While concentrating or settling the mind is common to many spiritual traditions, the special practice of Buddhism is applying that concentrated mind to develop insight: examining our experience closely and precisely in order to understand the true nature of mind and its objects. This is the famed practice of vipassana, taught to us here by the renowned Burmese master Sayadaw U Pandita.
With every moment of noting an object, a meditator who practices insight meditation enters the noble eightfold path, the way of release from suffering. In our tradition, the primary object of attention is the rising and falling of the abdomen due to the breathing process. Each time a meditator notes the rising and falling of the abdomen, he or she has to make an effort to reach the object. In the language of the noble eightfold path, this is known as right effort. The effort expended allows the meditator to observe and remember the object. Distraction is reduced; one begins to be able to sustain attentive mindfulness on the object. Eventually mindfulness arises continuously. This, in the language of the noble eightfold path, is right mindfulness. When mindfulness is continuous and sustained, then gradually the mind will begin to stay on the object in a fixed manner. This, again in the language of the noble eightfold path, is right concentration.
With right effort the kilesas, or defilements, will not be accepted into the mind. Right effort helps to block off the entrance to the so-called path of unwholesomeness, or path of mental defilements. Simultaneously, the path of wholesomeness opens up. Mindfulness protects the mind from attack by kilesas. Concentration has the effect of unifying and focusing the mind so that it stays on the object as and when it arises. These three mental factors—effort, mindfulness, and concentration—together are known as the concentration group, which is one sector of the noble eightfold path. They’re also known as the training in concentration, or the teaching of concentration. In ordinary shorthand we just call them samadhi.
When the concentration group comes together in the mind, kilesas don’t stand a chance. As the meditator aims the mind again and again, his or her awareness gets more and more focused and direct. Sensuous thoughts fail to arise. Nor will there be thoughts of hatred and ill will. The desire to torment others will disappear. Since the mind goes straight to the object of meditation, it does not slip off into lust, distractions, and other forms of torment. The obsessive mental defilements are overcome. In one minute of practice, right aim arises sixty times. Right aim is another factor of the noble eightfold path.
While noting the rising and falling of the abdomen moment by moment, one sees its nature sixty times a minute. The actual nature of the movement will be seen, understood, and known for oneself—not through the mediation of anybody else. When other objects arise, they will be known in the same way. This direct understanding is right view. The two factors of right aim and right view together are called the wisdom group of the noble eightfold path. They’re also called the training in wisdom, or the teaching of wisdom. With training in wisdom, even the dormant or latent defilements will be temporarily dispelled. Seeing the actual nature of the mind-body process, we begin to cut through to more subtle levels of knowledge.
Whenever one observes presently arising objects directly—which means observing them as soon as they arise, with morality, concentration, and wisdom—then one will be free from gross, medium, and subtle or latent defilements. There will be freedom from lobha: craving, desire, lust, and all similar feelings. There will be freedom from dosa: hatred, anger, ill will, and their relatives. Moha—bewilderment, delusion, unclear seeing—will also be absent. When greed, hatred, and delusion are absent the mind is pure, clean, clear.
If the mind is not clear and clean, we are accepting a low standard of living, a low status. On the other hand, if the mind is pure we should think of this as a high standard of living, a high status. One’s mind and behavior become refined. Freed from greed, hatred, and delusion, we are untroubled within. Everything cherishes these qualities of refinement and calm. Here we see how meditators benefit directly from their practice. At the same time, others who live nearby will also gain indirect benefits. The meditator does not agitate his or her surroundings and so the world becomes more peaceful for everyone.
Gaining a victory with the help of morality, concentration, and wisdom is known as dhamma success, or dhamma victory. When one gains this dhamma success in one’s own small world, there will be fewer problems overall. One’s own mind and surroundings become cool and peaceful. We spread less harm; the world gets better for everybody.
Some people gain victory by weapons, others by the use of power. Still others manipulate groups or even threaten, frighten, and torture others. These external victories are based in greed, hatred, and delusion—lobha, dosa, and moha. They have mixed consequences at best and certainly don’t qualify as dhamma victories. Instead they’re known as adhamma victories, that is, truthless victories. Gaining adhamma victory, one tends to lose one’s integrity and dignity, and problems arise as a consequence. The Buddha has given us instead the insight meditation practice, a path that leads to victory over ourselves. When we have this inner victory, it is we who reap the greatest benefit.
Qualities Needed During Meditation Practice
The crux of meditation practice is to sustain continuous mindfulness. For this one needs stability and durability of mind, strong effort, and the courage to overcome difficulties.
Moreover, a meditator needs discernment. She or he must be capable of assessing what will be suitable, as opposed to what will be distracting or otherwise deleterious to the continuity of mindfulness. In deciding whether to undertake an activity, then, a meditator must reflect wisely, make a decision, and stick to it.
Some meditators allow gaps to arise in their mindfulness. These people must try to revive their good qualities, and resume. Durability of mind, effort, courage, and discrimination can never be slack or halfhearted. We need extraordinary durability, extraordinary effort, extraordinary courage, and extraordinary discernment.
The Practice of Insight Meditation
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, loving-kindness, 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 insight meditation. 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 Insight 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).
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.
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.
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.
Do remember that the purpose of paying attention to pain is to know its nature, not to heal it or make it go away. All the same, 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 and 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 or 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, 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 meditative factor of “aiming” is the knowing mind focused at the object. It is with effort that we propel the mind toward the object. When the mind and object are in contact there is “rubbing”—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 to increase the hours of practice and reduce sleepiness; it also adds wholesome volition by following the example of monks and nuns, whose precepts include forgoing 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 sensation 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.
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.
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.
© Sayadaw U Pandita, 2006. Adapted front The State of Mind Called Beautiful, with permission of Wisdom Publications.