The Spiritual Map of the Elders

Posted by | November 18, 2008 | Blog | 8 Comments

Every map that describes the territory of awakening will have its strengths and weaknesses. Maps, in general, are only as good as the map-makers who’ve made them. They are also only, and always, mental representations of a place which one must explore for themselves. No amount of studying an idea about what a place will be like, or even studying what the path to that place will be like, can replace the actual journey. That being said, if one is going to take the journey to enlightenment, having a good map can do wonders!

A good map can point out the quickest route to your destination. It can also give you vivid descriptions of the landmarks along the way—and perhaps most importantly the pitfalls you may face. Knowing the landmarks along the route to enlightenment, especially when they are reached, provides a tremendous boost of faith & commitment to the journey itself. Also, having an idea of what obstacles one might encounter, and when these might arise, can save the spiritual practitioner years of confusion and stuckness. And in many cases it can keep one from falling off the path altogether. Good maps, again, are absolutely crucial with respect to making the daunting journey toward awakening.

One such map, which I was originally exposed to by Daniel Ingram, is called “the progress of insight.” It dates back to one of the first and most authoritative commentaries in the Theravada tradition, the Visuddhimagga. It is a detailed description of 16 stages on the way from a total novice at meditation to the 1st stage of enlightenment (a key landmark on the path toward full enlightenment). The description in the Vishuddhimagga is interesting and somewhat helpful, but it was really the expansion of this map by Mahasi Sayadaw, in his book The Progress of Insight, and then the further refinement by Daniel Ingram that has made it such an invaluable resource.

While I’m not trying to add to what has already been written on this subject, I do think it’s worthwhile to share a brief overview of this map here. Keep in mind that much of what this particular map describes are possible patterns of experience. The particulars will vary from individual to individual, and are highly dependent on a number of factors, including: One’s practice conditions, concentration abilities, choice of meditation technique, and interpretive frameworks, to name a few. That being said, these patterns tend to surprisingly accurate and highly predictable for almost everyone.

The Progress of Insight

As I mentioned before, the progress of insight describes 16 stages from the time one first begins to investigate reality, to the time that they have their first major experience of emptiness or nirvana, also known as the 1st stage of enlightenment. One begins their investigation not having had any particular insights into the way the mind or reality works. It is said that the first insight a meditator has is that their mind is like a waterfall. Thoughts and physical sensations are constantly cascading through their awareness, carrying them away. They realize for the first time how insane and out-of-control their minds actually are.

Eventually, by continuing to pay steady attention to experience, there is a shift into what is called Mind & Body. Mind and Body is very pleasant and state-like, and the key insight revealed here is that there are all sorts of subtle phenomena—that were once below the threshold of our attention—which we are now aware of. These include intentions, thoughts, and the simple knowing of experience (consciousness).

With continued investigation, the pleasantness from Mind & Body begins to fade and one begins to see a stronger relationship between all of these elements. The next stage, Cause and Effect reveals that intentions actually precede actions. There is the intention to take a step forward and then the action follows directly after it. From here things can begin to get a bit faster, but also more unpleasant. The next stage, which is the 1st major trough in the process, is called The Three Characteristics. One’s attention has become much more finely honed, to the point that with a fair amount of reliability one is able to perceive the impermanent, unsatisfactory, and relatively selfless nature of our experience. This is particular true of physical experiences, and it’s not uncommon at this stage to experience strange, and uncomfortable physical phenomena, such as a sore neck, back, or shoulders, a build up of pressure in the forehead, finding one’s posture twisting into odd positions, etc. There also tends to be a lot of heat during this phase. I’ve often felt, when going through the three characteristics, that my body was cooking from the inside-out. And to top things off there can also be a good bit of emotional difficulty including tightness, irritation, and sadness.

Oddly enough, the only way through this difficult period is to continue to practice well, and to perceive the three characteristics with greater clarity and speed. If one is doing the noting practice, then somewhere in here it becomes natural to drop the noting in favor of perceiving things with a more bare attention. At this point one is perceiving the arising and passing of experience so quickly that the mental notes can actually feel cumbersome and clunky. During this phase, called The Arising and Passing Away (or A&P for short), things begin to get much more clear and pleasant. For many people they find they can sit much longer than they normally could, and can do so with very little effort. Meditation becomes quite easy, almost effortless at times, and accompanying this are many deep insights into the nature of phenomenal reality. Brightness, clarity, and joy often accompany this phase of the process.

At some point there is a peak to this phase, and there is an important event that happens called the A&P Event (or pseudo-nirvana). It is a peak experience, which reveals something very profound in the relationship to experience, and is often described in various ways. These can include descriptions of a great dip in reality, a momentary release of identity, an explosion of consciousness, or even something resembling an out of body experience. It can also happen in a lucid dream—as it did for the me the first time I remember crossing it. In all cases it is an important landmark not because of the experience itself, because of what follows it: the dark night.

[The preceding map is a graphical representation that uses a sinusoidal wave to describe the progress of insight. The vertical axis is describing the vedana, or feeling tone, of each particular phase. The center is neutral, the peaks are pleasant, and the troughs unpleasant. The horizontal axis is describing time, though in this case it’s not to-scale. Certain phases tend to take longer than others.]

The Dark Night, a term borrowed from the Christian mystic St. John of the Cross, describes a series of stages that follow one another quite closely. The first is Dissolution, in which phenomena are arising and passing so quickly that all that is noticed is actually the endings of phenomena. The subjective experience is very much of things dissolving, and falling away to quickly to really perceive clearly. After dissolution, you have stages with such fun names as, Fear, Misery, Disgust, & Desire for Deliverance. The mind goes through a series of intense reactions to the fact that reality is dissolving moment-to-moment. One’s attention becomes quite broad and unstable, and there is a very real sense that the ‘observer’ of experience is itself beginning to shake. There is also often an intensive emotional component to the dark night. During intensive practice it can feel as though one is being hit by wave after wave of intense emotions. After being hit by several small waves, one then has to handle the last stage of the dark night, called Re-observation. True to its name, it’s as if all the small earlier stages of the dark night combine into one, and one has to re-observe, or re-learn, the lessons of each. But this time instead of several small waves it’s one gigantic one! During this phase many people report having a difficult time sitting still at all, intense and primal feelings of frustration, and the most extreme mental upset imaginable. Re-observation is often called the “rolling up the mat” stage, as it can be so difficult that one feels compelled to just stop right here. And in fact many people do. If one is able to keep their resolve during re-observation and continue to pay attention to the constant arising and passing of phenomena then eventually it will subsist. It is not an immediate relief, but rather a gradual one.

Where, during the dark night, attention was broad but shaky, in the early part of this next stage, Equanimity, it starts to get a bit more stable. One begins to be able to sit for longer periods of time, and insights come naturally and organically. The neutral quality of experience predominates here (instead of the extreme highs and lows that preceded this stage), and as a result equanimity is often very peaceful and relaxed. Meditation can take on a more-or-less effortless quality toward the later part of the equanimity stage (what is called high equanimity). During high equanimity it is also common to slip into formless realms of concentration. It is at this point, that the conditions are ripe, for a spontaneous realization of emptiness to occur.

In the Theravada tradition, there are several moments, which occur in succession at the time of achieving the 1st stage of enlightenment. These are the 12th – 15th stages of the progress of insight map and include Conformity, Change of Lineage, Path, and Fruition. The 1st three moments are said to happen only once for each stage of enlightenment (4 in total) and the last, Fruition, is the actual event, which is referred to as emptiness or nirvana.

During the event of Fruition, which from the outside only takes a split second, all of reality blinks out of existence and then suddenly reappears. During the blink, or gap in reality, there is absolutely no sense of self, identity, observer, awareness, or anything else that would make think one that “they” have experienced anything in particular. As the late Bill Hamilton, wrote in his book Saints and Psychopaths, “Nirvana is an experience of the Unconditioned which defies any description. Any description of Nirvana is not a description of Nirvana, and that is the most that can be said about Nirvana. There are no reference points in Nirvana on which to base a description.” In the end one has to have this experience to know it, and as Hamilton points out, it is often an experience that defies any sort of easy description. Following Fruition there is a great sense of bliss that wells up, and a very real feeling that something important has happened (though it’s almost never what one expected). Some people describe it as a feeling of coming home, or of realizing that which they’ve most desired.

The last stage of the progress of insight is called Review. During review one begins to go through all of the previous stages, and almost immediately finds themselves in the arising and passing stage. They traverse this stage just as before, cross the A&P event, struggle through the dark night once again, emerge into equanimity, and once again reality blinks out for a moment with a Fruition. This cycle repeats itself again and again just like this until the territory has been thoroughly learned, hence the name Review. The only thing that changes is that during each progressive cycle, they become a bit easier and faster. Eventually a new full cycle of insight will emerge, and one will begin to work on the next stage of enlightenment. At this point they start all the way back at square one, but at a whole new layer of subtlety.

About Vincent Horn

Vincent Horn is a mind hacker & buddhist geek. He has been practicing Buddhist meditation intensively since his freshman year in college–including a year on intensive silent retreats–and began teaching in 2010 with the support of his own teachers, Kenneth Folk and Daniel Ingram. In addition Vincent co-founded the popular media company Buddhist Geeks in 2006. His work focuses on the fusion of nascent technology and contemplative wisdom, and has been featured on the pages of Wired, Fast Company, Tricycle, and the Los Angeles Times. Along with his wife Emily, he makes his home in Asheville, North Carolina—that is until the distinction between atoms and bits dissolves completely.


  • Per says:

    Thanks for a great review, Vince! Very helpful.

    Do you have any insights in whether these phases are common also for those using different practices? For instance, Christian mystics who rely on prayer, or even those who have a spontaneous awakening without prior practice? Would be interesting to explore the similarities and differences.

  • Bob says:

    Thanks for summarizing this material so succinctly. How many hours of meditation would you guess you logged until you initially encountered ‘The Three Characteristics’? Not to belabor the obvious, but your approach seems to strongly emphasize mindfulness of mind and to some degree bodily sensations. I wonder, though, if The Four Immeasurables of Loving-Kindness, compassion, empathetic joy and equanimity have played a role in your practice? I have read that these “skillfull means” can serve as an effective compliment to the applications of mindfulness. Also, to what degree have you focused purely on honing concentration, or “shamatha”, and if you have – was there a specific “sign” that allowed you to move more into insight meditation?

  • Vince Horn says:

    Yes, I suspect there are some very striking similarities. Having read some of Father Thomas Keating’s work I can immediately see a direct connection between the dark night of the senses (and what precedes it) with what is this model are the A&P and the Dark Night (or knowledge of suffering). Yeah, I share your interest in doing a comparison of the models, though I think that kind of thing would clearly be a massive group effort…

    In this model the “spontaneous awakening” that people describe (including those without previous practice) is almost always a reference to the Arising and Passing Event–or what Jack Kornfield calls pseudo-nirvana. The problem is the dark night quickly follows and for those without a formal practice it’s very difficult to make it through that territory and to the 1st stage of enlightenment.

  • Vince Horn says:

    Hi Bob,

    Great questions. If you don’t mind I was thinking of answering them in a blog post, as I think each one of them has an extended answer.

  • [...] a recent comment on my post on The Spiritual Map of the Elders I got some very good follow-up questions. I’d like to answer them in this post, one at a time. [...]

  • Vince Horn says:

    Hi “theravadin”,

    Yes, it’s a great map of the same territory. I definitely enjoyed reading it. :)

    Also, I’d just add that I don’t think it’d be hard at all, to find several stream-winners (or higher) who have mastered the jhanas to contribute in a scientific study mapping the correlates of shamatha and vipassana jhanas to brain states. There are many of them around that are interested in such things, and there are some very good reasons to do such studies.

  • Damon says:

    Hi Vince,

    That is indeed, a nice clear description. I’ve taken a recent interest in your fine site Buddhist Geeks, along with the work of Daniel Ingram. I can see that my own practice would have benefited from the clarity and clear staging offered by you and Daniel.

    What I’d like to know is how to comment on Buddhist Geek podcasts. Mention is often made of comments, however, I can see no way to do so.


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