(Part of a series on How to Awaken.)
Our conceptual faculties give us the power to think, to reason, and to make sense of life. As we grow, our developing conceptual faculties give us increasingly sophisticated abilities to understand and perceive ourselves and reality. However, we pay a price for this power: we become increasingly identified with conceptual constructs, and our experience of life becomes increasingly filtered through conceptual understanding. We unconsciously make up a story that explains life, then we lose track of life and focus all our attention on the story. Insight reminds us that the story is just a story.
Insight practice involves examining (and revising) stories that affect our perception of several fundamental aspects of life. More precisely, insight practice is the experiential exploration of the relationships between self, reality, awareness, and subjective experience. The result of insight practice is insight, which is both an understanding of those relationships and an ability to access modes of perception in which those relationships are evident.
Why Cultivate Insight?
For me, insight practice has led to a dramatic and welcome reduction in my overall level of anxiety. It’s not that I have no fear—I’m still afraid of plenty—but insight has reduced my fear of being worthless and my fear of not existing because insight reveals that “I” have never existed, and there is nothing there to be bad or worthless. In moments of insight, the perception of “I” disappears and all that’s left is “my”—my body, my habits, my relationships, and so forth. This frees me to respond less reactively to life’s challenges. If a mountain lion were chasing me through the forest, would I feel afraid of being eaten? You bet! Would I feel afraid of ceasing to exist after death? Less so now than before I started doing insight practice.
Intermediate and advanced stages of insight practice can help you transcend and include conceptual understanding. You transcend it in that you free yourself (and your experience of life) from unconscious embeddedness in conceptual constructs, and you include it in that after insight, all the power of conceptual understanding remains available to you. With insight, you don’t lose your conceptual faculties—you shift your relationship to them.
Insight Can Be Disturbing
Cultivating insight can be disturbing. At advanced stages, insight practice removes us from the familiar conceptual matrix that we developed in, leaving us in a conceptual free fall in which nothing is certain. Insight practices have the potential to be psychologically destabilizing, especially for people with a fragile personality or a weak grasp on reality. The aim of insight practice is not to weaken your ability to cope with life or to make you lose touch with reality; if any of that seems to be happening, use your judgment about how to proceed, and consider seeking guidance from someone whose advice you trust. It may be that at this time, your awakening would be best served by cultivating vitality, mindfulness, and compassion (rather than insight)—or, it may be that you simply need to take a break and regain your balance before proceeding. For some, insight practice causes problems; for others, it doesn’t. The more mindful and psychologically healthy you are when doing insight practices, the safer and more effective they will be.
In my own insight practices, I’ve experienced awe, joy, and exhilaration, as well as many experiences that have been less pleasant: temporary states of fear, nausea, confusion, disorientation, and depersonalization. I’ve also had a number of very bizarre dreams that seem related to insight practice.
Can Insight Be Understood?
I’ve heard it said that insight can’t be understood. It might be more accurate to say that understanding insight isn’t sufficient for attaining it. That’s because insight isn’t just a shift in understanding; it’s also a shift in perception. Perception is a deeply ingrained habit, and cultivating a shift in perception requires practice (not just conceptual learning and understanding). This makes insight distinct from philosophy.
Personally, I’ve found that having an understanding of insight has helped me cultivate insight. If you want to get somewhere, it helps to understand where you’re going. I’ve also found descriptions of insight helpful as a measure of insight; as I gained deeper insight, descriptions of insight that had previously seemed paradoxical started to make sense. However, be aware that you can study insight forever and never actually achieve insight—so, if you want to achieve it, plan to spend at least as much time on spiritual practice as you do on spiritual study.
How to Cultivate Insight
I believe insight practice is best approached in seven stages:
- Stage 1: You’re Real
- Stage 2: You’re One with Reality
- Stage 3: You’re the Witness
- Stage 4: Inverting Experience and Reality
- Stage 5: Awareness and Experience are One
- Stage 6: Experience Is
- Stage 7: Disembedding Yourself from All Frames of Reference
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.
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 Seven Stages of Spiritual 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. (My article A Framework for Insight Practice describes how to do this.)
For more on how insight can be disturbing (and how that can manifest), see The Dark Side of Dharma and The Dark Night Project, a two-part interview with Willoughby Britton about her research project “The Difficult Stages of the Contemplative Path.”
In Other Frameworks
My approach to cultivating insight has been informed by the published work of Buddhist teacher Ken McLeod, my experiences with meditation instructor Kenneth Folk, my experiences with Buddhist teacher Lama Yeshe Gyamtso, and my experiences with the Karma Kagyu lineage of Tibetan Buddhism.
The published work of Buddhist teacher Ken McLeod has informed several ideas in this article, including the concept of the world of shared experience and the idea that insight reveals a different way of experiencing life.
The published work of philosopher Ken Wilber has informed my use of the transcend and include concept.
I’m grateful to meditation instructor Kenneth Folk for providing helpful feedback as I revised my articles on insight and for helping me promote them:
— Kenneth Folk (@KennethFolk) July 13, 2015
(Read the next article in this series: How to Cultivate Compassion.)
- July 11, 2015: Initial publication.
- April 2, 2016: Added links to three of my articles on insight practice, removed some resources based on other frameworks.
- July 27, 2016: Refined my definition of insight, expanded my model of insight practice from two to seven stages, and moved detailed stage descriptions into this article.