“Vipassana is about wisdom,” said Victor Byrd, guiding teacher for the Long Beach Meditation (LBM) group. Vipassana or insight meditation is an ancient practice that cultivates mindfulness from moment to moment. The Buddha used and taught the practice 2500 years ago. Despite its close association with Buddhism, Vipassana is a non-sectarian practice that can take many forms. At its core, Byrd explained, Vipassana is the constant investigation of the phenomena of your experience—from the sensations of the body to those racing thoughts that continually buzz around your brain, even as you sit and try to focus the mind.
Byrd began his Vipassana meditation practice in 1980 at the Insight Meditation Society in Barre, MA, then the only established place to practice Vipassana meditation in the U.S. He practiced a style of Vipassana that trains the mind to note everything that goes on in the body as it happens. After extensive training, Byrd recalls, he was making a cup of tea one day when his mind took over the noting for him. “I was dipping my tea bag in the cup and noting it: ‘I’m dipping, I’m dipping.’ The next thing I knew, I didn’t have to note anymore. The noting continued, but it wasn’t ‘I,’ it wasn’t ‘Victor,’ it was just automatic,” he recounted. “Our minds can train just like our muscles. And once this muscle gets worked enough, it just goes and takes over.”
Several years into his training, Byrd was surprised to learn that the noting he had practiced was only one Vipassana technique. “Who knew there were a blue million ways to practice Vipassana meditation?” Some styles use variations on this noting technique, and “some others don’t believe in noting at all,” Byrd said. Some styles continually scan the body for sensations, while others focus on the breath. Anapanasati, the Sanskrit word for “mindfulness of the breath,” might follow the movement of breath in and out through the nostrils, or watch the rise and fall of the belly as a focal point.
Despite the variation in styles, all Vipassana is rooted in investigation of the self. Byrd described three core findings that the Budda arrived at through his Vipassana meditation practice. First, nothing is permanent. All the sensations, feelings, and thoughts that arise in the body are impermanent, and through meditation we can watch as they come and go. Second, everything brings suffering. While this may sound a bit dismal, Buddhism maintains that by realizing this truth, one can be freed from entrenchment in suffering. And third, there is no “me,” no true separate ego contained within your body. “The Buddha said we are processes,” explained Byrd, an embodied series of phenomena.
The LBM community, or sangha, hosts many opportunities for Vipassana meditation practice, including lessons for beginners, monthly all-day retreats, and a regular “Sunday Sit” at Long Beach Unity Church from 3-5 p.m. The Sunday practice begins with a 30-minute sit—that is, sitting very still, trying to quiet the mind, and investigating the phenomena you observe. Following the first sit, Byrd leads the group in dharma, a discussion of the teachings of Buddha. Another 30-minute sit then gives you the opportunity to put the teachings into practice all over again.