Experiments in Insight Meditation

Experiments in Insight Meditation


Rod Bucknell



This is a report on my experiences with insight meditation (vipassana-bhavana) during a four-and-a-half year period spent in Thailand and India. It deals only in small part with my formal vipassana training; that lasted barely two months and is only briefly summarized. For the most part it describes independent experiments with meditative techniques which I assumed, at the time, to be original and unorthodox. Subsequent reading has indicated that those techniques, though not widely practised, are in fact well known within certain schools of meditation. This has reinforced my belief in the value of the techniques, and has encouraged me to publish a report on my experience.


Formal Vipassana Training

The vipassana centre in Bangkok where I began my meditative training claimed to teach the system of practice developed by Mahasi Sayadaw of Myanma, often called Burmese satipatthana. The practice was based on two related exercises: (1) concentration on a single object, namely the sensations accompanying the rising and falling movements of the abdomen in breathing, practised while sitting with eye closed; and (2) constant attention to the various sensations experienced while engaged in simple activities (walking, eating, etc.), all of which had to be performed in slow motion. In both of these exercises any digressions from the assigned object of attention had to be mentally noted. Distracting sensations were identified as "itching," "pain," "hearing," etc., and distracting thoughts as "daydreaming," "planning," "theorizing," etc. The two exercises were alternated: half an hour of sitting, half an hour of walking, and so on throughout most of the eighteen-hour waking day.

    Judged by my teacher's comments at our daily interviews, and by the published reports of other meditators which I subsequently read, my experiences under this rigorous regime were in most respects typical. Like most beginners in meditation, I initially had great difficulty in stemming the flow of thought and keeping attention on the prescribed object; I experienced astonishment and distress on realizing the triviality and worthlessness of most of my mental content; and I gained occasional useful insights into formerly hidden layers of my personality.

    After two weeks of practice I was able to maintain concentration on the object for a minute or more at a time. This partial success in concentrating brought with it certain pleasant experiences. I increasingly found, on opening my eyes and rising from my seat, that my perception of the world and of myself had undergone subtle changes. Colours, textures, and shapes seemed to have become unusually clear and vivid; there was a refreshing newness, interest, and beauty in objects that had formerly been dull and humdrum; time seemed to have stood still, so that I lived in an eternal present moment -- while the effect lasted; and I felt as if I had been somehow purified of negative emotions and was radiating benevolence toward all beings. These positive effects gave me much-needed encouragement, and I redoubled my meditative efforts.

    At the end of three weeks I was able to maintain uninterrupted mental one-pointedness for prolonged periods. During such periods nothing was present in consciousness but the meditation object, the sensations in the abdomen. The rest of the body, and the world outside it, had ceased to exist. I identified completely with the sensations: I was the sensations. Increasingly I experienced synaesthetic effects. For example, I often "saw" the pattern of sensations in the abdomen in various forms -- usually as an oscillating system of levers, or as a pulsating globe of light. On my teacher's advice I took this mental image as my new object of concentration. (The sitting practice had, by this stage, become the principal component of the meditative regime; mindful walking was now of secondary importance.) Then one day, as I was concentrating on my pulsating image, it suddenly disappeared, plunging me into a pitch-back emptiness. My teacher regarded this strange experience as an important meditative attainment, and told me to cultivate and prolong it. I followed his instruction for a time -- until I learned that the objective was to prolong the state of emptiness to twenty-four hours. The achievement of that feat would constitute successful completion of the meditation course.

    At that point I decided it was time to leave the vipassana centre. I had begun to doubt the value of this state of mental emptiness, and of some of my other hard-won meditative skills as well. Thanking my teacher, I left Bangkok and moved to Chiangmai in the north of the country.

    In Chiangmai I entered another vipassana centre, to find out if their methods were significantly different. There were differences in detail, but they amounted simply to different ways of inducing the same concentrated state. After five days I left. I moved into a quiet wat (monastery) and, disregarding my former teacher's last words to me, gave up meditating. There followed a period of reflection and evaluation of the experience I had been through.

    In retrospect my training in vipassana meditation seemed to me the most important and valuable thing I had ever done. At the same time I found much to criticize. I came to the conclusion that "insight meditation" was hardly an appropriate term for the kind of practice I had been engaged in. While there had been some incipient insights, the nature of the practice had been such as to prevent my following them up. Repeatedly I had had to abandon promising lines of introspective observation in order to return to the concentration practice; concentration had always received the primary emphasis. I had once mentioned my frustration on this point to my teacher. He had told me that such curiosity about the mechanism of thought must be recognized as an alluring side-track, something that one had to forgo in order to progress; and he had gently reprimanded me for coming to the course with preconceptions about how it ought to proceed, and for having less than total faith in the method. At that time I had been prepared to suppress my introspective curiosity, to provisionally accept the method on faith, and to press on with concentrating on my abdomen. Now in retrospect it seemed that the emphasis had been wrongly placed. I had been taught how to have experiences rather than how to observe or understand them. For example, by mastering concentration I had experienced a remarkable clarity of perception and other effects, but I had not gained any insight into the nature or cause of those experiences. I had not been able to discover what change in the mind's mode of functioning was responsible for the supernormal clarity of perception, the jamais vu feeling, and so on. As for the normal, everyday processes of the mind, these remained almost as much a mystery as ever. I had hoped (here, admittedly, another preconception taken with me into the course) that I would be taught how to observe mental process from the inside. But in that direction we had gone no further than labelling digression as "daydreaming," "planning," etc.

    I was unable to be more precise than this in identifying the reasons for my dissatisfaction with the practice. What I was sure of, however, was that I placed high value on insight into the mind, and that the course of practice had brought little of that. I discussed my problem with several monks at the wat, some of them meditators with years of experience. A few agreed that the emphasis on mental emptiness was a serious fault, and maintained that it represented a distortion of Mahasi Sayadaw's teaching. They said that the real objective was insight into the "three universal characteristics": transience, suffering, and non-selfhood. My teacher had in fact drawn my attention to these "characteristics"; for example, pains in the abdomen, formerly unnoticed but revealed during concentration, were evidence of the universality of suffering. I had been inclined to take such observations rather as evidence that an individual's interpretation of an altered state of consciousness reflect his or her religious conditioning. (The three characteristics are repeatedly mentioned in the Buddhist canon and in monks' teachings.)

    One of the monks I consulted condemned the entire Burmese satipatthana method as lacking textual authority. He advised me to practise instead mindfulness of breathing (anapana-sati), textually the best authenticated of all meditative techniques. Although this was again a form of concentration practice, and although I now had neither the guidance of a teacher nor the conductive environment of a meditation centre, I decided, without much enthusiasm, to try it.

    In mindfulness of breathing as usually practised, the object of concentration is the fine tactile sensation experienced at the nostril as the breath moves in and out. I found this subtle object far more difficult to concentrate on than the abdomen had been. This difficulty, combined with the lack of guidance and my skepticism about the value of concentration, meant that, in spite of the experience gained in Bangkok, I made slow progress. But this unpromising situation brought unforeseen benefits; for in the course of attempting to control my unruly mind, I developed, almost by accident it seemed, a new meditative technique. This technique led to others, yielding in time my own version of a course in insight meditation.



Like most meditators I had been stuck by the fact that the topics to which my mind wandered were often totally unrelated to my actual situation, suggesting a lack of any coherence in the thinking process. I could be concentrating on my breathing one moment, and the next moment find myself speculating on the mechanical condition of my car, wondering if my washing was dry yet, or dwelling on a vivid fantasy of biting into a tasty cheese sandwich. In order to find out something about the unseen process whereby such vast transitions came about, I introduced a variation into my practice. Instead of returning to the concentration object directly, as I had been taught to do, I carefully retraced my mental steps, making the mind return by the way it had come. The result was a reconstruction, in reverse, of the mental digression.

    There is nothing original in this technique. Probably most people have at some time tired retracing their mental tracks. It is an interesting thing to do if, for example, one suddenly realizes, in the middle of some task, that one is thinking of something totally different, and is curious to find out how this came about. The following example (chosen at random from many such in a recent meditation session ) illustrates how the procedure is applied in practice.

    While attempting to keep my attention focused on the tactile sensation at the rim of my right nostril, I suddenly realize that I am, instead, pondering on a long-standing, though essentially trivial problem, namely the lack of sufficient shelves in my office at work. Instead of returning immediately to the nostril, I reconstruct, in reverse order, the sequence of thoughts. From my cluttered office, with its inadequate shelves, I go back to a set of white-painted shelves standing unused in the garage at home; then I go back to a similar white-painted set of shelves in a friend's house; then to the last occasion on which I visited that friend, when, seated near the set of shelves, he demonstrated his limited talent on the cello (the cello bow at one stage actually knocked against the shelves); then to a concert I once attended, featuring an impressive performance by a very stout male cellist with piano accompaniment; then to the pianist, regarding whom my principal impression was that he seemed to slouch instead of sitting upright as a pianist should; then, finally, to my own posture which in the prolonged meditation session has become very slouched, producing a slight pain in the back. With the identification of this pain in my back as the beginning point of the digression, the reconstruction is complete: aching back -to-: slouching pianist -to-: stout cellist -to-: friend playing cello near shelves -to-: shelves in garage -to-: office with inadequate shelves.

    Recognizing that this retracing procedure had potential as a means for revealing the formerly hidden processes of thought, I began practising it regularly in association with the mindfulness of breathing. My practice then comprised a repeated cycle of three stages:

    1. concentration on the chosen object (the breathing);

    2. a short thought sequence, as the mind wanders from the object;

    3. retracing this thought sequence to its starting point.

    Previously the practice had been limited to stages 1 and 2; now, with stage 3 added, it became possible to discover the nature of the digressions.

    Practising in this way, I found that the same course of events was repeated again and again. Some initial stimulus (in the cited example, the pain of the back) would set in train a sequence of thoughts, which would rapidly lead far away from the starting point. By observing the general direction taken by thought sequences, I learned things about myself that I would otherwise perhaps never have suspected: unresolved conflicts, previously unrecognized interests, fears, etc. Reviewing this material had a perceptible therapeutic effect. Problems became less important, and I could smile at aspects of myself that I had previously taken too seriously. Retracing therefore became the principal component of my practice. Concentration was now of secondary importance. However, I found that concentration could not be abandoned altogether; indeed it proved to be an indispensable part of the meditative procedure, serving as an anchor to prevent the mind from drifting too far.

    Since I was using mindfulness of breathing as the basis for my three-stage practice, I meditated initially in the accepted cross-legged posture and with eyes shut. Walking (as in the vipassana course) had no place in my regime. However, I soon decided to introduce mindful walking, in order to overcome a problem I was having with physical fatigue. I would walk slowly along a quiet path -- not, however, in the artificial, slow-motion fashion required by my vipassana teacher -- with eyes directed at the ground and attention focused on the changing visual pattern before me. Then, each time I realized the mind had wandered into a train of thought, I would retrace.

    This modification of the procedure, prompted initially by considerations of comfort and practical convenience, proved to have a profound effect on the nature of the meditation. Because the eyes were now open, the thoughts were seen contrasted with whatever was in the field of vision. Against that relatively substantial background each thought appeared as a semi-transparent picture, like a photographic slide projected on to a wall in a well lit room. I was now seeing my thoughts as mental images. Previously, when I had been meditating with the eyes closed, each image had occupied the whole of consciousness, because it had not been contrasted with direct visual sensation in this way. Like a slide projected on to a screen in a completely darkened room, its seemingly real contents had completely captured my interest, and consequently its true nature, as an image, had been overlooked. Now the situation was different. The new effect was exactly as if there were a slide-projector located somewhere just over my shoulder projecting pictures on to the path before me. I watched fascinated as each retracing revealed my thoughts as a "slide-show."

    I now modified the mindfulness of breathing practice, meditating thenceforth with my eyes open and, if at night, always with some form of lighting. The effect was even more striking than it had been in the walking practice. I saw that the slide-show analogy was very apt: each image was a faint but nevertheless very realistic reproduction of an earlier visual experience. Consider, for example, the experience of recalling the stout cellist. At a certain time in the past I had had the visual experience of seeing the cellist. Now there was a fainter representation of that visual experience: a picture of the cellist appeared, as if projected on to the wall before me. The images that appeared in any particular thought sequence were a tiny selection from the vast number available. It was as if (pursuing the slide-show analogy) I had an enormous album of slides depicting my past experiences, from which a few appropriate ones were selected for viewing on any particular occasion.

    Curious about the nature of images, I went on to develop a method that enabled me to examine them more closely. I found that after retracing a thought sequence, I was able to cause any one of the component images to arise again. Then, in much the same way as I had retraced the whole sequence, I could now "retrace" that single image. This procedure was in fact a kind of insightful looking at the image, seeing it in the new way that I was now learning to see images: as a slide projected on to whatever was in my field of vision. When looked at in this way the image would promptly disappear. However, I found I could then cause it to arise again, and repeat the process. Thus any chosen sample image could be called forth several times in succession and subjected to repeated insightful examination.

    This repeated examination of single images consolidated my new ability to see images as images, rather than as the things they depicted. I found it deprived images of their affective charge. For example, one fairly frequently recurring image, depicting a certain annoying man who sometimes visited me at the wat, had previously been seen as that annoying man, and had tended on each occasion to evoke further annoyance. Now it was seen as an image, and evoked no such reaction. When an image was seen as an image rather than as the things it depicted, it lost its power to evoke an affective response. Under such conditions all images were equal. The judgements "annoying," attractive," etc., appropriate enough for the contents of images, were not applicable to the images themselves. The contents carried affective charge; the images themselves, as mental events, were neutral.

    I was reminded of an experience I had had in childhood, when, on looking closely at the pictures in a newspaper, I had discovered that they were made up of patterns of dots. This had caused the pictures to assume a very different status. Their content had lost its appearance of reality and importance. Looked at in that way, as patterns of dots, all the pictures in the paper acquired a certain sameness; none was better or more interesting than another. Similarly now, my mental images seen in this new way, as process rather than content, were in effect all the same. Consequently, any form of affective involvement in them would have been totally inappropriate.

    Under normal circumstances we see images not as images, but as people, places, things, or whatever else they depict; and we react to them accordingly. Each time I retraced an image sequence, I realized that I had, up to the moment of retracing, been completely involved in its content. I realized that under normal circumstances I was as if absorbed in watching an endless television show. I had first become conscious of the existence of the mental television show (the endless stream of thought) on the day I had begun practising concentration, but I had never before realized with what fascination and emotional involvement I watched it. Now that I had learned to see thought as process rather than as content, I realized the extent of my former involvement.

    It occurred to me that in my normal waking condition I was actually involved in a long, very realistic dream. I then felt that I understood the significance of a statement I had come across in my early superficial reading on yoga. The gist of that statement was that, despite appearances to the contrary, our normal waking state has the quality of a dream. Just as one sees, on waking in the morning, that one's dream during the night was unreal, so one will see, on attaining the yogic awakening, that one's former everyday condition was a waking dream, an illusion, maya. At the time this had made little sense to me, because I had assumed that it referred to the nature of the physical objects around us, so that the yogic awakening would presumably reveal those objects as insubstantial and unreal, more or less as subatomic physics had shown them to be. But now it occurred to me that the reference must be to the thought-stream. That was the waking dream, the cosmic illusion, the maya. Previously I had hardly been conscious of its existence, let alone of its omnipresence and its remarkable power to delude. Now I had seen it in its true nature -- which, however, did not prevent my being taken in by it again and again. Insight into its nature had to be renewed each time, by retracing followed optionally by the more intensive technique of examining individual images.

    The shift of attention from content to process resembled the experience of suddenly realizing, in the middle of watching an absorbing television drama, that it is just a television drama. Most of the time the drama is perceived as real. One lives it, retracing with fear, joy, etc., as the plot develops. Then suddenly (perhaps as a result of some external disturbance) one realizes that the drama is merely a moving pattern of lights on a glass screen, which one is watching from the armchair on one's living-room. Seeing images as process rather than as content entails much the same insight, and it produces the same feeling of having seen through a very realistic illusion.

    Continued practice revealed that my earlier model of thought, as made up of pictures from a mental photograph album, had been an over-simplification. Not all images were re-presentations of former visual experiences. Some were new combinations of fragments from several different experiences, as, for example, when I imagined how my room would look if I were to rearrange the furniture. Others were abstract diagrams, as when I drew mental graphs to facilitate comprehension of mathematical relationships. But such constructed images proved to be extremely rare in comparison with simple re-presentations.


The Inner Voice

Another over-simplification that I later realized was the assumption that images -- more precisely, visual images -- were the only elements of thought. I had not suspected there was any other component present until one day, while engaged in the walking practice, I had a novel experience which made me realize my error. Having caught myself in the middle of a train of thought, I found that this had happened because I had been "stuck for a word" while carrying on a mental conversation; and the reason I was stuck for a word was that my mental conversation was in Thai, which language I had still only very imperfectly mastered. Up to that time my introspective examination of thought sequences had revealed only images. Now, for the first time, I became aware of a second component: mental verbalizing, "the inner voice." It seemed astonishing that I had not noticed the inner voice earlier, because it proved thereafter to be a conspicuous component of the thought-stream, and I knew very well it had been there all along. I repeatedly found, on retracing an image sequence, that one or more of the images, and sometimes also the stimulus that had initiated the sequence, were accompanied by mentally verbalized comments. For example, in the sequence leading from the ache in my back to the problem of inadequate shelves, the ache was accompanied by the comment, "Bad posture!" and the final image of the cluttered office by, "How can I work with stuff everywhere like this?" Usually what I heard was my own voice, as I addressed some implied listener; and where necessary the language used would switch to suit that listener. In the case of the interrupted mental conversation in Thai, the listener was a Thai monk whom I knew well, and whose face was depicted in the accompanying image. Less often it was the implied other party who was speaking, in which case the inner voice was generally a partial replay of an earlier actual conversation. With this second layer in the thought-stream recognized, the resemblance to a slide-show became even closer, for the slides were now found to be accompanied by a pattering commentary.

    Now fully conscious of the thought-stream as a combination of images plus the inner voice, I soon realized that thought could sometimes be very intrusive. I observed, for example, how my quiet enjoyment of a magnificent view was marred as soon as the inner voice began making comments. The effect was similar to that of a noisy group arriving with a radio playing loudly. The arising of images was equally disruptive. The images, perceived as if projected on top of the scene before me, obscured my view. They got in the way of visual perception; I was seeing the view as if through a veil. I found, however, that the veiling effect could be eliminated by developing concentration. This suppressed the imagery and verbalizing, yielding a refreshing clarity.

    In this way I found the answer to a question I had asked myself during the vipassana course: What is responsible for the remarkable subjective effects often experienced after a successful session of concentration practice? What causes the heightened sensory perception, the feeling of newness in everything, the sense of living in an eternal present? I now saw it clearly. These subjective effects come about when, by some means, such as perfecting concentration or becoming absorbed in the beauties of nature, the usual flow of mental imagery and verbalizing is halted, thus eliminating interference with incoming sensations. Normally the stream of thought flows on almost incessantly, like an endless, tiresome television program. Day and night -- except, presumably, in deep sleep -- sequences of images run on, one after the other, and the inner voice chatters away. This constant mental activity interferes seriously with perception. We see objects through an ever-changing veil of images, and hear sounds above the constant mental chatter. But we are unaware of this because it has always been so. When, through some means, the imagery and verbalizing are stopped, perception is altered. Colours and shapes, seen directly without the imagery, appear remarkably vivid. Sounds heard without interference from the inner voice are heard with great clarity. Objects which under normal circumstances would evoke associated images (the memories of previous experiences with similar objects), or comments by the inner voice, are now seen simply as they are, without reference to previous experience. This produces the sense of newness in everything. Without the repeatedly flashing images and the constantly droning inner monologue, one is deprived of an important in-built mental reference for judging temporal duration. Consequently one's other experiences become timeless; one seems to live in an eternal present moment.

    Having recognized how imagery and verbalizing interfered with perception, I thereafter observed again and again how this phenomenon impaired performance of everyday tasks, particularly the more mechanical ones. For example, if I was typing, accuracy remained high as long as imagery was absent and verbalizing was limited to the words actually being typed. But as soon as some word in the text or some external stimulus set in train a sequence of imagery, I began making mistakes. When there was imagery, my attention was divided. I had, as it were, one eye on the text and one eye on the images. I was able to effect a marked increase in proficiency by consciously suppressing imagery. Almost any given task could serve in place of mindfulness of breathing or slow walking as the foundation for concentration -- and for the retracing practice. For example, I would set about typing with the intention of keeping imagery suppressed; and then whenever an image sequence did arise, I would retrace it. The retracing caused only a minimal delay because I was now able to retrace very rapidly, and also because I often caught the first image before it had time to evoke another and give rise to a full sequence. In this way I managed to integrate many kinds of daily activity into the practice. Even serious reading could be done in this way. Like most readers, I was familiar with the experience of suddenly realizing, on reaching the bottom of a page, that I had little idea what that page contained, attention having shifted from the content of the page to the content of a train of imagery. I now made a practice of retracing each such digression before re-reading. This usually led back to a word on the page that had initiated the digression.

    Earlier it had distressed me, both in the vipassana course and during my initial practice of mindfulness of breathing, that reading and writing, and even serious conversation, were considered inimical to progress in meditation, and were therefore banned. Now such activities had become part of my practice. The earlier dichotomy between practice and everyday life had, to some extent, been broken down.


Positive Value of Imagery and Verbalization

Up to this time imagery and verbalizing had always seemed "undesirable." They impaired efficiency in the performance of daily tasks; they obscured perception of the world; and it was they that were responsible for the relatively boring, humdrum quality of the normal, unconcentrated condition. Certainly imagery and verbalizing, as the objects of my introspective observation, were the source of all insight. But that insight had so far revealed no desirable qualities in them.

    Increasing integration of the meditation into my daily activities led me gradually to revise this judgement. On one occasion, as I was setting out from the wat to attend a talk in the neighbouring town, it suddenly occurred to me that I ought to take a flashlight with me, as it would be dark when I returned. Retracing revealed the course of mental events that had led to this useful thought. The beginning point was my seeing a lizard scamper off into the grass beside the path. Then came a sequence of images depicting the following: a small snake seen a few days earlier; the old stone steps beside which I had seen that snake; myself stumbling on those steps while returning to my hut in semi-darkness the previous night; and, finally, my flashlight on the table in the hut. This kind of experience was repeated many times. Again and again I observed that image sequences could be useful.

    Another, more sophisticated function of imagery revealed itself during a session of formal walking practice. I heard a strange yet vaguely familiar sound coming from behind some trees a short distance to my right. It lasted a few seconds then stopped. The experience that ensued could be loosely reported as follows. "I could not at first identify the sound. Then I realized: it was the sound of a load of gravel sliding off the back of a dump-truck." However, a rigorously phenomenological description would go as follows. "Initially no image was present, there being nothing in consciousness but primary sensation, in particular the strange sound. Then there arose a mental image depicting a dump-truck discharging a load of gravel." Without the image the sound was just a sound; with the image the sound was identified, recognized. The recognition was the arising of the image, and vice versa. Such experiences proved common, especially in conversation. If my partner in a conversation mentioned, for example, the name "Mr. Somphong," there would arise -- usually -- an image depicting Mr. Somphong as I knew him. Failure of such an image to arise coincided with partial incomprehension on my part, a situation of which we might say, "I couldn't recall who Mr. Somphong was." Similarly in the reverse situation, where I was the one speaking, I found that my words were usually accompanied by images, and that the words were largely descriptions of what the images contained.

    In this way I noticed more and more frequently that imagery and verbalizing were an indispensable part of life. This tempered my earlier negative judgement of them. It now seemed that the question was not how to eliminate imagery and verbalizing, but rather how to keep them under constant observation so that (a) they would not get out of hand, and (b) they could be suppressed at a moment's notice if necessary. Increasingly, then, I felt that what was needed was to perfect the technique of observing images, so that one could live with them yet not be dominated by them. I did not know how to modify my practice in order to achieve that. It seemed that the practice of observing images-as-process was as far as it was possible to go with the technique of retracing. I saw too that retracing had certain inherent defects and limitations. One defect was that the insight attained through retracing was always retrospective and intermittent. Retracing brought insight into the nature of the image sequence, but only after the original sequence, the original mental event, was already over. I was never aware of the original sequence; I saw only a later reconstruction of it. Again, retracing always entailed drastic interference with trains of thought. It entailed, as it were dissecting out sample sections from the flow of thought and examining them in vitro. I sometimes felt, after retracing, that it would have been interesting to know what might have come next had the image sequence been allowed to run on unimpeded.

    I could not at that stage see how these defects might be overcome. With such feelings of mild dissatisfaction about the efficacy of my practice and uncertainty about where to turn next, I started experimenting with something different. It began as merely a variant version of retracing, but soon evolved into a new meditation technique.



In my early experimentation with retracing I had noted with interest the apparent logicality of the order in which images arose. This can be seen in the sample sequence cited earlier: aching back -to-: slouching pianist -to-: stout cellist -to-: friend playing cello near shelves -to-: shelves in garage -to-: office with inadequate shelves. Each link between consecutive images, though by no means predictable, did seem to be obeying certain "laws." At that time I had not pursued the matter further because it had seemed relatively unimportant. To examine the nature of the link between successive images entailed a certain amount of attention to the content of the images. It had therefore seemed to me that, as regards level of insight, this was inferior to the practice of viewing images-as-process, whereby one saw beyond the content to the event. Consequently, in returning to this practice after pursuing retracing to its limits, I felt I was taking a step backwards; having attained penetrating insight into the elements of thought, I was now in part relinquishing it.

    My investigation into the nature of the links between successive images depended on the following technique. Suppose a sequence of images A -to-: B -to-: C -to-: D -to-: E -to-: F. I begin to retrace this sequence, F -to-: E -to-: D -to-: ... ; but I stop at some arbitrarily chosen image, say the image C, and permit attention to turn, in a relaxed manner, toward its content. As a result the sequence tends to resume its original course, as image C is again replaced by image D. But before it can go further, I again retrace to C. I then repeat, several times over, this process of alternating between the images C and D, thereby giving myself ample opportunity to observe the nature of the link C -to-: D.

    Repeatedly examining the linking process in this way, I came to perceive the "laws" that guided it, which, as I later learned from reading in the history of psychology, were formerly called the "laws of association." However, such obvious cases as "contiguity in experience" (exemplified in the sequence: slouching pianist -to-: stout cellist -- the two had been performing together) and "similarity" (stout cellist -to-: friend playing cello) seemed of relatively minor importance. Far more important was another process which appeared to be determined by the images' affective charge. This process is illustrated in the transition from the image depicting the friend playing his cello near a set of shelves, to the image depicting a set of shelves in the garage at home. Of the many details of content in the first of these two images, it is the set of shelves that claims attention and becomes the cue for the next image; and this clearly reflects a current concern over the problem of inadequate shelves in my office. Had I not had this problem at the back of my mind, some other detail of content, such as the friend himself or the tune he was playing, might well have become the cue for the next image. I repeatedly saw this process operating, especially toward the end of an image sequence. Near the beginning of a sequence, the linkages were usually guided by contiguity in experience, similarity, and so on; but as the sequence developed, the linkages were increasingly guided by current interest or concern. It followed that the direction my image sequences took was indirectly determined by my earlier affective involvement in situations, for it was through that involvement that certain details of content became endowed with their particular emotive charge.

    But such discoveries about the mechanism of linking, interesting though they were at the time, proved in the long term less important than the meditative technique that yielded them. My practice of causing a pair of consecutive images to re-arise alternately several times over, entailed two distinctly different phases. Phase 1 was simply a special case of retracing, going back from image D to image C, going upstream against the natural flow of thought. Phase 2 was the reverse of this. It was, in effect, a re-enactment of the original mental event: image C was allowed to link again to image D, more or less as had happened in the original thought sequence. It was a relaxed downstream movement, a going along with the natural flow of thought. Repeatedly practising these two phases in rapid succession, I became very conscious of the difference between them. Phase 1 entailed effort and attention, and yielded penetrating insight into the nature of image-as-process. Phase 2 entailed relaxation and diminution of attention, and a partial switch of focus from image-as-process to image-as-content. However, care had to be taken to ensure that the relaxation was only partial, that the diminution of attention did not go too far. If I let go completely, the second image would link to another image, and another, and the flow of thought would resume without insight. I therefore learned to relax attention just sufficiently to permit a single linkage to take place. The result was a delicately balanced form of insight which saw image-as-process and image-as-content simultaneously.

    In time I abandoned phase 1 and developed phase 2 as a technique in its own right. I found that by preserving the delicate balance, I could move with the stream of thought, observing successive images as they re-arose in the forward direction, always seeing image-as-process and image-as-content simultaneously. It was therefore possible, after retracing a full image sequence, to observe it without interference as it then repeated its original forward movement. The earlier technique of retracing had involved a cycle of three stages; with the perfecting of this new technique, a fourth stage was added:

    1. concentration on a chosen object;

    2. a short thought sequence, as the mind wanders from the object;

    3. retracing this thought sequence to its starting point;

    4. watching the same thought sequence with insight, link by link, as it again moves in the forward direction.

    This new technique (stage 4) overcame what seemed to me a major defect of retracing (stage 3). With retracing it had only been possible to observe thought sequences in reverse order. With this new technique it was possible to observe each thought sequence a second time as it again moved in the natural forward direction. It remained true, however, that what was revealed was not the original unimpeded flow of thought. It was still a reconstructed version of a sample sequence dissected out of that flow. Further refinement was needed.



In the event, the required refinement in technique came of its own accord without being sought. I found that when practising stage 4, the mind had a tendency to run on after arriving at the end of each sample sequence. Thus an original sequence A -to-: B -to-: C -to-: D -to-: E -to-: F, after being retraced and observed as it moved again in the forward direction, often would not stop on reaching image F, but would continue into a new sequence: -to-: F -to-: G -to-: H -to-: .... Provided I maintained the delicately balanced insight of stage 4, I could have the continuing thought sequence without losing awareness of its true nature as process. I was therefore observing thought continuously, as it happened. Images arose one after the other, sometimes in very rapid succession, sometimes slowly. In themselves, and in the manner of their linking together, they were as I had come to know them in the earlier practices. But now, instead of looking at re-plays of artificially isolated segments, I was observing the original, undisturbed process itself. The inner voice was also clearly heard. I listened as it made its intermittent comments, or at times took over as the dominant component of thought. I was now listening in on, and watching, the processes of thought while they were going on, and without interfering with them. This, I was certain, was the ultimate in insight, the ideal technique in insight meditation. To refer to it I later adopted the term used by some of its best-known practitioners and advocates: awareness.

    The only defect in awareness, as I was practising it, was that I usually could not maintain it for more than half a minute at a time. The collapse of awareness coincided with, and indeed was identical with, losing sight of the process and becoming involved again in the content. Whenever awareness broke down in this way, I was able to re-establish it by again going through the lead-up stages of retracing and link-watching. However, as I became more familiar with the practice, I found I could dispense with those preliminaries, and establish awareness directly. I therefore lived in a continual alternation between two different conditions: awareness and unawareness. Awareness would last until the mind reverted -- through a kind of fatigue, it seemed -- to its normal unaware condition. That condition would then last until something, usually difficult to identify, reminded me that I ought to be practising -- whereupon I would re-establish awareness.

    I found that awareness could be practised in any situation, regardless of what activity, physical or mental, I was engaged in. This was to be expected, since awareness coexists with the flow of thought and in no way impedes it. Even intensive study and complicated problem-solving activities proved compatible with the practice of awareness. Indeed, awareness seemed to contribute to greater efficiency, by enabling me to notice immediately any irrelevant digression and correct it.

    However, it was not for these practical benefits that I valued awareness, but for the unobscured insight which it yielded into the ordinary everyday working of the mind. It was as if the dark, mysterious room of my mind, into which the earlier practices had occasionally sent flashes of light, was now completely lit up for lengthy periods. At the level of process, what I saw was an essentially simple, orderly mechanism. Images, drawn from the vast mental photograph album of memory, appeared one after the other, usually according to the principles of linking already observed (but sometimes spontaneously and randomly), while the inner voice kept up its commentary. At the level of content, much of what I saw could be best described as useless. It seemed that most of the images stored in my mental album were of little intrinsic value, and the affective charges inhering in them were such that the most useless images were the ones likely to arise most frequently. However, my only response on seeing all this was detached amusement. Observing the antics of my mind often evoked a smile. This detached attitude was not cultivated. It was the only one possible, since affective involvement in the content of thought always caused awareness to collapse. Awareness and affective involvement were incompatible. For example, I could observe with awareness and detachment an image that would normally be conducive to an angry reaction; or I could react angrily to that image and loose awareness; but I could not do both at once. Awareness could not coexist with anger or with any other such reaction. Awareness entailed detachment. It seemed as if the mental energy normally squandered in emotional reaction to images was now being deployed instead as awareness.


The Nature of the Self

While there was much of interest in the details of content and process revealed under the spotlight of awareness, it all seemed of minor importance compared with one over-riding insight which constituted the very essence of the experience. That insight provided the answer to a number of interrelated questions, some of which had preoccupied me since my earliest encounter with meditation: Who -- or what -- is doing the thinking? What is it that is aware? Who is observing all these processes? What is the nature of this observing?

    It seemed natural to describe awareness with the statement, "I am observing the mental processes." But at the same time, that statement was self-evidently misleading. It suggested a situation analogous to that of a spectator watching a street parade, which was not at all the situation that existed in awareness. It was not a case of an observer, "I," engaged in observing a spectacle, "the mental processes." Rather -- and this was the central insight of awareness -- the observer was the mental processes. Instead of saying, "I am observing the mental processes," one ought to say, "I am the mental processes." In fact I verbalized this startling revelation in more or less the following words: "Good grief, this is me! I'm all this!" The supposed observer was identical with the object being observed. And the same was true of the supposed act of observing: the observing of the mental processes was nothing other than those processes. Observer, observed, and observing were all one and the same.

    The moment awareness broke down, this vision was lost. Without awareness the split returned; there was again the sense of being "I, the thinker"; and there were again the mental contents or thoughts that I was thinking. While there was no awareness, there existed the feeling of being an "I" or thinker, separate and distinct from the thoughts. But when there was awareness, this feeling vanished, and it became self-evident that there was no "I" or thinker separate from the thinking process. The feeling of being an "I" separate from the thoughts coincided with failure to see thoughts as process. The seeming reality of "I, the thinker" coincided with the seeming reality of the contents of images. The two arose and ceased together, as two aspects of the same fundamental illusion.

    Awareness was, I was certain, the ultimate meditative technique. As long as awareness was maintained, there was uninterrupted insight into the functioning of the mind. It was not exactly the case that that functioning was not thereby interfered with. Clearly, mental events did not go on just as they would have done in the absence of awareness. Awareness implied recognition of the true nature of images, and hence absence of any affective involvement in their contents; and this would certainly influence the direction taken by thought sequences. Nevertheless, awareness was a maximally non-intrusive technique for observing the thought-stream in operation.

    In retrospect I saw that my four years of meditative effort had in one respect led me in a circle. I had begun by attempting to stop the thought-stream (through concentration), then I had tried making it go backwards (retracing), and finally I had let it flow normally again (link-watching, awareness). The mind had thus arrived back at its starting-point. However, in the process it had acquired an important new skill: it had learned to be aware of itself in action.

    As for the way ahead, that now seemed clear and beyond doubt: awareness must be perfected. The intermittent, brief periods of awareness must become progressively more frequent and must last progressively longer. Other techniques learned earlier in my meditative career still had their place; basic concentration, together with general mindfulness of the body, feelings, and emotional states, would always be valuable as a foundation. However, awareness of the thought-stream was the real practice. The practice would be perfected when the mind had become fully and uninterruptedly aware of itself. The achievement of that condition would surely be the culmination of the entire meditative endeavour.



[Originally published as: Roderick S. Bucknell, "Experiments in Insight Meditation," Australian Journal of Transpersonal Psychology, 3 (1983), 96-117. Republished in The Meditative Way: Readings in the theory and practice of Buddhist mediatation, edited by Rod Bucknell and Chris Kang (Richmond: Curzon, 1997).]


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