From Mindfulness to Insight: Finding Clarity {Book Review, Part 1}

Moment by moment, second by second, we are bombarded by a barrage of thoughts, feelings, self-criticisms, and all the stories we tell ourselves about ourselves and the world around us. Thus, Nairn, Choden, and Regan-Addis explain that “we seldom ever see things as they are” and as a result we are caught in a never ending loop of suffering caused by self-perpetuating patterns of habitual thought (3).


By Duane Toops

I love books and I jump at every chance I get to read more and to incorporate what I’m reading into what I’m creating.

There definitely seems to be a weird reciprocity between reading and creation for me. What I read inspires what I create. What I create influences what I read. In fact, I think I create as an excuse to read more and I read so that I can create more—it’s a vicious cycle.

Needless to say when the folks over at The Tattooed Buddha asked me if I wanted to review a book for them, it took all of about two seconds to say, “Absolutely!”

But, I also thought this would be a good opportunity to do something a little different. The central theme of everything I create is this idea of “documenting the process.” So rather than just do a normal book review (because let’s face it, there’s nothing quite normal about me) I thought it might be fun to document the process of reading through this book. Hopefully, this can be something shared and participatory, something that we can work through together. This will be the first of several installments journeying through this book.

The book I received is called From Mindfulness to Insight: Meditations to Release Your Habitual Thinking and Activate Your inherent Wisdom, (Shambhala Publications) written by Rob Nairn, Choden (aka Sean McGovern), and Heather Regan-Addis. I have to admit I’m not familiar with any of the three authors but, when I received the book I also received an “About the Authors” handout, which my inner nerdy-ness really appreciates.

Here’s what it has to say about the authors:

Rob Nairn is a world pioneer in presenting Buddhist philosophy and practice in a way that is accessible to the Western mind. He is the author of several books, including Diamond Mind, and Living, Dreaming, Dying. In 2010 he founded the Mindfulness Association to deliver training in mindfulness practice.

Choden (Sean McGovern) is a monk within the Karma Kagyu tradition of Tibetan Buddhism. He is a director and co-founder of the Mindfulness Association, develops and teaches secular mindfulness, compassion and insight programs. With Paul Gilbert, he co-wrote Mindful Compassion, which explores the interface between Buddhist and evolutionary approaches to compassion.

Heather Regan-Addis is a practicing Buddhist within the Karma Kagyu tradition and a director and co-founder of the Mindfulness Association. She teaches mindfulness, compassion and insight courses and leads the team that developed and delivers the eight week Mindfulness-Based Living Course (MBLC) and Compassion-Based Living Course (CBLC).

Now, for better or worse I’ve spent a significant chunk of my adult life involved in some kind of academic pursuit or another and, if there’s anything that academia has drilled into me it is a strong fondness for clarity. One must communicate one’s ideas clearly and effectively, one must construct and state one’s thesis with incisive clarity, and one must be very clear in defining terms; defining the structural terms of the discussion and defining the terminology that will be utilized throughout the discussion. Like I said, I’m nerdy.

But, this is one of the things that I’m really enjoying about the book so far, its clarity of terms.

As the title of the book suggests, two of its central ideas are “mindfulness” and “insight;” two terms that can often be vague and generic.

“Mindfulness” has become a kind of a buzzword. It’s been utilized and thrown around to such a degree that it’s almost become cliche’, and verges on being devoid of meaning. We talk about mindfulness and being mindful so much that I wonder if we even really know what it means any more.

Moment by moment, second by second, we are bombarded by a barrage of thoughts, feelings, self-criticisms, and all the stories we tell ourselves about ourselves and the world around us. Thus, Nairn, Choden, and Regan-Addis explain that “we seldom ever see things as they are” and as a result we are caught in a never ending loop of suffering caused by self-perpetuating patterns of habitual thought (3).

In this regard, the authors write that, “mindfulness is based on the realization that the stream of thoughts, feelings, story lines and images that flow through our minds do not define who we are” (1) and that central to the practice of mindfulness is “learning how to notice and disengage from reactive patterns of thinking” (2). They explain that “When we see clearly the hidden forces that are shaping our perception, change happens” (3).

Here, the book is clear in its working definition of “mindfulness” as “knowing what is happening while it is happening, without preference” (7).

I think that’s a really helpful and useful definition to work with; a full and total, conscious, non-judgmental, awareness of everything we are feeling, thinking, and experiencing while we are feeling, thinking, and experiencing it.

“Insight” is a term that probably doesn’t get used nearly as much as as the word “mindfulness” but, it comes up frequently enough that some extra attention and clarity to the term couldn’t hurt. It’s often mentioned without being defined or explicated, and when it is talked about it seems to be discussed with an aura of mystery and mysticality. “Insight” sometimes seems to be presented as something almost esoteric…

Like its a members only kind of thing…The first rule of Insight Club: you don’t talk about Insight Club.

Maybe I’ve already said too much…

This is something that the book discusses on the very first page. The authors write that, “Mindfulness has been the flavor of the month for a long time, but insight has remained a fairly neglected area, perhaps because it is more subtle and elusive” (vii). Yet, as candid as the authors are about clearly defining “mindfulness” they are just as forthright in providing a working definition of “Insight,” which they define as “recognizing what is happening, while it is happening, without preference.” (7)

Sounds familiar, right?

Mindfulness is, “knowing what is happening, while it is happening, without preference” and Insight is, “recognizing what it is happening, while is it happening without preference.” (7)

Did you catch the difference? It’s subtle but, important.

The difference lies between “knowing” and “recognizing.” Nairn, Choden, and Regan-Addis explain that “knowing” is “awareness of what is arising in the mind in this moment—and knowing that we are aware” and “recognizing” is “becoming aware of the underlying processes that give rise to the activity we observe in the mind.” It’s something deeper, it’s the deeper part of the thing, it’s the thing behind the thing.

The knowing of “Mindfulness” is the full awareness we give to the phenomena of our thoughts, feelings and experiences, and the recognition of “Insight” is becoming fully aware of the causes and conditions that lie behind the phenomena of our experience.

Maybe we could say that “Mindfulness” is seeing the “what” of our experience, and “Insight” is understanding the how and why of our experience. Mindfulness allows us to become aware of “our ideas and perceptions about ourselves and the world we inhabit” (8), and Insight is understanding the “underlying assumptions, beliefs, and attitudes” behind them. (7) But, it goes further still, according to the authors. “The process of insight is about seeing through these ideas and perceptions, and coming to know the hidden formulas that give rise to them.” (8)

If Mindfulness is about fully seeing, then Insight, itself, is the quality of seeing clearly.

It’s seeing differently, its “seeing the same situation, the same set of facts, from a different viewpoint.” (8) It’s seeing something unseen with such a clarity that it radically changes the way we see and experience everything.

I’m enjoying digging into this book, I’m looking forward to digging in further, and I’m really glad that you’ve decided to come along with me.

To be continued…


Photo: Shambhala Publications

Editor: Dana Gornall


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Duane Toops

Columnist at The Tattooed Buddha
Husband, father, fledgling Buddhist, struggling meditator, writer, and content creator. He has a BA in Religion, has taken the Precepts and Refuge vows in the TsaoTung Chan lineage, and is currently completing an MA in Humanities.