Monday, December 31, 2007

Reflections on vipassana

At midnight, I go downstairs from my hotel room at The Oberoi and join the hundreds of thousands on Marine Drive to celebrate the new year. Men link arms and dance in circles. Fireworks go off up above the Queen's Necklace all the way into the hazy distance of the Hanging Gardens. On the way back up, the door man wishes me a happy new year. Ah, the simply warmth of human contact.

Then I wrote out what follows, to try to make sense of the past 11 days of vipassana. I recommend going on the course to anyone interested in deep-rooted personal transformation work and mentally prepared for quite an extreme challenge. This gives you a bit more background on vipassana from my recent experience:

Vipassana meditation is the original meditation technique of the Guatama Siddhartha – the person we call the Buddha and know as the founder of Buddhism 2500 years ago. The technique has been lost for over two millennia in the Buddhist world (India, China, Japan, Sri Lanka, Tibet, Nepal, Bhutan etc.) apart from in small pockets of Burma. The reason why Burma maintained an understanding of the practice in its pure form is little more than an historical accident – centuries after the death of the Buddha, when the tyrant Ashok converted to Buddhism, he sent envoys to the land now know as Burma/Myanmar who taught the technique. A lineage of teachers across the centuries passed an understanding of vipassana from master to pupil to the present day. However, even in Burma, vipassana is not widely known and understood.

In the twentieth century, the Burmese buddhist and government official Sayagyi U Ba Khin taught the technique to the leader of the Hindhu community in Burma, S.N. Goenka. Goenka was, until he came across the technique, a successful and wealthy industrialist, whose family come originally from Calcutta. After learning the technique (which he was initially interested in to cure a long-term migraine problem), Goenka moved back to India in the 1980's to teach it to his sick mother, his father and a group of others.

The first ten-day course was so successful with the group they persuaded Goenka to teach their friends and relatives. From those early courses, demand grew and more and more courses were put on in India, with word eventually spreading beyond the sub-continent. Today, there are vipassana centres in many countries – the US, UK, Belgium, Japan, South Korea and so on, as well as centres all over India - all entirely funded by the donations given by past meditators. Hundreds of thousands of people have now completed the course and are practising vipassana meditators.

What is vipassana meditation?
The first time you do a vipassana meditation course, you have to commit to and complete a 10 day silent retreat. Silence means no talking, no reading, no writing, no gestures – apart from to the course leaders when you have a material issue or questions. The course is segregated by gender. There is a strict timetable of activities, which begins with a 4am wake-up call. Group meditation begins at 4.30am, with breakfast at 6.30am and lunch – the last meal of the day – at 11am. Snacks and tea are available at 5pm, but only to first-timers (returnee meditators are allowed lemon water). Group meditation continues throughout the day, ending with a one and half hour talk (shown on DVD) given by Goenka on practical and theoretical aspects of the technique. Its tough!

The first three days of meditation are not actually vipassana meditation; they are a preparatory exercise. You have to sit and breathe, and without counting the breath or verbalising or visualising, focus on the breath as it affects the nose, nostrils and area above the upper lip. It is an exercise in focusing the mind. Every time one loses focus and gets distracted, the idea is to learn to bring the attention as quickly as possible back to focusing on the breath. This exercise is called anapana-sati.

The first day and half I found this exercise very difficult. With the shock of the early morning wake-up, my mind kept on getting distracted and falling into random day dreams. By the end of the second day however I felt my focus and powers of concentration had increased quite dramatically, and my mind had stilled.

Halfway through day four you are introduced to the vipassana technique. In essence, the technique involves using the powers of focus and concentration acquired through anapana to scan the body from head to toe, observing sensations on the body without reacting to them. By day five, one also has to sit three times a day for an hour each time without moving, practising this technique (these sessions are known as 'strong determination' in English translation). At the start of each session, Goenka sings/chants sutras of the Buddha in Pali via a cassette tape and pa system. He sings the words the Buddha used immediately upon enlightenment, as well as core aspects of how the technique works (words also ascribed to the Buddha). He sings in a slow drawly voice which tapers to a ticking croaking sound at the end of certain words. In the evening talks he explains the key words and across time, they acquire significance in the context of the practice. Rather than mere ritual, the Pali words return us to the powerful experiences of the Buddha as he reached liberation.

The theory behind the practice
Vipassana is framed within the core Buddhist idea of taking refuge in the 'three jewels' - the buddha (the one who became enlightened), the dhamma (the teaching) and the sangha (the community of devotees). However, Goenka stresses that it is the dhamma that should be privileged. He does this because there is often confusion about the role of the Buddha as the first of the three jewels. It is the qualities the Buddha embues, rather than Guatama Siddhartha himself, that should be valued. However, the institutionalisation of 'buddhism' has tended to create something of a personality cult around the Buddha which Goenka wishes to avoid.

There are three aspects to the dhamma:
Sila (pronounced 'shila' - ethics)
Samadhi (understanding)
Panna (pronounced 'pania' - wisdom)

The ethical base is quite simple and universal, with five precepts which are common to many if not most religious systems:
Do not kill
Avoid sexual misconduct
Do not steal
Do not lie
Avoid intoxication

There are various aspects to samadhi, but the one vipassana focuses on is developing the power of the mind via anapana. Anapana prepares the mind for the practice of vipassana. Without a still mind, vipassana meditation would be impossible.

Panna is where vipassna meditation comes in. There are various forms of panna wisdom – scriptural and intellectual being the two most obvious. In contrast to these, vipassana however is wisdom through direct experience. In western philosophical terms, vipassana is similar to existential phenomenology: the analysis of lived embodied experience. It struck me increasingly during the course how rich the dialogue between vipassana and existential phenomenology could be in future academic debates and in pyschiatric circles.

Where vipassana gets really interesting is in terms of its pyschological framework. It is when considering this that the light bulb clicks and one starts to realise that Guatama Siddhartha wasn't really someone who founded a religion, in fact he was someone who uncovered acute pyschological insights into the inner nature of the mind. As Goenka is fond of saying, the Buddha was in fact a scientist. In simplified terms, vipassana pyschology divides the mind's relation to the world into four:

Cognition – the awareness that there is a sense object
Recognition – discrimation of what kind of sense object it is
Sensation – the experience of a sensation on the body
Response (known in Pali as sangkara) – the sub or unconscious response to the sensation.

These four aspects are not sequential or linear in the way they relate to each other. There is some similarity here with Kant's analysis of perception and cognition in the Critique of Pure Reason. All the complex analysis of how they relate aside, the key thing to bear in mind is the sangkara – the sub or unconscious bodily response to sensation. It is this level at which vipassana meditation operates.

Guatama Siddhartha's central insight 2500 years ago was that there are different layers to conscious embodied experience. The surface mind is that of conscious awareness. In the spiritual context of his time, it was common for prophets, seers and sages in India to talk about the need to become liberated from suffering, from the ego, from fear and craving and so on. However, the Buddha realised that surface consciousness simply cannot access the roots of suffering, fear and craving. His insight was therefore that underneath surface conscious awareness, there is an unconscious mind that relates centrally to the body and structures of embodiment. Vipassana meditation, the meditation that brought the Buddha to a strong form of pyschological liberation from fear and craving 25 centuries ago (which through the institutional processes of subsequent Buddhist canonical thought we now know as his 'englightenment'), is the technique which accesses the embodied ground of all psychological and spiritual hang-ups.

Within the notion of the bodily unconscious and how it structures conscious awareness and behaviour, the Buddha had a further penetrating insight. He realised through his meditative exploration that fear and craving are not intentionally related to sense objects. In other words, it is only at the apparent level that we fear or crave things in the world (mice, snakes, food, beer etc.). In fact, what we really crave, at the level of the bodily unconscious, is the sensations that those sense objects arise in us.

The technique of vipassana therefore involves scanning the body with a deeply focused attention in a meditative state, becoming aware (without any affective response) to the different sensations on the body. Painful sensations are related to sangkaras of fear; whereas pleasant tingling sensations (which become increasingly present as one develops in the technique) are associated with sangkaras of craving. The process of detaching any emotional response to these different types of unconscious bodily sensations is the process of liberating the bodily unconscious from different forms of fear and craving that are buried within the body from past experiences. Quite difficult to explain and contextualise, but very simple in practice.

Already, it is possible to see that vipassana meditation, as a self-practice technique, questions pyschoanalysis and perhaps even core forms of pyschiatric practice. Goenka himself had seen experts from all over the world to cure his migraine without result until he discovered vipassana. Many thousands of people have achieved powerfully beneficial results through the practice, curing pyschosomatic disorders, alcoholism and so on. The results are clear from the many people who do a vipassana course and start raving on about it.

Vipassana is above all a highly practical, non-esoteric technique which has delivered powerfully positive results for thousands. It leads to a deep sense of equanimity and awareness of the body's unconscious reactions to sensation. Across time and with dedicated practice, this leads to the purification of sangkaras – a process of detachment from all deep-seated unconscious bodily drives of craving or fear. In other words, it can lead to strong forms of pyschological and spiritual liberation.

It does all this without any appeal to myth, supernatural forces or an external God. Vipassana practice enables the discovery that God is in fact within, within the body, and that a form of heaven can be achieved here and now in this life. As Goenka says, vipassana is an art of living, and ultimately, an art of dying. Vipassana therefore has little to do with organised religion. It is compatible with any religious background without any theological conflict.

My experience of doing vipassana at Dhamma Giri in India
Dhamma Giri is the global coordinating centre for vipassana research. When I went (from the 19th to the 30th December 2007), there were roughly about 250 men and about 75 women participating. There were about 8 foreigners. Everyone else was Indian – from all kinds of backgrounds. At the end of the course (you can talk on the 10th and final day), I met people who were Muslim, Sikh, Jain and Hindhu. None of the people I talked to saw any conflict with their faith. All the men I spoke to were inspired and highly enthusiastic about the course, and had plans to get their wives, relatives and friends to come to the course. They themselves had signed up mostly because of the strongly persistent recommendation of their friends. This seems to be a key feature of vipassana – it is spreading virally, thanks to the powerfully beneficial results of doing the initial 10 day course.

For myself, I found the course incredibly difficult and demanding. Waking up at 4am, meditating along with others at 4.30 for up to 10 hours a day. Sitting still for an hour at a time and going through pain barrier after pain barrier (until I reached a state of detached bliss) – all involved a huge effort. Its just about the most difficult thing I have done in that stretch of time. The course was made more difficult for me because I got a bad ear infection half way through, resulting in half my head going numb with pain. This created a strong sense of anxiety of being alone in a faraway place. Only the miracle of someone having antibiotics allowed me to stay. However, I can sense the power of the technique and its capacity to tap into deep unconcious drives hard-wired into the body through sedimented experience (pardon the mixed-metaphors), and lead to genuine deep level change away from the misery of repeating habit-loops of experience which the conscious mind is all but powerless to interrupt.

On another level its made me question my adoption of 'Buddhism'. I now see that the Buddha was not the founder of a religion, albeit a religion without a transcendent God figure. He was someone who went further than anyone we know on a journey into the mechanisms of the unconscious mind, uncovering a powerful path – the dhamma – towards liberation. One can take refuge in the three jewels, practice the ethical precepts of Buddhism, and practice vipassana (as well as the technique called 'loving kindness' which vipassana sessions end with), and avoid the label of Buddhist. Similarly, people with Christian, Muslim or any other religious background can practice vipassana without any threat or challenge to cherished beliefs. The bottom line is, vipassana is a tool for psychological and spiritual liberation that is available to all. Its simple (yet demanding) to learn, but the benefitical results are potentially lifelong.

Vipassana is a universal, 'non-sectarian' (to use Goenka's phrase) science of the purification of the mind which can reduce and even cure one of mental cravings, addictions etc. as well as lead to increasingly deeper levels of happiness through a slow process of dissolution of the ego. Vipassana revolutionises our understanding not just of Buddhism, but of spiritual practice itself – that it should not be grounded in myth or ritual or appeals to an external God who should fulfil all our wishes and needs, but in results-oriented activity in an ethical context. Rather than relying on the creation of an external all-poweful God, we can find God within via our own vipassana practice.

The danger will be that Goenka/vipassana becomes institutionalised, with Goenka reverred as a Buddha for our times – at which point the power of the dhamma will be lost in another personality cult. He is quite mesmerising to listen to on the DVD talks each night – I had the strong feeling of being in the presence of the most penetrating psychological insights I have ever encountered – almost uncannily so. This is both a bounty and a threat. I now see that this is exactly what happened to Guatama Siddhartha 2500 years ago. He never wanted to found a religion, or for people to devote themselves blindly to his teachings or to himself. He just wanted people to know about the technique that he had uncovered through his own laborious spiritual journey. However, the power of his teaching combined with all-too-human institutionalising processes meant that the scientific base of his thought was quickly lost in most parts.

For more info:
Go to:

or read The Art of Living by William Hart


CATWALQ a.k.a LAGBA-JESS 3:04 am  

This is interesting.

So many paths as we all seek Self and God Realization.

Have a wonderful New Year

Iyaeto 6:38 pm  

Hmm. Very interesting. My dad would love this.

Waffarian 2:26 am  

It sounds are brave oh! I think 3 days would have been max for me.

Uzo 11:56 am  

Wow...Did you finish the course? I bought a copy of Holy Cow by Sarah McDonald and she did this and her vivid writing about her time doing this was illuminating

Belema 11:57 pm  

Reminds me of when I attended the Landmark Forum for 4 days straight....oh those lectures on Racketts !!

anonymaus,  4:55 am  

Thank you for sharing your experiences of Vipassana, it took a while to read, but was well worth the effort. I hope your ear-infection is completely healed.

Anonymous,  2:08 pm  

Finally, found someone in Naija who has attended this retreat. 10 days would be too long for me. Wondered if you or anyone would know of a shorter say, a weekend retreat in London. One that has been recommended. Great post!

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