Meditation: Shifting The Focus Of Vipassana From Content To Process


Psychedelic Sunset 2-John Forrest Bamberger






John Forrest Bamberger – Psychedelic Sunset 2

As mentioned in a variety of places, years ago I gave up meditation practice, having  decided that it apparently took a certain kind of talent that I didn’t have, so it was a waste of time for me to continue.  Then I met meditation teacher Shinzen Young at a scientific conference, found that he explained basic meditation in a way that made sense to me and that I could actually carry out, and I’ve been practicing meditation for many years since then.  I say practicing, rather than doing, for many of my meditation sessions are still primarily times of frustration to me, as I don’t think I’m doing it correctly or it doesn’t come out the way I’d like it to, but at other times it flows nicely.

I’ve now reached a point where I’m wanting and able to follow Shinzen’s and Sogyal Rinpoche’s advice to not slavishly follow any particular style of meditation practice, but explore various ways and focus on practices that “work” for me.  I won’t try to define just what work” means here, let’s just roughly say that after most of my meditation sessions nowadays I feel both relaxed and feel as if something useful has been done.

I want to put up this record of what I’m now working on as of early March of 2015.  Perhaps I can find earlier records of what meditation is like for me and see what the difference is now .  My main reason in posting this is in the hope that it may give other people some useful ideas, especially other people who want to understand the workings of their own minds.

The following is adapted from a letter I just wrote to Shinzen Young.


Dear Shinzen,                                     Date Composed: March 3, 2015

The kinds of practices you’ve taught me over the years, basic vipassana meditation and many variations on it, have made me much more sensitive to my own internal processes.  This is rewarding, as I’ve always been curious about how my mind (and other minds) work.  I’m now becoming confident enough about my ability to observe that I’m experimenting with tailoring my meditative tasks.  Particularly as I’ve long suspected that what I’m doing, even if only semi-consciously doing, is often more important than the content of what I’m experiencing.  What I’m going to describe here is something I’ve been playing with for a few weeks that, to broadly describe it, shifts the observational focus from content to process.  That’s an oversimplification, of course, as there is much overlap with the way you taught me this originally and with the rough labeling) categories I’ve thought of so far.

(An important distinction here is that basic Vipassana calls for noting aspects of experience with concentration, clarity, and equanimity.  You observe something arising, you try to “look” at it or “feel” it or “hear” it more clearly, without being distracted, and without being caught up in desiring more of it or rejecting it, wishing it would go away.  An aid to this basic noting is labeling.  It is usually your choice as to whether to add labeling, just mentally or (quietly) out loud, to help your concentration. For me labeling is usually mentally saying to myself, albeit in a quiet, matter-of-fact mental tone, a simple label that further clarifies what you’re experiencing.  In what follows I tend to talk as if active labeling is going on all the time, but what I’ve said can apply to simply noting.)

Now I’ve become more humble about what I think I know as I’ve gotten older, and try to think of my “knowledge” more scientifically as working hypotheses, useful formulations about reality, but hypotheses, subject to alteration as they are tested against what happens in reality.  That is I’m trying to remember that my world view is just that, a world view, undoubtedly containing some truth, probably wrong about some things, but biasing my perception, thinking and experience, so I need to stay alert to actual experience.

There are several working hypothesis behind what I’m doing.

The first (1) is that an awful lot of our suffering in life comes from relative unconsciousness and lack of clarity about the way our minds work.  I think I’ve written about Shinzen’s clear formulation of this in some earlier post where Suffering (experiential reality) is a multiplicative product of the actual Pain interacting with you Attitude or Resistance to the pain.

Thus while there are real reasons for obstacles and suffering, (2) our unskillful understanding and (3) consequently unskillful reactions greatly and needlessly increase our suffering.

The fourth working hypothesis is that (4) almost any method to bring more deliberate, conscious attention to the way our minds work is useful for psychological and spiritual growth, thus making us more insightful, comfortable, and effective in the way we use our minds.  A footnote that last working hypothesis is that (4A) even if the categories that guide our observation are not ultimately accurate, the very fact that we are deliberately making observations is useful.

If I had to roughly and over-simply characterize Shinzen’s approach (very difficult to do because he ingeniously experiments with different approaches for his students) his most recent set of primary categories are see, hear, feel, visual experience, whether of the outside world or internal visual imagery, auditory experience, whether of the outside world or internal auditory imagery, and tactile experience, whether of the outside world touching our bodies or internal bodily feelings.  As I’ve understood Shinzen’s directions (and I know I may have my personal biases in this) I would say he has taught us to pay more conscious attention to those three primary categories of experience, and using categories gives us specific things to anchor in the present with at any moment.  At this moment, e.g., I’m seeing a computer screen in front of me, I’m feeling the vibrations of my voice speaking aloud as I dictate these words, I feel the movement of my body as I play with something from my desk in my hands while still talking, I hear the noise of the fan in the heater (although it’s probably the slight tinnitus I have in my hearing).  I’m more present in this moment, and much (all?) of this presence comes from my trying (and succeeding to various degrees) to more clearly experience the various contents of experience from moment to moment.

In saying the approach I’m experimenting with emphasizes shifting the focus from content to process, there is still plenty of content to anchor with in any experience, but the observations I would now make, in addition to seeing the computer screen, feeling the vibrations of my voice, feeling the movement of my hands and hearing the noise of the fan are that I had a desire to illustrate the general point I was making, I deliberately shifted my attention to seeing to get a visual example, then again deliberately shifted my intention/attention to feeling, then to moving, and then to hearing.  That is I’m still intending to be aware of the content of ongoing experience, but I’m focusing more of what I’m doing, intending, attending to

I’ve listed a whole bunch of categories below that I have used to various extents to date, with one-word labels for various processes. ( Even when the label is merely an aural, mental image, I find the closer it is to a single syllable, the easier it is to use it without interfering with what I’m observing.)  I suspect most, if not all of the categories and labels below will turn out to be subsets of some of Shinzen’s more detailed  categorizations, but it’s what feels interesting to me at present.

I’m actually kind of amazed that I can stay pretty much on top of process observation, not just noting but using a short verbal label about once or twice every breath when I really concentrate.

Where will this take me?  Am I getting anywhere?  I don’t know, but it feels like I’m shining more light into the driving/creating/causing but normally unconscious parts of my mind, and it’s interesting!

Would I recommend this focus of meditation to anyone else?  Don’t know.  I think it’s harder than the usual start of vipassana instruction and it’s only years of practice that let me do it moderately well, but maybe that’s just my kidding myself.  Anyone wanting to get really serious about meditation, I can give them a start with my mindfulness books (Waking Up: Overcoming the Obstacles to Human Potential, Living the Mindful Life, and Mind Science ) and online webinar (, but if they want to go deeply, they should work with an accomplished meditation teacher like Shinzen Young or some of the many other fine teachers now available.


My semi-organized knowledge as of 3-3-15

Brief Label Explanation Synonyms, Comments
Attend Deliberately paying attention to some particular experience
Blank past Retrospective realization of blankness
Blank now Concurrent recognition of blankness


Noticing that a particular experience is getting less sharp, less clear, blurry for visual, fuzzier body if auditory, more vaguely defined if feeling Fuzz
Body Adjust Deliberately adjust posture/position
Breathe actively


Active breath
Check Consciously checking on how well I’m following the instructions I’ve given myself for a particular meditation session
Converse  An internal conversation, both hearing “thoughts” in words and intentionally creating words in response, like

in a real conversation

Very communicable in that the words can be repeated
Create Deliberately making something happen, it didn’t just happen by itself
Daydream Combination of visual imagery and internal talk that’s catching me up to some degree, and has a sort of plot of its own, even if it doesn’t last very long, not random, unconnected sensations For me, daydreams have vision and sound, but rarely if ever have any touch or emotional component
Desiring Wanting something in particular to happen
Dream A visual and auditory inner experience with  plot that you could relate, that you’re almost totally involved in while it’s happening: you don’t know it’s a dream.
Dreamlet A shorter version of a dream, as above Exact boundary between dreams and dreamlets is hard to define
Emote Clearly an emotion, not just a tactile experience
Evaluate Deliberate thinking about and evaluation of an experience or a pattern of experiences
Exhale Deliberately and consciously exhale
Fantasize A broader category that could include daydreams, dreams, and dreamlets
Feel Any tactile experience
Fixate, active Using deliberate intention/attention to keep a particular experience stable and lasting
Fixate, passive Observing that something has spontaneously become relatively fixed and lasting
Flow Any and all kinds of experiences, such as seeing, hearing, feeling, changing and morphing one into another
Go deeper A somewhat vague category of using intention/attention to make an experience more profound, such as an increase in its clarity or emotional tone
Gone Realizing with instants of it happening that some experience has had a major change in quality Not just relatively continuous flow
Hear Any auditory experience
Inhale Deliberately
Intend Deliberately
Intend/Attend or Attend/Intend Recognizes that attending to something is often a way of intending it to be fixed or changed in a desired direction, and intending those things for something always involves some degree of deliberate control of attention.  Intention/attention is always some mixture, even if mainly more one than another Use when it’s not obvious that what’s happening is more attention or intention
Judging Judging, evaluating other people, or any pair or set of experiences
Narrowing Intentionally narrowing field of attention/intention Not just flow to tighter field
No satisfaction, Dukkha The general feeling that some particular experience is in some way or other unsatisfactory, incomplete, hasn’t reached a useful or acceptable conclusion Dukkha
Opening Intentionally opening to, accepting some fact of experience more than normally Not just flow to wider field
Please A yearning that something come about with the help of “something” or “some processes” or “beings” that is different from the meditator’s conscious mind.  Poorly defined prayer, hoping “something” or “someone” will help Bringing in god and goddesses…
Pull Attachment, desire for something to become stronger or better or last
Push Attachment, desire for something to become weaker, go away, or to end
Pray Conscious, deliberate  prayer to something other than your own mind for help
Question Wondering, questioning what you are doing in this moment
Relax Both mentally and physically and emotionally
Relax into Flow Discovering there was an effort, intention, intention/attention, to control experience and then relaxing, letting go so that experience flows as “it wants to.”
All-Rest Rest in all modalities
See Any visual experience
Self-monitor Process monitoring, how you are doing with the practice at this moment
Sinking Getting drowsier, duller, sleepier This is recognizing the general loss of clarity and energy that comes with sleepiness, rather than more specific phenomena like visual imagery or dreamlets or blur
Spread Intentionally widening the incoming experience channel, attending/intending to more
Startle Being surprised by some experience and having a kind of physical “jump” in one’s body.
Stretch Physically stretch, deliberately
Suppress Conscious awareness that you are suppressing something
Talk Internally talking to yourself, the sequence of words that could be repeated out loud so others could understand what happened.  [Maybe distinguish active and passive talk?] The most precisely describable aspect of internal experience.
Tightening Feeling of tenseness, muscular action, stiffening
Wait Feeling that one is waiting for something to occur
Wake up more Increasing clarity, sharpness, energy
Widened field More different kinds of experience being experienced or more sharpness and clarity within the kinds of things being experienced Could occur passively as well as from intention



End of rough draft as of 3-3-15



  1. Thank you for your sharing. I think the issues you raise are true for many of us who have tread the Path for years… and years.
    My experience is that my intending to focus, to intend, to attend to, to be aware, etc. is itself the flame that sets fire to my eventual frustration with practices. By definition intending to transcend is a futile act of the ego which cannot transcend itself. (I think here of Escher’s hand drawing a hand).
    Although Gurdjieff reminds us that we are asleep and his Fourth Way is a way of will, yet another path might simply be to relax into the ordinary awareness which accompanies every thought, feeling, sensation, experience – whether or not there we make effort. I cannot help but be aware. It even accompanies me as I sleep in my Gurdieffian bed.
    If we are not to focus on the content of our experience, and if we are not to effort, what then is left to do?
    To be aware takes no effort. To be aware that we are aware – well that’s the prize as I see it.

    1. There’s something very tricky about effort, about making just the right amount, which might vary from moment to moment. Too much, no good, none, no good. And sometimes making just the right amount of effort and then letting go and letting the universe do whatever is best….
      I much prefer a sure-fire formula, but don’t know it!

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