Oftentimes a practice or exercise becomes so prevalent in our culture that despite it’s ubiquity we fail to pay attention to whether it is even being done properly. This can be said of physical exercise, yoga, and more recently, of meditation. How often have you visited your local gym and witnessed a rather portly gentleman, ankles squeezed through wrist straps, performing what appears to be an attempt at some sort of yogic enlightenment only to realize he has got what should be a simple exercise all backwards and upside down? On our best days we lend a helping hand and show our friend the way and on other days we realize we are that gentleman (or woman).
Meditation is similar. We can download apps, listen to podcasts, ask friends, skim books, read blogs from know-nothing neurotics, or just wait around until someone inevitably comes to spread the gospel of mindfulness. The issue is that we can end up with a Frankenstein-type practice, a mishmash of various techniques and exercises that ultimately leave us with something of little value.
There are many different types of meditation practices and techniques that have wide-ranging purposes. For example, Transcendental Meditation (TM) uses a mantra to develop deep levels of concentration, Metta is a technique that focuses on loving-compassion, Zen literally refers to a seated meditation, Vipassana, or Insight meditation, is a mindfulness practice focused on developing awareness. And within Vipassana there are various seated, walking, standing, and laying down practices with ever increasing levels of complexity.
The latter is the practice that I have come to learn. It is perhaps one of the more difficult practices but is also well worth the effort. While a practice like TM will serve to increase concentration I am of the opinion that it will do little else for your well-being, unless you consider spending large sums of money on a mantra to be a necessary step on the path to enlightenment. Vipassana on the other hand will hone concentration while also developing an awareness of the rising and falling of mental phenomena. In other words, sharpening our ability to know that we know. Such an ability is directly compatible with daily life. How many arguments with a loved one could have been avoided if we just had a small window of awareness and the capacity to make a mindful decision about how we were going to react to our emotions? Vipassana strengthens our ability to see that window in day to day life. Also, a quick Google search on the practice will produce a range of scholarly articles that speak of the various health benefits of the practice from decreased stress, to increased immune function, to lowered blood pressure.
Apart from a host of personal benefits, in it’s purest form, Vipassana is a Buddhist practice that promises to show practitioners the true nature of reality – that all phenomena is impermanent (anicca), that life is suffering (dukkha), and that there is no self (anatta). These are topics for another article that do not need to be understood or even remembered to undertake a basic Vipassana practice. Apologies in advance but you’re unlikely to be provided a window into the reality of existence on your first, or even your hundredth, sit.
Before trying out the practice there is one subtle but very important idea to keep in mind: there are no distractions. Vipassana is about being fully open to all states of mind and body that arise, acknowledging them, and then returning to an object of meditation or ‘anchor’ such as the breath. A short practice will reveal that the majority of these states are not positive. Boredom, doubt, frustration, anger, judgement, sleepiness, laziness, and sadness are only some of what will be encountered and why shouldn’t they be? We are not pushing anything away and we are not following anything. Everything that arises is part of our experience in the present moment and is to be fully acknowledged. Many people believe that all forms of meditation will mentally transport them to a serene lake in front of Mount Fuji or will allow them to sit in the oneness of existence while high-fiving the Buddha. This is not the case and unfortunately the aesthetic that has developed around meditation in the West has done little to dispel this myth.
Below I have laid out a set of instructions to help you take the first steps (literally) in your Vipassana practice.
- Set a timer for 10 minutes (you can gradually increase this over time) and stand at one end of a room in your home.
- Place your interlocked hands either in front of you or behind your back.
- Bring your attention to the sensation of standing. It is enough just to know that you are standing, you don’t need any special awareness here.
- Begin by lifting your right foot and silently note it in your mind with the word ‘lifting’. Step forward and place your foot a reasonable distance in front of you and note the placing of your foot in your mind with the word ‘putting’.
- Repeat the above step for your left foot.
- This should be done slowly but not much more slowly than a calm stroll. We aren’t looking to feel the subtle sensations of every movement, we’re just aiming to know the movement.
- When the attention on moving your feet inevitably wavers simply note the other phenomenon that has arisen in consciousness. For example, the thought may arise, ‘This is a waste of time, I should really get to sleep’, simply note this as ‘thinking, thinking, thinking’. Or maybe that sandwich you had for lunch just isn’t sitting right and is producing some abdominal pain, note this as ‘feeling, feeling, feeling’. Other phenomena will likely include: frustration, laziness, sleepiness, anger, sadness, boredom, doubt, and desire.
- When you reach the end of the room (or have taken 6 or 7 steps), stop, know that you are stopping, and turn as you mentally note ‘turning, turning, turning’ until you are facing the other way.
- Continue until the timer goes off.
- Set a timer for 10 minutes and sit cross-legged on the floor. A chair is also fine if you have back pain but try to use something sturdy like a kitchen chair.
- Place your hands comfortably in your lap.
- Close your eyes and begin by noticing the rising and falling of your breath from your abdomen. As you notice the rising make a mental note of ‘rising’ and as you notice the falling make a mental note of ‘falling’.
- When your attention is captured by another thought or sensation simply acknowledge it as ‘thinking, thinking, thinking’ or ‘feeling, feeling feeling’ (or whatever it may be) as described in the walking instructions above and then return to the breath.
- If you find yourself drifting off to sleep that’s okay, when you catch it simply note it as ‘sleepy, sleepy, sleepy’ and return to the breath.
- Continue until the timer goes off.
If you have followed these instructions or have tried a Vipassana practice before the words ‘simple, but not easy’ will begin to resonate. Try to maintain a daily practice of walking and sitting in the face of this difficulty, it is well worth the struggle.
If recently you have started a Vipassana practice and have questions, comments, or have met significant roadblocks in your practice please reach out via the Contact page.