Vipassana (also known as insight meditation
mediation) is one of the two main types of meditation
, the other being samatha
or concentration meditation
. Vipassana at it's core is about awareness
and acceptance, it literally translates to something along the lines of "insight
". It is one of the oldest forms of meditation and forms the core of Theravada Buddhism
, one of the oldest Buddhist traditions.
First, let's look at what vipassana is not. It is not a form of trancendental meditation such as samatha. Samatha aims at developing total concentration and blocking out all thoughts and feelings to trancend the self, so to speak. It aims to achieve altered states of conciousness and intense calm through the sharpening of concentration. Vipassana, while it may utilize this technique initially, does not seek any of this. In the Theravada tradition of Buddhism, the goal of meditation is to recognize and accept the ever changing and fleeting nature of difficulties in life. Any shifts in conciousness or other such experiences are seen as a side effect that is neither desireable or undesireable. The key is to cultivate awareness and acceptance of the world in and around you.
This is something that western psychology has only recently begun to investigate, many new techniques of therapy now include concepts based on vipassana to help patients cope with their problems. One of the most recent examples of this is Dialectical Behavioral Therapy used to treat identity issues and problems such as borderline personality disorder. This form of therapy, in addition to traditional cognitive and behavioral techniques, also incorperates an aspect of vipassana in teaching patients to become aware of their feelings and accept them rather than falling into self blame.
Now perhaps you are asking, how can I practice vipassana? Does it involve sitting quietly on a mountain comtemplating my existance? Do I have to shave my head and wear a robe? Ok, you are probably not asking these things, but I have found that most westerners have a very limited understanding of what buddhism and meditation really involve. So, I will briefly go into how to put this in practice and what it involves. Please keep in mind that I am by no means an expert, I am speaking from my own personal experience and readings I have done.
To get started with insight meditation, one must begin with concentration meditation. While concentration is not the goal of vipassana, it is a needed element to be able to properly practice mindfulness. Begin by finding a quiet place you can be alone. Take the phone off the hook if needed and try to remove any distractions. If you need to, wear earplugs and/or an eyemask. Now you will need to choose a posture for your meditation. There is no right or wrong way to do this, you should choose a posture that is comfortable to you. However, I highly recommend against laying down, especially in a bed. I myself have problems with insomnia and have conditioned myself to associate laying in bed with sleep. Even for most people, when you lay down for a long period of inactivity you will probably become sleepy. You cannot concentrate when you are sleepy, trust me. Typically it is recommended that you meditate sitting cross legged on a cushion or soft surface, however if you want to sit in a chair, that is fine as well.
To begin, focus on your breathing. Don't force it or try to conciously control it, just be aware of your breath. Feel the air as it enters your throat, see how deep into your lungs you can feel the air move. Notice how your stomach expands and contracts, feel the tension and release of the cycle. This may seem boring, but you will find that the more you learn to be aware of what is going on in your own body, the more facsinating your breathing will become. Now gradually allow your body to relax. Slowly, start at your feet and move your way up the body. Focus on each area of the body, feel any tension that exists and allow it to go. If it helps, imagine tension slowly moving up and out of the body. You will find that even when you feel relaxed, there is a lot of tension in your body that you can find when you become aware and focus.
Now you should be in a calm and relaxed state. Pick something to concentrate on. Breathing is an excellent choice, although initially you may have trouble focusing on this. Again, allow yourself to just observe all the sensations in breathing. If this is not enough for you to concentrate on, pick an image or phrase to focus on. It does not matter what it is, pick something simple. You may want to focus on an image such as a setting sun or a flickering candle. If your visualization skills are not very good, pick a phrase to focus on. This can be something as simple as "one" or something that has deep meaning to you such God or other spiritual phrases.
Focus on your object of concentration, give it your full attention. You will get distracted, accept this. You may not notice for great lengths of time that you have been distracted and thinking about other things. This is not a problem. Once you become aware of this, gently guide yourself back to your object of concentration. Do not criticize yourself for getting distracted and do not force yourself back to your object of concentration. Gently is the key word. It may help to name what distracts you or to use a phrase to gently guide yourself back. For example, when I am distracted by thoughts of worry, I think "Hello worry" and smile to myself before returning to my concentration. If you find yourself frustrated that you keep getting distracted and you are harshly pulling yourself back to your object, acknowledge this with a smile and return back to your object.
This is the essence of concentration mediation. You will be frustrated that you get distracted. You may even find that you spend more time in meditation distracted than actually concentrated. There is nothing wrong with this, even if all you accomplish in meditation is bringing yourself back to your object of concentration hundreds of times, you are doing good. Gradually it will improve and you will be able to focus for longer periods of time without destraction. Now you may be wondering how long you should meditate for. 30 minutes is probably good to start, however I don't recommend making time goals here. Do it as long as you feel you should. One thing I do recommend is to not get up until you have had the desire to do so 3 times. Each time, observe the desire and how it feels, and note how it quickly passes. On the third time, allow yourself to rise.
Once you feel you have achieved a competance in concentration (it may take weeks or months, we are all different), you are ready to begin the insight process. Start out as usual by focusing on your breath and relaxing your body. Become calm and clear. During your meditation, you should continue to focus on your breathing, however you should allow your thoughts and emotions to exist. When you feel an emotion, name it ("hello anger, what do you have to tell me?"). Open your heart, body, and mind to it. Observe what thoughts accompany the emotion. Observe where in your body you can feel it. Is the anger a tightness in your stomach? Is it a ball of fire, pusling and spreading? Is fear a coldness in your limbs? How long does the feeling last, does it always come with the same thoughts? Do you get stuck in a cycle of thoughts that feed the emotion?
There are four areas of concentration you should focus on to achieve insight and awareness, the body, thoughts, emotions, and mental states. You may find it helpfull to focus on one of these and observe the impact they have on the others. For example, focus on your body and how it feels. Note any tensions, any pain, and open your heart to this. It is not as hard as it sounds. Focus on your emotions, where you feel pain or joy. I have heard it said that if you do not cry, you are not meditating properly, and I agree with this. You will find just by becoming aware of your emotions and how they affect your body, you become aware of feelings that you have not acknowledged. This can be a very powerful release, allow it to happen.
As you do this, it is important to remember that you are observing your thoughts, emotions, and body. You must do this without judgement, however when you begin you will almost certainly judge yourself. You may be hard on yourself because you don't feel you are meditating right. You may judge yourself because the thoughts that keep coming up are repetative and harsh. If you find yourself judging, acknowledge it with a smile. Say to yourself, "I am judging", smile, and continue to observe. Gradually the judgement will fade away and you will accept what you think and feel and achieve a greater awareness.
You may be wondering what the point of all this is, why bother? The goal is freedom from suffering. In modern society, we live in a very fast world that makes a lot of demands on us. We are conditioned to live up to the expectations of others and this causes us to be very hard on ourselves to the point where we try to deny what we feel and think and escape it by distraction. This can cause a great deal of problems that if never addressed can lead to a great deal of suffering.
The goal of insight meditation is to become aware of these things, to accept them without judgement and note how they are fleeting if you do not cling to them. It is to accept your body, thoughts, and feelings as they are. By becoming aware of what is inside you, you can learn to accept it, to identify less with it and become more in tune with how your mind operates. When you do this, it is a release that can be very clensing. By learning to accept what is in the present moment, you can stop looking for happiness outside of yourself. It is best described by thinking of your mind as an ocean, with turbulent waves being problems or difficulties in life. Meditation is not about calming the waves, it is about accepting them as they are. There was a poster done by Swami Satchidananda for a meditation course that featured him riding a surf board on a large wave. The caption said "You cannot stop the waves, but you can learn to surf."
I'll close here with a meditation from the book A Path With Heart by Jack Kornfield on stopping the war within.
Sit comfortably for a few minutes, letting your body be at rest. Let your breathing be easy and natural. Bring your attention into the present, sit quietly, and notice whatever sensations are present in your body. In particular, be aware of any sensations, tensions, or pains you may have been fighting. Do not try to change them, simply notice them with an interested and kind attention. In each area of struggle you discover, let your body relax and your heart soften. Open to whatever you experience without fighting. Let go of the battle. Breathe quietly and let it be.
Then, after a time, shift your attention to your heart and mind. Now notice what feelings and thoughts are present. In particular, be aware of any feelings or thoughts you are now struggling with, fighting, denying, or avoiding. Notice them with an interested and kind attention. Let your heart be soft. Open to whatever you experience without fighting. Let go of the battle. Breathe quietly and let it be.
Continue to sit quietly. Then cast your attention over the battles that still exist in your life. Sense them inside yourself. If you have an ongoing struggle with your body, be aware of that. If you have been fighting inner wars with your feelings, been in conflict with your loneliness, fear, confusion, grief, anger, or addition, sense the struggle you have been waging. Notice the struggles in your thoughts as well. Be aware of how you have carried on the inner battles. Notice the inner armies, the inner dictators, the inner fortifications. Be aware of all that you have fought within yourself, of how long you have perpetuated the conflict.
Gently, with openness, allow each of these experiences to be present. Simply notice each of them in turn with interest and kind attention. In each area of struggle, let your body, heart, and mind be soft. Open to whatever you experience without fighting. Let it be present just as it is. Let go of the battle. Breathe quietly and let yourself be at rest. Invite all parts of yourself to join you at the peace table in your heart.
For more information, I recommend reading some of the articles at http://www.vipassana.com/meditation/index.html as well as the excellent book "A Path With Heart" by Jack Kornfield.