These days there’s an increasing interest in gaining insight — accepting the loaded word “gaining” for now.
On the whole this is a good thing. For a long time many in the West have been doubtful about whether awakening is a realistic goal. “Maybe we’re too messed up,” and “Maybe the modern world isn’t conducive to awakening,” were common doubts. As the years have gone by, however, more and more practitioners have had insight experiences, and this has been very encouraging for others. More people now think not just that awakening is possible, but that they personally are capable of it. This is great! How can there be a downside to this?
One thing I’ve been concerned about recently is the narrowness of the goal we set ourselves. The ultimate aim of practice is often seen purely in terms of having insights into impermanence, unsatisfactoriness, and non-self. And while those things are crucial to attaining the goal, simply having those insights doesn’t turn you into the kind of person that the Buddha suggested we should take as our ideal. The Buddha’s concept of the ideal individual is someone who not only has insight, but who is an all-round excellent human being.
In one conversation about the ideal person, the Buddha outlines qualities such as: having calmness; being free from craving; being free of attachment to preferences, being free from fear, anger, and pride; being restrained in speech; having no longings about the future and no regrets about the past; having honesty and transparency; being free from envy; having no disdain for others; refraining from insults; and not thinking in terms of being superior, inferior, or even equal to others.
Elsewhere the Buddha talks of this ideal individual very much in terms of gentleness, kindness, and compassion. He encourages us to be the kind of person who doesn’t act in ways that cause harm to others in any way, not even indirectly, if that can at all be avoided. He also encouraged us to be good friends to each other — see the Culagosinga Sutta, for example. And part of the Buddha’s conception of spiritual friendship was a heart-connection with the wise — a sense of devotion and reverence that opens the heart to being influenced by the good that lies in others.
Over and over again, the Buddha encouraged us to develop jhana — a pleasurable state of focused awareness and of joyful absorption in the present moment. Jhana is deeply nourishing, and is also an excellent preparation for insight — not just because it trains the mind in focused attention, but because it helps us to see our experience in terms of intangible qualities of energy and joy, and in so doing gives us more of a sense of the insubstantiality of ourselves.
These are the kinds of things that we should be thinking of as the purpose of our practice.
Inherent in the Buddha’s view of the goal is that it’s not just about losing the delusion of self, or even of “gaining” insight. It’s also about cultivating ethical, skillful qualities—especially positive emotions. This is why the Buddhist path is usually taught as starting with training in ethics, then in meditation (including the active cultivation of kindness and compassion), and only then, finally, culminating in the development of insight.
For a small number of people, insight experiences are upsetting or even devastating, leading to a loss of meaning, a sense of despair, and a depressing and anxious state of depersonalization. It’s clear that joy and compassion don’t inevitably follow on the heels of insight arising.
Cases where serious suffering arises as a consequence of insight are rare. I don’t personally know anyone for whom this has been more than a passing disorientation, after which the positive aspects of insight have revealed themselves. But in the cases I’ve heard of where some kind of insight experience has lead to long-term problems, it seems to me that there has typically been a narrow focus on mindfulness and insight, and a lack of emphasis on lovingkindness and compassion meditation, and usually no emphasis on jhana. Whether there’s also been a lack of emphasis on spiritual friendship, spiritual community, and ethics is something I don’t know. But I suspect that in some cases these things are lacking as well.
One of the benefits of modern neuroscience is that we now know that as we learn a new skill, the brain physically changes. Areas associated with that skill become larger, just as a muscle grows with exercise. The goal of practice doesn’t just involve a cognitive insight into impermanence or non-self, but requires that we strengthen our “muscles” of kindness and compassion. I’d encourage you, then, to develop these qualities on the cushion and in daily life. If we do that, then insight, when it arrives, is more likely to be an astonishing, liberating, and joyful surprise, and less likely to be a disorienting, upsetting, and painful shock to the system.