How to Meditate

Time to tame the monkey-mind

Instructions for Vipassana

What to do with your body

One thing that beginning meditators often get confused about is the importance of posture. It simply isn’t as important as it is often made out to be. Forget what you may have been told about sitting in full lotus and becoming like a Buddha statue – you don’t need any of that. There is nothing magical about difficult sitting poses, and if they are painful for you please don’t use them. They are the product of a particular culture and time, and have very little to do with waking up itself. If you find that sitting on a meditation cushion gets you in the right frame of mind, then go for it, but please don’t think that the cushion or the particular posture does anything special to wake you up. It doesn’t.

What is needed for productive meditation is to simply strike a balance between being comfortable and alert. You should not be in pain and you should not be too comfy. You don’t want to spend the whole meditation session gritting your teeth and wishing it were over, and you also don’t want to be so relaxed that you fall asleep. I prefer to meditate on a folding beach chair that is not very cushy. It is comfortable enough that I can sit for extended periods of time, without being so comfortable that I snooze.

Pick a spot to meditate where you aren’t going to be too disturbed by what others are doing. If you are sitting in a room where everyone likes to come and watch TV, then you’re setting yourself up to veg-out with TV, not meditate. However, you do not need to go into a cave or to a mountain top. Just go to your own room. I prefer to meditate on a on my back porch (called a “lanai” in Hawaii). I can usually get a solid 20 minutes of quiet time there.

How long should I meditate?

If you have never kept a regular meditation, you’ll find it hard to sit for very long at all. Five minutes will seem like a lot of time, and you’ll be checking your watch in disbelief after three minutes. I recommend being kind to yourself and not pushing too hard (that could end up backfiring in the meditation). So if you are finding it hard to sit for longer than 10 minutes, then make 10 minutes your goal. Do 10 minutes once a day for four days. Then add five minutes and maintain that for four days. Keep adding time gradually until you are at 30 minutes. A daily 30-minute sit, accompanied by periodic longer sits should be your goal in the beginning. Once you are more advanced, you can explore lots of ways to vary sitting times and work retreats into your schedule (however, retreats are not necessary).

What to do with your mind

So you’ve got a good chair and a nice secluded spot. You are committed to sitting for at least 10 minutes and want to work up to 30. But once your butt is on the chair, what do you actually do?

First, Build Some Concentration

Concentration is the ability to put the mind on one thing, called an “object”, and leave it there. It is not Vipassana, but it is part of Vipassana, and you need it to get the meditation going. If you were to think of Vipassana as running, getting concentrated is like the warm-up. You need to get stretched and moving before you can run a few miles, especially if you are not used to running. With Vipassana, you need to get the mind steady, stable and strong before you start using it for Vipassana, and that is what concentration does.

To concentrate the mind watch the breath go in and out at one spot (you pick the spot – I watch it at the upper lip or at the tip of the nose, but you can watch it at the abdomen or anywhere), and count 10 breaths. If you can count ten breaths without getting lost, then you are building concentration pretty well, but if you are a beginner then a lot of thoughts will pop up and distract you. You may even lose count of the breaths. No problem. Just go back to 1 and start counting back up to 10. No one needs to know but you, and it is certainly not a competition, so don’t worry about it. If you notice a thought popping up but haven’t lost count, make a brief note in your mind of what the thought is. Give it a label, such as “memory” or “planning” or “fantasy.” As soon as you give it a label just get right back to counting. By giving it a label you are taking away the thought’s power to pull you into a story and get you off-track in the meditation, so practice labeling often! You will need it in the next part of the meditation.

Continue with the counting meditation until you can count up to 10 breaths without losing track, and once you have done so then continue from 10 back to 1. This practice helps to increase your mindfulness of what is occurring in the present moment by giving you instant feedback if you are being unmindful (you’ll forget what number you’re on). This practice also builds concentration by helping you to focus on one thing: the breath. Once you have been able to go up to 10 and back down to 1 several times without losing track of what number you are on, then you have sufficient concentration to begin Vipassana. (This is a bit of an arbitrary cut-off. Each person’s need for concentration practice will be a little different and I highly recommend getting with a teacher to work these things out).

Next, Make Some Notes

Now that you can keep your mind stable enough to stay with one thing for a short period of time, you are ready to use that stability to investigate reality and do Vipassana proper.

When we think of “investigating” something what normally comes to mind is asking lots of questions, and “investigating reality” can sound like a philosophical exercise, but it is not – it is the opposite. Philosophical contemplation requires discursive thinking where the mind is allowed to follow a line of questioning wherever it goes. In meditation though, you want to NOT follow your thoughts, but rather just watch them arise and drop them. This is a subtle shift, but it is fundamental. It is a very different thing to have a thought and take it up and get interested in it, and to have that same thought but simply to recognize that it is only a thought and not get caught up in it. The same with body sensations. You can experience a body sensation as something of great interest or simply watch it. Same with emotions, and the same with liking, disliking and being neutral to things. All of these things can be objectified and transformed into meditation objects that the mind simply watches without getting caught up in them. This is the essence of Vipassana: you objectify whatever you experience in the moment, watch it dispassionately, and don’t get caught up in it. By doing this, the awareness that is doing the watching becomes “disembedded” as my teacher describes it. As disembedding happens you begin to experience liberation from all the things that the body and mind are normally caught up in, what the Buddha described as “samsara.” The more effectively you disembed the more powerful the experience of liberation.

To disembed from thoughts, sensations, emotions and preferences, you only need to do one thing: note them. Simply make a mental note of the experience as it is happening. For example if you have a thought, note “thought”, if you have an itch, note “itch” and so on. It may sound too simple to really work, but it does. By making a note of what you are experiencing in the moment you are taking a clear snapshot of that split second of reality and seeing it for what it is. You are not getting caught up in the story of what is happening, you are simply watching the process of what is happening. At first it will feel a little awkward, and you may have difficulty finding the right words to note what you are experiencing, but don’t worry, keep trying. It takes some time and practice to get to a point where it feels easy and natural.

So, you’ve got the right chair, you have a place to sit, you’ve sat and counted your breath up to 10 and back to 1 several times and you are ready to begin Vipassana. You begin by noting what it is that you have been focused on thus far: the breath. Note “breathing”, or “rising” or “falling” or whatever suits you. Now that you have shifted to Vipassana you do not have to keep the mind on the breath, so let it wander, but use the breath as an anchor object and return to it periodically. You notice a sound outside, so you note “hearing”, and the mind immediately recognizes that the sound is the dog barking and an image of the dog pops into the mind and you note “image.” You love that dog, and begin experiencing warm feelings. You note “love” and as memories of the times you have played with the dog come up in your mind you note “remembering.” Then you remember that the neighbor has complained about the barking, and you note “irritation” and an image of the neighbor comes into your mind and you note “image.” You notice the breath leaving your nose and note “falling”, and then notice the feeling of the chair on your legs and note “pressure.” And so on…

This is the technique for Vipassana: note your experience as it happens in the moment. Imagine that reality is sending thoughts, sensations, and emotions to you down a conveyor belt and you have to put a post-it note on each one as it goes by, and on each post-it note is a one or two-word phrase summarizing what it is. You do not take anything off the conveyor belt, and you do not get caught up in any new shiny thing that comes down the conveyor belt. You simply do your job and note it and let it go.

Why is it called “practice?”

When we sit in meditation we are building up skills that we will use all day long. During a period of sitting meditation you are practicing concentration and practicing Vipassana, but when you get up from meditation you are no longer practicing them – you’re using them. Noting seems awkward at first and you are likely to only do it during sitting meditation, but the goal is to note your experiences throughout your day, to be more mindful, more aware and awake, during each moment of our lives. This transition, from practicing the technique “on the cushion” to using the technique “off the cushion”, is an important turning point for a meditator. When this begins to happen, first with great effort, then with more and more ease, the effect of the meditation becomes very powerful. One makes swift progress along the path, and soon insights begin to arise during wakeful moments throughout the day. If you have managed to take your sitting practice and use the skills in daily life, you are well on your way to waking up.

  1. i am confused about Vipassana- as i feel ready for it now as i have done years of on and off regular meditation..

    but wouldn’t the mind then dart from – breeze on my face, dog barking, and just even just “seeing” in a manic stupor ?
    i mean if all these things are happening simultaneously- how can you possibly note every sensation or thought at once with attention if attention only is supposed to note one thing at a time?

    ( not like say where u go in the zone- that quiet place of bare awareness)

    and if you stay with one thing- but then it becomes concentration meditation on one thing. or are you saying go back to the breath after you note something as an anchor?

    im confused could you help to clarify ?
    yeshe.

  2. oh wait i think i get it- you mean- letting your attention watch the mind’s meanderings of reality- of either sensations, thoughts etc…

    i think i get it now. !
    if im wrong let me know i really want to do this one ! yeshe.

    • The key here is the noting. By making a note of whatever comes into awareness you are kicking mindfulness into action and putting it to use in that moment. A moment of noting is a moment of mindful watching, not just letting the mind wander. So don’t let yourself get lost in what the mind does, note note note!

  3. Rodrigo Fonseca

    Is it normal to think that Vipassana is sooooo fun? I mean, i’m also aware of the arising and passing of the funiness quality, so i guess it’s ok.

    But really…oh my God, i want to do it right now…(aware of the arising and passing of the wanting too) :P

  4. Thanks a lot for taking the time to write this note. This is one of the more clear set of instructions available on the net. I came from Kenneth’s site and this fills in few important details in the instructions given there.

  5. I second the thought that this is one of the best descriptions of meditation that I have read on the internet, or anywhere really. Thank you!

  6. Sitting here in cold Sweden and reading this fantastic piece, thanks Ron, much appreciated!
    After many years of study this is the best description I´ve read!

  7. This is wonderful! I hope you do not mind that I am sharing it with followers of my blog, Down the Center. I recently wrote a piece where I intended to give similar instructions, but yours is much, much better. I am looking forward to applying what I learned in this post to my next meditation section.

    Best,
    Caroline

  8. Are there any specific ways to label thoughts in your mind or do you just use whatever comes to your mind at the time?

    • I think it is a good idea to label what kind of thought is occurring, and I have a few labels that work well for me that tend to emphasize “when” a thought is (past, present, future), and “what” a thought is. Here are some examples that I can think of off the cuff: image, memory, fantasy, scenario (for something I’m imagining that is too boring to be a fantasy), list-making, planning, rehearsing (imagining what I will say to someone or in a situation), music, and for those that I cannot fit into anything “random.”

      It is good to get down to this kind of specificity at first. This is because if you can identify the kind of thought it often helps to develop investigation, which is one of the seven factors of enlightenment. Once you get good at it though you can simplify it to “thinking,” or you can follow Shinzen Young’s very useful noting rubric here.

      One thing to keep in mind though is that thoughts are especially sticky and difficult to catch. Body sensations are always great because you can trust that they are happening this instant. If you are getting the hang of noting, it is a good idea to focus on body sensations as you are getting going. Once it becomes easy, including thinking.

      Hope that helps.

      ron

  9. Thanks for the quick reply Ron!

    Also I had one more question: For a beginner with limited time what are some other good ways you suggest going about learning Vispassana meditation (besides this article of course)

    • The quickest way to get up and running is to go on a retreat where the focus is learning vipassana. One thing to keep in mind is that there are bunch of different flavors of “vipassana” out there, but most of them are pretty good and effective. I am partial to the Burmese noting technique and would highly recommend it, but Goenka courses work as well, along with a lot of other approaches.

      If you can’t do a retreat then the second best way to learn is to start a daily practice and get a teacher that you check in with on a regular basis. The teacher could be in person at a local meditation center or over skype. And if you can’t do that then the next best thing to do is to is make a lot of time for trial and error on your own and read books like “Mastering the Core Teachings of the Buddha” along with my site :)

  1. Pingback: Aerobics for the brain? Fitness experts praise mindfulness meditation – Reuters | Meditation Surprise

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