This is edited from a talk given by Shaila Catherine titled What is Vipassana?

Vipassana Defined

Vipassana is a Pali term in common usage in contemporary meditation circles. People will casually say that they are “practicing vipassana” or “doing vipassana.” Usually the term is used to refer to the engagement of certain mindfulness techniques. Vipassana is not limited to a narrow range of methods and techniques. Vipassana is translated as Insight. It means clear seeing.

In our busy lives, blinded by the habit of only being superficially aware, we often don’t see clearly. What did you really see today? How do you behold the world?

Vipassana is defined in the Buddhist Dictionary: The intuitive light flashing forth and exposing the truth of impermanence, the suffering and the impersonal and insubstantial nature of all corporeal and mental phenomena of existence. It is insight wisdom that is the decisive liberating factor in Buddhism.

The popular notion that vipassana is about watching the breath, observing sensations arise in the mind, or letting go of thoughts misses the profound implications of this radical awareness. The traditional practices associated with vipassana direct our attention to the realization of insight through contemplation, mindfulness and investigation of three specific characteristics.

  1. Anicca: The impermanence or changing nature of all things.
  2. Dukkha: The unsatisfactory or unreliable nature of all things.
  3. Anatta: The emptiness of all conditioned things.

Vipassana practices include various systematic meditative practices that highlight these three primary insights. When we clearly perceive the way things are, we are liberated from the misperception that any conditioned things could be a stable permanent basis for our happiness. We are liberated from ignorance.

Perceiving Reality

The classic illustration is of the snake and the rope. Imagine that someone was walking along a forest path at dusk and sees something partially coiled and partially stretching across the path just a step or two ahead. Suddenly startled as the thought of a snake overtakes the mind, the hiker stands still in his tracks, frozen with fear. As he stands motionless, wondering what he should do, which way he should step to avoid the snake, he begins to notice that the snake has not moved. Looking more carefully he discovers that it is not a snake, but only a rope. He had misperceived the experience, and in the grip of misperception his heart was racing, fear overtook the mind, and he was afflicted with a flurry of emotional responses. The problem was solved simply by clear seeing.

People commonly believe experience to be other than it is and react based on misperception. We forget to notice that conditioned phenomena are impermanent, unreliable and not-self.

This illustration of the snake and the rope has been a favorite for thousands of years, because it so clearly demonstrates that we do not construct the freedom. The practices that we engage in cultivate conducive conditions for clear seeing, but we are not fabricating awareness itself. We don’t turn a snake into a rope. We don’t need to make things different than they are. We simply bring attention to the subtle reality of things and perceive them clearly.

“When the eyes and the ears are open, even the leaves on the trees teach like pages from the scripture.”  — Kabir

What is Insight?

Sometimes students imagine that insight will be dramatic, like an inner experience of fireworks and ecstasy, or a blissful radiance that brings never ending delight. Not necessarily. Insight may simply be this quiet knowing of things as they actually are, rather then as we believe they should

I have asked many students to consider if they have known any experience that has not changed. So far no one has been able to provide an example. Perceptions may increase or decrease, get better or worse, disappear or transform. We all know that things change. Our bodies age. We meet people and then part. Our thoughts rapidly flit through consciousness. Our emotions fluctuate throughout the day: waking up cranky, soothed during breakfast, angered on the highway, delighted at a successful moment at work, entranced by a beautiful sight, tired after a tedious project, etc.

The experience of the changing nature of things is not a rare or special occurrence, but how do we extract the insight from our experience? How do we experience life in a way that is liberating? When we enjoy a gathering of friends, do we know it will disperse? When we feel elated when praised, are we prepared for blame?

Meditation cultivates the capacity to steadily perceive the truth of anicca (impermanence), dukkha (unsatisfactoriness) and anatta (not-self) underneath the surface of experience. Insight transforms. It is the spotlight that puts experience into clear view. It is not intellectual understanding, or a good idea at the time, or an experience that conforms to teachings read. Insight transforms the fundamental way we experience life.

  • When we perceive anicca (impermanence) , we do not cling.
  • When we perceive dukkha (unsatisfactoriness), we do not cling.
  • When we perceive anatta (not-self), we do not cling.

These three insights prevent clinging. When clinging ceases, suffering ceases.

Present Moment Awareness

Notice what you are experiencing in this moment. What ever it may be, allow yourself to be OK with it, recognizing its simple occurrence just now. Feel the present sensations, free of concepts, without past or future and see if there is any problem. Realize this experience of simple and clear presence.

The Buddha taught:

A Single Excellent Night
(Middle Length Discourses # 131)

Let me not revive the past
Or on the future build my hopes;
For the past has been left behind
And the future has not been reached.

Instead with Insight let me see
Each presently arisen state;
Let me know that and be sure of it,
Invincibly, unshakably.

Today the effort must be made;
Tomorrow Death may come, who knows?
No bargain with Mortality
Can keep him and his hordes away.

But one who dwells thus ardently,
Relentlessly, by day , by night.
It is she, the Peaceful Sage has said,
Who has had a single excellent night.

Freed From Proliferations

As we practice we learn to rest in the first moment of experience at any sense door, before it becomes a chain of discursive thinking where misperception colors awareness. Often people get entangled in their ideas about events, not even aware how far the attention is removed from the actuality of what has occurred. A student once described what she observed in her thoughts and feelings the day she lost a hair clip:

She knew she had to go buy a new one and felt annoyed that she had to make a special trip to the store that day. Thoughts arose that she was stupid to lose it. How could she lose it? Now she has to spend more money. Her job is not paying well. Thoughts drifted to never having enough money and fear she will never have enough. Feelings of failure and self criticism are amplified. She decides she had better get a new job. But doubt arises: what else can she do?

Feeling trapped, angry, afraid and depressed, thoughts proliferated. All this anguish occurred due to an unmindful thought about the simple loss of a hair clip. This may seem like a trivial example, but our days are filled with suffering and anxiety that from a broader perspective would appear equally inconsequential. Misperception blows the event out of proportion. If she could be mindful at the first thought “I lost my hair clip” the suffering would end there. No need for proliferation, self-recrimination, and anguish.

The Buddha taught that everything we need for liberating insight can be found by looking into our own experience of seeing, hearing, smelling, tasting, touching, and thinking. This is what we will experience insight through.

Right now, as you read these words, sense present awareness. Feel the contact with the chair you are sitting on, feel the temperature of the body, feel the sensations of the breath moving, notice the sounds in the environment. There is no need to seek fancy insights, nor huge heart openings. Some people tend to have peak experiences, others don’t. For insight and wisdom it doesn’t matter if the experience is mundane or exciting, describable or indescribable.

Just look into this moment’s experience of sight, sound, smell, taste, touch, and thought. Let the experience of life touch you.

It is simply our actual moment to moment experience that we have to work with and wake up to — not a fantasy of what insight should be like.

Insight is not an education that will lead to certification and a graduate degree. It is nothing to attain, nothing to gain. Insight is the immediate knowing of things as they are actually occurring. It is the clear relationship to living that will reveal our freedom and put an end to suffering and resistance.

You don’t need to understand it or think about it so much.

Live With Insight, be touched by life as it is.

Kalu Rinpoche once said: “We live in illusion and the appearance of things. There is a reality. We are that reality. When you understand this, you see that you are nothing. And being nothing, you are everything. That is all.”

How to Cultivate Mindfulness and Insight

Basic Meditation Instruction

Please take a moment to arrange yourself for meditation. Set your work aside, turn off the telephone, close the door for privacy or quiet, and loosen any restrictive clothing or shoes. Sit comfortably, so that your spine is aligned and upright, but not tense. Feel the space that you occupy. Feel your contact with the chair, floor or cushion that supports you. Drop your attention into the body to feel the present moment sensations of sitting.

As the attention settles into the present moment guide the awareness to feel the movement of the breath. Notice where you feel the breath most distinctly: the nostrils, chest or abdomen. Direct attention to whichever place is clearest and allow the attention to settle there, feeling the sensations as the breath comes in and goes out. The sensations of breathing will be the primary, but not exclusive, object for this meditation. By focusing on the breath you offer yourself a place to gather and collect the habitually wandering mind; you cultivate a place to return each time the mind drifts off into thought. By tethering the mind to the present moment, you remind yourself to be aware.

Most beginners sit down with this intention to feel the breath, but find that thoughts quickly sweep away their resolve. There is no need to worry or judge yourself for thinking about past or future — many times we may forget the breath. Just notice that thinking has seduced attention, and gently direct the attention to feel the breath. We do not glue awareness on the breath, but instead cultivate the capacity to let go of distracting thoughts, redirect attention, and begin again with the next breath. This release of the captivation of our fantasy life, to wake up to a simple fact of the next breath, is one of the primary activities in meditation.

The breath is a wonderful object for contemplation. Not only is it naturally calming, it is continuously changing. By noticing the changing sensation from the beginning to the middle and to the end of each breath, you will directly perceive impermanence and change. Pressure, tingles, heat, or coolness will increase or decrease. There may be smooth transitions or jerky staccato movements, the breath may be long or short, rough or smooth — however the breath appears, notice it with a caring, continuous and precise attention. Experience the inconstant and impermanent sensations associated breathing; the breath will become increasingly interesting as you explore it.

Once attention settles, open the awareness to include other perceptions with the same stable, sensitive clarity that received the breath. When sounds become predominant let go of the focus on the breath, and precisely experience hearing. When sensations arise direct attention to bodily sensations (perhaps pain, warmth, coldness, pressure, tightness). Explore the experience of body with a continuity of mindfulness that knows what is actually occurring in the present moment and how it changes. If smells or sights become dominant, bring mindfulness to those sensory experiences: know how they change.

Thoughts may be more subtle or difficult to work with as an object for mindfulness because we are easily seduced into believing the story. Swept up on a current of imagination, we might forget the basic fact that we are thinking. When you bring mindfulness to thinking, keep the engagement simple: know that you are thinking. Notice that thoughts arise, without being drawn into the story they tell. Feel the energetic quality of thought; sense the activity of the mind without much concern for the storyline. Notice the impermanent and inconstant nature of thinking.

Moods, emotions, reactions, preferences, and mental states are also worthy arenas for mindful attention. What mental states are predominant? You might recognized coarse moods and emotions such as irritation, anger, fear, frustration, lust, happiness, excitement, pleasure, boredom, craving, anxiety, confusion, etc. But subtle mental states might also occur: calmness, peacefulness, joy, appreciation, gratitude, tranquility. Bring mindfulness to the positive as well as the negative emotions, to the subtle as well as the coarse states. Mental states flavor perception and distort our experience. To refine mindfulness to see things as they actually are we must be mindful of the effects of our attitudes on our perception: what are the present mental states that are affecting your consciousness?

Please bring mindfulness to every aspect of your perception. Mindful attention involves the capacity to know what is actually occurring without the distortions of personal interpretation, judgment, and reactivity. Mindfulness is naturally imbued with balance and equanimity. We receive the present moment as it actually is, without desire and without aversion. Now, present to the changing nature of your moment to moment experience, use this stable clarity to investigate perception.

Notice not only what is occurring, but what gave rise to it and what it conditions. Observe the interaction of mind and body. How are your experiences processed and known by the mind? Allow experience to flow naturally, uncontrived and uncontrolled whether pleasant or unpleasant. The meditator is primarily concerned with observing the minds’ relationship to what is happening. Remind yourself: How am I relating to this? Does a pleasant experience spark a conditioned reaction of craving and greed? Does an unpleasant experience spark a conditioned reaction of fear, withdrawal, aggression or anger? Refined awareness rests at ease with changing phenomena, mindful of the true nature of things, equanimous with the facts of things.

A balanced meditation creates conditions conducive to liberating insight. When we are mindful of a reaction of greed or hatred, the reaction dissolves and attention settles in a wise relationship to experience.

Please sit in silence for 30-60 minutes each day to cultivate mindful attention to present moment experience. Let go of distracting thoughts, let go of reactions based on desire and aversion. Look into the mind in the present moment to directly experience your own life.