to the Practice of
by Matthew Flickstein
Insight Meditation is an
introspective process through which we gain insight into
the true nature of our experience. A consistent practice
allows us to penetrate the deeper layers of delusion and
to develop greater levels of spiritual clarity.
To practice insight meditation,
sit on either a cushion placed on top of a mat or on a
straight-back chair. Your posture is straight but
relaxed. Your left hand is palm up and placed in your
lap with your right hand, also palm up, on top of the
left. (The reverse of this hand position is also
Make a commitment to remain
still during the entire meditation period. You want to
focus your attention in order to penetrate the reality
of your moment-to-moment experience. Therefore, you need
to keep your mind steady and free from unnecessary
distractions. Your mind becomes disturbed every time you
move your body.
- Your mouth is closed and you
are breathing through your nose.
- Feel the touch sensation of
your breath as it flows in and out of your nostrils at
the tip of your nose. Some people feel the touch more
strongly within the nostrils, while others feel it more
strongly on the upper lip.
- Feel the beginning, the
middle, and the end of every in-breath, and the
beginning, the middle, and the end of every out-breath.
- Sometimes the breath will be
short – there is no need to make it longer. Sometimes
the breath will be long – there is no need to make it
shorter. Sometimes the breath will be erratic – there
is no need to even it out.
- Just become aware of the
breath as it goes in and out of the nostrils at the tip
of the nose.
- Let the breath breathe itself.
- Notice the impermanent and
changing nature of each breath.
- As you focus on the breath,
notice that from time to time your attention shifts to
other experiences or new objects of awareness. This is
not a problem.
- Whenever your attention shifts
to an object other than the breath, merely become aware
of the impermanent and changing nature of that object.
Then, gently but firmly, bring your attention back to
the touch sensation of the breath.
While the path to spiritual
liberation is clearly marked for us, it is a long and
difficult journey. In spite of determined efforts to
cultivate and sustain our meditation practice, it is not
uncommon to reach a meaningful plateau in our spiritual
understanding, but feel unable to make further progress.
At such times, it is helpful to explore the reasons why
our practice might be blocked. We will discuss nine of
the more common possibilities.
#1 Unresolved Psychological
To develop spiritual clarity,
we need to observe how the mind ceaselessly changes
according to specific causes and conditions. If we have
unresolved psychological issues, we tend to identify
with the mind's story line and are unable to observe how
the mind truly functions as an ongoing process. The four
primary psychological issues that tend to keep us locked
into the content level of the mind are: anger or
resentment; unresolved grief; communication
incompletions; and fear.
Anger or resentment over what
has happened to us in the past is one of the most
serious impediments to spiritual growth. We may feel
justified in feeling resentment because of abuses we
have experienced, but our anger only creates inner
turmoil, unskillful behaviors and future circumstances
that will prevent further spiritual development.
When we have unresolved grief,
we continue to react emotionally whenever the memory of
a particular loss enters our mind. We may still be
grieving over the loss of a person, a possession, or a
specific opportunity. Our unresolved grief keeps us
focused on the past and unable to see things as they are
in the present moment.
A communication incompletion is
the lack of honesty or full disclosure in our
significant relationships. It prevents a deep sense of
trust and intimacy from arising and creates agitation
and confusion in our minds.
Fear of the future is actually
not fear of the unknown, but fear of the loss of the
known. This fear causes the mind to consider time and
again how our decisions may be putting at risk those
things to which we are attached. It prevents us from
being open to the truth that unfolds in each new moment.
#2 Attempting to Resolve our
Problems While Meditating
The process of insight
meditation involves watching the body, feelings, mind
and mental objects rise and fall from moment to moment
in order to realize their impermanent and selfless
nature. If we attempt to solve our problems while
sitting for meditation, we will not recognize the true
characteristics of experience. We will only generate
psychological insights, which may be personally
valuable, but will not help us to achieve spiritual
#3 Not Living an Ethical
If we are not adhering to the
precepts and are engaging in unskillful actions, speech
or thoughts, we may experience guilt or remorse when we
meditate. These unpleasant feelings will prevent us from
concentrating our mind, and will act as an impediment to
the arising of insight.
#4 Denial of Death
If we ask ourselves the
question, "Will I die?" the answer will
certainly be "Yes." However, the subtext of
that answer is typically, "But not for a while
yet!" A typical consequence of not acknowledging
the potential immediacy of our death is to postpone
spending extended periods of time on retreats where
circumstances are most conducive to deep practice and
#5 Focusing our Attention on
No matter how much reading we
do, if we have not personally experienced what we have
read, the information gained will not lead to
liberation. Beliefs will never provide a true sense of
security when circumstances become difficult, due to
unexpected and unwelcome changes. In the same way that
reading a menu will not satiate our hunger, reading
spiritual material will not quench our spiritual
One of the main purposes of
concentration is to suppress the mental hindrances.
Suppressing the hindrances enables the mind to focus on
its own processes, which leads to the recognition of the
true nature of experience. If we have not reached a
sufficient level of concentration, in which the mind is
stable and steady, our spiritual development will be
#7 Actively Searching for
A significant impediment to
spiritual clarity is believing that the mind can
intentionally generate insights if it tries hard enough
to do so. It is the mind that wants to know something
beyond its conceptual grasp that acts as the barrier to
seeing things more clearly. Whether the mind is
attempting to recreate a prior spiritual experience, or
trying to achieve an experience it has heard about, the
activity of the mind becomes self-defeating. As we
simply develop the causes and conditions that will
remove the obscurations to wisdom, insights will
spontaneously arise on their own.
#8 Not Developing a
Relationship with a Teacher
The Buddha became enlightened
through his own efforts at a time when the path to
spiritual liberation had been forgotten.
Self-enlightenment is one of the unique attributes of a
Buddha. The rest of us need the guidance of a teacher to
illuminate the path and to keep us moving in the right
direction. A teacher can also serves as a model of
inner-peace, selfless action, and boundless love,
showing what is possible for us to attain.
Our Commitment is not Focused on Spiritual Liberation
There are many reasons why
individuals begin to meditate: to manage their stress;
to satisfy their intellectual curiosity; to open their
hearts; and so forth. It is important to realize that
our intentions are directly related to the level and
quality of our achievements. Therefore, focusing our
efforts on the ultimate goal of liberation is essential
to its attainment. It is also important to remember that
the possibility of spiritual liberation is present at
each moment and that nothing is actually
"gained" when it is achieved.
Intention is also referred to
as earnestness. In this discussion, it means the sincere
desire to realize ultimate truth. Having true
earnestness will help us to overcome any or all of the
impediments to spiritual development, and will draw to
us the optimum causes and conditions for spiritual
Matthew Flickstein. All Rights Reserved.
Flickstein is the resident teacher at the Forest Way
Insight Meditation Center. He has been practicing and
teaching Vipassana meditation for over twenty-three
years. His primary teacher has been Bhante Henepola
Gunaratana, a Buddhist monk for over fifty-seven years
and author of the highly regarded book, Mindfulness
in Plain English. Matthew has also studied with
other teachers, including Achan Sobin Namto and Eido
At one time, Matthew was
ordained as a monk in the Theravada Buddhist
tradition. In 1984, he co-founded the Bhavana Society
Meditation Center in West Virginia with Bhante
Gunaratana. Before developing the Forest Way Insight
Meditation Center, Matthew was a psychotherapist and
facilitated personal development workshops.
Matthew’s first book, Journey
to the Center: A Meditation Workbook, was
published by Wisdom in 1998. His new book, Swallowing
the River Ganges: A Practice Guide to the Path of
Purification, will be released by Wisdom
Publications in January 2001.