First Gear: Investigate the Objects of Attention. Balance Concentration and Investigation.
My first spiritual opening came in 1982, when I was 23 years old. This first, powerful awakening to the fact that there was a deeper reality than my habitual way of seeing the world completely changed my life; having had a taste of this deeper reality, all I wanted to do was “get it back.” I began reading everything I could find about meditation, enlightenment, and spirituality, hoping to find a way back “home.” All of the authors I was reading said that one should meditate, so I did. But the models of enlightenment I learned about in the books did not satisfy me. It seemed that there was some nebulous, airy-fairy kind of wisdom that Zen masters had, but that couldn’t be explained. If you did Zen meditation, maybe it would happen to you too, but there was no guarantee, and in fact the odds were against it.
So, when I met a Theravada Buddhist teacher named Bill Hamilton in 1990 and learned about another way of modeling enlightenment, I was immediately hooked. According to Theravada Buddhism, enlightenment is a clearly mappable, linear process that is reproducible from one practitioner to the next. “Insights” arise in an invariable sequence and it is possible to place yourself on a map of attainment and see where you have been and where you are going. This was just what my rational mind wanted to hear! Having grown up in a culture that sees everything as having a beginning, a middle, and an end, I could easily wrap my mind around this map of progressive development and get to work. My new teacher was honest with me about where he believed himself to be on the map and spoke of the meditation techniques and the fruits of the practice in such clear terms that I had no doubt I would be able to succeed within this system.
Theravada Buddhism describes four Paths of Enlightenment, each of which builds upon one before it. When I met Bill Hamilton in 1990, he let it be known through broad hints that he considered himself to have attained the 2nd of the four traditional Paths of Enlightenment and was working toward 3rd. The more I practiced the vipassana (insight meditation), the more my faith in this system was verified. The insights into suffering, impermanence, and no-self came fast and furious, just as my teacher and the old texts said they would. The main point I want to make here about vipassana meditation is that it performs as advertised and a diligent yogi truly can progress through a series of stages that were already clearly described and mapped over 2,000 years ago. This is an exciting and dynamic process that brings benefits much too numerous to describe here.
Each of the four Paths of Enlightenment unfolds through a series of sub-stages, called the Progress of Insight. Once you have completed all 16 stages of the first Progress of Insight, you have, by definition, attained to the First Path of Enlightenment (aka Stream Entry), at which point your understanding of your relationship to yourself and your experience is permanently altered in subtle but profound ways. This new understanding further deepens during the 2nd Progress of Insight, which looks and feels similar to the 1st and culminates in 2nd Path. After this, the Progress of Insight speeds up and cycles repeatedly. Eventually, 3rd and 4th Path are attained, resulting in what the Theravada Buddhists consider “full enlightenment.” The kind of thumbnail sketch I’ve provided here makes this all sound fairly straightforward and perhaps even easy, but most people will not find it so. To reach the highest levels of enlightenment within this system requires a tremendous amount of concentration, which in turn requires great dedication and for most people many years of focused effort and considerable sacrifice. Nonetheless, it is possible and well worth doing; balancing concentration and insight brings about what I call “physio-energetic” development, a kind of human development that seems to be optional. In other words, the majority of people on Earth will not develop their potential in this arena and many will not even believe that such a possibility exists.
For more on developmental enlightenment, see my essays on The Progress of Insight. To learn more about concentration, click here. For the vipassana noting technique, click here.