Insight: Overview & Introduction

Imagine that you have been kidnapped during the night by a merry band of pranksters. While you slept, these pranksters gently transported you to an unfamiliar bed in an unfamiliar room.

Upon awaking, you find that the room itself is pitch black. You can't see a thing. Without the assistance of your eyes, you're forced to stumble around the room, feeling it out as best you can. A number of bruises to your shin later, you start to develop an intuition about the shape of the room and your location inside of it.

With more exploration, you may discover means to manipulate the room. You might stumble across a door handle, a faucet knob, or a light switch. Manipulating them gives you new powers: you can flood this mystery room with light, summon water with the flick of a wrist, or venture out into another unknown space.

The experience of a meditator is very similar except, instead of a mystery room, a meditator stumbles about in his own mind. Meditation is stumbling. It is the process by which the mind comes to know itself.

How does this happen? This process unfolds through a series of insight experiences. An insight experience is any experience that, when observed, violates a meditator's current intuitive map of his own mind. The accumulation of these insight experiences eventually force the meditator to update his model of himself in order to accomodate this new information.

Let's consider this from the perspective of our captive stumbler trapped in a mystery room. When he first wakes up, he has certain intuitions about the room that he's in. At first, he assumes that the room is his own. He might lean out of bed and try to turn on his lamp, only to find his lamp missing. That's weird, but maybe the lamp simply fell over during the night.

He moves to plan B, accessing the light switch but, while striding toward where he believes it to be, his shin is stopped by a coffee table. His room doesn't have a coffee table, so this is very weird. He may start to suspect that maybe he isn't where he thinks he is.

The discovery 1) that his lamp is missing and 2) the existence of an unexpected coffee table are both insight experiences. They violate the stumbler's intuitive model of the room that he's in. With enough of them, he'll be forced to abandon the idea that he's in his room at all.

A meditator's progress procedes similarly. When he first begins, his intuitive model of his own mind isn't a blank slate. He already has certain ideas and intuitions about how his mind works. As he investigates, he finds that some of these intuitions were incomplete while others were so incorrect that they have to be abandoned wholly. Some mistaken intuitions—those that he is very attached to—take a lot of shin stubbing before he gets the message.

This rewiring of the intuition mostly happens outside of conscious awareness. Consider our stumbler again. In the beginning, his investigations probably evoke just a vague sense of unease. It's only after enough evidence has been gathered and his intuition forced to shift that he becomes aware of a thought like, "—I'm not actually in my room at all!"

From that point on, his progress again is mostly unconscious. His continued stumbling slowly evolves into an intuitive feel and understanding of the room, but this is not something that he develops effortfully. He doesn't think his way into it—it happens below the surface.

The mind's understanding of itself evolves in the same way. By observing experience as it occurs, the unconscious mind slowly integrates this into a more accurate, intuitive self-understanding.

Finally, just as our stumbler eventually discovers new ways to manipulate the room, like light switches or door handles, a meditator will also discover mental levers. (The most important of these is insight into dependent origination which culminates in the end of suffering.)

In summary, then:

A Concrete Example

Enough theory! Let's abandon this hypothetical meditator and focus on having a tangible insight experience. Consider: Do you know what a bicycle looks like?

This isn't a trick question. Of course you know, right? And not only that, but you know that you know. You're confident in your bicycle knowledge.

Let me propose a wager, then. I bet that you don't know what a bicycle looks like. Since feelings aren't sufficient evidence for something as a serious as a bet, let's use an objective measure: Draw a bicycle without looking at one.

I'm serious! Go get some paper and a pencil and draw a bicycle. From memory. If you know what a bicycle looks like, this shouldn't be difficult. Just summon up a memory of a bicycle and jot down what you see on paper. Whatever your artistic skills, they are sufficient. It doesn't need to be a masterpiece, the basics will do just fine.

(You may be tempted at this point to continue reading without drawing a bicycle. That's up to you of course but, if you are serious about insight, you will get more out of this by taking the time to draw a bicycle.)

Okay, got it drawn? Your bicycle should have come out looking something like this:1

I know. What the fuck, right? Turns out, our bicycle knowledge is illusory and our confidence misplaced. Our meta-knowledge, our knowledge of our own knowledge, comes out of this looking especially suspect.2 We know the word bicycle, a few facts about them, are able to recognize one when we see it… and that's about it. We don't know how they work and, certainly, we don't remember what they look like—even though we see them all of the time! The conceptual mind simply discards all of that detail and doesn't bother hanging on to any of it.

In Buddhist parlance, you have just experienced insight into emptiness. Congratulations, you are one step closer to enlightenment.

Further Reading

  1. If you are in the rareified 25% who can draw a bicycle, here are some other objects to try drawing from memory: a cross bow, a can opener, the layout of your car's dashboard, your mother's face.

  2. Really. The more you resist this conclusion, the more painful it is going to be for you to make progress. Deny the coffee table and be rewarded with a purple shin.

If you have questions, perspective, doubt, or a simple longing for general camraderie, you can communicate with me directly by emailing robert at 99theses dot com. Don't hesitate. Your correspondence is personally enriching.