Insight meditation is by far the youngest form of meditation when viewed through a Western lens and conversely one of the first styles of meditating to get a foothold in the United States. Due to its history and some advanced thinking form a Burmese monk in the late 1800s, Westerners were given a way to understand and adopt many of the primary ideas of Buddhism. Not only can you create consciousness for yourself, but you have a legion of societies and retreat centers to help you along the way.
Insight meditation is a Buddhist practice of meditating in a calm state of present awareness and focusing on the impermanence of thoughts, actions, and feelings in our life. The goal is to see ourselves as separate from these beliefs because clinging to them causes suffering. It was made popular in the early 20th Century by Burmese monk Ledi Sayadaw.
Success with insight meditation is dependent on understanding how it evolved from monastic Buddhism and really understanding how it differs from many types of calm meditating that we are all more familiar with. In this essay we’ll start with this history and then help you find an insight meditation center to help you on your journey. We’ll also discuss what to focus on to make the best progress towards gaining “insight” into becoming a better version of yourself!
The Origins of Insight Meditation
To understand the origin of insight meditation we have to take a look at a very specific time in history and examine the revolutionary thinking of one Buddhist monk. His actions not only influenced Buddhism but also opened up the religion to be absorbed by the west.
Ledi Sayadaw was born in 1846 in the village of Saing-pyin in British Burma (now Myanmar). He entered monastic life at a young age and received a traditional Buddhist education, studying Pali texts and meditation techniques. It’s important to understand that by the 19th Century that Buddhism had moved away from believing that anyone could achieve enlightenment within their lifetime. Possibly, very dedicated monks could obtain enlightenment across 2-3 lifetimes but definitely not a layperson.
At the same time, Burma had been colonized by England which brought Christianity along with its soldiers and commerce. How could Buddhism compete with a religion promising eternal salvation by acting a certain way within one lifetime?
Ledi Sayadaw was drawn to meditation and spent several years in solitude, undertaking intensive meditation retreats. He practiced diligently and achieved significant levels of insightfulness and realization through meditation. Not only that, he was also a prolific writer and authored numerous books and commentaries on Buddhist teachings and meditation techniques, making these profound teachings more accessible to a wider audience.
Specifically, Ledi taught to laypersons in their native tongue, something that was unheard of at that time. He argued for setting down Jhana, or the more difficult time-intensive meditation normally accessed to achieve enlightenment and focused on popularized on of the Buddhist precepts, Vipassana, or “Insight Meditation.”
This simplification was carried forward throughout the 20th Century and found a foothold in Western countries looking to expand their consciousness with knowledge from the east. At its core, insight meditation holds closely to three observations or insights designed to disconnect a person from their prevailing unhappiness, worries, and egoic self. Working on these three ideals will help you get the most out of a class or retreat.
3 Principles to Get the Most Out of An Insight Meditation Retreat
Imagine your average meditator or even someone new in the process. They have a goal of not being bandied about by what life throws at them and being more accepting. They want to remain connected to their true nature throughout the day and even use their time on the planet to evolve as a person and be more connected and kinder.
In pursuit of this, they head off to an insight meditation retreat for a weekend and by Monday morning feel that that they have made real, permanent progress on their path to being more conscious and more mindful.
How did they accomplish this in three days? The center or class that you attend and the quality of the instructors and speakers will have a lot to do with it. That’s why we list some of the most established programs in the next part. But aside from the differences in content, all programs practicing Vipassana or Insight will help you come to terms with three basic insights. Going into the weekend with this knowledge will give you a framework for understand what arises during your meditations and what the topics of the lectures.
Reality Is Changeable
Everything is impermanent. This means that whatever you enjoy, love, or pride yourself on will change or come to an end. Whether it is your job title, hairline, social group, or taste of your favorite food. Everything will change. Fear of losing or lamenting the actual loss causes pain. On the other side, pain and discomfort too will end. Therefore focus or misery just doubles its effect.
Reality is Unsatisfactory
Anything that is not permanent causes dissatisfaction. From the way we age to the way things decay. From how our house falls apart to how we fall out of favor in a job we once loved. There is a lot of misery gained from holding on. If we can let go of the permanent, we also escape from the misery when things become unsatisfactory.
Reality Is Not Us or Connected to Our Self
Who we think we are and the part of ourselves that we love is the permanent aspect of our nature. It’s how our memories at age five are still seen through our older eyes and thought to be our own even though we have physically changed so much. Therefore, life’s aspects that change are not our “self.” For example, any emotion that we feel is temporary. It’s when we latch on to something like anger that it makes us feel bad. Seeing it as separate from us lets it pass away. Equally so with good feelings. Knowing that a joyful experience is temporary makes us appreciate it so much more.
Through insight meditation we learn to separate our self from these rising emotions and passing states by truly seeing ourselves as separate. Really heady stuff. That’s why so many societies exist with classes, resources, and retreats to help us all move in the right direction.
How is Insight Meditation Different Than Other Forms of Meditation?
Hopefully by this point your are pretty excited about what is obtainable. And, there are centers throughout the world to help you get there. Before you head out the door running to your nearest insight meditation retreat center, we have to talk about how it relates to other forms of meditating because what you will be doing there is very intellectual and very specific.
The distinction is nuanced at times, but if you confuse what you know about meditating or the practice that you currently do with insight meditation, it will be less clear what you are trying to accomplish at a retreat or during a class.
Vipassana is insight meditation meditation by most definitions. Vipassana is the Pali word for insight. However, there are non-Buddhist societies working towards awakening using Buddhist and a variety of texts. So it’s possible that a group teaching insight meditation might not consider itself Vipassana.
Insight meditation is different than many of the calming meditations like Loving Kindness Meditation and Sound Baths. A state of calming relaxation is needed to enter a state where one can focus cognitively but the end goal of insight meditation is not calmness.
Insight meditation is different than meditations and qi gongs that focus on, raise, or clean the energy of the body such as Tapping, or Chakra meditation. Awareness is brought into the body in a mindful way to stay present but the raising of the body’s energy is not the goal.
And finally, insight meditation has the most in common with Zen and Transcendental meditation as they are more cognitive meditations working towards vaulting us above our typical thinking with the goal of creating personal change. While TM also saw it’s growth in popularity in the last century, it is more focused on spiritual growth. And Zen differs in it’s focus on experience over intellectual understanding.
Finding Insight Meditation Retreats Throughout the United States
Understanding that this style of meditating takes a dose of intellectual effort it makes attending one of the many retreats throughout the United States the surest way to make the most progress and make sure you are on the right track. Luckily, there is a network of meditation communities dedicated to helping all of us get further down the road.
Here is a list of some of the most established and most well-known centers within the U.S. I listed these specific ones because they offer several continual classes and sometime lodging. I also wanted to give some choices coast to coast. But do your own research to find an insight meditation center near you. Also don’t forget to search for Vipassana as some centers use the words Vipassana and Insight interchangeably.
Insight Meditation Society Barre, Massachusetts
The Insight Meditation Society in Barre, Massachusetts is the oldest most established insight meditation center in the United States. Insight Meditation Society Barre was founded in the mid-70s, by what are now considered some of the founders of the movement; Joseph Goldstein, Sharon Salzberg and Jack Kornfield. They traveled and taught before buying a Catholic property in Barre and opening their doors. They offer an immense calendar of classes, events, and retreats.
Cambridge Insight Meditation Center
Two hours east of Barre, the Cambridge Insight Meditation Center in Cambridge, Massachusetts was founded in the mid-80s and is unique for its proximity to so many of the world’s most venerated universities. This gives Cambridge Insight Meditation access to amazing speakers and thinkers so that their message is recorded and shared throughout the world. Aside from classes, workshops, and retreats both in person and at-a-distance, they are amassing a library of recordings and Q&A style resources.
New York Insight Meditation Center
The New York Insight Meditation Center in Manhattan, New York hosts classes, talks, courses, and workshops. What’s unique about the NY Insight Meditation Center is that they tackle many modern issues like aging and provide guidance on how to be mindful and connected while living in an urban, fast-paced setting.
Insight Meditation Community of Washington DC
Insight Meditation Community of Washington DC has events ranging from in-person classes to workshop series, to retreats and gatherings. What is special about the Insight Meditation DC group is that it has a special focus on Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction (MBSR).
Insight Meditation Center Redwood City
The Insight Meditation Center in Redwood City, California holds true to the Buddhist ideal that meditation should occur daily. They typically offer 1-6 events each day targeting specific Buddhist topics and meditation styles.
Insight Meditation South Bay
Insight Meditation South Bay serves the Central California area around San Francisco. They focus on instruction for mindfulness and insight meditation, have biweekly classes, and host retreats.
Sacramento Insight Meditation
Sacramento Insight Meditation in Sacramento, California is known for their focused talk on aspects of Dharma and meditation. Even for people not in the Sacramento area, many of their events are hybrid events both in person and online or online only.
Seattle Insight Meditation
Seattle Insight Meditation Society in Seattle, Washington is an all-volunteer group with an enormous calendar of events. You can attend hour long or day long events on specific topics. While they do not host retreats, their members speak and lead other retreats and events.
Portland Insight Meditation Community
The Portland Insight Meditation Community in Portland, Oregon is a very establish group that has classes in their hometown and also organizes events in other U.S. cities, Canada and some other beautiful locations.
Insight Meditation Ann Arbor
The insight meditation group in Ann Arbor, Michigan usually hosts spring and fall events organized around teachers from area experts and meditations.
Madison Insight Meditation
In Madison, Wisconsin the Madison insight Meditation Group actually has two organizations. The meditation portion focuses on local classes and the Vipassana part focuses on retreats.
Guided Insight Meditation Resources
If you are interested in learning more or are thinking about looking into attending a retreat, there are examples of insight meditation on YouTube and one amazing book you should read. Also check out Cambridge Insight’s Dharma Q&A.
The Birth of Insight:
Modern Buddhism, and the Burmese Monk Ledi Sayadaw (Buddhism and Modernity)
Cambridge Insight Society Q&A
40+ common questions with answers provided.