Starting with the thesis: I contend that those who have attained nirodha samapatti (NS) have a crucially informative insight into the nature of suffering, and a rarefied perspective worthy of serious consideration when it comes to the conversation of consciousness. In the opposite way that someone who has never fallen in love has an important piece missing in their view of what emotions are, someone who has attained to nirodha samapatti may have a piece filled in, where most don't, about consciousness and the spectrum of valence. That piece being that consciousness (phenomenological subjectivity) is not in fact primary to existence and that any iota of conscious experience brings with it negative valance/suffering.
-So life is suffering and people can go unconscious? Isn't that quite clear to most?
Well, it's actually not so obvious and not such a simple topic.
-What is nirodha samapatti?
NS is a state that one enters and abides in for an extended period of time, however NS is not an experience. In order to understand just how much NS is not an experience, and avoid potential confusion, let me first walk through some other highly-minimal informational states - which approach but don't match this nothing, nothing non-experience, that is nirodha samapatti.
For the record, I have only achieved NS twice so far and, to my best guess, probably only for a few minutes or so at a time (due to the nature of this state it's impossible for me to know exactly). So I don't at all consider myself a master of this state or all that familiar with it even. I think someone like Delson Armstrong (who claims to NS for up to 6 days at a time, and has been studied in a neuroscience lab entering NS) is much more qualified to speak on this than I am. But it seems NS is a rare enough achievement, even among people who can jhana, that there aren't so many people talking about it - at least not openly online.
Apparently, the criteria for entering NS is you have to be either third or fourth path and be able to ascend through all eight shamatha jhanas, which leads me on to the first state I want to talk about.
The 3rd Formless Jhana (or Jhana 7) - No-Thingness
Starting with this incredibly minimal, experiential state, I already struggle to describe its phenomenology because of how lacking in subjective content it is - but let me try.
This is a state of extreme concentration one can enter if they know how. By putting one's unwavering attention on the sense of 'nothingness' for long enough, eventually their whole experience becomes just this sense of nothingness (with no external distractions).
The realm of no-thingness is devoid of awareness of the outer world, devoid of a sense of a body, devoid of thoughts, devoid of emotions (other than a profound underlying equanimity if you count that), devoid of sound, and devoid of any colour. It's like it's translucent, yet there isn't any light shining through it or behind it either. Most importantly the sense of space has been compressed into its tiniest form (essentially to the point of almost non-existence). It's like everything has shrunk into a singularity point, with no left or right, no up or down, no forwards or backwards. Despite its compactness, it doesn't feel dense but rather lighter than air (jhana seven is actually a state more expanded - not contracted - than jhana six 'boundless space').
Due to how non-eventful and how lacking in diversity the qualia is within this jhana, the sense of time gets squirly as well. The tracking of time is disturbed when you're absorbed in any of the jhanas, but I think even more so in jhana seven. You need movement and change to indicate time passing and because of the minuteness of any of that, your subjective sense of the passage of time radically disappears.
Now despite how defabricated and almost maximally not of an experience jhana seven is, nirodha samapatti is even less of an experience. Jhana seven is still a recognisable conscious experience (as hard as that is to say). There is still a sense of an 'is-ness' about it, a slight vibration, a slight 'hum' of subjectivity. It is like something to be in jhana seven and this likeness is evident while it's happening. You know you're in it during the experience, which can't be said of the next state.
The 4th Formless Jhana (or Jhana 8) - Neither Perception Nor Non-Perception
Ok climbing down the ladder of fabrication, how does jhana eight compare?
So the non-place that is the realm/mental state of neither perception nor non-perception is a state that has removed even more qualities of experience, of subjective existence, than even jhana seven.
-But how is this?
Well, because what disappears in jhana eight is the understanding/the knowing.
-The understanding/knowing of... what?
No. No. What's gone is understanding. Understanding itself is gone. Knowing is gone. Whatever faculty of mind that brings the sense of presence to an experience, of awareness of a current happenstance in consciousness, the register of live, real-time mind events happening 'now', has gone offline.
There is no comprehension of space or time, no sense of a subject, and definitely no clear apprehension of awareness, let alone being aware of awareness (I'll get into that later). So eighth jhana, while you're in it, is kind of like you've gone to sleep, but via a different route - you're essentially out, but not exactly. Only after one comes out of eighth jhana there is a slight impression that there were goings-on. However, you can't really make any comments on what those goings-on were. The part of the mind that could do any discerning or judging was absent (hence the name, you can't tell if there was or was not perception of anything). So although from within it's basically like you're not conscious, once it ends your short-term memory has some kind of aftertaste in its mouth, though it can't communicate what it just ingested.
A good way I've heard the 'post-8th jhana reflection moment' described is it's as if you've found a glass bowl that has some slight smudges on the inside. You look and quickly see the faintest trace of some leftover resin - from what would have been some indiscernible substance that was previously in there - before it quickly all evaporates away.
And despite how lacking in experiential factors eighth jhana is, nirodha samapatti is even less than this!
Getting to the main state of interest in this article. As I've stated NS is even less fabricated than all of the above. NS is sometimes considered the ninth jhana. It is a state one enters in which there isn't any perception, feelings, consciousness at all. So none of the senses are relaying any data in the mind, which subsequently means no sense of space or time either, nor a self, nor a watcher, nor a subtle awareness, and no proto-qualia embers - nada! NS is just like a cessation/fruition (aka the annihilation of all consciousness experience and subsequent direct apprehension of nirvana) except much longer and the after-effects are quite radically different.
Real quick, a cessation is the briefest moment in which all mind activity stops for a fraction of a second. Obviously when it happens to someone there is no sense of time during the event, but straight afterwards the person perceives that a little jump-cut occurred in subjective spacetime. Now what makes NS stand apart from cessation is how long someone can be out for (apparently days - I remain agnostic), as well as the afterglow that comes as a result.
-Doesn't this just sound like falling asleep?
Let me explain why it's not. Mostly, when we go to sleep we think there's no awareness, there are occasional dreams, and then awareness of one's surroundings fades back into consciousness. So although people report not having any awareness while in deep sleep, when it ends and you wake up there is an immediate understanding that time has passed and that you had fallen asleep and are now waking up. Even if you fell asleep unintendedly, when you wake up you still realise straight away "Oh I must have dozed off." And although we may think we are totally unconscious in deep sleep, there is still a very primitive sensitivity to one's surroundings (this varies based on how deep of a sleeper one is). People toss and turn, they scratch, and they adjust themselves while asleep. And we can argue about whether these movements are truly not accompanied by any phenomenological subjectivity.
If you use a sleep tracker, it may even tell you that you woke up several times during the night briefly, but then quickly fell back asleep. You just have no memory of it. So it could be that there is a very subtle awareness during deep sleep, however we just don't remember it after the fact.
[This is an important discussion point which could be relevant to NS and a final state, sushupti, which I will discuss at the end as people may raise it as a contravening case against the claim that consciousness does in fact shut off during NS.]
In reality, NS makes sleep seem very active and alive in comparison. From a third-person perspective you will appear to be just sitting there, stationary; but from a first-person perspective there is nothing that it is like to be in a state of NS, and so nothing to describe. We can, however, talk about the entry and the exit. You enter NS via jhana eight, neither perception nor non-perception, and because it's not clear in memory when exactly one enters the eighth jhana, it's hard to judge when NS starts, as the whole shutting off process is incredibly smooth. What's more remarkable is coming out of NS.
Unlike with the eighth jhana, or sleep, or cessation even, when you exit NS you don't have the immediate understanding of what happened. In fact, coming out of NS is like suddenly coming into existence. You literally have the sense that you didn't exist before. Suddenly you are conscious but you don't have any memory of anything. At first you don't know who you are (let alone that you are a human being), where you are, how you got here, or what the world is and how it works. It kind of sounds like I'm describing a stroke case, doesn't it? However, this isn't discombobulating or scary, as it is just that this information isn't presenting itself in the mind or readily available. Eventually your understanding of this world, that there was a time before, that you are a human and what kind of character you have, that there are other beings, that you were meditating, what day of the week it is, and the rest of your life very slowly return to you. It's taken me around 15 minutes to slowly recover to a more or less adequate functional understanding of my circumstances, and then even longer to properly 'sober up'. It dawns on you that you were out-out. Like dead-out.
Perhaps those who are much more experienced with NS don't have such a shocking re-entry. I can imagine that if you do this a lot your mind gets used to it and it takes you less time to reboot your understanding of what has just happened.
Now the post-nirodha glow feels like a momentously deep reset and the most rest you've ever gotten in your life. What's more, I've found that for a couple months afterwards I only needed four hours of sleep a night. My mind just didn't want to sleep much more than that. And during the day, despite my heightened tranquillity, NS also seemed to have given some comparative nootropic-like benefits - my general cognition was more on point. Although, anecdotally, I think spending a lot of time in highly defabricated states may come with some penalties to one's mid-term memory of events.
Additionally, NS put my brain in a mode where it essentially couldn't state shift. So after I had achieved NS, for at least a month or so afterwards, I could no longer do the jhanas. For one, there isn't really any incentive to do them (and I still feel this way since obtaining fourth path, but especially so after NS), but even if I tried, the mind just wouldn't state shift - despite my concentration and equanimity being on point.
"I have not yet spoken with anyone who had attained it who didn’t consider it the absolute King Daddy of meditation attainments other than arahantship, as the depth of its afterglow never fails to impress and amaze."
-Daniel M. Ingram. Mastering the Core Teachings of the Buddha.
'The Cessation of Perception and Feeling (Nirodha Samapatti)'.
How Nirodha Shapes Opinion On Valance
For this next part, sometimes I will simply write 'nirodha' (which can refer to nirodha samapatti or just cessation), because cessation can be sufficient for these insights as well, though NS just makes the following realisations abundantly more pronounced.
People report updating their understanding of what states are preferable, similarly as they go through the jhanas. Once you've gone from jhana one, characterised by extreme pleasant sensations, to jhana four, characterised by pervading equanimity or 'neither-pleasure-nor-pain', you realise that deep peace is actually preferable to fiery rapturous ecstasy. And then once you've sufficiently passed through nirodha and processed it's significance, you understand that actually 'lights-out' tops everything. The recontextualisation of all mind moments that occurs after nirodha can cause many to conclude "that was it", understood in the profoundest meanings of the words.
So, nirodha is a key reference marker that will have consequences for how one understands suffering and what the 'goal' is. One's understanding of how free from negative valance one can be is relative to what they've experienced. Depending on how far one has reached on the sliding scale of valance will inform what they believe is possible (I don't count myself as an exception). Though of course people can conjecture beyond their experiences and imagine what may be possible, but those opinions should bare relative dissociated weighting compared to first-hand experience.
I used to think that ego-death (moments where no self-models arise in the mind) eliminated all suffering. Until a certain point, that was my furthest reference in the direction of mental liberation. However, now and until proven otherwise (which is a forever open statement), nirodha puts all other states into perspective. Other than death, NS is the most defrabricated, nothing state there is. Maybe a comatose state or deep sedation by general anaesthesia could match this, though I have never been put under like that so I don't personally know. Although, I have heard a Neo-Vedantan (who takes the view that the raw, pre-verbal 'I am' consciousness is as fundamental as it gets) report that his self-aware awareness remained unbroken even undergoing general anaesthesia. This would suggest that it is not tantamount to NS - I have more to say on this later in the article.
Let's say that you've got access to a non-dual mode of conscious awareness and you think this is completely free from suffering, however, once you've experienced even less suffering via another state only then can you gage, given more context, how much suffering is still around in even an awake, walking, talking non-dual mode of conscious perception.
For reference, my current experience is significantly free from personal suffering. As I describe, the release of suffering at fourth path is in the range of +90%; and I can understand why people may say it's more like 99% (but really these are all just numbers we're pulling out of our buttocks). Even so, it is undeniable that eighth jhana has less suffering involved than my standard experience, and nirodha has even less than eighth.
How Nirodha Informs One's Understanding Of Consciousness (Phenomenological Subjectivity)
There is perhaps a resurgence of an age-old debate 'is consciousness primary to reality?'. And more and more so it seems it's becoming popular to side with a position that consciousness is inherent to the universe - that it's consciousness all the way down - a view opined not just by mystics, but even some outspoken mathematicians and physicists. On the one hand, it's good that this side of the coin is getting more recognition after centuries of neglect in the West, and that the modern materialist paradigm may be shifting. On the other hand, it is just the swing of the pendulum to the other extreme. I think a mature view may concede epistemological idealism but not jump to metaphysical idealism.
But without wading so, so much into this debate, I will say that as not just an adept meditator and previous psychonaut, who has been through various stages in my practice including unity/god consciousness phases, in which the world of sensate qualia was perceived as being so rich and bubbly, to being able to maintain awareness in deep sleep, but also a student of philosophy of mind who has studied this subject academically, I understand all the pull to believe consciousness is embedded in the fabric of existence. However, I actually remain pretty unimpressed with this view.
Nirodha in particular, I think is very telling in this debate. It is a state that is accessed by people who are highly observant of the subtleties of their own minds, and come out concluding that there was absolutely no consciousness there. Subsequently, we are left with an understanding that consciousness is not primary but dependent on contingent conditions in order to manifest. And it certainly becomes obvious that the pre-verbal sense of 'I am' is clearly not as rudimentary to experience as it gets.
Now there is a discussion to be had about whether phenomenological perception does actually cease entirely for the duration of NS, or if the 'light' of awareness is left on but you just can't remember it. Could it be that an impression of not having existed at all subjectively is simply manufactured and fed to the mind after the fact? And how can you claim to have been unconscious when you must be conscious to even know of and reference that state? All worthy questions! And people will argue one way or another, but I think those that really have a place to weigh in on this conversation are those that have actually achieved NS. If you haven't, you don't have the reference for this particular state and subsequent non-experience-to-experience phenomenology, and could be missing something big. The Buddhists would certainly concur.
Along with nirodha informing one's understanding about the non-primacy of consciousness, what's more is cessation and NS reveal by contrast that any moment of conscious experience, no matter how smooth and unitive, non-dual and metta-filled they may be, do contain aspects of negative valance. And so not only do we emerge from nirodha understanding consciousness to be part of the chain of dependent origination, but that all moments of conscious experience contain suffering. Though one can reduce their daily, waking suffering to incredibly minimal amounts that warrant no complaining about at all, and which allow you to live your life with spectacular serenity and joy, it still doesn't hold a candle to NS.
-If NS is so good, why aren't you trying to enter that state as much as possible?
Valid question! Although I do think NS is preferable to virtually all other states in terms of valance, one can't be in it all the time. Biological demands and a core understanding that our environment is ever changing will keep pulling us out. Though there are those who will try and maximise their time in this state, for sure. However just like the jhanas, NS appears to be non-addictive and what's more is practitioners at this level should have developed fairly high non-attachment to any particular sensorial phenomena or state. When one's base equanimity factor is high enough, the yearning or desire for any particular experience drops precipitously.
There is also something to be said about making a smart analysis of what is the best use of one's time. The issue with NS is that it does require considerable withdrawal from the world and calm in order to enter, and once in it you physically can't do anything. This means despite having cleared out all the suffering temporarily in the room where you are (assuming there are no other sentient beings in there with you), you also remove your ability to be of service to others.
And frankly there is a laziness factor, as initially you have to muster some effort and re-establish a consistent habit to get the jhanas or NS going again, if you aren't regularly practising them. Which people may deem, wisely or not, that it's not worth the dedication for maybe an hour of 'bliss'. That initial effort may be hard to find if you live in a society that doesn't encourage this kind of pastime, and life is asking other things of you; especially so if you feel like you've learnt what major lessons there are to take away from these states, i.e. on valance, impermanence, unsatisfactoriness, non-attachment etc. and you deem your hedonic baseline to be acceptable.
Sushupti (Awareness Of Dreamless Sleep)
I also want to talk about maintaining awareness during deep sleep, or sushupti as it's called in Hinduism. I've already written an article about what this entails and how to do it, so I won't go so into detail about it. I do though want to make some comments, because I know some people will be tempted to bring up this state as a conflicting case against the nirodha samapatti claim that consciousness does shut off.
In brief, sushupti is just like sleep except for one thing, your awareness was in some way unbroken during the night. There is a sense that the 'is-ness' of unfiltered awareness never blinked. It is just there, always on.
And again, there is lots to debate about what exactly this consciousness feat means and similar points that are levelled at NS could be raised here. Did you really maintain awareness all night long or did it come and go periodically through the night? Or did awareness actually disappear as per usual, but only as you wake up an impression emerges in the 'now, conscious and awake mind' that it had 'left the lights on', so to speak (when really it hadn't)? People could argue that we always maintain awareness during deep sleep, but the difference between this and regular sleep is that we don't forget our always 'on' consciousness (and there may be merit to this idea). It's a point to quibble about and once you've achieved sushupti it does call into question whether you ever really fully lose consciousness in deep sleep.
As someone who has had access to both states (NS and sushupti), I believe that those that firmly stand by the claim that awareness is always aware of itself and never blinks or turns off, even during sleep, have just entrenched this certain view within their mind and with such fortitude that they can no longer not believe it (nor do they want to not believe it). Just like how someone can be convinced there is a green frog in their head if they spend all day feeding that mental image with their attention, if the impression of 'pure consciousness' is readily available to you and you make this your go-to meditation object all the time, always keeping it in mind as much as you can during the day, then of course it can become the last thing you notice when you go to sleep and the first thing you become aware of when you wake up. This doesn't, however, mean it's fundamental to existence and being.
And trust me, I understand this view. I've been there and it is certainly a very liberating view, compared to common sense perception, that's for sure. I've spent the time in that stage, I can enter sushupti, but I've also defabricated and seen past this lens of perception. I can say that letting go of that view reduces one's suffering even more, and that sushupti doesn't compare to nirodha samapatti in terms of how non-suffering it is.
Lastly, I want to pre-emptively navigate the argument that self-aware awareness is not a temporary state like sushupti, but rather it is just the case whether you realise it or not, ergo not a state but a fact of being. Sometimes the mind forgets and sometimes the mind remembers it's essence; and that there are those that have reached such grand levels of enlightenment that now they never forget their 'true nature'. I understand the motivation for this view, but honestly it is just a heavily engrained impression that once one discovers can be tuned into and held in attention for longer and longer, granting this view more and more saliency. But I can attest it is not the most liberating mode of perception (though it is definitely a massive upgrade to not being able to see this strata of mind).
My Hopes For The Future Of This Conversation
When it comes to the question 'is consciousness fundamental?' I would like to hear from more people who have direct experience with all these states (cessation, nirodha samapatti, sushupti, and having been put under with general anaesthesia). There aren't so many people who have accessed all of them in one lifetime, and I'm curious to hear what conclusions they have or haven't come to, as I think they will have the most insight as opposed to someone who has only gotten one or none of these states.