The Light Itself

The Light Itself

reality is made of sensations


Insight meditation is the study of sensations in order to understand our perception of reality. Sensations are what we perceive through our six sense-doors (five senses and thoughts). They are not to be confused with impressions or emotions. Sensations give rise to them. It is their root. That is why if we can understand sensations, we can understand everything we are capable of knowing.

The Insight practice explained here is called noting and was developed by Mahasi Sayadaw. It consists of noting our sensations  and giving it a category without judging them.

Mahasi Sayadaw's insight method

Noting practice

Sit down in a comfortable position in a quiet place. Close your eyes and take a moment to quiet the mind. Now pay attention to your breath and every breath in, look at the chest rising. Pay attention to the sensation without judging it. Simply note “rising”. As you breath out, do the same thing and note “falling”. Do this as your main practice until you are comfortable with it. You will start noticing that in-between each sensation of rising and falling there are other sensations that arise. Start noting them too “itching”, “thinking”, “planning”, “remembering”…)

This is deceptively simple. Try it and you will see what I mean. If you practice this for a long time though, you will start noticing changes in your perception of reality, in your daily life. You’ll feel more present, more aware of your surrounding.

At this point you are  ready to expand on the exercise and apply it to situations other than sitting in a couch. The idea is to slowly bring in as many varied sensations as possible under the lens of your noting practice. Try doing it while pacing in the room (eyes open of course! No need to note the sensation of bumping into furniture!) Note each left and right step simply thinking “stepping”. Then go into details and for each left and right step, note “lifting, moving, placing”.

Let’s bring in even more sensations to the practice. Try doing the same exercise in your daily life while you go about doing casual things. Instead of thinking of random stuff during your day, why not replace all (most) of your thoughts with noting?

Another buddhist numbered list

The Three Characteristics

Once you are getting confident in the practice of noting, you are ready to add another layer of study of sensations. Instead of simply noting without judgment, observe how all sensations share three common characteristics:

  1. The sensations are impermanent. They come, they linger a bit and then they go away.
  2. The sensations are source of dissatisfaction. If you like a sensation, you have a tendency to want it to stay for ever and you miss them when they are gone. If you don’t like the sensation, you have a tendency to want it to go away and when it’s not here, you are worried it will come. This is what we refer to as clinging.
  3. The sensations aren’t experienced by a self. Sensations arise and go away as an independent phenomenon. you are only witnessing them. Your tastes, your memories, your values all of the things you might consider “you” are irrelevant. The “you” that witnesses is simply consciousness.
Whenever you perceive a sensation, whether in meditation or in daily life, study its Three Characteristics. Look at them and be fully aware of the fact that they are impermanent, dissatisfactory and not experienced by a self.

The Three Characteristics are a Buddhist concept, in case you want to research more on the subject.

The path to Wisdom

The lifestyle

If you study your sensations, your understanding of reality will naturally sharpen. Get into the habit of looking into every sensation you have, on the cushion and off the cushion (in and out of meditation). Keep at it until it becomes a lifestyle. 

During your meditation, you might experience a brightening of the back of your eyelids or a mild sense of exaltation whenever you accurately study a sensation. I call these “flashes of illumination”. I use them as a guide. They indicate to me that the sensation is worth studying. I take it as a sign that I must continue studying it until that flash of illumination doesn’t occur anymore.