Tuesday, October 29, 2013

Dharma Talk 002: Mahasi Insight (Vipassana) Meditation Noting Instructions


Mindfulness meditation in the style of a Burmese Theravada Buddhist master.  Arguably the predominate style of vipassana (insight meditation or mindfulness) practiced in the Theravada world (roughly southeast Asia).  Arguably the fastest path to technical stream entry (cessation), the first stage of enlightenment in the Burmese tradition, the tipping point.

Instructions to Insight Meditation - Mahasi Sayadaw (text)
Instructions to Insight Meditation - Mahasi Sayadaw (mp3)

The mp3 linked above is a 46 minute recording of a British guy reading the text that is also linked above, but it ends up being a nice guided meditation, a relatively painless way to receive the instructions.   I originally found the mp3 on a Hawaiian Vipassana group website, but as it has disappeared from that site I am offering it here.  The text is from Practical Vipassana Exercises by Mahasi Sayadaw, pages 30-44.

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, and I'll go ahead and place a link here to Kenneth Folk Dharma.  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 quite dogmatic about this style of meditation, for the simple reason that it proved effective for myself and a number of friends.  Clearly, many methods work, and frankly, anything that is getting you to something like 98% aware during formal practice will likely get it done, however, here are some of the reasons that this style may be effective:
  • Regular noting at approximately one second intervals doesn't allow much time for mind wandering
  • The noting actually requires you to continuously prove that you are aware, unlike most methods that merely make a suggestion that one be aware
  • Coming up with the note requires one to use up a certain amount of mental bandwidth that might otherwise be used to wander
  • Practiced earnestly, it allows for a very high rate of continuous presence awareness, aka awareness of awareness
  • Freely noting from any points in one's awareness, "dancing" from one object of awareness to another, trains mental flexibility and gives insight into impermance
  • Similarly, continually breaking one's experience into little parts, deconstructing the experience, "busting it up", gives insight into no-self
  • The regular noting (around 3600 times per hour) provides a unique type of feedback, allowing the mind to see patterns it might miss otherwise, at times providing insight into dependent origination, the billiard ball like physics of the universe (for example: loud sound > fear > body tensions > fearful thoughts > realization > relief > relaxation)
  • This style is perhaps exceptionally good for interrupting the conditioned prejudice towards, and attachment to, thought

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

Mahasi has a style of dogmatically 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 advocated, but I would tend to go along with Kenneth's instructions.  Beginners typically have more of a problem with mind wandering and need more to do to keep them on task.  I would consider Shinzen's approach appropriate for more advanced students.

Mahasi also places a lot of emphasis on the breath.  Kenneth does not.  The breath has been the focus of many meditative practices and is of use as it is always available, always moving, always here and now.  Mahasi makes the breath a "fall back" mechanism if nothing else is going on, which makes sense, noting the ever present "rising" and "falling" of the diaphragm.  But I tend to agree with Kenneth's version, making the breath no more important than anything else going on in awareness.  We are looking for an insight practice, not a concentration practice.

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 session of out loud noting, which can be done sotto voce.


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

For a slightly different, more sparse noting approach, here is a retreat handout from Shinzen Young that gives an outline of his approach.  In simple terms, the notes are see - hear - feel - in - out - rest - flow - gone.  The in and out terms refer to whether the phenomenon is "inside" or "outside" of the body.  An internal, imagined image would be "see in", while looking at the television would be "see out".  Discursive verbal thoughts can be labelled as "hear in".

Free books by Mahasi Sayadaw from the Association for Insight Meditation.

And the post on Getting Stream Entry.


  1. I love this post. I use both Mahasi and Kenneth's before I sleep (depending on which one is working better, I tend to go back to Mahasi's breath centered) It's a great insomnia cure!

  2. Glad you liked it, although I'm not quite sure if you're kidding or not.