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Reversing the Stack—A Nondual Practice Map—Transcript

reversing the stack

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, the Bodhisattva Vajrapāṇi, and more. My name is Michael Taft, your host on the podcast, and in this episode I will once again be talking about the model of Deconstructing Sensory Experience.

A couple sessions ago, I shared with you a map or model of the Stages of Deconstructing Sensory Experience for use in vipassana – a little bit of meditation technology I had developed. This is my own map that I use to help guide people in their vipassana practice. The flood of feedback I’ve gotten around that episode has been overwhelmingly positive, and also there’s a lot of curiosity to learn more. So in this episode I’ll do what I promised then and show how to use this model of Deconstructing Sensory Experience in reverse to create a nondual version of vipassana meditation and nondual meditation in general, or something approximating but different than traditional Mahāmudrā. And I’ll also be covering some other issues that have come up in the meantime with this model as well, and that part is also really interesting.

So if you haven’t listened to part one, I would recommend you go back and listen to that first – otherwise a lot of this won’t make any sense. And so, without further ado, I give you the episode that I call Deconstructing Sensory Experience Part Two: Nondual Meditation, with Michael Taft.


So again, in the last episode, I introduced you to a little bit of meditation technology, a tidbit that I have developed over the years, starting with a model created by Shinzen Young, my main Buddhist meditation teacher, and then elaborated on at great length by me over a long time working with lots and lots and lots of students and my own practice, and seeing what was helpful and what wasn’t. And I have to say that I am characterologically opposed to these maps – I don’t really like maps for a whole bunch of reasons. The main reason I don’t like them is because I just don’t like “being told what to do,” like having someone say, “This is the right spiritual experience,” or “This is the wrong spiritual experience,” or “This is what’s going to happen to you in the privacy of your own being” or whatever. I’m just one of those people like, “Don’t tell me what to do. This is my own journey inward and I get to discover what I discover as I do that.” And so I really resisted making such a map for a long time and I’ve been pretty critical of other maps.

And yet, I kept noticing two things. One was that at least when one is doing vipassana meditation, there is a certain unfolding of insight that occurs in a certain order for many people – not all people, but certainly many people. And whether I wanted that to be true or not, that just empirically seems to be the case, at least for modern Western people engaging in a sort of secular but not religious Buddhist spiritual context. This particular sequence of unfolding seemed to hold true more often than not. And then furthermore, I noticed that students want a map – at least some kind of orienting device, some kind of compass or sextant to help them get their bearings and to help them have a better idea of what might be fruitful directions, where they may be going, and what to look for.

So I just had to get over myself and try to embrace the idea of being of service. Whether I liked it or not, maps are useful, and I should just go ahead and present the one that I was sort of secretly using in my mind after a while anyway. So I had to get over the “don’t tell me what to do” problem. So in the last podcast I did that. The other problems with maps I’m less concerned about, but they’re very real. A number of people have talked to me about these issues since I presented the model, and I agree with the issues, you know? I think they are correct, and at the same time, have good reasons for going ahead and presenting the model anyway.

The most common critique that I’ve received is not of the map itself. Most people actually understand it and feel it’s useful or helpful, or they recognize their own practice in it. The main critique that I’ve received is that it causes striving. And so, you know, you see that there’s a further place to get on the map, and so it introduces this element of “trying to get something” into your practice. And of course that’s a valid concern, and I hear that critique. Again, it’s another one of the reasons that I’ve been slow to introduce any kind of map in my own teaching, just for that very reason – don’t want to introduce this ranking and striving and comparison mind that just gets in the way. On the other hand, it’s sort of absurd, because if you’re sitting down to meditate there’s something you want in the first place, and if you’re talking to other meditators there is a comparison going on all the time between you and them, pretty much whether you want it to be there or not. That’s just what human brains do, at least previous to some kind of deep awakening, and on occasion even after that. And so it seems overly purist to me to just decide we’re not going to provide any maps because we don’t want people to strive and compare. The practical viewpoint here, as far as I’m concerned, is that people are going to strive and compare anyway, and they might as well at least have an idea of where they might be going while they’re striving and comparing, instead of striving and comparing in the dark. Again, valid critique; I think it’s just worth it to go ahead and have some way to understand where you might be going in your vipassana practice.

A much more minor issue is that maps like this can cause scripting, meaning meditation experience can be quite undifferentiated, vague, confusing, sort of a gray area, nebulous, unclear, or we could say filled with potential and filled with a lot of richness of various phenomena at any time, and rather than allowing the meditator to encounter this sort of nakedly, maps like these introduce scripting. So instead of encountering this nebulosity and this rich soup of experience kind of nakedly, they’re only looking for the thing that, according to the map, they’re supposed to see next, and kind of ignoring all the rest of the picture. And again, this is not a major critique, but it is something that can happen, and I just want to put that out there because it is a legitimate concern. And yet, again, I think it pales in comparison to what can happen if you don’t have a map at all, since no one is experiencing their meditation nakedly – people are coming with all sorts of expectations, all sorts of things they’ve seen in pop culture, all kinds of descriptions they’ve read in books, everything from what their friend told them on the subway to what some nondual teacher in the Himalayas told them on YouTube. No one is just encountering this without a bunch of preconceptions, and so we might as well have good and useful preconceptions rather than nonsensical or ideological preconceptions. Let’s just try to keep the preconceptions to something that might actually help you go deeper in your vipassana practice.

Finally, the most common misconception I saw with people responding to this model and this map – and again, this was almost uniformly positive; people really liked it, and yet they were making the simple category error of mistaking the map for the territory, mistaking the menu for the food. As I mentioned in the last podcast as sort of a warning at the beginning, this is just a model. This is just a way of thinking about how your practice may proceed. It’s not intended to be describing some kind of truth of the universe, or a universal spiritual principle that you’re going to realize is the only ultimate reality or something like that. It’s nothing of the sort. Instead, it’s intended to simply be a guidebook written in shorthand. It’s a very, very simple, basic, sketch of the direction that practice may proceed. And so in no way is it intended to be comprehensive, or again, making a truth claim. If it helps, great. If you’re finding it difficult, or somehow causing a problem, or it’s upsetting you ideologically or philosophically or religiously or whatever, please take it to the nearest receptacle and throw it away. You can use it or not use it in whatever way you wish. Hopefully it will be of use to you.

Now let’s just look at the model itself. And for those of you who were listening carefully last time, you’re going to see I’m changing it! So what is this model? Well, it’s a model of deconstructing a sensory experience using vipassana. It doesn’t really apply to anything else. This is not about samatha. This is not about nonduality, although we are going to get into that later, because it does apply in a funny way to that and I think it’s interesting. But really this is for vipassana mediators going into their practice more deeply.

So the first stage of practice, stage 1, we’ll just call conceptual. And this is where people have very little clarity about the object of meditation in their sense gates, and instead, they are simply thinking about it – mainly just using a word. In other words, instead of really contacting this object in front of me with my eyes, this microphone thing, and digging into its visual presentation, in my mind it’s just an object called microphone, and that’s about it. I’m not encountering it any more deeply than that. And for most people, that’s where they begin in their journey of meditation, usually on the breath. So you can see there’s even an issue with calling it ‘the breath,’ because it’s really the body sensations associated with breathing. It’s sensations, and you want to get into them deeply. But if we just call it the breath and we haven’t done very much meditation, it’s pretty easy as a beginner to sit down and say, “I’m going to meditate on my breath.” You start meditating on your breath, and really you’re just kind of contacting the idea of the breath or the concept, almost even the word of ‘breath.’ And of course they’re feeling their breath going in and out, so there is some sensory clarity there, but in general they’re mainly meditating on the idea of the breath. And this counts for all sense gates, and in fact the whole map is about all the sense gates, not just the body. You can do this in vision. You can do this in sound. At first we’re just kind of labeling things. So that’s stage 1.

Stage 2 we begin to really dig into the phenomenology of the object. We’re noticing the richness of the sensory experience. Instead of ‘microphone,’ we’re seeing the light reflecting off the metal tube, and we’re seeing the grillwork, and we’re seeing how the color changes on the microphone as I move my head and so on. There’s a real engagement with the sensory object itself, not the idea of the object. And so that’s stage 2, what we’re calling the phenomenal object stage.

As our concentration grows and our sensory clarity grows and our equanimity grows, this engagement with the phenomenology of the sensory experience gets deeper and deeper and deeper, richer and richer and more intense – it gets more vibratory – so that at a certain point, stage 3, it switches from being an object that we are meditating on to the sensory experience of vibrations, or waves, or just the changingness in the phenomenology of that object. It starts to just be waves of experience or vibrations of activity. And this is something that can happen actually on a very mundane level. Let’s say you’re meditating visually on a tree and you just notice the wind going through the leaves. That’s already some of this stage 3 flow or change. But as we get more deeply into, let’s say, a body sensation that, at a certain point, appeared to be solid and have a lot of stable, continuous sensation to it, we begin to notice that it’s much more like a vibrating field of little pinpricks or something, little pokes, millions of them that are continuously vibrating, changing, blinking on and off and so on, and this is stage 3, flow or change.

And then stage 4 comes in when all that flow and change becomes more and more open, further and further apart, less and less obvious, all the way to the point that we’re just aware of awareness itself. So stage 4 is the stage of pure awareness – just awareness of awareness.

And then comes the big change I’m going to make. In part one of this podcast, I put in a stage 5 called cessation, which is the collapse of awareness. And I put it there as a logical place in the stack to say, “Well, eventually awareness itself collapses and you get a cessation, and the place to put it is here at stage 5.” Now, nothing else I said in that podcast has caused as much reaction and controversy, but also just interest and excitement, than that stage 5. Everyone wants to know about cessations, and cessations are super interesting. Lots of people claim they must be present in all meditation traditions. Other people are arguing that they’re only in Theravāda Buddhism, and Zen folks think they’re nonsense, and Vajrayāna folks have never heard of them, or only in a very, very limited way, and never experienced them despite quite a bit of practice. So that’s been a very rich and fun and interesting discussion.

And yet, I realized putting cessation there was a mistake. I went back and forth about it even before I did it, and I thought, “You know, cessation can happen at any level. It can even happen at the conceptual level, or at stage 2, or stage 3. And so does it really go at the end there?” And I argued to myself as I was thinking about this model, “Well, pure awareness is present at stage 1 and stage 2 and stage 3, also – or, let’s say, not pure, but awareness itself is present at those stages, so in the same way that we’re giving it its own stage because eventually the other phenomena that’s dominating awareness thins out, thins out, and eventually disappears and only awareness is left, logically the next thing is, ‘What about when awareness collapses?’” So I put cessation down there at the bottom. Stage 5, cessation. And yet it seems to have dominated the discussion so much – which is fine; that’s interesting – but also it has introduced this idea that cessation is the goal of meditation, that all we’re doing is trying to get to cessation and no other goal makes sense, and this is somehow the culmination of your practice. And that is exactly not the case. So I’m just going to, right here, based on all the feedback I’m getting, change the model and say, you know what? We’re going to remove stage 5. It’s not there anymore. Cessations still exist, but we’re not going to give them their own stage. It is just a four-stage model. Stage 1 is conceptual; stage 2 is contacting phenomenal objects; stage 3 is contacting flow or change or activity or impermanence in an object; stage 4, pure awareness. That’s it.

So within a month or two, we’ve already changed the model, and that’s based on all your feedback, which I’ve really enjoyed, actually – it’s been just a fabulously interesting process to talk to people about this, to see the discussions they’re having, to teach this both in my Thursday night classes at the San Francisco Dharma Collective and also at several retreats where we had a long time to really engage with the model and really talk about how it might work in practice and get people’s feedback about how it’s affecting their practice. So again, overall and in general, this is really fun and really interesting, and has just led me to rethink some of the details of the model, and to present it here as just four stages, and that’s how it’s going to be until further notice. So cessations are folded in there as something that can happen, just like there’s lots of other meditation phenomena that are folded in there as something that can happen, but it no longer gets its own stage.

So this is the updated version of the map we’re using, these four stages. And again, based on all the feedback, I just want to reiterate that all of these stages are interesting. All of them are useful. We can enter the stack at any point, depending on our skill level. For example, stage 1, conceptual, is something that might sound pejorative or something that we’re trying to get rid of as quickly as possible to deepen our meditation, but of course, if you want to have a job in the modern world, almost all of your work is probably going to be pretty much conceptual. It’s going to be on this level. Being good at the conceptual level is a really cool thing, really positive, powerful, useful, helpful. I like medicine. I like sanitation. I like certain types of games and reading. So, you know, concepts aren’t a bad thing, and being really good at concepts is crucial, vital to our lives these days. So again, I don’t want there to be any sense that stage 1 is somehow bad – in fact, being good at stage 1 is most of our education. The only problem with stage 1 comes if you’re trapped there. You don’t want to be trapped in the conceptual level.

Same with stage 2. Stage 2 is fabulously interesting. We could just kind of roughly define it as aesthetics, art, music, dance, getting into the sensory experience of life in a deep, rich, satisfying manner. And so again, nothing wrong with level 2, and in fact, level 2 is fabulous for just having a good life, and also in terms of your contemplative activities – it’s really a good place to do a lot of psychological work. If you want to not only wake up but grow up and clean up in there, there’s some real work that can be done not only in stage 1 but in stage 2, very deeply, powerfully, and beautifully there.

So these stages are intrinsic to our life, and they’re not something to be sneered at or left behind or somehow be made lesser than. It’s just that they only represent part of our possible experience, and we don’t want to be stuck there without the freedom to fully express our humanity by accessing some of these other stages. So stage 1 and stage 2, they’re great. And probably stage 3 and stage 4 are less common for people to be able to easily access. And so they’re some of the directionality involved here. And yet, again, you can do perfectly good meditations on stage 1 and stage 2, and get really concentrated, and get really clarified, even at those levels. So it’s important to recognize that we’re not just trying to blow by those or somehow get through those as quickly as possible. That idea becomes pretty important in a minute when we reverse the whole stack and go the other way.

So there’s that, and then also, let’s talk a little bit about stage 4 for a minute. The way I’ve defined this is pretty broad: I just call it pure awareness. You could call it Buddha-nature. You could call it nondual awareness. You could call it stuff like tathāgatagarbha and the clear light and so on and so forth. And there are lots of little distinctions to make in there, but different ways we can work with awareness at that level, and maybe even sub-levels of sub-levels of purity, of pure awareness, and so on. But just for conceptual simplicity and clarity, we’re just going to call the whole thing pure awareness, and understand that that is the state of the mind when it is as free from concepts, as free from fabrications, as free from constructions as it can get. And in vipassana meditation, this is where we end up at. We drill down through the sensory experiences, and contacting all kinds of impermanence and no-self, and eventually arrive at this emptiness – just emptiness of concepts, emptiness of fabrications; just pure, clear light awareness.

And what’s interesting is that it’s possible to go the other way. It’s possible to reverse this stack in terms of your meditation journey. And in fact, it’s not only possible but zillions of people have done it over recorded history and still do. So for example, in something like typical Sōtō Zen meditation, you might start out with, you know, counting your breaths and just trying to get focused, but eventually you’re going to do your shikantaza practice, your (quote) “just sitting,” your “do nothing” practice as Shinzen might call it, or as I call it, “dropping the ball.” You’re going to start out with this practice of what is essentially pure awareness. Just going to sit and let go of concepts until you arrive at pure awareness.

And in many traditions, Advaita traditions, maybe some Zen traditions and so on, that’s it. You just start with stage 4, and you stay with stage 4, and your whole meditation journey is stage 4. You’re just trying to deepen more and more completely into your experience of pure awareness. And that’s interesting, right? That’s cool. And yet, there are many Buddhist traditions that decided to go further with that, decided to take this in a new direction. Both in Mahāyāna and Vajrayāna there’s a real reason for doing so, kind of a philosophical reason – because when we’re meditating down the stack from concepts, and then phenomenal objects, and then flow and activity and impermanence and waves, and then eventually this pure awareness, typically that’s done in kind of a transcendental manner. It starts out as a transcendental way of meditating, and so it starts out dualistic. There’s an observer over here doing the vipassana meditation on this object over there, and at the very end we arrive at this nondual experience. The modeling for this is kind of a transcendence or leaving of the world – we’re going to get out of the trap of saṃsāra and overcome the ills of the flesh.

But of course, in later Buddhism, this is turned on its head. They strongly critique the individual meditator trying to get to their personal nirvāṇa and introduce the ideal of the bodhisattva, where instead of leaving the world, we’re going to stay here and help all beings, all creatures, all sentient entities, to overcome saṃsāra together. And especially in Vajrayāna, this is seen as an immanent process, or both transcendent and immanent, where we’re coming back into the world, coming back into life, coming back into engagement with greater and greater skill, and greater and greater spontaneity, and greater and greater wakefulness.

So this idea of turning the stack over and doing it the other way around is actually more common in Buddhism. It just might not be talked about that way, but it’s the standard method in something like Mahāmudrā or Dzogchen. So let’s talk about doing it that way. And you’ll see this model is not great for that; it’s maybe not the absolutely most accurate model. But it does kind of hold up, and so it’s worth noticing that you can use the model bidirectionally, and I think that’s a fun and interesting way to look at it.

So to use the model bidirectionally, we would start the other way. We start with pure awareness, just like you do in something like Sōtō Zen, or indeed in Dzogchen, or many Vajrayāna traditions.  You’re just going to sit and do what would be called shi-ne in Tibetan, so literally translating it samatha, but of course nothing like the samatha of early Buddhism. Instead you’re going to sit and contact pure awareness, and do that as your meditation, maybe even on the first day of practice. And that turns out to be totally possible for lots of people. There’s a certain kind of brain that just finds this easier to do than the drilling down into sensory experience of typical vipassana, and instead, you just start out opening the mind into non-conceptual awareness, little by little by little. And because, as I said, awareness is always present, even at stage 1, even at stage 2, even at stage 3, and of course at stage 4, since awareness is present the whole time, just contacting this pure awareness actually isn’t that hard to do in certain ways – at least a little, tiny bit. And this is the basis of ‘pointing out’ traditions and so on.

So if you’re looking for hints and tips and tricks on how to do that, there are certainly enough resources for you out there, and I won’t go into that now. But let’s say you could just start out contacting awareness, or contacting pure awareness as clearly as you can, and that becomes then the basis of your practice. So you’re starting out at stage 4. And as I mentioned, for many traditions, especially something like Advaita Vedanta, that’s just kind of it – you just stay there. That’s your practice. Just do that more and more. That’s great.

But then there’s a way we can go back up the stack. And this becomes very interesting. It would typically be, as I said, associated with something like Mahāmudrā, where we’re going to then allow pure awareness to notice things in a systematic manner. So in Vajrayāna traditions and some Hindu tantra traditions, you really focus on, for example, new sensory phenomena bursting into awareness. You try to allow awareness to notice that initial nanosecond or millisecond or as close as you can get to the initial arising of a phenomenon, that moment that it just is born from the void, comes out of the womb of the arhats or tathāgatagarbha, that moment it pops into awareness. And that moment is very, very interesting, because that’s when the phenomenon is most associated with its purest form, and it’s just almost completely empty vibration, empty activity, bursting forth. And the idea is you want to notice that moment when a sensory experience first arises out of pure awareness and keep noticing the arising of sensory experiences out of awareness. Very, very fascinating, and very enlivening and empowering. Very often, if you’re, for example, meditating on thinking, verbal thinking – what Mahāmudrā would call the moving mind; maybe mental images, maybe mental talk – from the perspective of awareness, you allow awareness to just notice this arising of phenomena, without ever becoming an observer. This is very empowering and very fascinating.

So that’s how we get from level 4 or stage 4, pure awareness, to stage 3, activity. And this is definitely a really powerful, beautiful experience. This is where you get a lot of the rainbow imagery of Vajrayāna and these beautiful ideas of the world as a dream and so on, because when phenomena initially burst forth into awareness they still have that void quality, that emptiness quality, very apparent. There’s just tremendous passion, intensity, energy, and voidness. They sort of show their nebulous character right there, and it’s very obvious and very fascinating.

Another reason you might want to start out with the pure awareness level is it overcomes the main problem with vipassana, which is called the observer trap. People get stuck as the meditator. You can become a better and better and better vipassana meditator, better and better and better at deconstructing sensory experience, drilling down through the stack, going from layer 1, to level 2, to stage 3, to stage 4, and it’s clearing up huge areas of life, waking you up, getting you more and more and more benefit, but you never examine the observer or the doer of the meditation itself. And in order to actually move into awakening with vipassana, real, deep awakening, you have to point the tools of vipassana at the meditator itself. You have to notice the sense of the positionality of the observer, and the micro body sensations of being the observer, and maybe some emotions of “Oh, the meditation is going good or bad,” and maybe some talk to yourself about the meditation. This little, tiny meditator ego is enough of an ego to remain endarkened. And so, in vipassana meditation, this is a known failure mode, and you can kind of get stuck there. So it’s really important to remember at the last moment to point the vipassana at the meditator him- or her- or their- self.

But when we do it this other way around, when we meditate up the stack and start with pure awareness, there is no meditator. We don’t have a positionality. We’re starting out with a nonduality, and so it overcomes the observer trap from the very beginning, and starts out with this nondual type meditation where it’s not that I’m over here looking at phenomena bursting forth into stage 3; it’s just awareness itself is already aware of those, right? It’s already nondual to begin with. All methods have failure modes, though, and the failure mode, in my opinion, of starting out with the nonduality is if you only stay there, because it can deepen and ripen but it lacks a certain clarity and precision that is really wonderful when you come the other way. When you start with vipassana and go down the stack, especially if you use all the sense gates, you get good at this in all the sense gates, you have a tremendous amount of clarity and precision possible, and you can talk about things with clarity and precision that often I’ve seen missing in nondual traditions. And so this is where this meditating up the stack, nondual/Mahāmudrā kind of move, is great because it undoes that. It allows nondual meditation to become incredibly precise and have a lot of clarity and a lot of efficacy in multiple human domains, and that’s great.

So here we are meditating up the stack. We notice phenomena bursting into being, coming out of pure awareness as these vibrating bundles of passionate energy, and then they slowly congeal. Often they just kind of vaporize and go back into the void, but let’s say they have a certain amount of energy to them – they might continue to move up the stack and start to congeal. And as they congeal, eventually the sort of clouds of activity will become objects that are more and more solid. And let’s say it’s a desk, or let’s say it’s a bird – they start to become recognizable objects with all the phenomenology we would associate with stage 2. They have sounds associated with them, rich textures and beautiful colors, and all that sumptuous aesthetic beauty of stage 2 is then present. And eventually they congeal so much and seem so stable and so obvious that we can label them, “That’s a bird. That’s a tree. That’s a desk,” and there we are at the conceptual level, manipulating these things conceptually. And yet at each of these levels, it’s still a nondual experience of those things. There’s no observer. There’s just awareness itself aware. “In the seeing, there is only seeing. In the hearing, there is only hearing.”

So just to wrap up this episode, I’d like to put out there again that I’m very happy to get all the feedback I’ve been getting about this map and model and your experiences with it. So please, keep that all coming. I love the discussions I’m seeing online. That’s great. And I look forward to seeing how this map evolves over time. Thanks.

5 thoughts on “Reversing the Stack—A Nondual Practice Map—Transcript”

  1. Hi Michael,

    If I want to start at stage 4 as a complete beginner, and contact non-conceptual awareness, you mention hints, tips and resources. Can you direct me to the best place to start?


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