Vipassanā (or “insight meditation”) is what underlies the practice of mindfulness meditation. It is an ancient technique designed to help us uncover deep truths about the nature of our mind.
In this Frame, you will learn the basic instructions to support your meditation journey.
Finding our attitude
Sitting meditation is a way of meeting reality as it is. It is a way of cultivating insight, concentration and equanimity. Before sitting, it is helpful remind ourselves of this intention. This can be described as the right attitude toward the practice of meditation.
We also want to take an appropriate attitude toward ourselves. This has to do with the way we show up and meet ourselves. It is a sense of befriending; meeting ourselves with the same kindness and compassion that we have for a dear friend.
A common misunderstanding for beginner meditators is the expectation that the mind should go quite. Although we can increasingly experience moments of no-thought and peace of mind in our meditation, this is not our typical experience in the beginning. Rather, we encounter the so called “monkey mind” – jumping around and grasping after one branch after another. When we have the wrong expectations, we easily fall into the trap of fighting our thoughts or judging ourselves for being distracted. So rather than suppressing or fighting distractions, we are better of learning how to relate to them.
A metaphor that is commonly used is that of training a puppy dog. When training the puppy to “stay” or “sit”, we need patience and kindness. As Pema Chödrön says; if we react with aggression and punish the dog, it may eventually do what you want but it will be unhappy, fearful and inflexible when situations change. So we need an attitude of kindness, curiosity and acceptance. But we also need persistence and some amount of firmness. If our approach is too loose and we allow the puppy to do whatever it wants, it will turn out undisciplined, restless and insecure. So we want to find the middle ground. We are cultivating an attitude of patience, kindness and curiosity.
Finding our posture
The second instruction is about centering the body and mind. This has to do with the continuous discovery of the interplay between the body and the mind. There are many layers to be discovered to this dynamic, but even on the surface level we can easily see that the way we hold our body affects our capacity to focus. For example, if we are hunching over with our necks bent, then our chest collapses and our breath becomes constricted. We will also begin to feel discomfort and pain. All of this affects our overall awareness and ability to stay concentrated. This is he most obvious reason for learning the proper meditation posture.
Grounding. You can sit on a chair or cross-legged on a cushion. If you sit on a chair, you don’t want to be leaning against the backrest. Move forward so that your back can be unsupported. If you are sitting on the floor, make sure that your seat is elevated enough so that your hips are higher than your knees. This will help you stay upright and reduce any muscular strain on your back. Also, if your legs are crossed, make sure both of your knees are touching the ground so that you find stability. It is important to find comfort in your sitting so that you are able to relax and enjoy the meditation. Notice the sensations of the contact against the surface and allow gravity to support you in settling in fully. Feel the grounding and stability that comes from relaxing down into the seat and the ground underneath.
Dignity and ease. Once you have settled in and found your grounding, the next step is to find a sense of lengthening of the back line. Just as with the attitude, we are looking for balance. We want to find the middle ground between rigidity and collapse. Don’t slouch and don’t over-extend so that you become tense We are looking for a dignified way of sitting and a natural lengthening of the spine. Relaxed and alert.
Inner alignment. A good advice is to listen to your body – it often knows what is needed. Feel into the felt sense of the posture. Does it feel aligned? Do you feel centered? Not as an external observer would look at it, but how it is experienced from the inside. You may find it helpful to move your spine in order to find your center and inner sense of alignment. Slowly lean forward and backward in smaller and smaller movements until you find just the point where your posture feels upright. Then repeating the same movements side to side. Next, do small nodding movements with your neck, tilting the head in alternating up and down arcs until the neck feels aligned with the spine. Try lowering the chin slightly toward the chest with a sense of the ears moving back over the shoulders. The main point is to find a sense of openness, length and inner alignment. You may imagine an invisible string being attached to the crown of your head, gently pulling you upward and aligning the spine. Relaxing and feeling the simultaneous grounding of the gravitational pull and the openness of the upward flow.
Supporting hands. You can hold your hands in any way that enables your arms and shoulders to relax. You can place them on your thighs or knees with the palms facing up or down. Another way it to place them in your lap with one hand resting in the other.
In this way, sitting in a relaxed and dignified posture with your chest and belly open. This will enable your breath to be uncontrived and support a sense of awake awareness.
Finding our focus
The next instruction is to establish concentration of the mind. There are many different techniques for how to do this, but one that works for most of us is to feel the breath in the body. It is important to understand that we are not doing a breathing technique – we are not trying to alter the breath in any way. We simply allow the body to breathe and follow along with each inbreath and outbreath.
Find a place in your body where you feel the breath most clearly. This can be the sensation of air flowing through your nostrils, your lungs expanding or contracting, or your abdomen rising and falling. You have to feel what is available and most accessible for you. Whatever point of focus you choose, this is your “meditation anchor” or “magnet of attention” – the place to which you keep returning.
If possible, I recommend allowing the breath to sink all the way into the abdomen. You don’t have to think about the breath – just focus on the physical sensations in the belly that are correlated with the breathing. Feel how the abdomen naturally rises on the inhale and falls back in on the exhale. Without force, just relaxing into the awareness of how the breath feels in the abdomen. This way of breathing – known as “baby breathing” – is natural and deeply relaxing.
Relating to distractions
As you sit with your attention on your meditation anchor, the mind is going to wander. It does not matter how many times your attention leaves. Each time you notice, simply return back to your anchor – your “home base”. Remembering the attitude of patience, kindness and curiosity. Each time you become aware of any distraction, congratulate yourself for noticing that the mind has wandered – this is a moment on mindfulness! This is how we cultivate concentration and equanimity.
Observing the lens of our mind
There is a beautiful simplicity to the practice. Just sitting with our body and our breath, taking the role of an observer. Nothing to do, nowhere to go. It is as if we are taking a step back and observing “the lens of our mind”.
Our usual tendency is to get caught up in the content of our experience. If we experience anger, we typically identify with the anger and turn it into “I am angry” or even “I am an angry person”. It is as if we are seeing the world through the lens of our mind. Through insight meditation, we are stepping back and observing the lens itself. We are looking at the lens rather than looking through the lens. Rather than seeing the world through the lens of anger, it becomes possible to simply notice “there is anger”. We can experience the the energetic and somatic felt sense of anger in the body without getting caught.
In this way, we are creating spaciousness in the mind. And it is from this spaciousness that insights emerge.
Meditation happens now
Sit comfortably and enjoy this 24 minute guided meditation:
Check out this frame to learn more about the attitudes of mindfulness:
Video version of the instructions, including a guided meditation: