One of characteristics of mindfulness meditation that makes it different from other forms of meditation is insight. Sometimes called Vipassana or insight meditation, mindfulness meditation moves beyond calming the mind to observing how it functions. According to Jon Kabat-Zinn mindfulness meditation “is the embrace of any and all mind states, without preferring one to another.”
If we were to ask Siri or some other digital assistant for directions on accessing insight, she might remind us of the old saying, “Don’t believe everything you think.” In fact, the first step in moving towards insight or an “immediate experience of clarity about the nature of reality1” is recognizing that our minds are flooded with thoughts, beliefs, and biases that may or may not be true. We’re wise to keep in mind that just because we think something, doesn’t mean it’s true.
Taken a step further, if we embrace the dual ideas of beginner’s mind and “not-knowing” we can be receptive to insights that often emerge from meditation practice. Beginner’s mind is characterized by an openness to learning something new. It’s the willingness to let go of the parts of our self-image that need to be right or be knowledgeable. Beginner’s mind is playful and free to explore without need for mastery.
Imagine a child playing with sand on the beach. Does the child need to know what sand is made of, how many years it took to be created, or how much of it there is the world in order to explore its wonder? Of course not. Yet, in the process of scooping and pouring and building and demolishing, the child will inevitably learn about the sand’s coarseness and weight and how it sometimes sparkles. This is how we gain insight into the truth of each moment, by crunching sand between our fingers and being aware of our experiences as we live them.
Not-knowing is similar to beginner’s mind. It is characterized by the humility of acknowledging that we may not see the whole picture. For example, imagine you’re in traffic and you need to jam on your brakes quickly because someone cuts into your lane without using their turn signal. Our reaction might be something like this: Do you believe that jerk? What an idiot!
This response assumes that we “know” the right way to drive, that if we were driving that car, we would have been sure to use our signal, and that we have considered all that the other driver was seeing. Not-knowing recognizes that maybe we don’t have all the information in this particular situation. Not-knowing allows us to consider that maybe the other person was averting a greater accident by moving suddenly into our lane. Assuming that we don’t know all there is to know in a situation opens us to greater insight and moves us towards greater compassion for others.
As with everything else in our lives, we have preconceived notions about what we should experience during meditation. I need to focus. I need to be calm. My mind shouldn’t wander. Remember, just because we think something doesn’t mean it’s true. We think meditating means we have to feel calm, but we don’t. We can either resist the reality that we are tense or we can accept it because it’s what is true in that moment. Remembering to approach meditation with a beginner’s mind and with a sense of not-knowing allows us to be open to the moments as they present themselves. Any state we’re in -- excited, bored, anxious -- is a valid state to bring our awareness towards. Any moment we’re in, not the last one or the next one, is the one worth exploring.
And if that’s true during our meditation sessions, it’s just as true when we are going about our day. Instead of having a constant commentary going about what’s coming next or all the things we need to do or why we haven’t measured up, we can accept what is happening and who we are at the present moment.
So, instead of driving to the store and running down the list of all we have to do when we get home and all the things we haven’t checked off our list, maybe we can bring our attention to the sound of our toddler kicking her car-seat in the back or to our second-grader reciting his spelling words or to our teenager drumming on their thighs in time to the song on the radio. Because those things were happening in that moment, not in the past when we neglected to do something, or in the future when we arrive home from the store.
Gaining insight through meditation takes some patience. It’s not likely to happen the first time you sit down and start some deep breathing. It requires practice observing one’s thoughts and stilling the mind. Many texts that explore mindfulness meditation use the term “cultivating the mind” to describe the process of training the mind in meditation practice.
Cultivating the mind conjures the image of sowing the land to produce a fruitful harvest, and that is an apt comparison. Through patient practice we can become adept at recognizing when our mind has wandered. Through meditation practices, we can prepare our minds to grow in ways that provide us with a rich understanding of the true nature of ourselves and of all that we experience.
Kabat-Zinn, Jon. Meditation is Not What You Think: Mindfulness and Why It’s So Important. Hachette Books, New York, 2018.
Wright, Robert. Why Buddhism is True: The Science and Philosophy of Meditation and Enlightenment. Simon and Schuster, New York, 2017.