At this weekend's retreat Bhante G spoke to the meaning of Vipassana meditation. He summed it up as "seeing things as they really are."
Similar to how we can gain physical benefits from acting on the information we glean from the study of the human body through biology, anatomy, nutrition, etc., we gain incredible mental benefits through the study and observation of our own mind.
Suffering is a problem. In order to solve a problem we must first understand what's causing the problem to arise. The Buddha didn't teach a path to happiness per se, but rather a path that leads to the end of suffering. To come out we have to understand, experientially, how it comes up. The only way to become acquainted is to be fully present when we meet with it.
At first, when our mindfulness is not yet strong, we catch suffering while it's arising or some time after it has already arisen. Eventually, through steady practice, our mindfulness becomes continuous so that we may prevent it from arising at all.
How we interact with phenomena has been summed up in 5 steps:
1. We meet with a phenomenon
2. We like, dislike, or remain neutral once in contact with the phenomenon
3. We then categorize the phenomenon
4. We react to the phenomenon
5. Our consciousness is affected by the phenomenon
The actual suffering arises in step 4, the reaction, which then bolsters step 2. The degree to which we develop an aversion to the phenomenon depends on how often we default to a strong negative reaction, which in turn deepens our well of dislike.
But if we are able to retreat from our habitual reaction, we begin to reprogram how we'll behave the next time we come in contact with this particular phenomenon. Remember, the more we dislike, the harder to be happy. So each time we go through this process with different phenomena, we're generally lessening our dislikes in the world, allowing for more opportunities of unencumbered happiness.
Being in touch with the mind throughout the process allows us to see things as they really are. When we're being mindful, we can see that it isn't the phenomenon itself that is giving rise to suffering, but rather our reaction to it. Once we realize our role in creating our own suffering, we can then begin the process of our liberation from it.
The practice demands honest discernment; without shame or guilt, being able to clearly see and accept our own role in creating suffering for ourselves (and others) so that we can continue the process of coming out.