Cultivating insight requires both study and practice. Before insight practice, build vitality. During insight practice, first build concentration, then “try on” the view of the stage of insight you’re trying to cultivate. Recognize when states of insight arise, remember them, and recall them in future practice sessions. Don’t expect insight to alter your nonconceptual experiences. After insight practice, evaluate your progress, consulting teachers and mentors when needed.
As I describe in my introductory article on insight, insight practice is the experiential exploration of the relationships between self, reality, awareness, and subjective experience. In this article, I describe a framework for insight practice; I clarify what to do before, during, and after insight practice.
Stages and States of Insight
Each stage of insight has a corresponding conceptual framework (or view) as well as a corresponding perceptual state (that can be entered by using the associated view to guide your perception); these views and states are described in my article Seven Stages of Spiritual Insight.
Entering the state associated with each new stage of insight requires shifting our mode of perception. Shifting how we perceive can take a lot of practice because perception is a deeply ingrained habit. So, even after the view of a given stage of insight makes perfect sense to you, you may still need a lot of practice to enter the state corresponding to that stage.
Cultivating each stage of insight requires two steps:
- Study. For the stage you’re trying to cultivate, study its view and any associated practices until they make sense to you. (You can use my article on stages of insight as a basic study guide.)
- Practice. In formal meditation and in daily life, practice using that view and its associated practices to shift your perception (and enter the state corresponding to the stage of insight that you’re trying to cultivate). (This article describes how to do this.)
Prerequisites for Insight Practice
Before doing any insight practices, read my introductory article on insight. Pay attention to the important cautions that I discuss in the section “Insight Can Be Disturbing.”
Before Insight Practice
Insight practice can be challenging, and it can require a lot of resources. To get the best results from insight practice, do insight practice when you’re at your best. Plan ahead—in the 24 hours preceding a session of insight practice, invest some time and energy cultivating vitality.
In a given practice session, I suggest you start by cultivating the state corresponding to stage 1, then the state corresponding to stage 2, and so forth. This will be fast and easy until you approach the stage that’s your current edge for growth (your edge stage); you will spend most of your practice session cultivating the state corresponding to this stage (this is your edge state). (Your edge stage will vary with your level of mindfulness and vitality.)
Before a session of insight practice, estimate your current edge stage. Make sure you’re familiar with the view of each stage up to and including your edge stage. (You can use my article on the stages of insight as a study guide for each of these views.)
If you are planning to do a specific practice (such as an inquiry practice) to help enter your edge state, also familiarize yourself with the instructions for that practice.
During Insight Practice
When you’re learning how to do insight practices, I believe it’s best to do them in formal meditation sessions. After you’ve gained some familiarity with insight, you can also do them as informal practices interspersed in your daily life.
To begin a formal meditation session in which you want to do insight practice, start by doing some concentration meditation or another mindfulness practice. How much (and what type of) mindfulness you need depends on what stage of insight you’re working on. In general, the more mindfulness, the better.
Next, shift to insight practice. As described above, start by cultivating the state corresponding to stage 1, then the state corresponding to stage 2, and so forth, until you get to your edge state; spend most of your practice session cultivating your edge state.
Cultivating States of Insight
To enter the state corresponding to any given stage of insight, “try on” that state’s view and see how well it fits. Try using that view to make sense of current phenomena. Take note of any ways in which the view you’re trying on doesn’t match your current perception, and ask yourself how you can reconcile these differences. (If you are consistently unable to reconcile them, you may be at a stuck point; it may be helpful to consult additional resources and/or discuss this with a spiritual mentor or teacher.)
If you are intending to do a specific practice (such as an inquiry practice) to help enter your edge state, start doing that practice when you approach that state.
Recognizing States of Insight
At first, the insight state you are cultivating will arise momentarily and fleetingly. Once you have recognized that state, recalling (remembering) what it was like can help you re-enter that state in future practice sessions.
Beginning insight practitioners often have trouble recognizing states of insight due to incorrect expectations; knowing what to expect (and what not to expect) can help you recognize states of insight when they arise. To that end, it’s important to realize that insight is primarily cognitive, in that it impacts our conceptual experience—our understanding and perception of the relationships between phenomena; insight itself doesn’t fundamentally alter our nonconceptual experiences. For instance, when you look at a tree, the nonconceptual aspects of your visual experience are going to be more or less the same with and without insight. (The tree isn’t going to be a different color with insight.) However, your conceptual experience (the understandings and perceptions that arise, related to that visual experience) may be quite different with insight.
That being said, insight can affect nonconceptual experience in at least a couple of ways. Intermediate and advanced stages of insight direct our attention to subjective experience; this can help us perceive experience more clearly and vividly. Intermediate and advanced stages of insight can also break down conceptual barriers that limit our perception of phenomena (both conceptual and nonconceptual); this can free us to perceive phenomena we couldn’t perceive before. In these ways, insight can support mindfulness by increasing the clarity and range of our awareness.
In insight practice, an important function of a spiritual mentor or teacher is pointing out states of insight; this involves creating the conditions for a state of insight to arise and helping you recognize it when it does. (This series of articles is basically one big set of pointing out instructions. Pointing out can also be done in dialogue with a spiritual mentor or teacher.)
Alternating Mindfulness and Insight Practices
If you find that your degree of mindfulness starts dropping (and you start getting distracted), shift back to concentration practice or another form of mindfulness practice; shift to insight practice again when your mindfulness is stronger. When you find yourself getting fatigued, take a break from meditation and restore your vitality.
As you gain experience with insight, let mindfulness and insight merge during your formal meditation sessions. Aim for a high degree of mindfulness with simultaneous and continuous insight.
After Insight Practice
When your formal practice session is over, set an intention to carry insight practice forward into daily life and use the experiences of daily life as further practice material.
After insight practice, periodically evaluate your progress and clarify your intentions for future practice. There are several ways you can do this.
Learn to be your own guru! I believe this is important, even if you’re working with teachers and mentors. After you meditate, consider what you hoped to experience and what you actually experienced. Identify your unanswered questions and clarify your intentions for future meditation sessions. You can do this as a self-reflective mental exercise or in writing. As I discuss in my article on how to meditate, writing in a meditation log or journal after you meditate can be helpful.
One way to evaluate your progress is to expose yourself to other people’s descriptions of insight and compare your experience to theirs. Do their descriptions make sense to you? Are they describing places (mental states) that seem familiar to you or places that seem foreign? If what they describe seems foreign, assess whether or not the practices you’re doing actually lead to the places they are describing; it could be that the practices you’re doing actually lead elsewhere. This process is complicated by the fact that spiritual awakening means different things to different people, and similar terminology can be used to refer to different aspects of awakening. That’s one reason why working with teachers and mentors can be helpful; a good teacher or mentor can help you cut through your confusion.
Exposing yourself to a variety of perspectives on insight can help you find teachers and mentors who you resonate with. Assuming that you have access to teachers and mentors who you trust, the most efficient way to evaluate your progress is likely to discuss your experience with them. An effective mentor can point you in the right direction and help you move past places where you’re stuck. You should feel less confused—not more—after a discussion with a spiritual teacher or mentor; if you feel more confused, look elsewhere for guidance. In my experience, I’ve found it helpful to work with several teachers and mentors concurrently to get a variety of perspectives on my practice.
- February 12, 2016: Initial publication.
- July 27, 2016: Added the sections “Stages and States of Insight,” “Cultivating States of Insight,” and “Recognizing States of Insight.”