Practice Guides March 1, 2021

What is Insight Meditation?

Sean Oakes

The world can be a stressful place. While everyone seems to want happiness and peace, most of us do many things that make our lives more stressful rather than less, and lasting satisfaction can seem like an impossible fantasy.

2600 years ago in India, a young person named Siddhattha Gotama sought for lasting peace, and when he found it, began to be called the Buddha, or “awakened one.” Many streams of practice have branched out from the Buddha’s original teaching, called "Dharma," (Pāli: Dhamma) bringing comfort and freedom of heart to countless seekers. Our branch of this great tradition is called Insight Meditation and is the origin of mindfulness practice, a style of meditation and attention training that has revolutionized wellness and spiritual practice throughout the world.

In this practice guide, you’ll find an overview of Insight Meditation, with free talks, meditations, and articles from our Library of Dharma teachings. Everything on this page is chosen to introduce you to mindfulness and meditation, and give you a sense of how we practice. For those with more experience in the Insight tradition, Deepening on the Path collects more in-depth teachings and meditations.

Mindfulness & Meditation

Mindfulness is a practice of embodiment, presence, and investigation of our direct experience. So much of our stress comes from distraction, reactivity, and not seeing clearly what’s happening in the moment. With mindfulness, we become more aware of life moment-to-moment, feeling sensations, emotions, and thoughts as they come and go. This simple training helps the heart loosen its grip on constantly changing experience, and allows a new spaciousness and perspective to arise.

Mindfulness is a quality that we can cultivate in every activity we do, and in the Buddhist tradition is the heart of both meditation and practice in ordinary life. As a formal training, it is laid out in a system of meditations and contemplations known as the four foundations of mindfulness. Meditation is a specific exercise in mindfulness, calm, and focus that we practice in stillness and simple forms of movement, like walking. Meditation is commonly practiced sitting, but can also be done lying down or standing. Any posture that supports stillness and steadiness can work for meditation. Walking meditation is also a powerful form of meditation and is a core part of our practice on retreat.

Mindfulness Basics

Mindfulness is a quality of attention we can bring to any situation. Meditation in stillness is one way to develop this quality, inviting attention to settle and focus in the present moment.

Working with Posture & Breath

As we learn to meditate, we encounter the body, with all its pleasures and pains, and the breath coming and going. Awareness of body and breath is at the heart of mindfulness practice, and starts with posture and how we invite the body toward stillness.

Lovingkindness: The Heart Practices

While mindfulness teaches us to be present, lovingkindness, or mettā, teaches us how to meet ourselves and others with friendliness and tolerance. These inner qualities are said to be like the two wings of a bird, together lifting up and opening the heart and mind.

Mettā, literally “friendliness” but also translated “lovingkindness,” is the first of four heart practices known as brahmavihāra, or divine abodes. It is the root from which the other three—compassion, sympathetic joy, and equanimity—grow. These four beautiful states, along with the supporting qualities of forgiveness and gratitude, grow together with mindfulness and wisdom as we deepen in practice.