Tuesday, October 12, 2010


This past Sunday was the day for Thanissaro Bhikkhu (Than Geoff) to visit our sangha for our monthly session with him. We started out, as usual, with an hour's sit, the first half of it guided by Than Geoff, starting out with metta and continuing with a slow scan of the body, starting at the navel. My mind was unusually settled and focused for this hour, and the sit was an immensely pleasurable and relaxing one. I'm always grateful when that happens.

Early in the question period, Than Geoff referred in passing to insights and how they arise, triggering a question that has bothered me in the past. It seems a very basic question, for one who has been practicing vipassana ("insight") mediation for quite a number of years, but I have always been a little confused on this subject. I keep waiting for those insights to arise, but they very rarely do. So I asked Than Geoff if he'd talk a little more about this, and was surprised by his response.

Turns out, he defines "insight" much more narrowly than I would have thought. The word, to me, suggests the bolt of lightning, the epiphany, the sudden revelation of some important and hitherto unsuspected truth about myself, or the universe, or my place in it. For Than Geoff, the insight is more simple and immediate in its relevance. It's the awareness, during meditation, that the mind has wandered off and needs to be brought back; the understanding of what led it astray at that particular moment; and the determination to avoid this distraction in the future.

If I understood him right, then, insight is simply a part of the discipline of practice, a refining of the skill involved in achieving and maintaining the mind's focus and concentration. What a relief! For so long I have been judging my sits as somehow deficient in the intended result, the arrival of a sudden new piece of wisdom to clarify my understanding of the mysteries of life. The wonder is that I could have labored for so long under so great a misapprehension! And the lesson: that it always pays to ask the simplest of questions.


khengsiong said...

Than Geoff was trained in Thai Forest Tradition. Those from Mahasi Sayadaw Tradition are likely to have different definition of insight. Anyway, practice is key...


So glad to see your blog back on track again; I opened today hoping that you may have started again! Dehydration and dry skin. My skin doctor some years ago told me I should drink 2 litres of water tap or mineral per day!! I took some Brits for a mountain walk the other day, who were passing by on a Royal Navy ship, after a couple of years in Afghanistan on their way home. One said what a pleasure it was to be walking without it being work! On questioning the difference, he gave an example - a recent four day mission on foot into the wilderness that had just been devastated by an earthquake made it necessary for them to carry 25 litres of water each on top of their normal 40 or 50 kilo kit!! Good to be reading you again. Michael