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Deconstructing Sensory Experience — a Transcript

is a map of thedeconstructing sensory experience

The following is a transcript of this podcast episode:



Welcome to Deconstructing Yourself, the podcast for modern mutants interested in meditation, awakening, emptiness, post-, non-, and un-Buddhism, hardcore Dharma, love for British Columbia and all ravens everywhere, and much, much more. My name is Michael Taft, your host on the podcast, and in this episode I’ll be pontificating solo about a particular meditation map – one that I call a map of deconstruction of sensory experience.

Previous Deconstructing Yourself podcasts have all been interviews, and so this one is unusual in that it’s just me talking all alone. As you know, I’m a meditation teacher as well as a podcaster, and every once in a while I have some little bit of meditation technology or some tidbit or thingamabob I’ve noticed is really helpful to meditators, and so I thought I would like to share that with you today. And you can find that useful and interesting, or maybe upsetting and something to start obsessing about. Either way, I’m going to record it for you now, and you’ll listen to it and then either write me emails about it or we can argue about it on reddit, or, I don’t know, you can stop me in the parking lot and start raving to me about it as often happens. As always, I welcome all your input and feedback.

What I want to share with you today, as I said, is a map of the stages of deconstructing sensory experience, which is my own map that I use to help guide people in their vipassana practice. The early versions of this map were created by my main meditation teacher, Shinzen Young, but I’ve changed it a lot since then. So anything you may find objectionable about it, that’s not Shinzen’s fault; that’s mine.

And now, without further nonsense, I give you the episode that I call Deconstructing Sensory Experience, with Michael Taft.


There are a lot of meditation maps out there, and meditation maps are useful to have. They’re something we want to have in our practice, while still recognizing that no map is the territory, and maybe maps are actually misleading, and maybe we think we’re trying to get to a certain place but actually we’re going to end up at a different place. So maps are problematic in some ways, but we actually can benefit by having maps. And especially in meditation practice, where so much of what we’re doing can be ambiguous or confusing or unclear in various ways, I’ve just noticed after many, many years of working with people, that they tend to love to have some kind of map to help orient them in their practice – either to say, “I’m at such-and-such a stage now,” or to say, “I know what to do next. I know where I’m at, and I know what to do next.” That orienting feature is just really appreciated.

So there are a lot of maps out there, some of which are helpful and some of which aren’t so helpful. There are those questionnaires that you can take that supposedly show how deep your spiritual experience is, how deep your nondual awareness is and so on, but I find those very, very problematic, very hard to trust, and also not that great for telling you where to go in your practice. They’re more trying to measure, in quotes, “how enlightened you are,” and there’s just so much wrong with that that I would recommend just kind of throwing those out.

The typical, useful maps that people are using right now in meditation that is vipassana-focused, pragmatic-focused, are the TMI map, the map from the book The Mind Illuminated, which is really a Tibetan map. And that map, which is really a Mahayana Buddhist map, very, very old, that’s useful if what you’re trying to measure is how concentrated you are. It simply gives you the criteria for understanding the depth of your concentration. And so I like that map because it’s straight-forward: “If this is going on in your meditation, then you’re at concentration stage 4, and here’s what you have to do to get to concentration stage 5.” So that’s really useful if what you’re concerned with is concentrating, especially concentrating in a dualistic manner.

The other main map is the Progress of Insight map. That’s a map that many people in the vipassana world use. And for me, that map is interesting and helpful in some ways, and really confusing and very off-putting and unhelpful in other ways. Trying to use that as a teacher, I think it causes as many problems as it solves, although it does have some really good stuff in there. And just so this doesn’t turn into a long critique of the Progress of Insight model, I’m just going to leave it at that. But it would be cool at some point to really have a long discussion with someone on this podcast about Progress of Insight versus not Progress of Insight model pros and cons, and I would certainly be on the con side.

So I’ve had this goal to come up with a map that actually helps people to get better at their vipassana-style meditation, and also to orient them to where they’re at currently and where they need to go to get better at this skill. Recently I was teaching up in Denman Island, a retreat, and I introduced this map, a slightly different version of this map, and people found it really helpful and interesting, and also gave feedback that helped me refine it. So I’m just going to introduce this here. Now, of course, this map is not found in a scripture anywhere. It’s not a traditional Buddhist map, although it’s very related to those, and you’ll certainly recognize some of the features as already existing in traditional Buddhist maps. But, you know, this is just me talking from my experience as a teacher and from my own meditation experience. And I think I want to put it out there in case it’s useful or interesting or helpful because, like I said, introducing it at this retreat, and also working with people one-on-one using this map, it just turns out to really help them to deepen their practice.

So I call this map Stages of Deconstructing Sensory Experience. And that’s really what we’re doing in vipassana – we’re deconstructing sensory experience. We’re going to take any experience that is arising, in whatever sense gate, in whatever sense modality, and we’re going to basically focus on it, we’re going to get very concentrated, we’re going to bring a lot of sensory clarity to it, we’re going to have a lot of equanimity around it, and gradually get more and more and more insight into the sensory object until eventually we track it all the way down to the nondual source itself.

And so vipassana is a method of taking sensory experience and deconstructing them back all the way to the nondual source of awareness, and in that sense, this map is just for this kind of sensory deconstruction. This wouldn’t apply exactly if you’re doing, let’s say, Mahamudra or some kind of nondual awareness practice from the start, because you wouldn’t be grabbing onto sensory experiences in the same way in order to deconstruct them. You’d be doing something different. So it’s important to note that this is for vipassana-style sensory deconstruction only. And for that, it makes a lot of sense, and I think there are also extremely interesting ways that this model interacts with nondual models. It includes nondual models; there are ways that you can use this to understand what you’re doing in a nondual practice also, but it’s not the goal of this map to directly relate to some kind of “just sitting” or direct nondual awareness type practice. So those are some caveats.

So let’s talk about sensory experience for a minute. The whole point of vipassana-style practice is to contact your own sensory experience so deeply and so clearly that you see the nature of sensory experience itself. By “sensory experience,” I mean anything arising in any sense gate, so it can be a body sensation of breathing; it can be an external visual image of a bird in the air; it could even be a thought as a sensory experience. And so it doesn’t matter which sensory experience it is – this model will apply to it. So you could use this on anything at all. If it’s arising in your experience, you can begin to deconstruct that in this way and trust that you’re going towards the nondual source of awareness as you do that. In other words, you’re going to end up at emptiness and maybe cessations if you work in this way, regardless of what sensory experience. And of course, I think it’s interesting and powerful to be able to do it on the sensations of breathing in the body, but that’s just one sense gate. Being able to do this in other sense gates is really, really powerful and helpful.

But notice that this model does not say how enlightened you are. It doesn’t claim to say, “If you do x, y, and z, you are enlightened.” That’s not what it’s about. It’s not saying you have to do this particular technique this many times or reach this stage so many times and then you’re this or that level of enlightened. It’s not like that. It’s simply going to help you take any sensory experience and work with it. So it’s going to continuously orient you to how to go deeper and have a richer, more powerful, and eventually more awakening meditation with whatever’s arising. But it is not a model of how awake you are or how deep you are on some enlightenment map. And it’s very much the case that you could be really good at deconstructing objects like this in body sensation and really have a very hard time doing it in, let’s say, thinking. So you could be at different levels with this in different sense gates, in different sense modalities.

So let’s jump into the model itself and then I’ll start unpacking that and we can get into more of the details. The model has 5 stages, and for those of you who have heard this from me before, you’ll notice I added a fifth stage to clarify some stuff that used to be in the fourth stage. So this model is in progress. It used to be 4 stages and now it’s 5 stages. Probably it will stay at 5 stages, but who knows. [laughs] I hope that eventually the major construction on the model is finished and it will be all about improving the various points of the model. But there are 5 stages, and these are:

1. The narrative or conceptual stage of working with a sensory experience.

2. What I’m calling the phenomenal object stage.

3. The flow or process stage.

4. The nondual stage or emptiness stage.

5. Cessation or non-awareness stage.

So 1 is narrative/conceptual, 2 – phenomenal object, 3 – flow/process, 4 – nondual or emptiness, and 5 – cessation or non-awareness stage.

Let’s look at how this works. The first stage is the narrative/conceptual stage, and this is really where almost everyone starts out in meditation. So the simple way of understanding this stage is we start out with a sensory object and we’re actually kind of thinking about it. For example, let’s say I asked you to meditate on a tree. There’s a tree in the field nearby. You’re gazing at it, and I’m like, “I want you to meditate on the external sight of that tree.” And so for a long time, what would probably be happening for a beginning meditator is that they would look at the tree and think, “I’m looking at the tree. There’s the tree.” And that would be the meditation. The act of seeing the tree and knowing that you’re seeing the tree and calling it a tree would be pretty much the entire thing, and the struggle in that meditation would be a concentration struggle – it would be to bring awareness back to the tree every time it slipped off onto some other topic.

But notice that concentration is not the only thing going on here. In fact, the person is encountering the tree in an almost completely conceptual way. In the first moments that they look at it, they may notice the color and the shape of the tree and so on, but after that they’re mainly just thinking, “Tree. I’m looking at the tree. I’m keeping that tree object in my awareness, and I’m coming back to it every time my awareness slips.” And so they’re not really encountering the tree yet. This is an idea of a tree. It’s almost like the word tree and keeping the eyes focused on the tree. So this is what I’m calling the narrative or conceptual level, because they’re not really encountering the tree as much of a sensory object yet.

If you are doing body sensations of breathing style meditation – so feeling the breath at the nose or whatever – in most models, they’re having you really concerned about whether you are currently contacting the sensations in the nose or not. Again, that’s a concentration thing, which is super important. But also notice that at first you are just contacting the sensations in the nose at all, and it may be the case that you’re kind of saying to yourself, “I’m contacting my nose sensations. There are my nose sensations.” But again, it’s not like there’s much sensory clarity around the object itself. It’s more of an idea. Of course there’s still a little bit of sensory clarity in either of these situations – you’re seeing the tree or you’re feeling the nose a little bit – but most of the encounter is narrative and conceptual.

And this is quite understandable. This is normal and this is how the human brain evolved, which is to save energy. It takes a lot of energy to process all this sensory experience, and the brain likes to save energy, so taking something as rich and detailed and complex and fascinating as a tree and just shorthanding it or kind of making it into a metadata tag – “Tree!” – and then focusing on that is much, much easier. It conserves resources. And so the brain is just used to doing that. Imagine if you were walking to work and tried to encounter every object on the way to work with full sensory clarity – down on the ground, sniffing the smell of the petrichor coming off the rain-soaked earth, you know, you’d never get to work. You might be a very happy person, but you’d never get anywhere on time. So we learn to kind of shorthand our experience like this. It’s not like it’s a crime or a mistake or some kind of big deal; it’s just where we start out. We are thinking about objects rather than contacting them fully.

So that’s level 1, and it really often takes people quite some time to move firmly out of level 1 and into level 2. And of course, none of these boundaries are permanent. None of them are digital. It’s a gradation. You’re going to get more and more level 2-like over time and less and less level 1-like. And how do you do this? How do you get from level 1 to level 2? It’s about getting into the details of the sensory experience.

So level 2 is what I’m calling the stage of the phenomenological object. What do I mean by ‘phenomenological’? I mean that we begin to let go of the idea of the object and start to get into the actual phenomenological awareness of the object – the awareness of the object as a phenomena, not as an idea. So the simple way to put this is you begin to get into the sensory details of the object. If we use the tree example, I would say, “Okay, you’ve been looking at that tree for a while. You’re getting pretty good at staying with it. Now here’s what I want you to do. I want you to notice the color of the leaves, and I want you to notice how the color of the leaves are different on the bottom and on the top of the leaves. I want you to notice the different parts of the tree have different color leaves, that you can see the shadows on the bark. You can see the different colors of the bark, texture of the bark. You can see the texture of the leaves. You can see the actual kind of graceful, flowing curves of the limbs of the tree. And I want you to get into these details of this phenomena called ‘tree’ as clearly as you can.”

So, of course, when people start out doing that, they just do it a little bit. They’re going to see some more color. They’re going to see some more texture. And that’s why this is a gradient and not a digital switch. They just start to get a little more into the sensory details of this tree, the tree as phenomena. This works the same way if you’re doing breath sensation. One of the really common guidelines for meditating on breath sensation is notice that it’s cold going in and warmer going out, or notice the kind of texture of the breath going over the nostrils and so on. These are the beginnings of helping someone to get into the sensory phenomena of the breath.

What we want to do with this is go way, way, way too far with it – just take it and run with it, and super nerd-out, and get as highly detailed as you possibly can. And it’s funny because this is hard at first. The brain doesn’t develop software where you can just sort of turn up the amount of detail. It actually is growing the parts of your brain that process this sensory detail. It’s fattening the brain areas that are required to notice this particular sense gate. And so the way I like to put it is like the brain is made of meat, and just like your muscles when you lift weight, you have to build that meat and it takes time. So as much as you want to get into sensory clarity, it’s not like it’s going to happen overnight. It’s going to take a little while for you to begin to get deeper into the details, and more and more clarity, and higher and higher levels of clarity.

Now, some teachers really get into the speed of sensory phenomena, like trying to note it more and more quickly, and that’s an interesting method, interesting direction. But a direction I find much more helpful for me, anyway, the way my brain works, and helpful for some people, is to think of it instead of in terms of time or speed, think of it in terms of space. So the idea is that you’re trying to notice finer and finer details, smaller and smaller details: how is this little bit of the color on that tree different than this little bit right next to it? How does the feeling of the body sensation of my left thigh muscle right here compare to the feeling right next to it, and then the feeling next to that, and then the feeling next to that, on a smaller and smaller level, on a finer and finer grain level?

And so with whatever sense gate we’re working with – let’s say we’re working with hearing – we’re just trying to hear it more and more clearly, with more and more detail, much more high resolution. It’s like on YouTube where you start out and a video’s at, let’s say, 240 – you can barely see it; it’s all chunky. And then you turn up the clarity, and it’s at 360, and you can see more details. You turn up the clarity, it’s 480 – you can see a lot more. And then eventually 720, and then it’s HD at 1080. So, you know, little by little, you get more and more detail. It gets sharper and sharper and sharper and sharper. But if you look at some of those videos, they start out at, like, 144, right? Barely visible at all. And that’s where most of us start in our meditation – the details on these objects are not very clear, and if they are, it’s usually in one sense gate.

So, for example, if someone is a musician, maybe they’ve really, really tuned up the ability to hear sensory clarity in the sound, the external sound channel, and some of that might translate into the internal speech channel. So that clarity might be available there, too. But they might not be clear at all in other channels. Same thing with visual artists. If you’re really good at seeing like an artist, like a painter or a photographer, and you’re used to looking at negative space and seeing highlights and shadows and all the variations in color that objects really have, it’s really easy to work with external sight in a highly detailed sensory clarity kind of way, but that might not translate to other sensory gates. So you may already have a lot of this developed in some gates, and maybe not so much in others. And of course, it’s cool to work with your superior function – like, really go for it in the sense gates that are highly developed for you, and then you might get a lot of really powerful low-hanging fruit if you work on sense gates that are inferior for you, that are harder for you. So this is how we begin to get deeply engaged with this second level, the phenomenological level, where the objects get clearer and brighter and sharper, with more and more detail, and more and more detail, and more and more detail. And of course, this even counts for objects such as the sense of self, which we’re trying to get a lot of detail about, and that leads to awakening-type experiences.

Notice that throughout all of this, we’re not questioning at all the status of the object: “That’s a tree over there. This is a coffee cup over here. This is a thought. This is my foot,” that sort of thing. The status of the objects as objects is never questioned. It’s just that we’re digging deeper and deeper into the phenomenological experience of the object. And notice that just getting good at this at all is going to improve life quite a bit – you know, learning to enjoy sensory experience again instead of being lost in ideas about sensory experience is really necessary and also a great way to enjoy your life. It’s much nicer to, say, eat a delicious meal when you’re really good at contacting the sensory experience in taste and in smell in a phenomenological way. And in fact, this is what, for example, sommelier training is about. A student of mine gave me their used sommelier training books and manuals and tests, and it was really fascinating because the whole thing is about learning to do vipassana on the taste and smell of wine and get really, really highly detailed: “Oh, this smell of this glass of wine, here’s the cherry flavor, and here’s the leather flavor, and here’s the oak flavor,” and so on.

So the whole thing of kind of enjoyment of sensory experience is, of course, rooted in this phenomenological, very rich, very deep, very detailed, high resolution sensory clarity. And also it’s a great way to get your concentration quite a bit higher. When you’re meditating on a sensory object as a concept, it’s extremely boring. Concepts are concepts, and they don’t change that much: “This is a cup, and I’m meditating on a cup, and it’s a cup, cup, cup, cup, cup, cup.” It doesn’t take very long for your brain to get very bored by that. On the other hand, when you begin to contact a coffee cup, let’s say, as a sensory experience, as a phenomenological object, it’s rich. It’s got so many different gradients of color, and shadow, and highlights, and shape, and negative space, and textures, and patterns, and so on. It just gets richer and richer, and more and more and more interesting, and so it holds your attention better. It grabs your focus and helps you to concentrate.

So even though this model is not a concentration-based model, it’s more about sensory clarity, working in this way will help your concentration to grow a lot. And as your concentration and sensory clarity grows a lot, something really interesting starts to happen. And I’ve seen this over and over again. It can manifest in kind of an uncomfortable way sometimes, for some people. And that is: they’ve been getting clearer and clearer and clearer about objects. The sensory clarity is getting sharper and brighter, and sharper and more detailed, and more vivid and more clarified and clarified and clarified, and they just seem to be adding more neurons to that part of their brain that can just see the details of this particular object more and more and more and more – and all of a sudden one day, they’ll just be like, “Oh, my God! I lost my concentration! I can’t concentrate anymore.” I’m like, “Well, what’s going on?” And they’re like, “I try to meditate on the object that I’ve been working on.” Let’s say it’s a body sensation and it’s been getting clearer and clearer and clearer and clearer, hyper-detailed, rich, three-dimensional, juicy steak that I’m just completely chewing through with my sensory clarity, getting every possible detail of this thing. “But it’s, like, turning into fog, or it’s dissolving, or somehow it’s out of focus. I just cannot keep this thing in my attention.”

And, you know, maybe they’re tired that day and their concentration really is off, but much more commonly, what’s actually happened is they’ve started to move into stage 3, which is the stage of flow or sensory experience as activity or process stage. In other words, the whole idea of the thing being an object at all is going away, and instead of being an object like a brick, it seems to be more like a probability cloud, or some kind of wave activity, or some vibratory experience. And so the object-ness of objects is starting to go away. Now, why does this happen? It happens because at stage 1, when things are just concepts, the concept of the thing never changes. You know, a cup is a cup is a cup. But when we’re in stage 2 and we are getting more and more detailed about the phenomenology of the object, that phenomenology starts to change. We’re noticing that the object is subtly changing all the time. Even if it’s a coffee cup, it’s not that the external coffee cup is really changing – it’s that the light is subtly changing. Or if it’s a body sensation, the body sensation is getting a little stronger over here, a little weaker over there, a little brighter in this spot, a little sharper in that spot, a little more dull over here, a little more itchy over there. It’s continuously changing. And as our sensory clarity gets dialed up and dialed up and dialed up HD-range, there’s a point where you just notice the damn thing is changing all the time! And instead of seeming all crisp and clear as an object, it seems like it’s dissolving, or sort of morphing, or maybe doing sort of a lava lamp thing. In some way, it’s suddenly much less sharp and suddenly much more flowy, wavy, much more like activity.

And this is a crucial, crucial stage. This is a big shift. And at this point, things start to seem less like objects and much more like fields of activity or much more just like stuff happening. And of course we can go back and forth and back and forth over this boundary during individual meditation sessions, and it’s not like somehow this is a big realization. Of course, this can even happen at a very gross level without meditation at all, where you just notice – you’re looking at a tree and suddenly the wind picks up and you just notice these gusts of wind moving through the leaves, and the tree just seems so much more like a movement than like some kind of static object. So it’s not like some giant realization or some special thing – in fact, the impermanence and qualities of sensory experience is what we’re trying to notice in vipassana. And so we’re just beginning to see things as they really are, or at least as they really are in our experience of them.

And so this gradual movement as our sensory clarity grows, as our meditation gets deeper, and more concentrated, and more effective, and stronger – we start to lose the sense of objects being objects, and instead get more and more of a sense of objects being activities, being much more like verbs than nouns, much more like probability clouds, much more like waves of stuff happening than static things sitting there. And this can be the funnest part of meditation, when, let’s say, something that you’ve been experiencing as difficult pain in your hip turns into just a field of vibration. And this happens very commonly, and is wonderful, right? You’re suddenly getting kind of massaged by this vibratory phenomena in your hip that previously was this super difficult, painful thing. And so it can be really fun, and it can feel like energies are coursing through your body, and it can feel like there are all kinds of fountains of movement moving through you, and so on, whereas, of course, you’re really just seeing the waves of sensory activity that were always there, but now you have the clarity to see them.

I always compare this to Leeuwenhoek, the Dutch lens grinder who, several hundred years ago, made the first microscope. It was all about being really good at grinding glass very finely, and Leeuwenhoek was a master at grinding glass really well, so he made these lenses and then put them together and was able to look through a microscope for the very first time, of his own construction. And what did he see? He pointed it at some water. What did water look like under a microscope? And it turned out it had all these animalcules in it, little animals, and oh, my God! Boom, we have science. But were the animalcules somehow created by the microscope? Of course not. They were always there just waiting for the clarity, for the high resolution definition, visual clarity to be available to see them. It wasn’t like microscopes made bacteria happen. It’s that the bacteria are already there just waiting to be seen. And this is what happens as our sensory clarity grows. This wave phenomenon in the sense gates is always there; it’s just waiting for your clarity to grow to be able to see it.

So experiencing it, whether it’s in the body, whether it’s in the mind, whether it’s an external sight or sound, it can be really beautiful, really powerful, really pleasant, really fun. Or it can be super difficult. And why can it be super difficult? Well, first of all, like I said, it can feel at first like you’re losing your concentration. Previously things were so sharp and clear, and now they’re not sharp and clear anymore. But of course, a little guidance there will let you know, “Oh, it’s not that I’m losing my concentration. It’s that it’s actually increasing, and my sensory clarity is increasing, and I can start to see this vibratory phenomenon, the wavelike quality of objects.” As I like to put it, objects aren’t objects. Things aren’t things. Things are waves. Things are verbs. And so that’s great, but it can also seem like I’m losing my concentration, or pleasant things keep dissolving. One of the hallmarks of stage 3 is that someone will say, “It seems like stuff is dissolving! I don’t understand it. It’s like it kind of turns to a cloud and blows away or it becomes confetti. It’s like the object gets all weirdly diffuse and kind of rubbery. It’s weird. It’s strange.” And I’m like, oh, they’re starting to go into stage 3. There it is. The impermanence is just arising. It’s there to be seen, and the microscope of their attention is sharp enough to notice that, and that’s great.

This is where we can start to get into Dark Night territory, because it’s all very well when, let’s say, a pain in your hip dissolves and goes away. Nobody’s bummed by that. “Thank you, pain in my hip, for dissolving. That felt great.” But it gets a little dicey when, let’s say, my feelings of love for my dog start to dissolve and go away, or, you know, my sense of self starts to dissolve and go away. It can feel very frightening, terrifying. Things that I truly value are also dissolving and disappearing, and dissolving and disappearing, and instead of being solid objects they turn out to be more cloud-like phenomena that can blow away in the wind. And so unless we have tremendous equanimity – and this is where equanimity becomes really important – we start to grab onto those things and try to hold them together. And it doesn’t work. You’ve already seen the animalcules in the water, and you can’t unsee it. No matter how much you try to think of pure water as just beautiful and pure and clean, you know those animalcules are in there, and as your meditation continues, you’ll see more and more clearly how these sensory phenomena that you value and want to hang onto just keep dissolving and going away, and dissolving and going away. And this is, for some people, a real bummer. Of course, the antidote is to let go. The whole thing of the Dark Night is that it just wants you to see the impermanence and non-object-ness of sensory phenomena, and if you let that happen, it will be okay. But if you try to hang on, and you keep trying to hold it together and hold it together and hold things together, it’s just going to become more and more miserable. So for some people, some of the time, the key here in stage 3, this flow/process/activity stage of deconstructing sensory experience, is to work on equanimity – letting things demonstrate their impermanence, their non-object-ness, without you interfering with that or trying to influence it one way or another. Just let it happen, and it becomes much, much, much easier.

Now, there’s very much more to say about level 3 – it’s very powerful, it’s very interesting. There’s a lot there. There are tons of details and lots of ways to work on it. But in the interest of time, we’ll say this deepens and deepens and deepens, and eventually, you know, there’s just a lot of activity. Objects start disappearing more and more and more; there are fewer and fewer objects; there’s less and less there; there’s more and more activity, more vibration in the sense gates. And eventually something very, very fascinating happens, which is space between these vibrations gets bigger and bigger and bigger. There’s more and more room; there’s more and more openness. And eventually you just notice that the vibratory sensations are arising in awareness itself, which is, in a sense, behind them, or the medium through which they’re being presented to you. And so at this point, we reach the emptiness stage or the nondual stage where, in a sense, the activity is not even there; there’s just pure awareness.

For most people, that’s a very pleasant transition. You just notice that behind or within or enfolding all sensation is just wakefulness itself. And what’s fascinating is because wakefulness is there all the time – it’s behind every one of these stages except the final one – you can actually just directly contact it. And that’s what I was alluding to at the beginning, which is that you can actually notice this stage 4, the emptiness stage, the nondual stage, at any point. You can just directly notice it. And in fact, many traditions start by directly noticing it. It’s already there, just like impermanence is already there, and just like sensory clarity can already be there. So each of these stages can be experienced on their own; they don’t have to be experienced in order. You can just go out and notice impermanence by watching the surface of the ocean. You can just notice impermanence by the fact that your breathing is moving – it’s not static; it’s coming in and and going out, the muscles are expanding and contracting. There’s a lot of impermanence there. You can contact that directly. And in the same way, you can contact this kind of pure awareness directly. You can just notice that you’re awake right now and notice that there’s a part of awareness that is not filled with concepts, not filled with sensory experiences, not even filled with activity – it’s just still and clear and awake.

So it’s there all the time, and this is the basis of the traditions that work directly, beginning with nonduality. There are positive sides to that and there are downsides to that, also. So we’re just going to note that here, that you could actually start in this place – it’s not like some hard thing you have to get to. But being able to get here through any sensory experience, under any conditions, often is really, really powerful and beautiful and not so easy to do, especially to be contacting this kind of nondual awareness, this kind of empty openness, very richly and deeply, continuously or mainly continuously. That’s a lot harder, and there are different ways to go about it that work for different people.

So eventually, if we’re deconstructing a sensory object, we end up in just this kind of space of awareness. And I’m not going to say too much about that, but that’s wonderful. And then there’s a final thing that can happen, which is stage 5, which is that awareness itself shuts off. And that’s called a cessation. It’s not really that different from passing out or falling asleep, except you’re very aware of it coming up and then there’s total lights out, total shut down, and then you’re very aware when it comes back on. So it’s not like sleep or passing out, where there tends to be quite a bit of lack of clarity on both sides of this lights out experience. For a meditator who’s used to using their sensory awareness in this very high-level way, both sides of this lights out experience are very, very clear, and that’s where a lot of insight happens – tremendous insight into the sense of self, into what a sensory experience is at all, and so on. So this cessation experience is really powerful and useful, and in traditional vipassana is, of course, super important. This is what is called nirvāṇa, because nirvāṇa or nibbāna in Pali means “to blow out.” It means “lights out.” It means “to disappear,” “to go away.” Same with the word nirodha.

Similar words, nibbāna, nirodha, nirvāṇa – it all means that lights out experience that is really clear on both sides, and there’s a tremendous amount of literature about what makes it legitimate, or different, or how to judge it, and so on, and of course we won’t go into that here. But being able to do that and being able to notice it clearly and understand what’s happening is really, really, really important for a vipassana-style meditation. Some traditions don’t emphasize cessation at all. They don’t really care about it. They may notice that it happens, but it’s not a big deal, and they will tend to be much more about level 4, just staying in that open emptiness, in the awareness itself. But just for the sake of total clarity, we’re going to talk about this fifth level where the awareness itself just disappears, and that’s, of course, as far as it goes.

So those are the five stages. You’re basically starting out contacting an object as a thought, an idea of an object [level 1]. And then you’re starting to work on sensory clarity [level 2], making the details of this object clearer and clearer and clearer, until eventually it’s so clear you notice that it’s continuously changing, and instead of an object, it’s much more like a wave or an activity [level 3]. And that gets more and more wavelike, less and less object-like, more and more vacuous, more and more open, open, open, open, until eventually all that’s left is awareness [level 4]. And then, if you continue to go deeper, the awareness itself can just black out [level 5], and then come back, and noticing that coming back and how the mind reboots is very, very, very insight producing.

So with each of these five stages, there’s so much more to say, obviously, and getting into the details of how to move through the many, many, many sub-stages of each of these stages, going into how it relates to other maps, going into how you can use this in a nondual way, etc. – it’s all way too much to put here, but just as a very basic thing, if you’re doing vipassana, ask yourself: where am I at with this object? Am I contacting it as a concept? And if so, can I try to contact it more as a phenomenological object, as a phenomenon, as details? If you’re good at that already, see if you can begin to notice the change in the details, the constant changingness, and get deeper and deeper into that. If you’re already very good at that, begin to see the awareness underlying all those waves of activity. And if you’re really, really good at that, then see if you can notice little cessations happening. This is the way to use this map. This is how to understand where you’re at with your vipassana. So I hope that’s been useful, and please send me emails or hop on social media and let me know what you think. And if this map has been useful for you, then this was worth doing.

Thank you.

Here is a guided meditation by Michael Taft that leads you through this map:

3 thoughts on “Deconstructing Sensory Experience — a Transcript”

  1. hi michael,I read the articles on the and Julianna Raye’s A Guide to Unified Mindfulness: Three Skills to 10x Your Happiness book but no one explains sensory clarity as detailed as you do,is there any resources unified mindfulness. Is there a detailed resource where I can learn unified mindfulness completely?

    1. Hi, Mehmet. Although I am a Shinzen student, and have been for decades, I don’t really teach “pure” UM at this point. Probably the best resource for that would be to take the level one teacher training. Best.

  2. thanks for your answer, in mahasi sayadaw noting system we note all of the physical movements like standing up,lifting,lying down

    in see hear feel system how can we note movement of body or body itself?what can we say when noting see or feel?

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