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Ultimate Guide to Vipassana Meditation

by Adam Friedman Nov 2, 2009
Want to try meditation but unsure where to start? This handy guide to Vipassana (insight) meditation will kickstart your journey on the path to nirvana.

I’ve been meditating regularly for about ten years now. I have to say, I’m much more relaxed than I used to be. I don’t worry as much, and I’ve become more patient.

I’m also more aware of how my mind works. I see patterns in the way I think and approach things. This makes me more aware of faults that I previously hadn’t noticed. I’ve also become more comfortable with who I am.

There are many different meditation techniques. The goals are generally the same; however, the methods for reaching that goal vary widely.

Meditation is a way to change your attitude towards life. As you practice, you gradually become more relaxed and feel more connected to other people around you. But even though it sounds easy, it’s harder than it seems.

How it works

In the type of meditation I practice, Vipassana, the basic idea is to teach you to accept things the way they are. When you meditate, you actually practice accepting reality, and like anything, the more you practice the better you get. Gradually you become more able to accept the things you cannot control while working to change the things you can.

When you meditate, you actually practice accepting reality, and like anything, the more you practice the better you get.

When you meditate, you try to do two things.

First, you try to pay attention to the breath going in and out of your nose without controlling it. You just watch it. When you notice that your mind has wandered and you are thinking about something else, you bring your attention back to your breath.

The second thing that you try to do is to accept how you are doing. If you can barely pay attention at all, you just try to accept it without getting annoyed. This is contrary to the way we’ve thought our whole lives. When you try to do something, if you do it well, you are happy. If you do it badly, you become unhappy.

While you are meditating, you may accept how you are doing for a while, but inevitably something will come up in your mind that you don’t accept. You may become bored, or tired, or uncomfortable, or you will want to feel differently than you do.

You just have to try to accept these feelings. Of course you won’t be able to do this. But by practicing regularly, you gradually improve your ability to accept whatever you experience.

Practicing Acceptance

Being able to accept things for what they are effects many different aspects of your life. You become more accepting of people not acting how they’re “supposed to” act.

These are the main causes of anger in life — you become less angry in circumstances that tend to make you angry and gradually anger begins to wash out of you. Instead of allowing the emotion to boil up inside, you say to yourself, “Whatever happens, happens. I’ll deal with it.”

This helps remove the fear of the unknown which tends to keep people from having a full life because they’re afraid of uncertainty. In the same way, meditation helps diminish people’s fear of change. As you become less fearful of the unknown, you become less fearful of the future being different from how you want.

And when you aren’t afraid of the future, you can enjoy the present more fully.

How to Practice

After a meal, you tend to be more tired and less alert. That’s why I’ve found it’s better to meditate on an empty stomach. You can sit with your legs crossed, but it’s not necessary. If you do, you should sit on an incline or put a pillow under your butt. This will help keep your back straight.

A comfortable position is crucial. You shouldn’t lie down because you’re a lot more likely to fall asleep. I meditate with my eyes closed to reduce distractions, but there are people who meditate with their eyes open. There are different schools of thought on this. Both work, so just pick whichever one feels right.

Your mind will wander, and it’s shocking how quickly it will wander, often after less than one breath. When you notice this, bring your thoughts back to your breath.

Try to pay attention to the breath going in and out of your nose. If your breath is deep, that’s fine. If it’s shallow, that’s fine. If it’s relaxed, that’s fine. If it’s not, that’s fine.

Your job is not to judge or control, simply to observe. If you can feel the breath touching the inside of your nostrils, then you should feel it. If you can’t feel anything, just notice when it is entering your nose and when it is leaving. It doesn’t matter how well you can pay attention, only that you keep trying to pay attention.

Your mind will wander, and it’s shocking how quickly it will wander, often after less than one breath. When you notice this, bring your thoughts back to your breath. When it wanders again, bring it back again.

The goal is to work without caring how it goes. However, you will find that you do care how it is going. As you practice, you will improve and you will become more accepting of how you are doing.

After years of practice, my mind often wanders as much as it did when I started. The big change is that I am much more able to accept this fact. THIS IS THE ONLY MEASURE OF PROGRESS.

Dealing with Frustration

There are many different ways you may not like how your meditation is going. You might get frustrated at your awful concentration; you might get bored; you might feel angry, sad, upset or annoyed; you might want the meditation to relax you and get frustrated that this isn’t happening, or countless other things.

But you have to realize that this is how meditation works. It’s supposed to bring up these feelings so you can learn to accept them. When you work out, you use weights that are difficult to lift because that is what makes you stronger.

It’s the same way with meditation. It’s designed to be difficult.

Sometimes when you are meditating, you can have strange experiences. You might experience emotions for no apparent reasons. You might see lights, or your body may feel like it’s a single point. You might have visions pop into your head.

There are countless different things that can happen, and they all make it harder to pay attention to your breath. If they do happen, you should treat them like every other distraction and try to pay attention to your breath as well as you can, regardless of the distraction.

As well, the way you are meditating can change from minute to minute and from day to day. It can be frustrating to have what you consider an acceptable meditation one day and one that you are unhappy with the next. Try to accept that this is just how it works. If you cannot accept this and are still frustrated, try to accept that your mind is frustrated.

Practice Regularly

It is important to keep a regular practice. I would suggest starting at no less than fifteen minutes and gradually increase the time as you progress.

As time goes on, you will develop a more relaxed form of concentration. This may seem paradoxical because we normally associate strong concentration with a tense, furrowed brow.

Meditation changes the way you view the world, so many of the analogies people use to describe it can at first seem contradictory. As you begin to practice, these examples begin to make more sense.

Let’s say you are in a situation that makes you upset or angry. Try to accept the situation. Just by trying to accept it, you are practicing accepting things, which gradually improves this ability.

If you are too agitated to accept the situation, notice the effect that the situation is having on your body. In the same way that fear creates a sensation in your stomach, all strong negative emotions create noticeable sensations in your body. Observe how the anger or frustration affects you physically and try to accept the physical feeling.

This is something more concrete to work with than the abstract emotion. In addition to helping improve your ability to accept things, you begin to use negative experiences to recognize the positive side to them. They begin to have purpose in your life, just as much as joyful events.

Meditation and Faith

It should be evident that you don’t need to follow any religion or believe in God to get the benefits of meditation. However, every major religion incorporates some form of meditation. I think this is because meditation can help deepen you faith.

There’s an old saying, “Prayer is like talking to God, and meditation is like listening to God.”

The reason many people are atheists is that they look at all the awful things in the world and cannot see how there could possibly be a God who cares about people. However, people who have a faith tend to say that everything happens for a reason that we cannot always understand God’s plan.

There are different levels of faith. When something awful happens, like the death of a loved one, a person of faith is able to cope because they feel like it is part of God’s plan, or at least derive a reason from the loss. However, someone without faith can be easily upset by minor setbacks because they cannot accept that every event can be learned from.

As you use negative events in your life to develop your ability to accept things, you begin to find a purpose in them. This makes you feel more like negative events are just as important as positive events. As you progress in meditation, your faith will deepen. You will also begin to understand how religion is connected to meditation.

There’s an old saying, “Prayer is like talking to God, and meditation is like listening to God.”

Many meditation schools teach that if you want meditation to have an effect on your life, it is important to live in a moral way. One of the main reasons has to do with the attitude you cultivate through meditation. It helps you feel more connected to people.

When you act selfishly and screw people over, you act as if you are only accountable to yourself. When you act selflessly, you are working to develop an attitude of awareness and compassion, enhancing the attitude that meditation develops.

Free meditation courses

One great way to progress in your meditation and delve deeper into your mind is to attend a free ten-day course given in over 20 different countries at a Vipassana Meditation Center.

They put you up for ten days and feed you for free. They operate only on donations given by people who’ve taken a course, but they don’t pressure you to donate. The catch is that it’s incredibly hard work. Their students meditate for ten hours a day (not in a row) for ten days straight.

When I first heard of the course, I thought there was no way in hell I could meditate for ten hours a day — I could barely sit for 30 minutes. But after talking with some people who had taken the course, they explained the hardest part was deciding to do it.

I gave it a shot. It surprised me when I learned that that 90% of the students finish the course and many are experiencing meditation for the first time. But I made it through, and I highly recommend the course for anyone willing to challenge themselves.

For a list of centers and course dates, visit

Community Connection

Waiting around for the best time to meditate? Think again. Read Why You’ll Never Find the Perfect Time To Meditate. And check out 20 Basic, Fun, Sexy Resources For Beginning Meditators.

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