Meditation FAQ

What is meditation?

Meditation is one of a number of intentional practices in which practitioners train their minds or cultivate an experience they define as spiritually beneficial.  At the Insight Center our practice is based on the Buddha’s discourse on the “Four Foundations of Mindfulness” (Satipatthana Sutta) from which we emphasize the non-sectarian practice of training the mind called mindfulness meditation.

Is meditation different from relaxation or breathing techniques?

Yes.  Mindfulness meditation observes the natural rhythm of the breath as a method for transforming the body-mind system.  Most breathing techniques manage the breath for temporary relief and sometimes rely on guided instructions.

How is meditation during yoga different from what you teach?

The intentions are different. Meditation at the end of a yoga session intends to assist the body to relax. During a yoga session, the breath is used with the intention to change holding patterns for further release. In mindfulness practice the intention is to directly experience or observe the way things are without holding any intention to change them. Mindfulness arises through observation and the capacity to be with whatever is present without judgment or reactivity.

Do you use guided meditation or audio CDs?

We use guided meditation to teach lovingkindness (metta) practice, traditional Burmese body scanning as taught by Saya Gyi U Ba Khin and Sunlun meditation.  Once students can practice independently, we stop guiding their practice.  This fosters skill development and independence.

What are the basics of mindfulness meditation?

The Buddha taught that there are Four Foundations of Mindfulness.  By training the mind, mindfulness will arise from the activities of the body, the sensations of the body, the activities of the mind and the awareness of the body-mind system.  These are not separate or independent dimensions.

What are the benefits of mindfulness meditation?

Meditators with consistent, longstanding practices tend to become calmer and less reactive.  Recent neuroscience studies using functional MRIs (FMRI) have shown that meditation changes the structure of the brain, increasing the capacity to process feelings and thus reducing the likelihood of feeling overwhelmed.  Initially documented in the social sciences, neuroscientists have recently documented positive effects on the structure of the brain, emotional and physical health and cognitive functioning.  This may be the reason we become happier, calmer and less reactive.

There are thousands of scientific articles that demonstrate the effectiveness of mindfulness meditation for healing and managing a wide variety of emotional and physical challenges. Virtually every form of emotional distress can find relief from increased mindfulness. The first benefit most people realize is finding more space in their day. They notice they take moments of awareness that are respites from their busyness. They feel a deeper connection to themselves and the world around them. They become less reactive, anxious and preoccupied with unintended thought.

How do I start?

Most people have started long before they arrive here.  You’ve probably tried meditating, read a book or two and wondered if you were doing it right. Right?  The next step is to take a class and develop a relationship with a teacher. Trying to learn on your own makes it harder than necessary, especially in Los Angeles where we have many seasoned teachers.

How do I empty my mind?

Hah.  Empty your mind, grasshopper?  It is the nature of the mind to think. The problem is that our minds have become too busy.  Attempts to force the mind to be quiet go against the nature of our existence. The mind naturally quiets when it has stability, and stability of mind arises from focused attention.  By cultivating our capacity to focus attention, we quiet our mind. This leads us to the paradox of concentration and relaxation: the more concentrated the mind, the more relaxed we feel.

Is there any religious implication with meditation?

At the Center we practice meditation as a non-sectarian technique designed to assist the body-mind system to increase awareness and acceptance.  It is not about adopting beliefs or magical rituals.

What’s up with chanting?

There are several different intentions for chanting.  Chanting was traditionally used to help memorize the teachings of the Buddha.  Chanting is also used to increase concentration and absorption, often creating the conditions to experience the absence of self.  At the Insight Center, chanting only happens on special occasions, such as on the Buddha’s Birthday (Wesok).

What should I expect from an introductory class?

We start from the very beginning with the nuts-and-bolts of posture and the clarification of myths, intentions and process.   We start with meditation periods of 10 minutes and then process students’ experiences during the meditation.

When will I see results?

Results will vary based on many factors.  Some people get results quickly, others slowly.   Our courses allow enough time to help you get grounded and begin to practice regularly on your own.  The initial results are usually hard won, but then things gradually change and become much easier.

How hard can it be?

Meditating builds mental muscle.  Some initially find it difficult and tiring.  Then it flows and we see new strength.  It’s like learning to dance: at first it is difficult and awkward, then stiff and by the numbers, then smooth and flowing.  The Buddha says we practice ardently, clearly comprehending, and mindfully.

Can I learn to meditate from a book?

Some people find learning from a book a good point of departure.  Others prefer podcasts, talks or videos available from teachers via the Internet.  If you are in a location where there are no accessible experienced teachers, then these types of resources become invaluable assets.  But virtual teachers can’t answer your questions, adjust your posture, confirm your understanding or support your personal process.

Why do I need a teacher?

Skillful teachers will help in ways that are specific to your experience and need. Their example, their presence and their accessibility creates an experience that goes beyond information or interpretation of a text.

How can I select a teacher?

Every teacher has his or her strengths and weaknesses.  Some can help with meditation, some with learning dhamma and some with the practical application to everyday life experience.  In all cases, comfort and trust are essential.  And if you find a teacher telling you to do it their way, stop and take notice.  Are they supporting you or imposing their ego?

I can’t sit on the floor. Can I still meditate?

Yes you can.  Enlightenment would indeed be a strange thing if it could only be attained in a few postures!  Chairs, benches, cushions, couches, and beds are fine support for meditation.  How you sit is far less important than whether the posture supports mental alertness.  Westerners tend to grow up sitting on chairs, not squatting on the floor.  We will help you discover how to find the best posture for your body.

Is there a best time to meditate?

Many people find that meditating first thing in the morning works well. Whether you meditate before coffee and email or afterwards depends on your personal preference. We encourage students to be curious about their experience and what works best for them.

Times to generally avoid are when you are tired, immediately after eating or when under the influence of recreational drugs or alcohol.

Should I keep my eyes open or closed when meditating?

The practice of mindfulness meditation is traditionally done with eyes closed. Exceptions to this are often made for those who have anxiety or panic attacks, who have been physically or sexually abused as children or attacked as adults, and those who suffer from PTSD from any source.  Starting with a soft focus or eyes open and focused on a lower part of the body such as the feet often feels safer than eyes closed.  Over time, this usually changes so that meditating with eyes closed becomes comfortable.

How can I manage distractions such as itches or sounds?

These distractions naturally go away as your concentration increases.  They become noticed but not distracting.  However, if an itch or unpleasant sensation creates an internal aversion that persists, we find in the beginning that it is better to scratch or purposefully move, going slowly and deliberately and using the least movement possible.

How long should I meditate?

We suggest that beginners start with 10 minutes twice a day and progress to 15-minute periods during their training.  Once 15 minutes seems short, we suggest going to 30 minutes because most people experience deeper states of relaxation and concentration between 20 and 25 minutes.  Eventually we sit for 45 minutes or longer as a full session.

Why is a daily practice important?

Practice, practice, practice.  Repetition is the basic ingredient for developing new habits and stronger muscles.  Meditation is no exception.

How can I make the best progress?

Don’t pressure yourself.  There is a simple formula for progress: initial instructions and support, regular practice, guidance from a teacher and deeper practice in retreat.

Why is meditating in a group easier than when I’m alone?

Meditating in a group is often easier for several reasons. We go to a place with the specific intention to meditate.  The presence of others sharing this intention supports our process.  There is energy in a room of people in which experienced practitioners are often said to “carry” the less experienced on “a wave of concentration.”

Is there a charge for meditation groups or study groups?

No. All of our meditation and dhamma study groups are based on voluntary contributions to the teacher. While we don’t solicit contributions, we greatly appreciate your generosity.

Can I meditate if I take medication?

Of course.  If the medication helps the mind, then it’s actually better to meditate with it than without it.  We have seen people with solid meditation practice get off anti-depressants and sleeping medication.  Of course, always consult your physician before changing any medication use.

Do I need to become vegetarian?

No.  The Buddha was not vegetarian.  You may, however, find yourself becoming more aware of what and why you eat.

Is there anyone who should not practice mindfulness meditation?

Yes, those with active hallucinations or under the influence of drugs or some medications.  More commonly, some people need to depart from traditional styles of practice to accommodate special needs. Various forms of trauma often manifest with a difficulty feeling safe with eyes closed so a soft focus approach can be helpful. Individuals with psychotic symptoms should approach meditation slowly and with close supervision as they sometimes find their symptoms become exasperated with close attention. For these reasons it is helpful to find an experienced teacher who can work with each student individually.