Mailbag: Insight Meditation, Breath Meditation, Shinzen Young, and Daniel Ingram Critique
I received an email from my student PP, which turned into a fairly long interview with some very important and detailed tech and guidance.
When do you think I should start insight meditation? I remember you mentioning something about it on Skype in May.
I’m not sure what to advise here. If I could go back and do it all again, I would avoid Daniel Ingram’s stuff. It had some cool bits in it but I think overall it’s not what the Buddha intended.
Shinzen Young is still my main influence. His core principle is simply: “observe all with mindfulness and equanimity”. I didn’t just keep that to my meditation practice sessions however – I interpreted it as meaning do it all the time. I’m not sure if that was good or bad. It led to all the PPM techs, though.
If I could go back I would probably do Shinzen Young’s method, but only during predetermined meditation sessions. I would do 30 minutes every day, and just do that every day forever and treat it as a “systems reboot”. Meanwhile, while not meditating, I would just get on with my life, and not set any goals with meditation. So, I wouldn’t try to get enlightened or gain stages on the Path of Insight or whatever.
My meditation would look like this:
- Sit and get as comfortable as possible – then make the decision to not fidget or adjust myself for the next 30 minutes, and set a timer.
- Watch the breath. A light kind of attention, not intense like concentration meditation. Thoughts should be able to come and go. The breath is just something to return to.
- Any thought or body sensation that occurs, let it arise as it wishes, observe it with mindfulness and equanimity, then return attention to the breath. You can make brief verbal-thought notes in your mind about the thought/sensation if you like, but don’t dwell. This kind of noting could be along the lines of, “Pain”. “Fear.” “Warm.”
After a while of this, the thoughts just start floating by like clouds. After some more time there are very few thoughts and there is a very peaceful state which persists for some time afterwards. It is perfect before bed for a deep, often dreamless sleep. This meditation is how I cured my insomnia all those years ago, in like a week.
What I’ve just described is going to be the main content of my Basic Breath Meditation guide which is going up at some point.
So obviously this meditation is NOT concentration meditation, and there is no diligent investigation of sensations so it is NOT hardcore insight meditation. HOWEVER, this meditation alone got me to the Knowledge of Mind and Body, the first stage on the Theravadan Path of Insight:
It’s a really nice stage and state to reach. The mind suddenly opens and “pops” into clarity. For me, this happened while I had my eyes open so it was really noticeable. 🙂 My primary experience of this stage was as follows:
- Noticing that verbal thoughts no longer “hurt”. Before this moment, verbal thoughts had this kind of “tug” on me, which caused a kind of pain. It’s hard to describe, but basically I only really became aware of this “tug” verbal thoughts have on your mind and body once it had disappeared. It was like the mooring ropes had suddenly been cut on a huge ship, allowing it to float freely without pulling me all over the place.
- The mind — my awareness of my surroundings — suddenly became very spacious. It was like objects now sat in “space”. Before this, they tended to be more tightly woven into my awareness — again, like they were “moored”. Thoughts themselves also now had space around them. I noticed that thoughts kind of float around like objects. At this point I instantly began to get a LOT more control over my thoughts, and this moment kickstarted most of the tech that I then developed on PPM. If you haven’t reached this stage, you will probably find a lot of what I write to be extremely difficult to practise. I often take it for granted that the majority of people in the world have not reached this stage, one of the most basic forms of self-awareness.
- I could now see objects through a “gap” in awareness. So it was like looking at them through a completely clear hole, with fuzz in the periphery. Verbal thoughts actually interfere with eyesight. They make things fuzzy, like they are being pulled around. Suddenly, I was looking at something and I could see it clearly. That was a strange and elating experience. It began to happen after every practice. Another palpably amazing moment was when I was talking to my brother and he was in this “clear gap” and I could now clearly see how my body responded to him and how the whole thing fitted together, and stuff he said which might have bothered me before just kind of floated around. I remember just laughing at one point.
- I then began to have other, regular, “unified” experiences. For example, I saw an aeroplane taking off and, while it was in this “clear gap” in consciousness, I could literally feel the weight of the metal bird as its engines hauled it into the sky.
I did not know about any of the “Stages of Insight” when all this happened; it was just a wonderful surprise which resulted in a permanent shift. And I did that with just the breath meditation above. So practise that daily, and I think it will only bring good things.
If everybody just reached this stage — which only took me a few months of regular practice — then the world would be a completely different place. It would be unrecognizable from the world we live in today. Before reaching this stage, people “are” their thoughts. There is no space, and they are gripped and pulled around by them. Just the breath meditation above, practised daily, will cut the mooring ropes and let thoughts and objects float freely in awareness.
I want to make an important point here regarding practice:
- The real gains get made when you switch up to meditation sessions of 30 minutes or longer. In my estimation, one month of 30 minutes’ meditation a day would be equivalent to a whole year at 15 minutes a day. The difference really is that exponential. Many guides in the West, e.g. the sort you might see in Cosmo — but even “proper” meditation guides, e.g. books such as The Presence Process — advise 15-minute sessions. I know why they are doing this — they are trying to get you to actually meditate, and don’t want to scare you off by telling you to do 30 minutes. But they are being too light on you. You must do meditation in sessions of 30 minutes or longer. If I could go back and advise my younger self, this would be a main instruction I would give. Start at 30 minutes. This is one of the only areas where I will not go easy on you. The difference between a 30-minute meditation and a 15-minute meditation is enormous.
To bring you back to your original question, “When should I start insight meditation?”, I would say that, if you want to get enlightened, pursue a path, and in other words do “hardcore insight”, my advice would be to definitely get a real-life teacher, and also shop around before diving into any particular path. There are dozens of schools to choose from, and it needn’t even be Buddhism. Personally I like Shinzen Young’s methods. If you don’t want to get enlightened or pursue hardcore insight, you needn’t. It’s completely up to you. I do not considered myself “enlightened” and no longer take it particularly seriously as a concept. That in itself might point to something some may consider “enlightenment”. 😛
Thanks for a very detailed response! Why did you decide to stop using Ingram’s stuff, and is there no benefit at all in continuing concentration meditation for me?
A long story short, I drew very similar conclusions about Ingram’s methodology (as outlined in Mastering the Core Teachings of the Buddha) as the following guy. This is a comment I just happened to see on a YouTube video: Daniel Ingram – Buddha at the Gas Pump Interview. The comment was written by a guy called Jordan Benjamin (who I do not know; like I say, this was just a random find).
His comments near the top are rambly and quote scripture, e.g.:
Arahats don’t have jobs as Md’s they are also incapable of killing lying stealing ANY sexual activity and intentionally taking intoxicants
…which made me think he was just a crank. However, I scrolled down and found this absolute gem by him which summed up, in that moment, pretty much exactly where I was at in my views regarding Ingram.
I’ll just paste the full comment here as you can’t link to YouTube comments any more:
The outcome of the practice recommended in the book is not the outcome of practicing the Buddha’s teaching, which is nibbana (“unbinding”), the end of dukkha (usually translated as “suffering” or “stress”). The product of Ingram’s practice as recommended in this book is a state of endless cycling through something which Ingram, borrowing from St John of the Cross, calls the Dark Night, some of whose stages are Fear, Misery, Disgust and Desire for Deliverance (as well as nicer sounding states like Equanimity). There is no end to be reached, just a state of endless repetition of these stages at four succeedingly higher levels which are called by the same names as the Buddha’s four stages of awakening, although they are clearly not the same thing at all. Rather than being the end of dukkha which the Buddha taught, this is more “being OK with dukkha made worse by the practice”. It seems difficult to understand why anybody would want to do this, unless it’s to get the same kind of satisfaction that you get from ascending the levels in a computer game. Ingram even has the term “technical meditator” for someone who can call up these stages of the Dark Night at will, almost as a show of skill. It seems to have little to do with the end of suffering, which is supposed to be the whole point of meditative practice.
The fact that the expected practice outcome is cycling though dukkha is not made clear in the book. The reader is allowed to assume that the objective is the same as the Buddha’s, nibbana. It only becomes apparent from Ingram’s website. This website has attracted people who appreciated the open and pragmatic ethos of the book and is one of the most hospitable places on the internet for discussion of dhamma practice. The differences between the teaching in this book (usually called “MCTB”) and those of the Buddha are openly acknowledged on the site, including the fact that “MCTB arahat” (Ingram’s claim to attainment) is not the same as “sutta arahat” (as described in the Pali suttas, the record of the Buddha’s teaching conversations during his life) and the fact that the MCTB map is not the same as the Buddha’s “ten fetter model”.
Ingram himself has recognised that he has further to go (which “sutta arahats” don’t) and a couple of years ago started practices inspired by a teaching called Actual Freedom, coached by some of his former pupils. Part of this practice is attaining states called “Pure Consciousness Experiences” (“PCEs”) and Ingram has written freely about his attainment of these states and the fact that the experience of “PCE Daniel” is far preferable to that of “cycling Daniel”. More recently he has written about a “veil” being torn away that had existed unknown between him and the world.
It seems to be emerging that the “Space Invaders / shooting aliens” noting practice (you’ll have to read the book!) that Ingram teaches is what produces the “attention wave”, “phase problems” and the perceptual instabilities and vibrations that he calls the Three Characteristics (the Buddha actually never used this term, and meant something different by the term Three Perceptions which he used) and it’s what pushes people into the Dark Night. The Buddha taught a very different whole-body awareness practice that did not separate samatha (calm and concentration) and vipassana (insight) and he described nothing remotely resembling the Dark Night. There are many discussions on the website involving people trying to locate themselves on the Progress of Insight map and more often than not it seems difficult or impossible to do. There have been discussions placing the same person right at the beginning and right at the end of the Progress based on the same practice report, so vague and confusing are the signs of each stage. People seem to end up scripting their experience to follow the maps as far as they can, or dropping the maps altogether and taking up other practices that they find more helpful.
Ingram is in the process of starting to prepare a second edition of the book and it will be interesting to see whether he still teaches the practice leading to the dark night (in contrast to the Buddha’s practice leading to the end of suffering) or puts it aside in favour of his more recent and apparently more productive practice. If he retains the current content hopefully he will at least correct the title to something less misleading.
For a serious practitioner this is a “must read”, not just for its historical interest as a stage of the development of the teaching of the dhamma in the West, but also for its analysis of many of the problems of modern Buddhism. We must be grateful to Ingram for opening up a discussion of dhamma practice based on the idea that you’re doing it for a purpose and you can get results. However, the practices described in this book are not those of the Buddha and they do not lead where he went.
Back to your question: Ingram’s stuff on concentration meditation is still pretty good in my opinion, especially his descriptions of the jhanas. However, his guidance on how to actually do concentration meditation is not detailed enough in my opinion, hence why I have done my best to write several guides on the matter. You could continue practising concentration meditation if you wanted to get the more spectacular jhanas. Good concentration skills are always of benefit to have. It is always good to have a reliable way to feel great at will, and concentration meditation allows you to do that.
However, at your stage right now, if I were you I would swap to the breath meditation I described above for a month and see what you think. You can always practise both! These meditations are not exclusive. Just be very clear with yourself about which meditation you are going to practise in any given session. The best way to do this is via a formal resolution:
- “For the next 30 minutes I am going to practise concentration meditation.”
- “For the next 30 minutes I am going to practise breath meditation, allowing thoughts to arise and pass with a gentle awareness of them.”
Literally say the words in your mind, or out loud, so you feel a sense of determination in your body. There is a sensation you get when you decide you are definitely going to do something. A formal resolution generates that feeling, which “seals in” the intention behind that session and makes it a thousand times more likely to manifest. Formal resolutions are infinitely useful for a wide range of things, and not just in meditation. The coverage of formal resolutions in MCTB is another of its good points.
Thank you for another very detailed and interesting response. I had a very good concentration practice last night, and I feel like I have to give it at least another week or so before I take any time off from it, just to see where it goes.
Great! Yes, I advise following your gut in this way. It often lets you know when you are about to have a breakthrough. Breakthroughs can also occur spontaneously, as mine did with the Knowledge of Mind and Body awakening described earlier. Meditation is a box of chocolates! 🙂