Fruition

Recently I was meditating. After a lengthy spell of practising concentration upon the breath, I have decided to return to vipassana.

There was a sense of something – a roughly cylindrical object made of flesh or plant matter. My sense was that although this might slowly decay, it would never quite dissipate. A story started up in my mind about how I would never be free from it. But instead of buying into this, I included the arising of the story into my investigation of my current experience. This felt like an effort, and resentment against the effort arose, and another story started up about it not being right that this should feel so effortful. But again, I included the arising of the story into my awareness of what I was experiencing.

Then – wham. It all released. Suddenly, shockingly, the cylindrical thing was gone. It was all gone and never had been. There was a sudden and total silence of the mind in which nothing needed to happen and never had or could.

The impermanence door aspect relates to realizing what is “between the frames” of the sensate universe […] and it tends to have a dat.dat.dat-gone! quality to it, as if all of space has stuttered three or four times in very rapid succession (about a quarter of a second or less for the whole thing) and disappeared. It is the fastest of the three and tends to be the most surprising. (Ingram 2018: 260-1)

Some of the most perplexing passages of Daniel Ingram’s Mastering the Core Teachings of the Buddha (2018) are in the sections in which he describes fruition. Only gradually have I felt able to apply these to my own experience. What I have described above was a fruition through the door of impermanence. It is the first time I have managed to recognise one of these as such.

For readers unfamiliar with Ingram’s work, here is a brutal introduction: Daniel claims the status of an arahat (a term from the Therevadan Buddhist tradition applied to a fully awakened person) and provides specific descriptions of maps and practices through which the reader can replicate his attainment for themselves. Because of its strong emphasis on method, his work has found an interested audience in the occult community and among those involved in contemplative science research.

Central to Daniel’s description of how awakening occurs are the stages of insight: a cyclical sequence of changes in awareness that produces a deepening understanding of what reality truly is. Mastering the Core Teachings of the Buddha describes how this sequence is traversed in meditation, how to facilitate the process, and thereby how to move towards awakening.

Fruition is the climactic stage in the insight cycle that I would attempt to describe as when the meditator’s awareness and reality synchronise for an indescribable instant. As Daniel describes it: “‘Reality’ stops cold and then reappears” (Ingram 2018: 256). In fruition, self-awareness vanishes because the illusion of self drops away, yet the prelude to it can take various distinct forms, which Daniel describes (metaphorically) as determined by entry through one of three possible “doors”: impermanence, suffering, or no-self. These, in Buddhism, are also known as “the three characteristics”. They are qualities found in each and every sensory and non-sensory experience and so, as such, are the bedrock attributes of what presents itself as “reality”.

All of this may sound very obscure, but the aim of vipassana is to refine our observation of experience to a degree where we can start to see some of this for ourselves, in our own way, and to the best of our ability.

Daniel has a gift for phenomenology, a disconcerting talent for unflinchingly and directly grasping the complex minutiae of experience exactly as they are with a minimum of storytelling or interpretation. For instance, regarding another, specific type of fruition he writes:

The rarest no-self/suffering variant is hard to describe, and involves reality becoming like a doughnut whose whole outer edge rotates inwards such as to trade places with its inner edge (the edge that made the hole in the middle) that rotates to the outer edge position, and when they trade places reality vanishes. The spinning includes the whole background of space in all directions. Fruition occurs when the two have switched places and the whole thing vanishes. (Ingram 2018: 262)

However, as a friend and fellow vipassana practitioner sceptically remarked: Whilst meditating I have never ever seen a fucking doughnut!

It has taken me a long time to understand how Daniel’s descriptions of fruition can be helpful, even if they do not match my experience. In the moment before a fruition I often experience a vision. These are like waking dreams in which I seem transported into a completely different place. You do not need a vision to have a fruition; I just seem to have the type of mind that does this. My very first fruition I described in The Blood of the Saints:

I was outside a dark doorway in a hot, desert country. I was there to interview [Primal Awareness]. He was waiting inside. But then I simply realised that Primal Awareness and I were the same thing. There was no need for an interview; I would only be interviewing myself. I had nothing to do, nowhere to go; there was bliss and hilarity. It was obvious that awareness had nothing to do with “me”, because “all this” was already “it”. (Chapman & Barford 2009: 137)

I did not recognise it at the time, but this was a fruition through the door of no-self. Compare my vision with Daniel’s barer, more functional description:

It relates to observing directly the collapse of the illusion of duality, the collapse of awareness into the intelligence or cognition of the perceived. It is a bit like staring back at yourself (or something intelligent regardless of whether it looks like you) with no one on this side to be stared at and then collapsing into that image. […] The no-self door is the opposite of the suffering door, in that everything comes this way (rather than everything going that way). The no-self door aspect tends to be the most pleasant, easy, and visually interesting of the three. It is slightly slower than the others, maybe a half of a second for all three to four moments of it. (Ingram 2018: 261)

Most of my fruitions have been fruitions through the door of no-self. More than once the vision has taken the form of looking into the eyes of a deity and all sense of separation collapsing. In an interesting variant, a beautifully cut crystal appeared. It was gradually, slowly revolving. The light was such that I knew the crystal would soon reflect a dazzling ray from one of its facets directly into my eyes. There was an exquisite, agonising moment of expectation. The crystal continued slowly to turn, and then – wham. The light hit and I was totally gone.

So regularly were my fruitions entering by the door of no-self, I set myself the task of intentionally entering through the door of suffering. I changed my practice to investigating whatever happened to be the most unpleasant sensation I was aware of. Although not much fun, it was interesting. First, I had to realise how having a crappy experience is not the same as the supposed crappiness inherent in reality itself. In fact, neither satisfaction nor non-satisfaction reside in reality, but only in the story we tell ourselves about an “I” that decides it is having an experience of one or the other. Wherever this was leading, I shuddered to imagine what sort of ghastly vision Daniel’s description of this door might entail:

The suffering door relates directly to “the mind” releasing its fixation on the whole of relative reality and allowing the whole of it to fall away completely, meaning away from where we thought we were. It can also feel like all existence is suddenly ripped away from us. In this, as with the other doors, the mind followed a phenomenon to its final and complete disappearance and didn’t do the strange, blinking-out, glossing-over thing that it typically does regarding this gap between moments. The suffering door aspect tends to be the most unsettling or wrenching of the three doors, the most death-like. It is always a touch creepy. (Ingram 2018: 261)

The vision, when it came, was recorded in my journal as follows:

Looking up at a tall building on which was an inexplicable kind of mushroom sculpture. Suddenly the whole thing was snatched away by something invisible. It was jerked suddenly away and out of sight in a manner that felt violent, cruel, and sinister – because I could not see who or what had done this. In that moment of shocking, unexpected movement, there was nothing.

The strange “mushroom sculpture”. Sketch from notebook made shortly afterwards.

Fruitions come in all shapes and sizes, depending on the mind that hosts them. In minds like mine they are accompanied by visions; other minds seem capable of registering them in a more direct or abstract mode. It also seems possible to overlook fruitions altogether, noticing them only in retrospect by the effects left behind.

If we approach Daniel’s descriptions as templates rather than specific descriptions, then, of course, it increases the risk of identifying as a fruition experiences that might be nothing of the kind. On the other hand, it offers the possibility to refine and sharpen our observation of the minute details of experience.

One day, maybe, we will all see the doughnut.

References

Chapman, Alan & Duncan Barford (2009). The Blood of the Saints. Brighton: Heptarchia.

Ingram, Daniel M. (2018). Mastering the Core Teachings of the Buddha. Revised and expanded edition. London: Aeon.

 

Madness

Breaking Open: Finding a Way Through Spiritual Emergency (Evans & Read 2020) is perhaps the first book of its kind, containing open and honest accounts of its contributors’ struggles through mental distress to spiritual insights and awakenings.

Some are contending with trauma from their past and arrive at spiritual insights through a perilous confrontation with mental breakdown. Others reach the same crossroads by engaging with spiritual practices and/or entheogens. What becomes apparent is the close affinity between mental illness and spiritual awakening.

Our culture regards mental illness as real enough to require intervention, but experiences of enlightenment fall under “delusion”. If spiritual awakening indeed offered a way through and out then the dominant ideology would be perpetuating mental illness rather than providing a socially sanctioned means of arriving at its resolution. Every contribution to Breaking Open re-tells a story of how its author had to find their own ways and means of achieving this.

The day before yesterday I was meditating, when it became self-evident that I was the incarnation of a long-forgotten god and should now re-introduce myself as such to the modern world. Having experienced this realisation, I took a moment to check in with myself. “Have I really bought into this?” I wondered and was relieved to discover that I had not.

The average mindfulness teacher is unlikely to issue warnings that meditation leads to experiences like this, or that the more expert at meditation a person becomes the more likely it is that such will arise. Meditation supposedly produces relaxation and stress release. Any odd effects will be regarded as due to poor mental health. However, through meditation I have arrived at veridical experiences of psychic phenomena, messages from the dead, interactions with discarnate entities, and spiritual awakenings. Yet we are not to suppose that these are what meditation might actually be for. As Louisa Tomlinson puts it:

Having a mindfulness practice is acceptable, marketed as “good for your health” and “giving you the edge”. But God forbid you go beyond the five senses into the ineffable fabric of cosmic reality. God forbid you actually have a spiritual experience. (Evans & Read 2020: 44)

In her contribution to the book Amy Pollard writes on how Brexit precipitated a breakdown. She describes herself as white, middle-class, living in North London from a socialist, feminist family, and working for a democracy charity. The murdered MP Jo Cox was part of her professional network. At the time of the Brexit vote Amy was bringing up small children and acutely sensitive to the ways babies signal their needs. “It had made me notice, with amusement”, she writes, “how many things adults do which are really grown-up versions of this” (Evans & Read 2020: 92). It is difficult to imagine anyone for whom Brexit could have been more of a disaster.

As the days and nights wore on I started becoming more sensitive. I noticed the self-soothing that was evident in the inflection of the newsreaders as they were talking. If you listened, you could hear the little tells in their voices that let you know where their attention really was – whether they were needing to connect or disconnect from you […] You could hear, in very subtle and understated ways, the pure despair of the British establishment. The more despair I could hear in the voices and bodies of others, the more panicked I felt that nobody was out there who knew what to do; and the more responsibility I felt to try to do my bit. (Evans & Read 2020: 93)

Awakening and mental breakdown are alike in that they confront us with uncontainable experiences of a truth that we must go out of our minds to apprehend more fully. Everyone, all of the time, really is a grown-up baby. Everyone really is a deity, utterly forgetful of their real name and wearing a human identity in the modern world. Spiritual insights are truths that are too big to be lived in our limited human form.

Amy’s “madness” offered me some perspective on the US Election this week: the tantrum thrown by the liberal left when it looked as if Trump might win, as if this would be somehow inexplicable or not allowed; and the inability of the dissenting right to tolerate due process as it became clear that Trump had lost. Madness erupts out of culture as well as out of individuals because culture, too, is sorely limited in comparison to what reality can throw at it.

Brexit was a bolt from the blue, a trauma that the liberal-left mindset could not contain. If Brexit could happen then it seemed no one was in control; everyone was a baby, and Amy was left struggling with the necessity to become a super-human mother who could respond to the needs of everyone. Amy described this sensitivity as “the motherhood ear”. To integrate the immensity of Brexit and the other pressures she was facing, she went out of her mind and into the realm of spiritual insight. Gradually she reached a turning point:

I had found the strength of my motherhood ear to be utterly overwhelming. It felt almost like I was controlling other people, or predicting what they were going to do. But gradually I came to see this ability not as any new power of mine […] It wasn’t so much that I was controlling or predicting what people would do; it was that noticing the interplay between me, other people, and the things around us was exploding the illusion that we are each separate people at all. (Evans & Read 2020: 98-99)

This lead to major changes and insights into an underlying reality, enabling Amy to accommodate greater and transpersonal dimensions of truth.

A few days ago I was afforded another vision, which maybe offers a useful analogy. I was in an antique laboratory. Upon a table or plinth, some kind of alchemical process had been erected: a mass of complex equipment, channelling bubbling liquids and emitting steam. The entire caboodle was sealed inside a huge glass vessel. As I looked on, everything inside the vessel violently exploded and all was destroyed. Although it had protected me and the laboratory from any damage, the glass vessel too had been utterly disintegrated. What remained was a pile of smouldering black ash and red embers, but also a sense that the alchemical process was continuing – indeed, that it was proceeding as planned, albeit in a more subdued form. My Guardian Angel appeared at my right-hand side. “The vessel cannot hold,” he explained.

I wondered if the vision were a warning, but now I think it shows things simply as they are. The process running in the laboratory remains mysterious. It explodes, yet the sense endures that it is proceeding on track. What is unfolding is therefore what is supposed to unfold, although this might not agree with our expectations.

The vessel does not hold, not because it fails, but by disintegrating it fulfils its function. It protects against the explosion yet must disintegrate with it, so that the process can smoulder, continuing in a different way.

Maybe our culture is undergoing an unknown process. Maybe the vessel of our beliefs and knowledge protects us but, to stay on board with that process, we will need to let it disintegrate so we can accommodate bigger truths. Perhaps madness is what happens in both the individual and in culture when the vessel attempts to contain rather than to yield.

Reference

Evans, Jules & Tim Read (2020). Breaking Open: Finding a Way Through Spiritual Emergency. London: Aeon.