What is Insight Meditation?
By Dorothy Ann Coyne
Vipassana meditation is a practice of insight or mindfulness. The word Vipassana means 'clear seeing'. Over the decades, I have become so grateful for this training to be awake, noticing the moments of life with a compassionate heart. It is not a fix-it program, but a practice of radical self acceptance. Here is a path that requires no belief systems. I have learned so much from my own direct experience. Allow me to outline the practice for you, as I understand it.
Generally speaking, there are two types of meditation techniques: concentration, which holds the mind to a primary object as focus, and insight, which allows the mind to be aware of all the expressions that ask for attention.
Concentration is a practice of bringing the mind's attention repeatedly back to a single focus. This focus can be a phrase or mantra, a flame, or the breath. Many choose to watch the breath. We begin with finding a comfortable seated position on a cushion or chair to support us in our practice. Closing the eyes, relaxing, and feeling the body's sensations, we start concentration practice. You can find the touch of the breath at the tip of your nose, or your upper lip, or in the rise and fall of your chest. You can even create a word in the mind to help notice the breath, such as "in" or "out", "short" or "long".
With practice, these words are not used; you simply know the nature of the moment without a verbal noting. You will notice the spaces between exhaling and inhaling. You breathe naturally and simply look at the breath, resting in the breath. This is different than thinking about the breath. There is no need to do anything special with the breath. Just let it be. Practicing this way, you will discover the witnessing capability of the mind.
In concentration practice, no matter what sound, thought, or body sensation may distract the mind, you notice it and gently return to rest in the breath. My experience is that the concentration practice brings stability to the mind and leads to deep states of calm. Concentration practices are also sometimes referred to as 'tranquility' practices. Concentration's stability of the mind prepares the ground for insight practice.
Insight is a meditation practice that takes us to a place of knowing truth by being awake in the moment, aware of what is. We take time to center the mind within the breath or other object. Relaxation deepens as time goes on. This simple, but keen, observation of the breath takes the meditator through the interface between body and mind. Physiologically speaking, the practitioner moves from the everyday mind of sympathetic (fight or flight) nervous system to the relaxed mind of the parasympathetic (flow) nervous system.
Concentration grows as sitting continues. A comfortable depth of stillness allows the transition to insight practice. The mind then notices and follows each arising - sound, breath, an itch, breath, thought, memory, breath, a plan, itch again, et cetera - with no particular disturbance.You sit with a choiceness awareness or undirected mindfulness; no control, simply being with each arising experience without being hooked into personal story or emotional reactivity. You learn to watch each mind or body object arise and create no judgement, decision or comment in response. If lost in a line of thoughts, there will finally be an awareness of 'lost in thoughts'. Notice the experience where you feel it, in the body or mind. Is there any tension around the thoughts? Are they pleasant or unpleasant? As 'lost' dissolves, you move back to the breath, or what catches your attention next, and you are back in choiceness awareness. It's a bit like being in the back seat of the car and watching the scenery pass by: you are not driving, just seeing what comes by.
Even more important than the well known benefit of stress reduction is the wonderful gift of seeing the truth of how things are. We come to appreciate how changeable life is, how unsatisfactory in large and small ways, and how often it is out of any personal control. Realizing these experiences of impermanence, unsatisfactoriness, and selflessness as we meditate is key to receiving the major benefits of the practice. Clear seeing brings a freedom from the pains of the ups and downs of life. Whatever happens - whether a mosquito bite or the death of a loved one - is simply the result of the conditions of life. Our emotional life continues to be lively, but there grows in us a calm abiding or equanimity. We do not add to the trials of life with unnecessary resistance. We don't take life's events so personally.
Many people feel they can never meditate because their minds are too active. But thoughts are the raw material of the practice. Watching thoughts as they arise and the feelings they provoke, seeing them all as simply objects of mind, allows for profound insights. Our thoughts usually focus on the conditions of our life: memories of our experiences or plans for future activities. Each time we meditate, we begin to notice that our thoughts and feelings are somewhat different as the activities and experiences of our life shift and change. Our thoughts and feelings are impermanent, and, therefore, we neither have to believe, be hurt by, nor act on our many thoughts and feelings.
As we meditate, it slowly dawns on us that, along with all the changing phenomenon we observe, there is a quiet part of us watching it all. This peaceful part, seemingly unchanging and ever present, can always be tapped. It's potentially in every one of us - old or young, well or sick, even mentally ill. Buddhists tell us this is our true nature. In this place, we find a oneness with all others and a connection to Mystery, the ultimate realities of the universe. We are not what the world sees - our job description, our looks, or any particular talent. Our truest identity is this peaceful core.
Maybe you think that awareness practice would lead meditators to just watch life with detachment. Actually, we engage even more fully in life, but from a place of clarity, of responding, not just reacting. We can live in the mundane world, never forgetting the ultimate reality that we are one with all. Our hearts open and we become able to gracefully share our our peace, love, and light.
Dorothy Ann Coyne has been teaching meditation and yoga in Ann Arbor for over fifteen years.