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E6: Is Having an Insight During Mindfulness Meditation a Thing?

Updated: Feb 20


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Jacob Derossett

Today we're here with Sarah Vallely, mindfulness teacher, coach and author. Sarah has been teaching meditation and mindfulness for the past two decades training and certifying others to teach mindfulness as well. Sarah is the author of four books. Her latest book is titled Tame Soothe Dwell: The 55 Teachings of TSD Mindfulness. In this episode, we discuss insights. Are insights even a part of a meditation practice? And we also discuss how you can cultivate insights in your meditation practice.


Sarah Vallely

Is experiencing an insight during mindfulness meditation, a thing? A definition for insight that's more mainstream, not necessarily a mindfulness definition would be “sudden awareness of a solution to a complicated problem”, aka an aha moment. Some other definitions are “alteration of cognition,” that's a definition that you will read in published research. It basically means a change in your thinking. A “deep understanding”, “clarity” are other definitions. I read on a message board, similar to Reedit, “a nugget of wisdom dropped into your mind.” So this person who posted this comment definitely meditates and definitely had an insight because this is exactly what it feels like. “A nugget of wisdom dropped into your mind.”




Studies show that people who are more mindful tend to have more insights. There are several studies out there that will correlate mindfulness with another trait. Another popular one is people who are more mindful or more resilient. But this study is about people who are more mindful or more insightful. Dispositional mindfulness as a positive predictor of psychological well-being and the role of the private self-consciousness insight factor, 2014

They took people in the study who didn't practice mindfulness, and gave them some tests to see how well they solved insight problems. And then they taught them mindfulness. And then they gave them more tests to see if their insight problem skills increased after they started a practice of mindfulness, and they did! Insight problems are a thing. I had to look it up. We've all been to that professional development meeting at work--they put us in teams, and they give us a scenario that we have to solve with our teammates. That is an example of insight problem solving. You can't just use math skills, for example, to come to a solution. Someone in the group has an insight, a random idea pops in their mind. They're like, “Oh, this is how we need to go about this.” They also tested these people who were learning mindfulness beforehand how to solve non-insight problems. And then again, after they learned mindfulness and more practicing, and their non-insight problem skills actually stayed the same, despite the mindfulness practice. An example of this would be taking a math skill and applying it to a problem and solving it. It's just you just need to know how to do it.


In another study, they compared meditators and non-meditators in these five different areas, and the areas are equanimity--being calm emotionally. Another area was life satisfaction. If they had a high score in life satisfaction, then they probably don't have a lot of anxiety and depression. Another category is the ability to take a step back from your thoughts. Another category is memory. And the last insight--having insights. PROMISE: A Model of Insight and Equanimity as the Key Effects of Mindfulness Meditation 2019

Not surprisingly, the meditators in this study scored higher in all of these categories. But there's one category that had the biggest gap. The meditators beat out the non-meditators by the largest margin, what do you think it was Jacob?


Jacob Derossett:

I would suppose it’s insight.


Sarah Vallely

I find this extremely interesting because there are not that many websites or articles on the internet that are dedicated to having insights during mindfulness meditation. My background is in vipassana, which is actually called “Insight Meditation”. There are a lot of articles dedicated to “insight meditation”, but even on those websites, there aren't a lot of articles dedicated to having insights. Years ago, when I was reading Jack Kornfield, listening to Tara Brock on YouTube and working with my teacher Hugh Byrne from the Washington DC insight meditation center, I don't remember them talking that much about having insights during mindfulness meditation. Do you have any theories on this, Jacob as to why this might be--why It's not talked about a lot in these communities?


Jacob Derossett

I think they don't talk about insights very much, if I had to guess, because it would create longing in people--they would crave insight, they would want to meditate and have a purpose in their mind. One thing that I've gathered, the more I've read, especially Zen, Zen authors like Suzuki Roshi--They say, “Just do it”, like the Nike slogan. “Just sit down and do it. And you'll see.” So I think they guard a lot of their experiences. And I do believe there was a lot of taboos around talking about their own experiences. Part of the reason I actually got started meditating was heard the word “psychedelic state”, and I was like, “Okay, I'm interested, you have my attention.” But I don't know, what do you think


Sarah Vallely

Having a result ending to your practice--getting a certain thing out, that's a very dangerous, slippery slope, because that can completely change the dynamic of your practice. I call that “task oriented attention”. We're looking at our practice as if we're trying to complete a task, which will inevitably sabotage your experience. Additionally, what you were alluding to--this idea that if we start talking about our insights, it can come across as a little bit egotistical. I just wonder if that has something to do with not speaking about insights. I guess I'm the kind of meditation teacher that does talk about insights. Today, we're going to talk about what qualities put you in a situation to more likely have an insight. But we will put a disclaimer on it--Please don't sit down on your meditation cushion and set out to have an insight because that's not really how it works.


Jacob Derossett

I mean, you can, but you're going to create a lot of suffering for yourself for a long time. People have always sat in meditation to try to attain enlightenment. An old Vipassana idea was you're on the path, you're rubbing two sticks together to create a fire, which would be enlightenment. And the minute you stop focusing and concentrating, they cool down and you have to start over. I'm excited to hear what you have to say about insights because this hasn't really been covered a whole lot.


Sarah Vallely

Buddhist teachers will say that insights are said to relate to suffering, impermanence and connectedness. The Buddhist teachings are just the Buddha's insights. And some of the main ones are suffering is a result of our own cravings and aversions; all that exists cycles through states of birth, death, and rebirth; all that exists is interconnected. But there are also a whole mess of other insights that actually have nothing to do with these specific Buddhist teachings. A realization of your needs might be a typical insight that someone would have; recognizing that your opinion is wrong; realizing a solution to a problem. But also what can be another insight is realizing that the problem doesn't need to be solved. That actually I think happens more often, you just get to this place, “Oh, why am I spending so much time on this? It's not really even that important.” And some insights are difficult to put into words. They're just more like feelings.


Jacob Derossett

I want to tell you about an insight I had in college, I was talking to this girl, we were texting very often, every hour or so every, even every few minutes. This relationship on the front end was seemingly very exciting and very perfect. Then she left me on read for an extended period of time. So anyway, I was stressed out and I decided I wanted to listen to some music. So I turned some music on. And I had this experience of this kind of like welling up of this release sensation in my body. And I had this voice somewhere in my head say, “You don't have to care.” My whole body released. “I don't have to care about any of this stuff. Any things that I have previously thought that required me to really care and put a lot of effort in, I don't actually have to care. I can decide where my attention and energy go in a sense.” There is a protector or voice of wisdom that lives in us, that it will come out every once in a while, especially in times of really intense anxiety and stress when you're very contracted. A lot of times when you kind of just had it and you've kind of given yourself permission to just release. It happens. It's amazing.


Sarah Vallely

Yeah, that's such a great example. Because insights can be like that. They can be so simple but so powerful.


Jacob Derossett

I am very curious, what kinds of insights have you had, if any?


Sarah Vallely

A little less than a year ago, I got into a pretty bad snowboarding accident--got an extremely bad concussion. And when you have a concussion, you often go into great depression. It got so bad to the point where it was hard to imagine keeping going on with my own life. The insight that I got was “Your only job is to stay alive today. The only thing you need to accomplish is to stay live this day.” I can do that I can stay alive. All this other stuff that I feel like I need to do is a little too much and overwhelming.


My book Tame Soothe Dwell--a majority of what I write about in that book are insights. Some of the insights that are included in that book are: There are three sources of stress--either stress comes from your own thinking, it comes from survival instinct, or it comes from unhealed trauma. Another insight is Everything in our experience is either a form we have a relationship with, or a form of relationship. And another, We cannot wholeheartedly depend on our logic and our instincts.


Jacob Derossett

I imagine somebody who would listen to those insights might say, “Okay, well didn't you just wake up and realize those things?” lt sounds as though, the insights come from a place separate from your normal self--a deeper state of being, a deeper state of self. The Buddhist might call that your Buddha nature, right? Like, the more you sit and you get calm, this wisdom comes out of you out from someplace that we don't really understand. Sarah where do insights even come from?


Sarah Vallely

I let people use their own belief system to discern where insights come from. As far as differentiating insight from just a solution that you come up with through your own mental processing--I think one definite difference is you don't use a logical process to get to it, it's very spontaneous. In a lot of situations, you're not even looking for that information. That's not even where your head is at. A lot of the time, you're simply just being open. You're either in your sitting mindfulness practice, or you are on a hike connected to nature and the insight pops into your mind.


This second study I was talking about, showed that people are more likely to have an insight, if they meditate for a longer period of time--meaning they're sitting practice is longer segments. The likelihood of having an insight is actually not correlated to how long you've been a meditator. And it's not correlated to how frequently you meditate. What that means is, if you have somebody who's been meditating for 20 years, and they meditate every day for 20 minutes, they're not as likely to have an insight as someone who, perhaps, has only been meditating for two years, but meditates for maybe an hour at a time and more infrequently, maybe a couple days a week.


Jacob Derossett

Why do you think sitting in meditation is more likely to spur an insight?


Sarah Vallely

I have not read anything out there that is definite. I think we're in the baby stages of researching and understanding why human beings have these insights. But one of the speculations is that when we are in a mindfulness practice, we're ruminating less, so we're spending less time reliving an event in the past and analyzing it. Another speculation is that mindfulness practice supports you to think less about yourself and more about other people--being considerate of other people being less judgmental. And having the ability to distinguish between an event and you're added perceptions to an event.


And then the other reason that they speculate that a mindfulness practice opens you up to having insights, is it lessens your conceptual thinking and moves your consciousness more in a sensory experience. That's the reason that I emphasized to my clients and to my students. When we quiet our own thinking and move into sensory experience, we are putting ourselves in a place where we're going to be open to these insights. The information processing model for learning is a great way to demonstrate how this works. When we learn, we first take in the stimuli. So that might be the words someone speaks to us and facial expressions. We are taking in this stimuli from our physical environment. And then we move that information into our working/short term memory. That's where we have contemplation, critical thinking, sense making, we evaluate the information, we synthesize new ideas. This is the point where the teacher’s role is really important. They help students hold this information in their working memory longer so they can use critical thinking and sense making and evaluate. And then eventually, what they really process through moves into their long-term memory and their storage, and then they can retrieve it later. So that's the learning process.


What we want to do with mindfulness is we want to actually pull our consciousness out of the working memory. We want to not get caught up in the critical thinking of whatever it is we're experiencing, not getting involved in the sense making, or the logical thinking. This process is critical to our livelihood as human beings, but when we're having our mindfulness practice--whether we're sitting or we're just having a mindful moment during the day--we're actually pulling our attention out of that working memory. Instead we are sitting with the stimuli, just being in that sensory memory, just listening to the sounds without evaluating them, or looking at an object without trying to make sense of it. We're just allowing that stimuli to come into our consciousness. And we're just noticing, and we're observing, and we're being mindful.


Jacob Derossett

This is this is fascinating. Sounds so counterintuitive that sitting and listening to the sounds and noticing the sensations in your body means you're going to get this magic piece of information of wisdom delivered to you from some magical place. It sounds so counterintuitive because normally we think “In order to solve this problem, I need to think about it, I need to deliberate should I do this about it? Should I do this?” It's so bizarre to consider this alternative way.


Sarah Vallely

I don't think any of us have it figured out. The best thing is to just experience it and enjoy it and take it for what it is. This approach is very valuable when it comes to relationships. Because when it comes to relationships, using a logical process to try to figure things out, often does not end up being helpful. Instead, leaning into emotions, and being in that sensory space, moving into vulnerability--and moving into that uncertainty of not knowing, usually serves us better in relationships.


Jacob Derossett

Something my wife taught me is creating space. If somebody is having an emotional reaction, and things are getting hot, so to speak, getting some distance from one another to reevaluate really brings the emotional level down. But I found this really helps to see the other person's point of view a little bit more clearly. When you're with somebody and your needs aren't being met, it's very difficult to see the other person's needs because you're having this very visceral experience. So creating just a little bit of space. Taking a walk, for example, really helps to center your mind on what's important, and not what was important, 10 or 20 minutes ago. After a hard walk or hike I always find that I am a lot clearer. And it's a lot more obvious to me after. If as you're breathing hard, and especially walking in nature, you're getting pulled out of your thinking into your physical experience and your physical surroundings. So it sounds kind of a similar idea to what you are talking about.


Sarah Vallely

It's so ingrained in us to use a logical process. The problem is logical process isn't always ideal and isn't always correct. Revenge is very logical--If this person did this, then I'm going to do this back to them. Blame is very logical--this happened, so it's this person's fault. And so using a logical process is not always helpful. If we can step back from that process and just be, it can be more beneficial.


Jacob Derossett

I have been very curious about this record producer, his name's Rick Rubin. Most of the songs you've enjoyed in your life, he has had something to do with it--Jay Z, Slayer, Johnny Cash, the Beastie Boys. He's largely responsible for hip hop making mainstream music. He has this very big, long white beard and long white hair. He looks like a guru. He started meditating when he was 14, because he was having neck pain and his doctor prescribed him to go and learn to meditate. He listens to music, and he will talk about what he likes about it, what he enjoys, what he feels good about, what makes him feel good. And talks about what doesn't necessarily cause reaction in his body. And then based on that, he gives people advice. For example, “That one part right there, the essence of that is really good. Let's try to make more of that. Let's try to grow that and then get rid of everything that doesn't cause that reaction.” He gets completely open to what it is that he enjoys about.


Sarah Vallely

I love that--he's staying in that sensory experience, that is gold. He's paying attention to his physical body and how his physical body is responding to the music. It's like he's the Phil Jackson of the record industry.


Jacob Derossett

He's plugged in to something deeper than thought.

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