Insight: gradual or sudden, partial or total, first step or last step?

The following is a restatement of some of the questions that have been shared on the 'New Instrument’ thread:

We need insight to dissolve our conditioning, our suffering; but insight/intelligence/perception can only act through the brain when the brain is quiet and is no longer self-centred (quietness and non-self-centredness being synonymous here).

And yet, unless we already have insight, we begin with a self-centred, conditioned brain. Therefore we begin with ‘ordinary’ moment by moment observation of ourselves in relationship; the simple awareness of one’s ‘what is’ - one’s conditioning, one’s self-centredness - as this displays itself in daily life.

This kind of observation is not insight or complete perception (or total attention which wipes out the ‘I’) - but just ‘ordinary’ awareness, ‘ordinary’ observation, of which everyone is capable.

What is the relationship between this ‘ordinary’ observation/awareness and insight?

Insight is not made of thought; and neither is awareness/observation made of thought. So at this level they seem to be the same - which suggests that ‘ordinary’ observation/awareness is already insight (of a kind), the seed of insight. One recalls that K said that freedom is the first and last step.

And yet insight is supposed to completely wipe out the conditioning created by thought - which does not happen in ‘ordinary’ observation/awareness. So there is a fundamental difference.

How then does the starting point of an inner inquiry (‘freedom at the beginning’: ordinary observation/awareness) relate to the fruition or flowering of the inquiry (‘freedom at the end’: insight)?

If the ‘freedom at the beginning’ involves a temporal succession of gradual (and partial) psychic improvements, then it is a limited process of cause and effect. In which case the ‘freedom at the end’ (insight) - being free from cause and effect, and being complete - must be unrelated to the ‘freedom at the beginning’ (observation/awareness).

Insight is supposed to be sudden, not gradual. Insight is not ‘caused’ by any intention to be free. Insight is total perception of the whole (psychic) situation, not a partial uncovering.

A path, on the other hand, is gradual, it involves conscious intentions and motives (i.e. ‘wanting to be free’), and it is always partial. So how does something gradual and partial ever become sudden and complete?

K sometimes told the Chan story about the student who was chastised by his teacher for thinking that by constantly ‘practising’ awareness he could find illumination: the teacher began rubbing two rocks together, saying that he was attempting to create a mirror.

So is ‘ordinary’ observation/awareness a gradual, partial process? If it isn’t, then it must be insight.

But we need ‘ordinary’ observation/awareness: without it how can there ever be sufficient space and quiet in the brain for insight to take place?

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You walk gradually uphill to the base of a mountain, then you climb steeply to its peak.

Similarly you walk gradually to the edge of the spiritual cliff, then you leap. The walk and the leap are different modes of action, but one can be said to ‘give way’ to the other.


Say I am upset with my apparently dangerously stupid neighbour, and am completely caught up (emotionally and intellectually) in trying to solve this dangerous stupidity - suddenly I realise that I am caught up in the midst of my own suffering - in that instant the whole experience dissapears. I reappear in a much calmer state.

Definitions please : in that moment of awareness and dissolution of passionate emotions/experience, was the “I” wiped out (for an instant)?

In this question is the distinction between “enlightened action” and “enlightened person”. (not that this solves the whole question - but I just wanted to bring it back into focus)

If accumulation stories work, then please consider this : I make a series of terrible life choices and end up depressed and alone - at the end of my tether, I am forced to face myself honestly - I suddenly realise that I was largely responsible for my situation and experiences.

If the path to this realisation were the steps taken to get there, it follows that making a load of bad decisions resulted in my enlightenment. (caused my realisation/insight)

This is the traditional approach of course. It’s like a long-jump runner picking up speed before the final leap, or the time it takes him/her to prepare for a long-jump event. And it seems reasonable for most ordinary pursuits: one builds up acumen, skill, capacity, intensity, and then expresses that capacity in action.

In this there is involved time to prepare the ground, cultivate the soil and provide the plant with nutrients, sunshine and water, until it bears fruit.

As far as I know this is what traditional Buddhism teaches: the slow building up of merit, positive actions, drop by drop of goodness, like a bucket being filled drop by drop with water. And also daily meditation or self-observation, gradually purging the mind of negative thoughts and emotions, until the mind is free from contaminants.

The question though is: what is the relationship between this slow, gradual, incremental process of psychic improvement and a liberating insight that is timeless, a-causal, absolute, complete?

The traditional view is that for insight to occur one needs this gradual process of psychic improvement so that the conditions are right for lightening to strike (or for the flame of bodhicitta to be lit).

Maybe it is, maybe it isn’t? The two processes are perhaps radically unrelated to each other?

Sounds plausible. I would guess it happens that way for some people. Milarepa? In my metaphor, the walk and path to the edge of the cliff doesn’t have to be a variant of the Eightfold Path. Maybe paths exist that are only known in retrospect? Whatcha think?

In my Milarepa type story - a probable cause is present - just that the struggle for progress was not it. The bad decisions (or the decisions of a confused person, even if some of them look like the actions of a monk) don’t lead to, are not heading in the direction of intelligence

I think the realness of a gradual process is indisputable. Right? Gradual processes happen. But it’s different with timeless, a-causal, absolute, complete processes (or non-processes). Their realness is I think arguable. They might be real, they might not be. They are (seem to me to be) beyond any kind of ‘objective’ proof or disproof. An insight might be a different speed/intensity of the same type of process that nudges one along a path? You reach a tipping point then: BOOM!

Addendum: Maybe for the sake of the thread you want to not inquire into whether timeless absolute insights are real? If true, let me know, and I’ll do my best to avoid questioning it.

Say the series of ‘bad’ decisions Jimmy made lead him to a place where he can no longer hide from his deepest suffering, and back against the wall, something gives, and he awakens to a ‘higher level’ reality. Is it reasonable to consider his series of bad decisions a path?

There’s no doubt that gradual ameliorative processes happen in practical and technological affairs. Computers get more and more refined and powerful. A medical discovery can make treatment for a certain illness better and more rapid. People can and do gradually improve their skills over time. And so on.

I think the question is whether this gradual ameliorative processes obtains with respect to the psyche. The traditional view is that a person who starts out selfish and greedy can gradually over time become selfless and altruistic.

If one accepts the reality of psychological evolution, then the gradual path of ameliorative ‘enlightenment’ makes sense. But if it is untrue, psychologically speaking, then one is caught in a trap of one’s own making.

To repeat the same point, I think the realness of psychological evolution is arguable. In which case one asks whether there is a different approach to the psyche? - i.e. whether insight (or mutation) is possible.

Clearly, to some degree the ‘reality’ or otherwise of insight (for us) depends on how seriously we take people like Krishnamurti, Buddha and others who have suggested that such insight can happen. It may or may not be possible.

Maybe. This is what Inquiry was suggesting on the other thread. But there may be no relationship at all. If insight has no cause, then the cause and effect process of psychic amelioration may never arrive at insight - and so the assumption that it will do is not secure.

Any path setting out has a goal in mind, perhaps even a goal of total insight. But so long as this goal is a projection of our own thinking, we cannot be secure that we are on an actual path to anywhere (psychologically speaking).

So perhaps, rather than asking about the nature of insight, we should be asking about the nature of a psychological path to (what? freedom? love? amelioration? less suffering? an easier death?).

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Are you’re you saying that partial insight is not “insight”?

Not in the way that K talked about insight. Partial insights are a clue perhaps to the total insight that K had in mind.

Agreed. The question of whether our psychological identity can evolve is tricky and deep and deserves its own thread. (No worries, I’m not going to create it!)


What is the nature of the psychological aspect of following a path said to lead to awakening?

The only way I can make this story (which is a bit like the story of accumulating partial insights that lead to the mega transformational insight) work is that somehow the sense of self is somehow gradually weakened.

Its not a story I accept does really happen in a practical sense (how would it? is the self becoming less believable?) - just saying, by squinting real hard it can stand theoretically.

How about putting to the side the question of whether or not following a path can lead to awakening, and looking at the psychological nature of following a path. What does it entail?

Excuse me, gentlemen, for intruding. Please allow me to comment the following, without referring to anyone personally. If “you” know that you have made terrible life choices, and you know what those choices were, but suffering remains, might not the insight be somewhere else, that is, in seeing—seeing in choiceless awareness—the why of those choices? In trying to answer the why question is where things get somewhat murky because terrible choices are not uncommon, are not personal, sometimes are made in the open; but the why of those choices tend to be private and more secretive. For example, what drove me to make terrible life choices, what was I protecting myself from when I made those choices, what was the secret about myself that I wanted to keep hidden, what was I hiding from other people’s knowledge, what was I resisting, condemning, despising, etc., when I made those choices? In other words, what was my true, deep down, honest to God reason for my choices, the reason I want no one else to know about, and what does that reason imply for me? But then, insight might not be here either.

Sounds like you think awakening can only happen when the self has been transcended?

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A paradox that seems to arise is that my idea of a better (weakened) self, ie a self that was increasingly likely to transform/awaken, might be incorrect - and by, thinking that I am getting closer to wonderful, may actually be reinforcing my self.

I promise Rick - I’m trying - by highlighting the probable pitfalls surely I am helping?

Ooh damn! was that not obvious? Yes - what else might awakening/insight be about?

Not even happen when, it is that.

I don’t understand why you would (seemingly) apologize. For what? Of course you’re helping! We’re looking together, right? You have your ways of looking, I have mine. Aucun problème!

Please go into what you mean a bit more?

You know me, I’m capable of missing the forest for the trees!

Did I really choose to make those choices? Is the word “choices” an accurate description of a mechanical set of actions that were conditioned to do exactly what they were conditioned to do?