Practical Vipassanā Meditation Exercises

Mahāsī Sayādaw,  Buddhasāsanānuggaha Association Rangoon

Practical Vipassanā Meditation Exercises


[The following is a talk by the Ven. Mahāsi Sayādaw Agga Mahā Pandita U Sobhana given to his disciples on their induction into Vipassanā Meditation at Sāsana Yeikthā Meditation Centre, Rangoon, Burma. It Was translated from the Burmese by U Nyi Nyi]


            The practice of Vipassanā or Insight Meditation is the effort made by the meditator to understand correctly the nature of the psycho-physical phenomena taking place in his own body. Physical phenomena are the things or objects which one clearly perceives around one. The whole of one’s body that one clearly perceives constitutes a group of material qualities (rūpa). Psychical or mental phenomena are acts of consciousness or awareness (nāma). These (nāma-rūpa) are clearly perceived to be happening whenever they are seen, heard, smelt, tasted, touched, or thought of. We must make ourselves aware of them by observing them and noting thus: ‘Seeing, seeing’, ‘hearing, hearing,’ ‘smelling smelling,’ ‘tasting, tasting,’ ‘touching, touching,’ or thinking, thinking.’


            Every time one sees, hears, smells, tastes, touches or thinks, on should make a note of the fact. But in the beginning of one’s practice, one cannot make a note of every one of these happenings. One should, therefore, begin with noting those happenings which are conspicuous and easily perceivable.


            With every act of breathing, the abdomen rises and falls, which movement is always evident. This is the material quality known as vāyo-dhātu (the element of motion). One should begin by noting this movement, which may be done by the mind intently observing the abdomen. You will find the abdomen rising when you breathe in, and falling when you breathe out. The rising should be noted mentally as ‘rising’, and the falling as ‘falling’. If the movement is not evident by just noting it mentally, keep touching the abdomen with the palm of your hand. Do not alter the manner of your breathing. Neither slow it down, nor make it faster. Do not breathe too vigorously, either. You will tire if you change the manner of your breathing. Breathe steadily as usual and note the rising and falling of the abdomen as they occur. Note it mentally, not verbally.


            In Vipassanā meditation, what you name or say doesn’t matter. What really matters is to know or perceive. While noting the rising of the abdomen, do so from the beginning to the end of the movement just as if you are seeing it with your eyes. Do the same with the falling movement. Note the rising movement in such a way that your awareness of it is concurrent with the movement itself. The movement and the mental awareness of it should coincide in the same way as a stone thrown hits the target. Similarly with the falling movement.


            Your mind may wander elsewhere while you are noting the abdominal movement. This must also be noted by mentally saying ‘wandering, wandering.’ When this has been noted once or twice, the mind stops wandering, in which case you go back to noting the rising and falling of the abdomen. If the mind reaches somewhere, note as ‘reaching, reaching.’ Then go back to the rising and falling of the abdomen. If you imagine meeting somebody, note as ‘meeting, meeting’. Then go back to the rising and falling. If you imagine meeting and talking to somebody, note as ‘talking, talking.’


            In short, whatever thought or reflection occurs should be noted. If you imagine, note as ‘imagining’. If you think, ‘thinking’. If you plan, ‘planning’. If you perceive, ‘perceiving’. If you reflect, ‘reflecting’. If you feel happy, ‘happy’. If you feel bored, ‘bored’. If you feel glad, ‘glad’. If you feel disheartened, ‘disheartened’. Noting all these acts of consciousness is called cittānupassanā.


            Because we fail to note these acts of consciousness, we tend to identify them with a person or individual. We tend to think that it is ‘I’ who is imagining, thinking, planning, knowing ( or perceiving). We think that there is a person who from childhood onwards has been living and thinking. Actually, no such person exists. There are instead only these continuing and successive acts of consciousness. That is why we have to note these acts of consciousness and know them for what they are. That is why we have to note each and every act of consciousness as it arises. When so noted, it tends to disappear. We then go back to noting the rising and falling of the abdomen.


            When you have sat meditating for long, sensations of stiffness and heat will arise in your body. These are to be noted carefully too. Similarly with sensations of pain and tiredness. All of these sensations are dukkha-vedanā (feeling of unsatisfactoriness) and noting them is vedanānupassanā. Failure or omission to note these sensations makes you think, “I am stiff, I am feeling hot, I am in pain. I was all right a moment ago. Now I am uneasy with these unpleasant sensations.” The identification of these sensations with the ego is mistaken. There is really no ‘I’ involved, only a succession of one new unpleasant sensation after another.


            It is just like a continuous succession of new electrical impulses that light up electric lamps. Every time unpleasant contacts are encountered in the body, unpleasant sensations arise one after another. These sensations should be carefully and intently noted, whether they are sensations of stiffness, of heat or of pain. In the beginning of the yogī’s meditation practice, these sensations may tend to increase and lead to a desire to change his posture. This desire should be noted, after which the yogī should go back to noting the sensations of stiffness, heat, etc.


            ’Patience leads to Nibbāna,’ as the saying goes. This saying is most relevant in meditation effort. One must be patient in meditation. If one shifts or changes one’s posture too often because one cannot be patient with the sensation of stiffness or heat that arises, samādhi (good concentration) cannot develop. If samādhi cannot develop, insight cannot result and there can be no attainment of magga (the path that leads to Nibbāna), phala (the fruit of that path) and Nibbāna. That is why patience is needed in meditation. It is patience mostly with unpleasant sensations in the body like stiffness, sensations of heat and pain, and other sensations that are hard to bear. One should not immediately give up one’s meditation on the appearance of such sensations and change one’s meditation posture. One should go on patiently, just noting as ‘stiffness, stiffness’ or ‘hot, hot’. Moderate sensations of these kinds will disappear if one goes on noting them patiently. When concentration is good and strong, even intense sensations tend to disappear. One then reverts to noting the rising and falling of the abdomen.


            One will of course have to change one’s posture if the sensations do not disappear even after one has noted them for a long time, and if on the other hand they become unbearable. One should then begin noting as ‘wishing to change, wishing to change.’ If the arm rises, note as ‘rising, rising.’ If it moves, note as ‘moving, moving’. This change should be made gently and noted as ‘rising, rising,’ ‘moving, moving’ and ‘touching, touching.’


            If the body sway’s, ‘swaying, swaying.’ If the foot rises, ‘rising, rising’. If it moves, ‘moving, moving.’ If it drops, ‘dropping, dropping.’ If there is no change, but only static rest, go back to noting the rising and falling of the abdomen. There must be no intermission in between, only contiguity between a preceding act of noting and a succeeding one, between a preceding samādhi (state of concentration) and a succeeding one, between a preceding act of intelligence and a succeeding one. Only then will there be successive and ascending stages of maturity in the yogī’s state of intelligence. Magga and Phala ñāna (knowledge of the path and its fruition) are attained only when there is this kind of gathering momentum. The meditative process is like that of producing fire by energetically and unremittingly rubbing two sticks of wood together so as to attain the necessary intensity of heat (when the flame arises).


            In the same way, the noting in Vipassanā meditation should be continual and unremitting, without any resting interval between acts of noting whatever phenomena may arise. For instance, if a sensation of itchiness intervenes and the yogī desires to scratch because it is hard to bear, both the sensation and the desire to get rid of it should be noted, without immediately getting rid of the sensation by scratching.


            If one goes on perseveringly noting thus, the itchiness generally disappears, in which case one reverts to noting the rising and falling of the abdomen. If the itchiness does not in fact disappear, one has of course to eliminate it by scratching. But first, the desire to do so should be noted. All the movements involved in the process of eliminating this sensation should be noted, especially the touching, pulling and pushing and scratching movements, with an eventual reversion to noting the rising and falling of the abdomen.


            Every time you make a change of posture, you begin with noting your intention or desire to make the change, and go on to noting every movement closely, such as rising from the sitting posture, raising the arm, moving and stretching it. You should make the change at the same time as noting the movements involved. As your body sways forward, note it. As you rise, the body becomes light and rises. Concentrating your mind on this, you should gently note as ‘rising, rising.’


            The yogī should behave as if he were a weak invalid. People in normal health rise easily and quickly or abruptly. Not so with feeble invalids, who do so slowly and gently. The same is the case with people suffering from ‘backache’ who rise gently lest the back hurt and cause pain.


            So also with meditating yogīs. They have to make their changes of posture gradually and gently; only then will mindfulness, concentration and insight be good. Begin therefore with gentle and gradual movements. When rising, the yogī must do so gently like an invalid, at the same time noting as ‘rising, rising.’ Not only this: though the eye sees, the yogī must act as if he does not see. Similarly when the ear hears. While meditating, the yogī’s concern is only to note. What he sees and hears are not his concern. So whatever strange or striking things he may see or hear, he must behave as if he does not see or hear them, merely noting carefully.


            When making bodily movements, the yogī should do so gradually as if he were a weak invalid, gently moving the arms and legs, bending or stretching them, bending down the head and bringing it up. All these movements should be made gently. When rising from the sitting posture, he should do so gradually, noting as ‘rising, rising.’ When straightening up and standing, note as ‘standing, standing.’ When looking here and there, note as ‘looking, seeing.’ When walking note the steps, whether they are taken with the right or the left foot. You must be aware of all the successive movements involved, from the raising of the foot to the dropping of it. Note each step taken, whether with the right foot or the left foot. This is the manner of noting when one walks fast.


            It will be enough if you note thus when walking fast and walking some distance. When walking slowly or doing the cankama walk (walking up and down), three movements should be noted in each step: when the foot is raised, when it is pushed forward, and when it is dropped. Begin with noting the raising and dropping movements. One must be properly aware of the raising of the foot. Similarly, when the foot is dropped, one should be properly aware of the ‘heavy’ falling of the foot.


            One must walk, noting as ‘raising, dropping’ with each step. This noting will become easier after about two days. Then go on to noting the three movements as described above, as ‘raising, pushing forward, dropping.’ In the beginning, it will suffice to note one or two movements only, thus ‘right step, left step’ when walking fast and ‘raising, dropping’ when walking slowly. If when walking thus, you want to sit down, note as ‘wanting to sit down, wanting to sit down.’ When actually sitting down, note concentrated the ‘heavy’ falling of your body.


            When you are seated, note the movements involved in arranging your legs and arms. When there are no such movements, but just a stillness (static rest) of the body, note the rising and falling of the abdomen. While noting thus and if stiffness of your limbs and sensation of heat in any part of your body arise, go on to note them. Then back to ‘rising, falling’. While noting thus and if a desire to lie down arises, note it and the movements of your legs and arms as you lie down. The raising of the arm, the moving of it, the resting of the elbow on the floor, the swaying of the body, the stretching of legs, the listing of the body as one slowly prepares to lie down, all these movements should be noted.


            To note as you lie down thus is important. In the course of this movement (that is, lying down), you can gain a distinctive knowledge (that is, magga-ñāna and phala-ñāna = the knowledge of the path and its fruition). When samādhi (concentration) and ñāna (insight ) are strong, the distinctive knowledge can come at any moment. It can come in a single ‘bend’ of the arm or in a single ‘stretch’ of the arm. Thus it was that the Venerable Ananda became an Arahat.


            The Ven. Ananda was trying strenuously to attain Arahatship overnight on the eve of the first Buddhist council. He was practising the whole night the form of Vipassanā meditation known as kāyagatāsati, noting his steps, right and left, raising, pushing forward and dropping of the feet; noting, happening by happening, the mental desire to walk and the physical movement involved in walking. Although this went on till it was nearly dawn, he had not yet succeeded in attaining Arahatship, Realising that he had practised the walking meditation to excess and that, in order to balance samādhi (concentration) and viriya (effort), he should practise meditation in the lying posture for a while, he entered his chamber. He sat on the couch and then lay himself down. While doing so and noting ‘lying, lying,’ he attained Arahatship in an instant.


            The Ven. Ananda was only a Sotāpanna (that is, a Stream-winner or one who has attained the first stage on the path to Nibbāna) before he thus lay himself down. From Sotāpanna, he continued to meditate and reached Sakadāgāmī (that is, the condition of the Once-returner or one who has attained the second stage on the path), Anāgāmī (that is, the state of the Non-returner or one who has attained the third stage on the path) and Arahatship (that is, the condition of the noble one who has attained the last stage on the path.) Reaching these three successive stages of the higher path took only a little while. Just think of this example of the Ven. Ananda’s attainment of Arahatship. Such attainment can come at any moment and need not take long.


            That is why the yogī should note with diligence all the time. He should not relax in his noting, thinking “this little lapse should not matter much.” All movements involved in lying down and arranging the arms and legs should be carefully and unremittingly noted. If there is no movement, but only stillness (of the body), go back to noting the rising and falling of the abdomen. Even when it is getting late and time for sleep, the yogī should not go to sleep yet, dropping his noting. A really serious and energetic yogī should practise mindfulness as if he were forgoing his sleep altogether. He should go on meditating till he falls asleep. If the meditation is good and has the upper hand, he will not fall asleep. If, on the other hand, drowsiness has the upper hand, he will fall asleep. When he feels sleepy, he should note as ‘sleepy, sleepy,’ if his eyelids droop, ‘drooping’; if they become heavy or leaden, ‘heavy’; if the eyes become smarting, ‘smarting’. Noting thus, the drowsiness may pass and the eyes become ‘clear’ again.


            The yogī should then note as ‘clear, clear’ and go on to note the rising and falling of the abdomen. However perseveringly the yogī may go on meditating, if real drowsiness intervenes, he does fall asleep. It is not difficult to fall asleep, in fact, it is easy. If you meditate in the lying posture, you gradually become drowsy and eventually fall asleep. That is why the beginner in meditation should not meditate too much in the lying posture. He should meditate much more in the sitting and walking postures of the body. But as it grows late and becomes time for sleep, he should meditate in the lying position, noting the rising and falling movements of the abdomen. He will then naturally (automatically) fall asleep.


            The time he is asleep is the resting time for the yogī. But for the really serious yogī, he should limit his sleeping time to about four hours. This is the ‘midnight time’ permitted by the Buddha. Four hours’ sleep is quite enough. If the beginner in meditation thinks that four hours’ sleep is not enough for health, he may extend it to five or six hours. Six hours’ sleep is clearly enough for health.


            When the yogī awakens, he should at once resume noting. The yogī who is really bent on attaining magga and phala ñāna, should rest from meditation effort only when he is asleep. At other times, in his waking moments, he should be noting continually and without rest. That is why, as soon as he awakens, he should note the awakening state of his mind as ‘awakening, awakening.’ If he cannot yet make himself aware of this, he should begin noting the rising and falling of the abdomen.


            If he intends to get up from bed, he should note as ‘intending to get up, intending to get up.’ He should then go on to note the changing movements he makes as be arranges his arms and legs. When he raises his head and rises, note as ‘rising, rising’. When he is seated, note as ‘sitting, sitting.’ If he makes any changing movements as he arranges his arms and legs, all of these movements should also be noted. If there are no such changes, but only a sitting quietly, he should revert to noting the rising and falling movements of the abdomen.


            One should also note when one washes one’s face and when one takes a bath. As the movements involved in these acts are rather quick, as many of them should be noted as possible. There are then acts of dressing, of tidying up the bed, of opening and closing the door; all these should also be noted as closely as possible.


            When the yogī has his meal and looks at the meal table, he should note as ‘looking, seeing, looking, seeing.’ When he extends his arm towards the food, touches it, collects and arranges it, handles it and brings it to the mouth, bends his head and puts the morsel of food into his mouth, drops his arm and raises his head again, all these movements should be duly noted.

(This way of noting is in accordance with the Burmese way of taking a meal. Those who use fork and spoon or chopsticks should note the movements in an appropriate manner.)


            When he chews the food, he should note as ‘chewing, chewing.’ When he comes to know the taste of the food, he should note as ‘knowing, knowing.’ As he relishes the food and swallows it, as the food goes down his throat, he should note all these happenings. This is how the yogī should note as he takes one morsel after another of his food. As he takes his soup, all the movements involved such as extending of the arm, handling of the spoon and scooping with it and so on, all these should be noted. To note thus at mealtime is rather difficult as there are so many things to observe and note. The beginning yogī is likely to miss several things which he should note, but he should resolve to note all. He cannot of course help it if he overlooks and misses some, but as his samādhi (concentration) becomes strong, he will be able to note closely all these happenings.


            Well, I have mentioned so many things for the yogī to note. But to summarize, there are only a few things to note. When walking fast, note as ‘right step, left step,’ and as ‘raising, dropping’ when walking slowly. When sitting quietly, just note the rising and falling of the abdomen. Note the same when you are lying, if there is nothing particular to note. While noting thus and if the mind wanders, note the acts of consciousness that arise. Then back to the rising and falling of the abdomen. Note also the sensations of stiffness, pain and ache, and itchiness as they arise. Then back to the rising and falling of the abdomen. Note also, as they arise, the bending and stretching and moving of the limbs, bending and raising of the head, swaying and straightening of the body. Then back to the rising and falling of the abdomen.


            As the yogī goes on noting thus, he will be able to note more and more of these happenings in the beginning, as his mind wanders here and there, the yogī may miss noting many things. But he should not be disheartened. Every beginner in meditation encounters the same difficulty, but as he becomes more practised, he becomes aware of every act of mind-wandering till eventually the mind does not wander any more. The mind is then riveted on the object of its attention, the act of mindfulness becoming almost simultaneous with the object of its attention such as the rising and falling of the abdomen. (In other words the rising of the abdomen becomes concurrent with the act of noting it, and similarly with the falling of the abdomen .)


            The physical object of attention and the mental act of noting are occurring as a pair. There is in this occurrence no person or individual involved, only this physical object of attention and the mental act of noting occurring as a pair. The yogī will in time actually and personally experience these occurrences. While noting the rising and falling of the abdomen he will come to distinguish the rising of the abdomen as physical phenomenon and the mental act of noting of it as psychical phenomenon; similarly with the falling of the abdomen. Thus the yogī will distinctly come to realise the simultaneous occurrence in pair of these psycho-physical phenomena.


            Thus, with every act of noting, the yogī will come to know for himself clearly that there are only this material quality which is the object of awareness or attention and the mental quality that makes a note of it. This discriminating knowledge is called nāma-rūpa pariccheda ñāna, the beginning of the vipassanā ñāna. It is important to gain this knowledge correctly. This will be succeeded, as the yogī goes on, by the knowledge that distinguishes between the cause and its effect, which knowledge is called paccaya-pariggaha ñāna.


            As the yogī goes on noting, he will see for himself that what arises passes away after a short while. Ordinary people assume that both the material and mental phenomena go on lasting throughout life, that is, from youth to adulthood. In fact, that is not so. There is no phenomenon that lasts for ever. All phenomena arise and pass away so rapidly that they do not last even for the twinkling of an eye. The yogī will come to know this for himself as he goes on noting. He will then become convinced of the impermanence of all such phenomena. Such conviction is called aniccānupassana ñāna.


            This knowledge will be succeeded by dukkhānupassanā ñāna, which realises that all this impermanence is suffering. The yogī is also likely to encounter all kinds of hardship in his body, which is just an aggregate of sufferings. This is also dukkhānupassanā ñāna. Next, the yogī will become convinced that all these psycho-physical phenomena are occurring of their own accord, following nobody’s will and subject to nobody’s control. They constitute no individual or ego entity. This realisation is anattānupassanā ñāna.


            When, as he goes on meditating, the yogī comes to realise firmly that all these phenomena are anicca, dukkha and anattā, he will attain Nibbāna. All the former Buddhas, Arahats and Aryas realised Nibbāna following this very path. All meditating yogīs should recognise that they themselves are now on this satipatthāna path, in fulfillment of their wish for attainment of magga ñāna (knowledge of the path), phala ñāna (knowledge of the fruition of the path) and Nibbāna-dhamma and following the ripening of their pāramī (perfection of virtue). They should feel glad at this and at the prospect of experiencing the noble kind of samādhi (tranquillity of mind brought about by concentration) and ñāna (supramundane knowledge or wisdom) experienced by the Buddhas, Arahats and Arya and which they themselves have never experienced before.


            It will not be long before they will experience for themselves the magga ñāna, phala ñāna and Nibbana-dhamma experienced by the Buddhas, Arahats and Aryas. As a matter of fact, these may be experienced in the space of a month or of twenty or fifteen days of the meditation practice. Those whose pāramī is exceptional may experience these dhammas even within seven days.


            The yogī should therefore rest content in the faith that he will attain these dhammas in the time specified above, that he will be freed of sakkāya-ditthi (ego-belief) and vicikicchā (doubt or uncertainty) and saved from the danger of rebirth in the nether worlds. He should go on with his meditation practice in this faith.


            May you all be able to practise meditation well and quickly attain that Nibbāna which the Buddhas, Arahats and Aryas have experienced!


            Sādhu (well done)! Sādhu! Sādhu! 

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