In vipassana practice, we are not borrowing understanding, but refinding it, discovering it within us. Vipassana emphasizes our own realization. Some people find it surprising to encounter a spiritual tradition where no one is telling you the truth. But in vipassana the truth emerges from our own efforts and awareness. Through the process of discovery we liberate ourselves. I sometimes imagine that if, without any other teachings, we were were given vipassana meditation instructions, and we proceeded to practice in depth, we would, completely on our own, formulate the Four Noble Truths.
While studying with my first meditation teacher, S. N. Goenka, I learned the difference between intellectual mastery and the wisdom that comes from practice. Before I went to India, I had read a little about Buddhism in college and I had even written papers on dependent origination, particularly on the linkage of contact, feeling and craving. When I began to sit with Goenka, he explained how contact at the six sense doors produces sensations that are experienced as either pleasant, unpleasant, or neutral. Right at that moment of contact, he told us, depending on how we react, we are either bound or we are free. If we react with craving, aversion or ignorance, we are bound. If we respond with equanimity, then we are free.
When I would hear Goenka talk about this linkage, I would think, “That’s really wonderful.” But I wasn’t bringing this understanding to my own sitting, to my own contact, feeling and craving. As I sat, I became convinced that my knee pain was getting in the way of my enlightenment. So I would fantasize, “I’ll go to a yoga ashram in South India and stretch out my body so that I can sit without any knee pain. Then I’ll be able to get enlightened!”
It wasn’t until I had practiced for a long time that I realized that what Goenka was talking about and what the Buddha had been talking about—in the linkage of contact, feeling, and craving—was my knee pain. The knee pain was a real experience, happening in the moment, and I was experiencing it as unpleasant and then reacting in a way that was keeping me bound. Instead, in that moment, I could have been responding in a way that allowed me to be free. So to practice is to bring knowledge to our own life experience and turn it into wisdom.
One of the main functions of a teacher is to remind us to include everything in our field of mindfulness. When I first began to practice I knew I was supposed to be cultivating an open and nonreactive awareness, but I had drawn a line. I was continually saying, “Okay, this is an acceptable meditation experience and everything else lies outside the boundaries of this practice.” Unfortunately, ninety-nine percent of my experience was lying outside of my idealized view of what meditation should include.
My teachers continue to remind me to include everything. Recently I have noticed a craving in my practice to attain a certain meditative experience or to prolong a meditative state. During a retreat I attended a few years ago, Tibetan master Nyoshul Khenpo summarized what he had gathered from his interviews with the meditators present: “There’s a lot of longing, a lot of craving going on here.” Then he said, “The teachings of the great Tibetan master Longchenpa were to rest the mind in repose, not in craving.” I recognized that there were indeed a lot of cobwebs of craving in my mind. Khenpo told us to include that subtle craving in our field of awareness, thus pointing us towards experiencing much more freedom than we were at that time.
For me, meditation practice feels like taking a very deep rest. Instead of being compelled to do all the things we ordinarily feel compelled to do—reacting or having strategies, interpreting or judging—we can just rest. We can leave things alone and just see what happens. Meditation offers us profound peace.
Vipassana is a simple and direct practice, and yet it has layer upon layer of sublety. When I first started to practice, I said to myself that I would do this until I really understand it. Twenty-five years later I’m still doing it. So I will say the same thing now; I’ll do this practice until I really understand it.
Metta and Vipassana
Along with vipassana, in recent years I have been practicing and teaching lovingkindness or metta. The two practices are wonderful complements.
In vipassana practice, we become aware of our ever-changing experiences, without adding to what is going on through our reactions and projections. In metta practice, we direct lovingkindness toward ourselves and then, in a sequence of expansion, towards somebody we love already, somebody we are neutral towards, somebody we have difficulty with, and ultimately toward all beings everywhere without distinction.
The main difference between metta and vipassana is that metta is a concentration practice, while vipassana is an insight practice. This is a functional difference. If you’re doing mindfulness practice, there is no such thing as a distraction. You pay attention to whatever arises in your awareness and make that an object of meditation. There is no sense of preferring one experience over another, since each experience is seen as having the same ultimate nature. Each is characterized by impermanence (anicca), unsatisfactoriness (dukhka) and having no separate existence (anatta). You can see these characteristics by looking at either pleasure or pain.
In contrast to vipassana, in metta practice you are not focusing on the ultimate nature of phenomena. Furthermore, you are choosing a particular object of meditation, which is the metta phrase, such as, “May I be happy” or “May I be peaceful.” You hold the phrase in your heart just the way you’d hold something fragile and precious in your hand. As you cherish each phrase, distractions inevitably arise. Your head starts itching or your knee starts hurting or you start thinking about the phone call you didn’t make. When you get distracted, you drop the distractions as quickly as possible and come back to the phrase, the chosen object of meditation. Choosing a particular object to stay focused on makes metta a concentration practice. When some other experience arises you don’t explore it, note it, or try to see its changing nature.
Nonetheless, I still call metta “a sneaky wisdom practice,” because people often have enormous insight doing metta. Since it is a concentration practice and you have a chosen object of meditation, you keep shepherding your attention back to that object, which means that you are letting go again and again of everything else that comes up in your awareness. That moment of letting go is very instructive, because it shows you where you are holding on. The only way you can let go with grace and ease is when you begin to understand that the distraction, whatever it may be, has the characteristics of anicca, dukkha and annata. You then don’t have to fight or fear it. In the moment of letting go—without any intended development of wisdom—you find wisdom. Ultimately, of course, the most powerful insight that comes from metta practice is the sense of nonseparateness, and that insight comes through opening one’s heart, from being inclusive rather than exclusive.
As a concentration practice, metta is tremendously healing because it gathers your energy together. As you become more and more concentrated, your attention wanders less frequently and for shorter duration. All the energy that you normally expend being lost in thought or leaping to the past or future is returned to you. Your mind becomes settled and unified.
In Asia, metta is not taught as a separate practice until the meditator is well established in vipassana. This gives the practitioner the opportunity to develop enough wisdom to counteract the craving for pleasant experiences, which can be very seductive in metta practice. Metta practitioners can sometimes get attached to the good feelings and try to produce more of them, growing agitated and fearful when those feelings are absent.
Nonetheless, in 1986, several years after studying metta practice intensively with U Pandita, Joseph Goldstein and I decided to begin teaching metta retreats in the West. When we teach the metta practice, we try to bring forth the understanding of impermanence and the emptiness of self, so that the ground of wisdom is being established even as people are learning metta.
We have found that after doing metta retreats, people experience vipassana in a new way. As we do vipassana our conditioned makeup is revealed to us, and often we get so lost in judgment that we are not able to rest in the power of our awareness. As a consequence of doing metta, people have returned to vipassana practice with a lot less self-judgement. Metta practice provides a gentleness and openness of mind, so that even when judgments do arise, they don’t feel so substantial and strident.
In metta practice people are amazed to find out that they have a capacity for lovingkindness, both for themselves and for others. Due to our past conditioning, many of us do not trust our capacity to love. Metta involves a tremendous opening and purifying of our fields of intention, which can then infuse our vipassana practice as well as our entire life. We discover that we can indeed love and that everything comes back to love.