As I describe in my introductory article on insight, insight practice is the experiential exploration of the relationships between self, reality, awareness, and subjective experience. The result of insight practice is insight, which is both an understanding of those relationships and an ability to access modes of perception in which those relationships are evident.
I believe insight is best cultivated via a series of stages over which understanding and perception become successively more refined:
- Stage 1: You’re Real
- Stage 2: You’re One with Reality
- Stage 3: You’re the Witness
- Stage 4: Inverting Experience and Reality
- Stage 5: Awareness and Experience are One
- Stage 6: Experience Is
- Stage 7: Disembedding Yourself from All Frames of Reference
(In my experience of cultivating insight, I did progress through these stages in more or less this order, and I believe this sequence of stages can serve as a helpful framework for cultivating insight. However, I don’t claim that these stages are the only ones possible or that they can only be accessed in this sequence.)
Each stage of insight has a corresponding conceptual framework (or view) as well as a corresponding perceptual state (that can be entered by using the associated view to guide your perception). In the sections below, I describe the view and the state associated with each stage of insight, and I suggest practices to help you enter each state.
Cultivating each stage of insight requires two steps:
- Study. For the stage you’re trying to cultivate, study its view and any associated practices until they make sense to you. (You can use this article as a basic study guide.)
- Practice. In formal meditation and in daily life, practice using that view and its associated practices to shift your perception. (My article on insight practice describes how to do this.)
Stage 1: You’re Real
Reality, as I define it, is the set of phenomena perceived both by you and by others who share your worldview. Different worldviews may support the perception of vastly different phenomena: matter, space, time, energy, life, consciousness, human needs, unconscious psychological forces, souls, God, gods and demons, heaven and hell, and more—there’s room for all phenomena across the diversity of our worldviews.
At this first stage of insight, you perceive yourself to be a part of reality—whatever reality consists of for you. Maybe you’re a physical body on a journey from birth to death. Maybe you’re a soul on a journey from young to old, inhabiting many bodies along the way. There are many possible worldviews; you hold one of these views and you pay attention to what’s real (in your view).
Your view of what’s real governs your understanding of yourself and informs your values. It reveals important truths about life and allows you to communicate and collaborate with others who share a similar view. However, your view of reality also hides important truths—truths that don’t fit within your view of what’s real. To the extent that you see yourself as a temporary phenomenon within an ever-changing reality, you may experience a fear of eventual nonexistence.
This stage may not seem very significant, but actually, reaching this stages is quite an accomplishment in terms of mental health and the ability to function in life. If you have trouble perceiving yourself as part of reality, don’t proceed with insight practice until you are solidly grounded in this stage.
This stage of insight encompasses a vast array of worldviews; what they all have in common is a focus on reality (as opposed to subjective experience) as their frame of reference. All phenomena are reduced to—or described in terms of—reality (not subjective experience); subjective experience is ignored, minimized, or included as part of reality—with reality being the frame of reference and the central focus.
Reality is complex; insight is (relatively) simple. If you’re trying to cultivate insight and you find yourself investigating something that seems to be getting more and more complicated, you’re probably exploring reality—not cultivating insight. There’s nothing wrong with exploring reality—just be clear about what you’re doing.
In Other Frameworks
Any spiritual or secular framework that either positions you as part of reality or ignores your relationship to reality is operating at this first stage of insight. This stage is commonly found in science, materialism, atheism, theism, non-mystical forms of religion, non-mystical new age spiritual frameworks, spiritual practices (including “insight” practices) that investigate reality (without exploring the relationship between reality, awareness, and subjective experience), scientific frameworks that describe consciousness as an epiphenomenon of reality, and scientific/spiritual frameworks that include consciousness as a force within reality. The concept nature is generally synonymous with reality.
Stage 2: You’re One with Reality
Here, you perceive yourself as reality—all of reality. (You perceive others as all of reality, too; so, at this stage, you perceive all beings as one.) This is actually a special case (or perhaps an advanced substage) of the stage above (you’re real). As such, I believe you could skip this stage in your process of cultivating insight if you want to; however, I do see significant benefit in cultivating this stage.
Remember the self you perceived at the you’re real stage? (Let’s call that self—somewhat ironically—the “real self”, and let’s call the self you perceive at this stage the interdependent self.) What happens to the “real self” at this stage? Does it still make sense to say and think things like “I’m going to eat dinner now”? Sure; it’s just that in this case, “I” refers to the “real self” (which is a subset of the interdependent self).
To perceive yourself as one with reality, notice the edges of the part of reality that you consider yourself to be, notice the arbitrariness of your choice of edges, and consider more expansive ways of viewing yourself. For instance, do you think you end at your skin? Is the food you eat a part of you after you eat it, and if so, what would it be like to consider it to be a part of you as its growing in the field? Are your family and friends a part of you? How about your enemies? Would you be the same without them? Could your body and mind exist at all without the rest of reality?
This stage is often confused with stage 5, below. What this stage has in common with stage 5 is a focus on union and unity—but this stage focuses on reality (rather than awareness and subjective experience) as it’s organizing principle.
In Other Frameworks
This stage of insight is found in mystical forms of religion and spirituality that emphasize interdependence without exploring the relationship between reality and subjectivity. Related concepts include pantheism and ecosystems.
Stage 3: You’re the Witness
Regardless of how much your view of reality (and your role in it) might change, notice that one thing stays the same: you’re aware. At one level, you perceive yourself to be real—but at a deeper level, you perceive yourself to be that which is aware. Recognizing this allows you to access a new way of perceiving yourself: you perceive yourself to be the witness of phenomena.
You recognize that although diverse phenomena arise and subside—thoughts, feelings, perceptions, views of reality, and more—awareness itself (as the witness of phenomena) is unchanged and unaffected. This recognition gives you the courage to face difficult experiences since you perceive that these experiences won’t fundamentally harm you. Your view of yourself as the witness helps you cultivate deep self-acceptance. The witness is always nonjudgmental because judgment is just another phenomenon arising in awareness. You experience joy in simply being aware.
What happens to the “real self” at this stage? It doesn’t disappear; it just becomes another set of phenomena to be witnessed. (The same is true of the interdependent self.) The body, feelings, thoughts, impulses, choices, and actions of the “real self” arise and subside in awareness, just like all other phenomena. The witness (as I define it) doesn’t make the choices of the “real self;” it witnesses all the phenomena related to those choices (including thoughts and feelings associated with choice-making).
In Other Frameworks
This stage of insight is found in psychological and spiritual approaches that advocate witnessing as a practice for emotional self-regulation and healing.
Stage 4: Inverting Experience and Reality
We’re used to thinking of subjective experience as an insignificant intermediary that lies between what’s really important: ourselves (“in here”) and reality (“out there”). This stage of insight practice reveals a different way of experiencing life in which our relationship to reality shifts and subjective experience assumes a much more prominent role.
Experience is Fundamental; Reality is Hypothetical
The key understanding to cultivate at this stage is that you never actually perceive reality directly; all you ever experience is subjective experience. For instance, looking at a chair, you experience a visual experience of the chair—not the chair itself. Touching the chair, you experience a tactile experience of the chair—not the chair itself. You recognize that you’ve never had—and never will have—a direct experience of the “real chair.”
You recognize that the existence of the chair in reality isn’t a foregone conclusion, but an interpretation of your experience—and that other interpretations of your experience are possible. How many times have you woken up in the morning to realize that what you perceived as real a few minutes ago was actually a dream? How many times has your perception of reality changed dramatically when your understanding of reality has shifted?
Concept-Focused and Experience-Focused Perception
At stage 1 of insight, we are mostly in a concept-focused state of mind; this stage of insight involves building the capacity to shift to an experience-focused state of mind (and this is a prerequisite for all of the following stages of insight, as well). Let’s define concept-focused and experience-focused:
In concept-focused perception:
- Your attention is mainly on conceptual experiences; you may not be aware of your nonconceptual experiences. (I define conceptual and nonconceptual experiences in my introductory article on mindfulness.)
- You may not recognize your subjective experience as subjective experience.
In experience-focused perception:
- Your attention encompasses both your nonconceptual and conceptual experiences.
- You recognize your subjective experience as subjective experience.
(An alternative term for experience-focused perception is mindfulness of subjective experience.)
Let’s say I happen to glance at a tree in my yard. In concept-focused perception, if I experience anything at all in relation to the tree, it’s likely to be thoughts about it (such as, “I should really cut that low branch off soon.”) It’s likely that I will be unaware that I’m thinking, and that I’ll only be aware of what I’m thinking about.
On the other hand, in experience-focused perception, I’m aware of both my nonconceptual experience of the tree (such as my visual experience of it) and my associated conceptual experiences (such as the knowledge that I’m looking at a tree and the thought “I should really cut that low branch off soon”). I recognize all of these experiences as experiences.
In experience-focused perception, my body, my emotions, and my thoughts all show up as experiences arising—just like my home, my friends, my memories, my plans, and my fantasies. “In here” and “out there” get flattened; it all simply becomes subjective experience.
How to Invert Experience and Reality
Experience-focused perception helps you recognize that you construct your experience of reality as an interpretation of your subjective experience—and in that sense, your understanding of reality is hypothetical. You also realize that your perception of reality arises within your field of subjective experience as a set of conceptual subjective experiences. In this sense, your subjective experience itself is more fundamental than your current perception of reality. This is the inverse of the way we perceive things at stage 1 of insight; at that stage, we perceive ourselves and our consciousness as phenomena arising within reality, with reality being more fundamental.
These two inverse perspectives are not incompatible; at stage 1, you focus on how the “real self” arises within reality, while at this stage, you focus on how your experience of reality arises within subjective experience. Experience-focused perception doesn’t require your understanding of reality (your worldview) to change at all, and you don’t need to devalue reality, either. The understanding that reality is hypothetical doesn’t imply that nothing is real, that reality is subjective experience, or that you are alone in the universe.
The following insight practices can be helpful for cultivating this stage of insight:
- Build mindfulness by doing enough concentration meditation to reach at least the intermediate concentration milestones. (With less mindfulness, you may be able to understand this stage of insight, but you will have a hard time perceiving at this stage.)
- Build attentional expansiveness by meditating on your entire field of experience.
- Clarify your perception of experience by investigating the nature of experience.
- Clarify the interpreted nature of reality by investigating your experience of reality.
- Build perceptual agility by alternating between concept-focused and experience-focused perception.
- Build your capacity to stay grounded in experience-focused perception even as conceptual interpretations arise by visualizing your interpretations of experience
What happens to the “real self” and the interdependent self at this stage? We recognize them as interpreted and hypothetical, just like the rest of reality. (We don’t lose the ability to say and think things like “I’m going to eat dinner now”—however, we recognize the interpreted and hypothetical nature of the “I” that we’re referring to.) What happens to the witness at this stage? Nothing. The witness continues witnessing subjective experience (including interpretations of subjective experience).
In Other Frameworks
I believe the shift from concept-focused to experience-focused perception is the starting point for most vipassana or vipasyana (often translated as insight) practices in Buddhism. I believe it’s also a foundational aspect of most mystical spiritual traditions, including Christian Mysticism.
Stage 5: Awareness and Experience are One
At one level, we consider ourselves to be real—but, as we saw at stage 3, at a deeper level, we perceive ourselves to be that which is aware (which we called the witness of phenomena). Stage 5 unfolds as we examine the witness more closely and recognize that in a state of experience-focused perception, no matter how hard we search for it, we’ll never find it.
Seeking the Elusive Witness
To understand what this means, let’s compare the witness to the “real self.” It’s not hard to find the “real self;” in fact, experiences of the “real self” are hard to avoid. What you consider the “real self” to be depends on your worldview—but if your worldview is similar to mine, the visual experience of your body in the mirror, the sound of your voice, and your body sensations are all nonconceptual experiences of the “real self.” The concept “real self” is grounded in nonconceptual experience, in that it refers to a specific pattern of nonconceptual experiences. When we recognize that pattern, we say, “That’s me!”
The funny thing about the witness is that you can search your field of nonconceptual experience forever, and you will never find a nonconceptual experience of the witness. That’s because we believe the witness is an entity distinct from experience that does the experiencing. That means that no matter what nonconceptual experience we turn our attention to, we will always perceive that experience to be “not-witness;” it always seems that the witness must be something else.
Of course, we can have conceptual experiences of the witness—we can think about it and talk about it all day if we want. But we will never experience it nonconceptually (in the way that we experience the “real self”). We will never see it, hear it, or taste it. The witness is a concept without a nonconceptual referent—it’s not grounded in nonconceptual experience.
What about your convincing, ongoing sense that the witness exists somewhere specific in reality? (For instance, I tend to have the sense that the witness sits somewhere in the middle of my head.) This is an artifact of concept-focused perception that disappears when you switch to experience-focused perception. Whatever the experience is that you associate with the witness, when you turn your attention to that experience, you will recognize that it’s just an experience. It won’t feel like the witness at all (even if it felt like the witness before, in concept-focused perception).
Some things are much easier to try than they are to explain, and this is one of them. So, try this practice. Notice where you believe the witness sits in reality. (Perhaps it’s in the middle of your head.) Pay attention to reality (invoking concept-focused perception), and you will have a convincing perception that that’s where the witness is sitting. Now, focus your attention on that spot or area and notice the sensations that you actually experience there, as well as any and all nonconceptual experiences that you’ve been associating with the witness (invoking experience-focused perception). What happens? Whatever it is that you’ve been experiencing, it no longer feels like the witness. In fact, your perception of the witness probably disappears, leaving no trace. If the witness seems to move somewhere else, follow it and repeat the experiment; you will get the same results each time. (My article on investigating your experience of self describes a similar practice.)
Does the “real self” do the witnessing? In concept-focused perception, this might make sense—it depends on your worldview. (Personally, my worldview includes conscious beings inhabiting physical bodies and witnessing their experiences. Does that worldview make sense? Maybe not, but it’s the best one I’ve got!) In experience-focused perception, it becomes clear that the “real self” does not do the witnessing—you recognize the “real self” as nothing more than a concept that refers to a pattern of nonconceptual experiences. It becomes clear that if there is a witness, it must be neither the concept of the “real self” nor the pattern of experiences it refers to; it must be that which is aware of both the concept and the experiences.
Recognizing the Unity of Awareness and Experience
In experience-focused perception, the witness—that which is aware—can’t be found. But clearly, you’re aware of your experiences. What’s going on? The answer is quite simple. Awareness and experience are two sides of the same coin; you can’t have one without the other. The concept of the witness takes awareness out of experience and locates it in a hypothetical observer (which can’t be found). The perceptual practice of this stage of insight is to let go of the concept of the witness and recognize awareness as an integral aspect of all experience.
There are at least a couple ways to do this: you can conceive of awareness as a space in which all experiences arise, or (my preference) as an attribute of all experiences. (I find a practice of recognizing the luminosity of experience helpful here; notice how all experience “glows” with awareness.)
In the perceptual state associated with this stage, the absence of a witness lends a quality of evenness to experience, in that awareness is present in all experiences. To the extent that you identify with awareness, you may feel as if you are one with all your experiences.
In Other Frameworks
I’ve encountered both the practice of searching for the witness and the concept of the union of awareness and experience in Tibetan Buddhism. The concept of the union of awareness and experience seems related to various flavors of nondualism in spiritual thought. Searching for the witness (and not finding it) seems related to the Buddhist concept of anatta or anatman (“non-self” ). If one conceives of awareness/experience (as perceived at this stage of insight) as divine, and reality (as perceived in concept-focused perception) as non-divine, this could be viewed as a form of panentheism.
Stage 6: Experience Is
So far, we’ve chased our identity (the self) from the “real self” into the witness, then from the witness into experience (as luminosity, the awareness aspect of experience). Now, let’s go a step further and do away with this last vestige of the self.
If awareness and experience are two sides of the same coin, then why use two words to describe the same thing? The concept of awareness loses its meaning if it doesn’t distinguish anything in particular. So, try just dropping it. What’s that like? All that’s left is experience; there’s neither awareness nor absence of awareness; just experience arising.
In the state corresponding to this stage of insight, our experience of life is simply that of subjective experience arising, with no self to be found anywhere—not as the witness, nor as awareness. (Experiences of the “real self” and the interdependent self continue to arise at this stage, but—as in stages 4 and 5—we recognize them as interpreted and hypothetical.)
In Other Frameworks
To me, this stage of insight seems even more nondual than the previous one. A view focused on experience (but not awareness) seems characteristic of the vipassana or vipasyana (often translated as insight) practices I’ve encountered in Theravada Buddhism.
Stage 7: Disembedding Yourself from All Frames of Reference
A frame of reference (or framework) is a set of interrelated concepts that allows you to make sense of experience. For instance:
- Your worldview is a frame of reference that supports your perception of reality.
- Each stage of insight described in this article has an associated view, and each of these views is a frame of reference that supports entering the perceptual state associated with that stage. (Even the minimal view of stage 6—focused on the concept of experience—is still a frame of reference.)
- My model of insight (as a series of stages) is a frame of reference that guides the cultivation of insight.
- My model of awakening (as a set of faculties to be cultivated—mindfulness, insight, and so forth) is a frame of reference that guides the cultivation of awakening via this path.
You’re embedded in a frame of reference when it influences your perception unconsciously and involuntarily. The more we value a particular frame of reference, the easier it is for us to become embedded within it.
We often value our spiritual practices highly, so it’s very easy to become embedded in their associated frames of reference. (All spiritual practices are supported by some frame of reference—whether explicit or implicit.) If you find a particular spiritual path helpful, you’re likely to start incorporating its frame of reference into your worldview; then, to the extent that you’re embedded in your worldview, you are likely to find yourself zealously protecting and promoting your spiritual path.
How to Disembed Yourself
You attain this stage of insight when you develop the capacity to disembed yourself from all frames of reference by understanding frames of reference, learning to recognize them, and becoming aware of how they affect your perception. (You started developing this capacity in stage 4 when you learned to shift from concept-focused to experience-focused perception.) Here are some practices for cultivating this capacity:
- Learn to recognize how you make sense of life. Learn to recognize frames of reference. Recognize how they act both as lenses (focusing attention on some aspects of experience) and filters (hiding other aspects).
- Investigate your experience of making sense of life. Conceptual understanding is the process by which your subjective experience is transformed into conceptual knowledge via a frame of reference. For instance, when you look at a tree, conceptual understanding is how you know that it’s a tree. Thinking is the process by which a frame of reference is refined and elaborated upon. Conceptual understanding and thinking are ordinarily automatic, involuntary, and unconscious, but you can learn to become conscious of them. Do so, then meditate on your subjective experience of conceptual understanding and thinking. Watch your conceptual understanding of life unfold before your eyes. Cultivate a visceral understanding that all your conceptual understandings depend entirely on some frame of reference. The practice of visualizing your interpretations of experience can be helpful for this if you take the additional step of noticing the frames of reference that underlie the interpretations you are visualizing.
- Stop seeking the ultimate belief system. Recognize that no frame of reference can be rationally determined to be ultimate. (If you found the ultimate frame of reference, how would you know? If the ultimacy of a frame of reference is to be determined rationally, it must be determined in relation to some frame of reference.) But, how about faith in the ultimacy of a particular belief system? As I see it, developing this kind of faith can be a positive step forward into a particular stage of human development and spiritual practice. (And, people at that stage probably won’t find insight practices to be helpful or interesting. Never force spiritual views or practices onto others; the fact that you find them helpful doesn’t necessarily mean that others will.)
- Stop seeking the ultimate spiritual practice. Recognize that no spiritual practice can be rationally determined to be ultimate. (If you found the ultimate spiritual practice, how would you know, given that there can be no ultimate frame of reference?)
- Stop seeking the ultimate experience. Recognize no experience can be rationally determined to be ultimate. (If you were having the ultimate experience, how would you know, given that there can be no ultimate frame of reference?)
- Relax your understanding of reality. You’ve recognized that your perception of reality is defined by your worldview (which is a frame of reference) and that no frame of reference is ultimate. This frees you to be more open to alternative ways of understanding reality—ways that may differ from what you’ve been used to. You can hold divergent frameworks in mind as possible interpretations of phenomena—without having to reduce them all to a master (ultimate) frame. Consider what worldviews you’re most familiar with. (For instance: scientific materialism? New Age theology?) Concept-focused perception in terms of these frameworks is a habit, and old habits die hard. Recognize when you’re limiting yourself to familiar ways of making sense of life and make a conscious effort to expand your horizons. (If you come from a scientific materialist background, as I do, you may find the following books helpful for exposing yourself to alternative worldviews: The Conscious Universe: The Scientific Truth of Psychic Phenomena by Dean Radin, and The Holotropic Mind: The Three Levels of Human Consciousness and How They Shape Our Lives by Stanislav Grof (especially Part III: The Transpersonal Paradigm).)
How to Live Without an Ultimate Frame of Reference
How do we live life and make choices without an ultimate frame of reference to guide us? If you think you can simply do away with all frames of reference, good luck! (I doubt this would be possible or beneficial.) Instead, I like the idea of using frames of reference that are appropriate for a given situation—without making any one frame of reference ultimate. (You can tell when you’re making a frame of reference ultimate when you feel compelled to reduce all other ways of understanding life to your way.)
It may be tempting to view the stages of insight as corresponding to a series of increasingly beneficial modes of perception. I’m not sure about that. An idea that’s much more appealing to me is that different modes of perception may be appropriate for different situations. Perhaps our intention in cultivating insight should be to increase our perceptual flexibility, rather than to remain in advanced states of insight at all times.
What Life is Like Without an Ultimate Frame of Reference
What are the signs that one is entering this seventh stage of insight? One sign is the dropping away of zeal, defensiveness, and sanctimoniousness in relation to our preferred frames of reference. Another is humility in relation to the finality or completeness of our spiritual development. (Be suspicious of any sense of certainty that you’ve arrived at an endpoint of your spiritual development; unqualified certainty suggests embeddedness in a frame of reference.)
For me, the results of this stage of insight practice have included deepening levels of equanimity, humility, and conceptual flexibility, and an increasingly strong sense of “Uh… maybe! I don’t know!” about every possible conceptual understanding. In moments of insight, what do I know for sure? Nothing. Am I certain that what I’m doing is right and good? No. Does that mean I sit around idly all day? No—I still do plenty; I just try to recognize (and drop) any sense of righteousness about what I’m doing. Why do I do what I do? I can give justifications relative to my preferred frames of reference, but I have no ultimate justification. Ultimately, I just don’t know. It’s turtles, all the way down.
Is my mind a pure, blank slate? No—I still think a lot, and I use frames of reference all the time; I’m just more conscious of them now. In fact, playing with frameworks is one of my favorite pastimes! Case in point: writing this article—in doing so, my intention is to construct a frame of reference that efficiently creates an experience that I’m calling insight.
I’m also attempting to construct frames of reference that create experiences of vitality, mindfulness, compassion, and intuition. Does that contradict what I’m teaching about this stage of insight? No—this stage of insight involves disembedding ourselves from all frames of reference, not discarding all frames of reference. Insight is distinct from nihilism and hedonism; these are frames of reference, like any other (and they aren’t ones that appeal to me much). I still have opinions about what’s good and bad; I just try to recognize them as opinions based on my preferred frames of reference. Would it be good if you adopted my preferred frames of reference? Relative to those frameworks: maybe. But ultimately: I don’t know!
Is insight itself a good thing? Will it make you a better person and make the world a better place? Any definitive answer to these questions must depend on some frame of reference; without an ultimate frame of reference, there’s no ultimate answer to these questions. My advice to you: only start this stage of insight practice if you are willing to let go of your certainty about everything you currently understand to be true.
In Other Frameworks
I believe disembedding oneself from all frames of reference is pointed to by:
- the Heart Sutra in Mahayana Buddhism and
- developmental psychologist Robert Kegan in his concept of the self-transforming mind in his book Immunity to Change.
My approach to cultivating insight has been informed by the published work of Buddhist teacher Ken McLeod, my experiences with meditation instructor Kenneth Folk, my experiences with Buddhist teacher Lama Yeshe Gyamtso, and my experiences with the Karma Kagyu lineage of Tibetan Buddhism.
The published work of Buddhist teacher Ken McLeod has informed several ideas in this article, including the idea that insight reveals a different way of experiencing life.