Recently a reader asked me; What is insight meditation? How is it different from other meditation techniques and does practicing it regularly give new insights or new ideas?
To be honest these questions inspired me to not only write a post on insight meditation but also learn about this meditation technique. I hope to answer the above questions through this post and share my understanding of this meditation technique, which was taught by Buddha himself around 2500 years ago in the Theravada tradition of Buddhism.
What is Insight Meditation
If you are hearing about this meditation technique for the first time then the term ‘insight’ can mislead you to believe that practicing this form of meditation will instantly give you a major insight or flash of inspiration. That’s not true!
Insight meditation helps you to see the truth of life, with no frills or fantasies and leads you to the path of freedom. Regular practice of insight meditation brings a change in the ‘view’ – The way you see yourselves and the world.
What’s your normal day like – There are moments of lows and highs, there is joy in one moment, then there are disappointments, and frustration…you often get caught in the web of neurotic emotions and get lost in your thoughts. At the end of the day, there is usually a sense of dissatisfaction or something lacking or missing in your life – Isn’t this true…can you change this view? The answer is Yes.
If you are willing to commit to your practice then you can liberate your mind that is burdened with afflictive emotions and thoughts that are limiting you. You can change your view and find a better way to live…if you allow yourselves to look deeply into your mind, body, and heart.
Insight meditation shows you how to perfect the art of living and develop complete mental health for overall well-being.
How is Insight Meditation Different From Other Meditation Techniques
Firstly, there is no ‘one’ meditation technique that is superior to another one. I firmly believe that every meditation technique helps the practitioner progress through the nine stages of meditation.
Insight meditation helps you to experience the senses that are closed in you and investigate what is hidden within you.
What is closed in you?
Do you pay close attention to your senses throughout the day; the sight, sound, smell, taste, and sensations in your body? Chances are slim because mostly your attention is scattered and clouded by your conditioned mind.
As you practice insight meditation, your concentration becomes stronger, your awareness strengthens and you are able to experience your senses with greater clarity & sensitivity. You will notice the flow of energy in your body, you might feel the tensions in various parts of your body, and painful feelings that are present.
It is important you learn how to open up to such feelings, pain, and discomfort that you have been carrying within you. In the beginning, you may resist or be afraid to confront such unpleasant feelings that are stored within you. However gradually with time, as you understand the true nature of these feelings, you will distinguish these feelings and deal with them in the right way.
What is hidden in you?
The true nature of reality is hiding within you. You will be able to see the true nature of reality when you can distinguish between the level of concept and the level of direct experience.
The term ‘concept’ means something that you are able to define and give a form. Your thinking mind loves to conceptualize everything. Your body is a concept given by the thinking mind; it is conceived as a solid entity. Likewise, your life experiences and your thoughts are concepts in the form of bad & good.
However, the truth is everything is changing. Your body is changing, and your life experiences, and thoughts are ever-changing every moment. It is not permanent. You might say – I am aware of this truth; I know life events keep changing, and this is not some shocking revelation that is happening to me today.
I agree you know this truth but sadly it is only at the surface level for most people. At the deepest level, you hate change, you avoid unpleasant feelings, you fear insecurity, you try to manipulate life situations, you constantly want life to unfold in a certain way that you like, you secretly desire to hold on to pleasant experiences, sensations, feelings – Isn’t this true?
When you question and investigate this deepest level, you begin to experience a profound sense of understanding and clarity. This knowledge marks the beginning of your transformation.
THREE Key learnings from Insight Meditation
As you practice insight meditation your awareness grows in exploring the three basic characteristics of reality viz; suffering, impermanence, and selflessness. If you understand them at the deepest level then each of them can take us closer to the gate to freedom. Let’s look at each of them;
Buddha has always said in his teachings suffering is a part of human life. It is essential for you to understand this reality and liberate yourself from suffering.
Instead of working towards freedom, you try to avoid suffering. You tend to condition your mind, and persist hard to cling to pleasurable things, experiences, feelings, and sensations so that you can escape/avoid pain, grief, sorrow, and despair.
If you can allow yourself to be more open to suffering, understand it, how it arises, and what are the causes, then you would experience your mind becoming more freer and lighter. This is real freedom and can be experienced when you open your mind to suffering.
Just pause for a second and reflect on your life. Do you notice everything that arises, ceases after a while? Your breath rises and falls. The sound you heard just now… is gone the very next moment. Your thoughts…they keep coming and going. Your body changes every day, it is not the same body that you had at birth.
If you think about all this for a while, you can clearly see the law of impermanence prevailing all the time. Nothing stays forever, even your state of mind…you are happy in one moment and anxious in the very next moment.
If you do a bit of introspection, you will notice that it is YOU who is trying to hold on to things, and thoughts and creating an illusion of stability or solidarity. However, the reality is changing every moment. So instead of fighting with reality or going against the flow, you align with the flow of change and live your life more fully now.
As you acknowledge impermanence in your life, you will learn to let go of your strong attachments to your desires, and hopes. You will learn to be with your insecurities, and fear instead of pushing them away. Such practice can be very liberating.
This is by far the most difficult truth to come to terms however as you continue your practice, you will begin to experience it.
Buddha says your entire life is simply a flow of experience from one moment to another, there is no self…there is no ‘I’ (a self or an ego) that is a solid and separate entity. Buddha says this belief that there is an ‘I’…This is me, this is what I do, this is what I like – All this is made up of thoughts that have no substance, it is simply a process of identification with the events of life.
He goes on to explain that this ‘I’ is made up of these five elements (listed below) which are insubstantial and empty in nature. They are not constant and keep changing every moment hence there is no self. The ‘I’ is an illusion.
- the sense organs (see, hear, smell, taste, sensations) – (i)
- the consciousness (awareness) – (ii)
- the perceptions (thinking mind or identification or conceptualization) – (iii)
- the feelings (pleasant or unpleasant) – (iv)
- the mental formations (action) –(v)
Let’s take some examples to understand selflessness or no-self:
Imagine you are walking on a beach, and your eyes (i) come in contact with a visible object. Your consciousness (ii) becomes aware of the object. Your mind (iii) identifies the object as, let us say, a crocodile. Once this happens you respond to the object with a feeling (iv) of fear. Finally, you will react to that object with (v) mental formation, an action of perhaps running away or stepping back.
So, this entire experience of seeing a crocodile and running away has been made up of these five elements. Likewise, if you carefully observe each experience in your life is made up of these five elements.
The key point to remember is that these five elements keep changing constantly and are impermanent in nature. For instance, tomorrow you might see some other object, your consciousness notices the object, your mind identifies it as a horse, now your feelings will change and so might your action.
As you realize that these elements are just temporary phenomena and remain open to trust things as they are – impermanent, without self, you set yourself on a path to self-transformation. Your life will have a completely new meaning altogether. Of course, you need to show the willingness and the courage to look into this deeply.
Learn Insight Meditation From Experienced Teachers
If you wish to take your practice to the next level and experience REAL freedom then start practicing Insight Meditation starting today.
At this moment, I would like to take this opportunity and introduce you to the co-founders of Insight Meditation Society founded in 1975 for the study of Buddhism by Sharon Salzberg and Joseph Goldstein.
They both have put together an in-depth course on How to Practice Insight Meditation – I have reviewed the entire course here. Feel free to read it and I wish you all the best with your practice.