About the Author
Venerable Henepola Gunaratana was ordained at the age of 12
as a Buddhist monk at a small temple in Malandeniya Village
in Kurunegala District in Sri Lanka. His preceptor was
Venerable Kiribatkumbure Sonuttara Mahathera. At the age of
20 he was
given higher ordination in Kandy in 1947. He received his
education from Vidyalankara College and Buddhist Missionary
Colombo. Subsequently he traveled to India for five years
of missionary work for the Mahabodhi Society, serving the
(Untouchable) people in Sanchi, Delhi, and Bombay. Later
he spent ten years as a missionary in Malaysia, serving as
advisor to the Sasana Abhivurdhiwardhana Society, Buddhist
Missionary Society and the Buddhist Youth Federation of Malaysia.
been a teacher in Kishon Dial School and Temple Road Girls'
School and Principal of the Buddhist Institute of Kuala Lumppur.
At the invitation of the Sasana Sevaka Society, Venerable Gunaratana
came to the United States in 1968 to serve as Hon. General Secretary
of the Buddhist Vihara Society of Washington, D.C. In 1980 he
was appointed President of the Society. During his years at
the Vihara, he has taught courses in Buddhism, conducted meditation
retreats, and lectured widely throughout the United States,
Canada, Europe, Australia and New Zealand.
He has also pursued his scholarly interests by earning a B.A.,
and M.A., and a Ph.D. in Philosophy from the American University.
He taught courses in Buddhism at the American University, Georgetown
University and University of Maryland. His books and articles
have been published in Malaysia, India, Sri Lanka and the United
Since 1973 he has been buddhist chaplin at The American University
counseling students interested in Buddhism and Buddhist meditation.
He is now president of the Bhavana Society in West Virginia
in the Shenandoah Valley, about 100 miles from Washington, D.C.
teaching meditation and conducting meditation retreats.
In my experience I found that the most effective way to express
something in order to make others understand is to use the simplest
language. Also I learned from teaching that the more rigid the
language the less effective it is. People to not respond to
very stern and rigid language especially when we try to teach
something which normally people don't engage in during their
daily life. Meditation appears to them as something that they
cannot always do. As more people turn to meditation, they need
more simplified instructions so they can practice by themselves
without a teacher around. This book is the result of requests
made by many meditators who need a very simple book written
in ordinary colloquial language.
In preparing this book I have been helped by many of my friends.
I am deeply grateful to all of them. Especially I would like
to express my deepest appreciation and sincere gratitude to
John Patticord, Daniel J. Olmsted, Matthew Flickstein, Carol
Flickstein, Patrick Hamilton, Genny Hamilton, Bill Mayne, Bhikkhu
Dang Pham Jotika and Bhikkhu Sona for their most valuable suggestions,
comments and criticisms of numerous points in preparing this
book. Also thanks to Reverend Sister Sama and Chris O'Keefe
for their support in production efforts.
H. Gunaratana Mahathera
Rt. 1 Box 218-3
High View, WV 26808
December 7, 1990
The subject of this book is Vipassana meditation practice. Repeat,
practice. This is a meditation manual, a nuts-and-bolts, step-by-step
guide to Insight meditation. It is meant to be practical. It
is meant for use.
There are already many comprehensive books on Buddhism as a
philosophy, and on the theoretical aspects of Buddhist meditation.
If you are interested in that material we urge you to read those
books. Many of them are excellent. This book is a 'How to.'
It is written for those who actually want to meditate and especially
for those who want to start now. There are very few qualified
teachers of the Buddhist style of meditation in the United States
of America. It is our intention to give you the basic data you
need to get off to a flying start. Only those who follow the
instructions given here can say whether we have succeeded or
failed. Only those who actually meditate regularly and diligently
can judge our effort. No book can possibly cover every problem
that a meditator may run into. You will need to meet a qualified
teacher eventually. In the mean time, however, these are the
basic ground rules; a full understanding of these pages will
take you a very long way.
There are many styles of meditation. Every major religious tradition
has some sort of procedure which they call meditation, and the
word is often very loosely used. Please understand that this
volume deals exclusively with the Vipassana style of meditation
as taught and practiced in South and Southeast Asian Buddhism.
It is often translated as Insight meditation, since the purpose
of this system is to give the meditator insight into the nature
of reality and accurate understanding of how everything works.
Buddhism as a whole is quite different from the theological
religions with which Westerners are most familiar. It is a direct
entrance to a spiritual or divine realm without addressing deities
or other 'agents'. Its flavor is intensely clinical, much more
akin to what we would call psychology than to what we would
usually call religion. It is an ever-ongoing investigation of
reality, a microscopic examination of the very process of perception.
Its intention is to pick apart the screen of lies and delusions
through which we normally view the world, and thus to reveal
the face of ultimate reality. Vipassana meditation is an ancient
and elegant technique for doing just that.
Theravada Buddhism presents us with an effective system for
exploring the deeper levels of the mind, down to the very root
of consciousness itself. It also offers a considerable system
of reverence and rituals in which those techniques are contained.
This beautiful tradition is the natural result of its 2,500-year
development within the highly traditional cultures of South
and Southeast Asia.
In this volume, we will make every effort to separate the ornamental
and the fundamental and to present only the naked plain truth
itself. Those readers who are of a ritual bent may investigate
the Theravada practice in other books, and will find there a
vast wealth of customs and ceremony, a rich tradition full of
beauty and significance. Those of a more clinical bent may use
just the techniques themselves, applying them within whichever
philosophical and emotional context they wish. The practice
is the thing.
The distinction between Vipassana meditation and other styles
of meditation is crucial and needs to be fully understood. Buddhism
addresses two major types of meditation. They are different
mental skills, modes of functioning or qualities of consciousness.
In Pali, the original language of Theravada literature, they
are called 'Vipassana' and 'Samatha'.
'Vipassana' can be translated as 'insight', a clear awareness
of exactly what is happening as it happens. 'Samatha' can be
translated as 'concentration' or 'tranquility'. It is a state
in which the mind is brought to rest, focused only on one item
and not allowed to wander. When this is done, a deep calm pervades
body and mind, a state of tranquility which must be experienced
to be understood. Most systems of meditation emphasize the Samatha
component. The meditator focuses his mind upon some items, such
as prayer, a certain type of box, a chant, a candle flame, a
religious image or whatever, and excludes all other thoughts
and perceptions from his consciousness. The result is a state
of rapture which lasts until the meditator ends the session
of sitting. It is beautiful, delightful meaningful and alluring,
but only temporary. Vipassana meditation address the other component,
The Vipassana meditator uses his concentration as a tool by
which his awareness can chip away at the wall of illusion which
cuts him off from the living light of reality. It is a gradual
process of ever-increasing awareness and into the inner workings
of reality itself. It takes years, but one day the meditator
chisels through that wall and tumbles into the presence of light.
The transformation is complete. It's called liberation, and
it's permanent. Liberation is the goal of all buddhist systems
of practice. But the routes to attainment of the end are quite
There are an enormous number of distinct sects within Buddhism.
But they divide into two broad streams of thought -- Mahayana
and Theravada. Mahayana Buddhism prevails throughout East Asia,
shaping the cultures of China, Korea, Japan, Nepal, Tibet and
Vietnam. The most widely known of the Mahayana systems is Zen,
practiced mainly in Japan, Korea, Vietnam and the United States.
The Theravada system of practice prevails in South and Southeast
Asia in the countries of Sri Lanka, Thailand, Burma, Laos and
Cambodia. This book deals with Theravada practice.
The traditional Theravada literature describes the techniques
of both Samatha (concentration and tranquility of mind) and
Vipassana (insight or clear awareness). There are forty different
subjects of meditation described in the Pali literature. They
are recommended as objects of concentration and as subjects
of investigation leading to insight. But this is a basic manual,
and we limit our discussion to the most fundamental of those
recommended objects--breathing. This book is an introduction
to the attainment of mindfulness through bare attention to,
and clear comprehension of, the whole process of breathing.
Using the breath as his primary focus of attention, the meditator
applies participatory observation to the intirety of his own
perceptual universe. He learns to watch changes occurring in
all physical experiences, in feelings and in perceptions. He
learns to study his own mental activities and the fluctuations
in the character of consciousness itself. All of these changes
are occurring perpetually and are present in every moment of
Meditation is a living activity, an inherently experiential
activity. It cannot be taught as a purely scholastic subject.
The living heart of the process must come from the teacher's
own personal experience. Nevertheless, there is a vast fund
of codified material on the subject which is the product of
some of the most intelligent and deeply illumined human beings
ever to walk the earth. This literature is worthy of attention.
Most of the points given in this book are drawn from the Tipitaka,
which is the three-section collected work in which the Buddah's
original teachings have been preserved. The Tipitaka is comprised
of the Vinaya, the code of discipline for monks, nuns, and lay
people; the Suttas, public discourses attributed to the Buddha;
and the Abhidhamma, a set of deep psycho-philosophical teachings.
In the first century after Christ, an eminent Buddhist scholar
named Upatissa wrote the Vimuttimagga, (The Path of Freedom)
in which he summarized the Buddha's teachings on meditation.
In the fifth century A.C. (after Christ,) another great Buddhist
scholar named Buddhaghosa covered the same ground in a second
scholastic thesis--the Visuddhimagga, (The Path of Purification)
which is the standard text on meditation even today. Modern
meditation teachers rely on the Tipitaka and upon their own
personal experiences. It is our intention to present you with
the clearest and most concise directions for Vipassana meditation
available in the English language. But this book offers you
a foot in the door. It's up to you to take the first few steps
on the road to the discovery of who you are and what it all
means. It is a journey worth taking. We wish you success.
Meditation: Why Bother?
Meditation is not easy. It takes time and it takes energy. It
also takes grit, determination and discipline. It requires a
host of personal qualities which we normally regard as unpleasant
and which we like to avoid whenever possible. We can sum it
all up in the American word 'gumption'. Meditation takes 'gumption'.
It is certainly a great deal easier just to kick back and watch
television. So why bother? Why waste all that time and energy
when you could be out enjoying yourself? Why bother? Simple.
Because you are human. And just because of the simple fact that
you are human, you find yourself heir to an inherent unsatisfactoriness
in life which simply will not go away. You can suppress it from
your awareness for a time. You can distract yourself for hours
on end, but it always comes back--usually when you least expect
it. All of a sudden, seemingly out of the blue, you sit up,
take stock, and realize your actual situation in life.
There you are, and you suddenly realize that you are spending
your whole life just barely getting by. You keep up a good
You manage to make ends meed somehow and look OK from the
outside. But those periods of desperation, those times
when you feel
everything caving in on you, you keep those to yourself.
You are a mess. And you know it. But you hide it beautifully.
way down under all that you just know there has got be
some other way to live, some better way to look at the
way to touch life more fully. You click into it by chance
now and then. You get a good job. You fall in love. You
game. and for a while, things are different. Life takes
on a richness and clarity that makes all the bad times
fade away. The whole texture of your experience changes
and you say to yourself, "OK, now I've made it; now I will
be happy". But then that fades, too, like smoke in
the wind. You are left with just a memory. That and a vague
that something is wrong.
But there is really another whole realm of depth and sensitivity
available in life, somehow, you are just not seeing it. You
wind up feeling cut off. You feel insulated from the sweetness
of experience by some sort of sensory cotton. You are not really
touching life. You are not making it again. And then even that
vague awareness fades away, and you are back to the same old
reality. The world looks like the usual foul place, which is
boring at best. It is an emotional roller coaster, and you spend
a lot of your time down at the bottom of the ramp, yearning
for the heights.
So what is wrong with you? Are you a freak? No. You are
just human. And you suffer from the same malady that infects
human being. It is a monster in side all of us, and it
arms: Chronic tension, lack of genuine compassion for others,
including the people closest to you, feelings being blocked
up, and emotional deadness. Many, many arms. None of us
free from it. We may deny it. We try to suppress it. We
build a whole culture around hiding from it, pretending
it is not
there, and distracting ourselves from it with goals and
projects and status. But it never goes away. It is a constant
in every thought and every perception; a little wordless
at the back of the head saying, "Not good enough yet. Got
to have more. Got to make it better. Got to be better." It
is a monster, a monster that manifests everywhere in subtle
Go to a party. Listen to the laughter, that brittle-tongued
voice that says fun on the surface and fear underneath. Feel
the tension, feel the pressure. Nobody really relaxes. They
are faking it. Go to a ball game. Watch the fan in the stand.
Watch the irrational fit of anger. Watch the uncontrolled frustration
bubbling forth from people that masquerades under the guise
of enthusiasm, or team spirit. Booing, cat-calls and unbridled
egotism in the name of team loyalty. Drunkenness, fights in
the stands. These are the people trying desperately to release
tension from within. These are not people who are at peace with
themselves. Watch the news on TV. Listen to the lyrics in popular
songs. You find the same theme repeated over and over in variations.
Jealousy, suffering, discontent and stress.
Life seems to be a perpetual struggle, some enormous effort
against staggering odds. And what is our solution to all this
dissatisfaction? We get stuck in the ' If only' syndrome. If
only I had more money, then I would be happy. If only I can
find somebody who really loves me, if only I can lose 20 pounds,
if only I had a color TV, Jacuzzi, and curly hair, and on and
on forever. So where does all this junk come from and more important,
what can we do about it? It comes from the conditions of our
own minds. It is deep, subtle and pervasive set of mental habits,
a Gordian knot which we have built up bit by bit and we can
unravel just the same way, one piece at a time. We can tune
up our awareness, dredge up each separate piece and bring it
out into the light. We can make the unconscious conscious, slowly,
one piece at a time.
The essence of our experience is change. Change is incessant.
Moment by moment life flows by and it is never the same. Perpetual
alteration is the essence of the perceptual universe. A thought
springs up in you head and half a second later, it is gone.
In comes another one, and that is gone too. A sound strikes
your ears and then silence. Open your eyes and the world pours
in, blink and it is gone. People come into your life and they
leave again. Friends go, relatives die. Your fortunes go up
and they go down. Sometimes you win and just as often you lose.
It is incessant: change, change, change. No two moments ever
There is not a thing wrong with this. It is the nature of the
universe. But human culture has taught u some odd responses
to this endless flowing. We categorize experiences. We try to
stick each perception, every mental change in this endless flow
into one of three mental pigeon holes. It is good, or it is
bad, or it is neutral. Then, according to which box we stick
it in, we perceive with a set of fixed habitual mental responses.
If a particular perception has been labeled 'good', then we
try to freeze time right there. We grab onto that particular
thought, we fondle it, we hold it, we try to keep it from escaping.
When that does not work, we go all-out in an effort to repeat
the experience which caused that thought. Let us call this mental
Over on the other side of the mind lies the box labeled 'bad'.
When we perceive something 'bad', we try to push it away. We
try to deny it, reject it, get rid of it any way we can. We
fight against our own experience. We run from pieces of ourselves.
Let us call this mental habit 'rejecting'. Between these two
reactions lies the neutral box. Here we place the experiences
which are neither good nor bad. They are tepid, neutral, uninteresting
and boring. We pack experience away in the neutral box so that
we can ignore it and thus return jour attention to where the
action is, namely our endless round of desire and aversion.
This category of experience gets robbed of its fair share of
our attention. Let us call this mental habit 'ignoring'. The
direct result of all this lunacy is a perpetual treadmill race
to nowhere, endlessly pounding after pleasure, endlessly fleeing
from pain, endlessly ignoring 90 percent of our experience.
Than wondering why life tastes so flat. In the final analysis,
it's a system that does not work.
No matter how hard you pursue pleasure and success, there are
times when you fail. No matter how fast you flee, there are
times when pain catches up with you. And in between those times,
life is so boring you could scream. Our minds are full of opinions
and criticisms. We have built walls all around ourselves and
we are trapped with the prison of our own lies and dislikes.
Suffering is big word in Buddhist thought. It is a key term
and it should be thoroughly understood. The Pali word is 'dukkha',
and it does not just mean the agony of the body. It means the
deep, subtle sense of unsatisfactoriness which is a part of
every mental treadmill. The essence of life is suffering, said
the Buddha. At first glance this seems exceedingly morbid and
pessimistic. It even seems untrue. After all, there are plenty
of times when we are happy. Aren't there? No, there are not.
It just seems that way. Take any moment when you feel really
fulfilled and examine it closely. Down under the joy, you will
find that subtle, all-pervasive undercurrent of tension, that
no matter how great the moment is, it is going to end. No matter
how much you just gained, you are either going to lose some
of it or spend the rest of your days guarding what you have
got and scheming how to get more. And in the end, you are going
to die. In the end, you lose everything. It is all transitory.
Sounds pretty bleak, doesn't it? Luckily it's not; not at all.
It only sounds bleak when you view it from the level of ordinary
mental perspective, the very level at which the treadmill mechanism
operates. Down under that level lies another whole perspective,
a completely different way to look at the universe. It is a
level of functioning where the mind does not try to freeze time,
where we do not grasp onto our experience as it flows by, where
we do not try to block things out and ignore them. It is a level
of experience beyond good and bad, beyond pleasure and pain.
It is a lovely way to perceive the world, and it is a learnable
skill. It is not easy, but is learnable.
Happiness and peace. Those are really the prime issues
in human existence. That is what all of us are seeking.
a bit hard to see because we cover up those basic goals
with layers of surface objectives. We want food, we want
want sex, possessions and respect. We even say to ourselves
that the idea of 'happiness' is too abstract: "Look, I
am practical. Just give me enough money and I will buy all the
happiness I need". Unfortunately, this is an attitude
that does not work. Examine each of these goals and you
they are superficial. You want food. Why? Because I am
hungry. So you are hungry, so what? Well if I eat, I won't
and then I'll feel good. Ah ha! Feel good! Now there is
item. What we really seek is not the surface goals. They
are just means to an end. What we are really after is the
of relief that comes when the drive is satisfied. Relief,
relaxation and an end to the tension. Peace, happiness,
no more yearning.
So what is this happiness? For most of us, the perfect happiness
would mean getting everything we wanted, being in control of
everything, playing Caesar, making the whole world dance a jig
according to our every whim. Once again, it does not work that
way. Take a look at the people in history who have actually
held this ultimate power. These were not happy people. Most
assuredly they were not men at peace with themselves. Why? Because
they were driven to control the world totally and absolutely
and they could not. They wanted to control all men and there
remained men who refused to be controlled. They could not control
the stars. They still got sick. They still had to die.
You can't ever get everything you want. It is impossible. Luckily,
there is another option. You can learn to control your mind,
to step outside of this endless cycle of desire and aversion.
You can learn to not want what you want, to recognize desires
but not be controlled by them. This does not mean that you lie
down on the road and invite everybody to walk all over you .
It means that you continue to live a very normal-looking life,
but live from a whole new viewpoint. You do the things that
a person must do, but you are free from that obsessive, compulsive
drivenness of your own desires. You want something, but you
don't need to chase after it. You fear something, but you don't
need to stand there quaking in your boots. This sort of mental
culture is very difficult. It takes years. But trying to control
everything is impossible, and the difficult is preferable to
Wait a minute, though. Peace and happiness! Isn't that what
civilization is all about? We build skyscrapers and freeways.
We have paid vacations, TV sets. We provide free hospitals and
sick leaves, Social Security and welfare benefits. All of that
is aimed at providing some measure of peace and happiness. Yet
the rate of mental illness climbs steadily, and the crime rates
rise faster. The streets are crawling with delinquents and unstable
individuals. Stick you arms outside the safety of your own door
and somebody is very likely to steal your watch! Something is
not working. A happy man does not feel driven to kill. We like
to think that our society is exploiting every area of human
knowledge in order to achieve peace and happiness.
We are just beginning to realize that we have overdeveloped
the material aspect of existence at the expense of the
deeper emotional and spiritual aspect, and we are paying
for that error. It is one thing to talk about degeneration
moral and spiritual fiber in America today, and another
thing to do something about it. The place to start is within
Look carefully inside, truly and objectively, and each
will see moments when "I am the punk" and "I
am the crazy". We will learn to see those moments,
see them clearly, cleanly and without condemnation, and
be on our way up and out of being so.
You can't make radical changes in the pattern of your life until
you begin to see yourself exactly as you are now. As soon as
you do that, changes flow naturally. You don't have to force
or struggle or obey rules dictated to you by some authority.
You just change. It is automatic. But arriving at the initial
insight is quite a task. You've got to see who you are and how
you are, without illusion, judgement or resistance of any kind.
You've got to see your own place in society and your function
as a social being. You've got to see your duties and obligations
to your fellow human beings, and above all, your responsibility
to yourself as an individual living with other individuals.
And you've got to see all of that clearly and as a unit, a single
gestalt of interrelationship. It sounds complex, but it often
occurs in a single instant. Mental culture through meditation
is without rival in helping you achieve this sort of understanding
and serene happiness.
The Dhammapada is an ancient Buddhist text which anticipated
Freud by thousands of years. It says: "What you are now
is the result of what you were. What you will be tomorrow will
be the result of what you are now. The consequences of an evil
mind will follow you like the cart follows the ox that pulls
it. The consequences of a purified mind will follow you like
you own shadow. No one can do more for you than your own purified
mind-- no parent, no relative, no friend, no one. A well-disciplined
mind brings happiness".
Meditation is intended to purify the mind. It cleanses the thought
process of what can be called psychic irritants, things like
greed, hatred and jealousy, things that keep you snarled up
in emotional bondage. It brings the mind to a state of tranquility
and awareness, a state of concentration and insight.
In our society, we are great believers in education. We believe
that knowledge makes a cultured person civilized. Civilization,
however, polishes the person superficially. Subject our noble
and sophisticated gentleman to stresses of war or economic collapse,
and see what happens. It is one thing to obey the law because
you know the penalties and fear the consequences. It is something
else entirely to obey the law because you have cleansed yourself
from the greed that would make you steal and the hatred that
would make you kill. Throw a stone into a stream. The running
water would smooth the surface, but the inner part remains unchanged.
Take that same stone and place it in the intense fires of a
forge, and the whole stone changes inside and outside. It all
melts. Civilization changes man on the outside. Meditation softens
him within, through and through.
Meditation is called the Great Teacher. It is the cleansing
crucible fire that works slowly through understanding. The greater
your understanding, the more flexible and tolerant you can be.
The greater your understanding, the more compassionate you can
be. You become like a perfect parent or an ideal teacher. You
are ready to forgive and forget. You feel love towards others
because you understand them. And you understand others because
you have understood yourself. You have looked deeply inside
and seen self illusion and your own human failings. You have
seen your own humanity and learned to forgive and to love. When
you have learned compassion for yourself, compassion for others
is automatic. An accomplished meditator has achieved a profound
understanding of life, and he inevitably relates to the world
with a deep and uncritical love.
Meditation is a lot like cultivating a new land. To make a field
out of a forest, fist you have to clear the trees and pull out
the stumps. Then you till the soil and you fertilize it. Then
you sow your seed and you harvest your crops. To cultivate your
mind, first you have to clear out the various irritants that
are in the way, pull them right out by the root so that they
won't grow back. Then you fertilize. You pump energy and discipline
in the mental soil. Then you sow the seed and you harvest your
crops of faith, morality , mindfulness and wisdom.
Faith and morality, by the way, have a special meaning in this
context. Buddhism does not advocate faith in the sense of believing
something because it is written in a book or attributed to a
prophet or taught to you by some authority figure. The meaning
here is closer to confidence. It is knowing that something is
true because you have seen it work, because you have observed
that very thing within yourself. In the same way, morality is
not a ritualistic obedience to some exterior, imposed code of
The purpose of meditation is personal transformation. The you
that goes in one side of the meditation experience is not the
same you that comes out the other side. It changes your character
by a process of sensitization, by making you deeply aware of
your own thoughts, word, and deeds. Your arrogance evaporated
and your antagonism dries up. Your mind becomes still and calm.
And your life smoothes out. Thus meditation properly performed
prepares you to meet the ups and down of existence. It reduces
your tension, your fear, and your worry. Restlessness recedes
and passion moderates. Things begin to fall into place and your
life becomes a glide instead of a struggle. All of this happens
Meditation sharpens your concentration and your thinking power.
Then, piece by piece, your own subconscious motives and mechanics
become clear to you. Your intuition sharpens. The precision
of your thought increases and gradually you come to a direct
knowledge of things as they really are, without prejudice and
without illusion. So is this reason enough to bother? Scarcely.
These are just promises on paper. There is only one way you
will ever know if meditation is worth the effort. Learn to do
it right, and do it. See for yourself.
What Meditation Isn't
Meditation is a word. You have heard this word before, or you
would never have picked up this book. The thinking process operates
by association, and all sorts of ideas are associated with the
word 'meditation'. Some of them are probably accurate and others
are hogwash. Some of them pertain more properly to other systems
of meditation and have nothing to do with Vipassana practice.
Before we proceed, it behooves us to blast some of the residue
out of our own neuronal circuits so that new information can
pass unimpeded. Let us start with some of the most obvious stuff.
We are not going to teach you to contemplate your navel or to
chant secret syllables. You are not conquering demons or harnessing
invisible energies. There are no colored belts given for your
performance and you don't have to shave your head or wear a
turban. You don't even have to give away all your belongings
and move to a monastery. In fact, unless your life is immoral
and chaotic, you can probably get started right away and make
some sort of progress. Sounds fairly encouraging, wouldn't you
There are many, many books on the subject of meditation. Most
of them are written from the point of view which lies squarely
within one particular religious or philosophical tradition,
and many of the authors have not bothered to point this out.
They make statements about meditation which sound like general
laws, but are actually highly specific procedures exclusive
to that particular system of practice. The result is something
of a muddle. Worse yet is the panoply of complex theories and
interpretations available, all of them at odds with one another.
The result is a real mess and an enormous jumble of conflicting
opinions accompanied by a mass of extraneous data. This book
is specific. We are dealing exclusively with the Vipassana system
of meditation. We are going to teach you to watch the functioning
of your own mind in a calm and detached manner so you can gain
insight into your own behavior. The goal is awareness, an awareness
so intense, concentrated and finely tuned that you will be able
to pierce the inner workings of reality itself.
There are a number of common misconceptions about meditation.
We see them crop up again and again from new students, the same
questions over and over. It is best to deal with these things
at once, because they are the sort of preconceptions which can
block your progress right from the outset. We are going to take
these misconceptions one at a time and explode them.
Meditation is just a relaxation technique
The bugaboo here is the word 'just'. Relaxation is a key component
of meditation, but Vipassana-style meditation aims at a much
loftier goal. Nevertheless, the statement is essentially true
for many other systems of meditation. All meditation procedures
stress concentration of the mind, bringing the mind to rest
on one item or one area of thought. Do it strongly and thoroughly
enough, and you achieve a deep and blissful relaxation which
is called Jhana. It is a state of such supreme tranquility that
it amounts to rapture. It is a form of pleasure which lies above
and beyond anything that can be experienced in the normal state
of consciousness. Most systems stop right there. That is the
goal, and when you attain that, you simply repeat the experience
for the rest of your life. Not so with Vipassana meditation.
Vipassana seeks another goal--awareness. Concentration and relaxation
are considered necessary concomitants to awareness. They are
required precursors, handy tools, and beneficial byproducts.
But they are not the goal. The goal is insight. Vipassana meditation
is a profound religious practice aimed at nothing less that
the purification and transformation of your everyday life. We
will deal more thoroughly with the differences between concentration
and insight in Chapter 14.
Meditation means going into a trance
Here again the statement could be applied accurately to certain
systems of meditation, but not to Vipassana. Insight meditation
is not a form of hypnosis. You are not trying to black out your
mind so as to become unconscious. You are not trying to turn
yourself into an emotionless vegetable. If anything, the reverse
is true. You will become more and more attuned to your own emotional
changes. You will learn to know yourself with ever- greater
clarity and precision. In learning this technique, certain states
do occur which may appear trance-like to the observer. But they
are really quite the opposite. In hypnotic trance, the subject
is susceptible to control by another party, whereas in deep
concentration the meditator remains very much under his own
control. The similarity is superficial, and in any case the
occurrence of these phenomena is not the point of Vipassana.
As we have said, the deep concentration of Jhana is a tool or
stepping stone on the route of heightened awareness. Vipassana
by definition is the cultivation of mindfulness or awareness.
If you find that you are becoming unconscious in meditation,
then you aren't meditating, according to the definition of the
word as used in the Vipassana system. It is that simple.
Meditation is a mysterious practice which cannot be understood
Here again, this is almost true, but not quite. Meditation deals
with levels of consciousness which lie deeper than symbolic
thought. Therefore, some of the data about meditation just won't
fit into words. That does not mean, however, that it cannot
be understood. There are deeper ways to understand things than
words. You understand how to walk. You probably can't describe
the exact order in which your nerve fibers and your muscles
contract during that process. But you can do it. Meditation
needs to be understood that same way, by doing it. It is not
something that you can learn in abstract terms. It is to be
experienced. Meditation is not some mindless formula which gives
automatic and predictable results. You can never really predict
exactly what will come up in any particular session. It is an
investigation and experiment and an adventure every time. In
fact, this is so true that when you do reach a feeling of predictability
and sameness in your practice, you use that as an indicator.
It means that you have gotten off the track somewhere and you
are headed for stagnation. Learning to look at each second as
if it were the first and only second in the universe is most
essential in Vipassana meditation.
The purpose of meditation is to become a psychic superman
No, the purpose of meditation is to develop awareness. Learning
to read minds is not the point. Levitation is not the goal.
The goal is liberation. There is a link between psychic phenomena
and meditation, but the relationship is somewhat complex. During
early stages of the meditator's career, such phenomena may or
may not arise. Some people may experience some intuitive understanding
or memories from past lives; others do not. In any case, these
are not regarded as well-developed and reliable psychic abilities.
Nor should they be given undue importance. Such phenomena are
in fact fairly dangerous to new meditators in that they are
too seductive. They can be an ego trap which can lure you right
off the track. Your best advice is not to place any emphasis
on these phenomena. If they come up, that's fine. If they don't,
that's fine, too. It's unlikely that they will. There is a point
in the meditator's career where he may practice special exercises
to develop psychic powers. But this occurs way down the line.
After he has gained a very deep stage of Jhana, the meditator
will be far enough advanced to work with such powers without
the danger of their running out of control or taking over his
life. He will then develop them strictly for the purpose of
service to others. This state of affairs only occurs after decades
of practice. Don't worry about it. Just concentrate on developing
more and more awareness. If voices and visions pop up, just
notice them and let them go. Don't get involved.
Meditation is dangerous and a prudent person should avoid it
Everything is dangerous. Walk across the street and you may
get hit by a bus. Take a shower and you could break your neck.
Meditate and you will probably dredge up various nasty-matters
from your past. The suppressed material that has been buried
there for quite some time can be scary. It is also highly profitable.
No activity is entirely without risk, but that does not mean
that we should wrap ourselves in some protective cocoon. That
is not living. That is premature death. The way to deal with
danger is to know approximately how much of it there is, where
it is likely to be found and how to deal with it when it arises.
That is the purpose of this manual. Vipassana is development
of awareness. That in itself is not dangerous, but just the
opposite. Increased awareness is the safeguard against danger.
Properly done, meditation is a very gently and gradual process.
Take it slow and easy, and development of your practice will
occur very naturally. Nothing should be forced. Later, when
you are under the close scrutiny and protective wisdom of a
competent teacher, you can accelerate your rate of growth by
taking a period of intensive meditation. In the beginning, though,
easy does it. Work gently and everything will be fine.
Meditation is for saints and holy men, not for regular people
You find this attitude very prevalent in Asia, where monks and
holy men are accorded an enormous amount of ritualized reverence.
This is somewhat akin to the American attitude of idealizing
movie stars and baseball heroes. Such people are stereotyped,
made larger than life, and saddled with all sort of characteristics
that few human beings can ever live up to. Even in the West,
we share some of this attitude about meditation. We expect the
meditator to be some extraordinarily pious figure in whose mouth
butter would never dare to melt. A little personal contact with
such people will quickly dispel this illusion. They usually
prove to be people of enormous energy and gusto, people who
live their lives with amazing vigor. It is true, of course,
that most holy men meditate, but they don't meditate because
they are holy men. That is backward. They are holy men because
they meditate. Meditation is how they got there. And they started
meditating before they became holy. This is an important point.
A sizable number of students seems to feel that a person should
be completely moral before he begins meditation. It is an unworkable
strategy. Morality requires a certain degree of mental control.
It's a prerequisite. You can't follow any set of moral precepts
without at least a little self-control, and if your mind is
perpetually spinning like a fruit cylinder in a one- armed bandit,
self-control is highly unlikely. So mental culture has to come
There are three integral factors in Buddhist meditation ---
morality, concentration and wisdom. Those three factors grow
together as your practice deepens. Each one influences the other,
so you cultivate the three of them together, not one at a time.
When you have the wisdom to truly understand a situation, compassion
towards all the parties involved is automatic, and compassion
means that you automatically restrain yourself from any thought,
word or deed that might harm yourself or others. Thus your behavior
is automatically moral. It is only when you don't understand
things deeply that you create problems. If you fail to see the
consequences of your own action, you will blunder. The fellow
who waits to become totally moral before he begins to meditate
is waiting for a 'but' that will never come. The ancient sages
say that he is like a man waiting for the ocean to become calm
so that he can go take a bath. To understand this relationship
more fully, let us propose that there are levels of morality.
The lowest level is adherence to a set of rules and regulations
laid down by somebody else. It could be your favorite prophet.
It could be the state, the head man of your tribe or your father.
No matter who generates the rules, all you've got to do at this
level is know the rules and follow them. A robot can do that.
Even a trained chimpanzee could do it if the rules were simple
enough and he was smacked with a stick every time he broke one.
This level requires no meditation at all. All you need are the
rules and somebody to swing the stick.
The next level of morality consists of obeying the same rules
even in the absence of somebody who will smack you. You obey
because you have internalized the rules. You smack yourself
every time you break one. This level requires a bit of mind
control. If your thought pattern is chaotic, your behavior will
be chaotic, too. Mental culture reduces mental chaos.
There is a third level or morality, but it might be better termed
ethics. This level is a whole quantum layer up the scale, a
real paradigm shift in orientation. At the level of ethics,
one does not follow hard and fast rules dictated by authority.
One chooses his own behavior according to the needs of the situation.
This level requires real intelligence and an ability to juggle
all the factors in every situation and arrive at a unique, creative
and appropriate response each time. Furthermore, the individual
making these decisions needs to have dug himself out of his
own limited personal viewpoint. He has to see the entire situation
from an objective point of view, giving equal weight to his
own needs and those of others. In other words, he has to be
free from greed, hatred, envy and all the other selfish junk
that ordinarily keeps us from seeing the other guy's side of
the issue. Only then can he choose that precise set of actions
which will be truly optimal for that situation. This level of
morality absolutely demands meditation, unless you were born
a saint. There is no other way to acquire the skill. Furthermore,
the sorting process required at this level is exhausting. If
you tried to juggle all those factors in every situation with
your conscious mind, you'd wear yourself out. The intellect
just can't keep that many balls in the air at once. It is an
overload. Luckily, a deeper level of consciousness can do this
sort of processing with ease. Meditation can accomplish the
sorting process for you. It is an eerie feeling.
One day you've got a problem--say to handle Uncle Herman's latest
divorce. It looks absolutely unsolvable, and enormous muddle
of 'maybes' that would give Solomon himself the willies. The
next day you are washing the dishes, thinking about something
else entirely, and suddenly the solution is there. It just pops
out of the deep mind and you say, 'Ah ha!' and the whole thing
is solved. This sort of intuition can only occur when you disengage
the logic circuits from the problem and give the deep mind the
opportunity to cook up the solution. The conscious mind just
gets in the way. Meditation teaches you how to disentangle yourself
from the thought process. It is the mental art of stepping out
of your own way, and that's a pretty useful skill in everyday
life. Meditation is certainly not some irrelevant practice strictly
for ascetics and hermits. It is a practical skill that focuses
on everyday events and has immediate application in everybody's
life. Meditation is not other- worldly.
Unfortunately, this very fact constitutes the drawback for certain
students. They enter the practice expecting instantaneous cosmic
revelation, complete with angelic choirs. What they usually
get is a more efficient way to take out the trash and better
ways to deal with Uncle Herman. They are needlessly disappointed.
The trash solution comes first. The voices of archangels take
a bit longer.
Meditation is running away from reality
Incorrect. Meditation is running into reality. It does not insulate
you from the pain of life. It allows you to delve so deeply
into life and all its aspects that you pierce the pain barrier
and you go beyond suffering. Vipassana is a practice done with
the specific intention of facing reality, to fully experience
life just as it is and to cope with exactly what you find. It
allows you to blow aside the illusions and to free yourself
from all those polite little lies you tell yourself all the
time. What is there is there. You are who you are, and lying
to yourself about your own weaknesses and motivations only binds
you tighter to the wheel of illusion. Vipassana meditation is
not an attempt to forget yourself or to cover up your troubles.
It is learning to look at yourself exactly as you are. See what
is there, accept it fully. Only then can you change it.
Meditation is a great way to get high
Well, yes and no. Meditation does produce lovely blissful feelings
sometimes. But they are not the purpose, and they don't always
occur. Furthermore, if you do meditation with that purpose in
mind, they are less likely to occur than if you just meditate
for the actual purpose of meditation, which is increased awareness.
Bliss results from relaxation, and relaxation results from release
of tension. Seeking bliss from meditation introduces tension
into the process, which blows the whole chain of events. It
is a Catch-22. You can only have bliss if you don't chase it.
Besides, if euphoria and good feelings are what you are after,
there are easier ways to get them. They are available in taverns
and from shady characters on the street corners all across the
nation. Euphoria is not the purpose of meditation. It will often
arise, but it to be regarded as a by- product. Still, it is
a very pleasant side-effect, and it becomes more and more frequent
the longer you meditate. You won't hear any disagreement about
this from advanced practitioners.
Meditation is selfish
It certainly looks that way. There sits the meditator parked
on his little cushion. Is he out giving blood? No. Is he busy
working with disaster victims? No. But let us examine his motivation.
Why is he doing this? His intention is to purge his own mind
of anger, prejudice and ill-will. He is actively engaged in
the process of getting rid of greed, tension and insensitivity.
Those are the very items which obstruct his compassion for others.
Until they are gone, any good works that he does are likely
to be just an extension of his own ego and of no real help in
the long run. Harm in the name of help is one of the oldest
games. The grand inquisitor of the Spanish Inquisition spouts
the loftiest of motives. The Salem witchcraft trials were conducted
for the public good. Examine the personal lives of advanced
meditators and you will often find them engaged in humanitarian
service. You will seldom find them as crusading missionaries
who are willing to sacrifice certain individuals for the sake
of some pious idea. The fact is we are more selfish than we
know. The ego has a way of turning the loftiest activities into
trash if it is allowed free range. Through meditation we become
aware of ourselves exactly as we are, by waking up to the numerous
subtle ways that we manifest our own selfishness. Then we truly
begin to be genuinely selfless. Cleansing yourself of selfishness
is not a selfish activity.
When you meditate, you sit around thinking lofty thoughts
Wrong again. There are certain systems of contemplation in which
this sort of thing is done. But that is not Vipassana. Vipassana
is the practice of awareness. Awareness of whatever is there,
be it supreme truth or crummy trash. What is there is there.
Of course, lofty aesthetic thoughts may arise during your practice.
They are certainly not to be avoided. Neither are they to be
sought. They are just pleasant side-effects. Vipassana is a
simple practice. It consists of experiencing your own life events
directly, without preference and without mental images pasted
to them. Vipassana is seeing your life unfold from moment to
moment without biases. What comes up comes up. It is very simple.
A couple of weeks of meditation and all my problems will
Sorry, meditation is not a quick cure-all. You will start seeing
changes right away, but really profound effects are years down
the line. That is just the way the universe is constructed.
Nothing worthwhile is achieved overnight. Meditation is tough
in some respects. It requires a long discipline and sometimes
a painful process of practice. At each sitting you gain some
results, but those results are often very subtle. They occur
deep within the mind, only to manifest much later. and if you
are sitting there constantly looking for some huge instantaneous
changes, you will miss the subtle shifts altogether. You will
get discouraged, give up and swear that no such changes will
ever occur. Patience is the key. Patience. If you learn nothing
else from meditation, you will learn patience. And that is the
most valuable lesson available.
What Meditation Is
Meditation is a word, and words are used in different ways by
different speakers. This may seem like a trivial point, but
it is not. It is quite important to distinguish exactly what
a particular speaker means by the words he uses. Every culture
on earth, for example, has produced some sort of mental practice
which might be termed meditation. It all depends on how loose
a definition you give to that word. Everybody does it, from
Africans to Eskimos. The techniques are enormously varied, and
we will make no attempt to survey them. There are other books
for that. For the purpose of this volume, we will restrict our
discussion to those practices best known to Western audiences
and most likely associated with the term meditation.
Within the Judeo-Christian tradition we find two overlapping
practices called prayer and contemplation. Prayer is a direct
address to some spiritual entity. Contemplation in a prolonged
period of conscious thought about some specific topic, usually
a religious ideal or scriptural passage. From the standpoint
of mental culture, both of these activities are exercises in
concentration. The normal deluge of conscious thought is restricted,
and the mind is brought to one conscious area of operation.
The results are those you find in any concentrative practice:
deep calm, a physiological slowing of the metabolism and a sense
of peace and well-being.
Out of the Hindu tradition comes Yogic meditation, which is
also purely concentrative. The traditional basic exercises consist
of focusing the mind on a single object a stone, a candle flame,
a syllable or whatever, and not allowing it to wander. Having
acquired the basic skill, the Yogi proceeds to expand his practice
by taking on more complex objects of meditation chants, colorful
religious images, energy channels in the body and so forth.
Still, no matter how complex the object of meditation, the meditation
itself remains purely an exercise in concentration.
Within the Buddhist tradition, concentration is also highly
valued. But a new element is added and more highly stressed.
That element is awareness. All Buddhist meditation aims at the
development of awareness, using concentration as a tool. The
Buddhist tradition is very wide, however, and there are several
diverse routes to this goal. Zen meditation uses two separate
tacks. The first is the direct plunge into awareness by sheer
force of will. You sit down and you just sit, meaning that you
toss out of your mind everything except pure awareness of sitting.
This sounds very simple. It is not. A brief trial will demonstrate
just how difficult it really is. The second Zen approach used
in the Rinzai school is that of tricking the mind out of conscious
thought and into pure awareness. This is done by giving the
student an unsolvable riddle which he must solve anyway, and
by placing him in a horrendous training situation. Since he
cannot flee from the pain of the situation, he must flee into
a pure experience of the moment. There is nowhere else to go.
Zen is tough. It is effective for many people, but it is really
Another stratagem, Tantric Buddhism, is nearly the reverse.
Conscious thought, at least the way we usually do it, is the
manifestation of ego, the you that you usually think that you
are. Conscious thought is tightly connected with self-concept.
The self-concept or ego is nothing more than a set of reactions
and mental images which are artificially pasted to the flowing
process of pure awareness. Tantra seeks to obtain pure awareness
by destroying this ego image. This is accomplished by a process
of visualization. The student is given a particular religious
image to meditate upon, for example, one of the deities from
the Tantric pantheon. He does this in so thorough a fashion
that he becomes that entity. He takes off his own identity and
puts on another. This takes a while, as you might imagine, but
it works. During the process, he is able to watch the way that
the ego is constructed and put in place. He comes to recognize
the arbitrary nature of all egos, including his own, and he
escapes from bondage to the ego. He is left in a state where
he may have an ego if he so chooses, either his own or whichever
other he might wish, or he can do without one. Result: pure
awareness. Tantra is not exactly a game of patty cake either.
Vipassana is the oldest of Buddhist meditation practices. The
method comes directly from the Sitipatthana Sutta, a discourse
attributed to Buddha himself. Vipassana is a direct and gradual
cultivation of mindfulness or awareness. It proceeds piece by
piece over a period of years. The student's attention is carefully
directed to an intense examination of certain aspects of his
own existence. The meditator is trained to notice more and more
of his own flowing life experience. Vipassana is a gentle technique.
But it also is very , very thorough. It is an ancient and codified
system of sensitivity training, a set of exercises dedicated
to becoming more and more receptive to your own life experience.
It is attentive listening, total seeing and careful testing.
We learn to smell acutely, to touch fully and really pay attention
to what we feel. We learn to listen to our own thoughts without
being caught up in them.
The object of Vipassana practice is to learn to pay attention.
We think we are doing this already, but that is an illusion.
It comes from the fact that we are paying so little attention
to the ongoing surge of our own life experiences that we might
just as well be asleep. We are simply not paying enough attention
to notice that we are not paying attention. It is another Catch-22.
Through the process of mindfulness, we slowly become aware of
what we really are down below the ego image. We wake up to what
life really is. It is not just a parade of ups and downs, lollipops
and smacks on the wrist. That is an illusion. Life has a much
deeper texture than that if we bother to look, and if we look
in the right way.
Vipassana is a form of mental training that will teach you to
experience the world in an entirely new way. You will learn
for the first time what is truly happening to you, around you
and within you. It is a process of self discovery, a participatory
investigation in which you observe your own experiences while
participating in them, and as they occur. The practice must
be approached with this attitude.
"Never mind what I have been taught. Forget about theories
and prejudgments and stereotypes. I want to understand the true
nature of life. I want to know what this experience of being
alive really is. I want to apprehend the true and deepest qualities
of life, and I don't want to just accept somebody else's explanation.
I want to see it for myself." If you pursue your meditation
practice with this attitude, you will succeed. You'll find yourself
observing things objectively, exactly as they are--flowing and
changing from moment to moment. Life then takes on an unbelievable
richness which cannot be described. It has to be experienced.
The Pali term for Insight meditation is Vipassana Bhavana. Bhavana
comes from the root 'Bhu', which means to grow or to become.
There fore Bhavana means to cultivate, and the word is always
used in reference to the mind. Bhavana means mental cultivation.
'Vipassana' is derived from two roots. 'Passana' means seeing
or perceiving. 'Vi' is a prefix with the complex set of connotations.
The basic meaning is 'in a special way.' But there also is the
connotation of both 'into' and 'through'. The whole meaning
of the word is looking into something with clarity and precision,
seeing each component as distinct and separate, and piercing
all the way through so as to perceive the most fundamental reality
of that thing. This process leads to insight into the basic
reality of whatever is being inspected. Put it all together
and 'Vipassana Bhavana' means the cultivation of the mind, aimed
at seeing in a special way that leads to insight and to full
In Vipassana mediation we cultivate this special way of seeing
life. We train ourselves to see reality exactly as it is, and
we call this special mode of perception 'mindfulness.' This
process of mindfulness is really quite different from what we
usually do. We usually do not look into what is really there
in front of us. We see life through a screen of thoughts and
concepts, and we mistake those mental objects for the reality.
We get so caught up in this endless thought stream that reality
flows by unnoticed. We spend our time engrossed in activity,
caught up in an eternal pursuit of pleasure and gratification
and an eternal flight from pain and unpleasantness. We spend
all of our energies trying to make ourselves feel better, trying
to bury our fears. We are endlessly seeking security. Meanwhile,
the world of real experience flows by untouched and untasted.
In Vipassana meditation we train ourselves to ignore the constant
impulses to be more comfortable, and we dive into the reality
instead. The ironic thing is that real peace comes only when
you stop chasing it. Another Catch-22.
When you relax your driving desire for comfort, real fulfillment
arises. When you drop your hectic pursuit of gratification,
the real beauty of life comes out. When you seek to know the
reality without illusion, complete with all its pain and danger,
that is when real freedom and security are yours. This is not
some doctrine we are trying to drill into you. This is an observable
reality, a thing you can and should see for yourself.
Buddhism is 2500 years old, and any thought system of that vintage
has time to develop layers and layers of doctrine and ritual.
Nevertheless, the fundamental attitude of Buddhism is intensely
empirical and anti-authoritarian. Gotama the Buddha was a highly
unorthodox individual and real anti-traditionalist. He did not
offer his teaching as a set of dogmas, but rather as a set of
propositions for each individual to investigate for himself.
His invitation to one and all was 'Come and See'. One of the
things he said to his followers was "Place no head above
your own". By this he meant, don't accept somebody else's
word. See for yourself.
We want you to apply this attitude to every word you read in
this manual. We are not making statements that you would accept
merely because we are authorities in the field. Blind faith
has nothing to do with this. These are experiential realities.
Learn to adjust your mode of perception according to instructions
given in the book, and you will see for yourself. That and only
that provides ground for your faith. Insight meditation is essentially
a practice of investigative personal discovery.
Having said this, we will present here a very short synopsis
of some of the key points of Buddhist philosophy. We make not
attempt to be thorough, since that has been quite nicely done
in many other books. This material is essential to understanding
Vipassana, therefore, some mention must be made.
From the Buddhist point of view, we human beings live in a very
peculiar fashion. We view impermanent things as permanent, though
everything is changing all around us. The process of change
is constant and eternal. As you read these words, your body
is aging. But you pay no attention to that. The book in you
hand is decaying. The print is fading and the pages are becoming
brittle. The walls around you are aging. The molecules within
those walls are vibrating at an enormous rate, and everything
is shifting, going to pieces and dissolving slowly. You pay
no attention to that, either. Then one day you look around you.
Your body is wrinkled and squeaky and you hurt. The book is
a yellowed, useless lump; the building is caving in. So you
pine for lost youth and you cry when the possessions are gone.
Where does this pain come from? It comes from your own inattention.
You failed to look closely at life. You failed to observe the
constantly shifting flow of the world as it went by. You set
up a collection of mental constructions, 'me', 'the book', 'the
building', and you assume that they would endure forever. They
never do. But you can tune into the constantly ongoing change.
You can learn to perceive your life as an ever- flowing movement,
a thing of great beauty like a dance or symphony. You can learn
to take joy in the perpetual passing away of all phenomena.
You can learn to live with the flow of existence rather than
running perpetually against the grain. You can learn this. It
is just a matter of time and training.
Our human perceptual habits are remarkably stupid in some ways.
We tune out 99% of all the sensory stimuli we actually receive,
and we solidify the remainder into discrete mental objects.
Then we react to those mental objects in programmed habitual
ways. An example: There you are, sitting alone in the stillness
of a peaceful night. A dog barks in the distance. The perception
itself is indescribably beautiful if you bother to examine it.
Up out of that sea of silence come surging waves of sonic vibration.
You start to hear the lovely complex patterns, and they are
turned into scintillating electronic stimulations within the
nervous system. The process is beautiful and fulfilling in itself.
We humans tend to ignore it totally. Instead, we solidify that
perception into a mental object. We paste a mental picture on
it and we launch into a series of emotional and conceptual reactions
to it. "There is that dog again. He is always barking at
night. What a nuisance. Every night he is a real bother. Somebody
should do something. Maybe I should call a cop. No, a dog catcher.
So, I'll call the pound. No, maybe I'll just write a real nasty
letter to the guy who owns that dog. No, too much trouble. I'll
just get an ear plug." They are just perceptual and mental
habits. You learn to respond this way as a child by copying
the perceptual habits of those around you. These perceptual
responses are not inherent in the structure of the nervous system.
The circuits are there. But this is not the only way that our
mental machinery can be used. That which has been learned can
be unlearned. The first step is to realize what you are doing,
as you are doing it, and stand back and quietly watch.
From the Buddhist perspective, we humans have a backward view
of life. We look at what is actually the cause of suffering
and we see it as happiness. The cause of suffering is that desire-
aversion syndrome which we spoke of earlier. Up pops a perception.
It could be anything--a beautiful girl, a handsome guy, speed
boat, thug with a gun, truck bearing down on you, anything.
Whatever it is, the very next thing we do is to react to the
stimulus with a feeling about it.
Take worry. We worry a lot. Worry itself is the problem. Worry
is a process. It has steps. Anxiety is not just a state of existence
but a procedure. What you've got to do is to look at the very
beginning of that procedure, those initial stages before the
process has built up a head of steam. The very first link of
the worry chain is the grasping/rejecting reaction. As soon
as some phenomenon pops into the mind, we try mentally to grab
onto it or push it away. That sets the worry response in motion.
Luckily, there is a handy little tool called Vipassana meditation
which you can use to short-circuit the whole mechanism.
Vipassana meditation teaches us how to scrutinize our own perceptual
process with great precision. We learn to watch the arising
of thought and perception with a feeling of serene detachment.
We learn to view our own reactions to stimuli with calm and
clarity. We begin to see ourselves reacting without getting
caught up in the reactions themselves. The obsessive nature
of thought slowly dies. We can still get married. We can still
step out of the path of the truck. But we don't need to go through
hell over either one.
This escape from the obsessive nature of thought produces a
whole new view of reality. It is a complete paradigm shift,
a total change in the perceptual mechanism. It brings with it
the feeling of peace and rightness, a new zest for living and
a sense of completeness to every activity. Because of these
advantages, Buddhism views this way of looking at things as
a correct view of life and Buddhist texts call it seeing things
as they really are.
Vipassana meditation is a set of training procedures which open
us gradually to this new view of reality as it truly is. Along
with this new reality goes a new view of the most central aspect
of reality: 'me'. A close inspection reveals that we have done
the same thing to 'me' that we have done to all other perceptions.
We have taken a flowing vortex of thought, feeling and sensation
and we have solidified that into a mental construct. Then we
have stuck a label onto it, 'me'. And forever after, we threat
it as if it were a static and enduring entity. We view it as
a thing separate from all other things. We pinch ourselves off
from the rest of that process of eternal change which is the
universe. And than we grieve over how lonely we feel. We ignore
our inherent connectedness to all other beings and we decide
that 'I' have to get more for 'me'; then we marvel at how greedy
and insensitive human beings are. And on it goes. Every evil
deed, every example of heartlessness in the world stems directly
from this false sense of 'me' as distinct from all else that
is out there.
Explode the illusion of that one concept and your whole universe
changes. Don't expect to do this overnight, though. You spent
your whole life building up that concept, reinforcing it with
every thought, word, and deed over all those years. It is not
going to evaporate instantly. But it will pass if you give it
enough time and enough attention. Vipassana meditation is a
process by which it is dissolved. Little by little, you chip
away at it just by watching it.
The 'I' concept is a process. It is a thing we are doing. In
Vipassana we learn to see that we are doing it, when we are
doing it and how we are doing it. Then it moves and fades away,
like a cloud passing through the clear sky. We are left in a
state where we can do it or not do it, whichever seems appropriate
to the situation. The compulsiveness is gone. We have a choice.
These are all major insights, of course. Each one is a deep-
reaching understanding of one of the fundamental issues of human
existence. They do not occur quickly, nor without considerable
effort. But the payoff is big. They lead to a total transformation
of your life. Every second of your existence thereafter is changed.
The meditator who pushes all the way down this track achieves
perfect mental health, a pure love for all that lives and complete
cessation of suffering. That is not small goal. But you don't
have to go all the way to reap benefits. They start right away
and they pile up over the years. It is a cumulative function.
The more you sit, the more you learn about the real nature of
your won existence. The more hours you spend in meditation,
the greater your ability to calmly observe every impulse and
intention, every thought and emotion just as it arises in the
mind. Your progress to liberation is measured in cushion-man
hours. And you can stop any time you've had enough. There is
no stick over your head except your own desire to see the true
quality of life, to enhance your own existence and that of others.
Vipassana meditation is inherently experiential. It is not theoretical.
In the practice of mediation you become sensitive to the actual
experience of living, to how things feel. You do not sit around
developing subtle and aesthetic thoughts about living. You live.
Vipassana meditation more than anything else is learning to
Within the last century, Western science and physics have made
a startling discovery. We are part of the world we view. The
very process of our observation changes the things we observe.
As an example, an electron is an extremely tiny item. It cannot
be viewed without instrumentation, and that apparatus dictates
what the observer will see. If you look at an electron in one
way, it appears to be a particle, a hard little ball that bounces
around in nice straight paths. When you view it another way,
an electron appears to be a wave form, with nothing solid about
it. It glows and wiggles all over the place. An electron is
an event more than a thing. And the observer participates in
that event by the very process of his or her observation. There
is no way to avoid this interaction.
Eastern science has recognized this basic principle for a very
long time. The mind is a set of events, and the observer participates
in those events every time he or she looks inward. Meditation
is participatory observation. What you are looking at responds
to the process of looking. What you are looking at is you, and
what you see depends on how you look. Thus the process of meditation
is extremely delicate, and the result depends absolutely on
the state of mind of the meditator. The following attitudes
are essential to success in practice. Most of them have been
presented before. But we bring them together again here as a
series of rules for application. 1. Don't expect anything. Just
sit back and see what happens. Treat the whole thing as an experiment.
Take an active interest in the test itself. But don't get distracted
by your expectations about results. For that matter, don't be
anxious for any result whatsoever. Let the meditation move along
at its own speed and in its own direction. Let the meditation
teach you what it wants you to learn. Meditative awareness seeks
to see reality exactly as it is. Whether that corresponds to
our expectations or not, it requires a temporary suspension
of all our preconceptions and ideas. We must store away our
images, opinions and interpretations someplace out of the way
for the duration. Otherwise we will stumble over them.
2. Don't strain: Don't force anything or make grand exaggerated
efforts. Meditation is not aggressive. There is no violent striving.
Just let your effort be relaxed and steady.
3. Don't rush: There is no hurry, so take you time. Settle yourself
on a cushion and sit as though you have a whole day. Anything
really valuable takes time to develop. Patience, patience, patience.
4. Don't cling to anything and don't reject anything: Let come
what comes and accommodate yourself to that, whatever it is.
If good mental images arise, that is fine. If bad mental images
arise, that is fine, too. Look on all of it as equal and make
yourself comfortable with whatever happens. Don't fight with
what you experience, just observe it all mindfully.
5. Let go: Learn to flow with all the changes that come up.
Loosen up and relax.
6. Accept everything that arises: Accept your feelings, even
the ones you wish you did not have. Accept your experiences,
even the ones you hate. Don't condemn yourself for having human
flaws and failings. Learn to see all the phenomena in the mind
as being perfectly natural and understandable. Try to exercise
a disinterested acceptance at all times and with respect to
everything you experience.
7. Be gentle with yourself: Be kind to yourself. You may not
be perfect, but you are all you've got to work with. The process
of becoming who you will be begins first with the total acceptance
of who you are.
8. Investigate yourself: Question everything. Take nothing for
granted. Don't believe anything because it sounds wise and pious
and some holy men said it. See for yourself. That does not mean
that you should be cynical, impudent or irreverent. It means
you should be empirical. Subject all statements to the actual
test of your experience and let the results be your guide to
truth. Insight meditation evolves out of an inner longing to
wake up to what is real and to gain liberating insight to the
true structure of existence. The entire practice hinges upon
this desire to be awake to the truth. Without it, the practice
9. View all problems as challenges: Look upon negatives that
arise as opportunities to learn and to grow. Don't run from
them, condemn yourself or bear your burden in saintly silence.
You have a problem? Great. More grist for the mill. Rejoice,
dive in and investigate.
10. Don't ponder: You don't need to figure everything out. Discursive
thinking won't free you from the trap. In mediation, the mind
is purified naturally by mindfulness, by wordless bare attention.
Habitual deliberation is not necessary to eliminate those things
that are keeping you in bondage. All that is necessary is a
clear, non-conceptual perception of what they are and how they
work. That alone is sufficient to dissolve them. Concepts and
reasoning just get in the way. Don't think. See.
11. Don't dwell upon contrasts: Differences do exist between
people, but dwelling upon then is a dangerous process. Unless
carefully handled, it leads directly to egotism. Ordinary human
thinking is full of greed, jealousy and pride. A man seeing
another man on the street may immediately think, "He is
better looking than I am." The instant result is envy or
shame. A girl seeing another girl may think, "I am prettier
than she is." The instant result is pride. This sort of
comparison is a mental habit, and it leads directly to ill feeling
of one sort or another: greed, envy, pride, jealousy, hatred.
It is an unskillful mental state, but we do it all the time.
We compare our looks with others, our success, our accomplishments,
our wealth, possessions, or I.Q. and all these lead to the same
place--estrangement, barriers between people, and ill feeling.
The meditator's job is to cancel this unskillful habit by examining
it thoroughly, and then replacing it with another. Rather than
noticing the differences between self and others, the meditator
trains himself to notice similarities. He centers his attention
on those factors that are universal to all life, things that
will move him closer to others. Thus his comparison, if any,
leads to feelings of kinship rather than feelings of estrangement.
Breathing is a universal process. All vertebrates breathe in
essentially the same manner. All living things exchange gasses
with their environment in some way or other. This is one of
the reasons that breathing is chosen as the focus of meditation.
the meditator is advised to explore the process of his own breathing
as a vehicle for realizing his own inherent connectedness with
the rest of life. This does not mean that we shut our eyes to
all the differences around us. Differences exist. It means simply
that we de-emphasize contrasts and emphasize the universal factors.
The recommended procedure is as follows:
When the meditator perceives any sensory object, he is not to
dwell upon it in the ordinary egotistical way. He should rather
examine the very process of perception itself. He should watch
the feelings that arise and the mental activities that follow.
He should note the changes that occur in his own consciousness
as a result. In watching all these phenomena, the meditator
must be aware of the universality of what he is seeing. That
initial perception will spark pleasant, unpleasant or neutral
feelings. That is a universal phenomenon. It occurs in the mind
of others just as it does in his, and he should see that clearly.
Following these feelings various reactions may arise. He may
feel greed, lust, or jealousy. He may feel fear, worry, restlessness
or boredom. These reactions are universal. He simple notes them
and then generalizes. He should realize that these reactions
are normal human responses and can arise in anybody.
The practice of this style of comparison may feel forced and
artificial at first, but it is no less natural than what we
ordinarily do. It is merely unfamiliar. With practice, this
habit pattern replaces our normal habit of egoistic comparing
and feels far more natural in the long run. We become very understanding
people as a result. we no longer get upset by the failings of
others. We progress toward harmony with all life.