Personal: The Path Thus Far
I have little use for the past and rarely think about it.
—Eckhart Tolle, The Power of Now
It was such an important and freeing insight, to realize that these huge burdens of past and future that we carry around are just thoughts.
—Joseph Goldstein, Realizing Awakened Consciousness
Without distance we cannot always tell, in the immediacy of experience, which events are most important to the overall journey. After all, not every outstanding experience is a milestone, and not every milestone is an outstanding experience.
—Bernadette Roberts, What Is Self?
I read Mindfulness in Plain English. Following the instructions, a shift takes place. My private mental theatre expands and, instead of being and having my thoughts and emotions, they are projected before me. No longer inside of them, I play the role of dispassionate observer. It's as if I have been sucked from living inside of a film and into the theatre, watching it—a sort of reverse Jumanji.1
I start to read seriously about Zen. I'm oblivious to the rich diversity swallowed into the word "Buddhism" and treat Zen and meditation as nearly synonymous.2 Zen places a heavy emphasis on "just sitting." The books that I read mostly convince me that my posture is paramount. I buy a zafu and dutifully practice my full lotus. Soon, I'm able to maintain it for 45 minutes or longer.
During this period of practice, I experience several initial insights:
- How difficult it is to "do nothing" for a set period.
- How vivid and beautiful the world is when observed post-meditation, without all the default noise.
- The "lifecycle of a desire": that it appears, agitates and peaks, and then disappears.
- That I can short circuit suffering by shifting attention toward bodily sensations in the present moment.
In early 2013, I'm turned on to Daniel Ingram's book, Mastering the Core Teachings of the Buddha, by a comment on LessWrong. Impressed by his description of jhana but somewhat skeptical of its existence, I make achieving it the aim of my practice. At this point I'm sitting for an hour each day. Using Daniel's pointers from the book, I taste jhana for the first time a couple of weeks later.
I quickly tire of the first jhana and decide to move onto the second, determined not to end up stagnant, something that Daniel warns against. Using the advice in MCTB, I investigate the effort-ing present in first jhana, noticing how annoying it is and how it mars the state. I also start to use the jhana as a base for insight practice, vipassanizing it by breaking it into pieces and noticing what is present and when. I do the same with the breath.
- Now that joy could be self-generated (with effort), it became unappealing. My investigations into the apparent solidity of joy aggravated this further: I become convinced of its fleeting nature and, once I'd broken the experience down into its aggregates, joy felt empty of its previously apparent reality. Bizarrely, there was something unsatisfying about joy itself.
- I was disturbed to find that, now that I could self-generate joy, I mostly didn't bother. I didn't know what to make of this. I finally concluded that I cared more about avoiding effort than I did about cultivating joy. I started to identify strongly with the "dry insight" position staked out in MCTB and abandoned concentration-heavy meditation as pointless.
- With this de-prioritization of joy, behavior in general no longer happened in the same way. Before this, there was the motivational loop of "pursue goals & satisfy wants to attain happiness." Now, I had learned to cut out the superfluous middle bits and generate happiness directly and found that I mostly didn't care to. With this discovery, the old motivational loop no longer functioned: why pursue anything? The mind seized on3 the idea of a hedonic treadmill. The imagined rewards of success were an impossible dream.
- With this came a strong aversion to effort-in-general. What was the point? Why have goals at all? Wanting became confusing. Desire no longer functioned. From this point forward, I concerned myself with the bare minimum necessary to avoid suffering and see-sawed between pursuing distraction and self-knowledge.
This marks my entrance into the dark night of the soul.
After several weeks of difficult sits, I discover the paper, "Buddhist modernism and the rhetoric of meditative experience." It argues (convincingly) that traditional Buddhist practice did not and does not emphasize "personal experience" as the final arbiter of truth, nor has meditation historically played a central role in the lives of actual Buddhist practictioners and, instead, these are a consequence of Buddhism's collision with the West.
Convinced that many of the Zen texts I've read have misled me, I feel betrayed, just as I had years prior with Christianity, except this time it stings more because I'd been fooled again! With this, and my dissatisfaction with practice in general, I stop doing formal, timed sites, and believe I have washed my hands of this Buddhism business entirely.
I continue to, on a near daily basis, pick at the apparent solidity of experience, but it will be several years before I realize that this was more than a pleasing distraction.
I have an appointment with a psychologist. It goes very poorly. Prone to health-related anxiety in general, in the days, week, and months that follow, I torture myself with worry about the integrity of my own mind. I "cope" by obssessively examining and policing the content of my thoughts.
With strong awareness born of neuroticism, I make several startling discoveries. My thoughts are often not the well-defined sentences that I imagined them to be. They can be fragmentary and imperfect. Some seem to spring as if from nowhere, apropos of nothing. Just as one sometimes mis-speaks and says the wrong word, I discover that thoughts can think the wrong word, too.
Instead of regarding this as an empowering realization into the actual nature of this mind, the anxious part of me seizes on it as proof of something wrong. I "cope" by further ratcheting up awareness and, with this, I discover more of these imagined flaws. I respond again with more awareness! A feedback loop is born.
My mind grows increasingly empty. Soon I discover that objects disappear when awareness lands on them.4
Eventually, the novelty and pull of this fear fades, but this new awareness remains. I had originally written here that, with this newly strengthened awareness, daydreaming ceased entirely. On reflection, this is not exactly right. The experience of "losing myself" in my thoughts (or a heated argument) falls off steeply here—tt occurs less and is interrupted sooner—but it doesn't cease entirely (and still hasn't).
This marks one of the greatest reductions in fabrication compared to my original baseline.
Mid 2015: The Psychedelic Year
I start to conceptualize myself as an experience collector.
A "budtender" gives me a bad recommendation on how much of a marijuana brownie is an appropriate dose. Never having eaten cannabis before, I consume 100mg. I end up in front of an abstract art painting of Jesus, believing that I'm going to die. It is a peak, mystical experience.
Months later, I buy three tabs of LSD from a street kid in San Francisco's Golden Gate Park. After a month of deliberation I eat half of them. It is profound. The next day, I text a friend that I feel as if I have climbed down from Mount Olympus.
I spend months reading about the neurochemistry of psychedelics.
I try 4-AcO-DMT, a synthetic pro-drug for psilocybin, the active ingredient in magic mushrooms. I'm underwhelmed. Impatient, I dose again the next day. I misjudge my tolerance and take too much.
The experience is an order of magnitude more intense than anything in my life thus far. Thought and working memory warp, disintegrate, and then cease. The world itself becomes impossibly clear, as if I have been living in standard definition and discovered ultra ultra HD.
As the drug wears off, I'm struck by parallels to Zen descriptions of kensho. This convinces me that awakening is real and valuable. I start to read about meditation again in earnest.
There are a great deal of insights during this period, too many to fit here. They are documented elsewhere on the site.
Mid 2016: The End of Fear, Noting
Unable to bring myself to trip again on 4-AcO-DMT but fascinated by altered states of consciousness and their illuminating contrast with the default state, I experiment with eaten cannabis in doses ranging from 20mg to 100mg. I trip this way more than 20 times.
The cannabis, especially in higher doses, consistently produces strong feelings of fear during the "come up", the phase during which one rockets away from the comfort of the default state before stabilizing elsewhere. I cope with it the same way that I am coping with any strong negative experience at this stage: I break it into the smallest pieces that I can manage and watch as they disappear, moment by moment.
As I realize how the interplay between thoughts, body, and emotion maintains and intensifies panic and fear, I grow more confident. I begin to value the cannabis for this panic-inducing ability. I dose in more complicated social settings, stress-testing this understanding. I function fine.
With this investigation, the automatic, habitual aversion to and "sting" of even this drug-induced panic fades. This apparent snake was rope all along. I have not experienced fear as problematic since.5
During this period, I also settle on noting as the "right" meditation practice. It is awkward at first but I soon work up to several hours each day as I go about my daily life.
I become curious about the malleability of "taste." I adopt the intention to like everything. The effectiveness of this stance is startling. I find that most everything can be enjoyed once the habitual "I don't like this, it's just not for me" drops out.
With repeated investigation, my preferences start to feel arbitrary, unimportant, and empty. Experience itself starts to all have one taste. Everything is just fine all of the time. I give people advice like, "You're either fine now or you're not and if you're not, you're going to be fine soon, so what's the bother? You're fine."6
Thinking of myself as an experience collector stops making any sense. What's to collect? They are all fundamentally the same. Notions of "there" drop out, too. "There" is illusory—you're always "here."
Restlessness starts to lose some of its pull. There's nowhere else to go.
I continue noting throughout this period. Occasionally, during practice, notions of past and future will fall out, and it will be as if I am repeatedly thrust into the now.7
Early 2017: Stream Entry
I note for about 6 hours while going about my life. I start to cling less and less to experience. Problemness ceases first. After maybe an hour, any notion of a goal goes too. Noting becomes automatic and machine-like. Peace deepens progressively during an hour or two more of practice. Then, even the intention to keep noting falls away.
With it, I check out. Cessation.
When "I" come to, "I" know that conscious experience collapsed. "I" was gone. A beat of pure nothing. Euphoria. "Was that it?" It's funny somehow.
In the Theravadan four path model of enlightenment, this is first path or "stream entry."
Mid 2017: Review
In the middle of 2017, I go through a two month period of misery. The sameness that appeared near the end of 2016 is still here but, now, it's problematic. Everything is not fine but rather impermanent and unsatisfactory. What is a self to do in such a world? It inspires disenchantment.
Noting intensifies the misery but, if I keep at it, this fades, and is replaced by a direct knowing of the causal relationship between notes. Someone will say something to me and a thought will occur but, rather than being the thinker of the thought, it's known as simply a response to the environment.
By repeating this over and over, my intuitive belief in a self, that notion that I'm not my body but the entity within my body which controls it, starts to loosen. With this, the misery goes, too.
This is inspiring and I start to note a lot. The progress of insight map starts to feel more meaningful as I cycle through it several more times. I notice the strong self present during the knowledges of suffering, the expansive peace of equanimity, and the absence of clinging that culminates in cessation. This understanding then contextualizes much of the territory traversed during the preceding four years.
At some point, the mind seizes on the realization of how good it feels to let go. I spend a lot of time thinking about the "bare minimum." How much does a man really need? I fantasize about minimizing my belongings to what I can fit onto a motorcycle.
I start to have experiences while noting where it becomes clear that the body is acting on its own, without any input from "me." The mind is fascinated by this discovery and soon enough I'm noticing it many times per day, while noting and not.
Around here, I decide to try noting all day long and go for it. It's easier than I anticipate and I succeed after a day or two of attempts. Inspired by this early success, I keep at it for a week. Things begin to change rapidly, until I have a very strong experience where everything seems to be "doing itself." I describe it this way:
It's not just the body doing it by itself, it's the thought, the intention, the personality. All of it. Like the weather, it's all running itself—"I" am not doing any of it.
It no longer feels like I'm doing anything. (I'm not writing this, it's writing itself!)
Alarmed at the strangeness and intensity of this, I decide to take it easy. I cut back a lot on Mahasi noting and spend time exploring other practices, like metta, some of the practices in The Mind Illuminated, and a bunch of others.
This brings us to here, now. My current investigations are covered in ongoing investigations.
Much later, I learned that this is the first stage of insight, mind and body.↩
I suspect this was a downstream effect of the high-status position Japanese culture enjoys in the West, especially in contrast to any other Asian nation. Compare, for instance, the price and cachet of Japanese and Chinese cuisines.↩
I have found it very useful to pay attention, in general, to the mind's current "fascinations." What do you keep noticing and thinking about, again and again? This path is a series of fascinations.↩
This is the insight knowledge known as dissolution.↩
This is the insight stage known as equanimity. I'm not sure if my advice is of any use to a mind until it has sufficiently investigated the momentary impermanence of all experience.↩
I am reminded here of Clive Wearing who experiences repeatedly awakening into the present as a result of herpes-induced nerve damage. He fills his journal with line after line like: ↩