Everything up to this point has been theory. Now let's dive
into the actual practice. Just how do we go about this thing
First of all, you need to establish a formal practice schedule,
a specific period when you will do Vipassana meditation and
nothing else. When you were a baby, you did not know how to
walk. Somebody went to a lot of trouble to teach you that skill.
They dragged you by the arms. They gave you lots of encouragement.
Made you put one foot in front of the other until you could
do it by yourself. Those periods of instruction constituted
a formal practice in the art of walking.
In meditation, we follow the same basic procedure. We set aside
a certain time, specifically devoted to developing this mental
skill called mindfulness. We devote these times exclusively
to that activity, and we structure our environment so there
will be a minimum of distraction. This is not the easiest skill
in the world to learn. We have spent our entire life developing
mental habits that are really quite contrary to the ideal of
uninterrupted mindfulness. Extricating ourselves from those
habits requires a bit of strategy. As we said earlier, our minds
are like cups of muddy water. The object of meditation is to
clarify this sludge so that we can see what is going on in there.
The best way to do that is just let it sit. Give it enough time
and it will settle down. You wind up with clear water. In meditation,
we set aside a specific time for this clarifying process. When
viewed from the outside, it looks utterly useless. We sit there
apparently as productive as a stone gargoyle. Inside, however,
quite a bit is happening. The mental soup settles down, and
we are left with a clarity of mind that prepares us to cope
with the upcoming events of our lives.
That does not mean that we have to do anything to force this
settling. It is a natural process that happens by itself. The
very act of sitting still being mindful causes this settling.
In fact, any effort on our part to force this settling is counterproductive.
That is repression, and it does not work. Try to force things
out of the mind and you merely add energy to them You may succeed
temporarily, but in the long run you will only have made them
stronger. They will hide in the unconscious until you are not
watching, then they will leap out and leave you helpless to
fight them off.
The best way to clarify the mental fluid is to just let it settle
all by itself. Don't add any energy to the situation. Just mindfully
watch the mud swirl, without any involvement in the process.
Then, when it settles at last, it will stay settled. We exert
energy in meditation, but not force. Our only effort is gently,
The meditation period is like a cross-section of your whole
day. Everything that happens to you is stored away in the mind
in some form, mental or emotional. During normal activity, you
get so caught up in the press of events that the basic issues
with which you are dealing are seldom thoroughly handled. They
become buried in the unconscious, where they seethe and foam
and fester. Then you wonder where all that tension came from.
All of this material comes forth in one form or another during
your meditation. You get a chance to look at it, see it for
what it is, and let it go. We set up a formal meditation period
in order to create a conducive environment for this release.
We re- establish our mindfulness at regular intervals. We withdraw
from those events which constantly stimulate the mind. We back
out of all the activity that prods the emotions. We go off to
a quiet place and we sit still, and it all comes bubbling out.
Then it goes away. The net effect is like recharging a battery.
Meditation recharges your mindfulness.
Find yourself a quiet place, a secluded place, a place where
you will be alone. It doesn't have to be some ideal spot in
the middle of a forest. That's nearly impossible for most of
us, but it should be a pace where you feel comfortable, and
where you won't be disturbed. It should also be a place where
you won't feel on display. You want all of your attention free
for meditation, not wasted on worries about how you look to
others. Try to pick a spot that is as quiet as possible. It
doesn't have to be a soundproof room, but there are certain
noises that are highly distracting, and they should be avoided.
Music and talking are about the worst. The mind tends to be
sucked in by these sounds in an uncontrollable manner, and there
goes your concentration.
There are certain traditional aids that you can employ to set
the proper mood. A darkened room with a candle is nice. Incense
is nice. A little bell to start and end your sessions is nice.
These are paraphernalia, though. They provide encouragement
to some people, but they are by no means essential to the practice.
You will probably find it helpful to sit in the same place each
time. A special spot reserved for meditation and nothing else
is an aid for most people. You soon come to associate that spot
with the tranquility of deep concentration, and that association
helps you to reach deep states more quickly. The main thing
is to sit in a place that you feel is conductive to your own
practice. That requires a bit of experimentation. Try several
spots until you find one where you feel comfortable. You only
need to find a place where you don't feel self-conscious, and
where you can meditate without undue distraction.
Many people find it helpful and supportive to sit with a group
of other meditators. The discipline of regular practice is essential,
and most people find it easier to sit regularly if they are
bolstered by a commitment to a group sitting schedule. You've
given your word, and you know you are expected. Thus the 'I'm
too busy' syndrome is cleverly skirted. You may be able to locate
a group of practicing meditators in your area. It doesn't matter
if they practice a different form of meditation, so long as
it's one of the silent forms. On the other hand, you also should
try to be self-sufficient in your practice. Don't rely on the
presence of a group as your sole motivation to sit. Properly
done, sitting is a pleasure. Use the group as an aid, not as
The most important rule here is this: When it comes to sitting,
the description of Buddhism as the Middle Way applies. Don't
overdo it. Don't underdo it. This doesn't mean you just sit
whenever the whim strikes you. It means you set up a practice
schedule and keep to it with a gently, patient tenacity. Setting
up a schedule acts as an encouragement. If, however, you find
that your schedule has ceased to be an encouragement and become
a burden, then something is wrong. Meditation is not a duty,
nor an obligation.
Meditation is psychological activity. You will be dealing with
the raw stuff of feelings and emotions. Consequently, it is
an activity which is very sensitive to the attitude with which
you approach each session. What you expect is what you are most
likely to get. Your practice will therefore go best when you
are looking forward to sitting. If you sit down expecting grinding
drudgery, that is probably what will occur. So set up a daily
pattern that you can live with. Make it reasonable. Make it
fit with the rest of your life. And if it starts to feel like
you're on an uphill treadmill toward liberation, then change
First thing in the morning is a great time to meditate. Your
mind is fresh then, before you've gotten yourself buried in
responsibilities. Morning meditation is a fine way to start
the day. It tunes you up and gets you ready to deal with things
efficiently. You cruise through the rest of the day just a bit
more lightly. Be sure you are thoroughly awake, though. You
won't make much progress if you are sitting there nodding off,
so get enough sleep. Wash your face, or shower before you begin.
You may want to do a bit of exercise beforehand to get the circulation
flowing. Do whatever you need to do in order to wake up fully,
then sit down to meditate. Do not, however, let yourself get
hung up in the day's activities. It's just too easy to forget
to sit. Make meditation the first major thing you do in the
The evening is another good time for practice. Your mind is
full of all the mental rubbish that you have accumulated during
the day, and it is great to get rid of the burden before you
sleep. Your meditation will cleanse and rejuvenate your mind.
Re- establish your mindfulness and your sleep will be real sleep.
When you first start meditation, once a day is enough. If you
feel like meditating more, that's fine, but don't overdo it.
There's a burn-out phenomenon we often see in new meditators.
They dive right into the practice fifteen hours a day for a
couple of weeks, and then the real world catches up with them.
They decide that this meditation business just takes too much
time. Too many sacrifices are required. They haven't got time
for all of this. Don't fall into that trap. Don't burn yourself
out the first week. Make haste slowly. Make your effort consistent
and steady. Give yourself time to incorporate the meditation
practice into your life, and let your practice grow gradually
As your interest in meditation grows, you'll find yourself making
more room in your schedule for practice. It's a spontaneous
phenomenon, and it happens pretty much by itself--no force necessary.
Seasoned meditators manage three or four hours of practice a
day. They live ordinary lives in the day-to-day world, and they
still squeeze it all in. And they enjoy it. It comes naturally.
Long To Sit
A similar rule applies here: Sit as long as you can, but don't
overdo. Most beginners start with twenty or thirty minutes.
Initially, it's difficult to sit longer than that with profit.
The posture is unfamiliar to Westerners, and it takes a bit
of time for the body to adjust. The mental skills are equally
unfamiliar, and that adjustment takes time, too.
As you grow accustomed to procedure, you can extend your meditation
little by little. We recommend that after a year or so of steady
practice you should be sitting comfortable for an hour at a
Here is an important point, though: Vipassana meditation is
not a form of asceticism. Self-mortification is not the goal.
We are trying to cultivate mindfulness, not pain. Some pain
is inevitable, especially in the legs. We will thoroughly cover
pain, and how to handle it, in Chapter 10. There are special
techniques and attitudes which you will learn for dealing with
discomfort. The point to be made here is this: This is not a
grim endurance contest. You don't need to prove anything to
anybody. So don't force yourself to sit with excruciating pain
just to be able to say that you sat for an hour. That is a useless
exercise in ego. And don't overdo it in the beginning. Know
your limitations, and don't condemn yourself for not being able
to sit forever, like a rock.
As meditation becomes more and more a part of your life, you
can extend your sessions beyond an hour. As a general rule,
just determine what is a comfortable length of time for you
at this point in your life. Then sit five minutes longer than
that. There is no hard and fast rule about length of time for
sitting. Even if you have established a firm minimum, there
may be days when it is physically impossible for you to sit
that long. That doesn't mean that you should just cancel the
whole idea for that day. It's crucial to sit regularly. Even
ten minutes of meditation can be very beneficial.
Incidentally, you decide on the length of your session before
you meditate. Don't do it while you are meditating. It's too
easy to give in to restlessness that way, and restlessness is
one of the main items that we want to learn to mindfully observe.
So choose a realistic length of time, and then stick to it.
You can use a watch to time you sessions, but don't peek at
it every two minutes to see how you are doing. Your concentration
will be completely lost, and agitation will set in. You'll find
your self hoping to get up before the session is over. That's
not meditation--that's clock watching. Don;t look at the clock
until you think the whole meditation period has passed. Actually,
you don't need to consult the clock at all, at least not every
time you meditate. In general, you should be sitting for as
long as you want to sit. There is no magic length of time. It
is best, though, to set yourself a minimum length of time. If
you haven't predetermined a minimum, you'll find yourself prone
to short sessions. You'll bolt every time something unpleasant
comes up or whenever you feel restless. That's not good. These
experiences are some of the most profitable a meditator can
face, but only if you sit through them. You've got to learn
to observe them calmly and clearly. Look at them mindfully.
When you've done that enough time, they lose their hold on you.
You see them for what they are: just impulses, arising and passing
away, just part of the passing show. Your life smoothes out
beautifully as a consequence.
'Discipline' is a difficult word for most of us. It conjures
up images of somebody standing over you with a stick, telling
you that you're wrong. But self-discipline is different. It's
the skill of seeing through the hollow shouting of your own
impulses and piercing their secret. They have no power over
you. It's all a show, a deception. Your urges scream and bluster
at you; they cajole; they coax; they threaten; but they really
carry no stick at all. You give in out of habit. You give in
because you never really bother to look beyond the threat. It
is all empty back there. There is only one way to learn this
lesson, though. The words on this page won't do it. But look
within and watch the stuff coming up--restlessness, anxiety,
impatience, pain-- just watch it come up and don't get involved.
Much to your surprise, it will simply go away. It rises, it
passes away. As simple as that. There is another word for 'self-discipline'.
It is 'Patience'.