The Actual Practice Of Vipassana
This is the final post in a four-part series on vipassana meditation. You might be wondering why I have meditation on a digital nomad blog, and there are two reasons. The first is because I’m on a bicycle touring adventure through the southwestern United Stated to visit Buddhist temples and learn meditation for myself.
The second, and most important reason for nomadic-like wanderers is that the lifestyle we live can be a little groundless compared to others. Everyone’s life truly is, but ours makes that clear very quickly.
Meditation is one of the best ways to find that sense of grounding. Not from any external source, but where it should come from … within.
For the last few post, I have been talking about mindfulness based on my review of Mindfulness In Plain English by Ven. H. Gunaratana Mahathera. In the first post, Mindfulness In Plain English, I talk about the two main types of meditation; samatha and vipassana, and why you might want to meditate in the first place.
The second post, 11 Common Meditation Myths, I talk about what meditation is not. Even with the popularity of meditation rising in the west, there are still a lot of incorrect ideas about it. I have to be honest, before this year I held some of these views myself.
Since talking about what meditation is not, it seem only fitting that I follow that post up with What Meditation Is. There I dig a little deeper into some Buddhist philosophy to give a better understanding of what meditation is for.
Now it is time to wrap up this little series with the actual practice of vipassana meditation. For that I will cover the right attitude, the practice itself, and what to do with your body.
The mind is a set of events, and you participate in those events every time you look inward at yourself. What you are looking at is you, what you see depends on how you look. Having a good mindset will help with the success of your meditation practice.
- Don’t Expect Anything – Don’t hope for specific states of mind to occur, or be anxious for any results. Let the meditation teach you what it wants you to learn, and move at its own pace.
- Don’t Strain – Don’t be aggressive about it, or try to force anything.
- Don’t Rush – Anything worthwhile takes time. There is no hurry, just sit as if you have the whole day to meditate.
- Don’t Cling To Anything, and Don’t Reject Anything – Fighting the experience is not going to help. It doesn’t matter what kind of mental images come up, good or bad. Both are fine. Simply make yourself comfortable with whatever happens.
- Let Go – Relax and go with the flow.
- Accept Everything That Arises – Sometimes uncomfortable feelings come up, and that’s OK. Accept your experiences without judgment. Most importantly, don’t beat yourself up for being human with all your flaws and shortcomings.
- Be Gentile With Yourself – You are all you have to work with. Be kind, because the fact of the matter is, nobody’s perfect.
- Investigate Yourself – Test everything. Insight meditation is about waking up to the truth. Be empirical, and don’t take anything at face value.
- View All Problems As Challenges – When negative stuff comes up, it is an opportunity to learn about yourself and grow.
- Don’t Ponder – Your mind will purify itself naturally with this practice. You don’t need to figure everything out. Don’t think. See.
- Don’t Dwell On Contrast – Comparing your differences with others is a mental habit that only leads to ill feeling of one sort or another. Differences exist between people. Do yourself a favor, and let them go while you meditate. Instead move closer to others by remembering there are things that are universal to all life.
If nothing else, focus on your breath. All living things exchange gases with their environment in some way. This is one of the reasons why breathing is often the focus of meditation. Another reason is you take it with you wherever you are.
In the Pali cannon, the Buddha spells out 40 different objects of meditation. However to keep things simple, I recommend you start focusing your total, undivided attention on your breathing.
Thoughts will come up, and so will feelings at times. Don’t confuse them, because they are separate events. As a matter of fact, there are seven universal mental factors; feelings, contact, perception, mental formations, concentration, life force, and awareness.
If any of them come up, don’t try to lump them into the same category. Instead watch them exactly as they are without trying to confuse them with anything else. Let them become the new object of your attention. If you notice they are running away with your attention, simply make a mental note of it, and return your awareness to your breath.
At first, view your mind and your body as separate things. After your insight is more developed, you will become more aware of the fact that all the mental factors are cooperating to work together.
It is good to have a goal when you are meditating. It is not the meditation’s goal to become enlightened before anyone else, to have more power, or to make more profit than others. Competition with other people is not what meditation is about.
Your goal is to develop all the noble and virtuous qualities dormant in our subconscious. There are five elements to this; purifying the mind, overcoming sorrow, overcoming pain, walking the right path that leads to peace, and finding true happiness.
Don’t have a time schedule for attaining the goal, but still work diligently and mindfully towards the goal. The length of sitting time depends on how much time you have to meditate, and how long you can sit without excruciating pain.
It is better to sit several times for 15-20 minutes than to try and force yourself to sit for hours.
Ideally you will not change positions once you start to meditate. If your position becomes too unbearable, or you get an itch that simply grows worse. Don’t torture yourself. However, if you change positions know that the new position will eventually become uncomfortable too. Once you scratch that itch, it will come back or be replaced by another one.
For that reason, and for the purpose of true investigation, try not to change anything about the way you feel. Even if it becomes quite painful, stick it out until the end of your session.
Pain actually is a great object to focus your attention on. Nothing keeps you in the present moment like pain will. Pretend you are a scientist or a doctor, and try to learn everything you can about pain while you observe yours.
Where does the pain come from? How exactly does it feel? Is it a numb pain, or a sharp one? Really look into the nature of the pain. This goes the same for thoughts, feelings or any of the other mental factors.
When you are sitting, it is OK to sit in a chair. The most important body posture is to have a straight back. Not a stiff or rigid back, but straight nonetheless.
The mind is like a muddy cup of water. The longer you let it rest, the more mud will settle to the bottom making the water clear.
Simply sit still, focus your attention on the breath, and be patient. When thoughts come up, make a note of them, and return to your breath. If feelings or pain arises, note them without judgment, and return your focus to your breath.
When pleasant feelings come up, don’t be distracted by them. Simply return to your breath. The present moment is the best place to be, and your breath is the easiest way to keep your attention there.
Notice yourself breathing in, and then breathing back out. Simple, huh? You might want to notice the pauses between your inhalations and exhalations, or notice how there are no pauses. How rapid is your breath? Are they slow, and drawn out? Don’t force your breath, just let it happen naturally.
If your mind begins to wander away, that’s OK. Don’t get upset, or judge the meditation as bad. All you have to do is notice that your mind has wandered away again, and anchor it back to your breath.
As your mind becomes more disciplined, it will more easily stay concentrated. At these times, you will begin to feel more tranquil. In some cases this tranquility will be more of a state of rapture. The rapture is known as jhana.
These feelings of calm are wonderful to experience, but do not make it your goal. Sometimes you will experience them, and sometimes you will not. The important thing to remember is insight is a loftier goal than the concentration and tranquility.
Before I talk about posture I would like to recommend that you wear loose-fitting comfortable clothes. If your clothes restrict blood flow or put pressure on your nerves, then you will be unnecessarily asking for pain and discomfort. If your shoes or socks are binding, just take them off.
You can close your eyes, or keep them open. There are differing opinions about this, but most people close them. If you do keep them open, then make sure your gaze is relaxed and looking out past the tip of your nose in a downward direction. I find it is less distracting to close my eyes.
If you are not used to sitting cross-legged on the floor, it can cause your knees to hurt after a while. It is difficult to keep your back straight as well. For these reasons, I recommend you sit elevated with your butt on the front edge of a cushion, and your legs cross-legged on the floor in front of you. This will allow you to sit with a straight back more naturally, and take some of the pressure off your knees.
There are a couple of acceptable ways to sit cross-legged, and I do not recommend you try and force a way that you are not comfortable with.
The first way is known as the American Indian style. Nevermind that it is not a politically correct name. It is the name that has stuck, and I mean no harm to those it might offend. In this style, you sit with your right foot resting under your left knee, and your left foot under your right knee.
The Burmese style is my favorite. In this position both of your legs lie flat on the floor from knee to foot. They are parallel to each other, and one in front of the other.
In the half lotus it starts to get more difficult. Both of your knees touch the floor. One leg and foot lie flat on top of the calf of the other leg. The other leg rest on the floor like in the Burmese style.
In the full lotus posture, both knees still touch the floor, and your legs are crossed at the calf. Your left foot rest on the right thigh, and your right foot rest on the left thigh. According to the Tibetan traditions, the full lotus will tame jealousy the same way standing or sitting upright will put you in a better mood.
Of course, if you cannot sit on the floor in any of these posture for whatever reason, it is just fine to sit in a chair. It is best to choose a chair with a level seat, a straight back, and no arm rest. Preferably sit in such a way that your back does not lean against the back of the chair. Just sit with your back upright and relaxed. Place your feet flat on the floor with your legs side by side.
As for your hands, you can cup them together in your lap, or rest your hands on your knees. It doesn’t matter really, however I know the Tibetan thoughts on the subject is that cupping your hands together with the right hand on top tames anger. I will leave all that up to you.
In all the postures, the key is to achieve a state of complete stillness without falling asleep. Mindfulness is and activity. You want to be settled, but still in a state of physical alertness.
Mindfulness In Everyday Life
Sitting for meditation is the main practice, however you should not look at it as the only time to be mindful. Don’t look at getting off the cushion as the end of your meditation practice, but rather a changing of positions. You can be mindful while you are walking, when riding a bike, doing the dishes, or any other activity.
Being awake and in the moment is a state of liberation. Spend some time being that way with everything you do.
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