Wednesday, January 13, 2016

Vipassana or Insight Meditation - Mahasi Noting Style

hamilton project practice!

The idea behind meditation is that the mind needs to be trained to be aware, in an awareness of awareness kind of way, and within that, needs to be trained to relax.

As far as the awareness side, many styles can accomplish this but I feel the Mahasi style is one of the better to learn as it mechanically requires one to do exactly what needs to be done.  It "forces" you to be continuously mindful.

The Mahasi or noting style comes from the Theravada Buddhist monk Mahasi Sayadaw.  It is more or less the predominate style of vipassana (insight meditation or mindfulness) practiced in the southeast Asian Theravada Buddhist world.  For people that take to this practice, it may be one of the faster paths to what we might call the tipping point or "escape velocity", what would be referred to as the first stage of enlightenment in the Burmese tradition.

This style is the source material for the type of meditation I teach in How To Meditate, so it's relevant, but mainly it can be helpful to see the practice from a slightly different angle.  Here are some of the original Mahasi style instructions from one of his lectures:

Instructions to Insight Meditation - Mahasi Sayadaw (text)

Instructions to Insight Meditation - Mahasi Sayadaw (mp3)

The linked text above can also be found in Practical Vipassana Exercises (pdf) by Mahasi Sayadaw, pages 30-44.  The mp3 is a 46 minute recording of a British man reading the text, and it ends up being something like a guided meditation, and a relatively painless way to receive the instructions

Kenneth Folk is a modern teacher who studied under Pandita, Mahasi's successor.  He outlines his version of noting practice here:

Kenneth Folk - Intro to Mahasi Noting (mp3)

This mp3 is a series of instructions edited from some Kenneth Folk instructional videos, totaling not quite 33 minutes in length.  The topics are:
  • What is Meditation?
  • Noting based on Six Senses
  • Body Sensations (1st foundation of mindfulness)
  • Pleasant & Unpleasant (2nd foundation)
  • Mind States (3rd foundation)
  • Thoughts (4th foundation)
  • Freestyle Noting
  • Pressure Release Valve
  • Working Through Difficulty

I think at one time I would have been relatively dogmatic about this unique style of meditation, for the simple reason that it proved effective for myself and a number of friends on the path.  But clearly many methods work, and frankly, anything that is keeping you substantially aware and relaxed during formal practice will likely "get it done".  For those who are interested, here is a post from earlier in the series outlining some of the reasons that the Mahasi style may be particularly effective.

There are some minor differences between the original Mahasi instructions and those of Kenneth Folk.

Mahasi has a style of repeating each note twice, Kenneth does not.  In some ways the repeating could allow one to "sink into" the experience behind the note, a practice that Shinzen Young has at times advocated.  Beginners typically have more of a problem with mind wandering and need more to do to keep them on task, possibly suggesting more frequent noting.  More time between notes might plausibly be more appropriate for advanced meditators.

Mahasi also places a lot of emphasis on the breath, which is very traditional.  Kenneth does not.  The breath has always been the focus of many meditative practices and it is of use as it is always available, always moving, always here and now.  Mahasi makes the breath a "fall back" or anchor mechanism if nothing else is going on, which is reasonable, noting the ever present "rising" and "falling" of the diaphragm.  It's a legitimate option, but I do like the concept of not making the breath any more important than anything else going on in awareness.

Kenneth also advises people to experiment with out-loud noting.  This is a powerful technique which tends to automatically increase awareness as compared to mental noting.  If you are having trouble with mind wandering while mentally noting, try a highly recommended session of out loud noting.

Other Resources about Noting:

My material on How To Meditate

A brief article by Gil Fronsdal on Mental Noting

How to Practice Vipassana Insight Meditation by Sayadaw U Pandita (a student and successor of Mahasi Sayadaw)

A fairly long and detailed description of noting and mindfulness practice from the Vipassana Dhura Meditation Society

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