A First-Timer's Intro to Insight Meditation

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Anyone who knows me closely can attest that I’m not a particularly well-centered person. I’m prone to invasions of emotion, fits of anger, and sadness that dips into depression. I constantly fall victim to various vices and catch myself in seemingly endless bouts of self-consciousness and doubt.

Perhaps that’s why, when offered the opportunity to practice meditation and write about it, I didn’t shy away from the chance. Ariana Weisman, co-author of “The Beginner’s Guide to Insight Meditation,” agreed to help me along the way.

“One of the things that is universal about being human is that interest or searching that prompts us to learn something new and try it out,” Weisman tells BTRtoday. “I think that’s something every one of us shares, no matter where we were born or what body we’re in.”

Insight Meditation, or Vipassana, is a form of Buddhist meditation with a central focus on physical bodily sensations and mental events. Weisman has been teaching the method since 1988, and her gentle nature and mindfulness is evident as soon as she begins to speak.

Her own personal practice didn’t begin until her late twenties, when a friend offered to pay for her to attend a retreat. Being alone in nature guided her toward her spiritual journey, and she’s been a practitioner ever since.

Meditation has been clinically found to help reduce hyper-activity and worry, key aspects of depression and anxiety. Different forms of meditation have also been found to increase focus and decrease emotional reactivity, which in turn makes people more productive and open to new tasks.

A 2005 study linked Insight Meditation in particular to a greater thickness of the cerebral cortex, including the prefrontal cortex and right anterior insula, areas of the brain connected to attention, interception, and sensory processing. It even suggested that insight meditation “might offset age-related cortical thinning” in older practitioners.

With all that said, I didn’t enter into my experimental practice with the hopes of becoming a spiritual guide or of increasing my brain mass. I did, however, feel attracted to the idea of becoming more open, not only to experiences, but also to my emotions. A core aim of mindfulness practice is to identify emotions as they occur without allowing them to overtake you.

“It’s not that we’re divorcing ourselves from our feelings, but rather feeling them,” Weisman says. “Not repressing them, but also not believing their storylines, which are often negative and aren’t helpful or beneficial. It’s making that distinction, because the willingness to open ourselves is actually the willingness to feel our feelings.”

With that in mind, I decided to give it a shot, despite having no formal introduction to what I was doing outside of what I’ve read. I set myself up by first clearing a space on the floor in my bedroom. According to Weisman, you can practice Insight Meditation—or any form of meditation—while standing up, lying down, or even walking. But when I picture meditation, I picture someone sitting calmly in a lotus position, legs folded inward, and thought that would be the best way to go about it.

I figured the early morning would be best to start off, before any day-to-day business had the chance to get under my skin. I set a tentative goal to meditate for ten minutes, just to get a slight feel for it, and then to take it from there. I laid a sheet and pillow underneath me and took a seat.

Barely a minute into it, however, I found myself rustling around—adjusting my posture in response to a pang in my lower back, nudging in my seat to get rid of an itch on my leg. Suddenly, every minuscule sound seemed to pull at me, from passing cars to birds chirping outside my window.

I could feel the frustration quickly building up not only in my body, but also in my mind, a very visceral disdain toward my inability to sit and focus without distraction. Heavy and agitating though it felt, my frustration was perfectly normal. According to Vipassana, I was simply caught in a “hindrance.”

Insight Meditation identifies five hindrances—sensual desire or greed, ill-will or aversion, sloth and torpor, restlessness and anxiety, and doubt—and defines them as “major forces in the mind that hinder our ability to see clearly or become concentrated.”

Every person, at one point or another, has experienced each of the hindrances to varying degrees. It’s easy to allow them in—just think about the last time you put off doing laundry out of sheer procrastination, felt jealous of a friend, or even let your mind wander down a path of knowingly destructive thoughts.

The human penchant for distraction, especially surrounding hindrances, is precisely why Insight Meditation stresses physical stimuli as focal points of the practice. The idea is to concentrate on a particular body part—joints and fingertips worked best for me—or physical sensation—slight itches, pains, and muscle spasms—and simply feel it without inviting our natural behavior to act on it. The idea is not to judge the sensation, but to relate to how it feels, both mentally and physically.

This can prove difficult for beginners, of course, since most of us are conditioned to scratch our itches and relieve our pains. Weisman believes it’s partially our upbringing that makes it so easy to give into the smaller mind and let these sensations override and control us.

“We’ve been brought into a culture that often is based in the hindrances,” Weisman says. “In wanting and not wanting, in being depressed, in being moved by anxiety and restlessness. I feel like a lot of this culture has fed the wiring that every human being has to experience hindrances.”

A misconception about meditation is the necessity to clear your mind completely. It’s a misconception I certainly believed and bolstered, chalking past failed attempts at meditation up to the excuse that I just couldn’t get myself to a totally blank space. The actual importance lies in identifying when the mind begins to think and wander, and then working to bring it back to those original points of focus.

“There’s something about coming back into the moment through that connection with our experience that is profound,” Weisman says. “That is one of the most helpful things to do, and we can do that at any time, at any place in our lives, whether we’re washing dishes or walking to the bus stop.”

Sure enough, with that understanding, my practice began to improve. I was still distracted by sounds and the usual array of thoughts that enter my mind, but I found it easier and easier to bring myself back into focus. Pins and needles in a sleeping foot were no longer distracting, but liberating, in that they provided a clear focal point. My initial session lasted just a few minutes, but by the fourth I found myself able to sit cooly for ten minutes—if not in complete concentration, then in regular pursuit of it.

Soon after I reached that threshold, meditative focus began to creep into my daily routines. To my surprise, I started to prefer commuting without headphones in, concentrating more frequently on the feeling of each breath and the pressure of each step I took. I suddenly felt far more present during each moment I experienced—an immediately recognizable sensation given how often I’m tuned out to my surroundings, eyes dialed into my phone screen.

Everyone’s experience is different, and to be clear, I have a long, long way to go. I still frequently sit through sessions where my concentration level is minimal, my thoughts run amok, and frustration rides high. But perhaps the most refreshing characteristic of Insight Meditation is its emphasis on self-forgiveness and the importance of realizing our hindrances and accepting them.

Just as when we began learning to read or ride a bike, our early struggles may have felt too hard or even counterintuitive. It was through those struggles, however, that we gained a better understanding of what we were doing, and what we were capable of during the process.

“Just because meditating may be difficult at home or on a retreat does not mean that we are not on the right path,” Weisman says.