10 Stages and the Dark Night

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This topic contains 5 replies, has 3 voices, and was last updated by  Nick Grabovac 7 years, 5 months ago.

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    Hello everybody,

    I will first tell you something about myself.

    I have been meditating for almost 4,5 years now, have been on several retreats of two weeks and done a few home retreats.
    My meditation mostly was Vipassana and my teachers teacher was Mettavihari. This meditation was based on Mahasi Sayadaws noting technique. During some retreats I have endured the Dukkha nanas(knowledges of suffering) also called the Dark Night. One period after a retreat I still was in the DN and it was only after nine months in daily life that I was able to reach the other side of the shore(but no awakening). I didn´t new the Insight knowledges at that time, so I fell back to below the knowledge of the arising and passing. Before my last (official) retreat I really prepared for this, so I was meditating six hours a day and stayed mindful during the day as much as possible. When I entered the retreat at day one I crossed the knowledge of the arising and passing, and then the Dukkha nanas began. I had experienced this before in other retreats but I didn´t know about the insight knowledges. So I thought ´why is this happening, I prepared so much and can stay mindful all day continuously and still my mindfulness is decreasing´. Actually I was progressing, because the mindfulness became broader but also out of synch and because of that it seemed less strong, but was actually stronger. I didn´t knew this at that time and the teachers couldn´t convince me to stay, so I left at day 4.
    Later I came across the dharmaundergound, the website of Daniel Ingram and there I found these sixteen insight knowledges.
    After all this I still value meditation much, because it reduced the suffering a lot, but I don´t want to go through the Dark Night again. So I began to search for a method which leads to Awakening without or with much less Dark Night. That is when I came across Culadasa and his book ´The Mind Illuminated´ and thats how I got here.
    I believe that when doing meditation I am currently in stage 7, because I get jerks, itches, vibrations in my body, pressure in my shoulders and constant buzzing in my ears. Even when I am typing this, there is this constant buzzing in my ears and vibrations in my feet. I haven´t had total unification yet, so no full physical and mental pliancy.

    My questions: When comparing the sixteen knowledges of insight and the 10 stages, I recognize that the characteristics of stage 7 look familiar to those of the 3th nana(knowledge of three characteristics). The unification of stage 8 looks familiar to the knowledge of the arising and passing (4th nana). I now that after the 4th nana, the Dukkha nanas(Dark Night) follows, so thats why I am asking the following questions. Is it true that those have familiar characteristics? And how do I make sure I don´t go through a period of the Dark Night? How do I purposely cultivate more Joy, Tranquility and Equanimity without going through the Dark Night?

    It is a shame that Culadasa wasn´t able to do this talk about Achieving Awakening Without The Dark Night: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=u5He0q5u5yY

    Thank you for reading and I wish you all peace and freedom from suffering.


    • This topic was modified 7 years, 6 months ago by  Joey.
    • This topic was modified 7 years, 6 months ago by  Joey.
    • This topic was modified 7 years, 6 months ago by  Joey.
    • This topic was modified 7 years, 6 months ago by  Joey.

    Ted Lemon

    Joey, thanks for your question! You mention a couple of things that we’ve discussed quite a bit in class with Culadasa–the comparison between the Mahasi method and the Ten Stages, and also the question of how to deal with the Dark Night. I have felt reluctant to respond because I have not personally had a Dark Night experience nor practiced the Mahasi method, but several of my fellow students have, so I was hoping they would answer.

    It sounds like one of my fellow students will compose an answer from his personal experience, hopefully tomorrow, but I brought up your question in class yesterday with Culadasa and he gave me some pointers to relay to you as well, so I’m going to try to write them up here. I hope these will be useful, but do bear in mind that I’m relaying what I learned from Culadasa as best I can, and not speaking from personal experience.

    The first thing Culadasa said is that the underlying reason for the Dark Night experience and the dukkha-ñanas being so strong that a person can’t make it through them and has to start over is self-attachment–the attachment to the idea of the self, and more importantly the habitual acting out of that belief in a separate self and the craving that arises from that. He mentioned that there are some other factors involved in the Dark Night and some other things that can be done, but specifically recommended looking at a few sections in the book specifically addressing attachment to the self.

    The first section he mentioned is Appendix E on mindful review. It’s not obvious at first, but this section is really about the practice of virtue, and he said in class yesterday when I asked him about this that the practice of virtue is the best antidote for the Dark Night. That’s not to say you’re not already practicing virtue, but doing the practice described in Appendix E will definitely make it less likely that you will suffer another Dark Night.

    There’s also a passage at the end of the Sixth Interlude, starting on Page 257, titled “Insight Experiences and the Attainment of Insight” that talks about five factors that help to minimize the trauma of the Dark Night experience. Culadasa said that looking at this should really help you to “sail right through” the dark night. He wonders if you might not yet have had much experience of joy yet, and that if you continue you might have more joy, and that can help you.

    Of the five points mentioned in this section, he specifically called out point three, and referenced the fifth and seventh interludes as resources for deepening your understanding of this point.

    He also recommended doing the Loving-Kindness meditation described in Appendix C, and recommended reading footnote 23 on page 429 which specifically talks about samata-vipassana practice as opposed to dry insight practice and talks about how that practice can help. How this process unfolds is discussed in Appendix F.

    One of the students in class, Josh, also mentioned that one of the ways you can cultivate joy at Stage 7 is by practicing the jhanas, and Culadasa agreed. Josh recommended working on the first three jhanas in particular, and Culadasa described this as an “excellent idea.”

    I hope these pointers are of some use to you. I can say from studying with Culadasa for some time now that the problems you are having are topics that he considers very important to discuss, and we spent two weeks on the Mahasi method during our training class. I found the topic quite interesting, and am curious to try the method just to see how it differs.

    One of the things that Culadasa has said about the Mahasi method is that although you do get a kind of samata as a result of practicing it, it’s not as stable as the samata that you get from practicing the ten-stage method. This may have been one of the other factors he was referring to (I didn’t think to ask him in this class). This is not to say that the method doesn’t work, but just that spending some time working on strengthening your samata practice and improving the various parts of the process in the earlier stages may also be of some value.

    I’ve found personally that I can get to the point where I have attained the goals listed for a specific stage, but that they are a bit flimsy, and going back and working specifically on the various methods that lead to completion of that stage can still be useful even though in principle my meditation has reached the next stage.

    Again, thanks for your question, and I hope Nick will be able to chime in tomorrow with some personal experience on this topic!

    • This reply was modified 7 years, 5 months ago by  Ted Lemon.

    Hi Joey,

    Welcome to the Dharma Treasure Community Forum.

    I’ll do my best to answer your questions based on my experience with both Mahasi-style noting practice and Culadasa’s 10 Stage samatha/vipassana system.

    Full disclosure: I’m a big fan of both methods =)

    I started out with noting practice and found it to be very effective, but after a while I stalled in my practice and didn’t know how to progress further using that system. I then switched to samatha/vipassana, which has been of tremendous help, and feel that this was the “missing piece of the puzzle” for me. I’m not suggesting that noting practice is somehow incomplete, just that the combination of the two worked well for me.

    Before I get into your question about the dark night, I think it’s important to mention a few things about determining levels of attainment in the 10 Stage system.

    The physical sensations you describe, such as vibrations, pressure, etc do sound like manifestations of piti. Unlike with the noting technique, however, where you can pretty accurately (most of the time) gauge your progress by the careful examination of how physical sensations present (including piti), I’ve found it isn’t as reliable an indicator when working with Culadasa’s 10 Stage approach. For example, I found that, after crossing the Arising and Passing Away using the noting technique, the sensations associated with piti were more or less always present, even when I wasn’t meditating. For that reason, these sensations weren’t all that helpful for figuring out what Stage of samatha/vipassana I was in.

    I’ve found that a much more accurate gauge of one’s progress in samatha/vipassana are the criteria for mastery given for each of the stages. In this case, if you are in Stage 7, then your practice should more or less correspond to the description given in the conclusion of the chapter “Stage Six” (see p. 233): subtle distractions are subdued through continuous vigilance, you can sustain a high level of metacognitive awareness, the meditation object is perceived clearly and vividly, you have complete control over the scope of attention, etc. Any manifestations of piti that you regularly experience can serve as additional support for your hypothesis, but I would caution against using them as your main criteria.

    This isn’t to cast doubt on your attainments, but rather to highlight some of the differences in the two systems to help you more accurately track your progress. These differences tripped me up for a while after I made the switch from noting practice to samatha/vipassana, so hopefully mentioning them here will spare you from making some of the same mistakes in ‘diagnosis’ that I initially did =)

    With respect to the correspondence between the 16 knowledges of insight and the 10 stages, here’s how I experience them:

    – Late A&P (where noting is fast, precise, penetrating and effortless) = Stage 7 (effortlessly sustained exclusive attention and powerful mindfulness)

    – Dark Night (especially Re-Observation) = Stage 8 (intense and sometimes quite uncomfortable manifestations of piti)

    – Equanimity = Stage 9 (piti subsides and is replaced by a profound tranquility and equanimity)

    Although the latter part of the A&P does seem to correspond with Stage 7 (since both have a marked effortlessness of attentional stability), the attentional stability achieved in the A&P via noting practice isn’t as developed as that achieved through samatha/vipassana. The difference being that the stability of attention gained via noting is much less robust than that achieved using the 10 Stage approach. So, although the correspondence between the systems is real, there is a substantial difference in the command of attention developed through these two approaches. Another way of saying this is that you may experience similar phenomena using the two systems, but that doesn’t imply that you have developed the same skills.

    Ok, on to your question =)

    Ted already mentioned a bunch of great resources in “The Mind Illuminated” and you should definitely check those out.

    I’ll dive into a little more detail about what’s going on in the 10 Stages and how that relates to the dark night experience, which will hopefully help you better understand the differences between the two approaches so you can make an informed choice about how to proceed.

    In a nutshell, as Ted mentioned in his post, the ability to develop joy, tranquility and equanimity, and not experience the Dark Night has to do with how much insight you have into no-self, and how much you can genuinely accept and surrender to your present moment experience.

    Actually, my sense is that it’s not really correct to say “and not experience the Dark Night”.

    Even if you’re practicing the 10 Stages, when you reach Stage 8 you may very well experience very similar intense physical sensations that you experienced in the Dark Night. This is what happened to me.

    The big difference, however, is that samatha/vipassana is a completely different paradigm of practice, compared with noting: you experience things through the lens of pleasure, joy and no-self. I also found that the psychological component that was sometimes present in the dukkha nanas was absent in Stage 8 (and, in fact, discursive thought was pretty much absent as well, so that makes sense).

    I think there’s a tendency to characterize the dukkha nanas as being all about challenging physical, and especially psychological, experiences. But I think that obscures what they’re really about.

    From my experience, the meditator’s task in the dukkha nanas is to come to a place of genuine acceptance of their present moment experience, no matter how uncomfortable or unwanted it might be. To fully surrender to and embrace all the discordant, difficult physical sensations and to bring a real curiosity and openness to any mental imagery or emotional states that arise. After all, these are the knowledges of suffering. They show you that it’s your own craving for things to be different than they are that is the cause of your suffering. Without that craving, the Dark Night comes and goes, just like anything else =), and you can then realize the empty nature of formations (which is what allows you to experience the knowledge of equanimity towards formations).

    Similarly, in Stage 8, the meditator needs to fully surrender to allow unification of mind to occur, despite the intensity of the piti that may be arising.

    From my perspective, the dukkha nanas and Stage 8 are offering the same “lessons”.

    just as a meditator can get “stuck” in the dark night, if they identify with the psychological content that arises and enact aversion towards it and their physical discomfort, a meditator can also get “stuck” in Stage 8 by not being able to let go of the need to be in control, or by getting attached to the intense pleasure that can arise during that stage.

    Both the dukkha nanas and Stage 8 are pointing at the same need for acceptance, surrender and non-craving.

    That being said, I’ve found that this kind of non-attachment is much easier to pull off within a context of pleasure, joy and a highly attenuated sense of self, which is what you develop when using the 10 Stage approach that Culadasa teaches.

    This happens for several reasons:

    1) A lot of psychological stuff was dealt with during the purification of mind that occurred during Stage 4 and Stage 7. So, it doesn’t tend to surface in Stage 8 in the way that it can during the Dark Night

    2) By Stage 8, you’ve had insight into no-self. It’s just so obvious by then that you can’t avoid it =). This helps to counterbalance the (sometimes ridiculously) intense piti

    3) As I already mentioned, samatha/vipassana operates from a completely different paradigm than the noting technique. In the noting technique, we are taught to vigorously dissect and ‘penetrate’ every sensation and mental object that arises, including manifestations of joy and pleasure. The idea is to see them all as impermanent, unsatisfactory, and not-self. I remember that when I was practicing the noting technique, impermanence was, by far, the easiest of the three characteristics to notice. I would occasionally get glimpses into no-self, but I didn’t really get much insight into that until I had reached the knowledge of equanimity. The result was that I was really good at seeing everything as impermanent, and therefore unsatisfactory. When this kind of intense deconstruction of momentary experience is brought to the sensations and mental activities that make up one’s sense of self, the result can be very disturbing for some people, especially if they have also deconstructed any joy or pleasure that arises during their practice, and even more so if they have not yet had sufficient insight into no-self. Culadasa’s 10 Stage System seems to work the other way around: you get a much deeper insight into no-self before you really get into a deep investigation of impermanence and unsatisfactoriness. What I noticed with this approach is that, by Stage 6, because of the broad context provided by metacognitive introspective awareness, there is a significant attenuation of a sense of being a separate self. Then Stage 7 brings a wondrous effortlessness of attentional stability, which further underscores the lack of a “self that is the one who is paying attention”. Add to that the arising of pleasure and joy and the experience is one of “happily letting go of the self” and surrender =). Experiencing the emptiness of the self just feels so good that, even when moments of fear or discomfort arise, they seem relatively easy to not attach to.

    So, although you may well experience similar physical “symptoms” to the dark night while practicing samatha/vipassana, the overall experience tends to have a very different character, and (at least in my experience) lacks the heavy psychological component.

    I also found practicing the pleasure jhanas to really help me to recognize, develop and understand joy and tranquility, so I second Josh’s suggestion to give that practice a try. One of the ways that I found jhana practice really helpful was to accelerate Stage 7: once you have attained Stage 6 and you can “let go of control” for brief periods without losing attentional stability, you can enter the pleasure jhanas for a while. Then, after the jhana is really stable (I usually went first jhana, then second jhana), you can exit the jhana and you’ll find that your unification of mind is noticeably stronger.

    You’ve clearly made a great deal of progress with the Mahasi noting technique, to the point of attaining knowledge of equanimity, so I imagine it’s quite a big decision to switch to a different meditation method, especially when you’ve gotten so close to Stream Entry. After connecting with the Dharma Overground community and Daniel Ingram, I’m sure you now have a much better understanding of the stages of insight, and the dark night in particular. Hopefully, Ted’s reply and this post have helped you understand some of the related aspects of Culadasa’s 10 Stage system and have given you some ideas on how to move forward in your practice. =)





    Hi Ted and Nick,

    I am really grateful and appreciate that you are taking the time to respond in such a thoughtful matter and for taking this question to your class with Culadasa. I have and probably will reread your posts many more times.

    Ted, you gave a nice overview of your class with Culadasa and I will take the advice and sources you have pointed to.

    Nick, it is nice to have someone who has gone a similar path and so that we can relate to each other from personal experience.
    When reading your piece about gauging the progress, I was in doubt whether I really was in stage 7. So I read the piece about mastery stage 6 and then meditated for one hour to evaluate my experience. So this was my experience in meditation.

    I sat on the cushion and the mind immediately became relatively quiet. There was just the attention of the body and peripheral awareness. There were vibrations in my feet, little pressure between my shoulders, buzzing sound and sometimes jerking movements. There were almost no thoughts, just the verbal commenting of what was going on(normally I don´t have this, but now I was really evaluating and don´t wanted to miss something because I wanted to write a clear observation here on the forum). I rested attention on the body but allowed it to move freely if there was an stronger intention for an object to become the object of attention. When I shortly observed the abdomen, I noticed a slow, shallow breath. There was no real effort, just sitting, just being.
    Then there came more thoughts but I could just observe them, some were images and some were verbal. Sometimes in the mid of an sentence I would simply return attention to the body. Sometimes in the end I would return to the body and sometimes I would observe the beginning of a thought. I also could observe the feeling tone of a thought, pleasant or unpleasant. There was a stream of presents. My eyelids became brighter and the vibrations began to spread to more parts of the body. The pressure began to increase to the neck, chest, legs and buttocks. The jerks became more frequent and the energy increased. Meditation became less pleasant. During this I was still present of sounds but these were less dominant. When getting up of the cushion, there was a real pressure felt in the buttocks but this subsided in a few seconds.

    Extra information: When I would take the abdomen as the primary object of attention, there are immediately several jerks in the in-breath and several jerks in the out-breath. Often there are four jerks during the in-breath and four jerks during the out-breath. I intentionally don´t investigate this further because of the warning in ¨The Mind Illuminated¨ in the chapter about Close Following and the insight into impermanence. This is probably the way how I entered the knowledges of suffering in the past.

    Question: So were do you think I am on the 10 stages?

    When reading the stages in ´The Mind Illuminated´ I think, these experiences correspond with stage 8. Quote page 299: ¨You can consistently pacify the discriminating mind and enter a state of mental pliancy. In other words, you have effortlessly stable attention and powerful mindfulness. Each sit it can take a while to reach effortlessness, and sometimes you´ll stay at stage six or seven the whole time. But you should be able to reach mental pliancy fairly regularly and remain there for the rest of the sit.¨

    Pleasure jhana´s: When I sit and watch the abdomen, it becomes immediately slow and shallow. Then I search for a pleasant sensation(almost always some vibrations in the feet or hands because they are almost always present and best perceivable). When sticking with this sensation I tend to get lost in thoughts more easily and dull. Do you have any advice to help me progress into the 1st pleasure jhana?

    Again thanks for your guidance!




    The manifestations that happen during meditation also starting to happen in daily life.
    I noticed it before, but now it is getting more intense. The last few days I couldn´t sleep much because of the energy and lots of thoughts. After my meditation today there is in daily life pressure between my shoulders, in my neck and chest. It makes the breath shallow and jerky. Sometimes I am gasping for air. I also notice that my mouth is more dry. This all is unpleasant and makes me more irritated. There is distance to all of this, there is calm, equanimity and even little joy. But I wouldn´t mind if these would increase:D Any advice for practicing in daily life at this stage? Also Nick, do you still note in meditation and daily life?

    PS: I couldn´t edit this into my previous post, thats why I had to write a new one.


    Hi Joey,

    From your description of what you notice during your practice, it does sound like Stage 7/8. Here’s a little experiment you can do to help confirm that for yourself:

    Start meditating, and after you’ve “settled in” to the practice, have the intention for attention to remain on the sensations of the breath at the nostrils. Observe what happens. If your primary meditation object isn’t breath sensations at the nose, then it may take a few moments for attention to stabilize there, which is no problem.

    If you are at Stage 7 or higher, the attention should rest effortlessly where you’ve intended it to, without you needing to do anything to keep it there. After a few minutes of this, have the intention for attention to move to a different location, such as the sensations in your right hand. Again, observe what happens.

    After a few minutes, have the intention for attention to encompass all physical sensations related to the breath that are located in the mid-line area of the body: roughly the area extending from the forehead to the nose, down the neck, down the chest to the abdomen. Allow all other sensations and those located elsewhere in the body to remain in peripheral awareness. Observe what happens.

    Finally, after a few minutes, have the intention for attention to rest on the sensations in your left big toe. Observe what happens.

    The idea is to evaluate how easily you can select and sustain a chosen object for attention, and how easily you can select and sustain a narrow vs. broad scope of attention. In either case, all sensations outside of the chosen attentional scope should remain in peripheral awareness.

    If you’re in Stage 7/8, you should be able to do this exercise without straining, or needing to make attention do these things through an effort of will. You should be able to simply intend for attention to do what you wish, and it happens. And the attention should stay put until you decide to move it somewhere else =)

    The daily life manifestations you mention are very familiar to me, as are periods of insomnia due to the intensity of energy/piti.

    I found that the still point meditation (see p. 318) to be really helpful, especially when the piti was so strong it caused me to bounce out of my chair or off my cushion =). It allows the intense piti to “do it’s thing” and “work itself out” while you remain in a space of stillness and centeredness. It can feel a bit like sitting in the eye of a hurricane =)

    Another thing that helped a lot was to consciously surrender, as much as I could, to the process that was unfolding, and bring equanimity to my experience. Do this both during meditation and during daily life. I often found that intense feelings of pressure were an indication that I was resisting some aspect of the experience (a manifestation of craving) and that letting go of that resistance would allow the energy to flow more easily, reducing the pressure.

    Something else that I found essential at this stage was to really bring metacognitive awareness to my daily life, in a much deeper way. See everything as process. Seeing objects becomes “the process of seeing”, hearing sounds becomes “the process of hearing”, feeling sensations becomes “the process of feeling”, etc. Whenever you remember, hold the intention to experience everything through a “metacognitive perspective” and watch the flow of conscious experience. I found much joy in experiencing life through this perspective.

    As you continue to practice, the piti is going to do it’s thing, and it may feel pretty intense at times, but that’s ok. It means the mind is unifying, which is great news! Just do your best to surrender to that process, remain equanimous, allow the piti to stay in awareness and do whatever your practice stage requires at that moment. Eventually, things will calm down =)

    Please keep us posted as to how it’s going.



    P.S. For pleasure jhana practice, be careful to maintain peripheral awareness so that you don’t get lost in thought or slip into dullness. When the jhana clicks, it will pull your attention into the object “by itself”, you don’t need to do anything to make it happen, other than sustain your attention on the pleasantness of the sensation. Leigh Brasington wrote an excellent book on the pleasure jhana practice called “Right Concentration”. You may find it a helpful companion to the instructions in The Mind Illuminated.

    P.P.S. Yes, I still note in meditation and daily life, in the sense that the Mahasi noting practice and the 10 Stage samatha-vipassana method have kind of “merged together” for me. None of the noting is using mental labels – it’s a “clear knowing” of moment by moment experience that occurs in a larger metacognitive awareness of everything being a process (that’s on a good day 😉 ). When I do the choiceless attention practice (p. 306) it’s like Mahasi noting on steroids!

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