by Sayadaw U Vivekananda (head of Panditarama Lumbini International Vipassana Meditation Center)
The following are additional instructions on the sitting meditation, on formal walking meditation, general activities, interview, initial difficulties and a few words about balanced practice. These additional instructions emphasize certain points that have already been mentioned by the late Ven. Mahasi Sayadaw of Burma in his Basic meditation instructions.
Sitting Meditation Posture
A meditator should choose a sitting posture that he or she can maintain comfortably for a long period of time without having any postural pains. If one cannot sit in the full lotus posture, then one could try to sit in what is known as the half lotus posture; if this proves to be difficult, then one could try to sit in what is called the Burmese posture, namely placing one foot in front of the other, without the legs interlocking. Should you find it difficult to sit like this, then you might consider sitting on a bench or sitting on a chair, without leaning against the back rest. Keep your sitting posture as correct as possible, ideally ninety degrees to the ground.
- Hands. When sitting, place your hands either on the knees or between the knees, or place your hands on the lap; any posture of the hands is fine.
- Breathing. The breathing, as recommended by the late Ven. Mahasi Sayadaw of Burma, should be a natural breathing. Just let the breathing happen by itself, on occasion it will be faster, then just label it, observe it, know its nature. When on occasion the breathing slows down, it becomes more refined, then accept it as such and label it, observe it and know its nature as it is.
- Primary and Other Predominant Objects. The primary object of the meditation practice during the sitting meditation is the observation of the rising and the falling movements of the abdomen. As soon as the “rising” occurs, kindly label it and then try to observe it from start until finish and also try to know its nature. The same instruction then applies to the falling movement of the abdomen. So at its very beginning you briefly label it as “falling” and then you try to observe it from its very beginning through its middle until its very end; also try to know its nature in terms of the most predominant sensations or the type of movement. In regards of the observation of the “rising” and “falling” as well as other predominant objects, as we will see later on, there are three things to state, namely: the occurrence of the object, the labeling plus the observation of the object and knowing its nature. In terms of the occurrence of an object, there is not much that you have to do, this will happen by itself. The labeling does require some effort on your part: you note the object with the mental labeling, you observe it from start to finish and then the last aspect is to know the nature of the object. The general maxim for the observation of predominant objects is as follows, namely always label, observe and try to know the nature of the most predominant object occurring in the body or in the mind, starting with an observation of the rising and falling movement of the abdomen. An additional instruction here is for a meditator to always or at most times observe one object at a time and not trying to attain to observe two or three objects simultaneously.
While a meditator is observing the rising and falling movement of the abdomen or some other predominant object, it may happen that the mind wanders off, it’s thinking about something that has not happened yet, that might happen in the future or it might be remembering and living from the past. In this case, take the planning or the imagination as an object, label it accordingly, observe it trying to know its nature, and then return to the observation of the “rising” and “falling”. Likewise, when remembering is predominant, take this as an object, label it accordingly as “remembering, remembering” and then observe it and know its nature; once the memories or the remembering have disappeared then return to the observation of the rising and falling movement of the abdomen.
While you are observing the rising and falling movement of the abdomen, it may very well happen that a pain comes into the foreground of your observation, in which case let go of the observation of the “rising” and “falling” and focus your attention on this predominant pain, label it accordingly, and then try to observe it as best as you can without enacting to it and try to know its nature. When it comes to the observation of pains and aches and other predominant bodily sensations, there are four basic categories that you could pay attention to, namely:
- what kind of pain is arising,
- how is the pain behaving in terms of intensity,
- what is the pain doing in terms of location,
- how is the pain behaving in terms of duration.
To elaborate on this: a pain arises, try to observe this pain carefully and try to find out what kind of pain this is – there’s a great variety of pains around, it could be a stabbing pain, or a drilling pain, or a tearing pain, or a hard pain, or a cutting pain, or a burning pain and so on and so forth. Next, observe this pain carefully and try to find out whether the intensity of this pain is decreasing or increasing. On observing a pain, you might find that it arises in one spot and then it moves around, it spreads out over a larger area – in this case, pay attention to this – or it could happen that the pain arises, you observe it for a while and it disappears in the same spot. When it comes to the duration of the pain or ache or some other predominant object, the object might be moments, whatever it is, be aware of it. Once a pain has disappeared, return to the observation of the “rising” and “falling”. Now while you are observing a pain, try to do so with as much patience and acceptance as possible, try not to move your posture right away, change your posture only if a pain becomes excruciating. If you have to change your sitting posture, kindly try to do so slowly and mindfully.
Other Necessary Factors
Vital for the success in Vipassana meditation is the continuity of one’s mindfulness. Continuity of mindfulness means that one is trying to maintain mindfulness moment after moment, so that one moment of mindfulness is connected to the next moment of mindfulness.
Other factors that contribute to successful Vipassana meditation are:
- AIMING, in the Pali scriptural language known as vitakka . By aiming is meant that you focus your attention on to the centre of the object and you try not to overshoot the object or to miss the object in any way.
- RUBBING the object, in the Pali scriptural language known as vicara. By rubbing is meant that the observing and knowing mind is in close contact with the object and literally rubbing against the object.
- EFFORT, known as viriya. Now just the presence of aiming and rubbing will not be enough; you will also need effort, and it is the mental factor of effort that will propel the observing and knowing mind towards the object.
Only then in the presence of these three factors, namely aiming, rubbing and effort, can mindfulness arise and can one then properly observe an object and know its nature.
As for instructions on formal walking meditation, first of all we can say that the walking meditation is as important as the sitting meditation. One can deepen one’s wisdom both in the sitting meditation as well as in the walking meditation. As a result of this, beginning meditators are encouraged to spend an equal amount of time in walking meditation and sitting meditation. Now in the Mahasi tradition of Vipassana meditation, meditators are requested to alternate the sitting and the walking meditation, so to do one hour of sitting meditation then one hour of walking meditation. Or as a beginning meditator, one might not be able to sit for the full hour or one does maybe a bit less than this, like 45 minutes and then one would accordingly walk for 45 minutes and then again sit for 45 minutes and then again walk for 45 minutes. The Ven. Mahasi Sayadaw of Burma gives instructions on three forms of formal walking meditation:
- The first one is to be mindful when the left leg moves and to label this as “left step” or “left” and when the right leg moves one labels and observes this as “right step”. This form of walking meditation could be done slightly faster even though it is still slower than ordinary walking.
- The second form of walking meditation consists in dividing one step into two parts, namely the lifting of the foot and then the lowering including the placing of the foot. When the lifting takes place, one labels this as “lifting”, and then one tries to observe the entire lifting process in terms of sensations, in terms of movements, etc. from its very beginning to its end. When the lowering takes place, one briefly labels this as “lowering” and then again one observes the entire process from start to finish and one tries to know the nature of the different sensations or the movements involved in the process of placing the foot on the ground. This second form of walking meditation will be done already slower than the first one.
- When it comes to the third form of walking meditation, we divide one step into three parts; so we have the lifting process, we then have the process when the foot moves forward and finally we have the lowering including the placing of the foot on the ground. The first and the last parts, namely the “lifting” and the “placing” are as already described; new is only the forward movement of the foot. This at the very beginning, we label briefly as “forward movement” or as “advancing” and then we try to observe this “forward movement” as best as we can from its very start through the middle until its ending. This third form of walking meditation is done even slower than the other two forms.
To briefly demonstrate a walking meditation:
- try to keep your body as upright as possible,
- place your hands either behind the back or in front of the body,
- focus your eyes on a spot maybe 3 to 4 meters in front of you,
- try to control your senses and try not to look around unnecessarily; if you have to look around, then do so mindfully labeling the intention to look and then mindfully observing an object,
- choose a path that is something between 5 to 10 meters long and choose a path that will not crisscross with other meditators’ walking meditation.
- As for the first form of walking meditation, as the left leg moves, we label this as “left step” and we try to observe the most predominant sensations in the leg, wherever the most predominant sensation occurs in the leg, so this could be in the foot, this could also be in the knee or it could be in the thigh or wherever else. Now as the right leg moves we label this as “right step” and again we try to observe the most predominant sensations occurring in the right leg. So “left step”, “right step”, “left step”, “right step”. When you come to the end of the path and you’re standing, take the standing itself as an object, label this as “standing”, observe it as best as you can and then try to know the nature of the standing posture. Now when turning and the intention to turn is predominant, take this as an object, label it accordingly as “intending to turn”, then observe and carry out the turning process; label this as “turning, turning” and again “turning, turning”. When you’re standing again, take this again as an object, label it as “standing, standing”, observe it carefully and try to know the most predominant sensations occurring in the foot or in the leg or other parts of the body.
- For the second form of walking meditation, label the lifting process as the foot moves up and then carefully observe the different sensations that are involved in lifting the foot such as release of pressure in the heel, stretching of the muscles in the sole, the foot, and then maybe some tension, hardness in the toes of the foot. Also pay close attention to the predominant sensations as the foot is moving upward. When you are just about to lower the foot, take this itself as an object, label it accordingly, as “lowering” and then carefully observe the entire lowering process from start to finish, this will include the placing of the foot on the ground and when the foot first touches the ground, try to know the most predominant sensations such as maybe sensation of roughness or sensation of smoothness, sensation of hardness or softness, of heat or cold and of pressure, the pressure might even be increasing. As the other foot comes up, label this as “lifting”, observe it carefully, and know its nature. When you’re placing the foot, label this as “placing”, observe it from start to finish and try to know the nature of the object. As you come to the end of the path and you’re standing, then kindly take the standing itself as an object of observation, label this accordingly, observe it, know its nature.
When you’re turning, be aware of the intention to turn if it is predominant – if it’s not predominant there is no need to label this – and then label and be aware of the actual physical process of turning the body. We do this: “intending to turn” and then “turning, turning, turning, turning” and then again label as “standing, standing”.
With regards to the second and third forms of walking meditation, make sure that you don’t take long steps because if you were to do so, then it may easily happen that while you’re placing one foot on the ground, the other foot would already come off the ground and with this the mind no longer knows which object to observe and it might have to quickly go back and forth between one foot and the other; so choose short steps.
3. Now as for the third type of walking meditation: we do it as slowly as we can and we divide one step into three parts, namely “lifting”, “moving” and “lowering” including the placing of the foot on the ground. So to demonstrate this: “lifting” — and while we are lifting, we are trying to know all the predominant sensations that are occurring — then at the beginning of the forward movement, we label this as “moving” and then we observe the different sensations occurring such as a certain swaying of the foot, such as maybe losing one’s balance, and there might also be some heaviness in the foot or lightness or sometimes meditators say there is no particular sensation at all. Also when you observe the forward movement, check very carefully whether this is one continuous movement or not, it may happen that on occasion the forward movement is somewhat like hindered, in this case be aware of it and report accordingly. Now when lowering, placing the foot on the ground, label this as “lowering”. To demonstrate this we say: “lifting, moving, lowering (placing)”, and again “lifting, moving, lowering”. There is a maximum of work at walking meditation, namely the slower you do your walking meditation, the more progress you will have in terms of the unfolding of wisdom. Slowing down, one’s walking meditation will help a meditator to clearly see all the many physical and mental processes involved.
General Activities and Mindfulness
Mindfulness should be present and should be applied from the time we wake up in the morning until the time we fall asleep. Mindfulness during general activities includes being mindful of simple activities such as the opening and closing of one’s eyes, taking off one’s shoes and placing them somewhere and later on putting one’s shoes back on, etc. Included in mindfulness of general activities is the process of taking food, taking breakfast, taking lunch and while one is taking the juice in the evening. Mindfulness should also be applied during the very everyday activities such as using the bathroom, brushing one’s teeth, taking a shower, and the like. Just like for the formal walking meditation, restraint of the senses as well as slowing down one’s activities is of utmost importance. So when you do something, try to do so without unnecessarily looking around knowing that this would otherwise hinder your development of concentration. All the general activities you’re trying to perform must be done as slowly as possible in really paying close attention to every little detail.
- The interview process starts already with your sitting or walking meditation. After a good sitting meditation or a walking session, feel free to write down your experiences, this is recommended for all those who do not have a perfect memory.
- When coming for an interview, make sure that you are ready for it, that you are already present, and that you are waiting so to speak in line in order to save some time. Otherwise if the teacher has to go and search for one, some precious time gets wasted.
- When getting in the interview area, try to be as mindful as possible! The way a meditator comes to the interview already reflects to some extent where a meditator’s practice is at, whether the meditator is practicing in a devoted way or not.
- While you give your report, try to be short to the point and try to adhere to the standards applied to in modern sciences namely such as perseverance, accuracy and precision.
- When giving your report, mention the occurrence of the object, whether you labeled the object or not and how, and then what you’ve come to know about the nature of the object.
- Of course time is limited during interviews; therefore report those parts only of your best sitting and your best walking meditations within the last twenty four hour period. Should you quite not know what your best sitting and what your best walking meditations were then choose that sitting or that walking session that best reflects your meditation practice.
- When giving your report, try to do so by using simple language and not employing any Pali technical expressions.
- Try not to report from imagination but rather simply state what actually occurred.
- Another point to pay attention to is not to evaluate your own practice; this is the duty or the task of the meditation teacher.
- When you give your report, it might happen that you get a bit nervous; there is no need for this, simply consider the teacher as your friend who is there to help you with your meditation practice.
Usually, the fact that you have to give a report during an interview has a galvanizing effect on your meditation practice and on top of this you will gain the benefit of receiving some valuable advice.
During the beginning of the retreat, meditators are likely to face the following difficulties: sloth & torpor, wandering mind, pains & aches, difficulties to follow the schedule and a certain discouragement.
- When it comes to sloth and torpor, one needs to work with this or needs to be mindful of it, one needs to boost one’s effort and again and again try to overcome it; sooner or later it will subside.
- In the case of wandering mind, meditators again with much patience should be mindful of the wandering mind as quickly as possible, and then label it, observe it and know its nature. If the wandering mind disappears by itself, then go back to the observation of the “rising” and “falling”; if not, observe the wandering mind for a little longer and then if it does not stop, just let go of it and then go back to the observation of the “rising” and “falling” of the abdomen. Important is not to get attached to, nor to identify with the content of these thoughts. Wandering mind is just another mental phenomenon, one out of so many mental phenomena.
- In the course of the meditation practice, meditators are bound to come across all sorts of pains and aches and these need to be observed with much patience, acceptance, determination and detachment. A pain is not necessarily something to despair over but rather it could be seen as a way of strengthening one’s concentration while working and observing it.
- Beginning meditators may have a hard time to follow the schedule, to sit for the full session (three quarters or an hour) and to do the walking session for the full session. Keep in mind that in the course of the meditation practice, a certain gradual development will take place and that even if you cannot sit for the full session at the beginning of a retreat, know that your body will adjust gradually until it becomes possible. Even though you may not be able to do the full hour of a walking session at the beginning, gradually however you will develop the strength and the ability to do so.
- In the presence of sloth & torpor, wandering mind, pains & aches and finding it difficult to follow the schedule, naturally a certain discouragement might arise. In this case, just take the discouragement itself as an object of observation, label it, observe it in a detached manner and know its nature. Sooner or later this mental phenomenon like all others will disappear.
Recommendations for a Balanced Practice
- Drink enough.
- Some retreatants eat very little or eat less and less or they even are fasting! Intensive Vipassana meditation requires that a retreatant eats a moderate amount of food to provide the body with nutrition and strength.
- Some retreatants allow to be constipated for three or more days; deal with constipation soon by taking natural laxatives or by doing exercises that induce a bowel movement.
- In the course of an intensive meditation retreat, the need for night sleep will fluctuate, sometimes lessening, sometimes increasing; it is not recommended to deliberately deprive oneself of sleep or to practice willfully through the whole night.
- Some retreatants push through excruciating levels of pain! Should a pain become excruciating, feel free to change the sitting posture slowly and mindfully!
- Some retreatants wrongly assume that thoughts should not arise during Vipassana meditation. This is a wrong assumption. Instead, thoughts should be included as objects of observation.
- To some new retreatants, it may seem very difficult to sit for the full hour. Sit according to your ability! Over time, the body will loosen up and this will permit you to extend the length of a sitting to one hour.
- Some retreatants unnecessarily put excessive pressure on themselves by entertaining high expectations in terms of attaining the Dhamma or by competing with fellow meditators. This is counterproductive. Instead take an expectation or a thought of competition as an object of observation, label it, observe it and know its nature!
- Some retreatants try to exercise complete control over unwanted states of mind, which of course is not realistic. Try to observe unwanted states of mind with an allowing or accepting attitude of mind.
- Some retreatants push the mind beyond its limits into states of extreme fear, worry, guilt, self-judgment and the like. Keep your practice balanced! Should you be experiencing extreme levels of fear, depression, anxiety, elation, hyper-activity, inform the teacher without delay! In general, try to observe objects with a calm, detached relaxed yet alert attitude of mind.
In the course of Vipassana meditation, many different experiences may take place. Each person will experience meditation in a slightly different way. It is important not to develop any expectations as to the way the practice should unfold based on previous theoretical knowledge, others’ experience or one’s own former practice. The whole range of human experiences can come up during one’s meditation and any object, no matter what it is, is a great field for observation and provides an opportunity to learn and gain wisdom. Have confidence in the teacher and in yourself! At times, the practice gets difficult but with a balanced mind and with the help and guidance of the teacher as well as the volunteers at the centre you can find the correct way to keep practicing. We are here to support you in any and every way and any time you need help, especially when facing difficulties. Do not hesitate to ask for help or advice if you feel you are incapable of dealing with whatever is arising in your practice. Be patient and try not to judge yourself, others or the method! Do your best, practice wholeheartedly with balanced effort and let the practice unfold naturally! Be honest, sincere, accurate and frank in your reports to the teacher! Do not conceal or try to please your teacher, just report whatever you experience, whether clear or unclear! Be honest in your behavior! Keep the precepts and roles of the centre; they are there for your benefit and development in your meditation practice! If practiced correctly, this method can give great benefits. Use the opportunity you have to practice with care and respect to gain true inner freedom, through the gradual development of purity of mind. With this, one learns to be at ease in all areas of life.
International Vipassana Meditation Center
Lumbini Garden, Rupandehi District, Nepal
Transcription 2008, Jacqueline Picou
(This text has been slightly adapted – 3 minor changes – to retreats in the Netherlands.)