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TOPIC: awakening: WTF?

awakening: WTF? 05 Jan 2019 06:32 #110197

Not sure if anyone else gets Ken McLeod's newsletter, but the most recent one got me thinking (I'll copy/paste below). Awakening really is this mysterious thing and the more I learn, the more mysterious it seems. As he points out, even the most basic assumption--that practice makes it happen--is just a story and it's actually not clear that this is necessarily the case. My own history is a case in point--crossed the A&P as a kid, then about a decade later apparently stumbled upon stream entry without a formal practice. I have speculated as to why it happened (definitely not that I was a particularly good person), but it's just more story. What if it's all just randomness, freak accidents? Of course, this is also another story...

I like to think that practice has at least something to do with it at least some of the time, and of course there are plenty of other reasons to practice. But the thought experiment really does drive home the point that it is not a vending machine where you put money in and insight pops out. If anything, it's more like a slot machine where you pull the level over and over again and maaaaaybe something happens, but maybe not. Maybe you win the lottery without even buying a ticket. And is "winning" the lottery really any better than the experience of a relatively normal, happy, well-adjusted person who has never crossed the A&P? How can we even know or realistically compare? It does seem better not to play at all unless you take a particular joy in the art of pulling the lever, since you might never win...

So I'm curious what this thought experiment brings up for other people. If it's all just randomness anyway, how does that change things for you if at all?

Practice Tip: On (not) being special

In a recent email exchange, a correspondent drew an intriguing analogy between the bleak (for him) outlook of John Gray in Straw Dogs and the subtle awareness that Jogmé Lingpa describes in A Trackless Path. Although everyone has the potential for such awareness (basic teaching on buddha nature), he felt that no more than a few thousand out of the billions of people on this planet would ever touch it.

We are deeply conditioned to think and feel that those few thousand people are in someway special. Many of us want to be one of them. Certainly, the various religious traditions would have us believe that such people are special, whether the specialness is due to the grace of God (Christianity and other monotheistic traditions), the result of efforts in previous lives (Buddhism and other traditions that use karma to explain things), the result of our own efforts (as in Zen, Theravadan and many of the Mahayana traditions), or some combination of these three.

What if it is just a matter of plain, ordinary blind luck? Granted, this is yet another story, but it's quite a bit simpler, and I've always been a fan of Occam's razor.

For instance, how many seeds does the average tree produce each year? It's almost certainly in the thousands, and possibly in the ten thousands for some species. And how many of those seeds become trees? Probably quite a bit less than one seed per tree. Mother Nature is nothing if not redundant, but when it comes to growth processes, redundancy is vital. In growth processes, the aim is not to maximize output and reduce costs (as it is in manufacturing) but to maximize potential and reduce the likelihood of disaster. In evolution, disaster is the failure to reproduce. Thus, Mother Nature goes overboard when it comes to reproduction and produces thousands, if not tens of thousands, of seeds to ensure that one germinates and carries on the species.

The few seeds that do germinate are in no way special. They are not different from those that fall on rocks or into rivers. They just happened to land in a god place, even if that good place is a crack in the rock on a rocky outcrop of a wind-swept mountain.

We assume the seeds that germinate were lucky but we really don't know. Maybe the life of a germinating seed is hell and a seed would be better to land on rocky ground and never have to deal with the whole growth process. Rilke felt this way about poetry. And I've heard more than a few teachers, myself included, say to prospective students, "Only take this path if you have to. If you can live your life happily in another way, do so. But if you have to make this journey, then here is how you do it."

In any event, the seeds that do not germinate haven't done anything wrong, which means that the seeds that do germinate haven't done anything right, either. That's just what happened.
This whole business about being special is, I think, a problem in practice. It reinforces a sense of identity. The original teachings on this subject were, I think, intended to provide people with encouragement and raise their sense of possibilities. They were probably helpful and effective in their cultural settings, at least for a time. But in our hyper-individualistic culture, the same teachings seem to have a very different effect, reinforcing the very patters that we are trying to dismantle.

Basically, any idea that you are special in some way and destined to be awake is an indication of delusion. Any idea that you can bring about your awakening through your own efforts is an indication of delusion. And any idea that awakening comes from some force outside, as a a blessing or grace is also an indication of delusion. These are all stories we tell ourselves to explain what is a mystery.

When we practice, we think we are doing something, that we are making something happening, and that we are going to achieve something. While I fell into this way of thinking myself, I eventually came to understand that it is a completely wrong-headed.

One of the key insights into this matter came through the head chanter at Palpung, Rinpoche's monastery in Eastern Tibet. He came into the three-year retreat to teach a friend and me a long, complex protector ritual. My friend was the head chanter that month and I was responsible for all the shrine offerings. It took several days to get everything straight about the ritual. During out conversations the Palpung head chanter related how he had had a difficult time in his own three-year retreat and did not make much progress in such practices as inner heat (tumo). After the retreat, he became ill. He had little strength and had difficulty eating. He could not perform his duties in the monastery and just sat in his room, unable to move. He started to do Vairocana practice, which is a purification practice, and he recited Vairocana's mantra all day every day. His illness steadily worsened. He could barely eat or drink, and eventually subsisted on just a few sips of tea and one or two small balls of roasted barley. His hair fell out, his fingernails fells off, but he just kept going, reciting the mantra, even though he was sure that he was going to die. This was his life for six months. Then, for apparently no reason, he began to recover his health. He started to be able to eat. He recovered his strength, and he found himself infused with a vitality he had not known before. And, perhaps most remarkably, he now had no problem with the inner heat practice.

Now this is a dramatic example. But it illustrates a principle of practice that I have seen in others and in my own experience. It is also one of the central principles of sorcery. You do the practice, that is, you do the ritual forms of the practice. You just do them. You do them with attention and intention, with faith, with trust, or whatever you want to call it. But what happens isn't up to you. The practice works in its own ways.

Some people do this, and nothing happens. For others, such as the head chanter, something miraculous happens. The practice brings about changes in us, changes we may have never intended, and we have no say in the process. It seems we don't get to decide if we are a seed that germinates. We don't get to decide who or what we are. Part of the process of practice is that we let go of all our dreams and hopes, of ever being someone, and of any sense of identity. Possibly, though I don't know for sure, this is one of the conditions that needs to be present for the seed to germinate. It certainly is for the caterpillar as it transforms into a butterfly.

Brad Warner, in a YouTube posting on identity politics makes an interesting point. He notes that the teachers he respected and admired most were completely unconcerned with identity, with knowing who they were. As a consequence, they were free to be whoever they needed to be in the moment, strong, clear, responsive and understanding.

One final point, a modest extension of a theme in Uchiyama Roshi's teachings. A rose blooms as a rose. A violet blooms as a violet. No matter how hard it tries, a violet cannot bloom as a rose, nor a rose as a violet. We think that we have to know what we are in order to bloom, but that is not true. We just have to bloom and it is our nature to bloom, just as it is a seed's nature to germinate. All we can do is seek out the right conditions. Maybe something happens. Maybe not.

It is a mystery, through and through.
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awakening: WTF? 05 Jan 2019 09:20 #110198

Andromeda, this is a nice topic to start.

I do receive and I do read Ken's newsletter. I read his last one this week, too. The topic is something I think about infrequently but it's something that became blindingly obvious in May 2010. I had an epiphany while on a plane on the way home from a conference in Florida. It was ridiculously obvious at that point that nothing I had ever "done" was really the result of intention, planning or control and that everything in the universe was on the same level playing field. Nothing was special anymore. And nothing has been special since. It's all stories, all the way down. I appears to me that things happen and then my mind figures out how to make sense of them. I don't dwell on this and I go with the stories pretty all the time much anyway.

I'm not sure how well this relates, either, but I wasn't depressed by reading "Straw Dogs." It presented a valuable alternative view of the world without the rose-colored lenses of progress and righteousness that comes with being a westerner who grew up in the 1950's, '60's and '70's in the U.S.

:)
Last Edit: 05 Jan 2019 09:22 by Chris Marti.
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awakening: WTF? 05 Jan 2019 10:56 #110199

I want to amend my previous comment a bit -- it's not that there is no intention or planning or that those things have no effect on me. They do, but only in ways far more limited than I previously thought. LIfe is more chaotic and subject to more random, non-intent based influences than I imagined previously. My stories were different.

There, I feel better now.
Last Edit: 05 Jan 2019 11:06 by Chris Marti.
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awakening: WTF? 05 Jan 2019 17:20 #110200

I didn't find Straw Dogs bleak, either (probably because I'd already come to similar conclusions much earlier in life). We're probably weirdos, though! :silly:

What made this topic so interesting to me is that it puts lack of agency/control in the context of teaching meditation, especially since Ken wrote that it was following the theme of blue vs. red pill teachers. Because if it isn't an individual's efforts in practice that result in awakening, then how the heck are teachers supposed to help them? I've been giving this a lot of thought...
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awakening: WTF? 05 Jan 2019 17:49 #110201

Maybe teachers just increase the odds.
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awakening: WTF? 06 Jan 2019 05:32 #110202

One would hope teachers increase the odds, anyway. But how?

To extend the seed analogy, let's say that the seed represents a person's potential for awakening. The teacher is then like a gardener whose job is to keep the seed healthy. A real seed needs to be in a place where there is appropriate sunshine, water, nutrients in the soil. It needs to be protected from the elements, anything that will eat it, and toxic herbicides. Then there's nothing else to do but see if it grows. And a gardener only has the resources to care for so many seeds at one time.

To translate to teaching... Maybe all a teacher can really do is show what's possible (like pointing out the sun so the sprout can grow toward it), pointing out the dangers (wrong practice, acting from a place of confusion or delusion, etc.), and try to make sure the little plant gets the nourishment it needs (that could be a long list but let's say spiritual friendship, the right things to study, etc.). The sprout has to learn how to grow up straight on its own, so encouraging independence would be key--if you wrap the plant around a bean pole or lattice it might help for a little while but then it will never be able to grow up into a tree. And maybe it is the seeds that grow up into trees that become the gardeners for the next generation.
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awakening: WTF? 06 Jan 2019 10:00 #110203

Hmmm... as a practical answer to the question of why and how awakening, I'm pretty sure it's at first a question of "want to" and eventually a question of fortuitous happenstance. Maybe the "want to" motivation engages us in activities that set us up with the skill set allowing our mind to take full advantage of the eventual serendipity. I really don't know. My guess as to what Ken Mcleod was getting at is the agency story we all use in our heads about cause and effect. As a philosophical matter that's interesting to ponder but it makes a heckuva lot more sense after the serendipity than it does before. Before, I'd have been totally deflated to think that I had no ability to practice my way to awakening.
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awakening: WTF? 06 Jan 2019 13:07 #110205

...and so I am totally deflated that I have no ability to practice my way to awakening.

Frustrating business, this.
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awakening: WTF? 06 Jan 2019 13:19 #110207

My best argument to convince you otherwise is that you need to practice so that when the conditions are right you'll awaken. Random, uninvited awakening does actually happen -- but not as often as invited awakenings. How do you invite awakening? Practice!
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awakening: WTF? 06 Jan 2019 15:00 #110208

What if...

...awakening is just what tends to happen when people DON'T do the things that reinforce the sense of a separate self. So "practice" is simply giving it the opportunity to happen and so the more practice, the greater the odds. This is actually what I suspect is the case, or something to this effect. That practice is hugely important even though we can't really understand exactly how it works. I heard an analogy that it's like getting struck by lightning: you can't make the lightning happen, but you can spend a lot of time on the top of a mountain with a lightning rod.

Honestly, I think that first random lightning strike happened for me because I finally surrendered totally to despair. I let go of any hope that things would improve but also let go of my death wish and accepted life--and myself, including the ugliest parts--as it was. And did a lot of walking just to get out of my head. Zero attachment to outcome. No idea what awakening was, that it was even a possibility to suffer less. I just walked, and kept walking. So that probably does count as practice even if I didn't understand that I was walking around with a lightning rod. If someone had tried to give me proper walking meditation instructions I probably would have screwed it up (or more likely just told them off).

So don't give up practicing, Tom!
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awakening: WTF? 06 Jan 2019 16:29 #110209

Hmm... I tend to go with "there is no control but you choose to participate or not". There is something very very deep that tells us if we are in the flow of practice or not. It's really hard to be confused about it, but we definitely will suppress the truth out of convenience.

Many people put in the time, but don't really practice.
Many people practice, but don't really put in the time.
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awakening: WTF? 06 Jan 2019 17:30 #110210

I think of it more as "there is no control but you can choose whether or not to *really* pay attention." For me, this gets at it. And then there's my pinball machine analogy: all you really get is two flippers, and maaaaybe once in awhile you get to tilt the pinball machine. And that's it.

All of this sounds really bleak but once it's really sunk in, actually the fact that we get to choose to pay attention is fantastically liberating.
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awakening: WTF? 06 Jan 2019 17:37 #110211

Paying attention is doing something. It's not passive.

:P
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awakening: WTF? 07 Jan 2019 04:50 #110212

/sigh

Active/passive, participate/don't participate, left/right pinball flipper... At the end of the day any lip flapping we do on this subject is just bullshit anyway because there is just *this*.

But if we didn't do any lip flapping, we'd probably get lonely.
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awakening: WTF? 07 Jan 2019 07:49 #110214

These are indeed chicken/egg discussions.
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awakening: WTF? 07 Jan 2019 13:46 #110215

Andromeda wrote:
Honestly, I think that first random lightning strike happened for me because I finally surrendered totally to despair. I let go of any hope that things would improve but also let go of my death wish and accepted life--and myself, including the ugliest parts--as it was. And did a lot of walking just to get out of my head. Zero attachment to outcome. No idea what awakening was, that it was even a possibility to suffer less. I just walked, and kept walking. So that probably does count as practice even if I didn't understand that I was walking around with a lightning rod. If someone had tried to give me proper walking meditation instructions I probably would have screwed it up (or more likely just told them off).

Not appropriate on this public discussion thread, but have you got an awakening story you would be willing to share, Andromeda?
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awakening: WTF? 07 Jan 2019 14:35 #110216

The trouble is, I've probably got at least half a dozen of them. This happened almost 20 years ago now during a particularly eventful time in my life and every time I try to figure out what went on things look a little different. Memory is a funny thing. There are some clear memories, but what stands out the most is just that I changed completely in a very short amount of time. It's probably not anything I could write about in a coherent fashion, unfortunately.

And going back to the original post, just to clarify--I'm not questioning the value of teachers/guides/mentors in practice, as the good ones are worth their weight in gold. I'm just questioning what's really going on in such relationships when it's working well, and when it isn't.
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awakening: WTF? 07 Jan 2019 15:15 #110217

My thought here comes from all the recent post here and on DhO and my own transient position in dharma space:

I like Culadasa's simple description of the brain as a zillion little sub minds, each composed of neurons that are wired up to take data and spit out an answer, each answer then combined with other answers and somehow the inputs and the process and the outputs all flash in place and it looks like a simple cause-effect thing happened but really there's a holographic summation that no-one can really understand.

The 'student' is in the middle of a circular flow, the circle including history, culture, internet, books, conversations, a conglomeration of what might as well be random flux of information and the instant she thinks or twitches, feedback is already changing the supposedly linear response.

I guess I'm saying that cause and effect is happening, but since each of us is unique, complex and in flux, it' hopeless to understand the cause and effect.

That said, surely we agree that intention, investigation, practice does lead somewhere, usually in a good direction.

IMG_20190107_085458.jpg


For some reason, as I was walking around the house, I noticed this picture my son drew as part of an exercise: complete the picture (of half of his face). Some how this picture fits into my investigation of self/mind/brain/etc.

What I see in that is that what he drew came mostly from his *conceptual* understanding of himself and his understanding of the *concept* that he should draw half his face. It's as if he had little connection with the photo of half his face in front of him as he drew. For example, he did not continue his real smile line into the blank half of the page and the nose from the picture was not connected to the nose he drew. At some point he remembered that there was supposed to be something 'half-ish' about his drawing, so he cut off part of his head.

I took all of this to show that the depth to which his perceptions of the world are mediated through conceptual mind. The kid was only 5 when he drew that! But what I see in the picture is how we all are slaves to our conceptual/symbolic brains.

Another though: DI and JY and KF are kvetching about each other's understanding of dharma. Crap, if they don't agree completely on stuff, then the rest of us sure should not expect to agree, or agreement about 'the facts' is by agreement not by fundamental obviousness.

Sorry for the randomness of my post, take it as an expression of appreciation that you guys are still here.
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awakening: WTF? 07 Jan 2019 15:45 #110218

I had a long email discussion two very senior Shinheads about something related to the WTF of awakening, and that was whether cessations were real, or necessary, or even associated with awakening. So I'd ask you (Andromeda): do you have, or have you had, cessations in the "classic" MCTB stream entry sense?
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awakening: WTF? 07 Jan 2019 19:01 #110219

Tom Otvos wrote:
...and so I am totally deflated that I have no ability to practice my way to awakening.

Frustrating business, this.

hmm... I'm finding hard to just this comment stand. So I'll just ask, for reals?
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awakening: WTF? 08 Jan 2019 09:37 #110221

shargrol wrote:
Tom Otvos wrote:
...and so I am totally deflated that I have no ability to practice my way to awakening.

Frustrating business, this.

hmm... I'm finding hard to just this comment stand. So I'll just ask, for reals?

Well, let's see. In part, that response was a bit of a riff on the comment before. It would, indeed, be frustrating business if there was no way to merely practice my way to awakening. In some sense it explains a lot, but then there is your comment about practice and time, with either variant of them ringing true with me. There is the fear of not practicing correctly for "thousands of hours" (as a mutual friend used to say), or doing the practice correctly but not having it front-burnered enough to make a difference.

But I will also call back to what I said above, with very senior meditators, whom I would consider "awake", not actually having a stream-entry event. The frustrating thing (for me) there is that if there is no marker for "awake", how do you know, and how do you know you are not simply fooling yourself with a story? I guess you might say that *wanting* to be awake is another story, as is the story of the frustrated meditator. Stories all the way down.

To your question, for real I am frustrated, but no more so than I have been for several years. "Totally deflated"...not. I move in and out of practice in waves, not really knowing if it is helping anything. But I have given up on being bent out of shape not getting stream entry. At least until I can dedicate to one retreat, I am done with banging my head against that wall.
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awakening: WTF? 08 Jan 2019 10:50 #110223

Thanks Tom for taking my question in the way I intended: genuine curiosity and interest.

For what it's worth, I personally do not believe any one specific experience is diagnostic for various stages of awakening --- but I do think I can take in people's experience and make a good assessment of where they are at. I agree many people do not report cessations and are at "stream entry" and other people report cessations/non-experience-events and are not at "stream entry". It is confusing and gets even more confusing for later stages/paths... but I think there is a broad developmental arc that can be seen. For example, if someone is unable to cultivate a fairly radical equanimity -- extended hours of feeling radically OK and easy access when the mind is inclined that way -- then any cessation is beyond the point. So it is usually quite clear if someone has gone through a purification of the neurotic aspects of being a pre SE meditator.

Yeah, it's interesting, having a goal like SE is both empowering (hey, this shit is real) and deflating (great, another thing i don't have). For me, MCTB put all of the weird enlightenment porn that I read over several decades into perspective and gave me a very clear path as a classic dark night yogi. Just hearing about dark night empowered me not to be afraid of my own mind and go deep. Frankly for me, living a life of low- to medium-grade depression was unfun and exhausting. Knowing that some of my spiritual experiences weren't mental illness was very helpful and it also gave me confidence that my instinct on meditation being healing and helpful was valid... And it really was clear that sitting daily cleaned up my mind and made me a better person. My wife noticed and my business colleagues noticed. But it was Equanimity that really changed me. One way to think about it is SE was more like an event that sent me into the next stage of practice, rather than being the end of the first stage of practice.

For what it is worth, I do think that good home practice is more than enough for SE, but it means full heartedly sitting each day. There are lots of techniques and advice that can help someone connect with what is really motivating their practice --- that's the most important piece. If someone doesn't want to practice, they simply shouldn't. But if someone wants to sit and make the most of it, then there are ways of really becoming an awesome sitting machine. My own thought is that if someone is fairly intelligent and healthy, daily sitting plus a couple of half-day home retreats (3 to 4 hours of sit-walk-sit-walk-sit) every few months is more than enough. Of course a teacher helps a lot, if that teacher is in sync with the yogi's personality and intentions.

Not to say this lightly because being frustrated does suck, but ultimately frustration is a good thing and I would absolutely place my bet on a yogi that was frustrated and practicing over a yogi that was content and practicing.
Last Edit: 08 Jan 2019 10:52 by shargrol.
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awakening: WTF? 08 Jan 2019 11:23 #110224

Matthew--thanks for the random! I like Culadasa's subminds story as well. And your kid is hella cute--his self-portrait does not do him justice.

Tom--I'm glad shargrol nudged you on that comment because I'd like to hear more on that as well. It was certainly not my intention to dissuade anyone from practice.

To answer your question--no remembered cessation from 18 years ago, just clear memories of first getting into equanimity because the spaciousness was such a relief. So still not clear when SE happened, just making a guess based on conversations with knowledgeable friends. First noticed a clear cessation years after that--locked onto a sudden noise, mind clearly went totally offline and rebooted and so I thought it was a stroke (the little bliss wave after had me extra convinced death was imminent). Interesting conversation with the Shinheads you had--any idea what Shinzen's take on it is?

Also, I managed to articulate an awakening story for you: it took 10 years of chronic dark night yogi desperate seeking and practicing hard but in mostly the wrong ways or with too much effort because I didn't know what I was doing. Like lifting weights with bad form and then dropping them on my foot. So there was practice, a LOT of it, it just wasn't very good practice. It was spurred by a deep longing for clarity of the unvarnished truth, but I kept retraumatizing myself and making a mess of things. So maybe the real lightning strike was the moment of, "Duh, I shouldn't do that" which came prior to equanimity. I had to learn to stop stuffing crap in the hole and just stare into it instead. Come to think of it, this is a lesson I've had to keep learning again and again in different ways...
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awakening: WTF? 08 Jan 2019 11:30 #110225

Andromeda wrote:
What if it's all just randomness, freak accidents? Of course, this is also another story...
All things considered, everything kind of comes from randomness. Including incredibly complicated technology that is not random. And awakening is something that is more suddenly stumble-in-able than many things. But people also stumble into the desire to go down the path and train the mind to be more aware and relaxed, and that seems to make one considerably luckier at stumbling into it. I could be wrong but the old KFD forum crowd seemed to have had a substantially better than average track record as near as I can figure.

Andromeda wrote:
he felt that no more than a few thousand out of the billions of people on this planet would ever touch it.
My guess is more like one out of hundreds. And perhaps all have touched it on the way into life, and many will touch it on the way out. You have to let go eventually.
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awakening: WTF? 08 Jan 2019 13:27 #110227

shargrol wrote:
Thanks Tom for taking my question in the way I intended: genuine curiosity and interest.

For what it's worth, I personally do not believe any one specific experience is diagnostic for various stages of awakening --- but I do think I can take in people's experience and make a good assessment of where they are at. I agree many people do not report cessations and are at "stream entry" and other people report cessations/non-experience-events and are not at "stream entry". It is confusing and gets even more confusing for later stages/paths... but I think there is a broad developmental arc that can be seen. For example, if someone is unable to cultivate a fairly radical equanimity -- extended hours of feeling radically OK and easy access when the mind is inclined that way -- then any cessation is beyond the point. So it is usually quite clear if someone has gone through a purification of the neurotic aspects of being a pre SE meditator.

"Extended hours of feeling radically OK." When this first started happening I assumed it was some developmental milestone I'd hit late (or something) because most "normal" people seemed to be OK to me and I'd spent 10 years as a neurotic mess. It was such a huge and complete transformation that I didn't question it, just immediately focused my efforts on getting my life together and moved on. I thought I had gotten more "normal"! Someone had to explain to me (embarrassingly recently) that those "normal" people are pre-A&P and that's why they seem so OK. It made me really sad to learn this. :( That's what I get for having mostly ignored the insight models.

But I think "hours of feeling radically OK" is a much more useful benchmark than "stream entry" which is obviously a hotly contested thing.
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