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Shambhala Sun | July 2014


Insight Meditation: Present, Open & Aware

EMILY HORN on how to discover the peace and awakening in every moment

We all long for deeper connection with ourselves and others, less stress, and a better understanding of what is really happening in our lives. Through the practice of Vipassana, or Insight Meditation, we find that peace and awakening are found right here in the present.

Insight Meditation is a way to hack the mind and heart, to reboot how we interface with the world. We see our old programs and habits and, through kindness and dedication, they unwind. We open to what is happening in each moment and discover how we prevent life from being fluid and flexible.

We sit and we notice where our attention lands. What catches it? Where does it cling? Is there grasping? We learn to direct our attention, moving it toward and away from objects. This kind of focus brings insight into how we shut down the flow of experience and cause ourselves suffering. We learn to open to greater freedom.

For me, questioning started at a young age. I grew up in the South, where people packed churches and listened to Bible stories. As I watched the news and saw the wars of the world, I began to question the distance between people’s values and their actions. These painful human divisions didn’t make sense to me.

This kicked off a journey to find freedom beyond the conditioned walls of ignorance. What I have found is that peace and awakening are not found in some other place, or an imaginary better world. They are found only in the present.

Mindfulness became my gateway to an unending process of discovery. What is this mind and heart? How can I live a life worth living? My life became a fertile ground for investigation, acceptance, and discovery.

Becoming open to experience isn’t always easy. Sometimes we face unpleasant aspects of our body and mind. But this too is insight, and when we approach our difficulties with kind attention, they lose their power over us. It all comes down to the simple act of returning to the breath and the body, and then using our embodied presence to notice what is happening right now. Certainly it can be difficult, but reminding ourselves that we are on a path that has been trusted and traveled for more than 2,600 years can help.

We all struggle: with sickness, raising children, aging parents, death of loved ones, and violent boundary violations. But in each moment we can call on our ability as human beings to open, even when it doesn’t feel pleasant.

I remember crying while listening to Insight teacher Trudy Goodman explain to a woman who had just lost her husband that we sit again and again in the crucible of meditation. We sit for ourselves, for those we love, and for the next time we venture into the depths. She told the students, “Don’t worry that you will miss out. If you aren’t in the crucible now, you will be. Let’s practice now so that we can open even amidst the storms.”

I remember being on a meditation retreat and falling into a pit of despair and frustration. Memories flashed from my past, my body burned, and I just wanted to get out of, fix, and change my experience.

I asked my teacher, Jack Kornfield, if the bombardment of unpleasantness ever stopped. He smiled big with love and care. “Relax and you will know,” he said.

It can be counterintuitive to relax when there is chaos. Yet learning to recognize, accept, investigate, and not identify with our experience—think of the mnemonic device “RAIN”—helps free us from the false realities our thoughts, emotions, and body sensations create. We usually feel that our experience is solid and will never change, but with insight it all breaks down into a million different aspects. We open so that all experience is a flowing stream, and when debris floats by, it is held with loving, non-judgmental, mindful awareness.

The Buddha taught that we free ourselves from our stormy struggles by noticing their causes and by understanding the patterns of our mind, or programming. We are able to recognize which parts are useful and which are hindering us from freely experiencing the ebb and flow of life. Let’s call this “mind hacking,” because mindfulness gives us the ability to reprogram the inner operating system and become more fluid in our identity.

As you practice Insight Meditation, you’ll become more comfortable with this continual shifting of identity, and you’ll come to trust the unfolding of life itself. It provides the soil for a deep joy and connection in both solitude and in relationship. With mindfulness you can extend your inward learning and begin to deeply love the whole network of humanity. Here’s how to get started.


How to Practice Insight Meditation

You can practice Insight Meditation in a number of situations. You can practice in a quiet place in your home, in your car, or even during a break at work. You may want to surround yourself with objects that remind you of the sacred quality of life, perhaps a flower or candles. Allow the space to be uniquely yours.

Begin by taking a meditation posture either in a chair or on a meditation cushion. Allowing your posture to be upright and stable, take a few deep breaths in and out, exhaling fully and inhaling fully.

As your breath becomes simple and natural, allow your sitting bones to fall toward the earth and your spine to straighten toward the sky. Feel the weight of your body and the space it takes up. Soften your attention by relaxing into the posture and allowing a simple smile to appear on your face.

Now direct your attention to the natural rhythm of your breath, noticing the sensations as you breathe in and out. Notice the space between your inhalations and exhalations. You may make a gentle mental note: in with the in-breath and out with the out-breath. Allow the multitude of sensations to arise and pass around the breath.

When you notice your attention wandering, gently bring it back to the breath. It takes time to be able to stay with the breath for very long. It is like going to the gym: with practice, your “attention muscles” will become stronger and you will be able to see more and more clearly what is happening in your experience.

To deepen attention, notice if the breath is warm, cool, hot, slow, or fast. Is it tingling, stuffy, gentle? Investigate what is happening. Usually we take this mysterious process of breathing for granted. Use it to become present.

When thoughts come, acknowledge them gently and return to the breath. Stepping outside the story, we can begin to non-identify and simply be with what’s happening. One moment at a time, gradually open to the whole range of sensations and the flow of life.

As you become more present using the breath, ask yourself, what else is happening right now? Allow the experience to be as it is without pushing it away, grasping toward it, or numbing out. Become gracious, accepting, fully present, and wise. This is the art of mindfulness.

Focusing on the movement of the breath softens our identification with the stories we tell ourselves so we can simply be with what’s happening. With gentleness and insight, your sense of freedom grows and you open to the flow of life.

From the July 2014 Shambhala Sun magazine. To see what else is in this issue, click here.

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