The following story is from a man named Franko, who details his journey to Stream-Entry (The first of four stages of enlightenment in Theravada Buddhism).
SE = Stream-Entry
MTCB = Mastering the Core Teachings of the Buddha, a classic book in the field of hardcore meditation written by Daniel Ingram.
A&P = The Arising and Passing Away, a stage of meditation where strong rapture,energy or even hallucinations can occur. The ingestion of psychedelic drugs often brings about the A & P as well.
DN = the Dark Night, the period after the Arising and Passing away where after having seen the wonderous rapture of the A & P, one falls into an existential angst and dissatisfaction with normal life.
Arhat = A person who has mastered the fourth and final stage of enlightenment in Theravada Buddhism.
Noting= A meditation technique popularized by the famous Burmese master Mahasi Sayadaw. One notes every moment of experience. Ex: ..”Thinking, thinking, feeling,feeling, anger, itching, lifting, hearing”.
Fruition = A significant moment in meditation where the mind becomes so equanimous that the subconscious mind projects nothing into conscious experience. From a subjective standpoint consciousness turns off and then reboots like a computer. This experience has profound effects on the meditator’s mind.
Hello my dear brothers and sisters in Dharma.
I would like to humbly share with you the story of my spiritual search which eventually and fortunately culminated in stream entry this spring at Wat Rampoeng, in Chiang Mai, Thailand.
All my life I’ve been a passionate lover of all things extreme, and as soon as my legal age allowed I’ve jumped head first into skydiving, bungee jumping, kite surfing, snowboarding, skiing, motorcycles, intrepid world travelling, and anything else you might imagine that gets the good old adrenaline flowing. You can guess then how excited and euphoric I was when I first stumbled upon Foods of Gods, a.k.a. psychedelics! That was a truly a changing point in my life, akin to falling into Alladin’s cave of insight, euphoria, bliss and otherworldly pleasures that were until then unimaginable to me. I soon proceeded to ingest vast quantities of any psychedelic that I could get my hands on(and I could get my hands on a lot of them), and took as much as possible in a single session. Usually If I wasn’t at some point thinking “omg I took too much”, then I knew I didn’t take enough. As it usually goes with high-dose psychedelic experiences, you break the fabric of time-space, tear down your reality and you cross the A&P many times over with no hope of ever coming back the same person. And we all know that after the A&P the dark night follows as day follows night, in all its suckyness, crappiness, existential angst tinged with good old misery and fundamental dissatisfaction with all worldly things. What initially seemed like Alladin’s cave now turned out to be Pandora’s Box instead.
At this time my interest in meditation grew rapidly, and soon I did a Goenka retreat, and then another. Although very valuable and inspiring, I soon realized that 10 days is not nearly enough for serious progress, as the course ends just exactly when my concentration and insight actually start working.
Along with my newfound interest in meditation, I’ve started reading truckloads of non-dual literature day and night, mostly Advaita, Buddhism, and assorted mysticism. After a while I’ve learned to separate the wheat from the chaff, so I focused on techniques that were more scientific, repeatable and pragmatic, with main emphasis on Theravada, and then I stumbled across MCBT. Some Daniel dude claiming Arhatship on the cover was something completely different, I though who does this deluded and preposterous ignorant think he is? Arhat? Yeah right. But I always had a thing for iconoclasts and straight-up raging lunatics, so I decided to give MCTB a try and only then I realized I’ve struck gold!
At that point in my life I felt like being lost in a dark forest and then coming across very kind, warm and fuzzy teachers like Dalai Lama and Thitch nhat Hahn speaking about the good stuff, compassion etc, feeling nice and glowy for a while but then realizing I’m still lost. And then comes this Dan Ingram, a neurotic attack-on-the-senses kind of guy and actually shows me the map and the way out of the forest, complete with a lamp and a small survival kit! Whoah. Thank you would be a huge understatement for saving anyone from a dark night territory like that.
In any way, soon after reading and then re-reading MCTB I’ve realized that embarking on a spiritual quest and undergoing rigorous and grueling intensive vipassana meditation retreats for as long as necessary is the only way out of the miserably devastating dark night, so embark on the Pan Asian meditation trip I did.
During my flight to Asia I’ve wisely engaged in reading a particularly hardcore dharma book by Bodhidharma, along the lines of “vast emptiness – nothing holy”, which as you can imagine plunged me ever deeper into the abyss of the dark night and reobservation stage. Word of advice – don’t read bodhidarma book if darknighting, unless you’re a masochist – then please go ahead.
First stop then was MBMC in Penang, Malaysia as recommended by Daniel in his book – my first crash course on mahasi noting technique. MBMC is actually amazingly good place to practice, the food is incredibly good and plentiful (almost to a point of sensory pleasures kind of hindrance), the instructions I received from Venerable Sayadaw Pannathami during the 21 day retreat were very compassionate, useful and valuable, and the meditators, mostly women, were serious and dedicated to the practice, so excellent environment all in all. My practice improved, and soon I felt dark night lifting with equanimity prevailing my waking hours, and the light at the end of the tunnel started to shine, however dimly.
However, the retreat ended, the sayadaw left and I was on my own again, back on the chase. The wise Sayadaw estimated my situation very accurately, so on a couple of last interviews he mentioned “go to Burma” hinting I can and should get this over with on a longer retreat. And me being a wise student, I listened to my teacher and to Burma I went.
Next stop Burma. I’ve been to Burma already and I knew what to expect, so straight from the airport I went to panditarama forest refuge with strong determination to meditate as if my life depended on it. Because it did. Once there, I realized I was in heaven. The forest refuge is every serious meditators wet dream. A huge forest sprinkled with little wooden huts-kutis, with nothing but crickets, birds chirping and hardcore dharma to boot. The place is incredibly conducive to meditation, the food is tasty, and the other meditators were all serious practitioners, no jokers, whiners, socializers and other retreat pests that we all know. No wonder my practice started reaching orbital heights, and soon after few days I’ve found myself in wonderful equanimity, sitting for 2+ hours straight, sometimes running into incredible bliss, raptures, smiling like a chesire cat from the sheer unbounded joy and happiness. I’ve found meditators Vallhalla at last!
Alas, nothing is permanent. One morning a strange and impossibly loud Burmese folk musical assault started coming from the nearby village. I thought it would stop, but it didn’t stop the whole day, and the following night, and then tomorrow the same thing. The meditation hall was shaking with vibration, and there was no sign of this horrible 200Db Burmese music noise stopping any time soon. Even my high quality silicone earplugs were completely useless here, the noise was literally skull-penetrating. Later in the evening, the village chiefs, likely encouraged by alcohol, would take over the microphone and literally scream and wail for hours on end. And as the noise torture reached an all time high my concentration crashed and burned, I plunged back into the dark night. By the 2nd day of this 24 hour noise torture incredible irritation arose, and I realized that I have to get out of here asap and find a quiet place to meditate, somewhere, anywhere. Sleepless, reluctant and again darknightishly depressive I’ve packed my bags and left this incredibly noisy hellhole that just until couple of days ago I thought was heaven on earth. Later after googling I found out that this is the norm in Burma, blaring super-loud music everywhere and anywhere is just a Burmese way of being, this is a way they celebrate festivals, birth of a baby or just a good old happy Tuesdays. Quickly and most desperately I went to Thai embassy in (again very noisy) Yangon, got myself a visa and hurriedly left Burma, never to look back.
After landing in Chiang Mai, the desperate search for a monastery continued, but fortunately I was at the right place. After reading favorable reviews on Wat Rampoeng here and on the web, the next day I crossed my fingers, called them and fortunately the next group was starting tomorrow so I jumped at this and soon I was in Wat Rampoeng, hoping that there I could finally meditate in peace.
After registration the course started with a couple of hours of group demo practice of mindful prostration, sitting and walking meditation, after which it was every person for him or herself. The schedule is 4 am wake up call, then 1hr walking meditation, followed by 1hr sitting and so on until the end of the day, with breakfast and lunch breaks, and the daily interview with the instructor. There is also a lot of bowing to do– 3 times to the Buddha image, and then 3 times to the teacher at the start of the interview and the same at the end of the interview. A bit peculiar but not a big deal, one gets used to it in a day or two.
The temple grounds are beautiful and most importantly silent, again very much conducive to serious and dedicated practice. One can meditate everywhere on the temple grounds, in a meditation hall/library or in your own little apartment. There are fortunately no dorms, and the private apartment accommodation is spacious, clean and very suitable for meditation, so for the next month I almost didn’t leave my apartment except for food and daily interviews. I cannot describe the peace, contentment and happiness when I finally started to seriously practice again, but this time with no added Burmese discofolk music background. What happiness, what bliss!
The technique is an adapted mahasi style with added touching points all over the body to focus upon after the out breath. E.g. note rising, note falling, note the sitting posture of the body and then note the touch point 1 which is left side of your lower back. Then again rising, falling, sitting, touching pt 2., etc. Every day you get assigned a new touching point, of which there are 24 or 26, can’t remember exactly, they cover all parts of the body, and you incorporate them into your practice. Walking meditation starts with 1 step – noting left and noting right step, then in the next days progresses to 2 step – note lifting and stepping, then to 3 step, lifting, moving stepping, then 4 step, heel up, lifting, moving, stepping, then 5 step, heel up, lifting, moving lowering, stepping, and finally 6 step heel-up, lifting, moving, lowering, touching the ground, and stepping.
As the days flew, my concentration grew exponentially and I have reached the heights of equanimity again. Oh my happiness!
What also helped is that after a while I just accepted the fact that I was a meditation basket-case and it will take me many months to reach SE. fine. Making peace with that just ended my endless frustration about almost everyone else seeming to get SE easy (some even on 10 day goenka retreats!) while I was still struggling in DN for what seemed like ages, and meditating to no avail. Very well, let it be. I am a vipassana dumb-arse and not ashamed to admit it. Lets carry on now, note, note, note.
Another very helpful thing was being strictly silent, introverted and keeping to myself almost pathologically. Unlike mahasi centers, Wat Rampoeng is unfortunately not a strictly silent retreat center, so in every batch of new meditators there will inevitably be a couple of loudmouth socializers who just seem unable to keep their mouth shut. I have found that even the smallest, most innocent chit-chat can reverbate in your head for hours, and is thus deadly for mindfulness. Therefore it is best to keep to yourself, not even establishing eye contact with anyone, especially the loudmouths, sit away from the crowds and groups that inevitably form in the dining hall, keep the silicone earplugs in your ears at all times (an international sign for keep away, I don’t want to talk to you), and basically just focus on noting the hell out of your every day sensate experience at all times. No worries, after the retreat you will have all the time in the world to go to bars, socialize, chit chat about the finer points of dharma, geopolitics, technology and the future of the human race, but leave that for until after the retreat. The best thing on the retreat is to be at the retreat and note like crazy every waking second. It’s totally worth it.
Due to all this soon I was again sitting for hours on end with very good concentration, noting every second, practicing diligently from the time I woke up, until bedtime, noting every second of my waking experience, trying to catch every little mundane event, until now completely overlooked. It soon paid off, and my concentration grew more and more, along with equanimity and weird energetic phenomena started happening. The trigger points in my back started vibrating wildly every time I would focus my concentration on the touching points on my upper back. New trigger points on my left upper back also got activated, vibrating wildly and causing pain and discomfort, sometimes even feeling like I have a bunch of tense and strongly vibrating spaghetti in my trigger point infested back.
As the concentration deepened, weird and bizarre unconscious material started coming up, early childhood memories long ago forgotten, strange feelings, visions and emotions emanating from the deepest layers of unconscious started surfacing. I also started again hearing very loud pitching noises in my left ear, same as I had in A&P phase when I started embarking on a spiritual path. Couple of days before stream entry I had an unusually long and loud pitching sound session in my left ear again, this one lasting for more than a minute and being all in all very unusual. I knew something big is going down. After 20ish days of my retreat, having implemented all the touching points and 6step walking meditation, the instructor just looked at me and said – time for strong determination. for the next 3 days no sleeping – meditation for 24 hours straight, no leaving your room except for the daily interview, food will be delivered to your doorstep. I was also handed a leaf of paper with the instructions for the following 24 hours. I was to begin the first day with a mindful prostration, then wishing and chanting metta for all sentient beings in pali and then firmly resolve:
“may the gross perceptions of the three characteristics of phenomena cease, and may more subtle characteristics of these realizations be attained within 24 hours”
I’ve heard about the resolutions and setting intentions like this before, but being a sceptic I dismissed them as new-agey kind of fairytale, because it can’t possibly be that easy. Yet I obediently followed the instructions, resolved to attain stream entry in the next 24 hours, and the first day of strong determination began. I’ve stocked up on coffee and very strong green tea offered to me by a very helpful and angelic older lady in charge of the foreign students, and successfully meditated through the first night, thinking it wasn’t that bad, and even feeling a little pride for my successful all-night meditation vigil. I continued meditating throughout the morning, concentration got decidedly stronger, with me entering ever more bizarre and interesting head-spaces, had breakfast after which I had a sudden and very strong attack of re-observation, meaningless, lust and bunch of other accumulated stuff, akin to Buddha being attacked by Mara on the night of his enlightenment. It was pretty nasty, so had to lay down for a while, then just kept noting throughout it all, and after it subsided I reluctantly got back to practice. “Let’s just get this 3 day determination over with” I thought to myself and just kept practicing amidst all these weird states of mind when suddenly my whole body involuntarily kind of nodded/jolted in the direction of my right knee. This was a bit disconcerting as I never before had any kind of involuntary shaking, jolting or movement of this type. I forgot all about it, and then around noon similar thing happened, the body nodding away involuntarily, then a moment of no-experience, sort of like falling unconscious, accompanied by a loud banging noise, like doors being shut. Boom!
WTF. All of a sudden, peace almost impossible to describe flooded over my whole being, I couldn’t help but to smile and asked could that be it? It can’t possibly be it! Too good to be true! Whatever this is, it’s awesome! I hope it sticks and doesn’t leave. Then I realized I can voluntarily stop the flow of my thoughts on demand. Look ma, look what I can do! No thoughts! This must be it! I was exhilarated and out of my mind with happiness, contentment, peace, joy. Never felt this good in my whole life! This is it, yesss! I tried to continue my meditation, just in case I am deluding myself, but couldn’t find the motivation. Why meditate, what’s the point? Just being with my breath, doing nothing, felt amazingly blissful and perfect. No more chasing, nothing to attain, nowhere to go, nothing to do. I finally got it. In a couple of hours I’ve reported to my instructor what happened, he gave me a long inquiring look and then gave me the instruction leaflet for the next day of meditation, along with a rosary type of thing for keeping track of the “nodding off”, or arising and ceasing phenomena as they call it.
For the day two, before meditation I was to resolve
“during X minutes of my meditation session may the phenomena of arising and ceasing appear as often as possible”
then I was to meditate, and using the rosary keep count and write down the number of times I have nodded off, and experienced the phenomena of arising and ceasing during each meditation session, with each session lasting progressively shorter amount of time.
As I have just entered the stream, my mind was amazingly and exceedingly strong, so much so that in my first session after SE the mind stayed one-pointed and glued to the meditation object with no interfering thoughts and distractions whatsoever. The only few thoughts that appeared occasionally were “wow” or “this cannot be possible”. For a short while after SE, I had the concentration of a meditation master, and I still cannot believe to this day that that such a thing was possible. Just wow.
The third day of strong determination was intended for practicing fruitions, whereby I was instructed to perform the mindful prostration as usual, then practice 6-step walking meditation for an hour, after which I would resolve:
“May I find bliss. May all sentient beings find bliss. If any sentient beings have thoughts of revenge on me I forgive them. If I have thoughts of revenge on any sentient beings may they forgive me”.
“Within this hour may I experience the fruit of meditative attainment (phalasamapatti) for 5 minutes”
Progressively increasing the duration of fruitions each following session, until reaching an hour. My first few attempts at fruitions were wobbly at best, but once concentrated enough, suddenly I felt as if in an elevator heading in an unknown, undefined direction, with reality slowly and gracefully fading out in a most spectacular and blissful fashion, and then a complete release, a fade out of existence. Wow, what a blessing, what a privilege to experience this kind of true relief from suffering. Nibbanic bliss at last! My euphoria was impossible to contain, and because of all this excitement, I couldn’t muster up enough concentration to consistently repeat or significantly lengthen the fruition experience. Spontaneous fruitions would appear throughout the day though, when I kind of dozed off after a meal or practice, quite normal as this was a 3rd day with almost no sleep. Sometimes I would just collapse while meditating and wake up in the middle of the night not knowing what happened, who or where I am, what’s happening, but then I would diligently continue the practice once I remembered where I am and what am I to do.
After the 3 day strong determination was over, I just chilled out blissfully for a day or two, meditating and enjoying the amazing beauty of the monastery, the trees, flowers and the whole wonder of this existence we are in.
Stream entry is truly and completely worth it.
After that I decided to stick around for another 10 day retreat to do a proper review, with each day resolving to experience a particular stage of insight. This was a great chance to familiarize myself more intimately with each nana and the specific feel each one has to it. I am still amazed at the fact that firmly resolving to enter a particular nana or some kind of meditative state oftentimes really works, as if by magic.
After the retreat was over, I proceeded to travel around Thailand and enjoy the full extent of my stream entry honeymoon, which lasted for a couple of months and was such a relief from the previous years of angst and misery. During this period I almost completely lost the urge and desire to meditate, to read dharma/nondual books, but just chilled out and enjoyed the moment, as is, whatever it is. Also the desire and urge for psychedelics was significantly attenuated as stream entry is that good.
The mind now is much more stable, lot less negativity, reactivity and much more resistant to negative states of mind which no longer stick much, and if they do are quickly seen through and so they leave on their own accord. In a way I have effectively “teflonized” my mind, so my “stuff” sticks less, and I am very happy that this is just a first stage, with much more progress and good stuff ahead of me!
Interest in the affairs, passions and ambitions of this world has also dropped significantly, as I realize that oftentimes just Being is perfectly spontaneously complete and sufficient in and of itself.
Some days I just take peaceful walks in the forest all day long, just admiring the trees, autumn colors, and leaves falling to the ground. Nowhere to go, nothing to do. This is it, right now, this moment. It’s that simple.
Now the honeymoon period is over, the amount of leftover suffering in me is starting to contrast and stand out against the peaceful background of SE, so I see more work ahead of me. Stream entry brought a huge relief from DN and fundamental suffering, now I am a much more chilled out and life is much better, yet there is still more work to be done, I am definitely not off the ride.
Nowadays I am focusing on improving my concentration and soft Jhanas, reading books again, and planning for my next Pan Asian retreat in a month or so, hopefully starting in Lumbini or MBMC again.
I will satisfy with nothing less than 2nd path.
Now I know how this works, there is no doubt about the technique and the teachings anymore, and I am aiming for the stars.
I have all of you to thank for my progress, especially Dan for his book that has saved me and I believe many others from debilitating DN by expounding a clear, pragmatic path with attainable goals. And I am immensely grateful for that, and looking forward to MCTB2 for even more wisdom.
In conclusion, my Pan Asian meditation adventure was by far the best, most useful and sane thing that I ever did in my life, and to anyone still in doubt, long retreats and breaking through to SE I cannot recommend strongly enough!
The taste of dharma truly excels all the other tastes, May all beings well and reach liberation in this lifetime!