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How to Meditate - Vipassana Style

We offer two divergent sets of instructions for meditation. For instructions in Zen, click here. On this page are instructions for meditation based on S.N. Goenka’s Vipassana meditation. It is preferable to learn this method for yourself by attending a free (donation-based) 10-day silent retreat at the Vipassana Center nearest you. For full details on participating, visit

I (mp) have attended several 10-day courses in whole or in part, and also once the Sattipatthana course. Yet I have no formal qualification as a teacher in this tradition, and speak only from the meager authority of my experience. I am trying to explain to you in simple terms how to meditate, based on my exposure. I speak as a writer and a philosopher, not as a teacher of meditation.

Vipassana Meditation Technique

Divide your meditation time into three unequal parts. Instructions are correspondingly given in three parts. Briefly, these are 1) breathing; 2) the main Vipassana (or insight) technique, which involves a body scan; and 3) a compassion meditation in closing.

1) Breathing Meditation

Consult our daily meditation instructions. You are seated comfortably in a dim room, eyes closed, back upright, as still as possible. First attend to your breath as it flows in and out your nostrils. Rivet your attention to the sensitive skin around nose area and above the upper lip, feeling the breath come and go. There will be temperature differences and any number of physical sensations, which you should observe but not resist. Attention will wander, but bring it back without disappointment or internal commotion. You job is simply to feel the breath as it passes, and to feel the sensations arise, remain, and pass away.

Just feel – but there is more than this. Feel and do not react. Reaction will occur according to habit patterns, based on whether the sensations felt are pleasant or unpleasant. Inhibit the reaction patterns by just observing, and by coming back to just observing. This inhibition of reaction develops into a formidable strength of mind known as equanimity. Awareness (observation, feeling) together with this active inhibition of the will is the operative and therapeutic factor in Vipassana meditation.

2) Vipassana (Insight) Meditation

After 5 to 10 minutes of observing your natural breath (not altering, regulating or controlling it in any way), survey your entire body head to foot, piece by piece, taking care to feel but not react to whatever sensations arise as your attention passes. Pass your attention through every part of your body in a regular or at least systematic fashion, examining any sensations that may present themselves, and then moving on to the next part of the body. Sensations may be gross or subtle, pleasant, unpleasant or neutral, heavy or light, hot or cold, itchy or ticklish. Or they may be absent, like a blankness. This too should be observed with equanimity, not wishing for a sensation, or hankering for any particular sensation.

Importantly, the objective of this meditation is not to achieve particular sensations (like bliss), but to develop the capacity not to react, to bring balance of mind or equanimity to each and every sensation, regardless of its character or relative endurance. Take equanimity with you as you pass your attention from one body part to another, always looking honestly to see what sensation has arisen. Eschew expectation. Pass through your body innocently, from one area to the next, head to toe, then, if you like, toe to head. Pass over the surface of your body, neglecting no region. Then penetrate inside and take your attention through your viscera, confronting the nebulous surging or arousal and ecstasy with the same unflinching equanimity.

How long? Go fast enough to keep your mind entertained, slow enough to neglect nothing. If you get bogged down in one area, it may help to let your attention move downward during exhale. If you can pass your attention through your entire body once in 20 minutes, you are doing fine. If it takes longer, even much longer, it is not a problem, but take care not let yourself get bored. Take larger areas into each view if it is taking you forever to complete a portion only of your body, or if you are having trouble finding sensations to observe. It is not what crops up to be felt that is important, but the practice in non-reaction to it.

3) Compassion Meditation

Conclude your meditation session with compassion meditation, which you should only undertake if the mood strikes. Do not pretend to wish well for others while you are feeling miserable for yourself: virtue is not a penalty. If you feel fit to generate compassion, then meditate as follows. Allow your mind to jump from one area of the body to another (randomly, rather than systematically as above, but still attending at each area to whatever sensation occurs as your present reality). While simultaneously maintaining awareness of sensations, call in all sincerity for others to share your merits, overcome suffering, or simply be happy. Do not restrict yourself to loved ones or familiars, but extend infinite compassion to all beings, regardless of merit.

Ideally, you would do this morning and evening for 1 hour each setting. This is my personal ambition.

How does Meditation Work?

Why does this work? The full reasons go to the depths of Buddhist psychological theory, so I won’t attempt to state them. But I will say this: if you can develop the capacity to respond with equanimity to any sensation whatsoever that should crop up anywhere on the body, there is nothing in the external reality that can knock you off your stride. For in reality we respond, not to external events directly, but to the immediate sensations on the body that arise on account of them.