This essay was originally published on the old Dharma Forum Refugee Camp Blog, which is no longer published online.
I know I’m not alone when I say that it may be time to give up on the antiquated models of the stages of awakening in favor of something that lines up more closely with reality as we know it today. The Four Path Model and its spinoffs are rooted in philosophies and worldviews that no longer mirror our own. Outside of the discipline of meditation and its associated result (i.e. awakening, realization, release, etc.), there are some very down to earth descriptions of the ways in which human beings develop competency of a particular skill.
One such model, developed by Abraham Maslow, is the Four Stages of Competence, which is a description of the phases that one goes through when learning a skill. The stages are:
(1) Unconscious Incompetence - The individual neither understands nor knows how to do something, nor recognizes the deficit, nor has a desire to address it.
(2) Conscious Incompetence - Though the individual does not understand or know how to do something, he or she does recognize the deficit, without yet addressing it.
(3) Conscious Competence - The individual understands or knows how to do something. However, demonstrating the skill or knowledge requires a great deal of consciousness or concentration.
(4) Unconscious Competence - The individual has had so much practice with a skill that it becomes “second nature” and can be performed easily (often without concentrating too deeply). He or she may or may not be able to teach it to others, depending upon how and when it was learned.
I think this can be applied quite nicely to the progress on makes on the meditative path. Most of us who have a practice are probably somewhere between stages (3) and (4), in that we are practicing to the best of our ability, but have not yet fully integrated the skill into what we might call “second nature.”
The way I see it, we refine our meditative skills until we happen to catch a glimpse of awakening/release/true nature/Buddha mind/etc. This initial realization is what lets us know that we are practicing correctly. From that point on, our competency in this skill matures as we continue to practice in a way that leads to recognition of this truth . When we are able to apply this skill in a completely natural, effortless way – much like speaking in one’s own native language – we could say that we have pretty well integrated our realization into our ordinary, everyday lives.
That’s not to say that further depth of insight cannot be reached, because I believe it can. The point here is that although we may have moments of profound insight and release, integrating these moments into our human expression should be the focus thereafter. That is why I believe that continued practice is always valuable, and why I think placing too great an emphasis on stages and attainments based on outdated and/or irrelevant criteria is not a good idea.
Instead, practice your way to release. And then do it again, and again, and again, and again, and again…