The known problems with goal-oriented practice are many, and this experiment in the Dharma Overground community, with open disclosure and culture a of labels, stages, states, levels of attainment, and the like, along with a pretty highly skilled group, has created some really good things. People have aimed high, achieved great things, made remarkable discoveries, learned a lot, grown as people and practitioners, and had a great time.
That said, there are some obvious downsides to goal-oriented, high-achievement communities, some of which have become more obvious recently. Here I am specifically thinking about one of the many possible problems, that being something like the following scenario:
A person is all excited about practice.
They practice hard and well, aiming for a very specific goal.
They achieve something that, at that time, really feels like they have done it.
They are not consciously trying to fool themselves or anyone, just honestly feel they have attained to whatever state, stage, realization or transformation.
They make the claim that they have done it.
They receive whatever social benefits and downsides result from having made that claim.
Things begin to show up that clearly are not as well seen as they thought they were, not as transformed as they thought they were, and they begin to feel that they were wrong about what they had done.
Were they totally delusional? Were they bad people? Was it just that, at that time, that really seemed to have been what they thought it was and anyone would have been fooled as they had been? Was it really that they had done that thing at that time, but that thing was not as permanent as they thought it was? Could they have possibly known at the time that it wasn't that thing or that it wouldn't last? These are hard questions to answer, but that is not really the important thing.
Where the real problem comes is the let down, the embarrassment, the strange role reversals they might find themselves in if that attainment transported them into some sort of teacher or authority role, the personal confusion about what is suddenly happening and why, the disappointment that comes when we worked so hard and things didn't work out as they thought they did.
All of that can cause the worst part of it all: isolation. If we find ourselves unwilling to admit to others that we were wrong, or feeling like we are unable to do so, or that we will be ridiculed, blamed or ostracized if we reveal that what we know know to not have been true, then real damage is done, for it is in those times that we most benefit from friends who can help us put it back together, go back to basics, regroup, re-tool or modify our practice, learn, grow, and move on.
Instead, we may find ourselves feeling like outcasts, failures, victims of our own hubris, afraid of being thought of as liars or fools or both. We may disconnect from our fellow dharma companions, communities, teachers, friends, family members, and wander lost and confused, which is something that very few handle that well in the shadow of some feeling of past glory and achievement. That isolation is where the real damage happens.
As one who has gone through lots of cycles over the years that led to lots of plateaus, many of which were quite impressive for some period of time but later faded or reality-tested at a lower level than first impressions seemed to indicate, I can totally sympathize, as I have been there and done that and very well may do it again.
It should be realized that this sort of thing is not only going to happen, it is actually very normal in this open-disclosure world of states, stages, names of levels, and achievement-oriented culture. If we recognize this as a community and can talk about it, then when it happens, which it has and will again, perhaps often, then the members of the community, who are then dealing with all the complexities that these strange phases can cause, won't have to deal so much with the additional stigma of feeling like people think they are freaks, losers, or unwilling or willing charlatans when they face the expected outcome of sometimes totally blowing it and making some claim that didn't turn out to hold up over time.
Thus, I urge each of you, should you run into someone who has this happening to them, to have similar sympathy, to wish that person well, to realize that, if you are in this rarified business long enough, it will likely happen to you also, and, when it does, think about how you would want to be treated and pass that on ahead of time.
So far, we have generally been pretty good with this, actually, and I hope that trend continues. Lots can be learned from these sorts of mistakes, as I personally know from having made many of them. Hopefully, by recognizing this potential shadow-side of gung-ho meditation culture, we will be more prepared to handle it well.