Buddhist Meditation
Insight / Vipassana Meditation
Philadelphia Meditation Center Home

Beginning Insight Meditation Instructions
By Lynne Heckert

Find your "SEAT,"  a posture and attitude of stability.  You can sit on a chair or cushion, but you should be comfortable and relaxed and your back should be straight but not rigid and strained.  If you are not used to the cushion and want to try it, sit on it for five or 10 minutes at first and then go back to the chair.
The first step is called
SHAMATHA or getting calm.  This is usually done by watching the breath.  You pick a place to watch it, like the tip of the nose or the abdomen. Do not force your breath to be a certain way.  It is the way it is and you just watch. Your mind will wander.  When it does,  just go back to the breath.  In Insight Meditation eyes are usually closed.  Some meditators prefer to have eyes slightly open looking at the floor a couple of feet ahead.
You may wish to count breaths at first: One out breathe, two out breaths, etc. up to four or 10.  Whatever works is all right.  If you don't get to two without finding your mind wandering, don't worry, it's normal.  (And shocking, to see firsthand how little control we have over our mind.) This concentration on breathing can be done for as long as you like.  A half-hour, a week, a lifetime. If you are new, spend a lot of time with the breath until you begin to get very calm.

The next step is 
INSIGHT meditation.  In Insight meditation we watch our minds.  Six so-called      "sense doors" appear and disappear:  bodily sensations (pressure, hot, cold, body aches and tension, etc.), smelling, tasting, seeing, hearing and thoughts.  (Thoughts in this context, are considered a sense door. An emotion, if you look carefully, is a combination of bodily sensations with an overlay of thought.) We just notice that all these sense door phenomena arise and pass away.  We may even become so still that we lose our sense of separateness from the objects we're observing.  Then we can just rest in awareness itself.

In one type of 10-day Insight retreat, this is often  the teaching pattern:
FIRST ONE TO FOUR DAYS: Achieve some calm (Samadhi) with concentration on breathing. When the mind and body are calmed somewhat, you may start watching the sensations associated with breathing (like pressure, cold on  the nose, etc.)
NEXT DAY: Watch breathing and add awareness of  bodily sensations like cold, hot,  burning, tingling, pressure, aching, etc. You do not think about them, you  just observe.
NEXT DAY: Add awareness of sound.  For instance, If a bird tweets, you just notice  the tweet. Do not think about the sound, or judge the sound.
REMAINDER OF RETREAT: Add awareness of thoughts.  You just notice:  There's a thought. "Hey, look, a thought is occurring."  Do not pursue it, or elaborate on it.  Just notice that a thought appeared and passed away. Go  back to noticing. If you notice that you have been lost in thought for a while, just notice that and go back to the practice.

In a slightly different type of Insight retreat, meditators start with awareness immediately and let the calm feeling of samadhi emanate from the concentration of focused attention.  For instance, some teachers might teach starting with awareness of breath and then quickly open the awareness, noticing the other sense doors (bodily sensations, hearing, smell, taste, thoughts, sounds) as perceptions arise and pass away.
Sometimes the concept of "labeling" is taught as an aid. Here, when something arises, you notice it and label it in your mind gently.  For instance, you notice a sound, say to yourself "hearing" and let the sound pass away without thinking about it.  Or you may notice you are off on a thought or series of thoughts, and label "thinking" and let it pass away.

If you are not in a long  retreat, you  must decide what is best for you. This is one idea: You  take your 30 or 45 minute sitting and start it with breathing concentration to get yourself calm and then open the awareness to just one sense door.  For instance, you can concentrate on noticing the breath. Then if a sound appears, notice it and just go back to the breath. After some experience in meditation  you may want to start with awareness of  breath and then notice all the other sense doors as they arise and pass away, always returning to the breath as an anchor. You stay with the breath unless awareness of some other sense door appears. Consciously decide what is best for you and STICK WITH IT.   

Different Insight teachers teach slightly different methods, possibly because they were taught in a certain lineage of Insight practice.  They are all really teaching the same thing:  Calm down and
BE HERE, NOW,  IN THIS MOMENT.  Do not follow thoughts into the past with memories or into the future with fantasy.

One final caveat is that one should not constantly judge one's progress.  Take it easy on yourself.  The definition of a good sitting is  that "you did it."  The mind is always different and the practice unfolds over time with many ups and downs.

January 1999

Above, across or back again,
wherever she goes in the world
let her carefully scrutinize
the rise and fall of compounded things.
                             -- Itivuttaka 120