Insight Meditation Workshop
by Ven. Pannyavaro
An Overview of the Practice
It is necessary to appreciate the nature of ‘practice’ as applied to meditation because it could mistakenly be taken to imply the notion of control. This is far from the case, as the meditator needs to have a flowing receptivity to the experience without in any way controlling it. Discipline in the meditation context can be misunderstood as imposing one’s will to control the practice. Actually, it is no more than following the directions and persistently applying the instructions with sensitivity. So correct practice is repeated performance to develop skills, without controlling or interfering with the experience. It’s developmental – the way to growth!
An important consideration for the meditator at the beginning of the practice is to notice how you are relating to your experience or what your attitude to it is. If it happens to be reactive or judgmental then it is necessary to change the way you relate to things, situations or people, by cultivating qualities of acceptance, empathy and that of ‘letting go’. Being more accepting and allowing, without the struggle to gain something, creates a natural meditative state that facilitates the practice.
Three-Fold Strategy of Practice
To successfully self-manage and adjust your practice it is necessary to take a holistic approach and to work within a supportive structure. Such a system is found in the “Three-fold Strategy of Practice”, which is a complete and integrated system supportive of the psychological well-being of the practitioner:
(a) Restraint of behaviour in order to harmonise relationships;
(b) Recollectedness, especially regarding developing the meditative art of ‘focusing’;
(c) Discernment which upon maturity, is the wisdom that sees the true nature of mind and existence.
Restraint and Harmony
Traditionally there are five rules of conduct formally undertaken, or are here implicitly accepted, as the prerequisite for meditation. They are the foundations that good practice is based on, without them good concentration cannot be attained. These restraints need to be considered and accepted, as they act as protectors for your well-being on the meditation path: 1) refraining from harming or taking life; 2) from taking what is not given; 3) from the misuse of the senses; 4) from false and harsh speech; and 5) the taking of intoxicants which confuse the mind. This is the ethical underpinning of the threefold system. But they are not to be considered as mere ‘no-nos’ as they are balanced by the cultivation of positive behaviour: honesty, generosity, kindness, etc.
The Meditation Skills
The quality of recollectedness or full awareness is acquired through the development and the managing of three meditation skills: Right Effort, Right Attention and Right Concentration. Effort is right in the sense of arousing, sustaining and balancing the effort; meditative attention is right when there is close and impartial attention to the various meditation objects as they arise; concentration is right when it centres upon and intensifies the meditative focus. Too much effort makes the mind restless; not enough makes the mind slack; too much concentration restricts the awareness, not enough and the mind loses its focus; but there can never be too much attentiveness, as the acuity of attention is the factor which will deepen the practice. The successful managing of these meditation skills will produce mindfulness or presence of mind, the prerequisite for a finely tuned discernment.
Discernment and Insight
Discernment is the intelligence that uncovers the true nature of things by seeing through the ‘content’ mind to the underlying processes. This presupposes a non-reactive awareness with a perfectly attuned attitude and a penetrative attentiveness that has the potential to see ‘what really is’. The outcome of such practice is direct ‘experiential’ knowledge of the three universal characteristics of existence: change, unsatisfactoriness and impersonal process which culminates in a series of insights freeing one’s ‘view’ from the distortions caused by ignorance.
Three-fold Strategy and Mental Impurities
Mental impurities are said to be present in three stratified layers in the mind: 1) dormant 2) manifest and 3) expressed. These impurities, or the three poisons of greed, hatred and ignorance, can be dealt with in three ways: first their expression can be restrained by harmonising one’s behaviour; secondly, when they manifest in the mind, for example as angry thoughts, then they can be skilfully suppressed through concentration practices in serenity meditation; eventually when they are seen at their primary source or dormant level then they can be eradicated through insight meditation.
Here’s an example of how the three-fold strategy is used to deal with our most troublesome negative emotion – anger: first restraining your behaviour in a situation where anger arises by not giving it a chance to be expressed; as soon as anger surfaces in the mind as negative thoughts then a serenity meditation technique will calm the anger in the mind. But it is only through insight meditation where the ego-illusion is seen at its primary source, as the notion of ‘me’ and ‘mine’, can the anger at the dormant level be seen with the possibility of eradicated it at its source.
Understanding the Two Modes of Meditation
It is important at the beginning of this course for you to thoroughly understand the two types of meditation. Because it will contribute to your ability to adjust and manage your own evolving practice, especially if you do not have the guidance of a personal teacher.
There are two types of meditation: ‘Calm’ and ‘Insight’. Calming or serenity meditations use techniques of ‘fixing’ on a single object, excluding all secondary objects to produce calm and one-pointedness. Examples are techniques using visualisation, following the respiration, mantras and contemplation. The second meditation mode is practices that develop awareness. That is, paying close attention to the predominant object in your physical and mental experience with moment-to-moment awareness. The result of this meditative attention will lead to insight knowledge.
The ability to manage yourself in meditation depends on making appropriate adjustments or ‘fine tuning’ during a practice session. This ability is based on understanding these two modes of meditation: for example, if you become strained or tense during insight meditation, switching to the serenity meditation mode will calm and relax the mind; or if you became stuck in a becalmed mind-state in serenity meditation, you can invigorate the mind with an awareness exercise to give it an investigative edge.
For your meditation practise to be skilful and therefore successful it needs to be based on understanding and applying the ground plan of the three-fold strategy of practice.