How to practise
walking and sitting meditation
in the Vipassana (Insight) tradition
Vipassana is a Pali word which comes from the roots 'Vi' meaning 'clearly' and 'passana' meaning 'to know'. So it means 'to know clearly'. We know the body and mind clearly. It usually translated in English as 'Insight Meditation'. It is one of two main groups of Buddhist meditation practice. The other group is the Samatha (Concentration) group.
Although it can be practised in any position and at any time, there are four main positions for practising Vipassana (Insight) meditation formally. They are standing, walking, sitting and lying down. Standing and walking are usually practised before sitting. The walking meditation helps to build up energy and concentration to support the sitting practice. Because there is more 'happening' during the walking, many people find it a good interim step between the confusion of city life and the stillness of sitting.
The exercises described here conform to the formal practice which is taught at Wat Mahadhatu (Mahadhatu Temple in Bangkok). They in turn follow the line of teaching of the renowned Meditation Master Ven. Mahasri Sayadaw of Burma.
Note: It is advisable to learn how to practise with an experienced meditation master. Although there is nothing inherently dangerous about the walking and sitting exercises described here, it is possible for a novice meditator to become out of balance with his or her practice. The guidance of a Kalayanamitta (Good friend) is invaluable to keep meditators on course.
Standing and walking
There are a series of six exercises which progressively expand awareness of the constituent parts of each step. Here we shall look at the first of them.
Select a suitable time when you will not be disturbed. Close the door of your room and take the phone off the hook. This is 'your' time.
You will need between ten and fifteen feet of space in which to walk. Stand still with your eyes open. You should be looking at the floor ahead of you. When standing still your gaze should be focused about two metres ahead of you, but when walking, the focus point should be a little nearer, about six feet ahead. Hold your hands together in front or behind you. Try to be aware of the position of the body standing and of any tension within it. The aim is to become fully aware of the present moment. To help you focus on the present moment, make three mental acknowledgements 'Standing, standing, standing'.
Next the practitioner should become aware of the intention to walk, again making three mental acknowledgements 'Intending to walk, intending to walk, intending to walk'.
It is customary to begin
with the right foot. Lift the right foot about three inches from
the floor, and then place it about six inches ahead of the left
foot. Focus attention on the movement of the foot from the moment
it is lifted until it is set down, simultaneously making the acknowledgement
'Right goes thus'. Thus has the meaning of 'In this way' or 'Like
this' but has a shorter sound duration and so that is why it is
The movement of the foot should be perceived as continuous and not divided into separate actions.
Move your point of attention to the left foot. Lift it and move it forward and put it down about six inches ahead of the right. Be aware of the movement as it is happening and simultaneously acknowledge in mind 'Left goes thus'. The acknowledgement and the movement should coincide. Continue walking, with awareness focused on the movements of the feet until you come to the end of your walk space.
Be mindful of standing as before. Make three mental acknowledgements of the body standing. Then putting attention on the feet, try to be aware of the tension there as you become aware of the desire to turn. Make three mental acknowledgements 'Intending to turn, intending to turn, intending to turn'. while, at the same time, being aware of the intention to turn.
Next, turn to the right. Move your right foot clockwise Lift the toes of your right foot keeping the heel on the ground, acknowledging (at the same time) 'turn' and as you put your toes down, acknowledge '-ning'. The angle of the movement should be about 45 degrees.
Lift your left foot straight up about three inches from the ground, saying in mind 'Turn'. Then place it parallel to the right foot, acknowledging '-ning'.
Make four pairs of these foot movements to complete a 180% turn. Note that the right heel revolves on the same spot throughout the exercise.
The practitioner should then be aware of 'Standing' and 'Intending to walk' as before and then walk back in the direction he has just come from.
This walking exercise can continue for about 15 minutes before you change to sitting meditation. At the changeover point be sure to move slowly and to be aware of your movements at all times.
Sit in a stable position on the floor or on a chair. Your back should be straight but not stiff. The blood circulation should not be obstructed. The hands should be held loosely in the lap. In Thailand the right hand is susually placed on the left with the palms facing upwards.
Close your eyes and focus
the mind inwards. Be aware of the movements of the abdomen which accompany
breathing. Put your attention on a point about the size of a fingertip,
just below the navel, on the surface of the skin. Feel/attend to this
point as it moves in concert with natural breathing. Do not try to control
your breath in any way. Allow the needs of the body to determine when
and how you breathe.
As you breathe in (inhale) this point will move away from the spine and up and out a little. As it does so, say in mind 'Rising'.
As you breathe out (exhale) this same point will fall back towards the spine and drop down just a little. As it does so, say in mind 'Falling'. Notice which movement takes longer (in time); is it the 'Rising' or the 'Falling'?
Do not try to follow the
passage of the air in and out of the nostrils or into the lungs. Initially
if the meditator finds it difficult to focus attention on the movements
of the abdomen, various aids can be employed, such as wearing a tight
belt, or rubbing a little balm on the spot on the abdomen where attention
is to be centred.
While practising Insight meditation, focusing attention on the movements of the abdomen - the rising and falling - forms the base practice. However all sensations, perceptions, thoughts and emotions are also an integral part of the meditation and should attended to as well.
This method of practice is described in detail in the Mahasatipatana Sutta - the 'Great Mindfulness' Sutta. In this Sutta, meditators are encouraged to practise the 'Four Foundations of Mindfulness'. These are:-
of the body, ie. The
position and movements of the body
Mindfulness of feelings/emotions, all of them whether they are positive, negative or neutral, and whether they are strong or weak. This group also includes awareness of physical sensations such as pain or numbness.
Mindfulness of mental contents, ie. thoughts, daydreams, perceptions of all kinds eg. sounds, colours, pictures in the mind etc.
Mindfulness of the underlying state of mind. You know how the mind is in the present. Is it clear or confused? Is it awake or sleepy? Is it focused or vague?
So there is no aspect of present experience which does not have a place in Vipassana (Insight) meditation. Consequently, you allow all the thought, sensations and emotions to come into your field of attention, acknowledge them appropriately, and then allow them to change or pass in their own time.
If a sound occurs, put your
attention on your ears, acknowledge the sound; 'Hearing, hearing, hearing'.
You may need to make three, five, ten or more acknowledgements until
the sound dies away by itself or until it no longer disturbs you. Then
very gently bring your attention back to the rising and falling. If
your attention 'follows' a sound, at the point when you become aware
of what has happened, acknowledge it 'Knowing, knowing, knowing' and
then gently direct your attention back to the movements of the abdomen.
Similarly if there is a smell, acknowledge it 'Smelling, smelling, smelling'.
Thinking is dealt with in
the same way. It should not be assigned greater importance than hearing
or seeing for example. When you become aware that are or have been thinking,
put your attention on your chest and say in mind 'Thinking, thinking,
thinking'. This means that you acknowledge the act of thinking, You
know that thinking has taken place. Then very gently return your attention
to the rising and falling movements of the abdomen.
There may be times when thoughts crowd in. At such times remember that it is the nature of the mind to think - just acknowledge the thoughts, let them come, see them clearly and let them go.
When physical sensations such as pain occur, do not move. Instead put your attention on the place where the sensation is occurring, allow it to come fully into your awareness, acknowledge it appropriately eg. 'Pain, pain, pain' three or more times until the sensation becomes less intense or fades away, then return your attention to the rising and falling. If that sensation occurs again, please deal with it in the same way, without moving. If however, it occurs a third time, and it is unbearable, you may move. But please do so mindfully, being aware of your movements at all times and being aware of the new sensations that arise as a result of the movement. Then return your point of attention to the rising and falling.
When physical sensations or emotional feelings come into the mind, simply acknowledge tem and allow them to pass. This remains the same whether the sensation or feeling is negative or positive, pleasant or unpleasant, or indifferent. Try not to be drawn away by any feeling, sensation or thought. Simply employ Sati (bare-awareness- a better translation than 'mindfulness') to know whatever occurs. Sati is awareness without bias or prejudice.
The length of time already spent walking. So, if you have practised walking for fifteen minutes, then you would practise sitting meditation for a further fifteen minutes. The timing does not have to be exact. You do not need to use a timer.
Vipassana is inclusive in that it does not seek to exclude any part of the experience of the present moment. The exercises (only the first are given here) gradually and systematically build up concentration and energy levels. This enhanced concentration and well-directed energy, together with Sati - bare awareness of all that occurs in the present moment - create the ideal conditions for the meditator to have direct experience of the ultimate truth which is our real nature.