What is Vipassana or Insight Meditation?
Vipassana (insight meditation) is the ultimate expression of Socrates’ dictum, “know thyself.” The Buddha discovered that the cause of suffering can actually be erased when we see our true nature. This is a radical insight. It means that our happiness does not depend on manipulating the external world. We only have to see ourselves clearly— a much easier proposition (but in the ultimate sense, knowing oneself with clarity reveals there is no permanent self, as the Buddha taught).
Vipassana meditation is a rational method for purifying the mind of the mental factors that cause distress and pain. This simple technique does not invoke the help of a god, spirit or any other external power, but relies on our own efforts.
Vipassana is an insight that cuts through conventional perception to perceive mind and matter as they actually are: impermanent, unsatisfactory, and impersonal. Insight meditation gradually purifies the mind, eliminating all forms of attachment. As attachment is cut away, desire and delusion are gradually diluted. The Buddha identified these two factors— desire and ignorance— as the roots of suffering. When they are finally removed, the mind will touch something permanent beyond the changing world. That “something” is the deathless, supramundane happiness, called “Nibbana” in Pali.
Insight meditation is concerned with the present moment— with staying in the now to the most extreme degree possible. It consists of observing body (rupa) and mind (nama) with bare attention.
The word “vipassana” has two parts. “Passana” means seeing, i.e., perceiving. The prefix “vi” has several meanings, one of which is “through.” Vipassana-insight literally cuts through the curtain of delusion in the mind. “Vi” can also function as the English prefix “dis,” suggesting discernment— a kind of seeing that perceives individual components separately. The idea of separation is relevant here, for insight works like a mental scalpel, differentiating conventional truth from ultimate reality. Lastly, “vi” can function as an intensive, in which case “vipassana” means intense, deep or powerful seeing. It is an immediate insight experienced before one’s eyes, having nothing to do with reasoning or thinking.
Is insight meditation a religion?
No. Although it was discovered by the Buddha, insight meditation is not Buddhism. It is the method by which the Buddha and his disciples freed themselves from every form of suffering and attained awakening. This simple technique is a democratic method, open to people of any faith or those who ascribe to none.
Is insight meditation an escape from reality?
No. On the contrary, it is the ultimate confrontation with reality.
Two Kinds of Meditation: Mindfulness and Concentration
The complete term for insight meditation is “vipassana-bhavana.” “Bhavana” means a system of mental training that cultivates wisdom or concentration.
All meditation techniques can be classified into two types: insight meditation (vipassana-bhavana), and tranquility meditation, or concentration (samatha-bhavana). In tranquility practice you fix the attention on a single object until the mind enters a deep, trance-like stillness. You develop enough concentration to quiet the mind and suppress mental impurities such as anger. When you stop meditating, however, the negative emotions eventually return.
The practice of insight, on the other hand, cultivates wisdom. The student develops systematic mindfulness in order to see the real characteristics of existence: unsatisfactoriness, impermanence, and impersonality. All the activities of daily life can be objects of mindfulness: bodily actions, feelings, thoughts and emotions— even painful ones. Nothing is suppressed.
In mindfulness practice, a meditator notes and lets go of different objects as they appear and pass away, instead of keeping the mind fixed on one thing exclusively. Although some concentration is needed for vipassana practice, it is only the level called “momentary concentration,” which is weaker than that required for deep tranquility-states (jhana).
The path of concentration results in short-term calmness, bliss, and, when fully perfected, psychic powers. The path of insight, on the other hand, leads to wisdom and permanent freedom from suffering. This freedom is called “Nibbana,” the deathless.
We practice vipassana meditation in order to see the mind, to know it rather than control it, as Bhikkhu Sopako Bodhi says. To see your own mind clearly is to see ultimate reality.
Many of us find excuses to avoid cultivating the mind. There is the familiar objection, “I don’t have enough concentration to meditate.” But strong concentration, as we said, is not a requirement for insight meditation.
Ask yourself this: does a sick person need a special aptitude to take penicillin? No— he takes it because he is ill. Like medicine, meditation is not something for which one needs an aptitude, but a prescription for illness; and the worse it tastes, the more it’s likely needed. The Buddha said that all of us suffer from the mental sickness of desire, aversion and delusion. But anyone— repeat, anyone— can achieve mental health and happiness by “taking” vipassana.
What is Mindfulness?
Vipassana practice cultivates mindfulness. Mindfulness in insight meditation refers to bare awareness of the physical and mental phenomena occurring in the present moment. These phenomena include the movements of your body, sights, sounds, smells, tastes, sensations of touch, pain or pleasant feeling, thoughts, etc.
The present moment refers to the initial instant that a phenomenon (called an “object”) such as a sound, sight or movement makes contact with consciousness. Think of a match striking the side of the box, resulting in flame. That’s what the contact of the present moment is like. The mind is one thing, the object another. When they strike together, a moment of experience happens: a moment of hearing, seeing, smelling, moving, touching, tasting, feeling or thinking.
Mindfulness is the mental factor aware of this contact from one moment to the next. Furthermore, mindfulness knows the beginning and ending of each instance of contact. That is, it sees each sight or sound arise and then immediately pass away.
With mindfulness you do not judge or react to passing phenomena, but merely note them impartially, without attraction or repulsion. We should emphasize that mindfulness of the body, thoughts, feelings, sense-impressions, and so on does not mean thinking about those things, but merely knowing them with bare attention as soon as they arise (i.e., at the moment of contact), then letting them go. The technique of simply knowing and letting go of sensations without reacting to them eventually purifies the mind of all unwholesome traits.
The Country of Now
To be mindful of the present moment is to stay in the ultimate now, to be acutely aware of what is happening in body and mind at the present instant. At such times you don’t remember past events or anticipate the future. Truly speaking, the last breath is in the past. It is gone. The next breath hasn’t happened yet. Only the present breath (or sight, sound, movement, etc.) is real.
But how can we survive in the world while staying in the present to such a degree? In order to function in everyday life, of course, we have to plan and remember. We have to evaluate sights and sounds. Most of the time we have to use language and abstract thinking. In that case we cannot stay precisely in the present moment, although we can use general mindfulness and clear comprehension to be more aware of our activities and thoughts.
But we can set aside a special hour or so every day to cultivate mindfulness. During that time we can let go of concepts, thoughts, and mental “fashionings” of every kind. Whether it’s an hour every morning or a year-long retreat, during that period there’s no need to think about yesterday’s crisis or make a mental leap toward the future, not even to the next breath.
What is sometimes misunderstood, however, is the degree to which “nowness” should be taken during vipassana practice. It is more extreme and precise than most of us think. And it is quite different from the mindfulness we might use in daily life.
People mean different things by the terms “now” or “the present.” In a practical sense, we might think of nowness as having degrees. Imagine you’re standing on a high ridge looking at a forest through a camera lens. As you zoom closer, details of the individual trees emerge clearly. As you zoom out, the trees appear less distinct.
Here we’re using distance as a metaphor for time. To those standing far from the forest, living in the present could mean enjoying life from day to day without planning for retirement. For a person who zooms in closer, staying in the now could mean paying attention while doing the dishes— keeping the mind on the task instead of letting it stray to the argument of yesterday morning.
But is this as close as you can get to the trees? Is this what it means to stay in the present to the ultimate degree? As a matter of fact, it isn’t. We may believe it is the limit only because we haven’t systematically cultivated mindfulness. But with strong mindfulness we can actually zoom in much closer. Then we find that the “now” opens up into many more levels.
Gradually it is seen that our previous lack of awareness distorted our perception of the inner and outer landscape. As mindfulness gets sharper we will be able to perceive many more details, subtleties that had never been noticed before, until we are able to clearly perceive the moment when the mind makes initial contact with an object.
If we do this systematically we’ll begin to see things differently— as the mirror image of what we’d thought they were. What we had believed permanent turns out to be momentary. What we thought desirable no longer seems so. What we believed to be self is clearly seen to be a matter of impersonal components. This is to cross the border of conventional truth into the province of ultimate reality and see things as they actually are. It is by seeing these characteristics clearly that we’ll be able to let go of attachment and become free of suffering.
Letting Go of Memory and Names
How do you take the practice of nowness to the next level so as to see ultimate reality clearly? The answer is: by letting go of conventional knowledge temporarily, which includes letting go of memory. Not only memories from childhood, or yesterday, or one minute ago; not only the memory of our last breath.
In order to gain ultimate knowledge you have to give up, for a time, the labels and concepts of conventional knowledge. Some call this “beginner’s mind.” That means that in order to reach a high level of vipassana insight you must temporarily let go of the names for things, because naming is actually a very subtle form of remembering, a tiny reflex back to the past. But you don’t have to worry that anything will be lost— the memories and names will return as soon as you need them or as soon as you stop the period of intensive practice.
What does it mean to “let go of names”? In order to understand this, let’s take a look at the process of perception as described in Buddhist philosophy. The perceptual process has two parts. Say that you’re looking at a piano. At first you see an unidentified colored shape (this is the initial moment of contact with the object, to which we referred earlier). A split-second later the mind recognizes the name of the object, “piano.” Those two moments occur one right after the other, so quickly that in daily life they’re indistinguishable. But with strong mindfulness and insight it is possible to perceive the initial moment of bare seeing before memory comes up with the name.
The same stages of perception occur whenever you experience a sound, smell, taste or touch. Pure sound-waves are cognized first; in the next moment you recognize the sound. A fragrance is sensed before it is named. The same is true of touches, tastes, and mental phenomena.
The truth is, although you may have general mindfulness, whenever you recognize a sight, sound, etc., you cannot be said to be staying exactly in the present moment, to the highest degree possible. “If we could focus precisely on the present moment,” Achan Sobin wrote, “â€¦ the eye would not be able to identify objects coming into the area of perception. Sound, which merely has the function of entering the eardrum and causing it to vibrate, would not be concretized as speech or music, etc. In fact, it is possible to focus on the split-second between hearing sound and recognizing it in the conventional manner.” (Wayfaring: A Manual for Insight Meditation).
Although it may seem impossible to be clearly aware of a form before recognizing it, this event happens naturally during vipassana practice when mindfulness and insight are very strong. With experience in meditation you will not have to believe or disbelieve, because you will know this firsthand. To know a phenomenon with mindfulness before it is overlaid with concepts is to experience reality as it actually is, in its pristine state.
That does not mean that in daily life you will go around bumping into objects you don’t recognize. Again, conventional perception, along with all the names and concepts necessary for everyday functioning, will be there as soon as you need it. It can be accessed anytime.
But in regard to memory, someone might think, “I cherish my happy memories. Why should I give them up?” Again, your memories will not be permanently erased. You’ll be able to recall a certain event whenever you want to. But the more you train the mind to stay in the present moment, the more you’ll see that clinging to the past and living in the future actually cause suffering. Attachment to pleasant memories makes us long for something that is gone, and this longing is in itself painful. What disappears in vipassana practice are not the memories themselves, but the distress that comes from attaching to them.
Conventional Truth vs. Ultimate Reality
The Buddha distinguished between conventional and ultimate truth. The former refers to the names and concepts by which we interpret our experience. Conventional truth is relative and conceptual. It changes from person to person. But ultimate truth is the same for all. It is true in the absolute sense.
A name is a concept; it isn’t ultimately real. It is only a convention we impose on something. Remembering the name of a thing, whether we are referring to a sight, sound, smell, taste, touch, feeling or some other form, is not the same as directly experiencing it.
Ultimate reality refers to the raw sense-data of moment-to-moment experience: the actual instances of color, sound waves, tactile sensation, fragrance, and so on, that the brain continually registers. These sensations exist whether or not we think about them. They are not affected by the names or associations given to them.
Most cultures have a name for the phenomenon called “thunder” in English. Brazilians say “trueno,” the French, “tonerre.” Although the names differ, the phenomenon doesn’t. The event denoted by “thunder” is the same thing no matter what we call it. Truly speaking, it is impossible to hear thunder. What we actually hear is sound. Although a particular sound can be called by many names, sound waves themselves have the same properties, and follow the same physical laws, in all cultures.
Insight meditation is only concerned with ultimate reality, not conventional truth. Ultimate reality has two components: nama and rupa.
Nama and Rupa
Achan Sobin once said, “There is no vipassana without nama and rupa.” They are insight meditation distilled to its essence. “Nama” means mind. The mind is comprised of two things: 1) consciousness, and 2) mental phenomena or mental factors such as intention, feeling, desire, mindfulness, and so on. The general word “nama” includes both consciousness and mental factors.
“Rupa” means matter. Practically speaking, rupa refers to bare sense-impressions: color, sound, taste, scent and tactile sensation (tactile sensation is experienced as temperature, pressure, and motion). Although we don’t usually think of them this way, in Buddhist philosophy sense-impressions are considered a type of matter. They are, in fact, our only direct experience of the latter.
Nama and rupa are the two things left when we give up names and concepts. Strictly speaking, they are the only proper objects of mindfulness.
Nama and rupa serve two functions in our moment-to-moment experience: 1) the function of knowing, and 2) the function of being known.
The faculty that knows is nama, the mind. It is aware of something. Let’s call it the “knower” (but this “knower” should not be equated with a self; it is impersonal, anatta.) The x being known is called the “object.” An object by very definition lacks awareness.
Rupas, material forms, are always objects, not knowers. Rupa is not conscious. Sound cannot hear. Color cannot see. Material phenomena must be “touched” by a mind in order to be experienced. When the mind is aware of color, seeing happens. When it’s aware of sound, hearing occurs. Color and sound are objects.
Each moment of life contains one “knower” and one object. When these two things come together, experience happens. For example, sound vibrations are rupa; the mind perceives the sound. When you move your arm, the motion is rupa; nama, the mind, is aware of the movement. A fragrance is rupa; the mind perceives the scent. Color is rupa; nama, the mind, cognizes color.
Now here’s where it gets a bit tricky. Although rupas are always objects, not all objects are rupas. An object refers to anything of which the mind is aware. It can be either corporeal or incorporeal. Mental phenomena such as thoughts and feelings can also become objects-objects of the mind— because we can be aware of them.
In that case, one mental phenomenon is known by another mental phenomenon. Having two namas in one moment may seem confusing, as if there would be two knowers. But only one nama at a time can be the knower. A single moment of nama or unit of mind can perform only one function at a time. It cannot be both knower and object simultaneously.
What happens in some cases of knowing a mental form is that the mind in the present takes as its object the previous moment of consciousness, the one that arose and passed away a split-second before. In other words, the mental phenomenon being known— the nama serving as the object— is already over with. (Technically, when the previous moment of consciousness becomes the object of the present, we are knowing an object from the past. But it is so close in time that it still counts as a legitimate object for mindfulness, still counts as a “present” object. This is a different situation from when the mind turns to memory to retrieve the name of a form.)
Although they are fundamental, ultimate realities (individual namas and rupas) are not permanent. In fact they are in continual flux, appearing and passing away faster than lightning flashes. Under ordinary circumstances we’re unable to perceive this flux. But it’s possible, by practicing insight meditation, to train our minds to see it. To see nama-rupa arising and passing away is to know oneself. To know oneself is to know the universe.
The Absence of “I”
When observing nama and rupa you shouldn’t think in terms of a self or describe your experience with words. When observing the body, for instance, you wouldn’t think, “I feel a cramp in my leg.” You would only be aware of the feeling. As a training technique a beginner can label the sensation “pain,” or “feeling,” but without regarding it in terms of “I” or mentally linking it to a body part.
To take another example: during walking meditation a student is just aware of the bare sensation of motion instead of thinking, “now my foot is moving,” or even knowing the concept “foot.” No matter which body part is moving, every instance of motion is rupa, physical form. In ultimate terms, all rupas are equal. The only difference is that they occur in different moments. Namas and rupas are not selves. Nor do they belong to a self.
The physical body is rupa because it is comprised of matter. It can be moved into different shapes called “postures.” Let’s say that you place the body in the sitting posture. Normally you’d think, “I am sitting,” which is true in the conventional sense. But according to ultimate reality, it is only rupa that is sitting, only material form, not a self or an “I.” In the ultimate sense, it is not even a man or a woman who is sitting, but only physical elements.
What about nama? Ultimately speaking, nama, the mind, is not a self either. Nama is the faculty that knows the body is sitting. But this consciousness is not equivalent to a self. It is merely an impersonal awareness that arises and passes away from moment to moment.
Life continues because in the next instant a new moment of consciousness arises. New units of consciousness keep arising and dying out one at a time, and it is this entire stream that we normally regard as a being or person. Although we usually think of a person as a relatively permanent entity possessing a lasting soul or self, in fact the mental continuum is comprised of separate, but sequential, units of consciousness. The notion of a permanent self, the Buddha taught, is nothing more than a fiction. It does not actually exist in either body or mind.
Our moment-to-moment experience in terms of nama-rupa can be summarized as follows:
Movement is rupa; nama knows (is aware of) movement.
Posture is rupa; nama knows posture.
Color is rupa; nama sees color.
Sound is rupa; nama hears sound.
Scent is rupa; nama smells scent.
Tactile sensation is rupa; nama knows tactile sensation.
Flavor is rupa; nama tastes flavor.
In any type of meditation we have to give the mind something to focus on. This “something” is called the “meditation object.” In vipassana practice the only appropriate objects are those which occur in the present moment. Sometimes we generate these objects deliberately, as in the hand motions exercise (see Hand Motions). Sometimes we merely observe what occurs naturally, such as the abdominal movements that happen when we breathe.
In fact, the abdominal movement occuring in respiration is the most frequent meditation object. The abdomen expands when you inhale and deflates when you exhale. In vipassana these two movements are called, respectively, “rising” and “falling.” The rising motion is one object; the falling motion is another.
Since these motions never cease as long as we live, they make extremely convenient objects. You can practice insight meditation at any time simply by observing the abdominal movements. (There are many other objects for vipassana practice, explained in more detail below and in How to Meditate.)
Another requirement is persistence. If you have tried practicing insight meditation, you know that keeping the mind in the present isn’t as easy as it sounds. Perversely, the mind always wanders away. That’s all right. It takes patience to change the habit of a lifetime. But it’s important not to get upset with yourself. You should regard the mind’s wandering as an opportunity to see impersonality, nonself.
Nonself means that all the phenomena in the universe arise because of conditions which are not amenable to control by anyone’s will. We can still effect changes, but only by creating the right causes, not by sheer willpower. And creating those causes takes time.
So how should you respond when consciousness wanders away from the meditation object? Simply note “thinking,” saying the word silently in the mind, then bring your attention back to the meditation object. As soon as you notice the mind slipping into the past or dreaming about the future, sweep it back to the present moment where a new object, a new sound, thought or movement is already erupting.
Persistence is key because you will have to bring the mind back again and again— literally thousands of times, until it becomes habitual. Don’t try to suppress any emotions or thoughts that may arise. Allow these phenomena to appear naturally. Simply be aware of them when they occur.