What is insight meditation?
When we practise insight meditation, we practise sati (mindfulness). This is a quality of mind that enables us to remember what is all too easily forgotten: the present moment.
As we return to our present experience, we awaken from our subjective view of the world. We find a lucid awareness of what is; all that had been hidden within and around us is unveiled with honesty and sensitivity. With mindfulness we bring an authentic connection to life; we rediscover being itself.
In returning to the present moment, we begin to notice where we have become fixated. Our tendencies to cling to, manipulate, and push and pull at existence gently reveal themselves, and we find that the sources of our dissatisfaction begin to lose their concreteness. Our lives grow wiser and freer.
The practice of mindfulness has recently entered the mainstream of Western culture. In this setting mindfulness is often presented as a useful stand-alone skill; something to be practised for clinically validated therapeutic benefit. However the original teachings associated with sati place it in a broader context.
When establishing his contemplative tradition 2500 years ago, Siddhattha Gotama (the Buddha) presented mindfulness as one aspect of an eightfold path to awakening. This eightfold path – consisting of appropriate view, intention, speech, action, livelihood, effort, mindfulness and concentration – was taught as an interconnected framework for living skilfully.
The Buddha therefore saw mindfulness as a core component of a broadly well-lived life; a quality of mind that, when given the conditions to flourish, steers us towards liberation from suffering.
Mindfulness can be practised. Insight meditation (vipassana) is our method of training in mindfulness.
The Buddha described four frames of reference that he considered useful for establishing mindful contemplation. In these instructions we are invited to abide in our present experience of our body; our feelings; our mind; or dhammas (categories of experiential phenomena). We are invited to abide in our present experience wholly, without clinging to anything.
In following these instructions we thus find ourselves engaged in the practise of letting go. With an attitude of gentle non-judgment, and self-compassion for the conditions of our life, we learn to let go of our mind’s habitual thinking processes as we return to the present moment.
In this way we illuminate places often hidden in shadow. By bringing awareness to our present experience, we may find ourselves becoming intimately acquainted with an itch. We may come to know a clear and spacious mind. We may witness the texture and symphony of pain, or the sharp terror of annihilation. With a dispassionate curiosity, we observe the nature of arising, and the nature of passing away, in all that enters our awareness.
The Buddha suggested that in this practice we find a path to our deepest wisdom. We learn to know the arising of dukkha (unsatisfactoriness), and the way to its cessation. We thus learn to engage wisely with this mysterious existence; to develop a profound empathy for the nature of our condition, and the condition of others.