Meditation Insight – How do I know I am experiencing this?

I believe that one of the key goals of Insight meditation practice (that is practice designed to move one towards greater understanding and enlightenment) is to observe and understand the fundamental way in which we experience reality.  It doesn't take much work to realise that a great deal of what we think we are experiencing of reality is actually our brain 'filling in' details.

I was speaking to someone the other day about what it's like to lose part of your sight.  If one of your eyes becomes damaged so that you can no longer see from a particular part of it you might expect this would be very obvious and easy to notice.  But in actual fact in some cases people don't realise that their sight has been damaged until it's tested by a professional.  You might imagine if you could no longer see down and to the right from your right eye there would be a black patch down and to the right at all times.  But that's not the case.  Instead your brain simply fills in it's 'best guess' for what might be down and to the right at the moment.  You appear to have a complete field of vision – but some of it isn't what you are seeing, but is actually guess work, or what your brain last remembers there being in that location.  Our brains are great at 'making up' details of reality.

Deep insight meditation rapidly reveals this is going on far more than we realise and that most of the time we are interacting with a reality that is a product of our brains and isn't 'out there' at all.  Fortunately for all practical purposes it's a pretty damn accurate 'guess' at what reality is like – but we aren't actually experiencing reality.  We are experiencing what our brain is telling us is reality.  And the problem with brains is that they are all tied up with our personality and our emotions and these things can pretty easily put a bit of a twist on our brains calculations for what reality is really like.

Discovering this for yourself is pretty easy – but it does requite a reasonable level of concentration and focus, which is why concentration practice is considered to be so essential.  Concentration practice is simply meditation on a single thought, sensation, word or sound and by doing so improving your concentration and focus to the point where you can get it to do what you want it to do for a reasonable length of time.  Once you have reasonably good concentration skills you can play with some insight techniques, like 'How do I know I am experiencing this?'

This is the best way I can think to describe my approach to this technique.  Simply relax and rest in a light trance state and then 'realise' you are experiencing something.  That 'something' can be anything in your awareness – an emotion, a physical sensation, a thought.  Physical sensations are probably the easiest to start with, emotions are harder and thoughts harder still (because they go quickly and it's very easy to get lost in them rather than observing them).  So, for instance, you may realise that your right knee is aching.  Now ask the question 'How do I know I am experiencing this?'  What, in your awareness, is telling you that your knee is aching?  Find the sensation that is telling you that you are having this pain.  Now really focus on it, put all of your awareness right on that sensation.  A funny thing usually happens at this stage – you'll suddenly find the sensation will vanish.  It just won't be there any more.  You may notice you are still under the impression that your knee is aching, but the actual sensation has gone missing.  Your tricksy old brain is still telling you you are in pain, but in actual fact the sensation of that pain has ceased.  It'll be back again – it will probably pop back into existence relatively soon – but then it'll leave once more.

The funny thing is that the sensations we are experiencing come and go.  Our brain takes these floating moments of sensation and puts them together into a constant picture and calls it 'reality'.  But it's no more reality than the images on a cinema screen are constantly moving – it's just a series of individual moments that our brain connects together into a coherent whole.  And a good job too, otherwise the real world would be terribly dull and confusing.

I'd strongly recommend doing this same exercuse with an emotion.  If you feel sad, try to work out how you know you are feeling sad.  What sensation, what thing you are experiencing right now tells you you are sad.  Focus on it, keep your mind on it, see if it's constant (it won't be).  You may be interested to discover how hard your brain is working to keep up the impression that your emotions are constant – or present at all.

It turns out that reality – that which we are really experiencing – is a lot less permanent, a lot less stable, than we think it is.  Our brain is constantly working hard to create the impression of a stable, coherent, continuous, emotional, reality… and that really does make getting the shopping done an awful lot easier.  But to really start moving towards awakening it is well worth starting to understand what reality really is – so we can get a sense of who we really are at the centre of it.

3 Responses to "Meditation Insight – How do I know I am experiencing this?"

  1. Carla says:

    Hi James, what an excellent post. I have just started the book you recommended, 'Mastering the Teaching of the Buddha', and I was thinking, I would love to see a blog entry about your thoughts on how insight meditation impacts magical practice. Even though I consider myself on an aeclectic path, I tend to have either-or thinking, and thus far have not been able to delve very deeply into any of the many strands I am interested in. You might even say, in many ways, I'm still in the bullshit level, trying to find my way to the genuine weird shit. 😉 Not sure what my question is, I guess I just want to know how you have incorporated Buddhist meditation with ceremonial magic. My path tends to be nature-based, but I am not interested in pursuing shamanistic journeying. Mindfulness meditation is what I practiced for 6 years before discovering witchcraft, but I feel I have never really progressed beyond the 'count the breath until you realise you're thinking and start over' phase. Or Thich Nhat Hanh's lovely, 'Present moment, wonderful moment' meditation…Please write about this!

    • Warlock says:

      Thanks for being interested in what I have to say! Okay, I'll have a ponder and try and come up with a post about how I connect together these somewhat separate practices. I suppose the simple answer is that I tend to work with them in parallel, assuming that they will help inform each other… I think insight practice gives me a clearer understanding of the nature of reality which makes magick easier, and I think magick naturally pushes me towards greater insight – helps make my conscious more flexible but also (given part of my intent is to gain greater insight) brings about events which helps to push me forward.

      From a practical point of view I try to find time for both each day – at the moment I can usually find half an hour for meditation as well as the half hour for the Bornless Rite. Sometimes I do them together, sometimes in other parts of the day.

      But I will think about this further and see what else I can say on the subject.

  2. Carla says:

    I look forward to that. I suppose I'm also curious about your response to those who might argue that the realities learned through insight meditation might be opposed to the concepts used in magic. Do you believe that to be the case? Why would people argue that? How would they be right? How would they be wrong? How do you reconcile some of the basic tenets of Buddhism with a chaos magic practice? (I assume you practice this as you recommend several books on it). Admittedly, I know nothing of chaos magic and some would say my grasp of Buddhism is in the nature of the 'puny New Agers' suffering from Boomeritis. (Ouch) Looking forward to your thoughts.

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