The 3 stages of Insight Meditation

Filed under mystical • Tagged: Meditation, Awakening, Vipassana

A few days ago, I found myself on the train and full of coffee. I did what I often do and started doodling: about meditation, awakening and how I would teach the progress of insight to others.

This resulted in 30 minutes of furious scribbling that I’d thought I’d share and explain a little.

Pedagogy of awakening
Pedagogy of awakening

In short, there are three waypoints on the journey:

  1. Learning to ground
  2. Learning to see clearly
  3. Just sitting

1) Learning to ground

Learning to ground relates to what we generally call mindfulness. It is a way of engaging with appearances (the content of your mind), accepting them and building your ability to concentrate. It’s a practical way of cultivating conscious presence.

Learning to ground is where we all start. We are largely lost in thought, carried along by appearance and what is right in front of us.

…their eyes merely glide over the surface of things and see “forms.” Their senses nowhere lead to truth; on the contrary, they are content to receive stimuli and, as it were, to engage in a groping game on the backs of things.
— Friedrich Nietzsche, On Truth and Lies in a Nonmoral Sense

Yet there is a sense of another way of being; an intuition of something better. We meet people who don’t seem so bossed around by their thoughts. Who seem rooted in something deeper. And so we ‘train’. We get pragmatic.

We turn to the body and breath as anchors. They are simple ways of getting us into the present (as if we could ever be away from it!). Through this process, we come to see thought as thought.

This is an important realisation. It means that thought is no longer self-evident truth. It means that whatever “I” am, I can apparently sit and watch any thought arise and pass, out of my control. This provides the initial space for the initiate to grow; the fleeting moments of silence required to go deeper.

We see how we habitually fight our experience. We struggle against pain and grasp at pleasure. It’s everywhere.

And we learn that, sometimes, we can just give up the fight: to accept things as they are and to simply return when we get lost. This brings peace and a deeper sense of well-being.

2) Learning to see clearly

This leads us into stage 2: seeing clearly. Here we move from acceptance and mindfulness of the body into insight. Vipassana. We are now exploring something more fundamental to the nature of experience.

Instead of just training the mind to pacify mind-chatter, we are now seeing through the whole show. Seeing how all objects are “empty”—lacking independent existence. How all things are conditioned and dependently arising. Arising out of my control, passing out of my control. Anything that arises and passes out of my control cannot be me, mine or self.

We gain a deeper appreciation of the issue: that we take the body and mind to be all that we are. That we take a small part of what is known to be who we are. It is an issue of partiality, of crafting an identity from one part of who you are.

That is not to deny the reality of any of these identities and objects, but rather to say that they do not fully define you. As we cultivate presence, we come to know the medium that they all exist within: being, presence, awareness.

Yet, we will continue to reify and misidentify. Awareness might then be taken to be something fixed and final. This is another stepping stone.

We see past, future and even present as part of this same conditioning process, part of this upswelling of being. We see again and again that we can loosen our grip. Our circumstances might not change, but our relationship to them can shift significantly.

The second stage can also be about “unfindability.” We are seeing through, penetrating, and yet there is no new essence or ground to be found. Wherever we look, there is a lack of essence, and yet a fullness of something else we cannot quite grasp.

To recap, the first stage was about dealing with papañca (a wonderful term that means “mental proliferation”). If we can just turn the volume down we can then begin to see things more clearly. We establish a base, a foundation.

The second stage is more radical: a seeing through, an understanding that is independent of concentration or really anything that is happening in the mind.

This can result in a movement towards the unconditional. A sense of tuning into something profound and sometimes effortless. If things are empty, if things are conditioned, if I am not just that, then this must already be the case! This can be a powerful contemplation if done correctly.

3) Just Sitting

The third stage is just sitting, or ideal practice. If stage one was grounding, and stage two seeing clearly, then stage three is a realisation, a remembering.

If the first two stages were about cultivating some realisation, about getting somewhere, then the third stage turns that on its head.

It is not practical. It is not instrumental. It is the realisation that the truth is already the case. That regardless of our journey in wisdom, we are already participating in our highest nature. There is no way to stop or change that. You are already home.

There is no ‘getting’ to this. This would imply some break in reality or some way in which one part of reality (you) can mould itself to see another part clearly. The understanding that arises at this stage makes all of that entirely redundant.

The third stage represents the understanding that at its most fundamental level, reality is not practical. We can all set goals and achieve them. We can can strive and achieve. We can train and get strong.

But at the deepest level, there is an unshakeable, unconditional unity. A perfect continuity that is unstained by any action. It does not deny or denigrate anything conditional. Everything that is practical, everything about existence and our day-to-day reality participates in this larger sphere. It includes yet transcends all of that.

It is the insight that there is nowhere to go, nowhere else to be, truly nothing apart from this to get to, and no way that reality could ever be other than this.

It is a fruition of the understanding implicit in the second stage, with the key distinction that this kind of insight is already a given, already the case. That whatever we say about ultimate reality, we are already participating in it and always have been.

When we ‘practice’ in the third stage, we are just sitting. There is not a problem to fix, not something that can be missed, no qualities to cultivate. Your participation in that which is complete and fulfilled is already guaranteed; you’ve won before you’ve started.

It is not someplace far away: ‘where’ does not apply. It is not a cosmic identity: ‘who’ is not relevant. It is not a new you: it is a remembering of what you have always been.

When should we practice each stage? Generally, everyone starts at stage 1. Building concentration, cultivating mindfulness, seeing thoughts as thoughts. This is what gives us the space to begin insight practice: seeing through things. Contemplating the nature of all things that arise in body and mind.

There is no ‘way’ to stage 3. It is not on the same map or any map. It is something that can be recognised and lived from at any moment. In practice, most of us still need to work away in the first 2 stages so that this realisation is allowed to find us, to strike at the opportune time.

When we have a sense of all 3 ways of practising, we can reverse them. If it makes sense to just sit, then you do that. Otherwise step down to stage 2: seeing clearly. Insight into reality. If that is difficult, or you are too distracted, then stage 1 is appropriate. A re-grounding, a basic acceptance of something that we are perhaps fighting without knowing it. 90% of your problems are here.

Stage 1 is not “lesser” than 2, and 2 is not inferior to 3. They are one continuum. And working well in stage 1 naturally leads you into stage 2, and sincerity and consistency in 1 and 2 make it much more likely that you will arrive at an understanding of 3.

Wherever you are practising, you are on a conveyor belt to higher and deeper realisations. You are already participating in the Good, the True and the Beautiful.

There is much to be said about cultivating presence and growing in wisdom, but it is not the full story if we do not also recognise that whatever reality it is we aspire to, we are already participating in it, right now, in its unending scope and unfathomable mystery.

Your growth is not dependent on the right meditation technique: it is guaranteed by virtue of your very participation in the unity of reality. Because you are anything at all, you are already an integral part of everything.

—Dan Bartlett
12 Dec 2018

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