The Second Step is Insight

So far, we have been practicing concentration to calm the mind. As we focus on the breath,  distracting thoughts arise naturally. Our awareness notes the distraction and gently returns to the breath. Now we are going to move our focus to other objects of meditation.

Noting technique in meditation, mindfulness of emotions

What Comes After Concentration Practice?

A teacher of mine compared the complex build-up of experiences and emotions that preoccupy our minds, in meditation and in life, to a giant nettingcalming the mind or web. When we return to the breath, we are taking a sword and cutting one of the thousands of strands that comprise the web.

After cutting away much of the netting, we can begin to turn our awareness outward, to shift our focus to other objects during meditation. This is where insight begins.

 Insight Meditation is a Complement to Concentration

When I say that we’re shifting our focus, it’s more subtle, more of a resting and allowing thoughts and sensations to arise. We see what comes up, recognize it briefly without investigating it, and move on to the next sensation. Here are a few techniques to get started…

  • physical sensations, or body scan
  • thought labeling
  • noting of emotions
  • classifying feeling tones

There are probably dozens of methods for insight practice, but these are some of the more common, and the most expedient at this stage. Labeling will be useful when we begin walking meditation (which is easier than it sounds).

Body Scanning to Notice Physical Sensations

A typical body scan will start either at the head or feet and travel slowly in the opposite direction from that point.

For example, shift your mind’s focus to your feet to note their condition, without spending too much time investigating or going into details. Are they cold? Itchy? Tender? Just make a quick note and move on. Your calves are next. Do they feel tight? Heavy? Keep moving through the body.

Briefly Labeling Arising Thoughts

For this method, when a thought arises, you label it in simple terms and then leave it without dwelling on the subject. Just wait for the next thought to arise, one after another. Your string of labels might progress as “Work,” then “Kids,” then “Dinner,” and so forth. I find this insight technique transfers easily to waking life because you can practice it anywhere as you go about your day.

Noting Emotions

As an added challenge to labeling your thoughts, here you want to instead notice the emotion attached to the arising thoughts. You might note “Worry,” then “Planning,” and perhaps “Anger.” Now we are beginning to hone our insight while staying present and not investigating or getting involved in the emotion. It’s okay to repeat a label, since we can put many refined emotions into more general categories for simplicity. The key is to gently notice, label, and move on to the next one.

Feeling Tone of Pleasant or Unpleasant

Still harder (I think) is noting the feeling tone of each arising thought. You want to place a quick label on your thoughts as “Pleasant,” “Unpleasant,” or “Neutral.” The goal here is to stick with the tone and try not to analyze the thoughts, something your mind will resist out of sheer habit and reflex. But it’s all part of the training to stay present!

Insight Practice is Key to Mindfulness

By noticing and labeling our thoughts and sensations, we begin to slowly reshape our minds and the way we react to the surprises and pains of everyday life. We are creating space around our arising thoughts and thereby slowing our usual knee-jerk reactions. We are gradually giving ourselves a fresh perspective on how we interact with the surrounding world.

“Noting should be done very softly, like a whisper in the mind, but with enough precision and accuracy so that it connects directly with the object. Mental noting supports mindfulness….by showing us when awareness is reactive and when it is truly mindful. For example, we may be aware of pain in the body, but through a filter of aversion. Without the tool of noting, we often do not recognize the aversion, which may be a subtle overlay on the pain itself.”               – Joseph Goldstein, Insight Meditation