These are longer format instructions by Ann Barden. Please note, these do not take the place of a beginning meditation class, which is strongly recommended for new meditators.
INTRODUCTION TO INSIGHT MEDITATION
These are basic instructions for beginning Insight Meditation. I have deliberately tried to keep them simple but clear. As your own meditation practice grows and matures, you may change some things, add others, and make it unique to the body/mind with which you are practicing. That is as it should be. Most important is that you begin, and begin, and begin again. The only mistake you can possibly make is to not. You can’t mess this up, because every moment you get to begin again.
Insight Meditation is about paying attention, about being present with an experience and seeing it clearly. How many times, while we are working at some task, is the mind actually longing to sit and talk with a friend? Then, when we are with that friend, the mind keeps jumping ahead to think of other tasks that are waiting to be done! Life might feel quite different if our mind was able to just be with a task, then be with a friend, then be with planning how to schedule the day, or make a grocery list, or walk the dog. Just this, then this.
So this practice is about training the mind to do just that: be present in each moment of life. We begin the training by sitting down and closing our eyes because, in that mode, there are fewer external distractions and it easier to pay attention to each body/mind experience. Like any training process, we start with simple, basic practices. It takes a lot of voice lessons and practicing to be ready to sing at the Met, and a lot of coaching, dribbling and throwing a basketball to be an NBA player. So we begin.
Find a comfortable enough posture that you can sit still, without moving, for a while. Make adjustments now, if you need to, and then commit yourself to stillness for this period.
Close your eyes.
Bring your attention to the crown of your head. Notice any sensations that may be present there. Nothing needs to change, just notice. Then let attention move slowly over your face, still just noticing. You may feel some relaxation as you do this or not. Let attention move down the neck onto the shoulders, then down the chest. Be aware of the movement of breathing. Notice the back; that it also moves with the breath. Feel clothing where it touches the body. Feel the belly, with awareness of any tension held there. Feel the weight of the body where it meets the chair or cushion. Let attention move slowly down over the thighs, the knees, the ankles, the soles of the feet. Then let attention go where it is drawn by one sensation or another, moving gently over the body and knowing it. Take a breath of gratitude for this body that brought you to where ever you are today.
We begin training the mind by focusing our attention on one object, excluding other experiences or objects from our attention. This is called Concentration Practice and is very useful as we begin this training process. It is also useful at the beginning of each period of meditation. It brings a sense of calmness and focus to our sitting. The “object” we use is one point at the tip of the nostrils, the upper lip, perhaps a bit further into the nose or even the back of the throat. At this point, we can feel the movement of air, the breath, as it passes. We simply notice that touch of the breath and keep our attention focused at that point, waiting for the next breath. We are not following the breath through the body, as in yoga practice. We are simply holding our attention on this one spot.
Now, distractions happen! There are other body/mind sensations: itches, pressures, thoughts, sounds – all pull our attention away from that spot that is our object of attention. We ignore them. We mentally say “not now” and gently return our attention to that point where we are waiting for the sensation of breath to pass. Every time attention returns to that point, the ability to concentrate is strengthened. We are training ourselves to concentrate.
Insight Practice is inclusive, as differing from the exclusive practice of Concentration. With Insight Practice, those experiences that were distractions in Concentration become objects of attention. We begin with attention on the sensation of breath. Then, when other experiences arise, we briefly notice them and then return to the breath. The return is immediate but gentle. We are training. We want the mind to want to return to the sensation of breath. It is the “home base”. If you have ever trained a puppy, you know you get him to come through calm, assertive and gentle direction. The same quality is beneficial in this training.
Insight Practice moves back and forth. The sensation of breath is the base but every experience that arises is briefly the object of attention. We pay attention one moment at a time to just what is happening in that moment. With practice, we will be able to let attention move from one object to another object without returning to the sensation of breath each time. In the beginning, though, it is helpful to use the return as a reminder of one point of attention and to avoid getting caught in wandering thoughts.
Meditation can seem very busy now that we are seeing all our experiences. The feeling of calm that we had in Concentration Practice is gone. Noting can be an important tool in the beginning to help us look clearly at our experience. Eventually, it will be replaced by a wordless noticing. We use a word in noting, spoken in the mind, that neutrally describes the experience. Noting is like a frame that holds the experience while we identify it without getting involved in thinking about it. It is like “stop action” in a film, a brief pause to see exactly what is there, then moving on. Some examples of neutral noting would be “itching” “hearing” “swallowing” “thinking”. Sometimes, we may use more specific terms like “planning” “worrying” “remembering”. The terms we use are still impersonal. We don’t say “I am planning”. We don’t follow the experience and get caught in a thought process about it. We are still simply observing. If we do find ourselves planning or remembering, we simply note that and return to the breath.
Insight Meditation is sometimes called Mindfulness Meditation because mindfulness is the quality of attention we use. It is bare attention: bare of judgment, commentary, and decision. These particular patterns of thought are named because they are so common. “I should’t do that when I am meditating” (judgment) “I wonder if anyone else is doing this or noticing what I am doing” (commentary) “I am going to tell my friend about this when I see her tomorrow” (decision). Mindfulness simply observes, simply sees. If judgment, commentary, or decision arises, we note them as “judging” “commenting” “deciding”.
Feelings, in this context, are not about emotions. Feelings are characteristics of experience that are either pleasant, unpleasant, or neutral ( neither pleasant or unpleasant). Every experience has one of these characteristics associated with it. Why is it important to notice this? Because it is right there, with that characteristic, that reactivity arises. When an experience is pleasant we want it to continue. When an experience is unpleasant, we want it to stop! That wanting can be very strong and can lead us to some unskillful and even unwholesome speech or action that we may later regret. When we note or notice the pleasant or unpleasant quality, we have, in that moment, the opportunity to put a wedge of mindfulness in between the experience and our reaction to it. We then have time to respond more carefully and thoughtfully. This is a powerful daily-life practice as well as a meditation practice.
Loving kindness is a quality of attention that we probably all recognize. The Greeks called it Agape. Some call it unconditional love. It is not just a personal caring about another person, although that caring probably has some characteristics of loving kindness within it. The loving kindness we refer to here is a deep open-hearted view of all beings, excluding no one, not even yourself. It recognizes that we all want to be happy, to be safe and comfortable, to have well-being. Imagine a world where we all had those things, or even a world that recognized that we all wanted those things.
I include this meditation, which is not Insight Meditation, because loving kindness is a lens through which we can learn to see the world in a new way. We cultivate a mind-state through this meditation that help create that lens. We use words to focus the mind on this quality. I will give you some here, but feel free to find any others that have meaning to you. This is not a petitioner’s prayer. We are not asking for anything for ourselves or for others. We are opening our hearts to this quality and sharing it.
To practice this, we take our meditation posture and begin with attention on the breath. The words are spoken in your mind and addressed to particular beings. You may follow the traditional order, which I will give below, or any order which feels comfortable to you.
The words I suggest are:
May I/you be happy (and free from enmity).
May I/you be safe (and free from danger).
May I/you have comfort in the body.
May I/you abide in well-being( and peace).
Following is the tradition order:
A Loved One
A Neutral Person
A Difficult Person
In the West, many of us find it difficult to begin with ourselves, to open the heart and wish ourselves happiness, comfort, and peace. If it feels too difficult for you to open your heart to yourself, then just start with someone who makes it easy for you, like the Benefactor. We bring into the mind an image of the one to whom we are offering these wishes. Speak the wishes in your mind to the imagined one. Let the warmth of this loving kindness fill your heart/mind, knowing that there will always be enough to share.
This is a bare beginning for what I hope will be a life-long practice for you. To support that practice, look for books to read, places to go and sit in silence with others, classes or lectures to attend, and eventually meditation retreats for deeper practice over several days.
Most important is a friend, a spiritual friend, with whom you can talk about your meditation experiences and what you are learning. See it for yourself!
Ann Barden teaches insight meditation in Ann Arbor, MI, and San Miguel, Mexico.