Vipassana, Revisited

In July, I attended another Vipassana meditation retreat. Ten days of silence and meditation, a good ten hours a day, right here on the island. I was curious how I would experience this second seminar. A first experience is obviously always a novelty, but this time I knew what the contents would be, and I honestly had no idea how I would react to the technique, its teachings, and the whole course set-up. Daily meditations cannot replicate the experience of a ten day retreat in any way.

Alas, I caught a cold on day four. Of course, I was in no way prepared for this, that is, I didn’t have my anti-cold-toolbox of meds, paper tissues, and such with me, which didn’t help fighting the illness. Continuously sneezing and blowing my nose invariably broke my concentration at times.

On the other hand, the cold and its impacts on my meditation focus might have allowed me to ponder some aspects of the whole endeavour. I have since been thinking some more about these topics, and have consulted different sources for other views.

My thoughts on my first seminar can be found here. Most of what I describe there still applies after my second attendance, however amended with the following thoughts, quibbles, and questions. During this year’s seminar, I realised that the following points had already caused questions a year ago, but I had refrained from expressing them after just one course, and without own practical experience with the technique yet.

The technique is titled “Vipassana Meditation as taught by Mr S.N. Goenka”. Hence, the seminar reflects the specific teachings of Mr Goenka, and he is the dominant figure during the course. I will use the term Vipassana to refer to this specific version of Vipassana in this post. Others exist as well.

All instructions are given in the form of voice and video recordings of Mr Goenka. There is a seminar teacher, but his role is limited to playing the recordings, plus answering any students’ questions. After the seminar, I asked the teacher if it wouldn’t be beneficial if he gave the instructions, possibly enhanced by own experiences and tips, and his answer was that the recordings would ensure that the technique is being taught uniformly across the world. While I understand that argument, I still think more active involvement of the teacher could be beneficial, also in the light of the following remarks.

Secular

Mr Goenka underlines again and again that Vipassana is a secular technique, free of any religious dogma, and thus open and inviting to people of all kinds of beliefs. However, Mr Goenka describes with fervour how we can improve our well-being across many reincarnations, how a Vipassana-meditator will die with a positive attitude, thus giving him or her a jump start in their forthcoming new life. And so on. There are many statements and claims that clearly refer to the Buddhist religions, and not just the secular meditation aspects thereof.

Scientific

In the same vein, Mr Goenka stresses the scientific nature of Vipassana. His “scientific” explanations are just not that, though. Lots of references to “this is just nature’s law”. It’s obvious that a 2500 years old technique cannot use current scientific terminology and concepts, but it would behoove the master teacher to translate (or map) the ancient teachings into (onto) a modern understanding, if he really wants to make that point. As taught, the explanations remain meaningless during the seminar, at least to a critical mind, and I doubt that the attendants will go home to make the effort themselves.

And it would be highly interesting to learn if, and how, the ancient concepts might translate to a current scientific understanding of consciousness and neuroscience. Maybe I am an outlier in this respect, but simply believing claims – worded in vague terms and concepts from 2500 years back – about the workings of the meditation technique is lacking to instill full motivation.

Mr Gautama

Mr Goenka claims that his teachings reflect the ones of Siddhartha Gautama, the Buddha. I am not sufficiently knowledgeable in this field, but from what I have read, there’s no proof that Mr Gautama actually has taught the technique in this specific form, in particular the systematic scanning of the body for sensations. In fact, Mr Gautama describes four aspects of mindfulness and awareness, among which the bodily sensations are only one. It appears that Mr Goenka – and/or his teachers back in the day – have cooked up their own version of the meditation technique. Which is not necessarily bad, but worth noting. Mr Goenka maintains that this, or his, version of Vipassana is the “pristine” one as taught by the Buddha, and it had been conserved over millennia in this unadulterated form in Burma.

Equanimity

Developing an equanimous mind is the main goal of Vipassana. However, firstly, equanimity is only developed regarding bodily sensations. Secondly, any betterment of one’s equanimity is actually not assessed through the seminar. The focus is on the type of bodily sensations the students experience (none, gross, subtle), which is somehow used as measurement of progress. Equanimity is just prescribed to be applied. I understand that different bodily sensations are easy to gauge, while equanimity is not. Nonetheless, it would be useful to have a way to experience – have actual insights – how one’s equanimity develops during the course of the retreat, and maybe even what in the individual student’s mind is actually an obstacle on this path.

Also, with the type of sensations being the scale of progress, with subtle sensations throughout the body as first goal, it’s easy for the students to fall into the trap of just wanting that, and not actually paying attention to an equanimous mind. Or put the other way around, to be frustrated by “being held back” by gross sensations. Sure, Mr Goenka underlines again and again that the type of sensations is not important, and that one should refrain from wanting any kind of sensations, but during the course the student would like to see some progress, hence the wish for the “good” sensations comes sneaking in through the backdoor anyway.

Sensations

Bodily sensations are caused by posture, ailments, the environment, our metabolic processes in general. So far so good. Now, Mr Goenka claims that body sensations are also expressions of unconscious processes. With the current limited knowledge about the emergence of consciousness, with panpsychism seriously discussed, the idea that our emotions are expressions of imbalances of our bodily homeostasis, and the inclusion of the whole nervous system and its interaction with the body as a possibility for a basis for consciousness – who knows.

But the students are just expected to believe, the claim remains unsubstantiated. I mean, it’s the 21th century, not the Dark Ages anymore, who wants to just believe anything? Again, some truly scientific explanations would help the critical mind. Especially in the light of the current knowledge that all our perceptions are projections of the brain, held in check by means of the actual sensory signals. I am sure you see the potential here: bodily sensations might in fact be partly pure projections of our unconscious mind, and thus actually be expressions thereof. Some context would be welcome, inspiring, and motivating. The daily routine of relentlessly scanning the body is dull enough.

Simplistic Examples

Mr Goenka uses overly simplistic examples to underline, or introduce, his points. For example, when talking about morality, he says one should not work for a company that produces weapons. Sure. But what about working for a software company that produces a geolocation software library that can be used for finding shipwrecked sailors, but also built into a nuclear warhead? When talking about greed, or more general craving, he describes a man who has a small house and at the end wants a spaceship to travel to other galaxies. Haha. Funny, everybody can laugh, as no-one in the room will identify with that greedy, whacky person. But what about the craving for the chocolate at the exit of the supermarket?

Using simplistic, or even absurd, examples and stories does not help the students to think about their own situation. And because examples of that nature are clearly not applicable to them, it can make the students feel morally superior, which is a danger anyway in this kind of seminar.

And I feel sort of played, not being taken seriously, as if I were not able to see through the silliness of the examples.

Do Not Discuss

It’s difficult to discuss the technique, and in particular the embedding philosophy of life and behaviour, with the teacher. They prefer to answer specific questions about the technique. In general, they stick to the official playbook and doctrine. Bringing up any of the above, or similar, points was out of scope of any in-depth discussion.

Bottom line? Will I attend another Vipassana seminar next year? I honestly can’t say yet. From a negative standpoint, one could say the retreat just trains my mind not to react to bodily sensations, with the claim, and promise, that this will improve my equanimous mind and thus my well-being, possible across many reincarnations. Sure, Mr Goenka says that the meditators should experience improvements in their daily lives. The example he uses is that in lieu of being angry for eight hours, we should see this reduced to, say, six hours.

Well, I am never angry for eight hours in the first place, but based on the conscious insight that it would be my negative recurring thoughts, via the Default Mode Network in my brain, that keep the anger alive, not any ongoing, continuous physiological “anger process” in my brain or the rest of the body. Hence, if I am aware and mindful, I can decide not to think these thoughts, and the anger vanishes in no time, and does not bubble up again. That insight and behaviour pattern, however, was gained through other meditation techniques, as well as reflection.

The seminars of Dhamma.org are free to attend, the financing is based on donations by old students. The strict timetable and regimen ensure that only serious meditators even attend. That’s positive. On the other hand, it can give the whole set-up a slight cultish tint, especially with the required believing without intellectual insights, and other rules. Mr Goenka requires that once we have decided that Vipassana is a useful technique we must not practice another one in parallel.

I have deep-rooted doubts towards anything authoritarian and dogmatic – valuing evidence, insights, knowledge, and wisdom as basis for my behaviour. Yes, of course, for ten days I can switch on a filter in my mind, and simply ignore the issues described in this post. But maybe it’s time to seek and evaluate other options on the island. No idea if they exist. Time to fire up DuckDuckGo, I guess.