The Breakthrough Phase
Catching a Glimpse of What Lies Beyond
Have you ever noticed that on a long trip, whether driving or flying, there’s a point where the travel begins to get easier? We’ve noticed this usually happens within the first couple of hours of driving while on a long road-trip, or soon after the plane takes off and is cruising at altitude. This is a useful metaphor for what’s involved in the breakthrough phase of meditation practice. Extending it a bit, during the seeking phase we were deliberating about where to go, gathering & packing our belongings, lining up transportation, and then finally getting on the road. It takes a lot of effort to begin! Then we have to make the journey.
The beginning of a long journey is usually difficult and uncomfortable. Our body aches as we get used to the new situation and our mind rebels against the constraints. Time can feel like it’s passing very slowly and we often do what we can to avoid the discomfort. It’s only when we settle into the journey, and accept the limitations of it, that things start to flow by in a more effortless way. The culmination of the breakthrough phase is that point in the journey where the cruise control locks in, we start to make real headway toward our destination, and we catch a glimpse of what lies beyond.
One of the biggest challenges, in the early part of the breakthrough phase, is staying steady enough with our practice that we’re able to get momentum going. Developing a new habit is hard, especially one that is constantly confronting us with states of body & mind that aren’t pleasant.
It’s extremely common at this phase of the journey to feel physical discomfort, sometimes called “meditator’s pain.” These unique pains often include strong physical sensations such as: aching, stabbing, tightness, heat, jerking or shaking movements. They can also include contortions of your body image that are disorienting & bizarre. Along with physical discomfort your emotional state may become agitated, irritated, edgy, and frustrated. These physical sensations are often unpleasant and our mind tends to react by becoming annoyed. If the sensations get too intense we may stop meditating altogether and go try and find something more pleasant to do. But each time we come back to the practice the same kind of sensations re-appear. There’s no way out, but in.
The recommendation, if you’re experiencing this type of pattern, is to stick with the practice and ride it out. Bring mindful awareness to what’s happening, feel it as fully as you’re able, and let it move through you even as the impulse to run away arises. If you’re able to be with your experience long enough, returning again and again from the impulse to get away, the sensations will start to shift and open up into something new.
Once we’re through the most uncomfortable part of the breakthrough phase the harsh physical sensations start to die down. In their place you’ll likely start to feel a flow of energy through your body, a kind of energetic high. The physical body starts to feel more like a vibratory field of pulsing sensation rather than a raging river of discomfort. Part of how this energy can be experienced is as an electric tingling, especially up and down the spinal column. In the Indian yogic tradition this was often called “kundalini energy.” Here too, our posture naturally becomes straighter, more aligned, engaged, and relaxed at the same time. As a result it becomes easier to practice formal meditation for longer periods of time without as much pain.
As the body lightens up, so too does our mind. Common mind states in this phase include clarity, concentration, rapturous joy, and a feeling of effortlessness. It feels as though the meditation is doing us, instead of the other way around. When we’re at this point in our practice it only takes the slightest amount of effort to meditate as we deepen toward a genuine breakthrough.
Powerful insights are very common in this phase. Everywhere we direct our attention seems to glow and dance with the energy of infinity. Concepts like “impermanence” and “constant change” take on a whole new meaning, as we observe sensations changing rapidly, often many times per second. The feeling of being an all-knowing observer or transcendental witness to our experience is quite commonly reported. The good news is that you don’t need to “do” anything here, just continue to observe, and let go into the flow of experience.
The culmination of the breakthrough phase is often accompanied by life-altering peak experiences. For some people it’s experienced as a profound dissolving of personal identity. For some it’s a high state of unity or oneness with everything that’s arising. Still others describe it as touching into a sense of universal love or compassion that is more meaningful & vast than anything they’ve ever experienced before.
Almost all peak experiences are characterized by a sense of total certainty. It’s as if we’re remembering an ancient universal truth that was buried just beneath the surface of our mundane lives. It was always there, but we somehow managed to miss it, or to forget it. As a result, many people find the breakthrough phase has a strong feeling quality of returning to one’s true home.
The peak of the path is the point of no-return. Everything else can feel like an illusion in comparison, as we look down at our lives from the transcendent high. The good & bad news here is that there’s no way to go back down the way we came. We have to complete the journey, descending from on high, entering the unknown with a fresh perspective on what it means to be alive.
What was going on in your body, heart, & mind on the lead up to, and during, this peak experience? How do you think it changed you?