Self-Inquiry vs. Mindfulness Meditation (Shinzen Young)

Shinzen Young, a Vipassana (mindfulness) teacher, answers a question on how self-inquiry relates to mindfulness practice. One might initially look at these as two different approaches in meditation, but Shinzen explains elegantly the symmetry between them.


Someone wrote in asking, “How does self-inquiry relate to mindfulness practice?” It’s a really interesting question. In a sense it would seem like they’re very, very different.


If you’re not familiar with what’s meant by self-inquiry, actually there’s a range of traditions that teach it, including Zen, some Zen teachers, but also many people working within the Hindu tradition, the non-dual tradition and so forth. Basic idea is you’re constantly asking a question like, “Who am I?” or ”What am I?” Whatever comes up, you’re saying, “Who’s experiencing this? What’s experiencing this?” If you’re having a thought, well, “Where did the thought come from? Who’s thinking this thought?”

It’s an approach that’s been discovered independently in a number of cultures, and used around the world, actually. As I mentioned, there are some Zen teachers that teach it. There’s also within the Hindu fold, and then people not affiliated with either Hinduism or Buddhism, that will give you a similar kind of model. As I said they all have the same basic ideas like, “turn consciousness back on itself, turn the awareness back on itself.”


That would seem to be a very different practice from mindfulness. Mindfulness asks you to sort of keep track of what’s going on. However, if you really look deeply into what mindfulness practice is about, you will see that there’s an interesting symmetry between self-inquiry on one hand and mindfulness on the other hand.

It is true that the initial experiences that a person has when they do mindfulness can be described as, “I’m a meditator over here observing stuff over there.” However, with time, two very significant things take place.

One is that the habit of meditating begins to meditate. In other words, there’s not so much that sense of, there has to be an “I” here doing the meditation. There’s a momentum of concentration, sensory clarity, and equanimity–those three things. A momentum of that builds up and it just carries itself. So one important change that takes place with time with mindfulness practice is, that sense of “efforting” and thinking that you initially needed in order to observe things, that goes away. And there’s just the observing. Well,. if you want to call it observing. There’s just the concentration, clarity, equanimity. So that’s one change.

A second change is that you develop sensitivity to what’s called impermanence. Now, sometimes impermanence can be sort of continuous, vibratory or wavy. But another aspect of impermanence is noting the moment when things vanish. And if you read the classic Visuddhimagga, for example, The Path of Purification, written probably in the fifth century in Sri Lanka by Buddhaghosa, he talks about a stage where your awareness is dominated by rising and passing. And then a stage where your awareness is dominated by just passing. You’re just aware of endings, endings, endings. In my vocabulary, I have people note it as , “gone.” It’s nothing “mystical-shmystical,” you all experience it. You pay attention to your internal conversation, as soon as you notice the talk arises it sort of vanishes, okay. Mental images disappear, sounds come to an end. It’s no big deal, something everybody experiences; but you can reach a point in your practice with that you become really, really aware of how many vanishings there are, in things what they thought were quite solid.

So at some point you’re just noting… gone, gone, gone, gone. Well, the place each time you’re noting a vanishing, for just a moment your attention is adverted–that is to say, turned towards the source of consciousness. Because, where something goes to when it vanishes is where it comes from when it arises.

Where Self-Inquiry and Mindfulness Meet

So If you want to turn the attention towards the source, you could take one of two strategies. You can say, “A has arisen, now let’s look back and see where A came from.” That’s one way to go about it. That would be the self-inquiry way. And it’s very powerful. It works very well for some people. But it doesn’t necessarily work well for everyone.

Another way to go about it is, instead of saying, “A is arising, where did A come from,” constantly asking that, another way to go about it is, “A has arisen, now A disappears, watch A disappear, and that spot is going to be where B arises from.”  So you watch the vanishing piece, and if you want to be present at the very instant of the arising of B, you could that by noting the vanishing of A, the thing that preceded it. That is, “the ‘gone’ of A is the origin of B”–A and B meaning any two successive sensory experiences, big or small.

That’s what I meant when I said that there’s a kind of symmetry between the two ways of working. So within the mindfulness tradition, there is actually something that more or less corresponds to self-inquiry, and it’s hugely, hugely important. But it’s not done with the model of “keep looking back, keep looking back at where things are coming from.” It’s done with the model of “keep watching where they go to when they pass away.” Same place, though.

About Shinzen Young

Shinzen Young is a professional meditation teacher who, after discontinuing his PhD program in Buddhist Studies in University of Winsconsin, did extensive training in Asia in each of the three major Buddhist traditions: Vajrayana, Zen and Vipassana. Upon returning to the United States, his academic interests shifted to the burgeoning dialogue between Eastern meditation and Western science.

Shinzen is known for his innovative “interactive, algorithmic approach” to mindfulness, a system specifically designed for use in pain management, recovery support, and as an adjunct to psychotherapy. He leads meditation retreats throughout North America and has helped establish numerous mindfulness centers and programs. He also consults widely on meditation-related research, in both the clinical and the basic science domains.

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