The Truth is that Sometimes Insight Isn't Pretty

Sometimes insight isn’t pretty. Sometimes it looks like rock bottom. Sometimes its found lurking in the crags and crannies of jagged stone; worn, weathered, and eroded. Sometimes it’s kneeling on a bathroom floor before a porcelain alter, dry-heaving a prayer of contrition to the gods of excess.


By Duane Toops

I just recently read an article on the Tattooed Buddha website titled, Buddhism is Not About Insight.

The article suggests that many people endeavor into Buddhism and take up meditation practice with the aim of attaining “insight.” Yet, this pursuit of insight itself, often becomes an obstacle and an impediment to our practice because we can get so caught-up in clinging to our particular expectations for these specific kinds of experiences.

The article states that “It is…possible to effectively practice without having breakthroughs, to ‘get it’ without ever realizing that you do, or without an ultimate moment of getting it.”

I can relate.

A couple of weeks ago I posted a video on my YouTube Channel called, Open Your Eyes. In that video I talk about how I’ve been going through a meditative rough patch but, I think that maybe I’m starting to “get it” or maybe I’m beginning to “get” that you don’t always realize that you “get it.”

I’ve been frustrated with my practice because it hasn’t been going the way I think it should, or because it isn’t providing the results that I think it should be providing. I seem to be more distracted rather than less, the waves of depression seem to flow rather than ebb, stress seems to be increasing rather than decreasing, anger seems to be flaring rather than extinguishing, and so on and so on…

I’ve been blaming my practice for “not working.” The implicit suggestion here is that the problem is in the practice not in me, it is the fault of the practice and not mine. Yet, the “insight” I am beginning to painfully recognize is that the only thing my practice is guilty of is showing me things I don’t want to see and telling me what I don’t want to hear.

I think, in some ways, the rough patch is the insight of the practice.

The immense degree of distraction, the general lack of focus and my near obsession with planning, are all the ways I can see that I’ve been trying to escape from the present, the ways I’ve been avoiding being right here, right now. It’s revealing my attachments to my expectations for myself and my practice. I can see my hidden craving and desire for particular outcomes and specific results.

These are frustrating and uncomfortable insights.

Look, I’ll be the first to admit that I really don’t have the knowledge or expertise to provide any insights into “insight,” but I think that on some level we all want some kind of insight. I think we all want to experience some kind of moment of awakening and realization.

The problem is that we cling so tightly to all our ideas and expectations about what we think insight should look like and what we think it should feel like that we totally miss it when it does occur in some form or fashion.

Sometimes insights go unrecognized because insight can be painful. Sometimes they suck. Sometimes we don’t realize how fucked up things really are, how fucked up we’ve let ourselves become, or just how attached we really are to certain things or ideas. Practice does not promise positive experiences or positive insights; practice only promises to provide insight into “reality.” Sometimes the reality that we garner insight into is the recognition of the fact that we have buried ourselves underneath layers of horse-shit.

We all love the imagery of the Buddha’s picturesque scene awakening under the shaded serenity of the bodhi tree, but that’s only half the story. That’s not the full picture. If we only focus on that scene we forget an essential part of the legend of the Buddha’s great moment of insight.

The Buddha is violently assaulted by Mara, a mythical demon who threatens Siddhartha with an onslaught of a monstrous horde, tempts him with seductions of sensual pleasures and mocks him relentlessly. Obviously, I don’t the think this story literally happened, but just because it isn’t literally true doesn’t mean that doesn’t convey something that is genuinely true.

Mara is the personification of delusion, a symbolic representation of one’s own base impulses and egocentric desires. Mara is the negativity of one’s mind made manifest, and the Buddha’s insight only comes about as a result of a direct and graphic confrontation with it.

Sometimes insight isn’t pretty.

Sometimes it looks like rock bottom. Sometimes its found lurking in the crags and crannies of jagged stone; worn, weathered, and eroded. Sometimes it’s kneeling on a bathroom floor before a porcelain alter, dry-heaving a prayer of contrition to the gods of excess.

But, that’s not what we want to hear. We want insight lite. We want zero calorie awakening. We want the mountain top without the valley. We want the morning star without the dark night of the soul. We want realization without Mara.

In any case, insight usually never quite seems to be what we think it is. Sometimes insight is anything but extraordinary; sometimes it’s mundane and mediocre. Sometimes realization just isn’t that special.

I read an article by Daniel Scharpenburg called, The Goal is Ordinary. In that article he says that “A lot of the times we don’t notice the areas in our life where we’re just a little less angry or a little more focused.” He says that, “Some people start practicing and notice how the path is helping them (and others) right away. Other people start practicing and they don’t notice anything for a long time.”

I think I fall into that category for sure. But, he goes on to say that, “The Buddhist path is less like climbing down a mountain and more like taking out the trash. A lot trash has piled up over the years and sometimes [we] cling to it tightly.” I think he’s really right.

One can “intellectually” know to that we should let go of our attachments and expectations, and our attachments to our expectations. But, when we have a “bad sitting,” or when the shit hits the proverbial fan, it’s funny how quickly we demonstrate just how many expectations we still have stored and hidden away.

The reality is that our attachments go deeper than we realize.

Delusion metastasizes over the years and spreads like cancer beyond all of our pre-conceived diagnoses. The sadness, the anger, the dissatisfaction and the dukkha is malignant, but it is operable.

Insight is a prognosis, not a positive affirmation, and practice is a scalpel not an anesthetic.


I think, in some ways, the rough patch is the insight of the practice. ~ Duane Toops Click To Tweet



Duane Toops is a husband, a father, a fledgling Buddhist, a struggling meditator, and a self-proclaimed writer, thinker, and content creator. You can read his writing on his blog.





Photo: Pixabay

Editor: Dana Gornall


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