Articles August 1, 2022

Introduction to Insight Meditation

Jack Kornfield, Gil Fronsdal

Insight Meditation is at the heart of the teachings and practice at Spirit Rock. Its purpose is to strengthen mindfulness (sati), our capacity to experience "things as they are" directly, without the filter of discursive thinking, evaluation or habitual reactivity. It consists of bringing a natural and clear attention to whatever occurs in the present moment. Some traditional definitions of mindfulness include "wakefulness of mind," "lucidity of mind," "alertness" and "undistracted attention." Oftentimes Insight Meditation is referred to as Mindfulness Meditation.

As we learn to be alertly and calmly present with our meditation, a deeper intimacy with ourselves and with the world will arise. As we cultivate our ability to remain mindful without interfering, judging, avoiding or clinging to our direct experience, wellsprings of insight and wisdom have a chance to surface. At some point, we joyfully realize that our unobstructed awareness of this very moment is our freedom. Delightfully, mindfulness becomes both the means and the end of insight practice.

Some Benefits of Meditation

  • Obtain quiet or inner peace

  • Have a respite from the pace of daily life

  • Collect and unify the mind

  • Clear the mind of emotional turmoil

  • Feel and experience the truth of “the way things are” for yourself

  • Learn loving-kindness and compassion for yourself and others

  • Understand and learn how to practice forgiveness

Insight Meditation Instructions

Insight Meditation is a simple technique which has been adapted from the vipassanā tradition that has been practiced in Asia for more than 2,600 years. Beginning with the focusing of attention on the breath, the practice concentrates and calms the mind. It allows us to see through the mind's conditioning and thereby to be more fully present in the moment.

To begin, select a quiet time and place. Be seated on a cushion or chair, taking an erect yet relaxed posture. Let yourself sit upright with the quiet dignity of a king or a queen. Close your eyes gently and begin by bringing a full, present attention to whatever you feel within you and around you. Let your mind be spacious and your heart be kind and soft.

As you sit, feel the sensations of your body. Then notice what sounds and feelings, thoughts and expectations are present. Allow them all to come and go, to rise and fall like the waves of the ocean. Be aware of the waves and rest seated in the midst of them. Allow yourself to become more and more still.

In the center of all these waves, feel your breathing, your life-breath. Let your attention feel the in-and-out breathing wherever you notice it, as coolness or tingling in the nose or throat, as a rising and falling of your chest or abdomen. Relax and softly rest your attention on each breath, feeling the movement in a steady, easy way. Let the breath breathe itself in any rhythm, long or short, soft or deep. As you feel each breath, concentrate and settle into its movement. Let all other sounds and sensations, thoughts and feelings continue to come and go like waves in the background.

After a few breaths, your attention may be carried away by one of the waves of thoughts or memories, by body sensations or sounds. Whenever you notice you have been carried away for a time, acknowledge the wave that has done so by softly giving it a name such as “planning,” “remembering,” “itching,” “restlessness.” Then let it pass and gently return to the breath. Some waves will take a long time to pass, others will be short. Certain thoughts or feelings will be painful, others will be pleasurable. Whatever they are, let them be.

At some sittings, you will be able to return to your breath easily. At times in your meditation, you will mostly be aware of body sensations or of plans or thoughts. Either way is fine. No matter what you experience, be aware of it, let it come and go, and rest at ease in the midst of it all. After you have sat for 20 or 30 minutes in this way, open your eyes and look around you before you get up. Then as you move try to allow the same spirit of awareness to go with you into the activities of your day.

The art of meditation is simple but not always easy. It thrives on practice and a kind and spacious heart. If you do this simple practice of sitting and awareness every day, you will gradually grow in centeredness and understanding.

(Adapted from Buddha’s Little Instruction Book by Jack Kornfield, Bantam, 1994.)

Introduction to Lovingkindness (Mettā) Meditation

The Buddha also taught the practice of mettā, or lovingkindness. At Spirit Rock mindfulness is often taught together with lovingkindness. Most simply, mettā is the heartfelt wish for the well-being of oneself and others; it is the innate friendliness of an open heart. Mettā practice is the cultivation and strengthening of that capacity. It is closely related to the softening of the heart that allows us to feel empathy with the happiness and sorrow of the world.

The practices of mindfulness and lovingkindness support one another. Lovingkindness complements mindfulness by encouraging an attitude of friendliness toward our experience, regardless of how difficult it may be. Mindfulness complements lovingkindness by guarding it from becoming partial or sentimental. Lovingkindness can guide us in our relationships with others; mindfulness helps keep us balanced in those relationships.

Lovingkindness Meditation Instructions

Sit in a comfortable and relaxed manner, letting go of any concerns or preoccupations. For a few minutes, feel or imagine the breath moving through the center of your chest in the area of your heart.

Mettā is first practiced toward ourselves, since we often find it difficult to love others without first loving ourselves. So sitting quietly, repeat the following (or similar) phrases slowly and steadily:

May I be happy

May I be well

May I be safe

May I be peaceful and at ease

While you say these phrases, allow yourself to sink into the intentions they express. Lovingkindness meditation consists primarily of connecting to the intention of wishing ourselves or others happiness. However, if feelings of warmth, friendliness, or love arise in the body or mind, connect to them, allowing them to grow as you repeat the phrases.

After a short period of directing lovingkindness toward yourself, bring to mind a friend or someone in your life who has deeply cared for you. Then repeat phrases of lovingkindness toward them:

May you be happy

May you be well

May you be safe

May you be peaceful and at ease

As you say these phrases, again sink into their intention or heartfelt meaning. And if any feelings of lovingkindness arise, connect the feelings with the phrases so that the feelings may become stronger as you repeat the words.

As you continue the meditation, bring to mind other friends, neighbors, acquaintances, strangers, animals, and even people with whom you have difficulty.

Sometimes during lovingkindness meditation, seemingly opposite feelings such as anger, grief, or sadness may arise. Take these to be signs that your heart is softening, revealing what is held there. You can either shift to Insight Meditation practice, or you can with whatever patience, acceptance, and kindness you can have for such feelings, direct lovingkindness towards them. Above all, remember it is not necessary to judge yourself for having these feelings.

As you become familiar with lovingkindness practice during meditation, you can also begin to use it in your daily life. While in your car, at work or in public, privately practice metta toward those around you. It can be a great delight to establish a heartfelt connection to all those we encounter, friends and strangers alike.

(Adapted from Voices from Spirit Rock, edited by Gil Fronsdal with Nancy Van House.)