Insight (Vipassana): Clearing the Mind with Mindfulness

Insight (Vipassana): Clearing the Mind with Mindfulness

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Insight into transience is central to mindfulness practice. How we respond to the fact of impermanence determines whether we suffer or find lasting happiness in the world. The mindfulness tradition tells us that change is nothing to fear and that it is possible to live a life of contentment amid a world of constant flux.

However, to overcome our fear of change and to find equanimity in its midst requires gazing into it. It is here that words must stop, and we must return to the silence of meditation.

(Related: The Seven Pillars of Mindfulness)

I.      The Element of Insight

We’ve all had moments when things suddenly become clear. The haze dissipates, and what was there all along becomes obvious. The solution to the problem you’ve been pondering unexpectedly presents itself. The issue you’ve been struggling with dissolves, your heart catches fire with inspiration, and immediately you know what you must do. Sometimes we wonder how we could have missed what is now so apparent.

Mindfulness practice promises these unmistakable moments when something within you moves and you see things differently. Appropriately enough, the mindfulness tradition calls these moments “insights,” or “clear gazing,” to translate the Buddhist word vipassana.

The element of insight distinguishes mindfulness practice from forms of meditation that seek only to calm the mind. In mindfulness, stilling the mind is essential, but it is only a precondition for a deeper purpose: to gain insight into the way the world is and to live our lives accordingly. We cannot coerce insights, but we can use meditation to clear the way for them to arise.

If you have been continuing with a daily mindfulness practice, you have already been doing the necessary groundwork for insight. You may have already experienced insights and started to feel that a whole new world is opening up to you.

Meditation helps us to be more attentive to our lives. At the same time, it enables us to develop a new relationship with our experience, characterized by acceptance and relinquishment. The qualities of attention, acceptance, and relinquishment are what prime our minds for insight.

We learn through meditation that just because a thought arises does not mean we have to believe it. If we simply accept the fact that it has arisen and let it go, without aversion or attachment, the mind remains clear, spacious, and ready to see what is there.

When a mind is so full of thoughts and ideas about the way things are and the way things should be, it lacks the flexibility and openness to see the world in a new way. The problem with such a mind is not that it has ideas and opinions; the difficulty is the way it clings to these thoughts with such tenacity.

Meditation practice enables us to recognize our ideas and beliefs, accept them for what they are, and remain unattached to them. We allow our thoughts and sensations to arise and then allow them to go their own way.

II.   The Beginner’s Mind

It requires constant practice to prevent ourselves from becoming experts. Staying a beginner means having to start over and over again. One way to stay a beginner—or become one—is to practice not-knowing, which begins with an honest assessment of what we really know and what we really can know.

Most of what we as individuals profess as “knowledge” is perhaps better categorized as “belief.” Everyone “knows” the world is a sphere, but how many of us have taken the trouble to verify that for ourselves? Consider how much of what we think we know has been received based on this sort of faith.

It is impossible as well as unnecessary to take the time to verify everything we claim to know, but recognizing that so much of what we call knowledge is founded on implicit trust in authorities rather than on immediate personal experience ought at least to make us cautious about asserting anything with too much conviction.

Most of us feel great pressure to be knowledgeable—or at least appear that way. We learn early in our careers how to speak with the authority to convince others and ourselves that we know what we’re talking about. Sometimes, of course, we do know what we’re talking about.

The truth is that we know less than we think, and much of what we profess to know is belief, opinion, and conjecture. This is especially true when it comes to facing the great questions in life: From whence have we come and why? Does life have a meaning or purpose? What happens when we die?

Knowledge—or even just the illusion of knowledge—provides us with a hedge against the terrors of uncertainty. It furnishes us with the pleasant feeling that we are actually in control of our lives.

To practice, not-knowing means finding the courage to be at ease with uncertainty and mystery. Essentially, one overcomes the fear of the unknown by becoming more familiar with it. Certainly, meditation helps us with this.

In our practice, all manner of thoughts and feelings arise, and we are encouraged simply to be with them. Rather than making us feel secure by answering all our questions, mindfulness practice invites us to become free from attachment to security, free from the frantic need to know, and free from the ego’s desire to appear knowledgeable.

The Buddha was renowned for refusing to answer questions. Unlike many other sages of his era and even sages of our era, the Buddha did not feel compelled to provide a comprehensive worldview that could explain any question that might arise in the mind.

Not knowing does not mean one necessarily lacks knowledge or that we’re required to forget everything or to suspend all interpretations of a situation. Not knowing does not mean that we are confused. Rather, it is a consciously chosen attitude that we take to allow us to see things more clearly. It is the acknowledgment that we may not understand everything we need to know to handle a particular situation.

Maintaining a beginner’s mind, practicing not-knowing, relaxing attachments to thoughts, being humble, learning to live with uncertainty—are all interrelated aspects of clearing the way for insight. Insight comes when our minds are ready. This must be why moments of crisis are often of great spiritual development.

Such cognitively disorienting occasions as death, divorce, and addiction carry the potential to disrupt old habits of mind and to open us to new ways of seeing. These are often when uncertainty, not-knowing, and humility are thrust upon us. If we are wise and attentive, these critical times can be gifts of great value.

Note: For Zen Buddhists, seeking to understand the true nature of Zen is the same as wanting to know the true nature of reality.

When we speak of insight in the mindfulness tradition, we are speaking of something more than just discovering a solution to a problem—although a mindful insight may lead to that. We’re speaking of something more than just a profound thought that suddenly occurs to us—although insight may coalesce into profound thinking.

Insight in mindfulness is understood as an immediate experience of clarity about the nature of reality. There is nothing supernatural about insight. It is the ordinary, natural experience of seeing the world as it is, devoid of the heavy overlay of preconceptions and beliefs that clutter our perceptions of it.

Insight pertains more to the function of perception than to thinking. Thinking, of course, precedes insight and may proceed from it, but insight itself is distinguishable from thinking. The very same sense is conveyed by the original meaning of the English word “insight,” which is “to see into.”

III. Three Principal Insights: Transience

While there are an infinite number of possible insights into human existence, Buddhism focuses on three that pertain to the heart of our experience of reality. These are known as the three marks, or characteristics, of existence.

The three insights are transience or impermanence; not-self, or the “illusion and insubstantiality of the self”; and dukkha, a word that is usually translated as “suffering” but whose meaning is rich and deep.

Insight into these three qualities is regarded by Buddhists as essential to freedom and happiness. In addition, Buddhism argues that these qualities of our experience are interrelated and so to gain insight into one is to also see the other two.  

When the tradition insists that these three characteristics must be grasped by insight, we must bear in mind that these are not regarded as beliefs to which one gives assent, nor are they simply concepts to be grasped by the intellect. They are considered facts about the nature of existence that must be apprehended by direct personal experience.

Transience, or impermanence, is the name for the insight that is probably the easiest to understand. Everyone acknowledges that things change, but the mindfulness tradition contends that most of us fail to acknowledge the depth of change without qualification, and hence we live resisting the impermanence over which we have no control.

When it comes to the reality of change, we often look for ways to believe we are somehow exempt from it. Perhaps the chasm between what we believe to be true and how we live our lives can be explained by a lack of genuine insight.

We grasp the idea of impermanence conceptually, but impermanence has not yet grasped us in the way that insight makes possible—in the manner that revolutionizes our whole way of life.

Meditative practice makes it possible to sharpen perceptive attention to such a degree that one can have direct knowledge of the momentary arising and passing away of all reality. When viewed this way, any perception of stability or permanence is only apparent.

A deep, penetrating awareness of the world reveals that all things are concatenations of events happening so rapidly that they seem to be stable or changing only very slowly.

If you have a chance, spend a few moments outside and contemplate an ordinary tree—or simply imagine one. To the casual observer, a tree appears to be a more or less stable thing, but looking deeper, we can see it is a grand spectacle of ever-changing processes happening in swift succession at every level of its existence. From this perspective, a tree is not—and cannot be—the same from moment to moment.

Change is so far-reaching, so thoroughgoing, that ultimately we can say there are no “things” in the world at all. No item in our experience—no thought, feeling, or physical object—endures long enough from one moment to the next for us to say it is a “thing,” an entity that has its existence in space and time.

Our minds, conditioned as they are by our language, tend to reify or regard as concrete things, matters that are better understood as events or occurrences. The danger arises only when we forget that talking and thinking about “things” is a mere convenient contrivance. The true reality of the world of existence is something that cannot be easily captured by our thought and language—but it can be grasped by insight.

IV.   Important Things to Remember:

Not-knowing: A beginning practice that starts with an honest assessment of what one knows and what one really can know.

Vipassana: The Buddhist word for “insights” or “clear gazing,” these are unmistakable moments when a person sees things differently.

V.      Things to Consider:

  1. Choose a simple object, like a vase or chair, to look at. Take a moment to become mindful of your breathing. Then, place your attention on the object. Try to observe the object as clearly and as naïvely as possible without the usual overlay of conceptual thought. How does this approach differ from your usual manner of observation?
  2. Reflect on how much of what you think you know is based on belief and faith and how much is founded on personal experience.

(Also Read: Mindful Eating: Watching What You Eat)

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