Demystifying Enlightenment: Understanding the States and Stages You Pass Through When Raising Your Consciousness

HJ: Despite the perception that enlightenment is some sort of mystical state that is beyond description, there is, in fact, a rather linear explanation and framework to describe and map the raising of ones consciousness.  While there are certainly mystical elements to our existence, enlightenment and the process of  awakening, that does not mean that it can not be understood from a larger perspective and defined in a tangible sense. While the details of the process will be unique and tailored to each individuals own personal experience, the larger themes that appear in the process of raising ones consciousness and expanding ones awareness are relatively straightforward.

As Ron Couch points out in his wonderful essay below, “…there is a clear and richly detailed description of what happens to a meditator from the first sit all the way to enlightenment, and this is what is actually meant by the term ‘path.'” While this knowledge may be outside of mainstream awareness and not so frequently talked about, it does, nevertheless, exist.  While knowing the larger framework can be helpful in understanding where one is on the path (at least, if one is in a place where they can be totally honest with themselves), it does not demystify the immediacy of the experience and how the specifics of the journey will unfold in ones life.  And, as always, there is no final destination — no definitive pinnacle to reach.  Only an endless succession of plateaus and further climbing.  To some this may seem daunting, but I offer a different interpretation — stop focusing on the future or the past and be present in the moment.  If the journey truly is endless — and it is — then that means you have all the time in the world to savor the richness of the moment.  After all, learning to live in the moment is one of the main lessons we must all learn at some point in journey.

– Truth

The Map: Understanding the States and Stages of Enlightenment, Part 1 

By Ron Crouch | All Things Healing | Aloha Dharma

When I first began meditating and read about things like the “path,” “way” and “journey,” I assumed that these terms were just metaphors that described a kind of personal growth that takes place on one’s spiritual quest. I had a vague notion that if I meditated I would gradually become a better person, and that it was this personal transformation that was referred to by the language of “paths” and “journeys.”

Boy was I wrong. What I did not know when I first started, and regrettably took me years to find out, is that there is a clear and richly detailed description of what happens to a meditator from the first sit all the way to enlightenment, and this is what is actually meant by the term “path.”

The map of the path has been developed collaboratively by many master meditators over thousands of years, and can be found in ancient meditation manuals like the Vimuttimagga (The Path of Freedom) and the Visuddhimagga (The Path of Purification). It is also in relatively newer guides like Mahasi Saydaw’s The Progress of Insight. Some modern-day descriptions are out there as well, and can be found in Jack Kornfield’s Living Dharma and A Path with Heart. However, the clearest modern descriptions of the path can be found in Mastering the Core Teachings of the Buddha by Daniel Ingram and In This Very Life by Sayadaw U Pandita.

What the map shows is that there are a series of predictable states and stages that constitute the path. Like signposts on the way to enlightenment, the states and stages are signals that one is doing the technique correctly and making progress. These signposts are universal, automatic and impersonal. They happen to everyone who does the technique correctly and have nothing to do with personal growth or individual needs. Rather, they provide a way of seeing clearly into the nature of reality. There are 17 stages on the path to enlightenment, and I will describe each one in detail, but first I would like to present the theory upon which the whole thing sits…

The Theory

To understand the map, and the path in general, it is useful (but not necessary) to understand the underlying theory. If the map describes what states and stages one experiences, the theory describes why one experiences them. In other words, the theory answers the question “what is it a map of?”


To understand the theory it might help to start with what actually happens in meditation. Insight meditation, or Vipassana, is “clear seeing” of anything and everything that happens to us in the moment. So, when we do insight meditation we pay very close attention to our experience in the moment and try to see it as clearly as possible. When we do this we soon see that everything in experience follows a similar pattern of arising and disappearing in awareness. It doesn’t matter if it is a thought, feeling or a sensation–it arises and passes away in awareness in the same way. This might seem a little trivial at first glance, but it is actually a radical insight if you fully get it. Everything that you experience is impermanent in the sense that, no matter what it is, it follows the exact same pattern of arising and falling in awareness (see the sine wave image).

Any experience in awareness would roughly have that same shape through time, whether it was an itch, a thought, a craving for chocolate or a bad mood.

Our attention cannot clearly apprehend this arising and passing without special training, especially very quick successions of arising and passing away, and that is what meditation does: trains the mind to see how all things come and go in awareness at a very fine-grained level.

So this is all pretty geeky, but how does it lead to enlightenment? The reason that this knowledge is useful is because we can use it to experience Nirvana, and ultimately it is experiencing Nirvana which leads to enlightenment. Nirvana is essentially what you experience when you follow all sensations to their very end – they cease completely, and in that moment of cessation Nirvana is there. Nirvana is the unconditioned, the foundation, ground, background, the page upon which existence is written. All phenomena arise and fall out of existence, but Nirvana is always there when everything vanishes. By becoming an expert at watching phenomena closely and training your mind to follow all phenomena as they disappear, you are training the mind to catch a “glimpse” of Nirvana in that sweet spot when the sensations have ceased.

How does this actually work in practice? When we sit to meditate and begin noting our experience, the mind does a very surprising thing. All by itself, the mind begins to sync up on the arising part of the wave-form of all phenomena happening in that moment. For reasons that I have not yet fully understood, when meditation is done properly the mind begins to focus on just one part of the wave-form of phenomena, and it likes to start at the beginning. So, as you are sitting and you notice an itch, then a sound, then a thought and so on, the mind is actually noticing just the arising of those things, just the beginning. Then, an even more amazing thing happens: as you continue, attention begins to move along the wave-like structure. You journey along and the mind syncs up on the peak of phenomena arising and passing, and rides the high crest of sensate experience. Then as you continue down the path the mind begins to sync up on the disintegration of phenomena in experience, noticing all the endings of things. Eventually, you get to the far end of the tail of the wave, and attention begins to focus on the instant where phenomena completely cease to be. When the mind fully syncs up with the complete ending of all phenomena, it experiences a moment in which all phenomena disappear for a moment This is “the mind alighting upon Nirvana” as Mahasi Sayadaw put it so well.

The theory behind the “path” is that essentially it is a process of attention following the birth and arising of sensations, to their peak, to their falling away and utter disappearance. When the mind fully experiences their disappearance, or cessation, it experiences something that lays beyond all of the phenomenal world and which changes the mind of the meditator permanently. It is called it “Nirvana” in the ancient suttas, which simply means “extinction” or “to go out.” When the meditator experiences Nirvana enough times, a profound and subtle shift occurs, deep insights become permanently fixed in the forefront of awareness, and certain illusions are seen for what they are. This is enlightenment.

In the next installment, we’ll take a detailed, stage-by-stage look at the map of the path as described in the ancient texts.

I divide the map into five overall sections, each with a series of stages. While the stages themselves are standard and can be found in the Visuddhimagga and Burmese meditation master Mahasi Sayadaw’s The Progress of Insight, the sections are my creation. I created the sections because they help to organize the path in a way that, I believe, makes the overall experience more understandable. The sections are the Physio-Cognitive Stage (which covers the initial rising arc of the wave-form), The Arising and Passing Away (which rests upon the top of the wave), Extinction (which covers the downhill side of the wave-form), Equanimity (which is at the leveling-off on the far tail of the wave) and Cessation (where the wave ends).

The Physio-Cognitive Stage

1.Mind and Body

2.Cause and Effect

3.Three Characteristics

I call the first phase of meditation the physio-cognitive stage because the insights associated with it are primarily about the body, mind and their connections and characteristics. This stage can feel pretty mundane, and practitioners often don’t even know that they are in this stage. I had no idea that I had gone through it the first time it happened. It wasn’t until things got exciting that it became clear that I must have already gone through these, and it wasn’t until I went through them many times that I was even able to see them clearly.

Mind and Body

The physio-cognitive section of the path begins when meditators enter into the stage of Mind and Body. During this stage the mind begins to sync up with the beginnings of phenomena. When meditators note—see these instructions http://alohadharma.wordpress.com/how-to-meditate/ or http://www.tbsa.org/introducctionvipassana.htm for a description of noting practice as taught by Mahasi Sayadaw and other vipassana meditators–whatever comes into awareness, they begin to distinguish their thoughts from their bodily sensations. This can seem pretty mundane and uneventful, but it is actually pretty valuable information. It is an understanding that is needed before any further insights are possible. For those who are particularly attuned to their own states, they may notice a subtle shift from being the thoughts and sensations to watching them.

The primary insight that is gained in this stage is that the mind and the body are truly different. Of course we all know that this is so on a cognitive level, but there is a big difference between knowing this and seeing it in real time. Actually seeing these truths as they are happening has a profound effect on the mind. Oddly, while the effect can be profound, in that certain doubts vanish, it is an effect that can be easy to miss. This is often true of many of the insights that occur. This is because the insights do not leave an imprint on us at a cognitive level, but at a much deeper level. It is only after these deeper changes have occurred that we gradually become aware of them in our daily lives.

Cause and Effect

As the meditator continues to see the mental and physical phenomena arising in awareness, a moment happens–and it often is just a moment or two–where some connection or interaction between mind and body becomes apparent. For example, let’s imagine that a meditator is doing noting -style meditation in which the yogi makes a brief note of whatever arises in experience. The meditator sees that there is an image in the mind of the car that cut her off in traffic that morning. She may note “image.”Then directly following that is “anger” and then the next notes are “tightness,” “ache,” “tension,” etc. In that instant a connection between what the mind does and what the body experiences becomes obvious (so obvious that we often miss it). Here we see that thoughts are connected to feelings are connected to behaviors are connected to thoughts and so on, in a chain of reciprocal cause and effect.

Beginners usually do not know that they have even been through cause and effect, not only because it is brief and uneventful, but because this is usually stuff we think we know already. But we only know it at a cognitive level, and if you haven’t guessed it already, I don’t give the cognitive level much respect when it comes to the path. Knowing something at the cognitive level can make it seem like we understand something, but the big difference between a cognitive understanding and a deep insight is that cognitive understandings change what we think, but deep insights change how we are.

An important thing to understand about the stage of cause and effect is that some people can easily get stuck there. Because cause and effect is all about the connections between things, it can be a quagmire for one’s individual mental content, in other words, your psychological “stuff.” But please remember that the path is not about understanding your stuff (though that can be a nice side-effect), it is about understanding reality itself. Getting caught in your stuff can be a very tempting distraction. For example, during this stage it is not unusual to think about something insensitive that you did or said and then notice tension in the face, or burning in the chest or abdomen. Before you know it, you’ll be spinning out scenarios about how your relationship issues or family problems are leading to emotional and physical distress. Will these scenarios be wrong? Not necessarily. But will they support you in seeing reality clearly? Not at all.

Three Characteristics

At some point meditators begin to notice three things about the mental and physical phenomena they are watching: none of them are really “me” (because “I” am watching them), all of them are impermanent, and almost all of them are actually pretty unpleasant or at least unsatisfactory in some ways that are obvious and some that are pretty subtle.  These three insights do not usually occur at a cognitive level. Meditators who go through this stage might not be able to name what it has taught them, but if they hear about these three characteristics they will instantly recognize the truth of them. From this point forward, there will be something compelling about the three characteristics–they will just make intuitive sense.

For some, this stage can be pretty unpleasant. It is impossible to tell ahead of time how negative this stage might be, but there is the potential to get stuck in the negativity. If you are experiencing difficult emotions and wonder if they might be related to this stage, it is worth working it out with a meditation teacher. Don’t stay stuck in any stage longer than necessary to get the insights needed and move on.

The Physio-Cognitive Stage and Modern Psychology

A couple of interesting points about these three stages are worth noting before moving on. First, people who are familiar with psychology and with cognitive-behavioral therapy in particular will recognize that the first two stages constitute what is called the “cognitive model.” The cognitive model is the notion that thoughts, feelings and behaviors are directly linked and that if you change one of them the other two must change as well. It is the foundation of most modern psychotherapy. Needless to say, getting some direct experience of this and seeing the reality of it can certainly be a useful insight.

Because the first two stages are essentially covering the ground that is the foundation of modern psychotherapy, most of what constitutes “mindfulness” training in clinical settings is actually the experience of these two initial stages and sometimes the third. Mindfulness therapies like MBSR, MB-CBT, DBT and ACT emphasize these three insight stages and the therapeutic benefit that can come with them. In particular, they emphasize the switch from “being” the thoughts and emotions, to “watching” them, a process called “cognitive diffusion” in ACT. These kinds of therapies are particularly good at helping people to recognize when they are getting caught in unskillful loops of cause and effect, and moving them on to seeing the three characteristics in these loops. I would venture to say that most basic mindfulness trainings that occur outside of clinical settings tend to cover just these three insight stages and end there. Sometimes these stages are even presented as the whole path. However, as you will discover, there is far more.

Once one has gained insight into mind and body, cause and effect and the three characteristics, the attention moves on and syncs up with the peak of sensate experience.

The next stage, which we’ll cover in the third installment of this series, is the Arising and Passing Away, one of the most memorable and important landmarks on the path…

The next stage of the path is called the Arising and Passing away (A&P). At this point on the path the meditator’s attention has already synced up with the beginnings of phenomena. Now the attention moves along and syncs up with that point at the top of the arc where all observed phenomena are peaking. It is the point at which phenomena can be said to be both arising into and passing out of existence at once.

During the A&P, meditators begin to have their very first taste of what could be called “mystical” experiences. Exciting sensations run through the body: tingles, electric-like sensations run along the skin or percolate up along the body’s midline, lightness or feelings of floating occur, and in some of the more extreme cases even rapturous pleasure that can be difficult to handle. Along with these physical sensations, meditators might also perceive a sensation of light even while their eyes are closed. This visual experience can be powerful and amazing. It may seem as if there are lights being turned up in the room, or that a flashlight is shining directly at you. Some people describe seeing what appear to be headlights, stars, or orbs of light of different colors. Needless to say, all this can be pretty exciting, and powerful emotions are another aspect of this experience. Joy, happiness, wonder, amazement – a full palette of positive emotions begins to color experience. The ways in which crossing the A&P can be expressed in an individual’s meditation are many and varied, so do not worry if your own experience does not line up with everyone else’s (or even with this brief description). However the most common experience, the one that really defines A&P, is a swift pulsing, flashing, flickering or tapping felt in the center of experience, as if everything is cycling in and out of existence very quickly.

Needless to say, reaching the A&P can be amazing. It often marks a milestone in one’s life. People can tell wonderful stories about the time when they first began crossing the A&P in their meditation. From that point forward, you know with absolute certainty that there is something real about all this meditation stuff. That it isn’t just relaxation or self-hypnosis. That there really is something deep and wonderful about this practice, and to a larger extent, something beautiful and mysterious about life itself – and that you have directly touched it. It is as if you have discovered a secret world that is hidden right within the normal everyday world. This discovery can be extremely energizing and joyful. People who are experiencing the A&P are notorious for not getting enough sleep and being ridiculously cheerful (I was probably pretty annoying to my grad school cohorts at that time, who were going through a lot of stress). A&P meditators often have a hard time not telling everyone about what they are experiencing, and if they aren’t good at respecting others’ boundaries they could end up evangelizing about meditation to anyone who will listen. They can also become pretty self-righteous with other meditators if they are not careful. This is particularly true for folks who are just meditating to relax or are simply engaged in a basic mindfulness practice. There will be a part of you that wants to jump up and down, grab them by the shoulders, shake them and scream “you have no idea what you’re missing – here let me show you how to really do this!” Please resist this impulse – it’s just obnoxious. Respect others’ individual process. They may not even be interested in having a real mystical experience (even if they talk New-Agey). Just focus on your own journey along the path, because the hardest part is still ahead.

You begin to notice something new about your meditation practice: when you are off the cushion there are moments when you are experiencing A&P-like phenomena. They are not as strong or overwhelming off the cushion as they are when you are in the midst of meditation, but they are there. You are discovering a technical aspect of the path that rarely gets communicated to new meditators: throughout your daily life you will automatically cycle through the path to whatever your “cutting edge” is in meditation. It could happen many times in a given day and even while you sleep. It will strike you that this has actually been happening all along, but usually the experiences are so faint that you haven’t noticed them, until now, when the powerful sensations that accompany A&P show themselves to you in daily life. Why does this happen? I simply don’t know. But it has profound implications for you on the next stage of the path and for others in your life.

Another interesting effect from the A&P is that you finally start to understand what mystics are talking about. What once sounded like gibberish begins to make sense. Many great artists, musicians, poets and of course religious mystics throughout history have gone through this rapturous stage and have written about the experience of the A&P with great reverence and even romance. Often what they describe (e.g. “seeing the light”, “touched by the divine”, etc.) is taken as metaphorical language by lay people or academics who have not had this experience. But for an A&P meditator the words of poets, hermits, monks and other mystics are suddenly recognizable in terms of direct personal experience. You feel like you finally know what they are talking about, as if you were let in on the secret that seemed to be just out of reach in their haikus and aphorisms.

Along with this discovery comes another one: there have been a vast number of people who have had this experience throughout history, and they come from every conceivable background. This is not a Buddhist thing. It’s not even a meditation thing. It’s part of the human experience. You have simply followed one of many paths that lead to it. You begin to appreciate the pointers they left behind for others to find, as cryptic as they first appear, and you feel a grateful connection across time with these generous teachers. Some of them literally risked their lives to write down descriptions of this experience and how it can be enjoyed and fully integrated into life. This discovery is only the beginning too. The further along the path you go, the more you will find that the words of even more accomplished mystics resonate with you, and that deeply mysterious writings yield powerful truths that clarify your own direct experiences. It is a wonderful part of the path that few discuss, but for me, part of the joy of waking up was finding fellowship with so many great people across time.

Once one crosses the A&P, some other interesting things begin to happen. One of the most common is that the meditation seems to take on a life of its own. The meditator no longer has to put so much effort into being mindful in the moment, into paying close attention to the instructions, because there is some mysterious momentum that has built up and is now moving one along the path. When one sits there are fewer distractions, fewer stories that are built up around sensations and thoughts, and it is much easier to stay with the moment, watch the sensations, feelings and thoughts and be content to do just that. One reason for this is that you are getting very good at it by this point, but another is that it literally feels good to do so. Each moment of meditation is rewarding in a very literal, behavioral sense. You are reinforced for doing the technique and doing it right, and when this happens it becomes effortless. The positive feedback of the A&P helps you to know right away if you are really meditating or just daydreaming, and with this kind of feedback your skills grow very quickly.

In ancient meditation manuals like the Visuddhimagga, insight meditation does not actually begin until one reaches the A&P. It is considered the initial step into Vipassana. Once yogis have crossed this threshold, they have traversed rarified territory that is strange and nothing like their previous meditation. Those who have not yet reached this stage might disagree with this perspective, and perhaps even feel resentful at the suggestion that they are not really doing Vipassana, b post-A&P yogis arrive at this perspective quite naturally.. After all, up until this point the meditation actually seemed quite mundane, required quite a bit of self-discipline and effort, and was frequently boring or even unpleasant. It was mostly a lot of work. Sort of like running each morning: for a while it is very difficult and you have to force yourself to do it, but at some point a wonderful thing happens and the running seems to do itself. Long-time runners might consider this to be the time when they really became a “runner.” This is what happens with meditation, and it seems to happen at the A&P. However, that does not mean that if you have not crossed the A&P you should not do the Vipassana technique – just the opposite! It is by doing the technique with diligence and right effort that you reach that A&P. So don’t give up and don’t fudge on the technique – really do it and give it your very best shot.

Don’t worry if you are not at A&P yet, if you know how to meditate and you do it properly, you will make progress and the A&P will be part of your meditation. However, don’t wish for it too soon, because directly following the A&P comes the stage of meditation that I call Extinction, and which has also been called “The Dark Night.”

In the next installment, Ron continues his detailed, stage-by-stage look at the map of the path…

Ron Crouch is an Insight meditation teacher and 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 alohadharma@gmail.com.

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1 comment on this postSubmit yours
  1. THANK YOU !!!!!!… WAS WANDERING… AS ALL, IS GONE
    JOY OF LIVING IS HERE IMPERATIVE, AS FIRST TIME ON THIS
    WORKD… AHAH… YES , WOULD LIKE TO READ ABOUT,
    BUT NEVER FIND ANYONE THAT SAY THESE WORDS…
    JUST TO SAY, YES… AND LAUGH , NOTHING ELSE… NAMASTE

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