“What Is Insight” is a fun and playful space for people interested in looking at the world through wiser and kinder eyes. Here we post video, audio, quotes, poems, and encouragement on living in a more meaningful, engaged and mindful way. Our primary means by exploring the tools of insight meditation. Please feel free to post comments, share posts with your friends, or shop for a cute Buddha statue while you’re here. We hope that you enjoy this space.
What Is Insight Meditation?
Insight – Vipassana
The term “Insight Meditation” refers to practices for the mind that develop calm through sustained attention, and insight (vipassana) through reflection. A fundamental technique for sustaining attention is focusing awareness on the body; traditionally, this is practiced while sitting or walking.
Reflection occurs quite naturally afterwards, when one is “comfortable” within the context of the meditation exercise. There will be a sense of ease and interest, and one begins to look around and become acquainted with the mind that is meditating. This “looking around” is called contemplation, a personal and direct seeing that can only be suggested by any technique.
Ehipassiko – See For Yourself
The purpose of Insight Meditation is not to create a system of beliefs, but rather to give guidance on how to see clearly into the nature of the mind. In this way one gains first-hand understanding of the way things are, without reliance on opinions or theories — a direct experience, which has its own vitality. It also gives rise to the sense of deep calm that comes from knowing something for oneself, beyond any doubt.
Focusing the mind on the body can be readily accomplished while sitting. You need to find a time and a place which affords you calm and freedom from disturbance.
Use a posture that will keep your back straight without strain. A simple upright chair may be helpful, or you may be able to use one of the lotus postures. These look awkward at first, but in time they can provide a unique balance of gentle firmness that gladdens the mind without tiring the body.
If the chin is tilted very slightly down this will help, but do not allow the head to loll forward as this encourages drowsiness. Place the hands on your lap, palms upwards, one gently resting on the other with the thumb-tips touching. Take your time, and get the right balance.
Now, collect your attention, and begin to move it slowly down your body. Notice the sensations. Relax any tensions, particularly in the face, neck and hands. Allow the eyelids to close or half close.
Investigate how you are feeling. Expectant or tense? Then relax your attention a little. With this, the mind will probably calm down, and you may find some thoughts drifting in — reflections, daydreams, memories, or doubts about whether you are doing it right! Instead of following or contending with these thought patterns, bring more attention to the body, which is a useful anchor for a wandering mind.
Mindfulness of Breathing
Instead of “body sweeping”, or after a preliminary period of this practice, mindfulness can be developed through attention on the breath.
First, follow the sensation of your ordinary breath as it flows in through the nostrils and fills the chest and abdomen. Then try maintaining your attention at one point, either at the diaphragm or — a more refined location — at the nostrils. Breath has a tranquillising quality, steady and relaxing if you don’t force it; this is helped by an upright posture. Your mind may wander, but keep patiently returning to the breath.
It is not necessary to develop concentration to the point of excluding everything else except the breath. Rather than to create a trance, the purpose here is to allow you to notice the workings of the mind, and to bring a measure of peaceful clarity into it. The entire process — gathering your attention, noticing the breath, noticing that the mind has wandered, and re-establishing your attention — develops mindfulness, patience and insightful understanding. So don’t be put off by apparent “failure” — simply begin again. Continuing in this way allows the mind eventually to calm down.
If you get very restless or agitated, just relax. Practise being at peace with yourself, listening to — without necessarily believing in — the voices of the mind.
Opening the Heart
Cultivating good-will (metta) gives another dimension to the practice of Insight. Meditation naturally teaches patience and tolerance, or at least it shows the importance of these qualities. So you may well wish to develop a more friendly and caring attitude towards yourself and other people. In meditation, you can cultivate good-will very realistically.
Focus attention on the breath, which you will now be using as the means of spreading kindness and good-will. Begin with yourself, with your body. Visualise the breath as a light, or see your awareness as being a warm ray, and gradually sweep it over your body. Lightly focus your attention on the centre of the chest, around the heart region. As you breathe in, direct patient kindness towards yourself, perhaps with the thought, “May I be well”, or “Peace”. As you breathe out, let the mood of that thought, or the awareness of light, spread outwards from the heart, through the body, through the mind, and beyond yourself. “May others be well.”
If you are experiencing negative states of mind, breathe in the qualities of tolerance and forgiveness. Visualising the breath as having a healing colour may be helpful. On the out-breath, let go — of any stress, worry or negativity — and extend the sense of release through the body, the mind, and beyond, as before.
After calming the mind by one of the methods described above, consciously put aside the meditation object. Observe the flow of mental images and sensations just as they arise, without engaging in criticism or praise. Notice any aversion and fascination; contemplate any uncertainty, happiness, restlessness or tranquillity as it arises. You can return to a meditation object (such as the breath). whenever the sense of clarity diminishes, or if you begin to feel overwhelmed by impressions. When a sense of steadiness returns, you can relinquish the object again.
This practice of “bare attention” is well-suited for contemplating the mental process. Along with observing the mind’s particular “ingredients”, we can turn our attention to the nature of the container. As for the contents of the mind, Buddhist teaching points especially to three simple, fundamental characteristics.
With the practice of Insight Meditation you will see your attitudes more clearly, and come to know which are helpful and which create difficulties. An open attitude can make even unpleasant experiences insightful — for instance, understanding the way that the mind reacts against pain or sickness. When you approach such experiences in this way, you can often unwind the stress and resistance to pain, and alleviate it to a great degree. On the other hand, an impatient streak will have different results: becoming annoyed with others if they disturb your meditation; being disappointed if your practice doesn’t seem to be progressing fast enough; falling into unpleasant moods over insignificant matters. Meditation teaches us that peace of mind — or its absence — essentially depends on whether or not we contemplate the events of life in a spirit of reflection and open-mindedness.
By looking into your intentions and attitudes in the quiet of meditation, you can investigate the relationship between desire and dissatisfaction. See the causes of discontent: wanting what you don’t have; rejecting what you dislike; being unable to keep what you want. This is especially oppressive when the subject of the discontent and desire is yourself. No-one finds it easy to be at peace with personal weakness, especially when so much social emphasis is placed on feeling good, getting ahead and having the best. Such expectations indeed make it difficult to accept oneself as one is.