Get Very, Very Close

Sayadaw U Pandita’s shares his instructions for satipatthana vipassana.

By Sayadaw U Pandita

Photo by David Gabriel Fischer.

Our meditative tradition was founded by the late Venerable Mahasi Sayadaw of Rangoon. According to his instructions, satipatthana vipassana, also known as insight meditation, is the primary teaching. Discourses on metta are also offered, though far less often. This is because insight wisdom has the capacity to liberate the mind by seeing the Dhamma directly.

Unfortunately, however, not everyone can practice high-level satipatthana vipassana. It is a demanding practice, suitable for a minority of exceptional people.

The benefits to be gained from this type of meditation, furthermore, are primarily for oneself. Others do benefit, but this happens somewhat indirectly. Since metta is easier for most people to develop and it benefits everyone, the practice of loving-kindness really ought to become widespread. But if we undertake the practice of metta, we must never lose sight of the unique possibilities offered by vipassana meditation.

Basic Instructions for Satipatthana Vipassana Meditation


Any basic sitting posture is all right, whether the legs are crossed or folded. One can be sitting in a chair, but if so, the back should not be supported. The body should be as upright as possible and the eyes should be closed (unless you are drowsy).

Primary Object

The main object of awareness is the natural breath, as it is. Do not try to control the breath in any way; simply allow it to come and go while closely observing what happens in the area of the abdomen. The rising of the abdomen along with the in-breath, and the falling of the abdomen along with the out-breath, will consist of a variety of sensations and experiences. All of these should be noticed as continuously as possible. Let there be no gaps in your attention.

The observation of any object has three parts:

  1. Occurrence: attention should arrive quickly, as close to the arising of the object as possible.
  2. Labeling and observation: label the rising movement as “rising,” and the falling as “falling.” Observation should be careful and diligent, the label gentle and simple. It is not necessary to form elaborate concepts of what is going on. Labeling merely identifies the event and serves to direct the mind toward it.
  3. Knowing the nature: in the rising and falling of the abdomen, one knows the sensations as they are. In the rising, for example, there are likely to be sensations of tension, tightness, stiffness, and hardness. There can also be vibration and movement.

It is not possible to observe the rising and falling continuously for a very long time. Other objects will arise; when they do, it is often recommended to move the attention away from the breath.

Photo by David Gabriel Fischer.  Person holding a feather.
Photo by David Gabriel Fischer.

How to Deal with Other Objects

Numerous other objects can be the focus of attention:

1. Eventually the mind wanders. When this happens, shift attention to the wandering and take it as a new object. Label it, but do not get attached to the content of the thoughts. This is very important. The thoughts may disappear right away, in which case you return to the rising and falling. The thoughts may also seem great and fascinating, or else horribly absorbing. No matter how thoughts appear, all of them resemble soap bubbles. Try not to jump onto a train of thoughts and get completely lost!

If the wandering mind persists and you become thoroughly absorbed and distracted, cut off your involvement in thinking and return to the sensations at the abdomen.

Minor or background thinking is to be ignored.

2. Pain will arise in the body. When these sensations become predominant, let go of the rising and falling. Label the pain as “pain, pain” and observe it for a while. Label it again.

Remember that the purpose of paying attention to pain is to know its nature, not to heal it or make it go away.

There are four things to be known about physical pain: its quality or characteristic—for example, it may be burning, stabbing, piercing, tearing; its intensity—it may increase, remain the same, or decrease; its location—it may stay put, vanish, spread, or move; and its duration—it may last for a short moment or for an entire sitting, or it may blink on and off.

Remember that the purpose of paying attention to pain is to know its nature, not to heal it or make it go away. Sometimes pain will disappear or change under close observation; on the other hand, its intensity may well increase.

Any such changes are to be registered.

Facing strong pain calls for patience and determination. Don’t change your posture; instead, try to know the pain more deeply. Changing one’s posture weakens concentration. If pain becomes excruciating, though, it is okay to move as long as the change of posture is carried out in full awareness.

3. Loud sound can occur. Label it “hearing” and observe the process of hearing. Notice the volume of the sound, its impact on the ear, and any mental reactions. It is not good to spend too much time on external sounds because this leads to distraction. Do not decide to take sound as a primary object.

4. Internal seeing may arise—visions and visual impressions of colors, forms, landscapes, and sights either remembered or imaginary, realistic or fantastic. Or visions of colors, forms, sights either remembered or imaginary may arise. It is to be labeled “seeing” and observed. Be careful not to get carried away with it, for it can become absorbing and thrilling and is often quite pleasant. This can become an issue for some meditators.

5. Moods or mental states—joy, sloth, hatred, and so forth—will become pervasive, strong, or predominant. Take the mood as the object; label and observe it. If it dissipates, return to the rising and falling. Often, moods and emotions will be associated with sensations in the body. If so, give preference to those sensations rather than any thoughts that may also be arising in association with the mood.

In brief, one must label and observe everything. Whatever object is the most predominant at any given moment is the focus of attention.

You start off with the rising and falling; initially, this develops concentration and stabilizes the mind. Later on, examining a greater array of objects builds energy and flexibility. You also return to the primary object whenever there is nothing else that is clear and easy to observe. If several objects are about the same in their intensity, simply choose one of them.

Mental Factors for Success

The most important meditative factor is mindfulness. It should be continuous, ideally from the moment of waking up to the moment of falling asleep. Concentration and effort are important too. The jhanic factor of “aiming” (vitakka) is the knowing mind focused at the object. It is with effort (viriya) that we propel the mind toward the object. When the mind and object are in contact there is “rubbing” (vicara)—a connected contact of attention and object. Mindfulness will arise, and so will wisdom, based on concentration.

Schedule on Retreat

In the beginning of a retreat, you should sit one hour and walk one hour, more or less. Forty-five minutes of each is also fine. Later on you can sit longer and walk a bit less. On retreat, meditation lasts all day and evening. Meditators get up at four or five o’clock in the morning and stay up as late as they can, meditating. They often reduce their hours of sleep to four or even fewer. Often, too, the last meal of the day is eliminated and only tea is taken. This helps increase the hours of practice and reduce sleepiness; it also adds wholesome volition by following the example of monks and nuns, whose precepts include foregoing the evening meal.

Walking Meditation Instructions

Choose a lane or path where you can walk up and down undisturbed. Divide one hour of walking meditation into three segments.

For the first twenty minutes you can walk relatively fast. Note “left, right, left, right” while paying attention to the predominant sensations in the relevant legs and feet.

For the next twenty minutes, walk a little slower. Note “lifting, placing” or “lifting, lowering” while paying close attention only to the foot that is moving. When you note “lifting,” try to have the noting and the attention coincide at exactly the moment when the heel leaves the ground. When you note “placing” or “lowering,” start with the first moment of heaviness arising in the foot. Register the first touch on the ground and stick with the shift in weight until the foot is fully still. Then move your attention to the other foot, the one that is about to move.

The slower you go, the faster you will progress.

During the final twenty minutes, walk as slowly as possible. Note “lifting, moving, placing” while paying attention to the moving foot only. The slower you go, the faster you will progress!

During walking meditation, you will be aware of sensations or movement. There may be trembling or unsteadiness, especially at first. The movement will not be continuous, and you may also experience slightly odd sensations. For example, you may feel as if you or your foot are being pushed.

Practice restraint of the senses, not looking here and there. Nor is it necessary to look at the feet; just place your gaze a little ahead of yourself, so that you can see where you are going. Sense-restraint while walking develops concentration; it also avoids unwholesome mental states not yet arisen.

General Activities

Slow down all your movements on retreat. Moving super slowly is a great tactic, which helps us see many, many minute details in the body and the mind. Myriad things arise that we are usually not aware of; seeing them develops wisdom. However, if you succeed only in feeling restless, or if a torrent of thoughts develops, find a pace where your mindfulness can coordinate with your body movements.

You should be aware of all activities without exception. If there is a sound on waking, it should be noted. Notice sitting up in bed. Also be aware of meals, of taking food onto the plate, and of all the complex activities required for eating.

Continuity, restraint, and slowness will support your meditation.

Photo by David Gabriel Fischer.  Buddhist head in shadow.
Photo by David Gabriel Fischer.


Can you give us more guidance for refining our noting practice? Can you give an example of a powerful single note?

You have to get very close to the object to see it well.

In the body, distinct objects arise. They all have to be known distinctly and clearly. They arise and pass, arise and pass. Heat is not just one thing but a series of heat sensations. First it is seen as a composite, then you recognize that it is breaking up.

Send the mind toward the object. Align with it. As sati, or awareness, gets closer and closer, it gets better and better. The object will be seen in great detail.

A line of ants, from far away, is seen as a dark line across the road. As one gradually approaches, one sees it wavering slightly and then that it is composed of many, many individual ants. Crouching down, one begins to make out individual ants, with spaces between them; in fact, it is no longer so much a line that one is perceiving, for that concept has dropped away. At some point one can appreciate the antennae, the six legs, and three sections of a single ant’s body, and maybe some small crumb it is carrying in its jaws.

When is it better to cut off thoughts or sensations, and when should one continue to note them?

It is never taught that you should cut off an object. When wandering mind arises, it should be noted, not cut off. Only the defilements are to be cut off. First they must be observed, and then cut. This generally means not remaining involved with them.

The instruction says: “Bhuta bhutati passato, see existing things as they are.” The instruction does not say, cut things off!

However, if wandering mind arises too often or strongly, and you become weary, you may set it aside and contemplate another object. Physical objects should be noted. But one can get wearied of one particular object after some time. If this happens, just put it aside. In general, noting objects as and when they occur in the present moment is always best.

How do we know when noting is good?

When noting is good, objects seem to arise automatically. You don’t feel you have to go looking for them. It is like playing the piano—you reach a stage at which you no longer need advice.

Where does this fall in the stages of insight—when the suffering is so intense, the mind lets go of the object and then there is release from suffering, and then it is seen only as a mental and physical process, empty in essence?

Some meditators study the stages. Some meditators want to know the answer in advance. In a mathematical formula, is it the formula that is important, or the answer?

Listen to the formula, and learn how to make the calculation. Then, do the calculation yourself. An answer given, without having made the calculation yourself, will not be accepted by the teacher.

The formula has been given. If you make a personal calculation, this is good. Otherwise you may go wrong and it becomes a Dhamma danger.

Is something lacking in a practitioner’s development if they have no questions?

Please don’t think that progress depends on whether you have questions or don’t have questions. Knowing the object from moment to moment is what constitutes progress. You are not lacking in anything.

Taste for yourself tranquility and the other results of meditation practice. Don’t ask questions just to ask—it will interfere. But if you don’t understand something, then by all means ask!

The mind becomes clear and calm. If you practice steadily, the noble eightfold path will develop. Then you will no longer need to ask questions.

Your question is not a sign of a flaw. If someone offers you food and you ask about its origins, you won’t taste the food. So, continue to eat!

In conclusion, I would like to remind you that all of you are in a frontline battle against the defilements. If you don’t fight, you will be overrun by the kilesa (klesha) enemy. Your commander says, “Go out and fight.”

Adapted from The State of Mind Called Beautiful,Wisdom 2012.

Sayadaw U Pandita

Sayadaw U Pandita

Sayadaw U Pandita Bhivamsa is the founder and abbot of Panditarama Meditation Center in Yangon, Myanmar.