The epitome of not talking about phenomena is perhaps Soto Zen practice where in theory they tell you absolutely nothing about practice or experiences, states, whatever. They only teach you the position to sit in, and you sit. No instruction about what needs to go on in your mind, or anything about various stages, meditative experiences, nothing. And that is good in a way, because an indoctrinated mind can contract around these ideas and concepts, and that can trip some people up.
Personally, I'd say the Soto Zen approach is a bit extreme. I think there is something to be gleaned from a bit of talk about progress, markers along the path and so forth. These things can help keep a person going, see where you are and that progress has been made. A form of useful feedback along the way as opposed to groping in the dark. But some people seem to manage to beat themselves up about not having attainments, or being jealous of other's attainments, etc., so be careful.
The fact that there are topics that are traditionally not talked about, such as actual experiences or attainments, this head-in-the-sand policy has both some dogmatism to it, and some skillfulness. The good part is that not talking about attainment avoids problems with one-upping and overclaiming and people feeling poorly about lack of attainments. The dogmatic part derives from the fact that the old Buddhist texts prohibit a monk from talking about such things to laypeople, and that has been incorporated into even very mainstream meditation groups, to the point that many teachers aren't even aware of this material. This dogma leads to a lack of basic awareness of what is happening, and a lack of reasonable feedback that could otherwise be conducive to progress.
Some of these things that aren't talked about would be:
- micro-stages that one tends to experience while doing contemplative practice
- stable, trance-like states of meditative absorption
- macro-stages, analogous to something like years of college
- non-experiences, gaps, or emptiness
Nothing forbidden here. You may have experienced some markers of fairly mundane meditative progress in your everyday life. Perhaps while experiencing some kind of task or game or even while having a glass of wine, you notice that in your current experience compared to how you were in the past, you are a little bit more aware, and a little bit more relaxed. For many, this will be the standard result from traditional meditation practices.
The micro-stages (Buddhist jargon: Progress of Insight) are a series of experiential phenomena that tend to happen to in a somewhat repeatable order to people that do contemplative practices. Tradition breaks this down more finely, but this will be a 4 stage version. I will emphasize that not everyone is going to experience all this stuff exactly this way, so don't worry if you don't.
These stages appear with varying depths and over various timeframes. A person may notice a series of phenomena that arise during the course of a single sit, and eventually may notice that something very similar is happening to the background of their overall experience over many weeks and months as the underlying neurology catches up to the cutting edge in practice, and reflects that in daily life.
First Stage - Sustained
At the first stage, in my opinion not a lot is going on. This area was not even conceived of in the micro framework until quite late in the game (i.e. the last century) by the monk Mahasi who seemed to be using it as a way of introducing some basic conceptual understandings, but I'm not sure there is much there in terms of actual phenomena. What is there might be thought of as correlating with a kind of sustained effort, and there are some related physical phenomena that may occur particularly to newer meditators. Namely, at this stage there can be persistent (i.e. sustained) physical sensations such as itching, or a constant pain or tension or cramping.
Second Stage - Pleasant
The second stage we might call the Pleasant stage. You might notice various pleasant sensations, joy, brightness in the visual field. At its best, everything can seem really good, very sixties, people with flowers in their hair, togetherness, everything can be really wonderful. You might notice some pulsing in the forehead as the demands on your prefrontal cortex are increased. Sometimes there may be a bit of flashing in the visual field as this happens.
It often during this stage that people might stumble into a big spiritual experience, an opening or awakening, a glimpse. I call this the "Big Experience", and I'll come back to it later.
Third Stage - Unsatisfactory
The third stage is the Unsatisfactory stage. At the beginning of this stage, in the wake of the Pleasant stage, everything might be very okay, but the relaxed okayness becomes a kind of relaxed but sinking sensation. After this transition, a series of unsatisfactory sensations might come up like fear, misery, or disgust. For example sometimes a pang of fear can come out of nowhere. Or a feeling like you need to get up off the cushion or you will die. Things seem generally unpleasant or out of phase. At the end of this stage there can be an angsty depressive feeling that many people find to be the most difficult of all the phenomena in this stage.
The general advice for this stage is to accept the phenomena, let go of your resistance, and keep meditating. This is not a place to linger or get stuck.
Fourth Stage - Equanimity
And then this breaks open into the fourth stage, traditionally called Equanimity. Here we come to an aware, relaxed, open, and sometimes stable state where everything is okay. It becomes easy to meditate, and some people may even quit meditating since things seem to be going just fine. At some points during equanimity the mind may become a little spacier and it may require some persistence to stay aware.
An Easy, Common Sense Measure of Progress
If you are getting to that last stage during your sits, the state of Equanimity, you might have some idea of how long it takes you to get to that point. Initially, a beginner might not even get there at all. But as you continue to practice, you might notice that if you practice 45 minutes, sometimes you get there. With continued good practice that number should come down. As the time to reach equanimity falls to 30 minutes, 20 minutes, 10 minutes, 5 minutes, 1 minute, you will know you are making progress, regardless of anything else. Your brain is making changes, it is adapting to the demands that you are placing on it. As you continue to practice well, you are laying down neurology that will become more and more permanent. You are changing your mind's default from monkey mind to mindful.
You might also notice, as mentioned before, that over longer periods of time something like this same progress of 4 stages is happening in the background experience of your life, but playing out over longer periods of perhaps weeks or months, even years, instead of minutes.
For some, the stages may not be as clear or specific as outlined here. During meditation you might just notice a sense of "shifting gears" as the brain covers this apparent territory and slowly settles into mindfulness. All of these repeatable phenomena are markers that you are getting somewhere, that you are covering some terrain, the brain is changing.
The Big Experience
Relatively early on, often at the level of the Pleasant stage, some may have a "big experience". A big, often dramatic release into a substantially more aware, relaxed, open mind, maybe with a lot of joy, the joy of relief, the joy of completely laying down the massive burdens of life, if only for a few minutes. The big experience is not a certainty, but also not uncommon, and although the territory can be experienced again, often the first experience will be the biggest or most dramatic event in the life of a meditator. It is also possible to pass through this kind of area more slowly and quietly without much fanfare. The classic big experience is probably most likely for a beginner in a setting of massed practice such as a retreat situation.
In the big experience the mind catches a glimpse of just how much baggage can be dropped, and it can be such a stark contrast to the person's normal everyday grasping mind that it is indeed perceived as a very big and dramatic experience. It is sometimes mistaken for enlightenment, but it is indeed a taste or glimpse of that direction.
In terms of progress, if we liken the meditative path to a four year college degree, the Big Experience (or merely passing through the Pleasant stage) would be the equivalent of passing the first semester midterms.
The bigness of this experience, the drama or ecstasy, is dependent on having a "normal" attached, grasping mind. It's big because dropping "down" into pure consciousness, letting go of so much baggage, is incredible to the normal mind. The relief can be unimaginable.
The big experience is more likely to happen earlier in a meditator's career because as someone continues to practice the mind gets closer and closer to being completely relaxed and let go (the background of the big experience), and so there is less to let go of, less relief to be had. At some point way down the road, this kind of massive relief is simply no longer possible - nothing can be that big of a relief anymore because the mind is already permanently relaxed to that degree. There is no longer a big dramatic difference.
The big experience may also come about by way of psychedelics. Some may be lucky and stumble into an experience like this, but for many, psychedelic experiences will be merely interesting and strange rather than life changing. Meditation does makes it more likely that one might access this territory under psychedelics. Makes you luckier, you might say. Just like the big spiritual experience, as one progresses down the meditative path, even these big psychedelic experiences will become less and less important, less dramatic. Nothing to see - move along.
Some may experience states that are often referred to as states of concentration, but could also be described as states of absorption or stability. These can be relatively strong sometimes, there is the sense of an altered state, and the stability and absorption can seem like a trance but with more clarity. These are what Buddhists refer to as jhanas and Hindu refer to as samadhi. Experiencing these would be a marker of progress, and there are a number of them that tend to come up, often in order. These states are usually thought of as being connected to single pointed concentration practice, but mild versions can be reached with mindfulness when the awareness of each object in succession is both good and continuous.
The first 4 meditative absorptions are roughly related to the 4 micro-stages mentioned previously. The absorptions are absorbed versions of the micro-stages, more or less. The traditional descriptions are a passable guide to this kind of territory, this is a brief outline of the predominate aspects:
- 1st - sustained attention, delight
- 2nd - joy
- 3rd - contentment
- 4th - equanimity
The second 4 meditative absorptions are traditionally called formless or immaterial, because if the absorption is incredibly strong, experience of various senses and the body can fall away. But even without extreme concentration these aspects can be noticed. Because of the formless, faded out quality, my overall description of these are as "dark and delicate". In a sense, these can be thought of as extensions to the 4th absorption.
- 5th - infinite space
- 6th - "self" or consciousness
- 7th - no-thing-ness
- 8th - absorption without description
The formless states are extremely tranquil. If you get to the point where you can experience these, it can be good to "steep" in these states on a regular basis. Becoming familiar with the formless and training the neurology in this direction begins to bring an aspect of deep tranquility to your entire life.
If you keep up the good practice, get the dose high enough and long enough and get relaxed enough, at the stage of Equanimity you might eventually experience a weird little blip, a little discontinuity, a little "what was that?" moment often immediately followed by something like a flash of light and perhaps a pleasant sensation coming up through the body. That would be a cessation, a gap, a moment when perhaps some part of the mind lets go in a more substantial way, and an important marker when it happens the first time. If it fits that description, and maybe around that time you experience a kind of general shift towards more mindfulness, and maybe you have an exceptional few days or a couple of weeks, and you get more of those specific little blips, that would be the next major marker after the big experience.
A cessation is generally brief, just a moment. It is a discontinuity, but there is enough information from the before and after of the non-experience to model it as just a moment. But there is also the possibility of a cessation lasting for longer than a moment, say minutes. This is more rare, but in this case one more or less "loses time".
Coming back to the typically momentary cessation, at the first occurrence, in particular referring to the overall shift that might happen, this tends to mark a kind of tipping point. In the college model of the path, this would be the equivalent of finishing up freshman year, and in many ways this would put you on a kind of final trajectory. This would be the most important bridge to cross and marks the tipping point as you have essentially hit escape velocity. Again, it is vaguely plausible that some people could cross this territory without noticing, as the mind is very biased to model things as continuous.
And if you kept going, you might notice that these blips appear for a while, maybe for weeks or a couple of months, and then you might notice that they don't come up for a while, again maybe weeks or months. You then might notice going through the stages for the second time, eventually hitting Equanimity and a second round of cessations.
At this point, two cycles in, you would be at the equivalent of finishing up sophomore year, although it becomes difficult to map beyond this point. The first two cycles can be pretty solid, but additional cycles don't really map so well to linear progress anymore. The remaining years are a continual process of opening up into new territory, polishing one's "empty mirror" and getting used to a more mindful, less attached perspective.
This cycle will continue to repeat, and if you pay attention to it, like other phenomena the cycle may speed up to a degree, and may get irregular. If you're noticing this kind of thing, you're pretty far along. You should have fewer and fewer questions about this stuff. Over time, your meditation, your mind itself, will become more polished, mindfulness-wise. Meditation will become easier, smoother, faster, more constant. The mind becomes more open and flexible. Mindfulness becomes your new default.