What kind of awareness is applied in vipassana?
Is it the same as the awareness that comes from developing mindfulness in daily life?
If not, how do they differ?
Let me try to describe it with some similes. Just imagine that there’s a group of kids that you have been put in charge of. Maybe you’re all together in a playground. A couple of parents have entrusted their dear children to you, and you now have complete responsibility for them. And imagine that in this group there are children who need special care. One child might have serious food allergies, and if he eats the wrong thing he may die. Another child may have social problems and may attack another child. Another one may have a physical disability, so she mustn’t be allowed to fall. And another one can't swim, so he can’t be allowed close to the pool.
Now, you’re observing these children. But this kind of ‘observing’ is not what I mean by vipassana, because in this simile you clearly would have to interfere. You’re not just observing but actually waiting to interfere, to grab the child before something happens. This, then, would be a simile for ‘everyday’ mindfulness, for what you usually have to do throughout your daily life. The ‘kids’ here represent all the different defilements. You don’t let the defilement of greed get too close to a tiramisu, because you may be in trouble; you don’t let the defilement of aversion get too close to one particular neighbour, because you may explode with anger. There’s this sense of interfering: it’s not just watching because you’re very, very involved, and it’s your duty to interfere. So this is not the kind of awareness that I mean here for vipassana.
Here’s another example: a big concrete pour. Twenty people are working all day, with maybe more than a dozen concrete trucks arriving. Everything has to go to the right place: the plumbing has to be in at the right time, as well as the reinforcements, and the colour, and the sealant, everything. And you’re in charge. The concrete trucks have to be there at the right time, while the twenty people have to do the right things. But again, this is not the kind of awareness I mean. This, again, is mindfulness in daily life: knowing what is going on, what should be going on, and then immediately taking action to prevent anything from going wrong.
So to properly describe the kind of observing attitude that is applied in genuine vipassana insight, one simile would be that you’re a researcher who’s doing an experiment. Your whole job is just to watch what happens and not to interfere at all, no matter what happens. Or maybe you’re a biologist, and you’re investigating the behaviour of a certain animal. You’re sitting there in the lookout, and the animal comes out, quite shyly. The last thing you’d want to do is interfere in any way because then you’d blow it, and the animal would just jump away. So all you do is just watch what that animal does without interfering.
Here’s another simile: imagine you’re travelling in a foreign country. You’re in India, and you’re sitting on a bus with someone else driving. You don’t even speak the language of the bus driver, so you just look out the windows. It’s quite interesting. You’re not planning to interfere, you’re not going to ask the bus driver to stop and let you get out and tell these people how they should build their huts or plough their fields or how they should drive a bicycle or anything like that. You’re just watching, and it’s quite different from here. You observe without interfering: that is what I mean by vipassana. The only thing you do a little bit of is what the Buddha has pointed out, which is to focus your observing attitude on some aspects of experience such as impermanence, ‘not me,’ or asubha (unattractiveness). And, like the person observing the animal, if a particular aspect is already known and is pointed out to you, you will recognise it more easily.
Once, with my parents, I went on a bush tour with Kookaburra Dreaming Tours, led by an aboriginal man. It was fascinating how different the aboriginal perception of the landscape and animals is from our own. I had seen kangaroos quite a lot, but what the man noticed and pointed out immediately is that kangaroos always go along the same tracks. And that had never really been so clear to me, that they have this very strong tendency to go along the same track, that they always move along the same pathway. After he pointed that out, I could easily see it with the kangaroos in the monastery. Even where there is no visible path, I suddenly noticed that, yes, each time a particular kangaroo comes, he goes around here, and always goes the same way. That's a feature of reality. It has been like that from the very the first day that I arrived at the monastery, but I noticed it only after it was pointed out to me.
It’s the same with impermanence. Impermanence is always there, what we experience is not really ‘me’ or ‘mine,’ I can’t control things, and things are unsatisfactory, unattractive. These characteristics already exist as features of reality, but we can sharpen our perception of them. That is the only case in which, while not really interfering, we are doing something: we’re directing attention into these areas and notice these features in particular. It’s like the researcher who’s looking at the animal without interfering: he has already heard that this animal is supposed to have certain behaviour patterns, such as always going along the same track, or maybe coming out at dusk. If you have already heard of a particular feature, then it is easier to notice, and to focus your attention on it when it appears: that is what I mean. That is the simile for the kind of observing awareness that I mean. But it’s not easy to do. If your mindfulness is good you will notice that you can get into that state, but often it’s only for a short time and then we lose it.
Samadhi and vipassana support each other. You can apply the same skills that you have developed through samatha later in your insight practice, and vice versa. For instance, when you watch the breath to deepen concentration, the whole point is just to be aware of it and to interfere hardly at all. You hardly interfere with the physical process of breathing, you just let the breath flow freely. But you deliberately develop certain perceptions of the breath. You train yourself to perceive the breath as soothing, calming and enjoyable. Later on, it you take a similar approach in vipassana: you just observe without interfering, but you focus in particular on those aspects—anicca, dukkha, anattā—that the Buddha pointed out. You develop the perception of impermanence, unsatisfactoriness and not-self. We can take this as a refuge that we can come back to even in daily life.
So I recommend this as an exercise, to sometimes just pull back and simply observe what’s happening without interfering. In certain situations that will be difficult: if there’s a concrete pour or children that you have all the responsibility for, it's actually not even advisable to try to do that. But there are plenty of occasions in daily life where you don't have any responsibility to interfere, when at least for a moment you can take a break, try to pull back, and just observe. For example, when you’re travelling on public transport, or when your car is standing still at a red light or in a traffic jam. But don't focus too much on what is happening outside: the emphasis is on observing what's going on inside our own mind. The important thing is not to reject or fight any of the moods and emotions that we observe, not to interfere in any way. We're no longer compulsively reacting to whatever we experience. Instead, we disengage from the incessant proliferation of planning and worrying, we stop giving in to the urge to act and interfere, and we ground ourselves in the attitude of being an observer. We ground ourselves in awareness.
It’s really just about observing with curiosity. Wanting to know what's happening, without wanting to control what's happening. If you’re in a bus driving in a foreign country, you’re just curious: ‘I wonder what is happening?’ Take, for example, the Holi festival in India, when they throw the colours. When I was there, I wasn't sure if it would be possible to go out during the festival because people warned us, saying ‘Did you see these photos of people completely covered with toxic chemical dyes?’ I was concerned about my robes, because I don't have too many and you can’t wash those colours out. So, when you’re being curious, you just want to know, ‘What is Holi like in India?’ If you stay inside the bus where you don’t get the Holi colours thrown at you, then you can just watch, and wonder ‘What actually do they do there?’ But you're not participating in the revelry, you don't throw any colours yourself. You're not getting excited about the huge open air party that's going on all around you. In contrast to the local people, who can get quite exuberant, you're not getting carried away with emotion. You watch with the disengaged interest of a mere observer: you’re not trying to stop them or tell them how they should celebrate their Holi or what colour to throw. It’s really just like using the ‘researcher’ attitude that I mentioned.
So, occasionally, just pull back. Don’t try to suppress things in your mind but instead just observe what’s actually going on. Just try that for one minute. What is actually going on inside: does it feel pleasant, does it feel unpleasant? Just notice that. What is your mood? A bit grumpy? Tired? Elated? Excited? Hungry? Distracted? What kinds of emotion go through your mind? With just a little bit of pulling back and just noticing, you will become more acquainted with the ‘observer’ attitude. You gradually get used to grounding yourself in awareness. If you wish, you can start out with body awareness. First, go into the body, feel the body, ground yourself there. Do that for a while, and then you can move on to directly watching the mind. Observe what's going on inside your mind, ground yourself in awareness.
(This is a transcript of a Dhamma Talk given by Ajahn Dhammasiha at Dhammagiri Forest Hermitage. Anumodanā to Mark Hislop, who has provided the transcription from the original audio file, and also did first edits to bring the spoken words into a more acceptable form for printing. Final version with responsibility for any errors remaining was done by the speaker himself)