“The typical mystic seems to move towards his goal through a series of strongly marked oscillations between states of pleasure and states of pain.”
– Evelyn Underhill, Mysticism
This primer is about the broadest possible classes of meditation and spiritual experience, with an emphasis on the particular obstacles of each stage. Knowing about these – having a context – can help people move through them more quickly.
The terrains are loosely based on what is known as the “Progress of Insight” in Theravada Buddhism, a series of stages and experiences that insight meditators can pass through on retreat and in life (the Progress of Insight is itself a 20th-century reformulation of the classic manual of Buddhist meditation practice, the Visuddhimagga or “The Path of Purification“). The immediate question of course is whether these stages are similar across traditions and practices. The answer is: it depends on how you look. In her classic study on the lives of mostly Western mystics, the religious studies scholar Evelyn Underhill identified a similar pattern of breakthrough, challenge, and subsequent integration. So there is definitely some overlap.
That said, all this is a work-in-progress. Every time I (Jeff) read it, I add more caveats and cut more details, removing what increasingly seems to me like insight meditation-specific effects, vs the human universals I once imagined them to be. So it goes. In a couple years there may be nothing written here at all except this: life has its ups and downs.
I guess that’s what happens when you try to generalize about human experience. Perhaps not coincidentally, writing in this way is actually true to the spirit of the Progress of Insight, which is ostensibly about seeing through ever more fundamental layers of bias and distortion and cliché.
So let’s get started.
Wait! I Don’t Like the Word “Spiritual”, it Sounds Flaky
Some people have strong reactions to the term. We use it because it’s the only one we know of wide enough to include multiple traditions, beliefs and values, but is not scientifically reductive or religiously dogmatic. “Mystical” is another possibility, but it’s even more airy-fairy, plus it implies a category of lofty occurrences that happen only to rarefied adepts on mountain tops. One of the things you learn when you actually start talking to real people about all this is spiritual experiences are fairly common, and happen even to folks with no interest in the subject.
So what exactly are you talking about then, when you talk about “Spiritual”?
Across all cultures and traditions, people describe a dimension of experience that goes beyond the obvious way of perceiving reality as made up of separate physical objects. This apprehension of reality can be accessed both through transcendent mystical experience, and / or through a less exotic awareness of the connectivity and poignancy and meaningfulness of everyday life.
Different traditions describe one or the other (or both) of these dimensions in different ways, often using diametrically opposed language. So Buddhism talks about No-Self or Emptiness, while the Yogic tradition talks about True Self or Fullness. Abrahamic religions talk about the Creator or the Ground of Being. “Non-religious but spiritual” people might talk about “Awareness,” or nature, or Reality with a capital ‘R.’ You can be a rabidly committed atheist and still encounter a richness and luminosity in the natural world; it is a dimension of experience there to be found, even if your language and worldview are unprepared to admit it.
While the different vocabularies used can make it sound like there’s no agreement, they seem to point to a common unitive or absolute principle that goes beyond words. The paradox is this common principle is always apprehended and expressed through the filter of the individual’s unique culture and history and language and belief system.
For this reason, since we cannot understand the nature of spiritual experience in words alone, many people use practices such as meditation, prayer, ritual, yoga, self-inquiry, satsang, shamanic ordeals and others to gain a more direct understanding. Others don’t appear to need such explicit means – they manage to arrive at their own harmonious outlooks all on their own.
Why is it important?
The simplest answer is spiritual practices can decrease our suffering and increase our fulfillment. When you interview long-term practitioners, many report feeling more present, more easy-going and appreciative, less neurotically-consumed by their own desires and fears. Thus, they seem to find it easier to be helpful to others.
Or course, this is still a human process, so it can be abused and confused and profoundly misused in any number of ways. So it is with anything in human life. One thing is clear: the more we as a culture understand this process, the more informed decisions we can make around teachers and traditions and practices.
OK – The Main Terrains
There are four, with one optional event that can happen, and then the cycle repeats:
5. Awakening (in some paradigms)
6. Repeat, probably forever
Final Caveat: The Map is Not the Territory
There is no way of knowing what will happen on any journey. These stages are a map of the experiential terrain, not the terrain itself. Maps are useful to get oriented, but they’re always oversimplified. Very likely you’ll have periods in your practice where you’ll seem to fall off the map entirely (not easy for a mind that craves certainty). If this happens, see it as an invitation to draw a new map for yourself – or to forsake maps altogether!
Although these stages can be experienced as linear, just as often they are not; rather, they loop and branch and go backwards and sometimes skip over entire geographies. They are also fractal, that is, they are repeated at different times scales, so you may go through a couple days of each in a single week-long meditation retreat, and a couple years of each over a ten-year period of your life. Every person has a different pattern.
The terrains are often quite subtle and tricky to detect, especially with life events happening over-top. (From a critic’s point of view, this means they may also be pure projection!) Mindfulness seems to make them easier to recognize, although mindfulness is also a training that in some ways induces or creates these terrains. Try getting your head around that paradox! In this document, we are looking at the level of weeks and months. (For two nerdy diagrams of what these terrains look like over time, check out this post.)
For fans of so-called “nondual” approaches, who recognize there is nothing to do and no where to go – and thus bristle at this whole misinformed growth paradigm – check out this post, where I try to describe how nonduality, too, is a developmental process.
Here we go.
Terrain 1: Effort
In this terrain, the practitioner has a dedicated regular practice and it takes discipline to stick with it. Spiritual practice is experienced as something the practitioner must work at deliberately, slowly developing skill and insight through conscious effort and intention. Usually the Effort stage doesn’t present major life challenges. The biggest problem at this stage is the struggle with motivation. You wonder whether you’re wasting your time, whether the whole thing is worth the effort – hell, you could be watching TV!
That said, there are many benefits to practice even at this stage, such as relaxation, calming anxious thoughts, insights into patterns of thinking and feeling and relating, and even the working-through and elimination of dysfunctional habits and behaviours. All this is enormously valuable in it’s own right; noticing these benefits helps motivate the practitioner to keep going.
Even experienced practitioners pass through regular periods of rebuilding concentration and commitment.
Terrain 2: Breakthrough
This is a point where something happens spontaneously in the practice and spiritual experience seems to flow freely all by itself. There is almost always a temporary sense of opening to and perceiving a new and more fundamental level of mind and / or reality. Whether you actually are experiencing a deeper level of reality is endlessly debated. You are, however, experiencing a new level of experience – which may amount the same thing!
Whatever the case, the varieties of such experiences are endless and can occur in any modality: visual, auditory, tactile, kinaesthetic, emotional, cognitive, volitional, symbolic, etc. They can occur in multiple modalities at once, or seem to blend across modalities in unusual ways (seeing body sensations, feeling ideas, etc). Breakthrough can be experienced indistinctly as energy waves or perceptual vibrations or sensed presences, or very distinctly as dramatic visions and inner voices. Some people have Breakthrough-style experiences without much formal spiritual practice; since we don’t talk about this stuff in respectable conversation, they may feel they’re losing their marbles.
Breakthroughs can also be drug-induced – in particular psychedelics or “entheogens” like ayahuasca, psilocybin and others. These experiences often contain rich insights; the problem is the person often ends up writing them off as “just the drugs,” not appreciating the value and legitimacy of the perspective shift. Or, as often, they do the opposite: they reify what are effectively temporary peak experiences, overlooking the simplicity and naturalness of more mature stages of spiritual development.
Sounds Awesome, What Could Possibly Go Wrong?
The common theme of Breakthrough experiences is they’re pleasurable, exciting, and energizing. They are wildly life-affirming, and that is good, but all the energy and boosted confidence can also lead to manic self-aggrandizement and feelings of deranged spiritual kingpin-hood.
Thus these experiences can also be dangerous; some cases look a lot like psychosis and may even require a mental health intervention. In Theravada Buddhism they talk about the “Corruptions of Insight” – ecstatic Breakthrough special effects like bliss and visions and energy and rapture and “knowledge” and apparent paranormal powers. All of this stuff is very easy to get fixated on or utterly lost inside, hence: “corruptions.” You think “Wow, this is what it’s all about,” and keep trying to recapture these transitory experiences when, in the long run, it may not end up being about that at all.
Other challenges in the Breakthrough terrain include a sense of disconnection from one’s old reality. It can be hard to relate to friends and family who don’t get your new enthusiasm for sitting with your eyes closed, or your sudden lack of enthusiasm for pounding beers and passing out in the corner of nightclubs. There can be a feeling of isolation and a strong desire to seek out and surround oneself with other spiritual-minded wing-nuts. It’s easy to get sanctimonious here, to start ranting about the unconsciousness of the herd and “consensus reality.” Basically this is a period of spiritual adolescence, a necessary stage as you move toward a more easy-going and engaged spiritual maturity.
I Have Seen the Truth!
Related to this is the potential for zealotry and dogmatism, where the person feels the specific practice or tradition that led to their breakthrough must be the Right One. Some religions encourage exactly this kind of thinking, and point to such experiences as “proof” of the truth of their doctrines. In fact, people of every religion, and a bunch of decidedly non-religious people as well, have all had similar breakthroughs. This doesn’t mean we shouldn’t be enthusiastic about the practices that worked for us, but it’s important to be respectful that different strokes work for different folks and lead to different outcomes.
The practitioner’s first encounter with the Breakthrough stage is usually the beginning of spiritual life, not the end. It will very likely be passed through again and again. Many older practitioners report that as they get more experience, the breakthrough “highs” subside, for there is less contrast between how they might live, and how they actually live.
Terrain 3: Challenge / Dissolution
This is where it can all hit the fan: spiritual skid row, a challenging terrain that some people describe as “the Dark Night of the Soul” (others reserve that term for rarer and more debilitating experience, explored at greater length here).
In this terrain, the blissful highs of Breakthrough subside and one may enter a period of intellectual confusion, loss of confidence, fear, grief, and agitation. Again, this stage will be experienced differently by different people, and is described differently by different traditions. Some people seem to jump right over this stage, or if they do hit it it’s no big deal. Others experience it as difficult and protracted – lasting from months to years – on a continuum from conventional emotional and mental pain through to, in rare cases, profound dissociation and terror.
Dissolution can be thought of as a period of difficulty between the ending of an old state of equilibrium and the establishment of a new one. It is a kind of de-armouring, where old habits and defences fall away, revealing deeper structures and ideally making way for new growth. Thus, as the process unfolds, it may trigger primal emotional responses such as fear, anger and despair.
It can also produce weird alterations to our normal sensory perception and physiological responses. People talk about exaggerated sensitivity and being easily overwhelmed by situations and stimulation.
It can seem that our whole familiar mode of operation is being challenged in this stage, and indeed, this may be exactly what’s happening. To be optimistic, you could say that through this process we’re given the opportunity to confront and ultimately to heal the traumas, heartbreaks, and disappointments that are lodged deep in our bodies and psyches.
Dissolution often calls for a shift in the kinds of practices we use. We may have made great progress with a certain practice technique, but suddenly the technique fails us, leaving us feeling lost and trapped. To make it through this period, we may have to shift gears from a practice focused on pushing further into the transcendent and spiritual, toward practices focused on grounding, stabilizing, healing and self-care. It may be more important here to walk in the woods and have long baths and eat hardy foods than to sit on a cushion “exploring” reality.
Although it’s natural for this stage to be distressing, a factor that can make it worse is lack of prior knowledge. Often there’s a strong sense of confusion and a loss of confidence in oneself and one’s path. Knowing ahead of time about this stage may not make the experience less challenging, but it can definitely help us move through it with less resistance and doubt. In this game, perspective is everything.
Terrain 4: Equanimity
After the ordeal of Dissolution, Equanimity is the ability to finally accept the changes that have occurred as a result of our development.
This terrain is initially very peaceful, and people often have a stereotyped sense of being a “good” practitioner. In the mindfulness meditation context, sensations that once felt agitating and dissonant are now experienced with flow and ease, clarity and naturalness. Everything feels OK.
In fact Equanimity is the Land of Okeydokey – fulfilling and special, yet also paradoxically quite natural and ordinary. Many advanced practitioners say the equilibrium and equanimity we feel here is the dominant quality that emerges over a lifetime of practice. Over the years, the ups and downs are experienced with more and more balance and perspective. There is simply less “self” here – less activation of thoughts and emotions, and those that do come are less fixated.
Within the context of formal insight meditation retreats, although the stage of Equanimity can feel like a relief, it’s not without its own challenges. One of my teachers used to talk about “the equanimity trap,” where the practitioner becomes so easy-going and self-satisfied that they stop actively inquiring into their experience, thus missing out on deeper insights apparently just around the corner.
Another challenge that can arise late in this stage is a sense of frustration and painful longing – and, sometimes, an inexplicable fear of annihilation. People can report feeling that something else needs to happen, something impossible to describe. This can be an indication that the person is approaching one last terrain in the insight cycle, although it is less a terrain than a (sometimes) event.
5. The Part that Sounds Like BS: Awakening
And so we come to the most confounding part of this process, something most smart commentators don’t even try to describe, since it seems to create more confusion than good, and in any event doesn’t happen in this way for most people -and doesn’t need to happen! But it can happen, thus it makes sense to at least acknowledge it.
As mystics have described throughout history, some people report “waking up” to a fundamentally different type of conscious experience – a bit like the shift from ordinary dreaming to lucid dreaming, only while awake. At this moment of transition, there can be a sudden glimpse of, well, of something that is beyond all previous experience. The experience is named and described in different, often idiosyncratic ways by different spiritual traditions.
In Buddhism it might be called Nirvana, cessation, or fruition. In Abrahamic religions its been described as encountering the Mystery (“My mind,” wrote St. Augustine, “…with the flash of one hurried glance … attained to the vision of That Which Is”). Yogic traditions call it “Samadhi.” Some modern spiritual writers describe it as an experience of momentarily dropping out of the subject-object mode of perception into a “nondual” mode of consciousness. In a future neuroscience, it may be recognized as some sort of spontaneous reorganization within the human nervous system. Or not!
Dramatic awakenings are usually a consequence of long and dedicated practice – although, just to make it extra confusing, they can also happen spontaneously. Whatever the case, for some the sense of being a separate subject drops away, and for a brief period the practitioner experiences a new kind of intimacy with reality – not as an observer, but as a participant.
The experience can be beautiful and loving, infused with a sense of sacredness and divine presence. Or it can be utterly empty, filled with awe and sometimes fear, a plunge into the “Cloud of Unknowing,” into an “unfathomable Abyss.” And everything in between.
I’m Telling You: It was ‘effing Ineffable!
When the subject recovers the first thing they say is language cannot possibly capture the experience (or non-experience) they have just had – it is, to quote William James, “ineffable.” And then, often without missing a beat, many of them do their best to describe it anyway, usually in highly emotional or evocative language, for emotion is the body’s response to the “event,” like ringing is the bell’s response to the clapper.
However hard it is to describe, those who’ve had the experience say it carries with it an intrinsic authority and renewed sense of confidence. There is a feeling of understanding something profound about existence. This is one of the ways the experience seems to affect people, one of the things that changes in them: they feel they know first-hand that the normal day-today operations of the mind are limited and incomplete. They are part of something larger, and no amount of atheist hand-wringing will convince them otherwise.
This perspective shift happens in different ways. Most teachers who’ve had an awakening teach their own way in, often unaware of (or, worse, disparaging of) other ways. Thus, for those trying to grok the phenomenon, there’s the all-important understanding one gains from the inside, as it were, but there is also a valuable understanding one gains from the outside, that is, from talking to people from different traditions and reading the various scholarly and anecdotal accounts and trying to assemble a broader, more comparative, more genuinely pluralistic picture. I have written a bit about this here.
Sudden and Gradual
Awakenings can be sudden, and they can be gradual. If they are gradual, then they may go unnoticed, that is, they never contain any kind of dramatic “event” and are more a long infusion of increasing openness and naturalness and ease – see the Equanimity section above. This is an important point: it means experiencing some distinct moment of awakening is NOT remotely essential for a practitioner. Remember this, as it is very easy to get all spiritual materialist about the whole thing, reifying some fantasy, not realizing that you may, in fact, be “awakening” just fine.
Ultimately, the litmus of a successful practice isn’t any cosmic special effect, but how you act and are in the world. As the great scholar of religion Huston Smith once said, “altered traits, not altered states.”
How Do I Know It Was an Awakening?
I have no idea. Maybe one day we’ll see something in an fMRI or some other imaging technology – that is, if we can ever figure out what to look for. My friend the neuroscientist Dave Vago thinks this could happen (paper here), as does the nondual cognitive neuroscientist Zoran Josipovic (paper here), although both are more interested in “enlightenment” as the product of long-term change vs some one-off peak experience. My unapologetically-reductive nerd teacher Shinzen Young is also excited about this possibility; he even wrote this post on how brain technology might “enlighten the world.” Others are more skeptical.
Certainly the difference between dime-a-dozen Breakthrough experiences and sudden awakenings are not always clear, and anyway depends on your ideals about what any of this means in the first place. Within insight meditation, some teachers say that during a Breakthrough experience, however exciting and mind-expanding, the sense of “I-hood” persists. There is still a “you” there taking credit for the whole experience, trying to figure out how to start your own product line of self-realized action heroes.
There is apparently no such distinction with many sudden awakening events. Here the sense of I-hood disappears entirely (or expands to include the object), and the practitioner experiences themselves as Reality. In some awakenings, the subject’s awareness actually disappears for a few moments – blip – a phenomenon known as a cessation. There is no experience here, for there is no experiencer. Which means the practitioner only knows a cessation happened after the fact. It’s like a tiny skip in the person’s sensory experience of reality, a breach in the continuity of consciousness.
But all this is very insight-meditation specific – it’s not clear how any of it relates to other traditions or paradigms.
What About the After-Effects?
While moments of cessation or union usually don’t last long, the after effects of initial awakening can result in weeks or months of amplified bliss, insight, and inner peace (or, sometimes, the opposite). Eventually, the after-effects fade and what remains is usually a subtle baseline shift in our experience (although for some it’s not subtle). Some aspect of experience is never quite the same afterwards – some measure of permanent integration has occurred.
The nature of this baseline shift will differ depending on many idiosyncratic specifics, but generally speaking there seems to be a subtle shift in the direction of all the spiritual clichés most of us have already heard: freedom, peace, security, connectivity, equanimity, and – hopefully – wisdom and compassion.
Over a lifetime of practice, Awakenings may be experienced many times, at many levels of depth and intensity and in many different experiential domains. In Theravada Buddhism, initial awakening is called “stream-entry” and generally results in what is effectively an intellectual understanding that things are not as they once seemed. Deeper shifts can in theory go on from there.
The helpful thing about sudden awakenings is they convince practitioners once and for all there is more to reality (or, at least, to the experience of reality) than meets the eye. If a practitioner’s process is more gradual, it’s easier to get tripped up by doubt and all the “special” experiences you imagine you could be having and to generally psych yourself out.
But sudden awakenings also have their challenges. They can lead to a feeling of being fundamentally altered and therefore alienated from others who’ve not had the experience (similar to the alienation that can occur after Breakthrough). In the halo period there can also be a strong sense of everything being fundamentally fine, leading some to temporarily lose their motivation to act in daily life and/or to further their practice. Why go to work, or do the dishes, when reality is shiny and perfect?
Finally, defiantly underreported in the spirituality field, people can lose other drivers as well: their lust for sex, for creative expression, for making an impact. Aspects of what seem like your character can change as formerly all-encompassing organizing principles fall away. Sometimes they come back (in a less fixated form); sometimes they don’t. This seems to be only rarely experienced as a problem, although of course the data on this – in fact on ALL of this – is sketchy and anecdotal.
6. Life: And After
“The last perfection to supervene upon a thing, is its becoming the cause of other things.”
– Thomas Aquinas
Life goes on. Practice continues, around and around through the themes / terrains just described. Each pass is said to reveal ever-deeper insights, and to free up more energy and, ideally, more compassion – although there’s no guarantee it will work out this way, hence the emphasis in many traditions on a parallel ethical training.
Over time a sense of momentum picks the practitioner up, so that it’s less about making it happen and more about allowing the process to unfold. Practitioners say they experience themselves as part of a much larger process. They are able to more clearly experience how their own actions have a positive impact on those around them. Trust in this fundamental connectivity and meaningfulness – and the sense of repose this brings – is one of the main themes described across traditions.
However grandiose all this may sound, from inside the experience – that is, from inside a person’s life – the whole thing is less and less of a big deal. Making it into a big deal, talking about any of it, feels ridiculous and phoney.
Perhaps the final paradox is how a path of going in, so ostensibly self-indulgent to critics of spirituality, can make us more skillful in going out. More than one commentator has pointed out that many of history’s great sages and mystics and saints have been some of our most vital change-makers, the very people most effective at making a difference in the external world.
Whether this is actually on balance true, or a bunch of religious propaganda, is a question for historians and journalists. But in principle it makes sense. When you stop fighting with yourself, you free up a lot of energy to more effectively help others. What else are you going to do? It’s easier to give of yourself when you have no self to lose.
Of course, you can also amass twelve gold-plated limos, have serial affairs with your students, and embezzle piles of filthy lucre – all of which goes to show you “enlightenment” is no substitute for a good moral education and a proper system of peer feedback and behavioural accountability!
Every map and conceptual framework has its limitations, but it is (arguably) better to have a rough map, than none at all. It is also helpful simply to know that many have walked this path before, have braved its challenges, and emerged stronger and more connected and more alive because of it.
Now: let’s please never talk about any of this ever again.