There are several varieties of vipassana, and different kinds of practices within each type. Some are appropriate for beginners and others are achievable only after years of intensive work. The practice I follow is called samatha vipassana. Each word refers to a component of the whole practice. Samatha refers to the concentration component in which you focus intently on something, often the sensations of breathing. When you notice that your mind has wandered from this object of focus, which is inevitable because sensory distractions abound and the mind continually generates thoughts, you return your attention to the object of focus.
The Wandering Mind
Don’t judge the fact that your attention wandered away; simply notice that this has happened and gently bring it back. The other component—the vipassana aspect—is the development of insight. Here you not only return to the object of focus but also carefully notice where your mind went when it wandered off and what thought, emotion, or sensation you experienced while wandering. Insight meditation usually involves riding the waves of the breath, being fully present to the full duration of each in-breath and out-breath without doing anything to control the rate or depth of either. You also notice the still point between each breath. Then you notice when your attention wavers from this point of focus, observe where it went, and bring it back to the breath.
I mentioned that you notice your mind’s distraction without judgment. In practicing mindfulness, you notice all sounds and other sensory input that have caught your attention. But as with your thoughts, you merely note everything you become aware of, without analyzing the source or nature of the stimuli, and without becoming attached to them. An intricacy of the practice is what you do when judgment arises—as it will despite your intention. When you realize you are judging, you simply label that judging; you don’t assign a judgment to the fact that you’re judging. This builds acceptance and mastery of your experience.
It is important that there be no struggle to identify and label thoughts. Many mindfulness practitioners never label thoughts, and it is not necessary to do so; labeling is simply a tool that many people have found helpful, as I have. How do you know whether labeling is appropriate for you in your practice? For some people, the process of labeling their thoughts can put them in an analytical frame of mind, and this is not what is desired. For others, the labeling of thoughts in real time, if it can be done from the perspective of an objective observer, serves to provide great insight into the workings of the mind.
If I become aware that I’m thinking about a future event, by identifying and labeling these thoughts as planning, I’m able to see that planning is something the mind naturally does. I can then accept this and not become caught up in the contents of the planning. It is enough to observe my mind engaged in planning; now I can go back to observing my breath. If you use labels, you can use any you like. The ones I use in my own practice include planning, rehearsing, reviewing, ruminating, judging, negativizing, and gobbledygook. When I notice my mind has wandered from my breath, I describe my thoughts with one of those labels. Gobbledygook, by the way, is the label I came up with for those times when I cannot easily identify my thoughts. Sometimes, for example, when I’m doing my formal daily sitting meditation, my mind goes into a dreamlike state where my thoughts are no longer logical. I don’t want to try to make sense of them; instead, I simply label them as gobbledygook and then immediately return to following the sensations of respiration. In this way I develop the skill of taking my thoughts less seriously.
Formal and Informal Practice
Samatha vipassana is just one of many formal, sitting meditation practices that are generally done at an appointed time each day. All such formal practices can serve as the essential foundation for moment-to-moment mindfulness practice throughout the day, known as informal practice. It casts a much wider net because it consists of nonjudgmentally observing all of your naturally arising thoughts, sensations, and emotions as you go through the day instead of becoming entangled or fused with them, and then returning to the activity at hand.
Instead of getting caught up in concepts and constructs—the usual province of the mind—you focus on the direct, felt, sensory experience of the moment, no matter what may be occurring. And rather than relentlessly trying to interpret your experience, you set an intention to accept and be curious about your experience without analyzing or judging it. You engage in loving, nonjudgmental acknowledgment of all your waking moments. Each time you acknowledge thoughts as transient events in the field of awareness, you reinforce your ability to be mindful in the future. Your practice builds and deepens. And there are infinite opportunities to reinforce your practice because every activity, without exception, offers the choice to be present to the moment.