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Meditation Instructions on Retreats

By Gil Fronsdal

Central to a meditation retreat are the meditation instructions the teachers provide. The instructions are treasures, based on the cumulative meditation experience of many people, ultimately traced back to the meditation practice of the Buddha. They are taught as means to calm our agitation, understand our minds, heal our wounds, improve the quality of our inner life, and allow us to be the beneficiaries of liberating insights. They are treasures that create inner wealth.

At the same time, no meditation instructions are the true and unadulterated instructions as given by the Buddha. While the surviving teachings of the Buddha provide effective instruction and teachings about meditation, they are broad strokes requiring clarification and details.  In addition, his instructions need to be applied and adapted to ever new cultural settings and personal circumstances.  In this way, meditation instructions are cultural constructs providing important suggestions for exploration, experimentation, and evaluation of one’s own meditation practice. The longer a person practices a particular meditation instruction, the more the meditation practice is modified to better fit the person. It’s somewhat similar to walking in new shoes: the more we walk, the more they gradually wear in to better conform to our feet.

There are many styles or techniques for Vipassana (insight) meditation, each with very different instructions (see sidebar appended at end of article). Regardless of the type of Vipassana instruction offered, one of its most important functions is to help us understand our minds. In a sense, the instructions are mirrors for us to notice what works and doesn’t work to help us settle into our meditation. For example, in attempting to follow particular instructions we can learn about what makes it difficult to do so. We might learn about such tendencies as getting swept up in distracting thoughts or in resistance, doubt, expectations, perfectionism, impatience, or any number of emotions.  Learning about these tendencies provides an opportunity to become wise about them, both in terms of our attitudes toward them and in ways of overcoming them.

Noticing how we practice with instructions is also a way to learn how to fine tune the different faculties of mind that are involved in meditation. For example, we can learn how to find the ever-changing balance between effort and relaxation, focus and open receptivity, determination and allowing, mindfulness and concentration, as well as between an embodied sensing of present moment experience versus a clear recognition of what is happening in the present.

When we are not successful at fulfilling the explicit or implied purposes of any given meditation instruction—e.g., to become concentrated, calm, mindful, insightful, or to experience some degree of letting go—the instruction is nevertheless successful if we have learned more about ourselves, and perhaps thereby become wiser with how to navigate our inner landscape. In this way, even “failing” with the instructions may mature us along the path of practice. Sometimes people discover more about inner freedom by “failing” meditation than by “succeeding.”

Meditators have many purposes for doing meditation.  Having a good understanding of the particular purpose we have when we meditate is useful, because then we can adjust the instructions to better fit our purpose. Aiming at developing a kinder attitude in doing mindfulness may require a different approach than aiming to develop concentration.  Using mindfulness to be present with difficult emotions may be different than using mindfulness to rest in the experience of breathing.  The skills needed to practice with distracting thoughts may be different than those for practicing with physical pain.  While the ultimate purpose of meditation may be spiritual liberation, more immediate purposes may be necessary first.

Regardless of our purpose and the approach for practicing mindfulness meditation, it is recommended that we keep it simple. The Indian Vipassana teacher Munindra-ji often said, “If it is not simple, it is not Vipassana.” Learning how to have clear, present moment awareness that retains a simplicity of being is a skill learned through practice.  When confronted with what initially appears to be complicated instructions, the task is to discover how to practice them in a simple, unhurried manner, maybe focusing on a particular aspect of the instruction.

In doing insight meditation, it can be useful to have available, in the back of the mind, a pithy statement describing an essence of the instruction.  This may help us to stay close to the simple awareness practice that is at the heart of Vipassana. One such statement is, “Be still and gaze upon everything kindly.” Another might be, “Trust awareness of what is, not changing what is.” Or perhaps, “Abide conscious rather than self-conscious.”

Over the decades of teaching Vipassana in the West, the Western Insight teachers developed a somewhat standard set of instructions that are a “middle way” that works well as foundational instructions for a wide variety of people and a wide range of personal circumstances. They are the basis for realizing the full potential of Insight practice as well as a great support for doing other forms of meditation.  These basic instructions sit in the middle of the many different ways the instruction can be modified. One person may be instructed to do the practice with more effort while another may be told to apply less effort.  One person may be advised to do the practice together with acceptance of whatever is happening; another person may receive the recommendation to be less accepting of distracting thoughts, to let go of them as soon as possible. Someone who is disconnected from their body may be instructed to focus on the mindfulness of the body; someone with a lot of body awareness may benefit from bringing greater attention to the mind.  And at different times in one individual’s practice life, one or another of those modifications might be useful. On retreat, ideas for how to modify the instructions can be one of the topics for discussion in meetings with the teachers.

Generally, two forms of meditation instructions are provided on retreats.  The first is for seated meditation, the other is for walking meditation.  Occasionally, eating instructions are also given at the start of a retreat.  The rest of this article focuses on in instruction for seated meditation.

The standard Insight Meditation retreat instructions for seated meditation are given progressively over the retreat, with each morning’s instruction building and expanding on the previous instruction.  The entire set of instructions could be given all at once, as they were by Mahasi Sayadaw in Burma.  However, that is a lot to remember and can give the impression that the practice is complicated. Also, simple instruction on the first day often works well for the initial settling into a retreat, as people sometimes arrive on a retreat with agitated and complicated minds. For this reason, instructions on the first full day of an Insight retreat focus on nothing more complicated than letting go of thoughts and returning to simple mindfulness of breathing. Keeping the practice this simple can calm the mind and help with letting go of distracting thoughts. Trusting that this is all that is needed can be important for not succumbing to any  sense of urgency that may accompany distracting concerns.

By the second day, when meditators begin to be more settled in the present, the instruction focuses on mindfulness of the body.  Careful mindfulness of the body can be difficult on the first day if there are lots of distracting thoughts or compelling emotions. Providing instructions on mindfulness of emotions or thinking on the second day could easily lead to more thinking.  Because the body, in and of itself, is not a thought, simple mindfulness of the body can help with the quieting of thinking.

On the third day, the instructions expand to include mindfulness of emotions.  This follows the instruction on mindfulness of the body because it is much easier to be mindful of emotions if we know how to be aware of present-moment physical sensations. By focusing on the physical expression of an emotion, meditators may find it easier to avoid being pulled into any stories or commentary related to the emotions.  Mindfulness of emotions through mindfulness of the body is a way to be present with emotions in a simple way.

On the fourth day, the instruction focuses on mindfulness of thinking.  If the thinking has become less insistent at this point of the retreat, it can be easier to observe thoughts without being pulled into them. It may be possible to metaphorically step back to watch the thinking rather than being involved with the thinking.  This then allows for fuller understanding of different aspects of thinking, e.g., their emotional component, the energetic and compulsive force that are part of their power to distract, or the interest and fascination that we may have with particular thoughts. By the fourth day it may be possible to learn how to be mindful of thinking so the mind becomes quieter rather than more full of thoughts.

Through these first four days of instruction, breathing remains the default focus of attention if nothing else is more predominant. Mindfulness is only turned toward other physical sensations, emotions or thinking when these become compelling. By otherwise returning over and over to the breathing, breathing becomes a stabilizing influence in one’s meditation practice which cultivates both concentration and mindfulness.

For seven-day retreats, the standard instruction may end on the fourth day as different teachers may have different emphases for day five and six. Fairly common is instruction in choiceless awareness or open awareness forms of mindfulness where there is intentional “anchor” for attention, i.e. a central focus such as breathing that we return to when nothing else is predominant. Rather, mindfulness remains receptive to whatever physical, emotional or mental experiences arise in perception.

Another instruction on the last days of a retreat might be to notice the quality or attitude present in how one is aware, perhaps with an emphasis on keeping awareness relaxed, receptive, and free of attachments.
At IRC, the instructions are offered as a means for retreatants to have a personal experience of Buddhist teachings, insights, and liberations.  While having such experiences can be the goals of the practice, it is usually best to engage in the moment-to-moment practice of mindfulness without any active concern about attaining them. The focus can be to use the basic instruction as a means to abide in a clear awareness of one’s immediate, direct experience. Rather than trying to attain particular states of meditation, we first develop a clear, stable, equanimous, non-reactive awareness of ourselves and our experience as it unfolds in the present. Equanimous awareness of one’s direct experience in the present opens the door to experiencing the Buddhist teachings, insights, and liberations.

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Sidebar:  Many strains influence today’s Insight practice
One can get a sense of the great range of different forms of Vipassana meditation in Jack Kornfield’s book Living Dharma: Teachings and Meditation Instructions from Twelve Theravada Masters which describes the meditation teachings of some of the great Thai and Burmese meditation masters of the twentieth century. Particularly important for the Western Insight Meditation movement, which includes the Insight Meditation Society, Spirit Rock, the Insight Retreat Center and others, is the Vipassana practice taught by the Burmese meditation master Mahasi Sayadaw (1904-1982). To a great extent, the Mahasi style meditation approach has been the basis for both the Buddhist Insight and secular mindfulness movements.  The Mahasi instruction lends itself to secular uses, partly because it is relatively easy to present it without any recourse to classic Buddhist teachings.

It was the Mahasi practice that Joseph Goldstein, Sharon Salzberg, and Jack Kornfield began teaching in the United States in the mid 1970’s. Over time, these teachers and the teachers they trained made changes to the basic Mahasi instruction.Some of these changes were to better meet the needs of Western practitioners. Some were inspired by a variety of influences from inside and outside of Theravada Buddhism such as from Ajahn Chah, Krishnamurti, Gestalt therapy, Advaita Vedanta, the Tibetan Buddhist practice of Dzogchen, the concentration practices of the Theravada nun Ayya Khema, the Burmese teacher Pa Auk Sayadaw, as well as the awareness practices of Zen and of the Burmese teacher U Tejaniya Sayadaw. Insight teachers vary in which of these and other influences have shaped the instruction they offer. What is offered also varies based on the emphasis of the particular teachings and purposes the instructions are supporting.