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Understanding the States and Stages of Enlightenment, Part 4
by Ron Crouch
Editor's Note from Joel Groover: So far in this series, Hawaii-based meditation teacher Ron Crouch has taken us from the beginning stages of meditative development up to what might be thought of as a yogi’s initial awakening—a stage known as the Arising and Passing Away of phenomena. In Part 4, Ron describes how a very difficult challenge usually follows the largely pleasant “fireworks” of this initial opening. This is known in Christian mysticism as “the dark night of the soul” and in Zen as “the rolling up of the mat.” Jack Kornfield’s book After the Ecstasy, the Laundry is in part a guide through this tough territory. Get out your quarters and your soap! Go to Part 1, Part 2, and Part 3.
As the meditator moves along the path and has already experienced attention syncing up with the arising and then the peaking of phenomena, in the next stage the mind moves to the passing away of phenomena. I call the next section of the path the “Dark Night.” In the commentaries it is also called “the knowledge of suffering.” This phase, which is broken up into fun-sounding sub-stages called Dissolution, Fear, Misery, Disgust, Desire for Deliverance and Re-Observation, is where most meditators get into trouble, and can become stuck. The sheer discomfort and negativity of this part of the path may lead meditators to conclude that they are no longer “doing it right.” They may decide to just quit meditating. After all, why keep at it when it pretty much hurts to meditate? In the Zen tradition, this part of the path is called the “rolling up of the mat” for just that reason – the meditator just wants to throw in the towel and stop.
This actually makes a lot of sense if you do not know the map. The memory of the rapturous A&P is still fresh in the mind of a meditator who initially steps into the Dark Night. Compared to the joy and wonder that was only just experienced, the Dark Night is a horrible let down. But it is important to know that the difficulty being experienced is a sign of progress--it means that you are doing the meditation correctly. Another important thing to know is that even though this section of the path is not pleasant, it is very important for insight into the nature of reality (which is not always very pleasant!).
What follows is a description of the stages that make up the Dark Night. These are not comprehensive and will not match everyone’s experiences. Some people have very strong and painful experiences while others have a very mild experience that they hardly notice at all. These descriptions capture some of the experiences that an average, moderate experience would encompass.
If you believe that you may be experiencing any of these, I strongly advise you to discuss it with a teacher. Experienced Dharma teachers know this territory very well and the best ones know how to guide people through it with care and understanding. Up to this point it has been pretty safe to be a bit of loner in meditation, but when it comes to the Dark Night, you should seek advice from someone more experienced.
As the meditator moves through the A&P, the experience of excitement and joy gradually diminishes, and what takes the place of those emotions is a feeling of slowing down or sinking. Those who are very mindful and aware will notice that the mind is now having trouble noticing anything but the endings of things. The way that this is sometimes experienced is that meditators feels they can no longer do noting practice correctly, that they can only note something once it has already passed away. Many people describe feeling lethargy and cool sensations on the skin while on the cushion, and difficulty keeping up with conversations or remembering things off the cushion.
The ways in which dissolution can be experienced vary a lot, in that for some it is a negative experience while for others it is quite pleasant. Some meditators describe a sinking feeling that accompanies an almost fatalistic awareness of the eventual aging, decay and death of all things. My own experience was more typical in that it was mild and pleasant. I can be a fairly hyperactive and over-committed person in general, and during this stage it was as if I was given a mild tranquilizer. I slowed down physically and mentally and took my time about everything. I found that I had trouble keeping up with things that normally were not a problem. There was a vague sense of the impermanence of things, and I wanted to savor life.
At some point when the meditator is in the midst of the sinking, slow and cool feelings of dissolution, he or she will suddenly experience the stage of fear. Unlike dissolution, which feels like a gradual shift away from the thrill of A&P, fear does not come on gradually, but suddenly. One second you are feeling chilled out in dissolution and the next you are suddenly experiencing alarm and anxiety. For some this can seem like a panic attack, but for others it feels as if they are suddenly on edge and much more worried than usual.
It often comes out of the blue, but occasionally the shift from dissolution to fear can be triggered by something in the environment. I first experienced fear when meditating in a park and hearing a dog bark in the distance. When the dog barked, a warm tingling ran up the front of my body, my heart beat faster, and I became convinced that the dog was after me. It was a striking experience because it was so out of the blue--it sprang up in the midst of being so calm and chilled-out in dissolution. I realize now that the barking was merely a trigger that started the next stage, which would have started on its own anyway. I say all this to point out that you can easily confuse yourself and become a bit paranoid during this stage if you keep looking outside yourself for the source of fear. The fear was caused by the meditation and not the dog. When I opened my eyes to take a look, the dog was chasing a squirrel.
What is actually happening, down deep, is that as your attention is syncing up with the dissolution of phenomena you are finding that there is nothing in experience that the sense of “me” can hold onto as stable and permanent. It just can’t get any footing. You do not realize it at a cognitive level, but you are getting a deep insight into the impermanence of all phenomena, and along with that, into the impermanence of the self. This is something that is terrifying to one’s very roots. This initial stage can be a great source of distress, and people can become stuck here for some time if they do not have good guidance.
Following the panicky, anxiety-inducing stage of fear, the meditator begins to move into the stage of misery, which is aptly named. This stage feels awful both physically and psychologically. Aches, itches, weird pains and difficult thoughts arise and fly through body and mind so quickly that the meditator has little time to note or really notice them. There is only a strong sense of being in anguish, and it is common for meditators to grimace while sitting in meditation when they are in the midst of this stage. In my experience the stage of misery was a bit like having a bad case of flu, but without the sneezing or stuffiness. Mostly, there was the inescapable feeling that something was simply not right with me, but I couldn’t quite put my finger on what it was, and nothing seemed to help.
At a deeper level, the mind at the stage of misery has already gained insight into the impermanence of self, and this stage can best be conceived of as a terrible sense of grief that follows on the heels of that insight. Again, you may not “know” that this is happening at a cognitive level, but deep down there is a growing awareness that everything is impermanent, including the self. This is profoundly disturbing.
Following on the heels of misery is disgust. When disgust arises in meditation for the first time the grimace of misery is replaced by a scrunching around the eyes and nose--a face that clearly says “I’m grossed out.” In meditation the bodily sensations go from being irritating in the stage of misery, to feeling unbearably nasty in disgust. The mind can be flooded with images of filth and foulness that are revolting. Off the cushion, meditators can find themselves disliking things that they would normally crave. In many cases the thought of sex seems gross, and both food and the act of feeding seem to have a surreal nastiness to them. Even entertainment and art might seem empty and pointless. At this stage I personally felt mild nausea and had an overwhelming sense that my skin was filthy. Disgust typically does not last that long compared to misery, and it quickly resolves into desire for deliverance. However, do not discount the importance of this stage. Disgust is a clear insight into the un-satisfactoriness of the body and mind. This insight knowledge does a lot of damage to our deeply held habit of looking outside ourselves for the answer to our suffering.
At this point, the difference between cognitive “insight” and contemplative insight should really be sinking in: the insights on the path do not just change how you think about things--they change how you are in the world.
Desire for Deliverance
You have felt terrible panic, and you’ve felt like you’ve been through a miserable flu. You are feeling disgusted with all of existence. What is the next logical thing to follow? A strong wish for it to just be over with already. Desire for deliverance is the next stage on the path following disgust, and it is the most pitiful of the insight stages. At this point you really just wish the insights and the path would just stop and that things would go back to the way they were at A&P. In some cases you might wish that you’d never started to meditate at all, and might feel resentful that all this negativity is part of the path. It is not uncommon for meditators to unconsciously make little whining or grunting noises during meditation when going through this stage. There is a vague sense that all of this is just unfair and too terrible for words. Like disgust, this stage typically does not last very long, and many people can fly through it without realizing that it happened. It could be as fleeting as a single thought wondering when this will end, or as strong and lasting a bought of crying. Each person’s experience will be different.
With a nerdy name like “re-observation,” how bad can the next stage be? As it turns out, really bad. My teacher warned me ahead of time that re-observation is “the king-daddy of the dukkha nyanas” (or insights into suffering) and I’m glad he let me know. This stage is called re-observation because the meditator experiences all of the previous stages, one on top of the other, in quick succession. In other words, it is a stage in which all the previous dukkha nyanas are wrapped up in one. When it starts you know something has changed because the whole field of awareness, body sensations, mental activity, everything, suddenly seems to be cycling through dissolution, fear, misery, disgust and desire for deliverance over and over again. In the space of a few moments you can experience panic, aches, itches, nausea, disgusting mental images, crawling sensations on the skin, and an irritating sense that you can’t keep up with it all. At this stage in my meditation I described the experience as feeling like I was tumbling around in a clothes dryer full of negative mind-states.
It may seem cruel, but there is a very important insight to be gained through the experience of re-observation. You would not have reached this stage in the path if you were not strong enough to be here, and what you get out of all of this misery is a very, very critical ingredient for your eventual liberation--equanimity. At some point there is a shift in perspective, and meditators feel they are no longer tumbling around with the negative mind-states, but are simply watching them. This is their first taste of equanimity.
Skills for Moving Through the Dark Night
Moving through the dark night and into equanimity successfully requires a few things, but chief among them is the will to stick with it and not give up. Keep going and watch the experience evolve and change with as much mindfulness as you can muster. Along with this quality of sticking to it, which we might call resolve, determination or stubbornness, we need a balancing quality that softens us and allows us to be open to the experience, as negative as it is. What is needed is acceptance. A lot of misunderstandings exist about the role of acceptance in meditation, and I hesitate to include it at all because it can be misconstrued to mean a vague sense that “everything is OK.” This is not at all what acceptance means in this instance. Rather, in this case, acceptance means a whole-hearted willingness to be with things just as they are, even if they are awful. The determination to carry on the meditation and the willingness to accept what it reveals are valuable tools for skillfully moving through the Dark Night.
Remember that technical point about meditation that you discovered back at the A&P? That you seem to cycle through the path to your cutting edge throughout your day? This is the stage where that little detail has huge implications for your life. This is because if you are moving along the path and cycling up to a really nasty experience a few times or more each day, it can seriously wreck your mood. If you do not understand why this is happening to you, then you may end up constructing a lot of elaborate stories about why you feel so rotten all the time, and could end up engaging in some pretty unskillful behavior. People who are going through this and do not understand why might blame their jobs, their relationships, or some other facet of their life for how they are feeling. The result could be some poor decisions. At this point in the path it is very important to keep the practice and the rest of your life separate.
The Dark Night and a Student’s Right to Know
The fact that the Dark Night exists has, to my mind, serious ethical implications. Doctors are obliged to discuss the potential negative side effects of any medication that they recommend to their patients. Researchers must ensure that research participants are aware of the potential negative effects of their research. Yet meditation teachers often do not tell students up front about the negative effects of meditation. This is understandable in that teachers do not want to drive students away or scare them before they have any insight, and they also do not want to create expectations that having a negative experience is part of what being a “good” meditator is about. But choosing not to tell beginning students about the Dark Night also raises the question of whether the student was given the information needed to make a clear choice about whether to take this path. This is particularly important for students who have a history of depression or anxiety. There are many awakened practitioners that I know personally who made it through these stages just fine while they were also coping with depression or anxiety, but there is the potential that these stages could exacerbate those conditions. And that is just dangerous. This is simply a lengthy way for me to say that everyone deserves to know about the Dark Night up front. No one should find out about it when they are in the midst of going through it.
If you have crossed the A&P, then you are headed for the Dark Night. For meditators going through this I highly recommend having a teacher that understands this stuff. A good teacher will help you to move through these stages with greater ease and will also help you to get a clear understanding of the insights inherent in the experience. Navigating the Dark Night without a teacher is possible, but it is not recommended.
In the next installment, Ron takes a detailed look at the development of Equanimity.
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About the Author
Insight meditation teacher Ron Crouch is a post-doctoral psychology fellow based in Kailua, Hawaii. He is particularly fascinated by the intersection of Western psychology and Eastern wisdom, and is working on research projects to better understand what happens in meditation in terms of psychology. Ron is open about enlightenment and is not shy about making meditation practical and down-to-earth. He teaches meditators all over the world via Skype and by phone, guiding them through the traditional insight stages described in this series. To read more of Ron’s work or contact him for teaching, check out his web site at alohadharma.wordpress.com or email him at firstname.lastname@example.org.