In the Theravada Buddhist tradition, there is a lot of talk about the meditative stages of insight. Strangely enough, Western Buddhist teachers – even those who have extensively trained in Theravada – rarely speak clearly about these stages. Apparently there is some sort of taboo around discussing the subject in public, and there has been some controversy and debate as to whether this is in fact a good thing.
There are several competent Western teachers who have dived deeply into this territory (notably Daniel Ingram, in his fascinating book Mastering the Core Teachings of the Buddha). I’m not going to talk about these stages today, because I am nowhere near qualified to do so.
Instead, I’d like to talk about a different progression of Buddhist insight that is particularly relevant to secular folks who get into meditation, and especially to those who are scientifically inclined and/or consider themselves “skeptics”. This progression is not about the insights that arise from practice itself; it’s about the ways in which one’s relationship to Buddhism evolves over the course of doing insight practices.
I make no effort to directly relate this model in any sense to the “real” maps of Buddhist insight, although it’s possible that some descriptions might happen to line up with certain aspects of what happens during the meditative stages of insight (unsurprising, given that they both relate to meditation practice). And just to be clear, I am by no means claiming to have outlined some kind of profound or original model of the meditative path. Nor are these stages meant to be particularly detailed, precise, or informative as an actual map. Rather, the point of this post is to loosely describe one possible path of a self-identified skeptical meditator’s relationship to meditation and Buddhism itself, as a way of raising some questions about the relevance of the dharma in the modern world.
These description are based entirely on my own experiences as a secular Western meditator, and are not meant to generalize other people’s experiences, nor to serve as a predictive map of what other practitioners will inevitably encounter. The “stages” are loosely defined, and are not meant to be taken too seriously other than as a plot device for starting a conversation. At the same time, I suspect that they may highlight some common experiences that so-called secular Buddhists, non-Buddhists, post-Buddhists, or [insert other negating prefix]-Buddhists would be able to relate to.
With that extended disclaimer in mind, lets get started.
Stage I: Acquaintance (or, The Awkward Dharma Toe-Dip)
There are many ways a secular Westerner might hear about meditation. It may come from reading about the alleged benefits of mindfulness, from purely philosophical curiosity, or in the process of trying to make sense of an interesting psychedelic experience.
In my own case, it came through reading a book by celebrity atheist and Ben Stiller doppelganger Sam Harris, titled Waking Up: A Guide to Spirituality Without Religion. The thesis of the book was, in short, that many of the so-called “spiritual” experiences that religious people and contemplatives have claimed to have throughout human history can be had by non-religious, skeptically-minded people, and without the need to believe any claims about the nature of reality. The methodologies that countless mystics throughout the ages have prescribed for dealing with the problem of human suffering, Harris argued, are actually perfectly rational and effective, even though they often come bundled with religious or otherwise metaphysical baggage.
Needless to say, as a self-professed atheist and survivor of one of the most bizarre religious communities present in the modern world, this was a fascinating argument – especially coming from a man who literally makes his living bashing religion. I’d previously had some limited experience with psychedelic drugs, and suspected that there was something to these kinds of experiences, even though they were often chaotic and the insights they provided were not sustainable. “If LSD is like being strapped to rocket”, Harris writes in the first chapter of Waking Up, then “learning to meditate is like gently raising a sail”. That was an interesting statement to me, and I was curious to see what it was all about.
(Note: There are a few other books that may be able to convince a stringent atheist to try meditating – among them Dan Harris’ 10% Happier – but there probably aren’t more than a few. While Waking Up does little in the way of providing practical meditation instructions, and in many ways oversimplifies some Buddhist concepts, it can nonetheless serve as a useful introduction to spirituality from a secular standpoint, and lead people to go develop a practice in the first place.)
Probably much like any other beginner in meditation, I started with a semi-daily practice of following the breath for 5-10 minutes at a time. This period of casual practice probably varies significantly between people, and can last for a few weeks, a few months, or longer. Typically this period may also involve spending some time further reading about Buddhism and meditation, or trying out different techniques. Much like all other beginners in meditation, there is a lot of wondering whether one is “doing it right”.
After a while of this, one of two things may happen. The meditator may notice little or no benefit from the practice and abandon it for a while (or, if they’re unlucky, forever).
Alternatively, they may start to notice themselves becoming ever so slightly calmer or happier, get curious about some of the more esoteric experiences described in the meditation literature, and develop a yearning to go deeper. At this point, they might start to transition to…
Stage II: The Friction & The Dive
At this stage, the meditator has reaped some noticeable every-day benefits from their casual practice, and is thinking about going deeper (or they’ve been struggling to make progress, and want to see if more intensive practice will help). They’ve read or heard a little bit about meditation retreats, and the idea sounds strange and exciting at the same time.
Questions may arise around whether going on a retreat is a good idea. Starting a casual daily practice wasn’t such a big commitment, even though the idea of meditation may have seemed a little fishy. A week-long or 10-day silent retreat, though? That sounds like a bit much. The idea of studying with a Buddhist teacher seems uncomfortable. The whole thing smells a little bit too much like joining a religion or cult. The skeptic’s fight-or-flight response goes wild. Alarm bells sounding off everywhere! Will all those hours watching YouTube atheism debates go to waste?
At the same time, some people may also feel an inexplicable pull to just go for it. This was true in my own case. The friction between wanting to remain loyal to one’s skepticism (which I had previously taken on as an identity and worldview in lieu of religion), and having a visceral feeling that there might in fact be something to this whole enterprise, can be uncomfortable and confusing.
This confusion is likely to spark an attempt at resolution which involves conducting endless hours of research on meditation retreats and/or specific teachers. Unfortunately, no amount of research is enough to provide an adequate idea of what to expect of such an experience. The decision to dive in is guaranteed to be a nervous and unconfident one.
Once the daunting decision to dive in is finally made in the privacy of one’s own mind, the equally difficult part is making that decision public. How do you explain to your family and friends, many of whom may also be non-religious skeptics, that you’re planning on going off the grid for some time so that you can attend a meditation course?
You start to make an attempt at explaining just that, and a few sentences in realize that you sound like somebody who just stumbled into a cult and is delusionally trying to assure their loved ones that they definitely have not stumbled into a cult. After a series of worried looks and several rounds of rigorous interrogation, your loved ones dubiously accept your decision and beg you to please be careful.
Later, sitting at the computer signing up for your first retreat, you start to question whether you have in fact completely lost your mind. You hesitantly convince yourself that you haven’t. Call it the sunk cost fallacy or karmic unfolding, you dive in.
Stage III: Rapture & Intimacy
Entrance into this stage may happen during that first retreat, at some point during one’s post-retreat practice, or possibly not until one’s second or subsequent retreats. (There’s no reason, in principle, why it can’t happen even before the first retreat, although this is probably pretty unlikely for an overly skeptical or scientific mind).
The third stage marks the point of no return for the secular meditator. Not to be confused with the third stage of awakening (or non-returning) as described in Theravada Buddhism, this stage arises as the practitioner witnesses first-hand the power of the meditative path in a way that removes virtually all doubts about the utility and relevance of meditation to his or her life. There might be many different kinds of experiences that carry one into Rapture. Whatever the experience happens to be, there’s a good chance it will line up with descriptions of the Arising and Passing Away phenomenon, although this may not necessarily be the case.
The specific experience that triggers Rapture is not too important. Mainly, what is characteristic of this stage relates to a change in the intellectual relationship one has to meditation. While during earlier stages the practitioner is approaching meditation primarily as a skeptic, engaging with it self-consciously and from a distance, once this point is crossed that guard is largely dropped. The meditator no longer needs to be convinced that meditation is worthwhile, or that it can produce powerful or interesting effects, because they have seen that to be the case in their own experience.
That is not to say that the meditator’s skepticism has been destroyed, or their scientific attitude abandoned (although this can certainly happen to some). What happens is not that Rapture somehow replaces one’s skepticism with an unquestionable thirst for woo; it actually just slightly alters the nature of that skepticism. In fact, it often turns it into a more authentic skepticism – one that is characterized by a genuine investigative curiosity and openness, rather than an a priori intention or hope of disproving something.
The meditator’s understanding of what meditation is all about is also likely to change on a fundamental level. They may begin to suspect that there is more to the practice than just a bit of stress relief or concentration enhancement, and that perhaps those weird Buddhists were on to something after all.
This newfound fascination with meditation and Buddhism probably varies widely in intensity. Some may suddenly get very intellectually interested in the psychological and philosophical aspects of Buddhism, while some may be more likely to unquestionably take on some or all of its metaphysical doctrines (or some strange New Age interpretation thereof).
An especially important aspect of this stage is the development of a a deep sense of respect and gratitude for Buddhist teachings and/or the practice of meditation. Although it’s obvious that so much more is still unexplored, there is a new understanding of the fact that the Path is not some fairy tale but a very real phenomenon. The concept of awakening, while still somewhat of an intellectual slippery slope, might not seem completely crazy anymore. There may even be an intuition that there could really be something that goes by the name of “enlightenment” which isn’t necessarily anything supernatural or magical. This change in perspective may make meditation practice more effortless and intimate.
Practice continues with a new burst of motivation and enthusiasm. As further progress is made, the Stage III characteristics of one’s relationship to Buddhism and meditation may become more and more pronounced. Meditative progress might also go hand in hand with learning a lot more about the history of Buddhism and other spiritual practices, and a heightened interest Buddhism’s status and evolution within Western culture. In extreme cases, which can happen especially after a big breakthrough in one’s personal practice, Buddhism might start to act as a subtle form of eternalism. While not explicitly religious in nature, there might be an impression of Buddhism as being the perfect philosophical and ethical system. It also seems to become clear from direct personal experience that contemplative practices can tame many of the problematic psychological defects of humans which are causing mayhem in the world. So Buddhism becomes a kind of Messiah, something that is genuinely believed to be the last hope for humanity. It acts as a powerful lens through which to view humanity or the world at large, as it seems to be able to explain a lot about what doesn’t make sense about these things. Meditators who come across some mystical or powerful experience in their practice commonly develop obsessions around unanswerable questions of metaphysics and consciousness, as the insights gained from those experiences seem to inform those questions. Secular meditators are not immune to this phenomenon.
Rapture & Intimacy can easily last for a very long time, even through much further practical meditative progress. The idealistic conceptions of Buddhism cultivated in this stage are by no means unique to secular practitioners; almost everyone who is lucky enough to see some of the fruits of the dharma manifest in their own experience is likely to entertain them at some point or another. There’s probably no limit to how long one can stay in Rapture & Intimacy. Whether they move beyond this stage, and how long it takes to do that, is probably dependent on an endless number of factors. The biggest obstacle to moving forward is the fact that it’s just really damn comfortable here. The stories generated in this stage are also extremely compelling, because they seem inseparable from our meditation practice. Lastly, we might not even notice that we’re here or that there’s something beyond.
It is very important that practitioners move out of this stage. I happen to believe that contemplative practices do in fact present the possibility of radically altering the human mind, as well as human culture, for the better. But the relationship to Buddhism that is developed in this stage is unhealthy, and may actually prevent the spread of awakening in the West. This is because it forces us to think in certain ways about meditation, the contemplative path and human behavior, and it leaves the door closed to more creative and practical innovation.
The recognition that the Stage III relationship to and conception of Buddhism is misguided marks the transition into the fourth stage: Disenchantment.
This is part one of a two-part article titled The Buddhist Stages of (non-meditative) Insight. Part two will start by covering the Disenchantment stage, which makes clear the inadequacies of Stage III, and will then attempt to sketch out a possible alternative way of relating to Buddhism – a strategy called “Down with Buddhism, Up with the Dharma”.