It has been more than 2,500 years since the Buddha first expounded the teachings. Throughout history, the teachings, the dhamma, have at times lost their vitality. But reformation movements—some large, some small—have always helped to revive them. In Theravadan Buddhist countries, the Burmese teacher Mahasi Sayadaw has been credited widely with bringing new insight to the practice of vipassana. His system demands a total dedication to keeping the attention inward, from the moment of waking until the end of the day. The three characteristics of Mahasi’s technique are observing the breath at the abdomen, noting, and going very slowly.
Observing the Breath at the Abdomen
In vipassana meditation we observe the breath, or rather the sensations caused by breathing, in order to concentrate moment to moment. Because the breath is a neutral object, this practice effectively calms the heart-mind. There are several places where meditators feel the sensation of breathing, and they vary from person to person. Some feel it more at the nostrils or upper lip, others in the rising and falling of the chest, and still others in the abdomen. In terms of vipassana meditation, observing the breath at any of these places is a valid practice.
Mahasi, however, favored observing the sensations of the breath at the abdomen, in part because it is related to slow walking. Just as we observe and experience the foot rising and falling, so we experience the abdomen rising and falling. With awareness of the breath in the abdomen, for the better part of the day a meditator can observe the characteristic of transience in a very obvious way. Observing transience or impermanence (anicca) is one of the ways in which the Buddha asks us to investigate ourselves. Is there anything we experience that is not impermanent? The other two avenues of investigation are observing dissatisfaction (dukkha) and not-self (anatta). According to the Buddha, our insights into these three characteristics of existence can lead to liberation from all suffering.
The second reason Mahasi favored focusing on sensations at the abdomen is that when we concentrate on the breath at the nostrils, we tend to lose contact with the body. That is why observing the breath at the nostrils is a popular and effective way of achieving those higher states of concentration known as the absorptions, or jhanas. But in absorption, there is a danger. When concentration locks one-pointedly on a single object, the effect is to suppress everything else. Such focus stops the process of purifying the heart, which is our emotional life. This is not to say that deep concentration practice cannot go hand-in-hand with vipassana. Indeed, such practice is well supported in the Buddha’s Discourse on How to Establish Mindfulness (Satipatthana Sutta, Majjhima Nikaya 10). But Mahasi espoused the direct path of vipassana only (ekayano maggo).
Allowing mental turbulence to express itself within consciousness and bearing it patiently in meditation is how we burn it off.
The Mahasi technique does not preclude observing the breath at the nostrils. Although Mahasi preferred the abdomen as a place of primary observation, he did not ban anyone from observing sensations at the nostrils. However, when we center our attention instead on the abdomen or chest (when the breath is shallow), we remain in closer contact with body. This is an important element, as our emotions, moods, and other mental states express themselves through the body, often as blocks or aches and pains or even as raw emotion. Allowing mental turbulence to express itself within consciousness and bearing it patiently in meditation is how we burn it off. This is the psychotherapeutic effect of vipassana.
Noting is the second component of the vipassana technique that Mahasi Sayadaw taught. Paradoxically, the result of noting is that it takes a meditator beyond thinking. It is not an end in itself. The Buddha taught that there are two stages of concentrated thought before full concentration is established. The first is a simple noting or naming of the object. This act of labeling, vitakka, whereby the attention is pointed at the object, is likened to a bee flying toward a flower. The label encapsulates the whole experience. In children just beginning to speak, this process is very obvious and simplistic. They rejoice at being able to name an object—“Car! Car!” At their level of linguistic development, the word “car” simply points to the object. There’s not much thought around the word, since language itself, which allows us to think about an object, is not that developed yet.
For adults, the word “car” conjures up a host of memories and desires. We are thinking about an object, which is known as proliferation (papañca). Thinking and daydreaming serve to keep our attention off the presenting object and distract the mind. The Buddha likened this thinking mind to a monkey that jumps from branch to branch. We have to rein the monkey in. Shrinking thought down to a single word is the preliminary effort. At this stage the meditator has to keep pulling the attention out of wandering and into observing. That’s what training with a technique is all about: reconditioning consciousness to be present and attentive to what’s happening now.
Noting is an acknowledgement of what the body, heart, and mind are doing. For it to be effective, it has to be practiced with precision. For example, on waking from a fantasy, there is the first note: we recognize that we are arguing, planning, or lusting. Then there is further noting, which acknowledges what we are obsessing about. In the same way, if a sensation or feeling arises in the body, the first note is recognition, and the second and all subsequent notes are acknowledgements of what is really happening now. The attention is placed not on the word but on the experience: the feeling of a sensation, the feeling of an emotion. It is as though the intuitive intelligence sees through the word, experiencing the sensation or emotion directly. In this way conceptual thinking is brought into the service of intuitive intelligence, rather than continuing to obscure it.
We tend to be confused about this original intuitive intelligence. The activities of our body, mind, and heart—sensations, thoughts, and emotions—make us think there is a “me.” This mistaken identity, which the Buddha referred to as the self, atta (atman in Sanskrit), is the root of our problem. The Buddha’s teaching of not-self, anatta (anatman), encourages us to develop the understanding that anything we experience that arises and passes away cannot be a “me.” Nor can it be possessed or made “mine.” Recognizing that our experience is neither me nor mine allows our intuitive intelligence to realize its own true nature.
The activities of our body, mind, and heart—sensations, thoughts, and emotions—make us think there is a “me.”
Thought itself can be split into two categories, conceptualizing and image-making. For example, with our attention on the breath, as we practice noting, we have a concept of rising and falling and also a mental image of the abdomen. We do not try to destroy or obliterate the concept or the image. We just keep pointing our attention to the feeling of movement. As our attention to the sensation grows in strength, eventually it will take all the energy out of thinking until all that remains is the noting word.
Now we have reached the second stage of development, vicara. We are still noting, but instead of wandering off, our attention stays on the object. This second stage of developing right concentration is likened to a bee landing on a flower and gathering the pollen. If we continue to note, increasing our attention on the object and really feeling those sensations as they arise and pass away, all the energy will be drawn out of the thinking mind. It will stop.
Thinking is an attempt to categorize. We see what we experience in light of what has happened in the past. And what we have experienced in the past is filtered through the way we look at things now, our dispositions (sankhara). That is why conceptual thought will not allow us to see things anew. If we want to experience things as they are, conceptual thinking about those things must come to an end. When thinking stops, we are right there with what is happening. It is at that point that true vipassana consciousness, samma sati, right awareness, arises. Our intuitive intelligence, pañña, free of the distortion of thought and image, can finally begin to understand and see things as they are (ñanadassana-yatha-bhutam).
We don’t have to worry about when to stop the noting. Once we have arrived at a high enough level of awareness and concentration, it will just stop. Such moments of pure vipassana, known as khanika samadhi, are usually of very short duration, but they have great potential for insight. With consistent practice, our experience eventually lengthens into a moment-to-moment concentrated awareness. Unlike absorption concentration (arambana samadhi), this state does not depend on a single object. It takes anything that arises within the mind—sensation, emotion, or thought—as its object, but for the purpose of seeing the three characteristics of existence (lakkhana samadhi). In other words, the concentration in vipassana is only there to support awareness (sati) and intuitive intelligence (pañña). This steady focus on and exploration of impermanence, dissatisfaction, and not-self are what finally lead us to liberation.
Some meditators have difficulty with noting. For instance, they might experience the word as very loud, which dominates their practice. This is simply a symptom that conceptual thinking is blocking intuitive intelligence. By patiently placing the attention on feelings, that intelligence will extricate itself from the conceptual mind. This new way of experiencing the world is often quite a discovery. Another common difficulty is finding the right word. We get caught in looking for just the word, as if we are writing a poem. But the simplest word, such as “feeling,” will do.
The activity of noting, of course, is not limited to the sitting posture. In the Mahasi technique we practice it continuously, from the moment we wake up until the moment we fall asleep. We abandon all hierarchy, thinking that sitting is more important than walking, which is more important than eating, and so on. The practice requires noting the day’s most seemingly insignificant actions, such as opening a door.
Not only do we note sensations, emotions, wandering mind, and actions but also that category of thought that we experience as intention. An intention is thought laced with desire. It is the instigator of all actions of body, speech, and thought. Not all desires are unskillful. To note an intention gives us the time to acknowledge it as either wholesome or unwholesome. It gives us the opportunity to let go of those intentions that we discern as leading to dissatisfaction and empower those that will lead to contentment, such as the desire to meditate.
Our discernment is rooted in the understanding of kamma (karma). The Buddha calls kamma the will (cetana). Will is the power to take something out of the realm of the potential and to actualize it. To realize an intention, we have to empower it. If we stand up and note our intention to walk, the foot will move, because will has translated that intention into an action, committing an act of kamma. When repeated, these actions create our habits. What we consider to be our personality is only a collection of habits that are driving us to our destiny. That is why noting intentions is such an essential component of progress toward liberation.
This body, this heart, this mind, is not me, not mine, and do not in themselves constitute a self.
The technique of noting, then, is a contrivance we use to begin to train the attention to stay on the presenting object and, more importantly, to trick the intellect into coming to a full stop. All that conceptual thinking is distorting the way the intuitive mind sees. Intellect knows only by way of categories, memory, and concepts. When we halt that process of conceiving and keep perception in its simplest form at the point of contact, this intuitive intelligence sees everything again as a child but with a meditator’s understanding. Because we have primed that intelligence to observe the three characteristics, it can liberate itself from the delusion of mistaken identity and its possession of the psychophysical organism. This body, this heart, this mind, is not me, not mine, and do not in themselves constitute a self.
In the Discourse on How to Establish Mindfulness, the Buddha discusses mindfully doing such things as looking, dressing, grooming, eating, and so on. Performing these actions slowly and deliberately sharpens our attentiveness and makes “the way things are” easier to perceive, much like slowing down a film. As we slow down a film, we see things we don’t usually see, like the flick of a frog’s tongue as it catches a fly. In the same way, the more we slow down movement, the more easily we perceive how the body, heart, and mind interact.
Progress of Insight
The Mahasi vipassana technique has the power to guide a meditator through the classic stages of the insight knowledges (vipassana ñana). These are the insights that lead to the first direct experience of nibbana, known as stream-entry (sotapanna). In the Theravada system, the whole process is repeated four times to attain the path and fruit of the once-returner (sakadagami), the non-returner (anagami), and the arahat, or enlightened being. Mahasi explains this process in clear detail in his book The Progress of Insight.