WHAT IS INSIGHT MEDITATION AND HOW TO START
Each person comes to the practice of insight meditation for different reasons. One person may simply be curious about meditation. Another may be seeking a way to reduce the stress in their lives. Someone else may be seeking a way to manage chronic pain. And another person may be seeking a spiritual path. Whatever your motivation, what follows is a response to the questions that beginners often bring to this practice.
Stress, dissatisfaction and suffering are a part of our lives. Usually we want some way to avoid this. Our culture offers many options to help us try to avoid experiencing this stress: TV, the internet, shopping, alcohol, drugs, gambling, sex, books and exercise are a few. Although each of these methods may provide some relief, we never seem to escape the stress for long.
Insight meditation provides a very simple method for reducing the stress, the suffering, in one's life. It is based on two observations. First, that when we resist reality, either by trying to hold on to an experience or by trying to push it away, we create stress and suffering for ourselves. And second, that when we are simply present for our lives in this moment, rather than with holding on or pushing away, then we can experience some of the clarity and peacefulness that is always available to us but usually obscured by the effort to control life. When we are present in the moment, our lives become more vibrant.
Insight meditation teaches us how to be present. It teaches us to relate differently to our experiences through opening our hearts and our minds to whatever arises in our lives in the moment. Insight meditation is also a method for investigating our experience. It is a way to see for ourselves if it is true that holding on and pushing away our experience leads to stress and suffering. And it is a way to see if it is true that clarity and peacefulness are available when we relax and let go into our lives in this moment. We will investigate these questions by learning to relate to our experience with two qualities of mind and heart: kindness and mindfulness.
During this Introduction to Insight Meditation, the instructions are given sequentially. Each set of instructions builds on the previous set. The first set, Beginning Practice, focuses on how to begin the practice and on using the sensations of breathing as the primary focus of attention. The second set, Opening to the Body, clarifies the difference between concentration meditation and insight meditation. It then expands the focus of practice to all of our physical sensations through Mindfulness of the Body. With the third set there is a shift to mental experience through Mindfulness of Feeling. The fourth set explores Mindfulness of Mind-States and Consciousness. The fifth set deals with Mindfulness of Thinking and the last set with Mindfulness in Everyday Life. The complete set of instructions provides us with the skills needed to relate to all of our experience with kindness and mindfulness.
Insight meditation (or vipassana) is based on the teachings of the Buddha, but you do not have to be a Buddhist to do these practices. People have been doing insight meditation for 2500 years and have found it helpful. Why don't you come and see for yourself?
In this section we will explore posture for sitting meditation, awareness of the sensations of breathing and some general suggestions for establishing a regular meditation practice.
The key to sitting in meditation is to have an erect but relaxed back. This allows one to breathe easily and to sit with some physical stillness. If our bodies are still, then rather than distracting us with constant movements we can begin to see more clearly what is happening in our minds and hearts. We can begin to see how we are relating to our experience.
A simple exercise can help one discover what "erect but relaxed back" means experientially. While sitting, stretch the spine and head up towards the ceiling while inhaling. Then exhale and relax while keeping the spine erect. Notice how this feels. Then if you wish you can gently rock a little to the left and right to settle into a balanced position.
Although it is traditional to practice insight meditation while sitting on meditation cushions on the floor, it can actually be practiced in any posture. There are a number of sitting technologies available now: round meditation cushions (zafus), benches, "smiley" cushions among others, with a thick pad or cushion (zabuton) underneath to protect the legs. Some of these aids are available locally. Others can be found through the internet. However sitting in a chair is also quite acceptable. Simply be cautious of the tendency to slouch, which can make it difficult to breathe easily. -- Remember: An erect but relaxed spine.
Beginning Meditation Guidelines
• Find a location in your home where you can sit quietly and undisturbed. This should be a place where you feel safe and comfortable.
• Sitting in the same location each time will help establish some regularity in your practice.
• Decide on a specific amount of time that you plan to sit. Use a clock or a timer, which is preferable, to keep track of the time. A meditation timer is available on this site. Initially 10-20 minutes should be long enough.
• Insight meditation is a skill. Similar to learning to play a musical instrument or a sport, insight meditation requires regular practice for the skill to develop. It is strongly recommended that you practice each day.
• It is best to not have any expectations about what your meditation should look like. This is a practice of discovering what our experience is like. Having an expectation interferes with this process of discovery.
• Give yourself the gift of this time to step away from the activity of your daily life. Let go of your plans and concerns during the period of meditation. You can return to them when you are done meditating.
Mindfulness of Breathing
Mindfulness of breathing is the foundation for insight meditation. The sensation of breathing is the primary object of meditation; it gives the mind something to focus on and it is an anchor to return to during times of difficulty. Paying attention to the sensations of breathing builds the concentration necessary for further development of mindfulness and insight. It also contributes to feelings of relaxation, to grounding oneself in one's body and it can be useful in stress management.
In some forms of meditation there is an emphasis on changing the way that one breathes. In insight meditation we do not adjust the breath. We allow the breath to be the way that it is; sometimes it is long, sometimes short, sometimes smooth, sometimes ragged, etc. The emphasis is simply on bringing attention to the sensations of breathing.
When we begin to bring attention to the sensations of breathing, we are attempting to develop some concentration. It is an attempt to settle the mind so that we can begin to see more clearly what is occurring within our minds and bodies. People often get stuck in this stage of insight meditation, believing that they do not have sufficient concentration to move to other aspects of the practice. However, all that is needed is a few moments of concentration.
Instructions for Mindfulness of Breathing for Concentration
• Settle into your sitting position.
• Close your eyes completely (If you have been trained in other methods which instruct you to leave them partially open, that is acceptable.)
• Soften the muscles in your face and around your eyes, your shoulders, arms and hands, and your legs.
• Sit with an erect but relaxed posture.
• Focus your attention at the tip of the nose. (If you have been trained to follow the sensations of breathing in the abdomen or the chest, those are also acceptable locations.)
• Take one or two deep breaths to help settle the attention in the location where you are following the sensations of breathing. This may actually be the upper lip, a location just inside the nostrils or at the tip of the nose. Use this spot as the location for your attention during the remainder of the meditation.
• As the breath moves in and out of the body notice the sensations that occur in the spot where your attention is located. Do not try to follow or imagine the breath flowing in and out of the body, just notice the sensations where your attention is focused. Initially this may simply be an awareness of an in-breath and an out-breath, or if following the sensations in the abdomen the rising and falling of the diaphragm or the in and out of the abdomen.
• Sometimes it is helpful to silently count the breaths. Counting "one" on the in-breath, "two" on the out-breath, "three" on the in-breath, etc. up to ten. If the attention wanders completely away from the breath, when you notice it, begin again. When you are able to follow the sensations up to "ten", let go of the counting and simply continue following the sensations of the breath.
• Just try to follow one in-breath as clearly as you can, and then one out-breath. Don't get overly ambitious and expect yourself to follow more than one breath. This is a training in being present in this moment. Also, expecting to be mindful for more than one breath sets one up for discouragement.
• When your attention wanders away from the sensations of breathing and you notice it, appreciate that moment of waking up and being mindful. There is no need for judgment. Just gently return your attention to the breath and continue to follow it. Each time you awaken like this and bring the attention back to the object of meditation gently and without judgment, you are strengthening the factors of concentration, mindfulness and kindness.
• When you are able to stay in contact with the sensations of breathing, you may notice when the breath is short and when it is long.
• As your concentration becomes stronger, you may follow the sensations from the beginning of the in-breath through the middle to the end and then you follow the sensations of the out-breath in the same way.
• Continue to follow the sensations of breathing until your meditation period is over.
• If at any time you become confused about the instructions, simply return to the point in the instructions where you feel most comfortable and confident.
If you wish, you can take a few moments during the day to get in touch with your breath. This is a good way of helping yourself settle down and coming back to the present moment's experience.