Look at something—for instance, a stone. Concentrate on the visual experience you’re having. Notice your sense that this experience corresponds to an actual, real stone. Use questions to investigate the relationship between the visual experience you’re having and the supposed reality of the stone; for instance, “What do I experience more directly: experience or reality? If this is an experience, where is reality? What is reality? Could I ever experience reality directly? Am I sure this is real?” Many thoughts may arise. You may feel perplexed and uneasy. If you get distracted, start over. If you get too fatigued or disturbed, take a break. Eventually, you may experience a shift to a state of greater insight: your intellect lets go, your body relaxes, your breathing deepens, you feel energized. You begin to perceive the experience itself more clearly and vividly, and the reality that supposedly corresponds to the experience starts to seem more ephemeral. Rest in the shift you’ve experienced and let concentration and insight merge.
Reality is the apparent world of shared experience; the world of phenomena that both you and I can perceive. We tend to forget about subjective experience and assume that we perceive reality directly. The paragraph above shows how you can challenge this assumption through inquiry (a process of questioning). I’ve found this to be a powerful practice for cultivating insight. In this article, I describe this practice in depth.
Here’s an outline of the practice:
- Concentrate on an experience of something that seems real.
- Use questions to investigate the relationship between the experience and reality.
- If you fall into dullness or distraction, start over.
- If you get fatigued or disturbed, take a break.
- If you experience a shift to a state of greater insight, proceed.
- Let concentration and insight merge.
- Let go of the questions.
- Rest in the shift you’ve experienced.
I describe each of these steps in more detail in the “Basic Instructions” section, below. Then, in the “Beyond the Basics” section, I show how you can vary and intensify the practice.
Concentrate on an Experience
Choose something that seems real. Focus your attention on your current subjective experience of that thing. The experience shouldn’t be too fleeting; it should be ongoing (or, at least, recurring), and it should be easy for you to concentrate on. I suggest you start with the visual experience of something you see in front of you with your eyes open; for instance, the visual experience of a stone on the floor in front of you.
Rest your attention on the experience. Do some concentration meditation, using the experience as your object of attention. If you don’t have much experience with this practice, for best results, don’t move on until you are in a state of at least intermediate concentration (that is, at least at the fifth milestone—the higher your level of concentration, the better). (After you gain some familiarity with this practice, it can be effective at lower levels of concentration, as well.)
Investigate the Relationship between the Experience and Reality
Notice your sense that this experience corresponds to something real. As you continue to concentrate on the experience you’ve chosen, silently ask yourself questions to help you investigate the relationship between the experience and the supposed reality that corresponds to it. There are many possible questions you could work with; I suggest you start with the questions, “What do I experience more directly: experience or reality? If this is an experience, where is reality? What is reality? Could I ever experience reality directly? Am I sure this is real?” Ask your questions one at a time and mindfully attend to what arises in response. Allow thoughts, emotions, and body sensations to arise; don’t try to stop them, but don’t get distracted by them, either.
Eventually (usually within seconds or minutes) one of the following things is likely to happen:
- You may fall into dullness or distraction. If you’re not too fatigued or disturbed, return to the previous step (concentrating on the experience without asking any questions) to restore your concentration—then proceed on to this step (using a question to observe the experience) and try again. (You can choose a different experience and/or different questions to work with, if you want.)
You may get fatigued. If so, it’s time to take a break from insight practice and restore your vitality. This practice is best approached in brief sessions of high intensity—not marathon sessions.
You may feel disturbed and overwhelmed. If so, it’s time to take a break. See the section “Insight Can Be Disturbing” in my introductory article on insight.
You may experience a shift to a state of greater insight. You begin to perceive the experience itself more clearly and vividly, and the reality that supposedly corresponds to the experience starts to seem more ephemeral. You experience more humility and equanimity as your intellect lets go of its quest for certainty about what’s real. Your body relaxes, your breathing deepens, and you feel energized. It may take a while before this shift occurs, but when it does, it occurs fairly suddenly. This shift may be subtle—especially at first—so don’t necessarily expect fireworks.
Let Concentration and Insight Merge
After you experience a shift to a state of greater insight, let go of your questions. Rest in the shift that you’ve experienced and let concentration and insight merge. Aim for a stable, clear state of mind with continued humility and equanimity. (If you want, you can return your focus to concentration practice at this point; you may find that insight makes concentration practice easier.)
When insight and/or concentration fade, you can start this practice over again (possibly choosing different questions and/or a different experience to work with). When you’re ready to end your practice session, set an intention to carry the benefits of the practice into your daily life.
- I find reality to be a useful concept, and I find it helpful to distinguish what’s real from what’s not. Losing the ability to make that distinction isn’t enlightenment, it’s psychosis; becoming psychotic is not the aim of this practice.
What this practice does reveal is that we don’t experience reality directly; all we ever experience is subjective experience, and our understanding of what’s real is based on our interpretation of our subjective experience. In other words, reality isn’t experienced; it’s interpreted. It’s possible to understand this conceptually without doing any meditation or inquiry; however, conceptual understanding alone is unlikely to foster ongoing shifts in perception. That’s why practice is important.
You may be familiar with materialism and related frameworks, which devalue subjective experience as a mere byproduct (or epiphenomenon) of reality. In my experience, doing this practice can shift that orientation; through this practice, subjective experience gains prominence as the experience of reality is seen to arise within subjective experience as a subset of subjective experience. (Notice that this doesn’t imply that the universe is in your head, that you’re alone in the universe, or anything else about the structure of reality; while this practice reveals reality as interpreted, it doesn’t privilege any particular interpretation. )
Beyond the Basics
You can vary the basic practice above by choosing different questions to use in your investigation and by choosing different types of experiences to investigate.
Choosing and Asking Questions
When choosing a question, choose any question that helps you investigate the relationship between the experience and the supposed reality that corresponds to it. Here are some of my favorites:
- “What do I experience more directly: experience or reality?”
- “If this is an experience, where is reality?”
- “What is reality?”
- “Could I ever experience reality directly?”
- “Am I sure this is real?”
- “Is the reality of this thing a fact or an interpretation of my experience?”
- “If it’s an interpretation, are there other possible interpretations?”
- “Could this be a dream?”
It’s fine to make up your own questions. What are you curious about? Go there!
Choosing Experiences to Investigate
You can up the ante in this practice by working with multisensory experiences. For instance, instead of just looking at a rock, look at it while simultaneously holding it in your hand and feeling its solidity. Instead of just looking at a raisin, put it in your mouth, feel its texture, and taste it. Concentrate on the total sensory experience, then investigate the relationship between that experience and reality.
These instructions have been informed by personal experience gained through practice, by the published work of Buddhist teacher Ken McLeod, by my experiences with Buddhist teacher Lama Yeshe Gyamtso, and by my experiences with the Karma Kagyu lineage of Tibetan Buddhism.