Basic Instructions for the Practice of Insight Meditation


A very suitable way to develop or train the mind is the practice of meditation. Meditation can be viewed as an effective way to come to rest, relaxation and develop wisdom and compassion. We can see it as a physical, sensory, mental and emotional process of awakening; a training in which the mind returns to its original flexibility and malleability. Just as an old and creaking door opens more easily and less noisily when we oil the hinges every so often, in the same way our lives can be oiled with the wholesome and healing powers of concentration and mindfulness.

There are many types of meditation, which all have their value. On this webpage we would like to present some basic instructions in how we can practise Vipassana or Insight Meditation.

This clear seeing gets us in touch with our mental, physical and emotional processes and patterns. We can wake up from living on automatic pilot, and learn to live life more fully, open-minded and open-hearted, with less fear and clinging, and more compassion and contentment. In this changing world, faced by materialism, economic problems and information overload, it is important that we learn to get in touch again with that which is beyond gain and loss, beyond hope and fear. Through vipassana or mindfulness practice we learn to relate to the suffering of ourselves and others more wisely, not getting overwhelmed by it, nor becoming indifferent to it.

Vipassana Meditation

Vipassana meditation (also called insight or mindfulness meditation) originated in the Theravada tradition, the form of Buddhism practised in Southeast Asia. Vipassana means ‘clear seeing’. Through observing our experience, from moment to moment, with compassionate awareness, we begin to see more clearly, without immediately reacting to or getting absorbed into what we experience.

Basic Instructions

First of all it is important to adopt a posture that is easy and relaxing so that you can sit still for a period of time. A cushion may help in this. You can put one under your buttocks, and perhaps one (or more) under your knees, so that you are grounded and can easily sit up straight. Loosen tight belts to give your belly room to expand. You can put your hands together in your lap, or rest them on your thighs. The back should be straight but not rigid. You can close your eyes. If you have difficulty sitting cross-legged, you can also sit on a kneeling bench. And if you have specific physical difficulties, you can always sit on a chair, or lie down on your back or on one side.

Every time you become aware of (mentally) seeing or hearing, smelling, tasting, touching or thinking, or of a (pleasant or unpleasant) physical or mental feeling, you name or note this sensation or perception without going into the content of the phenomenon. Neither do you repress, avoid or escape from it. You don’t need to manipulate or try to change the experience. Whether you feel calm or tense, happy or sad, feel pain or sit comfortably, it really does not matter; the way you feel in this moment is fine. There is no need to change anything.

Mindfulness of the body

It is particularly important to name or note as objectively as possible whatever is presenting itself, one object at a time, and always the object which at that moment is most clearly and easily perceived. This can be anything: hearing, seeing, thinking, feeling, and so on. However, in order to be able to develop mindfulness easily, it is helpful to use one object as our basic object or starting point. In this method of meditation we use the rising and falling of the abdomen. When breathing in and out the (lower) abdomen rises and falls; these two movements are easily perceived. You will notice that the abdomen distends or rises when you breathe in, and lowers or falls when you breathe out. You can be aware of these movements.

In order to get more precision in your power of observation, and to have some objective distance from what you observe, mentally naming or noting these movements can be a valuable tool. The rising of the abdomen can mentally be noted as ‘rising’, the falling as ‘falling’. When the movements cannot be perceived clearly, you may put the palm of your left or right hand on the abdomen for a while.

In any case you don’t need to change your breathing! Do not make it slower, quicker or deeper than it is of its own accord. Breathe naturally and name the rising and falling of the abdomen as these processes occur by themselves. Name mentally, not out loud. It does not matter what word you use or in what language you name. What is most important is to know or to be aware of the object. Naming or noting what is perceived is a tool that supports our observation, and it can be seen as a whisper in the background. While you are aware of the rising and falling of the abdomen, you name or note these movements simultaneously and accordingly. Name each movement in such a way that it is concurrent with the awareness of the movement. Awareness and naming or noting should be concurrent and synchronous, just as a stone that is thrown hits its target.

Mindfulness of physical sensations

After you have been sitting in meditation for some time, feelings of discomfort or stiffness may arise in your body. When these feelings become prominent, you can see them as a new object of meditation, and name them as soon as you become clearly aware of them. You can do the same with feelings of pain, itchiness, tiredness, heaviness or lightness in the body, ease or relaxation, heat or cold. Here too, you don’t have to try to get rid of the feeling or to ‘observe them away’. Neither do you give them extra attention. You only need to be aware of the feeling and name or note as it is recognised. You can do this for as long as the feeling presents itself and as long as it is perceived clearly. When the feeling retreats to the background, or dissolves by itself, then you can be aware again of the rising and falling movement of the abdomen and name or note these processes. If the feeling remains, you continue to note it as long as it is clearly there. However, when the feeling becomes unbearable you do not need to force yourself to keep still. You can slowly and quietly change your posture, meanwhile observing and naming what is happening.

Mindfulness of thinking

Perhaps your mind wanders while you are observing and naming the movements of the belly. Whenever you become aware of this, you can observe this as well. Sometimes a thought stops as soon as it is recognised. Then you don’t need to do anything with it, because it has disappeared already. You can note the next object that presents itself. However, when the thought is still there at the moment of recognition, you can note or note its presence. If the thought presents itself as wandering, you name it as ‘wandering’, ‘wandering’, ‘wandering’. When you have named it once, twice or three times and the mind has stopped wandering of its own accord, you return to the awareness and naming of the rising and falling of the abdomen. When you remember something, you name it as ‘reflecting’, ‘reflecting’, ‘reflecting’ or as ‘remembering’, ‘remembering’, ‘remembering’. If in your mind you meet someone, you can name this as ‘meeting’, ‘meeting’. When you are having a mental conversation with somebody, you name this as ‘talking’, ‘talking’, and so on.

In short, whatever thought or reflection may arise, the moment you recognise it you can see it as a meditation object and name or note it as it is recognised. Do not spend too much time trying to find the right word for a thought. Recognising it is more important, and the first word or label that comes to mind will do. So when you recognise a thought as a fantasy you name it as ‘imagining’. When you are thinking as ‘thinking’. When you are making plans as ‘planning’. When you are judging something as ‘judging’. When you are worrying as ‘worrying’, and so on. Usually you name or note the thought once or a few times and then you are aware again of the rising and falling of the abdomen (or of something else that may be predominant in that moment). But if the thought is persistent and does not disappear, you should continue to name it, as long as it is clearly present and keeps demanding your attention.

Very often we are not aware, or do not succeed in noting these mental activities, so we have the tendency to identify ourselves with them. We tend to think that there is an ‘I’ who is imagining, thinking, judging, making plans, knowing or perceiving. We think there is a person who has lived and thought since birth, whereas in reality there are only these continuing and successive mental activities. The more we identify with experiences, our position in life, things and people, the more problems or baggage we carry around with us. When all these experiences disappear, dissolve or get lost, we begin to miss them, feel fear or anger because of our attachment to and identification with them. Therefore it is advised to name or note each and every cognitive activity the moment it is clearly recognised, as it is and as long as it is there. It is a remedy for the universal human tendency of attachment and identification, or – when a thought is experienced as unpleasant – the problem of aversion and conflict.

It is important to point out that it is not necessary to get involved with the content of the thought. You don’t need to find out why you are thinking, or where, when or with whom that remembered event took place. On the other hand you also don’t need to get rid of a thought or name it ‘in order for it to go away’. It is sufficient just to observe and note the thought as a phenomenon, as long as it is clearly there, without getting involved or trying to stop it. When the thought has disappeared of its own accord, or has dissolved, you can return to the awareness and naming of the rising and falling of the abdomen.

Mindfulness of sensory experiences

While observing and naming or noting the rising and falling of the abdomen, there is no need to look for other experiences or objects. However, it may happen that a sound becomes clear of its own accord and engages your attention. You can name it as ‘hearing’, ‘hearing’, ‘hearing’, as long as the sound is clearly present. Or you may see images with closed eyes; then you can name this (mental) seeing, as long as it is clearly recognisable.
You don’t need to consider the sound or the image as a distraction. See it as a new meditation object, just as valuable as rising, falling, physical feelings or thoughts. Again, there is no need to concern yourself with the content of what you see or hear, nor do you need to try to get rid of the sound or the image. However, sometimes you recognise a sound or an image, and you interpret it as ‘train’, ‘car’, ‘neighbour’ or ‘tree’. In those moments you can name as ‘interpreting’, or as ‘recognising’; otherwise you just note the seeing, hearing, smelling or touching.

Mindfulness of emotions

Apart from these sensory experiences there are all kinds of other experiences you might have during the meditation practice, like moments of impatience or irritation in relation to pain, thoughts or sitting still. Or there may be moments of enjoyment, desire, doubt, uncertainty, sleepiness, worry or restlessness. When a reaction or emotion like this arises in you, again you don’t need to judge it as a distraction or a disturbance. The emotional reaction can be integrated into the meditation process by simply recognising and naming it as ‘impatience’, ‘impatience’, ‘enjoying’, ‘enjoying’, ‘uncertain’, ‘uncertain’ and so on, as soon as it presents itself clearly. It is good to realise that these experiences are just as valuable as a meditation object as the rising and falling of the belly, hearing a sound, a physical sensation or a thought.
Perhaps other emotional feelings become predominant, such as feelings of happiness, joy, rapture, tranquillity, sadness, frustration, disappointment, remorse, boredom, confidence or enthusiasm. You only need to observe these emotions and name or note them, as they are and as long as they are clearly recognisable, for instance as ‘happy’, ‘happy’, ‘sad’, ‘sad’, or ‘calm’, ‘calm’, according to the nature of the emotions. There is no need to do anything else.

In summary

In short, it can be said that we are always observing and naming or noting what is happening in body and mind, without preference or aversion, like or dislike, we observe and note whatever is clearly recognisable and predominant in the present moment. Essentially it does not matter what kind of object it is. Whether it is a thought, a physical sensation, a sound, a pleasant or unpleasant emotion, or the rising and falling of the abdomen, all these experiences are of equal value. They can be seen as a meditation object as soon as they clearly show themselves; one at a time, and always that which is predominant in a given moment. In this sense mindfulness is a flexible quality of mind, which from moment to moment can have a different experience as its object.
However, do not try to do too much. For instance, it is not necessary to try hanging on to or getting rid of experiences. Neither you do not need to force yourself, trying to name or note something that has already disappeared or is not clearly recognisable. Keep it simple, the practice can be done in a relaxed and playful manner. It is sufficient to limit yourself to what is clearly present or recognisable in this moment. You don’t even need to look for objects, they will present themselves in their own time. You sit up straight in a relaxed way, and you simply observe and note whatever is prominent and perceivable in the moment, without interfering in the process.

There is no need to make anything clearer than it is of its own accord. Nor do you have to try and hold on to it, make it disappear or suppress it. It is enough just to observe and note what is happening in or to you in the here and now – as a physical, mental, emotional or sensory experience – as it presents itself, and as long as it is predominant. Don’t let the naming or noting become a heavy burden either. As you continue to practise, you will become more familiar with it and it will become more fluid. Ultimately the most important thing is to be aware of whatever is happening here and now; naming or noting it can be seen as a valuable and supporting tool to remain objective and to strengthen the mindfulness.

When the object of observation disappears or dissolves by itself, and when at that moment nothing else is clearly recognisable, in this meditation technique you can always return to the awareness and noting of the rising and falling of the abdomen as your basic object.’

Click here for a podcast with Frits Koster about the value of compassion and about MBCL

Liberating Insight: Introduction to Buddhist Psychology and Insight Meditation

Living with Heart: - A step-by-step guide to for those who wishen to deepen their mindfulness skills with compassion.
Routledge, UK, 2018