Basic Meditation Exercises

Derek Leong

Sitting Meditation

To calm the mind means to find the right balance. If you try to force your mind too much it goes too far; if you don't try enough it doesn't get there, it misses the point of balance. For most of us the mind is never at peace, it never have the solid enery of calmness.

Find a comfortable posture, keeping the spine straight. You can sit cross legged on a folded blanket or on a chair with both feet on the floor. They key is to keep the spine straight.

Bring your attention to feel the sensations of your breathing. Take a few deep breaths to sense where you can feel the breath most easily. Incoming breath will cause a sensation of touch on that point of the nostril; so will the outgoing breath which will cause a sensation of touch on that same point of the nostril. Just focus on that sense of touch.

Alternatively, bring your attention to feel the rising and falling of the abdomen. When air is breathed in, the step by step arising of the abdomen must be noted. He must concentrate on the gathering rigidity and sense of posture of the adbomen. He notes with silent acknowledgements: 'rising', 'rising', 'rising'. When air is breathed out, the step by step falling of the abdoment must be noted. He must concentrate on the decreasing sense of support, step by step movement of the abdomen. He notes with a silent acknowledgement: 'falling', 'falling', 'falling'.

If we force our breath to be too long or too short we're not balanced, the mind won't be at peace. We don't get concerned over how long or short, weak or strong it is, we just note it. KNOW its there. We simply let it be.

After a few breaths your mind will wander. Catch this. No matter how long or short a time you have been away, simply come back to the next breath. You can mindfully acknowledge where you have gone with a soft word in the back of your mind, such as "thinking", "wandering", "hearing". Even "itching", "pain", "anger", "lust", "happy" should be acknowledged. One word of acknowledgement and a simple return to the breath is best. Don't dwell on what is past be ever present with the breath. If no other object arises, return to your breath.

Walking Meditation

Like sitting meditation, walking meditation is a practice for developing calm, connectedness and awareness. It can be practiced before or after sitting meditation.

Should space not permit, the shortest track should not be less than 10 paces. A medium length track would be 20 paces, and a long track should be 25 to 30 paces.

The yogi should cross his hands in front of him, right hand over left, both resting below the navel. Begin to walk slowly, with each step feel the sensation of lifting your foot and off the earth. Be aware as you place each foot on the earth and mentally note: "right step", "left step". Your mind must not be attached to the shape of the foot. It is very important that is it the sensation of touch, the hardness which you must be interested in and not the foot itself. The key is mindfulness in every step.

Walking meditation can help to increase the power of concentration, and is a great help in sitting meditation.

The Stages of Progress

Edited from Dhamma Discourses
by The Sayadaw U Kundalabhivamsa
of Burma

The following is a description of the levels of understanding as a yogi progresses into the practice of Vipassana Meditation. These Insights (Pali language: Nana) arise naturally within the yogi without prompting from anyone and they conform in high consistency among other yogis and meditation masters.
This text is meant for advanced students of Vipassana meditation. The beginner may doubt its validity. But for one who have not tasted salt, he could never know its taste. For one have tasted, its difficult to describe to another who have not.

Knowledge of Mind and Matter
Nama-Rupa Pariccheda Nana

When the yogi enters the meditation centre to note on the rise of his abdomen, the fall of his abdomen; he thinks that "his" abdomen is rising, "his" abdomen is falling. "He" is noting.

When noting the sense of touch while sitting, he thinks "his" body is sitting and touching, and "he" is noting. As concentration increases, he will find that the manner of the rising of the abdomen is one separate entity, and conscious mind knowing the rise of the abdomen is another serpate entity.

The behaviours such as rising, falling, sitting, touching are body-matter which do not have consciousness. The noting mind is mental-phenomena. Some foreign yogis reported to the Sayadaw that, in the early days of their retreat, there was only himself, one and only one. Now, it seemed there always were two of him all the time.

Having reached the first insight, the wrong view on the concept of "I", is destroyed. The yogi understands that the terms such "I", "he" are only an ordinary way of expression.

eg. Knowing that this is 'Mind' and that is 'Body'. Each can be seen as clearly separate and different.

Knowledge Of Cause and Effect
Paccaya Pariggaha Nana

All manners of the rise of the abdomen, the fall of the abdomen, the sitting, the touching all happen beforehand; then the noting consciousness follows to note the above bodily behaviours. The bodily behaviours are the causes, and they cause the mind to notice. The noting mind is the effect.

Some yogis experience that the pattern of the rising or the falling of the abdomen varies. The abdomen does not rise up straight towards the front. Sometimes. it rises nearer to one side of the body in a lopsided manner. Sometimes, it rises towards the back of the body. Sometimes, it is rotating while rising. Sometimes, the yogi notices that the rise occurs at the top of his head, sometimes on his hand.

The changing mode of rising is the cause. The noting mind following is the effect

Knowledge of Comprehension
Sammasana Nana

The yogi faces all types of pains, aches, nausea, stomach- aches, shaking of his body, swaying of his body throughout his meditation. He faces mental sufferings as well as physical sufferings. He feels that his body is a load of suffering.

He also finds that suffering varies and changes places. Suffering itself is not permanent. The yogi feels that he comes to meditate to find peace and bliss, but at that moment he finds he cannot obtain, nor create, what he anticipated. He has no say in that matter. His body is not responding to his desire.

The Third Insight is explained as the knowledge of investigation of the three characteristics of composite things.

Seeing the previous knowledge deeper. The 3 universal characteristics of existence impermanence, unsatisfactoriness and non self becomes manifest. The beginning, middle and end of phenomena becomes obvious. Pains ususily can also be very intense before it subsides. The defilements of insight may arise clearly at this stage.

Knowledge of Arising and Dissolution
Udayabbaya-Nupassana Nana

The yogi does not have physical pain anymore. Therefore, the mind also is free of suffering. The yogi's body as well as his mind are light, soft, pliant and well- behaved. Those who used to change positions two times during one sitting, may need no change of position at all. The sense-objects and the noting mind are very compatible. The yogi enjoys the physical well-being as well as mental well-being. He enjoys bliss. He sees light, colours, celestial beings, monasteries, stupas, etc. These are the manifestations of early Udayabbaya nana.

As insight matures, the yogi notices the arising and then the perishing of the rise of the abdomen. He notices the arising and then the perishing of the fall of the abdomen. All phenomena have two parts, coming into being and then passing away. The yogi is happy because he can note all. Udayabbaya nana is explained as the knowledge into rising and passing away of phenomena.

Knowledge of Dissolution
Bhanganupassana Nana

This Insight emphasizes the perishable nature of all phenomena.

The beginning of the rise of the abdomen is not clear to him anymore. Only the passing away of the rise of the abdomen is distinct. While walking, he cannot find the beginning of his lifting the foot, nor the beginning of his movement forward, nor the beginning of the downward motion of his foot. He notices the end part of his lifting manner, the end part of his forwarding foot, and the end part of his downward press.

Ending of all phenomena is distinct. The sense-object as well as the consciousness perish all the time. He does not find any form or matter in his body. This is called "strong and successful" Vipassana. He cannot find anything permanent in his body. The flux of cessation is so much and so fast that he finds it unsatisfactory. He cannot prevent nor correct it . Bhanga nana is explained as knowledge which reflects on the breaking up or perishable nature of composite things.

Knowledge of Terror
Bhayanupassana Nana

Whatever the yogi notes, it just perishes. The yogi feels afraid of his body. This nana is explained as knowledge of the presence of fear of composite things.

Knowledge of Danger
Adinavanupassana Nana

Since all phenomena out of his body perish all the time, he begins to find his Khandha as a decaying, rotting heap. He finds fault with it. Adinava Na-na is explained as knowledge which reflects on the danger of composite things.

Knowledge of Disgust
Nibbidanupassana Nana

The yogi feels disgusted with his body. He wants very much to discard it. This nana is explained as the knowledge which reflects on feelings of disgust aroused by composite things that are dangerous.

Knowledge of Desire for Freedom
Muncituka-Myata Nana

The yogi does not wish to go on noting. He wants to discard his meditation. This nana is explained as the knowledge of the desire for release from composite things which cause feelings of disgust.

Knowledge of Reflection
Patisankhanpussana Nana

The yogi finds that he cannot stop just like that. He feels that he has to go on noting. So, he carries on with his meditation. In the Text, this situation is explained with a simile:

A man went to a shallow pond, taking a net with him, to catch fish. He threw the net into the water. He saw movements inside the net which is under the water. He bent down and put one hand under the net to seize the fish. He held the fish tightly and brought it out of the water. Then, he realized that it was not a fish, but a poisonous snake with three stripes on its neck. He felt frightened. He wanted to discard it, but he could not simply drop it there. He felt fed up of holding it, so he took a deep breath. He held his hand very high, aimed well and then threw the snake to the farthest distance.

Similarly, the yogi finds that his body is like a poisonous snake. The three stripes on the neck of-the snake are the three characteristics of composite things. At this nana stage, pains, aches, dukkha vedana appear again. However much he puts in his effort to concentrate, the yogi finds that he wishes to change position too often. His mind is restless, also his body is restless. It requires a lot of encouragement from the teacher. If the yogi doggedly carries on his hard work, he will reach the next nana soon.

Knowledge of Equanimity of Formations

Suddenly, the yogi who nearly felt that he was failing finds that he can meditate again. All sense-objects as well as the noting mind are doing their work spontaneously again. As time goes on, notings become very soft and subtle. The yogi can go on noting for a stretch of two to three hours. He does not feel frightened. He is not suffering. He can face all phenomena cqually.

Some serious ailments of yogis when they reach this nana, are discarded completely (see A Case of Healing through Vipassana). His vipassana is recognized as of standard. This nana is explained as the insight arising from equanimity.

Does one have to go to all the stages?
Edited from
The 5 Controlling Faculties & Insight Meditation
by Ven. Sujiva

A question frequently asked is: Does one have to go to all the stages?

The answer will be in principle yes, but in experience one may not realise it. this is because at time the experience may be so brief that one may not realise it is even an insight knowledge. Some experience them clearly and because of the thinking that follows with regard to far reaching implications may become terrified (with unwholesome fear) instead. This brings up the point that one must have a proper attitude towards insight experiences—that these are only a means to an end, we must not be frightened or attached to them.

Secondly it has to borne in mind that insight is one thing and the objects are another. Pain for example is frequent object encountered in insight meditation. It also occurs abundantly in sick people. Some objects of experience are also shared by drug addicts and meditators. Obviously the states of mind are worlds apart. The emphasis is the maturity and power of mindfulness although the objects do imply how it is.

Another error is that some yogis become disappointed when they discover that they have dropped to lower insight knowledges even though they have been striving very hard.

Here we have to bear in mind that these knowledges occur when the faculties are strong and they are not so all the time. But if we strive hard, it will develop to a higher level.

There is also a difference between the maturity of an Insight knowledge and the level of an insight knowledge. Though it needs a certain level of maturity to progress to the next, it must be much more mature if it is to progress far enough for the crossing over. It is like a pyramid whose base has to be widened if the pinnacle is to reach a greater height.

The crossing over to the supramundane level is possible only when:

1) The faculties are matured and strong enough.
2) There are nothing obstructing the way.

Some Common Altered States

Edited from A Path with Heart
by Jack Kornfield
Rider Books

Whenever powerful concentration and energy are evoked in spiritual practice, a great variety of new and exciting sensory experiences can begin to arise. They do not occur for everyone, nor are they necessary for spiritual development.

These new states are more like side effects of meditation, and the better we understand them, the less likely we are to get stuck in them or confuse them with the goal of spiritual life.

First to arise for many people is a whole array of altered physical perceptions. Many of these are categorized in Buddhist texts as side effects called the five deepening levels of rapture.

In this context, rapture is a broad term used to cover the many kinds of chills, movements, lights, floating, vibrations, delight, and more that open with deep concentration, as well as the enormous pleasure they can bring to meditation.


Rapture commonly arises during intensive periods of meditation or spiritual practice. Sometimes rapture begins as subtle coolness or waves of fine and pleasurable vibrations throughout the body. Through con- centration or other techniques of practice one often experiences a buildup of great energy in the body. When this energy moves, it produces feelings of pleasure, and when it encounters areas of tightness or holding, it builds up and then releases as vibration and movement.

Thus, rapture may lead to trembling or the powerful spontaneous releases of physical energy which some yogic traditions refer to as kriyas. These are spon- taneous movements that come in many different patterns. Sometimes they arise as a single involuntary movement felt together with the release of a knot or tension in the body. At other times they can take the form of prolonged and dramatic movements that can last for days.

Beyond kriyas and spontaneous movement, many other kinds of rap- ture can arise. These include pleasant kinds of thrills throughout the body, tingling, prickles, waves of pleasure, and delightful sparkles. At certain levels one may feel the skin vibrate or feel as if ants or small bugs were crawling all over it, or as if the skin were being stuck by acupuncture needles; at other levels one may feel hot, as if the spine were on fire. This heat can alternate with feelings of cold, beginning with slight chills, and turning to strong rapture with a profound deep cold. Sometimes these experiences of temperature change are so tangible and strong that we shiver on hot summer days.

Lights and Visions

Along with this kinetic rapture, one may see colored lights, initially blues, greens, and purples, and then, as concentration gets stronger, golden and white lights. Finally, many students will see very powerful white lights as if looking into the headlight of an oncoming train or as if the whole sky were illuminated by a brilliant sun.

At still deeper states of concentration we may feel our entire body dissolve into light. We may feel tingles and vibrations so fine that we feel we are only patterns of light in space, or we may disappear into the colors of very strong light. These lights and sensations are powerful effects of the concentrated mind. They feel purifying and opening, and can show us that on one level the mind and body and the whole of consciousness is made of light itself.

A series of unusual sensory perceptions in addition to these forms of light and power may also arise. We may feel we have become very heavy, or hard and solid like a stone, or feel as if we are being squashed under a weight or a wheel. Our sense of weight may disappear and we may sense ourselves floating and have to open our eyes and peek to make sure we're still sitting in meditation.

Raptures in Walking Meditation

Similar experiences can also arise during walking meditation. When walking is concentrated, the whole room can appear to sway as if we were on a ship in a storm, or we might put our foot down and feel as if we were drunk. Sometimes everything starts to sparkle, and it seems as if we could walk through the floor or the wall itself. Our vision can swirl and create strange patterns and colors around us. The shape of the body may seem to shift. Temperature, solidity, and vibration may simultaneously change, with sensations of heat, melting, and movement all occurring at once.

The body may seem to stretch out gigantically tall or become very short. Sometimes it teels as if our head is located somewhere outside of our body or we may experience strange breathing rhythms or breathing in every cell of our body or feel that we are breathing through the soles of our feet. A hundred other variations of these altered physical percep- tions may arise during practice.

Heightened Senses

Similarly, other senses may open to new experiences. Our hearing may become very acute, we may hear the softest sounds we have ever heard or powerful inner sounds such as bells, notes, or choruses of sound. Many people hear inner music. Sometimes voices will clearly speak. We may hear words or specific teachings. Our senses of taste and smell may open in ways never before experienced.

One morning when I walked on my monk's alms-rounds to collect food, my nose became like that of the most sensitive dog. As I walked down the street of a small village, every two feet there was a different smell: something being washed, fertilizer in the garden, new paint on a building, the lighting of a charcoal fire in a Chinese store, the cooking in the next window. It was an extraordinary experience of moving through the world attuned to all the possibilities of smell. In similar fashion, our senses of sight, sound, taste, and touch can all reach profound new sensitivity.

Strong Emotions

Deep concentration can lead to all kinds of visions and visionary experiences. Floods of memories, images of past lives, scenes of foreign lands, pictures of heavens and hells, the energies of all the great arche- types, can open before our eyes. We can sense ourselves as other crea- tures, in other bodies, in other times and other realms. We can see and encounter animals, angels, demons, and gods. When such visions arise in the most compelling form, they become as real as our day-to-day reality. While such visions often arise spontaneously, they can also be developed through specific meditative exercises as a means to awaken the beneficial energy of a particular realm.

Along with the openings of vision, hearing, and physical senses, we can experience a release of the strongest kinds of emotions, from sorrow and despair to delight and ecstasy. Meditation may feel like an emotional roller coaster as we allow ourselves to be plunged into unconscious emo- tions. Vivid and profound dreams and many varieties of fear frequently appear. These are not just the emotions of our personal problems, but the opening of the whole emotional body.

One encounters soaring delights and the darkness of isolation and loneliness, (see The Dark Night) each feeling very real as it fills our consciousness. These releases require the guidance of a skilled teacher to help us through them with a sense of balance.

All Experiences are Side Effects

Even with a teacher, there are principles to keep in mind in working with these unfamiliar realms of our spiritual life.

The first principle is the understanding that All Spiritual Phenomena Are Side Effects. In the Buddhist tradition, the Buddha often reminded students that the purpose of his teaching was not the accumulation of special good deeds and good karma or rapture or insight or bliss, but only the sure heart's release a true liberation of our being in every realm. This freedom and awak- ening, and this alone, is the purpose of any genuine spiritual path.

The Dark Night

Edited from A Path with Heart
by Jack Kornfield
Rider Books

The spiritual description of death and rebirth as a "dark night" comes from the writings of the great mystic St. John of the Cross. In an eloquent way, he describes the dark night as a long period of unknowing, loss, and despair that must be traversed by spiritual seekers in order to empty and humble themselves enough to receive divine inspiration. He put it this way: "The soul that is attached to anything, however much good there may be in it, will not arrive at the liberty of the divine."

Traditionally the dark night arises only after we have had some initial spiritual opening.

In Insight Meditation, once we have abandoned the luminous state of arising and passing, we open to a profound cycle of dissolution, death, and rebirth.

As concentration increases and becomes yet more precise and fine. We immediately feel the end of each moment, the end of each experience. Life begins to feel like quicksand. Everything we look at or feel is dissolving. In this stage, nothing around us seems solid or trustworthy. On all levels, our consciousness becomes attuned to endings and death. We sense the dissolution of life moment to moment.

Now the dark night deepens. As our outer and inner worlds dissolve, we lose our sense of reference. There arises a great sense of unease and fear, leading students into a realm of fear and terror. "Where is there any security?" "Wherever I look, things are dissolving." In these stages we can experience this dissolution and dying within our own body. We may look down and see pieces of our body seeming to melt away and decay, as if we were a corpse. We can see ourselves dying, or having died, in a thousand ways, through illness, battles, and misfortune. At this point other powerful visions can arise, visions of the death of others, visions of wars, dying armies, funeral pyres, or charnel grounds. Con- sciousness seems to have opened to the realm of death to show us how all creation moves in cycles, all ends in death. We experience how every aspect of the world comes into being and inexorably passes away.

From this realm of terror and death arises a very deep realization of the suffering inherent in life: the suffering of pain, the suffering of the loss of pleasant things and, hanging over it all, the enormous suffering of the death of whatever is created or loved by us. Out of this we can experience tremendous sympathy for the sorrows of the world. It seems that no matter where we look in the world at our community, our family members and loved ones, our own self and body all of it is fragile, all will be lost.

As the realm of terror deepens, periods of paranoia may arise. In this stage, wherever we look, we become fearful of danger. We feel that if we walk outdoors, something could run us over. If we take a drink of water, the microbes in it could kill us. Everything becomes a source of potential death or destruction in this phase of the dark night. People experience these feelings in many different ways: as pressure, claustro- phobia, oppression, tightness, restlessness, or struggle, or as the un- bearable endless repetition of experiences, one after another, dying all the time. We can feel as if we are stuck in meaningless cycles of life. Existence can seem flat, arid, and lifeless. It is as if there is no exit.

As you might expect, it is hard to meditate through these stages. But continuing to sense these new levels of consciousness with clarity and acceptance is the only way through them. We must name each one and allow it to arise and pass. Any other reaction will keep us stuck. As we learn to acknowledge each state, name each state, and meet it with mindfulness, we discover that we are dying over and over again. What we are being asked to do is to open to this death and become someone who has entered the realm of death and awakened in the face of it.

In traversing these painful stages, there next arises a deep and pro- found desire for freedom. In this state we long for release from the fear and oppression of continued birth and death. We sense that there must be a freedom that is not bound up in our seeing, hearing, smelling, tasting, and touching, something beyond our plans and memories, our body and mind, the whole identity we have taken to be ourselves. In fact, in each level of the dark night, the increasing power of awareness has been gradually unraveling our identity, releasing our grip on all that we have held in life.

Even though we wish for freedom, there often arises a sense of im- possibility, that we cannot go any further, that we just cannot let go any more. We enter the stage of great doubt; we want to stop; we become restless. In one text this is called the rolling-up-the-mat stage. Here the world becomes too difficult; our spiritual practice asks too much of us; we wish we could quit and go home to our bed or our mother.

Because the powerful stages of fear and dissolution touch such painful chords in us, it is easy to get stuck in them or lose our way among them. In this process, it is important to have a teacher; otherwise, we will get lost or overwhelmed by these states and quit.

When we can finally look at the horrors and joys, our birth and our death, the gain and loss of all things, with an equal heart and open mind, there arises the state of the most beautiful and profound equanimity. We enter a realm where consciousness is fully open and awake, perfectly balanced. This is a level of wonderful peace. We can sit at ease for hours, and nothing that arises causes any disturbance in the space of conscious- ness. Consciousness becomes luminous , because now everything is untangled, free, and we grasp at nothing.

This state of profound balance the Elders called high equanimity. Our mind becomes like a crystal goblet or like the clear sky in which all things appear unhindered. We become completely transparent, as if every phenomenon just passes through our mind and body. We are simply space, and our whole identity opens to reveal the true nature of consciousness before we became identified with body and mind.

A Case of Healing through Vipassana

Edited from Dhamma Therapy,
Cases of Healing through Vipassana
compiled by Ven. Mahasi Sayadaw of Burma
translated by Bhikkhu Aggacitta

Translator's Preface:

The translation is actually of an appendix compiled by the late Venerable Mahasi Sayadaw in 1976. The reader will soon discover that sandwiched between the apparently scholastic introduction and conclusion, skilfully written by the late Venerable Sayadaw, lies the appetizing main portion of the work which deals with the almost miraculous healing of sicknesses, encountered in the course of Dhamma-striving, as related either personally or as recorded by widely experienced Meditation Teachers.

A Layman Whose Large Tumour Disintegrated

54-year-old U Aung Shwe of Daing Wun Kwin, Moulmein, had a large tumour in his abdomen. When he visited a doctor for a medical examination, he was informed that it was necessary to operate on it.

So, with the intention of getting the Dhamma, which is a dependable source of refuge, before going for the operation, he arrived at M.T.Y., Rangoon, and started Dhamma-striving on the 5th waning of Na Yone, 1330 B.E. (around June, 1968).

One day, while thus striving- in-mindfulness he experienced through insight, a sudden bursting of the the tumour in his abdomen, followed by its disintegration and the rapid discharge of blood gushing away.

It was as if he was actually hearing it with his ears and seeing it with his eyes. Since then he had been completely rid of the tumour-ailment. Continuing Dhamma- striving to the satisfaction of his Masters, he eventually attained all the Vipassana insights to full completion. Even till this very day he is healthily and happily rendering his services to the Sasana. in both fields of pariyatti and patipatti.

Yogi Cured of Arthritis of the Knee

On the 1st waning of Wa Gaung, 1313 B.E. (around August, 1951) 40-year-old Ko Mya Saung arrived at Myin Gyan Yeiktha, a Mahasi Branch Centre, and commenced Dhamma-striving under the resident Sayadaw.

Ko Mya Saung has been suffering from arthritis of the knee for 5 years. It seems that as the ailment was not cured, despite treatment given by various doctors, he had been stirred by samvega and had thus come to Myin Gyan Yeiktha to strive for the Dhamma.

While striving, his knees swelled, and the more the pain was noted, the more intense it grew. As the Sayadaw had instructed, he persisted in noting it unrelently. The pain became so excruciating that tears would roll down his cheeks and his body would be thrown forwards and backwards or be suddenly jerked upwards in the most awkward manner. This lasted for about 4 days. And while thus engaged in mindful noting, he saw (in a vision) his knee together with the bones breaking apart. In great alarm, he screamed, "Haw! It broke! My big knee broke!"

After that incident hs was so scared he did not dare to be mindful. However, with the Sayadaw's encouragement he resumed mindful noting; eventually, the swelling and pain of the knee completely disappeared, and Ko Mya Saung was never again troubled by it up till

Compiled by Derek Leong