Overcalling Attainments, a Shadow Side of Map-Based Dharma


As the years of reading Dharma Overground posts, getting emails about the dharma, and talking with people, including various dharma teachers, about the reports and languaging used by various practitioners who have had access to the maps have shown, it is extremely common for people to overestimate their dharma attainments, sometimes wildly.

The list of possible errors is very large, and I will not cover all the possible ways one can go wrong, instead focusing on the most common patterns and errors.

By far the most common occurrences occur around the Arising and Passing Away (A&P), typically mistaking it for much higher attainments. While there are strong warnings against doing this, it is very common anyway.

The A&P is so commonly mistaken for things like Equanimity, higher jhanas (third and fourth, as well as formless realms), and Stream Entry, or even some higher path, even on its first occurrence, that I now have to actively check myself when responding to emails and forum posts so that I don't automatically assume that this is what has gone on, as it is probably 50:1 that someone claiming stream entry has actually just crossed the A&P. Ditto for people claiming second path or higher, when they might have just crossed the A&P two or three times, counting each as a path.

I highly encourage people to read the criteria and descriptions of both the A&P and path attainments extremely carefully before calling anything a path, and to test out any purported realizations carefully for months to years to see if they actually hold up, meet all the criteria, and perform as they should.

The following are pathognomonic for (meaning diagnostic on their own) or highly suggestive of something that was somewhere in the territory of A&P and not a path: anything involving "energy", anything involving a "vortex", anything involving any spontaneous movements beyond just the eyelids flickering briefly, anything of which one thought the word "kundalini", anything that involves intense heat, anything that before the event involved significant bliss or rapture, anything that might be described as "orgasmic", anything that involved something that would be described as "intense", anything that involved anything that was "mind-blowing", anything that involved a bright white light in the center of attention, anything that happened in a dream, anything that was preceded immediately by hard bodily pain or tension, anything that was preceded immediately by very odd bodily asymmetry, twistings or odd postural problems, and nearly anything that occurred in the first few days of a retreat, and anything that might be described as "powerful".

If it had any of those criteria, the chances of it being a path attainment go down dramatically from the already low level of probability.

Other common themes of dharma misdiagnosis worth mentioning include mistaking the stage of Three Characteristics (insight stage 3) for the Dark Night (typically insight stages 6-10, as stage 5, Dissolution, typically isn't that unpleasant). It is very common in the first week of a retreat to have some dark periods that are typically accompanied by hard bodily pain, odd postural stuff, and this can also be accompanied by spontaneous crying, heavy emotions, and an increased sense of suffering. This misdiagnosis increases the chances that the next phase, meaning the A&P (insight stage 4), is then misdiagnosed as Equanimity or a path.

The Dark Night proper very rarely involves any spontaneous movements or postural problems in the way that the stage of the Three Characteristics does.

Equanimity almost never involves energetic phenomena like the A&P does, almost never involves bright lights, almost never has any significant spontaneous movements, almost never is described as "mind-blowing", but, just to add to the confusion, can have some powers manifest, though these are much more common during the A&P than in Equanimity. A substantial portion of people in Equanimity will hardly notice it.

It is common for people to cross the A&P many times on retreat and sometimes in daily life before getting a good sense of Equanimity, and this goes many times more for getting a path. The A&P can manifest in a wide variety of ways, not all of which are intense. The A&P can involve "blips", "gaps", "blackouts", and other strange moments that can fool people into thinking they are Fruitions, path attainments, and even formless realms.

Speaking of formless realms: they are truly formless, meaning there is no sense of a body during them, no sense of breathing, and instead they show their distinct characteristics in a full, profound, silent way. They are not "intense", but they are impressive, though it is a quiet, subtle profundity.

Paths should perform as paths. They should create life-long reductions in suffering. They should meet the other criteria, which you will find in places such as MCTB2. If one thinks one has attained a path, put it through its paces. Question it. Explore it, whatever it is. See how it holds up. See if you can do anything like what a trained stream enterer should be able to do. Go on retreats and performance test it against very good practice. See if you can get repeat Fruitions. See if you can sit down in the A&P and drop rapidly into Dissolution. See if you can call up the stages in order, out of order, and control their duration. Give it time, weeks, months, years. Practice well. See what happens and be honest about it. Investigate carefully the sensations and content of any ideals you have for spiritual perfection and attainment and see how they actually perform in living mammals such as yourself.

While it is true that the A&P can cause life-long changes in a practitioner (or anyone for that matter), being the first of the real point of no return on the journey, it doesn't perform like a true path attainment in terms of control and mastery of insight stages in a true Review phase. It doesn't lead to the rapid and natural cycling that Review does.

In particular, diagnosing third path should be done cautiously and with great skepticism. If you actually have it, it can handle this skepticism. If you don't, you will benefit from not being led astray. Waking reality should have a significant reduction in the sense of control, the sense of center point, the sense of agency, the sense of contraction into thoughts and emotions, as well as a significant walking-around appreciation of what the Tibetans would call "luminosity" and others might just call the intrinsic light of awareness that is built into sensations and space itself, all of which are utterly transient. There should be a significant appreciation of this moment being it, even if that sense is not perfectly complete. Third path should perform as third path.

Diagnosing arahatship should be done with even more caution, and I give the strict criteria for it in MCTB2. It should hold up across years, mind states, all challenges, all cycles, in a way that in every moment is very, very obvious if attention is turned to the question of attainments. Reality is immediate. There is no sense of Subject at all. There is no sense of localized perception in some central Watcher at all. There is no sense of anything that is held back or excluded from automatically co-emergent wisdom of clear comprehension and no possibility of this happening. There is a perfect sense of the naturalness of things unfolding causally, automatically. These are flawless, inviolable, automatic, requiring no effort, mindfulness, checking, or anything like that. They are hardwired into the mechanisms of perception. There are other criteria, and one should review them carefully with a critical eye when assessing any thoughts about having attained to arahatship and see how that sense persists across challenges and years.

Dharma diagnosis is easy to get wrong. Events must be taken in context. Criteria must be carefully applied, realizing that clear dharma diagnosis is challenging even for people with decades of experience in it who have helped thousands of people try to sort these things out. Models are imperfect, but that is no excuse for throwing them out, as they are based on millennia of expertise and experimentation.

Dharma misdiagnosis can have significant consequences for practice, fooling people into settling for events, occurrences, and attainments that are significantly below what they might have been capable of without falling into the traps of the maps.

This also hasn't even touched on the overlap between dharma experiences and mental illness, from mania to depression, schizophrenia, personality disorders, trauma, and all of that, which can make sorting out what is going on significantly harder and require attention and care. In general, if you have concerns about your mental health, talk with professionals who have that expertise and can help you. When trying to sort out dharma diagnoses, keep in touch with good friends and teachers who have sufficient expertise in that also.

This also hasn't addressed other medical issues that might be going on, of which the list is vast and too complex to describe here.

While it is true that some will underdiagnose, this is vastly less common than overdiagnosis. Many of us come from a culture where trophies for just showing up are now considered required and we all are sure we are above average, but this mentality is not your friend when it comes to meditation practice.

Overcalling attainments has become something of an endemic disease in those exposed to the maps. It annoys the heck out of dharma teachers who feel some responsibility to keep practitioners on the rails and in the realms of reality. Describe practice simply and clearly, being careful with dharma terms, until you and your teacher get some sense of a comfort with that sort of language, something that definitely won't happen with all teachers.

Use dharma terms and maps responsibly. Don't fall into the large group of practitioners who now go around proving right those that advocate for profound secrecy and proprietary restriction of access to dharma maps and criteria by making all of the mistakes that they use to justify keeping practitioners in the dark about maps. Be an upstanding advocate for free and open dharma by proving that practitioners can be smart enough and skillful with regard to the maps to not make them more of a problem than they problems that openly disclosing them is designed to cure, namely ignorant, lack-luster practice that gets nowhere, coupled with people crashing around after events like the A&P and Dark Night stages without normalization and contextualization, as well as supportive technologies for dealing with those.

If you are given meditation instructions, report in straightforward terms what happens in your six senses when you follow those instructions. If you wish to use dharma terms, discuss their precise meaning and skillful use with your teacher or dharma friends before attempting to simply describe your practice with them, and, if your dharma teacher or friends are not comfortable with the use of those terms, return to very straightforward, simple, non-dharma descriptions of what is occurring.

If you are practicing and notice that you are analyzing and trying to map and compare your experiences to those things you have read about or heard talked about, be vigilant and notice the sensations that make up analysis, as they can significantly derail practice.

Be very careful around comparison and competition that doesn't lead to immediate sensate investigation, and instead leads to emotional and interpersonal difficulties: these are significant traps that lay in wait for those who have been exposed to and try to use the maps of meditation. Comparison and competition, when it becomes unhealthy, can ruin friendships, communities, and practitioners themselves.

Also, various traditions may use terms radically differently than you do, using wildly different criteria and definitions for a whole host of dharma terms. Avoid getting into pissing matches with other practitioners and teachers that just lead to annoyance and contraction into tribalism rather than to wisdom, friendship, and clarification of the dharma. There are places and times where healthy dharma debate can be very skillful, but watch for those times when this is not the case. The traditions have been arguing with each other for thousands of years, and your rant that day isn't going to suddenly bring the factions together or resolve these conflicts.

In that vein, be careful with rigid, categorical thinking rather than dimensional thinking that can appreciate shades of grey. It not that there isn't a place for some rigid categories and concepts in the dharma, as there is, but we must use care around such things and be sure that, when we use categorical thinking, it really is serving some useful purpose that can't be better served with language and concepts that have more nuance.

Luckily, at all stages of insight, careful, direct investigative comprehension of the Three Characteristics of the Six Sense Doors can further practice. If one is practicing samatha, then there are always greater depths of practice that can be explored. Further, whatever you have attained, as those have been doing this long enough all know, continued practice has a way of deepening whatever it is you have attained. The Buddha continued to practice long hours and go on yearly three-month retreats even decades after his awakening: may we learn from his example.

Best wishes for your practice,