In meditation, we sometimes have big “aha!” moments, which are commonly referred to as insights. For me, they’re often a realization of something I have read about or have intellectually understood previously. Knowing something experientially is very different than understanding it intellectually. Here’s an example of an insight in my own practice:
I was on an insight retreat practicing walking meditation. In typical mindfulness fashion, I noticed what was arising, the mind’s response, and recognizing how skillful or wise the formations were. I continued to notice a sense of discomfort. Whether it was physical, mental, or both, it seemed pretty constant. The feeling wasn’t super strong or overwhelming. Rather, the mind was focused from being on retreat, and was aware of this subtly friction going on. I noticed it for a day or so before this particular walking meditation. Looking at it repeatedly when it arose, I got to know it better. Suddenly without intending to figure anything out, I had an insight… There is dukkha. The First Noble Truth.
I have read about an understood the First Noble Truth for quite some time. I recently sat an insight retreat with a teacher Brian Lesage. Brian put it very well when he said that there is a difference between knowing something in the brain, and knowing it in our bones. Although I had understood this teaching for years in my brain, it was the first time I truly knew it in my bones.
On my recent retreat, I had an important insight with Brian’s help about insights themselves. The “insight” in “insight meditation” is rarely these white light moments. I often find myself judging my retreat and practice based on the presence or lack of these moments.
In reality insight is constantly coming when we are practicing, especially in the seemingly insignificant. While practicing mindfulness, we notice when the mind has completely wandered, and we bring it back to the present time experience. When craving arises, we recognize its arising and passing. As we continue to bring mindfulness to these activities, we strengthen our ability to see things clearly. It’s easier to be mindful in the future and recognize what’s happening because of our practice today.
When I was little, I played baseball. At some point, I took batting lessons. We went over so many different things: position of the feet, where to hold the bat, when to step, when to start the swing, when to rotate the hips, how to snap the wrists, follow through, and I’m sure much more. I practiced each aspect over and over. When it came time to swing in a game, there were quite a few things I had to be conscious of. But over time, it became engraved in the way I played. I could swing without having to bring each little aspect to mind.
It’s the same with insight practice. We practice over and over, bringing awareness and comprehension to the body, feeling tones, responses, hindrances, and more. Over time, we see things more clearly intuitively. We have moments where we respond more wisely, act with kindness, or just see with clarity. In insight meditation, we are slowly putting the pieces together like this. Insight comes often in the form of this repetitive effort.
Sometimes we may not feel like our practice is going anywhere. When no great realizations arise, we may be discouraged. I am working to let go of this continual checking in and judgement with my practice, and just practicing. I have seen this process of small insights working over years of practice, and it builds quite a bit of conviction in me.