Bedrock for Buddhist psychology is the Insight, or Vipassana, tradition of meditation. Whether it is the Zen, Tibetan or Southeast Asian variant, this tradition teaches insight into the true nature of reality and the workings of the mind, hence, its name. Another term for this form of meditation practice is Mindfulness, because of its emphasis on being mindful at increasingly subtle levels as to what is occurring around us and within us.
The centerpiece of this tradition is sitting meditation, with its emphasis on the dignified, relaxed and alert posture seen in classical Buddhist statues and paintings. It is the fundamental practice ground that leads to insights concerning calming and focusing the mind called Samatha practice, or single-pointed concentration. While many meditators believe this to be the extent of meditation, it is really only the necessary beginning point for the ultimate realization of Buddhist meditation – insight into the workings of the mind, the nature of reality, and who we are at our deepest level.
Through sitting meditation, we begin to awaken out of the semi-sleep we are accustomed to as our ongoing experience of life. This occurs when in the stillness of our sitting in Samatha, our unexamined ways of thinking, doing and being stop. This stopping opens us into an awareness that witnesses the pull of these habits, but does not get caught in them. The Vipassana practice only truly comes alive, however, when it can be brought out of the sitting and into our active everyday lives. The Tibetan term for Samatha is “Peaceful Abiding,” and it is when we sit, walk, work, play, interact and relate from peaceful abiding that an entirely new level of awakened living opens. With it, we develop a calm skillful presence and deepened capacity for insight into the workings of our mind, as well as human interactions.
With the first level of insight, we notice how incessant the activity of the mind is. Most of us have a dim awareness of how constant the activity of the mind is, but when we deliberately sit with the goal of calming and quieting the mind, the tenacity of mental activity can be startling and discouraging. As we develop skill with Samatha practice, we learn that through focusing relaxed, alert awareness onto a single experience, typically into the sensations of our breathing, we gain the insight that we can quiet the mind. This is particularly true when the breath focus is supported by our sitting technique, and sometimes with a meditation recitation, or a mantra – a word or sound that corrals the mind’s discursiveness and is meant to evoke our natural unity with life.
As we sit, further insight opens into the realization of gaps in the thought stream that can be entered with awareness and expanded to discover what is beneath the mind’s activity. There, opening into the inherent stillness that surrounds and contains the activity of each moment, both mentally and in the world, we begin to glimpse new truths about who we are. With this discovery of stillness, a remarkable world of expansive and subtle possibilities opens.
“Breathing in, I am aware that I am breathing in, and breathing out, I am aware that I am breathing out,” teaches the Vietnamese Zen Master, Thich Nhat Hanh, in one of his meditation recitations. “Breathing in, I calm my mind. Breathing out, I relax my body.” He continues. “This moment is a perfect moment. This moment is my refuge”. We find that while breathing is an excellent focus for developing concentration, it also brings its legendary capacity for calming us as well. Further, it opens into something mystically peaceful and deeply personally healing.
Focusing calmly, contacting the moment through the senses, not thinking about it or evaluating it, a person becomes one with the world in this moment, an experience called Samadhi. We are no longer distanced or at odds with what is occurring – whatever is occurring – seemingly good or bad. The alert focus of Samatha now opens to embrace all within the field of perception. This is true Mindfulness. Miraculously, in this state, the moment can be seen for what it is, as is our personal perspective within the moment. Problems, even disaster, seem to dissolve as we experience that the moment, just as it is, held in expansive awareness, is always manageable. We begin to have insight into how it is the adding of our personal story, with its perspective of anxiety, fear, anger, despair or frustration, into the moment, that is causing us so much distress.
Story also implies and carries with it the factor of time superimposed on the moment. We realize that rehashing the past and anxiety about the future mark much of our mental landscape. By realizing the awareness that exists as timeless witnessing stillness, and watching thoughts interrupt the stillness, we learn about the nature of the constant forming and passing of thoughts. We learn that thoughts (and the emotions that resonate from thoughts) do not have the solidity and validity we tend to give them, and that thinking is frequently out of place in time. It tends to be past or future-oriented, or when of the present moment, very often in judgment, creating the experience of separation.
We can see our minds creating the drama of “I am here, looking at and judging that phenomenon over there,” whether the phenomenon is a circumstance, an object or another person. We also see how we compulsively are reconstructing, moment-to-moment, a structure of thoughts we believe to be who we are, relating to the world out there according to a script emerging out of our past, then projected into the future. The present moment, where life is actually lived, is being paid only enough attention to support the theme of our story. This is not real life, nor is it who we really are.
We discover that this moment, calmly focused upon with deepening sensory subtlety, experienced in pure awareness, is free of all that. Further, a much-ignored dimension of mind in Western culture, often referred to as intuition, is being activated. This contains the knowing and experiencing of connection, of belonging within the unfolding of the moment. It is the source of insight, wisdom and spiritual experience, and is the refuge being referred to by Thich Nhat Hanh, not, as some might see implied, a passive withdrawal. Life is not to be escaped, but to be engaged fully with a peaceful and effective mind certain of the interconnectedness of self within all of life. This is why this form of meditation practice is also associated with a tradition known as “Engaged Buddhism.” It requires we express ourselves as connected in a world that is experienced as all interconnected.
By watching the workings of the mind, insight is achieved as to how the thinking mind is the instrument of the ego, that dimension of mind that experiences the world as abstracted separate objects, with our sense of self likewise experienced as a separate object, always in contention with the other separate objects of the world. Insight is gained as to how ego is the source of all our insecurity, and that this insecurity is fundamentally about whether we are enough and have enough. We begin to see how we react emotionally to whether what the ego wants is being gained or not, and then how this drives more neurotic thinking, emotional response and dysfunctional behavior.
Within quiet mind, achieved in Samatha practice, insight (Vipassana) can be gained as to the existence of a deeper, calmer, wiser, more authentic and intuitive dimension of Self beneath and surrounding the thought stream. We experience being an inseparable expression of a unified consciousness or energy that is Life, where nothing more is needed (Samadhi). We are complete just as we are. We gain insight that who we are is not contained in the thought stream, but rather, we are the awareness within which the thoughts and emotions arise and pass. AND… we learn that we also have this life as an individual in society that needs to be managed with skillful application of the tools of thought and interpersonal interaction. We realize that thoughts are tools to represent and engage the world of form. We have thoughts, like we have hands. The important question is whether we are being skillful with the tool of thought, or, as most of us are, very, very sloppy in a way that creates very, very sloppy emotions and results. Thoughts are not who we are. But how we use them tells a great deal about who we think we are, and what we think the world is about.
There is a Zen teaching that asks, “Are you aware of your thoughts and emotions? If so, who is it that is aware?” This teaching, when understood, can help shift us from identification with our thoughts and emotions to identification with the awareness that experiences them. And it is this shift in perspective and insight that can liberate us from being caught in the anxiety and unhappiness that plague us. It can restore a sense of placement and belonging in the world. With the support and guidance of a masterful teacher, this practice can truly help heal the confusion and hurt that weighs down our lives. Breathing in and breathing out, know that you are alive, aware and well. Know that all you need is that which supports the basic experience of Life. This insight is the base of who you are. Everything else is manageable and optional.