Susan’s Excellent Adventure, Part II: From Drudgery to Wisdom

by | Apr 18, 2024 | Buddhism for All

(Continued from Part I.)

Step 4: Assembling a meditative toolset to enable eventual mastery.

Susan’s practice had changed her life.  And then, quite unexpectedly, her practice faced its first real test that almost totally derailed it.  It came from a surprisingly banal source: drudgery.

This step of her training required learning many methods of meditation, including compassion, scanning the body, awareness of the whole body, mental noting of various types of sense experiences, intense focus on specific phenomena, open awareness, inquiry into self, doing nothing, etc, etc.  It is like a martial artist who must learn many techniques for various situations to gain eventual mastery. Unfortunately, this is generally not exciting, just a long path of drudgery.

You know in movies about boxing, when they show the exciting parts in full but hardly show the long hours of difficult training at all? The training montages are quick, usually only a few minutes, shorter even than the final fight, and accompanied by exciting-sounding music. But in real life, the training takes orders of magnitude more time than the fight at the end, not to mention the injuries, illness, distractions and lack of motivation that sometimes impede progress.  Susan was now at this stage.  Tedium.  Drudgery.  And then more tedium.  With more drudgery.

Many people want to quit at this point.  The life-changing results of the previous step have given them more than they had even hoped for.  They are therefore satisfied to leave the tedious training to “do good in the world as a lay person” instead.  Susan was no exception.  She kept telling Soryu, “I’m really thinking about leaving,” and then explained to him a compelling and inspiring idea for what she would do instead.  It is hard to know what made her stay, and many do not, but there is a strength that comes from walking straight through a desert, and those with this strength can change the world.  Susan had it in her.  In staying, her heroic journey passed its first real test.

Happily, Susan’s persistence paid off handsomely.  She gradually gained experiential understanding of the Dharma. In particular, she directly encountered the seven factors of enlightenment.

She gained (a) mindfulness that she could cultivate in all situations.  It does not mean that she could do it continuously, without a break, but she maintained enough mindfulness to allow her to gain all other factors of enlightenment.

Her mindfulness enabled her to (b) investigate each phenomenon, knowing each directly and discerning its characteristics clearly.

To the extent that it was maintained without a gap, a new kind of (c) energy emerged that drew her along the path. Her mindfulness and investigation allowed her to know what is skillful and what is not.  After a while, she could often do it without spending mental energy.  That enabled her to bring forth full energy to flow through her body, no longer breaking it by having to manage it with self-conscious thoughts.

With that, (d) exhilarating joy naturally arose in her body.

This was so present that she stopped seeking elsewhere, and experienced (e) tranquility and ease.

Since her body and mind were at ease, at times she glimpsed (f) samadhi.

She allowed all things to come to her, no longer trying to fix everything by fighting against it, but tasting the subtle flavor of (g) equanimity as a part of the path. Furthermore, mindfulness and investigation were applied to each of the factors, making each a chance to directly know the Dharma.

It was a long and confusing process, with much failure. She succeeded and then failed, gained and then lost the ability to know these states of mind. You should know about this because otherwise, if you walk the real path, this account of Susan may make you think you’re failing. You should be clear that most of this path is just tens of thousands of hours of grueling hard work. So, don’t complain when it’s your turn to do that work. Know that this is the first really heroic part.

Susan had not yet mastered the seven factors of enlightenment, that would come much later, but her mastery had begun to take root.

Step 5: Skillfully entering jhāna. 

Just like Helena acquiring her magic sword, Susan had now assembled the conditions required to gain a very powerful tool: samadhi.  In both cases, acquiring the new tool was a massive game changer for an already high-ranking player.

As you have seen in the earlier posts, samadhi makes perfect sense on paper. But in practice, there are parts of the process that are beyond mental understanding, and therefore require you to step into the deep unknown. We set up samadhi using our effort and mental understanding, but as we make that effort, gradually something we do not understand takes over and we know (and need to know) less and less. A new intelligence and a new kind of effort already knows how to meditate. It is like sailing a boat. First, one must pull the boat down the beach to get it into the water. A boat isn’t made to be dragged over dry land, but it is necessary at first. Then, once on the water, one can make use of the wind. If one knows how to use the wind, one can travel in a boat much faster than one could drag it over land, while using less effort. In the same way, one uses one’s own mental understanding to make meditation happen. Then, once one actually enters jhāna, one can make use of a larger intelligence, and a larger energy, and therefore can make much faster progress. While it is true that most people aren’t willing to do the hard work of the previous step, those who are willing to do this hard work face the next challenge: learning how that hard work becomes an energy beyond our control that naturally moves us along the path.

If this shift does not occur, we are still caught on thinking as a way to make jhāna happen. Jhāna must happen organically, without analysis or mental comprehension. We can later, once we exit jhāna, look back and see that what happened was what the texts describe.  Nonetheless, while we are in these wonderful states, we let go of control and let it unfold mysteriously. That is the reason we know that we can trust it.  Mental control interferes with deep jhāna, so the only type of deep jhāna we can trust is the type that comes from letting go.  It turns out that this path is deeper than control.

What allows each of us to take a step into the mystery? It is unknown. In Susan’s case, it was a chance encounter in the woods. She was wandering on the trails through the forest during a period of walking meditation, and suddenly found herself looking right at an owl. It was looking right at her. It was aware of her, present with her. She realized that she did not have any way to be aware of it, present with it. She was too lost in her own head. She realized that this was why she had been lonely her whole life. Even though a living thing was with her, she was so caught in the prison of her own ideas that she could not be with it. She could not see the owl; she could only see her idea of it and tell a story about that idea. She realized that if she did not do something, she would not only live her whole life lonely, she would die lonely. And worse still, everyone she met would die without having ever received her love. She was horrified. She dedicated her life to getting out of her head and meeting the world, at any cost.

We are all different and not all of us meet owls, but for all of us, this shift is basically a matter of trusting exactly what comes. In any case, once the skills and techniques are fulfilled, it’s just a matter of time before each person makes the decision that will change everything: the decision to let go rather than hold on.  Soryu says in a poignant way, “We make that decision, and later, when we look back, we see that it was the first real decision we ever made.” We become willing to do whatever it takes to get out of our heads, and abide in samadhi.

Susan gained the first jhāna and learned to master it. She knew for herself that the joy of the path is greater than anything the world has to offer. This is the end of one life and the beginning of another. We enter a new world, and it is alive.

Step 6: Samadhi deepens, and wisdom begins to blossom.

Susan managed to avoid a surprisingly powerful trap here that catches a lot of people: not being competent enough to recognize their own incompetence[1].  People are most vulnerable to this effect when they are competent enough to know a lot, but not yet competent enough to know there is still a huge amount that they do not know.

A Buddhist practitioner is most vulnerable to this effect about the time they start gaining solid access to jhāna.  Jhāna is such a powerful experience that many people, when they enter jhāna for the first time, mistakenly think that they are enlightened.  And if they cannot find a way forward from here, they decide (wrongly, of course) that they must have completed the path.  All that is compounded by an emotional component: due to insecurity, some people have an attachment to being right, and so they get attached to the insights and samadhi they have gained.  That is why they get stuck. 

Susan did not get trapped here because she had two resources.  The first was a good teacher who knew she still had a long way to go and who kept pushing her.  Her second resource was, to put it facetiously, she was granted the gift of humility.  By now, she had many experiences where she mistakenly thought she was more advanced than she actually was, only to fall hard later, especially in the face of ethical struggles. Again and again, she had thought, “I’ve almost finished the path!” only to agonize the very next day, “Have I even started?” It was painfully humbling, of course.  She was lucky that she had a supportive community of fellow practitioners around her, some of whom were seniors more advanced on that path, so every time she fell hard, she received the “Yeah, I’ve been there too” type of support.  Those friends gave her the loving container she needed to receive the gift of humility.  Whenever you need to face the fact that you are wrong, if you can do that with equanimity, again and again, then you will not get stuck here.

Susan kept going and made her way deeper into the world of jhāna. She came to know its texture, its flavor, its rules. She saw, due to much instruction, that the basic rule is that you must keep going forward, and forward is defined as the direction in which there is less. Forward means let go. Each next step of jhāna practice is losing the most important thing that supported you in the previous step. She learned how to see the remaining flaws in the new best experience, and let go of even that in order to go beyond it. This means learning to cut through deep attachment to even the most wonderful things in the world.

Most important, she lost any sense that she knew how to do it. Soon enough, she didn’t even know who was doing it. Who meditates? All the clever answers she had read in books were seen through. The sense that “I am the sort of person who has seen through the answers I read in books,” was seen through. The sense, “I see through things,” was seen through. “Things” was seen through. “I see” was seen through. It went on and on. Any idea you may have now as you read this is exactly what you will have to see through at this stage

For most people, even most well-known teachers, “seeing through” remains imaginary. They merely learn from others what that is supposed be like, and then subconsciously make that happen with mental fabrication. But for Susan, as this ripened, the path began to be real.  In the same way that Helena began to cut down dragons and archdemons, Susan began to cut away some of the mightiest strands of ignorance.  Her wisdom began to blossom.

(Soryu sheepishly admits that he loves meeting with those who are taking this and later steps. He can finally have an actual conversation with them. Usually, when people talk with each other, it’s really just their patterns bumping into each other. There isn’t a true connection at all. But once we take this step, those patterns are shed, and we can finally meet each experience – and each person – in true intimacy.)

Everything was going amazingly great for Susan.  Pretty soon, though, everything would suddenly go very wrong.


  • Reflect on this post with Angela:
    • “She could not see the owl; she could only see her idea of it and tell a story about that idea”. Now, please pause and look deeply at yourself, your mind, and your thoughts. Look deeply at the world around you. Is the world, object, or person you’re seeing the real world, or your idea of the world? Would it not be an earth-shattering and life-changing moment if one day you realized that what you see, and perceive, is not the world as it is? 
    • The only way to break through to seeing the real world, as it is, is not by thinking more about it. The way is by meditation. You have to try it, and directly experience the power of your mind and samādhi for yourselves. Tip: Visit our Guided Meditation page to start with our curated list of guided meditations. 
    • Our mind is extremely powerful. In what ways have you experienced the power of your own mind and the power of samādhi?
    • What stood out to you from this article? Why?


[1] Also known as the Dunning-Kruger Effect.

Featured image by Natalie Tsang.

Chade-Meng Tan

Meng is an award-winning engineer, international bestselling author, movie producer and philanthropist. His work has been nominated eight times for the Nobel Peace Prize. (Read Meng's story)

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