INSIGHT MEDITATION – DETAILED OVERVIEW
People have practiced some form of meditation, or quieting of the mind, since the beginning of recorded history. Every major world religion, and many lesser known spiritual traditions, include a contemplative component.
Insight Meditation is designed to quiet the mind and refine our awareness so that we can experience the truth of our lives directly with a minimum of distraction and obscuration. It is characterized by simplicity, stillness, and attention.
People often think meditation means thinking about something, reflecting on, or mulling something over. In mindfulness practice the idea is to be aware of what’s arising (thoughts included), but not to particularly thinking about what’s happening.
Meditation - here in this context can be defined - as aiming the mind and sustaining attention upon an object.
The emphasis in meditation practice is on the word practice. It is a lifelong journey. We learn to come back to the beginning - our clear, unobstructed experience - and start again. Touching in daily with this profound practice yields the greatest impact throughout our life.
Just as painful habits take time to unravel, helpful habits take time to instil.
Keep the practice simple. The purpose of your practice is not to induce any particular state of mind, but to bring added clarity to whatever experience you’re having in the moment. An attitude of openness and curiosity will help you let go of judgments, expectations, and other obstacles that keep you from being present.
Another widespread misunderstanding happens to be that the goal of meditation is to cease thinking, or to only have pleasant and wonderful experiences.
It isn’t that at all, but rather to be free, whatever experience is happening. ☺
1 – Breathing Exercise
This exercise is the basic training to enable us to bring our full attention to the present moment, it happens to be the foundation or core of all meditation.
It is designed to train aiming the mind directly at the object of the present moment and to connect just deeply enough with our attention.
Here we aim the mind toward just this very breath – not being concerned with what came before, or even with the very next breath.
In effect, we’re saying: “Just this one breath.”
Guidelines for looking directly at what is happening while you are breathing.
What sensations do you feel with the in/out of the breath or the rising/falling of the chest or abdomen? Common sensations with the in/out of the breath at the nostrils are: coolness, warmth, tingling, and vibration, pulsing, and itching. Common sensations with the rising/falling of the chest or abdomen are: movement, stretching, releasing, tension, pulsing, and pressure. Sometimes the sensations are experienced as a smooth flow, sometimes as staccato bursts.
You may feel all of these, some of them, or sensations other than those described here. Spend at least twenty minutes observing your breath, and describe the sensations you feel most strongly.
There is no need to control the breath. Simply see how outbreath just follows inbreath, without an imposition of your will. Take a few consciously full breaths, then let go. Use about five minutes to describe how it feels to let the breath flow without directing or shaping it.
Bring your awareness to the very beginning of the in breath or rising movement. See if you can catch the end of it. Be aware of the very beginning of the outbreath or falling movement. Briefly describe your experience.
There’s a difference between feeling and observing the breath. In this exercise, use a simple arm movement as a model. Move your arm slowly in front of you, back and forth. Observe it as though from a distance. Now feel the sensations as though your consciousness were within the arm. Can you describe the difference?
Sometimes there are pauses between the in- and outbreaths, or between the outbreath and the next in breath. If there’s a pause or a gap, you can simply sit and listen to sounds, or feel touch points (areas where your body is in actual contact; for example, your buttocks or knees touching the ground or chair, or your hands touching each other. Touch points are usually around the size of a quarter). Spend approximately ten minutes bringing your awareness to the pauses between breaths, and describe the technique you use for maintaining attention at those times.
Practice the gentle letting go of distracting thoughts. You don’t have to judge yourself, or figure out what you were thinking or why you were thinking it. Practice the simple but powerful act of always beginning again. What is your experience? Use about ten minutes to write your answer.
2 – Expanding The Field Of Awareness - Bare Attention
We’ll be exploring the concept of “bare attention”, slowing down, and the nature of inner awareness: Awareness of the present moment.
You’ll learn the technique of “mental noting,” which can help you cut through the mental patterns separating you from your direct experience.
One central function of the mind is to generate thoughts, and there are many situations in our lives where that is helpful - even indispensable. The point of meditation is to train ourselves to know the difference between thinking and being lost in thought. If we don’t know that difference, we get trapped in worlds that exist only inside our minds and miss the moment-to-moment immediacy of our lives.
Thoughts are no more and no less than fleeting images and impressions that pass through your mind. Watching them is enormously helpful, because this is the way you find out how insubstantial and ephemeral they actually are.
When you start to investigate the thinking process, you come to understand more fully the difference between direct experience and being lost in the stories of our thoughts. Without that understanding, it’s very difficult to live in the present.
The mental note is a thought, too - but it is a skilful use of the thinking process. It helps support our awareness of just what is arising. Not only does mental noting help you bring awareness to your thoughts, it cuts through the stories that thoughts tend to spin.
For example, you might be thinking about how much you’re attracted to someone or how angry someone has made you, or you might be developing elaborate mental plans for the house you’re going to build.
But when you label these thoughts by a short mental note, they’re all just “thinking, thinking.”
When you don’t get involved in them, all thoughts follow a natural life cycle of arising, dwelling, and passing away.
Mental noting helps you to not take the contents of your thoughts too seriously.
It’s important to remember, that the goal of meditation isn’t necessarily to think less, but to become more present in your experience - including your experience of thinking - throughout every part of your life.
The more we practice in this way, the less we find ourselves being driven by our mental constructs.
So whether we have fewer thoughts than we did before, or continue thinking as much as ever, our responses to our thoughts change. By becoming aware of the fact that we’re thinking, we’re better able to bring some discriminating wisdom to our choices.
Do we want to act on this thought—or just watch it pass on through? ☺
Guidelines for looking directly at what is happening while you are walking.
Walking meditation can provide a bridge between formal sitting practice and your actions out in the world. Here are some suggestions to help you carry the mindfulness of walking meditation into your daily activities.
Slowly lift, move forward, and place your foot as you take a single step. What do you feel? How does it feel to shift to the other foot and go through the same three-part movement? Use about five minutes to write your answer.
Practice walking back and forth, without having any destination. Now walk for a few minutes with a destination. How do you experience the difference between these two approaches? Use about ten minutes to write your answer.
Stand (or sit, if necessary) in a relaxed position, and notice the difference between your concepts or image of the body and the reality of touch sensations. What do you actually feel in your foot, your leg, your body? Do you feel any sensations? Use about five minutes to write your answer.
Practice walking meditation as though your consciousness resided in your head. Now walk as though your consciousness were within your physical sensations. Describe the difference. Use about ten minutes to write your answer.
Practice mental noting while you walk. Try to time your noting so that you label “lifting” at the very beginning of the lifting movement, “placing” at the very beginning of the placing movement, and so on. How did you do? Use about five minutes to write your answer.
Do you feel the shifting of your weight between steps? What is your full body experience as you turn? Use about five minutes to write your answer.
Practice walking meditation with your senses as wide open as you can make them. Hear, see, and feel everything in your field. Describe your experience. Use about ten minutes to write your answer.
To deepen the experience:
Practice walking meditation regularly - either before or after your daily sitting meditation or during a separate walking meditation session each day.
Apply the techniques of walking meditation to your routine activities during the day. For example, try bringing your awareness to the movements you make when you open your front door or the ways you hold your fork when eating.
Be especially aware of the added distractions that may arise when you practice with your eyes open (as during walking meditation). Use mental noting to renew your awareness of the movements of your feet and legs.
Experiment with pace. Try walking a little faster, then a little slower. This will help you find the pace that best supports awareness. Give yourself permission to change your pace as necessary.
Regard walking meditation as a practice in its own right rather than a break from sitting meditation. Although it can provide physical relief through movement during lengthy sitting sessions, walking meditation is equally effective for practicing awareness. Try to stay continuously mindful as you move from one practice to the next.
3 – How To Work With Obstacles - Desire And Aversion
We begin our exploration of five obstructive habit patterns, which are considered to be chiefly responsible for distracting our minds from awareness of the present moment, from direct experience:
Desire, aversion, sleepiness, restlessness, and doubt.
We’ll look closely at the emotions of desire and aversion, how they are widely misunderstood in Western culture, and how to undo their influence in our everyday lives.
The first two obstructive patterns - desire and aversion - can distract us from our moment-to-moment experience.
Simply stated, desire - also known as attachment or clinging - is the tendency to try to hold on to pleasant experiences.
Aversion (anger or aggression. sadness) is the tendency to push away unpleasant experiences.
Boredom for instance is actually another form of aversion. When we truly experience it with the power of mindfulness, we discover that boredom comes from lack of attention. We don’t like what’s happening, so we withdraw our attention, which leads to boredom.
If we stay with this feeling, it becomes a useful signal. We break through to a whole new level of understanding. By focusing your awareness on boredom as an object of meditation, you can open your mind and heart to include the fullness of your experience - including your sense of dissatisfaction and flavourlessness. Then you may find that even the repetitive sensation of breathing can be an amazingly interesting and wonderful experience.
Judgment is another aspect of the hindrance of aversion. So when you fall into self-condemnation, you strengthen the body of obstacles / hindrances.
Ultimately, the most useful technique in working with any of the obstacles/ hindrances is to refrain from identifying with them.
When you examine your experience of judgment, you discover that there is in fact no “me” to blame for this condemning mind (see point 5).
Like all other thoughts, these judgments arise and pass away. They don’t define the unchanging truth of who you are. ☺
The recognition of impermanence is another powerful ally.
The difficulties that arise in our meditation practice come not from the object of desire or aversion, but from the energy of desire or aversion itself.
The energy of desire keeps us moving, looking for that one thing that will finally bring us irreversible contentment.
The energy of aversion makes us want to separate ourselves from our experience, making it impossible for us to explore the present moment with a spirit of discovery.
So it doesn’t matter what the object of your desire or aversion may be. The next time these mind states arise, take the opportunity to explore their nature and the relationships they create to the experiences of your life.
In a nutshell:
Desire (Attachment, Clinging, Craving)
In the context of insight meditation, desire refers to the futile attempt to hang on to pleasant experiences by trying to stop the natural flow of changing conditions. This tendency can manifest in something as innocuous as a fleeting yearning for something we see in a shop window to extreme states such as addiction.
The illusion of desire is that we can find satisfaction by acquiring the thing, person, or experience we crave.
The irony of desire is that it can never fulfil its promise. Desire only creates more desire. This is because satisfaction can’t be attained through external objects and experiences, so the pursuit of desire is bound to end in disappointment.
In the process, we also lose our peace of mind to the continual quest for the unattainable. Instead of living in the immediacy of the present moment, our minds are constantly darting ahead to a moment of fulfilment that never comes.
In a nutshell:
Aversion (Anger, Hatred, Guilt)
Aversion tends to manifest in two primary forms: the outward channel of rage and the introverted channels of fear, depression, and guilt.
According to Buddhist psychology, guilt serves no purpose but to maintain a state of self-hatred—aversion turned inward.
The outward channel of rage may be perceived as empowering but is actually limiting, painful, and debilitating. We become beguiled by the energy of anger and may not see or know how to handle its destructive force.
Some contemporary psychologists recommend “getting your anger out” by screaming, beating on pillows, and so on. Yet others point out that the more we express our anger, the more anger we seem to generate.
In insight meditation, we work with anger by entering the inner experience mindfully, without acting it out. This practice allows us to examine all the components that make up this particular feeling, and ultimately to recognize that both the experience of anger and the self, experiencing it are constantly changing shape.
None of it is as solid as it appears. ☺
Guidelines for looking directly at what is happening while experiencing pain and pleasant sensations.
In the course of a normal day, most of us encounter aversion and desire repeatedly.
The exercises in this session will help you to identify and defuse these obstacles to clear your perception. ☺
These exercises will help you further explore physical sensations - including pain - in your insight meditation practice.
Bring your awareness to a small area of your body, such as a hand or knee. Name the sensations you discover there.
Identify a part of your body that’s experiencing pain. What sensations make up the pain? Name your mental reaction to it.
What conclusions are you drawing about yourself because of the pain?
How does the past figure into your mental attitude to pain? How does the future figure into it? Describe your experience during meditation when you separate pain from thoughts of past and future.
Can you open to pleasant sensation? What is your mental attitude to pleasure?
Explore the relationship between your body and your mind. What is the connection between your mental state and the degree of physical pain?
Relax your body. Move your attention from a one-pointed perspective (i.e., focused on the physical discomfort) to a big perspective (i.e., an awareness of your entire body and all the sounds, smells, sensations, and so on arising from your environment). Describe how it feels to shift your awareness in this way.
To deepen the experience:
Working with Desire
Recognize what you can control, and practice letting go of those things you can’t. Ending the futile struggle against inevitable change releases our energy for more effective and realistic activities.
Practice generosity. Generosity reverses the energy of desire, freeing us from the endless self-absorption involved in trying to draw satisfaction inward. Instead, the energetic flow of giving moves outward, toward others. You may find, ironically, that this natural outflow yields the greatest satisfaction of all.
Cultivate gratitude. Instead of seeing our lives in terms of what we aren’t getting, we can open our hearts with joy to all those things we continually receive from our world.
Simplify your life. Ask yourself the question, “What do I truly need in order to be happy?” The practice of meditation is very helpful in learning to see what is truly essential to our happiness and what is simply a web of illusion spun by the force of desire.
Working with Aversion
Shift your focus from your anger to the suffering of the situation—both your own and that of others. The Buddhist texts teach that all aggression is a source of pain. Your own angry response will diminish if you can remember that the other’s anger points to a sense of helplessness that keeps him or her from pursuing a more effective course of action.
Free yourself from the role of avenger. If someone has caused harm, that person will inevitably suffer—this is the law of karma (discussed in Session 8). “Hatred can never cease by hatred.” By meeting aversion with love, you can cut the cycle of escalating anger and change the momentum of painful situations.
Practice forgiveness. This is not an abstract, altruistic concept, but a practical self-help strategy. When your mind is full of anger and hatred, you’re the one who’s suffering the most. Forgiving those who have hurt you releases you from a great burden of unhappiness.
Learn to recognize anger, fear, disappointment, and guilt as states of aversion. In this way, you can see and understand your responses in the light of awareness. Although all these forms of aversion may continue to arise, you can find a place of clarity where they need no longer control you.
Learn confidence in the power of lovingkindness (Sessions 8 and 11). This isn’t a state of weakness or complacency, but a source of tremendous strength that is more powerful and effective than anger.
4 – Further Patterns Of Distraction - Sleepiness, Restlessness, And Doubt
We’ll continue our exploration of the five obstructive habit patterns to mindfulness, by taking a closer look at the remaining three: sleepiness, restlessness, and doubt.
These may seem like factors that arise outside of ourselves and drive our lives. Yet they are part of the list of the five primary obstacles/hindrances to mindfulness. We will experience insights and techniques to help us see through them to the fundamental clarity of our minds.
We look at how they tend to arise in our experience, and how to sustain our attention in the face of the challenges they present.
We will learn about the balance between being tranquil and alert and how to “get simple” in your life.
We will learn how to recognize and work directly with these hindrances as they come up in our experience. We will also learn more about the practice of “mental noting” and explore the nature of difficult feelings.
In every case, the antidote to the obstacles/hindrances is mindfulness.
When you look directly at the feelings and perceptions, and simply experience what is, these qualities cease to be obstacles/hindrances and become objects of meditation instead.
More specifically, you can work with restlessness by focusing the awareness on a single object, such as the breath.
Because a restless mind tends to hop from one object to another, this technique produces serenity by declining to feed the feelings of agitation.
We can also make the mind more spacious by focusing on sounds, for example, or the whole body. By making the container larger, we can often more skilfully hold onto and be aware of the energy of restlessness.
Sustaining attention is the true antidote to each single one of the obstructive habit patterns.
In a nutshell:
Sleepiness (Sloth, Sluggishness)
Sleepiness during insight meditation may be caused by many things, including: Energy imbalance, Resistance to painful experience.
In meditation, we try to find the middle way between relaxation and alertness.
An energy imbalance arises when we lean too far in one direction or the other.
When relaxation overtakes alertness, the result is often sleepiness. We tend to feel murky, disconnected, “spaced out.”
Another frequent cause of sleepiness is resistance to painful feelings. Sometimes this is an expression of the mind-body’s wisdom.
When suffering becomes too great, the cloudiness of mind that accompanies sleepiness helps us to step back a little from our pain.
At other times, sleepiness can be a habit-driven attempt to avoid difficult emotions or sensations.
In a nutshell:
Restlessness is the other side of the energy imbalance: an overemphasis on alertness, at the expense of relaxation.
Common manifestations of restlessness are: Physical agitation, Obsessive planning, Guilt.
Sometimes, it can feel extremely difficult to keep still for the duration of your meditation session: your limbs yearn to stretch, your neck itches, and you want to look around the room. Although these sensations may feel entirely physical, this kind of agitation is a manifestation of the mental hindrance of restlessness.
Mentally, restlessness can arise as a tendency to plan your life, your vacation, even your dinner. The obsessive nature of this pastime becomes clear in the way it develops, becoming more and more elaborate and speedy. Obsessive planning takes you into an imagined world of mental events, removing you from the immediacy of your present experience.
Restlessness expressed as guilt arises out of the experience, familiar to many meditators, of using our time on the cushion to take a moral inventory. This can lead to remorse - considered in Buddhist psychology to be a wholesome attitude- or guilt, which is characterized as destructive.
Remorse is a healthy recognition of wrongdoing, a form of awareness that opens the possibility of making amends.
Guilt, on the other hand, is a form of self-flagellation that tends to escalate rather than help you resolve your feelings.
Like any other obsessive mental activity, guilt obscures your experience of the moment you’re in.
In a nutshell:
Doubt (Indecision, Scepticism)
No one should believe anything just because it was uttered by a great teacher. In this sense, doubt is a healthy response to new information. It prompts us to ask the questions that help us find our own way on the spiritual path.
Doubt becomes a hindrance when it manifests as chronic indecision. When faced with a choice, we have to commit to one course or another. Sometimes, indulging in doubt is a way of avoiding that commitment—and the risk that goes along with it.
Another way of avoiding commitment is to over analyse it. This type of sceptical doubt distances us from the vulnerability of our experience. We remain standing at the crossroads, avoiding the potential of making the “wrong” choice. Sceptical doubt makes it difficult to enter anything - including the practice of meditation - wholeheartedly.
It abandons us to our mental fabrications, robbing us of in-depth experience.
Guidelines for looking directly at what is happening while experiencing distraction through hindering behaviour patterns.
The arising of hindrances is not a sign of poor meditation practice; it’s an inevitable part of our experience and hence a good opportunity to watch our mental habits and patterns.
These exercises will help you become more aware of which hindrances come up most for you and will give you some tools for meeting them with mindfulness.
The classical list of the obstacles/hindrances includes desire, aversion, sleepiness, restlessness, and doubt. Can you recognize, acknowledge, and note each of these as you experience them?
Make an effort to surround each hindrance with acceptance. Do you find this harder to do with one of them than with the others?
Being lost in the hindrances is a state of suffering, rather than of being “bad” (as we might say in the West). What happens when you revise your relationship to these states in this way?
Classically, each hindrance is said to be transformed by a particular factor of the concentrated mind. A list of the hindrances and their antidotes follows. Practice with each of these tools and describe your experience.
Grasping or desire is said to be transformed by one-pointedness or steadiness of mind. Desire makes the mind jump to consider each new possibility for pleasure: “Should I do this next?” “Do I need that?” If we sit like a mountain, we can let the desires arise but not be swayed by them.
Aversion, or striking out at the truth of the present moment, is transformed by interest. We can’t push away what’s happening and take an interest in it at the same time.
Sleepiness is transformed by right aim - that is, don’t let the attention become diffuse. Aim it at the experience of this very moment: “Just this one breath. Just this one step.” Don’t be concerned with what’s already gone by or anticipate what has not yet come.
Restlessness is transformed by happiness, or comfort of mind. Notice that awareness can go anywhere. You can look at a painful experience with an awareness that is open and free, even though the object may be painful. This insight is empowering and can overcome the sense of desperation that can accompany restlessness.
Doubt is transformed by sustained attention in the moment. The mind filled with doubt is a mind that hovers, uncertain of what to do or commit to. If we allow our attention to sink into the object of the present moment - to really connect with that object, even if it’s just a breath - that attention will energetically transform the quality of doubt.
To deepen the experience:
Recognize sleepiness as something we experience in parts of every day. We practice meditation in order to wake up. By bringing awareness to the state of torpor, you can gain glimpses into those parts of your world you may be excluding from the totality of your awareness.
If you find yourself losing interest in your surroundings, wherever you are, focus on just one thing. “Just this sentence.” “Just this step.” Bring yourself back into the present moment by becoming mindful of those objects and events that are actually arising.
Surrender. Let your mind be as restless as it wants to, but stay with it. As with any conditioned phenomenon, the restlessness will change shape as you watch it.
Recognize doubt as a thought process. It takes form as a string of words. Drop below the words to your actual experience and you’re likely to encounter the subtle fear and resistance from which doubt can arise.
5 – Working With Perception - Concepts And Reality
We’ll explore the difference between seeing things as they are and being lost in appearances.
Is perception a reliable tool for penetrating the nature of reality?
What is the difference between our concepts and thoughts about the world and the world as it is?
We’ll investigate these questions and look at some practical actions we can take to free ourselves of limiting concepts that obscure our direct experience of reality.
We further explore our concept of the separate self.
As we begin to unwind the difference between concept and reality, we begin to taste true freedom, and a new found openness to others. ☺
Reality occurs on many different levels. One of them is the conventional level on which we function as a “man” or a “woman,” in which we differentiate the green traffic light from the red one. We need to use concepts like these, but it’s helpful to recognize that there’s another level of reality that arises directly out of our experience.
Often concepts arise so quickly and seem so solid that we miss our direct experience.
When this happens, we take as unchanging that which is always in flux, as desirable that which is actually bringing dissatisfaction, and as “self” that which is insubstantial and empty of self.
That is ignorance. ☺
In the Buddhist tradition, there are four so-called “ultimate realities”- ultimate not in a metaphysical sense, but simply because they can be experienced directly.
These are the physical universe, which comprises the four elements of water, earth, air, and fire;
consciousness, or our capacity to know the object of our awareness;
mental factors, which are defined as the qualities of mind that determine our relationships to the objects of consciousness;
and the experience of freedom.
The words we use descriptively (including “foot” and “leg”) are concepts we use to point to the reality.
There’s no sensation called “foot,” but language or concepts can direct us to experience, in the same way that a finger pointing to the moon can lead us to look at the moon.
We just don’t want to confuse the finger with the moon.
We’re driven by the forces of ignorance and desire. Ignorance is that mind state in which the reality of experience is obscured; and desire, as we’ve discussed, is the tendency to abandon the reality of experience in favour of an imaginary world.
Ignorance and desire have been driving us since beginning-less time.
The antidote is to pay attention to the truth of our experience in this moment. That’s the direct link to the real truth of existence. ☺
In a nutshell:
The Myths of Time, Place, and Self
Concepts become obstacles to clear seeing when we identify with them as solid unchanging realities. Many concepts are deeply ingrained in our minds, creating a world of perception that has little to do with our actual experience. Three of the most pervasive and limiting concepts are the notions of time, place, and self.
Although we know that “time” is an artificial construct, most of us take this concept very seriously. We label our experience of memories and reflections “past,” and behave as though these thoughts actually represent something solid that exists continuously behind us. Similarly, we plan and imagine a “future,” on which we project all manner of expectations, hopes, and fears. In fact, the thoughts of both “past” and “future” are happening right now. When we take them for reality, we get stuck in past traumas and triumphs, burdened by anticipated problems, and misled by projected outcomes.
The idea of place is another example of a concept we take very seriously. A young Greek woman tells a story about traveling to India. One day, she came across a desert border-crossing: a dry riverbed, spanned by a large iron bridge. Half of the bridge was painted red, the other half green. In the middle of the bridge was a great iron gate. There was nothing else out there but this huge red and green bridge with its locked gate. For the young woman to cross from one “country” to the other, the guards on one side of the bridge called to those on the other side and both walked up to the gate. Then, at the same moment, they turned their keys in the lock. The gate opened, and the young woman was able to cross the border. Many of the tensions and hostilities in our world today are founded on the notion that such borders exist, separating “my country” from “your country.” In fact, the planet doesn’t naturally recognize such divisions. They exist only as concepts, on which we build great elaborate structures that limit our freedom.
Perhaps our deepest and most persistent concept is the notion of self: the idea that a permanent entity exists as the essence of our being. As we meditate, we discover that “self,” “I,” and “mine” are mistaken ideas arising from our identification with different aspects of the mind-body process. Many of the world’s problems are born from our attempts to justify and defend this imaginary, separate self. This can be seen as the source of our personal suffering as well.
It is important to remember that these concepts, as well as many others, serve useful functions in our lives.
If we remember, though, that they are constructs of our minds, then we can use them when appropriate - but not be imprisoned by them. ☺
The following are notes from a talk by Joseph Goldstein:
The heart of wisdom, which is the great jewel of the Buddhist awakening is the understanding or the realization of selflessness.
What does it mean to say, there is no self, no I, no one behind the process? If the notion of self is an idea, a concept, a hallucination of perception, why is it so strongly conditioned?
Why do we keep creating it, and sustaining it?
When we are not mindful, when we are not aware of what is arising in the moment, then we do not see, that what we call self is really an appearance arising out of a constellation of changing elements.
There is this belief, that there is a self - existing as an independent reality in the world.
As wisdom develops, as wisdom grows, we see that what we call self is simply an appearance arising out of conditions.
Sometimes after a rainstorm, the sun comes out and we see a rainbow in the sky. And most of us see the rainbow and take the light and it brings a certain quality of happiness or joy to our minds.
What really is the rainbow?
There is a certain coming together of conditions, of moisture, and light, and air. When the conditions come together in a certain way, a rainbow appears. But there is no thing in itself, which is a rainbow independent of those conditions.
In the same way there is an appearance of Joseph (Goldstein). There is a certain height, and a certain weight, and it looks a certain way. This is an appearance due to the coming together of different elements of mind and body. We get up in the morning, look in the mirror and there is a moment of recognition, “Yes that is me, the same person as yesterday.” And we give this appearance a name, call it Joseph. And then we believe that there is some Joseph existing as an independent reality in the world. Not seeing clearly or deeply that the appearance of Joseph is simply a constellation of elements of mind and body in a certain pattern.
What is there is an appearance arising out of certain conditions, in just the same way that a rainbow appears.
It might be nice to think of ourselves as being simply rainbows.
The second reason the concept of self is so strong, is that even when we begin to see and differentiate the different elements or conditions, which give rise to the appearance of a sense of self, like sensations or thoughts, or emotions, we may still get caught in the process of identifying with them.
And this identification creates the felt sense of I.
Different bodily sensations arise. Pressure, tightness, lightness, or tingling, or pain, whatever they may be. And without the training of bare attention, of mindfulness, we tend to take them personally.
We feel a certain sensation of pressure and create the concept “knee”. And we do not stop there. We then add the notion, “my knee”, and then we add all kinds of reactions to that. I like it, I do not like it. And through this whole process there is the simple experience of pressure, there is no sensation called knee. Knee is a mental concept which we have created and overlay this moment of our experience.
So we personalize and identify with the concepts about sensations.
We identify with thoughts. A thought arises in the mind, and immediately there is the sense “I am thinking.” We get lost in thoughts, identify with them and then feel constricted.
In the light of awareness we can see all of our thoughts as being insubstantial, as being empty. In the moment of awareness that we are thinking, the thought is gone, ´”thoughts self-liberate”.
The thoughts that arise do not belong to anyone.
Thoughts and all other phenomena are not rooted, they have no roots, no home.
One way of understanding the selfless nature of thoughts is to notice that the thought is the thinker. There is no one behind it, to whom it is happening.
Here is a little experiment I did;
Simply sitting in a restaurant, waiting for a friend to come, I was sitting, aware of the people around me, watching my own experience and I imagined that all the thoughts were coming from the person at the next table. It was an interesting exercise in not identifying with thoughts as they arise.
We identify with sensations, we personalize them, and we create concepts about them. We identify with thoughts, taking them to be I or mine.
We also are in a habit of identifying with emotions. The feeling or the sense, “I am angry, I am fearful, I am kind, and I am happy.”
We can solidify the sense of self even further, “I am an angry person, I am a generous person.” And so we build a whole superstructure, a skyscraper of self on top of a simple particular moment of experience. We fabricate a fixed image of ourselves that is not accurate.
It is anger which angers, it is love which loves. No I, no self, not belonging to anyone.
We also identify with consciousness, with awareness itself. This identification can create the sense of an observer, or a witness. Even when we see that all the other elements of experience are changing, and non-personal, like sensations, or thoughts and emotions, we can still have the sense of “I am knowing all of this.”
We also want to investigate the selfless nature of awareness. One way of doing this, is to describe the practice in the passive voice. For example, “Sounds being heard, emotions being felt, breath being know.” By thinking of it in this passive way, it takes the I, it takes. the self out of the knowing.
“What I want is to leap out of this personality. And then sit apart from that leaping. I have lived too long where I can be reached.” Rumi
With interest and attention it is possible to understand and to recognize the empty nature of awareness.
Sensations, thoughts, sights, sounds, emotions, all being known. Known by what? We can call it unconstructed awareness. But as soon as we add an identification with it, already its open, unborn quality is obscured.
The wisdom of all traditions of Buddhism is expressed in one line;
Nothing whatsoever is to be clung to as I or mine.
Whoever has heard this has heard all of the teachings. Whoever puts this into practice has practiced all the teachings.
“A condition of complete simplicity costing not less than everything and all shall be well, all manner of things shall be well.” T.S. Elliot
Guidelines for looking directly at what is happening while experiencing eating.
Eating is an activity we undertake so often that, for most of us, it has become rote. We might not even notice what we’re eating or whether we’ve had enough.
The very routine nature of this everyday activity makes it an ideal vehicle for becoming more fully aware of the differences between actual experience and our ideas about it.
Choose a food such as a raisin. Place a small handful on a surface in front of you. Describe how it looks and smells.
Pick up the piece of food. Feel the sensations associated with lifting your arm and touching the food. What do you experience?
How do you experience feelings of pleasantness and unpleasantness in chewing the food?
Notice the impulse to take another mouthful before the first is done, if that arises. What is your experience of this?
What mental and/or emotional states are you experiencing as you eat?
What thoughts, self-images, and judgments arise as you do this exercise? Briefly describe each of these three phenomena.
To deepen the experience:
Distinguishing concepts from reality is a practice that moves beyond the meditation cushion and out into every area of our lives. Here are some suggestions that can help you stay in touch with direct experience beyond the formal meditation environment.
When you find yourself confused by any situation, return to your immediate experience.
What are your physical sensations? What can you see, hear, smell, and touch?
Practice recognizing the difference between this awareness and the interpretations or judgments arising in your mind.
Three mental factors are the roots of all unwholesome activities: greed, hatred, and delusion.
Happily, there are also three wholesome roots of mind: generosity, love, and wisdom. Cultivating these qualities helps to bring clarity to our minds, drawing us closer to a fuller understanding of the truth. You’ll find practical suggestions about developing the three wholesome roots of mind throughout this course.
“Wrong view” is the mental factor that wrongly identifies with the changing elements of mind and body as being self, as belonging to “me.” We defuse the energy of this false concept by practicing mindfulness in every moment, with every experience.
We can return to mindfulness as soon as we realize we’ve been lost in concepts.
6 – The Habit Of Suffering
We’ll explore how suffering is intrinsic to the human condition. When we look honestly at the reality of suffering in our own lives, we can then take the necessary steps to free ourselves from it.
You don’t have to watch the news to be aware of suffering. The pain of existence presents itself to you every day, in the form of illness, losses of all kinds, frustrations, unfulfilled longings - the list goes on and on. There’s plenty of suffering right in front of us without having to go looking for it. And that’s where we start: by recognizing and acknowledging the unhappiness and dissatisfaction in our own lives and those of the people and other beings around us.
We´ll explore the reality of suffering and learn how to transform it into the experience of freedom.
“If a vase falls off a table and breaks, the message is: it’s breakable.”
The point is that maybe we can’t know the “grand scheme of things.” All we know, for sure, is that suffering does exist in this moment, and our job is to bring as much wisdom and compassion as we can to all that we encounter.
However, instead of being lost in our suffering, we should understand and accept the fact of its existence. The appropriate response to suffering is awareness and compassion, always.
We’ll go into the nature of pain and look at the nature of change and the pain that often arises from it.
We take a gentle encounter with limiting, often unacknowledged, conditioned reactions to pain. By learning to note your range of emotions, you come face to face with what is there, recognizing and accepting your emotional experience while at the same time not overly identifying with it.
In a nutshell:
The Three Kinds of Suffering
Three categories of human suffering have been identified so far:
The Suffering of Painful Experiences
This is probably what most of us think of when we think about the pain of existence. It includes all kinds of physical, mental, and emotional discomforts, like sickness, rage, addiction, and so forth. This kind of suffering is the consequence of having a physical body and a human mind.
The Suffering of Change
Ordinarily, we spend much of our lives trying to create an unchanging, permanent pleasure state. Our culture supports this pursuit, most noticeably through advertising that promises an end to pain through material consumption. Yet the truth of existence is that all things and experiences are transitory. We create suffering for ourselves whenever we try to avoid the inherent uncertainty of our lives.
The Suffering of Conditionality
Everything in this world comes into being through a combination of conditions. Just as it takes a certain configuration of humidity, sunlight, and angle of vision to create a rainbow, all the phenomena we experience - including our “selves”- are merely sets of changing conditions. Whenever we try to grab onto some phenomenon and solidify it as a single unchanging entity, the natural order of things inevitably thwarts our efforts.
The four axioms of suffering are:
The existence of suffering
The origin of suffering
The end of suffering
The path to the end of suffering
The Existence of Suffering
The world is full of hunger, illness, loss, and change. Yet, somehow, we manage to live much of our lives denying these facts. Like children playing in a blazing house, we distract ourselves with momentary pleasures and ignore the heat and smoke surrounding us.
In the legend of the young prince who later became the Buddha, four encounters woke him up to the truth of human suffering: he saw an old person, a sick person, a corpse, and a renunciant. Our culture works hard to sweep people like these off our streets, so we don’t have to see them.
No matter how we try to whitewash our experience, the body will age, decay, and die. Meanwhile, we continue to endure the pains of greed, hatred, and delusion. Essentially, the first axiom encourages us to face the reality of our existence.
The Origin of Suffering
Why do we continue to increase our suffering by avoiding the truth? Four attachments keep us bound to our own pain. These are:
Attachment to sense pleasures
Attachment to our opinions and views
Attachment to rites and rituals at the expense of genuine spiritual experience
Attachment to our belief that we exist as solid, permanent selves
Thus, the origin of our suffering is the desire for pleasure and the attachment to a set of concepts designed to boost our sense of security.
The End of Suffering
Lest the first two axioms discourage us, we are definitely capable of putting an end to our suffering. There are two levels of freedom:
momentary freedom, in which we’re able to tame the forces of greed, hatred, and delusion in the moment;
and a more ultimate form of freedom - a state described as the complete end to the burden of suffering.
There is no higher happiness than peace.
The method for ending our suffering isn’t a mysterious rite. It involves neither self-mortification nor self-indulgence.
To release ourselves from the burden of suffering requires mindfulness and awareness - qualities we cultivate daily through our practice of insight meditation.
Establishing the following set of qualities in each moment leads to happiness.
In each case, right means acting in a way that causes no harm, cuts through delusion, and expresses a balanced way of working with each of these factors.
Right understanding and right thought are said to lead to the accomplishment of wisdom.
Right speech, right action, and right livelihood are associated with ethical conduct, as expressed through the five precepts:
To refrain from killing or physical violence
To refrain from stealing (taking that which is not offered)
To refrain from sexual misconduct (using our sexual energy in harmful ways)
To refrain from lying, harsh speech, idle speech, and slander
To refrain from taking intoxicants that cloud the mind and cause heedlessness
The precepts aren’t rigid rules at all, but practices. The idea isn’t to impose them on yourself as constraints, but to use them as supports to help you integrate the meditative state of mind into your entire life.
The underlying principle of the precepts, and in fact of all Buddhist practice, is the idea of non-harming.
Right effort, right mindfulness, and right concentration describe the mental discipline required to follow the path of meditation.
Guidelines for looking directly at emotional states.
Emotions are part of the human condition. In vipassana practice, we don’t attempt to eliminate or manipulate them, but rather to bathe them in the light of awareness so that we can see them for what they are: passing moods and feelings. Practicing in this way, we can loosen the influence changing emotional states have on our behaviour and peace of mind.
The following exercises will help you create more space around your emotional experiences.
When you scan your inner emotional landscape, what feelings do you notice? Do you feel happy? Sad? Peaceful? Excited?
Choose the feeling that seems strongest and investigate it. What bodily sensations accompany this feeling? Do you sense a tightness in your throat or chest? Warmth or pressure in your stomach? Sensations elsewhere in your body? Describe your experience.
What is the energetic nature of the feeling? Does it bring with it a sense of aloneness or isolation? Does it bring with it a sense of connection to others?
Do you notice any resistance to this emotional state? Is there any condemnation or pushing away associated with it? Do you notice a tendency to cling to it, wanting it to stay?
Choose any emotion that arises during meditation. Notice how it began and what preceded it. Was there a thought or image that triggered this particular state?
Most feelings pass or alter in a minute or two. Sometimes they grow stronger; sometimes they dissolve or change into different feelings. Anger, for example, may dissolve into sadness, then into regret, then into resolve. Choose an emotion arising in your sitting practice and observe what happens to it.
Practice exercises two through six above with at least three different feelings. Describe your experiences.
To deepen the experience:
Because it clears away mental obscuration, meditation practice may make us more keenly aware of suffering in the world. Here are some suggestions on how to bring your new awareness of pain onto the path of freedom.
Practice maintaining your awareness of suffering. We’re typically conditioned to brush discomfort under the rug, to trivialize or ignore the pain in the world, lest it penetrate and wound our hearts. Developing the discipline of awareness in this difficult area opens up a realm of insights and choices that aren’t available to us otherwise.
When you do something that creates suffering for yourself or another, acknowledge what you’re doing. The pervasive myth that “ignorance is bliss” is not supported by Buddhist teaching, which holds that even a harmful act is mitigated by awareness. When we cause suffering without understanding what we’re doing, our ignorance actually compounds the damage.
Recognize your limits. Awareness is never cultivated through force. Sometimes you may find yourself backing off from painful experiences for a while. Practice being gentle with yourself, never ceasing to watch what happens as you approach and withdraw from the source of suffering. As with any object of awareness, it will inevitably change as you work with it.
7 – Delusion - Practicing To See Things As They Are
Delusion means - “not seeing things as they are.” In this sense, delusion can be seen as the opposite of vipassana, or insight.
There are various ways our minds create delusion. We can recognize and hence stimulate transformation of those tendencies through awareness.
Delusion traps us in unreality, until we break through our shared illusions.
Nothing is more powerful than the force of awareness. If you sincerely bring mindfulness to the experience arising in the moment, you’ll be able to be aware of what’s happening without distortion.
When you notice feelings of fogginess or vagueness, you know that delusion might be at work.
There is the possibility of becoming lost in our point of view without seeing clearly and distinctly what it is.
The trick is to keep coming back again and again to the practice of mindfulness.
If you see clearly that a situation is unjust, you should definitely respond to it as skilfully as you can.
But your response must come from an open and loving heart and a full sense of what’s happening - not from a mind bent by rigid opinions that’s disconnected from what’s actually happening.
Guidelines for looking directly at thoughts and Images
Thoughts and images very often arise in our minds. This is not seen as a problem, but rather as an opportunity to practice awareness. These exercises will help you to use the thoughts and images that present themselves as objects of meditation. Respond to at least five of the following.
Resolve for five minutes to let your mind appear as a blank screen. Watch carefully for thoughts to arise. They may come as images, words in the mind, or both together. Some thoughts may arise as, or with, a feeling or kinaesthetic sense. Describe your experience.
Now experiment for five minutes with counting your thoughts. After you notice and count each thought, wait and watch the blank screen until the next one arises. Remember to count even the most subtle thoughts (like, “It’s so quiet in here”). The purpose of this exercise is not to form a judgment about ourselves or how much (or little) we think, but to observe the thought process mindfully, without getting lost in each story. Describe your experience.
What kinds of thoughts predominate in your mind: words, pictures, those arising with a kinaesthetic sense, or a combination?
If images are arising, try to note them as “seeing.” Do they grow brighter, fade, break apart, move closer together, or stay the same?
Can you note particular types of thoughts as “planning,” “remembering,” “judging,” “loving,” and so on?
Can you create a compassionate, humorous label for an insistent thought? We call repetitive thoughts the “top-ten tapes,” because like songs on the radio, they play the same themes over and over again. Try labels like: The Martyr Tape, the “I Blew It Again” Tape, The Fear of the Dark Tape, The Great World Teacher Tape, and so on. Be light-hearted with these labels. We can see our tapes as conditioned forces that don’t have to be taken so seriously. We can greet the repeated forces arising in our minds with friendliness and an open heart: “Oh, it’s you again - ‘The Mad Scientist Tape.’ Hello!” Experiment with this technique and describe your experience.
If a particular thought seems to be returning a lot, expand your field of attention to notice whatever emotional state may be feeding it. Unseen feelings are part of what brings thoughts back, again and again. For example, anxiety often fuels future planning. At first the emotions may be half hidden or unconscious, but if you pay careful attention, the feelings will reveal themselves. Use the sensations in the body to help guide the attention to whatever emotions may be present (noticing tension in the chest, for instance, may uncover sadness). Begin to note whatever emotions you see as a way of acknowledging them. Describe what happens.
If you experience repetitive pain or a difficult mood, expand your field of attention to the thoughts, stories, or beliefs that may be feeding them. When we’re mindful, we may find a subtle level of self-judgment or a belief about our unworthiness: “I’m not as good as everyone else. I’ll always be this way.” These thoughts can actually help perpetuate the pain or unhappiness. Observe the effect of thought on the body and emotional state. (Use about five minutes to write your answer.)
To deepen the experience:
Delusion operates in both gross and subtle ways throughout our daily experience. The following suggestions will support your efforts to recognize delusion for what it is and to see past it into a more clear experience of how things are.
Experiment with how it feels to not be attached to opinions. For one day, resolve to let go of judgments and conclusions. Recognize when your point of view is not resting on an actual experience but is simply an opinion. Pay attention to the quality of this day and to the ways in which it differs from other days.
When you experience confusion, practice stopping what you’re doing long enough to step back and look at the bigger picture. Often our confusion comes from too narrow a vision. When we can see the context of our experience, clarity frequently follows.
Question assumptions. A good place to look for unquestioned assumptions is in clichés, such as “the golden years” or “the painful truth.” Ask yourself whether the years referred to are, in fact, golden; whether the truth in this case is painful. Explore how such assumptions affect your experience when you examine them and when they remain unexamined.
8 - Cause And Effect (Karma) The Fruits Of Our Intentions
We’ll explore the subtle and often misunderstood topic of karma, literally meaning “action.” Just as a rubber ball thrown at a wall will bounce back, every skilful, unskilful, or neutral action we perform generates consequences.
The law of cause and effect (karma) clarifies how these consequences are created and compounded throughout our lives.
We’ll look at habits of the mind, a “long-range” awareness of life, and the process of how meditation can help to purify our actions.
You don’t have to believe in reincarnation to experience the effects of your actions. When you extend generosity and lovingkindness toward others, it comes back to you.
When you approach the world with aggression or grasping, you feel the effects when you’re aware.
The important point here is not where your present suffering came from so much as where you’re going to take it from here.
From this point of view, whether or not children suffer karma from previous incarnations is a somewhat academic question.
What counts is how you approach the situation right now. The appropriate response to suffering, whatever the cause of it, is compassion.
As there’s no continuous solid self, what is the vehicle for karma? Who is it who experiences the consequences of previous actions?
What we call “self” is actually a process made up of many elements, all of them in continual flux.
The Buddha referred to us as “actions without an actor, doings without a doer.”
Within this non-personal process, our actions are like seeds that are planted and transformed by the shifting patterns of our lives.
Some seeds are cultivated and nourished; some lie dormant for lifetimes, until the exact combination of conditions arises to germinate them.
In every case, the fruit will bear a direct relationship to the seed.
Just as an apple seed eventually brings apples into the world, and not mangoes, a loving act ends up bearing loving fruit—and hateful acts produce hateful fruit.
Some people take this understanding - that there is actually no self behind our actions - to discount our responsibility for the things we do. But cause and effect (karma) is a powerful force that inevitably makes itself felt.
We need to couple our understanding of selflessness with very mindful and respectful attention to our actions and their karmic fruit. ☺
In a nutshell:
Practicing the following four qualities leads to “the liberation of the heart which is love.”
The Pali word for lovingkindness is metta. More literally translated, metta means both “gentle” - as in a gentle rain that falls indiscriminately upon everything - and “friendship.”
Thus, metta refers to a steady, unconditional sense of connection that touches all beings without exception, including ourselves.
Compassion is our caring human response to suffering. The compassionate heart is non-judgmental. It recognizes all suffering - our own and others’- as deserving of tenderness.
The third quality refers to the realization that others’ happiness is inseparable from our own. The practitioner rejoices in the joy of others and is not threatened by another’s success. Sympathetic joy is said to be the most difficult quality to practice consistently.
Equanimity is the spacious stillness of mind that provides the ground for the boundless nature of the other three qualities.
This quality of radiant calm enables us to ride the waves of our experience without getting lost in our reactions.
Guidelines for Working with Intentions
We examine a closely related phenomenon: the intentionality that precedes any action. Mindfulness of our own intentions before we act has the effect of broadening our field of choice as we work to purify and transform our own actions.
Every act is preceded by an intention. Much of the time, we act without awareness of our intentions.
This significantly narrows our options in life by making our behaviour patterned and automatic.
The following exercises are designed to help you become more aware of your intentions and of the space between intention and action - the space where our choices lie.
Intentions may be experienced as words in the mind, an impulse or urge arising in the heart centre, the coming together of energy before an action, or in several other subtle ways. When you pause before a major physical movement, like lifting your arm, do you notice an intention? What form does it take?
Intention is a key to seeing the interrelationship between body and mind. For example, we may have an unpleasant physical sensation. Based on that sensation, an intention arises to shift posture. The intention gives rise to the act of shifting the body, whereupon new sensations arise. Trace an experience of cause and effect in your own practice, noting the role of intention.
Rather than acting automatically, resolve not to change your meditation posture or to get up from sitting until the intention to do so has arisen twice. For example, refrain from scratching an itch until you’ve first gently noted the intention to do so. Allow the intention to arise and pass away; pay attention to the breath or body, and watch the intention arise again. Describe your experience.
Describe what happens during sitting meditation when you note the intention to open your eyes before actually doing so.
During walking meditation, begin bringing in an awareness of intention every time you turn around. Before turning, pause for a moment and note the intention to turn. Then note the turning itself. Describe your experience.
Choose a brief, routine activity you perform several times each day - like opening a door, brushing your teeth, or making tea. Resolve to do that activity mindfully for a week, noting the intention before each component of the action (e.g., intending to reach for the door handle, reaching; intending to turn the handle, turning; intending to pull the door, pulling; etc.) At the end of the week, describe your experience.
Select a period of time in your day (perhaps the hour after getting up from meditation practice) and resolve to become aware during that time of your intentions to speak. Direct your attention to the state of mind that directly precedes talking. Are you motivated by a need to defend yourself? By boredom or anxiety? Kindness or fear? Avoid judging or creating an image of yourself. Simply note whatever it is. Experience the feeling tone - the contracted or expansive nature of these different motivations. Describe your experience.
To deepen the experience:
Cause and effect (karma) is subtle and profound.
It is not a system of reward and punishment.
The karma we generate is born of our volitional actions.
The suggestions that follow are designed to broaden your awareness of cause and effect throughout the rest of your daily experience.
Slow down. When we review those actions that have caused us remorse, we often find that they were undertaken in haste. Take the time to examine your motivations and to bring mindfulness to the feelings associated with the act you’re about to perform. This moment of meditation will make it possible for you to recognize a range of options of which you may not otherwise be aware.
Practice noticing the immediate effects of your choices. An example with which many of us are familiar arises when we eat something we enjoy but that we know doesn’t agree with us.
Notice any tendency to deny feelings of discomfort following an unwise snack or drink. Try to stay present with whatever experiences do unfold. Sometimes this simple practice of awareness can play an important part in undoing a painful addiction.
Resolve to broaden your awareness of intentionality. What happens when you stop momentarily to notice your intention every time you make a telephone call?
Find other routine activities and regularly watch your intentions before performing these, too.
9 - Equanimity - The Power Of Perspective
We’ll explore the essential quality of equanimity.
Equanimity doesn’t mean not caring. When we open our hearts, we can connect to all things, and that’s as it should be.
The point of equanimity is not to lose one’s heartfelt connection with the things going on around us. Rather, it means balancing that connection with a clear recognition of the way things are. So, for example, we see what we genuinely cannot control, no matter how obsessed we might become with trying to.
We see how much things are constantly changing. Even in the midst of intense, devoted activity, we can be served by seeing such truths clearly and remaining balanced.
The gift of equanimity is to be able to recognize where our boundaries are and what our responsibility really is.
Traditionally, it’s said that equanimity is like the appropriate relationship between parents and their grown children. Perhaps for years you’ve nurtured them, paid for their education, guided them through their troubles - and then you have to let go. B
But you don’t just throw them out on the street, saying, “Well, it’s been great, but after this you should just leave us alone.”
You continue to care deeply about them, but you recognize that they’re adults with their own lives.
You love them, and you understand that you can’t control someone else’s happiness or unhappiness. That’s equanimity.
Equanimity gives us the perspective we need to ride the changing tides of experience without getting washed away each time a wave rolls in.
The ground of equanimity lies in the experience of pleasure and pain. Our conditioning coaxes us again and again to grasp at pleasurable moments and to resist those that we experiences as unpleasant. We’ll learn about developing perspective and letting go with love.
In order to stabilize the positive effects of wisdom, compassion, and mindfulness, it is crucial that we learn to develop equanimity. This feature or force is the ground where we find balance in the midst of the endlessly changing circumstances of our lives.
In a nutshell:
Particular four joys and their respective opposites - as conditions will most certainly encounter again and again throughout our lives - not because we’re being rewarded or punished, but simply because these conditions reflect the fullness of our experience.
The eight conditions are:
Pleasure and pain
Gain and loss
Praise and blame
Fame and disrepute
In our culture, we’re routinely encouraged to aspire to lives of unchanging pleasure, gain, praise, and fame.
One consequence of this expectation is that we come to believe we’re necessarily at fault when we experience pain, loss, blame, and disrepute.
Knowing about this very matter releases us from unrealistic expectations about what our lives should be and reminds us that painful and unpleasant experiences are also natural in life.
We experience the world through six senses.
Mind – (thoughts, emotions, and mental images)
These six modes of perception define the totality of our experience - in other words, every moment of our lives involves experiences that are known by way of one of these senses-
Each experience received in this way is coloured by a feeling tone, which is either pleasant, unpleasant, or neutral.
Understanding our experience in these terms reveals the importance of bringing mindfulness to every moment of our existence.
Without it, we merely become creatures of mental conditioning, constantly trying to manipulate our experience so as to increase our pleasure and minimize our pain.
Guidelines for working with pleasant and unpleasant feelings
In this series of exercises, we’ll look at the pleasant and unpleasant feeling tones to our sensory experience (neutral feeling is often quite hard to discern).
The feeling tone arises with the object of consciousness.
Based on this feeling, we might get attached to whatever is happening and try to hold on to it - or dislike it and try to strike out against it.
These exercises will help you move beyond these conditioned responses. Respond to at least five of them.
Choose a visual experience and note the quality of pleasant or unpleasant feeling that accompanies the seeing. Describe your experience.
Now do the same thing as in Exercise #1 with an experience of hearing.
Repeat the exercise with an experience of smelling.
Repeat the exercise with an experience of tasting.
Now describe the feeling tone associated with an experience of touching or bodily sensation.
Finally, repeat the exercise with an experience of an emotion.
It can be liberating to understand that we’re often in a cycle of reaction to the feeling tone associated with objects of consciousness. When you find yourself caught in a state of attachment, look back at your experience and notice the quality of pleasant feeling that led to the reaction. Describe your experience.
When you find yourself caught in aversion (anger or fear), look back at your experience and notice the quality of unpleasant feeling that led to the reaction. Describe your experience.
To deepen the experience:
Earlier in our course, Joseph Goldstein asked whether we could see ourselves as the sane person who maintains calm on a sinking ship, thereby saving the lives of all on board.
To manifest that kind of wisdom and clarity, we must develop the quality of equanimity - not just on the meditation cushion, but especially in those areas of our lives most likely to trigger strong responses.
The suggestions that follow will help you to bring the power of equanimity to those parts of your experience where it can be of benefit to yourself and others.
Practice recognizing pleasure and pain, gain and loss, praise and blame, fame and disrepute.
When someone pays you a gratifying compliment, or you’re blamed for something, remember that conditions always change. This places the experience in a larger perspective that defuses tendencies to grasp, reject, or space out.
Practice identifying the senses and feeling tones.
When you feel something strongly, notice through which perceptual gateway it arrives. Notice whether the feeling tone is pleasant, unpleasant, or neutral.
Then watch what happens to the experience. Does your new awareness change the feeling tone? The level of intensity?
Does it help you to chart a steadier course through the ups and downs of your daily experience?
Contemplate the truth of change.
When we examine our experience with curiosity and honesty, we see that every part of it is constantly changing.
The tide comes in but recedes the moment it’s full. The new moon gives way to the crescent. Inside ourselves, too, are waves of hunger, joy, sleepiness, fear, and kindness in endless motion.
The more we perceive the reality of these ebbing and flowing cycles, the less likely we are to lose our balance. ☺
10 - Faith And Wisdom - Deepening Our Practice
In this session, we’ll explore the spiritual powers of faith and wisdom. The Buddhist definition of faith comes from the Pali word saddha, which includes the connotations of confidence and inspiration.
We’ll take a closer look at what we mean by faith as the first of the five qualities of mind that lead to freedom from ignorance.
And we will look at wisdom - a word that takes on specific nuances in the Buddhist tradition.
Investigation ripens wisdom. We’ll look at what it means to engage the heart, the emptiness of the “I,” and the nature of unconstructed awareness - all powerful tools on our journey of insight.
A practice known as “Big Mind” – shows us how, through choiceless awareness, we can begin to penetrate the nature of reality as it is.
The least skilful kind of faith involves trusting in something or someone simply because it makes us feel good.
This is what we call “bright” faith, because it’s uplifting but unreliable - it can change at any time.
A higher kind of faith arises naturally out of appreciation for someone’s good qualities, like compassion and wisdom.
This type of faith inspires us to emulate those same qualities of mind.
Another kind of faith is synonymous with confidence, and it comes from our own experience of the truth.
The object of this faith is not any outside force or power, but the possibility of our own freedom.
In the final analysis, we don’t have to accept any belief at all. Our faith in the possibility of our own awakening grows as insight into our true nature deepens. ☺
The only way to know what’s true is by investigating your experience.
Investigation is an indispensable element of enlightenment. In order to attain this level of wisdom, you must look directly and honestly into your body, your heart, and your mind - setting aside the opinions and interpretations of others and testing your conclusions against your own experience.
The most effective way to do this is through meditation.
Over time, our practice reveals the truths of impermanence, selflessness, and suffering. It takes courage to look into and feel the depth of this reality.
When we’re engaged in investigating the truth, it’s tempting to intellectualize. We can get lost in analysis, interpretations, and questions.
Faith tempers this tendency; it supports the heart qualities of meditation - like the confidence and trust that keep us going through times of difficulty and a genuine humility that keeps us open to the unknown.
At the other extreme, faith without a strong spirit of investigation easily becomes blind.
The two have to balance one another. We need to have faith or confidence in the possibility of awakening—and then we have to investigate for ourselves the nature of our bodies and minds.
We cultivate wisdom by paying attention to the thoughts, sensations, images, and emotions that arise in our experience. Wisdom doesn’t come from anywhere else.
We cultivate it by being mindful of what’s going on.
Awareness is extremely powerful: we have the capacity to shine its light on every element of our experience.
The light of awareness reveals the truth of how things are. That is wisdom.
In a nutshell:
The five qualities of mind:
Five inner qualities that empower us on the path to freedom. Through meditation, we strengthen these inner faculties until they become consistent forces we can count on in every area of our lives.
These five inner qualities are:
The Pali word saddha is usually translated as “faith” - but the original term also encompasses trust, clarity, confidence, and devotion. Faith can mean something as fundamental as the inspiration we feel when we encounter something that uplifts us.
At a deeper level, confidence is born when we use mindfulness to investigate our own experience. This confidence, traditionally called “verified faith,” grows stronger as we pay more complete attention to our bodies and minds, resulting in the growth of wisdom.
Deep faith is likened to a magical gem that can clarify murky water by causing the impurities to settle at the bottom of the container.
The spiritual journey is not accomplished by faith alone. We must apply a certain measure of energy to actually walk the path. It’s important not to confuse this kind of effort with ambition and attachment to outcome, which can create tension and further grasping.
Effort is said to embody three aspects. Launching or preliminary effort requires the courage to embark on the spiritual journey; liberating or transcending effort describes the diligence that keeps us moving through difficult times; and developed or progressive effort keeps us from resting on our laurels, urging us on to full liberation.
The third spiritual power describes a fullness of attention that encompasses all phenomena without exception. Mindfulness is the capacity to penetrate deeply into the core of our experience, through awareness of our body, feelings, and mental states.
When we are mindful, we’re much less likely to be caught up in flurries of sensations, emotions, thoughts, and images. This is because we see them clearly as impermanent and understand that there is no solid self to attach to them.
One of the great gifts of formal meditation practice is the growing ability to bring this powerful insight into the entire range of our everyday activities, pervading our world with the greater calmness and wisdom of clear seeing.
Through sustained mindfulness, we develop the power of concentration, which imbues our efforts with strength and steadiness.
Concentration, in turn, helps us maintain an unbroken stream of mindfulness, which produces a feeling of completeness in our lives.
At moments when we’re discouraged about our practice, we can use concentration to empower and focus the mind.
The attainment of this faculty doesn’t require struggle; it’s available to us in every moment of full attention.
Wisdom, or insight, comes about when we fully develop the powers of concentration and mindfulness. It can’t be attained through reasoning or intellectualization. Traditionally, wisdom is said to manifest in three ways:
One aspect of wisdom is the clear-seeing of impermanence. Everything is constantly arising and dissolving. We can see our own mind-body as a stream of constantly changing energies. When we begin to see the truth of impermanence, we also recognize the futility of hanging on to any object or experience. As we learn to see our attachments at ever more subtle levels, we can let them go.
The second face of wisdom is our understanding of suffering. Dukkha (suffering or dissatisfaction) includes the clear pain of life and also the insecurity, the instability of incessant change. We can learn a lot from seeing the suffering of life more distinctly. Opening to dukkha leads to compassion.
Wisdom manifests, finally, as an awareness of the selflessness of phenomena. The more we meditate, the more we realize that there is no solid entity, no “I” behind the ever-changing process of experience. Seeing this, we cut through our most pervasive and destructive delusion.
These five qualities are at their most potent when in balance with one another. Faith alone can become blind; too much effort can make us restless; concentration without energy can lead to torpor. Mindfulness helps to keep them all in balance.
It is in the regular and committed practice of meditation that we develop the spiritual powers and understand their relationship to one another and to our lives.
Guidelines for Big Mind Exercises
A word file of the entire length of Big Mind Exercises is available to be downloaded in Seeing Things Clearly.
The following exercises examine the process of self-contraction: the times when we identify with a particular phenomenon or get lost by clinging or condemning and lose the perspective of “Big Mind.”
Throughout the day, look for the moments when you find your mind narrowing around the following feelings:
Judgment of someone else
In each case, briefly describe your experience and what happened when you were able to return to a “Big Mind” perspective.
What was your experience with anger, and what happened when you were able to return to a “Big Mind” perspective?
What was your experience with desire, and what happened when you were able to return to a “Big Mind” perspective?
What was your experience with judgment of someone else, and what happened when you were able to return to a “Big Mind” perspective?
What was your experience with self-judgment, and what happened when you were able to return to a “Big Mind” perspective?
What was your experience with pain, and what happened when you were able to return to a “Big Mind” perspective?
What was your experience with pleasure, and what happened when you were able to return to a “Big Mind” perspective?
What was your experience with uncertainty, and what happened when you were able to return to a “Big Mind” perspective?
To deepen the experience:
Faith and wisdom can sound like unattainable spiritual ideals. The fact is, they’re available to us in each moment of full attention. Here are some ideas for gaining access to these invaluable powers of mind.
Faith deepens through learning to stay open and connected in every moment. In order to do this, it’s necessary to practice staying in the present moment. Learn to identify those times when you’re struggling to regain a pleasant experience or to get rid of an unpleasant one. Letting go of this struggle enhances the healing power of faith.
Imagine yourself on a long journey through unexplored territory. You climb to the peak of a mountain where you enjoy a fantastic view. Still, you leave the peak to continue your journey through valleys, deserts, and swamplands. Each place you find is unique. In order to explore this fascinating world, you must travel light—free of comparisons and attachments to past events. This is faith: Trust in the unfolding process of our lives.
The path to wisdom is through concentration and mindfulness. Cultivate these qualities by giving your full attention to every moment. Maintain your awareness as continuously as possible, and look deeply, without grasping. Your daily meditation will help you immeasurably as you develop this practice in the world.
Acknowledge the truth of your dissatisfaction. Awareness of suffering provides powerful motivation to awaken to the truth of existence.
Hold your hands together and experience the sensation of their touching one another. Take some time to sit with this exercise. What do you feel? Is there any sensation that you can call “hand”? You’ll find that “hand” is merely a concept we use to describe a constellation of changing elements. Take this understanding into your everyday activities, remembering that the concept you call “I” is similarly transparent and fluctuating.
11 - Lovingkindness - The Revolutionary Art Of Happiness
In this session, we’ll explore the first of the qualities that are expressions of the awakened mind, as introduced in Session 8.
The first quality, known in Pali as metta, is commonly translated as “lovingkindness.” Unlike sentimentality, which distorts reality by viewing it through a gauzy filter, metta cuts through untrue ideas of “self” and “other” to embrace all beings unconditionally.
Metta is also distinguished from conventional notions of “love,” which can connote possessiveness and conditionality.
This chapter unpacks the power of metta/lovingkindness and its revolutionary potential in our lives.
It provides a perspective of radical non-separation and shows how metta’s skillful application plants the seeds of love in our lives.
Metta is a practice that has the potential to transform the way you see yourself and the world.
To be able to have metta is, in fact, our greatest strength.
Practicing metta doesn’t mean letting people walk all over us. Responding to rudeness from a motivation of lovingkindness is not the same as letting rudeness rule the interaction.
It does mean that we aren’t caught in a downward spiral of resentment and revenge. We discover that, in fact, we can be very strong without the angry reaction.
To cultivate metta, It helps to bring your attention to people’s good qualities. That doesn’t mean ignoring their hurtful actions, but recognizing that each of us is a mixed bag of wholesome and unwholesome impulses.
If you can’t think of anything good about someone, reflect on the fact that they, like you, want to be happy, and that they create suffering out of ignorance. A certain feeling of connection naturally arises when we contemplate that fact.
Actually, another wonderful and pragmatic way to cultivate lovingkindness is through the formal practice. Even though it may feel artificial at first, the feeling of metta grows stronger the more we practice. Be patient with yourself. It takes time to retrain our hearts.
Whether or not metta is helpful to others, it is helpful to us.
Metta is taught as the antidote to fear.
That doesn’t mean that we behave foolishly in the face of danger, but that we remember we are ultimately not separate from one another.
Beings can be in tremendous pain, which drives their destructive actions. We practice metta for them in recognition of that suffering and to express the deep truth of our non-separation.
This expression is helpful to all, even though we can’t control someone else’s behaviour (hence the need for great equanimity, as well).
In a nutshell:
Metta : Six Categories, Four Phrases
Traditional metta practice is a carefully structured path to a fully opened heart.
The practice comprises six graduated categories that gently expand our lovingkindness from ourselves to all beings everywhere.
With each category, we use four phrases that express lovingkindness through the focus of our attention.
These phrases can be used just as they appear here or adjusted to conform more closely to your own experience of lovingkindness.
In the six categories of classical metta practice, we extend lovingkindness to beings in this order:
A benefactor or person who has benefited us
A good friend
A neutral person about whom we have no strong feelings
An “enemy,” or person with whom we experience difficulties
All beings without exception
There is a further step that can help us take “all beings” out of the conceptual arena and into our hearts.
We do this by sending metta to pairs of opposites or complementary sets of beings.
Examples are men and women;
those who suffer and those who are happy;
humans and animals, and so forth.
This step can often reveal to us the more subtle levels of judgment that separate us from others.
The four phrases with which we begin our practice are the following:
May I be free from danger
May I be happy
May I be healthy
May I live with ease
In the first phases of metta meditation, we use these phrases to extend lovingkindness to ourselves.
They reflect our wish to experience safety, health, and freedom from struggle.
As we unfold into the further phases of the practice, we change the pronoun: “May you be free from danger.”
We sometimes encounter resistance when we try to extend lovingkindness to someone we find difficult. When this happens, it can be helpful to include yourself with the difficult person: “May we be free from danger,” and so on.
The Benefits of Lovingkindness
Most of us appreciate intuitively that the more we open our hearts to all beings, the happier our lives will be. However, practicing metta stimulates particular benefits:
You sleep well
You awaken easily
You enjoy pleasant dreams
People love you
You’re safe from external dangers
Your face is radiant
Your mind is serene
You will be unconfused at the moment of death
Guidelines for Metta Exercises
The practice of metta is an exercise in itself.
There are many techniques you can use to sharpen your awareness of lovingkindness. T
The following exercises will help you establish the mind of metta - both in and beyond your formal practice environment. Respond to at least five of them.
Throughout the day, look for the moments when you find your mind narrowing around the following feelings:
What arose in your mind as you sent metta to yourself? Describe any images or feelings that arose during this phase of the meditation.
Imagine yourself sitting in the center of a circle, surrounded by the most loving people you know or have heard of. All of them are sending metta to you. What’s your experience of this visualization?
Describe the process you underwent in finding a benefactor to whom to send metta.
Describe how you went about finding a neutral person to use in your metta practice.
Describe the easiest and most difficult parts of this practice.
What was your experience of working with a difficult person? Did you include yourself with them when sending metta?
Describe your experience of moving from the finite (yourself, the benefactor, etc.) to the infinite (all beings everywhere).
Describe your experience in working with pairs of opposites or complementary sets (men/women, rich/poor, etc.). Did you encounter resistance? Fear? Curiosity?
To deepen the experience:
We practice lovingkindness on the cushion in order to open our hearts throughout the rest of our lives.
Here are some practical suggestions that will help you use everyday life to continue dissolving the artificial separations between yourself and others.
Follow the five precepts (see Chapter 6) Our moral conduct reflects the true extent of our love, concern, and care for ourselves and others.
Contemplate the meaning and effects of karma. When we comprehend the full impact of our actions, we see how lovingkindness tangibly affects our own experience and that of all those with whom we come into contact. We begin to feel the immediate and long-term effects of opening our hearts to all beings. Review Session 8 to refresh yourself on the role of cause and effect / karma in our lives.
Reflect on the truth of our non-separation. Recognize that the potential for every kind of act exists in you. When you encounter unfairness, deviousness, and other violations, remember that you also carry the potential for such acts. You may have the strength or the awareness not to act on them, but the people who do are also trying to be happy. The suffering they create arises out of ignorance. Try to extend the power of lovingkindness.
During the course of your day, try using the metta phrases to send lovingkindness to strangers and associates. Notice the difference between feeling isolated in your own world and feeling connected by means of your practice.
12 - Practice In The World - How Wisdom Grows
We come to the end of course - and to the true beginning of the next chapter in our ongoing practice.
We’ll explore practical ways to take our meditative awareness into every area of our daily life. The material ties together much of the teaching presented throughout the course and uses traditional structures to demonstrate its relevance in our everyday experience.
We’ll review the main techniques of mindfulness as they apply to formal sitting meditation. You may find yourself returning to this resource from time to time whenever you feel the need to refresh your practice.
Continue to be as mindful as you can in everything you do. A common mistake is to try to hang onto your meditative state of mind.
This approach brings with it all the problems associated with the obstacle/ hindrance of desire.
We have to keep bringing ourselves back to the practice of letting go: letting go even of our past experiences of peacefulness so that we can remain open to whatever our present experience happens to be.
The inherent quality of awareness is openness and acceptance. Don’t worry about the object of the awareness - simply rest in the awareness itself.
Wisdom isn’t like a spiritual armour that protects us from the world. If we’re practicing wholeheartedly, the wisdom we develop - along with compassion - reveals our interconnectedness.
Going from stillness to activity and back again, over and over, is a practice in itself, and, over time, we gain more equanimity in that process.
Just as we can’t control the flow of events while doing formal practice, we can’t control the flow of life’s events either. Seeing the truths of change and non-self, opening to suffering and interconnectedness, informs all of our life.
In a nutshell:
Lists, as a format have the advantage of being easy to remember, making these pithy teachings more accessible at the times in our lives when we need them most.
Here is a collection of lists. Use these points to help you investigate the teachings and their relationship to your own experience.
The Three Fields of Training
I. Practicing and refining natural morality (sila).
The two sources of natural morality are:
Metta, or the practice of lovingkindness
Reflection on the law of cause and effects /karma, by means of contemplating the five precepts:
Refraining from killing
Refraining from stealing
Refraining from sexual misconduct
Refraining from harmful speech
Refraining from intoxicants that cloud the mind
II. Practicing the three elements of balance or even nature.
Effort or energy
Mindfulness and awareness
III. Cultivating wisdom, or the investigating power of mind.
Since attachment is the root cause of suffering, primary objects of investigation are the four fields of attachment:
Attachment to sense pleasures
Attachment to opinions
Attachment to rites and rituals
Attachment to the concept of self
Guidelines for taking your practice into the world
The practice of meditation doesn’t end when we get up from our cushion, bench, or chair. We can gradually bring the awareness of our formal practice into every area of our lives. Use these exercises for a few days each month to help you maintain clarity, compassion, and mindfulness throughout the full range of your experience.
Practice acting on the thoughts of generosity that arise in your mind.
Determine not to gossip or speak about any third party who isn’t with you at the time.
Pick a person in your life whom you usually ignore or feel indifferent to. Consciously pay attention to this person and make him or her an object of your metta.
Observe whatever desire arises strongly in your mind. Note whatever emotions you find associated with it (such as loneliness, fear, longing, boredom, etc.).
Use times of suffering or unhappiness as opportunities to pay particular attention. What are the sources of the discomfort? Is an expectation not being met or a desire going unfulfilled? Do you find, at the heart of the suffering, a sense of being out of control?
Choose a simple activity and be as mindful of it as you can. Note the intention preceding each component of the activity. Note the experience of following through on these intentions. (See the exercises in Session 8 to refresh yourself on this technique.)
When you find yourself waiting in line, stuck in traffic, sitting in a meeting, or otherwise “between worlds,” practice awareness of your breath or of sounds, sights, and so on (see Sessions 1 and 2 for reminders of basic awareness techniques).
Congratulations! You’ve completed your Insight Meditation course. Now what?
Meditation is a lifelong practice. The tools you’ve acquired over the course of this curriculum have given you a solid foundation for continuing to take the skills of mindfulness, awareness, and lovingkindness out into the world around you.
If you should drift away from your meditation practice for a while, don’t become discouraged. Remember that the essence of meditation is to start over, again and again. When you notice the absence of mindfulness in your life, simply return to your meditation cushion and renew your practice.
Your own experience is a constant, reliable source of further teachings. Continue to bring your clear, nonjudgmental attention to everything you do, sense, and say. You’ll find that this practice will enrich your daily meditation sessions—just as your formal practice creates new outlooks and choices in your work, home, and social life.
We wish you the very best in your meditation practice!
Resource: Insight Meditation: Self-Guided-Course / Sharon Salzberg, Joseph Goldstein