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Mahasi Sayadaw’s Meditation System: The Four Phases + Tips

In this article, we’ll cover Mahasi Sayadaw’s system for Vipassana meditation, including the four fundamental phases of his practice. This system is based on breathing techniques and is different from U Ba Khin’s hugely popular body-sweeping system.

Keen to get going with Vipassana meditation?

The beauty of Mahasi Sayadaw’s system is its simplicity, but don’t mistake simplicity for easiness or tameness. These are powerful techniques and contain principles and skills that are key to all meditation practice.

First, let’s discuss the fundamentals of Vipassana.

Mahasi Sayadaw: The Fundamentals

Mahasi Sayadaw’s Contribution to Meditation

Both Mahasi Sayadaw and U Ba Khin’s methods have become famous in recent years. Though both systems are varieties of Vipassana meditation, Vipassana meaning insight into the true nature of reality, Mahasi Sayadaw’s largely works with the breath while U Ba Khin’s is based on body sweeping.

Mahasi Sayadaw is a Burmese buddhist monk and one of the great masters of our era. His world-famous intensive courses involve one or two months of 16 hours’ daily practice along with practice in movement. He insists that we must live in each moment with the greatest attention possible, without losing our meditative state in daily activities.

Other Vipassana Methods

Beyond these two ultra-common systems, there are other methods within Vipassana. Every teacher emphasises one facet or another according to their experience, while always retaining the same end goal: to see all phenomena in our senses as transitory, unsatisfying and impersonal.

If this sounds abstract and impractical, don’t worry: the techniques involved in this method are easy to understand and designed to reveal these insights to us. Besides, once you contact Vipassana, this description of our senses will seem like just another pointer towards what you can only realise directly, through first-person investigation.

What’s The Goal of Mahasi Sayadaw’s System?

Vipassana means insight into the nature of reality, and we obtain it by paying exquisite attention to our first-person experience from moment to moment. Such insight is life-changing and enables us to advance towards the achievement of Nirvana – the Buddhist term for Enlightenment or spiritual awakening.

Our sensory phenomena reveal their true nature when we penetrate them directly and experientially. To the average person, the senses seem rock-solid, real, and personal. With practice, we’ll be able to perceive the impersonal and transitory nature of everything in our senses, loosening us from their habitual grip.

And what we call the body is not a solid entity, even though it seems so. It’s in a state of perpetual change and flux and is no more than a flow of energy. We can see this through introspection.

How Do We Practice Vipassana Meditation?

The essence of Vipassana meditation is to observe and penetrate the phenomena in our senses (like sounds, sights, thoughts, feelings, and so on) just as they are, as they arise in the present moment. We do this by bringing equanimity – non-reactive, observing awareness – to those items. The core skills of Unified Mindfulness serve us very well in Vipassana.

The vehicles for this practice are no other than our own body and mind, since they’re the closest and most direct things we can access. Through a direct investigation, we can discover and verify the transitory nature of everything that happens in our body and mind.

Like in all meditation, we work with pure, conscious attention and let go of all judgment, valuation, analogy, and where possible, reaction.

Mahasi Sayadaw’s Four Phases

Now let’s check out those four phases of Vipassana meditation. If you’re practicing this in your own time, I recommend you spend at least two weeks on each phase. You’ll find more tips for setting up your practice in the next section!

Phase 1 of Vipassana Meditation: Rising and Falling of Breath

In this phase, we try to fix our attention the up-and-down movement of the abdomen caused by breathing.

If these movements aren’t clear to begin with, place both hands on the abdomen.

We put all our effort into clearly perceiving each movement just as it occurs, and note each upward movement as “rising” and each downward movement as “falling”. There’s no need to label out loud – mental labels will suffice.

For a beginner with weak Sati (the Sanksrit word for mental attention) and Samadhi (singlemindedness), it’s difficult to maintain the mind on the breath. We only develop the ability to capture each successive unfolding of Nama-Rupa (mental and physical processes) in each of the six senses when we fully develop Clear Seeing.

If you’re a beginner, you might find you’re searching and grasping for the breath. This is natural – just remember that the up-and-down movement is always present. There’s no need to look elsewhere for it.

One last tip – there’s no need to breathe more deeply or quickly to make movements clearer. This can bring tiredness. Breathe normally and naturally.

mahasi sayadaw vipassana meditation phase 1

After some practice on the rise and fall of the abdomen, it’s time to move to Phase 2.

Phase 2 of Vipassana Meditation: Labelling the Mind and Intentions

As we try to perceive the rise and fall of the breath, we’ll find that mental interruptions like thoughts, intentions, ideas, and images appear.

While in Phase 1 we diverted our attention away from these distractions and returned it to the breath, in Phase 2, we try to capture them in the very moment they arise. We’ll make a mental note of this activity whenever it presents itself.

If you notice an image, thought, or memory, label it as such. If you notice your attention wandering, label “wandering”.

If you imagine yourself going somewhere, label “going”. If you’re arriving somewhere in your mind, label “arriving”. The same goes for meeting, speaking, and so on.

Try to remain aware of the sensation until it disappears; once it has, return to noticing the rise and fall of the abdomen. In this way, the breath is our default object of focus.

We’ll do the same with any intentions we have during meditation, like swallowing, stretching, moving, before returning to the rising and falling.

mahasi sayadaw vipassana meditation phase 2

Let’s move on to Phase 3.

Phase 3 of Vipassana Meditation: Labelling Gaps Between Breaths and All Movements

With practice, we realise that there is a gap between each rise and fall of the abdomen. In this gap, put your attention on the feeling of sitting or lying down. Our default practice is, therefore: rise, gap, fall, gap; rise, gap, fall, gap, and so on.

You can add in your mental thoughts and images too, labelling those a few times before moving back to the breath.

Other Sensations

If we remain sitting for a long time, we may feel fatigue or discomfort. Let’s keep our attention on the area where the sensation arises and note it using an appropriate label e.g. “tired”, “uncomfortable”.

These sensations either disappear or get more intense. If this leads us to try changing posture, we mentally label “trying”, “trying” and then proceed to move.

We even include forgetfulness: if we forget to note our body movements while sitting, we note “forgetting”, “forgetting”.

Sequential Labelling

When we move our body during practice, to change posture for example, we carry out these movements slowly and divide each of these activities into many small pieces, labelling each one. As soon as we’re in the new posture, we return to “rising” and “falling”.

We can do a walking meditation based on this, and also bring it into daily activities.

To do the walking meditation, we place our attention on our legs and feet, and label “stepping”, “stepping” or “left”, “right”. After some practice, we divide every step into two parts: “lifting”, “placing”, or three: “lifting”, “moving forward” and “placing”, attempting to detect fine details and changes in the sensations.

We can do the same when we fetch a glass of water, sit down, lie down, and so on. If there’s nothing to be aware of in particular, we return to the breath.

With sequential noting, we divide all our daily acts into tiny packets of awareness. To begin with, there will be many gaps in our awareness. But we must persist. With practice, we’ll have less gaps in our attention and we’ll perceive many more details than those mentioned here. There are subtleties, within subtleties, within subtleties!

mahasi sayadaw vipassana meditation phase 3

Phase 4 of Vipassana Meditation: Noting Emotions

After some practice, we might believe our skills aren’t improving and end up feeling lazy or uninspired.

When this happens, we turn our attention to those reactions and label them “lazy”, “uninspired”, and so on. We may doubt these methods – we note “doubting”. When we’re trying to track our progress, we note “remembering”. If we feel sad because we don’t see progress, we note “sadness”. We note every state of mind in this way before returning to the default breath practice: rise, gap, fall, gap.

We can take this further and start applying it to the difficult emotions we experience in daily life.

mahasi sayadaw vipassana meditation phase 4

Mahasi Sayadaw’s Parting Advice

Whether good or bad, the student must contemplate every state of mind.

Whether big or small, the student must contemplate every body movement.

Whether pleasant or unpleasant, the student must contemplate all body sensations.

If there’s nothing special, the student must place their full attention on the “rising” and “falling”.

If they need to move, they must contemplate every detail, whether it’s labelling “walking”, “walking”, or “left”, “right”, “left”, “right”.

As they implement this exercise while walking, the student must contemplate the three phases of every step: “rising”, “moving”, “falling”.

The student who dedicates themselves day and night to the contemplation in this way will in a short time develop their skills and obtain the first of the four levels of Clear Seeing, before reaching the remaining higher levels in turn, until achieving final attainment.

Setting Up Your Practice FAQs

We’ve now covered the four stages in Mahasi Sayadaw’s system, but you might be wondering about the practical aspects of setting up your medtiation practice. So let’s look at the keys to doing so before you embark on your journey in Vipassana meditation – starting with our practice time.

How much time should we spend in formal sitting meditation?

There is no ideal amount of practice time. It depends on your goals, your schedule and your level of expertise.

For a person with ordinary obligations, I think one hour a day is a good target for sitting practice time. If you miss a day or two, it’s no huge issue. Just know that meditation is like any other skill: the more high-quality practice you do, the more proficient you’ll get.

Notice I say formal sitting meditation – we also want to practice off the cushion in everyday life.

Which posture should I use?

Again, there is no correct posture – you can sit on a chair, your bed, a stool, or on the floor. The best for long sits is a cross-legged posture, like the half-lotus or lotus, and with time you might find yourself gravitating towards it. But if you’re just starting or are particularly inflexible like me, you can sit in any posture you like – just make sure you’re comfortable, your back is straight, and you can remain alert and poised.

How do I take this off the cushion?

To begin with, meditation is something you practice for a fixed period of time every day. Your meditative skills seem to only last for the time you are on the cushion.

But in time you’ll come to realise that you need to take the lessons from meditation into your daily life, and this is when you’ll begin to practice off the cushion as you go about your day. I’ll call this informal practice to distinguish it from the formal, timed variety.

It’s likely you’ll naturally begin practicing off the cushion after a certain amount of daily formal practice. But you can start informal practice from day one by peppering your day with micro sessions and dedicating a short chunk of time, say 10 minutes, to informal practice as you’re doing an activity.

I have an entire article with 17 Mindfulness Practices for Daily Life. Start incorporating these techniques into your day, and you’ll uncover the power of meditation that much quicker. It will begin to inform everything you do.

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