Cutting to the Chase

Do you ever find yourself rambling on during an all-too-brief meeting with your teacher? Burmese master Sayadaw U Pandita provides straightforward instructions for the personal interview process typical during a Vipassana retreat.

Sayadaw U Pandita

Courtesy of Insight Meditation Society

During an intensive Vipassana retreat, personal interviews are held as often as possible, ideally every day. Interviews are formally structured. After the yogi presents his or her experiences, as described below, the teacher may ask questions relating to particular details before giving a pithy comment or instruction.

The interview process is quite simple. You should be able to communicate the essence of your practice in about ten minutes. Consider that you are reporting on your research into yourself, which is what Vipassana actually is. Try to adhere to the standards used in the scientific world: brevity, accuracy, and precision.

First, report on how many hours of sitting you did and how many of walking in the most recent twenty-four-hour period. If you are quite truthful and honest about this, it will show the sincerity of your practice. Next, describe your sitting practice. It is not necessary to describe each sitting in detail. If sittings are similar, you may combine their traits together in a general report. Try using details from the clearest sitting or sittings. Begin your description with the primary object of meditation, the rise and fall of the abdomen. After this you may add other objects that arose at any of the six sense doors.

After describing the sitting, go into your walking practice. Here you must only describe experiences directly connected with your walking movements—do not include a range of objects as you might in reporting a sitting. If you use the three-part method of lifting, moving, and placing in your walking meditation, try to include each segment and the experiences you had with it.

What occurred, how you noted it, what happened to it?

For all of these objects—indeed with any object of meditation—please report your experience in three phases. One, you identify what occurred. Two, you report how you noted it. And three, you describe what you saw, or felt, or understood; that is, what happened when you noted it.

Let us take as an example the primary object, the rising and falling movement of the abdomen. The first thing to do is to identify the occurrence of the rising process.

“Rising occurred.”

The second phase is to note it, give it a silent verbal label.

I noted it as 'rising.’

The third phase is to describe what happened to the rising.

“As I noted 'rising,’ this is what I experienced, the different sensations I felt. This was the behavior of the sensations at that time.”

Then you continue the interview by using the same three-phase description for the falling process and the other objects that arise during sitting. You mention the object’s occurrence, describe how you noted it, and relate your subsequent experiences until the object disappears or your attention moves elsewhere.

Perhaps an analogy will serve to clarify. Imagine that I am sitting in front of you, and suddenly I raise my hand into the air and open it so that you can see that I am holding an apple. You direct your attention toward this apple; you recognize it, and (because this is an analogy) you say the word "apple” to yourself. Now you go on to discern that the apple is red, round, and shiny. At last I slowly close my hand so that the apple disappears.

How would you report on your experience of the apple, if the apple were your primary object of meditation? You would say, “The apple appeared. I noted it as 'apple,’ and I noticed that it was red, round, and shiny. Then the apple slowly disappeared.”

Thus, you would have reported in a precise way on the three phases of your involvement with the apple. First, there was the moment when the apple appeared and you became able to perceive it. Second, you directed your attention to the apple and recognized what it was; since you were “practicing meditation” with the apple, you made the particular effort to label it verbally in your mind. Third, you continued attending to the apple and discerned its qualities, as well as the manner of its passing out of your awareness. This three-step process is the same one you must follow in actual Vipassana meditation, except, of course, that you observe and report on your experiences of the rising and falling of your abdomen. One warning: Your duty to observe the fictitious apple does not extend to imagining the apple’s juiciness or visualizing yourself eating it! Similarly, in a meditation interview, you must restrict your descriptions to what you have experienced directly, rather than what you may imagine, visualize, opine about the object.

As you can see, this style of reporting is a guide for how awareness should be functioning in actual Vipassana meditation. For this reason, meditation interviews are helpful for an additional reason beyond the chance to receive a teacher’s guidance. Yogis often find that being required to produce a report of this kind has a galvanizing effect on their meditation practice, for it asks them to focus on their experiences as clearly as they possibly can.

Awareness, Accuracy, Perseverance

It is not enough to look at the object indifferently, haphazardly, or in an unmindful, automatic way. This is not a practice where you mindlessly recite some mental formula. You must look at the object with full commitment, with all of your heart. Directing your whole attention toward the object, as accurately as possible, you keep your attention there so that you can penetrate into the object’s true nature.

Despite our best efforts, the mind may not always be so well-behaved as to remain with our abdomen. It wanders off. At this point, a new object, the wandering mind, has arisen. How do we handle this? We become aware of the wandering. This is the first phase. Now the second phase: We label it as “wandering, wandering.” How soon after its arising were we aware of the wandering? One second, two minutes, half an hour? And what happens after we label it? Does the wandering mind disappear instantly? Does the mind just keep on wandering? Or do the thoughts reduce in intensity and eventually disappear? Does a new object arise before we have seen the disappearance of the old one? If you cannot note the wandering mind at all, you should tell the teacher about this, too.

If the wandering mind disappears, you come back to the rising and falling. You should make a point to describe whether you are able to come back to it. In your reports it is good also to say how long the mind usually remained with the rising and falling movements before a new object arose.

Pains and aches, unpleasant sensations, are sure to arise after some time of sitting. Say an itch suddenly appears—a new object. You label it as “itching.” Does the itch get worse or remain the same? Does it change or disappear? Do new objects arise, such as a wish to scratch? All this should be described as precisely as possible. It is the same with visions and sights, sounds and tastes, heat and cold, tightness, vibrations, tinglings, the unending procession of objects of consciousness. No matter what the object, you only have to apply the same three-step principle to it.

All of this process is done as a silent investigation, coming very close to our experience—not asking ourselves a lot of questions and getting lost in thought. What is important to the teacher is whether you could be aware of whatever object has arisen, whether you had the accuracy of mind to be mindful of it, and the perseverance to observe it fully. Be honest with your teacher. If you are unable to find the object, or note it, or experience anything at all after making a mental label, it may not always mean that you are practicing poorly! A clear and precise report enables the teacher to assess your practice, then point out mistakes or make corrections to put you back on the right path.

May you benefit from these interview instructions. May a teacher someday help you help yourself.

Sayadaw U Pandita is the abbot of Panditarama Monastery and Meditation Center in Rangoon, Burma. From In This Very Life: Liberation Teachings of the Buddha, by Sayadaw U Pandita, © 1991 by Saddhama Foundation. Reprinted with permission of Wisdom Publications.

Image: Burmese master Sayada U Pandita, Courtesy of Insight Meditation Society

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