Insight or mindfulness meditation is both a training of the mind and a metaphor for the whole process of awaking and relaxing into the “awake” state. Mindfulness is attention to the moment; choice less awareness.
The training is concentration on the breath, body or awareness itself. It helps to focus and still the mind. It cultivates the power needed to skillfully respond to the continuous arising of thoughts, feelings, physical sensations, sights, sounds and smells.
The awaking is a cultivation of an observing quality of mind. Observation leads to insight into the very nature of Mind.
Insight meditation cultivates calmness, concentration and greater awareness of everything occurring in and around you to obtain insight into the way your mind works. It can be done in a number of ways. The most formal way is to do it sitting comfortably in a quiet, supportive and safe place. It can also be done as a formal waking meditation. Most importantly, it can be done anywhere and while doing anything. The formal practices provide the foundation for the moment to moment mindfulness that comes as the practice is expanded into daily life.
The Breath and Body
The breath is always present – we are either inhaling, exhaling or between inhales and exhales. Since it is always there, it is an ideal reference point.
As one becomes more experienced with this technique the focus moves from the breath to the observing itself. The breath remains as a touchstone for use when the meditator loses awareness.
Alternatively, the body can be used as the touchstone. Feel the overall sensation of the body and come back to it when you become aware that you have become distracted.
During meditation practice, it is natural to become distracted and lose awareness. We then “wake up” and notice that we were asleep or distracted. Celebrate this moment and begin again to follow the breath and the flow of thoughts, sounds, sensations and feelings and then relax into it the noticing until the next awareness of being distracted.
This is the root technique. The idea is to be continuously aware. As you are walking down the street, or doing whatever you are doing, if you notice that you are lost in thought, etc. bring your attention back to the breath or body and start again. The more you practice this technique you will get lost less and notice it more quickly when you do. The noticing is spontaneous.
Don’t get upset with yourself if you get lost a lot. This is natural. It is the noticing that offers the opportunity to really see our basic nature.
That moment of noticing is the major event. It is a moment of enlightenment. So getting lost is a blessing in disguise.
Sitting Practice – Breath Awareness
The technique is quite simple. Take a comfortable seat, your head, neck and spine in alignment – not rigid, relaxed. Eyes open or closed. Begin by becoming aware of your breath. Notice it at the nostrils or as the rising and falling of your diaphragm. Remain aware of your breath.
As you sit and breathe, note the tendency of your mind to continuously generate thoughts. As thoughts, sounds, sensations and feelings take your attention away from your breath, simply note them and return to your breath. When you get lost and become aware of it, bring your attention back to the breath. Note arising thoughts, sounds, sensations and feelings.
It is useful to set a time and stick to it. It is also useful to minimize any movement, to sit quietly without moving. Be reasonable but disciplined. There is no need to subject yourself to excessive pain and discomfort. The idea is to relax while being mindfully aware. However there is benefit in being able to sit with discomfort and observe it. Just sitting brings the experiential knowledge that everything changes; everything is impermanent.
If you are just beginning try it for 15 minutes. Over time see if you can cultivate half hour, 45 minute and hour log sessions.
While you are meditating, something may surprise you, or outside sounds, internal thoughts, sensations, etc. may come along to distract you. Whatever happens return your attention to your breath and simply be aware of what ever it is that is occurring including your thoughts. See thoughts as if they were clouds passing in the sky.
What happened to you?
How do you feel?
Is it possible to be more or less aware? If it is, would you like to be more aware?
Did the meditation make you feel more aware?
What were you aware of? Did you hear more the sounds around you? Was your mind in a whirl, so that to follow your breath for more than a few seconds was almost impossible?
Did you lose the focus on the breath after a few seconds – off on an interesting (even titillating) mind trip?
Insight Walking Meditation
Conscious walking is a traditional meditation used to practice moment to moment awareness while actively engaged in a physical activity. The practice trains the mind to concentrate and highlights the ease with which the mind is distracted. The practice also teaches body awareness.
Essentially, conscious walking has the same purpose as the sitting version of insight meditation.
Begin by standing comfortably. Bring your awareness to your body as a whole. Feel the contact of your feet with the ground. Feel your balance. Settle into a comfortable stance. Feel solidly grounded.
- Shift your weight slightly to your left leg,
- Lift your right foot,
- Move your right foot forward about one foot length,
- Place your right foot back on the ground
- Shift your weight into your right foot
- Lift your left foot.
Continue to walk slowly while being mindful of your body and the shifting, lifting, moving, placing and shifting as you walk.
Being mindful of the process means to let the walking occur while being aware of the parts of the process. It is not the same as programming your walk by telling yourself to shift, lift place, etc. Your body knows how to walk already. There is no need to tell it what to do. The exercise is to be aware of what the body is doing at a detail level.
As you recognize that the mind has slipped off into thinking about other things (including how annoying it is to walk so slowly and be aware of the individual parts of the walking process) bring your attention back to the body and walking – shifting, lifting, moving, placing, shifting.
As you become more familiar with the walking meditation, you can have your attention be more diffused so that instead of attending to and noting the shifting, lifting, moving, placing, etc. you can simply be attentive to the overall feeling of the walking. The walking is exactly the same. The attention is on the overall process. There is awareness of each of the parts but the awareness is at a different level of your mind. It is not as much on the surface, it is subtler. But still you can identify the parts, you just don’t note them as distinctly.
In this approach it is easier to get lost in other thoughts and be fooled into thinking you are really paying attention to the walking. Because your mind is not being challenged as explicitly, you can “zone out” more easily. If you do and when you notice it, bring your attention back to the parts of the walking process – shifting, lifting, moving, placing, shifting – and then let go into a more subtle awareness of the overall process of walking.
As you become more familiar with this approach, begin to practice it at more natural walking speeds any time you walk anywhere. As you do so, awareness invades your life and you have incorporated a common activity, walking, into your awareness process.