Look at something. Concentrate on the visual experience you’re having. Notice your sense of being a witness of the experience, separate from the experience. As you concentrate on the experience, silently ask yourself, “What experiences this?” and start searching for a direct experience of the supposed witness. 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, and you perceive a newfound evenness in your field of subjective experience—it’s clear that it’s all just experience, with no separate witness to be found. Rest in the shift you’ve experienced and let concentration and insight merge.
We usually take it for granted that we’re somewhere “in here,” experiencing things “out there.” 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.
- Search for a separate subject (that experiences it).
- 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.
- Stop searching.
- 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 a current subjective experience to work with. Any experience that you can concentrate on will work—but to start with, choose an experience that’s not 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 that you’ve chosen. Do some concentration meditation, using the experience that you’ve chosen 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.)
Search for a Separate Subject
Notice your sense of being a separate subject—a witness or observer of the experience, distinct from the experience. As you continue to concentrate on the experience you’ve chosen, silently ask yourself, “What experiences this?” and start searching your field of current nonconceptual experience for this supposed separate subject. (You will need to split your attention—resting some of your attention on the experience you’ve chosen and using some of your attention to search for that which experiences it.)
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 an experience without searching) to restore your concentration—then proceed on to this step (searching for that which experiences) and try again. (You can choose a different experience 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 perceive a newfound evenness in your field of subjective experience—it’s clear that it’s all just experience, with no distinct subject to be found. (Your subject-object framework has collapsed—for now.) Your intellect lets go, 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 all questions and stop searching. Rest in the shift that you’ve experienced and let concentration and insight merge. Aim for a stable, clear state of mind with an evenness of experience. (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 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.
- Remember, you’re searching for a direct experience (a nonconceptual experience) of the supposed separate subject; you’re not searching for ideas, theories, or beliefs about it. When thoughts arise (like “my body experiences this” or “my brain experiences this”), note them and move on.
You may have a sense that there’s a location where the separate subject resides. (For me, it seems to be somewhere in my head behind my eyes.) Search there and notice what experiences you find. (For me, it’s usually a subtle feeling of fullness or tension.) Regardless of what you find, ask yourself, “Have I found what experiences, or just another experience?”
You may wonder whether what you seek lies beyond the range of you can currently perceive. If so, imagine finding it, and ask yourself, “If I were to find what I’m seeking, how would I know? How would that experience differ from any other?” (Would it be extra-sparkly? Would it sound like monks chanting?)
As you search for the supposed separate subject, you may have fleeting experiences of something that disappears or moves elsewhere when you try to focus on it. That’s fine; you don’t have to concentrate on these experiences, you just have to notice them. When you notice them, remember them, and ask yourself the questions in the above two bullet points.
One reason you may need at least an intermediate level of concentration to do this practice is that at lower levels of concentration, your attention is likely to be carried away into involuntary thinking when you start searching.
Don’t expect to find what you’re searching for, but do search. Searching helps facilitate a shift in perception (as opposed to a shift in conceptual understanding alone).
Beyond the Basics
You can intensify the basic practice above in a couple of ways.
Investigating both Experience and Self
You’ve probably noticed the congruence between this practice and investigating the nature of experience; step one is the same in each practice, and steps two and three are similar. After you gain familiarity with each practice, you can try combining them. For instance, in step two, you might alternate between asking yourself “What is this experience?” and “What experiences this?”
Building Range and Expansiveness
You can experiment with building range and expansiveness in your choice of an experience to concentrate on. For instructions on how to do this, see the section “Building Range and Expansiveness” in my article “How to Use Inquiry to Investigate the Nature of Experience.” It can be powerful to work with your entire field of subjective experience.
In this practice, your choice of an experience to concentrate on may be less important than when you’re investigating the nature of experience, since, in this practice, the experience serves more as a launching-off point and less as a focus of inquiry.
These instructions have been informed by personal experience gained through practice, by the published work of Buddhist teacher Ken McLeod, and by my experiences with the Karma Kagyu lineage of Tibetan Buddhism.