These days there’s an increasing interest in gaining insight. (Let’s just accept 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 many people set themselves. The ultimate aim of practice is often seen purely in terms of having insight into non-self. And while that is crucial to attaining the goal, simply having 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 terns 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.
This is where we should conceive of our practice leading. This is the goal we should orient our lives around.
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 and a sense of despair. These cases are rare, and I don’t personally know anyone for whom this has been more than a passing disorientation before 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, there seems to have been a narrow focus on mindfulness and insight, and a lack of emphasis on lovingkindness and compassion meditation. Many meditation teachers have an habit of trying to ignore these potential problems, but fortunately they are being studied and hopefully we’ll learn more about them in time.
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. Developing insight removes certain barriers to the arising of skillful qualities and (often) to the dropping away of some of the grossly unskillful ones, but it takes effort to actually bring about growth.
I’d encourage you, then, to develop, on the cushion and in daily life, the qualities I’ve mentioned. 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.