An Introduction to Vipassana Meditation: The Art of Seeing Separately

By Thomas McConkie, adapted from an episode of the Mindfulness+ podcast


When you taste a piece of chocolate with a connoisseur who has a discerning and mature pallet, you get a completely different experience than you otherwise would. The connoisseur might point out that the cocoa beans in a particular piece of chocolate are from a place in Madagascar where juices from citrus fruits have leached into the soil and flavored the bean. The moment you hear this, you may actually start to taste that citrus fruit. You become aware of the complexity of the taste you're experiencing.

It’s a simple example of vipassana, the Pali word for mindfulness, which literally means “seeing separately.” That is, when you taste chocolate under the guidance of a connoisseur, you start to pick up on the different strands, the different notes, the different nuances of your experience. Those nuances might show up in a fruity, smokey, or salty piece of chocolate.

Another way to understand vipassana might be to think about a time when you noticed you were kind of cranky. Maybe you were in conflict with somebody — your spouse, partner, a friend, a colleague at work. At some point in the conflict you may have noticed, "Hey, wait a minute, I think I'm just hungry.” Or maybe if not hungry, then maybe you notice you just didn't sleep very well and so you're irritable. In either case, you have a moment of clarity where you realize you’re not actually bothered with the person you’re speaking to so much as your body just needs some rest or a sandwich.

The point is that when we don't bring clarity and precision to our experience, it all ends up getting lumped together. We’re grumpy but we have no idea why. But then when we bring a microscope of awareness to our experience, we get clear on the different elements that are coalescing to produce that experience. We realize, "Okay, I'm a little bit hungry and that's causing me to be cranky. My colleague just asked for this project a few days earlier than it was originally intended, and that set me off. Let me take an early lunch break, and let’s talk about the best way to solve this situation after lunch." It's as simple as that.

And as I described with the example of eating chocolate, vipassana (or mindfulness) also elevates our fulfillment. When we bring greater clarity to our experiences, we enjoy them more, even if the experiences are already intrinsically rewarding. Our sensory experience becomes richer and more rewarding.

Vipassana Practice

In some meditations it's desirable to find a quiet place where you won't be interrupted — a place where you can really settle in. But mindfulness practice can be done anywhere at any time. So I'm going to invite you to continue doing exactly what you're doing, whatever that is. You might be sitting still in a quiet room or a crowded room. Either way works for this particular practice.

I want you to start by just noticing the way you feel in the body. Noticing physical sensation. Often times when we notice physical sensation we spontaneously move in to a posture that allows for more alertness and freedom. So if you're moved to adjust your posture, go ahead and do that but just notice how the body's feeling in the moment. Notice physical sensation. Where is sensation the brightest? Where is it the most obvious? Allow this sensation to flow and be as it is, to be felt. Notice where sensation is more dim and quiet. Notice the parts of your body that you can't contact as readily and just bring more awareness to these places. Not trying to change anything or create sensation but just breathing and noticing.

Now notice the quality of your emotions in this moment: your mood, how you feel. If you're aware of emotion in the body, where do you feel it? What quality does it have? Is it intense emotion or is it more subtle. Notice what space the emotional energy takes up in the body. Notice its shape: is it changing? Is it wanting to spread? Is it wanting to get smaller? Does the emotion extend beyond the borders of the physical body? Does it radiate out into space? Or is it more inward? Just notice.

Go ahead and let that go and bring your awareness to hearing. Just marvel for a moment that you can hear at all. Notice what you can detect in front of you, behind you, to your left and right, below and above you. And notice that it's not just sound that you hear but also silence. As sounds come and go, they arise from silence and back to silence. And so you can appreciate not just the sound around you, whatever it is, but you can also appreciate the silence to which all sound returns.

Letting that go, you can notice what you see. Again, you can marvel that you have eyes to see at all. This world of objects, a spectrum of colors, play of light and shadow. Notice that the eyes automatically discern shape and color. And as you shift your head one degree or turn your eyes one degree this way or that, the whole visual world shifts into a new scene, a new sight, a new moment. Notice how the world changes moment to moment even if it's only your perspective changing. Your eyes shifting slightly. And you can put them all together now.

Finally, notice the entire feeling body. Ears that hear. Eyes that see. Track these different components clearly in this moment. In this moment an experience coalesces. Whatever your experience in this moment, let it be that.

In practicing vipassana we’re not trying to produce a special experience but rather become more clear and more open to this very moment, open to this ordinary experience that is given to us.