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Deconstructing Sensory Experience, with Michael Taft

deconstructing sensory experience

In this episode, host Michael Taft shares a map of deconstructing sensory experience. This is intended to help orient you to your vipassana meditation practice; helping you to understand where you’re at, where you’re going, and what to look for next. A basic map of vipassana.

Note: this is only a map, only a model. Just like a menu is not food, this model is not claiming to be reality. It’s just a handy way to help you orient your practice.

This model doesn’t count for nondual meditations, high-concentration/jhana practice, etc. It is only to help you with your vipassana practice.

Very important: the inclusion of “Cessation” as level 5 doesn’t mean that level 5 is the final goal of practice. It’s just something that can happen, and is included for the sake of completeness.

These are not discrete or digital stages. They are analog, and shade into one another. Each stage is desirable and useful for various things. No stage is somehow better than another.

In vipassana practice, however, we are usually attempting to tranverse the stack from stage one to stage four. Stage five may or may not be something that happens.

When our practice is very skilled, we can also tranverse the stack from bottom to top (4 -> 1) and do what we might call “nondual vipassana” or something akin to many Mahamudra practices. 

Show Notes

0:25 – Introduction

2:20 – The pros and cons of meditation maps; descriptions of popular maps

5:31 – Stages of Deconstructing Sensory Experience, Michael’s map for vipassana-style

11:54 – In-depth explanation of stage/level 1, the narrative/conceptual stage

16:11 – Level 2, the stage of the phenomenological object (beginning to let go of the idea of
the object and starting to get into the sensory details, the actual phenomenological awareness
of the object)

24:59 – Level 3, the stage of flow or sensory experience as activity or process – the whole
idea of the thing being an object at all is going away, and it seems to be more like a
probability cloud, or some kind of wave activity, or some vibratory experience

35:34 – Level 4, the emptiness or nondual stage – with less and less activity arising, pure
awareness reveals itself

38:57 – Level 5, cessation – awareness itself shuts off

41:14 – Recapping the 5 levels, using the map to understand where you’re at and deepen
vipassana practice

1ConceptualThinking about sensory experience objects using words. 
2Phenomenal ObjectContacting the phenomenology of sensory experiences in the form of objects. 
3Flow / ChangeContacting the phenomenology of sensory experiences as vibration, waves, or change. 
4Pure Awareness Noticing awareness itself with no content. 
5CessationSudden collapse of awareness.

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19 thoughts on “Deconstructing Sensory Experience, with Michael Taft”

  1. Hi Michael,

    I just wanted to let you know that I thoroughly enjoy your podcast! I wanted to send some feedback to let you know that I found this episode to be very helpful. I’m pretty new to this awakening project, and your map really helped me to have a framework to understand some of the concepts I’ve heard discussed. I would love to hear you flesh out some of these stages in the future.

    I’m in the “father of two young kids with a full-time job and limited vacation” boat, so retreats aren’t really an option for me at this stage, and I don’t have a huge amount of time for sitting. I need to do some more of the reading on your list (I’m more of a listener than a reader). I have been using the Waking Up app for over a year now. I’ve come to realize that Sam is going more for a direct pointing out of non-dual awareness approach (I didn’t know what this meant until fairly recently). Sam just uploaded a discussion with Loch Kelly on the app, which I found really interesting. I’m going to revisit your podcast with Loch. It sounds like if I could learn to access this non-dual awareness directly throughout the day that this could really be a game-changer (at least according to Sam and Loch). From listening to your episode today, it sounds like you are maybe more of a fan of accessing this non-dual awareness through deconstructing sensory experience. I would be interested to hear your thoughts on the direct method versus the deconstruction method if you have the time to respond. If you don’t, I won’t be offended at all! I look forward to the next installment!

    Thanks again!


    1. Thanks for the positive comments, Mike. I’m so glad you’re enjoying the podcast.
      As I mentioned in the podcast, I’ll talk much more about the various ways of accessing these states.
      But the (very short) answer to your question is that I don’t think any of these ways is inherently better than the others.
      They all have interesting upsides and downsides.
      Being able to do ANY and ALL of them is the most interesting to me.

      1. I just happened to log onto facebook and see the notification for the Vanishing Into the Void video session. From the description, it sounds like it will be a good supplemental listen for this podcast episode. Looking forward to it! Thanks again!

      2. Very helpful model. It helps me ease back and watch & wait. It makes stream entry not as big of a deal as I’m making it. I’ve been striving, borderline obsessed with being on the other side, becoming a stream enterer seems like the most important goal I could ever do in this life. But, I really do have other things to take care of, a relationship, finances, etc. If I just show up the cushion and work my way through it, stream entry will happen. And using this model, it seems like most of the stuff you do before SE is actually more valuable than the event itself.

  2. Hi Michael,

    First of all, thanks for your podcast and all the work you do. I really enjoyed this solo episode and I’d love to hear more of this. You interview people from so many different and sometimes conflicting traditions that I think it would be very helpful to learn more about how you make sense of all this.

    I have some questions regarding your model. It seems like the stages relate more so to different experiences one can have during vipassana practice and not necessarily the long lasting insights that can come out of these experiences, so it would be really curious to learn what you think is the relationship between the two. Do you use any maps to describe the landscape of meditative/insight attainments at all (4 path model, bhumi models, etc)? As far as I understand, POI traditions really emphasize cessation as a way to develop insight, whereas nondual traditions emphasize, well, the nondual states 🙂 So I’m curious how they compare in terms of actual insight in your view.

    I’m also curious to learn more about your approach to practice. What are the pros and cons of using a dualistic vs nondual view? How would someone reconcile a TMI style of practice with something like a Loch Kelly style of practice? They seem so radically different in their approach, so it would be really interesting to hear your thoughts on this.

    Thanks again and keep up the good work!

    1. Hi, Rafael. Thanks for your kind words about the podcast. I’m glad you’re finding it helpful.
      The answers to your other questions would take several hours to unpack, so I won’t do that here.
      Although I do plan on talking about how to integrate dual and nondual practices on audio sometime soon.
      Thanks again.

  3. The brain actually uses more energy to conceptualize, dull sensory experience. Psychedelics that make the conscious experience more vivid has been shown to reduce brain activity. This is actually a huge argument for idealism.

    1. It’s interesting that you conclude for Idealism based on listening to Michael talk about phenomenology and experience. One of the things that I appreciate most about Michael is that he avoids the metaphysical quagmire and doesn’t get into arguments about reality or realism/idealism. He talks specifically about the nature of experience. To go from this to metaphysics is simply a mistake. Indeed, as I understand Michael, cessation should make one less certain about metaphysics, not more certain.

  4. Thank you for posting this. I think it’s interesting to match these stages to different ways of working. Stage 1 as concentration exercises, Stage 2 as vipassana, Stage 3 as Shinzen-style flow, Stage 4 as direct, non-dual, and Stage 5 as hardcore, on-retreat vipassana. So you could think of these stages as a progression, and different techniques and traditions as targeting different stages. But all will take you through the same progression. It’s a matter of whether the tradition tells you more how to get on the path or more where the path is going.

    I also like that the model gives you a way of working at each stage. Very useful.

  5. Hi Michael,

    Just a comment to thank you for this great podcast – it was really very useful for my current practice – and as a great future roadmap. This solo format is really good, and follows on from some of your excellent Dharma Talks I’ve seen on your YT channel.

    I’m at the end of TMI Stage 5 in concentration terms – but after listening to the DSE podcast on the way into work today – realised my Breath Sensation clarity needs a lot more effort, as my focus has been almost totally on concentration. I’ve been kidding myself that Stage 6 is really close, but realise that real breath clarity needs to be taken more seriously to really more forward. So this podcast was just the kick up the ass needed being a UK based solo meditator 🙂

    A more general thank you for all the great work in your website articles, your YT channel (especially the Dharma Talks!) and your books.

    One final request – another Thomas Metzinger episode if possible in 2020 would be great – episode 12 was a real favourite of mine.

    Thanks again


      1. Michael, excellent episode! Thank you! What kind of time frame (total cushion time) are we talking about to progress from stage 1 to 5? You know, for those of us who are in a hurry to get to the good stuff? (Outrageous formulation, I know)))

        1. Thanks, Richard. It’s totally impossible to estimate and average for people. Everyone is very, very different. It depends on many factors such as psychological issues, dedication, life situation, and much more.

  6. Hi Michael. Thanks for this outline. I found it very clear and helpful. I appreciate that rather then expounding a theory you are describing your own experience. This makes a huge difference in terms of making basic sense.

    I’ve been looking again at the word śūnyatā in Sanskrit. I’m leaning more towards understanding it as absence. That is to say when I look at the many different definitions, the theme seems to be absence: absence of substance, friends, clothing, etc. And in Prajñāpāramitā at least, the absence of sense experience or the absence of svabhāva or (shall we say) essence. This would equate it more with words like nirodha (cessation) and nirvāṇa (extinction) as representing the final stage in your map.

    What do you think?

    Best wishes

    1. I’m so glad to hear that you like it and find it useful, Jayarava.
      Sunyata as absence makes sense to me, intuitively. On the other hand, the word usually means that something is “away” meaning that it might come back. And it’s the opposite of presence, which is also slightly confusing.
      In terms of the map, Sunyata would fit best at the fourth level of pure awareness, where it would mean something like “empty of concepts” or “empty of fabrications”. To me, anyway.
      Too much more to write about here.
      Let’s have a long and fascinating discussion about this on the phone sometime!
      Great talking with you, man.

  7. Thankyou so much for this.. it is very helpful!
    Really resonating deeply with all your podcasts..
    Can you please do a video on guiding how to do Vippassana from your understanding and experience..

  8. Michael, I love this episode. Inspiring and very helpful! Your voice is magic, goes so well with what you are talking about. I appreciate your overview of the topic together with your map. Many helpful relatable everyday examples/comparisons; deconstruct food and wine, difference between musician and artist. Makes it understandable. I also like that you share your preferred method of Vipassana but you also include other methods; space, speed. I am grateful, really excited to practice. Thanks for your service, keep it up!

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