Psychotherapy and Meditation: Developmental Stages in “Self”

This classic, penetrating essay by Jack Engler considers borderline and schizoid personality organizations to be a very common and more troublesome meditation hindrance for westerners than the classic Five Hindrances of Buddhist literature: 

Therapeutic Aims in Psychotherapy and Meditation: Developmental Stages in Representations of Self

My interest in this article is at least threefold for pragmatics:


Basic Trust is a prerequisite for the surrender necessary for insight into Suffering to be fully engaged and for the practice to advance.

Unhelpful “No-Self” Language

There are serious risks attending enlightenment goals articulated by westerners as translations of anatta to “no-self” (which is precisely why I won’t be using the term “no-self” in my own pragmatic manual, and why I will not be speaking of “deleting selfing processes” – will pertain to sections about terminology used, need to understand basic Buddhist theory, and careful goal formation). The goal is not to delete the self; the healthier goal is a more expansive understanding of one’s true nature as vast, timeless, and interdependent with all others. That nature makes everything formerly threatening not personal but as intimate as it is integrated with the nondual interconnected field of humanity.

Lack of Embodiment as Intensified Personality Pathology

See my related post, “The Risks of Masculine Practice Paradigms,” and, for deep discussion of the schizoid process in general, see Gary Yontef’s article at

Samatha and Vipassana as a Continuum

Ubiquitous Misuse of the Term “One-Pointed”

At noon I sat with Barry and we listened to some exquisitely detailed instructions on the Elephant Path, Stage 7 through 9. Something new I learned is that, apparently, almost everyone is misusing the term one-pointed with regard to concentration practice. It doesn’t mean to be absolutely fixed on a single narrow object; on the contrary it means one has crossed over into vipassana, for the breath becomes a gazillion bursts of mind moments, pixilated, vibratory. Concentration is on these gazillion single points, the flow of them. Once again, I’m fascinated by the fact that concentration (jhana) and insight practice (vipassana) are not separate practices at all. The Thai Forest guys know this; Ingram knows this; and the Elephant Path is this continuum, although the Tibetans refuse to explicitly call what is involved jhana or even vipassana. 

Those Obfuscating Super-Sophisticated Tibetans

The Tibetan Buddhists have the most sophisticated, intense, and thorough system of awakening, even though they also just love, love, love secrecy, intrigue, gossip (oops on one of the folds of the eightfold path!), and obfuscation. It can be so exasperating. Just reading a text and trying to sift the grain from the fools gold can try the patience of a saint. I read last night that the Togal visions are presented in the Book of Living and Dying–except they reversed the order of the four visions as a way of encrypting Togal against common use!

The Deeper Channel of Automaticity beneath Vibrations

The meditation Barry and I listened to was interesting for its guidance on “easing up” off the concentration intensity by tiny increments and finding that sweet spot where the meditation runs itself, is effortless, and is vibrant. This is second jhana and the Arising and Passing Away insight stage. How to blend and module out the Thai Forest masters, the Elephant Path, and the Burmese on all this will be a fun challenge toward writing my book. I especially appreciated today the guidance toward a deeper channel beneath the vibratory dissolution experience. This is interesting because it is calming and seems already to be pointing to the very subtle level of mind: rigpa.

King of Samadhi and the Twelve Links of Dependent Origination

I asked Barry why it was mentioned that King of Samadhi is key to Buddha training. He said because it is an entry to the Twelve Links of Dependent Origination. I’m very familiar with the Twelve Links because of my stream entry experience, and I have been practicing King of Samadhi, but I don’t know what Barry means. He mentioned atiyoga and the Tibetan Book of the Dead, which apparently it it time for me to reread.

My Old Friend Violet Nimitta

The practice was only 16 minutes (very hard to stop there). My characteristic violet nimitta arose, spread through the visual field, and stabilized. I became momentarily distracted by a thought, but as soon as I intensified a bit (the prescription when thought elaboration intrudes) a white nimitta arose. Nimitta was like an old friend. It was so wonderful that I suddenly felt I was going into the light – like actually, proprioceptively, into it. 

As there is Gandalf the Gray, so there is Nimitta the Violet.

As there is Gandalf the White, so there is Nimitta the White.

Science on Meditative Experiences of Light

Here is an interesting paper that Dr. Britton is coauthor of; it is on meditation-induced experiences of light:

Concentration on Fluidity

I just had a wonderful sit: 12 minutes of concentration and then 12 minutes or so of a form of King of Samadhi called Clear Light Body.

Concentration on Energy and Grounding

I began the first 12 minutes by feeling the whole body energetically on the in-breath, and concentrating on the stability of gravity, dropping into the ground, on the out-breath. This practice is effortlessly engaging.  At one point, I had a flash memory of Reggie Ray’s saying to send the energy of the body all the way down into the center of the earth – actual grounding. I found this variation at least as interesting as focusing on the ground as holding and stabiltiy, the way John instructs. It was pleasurable to feel the energy coursing along sinews of the body during inhale, and then to feel it blasting down into the earth on exhale. Rapturous is the momentum of continual arising and release. 

At a certain point, I dropped the focus on the breath altogether and focused on continual releasing into gravity. Then vipassana arose: I started noticing how my body simultaneously had weight and did not have weight but floated, as it were. You see, there was no solid substrate beneath my body at all. It is all energy: body and ground. This can be clearly experienced as truth if one simply notices.

Thai Forest Relationship between Samatha and Vipassana

I’ve always preferred concentration practices that use movement and give me something to do. Concentration does not have to be on something that seems “solid,” nor does one have to artificially solidify the object and the body to stillness. The Burmese separate samatha and vipassana into two separate practices; however, the truth is that, if one is any good at concentration, then solidity will break up and insights will arise soon enough anyway. The Thai Forest masters did samatha and vipassana in tandem, in the same sit, but even if that oscillation isn’t deliberately set upon, it will happen anyway. 

Tibetan Elephant Path as Mixture of Samatha and Vipassana

I keep having this argument with one of my dharma friends because he insists that the Tibetan Elephant Path is concentration only. Then he says nonsensical things like “all nine stages are simply to gain access concentration, no jhanas,” and “the Elephant Path is the whole path.” Both of these statements are dead wrong. Why would there be nine entire stages to getting access concentration alone, which is a very low level of accomplishment? And what is the access to if not to liberating insight, vipassana, which this person denies plays any part in the Elephant Path. I’ve sat in retreat with many absolute novices who experienced Arising-and-Passing-Away (A&P) phenomena on the second or third sit per Elephant Path concentration. It is therefore quite evident that the Elephant Path encompasses samatha, vipassana, and a fluid movement back and forth between the two. It is therefore correct, if too cryptic for my own taste as far as maps go.

Mastering the Core Teachings of the Buddha, Second Edition

Interestingly, Dan Ingram, in draft MCTB2, moves completely away from the Burmese tradition in this regard, as beloved as that tradition is to him. He restructured MCTB to yoke everything – vipassana and samatha – under the jhanas as map. This is, he said to me, really how he’s always thought of things. It is also how I experienced and experience them. Having one simple map – the jhanas – as one in which to elucidate the 16 ñāṇas (cyclic insight stages), concentration states, and the dynamics between them is a welcome improvement over the division into two separate practices. He also no longer recommends “dry” vipassana, which is vipassana without the easeful lubrication of the concentration states (samatha jhanas).

Clear Light Body

Well, I put off finishing this post so long that I now don’t remember anything about the specific CLB meditation session, except that it was wonderful. This is a King of Samadhi practice, which means that it is done from the natural state, groundless ground, the vast expanse of awareness. Rigpa-Mother goes (how can it not at this point), and inside that the practitioner takes the body as a whole as concentration object. The body is visualized as a glass floating in space and filled with light. This is a deeply healing, blissful meditation that obliterates any acute pain in my body, including my migraines. It is not vipassana; instead, it is a concentration practice from within the vast awareness. You have to have awakened awareness and, as a state, groundless ground to practice it.

My Book versus Ingram’s

My book will one-up Ingram’s unification of samatha and vipassana by bringing in awareness practices sometime shortly after what he calls stream entry, or first path. I reject his four-path model, and even he rejects it in the narrative of what actually happened to him along his path. Why hold onto an inadequate model of awakening? Why work within four paths borrowed from Theravadin traditions when the ten fetters that define each path in that tradition are rejected as impossible? 

Actually, Ingram is wrong on both counts, for the four paths as distinct stages with definable characteristics and signs breaks down into nonsense right after stream entry. No one can say convincingly what second path is, and his book says only that another cycle of the insight stages has happened and that a lot of emotional stuff comes up on second path. So? A lot of emotional stuff comes up right after any new realization, cyclically, as the being is trying to integrate realization with individuation and actualization. 

What he calls third path is really a mess: He and his favorite teacher speak jokingly of Twelfth Path because Third to Fourth contains innumerable cycles and no clear aha! In fact, what happens in that territory is a bunch of aborted half cycles, and stages out of order. There is a clear sense of cycles within larger cycles. It becomes so very complex that Daniel has created a complex notation system for pinning down stage and substage daily. Why? What good does it do to keep dwelling in the misery of noticing stage progressions that go nowhere new?

Enter awareness practices. The someplace new needs to throw off the shackles of states and stages emphatically. So soon after MCTB second path, I advocate a move to Indo-Tibetan essence practices. I’m absolutely convinced that this makes the most sense, is the most pragmatic and efficient path. I would say more, or could, but wait for the book.

I’m so glad you got a lot out of the embodiment retreat. He is a superb teacher: precise, big-hearted,  balanced–an exemplar of sanity.

Dwelling in the arms of the Mother is healing. Like you, I felt joy many times so deeply during the pointing-out narrative that I almost openly wept. 

I especially loved this weekend how he would have us be as the Mother gazing into the eyes of her infant, and then have us be the infant gazing into the eyes of the Mother. And then listening for our child, listening for the coo of our Mother. And holding–enveloping and enveloped.

In 1995, after 20 hours of labor, I gazed deeply into the bright, alert eyes of my son. A mother never forgets looking into her child’s eyes for the first time. It will likely be one of the last images that comes to mind as I die. During this weekend retreat, the mother-infant archetype, floating up from the depths of meditation, shattered something in me, some last withholding. I understood. I saw with the heart. I understood.

The open, boundary-less ground of everything is Mother–vast, silent, still. Rigpa is the infant, the individual’s knowing the Mother. Infant awareness is of Mother awareness because Mother awareness encompasses infant awareness. This union is not homogeneous, but relational–a theme defining the Mahayana traditions.

Logocentricity versus Metaphoricity as Method

I suspect that many men, or analytical types, have a harder time than women and creative types in responding to the metaphoricity that is so much a part of the instructional method in Indo-Tibetan pointing-out and other teachings. For example, on the very male-dominated Dharma Overground (DhO), I can’t imagine that this sort of Madonna metaphor would go over well. There is on the DhO an emphasis on the following:

  •  Linear rationality
  •  Charting, diagramming, and mapping “territory”
  •  Hierarchical construction of binary signs
  •  Doing, achieving, and attaining
  •  Measuring results
  •  Comparing attainment with others’ attainments 
  •  Counting with numbers ascending “levels” of states and stages
  •  Debating (logos) on dharma theory (logic)
  •  Reduction of emotions to fine-grained, merely observable “sensations”

The point I’m making here is that all that “doing” and competing is stuck in a masculinist perspective that is anathema–actually the obstruction–that prevents opening to the View, awareness.

Metaphoricity is appealing to creative imagination, to the most foundational relational archetype in the World: Mother-child. That relationship is not about drawing the lines of measurement and quantifiable hierarchy; it is about a nondual inseparable relationship of the particular to the whole, and the whole to the particular. And it is personal, interpersonal.

Now, if the relationship were chiefly erotic instead of maternal, then you can bet that the male principle would be figured as dominant, somehow, in the binary signifier male/female.

JC once said to me that a tantric merging with the feminine that is only erotic is essentially adolescent, inadequate. Full surrender is merging with the Mother. I suspect that merging with the Mother, giving oneself over to her, is not a topic that would go over well on most public forums, the DhO in particular. 

The Trouble with Treating Emotions as an “It”

I want to say something about this bullet point from above, “reducing emotions to fine-grained, merely observable ‘sensations.“

This is important. Under MCTB (1 and 2), practitioners are bound to get stuck. Why? Well, because they bypass the second-person relational way of meditating on an "object” in favor of a third-person perspective that reduces experience to an “it.” JC sometimes touches on this point. He did so again this weekend.

If you are seeing your emotions arise as “empty,” that’s great; however, seeing them as empty is normally not enough to change the pattern of painful habitual reactions on the relative level.

Likewise, if you are “vipassanizing” your emotions into “vibratory” sensations, then you are bypassing the very human reality of what you are experiencing. You are making your emotions an “it” that you can transcend and gaze down on objectively. This bypassing is otherwise known as dissociation.

Many technical meditators can get quite far on unbalanced, domineering, masculinist practice. However, they tend to take their attainments and use them to split off and deny intimacy hunger and emotions in general. Until such practitioners bring practice back to the level of direct second-person relationship, then they will be split at their own core.

So it is not enough to see that the bodily sensations of suffering are a gazillion transient pixelated sensations that one can “observe”; one has to acknowledge and embody experience as something one relates to as equivalent, as face-to-face, as human life itself. Only then will the deepest emotional scars and patterns be metabolized and the life made fully human and whole.

The Mother holds us, wants us, patiently awaits our growth and recognition. Awakened awareness seeks us. When we are completely cognizant of her as the true agent of our awakening, as the automaticity that quashes seeking, then the infant (rigpa) is stabilized at full flaring intensity. 

Mother is the feminine principle; rigpa, the infant, is the male. The nondual inseparable union is most of the way to full enlightenment. It is the automatic reflexivity of awareness released into the unobstructed natural state. Although the infant lucidity is the male principle, it remains super-interesting, as well as most instructive, that its manifestation requires that he rest. Where does he rest? In the arms of the Mother.

Mother is the ground, matter, and agent, and she wants to find us. Awakening, in other words, is inevitable, as we rest in the natural state.