The Arising and Passing Away
I had two long conversations with some Ivy League Academic Dark Night Yogis who both research meditation and some of the things we discussed inspired me to write this. Their practice has actually moved on since then, but this article has remained behind.
I hope you will find it interesting and useful. It was written with a slant towards how to research this stuff in some formal way, such as an NIH grant, but should have some broad appeal and applicability. I also have naive dreams that something like this will one day be in the DSM6 or whatever it is called then: one can only hope.
A lot of people here routinely question if they crossed the A&P. If you are hunting around sites like this one trying to answer that question, you probably did, as that is the sort of thing people above the A&P do, however, here is a lot more on the topic. Further, people may read some of the wilder and more exotic descriptions and doubt that they had done it when in fact they had. Regardless: Enjoy!
The Arising and Passing Away
The range of presentation of the Arising and Passing Away (A&P, 4th insight stage, 4th ñana, 2nd vipassana jhana, etc.) is so vast and complex that some will probably be amazed that the things I am about to describe could all by related to the A&P. I make no apologies for this, as I have traversed this territory literally thousands of times over the last 26 years or so and also had the opportunity to hear and read many people’s reports of the same territory.
I will begin listing the aspects of its presentation range in no particular order as they come to me, just to get them down on paper. Realize that any individual crossing of the A&P may only draw from a few of the more specific elements below, but the functional effect will be essentially the same.
The A&P can happen in a very wide variety of life experiences, while awake or in dreams, in people who meditate and people who don’t, early in childhood or late in life, during febrile illness, hallucinogenic drug experiences, yoga classes, breathing workshops, childbirth/labor, sex, exercise in general, long marches, prolonged solitude, traumatic experiences, and in many other circumstances. Most meditators I know actually crossed it before they got into meditation with no idea what it was (as happened to me) and was the reason (often without knowing it) that they got into meditation or whatever thing they are into, rather than the other way around.
The context of the A&P will often hold a special place in the heart of the meditator due to the association with it, e.g. a person who crossed it while doing mescaline may have a lifelong affinity for those sorts of traditions and substances, while someone who crossed it while in the presence of a Christian faith healer may forever hold a special place in their heart for Christianity or that particular faith healer.
The A&P duration as it unfolds for some may take months and for some may be less than a second, and this can vary widely as one re-crosses it.
The A&P for many will be a very memorable peak experience or set of experiences, but for others they may barely remember it or not remember it at all, depending on the way it presented and how old they were when it did it, as well as many other factors. For example, compare a person who has weeks of profound bliss pouring through their bodies while seeing visions of celestial lights on meditation retreat to a person sitting on a couch who had about a half-second zap of mild-moderate intensity energy through the back of their head and down their spine and nothing else at all. Both in timing and duration these would seem quite different, and yet functionally they may be the same from an overall map point of view.
The A&P may, for many, involve energetic phenomena, but how this manifests can vary widely, including but not limited to:
*feelings of vibrations spreading out through one’s body
*feeling of vibrations in the spine or areas associated with “energy channels”
*actually seeing energy or “energy channels”
*the feeling that one can manipulate or control these energetic phenomena
*seeing interference patterns between experiences or what may be perceived as moving moiré patterns of energy and/or experiences in one’s body
*feeling these energies or vibrations change frequency with the phase of the breath, typically getting faster in the middle of the in and out breath and slower at the top and bottom of the breath
*vortexes of energy in one’s body, usually showing up going through one’s spine and/or through one’s ears or head into one’s spine, but can involve all sorts of other vortex-like phenomena. Vortexes are nearly perfectly diagnostic of the A&P.
*sometimes the A&P can involve full on explosions of consciousness and experience, such that the body may feel it has exploded into sparks or fragments or the space the person is occupying itself may seem to have experienced some rapid and violent distortion of its basic structure, which are usually very brief experiences
A variant of the A&P or part of the A&P’s presentation may involve dropping down with the out-breath into deeper and seemingly much slower ways of experiencing reality, such that reality appears to slow to a crawl in deep waves or pulses of drawn out moments that may then seem to completely or nearly completely stop, after which there may be an Unknowing Event. (Unknowing Events are what appear to be discontinuities in one’s awareness and are generally classified by context, entrance, exit, any residual subtle experiences or impressions of the pause or break, and the aftereffects.) This variant can involve deep levels of stillness, calm, and quiet, which is in marked contrast to some of the other ways that the A&P can present. This may sometimes alternate with more rapid, energetic aspects or precede or follow them.
As the A&P occurs in the basic territory known as the second vipassana jhana, a term I am not going to try to find an English equivalent for, it has the aspect of things happening on their own and showing up and happening naturally in many ways, as in “with the dropping of applied and sustained thought” (the traditional initial descriptor that separates it from the first jhana, which tends to involve effort and the feeling of having to do something). All the things that apply to the territory of the 2nd jhana in general enhance our understanding of the A&P.
The range of visual effects that may show up in the A&P are quite wide and may be dramatic, and include but are not limited to:
*bright white lights, which may be a quick flash or a steady white light, sometime preceded by jewel-tone sparkles or lights which are brighter and more vivid than typical phosphenes, and can either be just the light, or some bright image, such as a flash bulb, a match lighting, a car headlight, flashing police car lights, or other brightly flowing or flashing objects, etc.
*seeming to see through one’s closed eyelids, walls, roofs, or whatever else is around to see through
*spinning stars, dots, triangles, squares, and similar things, usually with the spinning frequency varying with the breath as noted above (faster in the middle, slower at top and bottom).
*many other dramatic visuals can happen during the A&P
By “powers”, I mean seemingly magical effects or psychic phenomena, which others may simply interpret as hallucinations or in some other light. Regardless of how one interprets them, the phenomenology with my own labels and terms that are more common are:
*vivid dreams, lucid dreams, and full-on traveling out of body, either in dreams or straight off the cushion/walking meditation session or even in other circumstances
*partial traveling: such that, for example, one might feel one has put one’s “astral” or “etheric” hand through a wall while the rest of them seemed to stay “in-body”, to use standard jargon
*past-life experiences: these can vary widely, but generally present as a string of impressions, sometimes actually presenting in sequence in a trail in space, of what can seem like past existences, often with a lot of information about each one seeming to present in a very short space of time
*seeing one’s or other people’s auras and other similar energetic and colorful aspects
*being able to seemingly know things one couldn’t know, such as undisclosed facts about people one has just met or what cards one’s opponents in cards are holding, for example
*emotional and energetic manipulation: the seeming ability to alter the emotions and energy-body aspects of people around them or or people they make physical contact with, and even induce Kundalini experiences in others
Typically, the need for sleep will be reduced the closer one is to the peak of the territory of the A&P, which contrasts it with stages such as Dissolution (which comes right after it), during which the need for sleep tends to go up.
Whereas in previous stages some practitioners may experience asymmetrical back and neck and body pain, such as spasmodic torticollis, subscapular trigger points and the like, as well as difficulty sustaining strict sitting meditation postures when on meditation retreats as an example, posture difficulties and bodily tiredness and pain from sitting tend to be markedly reduced in the A&P, such that when someone on retreat goes from having a hard time sitting still for the whole 1-hour sitting period with their head twisting or body swaying (standard marks of 3C) to sitting 4 hours without difficulty with the posture of a Buddha statue, just as example, they are probably entering A&P territory. This also contrasts with what comes next, which tends to involve more pain but an increased restlessness and irritation when trying to meditate. These effects may not be as noticeable off-retreat, but one day people will know to look for the A&P shortly after coming to the doctor for wry neck or “having slept wrong”.
The A&P tends to give people energy, up-beat moods, reduced depression if they were depressed, more energy for various grand projects and the like, more confidence, and an increased ability to concentrate. Paradoxically, it can involve more risk taking behavior (such as engaging in substance use or sex in a way beyond what one normally would), and also more interest in upstanding and strict moral codes and high moral standards and may actually spontaneously cure addictions and lives that may be considered immoral (as in “I have seen the Light!”, which they may literally have done, as this is the A&P). The parallels between the possible mood effects of the A&P and hypo-manic or manic episodes are so numerous that I would be amazed if one day a very similar physiologic basis wasn’t found to be common to both of them. Grandiosity, arrogance, and the like can accompany the mental power and energy that are commonly noted in this stage.
The A&P tends to increase libido and enhance sexual encounters in general and is the most sexual of the insight stages in general terms. When coupled with strong concentration (and sometimes even when not), it can lead to some interesting effects, such as male orgasms without ejaculations (a la tantric sex stuff), as well as all sorts of sexual overtones to the way one describes and experiences practice. Some will even describe effects as extreme as all sensations being like sex, or of sensations causing orgasmic-like ripples of pleasure through their body, or of making love to the universe, etc. People may tap into feelings of sexuality that seem generic or non-gender specific, which, for those who identify strongly as being mono-sexual rather than bi-sexual or generically sexual, can sometimes be some mix of revealing and disturbing. Sexual dreams are much more common in the territory of the A&P for some. More extreme things can occur, such as the sensations of having sex with seductive beings of a magical/astral/etheric/etc. nature. These sexual effects are in direct contrast to the sexual effects that tend to follow in subsequent stages, which are, in general, the exactly opposite of those in the A&P.
The A&P can present with profound feelings of unity with all reality, like one is a part of all of reality and similar pleasant and profound feelings. Similar feelings of everything being empty of a self can arise, which is like the flip side of a unitive feeling. In a unitive feeling one feels that one is a part of everything or is everything, and the flip side is the feeling that as everything is connected and a part of a greater whole, then the sense of a self is actually just a part of the greater field of experience. These feelings in their full-on manifestation tend to be relatively brief during this stage, as contrasted with Equanimity later on when they may be more prolonged and profound and complete, and as contrasted with some of the stages of Enlightenment, when they may be some degree of permanent. However, some sense of this unity can seem to remain for some who have had this aspect present strongly on their crossing the A&P, influencing their way or viewing the world and philosophy. Further insights may be extrapolated from these unitive feelings, such as there being no one who dies as it is all just the universe, or similar extrapolations relating to the having a consciousness that is part of the eternal universe and thus immortal. Regardless of any ultimate validity to these feelings and intuitions, they can feel quite real to the person experiencing them. This particular set of A&P experiences are some of the more classic mimics for the later stage of Equanimity, and this can cause diagnostic confusion.
The A&P is a very common cause of people believing they are enlightened. Obviously, as the definition of enlightenment may be subjective and variable, if one defined it as crossing the A&P, then they would be. The model this from which this terminology designates enlightenment (at least the first stage of it) occurring at a later, more advanced stage, and for the sake of consistency and for other reasons will hold with that more strict definitions. However, the basic sense within the person that they have been irrevocably changed and given profound insights into the nature of things is common and compelling and also true. It is also not uncommon for people to believe they are very special and even unique for having crossed the A&P, particularly given the staggering lack of public descriptions of something that so many have actually gone through.
My favorite of the criteria, particularly found in technical and skilled meditators but also found in many others: people during the A&P may have the ability to perceive sensations with a speed, precision, and consistency that may be radically beyond what they were capable of before, such that they may perceive sensations up to maybe 40 times/second arising and vanishing during certain peak perceptual moments, particularly during the middle phase of the breath and in the center of wherever they place their attention. The phase characteristics of the A&P borrows from the 2nd jhana in general and involves the ability to perceive the arising and passing clearly of phenomena in a way that can feel quite effortless, and any vibrations noticed tend to be harmonically simple and change in frequency sinusoidally. This is differentiated from the perceptual phase characteristics of the 1st jhana, where the beginnings of objects in the very center of wherever attention is placed are more clear and seeing them requires sustained effort and is generally much more slow and clunky, and the 3rd jhana, during which the endings of phenomena in the chaotic and complex periphery show themselves in a naturally irritating way that feels out of phase with attention somehow despite the sometimes intensely unpleasant clarity, and the 4th jhana, in which things are not nearly so fast or vibratory but instead tend to be experienced in a wide open, fluxing, panoramic and more spacious way.
Insights into Selflessness
Some may perceive that all phenomena are arising and passing away, and wherever they turn their attention may notice the transience of sensations. Extrapolating from this clear perception, they may realize: “Ah, this means that there is no permanent self.” Further, unitive experiences may have the same effect, and further, in some strange intuitive way the same basic notion of something having changed in the basic notion of self-hood may shift to something less solid. Also, the fact that the A&P experiences tend to happen in a way that is seemingly effortless or even unbidden, this experience of natural occurrences can also reinforce the notion that there is less control of things than one initially suspected, adding to the sense of there being somehow less of a self in things. These insights are sometimes called “Deep Insights” into Impermanence and Selflessness in the lingo of the time, a la Jack Kornfield and crew.
People who are in and have crossed the A&P tend to have an easier time with processes variously called things like “vision logic”, “metacognitive processing” and the like. For those who are prone to such things, they will tend to have philosophical talents beyond those who have not crossed the A&P, realizing that things like age, underlying intelligence however defined, exposure to philosophical and related branches of thinking, and education level can significantly effect how this presents. They will also tend to have an increased ability to understand and navigate in terminology that may reluctantly be termed “spiritual”, though this may show in other ways, such as an increased appreciation of things like the profundity and beauty of differential equations, the implications of modern physics for questions of Subject-Object non-duality, debates of free will vs super-determinism, and the like.
Feeling Called Out and Seeking
People who have crossed the A&P can feel called out, like they are somehow seeking something or on a quest, feeling special, like they are called to something higher, deeper, truer, cleaner, clearer, brighter, freer, etc. I assert that spiritual scenes, self-help groups, vegan restaurants, AA/NA groups, born-again Christian revivals, meditation communities, ashrams, monasteries, psychology and divinity graduate schools, yoga classes, health-food stores, militias, suicide bomb schools, Nepalese treks, eco-warriors, shamanic ceremonies in the jungle, New Age and Spiritualist groups, Wiccan covens, people who go around writing research grants to study meditation and enlightenment, and the like have a substantially increased presence of people who have crossed the A&P. I have no data to back up these claims at all but believe that I know it in some deep intuitive way, which is the sort of thinking you may find in people who have crossed the A&P and been doing this long enough at times.
The Dark Night
The Dark Night, aka the stages of knowledges of suffering, meaning Dissolution, Fear, Mistery, Disgust, Desire for Deliverance and Re-Obervation, follow the A&P like thunder follows lightening. Thus, if you can diagnose the A&P, I assert you can diagnose the Dark Night or at least its inevitability, even if it hasn’t happened yet. Thus, diagnosing the A&P is definitely the place to start. In terms of dynamic systems theory, only some people will manage to cross the A&P, but everyone who doesn’t have something catastrophic happen to their brain or die first who crosses the A&P will then progress inevitably to the stages of the Dark Night. Further, the Dark Night tends to last a lot longer than the A&P, very similar to the way episodes of depression following manic episodes tend to last a lot longer than the manic episode did. Thus, unless you catch people in the A&P, which can be quite brief, you are likely to encounter them dealing with the combined effects of having crossed the A&P but now being in some phase of the Dark Night or in its after effects. I cover the Dark Night extensively in MCTB, so please refer to that for more information.
“The Standard Pattern”
What I call “The Standard Pattern” is that people cross the A&P under whatever circumstances, hit the Dark Night, get swamped by it, finally barely touch some weak version of Equanimity, fall back, feel somewhat normal but are living again with the after-effects of the A&P and the Dark Night, being now past the point of no return. They will then tend to cross it again with some degree of frequency from months to decades, re-enter a more full-on Dark Night, and cycle this way until they may finally get stream entry or just die before that part of the process completes itself. The A&P can vary so widely that catching that it is what has happened, even if one has some understanding of the criteria, can be tricky, illustrated by way of example, from an earlier essay of mine:
My first time crossing it was around age 15. I was and still am a big fan of flying dreams, and so quite without instruction or guidance, I decided that I would practice flying before going to sleep so as to maximize the chances of me having them. I began to try to visualize planets of various colors, which ended up being like 50 foot wide billiard balls in space, some black, some red, some ivory, and in trying to do this I began to notice all sorts of things. I began to notice that there was a delay between the intention to visualize and the image arising. I noticed that it was very difficult to sustain any image, as it would arise and vanish. I began to notice it was nearly impossible to give attention to a sphere without going toward it. I noticed that the delay, the constant effort, the arising and vanishing of the images, and some other strained aspect of the process were strangely irritating. In short, I realized the first three stages of insight practice, but had no idea that these were stock, standard, expected, predictable, and had been mapped by some traditions for over 2,500 years, nor did I know what to expect next.
I can't remember the exact timing, but I know that it was not that many nights of this sort of practice later that I had the following dream. I was standing on a long, straight, dusty, country road with tall wild rose bushes lining either side as far as the eye could see. I was about three feet tall, dressed in a silver space-suit, holding a ray-gun, and beside me were two similarly dressed people of similar height. We were all staring down the road, waiting for something to happen. The sunlight was so bright that it was difficult to see, and its brilliance washed out the color of everything to some pale shade of yellow, green or white. Suddenly a dust cloud appeared far down the road, and out of it emerged a huge witch dressed in black riding a charging black horse. We stood our ground. The witch pointed her wand at us, a brilliant flash of light shot from its tip and engulfed us, and suddenly my world exploded, so that my body seemed like fireworks, flying all over space in sizzling flashes, and I suddenly transitioned from dreaming to waking. However, it took several seconds for my consciousness and sensate reality to reassemble itself into something coherent, and then I was buzzing all over and extremely alert. It would be 10 years before I would have any idea of what that was or what it meant. It is hard from this distant vantage point to get a grasp of exactly how this first event changed my life, as my mid-teens were a complex time in general.
The next time I remember crossing it was the summer after my junior year in college. I had been philosophizing heavily, hanging out with my friend who had also crossed the A&P and didn't know what it was, and we had been discussing the question of the observer or Watcher and how this this related to the question of non-duality. So, one day I was just sitting on the couch, when I decided to take on the watcher directly. I began trying to catch it, second after second, really going after the visceral, perceptual experience of what was observing, and before I knew it, got into this rapid-fire back and forth, super-concentrated state of everything vibrating in my head, and the whole thing zapped back through my skull at very high speed into some black space, and it was done. I broke up with my girlfriend, moved into an apartment alone, and was pretty dark for a while.
The third time I remember occurred during the year after graduation from college. I was dancing in a club, and I began spinning around and got into some sort of very altered state, dancing wildly, with tremendous energy, feeling some kind of long-sought freedom, like something I had forgotten, and up through my being welled this amazing bliss and sense of power, taking over the dancing, moving me effortlessly but with this core of raw power in the center around which the world and my body were spinning and moving quite on their own, and then it peaked in joy and intensity and was done. After that I began to have to meditate to feel normal. I would go outside before work and lay down on the ground and breathe really slowly and somehow it would help a little. Shortly thereafter I quit the band I was running sound for and moved to California for a while.
The next time I don't remember, but I know the effect it had: I suddenly needed to go on retreats, so I did. I had done really no formal meditation practice, knew little of Buddhism, but on the advice of a friend I went on a 9-day intensive insight meditation retreat at the Insight Meditation Society. About 6 days into it, after all sorts of back, neck and jaw pain, I was just sitting there, and all of a sudden I noticed that my body was not solid, but instead made of zillions of little particles of energy, all moving around, zipping in and out of reality, and my body exploded, everything flashed black and white, and I felt as if I had been dropped back onto my cushion from space. After that I was hyper-energetic, hyper-philosophical and yet convinced that philosophy held no further answers, but I had no idea what to do next. No one told me what had happened or what it could do to you, and shortly thereafter I quit my electrical engineering program and went to India.
The next time was about 6 months after the previous one, on retreat in India during a 17-day course at the Thai Monastery in Bodh Gaya. I don't really remember much about it, except that it left me feeling very inspired about practice and very dark about the world. I lasted 5 months doing volunteer service in Calcutta before I had to go on retreat again, so I went to Malaysia and sat in the Malaysian Buddhist Meditation Centre, and that is when I really learned to practice. It was 10 years from the first time I had crossed the A&P, and I was about to learn what the Arising and Passing Away was, which seems a bit late, but that's the world we live in, isn't it?
I was practicing very strict noting technique, and very shortly my breath began to move with the noting. I would note "rising" or "falling" and the breath would rise or fall in nearly perfect synchrony with the duration of the note and then stop, so each stuttering breath took many notes, otherwise it would just stop. The rapidity of this got faster and more powerful, so that I shook, sniffed, sweated and noted for days, and in between bouts I would plunge down with the breath as it went down and down and down into a realm of extremely slowed perception and time, like reality was moving through thick, narcotic syrup, and then the energy would come back, the rapid noting, sniffing, and now powerful vibratory energy would return, and it would cycle like this again and again. I was sitting for 2-3 hours at a time with amazing posture, barely sleeping 2 hours per night, and finally the whole thing died down. I was hungry for sex and chocolate, felt exhausted and sluggish, within a day I could barely sit for 5 minutes, and my mind felt like a hive of angry bees.
That night the abbot played an old, scratchy tape of a Burmese monk describing the stages of insight, and suddenly all was clear. I knew what had happened, knew where I was, and knew what to do about it. You can read about the rest in my book if you wish, but the summary points are these: 1) the maps helped me practice in the face of the Dark Night so that I got to Equanimity, 2) the tape failed to mention the post-retreat/real-world implications of crossing the A&P and entering the Dark Night (they call them "Dukkha Ñanas"), and at that point, despite having crossed the thing many times already, I was unprepared for what would happen next. Shortly thereafter, I canceled all of my medical school interviews so that I could go on a 1-year retreat.
I tell the rest of the story in my book, but hopefully these added shorts will give some idea of the basic points I wanted to illustrate, those being that the context and content can vary widely, but there are relatively predictable and identifiable key elements to the way it happens and what is likely to follow.
A few more brief stories from other points on my path...
I was meditating in my living room and suddenly could see though my closed eyelids. The room looked largely the same, except the color and light were somewhat different. This didn't last long, and in a sit shortly thereafter my body exploded again, very much as it had done before. By this time I knew what it was, and so I was prepared for what came next. I didn't quit my job or end a relationship. Instead I practiced well and shortly thereafter attained to second path in the break room at work during a training lecture.
I was taking a yoga class and had been strangely stiff and tense during it. Every movement was much more difficult than usual, my awareness of the pain in my body more acute. This faded towards the end of the 2-hour class, and then suddenly while bending back into a camel pose, this massive and very startling bolt of energy shot up my spine, causing me to flip suddenly forwards out of the pose. Shortly thereafter I decided to go on retreat during the coming summer in England.
I’ll give two more examples from some people whose practice I knew well at the time. One of them was lying on a bed taking a nap after lunch on a meditation retreat and suddenly could see through the roof out into the sky and felt that a big tornado suddenly blew into the room and that there were literally cats and dogs flying all of over the room, all of which lasted some seconds and then calmed down to reveal a normal room. The other one had a dream, and in the dream was touching bright jewels in a cabinet and each time the jewels were touched waves of buzzy pleasure swept up their hand into their arm and then shortly thereafter they were above the bed they were sleeping in spinning around in a faster and faster vortex of wind. Both people had substantial Dark Night manifestations after those occurrences for some months.
As you can see, the presentations of how things happened can look quite different, despite that fact that I will assert that each of those A&P’s was functionally the same in terms of its basic effect. This presents some difficulties in terms of study design, creating diagnostic criteria that someone not very personally familiar with the wide range of the A&P and the other stages’ presentations, as well as sorting out the common mimics (e.g. Mind and Body, Samatha Jhana experiences, Equanimity, Stream Entry, etc.). However, the effects are so extremely predictable in certain aspects that it must be possible to come up with a way to research on this topic. Having crossed the territory of the A&P a few thousand times at least by this point, it is easy to spot it as it happens and in people’s histories, but explaining exactly how this is done beyond listing these sorts of experiences and trying to externally reproduce a codified set criteria that represents the internal knowledge is obviously not easy to perfectly accomplish.
As I have put so much information in MCTB, please consult that source for more information on this and related topics.