Insight Meditation: Where The Attention Goes

The insight aspect of meditation serves to deconstruct the problems we may create out of misunderstanding and misperception. Join Dharma teacher Malcolm Huxter as he explores what insight meditation is and what we attend to in this mindfulness practice.
Mal Huxter is a clinical psychologist, Dharma teacher and author.
what is insight meditation
Mal Huxter is a clinical psychologist, Dharma teacher and author.

In Theravada Buddhism there are two aspects to meditation: serenity and insight. Just as serenity meditation needs mindfulness but emphasises concentration and absorption, insight meditation needs concentration, but emphasises mindfulness and enquiry.

As in everything I write, this overview is merely my perspective. If I convey anything about the profound teachings of the Buddha incorrectly, I hope I can be forgiven.

What Is Insight Meditation?

The insight aspect of meditation serves to deconstruct the problems we may create out of misunderstanding and misperception. Insight helps us see and understand our selves, life and the world realistically. With insight meditation we ask the questions “what” is happening and “how” is it happening.

The 4 Foundations Of Mindfulness

There are many different styles of insight meditation and some forms emphasise discursive thinking or focussed reflection. Generally however, in Theravada Buddhism the four establishments or foundations of mindfulness are considered as synonymous with insight meditation. With this practice the realisations of the four truths arise from the direct experience of tracking and seeing along with experience using mindfulness.

Browse more than 6,000 free mindfulness meditations on Insight Timer.

The four foundations of mindfulness are:

  1. Body, including posture, actions, physical sensations and breath; 
  2. Feeling, or the hedonic qualities of pleasantness, unpleasantness or neither; 
  3. Heart-mind, including moods, emotions and states of mind in varying manifestations of greed, ignorance and hatred and their opposites; 
  4. Phenomena, including emotional, mental and behavioural patterns considered as either wholesome or unwholesome. This foundation of mindfulness also includes a form of intelligence that serves to reduce and release the psychological patterns that perpetuate dukkha as well as foster the psychological patterns that are helpful and liberating (Huxter, 2015).

The four foundations of mindfulness encompass all possible human experiences, including Nirvana. Unlike serenity meditation that emphasises paying focussed attention to a single object, with insight meditation the objects of attention and momentary concentration can vary.

Turn into the heart-mind and experience serenity and insight with these guided meditations by Malcolm Huxter:

  1. Tuning Into The Heartmind Malcolm Huxter 12:39
  2. Mindfulness Of Sound And Thought Malcolm Huxter 8:17
  3. Well Being At A Special Place Malcolm Huxter 14:53

Insight Meditation And Mindfulness

The general practice of insight meditation is to pay attention to, track and see along with whatever experiences arise in one’s body, mind and life as they arise. The manner of the attention is open minded, non-condemning, non-censoring, non-clinging, curious and with enquiry. Attention is also softened with intentions of good will, letting go and non-harm. The various experiences may shift between body, feelings, heart-mind and or phenomena or stay within a particular foundation. The experiences can be internal (such as one’s own subjective sensations, thoughts and emotions), external (such as people, places and things external to oneself) and or include the dynamic between internal and external.

When insight meditation is synonymous with the four foundations of mindfulness, the practice is based on tracking experience so that we see directly the “what” and “how” of experience, thus developing insight and wisdom. The shifts between the varying experiences and the four foundations of mindfulness can be compared to changing gears in a motor vehicle. We may stay within one foundation or shift to another depending on the psychological terrain we encounter.

Shifting Attention During Insight Meditation

As a way of clarifying the possible shifts in attention with insight meditation, I will provide an experiential example of meditation session where an angry emotion may have arisen.

Such a session may begin by noticing physical sensations of the abdomen as it rises and falls with the breath (mindfulness of breath, in the foundation of mindfulness of body). After a short period, a memory may come to mind where we had a disagreement with a friend, which was unpleasant. At this point we could note and track the unpleasant feelings (mindfulness of feeling), or the emotion of anger (mindfulness of heart-mind). We do not censor, suppress or fuel the angry emotion by feeding into the thoughts about it but could track the experience by paying attention to the way it is experienced physically (mindfulness of body). After a while we may become aware of a familiar pattern of aversion that cyclically gets triggered when things do not go the way we want them to go and how painful this experience is (the subdomain of mindfulness of meditation hindrances in the fourth foundation of mindfulness).

As we enquire into this pattern in an honest, non-censoring and open minded way, we realise that this experience is impermanent, not who and what we are, and not worth identifying with. We also realise that this pattern is destructive and hurtful to ourselves as well as possibly harmful to others. Once we realise what is happening (with insight), we may naturally be inclined to release the grip that this ill will has on us. What may then arise is an experience of self-directed compassion and, as we are mindfully aware of its presence and how it arose, chose to nourish and nurture it (mindfulness of a wholesome helpful pattern in the fourth foundation of mindfulness).

What Do We Attend To In Insight Meditation?

Generally, insight meditation is directed at seeing and understanding dependent arising (please see previous blogs). At a basic level this could include seeing and understanding cause-effect relationships, such as those between intentions, actions and resultant states of mind. When we can track experience we gain an understanding of ourselves, the world around us, and life in general. That is, we begin to see and understand how things come into being and also how they pass away. We also see directly that all things change, that they are empty of solid and enduring thingness and that they cannot bring an enduring happiness.

As well as cause-effect relationships, insight meditation is directed at being attentive to and perceiving the three characteristics of existence: annica (impermanence), dukkha (suffering) and anatta (no self).

Annica, generally refers to impermanence, or change. As a characteristic of existence, dukkha refers to how impermanent conditions cannot bring enduring satisfaction, because they change. This characteristic is sometimes also understood as unreliability and uncertainty. Not-self or emptiness is sometimes confused the experience of nothingness, which can occur in the formless jhanas. Emptiness as a characteristic or mark of existence however, generally means that no thing arises in and of itself.  That is, things are not separate entities but interdependent.

Another way of understanding this is that, from a Buddhist perspective, there is no internal essence of a single being that endures over time. In this respect, Buddhism is consistent with contemporary approaches such as Compassion Focussed Therapy (CFT) and its basis in the science of evolution. Unlike creationism which posits an all seeing and knowing creator, created human beings and controls the events that happen in our lives, both CFT and Buddhism understand that human beings and our experiences have arisen due to many interdependent factors coming together. Sometimes, interdependence is considered the same as not-self or emptiness.

With insight meditation when one has insight into one characteristic, it generalized to insight into the other two characteristics. Therefore, if one can see impermanence in one experience, seeing emptiness and the dukkha nature of that experience also follows. The same generalizing feature is also extended to different experiences. For example, noticing the impermanent nature of a falling leaf can be generalized to understanding the impermanent nature of a distressing thought. Following on from this, in seeing the impermanence of a thought, one is also able see the unreliability and empty nature of that thought.

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The Impermanence Of Self-Concepts

We often cling to and identify with self-concepts or ideas of ourselves. When something challenges the concept that we cling to or it changes, then we may suffer. However, when we begin to see the impermanence of our various self-concepts we also begin to understand the emptiness of our self-concepts and the futility of clinging to and identifying with them.

The realisation of impermanence, unreliability and interdependence can be powerfully therapeutic. When we are overwhelmed with despair and realise the distress will pass (impermanence), it is freeing. When we realise unreliability (dukkha), we also understand that that tormenting thoughts are not necessarily facts and credible and therefore do not need to be believed or acted on. Similarly, insight into emptiness can be a great relief.  When we experience a painful emotion and realise its interdependence we also understand that this emotional pain is not our fault, but the result of many causes and conditions coming together. In this way we need not take painful subjective experiences personally or fuse and identify with them. 

In Theravada Buddhism, the general emphasis is towards understanding impermanence as this is often more tangible and accessible to perceive.  However, different individuals have different strengths and may more readily access not-self or dukkha, as a characteristic. When one has insight into, even at very basic levels, the three characteristics of existence, it naturally reduces craving and the dukkha that results from it.

Serenity And Insight In Balance

This finishing paragraph was also in the blog on mindfulness in Buddhism. It is worth repeating.

The two aspects of serenity and insight work together in mutually supportive ways. Serenity gives power, clarity and protection to insight and insight provides understanding and direction to serenity. If they are out of balance, however, it can be problematic or ineffective. Insight without calm presence or compassionate intention can be quite distressing because we may see what is happening in our lives, but not have the psychological resources to cope. On the other hand, being calm, focussed and relaxed without any understanding can be directionless and occasionally become misdirected.

The benefits of balancing insight and calm as practiced in Buddhist meditation can be also be generalised to working skilfully with a range of clinical presentations.

I trust this blog has been helpful and I thank you for your attention.


Huxter, M. (2015) Mindfulness and the Buddha’s noble eight fold path. In E. Shonin, W. Van Gordon, & N.N. Nirbay (Eds.), Buddhist Foundations of mindfulness. New York: Springer.

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