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Meditation - Mahasi Labelling Method

During this talk Stephen Procter discusses the Mindfulness Meditation method made popular by Mahasi Sayadaw in Myanmar (Burma), this method is very suitable for people meditating in the midst of everyday life.

Satipatthana Vipassana by

Venerable Mahasi Sayadaw

The Beginner's Exercise

It has already been explained that the actual method of practice in vipassana meditation is to note, or to observe, or to contemplate, the successive occurrences of seeing, hearing, and so on, at the six sense doors. However, it will not be possible for a beginner to follow these on all successive incidents as they occur because his mindfulness (sati), concentration (samadhi), and knowledge (ñana) are still very weak. The moments of seeing, hearing, smelling, tasting, touching, and thinking occur very swiftly. It seems that seeing occurs at the same time as hearing, that hearing occurs at the same time as seeing, that seeing and hearing occur simultaneously, that seeing, hearing, thinking and imagining always occur simultaneously. Because they occur so swiftly, it is not possible to distinguish which occurs first and which second.

In reality, seeing does not occur at the same time as hearing, nor does hearing occur at the same time as seeing. Such incidents can occur only one at a time. A yogi who has just begun the practice and who has not sufficiently developed his mindfulness, concentration and knowledge will not, however, be in a position to observe all these moments singly as they occur in serial order. A beginner need not, therefore, follow up on many things. He needs to begin with only a few things.

Seeing or hearing occurs only when due attention is given to their objects. If one does not pay heed to any sight or sound, one may pass the time without any moments of seeing or hearing taking place. Smelling rarely occurs. The experience of tasting can only occur while one is eating. In the case of seeing, hearing, smelling and tasting, the yogi can note them when they occur. Body impressions, however, are ever present. They usually exist distinctly all the time. During the time that one is sitting, the body impression of stiffness or the sensation of hardness in this position is distinctly felt. Attention should therefore be fixed on the sitting posture and a note made as "sitting, sitting, sitting."


Sitting is an erect posture of the body consisting of a series of physical activities, induced by consciousness consisting of a series of mental activities. It is just like the case of an inflated rubber ball which maintains its round shape through the resistance of the air inside it. The posture of sitting is similar in that the body is kept in an erect posture through the continuous process of physical activities. A good deal of energy is required to pull up and keep in an erect position such a heavy load as this body. People generally assume that the body is lifted and kept in an upright position by means of sinews. This assumption is correct in a sense because sinews, blood, flesh and bones are nothing but materiality. The element of stiffening which keeps the body in an erect posture belongs to the group of materiality and arises in the sinews, flesh, blood, etc., throughout the body, like the air in a rubber ball.

The element of stiffening is the air element, known as vayo-dhatu. The body is kept in an erect position by the air element in the form of stiffening, which is continually coming into existence. At the time of sleepiness or drowsiness, one may drop flat because the supply of new materials in the form of stiffening is cut off. The state of mind in heavy drowsiness or sleep is bhavanga, the "life-continuum" or passive subconscious flow. During the course of bhavanga, mental activities are absent, and for this reason, the body lies flat during sleep or heavy drowsiness.

During waking hours, strong and alert mental activities are continually arising, and because of these the air element arises serially in the form of stiffening. In order to know these facts, it is essential to note the bodily posture attentively as "sitting, sitting, sitting." This does not necessarily mean that the body impression of stiffening should particularly be searched for and noted. Attention need only be fixed on the whole form of the sitting posture, that is, the lower portion of the body in a bent circular form and the upper portion held erect.

It may be found that the exercise of observing the mere sitting posture is too easy and does not require much effort. In these circumstances, energy (viriya) is less and concentration (samadhi) is in excess. One will generally feel lazy and will not want to carry on the noting as "sitting, sitting, sitting" repeatedly for a considerable length of time. Laziness generally occurs when there is an excess of concentration and not enough energy. It is nothing but a state of sloth and torpor (thina-middha).

More energy should be developed, and for this purpose, the number of objects for noting should be increased. After noting as "sitting," the attention should be directed to a spot in the body where the sense of touch is felt and a note made as "touching." Any spot in the leg or hand or hip where a sense of touch is distinctly felt will serve the purpose. For example, after noting the sitting posture of the body as "sitting," the spot where the sense of touch is felt should be noted as "touching." The noting should thus be repeated using these two objects of the sitting posture and the place of touching alternately, as "sitting, touching, sitting, touching, sitting, touching."

The terms "noting," "observing" and "contemplating" are used here to indicate the fixing of attention on an object. The exercise is simply to note or observe or contemplate as "sitting, touching." Those who already have experience in the practice of meditation may find this exercise easy to begin with, but those without any previous experience may at first find it rather difficult.


A simpler and easier form of the exercise for a beginner is this: With every breath there occurs in the abdomen a rising-falling movement. A beginner should start with the exercise of noting this movement. This rising-falling movement is easy to observe because it is coarse and therefore more suitable for the beginner. As in schools where simple lessons are easy to learn, so also is the practice of vipassana meditation. A beginner will find it easier to develop concentration and knowledge with a simple and easy exercise.

Again, the purport of vipassana meditation is to begin the exercise by contemplating prominent factors in the body. Of the two factors of mentality and materiality, the former is subtle and less prominent, while the latter is coarse and more prominent. At the outset, therefore, the usual procedure for an insight meditator is to begin the exercise by contemplating the material elements.

With regard to materiality, it may be mentioned here that derived materiality (upada-rupa) is subtle and less prominent, while the four primary physical elements (maha-bhuta-rupa) — earth, water, fire and air — are coarse and more prominent. The latter should therefore have priority in the order of objects for contemplation. In the case of rising-falling, the outstanding factor is the air element, or vayo-dhatu. The process of stiffening and the movements of the abdomen noticed during the contemplation are nothing but the functions of the air element. Thus it will be seen that the air element is perceptible at the beginning.

According to the instructions of the Satipatthana Sutta, one should be mindful of the activities of walking while walking, of those of standing, sitting and lying down while standing, sitting and lying down, respectively. One should also be mindful of other bodily activities as each of them occurs. In this connection, it is stated in the commentaries that one should be mindful primarily of the air element, in preference to the other three elements. As a matter of fact, all four primary elements are dominant in every action of the body, and it is essential to perceive any one of them. At the time of sitting, either of the two movements of rising and falling occurs conspicuously with every breath, and a beginning should be made by noting these movements.

Some fundamental features in the system of vipassana meditation have been explained for general information. The general outline of basic exercises will now be dealt with.

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