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I have been focused on the breath in meditation and I am interested in Vipassana, but I am confused about the object of meditation.

I have read that you focus on the breath and as thoughts arise, you should observe them and then return to the breath and that it is the returning to the breath that increases one's mindfulness. I have also read that in Vipassana meditation, one shifts the object of meditation to the thoughts that arise and make them the object of mediation.

This approach seems to be just sitting and letting your thoughts wander. Do I misunderstand the meaning of making arising thoughts the object of meditation? As it is now, I continue to make the breath the object and observe my other thoughts but generally do not pursue them, rather just categorizing the thought (like "planning the future" or "reliving the past") and then return to the breath.

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In the meditation taught in the original Buddhist scriptures, the mind stays with the breath & free from thought.

In the original Buddhist scriptures, there is no 'shift' when vipassana is practised. Instead, calmness (samatha) & insight (vipassana) are developed simultaneously. The scriptures state:

These two qualities occur in tandem: tranquillity & insight.

MN 149

In the original Buddhist scriptures, the term 'vipassana' refers to the 'clear seeing' of the impermanent (anicca), unsatisfactory (dukkha) & not-self (anatta) characteristics of the five aggregates (body/breathing; feeling sensation; perception; thought/mood; sense consciousness).

For example, the breath arises & passes continually; a breath appears & disappears; a new breath appears, then disappears; another breath appears then disappears. To see/experience clearly impermanence of breathing is vipassana.

To see clearly that it is the physical body that breathes (rather than the 'self' or 'I' that breathes) is also vipassana of 'not-self' in relation to breathing.

'Unsatisfactoriness' means to see that because X breath & Y breath is impermanent; that breath cannot form the basis of or be relied on for lasting happiness (due to its fleeting impermanent nature). It can also mean the impermanent nature of a breath, if clung to, will lead to suffering.

The ordinary distracting thoughts the mind has are not really suitable for vipassana because they actually diminish awareness, clarity & discernment of the mind.

For the mind to practise effective 'vipassana' in relation to thought (sankhara aggregate), 'samadhi' (mental clarity & stability, aka 'concentration') must ideally be very developed & pure (empty).

Ultimately, true 'vipassana' is 'enlightenment'. It is very profound because it discerns the 'not-self' nature of the five aggregates.

Believing 'you' are observing 'your thoughts' or thinking 'my thoughts' are impermanent is not really vipassana because vipassana sees 'not-mine' or 'not-yours' (anatta) rather than 'my' or 'yours'.

To conclude, categorizing the thought (like "planning the future" or "reliving the past") and then return to the breath is the right method according to the original scriptures.

You shouldn't chase after the past or place expectations on the future. What is past is left behind. The future is as yet unreached. Whatever phenomena/truth (dhamma) is present you clearly see right there, right there. Not taken in, unshaken, that's how you develop the heart.

Bhaddekaratta Sutta

  • Comments are not for extended discussion; this conversation has been moved to chat. – Lanka Oct 26 '17 at 20:50
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The focus of this meditation is breath. Keep coming back to that. I recommend you seek out some in-person meditation instruction - it will really help your meditation.

  • Thanks for your suggestion- I have been considering pursuing a personal teacher. – Steve H. Jul 28 '16 at 21:27
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Here is a book you might be interested in. It's compilation of about 30 sutta by Buddha about breathing mediation.

AnapanaSati per Bhudda wajana

  • Thank you for your recommendation- I will investigate these suttas. – Steve H. Jul 28 '16 at 21:27
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Vipassana means 'seeing clearly'. That means you cannot practice Vipassana, because it is the result of the practice. Likewise if you practice Samatha, you don't sit down and become calm & one-pointed right away. The practice and the result are not the same.

In order to practice Vipassana Bhavana (= development of insight) you would traditionally use the instructions from the Satipatthana Sutta. The foundation/object of this practice is not whatever comes up. There are 4 things you should be mindful of (body, feelings, mind, mind objects).

All necessary instruction can be found in this guide: How to Meditate

  • Interesting... I have heard Vipassana translated as insight meditation, but I see that is not a good translation. Thank you for your answer. – Steve H. Aug 16 '16 at 22:02
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There are 4 frames of reference in Vipassana

And what, bhikshus, is right mindfulness? Here, bhikshus, a monk dwells exertive, clearly knowing, mindful, 
   observing the body in the body, 
      removing covetousness and displeasure in the world;
a monk dwells exertive, clearly knowing, mindful, 
     observing feelings in the feelings, 
        removing covetousness and displeasure in the world;
a monk dwells exertive, clearly knowing, mindful, 
   observing the mind in the mind, 
      removing covetousness and displeasure in the world; 
a monk dwells exertive, clearly knowing, mindful, 
   observing dharmas in the dharmas, 
      removing covetousness and displeasure in the world.
This, bhikshus, is called right mindfulness.

(Magga) Vibhaṅga Sutta

To simplify it a bit more, the key is removing covetousness and displeasure in the world which appears in each instance. This is by being equanimous and knowing impedance.

E.g. If you take the body and sub section of posture. Some postures may be comfortable, neutral or painful. You just have to maintain equanimity and see the impermanence of the sensations.[Pacalā Sutta, Dīgha,nakha Sutta, Pahāna Sutta]

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