Vipassana, Explained

This helped make things clearer. What follows is a mix of an overview of the technique plus some thoughts around Vipassana. I will also call out the difference (I hold) between Goenka-Vipassana & Vipassana.

Background: Vipassana is stated (by Goenka-ji) to derive from Visesha + Passana, implying a “special seeing”. I do not resonate with that definition. I feel Vipassana derives from Viparita + Passana, implying an “inverted seeing”. Vipassana is basically a technique for turning our common outward seeing into an inward dispassionate & objective observation of visceral sensations. In being dispassionate & objective it should lose all claims of being special. It is simply observing what happens in the body at very minute levels.

Viparita + Passana implies that it is the opposite of seeing. All seeing (Passana) is outward. It is about a notion of “me” comprehending the world around me through my visual senses. Hence, by inverting that (viz. Passana which is an “outward seeing”), Vipassana creates an inward seeing. Maybe you want to invert both words, outward & seeing. That would result in, “inward sightlessness” & I would think that is as close as English can get to defining Vipassana in its purest form, because a sightless observation of the sensations arising in the human body is exactly what is called for.

The reason I am drawn to Vipassana is simply this — I hold that the body is the most honest facet of a human being. And in increasing your sensitivity to the most honest in you, you are increasing your clarity of Truth. Even if you don’t care about Truth, know that a good diet, a good physique & a good awareness of every part of your body keeps you well grounded in undeniable reality. Everything else can only be founded on that & is often subjective. We have always exalted the mind & made base of the body (& if you are interested in this injustice, I would heartily recommend David Abram’s Becoming Animal, a wonderful treatise on reconnecting with the earth in us). Morality is largely a matter of denying the body its honesty.

Overview of technique: I will try to extract the essence as much as possible before sharing the Goenka-Vipassana approach. Vipassana trains the “stirred one” (or, saadhak, as such a student/seeker is called in Sanskrit/Hindi) to basically progress in mastering the following techniques:

  1. Train the mind to watch something as vital & subtle & repetitive as breath
  2. Train the mind further in being sensitive to sensations of the body
  3. Train the mind further to focus only on sensations arising from particular parts of the body
  4. Train the mind to not prefer any particular kind of sensation or have an aversion to another

In being restricted to this, I feel Vipassana is complete. What your body will reveal in your journey to increasing visceral sensitivity is unique to the construction of your being (material elements, mental elements, spiritual elements & acquired elements). I am at peace with this alone being Vipassana & none of the philosophical, magical mumbo-jumbo thrown in. Promises of breaking the cycle of birth or being rid of all pain etc. is, IMO, contrary to the dispassionate spirit of Vipassana.

The Goenka-Vipassana routine is as follows:

Agree to following the 5 precepts (no violence, no lies, no adultery/sex, no intoxicants & no stealing), observe Noble Silence & commit to the hourly routine as laid down at the outset.

Day 1: Focus your mind on the breath — inhalation & exhalation. Your mind will wander. Bring it back to the task without chiding yourself or getting angry or frustrated or translating that distraction into a judgement about yourself.

Day 2: Focus your mind on the triangular (pyramidal) portion around your nose with the base of the geometrical figure imagined along the upper vermilion (incorrectly called the upper lip) & the apex at the top of your nose. The base is wide enough that the other two sides (of the triangle) encompass the nostrils. Watch the breath & its effects as well as any sensations (itching, wetness, heat, coldness, throbbing, pulsing, etc.) in this region. Your mind will wander. Gently bring it back to the task.

Day 3: Shrink the geometrical figure of Day 2 to now tightly hold only your nostrils & the upper lip (band of skin with the philtrum in the centre). The apex, thus, will be a little above the nostrils (depending on the shape of your nose). Focus (as on Day 2) on this portion now.

Day 4: Introduction to Vipassana. Bring the focus to the top of the head (the anterior fontanelle or the portion of a child’s head that remains soft for a few months after birth). Feel the sensations there. Slowly move down your body to the tip of your toes pausing just long enough to feel sensations in every region (not part) of your body. E.g. you move your focus down to your face. Do you feel any sensation there? Yes? Move on to your neck. No? Linger for a minute. If still nothing, move on to your neck. Any visceral sensation is admissible — viz. throbbing, pulsing, itching, the breeze against your skin, twitching, heat, cold, numbness, tickling, pain etc. Please see below, the note on imagining versus sensing/observing. You move from head to toe (unidirectional) ensuring that no region of the body is missed out. Each traversal would typically take upward of 12 min of undistracted mind. Point is simply to note a sensation & not classify it or enjoy it a little longer or judge it. Even if it is an old ailment that brings you pain, it is a valid sensation. Recognise it. Move down. Through this exercise you are seated comfortably with spine erect & eyes closed.

Day 5: Continue with Day 4 but reduce the size of the region with each sweep. Where you were observing sensations on your face, now you will chunk it into eyes, nose, cheeks, mouth, chin & ears. Later it will be each individual eye. Later, eyelid, eyelashes, etc. Sweep in one direction. Eyes closed. Spine erect.

Day 6: Continue with Day 5 but when you hit the toes, reverse the direction & move from toe to head. Repeat.

Day 7: Continue with Day 6 but reduce the size of the spot of observation further.

Day 8: Try to take in the entire body in one sweep from head to toe. It is compared to someone pouring a bucket of water on your head & you were merely watching the water cascade down to your toes. Follow each top-to-toe-to-top sweep with a detailed traversal of the body observing minute parts. When not meditating with eyes closed, watch the sensations in your body while performing chores.

Day 9: Move the mind further under the skin into sensing within the body. Sweep from head to toe (bucket of water), observe in minute detail & then move further inward. Repeat. When not meditating with eyes closed, watch the sensations in your body while performing chores.

Day 10: Closing day & Mangal Maitri or Sharing of Merits. Noble Silence is lifted.

Every day had a healthy dose of recorded chants & discourse from Goenka-ji. I found a very wise man in Goenka-ji in his discourses. But I also found a very inconsistent person.

Observing versus Imagining: Often when people are asked to focus (eyes closed) on, say, their forehead, they imagine themselves looking at their forehead from without. It is as if they were standing in front of a mirror looking at their forehead. This is still seeing & not Vipassana. Vipassana needs you to shut all eyes & bring your mind under the skin of your forehead to simply sense whatever is happening there. You can’t see an itch but in Vipassana you can observe an itch. You can’t see coldness but in Vipassana you might observe the coldness of your forehead. If what you observe is the childhood scar then you are most likely imagining (based on the memory of your forehead) & not observing unless you are sensing a twitch or a throb along the scar. This is as far as language can go. You need to practice focusing vs imagining. I am reminded of Pessoa who wrote “To think is to have eyes that aren’t well”. While it might sound like a case for seeing, I read it as a call to simply observe without lazily resigning to imagination & fantasies.

Inconsistencies in Goenka-Vipassana: While Goenka-ji came across as a very wise man who is swift in clarifying that this is not a technique against other practices, beliefs or religions, he still, in his humourous examples, debunks commonly held views of religious & societal beliefs. I was largely disturbed by the following 3 inconsistencies:

  1. Experience vs Belief: He urges the saadhak to denounce all belief & rely solely on what s/he has experienced. Have you experienced a soul? No? Discard that notion. Have you experienced heaven? No? Discard that notion. None of that is you. Have you experienced an itch in the popliteal fossa (portion behind the knee)? No? Then you don’t have an itch there. Yes? You have experienced a reality which cannot be questioned. Thus, construct your entire sense of reality solely on what you have experienced rather than on beliefs, fables & imagination. I couldn’t agree more with him on this. Yet, he quickly goes on to talk about the notions of past births & future births & how Vipassana can rid you from the cycle of births etc. Have you experienced your past birth? No? Discard it, right? Yet, he states it as if it is a fact. He also talks about sin & good deeds taking you to heaven or hell. Have you experienced hell? No, your spouse cannot be called hell! Why talk about things most people haven’t experienced? This felt like selling the Buddhist theory.
  2. Dispassionate observing but with ulterior motives: Vipassana calls for dispassionate observing of the body & its sensations. No sensation is good. None are bad. All simply exist. Yet, he promises that Vipassana will rid you of all bad sensations. He promises that all gross sensations will melt away in the practitioner. He even says that if there is any pain in your body, do not perform Mangal Maitri (routine of Day 10). So clearly, there is a preference for subtle & “good” sensations while denying all preferences.
  3. The routine of Maitri Mangal: He claims this is a vital part of Vipassana (as taught by Siddartha Gautama Buddha). Yet, all that it is, is a bunch of affirmations in Hindi & English. It is a bunch of “May all be happy’ kind of Hallmark-y statements. It really depends on your creativity. There are no set lines. How is this an ancient technique? How is this an indispensable part of Vipassana?

He was sensible enough to admit that many a saadhak might like the technique but not the philosophical elements & that they are free to discard the philosophical elements till the time when it resonates with them. Of course, he followed that with analogies which make the doubting saadhak seem like an idiotic child. A weak saadhak would then be discouraged to doubt.

Pet Peeve: I simply couldn’t stand his attempts at chanting & singing. He puts on a pretentious voice. His voice during the discourse is normal. When he begins to chant he refuses to open his mouth & the words come out half chewed & sticking to his teeth or drawn out long & unnecessarily like chewing gum into sounds that make no sense. I was shocked to hear the assisting teacher say “We shall listen to the instructions in guruji’s melodious voice…”! Fanboy! It was unbearable as long as he restricted this murder to Hindi & Pali couplets/mantras. On Day 10, he tried his style on English Hallmark-y lines. Then it quickly switched from unbearable to utter comic. The effect reminded me of Dory trying to talk whale in Finding Nemo — May Aaallllllllll find peeeeaaaaace and loooooovvvve! I had a tough time holding back my laughter. No one else seemed to find it funny, though. Maybe it is something about my warped brain. You might find many discourse videos online.

I also did not like his eager extension to all religions & making them all sound like they endorsed Vipassana at their core. It sounded like a lot of marketing. Another inconsistency of sorts was his repeated claim that Vipassana is not a Buddhist technique but it was simply re-discovered by Gautama Buddha. In which case, why are all the chants & tales only Buddhist?

In summary, Vipassana is a vital part of a soul’s education & re-connection with Truth. One must practice it to understand its vitality. The rest is marketing.

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