The horizon is not so far as we can see, but as far as we can imagine

A Basic Meditation Plan Which Can Take You Far

One of the reasons many meditators run into problems or limits is that they do only one type of meditation.

Vipassana alone can be dangerous, leading to de-realization or de-personalization. Even in good cases “dark nights” are common, and can mess people up. Vipassana is intended to make you realize you aren’t any sense objects, but without a buffer, that can turn into pathology.

There are other meditation types which are less dangerous, in particular concentration meditation and Metta (designed to create compassion), but even in such cases there can be dangers, and without insight meditation you’re also less likely to make real progress, especially as Metta and concentration, if you get good at them, both feel great and thus can be addictive without leading to awakenings or enlightenment.

Think of meditation as exercise for your mind: you wouldn’t do only deadlifts and no other exercise, and if you did you’d wind up hurting  yourself.

As with physical exercise, if you find it is causing problems the first thing to do is STOP.

All that said, I’m going to suggest a simple, effective and relatively safe mediation program for those who want it.

The program involves three elements: concentration, love and insight.

You will ALWAYS do concentration and love meditation before doing insight unless instructed otherwise by a teacher you trust. You will do at least twice as much concentration and love meditation as insight: so if you were doing a 30 minute session you would do 10 minutes of concentration, 10 minutes of love, then 10 minutes of insight. If you don’t have enough time to do all three,  you will skip insight.

Just do these three meditations, in order, for at least a few months.


Choose an object of attention. Standard Buddhist is your breath. Standard Hindu is a mantra – words you speak or think (move towards thinking them) while paying attention to the sound of them. If you use a mantra it should be something emotionally neutral or unalloyed positive (don’t meditate on God, say, if you fear going to hell).

I suggest breath, but some mantras are:

  • “Roots” (an emotionally neutral word)
  • Om Mani Padme Hum
  • Om Nama Shivaya
  • Om Ah Bee Lah Hung Chit (Vairocana mantra)

If you use a mantra, you should do so with the breath. One syllable or word should be said or thought on the exhale or inhale.

If you use the breath, attention stays on the negative part of it–when you’re not breathing.

Step Two: Intend to notice when you are no longer paying attention to the object of attention.

Step Three: Put your attention lightly on the objection of attention.

Step Four: At some point, you will notice that you are not paying attention to the object. Pat yourself on the back for noticing that you aren’t paying attention the breath. Be pleased. Then:

  • Look at whatever you’re now paying attention to, appreciate it for a second or two without judgment, then think to yourself either “this isn’t important,” or “I’ll deal with this after meditating”.
  • Move your attention back to your object of attention.


Love Meditation

Imagine that you are hugging a puppy. (Kitten if you prefer.) Imagine your arms holding it against your chest, it’s warmth, it licking your face, and its tail wagging.

Now, just keep imagining holding the puppy, and intend to notice when you are doing something else: when you start thinking or feeling something other than puppy holding.

When you do, pat yourself on the back, pet the puppy, and go back to holding the puppy.

After You Get Good.

Once you can reliably bring up love, expand this. Start with other people or things you love (I’ve often used trees.) Then go to people you feel neither good nor bad about, perhaps imagine the people you met on the street today or yesterday.

Reverse Engineer

You’ve also been doing insight meditation, so when you can generate love for both those you love and those you are neutral about, you will do this exercise and as you do it, you will observe the feelings in your body, watching how they arise and fall away. The idea here is to learn how to generate loving feelings directly, without intermediate steps. Don’t worry if you can’t at first, for most people it’s hard. But if you stick to it, you’ll see that emotions don’t require objects and you’ll learn how to create them out of what seems like almost nothing.

Insight Meditation

There are a lot of different types of insight meditation. What you’re going to do, to start, is simply notice a feeling in your body, place your attention on it without judgment (as best you can) then simply ask yourself “if this sensation was not here, would I still be me?”

Do this for a few months, at least three. When you’re comfortable with it, and when you find that you can be detached from most sensations, move on to—

Microscope attention

Most people can’t feel their bodies very well. They may only be able to feel the general area of a perception: feeling only a finger, or hand, or upper right back, and so on. What you’re going to do is linger on feelings. Move to the edge of a feeling and try and reduce the size of your attention: focus on the smallest bit of the feeling you can perceive. Do this for 30 seconds to a minute or so, then move on after asking “would I still be me if this feeling wasn’t there?”

Hard Feelings

Insight meditation can be dangerous, both because of the possibility of de-realization and de-personalization and because if something traumatic comes up, you can re-traumatize yourself. This is why you will always do concentration and love meditation first: they create a buffer. However, if a feeling is too much, STOP. Immediately go back to your object of concentration, and meditate on that till  you feel somewhat calmer, then move on to your love meditation.

Last Words

This program can take you far. Remember the warnings and if something seems alarming, stop and consult a teacher. As with any other type of exercise, consistency is the key. Try to do it as often as possible. For most people results will take time, but many will find it beneficial after only a few weeks.

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India Is Not The Next China


Open Thread


  1. Jeff Wegerson

    “When your comfortable…” should be “you’re”.

  2. Willy

    Alex Honnold climbs up sheer rock faces without safety equipment. People think he’s nuts, until they listen to one of his talks. Afterwards, when he says that climbing El Capitan was like a walk in the park, they get it. Apparently you have to practice many, many times with all the usual safety equipment, always thinking ahead and problem solving, to the point where the free climb itself becomes so “walk in the park” it’s almost boring. Maybe this is like that.

  3. Jeff Wegerson

    Insight Meditation had (has?) me puzzled. This you tweeted helps:

    “Insight meditation where every time you think or do anything or have an impulse, etc… you check to see “did I do that?” can cause a major crisis.”

    I assume I’m the collection of molecules that follows me around where-ever I go. The pain in my knee type of feeling is not the sort of feeling you are meaning? OK something like an “impulse” is the sort of feeling you want me to investigate. Say an impulse to do something to make my life at that moment more interesting or less boring. ???

    Well I think you have given me a crack I can explore and leverage into a greater… uhh? … oh yeah … insight???

  4. Ian Welsh

    That was subtly different from the insight meditation in this article. It’s just “if this thing didn’t exist, would I exist?”

    Aka. you have a pain, or a desire or a good feeling or even the feeling of your arm, or whatever, but if that feeling goes away you’re still you.

    Insight meditation of this kind may seem like “uh?” but the idea is to drive it home again and again: it’s a form of reconditioning. But you have to check for yourself, to feel it, just reasoning it out doesn’t work.

    Over time this sort of insight meditation makes you more detached from sense objects, including ones that cause you suffering, so you feel better.

    When you also move to microscope meditation and combine that with your experiences with love meditation, you will eventually be able to sort of deconstruct and reverse engineer a lot of emotions: see how they are created, and then how you can create them and make them a matter of choice, rather than something which is just inflicted on you (good or bad) AND you will less and less think you need anything outside you in order to have an emotion.

    This leads towards something which might be called genuine self-mastery.

  5. Jeff Wegerson

    Thank you. Very much. It’s generous of you to take the time as I fear I’m not worth the effort. I’m thinking my lack of perception of Insight-able feelings is due to not having taken sufficient time with the Concentration tempered with Love Meditation to establish the prerequisites to perceive the feelings/emotions at the base of Insight Meditation. I fear I have been coasting through life on the bits of enlightenment from LSD use fifty years ago. Coasting that worked until I desired to make adjustments in my spousal relationship. That process effectively drowned me in emotional paralysis. Your Concentration Meditation instructions got me through and out of it. In one piece. But I only did as much of the meditation work as was necessary. I think now I will have to see where curiosity takes me motivation wise into Insight. I do pay attention to you. It’s the dues of practice I don’t do. Which is on me. Of course.

  6. Ian Welsh

    A lot of meditation isn’t much fun, but it does pay back. Psychedelics can help, too, though I think the more meditation you’ve done, the more likely they are to help, as well. I’m glad the concentration meditation helped. You can, in principle, go all the way just with concentration, but because if you stick with it it becomes VERY pleasant it can also stop you cold (although it’s a nice cold.)

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