Progressions of Vipassana Insight Meditation

Progression in insight meditation, or Vipassana meditation, is a difficult thing to characterize in the context of your practice. When you exercise consistently, you begin to notice changes in your body and energy levels – loss of fat, increased muscle tone and mass, increased endurance; however, meditation progression is not linear – even with dedicated practice – and little or no evidence of progress can make the experience frustrating enough to quit.

Some days the stars are aligned just so, and you sit quietly, easily, and without distracting thoughts. An hour or more passes easily. Most importantly, you can carry this practice into your daily interactions with ease, applying patience, observational skills, and mindful speaking.

On other occasions, despite similar exterior conditions, your mind cannot be calmed. Sitting for twenty minutes feels like an hour. You have no patience during difficult interactions and you feel primed for irritation and dissatisfaction.

There are 3 universal characteristics – or 3 markers of existence – which are important when understanding progress in meditation: Unsatisfactoriness, impermanence and non-self. Progress, in Vipassana terms, means deepening these 3 characteristics.

Nine Progressive Stages of Mental Development
Nine Progressive Stages of Mental Development according to Shamatha Meditation

Impermanence (Pali: Annica)

Seasons, feelings, attitudes, hairstyles – everything changes. Our sensitivity to these ongoing changes can be fine tuned but by default, it is quite dull.

The distinction between experiencing impermanence and signs of impermanence is important for understanding the progression of Insight Meditation. Signs of impermanence make you realize that things are changing. For example, noting the rise and fall of the abdomen, the in and out of the breath, the hot and cold sensations on your skin.

Intuitively, we may understand the impermanence of our experiences, our environment, our body and our minds. However, the experience of impermanence exists when you no longer note the difference between the rising versus falling of the abdomen, and there is no single point which can be identified as rising or falling. Rather, the act of rising and falling is reduced to a series of experiences which flow together, making the moment of ‘rising’ indistinguishable from a ‘falling’. The only experience is impermanence.

Unsatisfactoriness (Pali: Dukkha)

Suffering is a more commonly used term to translate the Pali word dukkha; however, unsatisfactoriness or imperfection is better suited for us in the Western world. When we imagine suffering, we think of innocent victims of our violent and war-hungry world, abused and abandoned children, and poverty-stricken individuals and families.

We do not think of how we beat ourselves up over our muffin-top waistlines, our penchant for spending money we don’t have, that we are irritated at the slightest mishap, or that we hate our jobs but are too complacent find our way out. To see ourselves in this light – as suffering – would just seem overly dramatic.

However, dukkha embodies unsatisfactoriness of extreme degrees, from minor agitation to full-blown hardship and distress. While you may have ample food to eat, an expansive roof over your head, family and friends abound, you may still suffer. Most likely, you are suffering.

Non-Self (Pali: Anattā)

From one moment to the next, you are not the same person. There are endless ways to demonstrate this. Gastric acid break down proteins in the stomach, ultimately aiding digestion. Without the lining, this acid would indiscriminately eat away at the wall of your stomach, yet this doesn’t occur because the lining is continuously regenerating cells to keep up.

Our cells die and regenerate – so what? From moment to moment, my favourite colours are still orange and blue, and for the 5th year in a row, I am ordering the assorted sushi lunch special at the restaurant down the street. I still love puppies and toddlers and I hate my brother-in-law (example only – I don’t have a brother-in-law). At a microscopic level, I am not the same person from moment to moment, but practically speaking, the entity I call my body and mind, is still me. Yes?

Your concept of yourself is a story you have put together, but it does not define you. The issue with stories is our tendency to feed the ego and this causes us to prop ourselves up to support all the sub-plots of our story. Yet we are nothing but our awareness from moment to moment.

The Connection Between Impermanence, Unsatisfactoriness, Non-Self

Impermanence is at the heart of understanding the connection between these 3 universal characteristics.

When everything feels as if it’s going well in your life, we hold tightly to this experience, hoping for it to last. Conversely, when everything seems to be going wrong, we instinctively push the experience away and hope it is short-lived. Impermanence causes us to cling to our good experiences, and push away the bad experiences, and in that longing – for things to change or for things to stay the same – there is the feeling of Unsatisfactoriness or Suffering.

Impermanence is also core to understanding Non-Self. Everything about us is centered around Impermanence and when we are unaccepting of this – aging, troubled relationships, fluctuating emotions – we demonstrate varying degrees of Unsatisfactoriness. The fact that we fight the aging process demonstrates this connection, and that we cling to the idea of staying youthful, for example, demonstrates the connection between Non-Self and Unsatisfactoriness.

Essentials of Insight Meditation Practice by Venerable Sujiva
The Mind Illuminated by John Yates