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Through the magnifying glass

Slowly falling and coming to rest


By Helen Jandamit


On a recent Vipassana retreat at a contemporary meditation centre in the south-western suburbs of Bangkok, a middle-aged English lady was listening to some additional instructions at the end of a fairly long sitting session. She had long blonde hair and to loosen up after sitting still for a long time, she stretched her arms up and back, lifting her hair and letting it fall.

She was still focused on her present moment and in a heightened state of awareness - so she moved slowly, feeling the movement with great acuity, noticing the muscles in her arms engaging and the rising movement of them as she stretched and then, as she later recounted, her attention zeroed in on the contact of her hair with her skin. She was able to distinguish each strand separately - and to feel them individually, slowly falling and coming to rest on her shoulders.

It was a world-changing event for her. It was a moment when she came fully into the moment, with awareness wide open.

Her automatic pilot had no longer been functioning and she had tuned into her authentic presence and, as a result, awakened to a field of extraordinary clarity.

When this happens, the previous familiar ways of perceiving the environment around you and your interaction with it seem, in comparison, to be washed out and lifeless.

The combination of optimum concentration and sati (bare awareness) is a key to unlock a world of wonder that is latent within the everyday world.



Knowing clearly, through your own direct experience

The lady had been practicing Insight meditation (also called Vipassana).

Looking at the Pali language roots for the word ‘Vipassana’, we find Vi which, in this context, translates as ‘clearly’ and Passana which can be rendered as ‘know, through your own direct experience, in each present moment’.

So Vipassana practice is about knowing each present moment clearly, through your own direct experience. Viewed in this way, each experience: each mind moment of perception becomes a gift - a gift that only you can open.


Here is a brief guide to the practice of the sitting mode of Vipassana meditation.


Usually, sitting sessions are paired with walking sessions and follow them.

Formal practice focuses on four positions: standing, walking, sitting and lying down. Walking meditation is alternated with sitting meditation. The length of practice at each session is gradually increased. In sitting meditation, the meditator focuses on the movements of the abdomen that happen when you breathe naturally.

Focusing on a small area on the surface of the skin, just below the navel, meditators observe these movements in mind, as they breathe. By feeling these movements and, should they arise, making simple mental acknowledgements of any sounds, sensations, thoughts, etc. that occur, the meditator’s mind gradually becomes less disturbed or distracted and becomes ‘quieter’ and clearer instead.

It is relatively easy to notice anything that comes into a clear mind. In the same way that it is possible to glimpse the pebbles at the bottom of a still lake and difficult to see those same pebbles when the surface of the water is disturbed by strong winds.  Calming the mind allows us to see much more of what is going on beneath superficial consciousness.


Of magnifying glasses and microscopes

Focusing on the movements of the abdomen that accompany breathing eventually brings about a field of relative calmness in the mind. This focusing, or in other words holding your attention on a single object, allows constantly vacillating shifts of attention to slow down, resulting in greater tranquility.

You can think of this focusing process as similar to creating a white background. If a speck of dust is placed on a white background, it is easier to see, than if it is among countless other small pieces on a dusty surface.

In the same way, if you are relatively calm, it is easier to perceive thoughts and other mental contents as they arise in your mind.

As practice continues and as concentration and energy levels increase further, what happens
in mind then is like putting that speck of dust under a magnifying glass. It becomes far easier
to see its outline and shape. A magnifying glass is a convex lens used to produce an enlarged
image of an object.

A microscope is an instrument used to see objects that are too small for the naked eye. Optical microscopes use light to enable you to see the sample. In meditation, what you perceive is not limited to the visual spectrum and what is hinted at in this chapter includes countless possible options for experience and contemplation.

I am using the extended metaphor of increasing magnification of vision to allude to a process that includes far more than the visual sense alone.

As practice deepens, concentration becomes more akin to seeing through a microscope with your vital energy lighting the object – or stream of objects – of meditation. The structure of the speck of dust begins to reveal itself.

With regular continued practice, the ever-deepening concentration and focused effort metaphorically morph into an experience similar to looking through an electron microscope, which reveals only wave formations of energy.

Where is that speck of dust now?

Organic matter reveals its true nature.

In the same way, in the practice of Vipassana meditation, the mind/body processes
are put under an electron microscope of awareness until their true nature is revealed –
and insight into truth occurs.

Meditation objects

The objects of Vipassana meditation – in other words what you focus on - are not determined
in advance. They may be thoughts, feelings, emotions, sensations or several seemingly
interrelated events.

The practice requires a certain adventurousness and an openness to experience whatever
the moment may bring.

It also requires enough discipline to keep going, even when the task seems irrelevant, boring
or insurmountable.

The meditator needs courage too. The reason I say that is because you don’t know in advance
what you will encounter.

Moments of heightened awareness and clarity are by no means restricted to sitting practice
or long, silent group sessions in formal surroundings.

They can be experienced when you stretch your arms and lift your hair, being able to distinguish each strand separately - and to feel individual hairs slowly falling and coming to rest on your shoulders.


With respect to Lewis Carrol (Charles Lutwidge Dodgson), author of Through the Looking-Glass, and What Alice Found There (1871). The book uses frequent changes in time and spatial directions. In addition there are many mirror themes, including opposites and time running backwards.



There is a deep state of awareness
that allows and loves confusion and uncertainty
as part of the creation of an adventure
- the seldom trodden path of the integration of
the spiritual and the physical.

Helen Jandamit






Links for Dhamma Stories

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The magnifying glass (this one)

Demolition Dhamma

The wake-up stick

A sip of water

Tightrope walking over the minefields of conditioning



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How to practise Insight Meditation




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