a bit more time and less interest in shattering themselves.
Some teachers highly recommend physical practices, such as yoga with a high degree of bodily awareness, as that can ground people in something other than their psychological stuff. Others might highly recommend plunging hard into their psychological issues and healing, with a high degree of sensate mindfulness of that process to ensure it keeps producing insights. Others with mighty concentration skills might go for more abstract objects, such as sacred geometry, as mentioned above. The “concentrate your ass off” strategy in the Dark Night has much to recommend it. Loving-kindness practices and other brahma viharas (covered in Part Six) are commonly reported to be helpful. Yet others might recommend more shamanic and psychonautic techniques to cause the sort of radical unsticking that can happen with those methods, and reality testing shows that those do sometimes work for some people but cause problems for others, and predicting which will result is not easy. Each of these strategies has risks and benefits to be considered.
In contrast to what most people might expect me to advocate here, it is true that much more gentle approaches can also work in Re-observation and the Dark Night in general. Some find that softening, opening, and accepting generate much better results than more aggressive approaches such as rapid noting or surfing fine vibrations. Sometimes just carefully investigating and gently relaxing what is often called “body armor”, those physical tensions that correspond to psychological blocks and tensions, can be quite effective in this territory.
Others among us will notice that just carefully investigating other aspects of our lives, like physical tensions related to roles and identities, will help facilitate progress here. Some do well with intellectual reflection coupled with some sensate investigation, and repeated questions such as, “Where am I contracted?” or, “What am I clinging to?”, asked well and often enough, will actually yield good results. Some with more spacious tendencies may notice that just feeling into the subtle moving warps in our sense of attention or space that are the hallmarks of the third vipassana jhana will be all they need, and doing this with the eyes open rather than closed can help us keep from getting lost. Many of these methods just require doing them well enough for long enough to get them to cause progress.
Even stranger measures can be oddly facilitating here although they may superficially seem to have little to nothing to do with insight practice. Some practitioners may just need to change locations, resolve a single conflict with one person, cry about one issue they need to grieve over properly, make some other simple change, or go through some other simple process, and then suddenly everything opens. Just giving yourself permission to care for yourself might make a difference. I recommend When Things Fall Apart and Start Where You Are, by Ani Pema Chödrön, as the yin energy of these books will help counterbalance the energy of this book, which can be too yang sometimes. Nurturing strategies often help a lot in the Dark Night.
I remember one cycle through this territory where what cracked it was just dancing wildly for hours until I was totally exhausted. A few will do oddly well by stopping practice entirely, forgetting entirely about progress and the maps and all of that, and just surrendering, but this last one generally only works when the meditator is in the correct place and has done enough work and growth already for that strategy to make sense.
This is a small subset of the various strategies that might work and that teachers advocate. You will have to assess your own capabilities, inclinations, intuition, resources, and what you have available to find what works best for you. Experimentation and a willingness to regroup and retry if you fail with one approach are key, as failure and frustration are common experiences the first few times we try to crack the nut of the Dark Night. If you are on retreat, it typically only takes about ten days to two weeks of struggling in the Dark Night to fall back to earlier stages and have another shot at it, so you can try a new strategy on the next pass if the first pass strategy didn’t work. I still generally feel that very simple practice: six sense doors, three characteristics, is the best practice for all insight stages. One day, I hope that scientific methods and controlled experiments are applied to find how best to navigate this territory. Until then, take your best guess and, if it doesn’t work, try again.
Due to the sorts of frustrations and failures that are common in this territory, this stage is sometimes called the “rolling up the mat stage”, when many who joined monasteries in the stage of the Arising and Passing Away now give up and disrobe. People on retreats tend to need much reassurance but often leave right then even with good support, guidance, and encouragement. Are you suddenly needing to leave a retreat that you had planned to stay in much longer? You are likely in this stage.
There can be the distinct feeling that there is no way to go forward, and it is useless to go back, which is exactly the lesson we should learn. Acceptance of exactly this, right here and right now, is required, even if it seems that this mind and this body are completely unacceptable and unworthy objects of investigation. Remember: no sensations are unworthy of investigation!
One of the hallmarks of the early part of this stage is that we may begin to clearly see exactly what our minds do all day long, see with great clarity how the illusion of a dualistic split is created in the first place, sensation by sensation, moment to moment, but there is not yet enough of a meta-perspective and equanimity to make good use of this information. This can be very frustrating, as we wonder how many times we must learn these lessons before they stick. The interesting thing is that this stage, when gone through at the level of emotions and vibrations, rather than in the realms of light produced by strong concentration, will nearly always come with a sense that it lasted just a bit longer than we could take it, and yet somehow, we can take it, and it does end.
Intense feelings of frustration and disenchantment with life, relationships, sex, jobs, moral codes, the world, and worldly responsibilities may emerge at this stage in ways that can cause enormous disorientation, disruption, and angst. Re-observation can take whatever issues and reactions arose in the earlier stages of Fear, Misery, Disgust, and Desire for Deliverance, combine them in fiendish ways, and then crank that intensity to the next level, a level that can seem overwhelming. These aspects of our life can temporarily seem bland and pointless at this stage, though it may seem that this will always be the way we feel about them.
This stage can mimic or perhaps manifest as some degree of clinical depression. Beware of making radical life changes that cannot be easily undone, such as a divorce or firing off angry emails to your boss, based upon the temporary feelings that may arise during this stage. For those who recognize that they are in this stage, some form of active mental compensation for these potential effects can be helpful to facilitate maintaining our relationships, jobs, studies, etc., at a functional level. This can be very skillful if it is also combined with practice that allows the experiences of this stage to be acknowledged and understood as well.
I should be careful here in that, while I generally advocate for maintaining jobs, relationships, studies and the like, if possible, in the face of Dark Night stuff, there is obviously no way for me to know for certain that this is the right course of action for you or anyone else, as the future is unknown and unpredictable. This is obviously not helpful, as we might wish for concrete, reliable guidelines as to how to proceed, and yet, unfortunately, there are none. Maybe shaving your head and joining a monastery really is the best thing you could possibly do. On the other hand, maybe preserving your marriage and job is.
There are obviously many other options that might suddenly seem like good ideas in this stage, and whether, in retrospect, they will have been as good an idea as they seemed at the time is anyone’s guess. I wish I could definitively tell you what to do, but I can’t. Still, there is something to be said for optionality, even if, in the Dark Night, all options can seem like bad options. Not trashing possibly valuable relationships helps preserve optionality and generally lessens later regrets. There are ways to gain some space in which to let this disorienting and often disruptive process mature that are more skillful and less damaging than others, and I wish you well finding those.
Layers of unhelpful and previously hidden expectation, pressure, and anxiety can reveal their true uselessness, though this beneficial process can feel very confusing and difficult. We may get the sense that we have never had such a strong emotional life, and until we get used to this new awareness of our previously subtle or unacknowledged feelings, this stage can seem overwhelming.
Occasionally, people at this stage can also have what appears to be a full psychotic break, or what is often called a nervous breakdown, though if these are truly a side effect of insight practices, they should pass quickly. The main key here is to continue to acknowledge and accept the content but also to see the true nature of the sensations that make up these natural phenomena. This can be extremely hard to do, especially if people have chanced upon this stage without the benefit of the support and guidance of a well-developed insight tradition and qualified teachers who can easily recognize and navigate this territory.
Even for those who do get into this in a well-developed tradition, unrealistic spiritual ideals can really screw up practice. In your idealized spiritual world, you imagine you aren’t supposed to be insanely frustrated, on edge, shuddering from some strange wrongness you can’t figure out, because you are a meditator, you are practicing something good, and so you shouldn’t feel this way, or at least so the traditions might seem to tell us. However, this is exactly where your practice led you at some point, where it took you, what is really going on, because you have entered aspects of the human psyche you wished would just go away and you wouldn’t have to deal with. Go into them, but with wisdom, with clear morality, with some sense that you can go there and be okay, with some control of what you think, say, and do.
The classic arc of the hero’s journey, where at some point they must enter the underworld, mirrors this part of the path. Part of the flip side of the next stage involves going there, being honest, dealing with an utterly “un-spiritual” way of being that might not fit your ideals at all. Keep a lid on the bleed-through, but internally be willing to be emotionally honest, and keep investigating. This is an acquired taste and getting comfortable doing this is not easy for most people. Still, it is a great skill to learn.
Those who do not know what to do with this stage or who are overwhelmed by the mind states can get so swept away in the content that they begin to lose it. This is the far extreme of what can happen in this stage. Fear is frightening, Misery is miserable, and seemingly psychotic episodes are confusing and destabilizing. In the face of such miserable experiences, we may swing to the opposite extreme, clinging desperately to grandiose or narcissistic images of ourselves. These reactions can easily perpetuate themselves, and this can become a blatantly destructive mental habit if people persist in wallowing in these dark emotions and their deep and unresolved issues for too long. It can be like cognitive restructuring from hell. Do not do this to yourself.
I should mention the problem with developing concentration, which you must have succeeded at to at least some degree at some point to get into this territory. Strong concentration is a generic force that may be used for good or ill. If you use strong concentration to write positive qualities on the mind, they will be written more strongly than if you didn’t have strong concentration. Likewise, if you have strong concentration and end up writing negative qualities on the mind, those will also be written more strongly than if you lacked strong concentration. That is the danger in this stage. Thus, the essential point is, if you ever develop strong concentration, you must be extremely careful with what you do with it. Part Six, specifically chapters fifty-eight to sixty-one, will go into more about this, but the basic lesson is straightforward.
Specifically, if you continue to be strongly identified with content, without perceiving its true nature, and your strongly concentrated mind dives down that pathway of focusing entirely on the story, particularly negative interpretations of the story without seeing those thoughts as thoughts, then the mind can spiral down and down into madness and despair, and more madness and despair can lead to a horrid feedback loop. I call this “dark jhana”: like the exact reverse of jhana. In skillful jhana, we skillfully use positive qualities to attract and stabilize attention, which then reinforces those positive qualities in a positive feedback loop. In dark jhana, we unskillfully reinforce horrible mind states by obsessing about horrible mind states from within horrible mind states while being freaked out by horrible mind states.
If you recognize dark jhana is happening, put the brakes on it right then with everything you have. Seize control. Refuse to lose that control. Find a way to get a grip on yourself. Splash cold water on your face. Eat grounding food. Exercise or take a walk in nature. Take a warm bath. Listen to soothing music. Sing. Dance. Play a video game. Watch a funny movie or funny cat videos on YouTube. Read the section in Part One where the Buddha talked about the removal of distracting thoughts and apply those instructions with full force: this is when they really come in handy. Stand with your legs planted firmly on the ground, your hands gripping something like a sink, countertop, or the back of a chair, and figure out where the actual problem is in your body and the space in which you stand. Note physical sensations of restlessness and irritation with precision and bravery.
Dark jhana sucks and should be avoided at all costs. Wire your brain in a positive way, not a negative way, and you will do much better. Go into that territory at a bare sensate level that remembers there is space and you will do much better. Go into it divorced from the senses and lost in the content, and badness will likely result.
When people mention “touching their own madness” on the spiritual path, they are often talking about this stage. This stage can make people feel claustrophobic and tight. If they push to make progress, they can feel that they are just getting more and more tightly wound and are about to snap. If they do nothing, they continue to suffer anyway.
The advice here: stick with the process but don’t force it. Pay attention to balancing effort and gentle acceptance. Remember that discretion is the better part of valor. Practicing in moderation as well as maintaining a long-term view can be helpful. Think of practice as a lifelong endeavor, but do just what you can each day. Stay present-oriented. Walks in nature or places with open, expansive views can help, as can exercise. Re-observation has the power to profoundly purify us, given sufficient commitment to just being willing to sit with it. Be clear, precise and accept all this despite the pain and anguish, both physical and mental, that it can bring.
If you are on retreat, let the teachers know what is going on immediately. Sit and walk according to the schedule. Apply the technique as prescribed every second, if humanly possible, and do not leave the retreat early! Remember: applying the technique means seeing everything arise naturally, without anything having to happen at all. This can really take the pressure off, a pressure that really doesn’t help in this stage. There is a way to keep practicing well that nevertheless drops the unskillful aspects of striving which are pulling you away from each moment. Other than just sticking to the schedule, not a lot needs to happen beyond what is already happening. Thus, and very critically, you can’t power this stage, but you can try to accept and synchronize with what is going on at a direct experiential level.
Again, if on retreat, try walking outside as opposed to inside if logistically possible. Reclining sometimes rather than sitting might help, but some will find the restless energy too much, in which case walking may help. It can seem counterintuitive to keep practicing when things feel so unproductive, unspiritual, unpleasant, and unbearable, but keeping at it in skillful ways builds the wiring that leads to the good stuff that comes in the next stage even if it feels like it is doing nothing good at all.
This stage is a profound opportunity to see clearly the pain of the dualistic aspect of our attachments, aversions, desires, hopes, fears, and ideals, as our awareness of all this has been amplified to an unprecedented level. At its best, it is very humanizing and very emotionally honest. This is the stage that makes possible the path of heroic effort, the diligent investigation of this moment based upon the powerful wish for awakening, because at this stage all the unskillful aspects of this wish are beaten out of the meditator with a force equal to the suffering caused by them. You can get very far on highly imbalanced and goal-oriented practice, and it can provide sufficient momentum and meditation skills so that, should you get your ass kicked at this stage, you continue making quick progress anyway, even when you drop off the imbalanced striving power and let the insight machine you have built coast somewhat on its own momentum.
Again, if meditators stop practicing entirely at this stage, they can get stuck and haunted for the rest of their lives until they complete this first progress of insight. Not moving forward with practice at this stage will deprive meditators of its primary benefits, such as the increased perceptual abilities that allowed them to get this much insight in the first place. They teeter on the brink of meditative greatness. Remembering this will help increase faith, and it can take a lot of that to get through this stage. Good teachers will help students develop faith in their own abilities to handle these stages, and to balance this with backing off if it truly gets to be too much.
To get through the Dark Night on your own power and to get to Equanimity is true meditative greatness. The next stage is fantastic and what comes after it is even more so. Thus, those who quit in these stages reduce their chances of ever getting beyond this stage, and the whole range of consequences, both physical and emotional, can remain long after the meditation skills have faded. Finding that balance, knowing what you can take and what you can’t, is as much art as science, with no perfectly clear guidelines that can be given. However, we strongly need to consider that quitting in these difficult stages increases the chances of doing it again the next time it happens, as the way we practice creates pathways in the brain that will be stronger next time. This pattern of bailing on practice in the tough stages can create “chronic Dark Nighters”, meditators who just don’t figure out how to move through this stage for a long time.
You would be surprised how many of these people are out there. Their failure to unstick themselves may be due to their own psychological makeup, poor instruction, belief that the spiritual life is all about bliss and wonderful emotions, belief in unrealistic and absurd models of spirituality that do not allow for the full range of the emotional and mental life, or chancing upon this stage outside the context of a well-developed insight tradition.
I was a chronic Dark Nighter for over ten years without having any idea what the hell was happening to me, so I can speak on this topic with some authority. Further, I have gone through numerous other Dark Nights at the higher stages of awakening and have come across the same issues again and again. Being stuck in the Dark Night can manifest as anything from chronic mild depression and free-floating anxiety to serious delusional paranoia and other classic mental illnesses, such as narcissism and delusions of grandeur (which I am sure you recognize at points in this book, parts that were likely written in this phase). Dark Nighters may act with a disarming mixture of dedicated spirituality, social conscience, compassion, and reactive darkness.
I mentioned that the A&P could impart a bit of the inspirational, radical religious leader quality to those with such tendencies. For these same individuals, Re-observation can sometimes lend a bit of a paranoid, apocalyptic cult leader quality to them, a confused whirlwind of powerful inspiration and frantic desperation. Just because someone has borderline or antisocial personality disorder doesn’t mean they can’t make progress in insight, and when they hit these stages it can get wild. In fact, this basic pattern of the A&P happening to a psychopath leading to a cult-following and then mass-suicidal crash when they inevitably hit Re-observation is seen again and again in history and is perfectly explanatory of this otherwise perplexing phenomenon. Same goes for suicide bombers and militant recent converts in general.
We may all have our own neurotic tendencies that come out when we are under stress, but if you feel that you are really losing it, get help, particularly from those who know this territory firsthand and are willing to talk honestly about it. Don’t be a macho meditator, go it alone, or get stuck; and don’t imagine that spiritual practice can’t cause some wild and sometimes extremely unpleasant side effects. One of the best things about working with thoroughly qualified and realized insight meditation teachers before we get into trouble is that they will have some idea of our baseline level of sanity and balance and thus know what our capacity is and what we can manage.
That said, I suspect that both the mushroom factor and the dharma culture of jet-set teachers popping in and out of our lives with little chance for students to have meaningful contact with them off-retreat contributes to the significant number of Dark Nighters out there. I suspect that there are fewer problems with chronic Dark Nighters in traditions in which the maps outlining what can happen are well-known and in which there are teachers who are accessible and honest about their humanity and the varied landscapes of the spiritual terrain. Naming and normalizing these stages can be profoundly empowering to those going through them in order to find and master their own meditative power.
On the other hand, genuine mental illness or unrelated emotional or psychological difficulties can show up in people’s lives. Blaming it all on the Dark Night may not always be accurate or helpful, though if you have recently crossed the A&P but have not completed an insight cycle or gotten into the next stage (Equanimity), there is going to be some Dark Night component mixed in with whatever else is going on.
Meditation traditions tend to attract what can seem like more than their fair share of the spiritual, emotional, and psychological equivalents of the walking wounded. Sorting out what’s what can sometimes get murky and may require the help of both those who know this insight territory and those who deal with ordinary mental illness and the emotional and psychological difficulties unique to the culture in which practitioners were raised. The best guide would be familiar with both realms. I have an awakened friend who has found it very useful to take medication to treat his very real bipolar disorder. There is something very down-to-earth and realistic about that. These practices won’t save us from our biology. They merely reveal something in the relationship to it.
On the other hand, there are those of us who are so deeply indoctrinated by the models of “working through” our “dark stuff” that whenever it comes up we turn to psychotherapy or a whole host of other ways of getting our issues to “resolve” or go away. This view implies false solidity and an exaggerated importance being given to these things, making it very hard to see the true nature of the sensations that make them up. The trap here is that we turn a basic crisis of fundamental identity into a witch hunt for the specific parts of our lives we imagine are to blame for our feeling such dissatisfaction with our basic experience. If someone has gotten to this level of practice, no amount of tinkering with the circumstances or issues in their life will ever solve the core perceptual issue.
That doesn’t mean that some of the dissatisfaction with specific aspects of our lives are not valid—quite often it is. However, these relative issues get conflated with a far deeper issue, that of what we really are and are not, and until this cycle of insight has been completed, this conflation tends to cause us to greatly exaggerate our criticisms of those things in our lives that could actually stand improvement and work. Learning this lesson can be very hard for some people, and the dark irony is that we may wreck our relationships, careers, and finances, as well as emotional and physical health, trying to get away from our own high level of insight into the true nature of reality.
It can also make us have strong reactions to our meditation teachers and dharma friends, either being very dissatisfied with them, or demanding that they somehow save us, or more likely, both. Until we are willing to work on a more direct, sensate level, there is no limit to the amount of angst and negativity we can project onto our world. I have seen this play out again and again in myself and in the lives of my dharma companions—the strange volatility that can be created by Dark Night–amplified reactive attachment disorders. It can be a very ugly business.
My advice: if careful analysis of your insight practice leads you to the conclusion that you are in Re-observation, resolve that you will not wreck your life through excessive negativity. Resolve this repeatedly and intensely. Follow your heart as best you can, but try to spare yourself and the world from as much needless pain as possible. Through sheer force of will, and with the assistance of whatever skillful supports you can connect with, keep it together until you are willing to face your sensate world directly and without anesthesia or armor. I have seen what happens when people do otherwise, and have concluded that, in general, things go badly when people do not follow this advice, though some unexpected good, in the form of learning the hard way, can and does come from such situations.
The framework of the three trainings and the three types of suffering that are found within each of their scopes can be helpful here as well. Since most of us are generally not used to facing fundamental identity crises, which is the basic issue in Re-observation, we are not familiar with the misery of fundamental suffering. Being unfamiliar with that misery, we are likely to conclude that it is produced by the specifics of our ordinary world and personal circumstances. However, if we have gotten to Re-observation, that is, if we have found these techniques to be effective, we need to have faith that the remaining advice may be of value to fulfill this part of the experiment. If we are in Re-observation, the task that confronts us is to tease out the fundamental suffering we now know all too well from the specific problems of our lives in an ordinary sense. Remember the five spiritual faculties? Remember balancing faith and wisdom? This is one phase of practice when you get to see what that truly means, as it will test both.
This advice to at least partially decouple our felt sense of suffering from our ordinary circumstances may sound dangerous, heartless, or bizarre to some people. It is a valid criticism. In an ideal world, we would not have to go around second-guessing ourselves and the sources of our misery in the specific way that I advocate here. In an ideal world, we would really have our psychological trip together, be able to stay with the practice during these stages, and thus cross quickly through the Dark Night and finish this practice cycle. It can be done.
We are not always ideal practitioners, and thus the Dark Night often causes the problems mentioned previously that need to be addressed. My solutions to what happens when we cannot or will not do insight practices in the face of the Dark Night are also not ideal. However, the outcomes are likely to be much healthier in the short and long term than those that come from simply allowing unrestrained Dark Night bleed-through, which often occurs in the absence of solid and sufficient training in morality. Strangely, I have concluded that simply practicing is often much easier than trying to stop Dark Night bleed-through if we are willing to just try it, though it can often seem otherwise. The old kindergarten evaluation, “Follows instructions, plays well with others,” is still a valuable standard in the Dark Night.
While in the Dark Night, not restraining negativity and reactivity that issue from our thoughts, speech, and physical actions is a bit like getting stinking drunk and then driving in heavy traffic rather than just sitting down and waiting to sober up. Not continuing to do insight practices in this stage is like going into surgery, getting an incision, getting the surgery, and then having the surgeon leave you with a large, open incision. Until you get that wound closed you are basically screwed, no matter how anyone might try to comfort you. In this case, you are both the surgeon and the patient. Face the wound and close it up! You have the necessary skills, as you have gotten this far. Use them. The procedure is almost done.
There are also those who try to investigate the true nature of their psychological demons and life issues but get so fixated on using insight to make them go away that they fail to hold these things in perspective. This subtle but common corruption of insight practices turns practice into another form of aversion, escape, or denial rather than a path to awakening. Drawing from the agendas of mostly psychology and confused morality, in which there is concern for the specific thoughts and feelings that make up our experience, we fail to make progress in insight, whose agenda is simply to see the true nature of all sensations as they are. Both are important, but it is a question of timing.
I have concluded that, with very rare and fleeting exceptions, ninety-five percent of the sensations that make up our experience are really no problem at all, even in the difficult stages, but seeing this clearly is not always easy. When we fixate on very painful or very pleasant sensations, we can easily miss the fact that most of our reality is likely made up of sensations that are no big deal, and thus we miss many great opportunities for easy insights. Further, the Dark Night can bring up all sorts of unfamiliar feelings that we have experienced rarely if ever with such clarity or intensity. This has the effect of busting attempts at spiritual bypassing, as the Dark Night is basically the exact opposite of spiritual bypassing. We are in it, deep into it, facing our darkest and most challenging stuff. However, until we get used to these feelings, they can frighten us and make us reactive because of our lack of familiarity with them, even if they are not actually that strongly unpleasant at a sensate level.
What compounds our misery is the mental content we tend to kick up in response to sensations. Often the stories we make up and then tell ourselves, about why these difficulties are happening and what it all means, exacerbate the problem they were intended to solve. There are multiple ways to reframe the meaning of these occurrences that might make them more bearable and point to solutions that are more likely to work, particularly learning to reframe them in terms of these insight maps (and the three characteristics), which is why they can be so valuable. It is not that the insight maps are the be-all and end-all of meaning, as they obviously aren’t. However, focusing entirely on the psychological end of our work without also focusing on the underlying insight process is a common trap that typically doesn’t go as well as the dual approach that keeps making progress on the insight front also. [Man’s Search for Meaning, by Viktor E. Frankl, may shed light on some of the skillful and therapeutic uses of meaning as we confront these challenging insight stages.]
I highly recommend using physical sensations as the objects of inquiry during the Dark Night whenever possible, such as those of the breath, with particular attention to the fact that these sensations occur in space. Diving into emotional content, even with the intention of investigating it, can sometimes be a very hard way to go. Remember, whether we gain insight through investigating physical or mental objects is completely irrelevant. Insight is insight. Whenever possible choose objects for investigation by which you won’t easily get caught. The best thing about reality, particularly in the Dark Night, is that you only have to deal with one little flickering sensation in space at a time. Staying on that level when doing insight practices is an unusually good idea. Pay attention to what is right in front of you, but keep your attention open.
Using physical object allows you to investigate how much physical pain you are actually in. Does reality seem totally horrible? Notice how much of it is actually excruciatingly painful. If it is not that painful, why do you think it’s horrible? Investigate that carefully in your body, so as to notice exactly where the pain is and also exactly where it is not. Open your eyes and notice the space you are sitting in. Are you in a safe place? No gunfire nearby? Have enough to eat? Decent water? Immediate threat to life or limb? If not, is that much fussiness, reactivity, and drama really necessary? Probably not. Sink into that down-to-earth, common-sense understanding, and basic, practical wisdom. Do some solid reality testing. Notice exactly what volume of space is really a problem and exactly how much of it is not. You will very likely find that the majority is not, and somehow your mind had forgotten that much if not most of it is okay and perhaps even pretty good or interesting. Then get back to a detailed but open, wide, all-embracing, moment-to-moment sensate investigation.
Scary stuff said, there are people who breeze straight from the Arising and Passing Away through the whole of the Dark Night in as little as a few easy minutes or hours and hardly notice it at all, so don’t let my descriptions of what can happen script you into imagining that the Dark Night has to be a major suffering event. It absolutely does not. These descriptions of what can occur are merely there to help those who do encounter these sorts of problems to realize that these things do occur, and can be skillfully addressed. There is no medal awarded for having a tough time in the Dark Night or for staying in it for longer than necessary, much to my dismay.
At my best and on retreat, I have gotten through Dark Night territory in as little as about a day and a half. Bill Hamilton said one Dark Night took him about seven minutes, which is really fast, but it means it can be done. I have had Dark Night phases that were no worse than the general stress I encounter in daily life in ordinary situations. That said, off-retreat I have had Dark Night phases hit hard for months, those being before I knew anything about what they were or how to deal with them. Contextualization, explanation, normalization, and the empowerment that comes with knowledge and well-applied time-tested techniques make a huge difference, as I have noticed by doing the experiment myself many, many times, and as many others have reported.
One of the more bizarre potholes we can fall into in the Dark Night is to become fascinated by and identified with the role of The Great Spiritual Basket Case. “I am so spiritual that my life is a nonstop catastrophe of uncontrollable insights, disabling and freakish raptures, and constant emotional crises of the most histrionic nature. My spiritual abilities are proven and verified by what a consummate mess I am making of my life. How brave and dedicated I must be to screw up my life in this way. Oh, what a glorious, holy, special, and saintly wreck I am!” Both my sympathy and intolerance for those caught in this trap are directly related to the amount of time I have spent in that trap being just like them. While we should not try to pretend that the Dark Night hasn’t made us a basket case, if it has done so, neither should we revel in or wallow in being a basket case, nor use the Dark Night as an excuse for not being as kind and optimally functional members of society as we can possibly be.
Try to navigate the Dark Night with panache, dignity, self-respect, decency, gentleness, poise, and if possible, a sense of humor, which often seems to be the first thing to be sacrificed at its bloody altar. Even a cutting, cynical, and dark sense of humor about your current experience would be better than none at all, but avoid hurting people with it. Feel free to use humor on yourself as much as you wish. Remember to balance all that with some honest humanity. It is actually possible to have fun with the Dark Night, just like it can be fun to go on a scary roller coaster or see a scary movie, like the alleviating feeling of a really good cry, like the weird thrill that comes from primal scream therapy. Remember that.
Additionally, the practice of remembering the good, true, and beautiful aspects of the world, and the myriad kindnesses shown you and others by you and others—to literally stop and smell the roses—can help a lot to regain perspective. My roses are actually blooming nicely as I write this, with their beautiful fragrance wafting through the open window. This advice is likely to ring cheesy to one in the Dark Night, but remember this and you will do better.
Speaking of doing better, and getting away from the crazy and back to the vipassana, I should mention something about the micro-phenomenology that I really care about, that makes insight practice more than just psychology. The patterns happening from a sensate point of view in Re-observation are the pinnacle of the third vipassana jhana and, because of this, have the following qualities: first, they are very broad—very around the “back”, very on the periphery of attention. That is where attention is naturally very strong in this phase, so go with that first, as it is easier. Allowing attention to be its natural fluxing shape will make this work a lot better than trying to go narrow and forcing things—that would be using a first vipassana jhana coping strategy at a stage in which it isn’t likely to work well.
Second, the frequencies of pulses are chaotic and fast. We are getting into more sophisticated forms of more inclusive attention that are starting to broaden enough to include many diverse, irregular, erratic, intricate aspects of reality. Go for that attention-wise, meaning go into frequencies of the oscillation of the sensations that appear to be subject and object that are really fast and harmonically irritating, instead of regular and predictable. We are talking at least ten to eighteen pulses of sensations per second, if not a lot more. While noting can help if we are getting run over in this stage, if we can get it together to go into the broad vibrational complexity directly, we can learn to draw on the remarkable discerning power of our minds. We can notice how fast reality is arising, and, as reality and comprehension are the same thing in their essence, we can notice that comprehension, and thus contemplation, can go this fast. It takes an elegant letting go of control and an embracing of that to get what Re-observation is trying to teach you.
Do not try to power through this: that’s first vipassana jhana. Do not try to go for really tight, narrow, fine, tingly frequencies that are all about a center of attention and not about background: that is second vipassana jhana. Re-observation comes at the peak of the third vipassana jhana: it is broad, rich, chaotic, and about the “background” and issues of synchrony and asychrony. “Background” here means those things we typically think of as on “this side”, as well as those sensations that tend to frame objects in the center of attention, as well as just those sensations that are more in the direction of “us”.
The fourth jhana will put it all together later, so here, you just need to learn the third jhana piece well. The first jhana’s linear, controlling, effortful attention paradigm can’t go that fast, but reality can, and reality is attention itself, so just embrace that. You need to let reality start learning to recognize that it is already recognizing itself. That’s the only way the mind can realize the massive processing power it already actually has and embrace a vast and complex world of sensate experience that the limited, linear mind cannot possibly track in all its richness and intricacy.
This is vipassana. Notice that every little background sensation already is its own comprehension, where it is, as it arose and vanished, and that trying to pretend to be a little point in space observing and controlling all that sensate complexity is absurd and just causes suffering: that is the lesson here. That is the three characteristics, and the three characteristics are the key in this stage, as with all the others. Do not get all caught up in my psychological descriptions, they are there to help only if you get thrown totally off your vipassana game. As soon as you get back on your game even a little bit, get back to noticing all this come and go on its own, naturally, effortlessly, at a basic, fast, sensate level. This is the most important paragraph of this whole section.
One way or another, when we finally give up and rest in what ishappening without trying to alter it or stabilize it, when we can accept our actual humanity as well as be clear about the three characteristics of naturally flowing mental and physical phenomena, there arises … [Equanimity]
Excerpt from The Science of Enlightenment (2005) by Shinzen Young (p. xv-xvii)
It took me quite a while to get to the point of publishing this book — many years actually. That may seem like a strange statement. How can someone not get the point of publishing something they themselves wrote? Let me explain.
A central notion of Buddhism is that there’s not a thing inside us called a self. One way to express that is to say that we are a colony of sub-personalities and each of those sub-personalities is in fact not a noun but a verb–a doing.
One of my doings is Shinzen the researcher. Shinzen the researcher is on a mission to “take the mist out of mysticism.” Contrary to what is often claimed, he believes that mystical experience can be described with the same rigor, precision, and quantified language that one would find in a successful scientific theory. In his opinion, formulating a clear description of mystical experience is a required prenuptial for the Marriage of the Millennium: the union of quantified science and contemplative spirituality. He hopes that eventually this odd couple will exuberantly make love, spawning a generation of offspring that precipitously improves the human condition.
Shinzen the researcher also believes that many meditation masters, current and past, have formulated their teachings with “less than full rigor” by making unwarranted, sweeping philosophical claims about the nature of objective reality based on their subjective experiences—claims that tend to offend scientists and, hence, impede the science-spiritually courtship.
Shinzen the researcher has a natural voice. It’s the style you would find in a graduate text on mathematics: definition, lemma, theorem, example, corollary, postulate, theorem. Here’s a sample of that voice:
It may be possible to model certain global patterns of brain physiology in ways that feel familiar to any trained scientist, i.e., equations in differential operators on scalar, vector, or tensor fields whose dependent variables can be quantified in terms of SI units and whose independent variables are time and space (where space equals ordinary space or some more esoteric differential manifold). It is perhaps even possible to derive those equations from first principles the way Navier-Stokes is derived from Cauchy continuity. In such fields, distinctive “flow regimes” are typically associated with relations on the parameters of the equations, i.e., F(Pj) → Q, where Q is qualitative change in field behavior. By qualitative change in field behavior, I mean things like the appearance of solitons or the disappearance of turbulence, etc. Through inverse methods, it may be possible to establish a correspondence between the presence of a certain parameter relation in the equations modeling a field in a brain and the presence of classical enlightenment in the owner of that brain. This would provide a way to physically quantify and mathematically describe (or perhaps even explain) various dimensions of spiritual enlightenment in a way that any trained scientist would feel comfortable with.
That’s not the voice you’ll be hearing in this book. This book is a record of a different Shinzen, Shinzen the dharma teacher, as he talks to students engaged in meditation practice. Shinzen the dharma teacher has no resistance at all to speaking with less than full rigor. He’s quite comfortable with words like God, Source, Spirit, or phrases like “the nature of nature.” In fact, his natural voice loves spouting the kind of stuff that makes scientists wince. Here’s an example of that voice:
The same cosmic forces that mold galaxies, stars, and atoms also mold each moment of self and world. The inner self and the outer scene are born in the cleft between expansion and contraction. By giving yourself to those forces, you become those forces, and through that, you experience a kind of immortality–you live in the breath and pulse of every animal, in the polarization of electrons and protons, in the interplay of the thermal expansion and self-gravity that molds stars, in the interplay of dark matter that holds galaxies together and dark energy that stretches space apart. Don’t be afraid to let expansion and contraction tear you apart, scattering you in many directions while ripping away the solid ground beneath you. Behind that seeming disorder is an ordering principle so primordial that it can never be disordered: father-God effortlessly expands while mother-God effortlessly contracts. The ultimate act of faith is to give yourself back to those forces, give yourself back to the Source of the world, and through that, become the kind of person who can optimally contribute to the Mending of the world.
Shinzen the hard-nosed researcher and Shinzen the poetic dharma teacher get along just fine. After all, they’re both just waves. Particles may bang together. Waves automatically integrate. Just one problem though. The researcher is a fussy perfectionist. He is very resistant to the notion of publishing anything that lacks full rigor. Spoken words return to silence from where they came from. Printed text sits around for centuries waiting for every tiny imprecision and incompleteness to be exposed.
So it took a while for me to see value in allowing my talks to be published in something close to their original spoken form.
This video discusses the connections between meditative flow (any feeling of change) and the two QRI paradigms of “Wireheading Done Right” and “Neural Annealing“. To do so, I explore how each of the “seven factors of awakening” can be interpreted as operations that you do to flow. In a nutshell: the factors are “energy management techniques”, which when used in the right sequences and dosages, tend to result in wholesome neural annealing.
I then go on to discuss two fascinating dualities: (1) The dual relationship between standing wave patterns and vibratory frequencies. And (2) the dual correspondence between annealing at the computational level (REBUS) and annealing in resonance networks.
(1) Describes how the crazy patterns that come out of meditation and psychedelics are not irrelevant. They are, in a way, the dual counterpart to the emotional processing that you are undergoing. Hence why ugly emotions manifest as discordant structures whereas blissful feelings come together with beautiful geometries.
(2) Articulates how simulated annealing methods in probabilistic graphical models such as those that underlie the synthesis of entropic disintegration and the free energy principle (Friston’s and Carhart-Harris’ REBUS model) describe belief updating. In contrast, annealing at the implementation level refers to a dissonance-minimization technique in resonance networks. In turn, if these are “two sides of the same coin”, we can expect to find that operations in one domain will translate to operations in the other domain. In particular, I discuss how resisting information (“denial”, “cognitive dissonance”) has a corresponding subjective texture associated with muscle tension, “resistance”, viscosity, and hardness. Equanimity, in turn, allows the propagation of both waves of dissonance, consonance, and noiseas well as bundles of information. This has major implications for how to maximize the therapeutic benefit of psychedelics.
Finally, I explain how we could start formalizing Shinzen Young’s observation that you can, not only “read the contents of your subconscious“, but indeed also “heal your subconscious by greeting it with enough concentration, clarity, and equanimity”. Negentropy in the resonance network (patches of highly-ordered “combed” coherent resonance across levels of the hierarchy) can be used to heal patches of dissonance. This is why clean high-valence meditative objects (e.g. metta) can absorb and dissipate the internal dissonance stored in patterns of habitual responses. In turn, this might ultimately allow us to explain why, speaking poetically, it is true that love can heal all wounds. 🙂
~Qualia of the Day: Nirvana Rose~
(Skip to ~10:00 if you don’t need a recap of Wireheading Done Right and Neural Annealing)
Seven Factors of Awakening and Wireheading Done Right
The overall idea here is that in order to sustain a state of consciousness where meditation has benefits one needs to have a state of mind that has a lot of control over itself. In particular, there is a zone in the valence / arousal space that is ideal for meditation, namely, the region that is positive valence and middle-of-the-road arousal. In this light, when your mind is too excited and restless you should put emphasis on the tranquilizing factors (concentration, equanimity, and tranquility). When your mind is too sluggish or sleepy, you put extra emphasis on the exciting factors (investigation, energy, and joy). And the balancing factor (mindfulness) is what allows you to keep track of this process without getting distracted by the hindrances. This allows you to cybernetically stay in the zone most conducive to meditative development.
Importantly, I think that the factors themselves are best developed in that zone. So it may be futile to ask someone who is panicking to focus on tranquility IF they have not focused on tranquility before when they were in the optimal zone. So for a lot of people developing the seven factors is going to be a bootstrapping process. Pragmatically, I expect that e.g. people with chronic pain might benefit from actual painkillers in order to reduce the pain enough to then be close to the zone where they can actually practice and develop the seven factors effectively. When the painkillers wear off at least they will have gotten some practice time, and then applying equanimity to the pain will be easier (I think that it is both ineffective and cruel to ask someone in pain to “just have equanimity about it” if they haven’t already developed equanimity when they were in the zone).
In addition to valence and arousal, the seven factors also allow you to cybernetically stay in the zone for two additional key dimensions. Namely the dimension of “clinging vs. letting go” and the dimension of “noise vs. purity”. In this light, we have that energy increases fast euphoria (positive valence and positive arousal), joy increases valence, investigation identifies trends that take you out of the zone and maintains purity, concentration increases purity, equanimity increases valence a little and “letting go” a lot, tranquility induces slow euphoria (positive valence and negative arousal), and mindfulness oversees the whole process while also increasing “letting go”. Together they can help you stay in the optimal zone along these four dimensions! They are, in effect, a “natural way” to do Wireheading Done Right.
Seven Factors of Awakening and Neural Annealing
In addition to the lens of Wireheading Done Right, Neural Annealing also interfaces with the Seven Factors of Awakening quite well. Namely, you can think of them as “welding tools” for wholesome annealing!
In brief, you first need to use “flow” which “melts” the structures of your world-simulation and makes them flexible and amenable to modifications. Then you use the seven factors in order to direct the evolution of the flow into healing and harmonious dynamics. Doing this over and over will, over time, allow you to create a very wholesome and healing flow. More specifically, here are the seven factors as seen through the lens of Neural Annealing:
Maintain flow in the foreground
Focus on the texture rather than the content of flow
Monitor for the arising of hindrances and inclining the mind away from them
This is what happens when you “pluck” the flow. Naturally, this energizes the eigenmodes of the flow! It is like the light that gets trapped between two parallel mirrors. Energy illuminates the harmonics of the flow you are cultivating.
The judicious selection of sets of eigenmodes that are consonant together
Given joyous flow, deepening the joy entails energization, blending, and annealing of the consonant gestalt (cf. Focus on Positive)
Examining the texture of flow. Testing it to determine the presence of hindrances.
It is listening for the ring of the flow (with its objects) and diagnosing what is in it
Cultivating tranquility entails developing highly-efficient cooling structures that channel flow and dissipate energy quickly (cf. Focus on Rest)
Not interfering with energy transit and dissipation by letting it recruit as large of a piece of flow as possible for its diffusion
At a high-enough concentration (in my experience), equanimity undergoes a phase change. It becomes very fluid which balances out the forces inside you. I can see how in large enough amounts this would significantly reduce the suffering associated with intense pain.
It is hard to tell “what you do” to increase concentration. As far as I can tell it requires a lot of skillful rhythmicity that guides awareness in a way that prevents its falling away.
A rough metric for concentration might be: amount of energy of flow that is in phase, in harmonic relationship, and synchronized. Thus, for any level of concentration there are many possible “solutions”. Only on the very high-levels of concentration do experiences become constrained to only a few types. The combinatorial space becomes smaller as concentration increases.
The holy grail here would be the creation of a high-entropy alloy that blends together all seven factors. It’s a bootstrapping process. As you start developing some of the factors, you can use them to weld the flow in such a way that developing the other factors becomes easier. Then you can start developing two or more factors simultaneously (e.g. “tranquil equanimity” or “joyous concentration”). In time, one climbs the gradient that fortifies the presence of the factors in the mind, making it a home for wholesome qualia computing.
Wishing you all a wonderful Sunday!
The Goal: To Anneal a Wholesome Annealing Toolkit (the Holy High-Entropy Alloy of the Seven Factors of Awakening)