Waypoints Along the Meditative Path - Beyond the Progress of Insight and TMI Maps

Dark night? Stream Entry? Once-Returner? These sound more like terms from Dungeons and Dragons than milestones along the contemplative path. Nevertheless, these terms, along with others like "Desire for Deliverance" and "Non-Returner", are part of the most popular meditation map in contemporary Western Buddhism. I am, of course, talking about the "Progress of Insight" map, popularized by the late, great, Mahasi Sayadaw, and elaborated upon with great detail by Daniel Ingram in his Mastering the Core Teachings of the Buddha. There are other maps out there, such as Zen's "Ten Ox-Herding Pictures", and the Tibetan "Elephant Path" map, made popular in the West by Culadasa in his celebrated "The Mind Illuminated" (TMI).

As I continue to progress along my meditative path, I've often looked to maps such as these with the hopes of finding meditative mileposts that can serve both to situate my progress along the path and to point the way forward. Unfortunately, I've found most of these ancient maps deficient. The "Progress of Insight" map has never really spoken to me. In particular, I find the centrality of the "Dark Night" stages in this map very off-putting, perhaps because they don't resonate with my experience. It is common for yogis who, like me, follow more of a samatha-heavy meditative technique to either not experience Dark Nights or experience Dark Nights that are so tame and short that they do not really warrant the label of "Dark Night". I also take issue with those who, like many in the Pragmatic Dharma movement, insist that every meditator goes through a Dark Night after they hit the "arising and passing away" stage (A&P) even if the meditator's experience of the so-called Dark Night is so fleeting and insubstantial that they do not even notice it. This kind of claim is logically suspect because it is unfalsiable. That is, the claim that everyone who crosses the A&P will go through a Dark Night even if they do not experience it as such is the kind of assertion that cannot possibly be contradicted by observation or experience.

On the other hand, the Tibetan "Elephant Path" map as fleshed out in TMI is more straightforward and logical than the Progress of Insight Map. However, this map aims to chart the meditator's progress in achieving samatha (concentration, tranquility, and calm abiding), rather than their progress towards achieving insight and, eventually, awakening. As such, the TMI map is orthogonal to the Progress of Insight map or Zen's "Ten Ox-Herding Pictures" map, which do have as their aim to plot the yogi's progress towards insight and, ultimately, liberation. So while the TMI map is certainly useful for those who, like me, want to develop strong concentration, tranquility and equanimity, it does not provide much guidance regarding how insights progress and mature as one navigates the meditative path.

To add to the confusion, the ancient maps of the stages of awakening sound even more fanciful and less scientific than the aforementioned models. In particular, I find the Theravadan four-path model of awakening to be extremely unhelpful, especially if one goes by the "ten-fetter" model. According to this model, the first stage of awakening is called "stream entry" and is characterized by (1) dropping the belief that there is a self, (2) freedom from attachment to rites and rituals, and (3) lack of doubt about the teachings. The next stage, once-returner, is one in which sensual desire and ill-will are greatly reduced. In the following stage, that of being a "non-returner", sensual desire and ill-will are completely weeded out. Finally, in the last stage of "arahantship", the meditator is free, among other things, of conceit, restlessness and ignorance. I have great respect for the Theravadan tradition. So much so, that it's the primary tradition within which I practice. That being said, I find the four-path model of enlightenment nearly incomprehensible and full of mysterious trappings and ill-defined concepts. It also fails to provide meaningful guidance. If I'd like to know how close I am to achieving the first stage of enlightenment according to this model (stream entry), the Theravadan map provides little to no guidance.

Fortunately, in recent times more maps have popped up that are based less on tradition and religion and more on the confirmed experiences of contemporary adept meditators. The ones that I've found most supportive of my practice are Michael Taft's "Deconstructing Sensory Experience" map and Jeffery Martin's "locations of enlightenment" model. Michael Taft's map seems ideal for charting meditative progress pre-enlightenment. It's simple, elegant, and in line with contemporary experiences of progress along the meditative path. For down-to-earth, understandable and non-mysterious descriptions of stages of enlightenment, Jeffery Martin's map strikes me as a considerable improvement over the Threavadan four stage model.

I've spent some time over the past several weeks thinking about how to combine these two meditative maps to come up with a more relatable and useful model than the ones that are currently out there. What I came up with is a model I'm calling "Waypoints Along the Meditative Path".

I prefer to talk about "waypoints" rather than "stages" for two reasons. First, because talking about stages inevitably leads to striving and comparing, both of which are hindrances towards progressing along the path. Second, because I find that it is best to think about these maps as presenting mileposts or waypoints along a route rather stages along a linear progression. But enough preliminaries. Here's the map. I hope you find it supportive of your practice!

Waypoints Along the Meditative Path*

Waypoint A- Conceptual Experience

The meditator encounters the object of meditation in a primarily conceptual way, thinking about it rather than directly experiencing it. As a result, the meditator is not directly encountering the object of meditation. Instead, they are encountering the idea of the object of meditation rather than the object itself.

Waypoint B –Direct Sensory Experience
The meditator begins to let go of the idea of the object and starts to perceive the object as it directly appears in experience. As the meditator progresses through this stage, they see the meditative object more and more clearly and in increasing detail. Eventually, the detail and clarity with which the meditator can see the object sharpens so much that the object begins to lose its solid form.

Waypoint C –Flow Experience

The idea of the object of meditation being a solid object starts dissolving. Instead, the meditation object feels more like an activity, a process or a flow of energy. This way of seeing results from the meditator’s insights into impermanence. Objects appear to the meditator as ever-changing, behaving more like a process or activity than as things or objects. Meditators who experience Dark Nights usually do so at this stage.

Waypoint D1 –Emptiness or Non-Dual Awareness Experience

The meditator begins to see that enveloping all sensations and perceived activities is wakefulness itself. By going beyond the perceived sensations and activities themselves, the meditator contacts the part of awareness that is not filled with concepts, sensory experiences, and activity. Also, since the awareness itself is always and already there, the meditator can directly contact Waypoint D1 at any point in their practice or even outside of formal practice. Nondual traditions start by directly noticing this phenomenon.
Meditators who are able to access this Stage consistently can fall into a state PNSE.**

Waypoint D2 – Non-Awareness or Cessation Experience

If the meditator achieves a state of non-awareness, they will have what Buddhist texts call a “cessation” experience. This state, described by some contemporary scientists as a “pure consciousness experience”, feels like passing out or falling asleep, but, unlike in cases of fainting or sleep, the meditator is very aware of when it’s coming up and is also very aware when they come back from the state of non-awareness. Cessation experiences often produce significant insights, especially into not-self. Some traditions do not emphasize cessation and instead encourage the meditator to access non-dual awareness or emptiness (Waypoint D1) on a more consistent basis.
Meditators at this stage can fall into a state of PNSE.

Waypoint E1 – Persistent Non-Symbolic Experience (PNSE) with Mix of Positive and Negative Emotions

The meditator feels that their self has expanded or gotten bigger, which may make them feel in some way connected so the sacred or the divine. The meditator also becomes way less entangled with thoughts that relate to the self. While the meditator is able to gain distance and separation from emotions, they continue to experience both positive and negative emotions. Even though the meditator is still affected by emotions, they are able to return to a state of deep peace quickly after being triggered by unpleasant sensory experiences or emotional mental states. This feeling of deep peace pervades the meditator’s life, leading to an unwavering trust in things just as they are. Given the loosening grip that the self has on the meditator, the meditator considers their personal history and memories of times past less interesting and relevant than they seemed before attaining this state. The meditator reports unusually high levels of wellbeing.

Waypoint E2 – PNSE with Mostly Positive Emotions

The meditator has less and less thoughts that relate to the self. The state of deep peace that characterizes Stage 5 deepens and is usually undisturbed by sensory or emotional experiences, even unpleasant ones. Negative emotions are seldom experienced and even disappear in some cases. Less sensory and emotional experiences trigger reactive/unskillful responses when compared to Waypoint E1. The meditator is more likely to feel like there is a correct decision or path to take when presented with choices. The meditator reports even more wellbeing than in Waypoint E1.

Waypoint E3 – PNSE with Universal Lovingkindness and Compassion

The meditators self-related thoughts continue to wane. No negative emotions arise. Instead, a single positive emotion arises, which can be best described as joy that results from universal love and compassion. Unpleasant sensory or emotional experiences seldom trigger the meditator. The meditator reports even more wellbeing than in Waypoint E2.

Waypoint E4 – PNSE with No-Self

The meditator reports having lost their sense of self and agency, along with a complete lack of self-related thoughts. The meditator no longer experiences emotions, either positive or negative. Only the most extreme and painful sensory experiences trigger the meditator. The sense connection to the divine or to a universal consciousness disappears. The meditator does not believe that there are choices to be made. Instead, they perceive life as unfolding on its own, with the meditator just being along for the ride. Although the meditator may experience certain memory deficits at this Stage, they nevertheless report even more wellbeing than in any other PNSE state.

* Waypoints A thru D of this model follow Michael Taft’s “Map for Deconstructing Sensory Experience”. Waypoint E follows Jeffery Martin’s “locations of enlightenment” model.

** PNSE stands for “Persistent Non-Symbolic Experience”. PNSE states consistently produce unusually high levels of peace and wellbeing.