Vipassana Meditation (Part 1)

I’ve started reading Mindfulness in Plain English.

My motivation in investigating any sort of Buddhist meditation is that, although I’m pretty detached already, I think I could be just as effective in the goals that you’re supposed to not be “attached” to, with a quieter and more pleasurable internal life. I already think pretty hard about what’s going on in my mind, and already try to form true, rather than comforting or self-serving, beliefs. I also already enjoy meditation or napping after enough physical exertion to involve me more in the immediate physical sensation rather than higher level goals, strivings, doubts, and worries in my life. I’ve heard enough mild recommendations from other intelligent folks that I’m open to the possibility that learning some existing meditation techniques might be more efficient than what comes naturally to me. I also doubt that I would have the desire to spend time regularly meditating unless I believed that it were better than the same amount of time exercising or sleeping, so I’m hoping to find some evidence of that.

My impression of Buddhists is that they want to permanently dissociate from their ego (from being afraid of states of mind, of things and people that they’re anchored to), and meditation is a means to this end. Perhaps you can still behave normally (as if you care), but you want the ability to not care, to not be prevented from seeing reality as it is by your fear of what you might lose, or delusional expectation or obsessive fantasy of what you desire. I think that some Buddhists respond to real threats with extreme pacifism, which is tempting given the rewards they’ve learned from a sort of inwardly-directed pacifism, but stupid - not caring only works against excessive worry and affect in your own mind, not actual mortal conflicts with nature and other people.

What Meditation Is (ch 3)
I won’t bother commenting on the first two chapters, since they were just long-winded introduction (useful for people who have never heard of meditaiton, perhaps).


Different practices that have been called ‘meditation’:

Mere concentration exercises (focus thoughts in one area), which can result in calm/peace if what’s concentrated on is simple and nonthreatening.

1. Judeo-Christian prayer and contemplation.

2. Yogic (Hindu) meditation - repeat a syllable, or focus on an object. Moving to complex focuses (imagined energy flows in body, chants, images) later.

3. Zen (Buddhist) meditation - either focus only on the experience of sitting, or try to solve impossible riddles. Both often under physical duress at a meditation retreat. Eventually you crack (in a good way, you hope).

4. Tantra (also Buddhist) - pretend you’re one of the Tantric gods. Once you believe it, you’re free to identify (or not) with yourself.

5. Vipassana (also Buddhist) - become more sensitive to your own mind. Pay attention and look for real insight. Most people don’t realize it’s possible to *really* pay attention. It may take them years of training to be able to do it.

(end paraphrase)

If I want a concentration exercise, I’ll do something better than stare at a rock. I’ll create music. I’ll lift weights. I’ll practice my skill in some sport or performance activity. I’ll program computers for money. I’ll play Dual N-Back. I’ll think about my plans and beliefs. So I’m hoping for something more out of meditation than the opportunity to expend effort focusing my attention on something. I already focus my attention intentionally; I just do it on things that also have some other value to me.

Through the process of mindfulness, we slowly become aware of what we really are down below the ego image. We wake up to what life really is. It is not just a parade of ups and downs, lollipops and smacks on the wrist. That is an illusion. Life has a much deeper texture than that if we bother to look, and if we look in the right way.
The author breaks his “in Plain English” pledge already with “ego image”. I presume he means the way we signal about ourselves to others for our profit, which necessarily involves rehearsing and self-deception (people are too good at detecting conscious lies and acting, so social confidence depends on hypocrisy and delusion).

Vipassana is a form of mental training that will teach you to experience the world in an entirely new way. You will learn for the first time what is truly happening to you, around you and within you. It is a process of self discovery, a participatory investigation in which you observe your own experiences while participating in them, and as they occur.
I can’t wait. What is it? I want it :)

“I want to apprehend the true and deepest qualities of life, and I don’t want to just accept somebody else’s explanation. I want to see it for myself.” If you pursue your meditation practice with this attitude, you will succeed.
That he makes this promise is nice, because I can be justifiably even more angry than usual if he turns out to have wasted my time. On the other hand, this is no different than other religions’ empty promises that “if you ask God with a pure heart and good intent, the truth of this religion will be impressed upon you”.

‘Vipassana Bhavana’ means the cultivation of the mind, aimed at seeing in a special way that leads to insight and to full understanding.
Ok, but what is it, specifically?

In Vipassana mediation we cultivate this special way of seeing life.
I don’t think ‘this’ is merited since you haven’t described it yet. You haven’t convinced me that there’s something real behind the words you’re using.
We train ourselves to see reality exactly as it is, and we call this special mode of perception ‘mindfulness.’ This process of mindfulness is really quite different from what we usually do. We usually do not look into what is really there in front of us. We see life through a screen of thoughts and concepts, and we mistake those mental objects for the reality. We get so caught up in this endless thought stream that reality flows by unnoticed. We spend our time engrossed in activity, caught up in an eternal pursuit of pleasure and gratification and an eternal flight from pain and unpleasantness. We spend all of our energies trying to make ourselves feel better, trying to bury our fears. We are endlessly seeking security. Meanwhile, the world of real experience flows by untouched and untasted. In Vipassana meditation we train ourselves to ignore the constant impulses to be more comfortable, and we dive into the reality instead.
 I don’t agree that my perception is wrong. My attention is a limited resource; I sometimes benefit from not seeing the texture of the asphalt on the road. I’m open to trying new modes of perception. I agree that we spend a lot of effort seeking social validation and other forms of pleasure. I’ve also always been sympathetic to the idea that there’s some value in really apprehending reality in an unbiased way, which certainly means disregarding which belief brings the most comfort.

When you relax your driving desire for comfort, real fulfillment arises. When you drop your hectic pursuit of gratification, the real beauty of life comes out. When you seek to know the reality without illusion, complete with all its pain and danger, that is when real freedom and security are yours. This is not some doctrine we are trying to drill into you. This is an observable reality, a thing you can and should see for yourself.
I expect that a feeling of relief arises. Nothing more. But I will see for myself.

Gotama the Buddha was a highly unorthodox individual and real anti-traditionalist. He did not offer his teaching as a set of dogmas, but rather as a set of propositions for each individual to investigate for himself. His invitation to one and all was ‘Come and See’. One of the things he said to his followers was “Place no head above your own”. By this he meant, don’t accept somebody else’s word. See for yourself.
This would be embarrassing if it were not so. It’s the only reason I give your ideas my time.

From the Buddhist point of view, we human beings live in a very peculiar fashion. We view impermanent things as permanent, though everything is changing all around us. The process of change is constant and eternal. As you read these words, your body is aging. But you pay no attention to that. The book in you hand is decaying. The print is fading and the pages are becoming brittle. The walls around you are aging. The molecules within those walls are vibrating at an enormous rate, and everything is shifting, going to pieces and dissolving slowly. You pay no attention to that, either. Then one day you look around you. Your body is wrinkled and squeaky and you hurt. The book is a yellowed, useless lump; the building is caving in. So you pine for lost youth and you cry when the possessions are gone. Where does this pain come from? It comes from your own inattention. You failed to look closely at life. You failed to observe the constantly shifting flow of the world as it went by. You set up a collection of mental constructions, ‘me’, ‘the book’, ‘the building’, and you assume that they would endure forever. They never do. But you can tune into the constantly ongoing change. You can learn to perceive your life as an ever- flowing movement, a thing of great beauty like a dance or symphony. You can learn to take joy in the perpetual passing away of all phenomena. You can learn to live with the flow of existence rather than running perpetually against the grain.
This seems crazy to me. I’m aware that I’m going to die; none of the other stuff about molecules vibrating or peeling off from the walls or from my body matters at all. Sounds like emotional nonsense.

Our human perceptual habits are remarkably stupid in some ways. We tune out 99% of all the sensory stimuli we actually receive, and we solidify the remainder into discrete mental objects. Then we react to those mental objects in programmed habitual ways. An example: There you are, sitting alone in the stillness of a peaceful night. A dog barks in the distance. The perception itself is indescribably beautiful if you bother to examine it. Up out of that sea of silence come surging waves of sonic vibration. You start to hear the lovely complex patterns, and they are turned into scintillating electronic stimulations within the nervous system. The process is beautiful and fulfilling in itself. We humans tend to ignore it totally. Instead, we solidify that perception into a mental object. We paste a mental picture on it and we launch into a series of emotional and conceptual reactions to it. “There is that dog again. He is always barking at night. What a nuisance. Every night he is a real bother. Somebody should do something. Maybe I should call a cop. No, a dog catcher. So, I’ll call the pound. No, maybe I’ll just write a real nasty letter to the guy who owns that dog. No, too much trouble. I’ll just get an ear plug.” They are just perceptual and mental habits. You learn to respond this way as a child by copying the perceptual habits of those around you. These perceptual responses are not inherent in the structure of the nervous system. The circuits are there. But this is not the only way that our mental machinery can be used. That which has been learned can be unlearned. The first step is to realize what you are doing, as you are doing it, and stand back and quietly watch.
Okay, so you can reexamine things. You can even stare at a face until it becomes not a face, but a set of features. Sounds like a fun game. But I disagree that the way I think now is remarkably stupid.
The cause of suffering is that desire- aversion syndrome which we spoke of earlier. Up pops a perception. It could be anything–a beautiful girl, a handsome guy, speed boat, thug with a gun, truck bearing down on you, anything. Whatever it is, the very next thing we do is to react to the stimulus with a feeling about it.
It sounds like being a Buddhist is about taking a time-out from trying. That sounds nice. But there’s also a time to care and to try. It’s possible that by taking some time not trying or caring, I’ll learn something about my mental habits and make some improvement that will help me succeed at trying. Or maybe I’ll just be less stressed, but stop trying. I doubt that’s a big risk, though.

Take worry. We worry a lot. Worry itself is the problem. Worry is a process. It has steps. Anxiety is not just a state of existence but a procedure. What you’ve got to do is to look at the very beginning of that procedure, those initial stages before the process has built up a head of steam. The very first link of the worry chain is the grasping/rejecting reaction. As soon as some phenomenon pops into the mind, we try mentally to grab onto it or push it away.
I don’t think grabbing onto a good feeling in your mind is something to worry about, unless it’s via a dangerous drug. But pushing away and avoiding a feeling (basically overriding it with disapproval from another part of your mind, based on the fact that the feeling is unwelcome in pursuing some strong goal-desire) does seem truth-destroying and stress-inducing.

Vipassana meditation teaches us how to scrutinize our own perceptual process with great precision. We learn to watch the arising of thought and perception with a feeling of serene detachment. We learn to view our own reactions to stimuli with calm and clarity. We begin to see ourselves reacting without getting caught up in the reactions themselves. The obsessive nature of thought slowly dies. We can still get married. We can still step out of the path of the truck. But we don’t need to go through hell over either one.
Yes, I know this would be nice. I want to see things more clearly, and not suffer from internal emotional turmoil. Can you please describe how to do this? This is a painfully long preface.

Along with this new reality goes a new view of the most central aspect of reality: ‘me’. A close inspection reveals that we have done the same thing to ‘me’ that we have done to all other perceptions. We have taken a flowing vortex of thought, feeling and sensation and we have solidified that into a mental construct. Then we have stuck a label onto it, ‘me’.
I can’t imagine how stupid you would have to be to not have a word/concept for ‘me’.
And forever after, we treat it as if it were a static and enduring entity.
I’ve always been open to the possibility that I will change.
We view it as a thing separate from all other things.
Here’s what I think: I am definitely separate from all other things. My ‘I’ concept is not a faithful representation of what I am, but I’m eager to learn more about myself. I’m also eager to change in ways that get me more of what I presently value. I have no fear at all that I will stop existing because I, or my ‘I’ concept, change. I know I’m going to die. Where I drift before that happens had better be marvelous than in some deluded “I always stayed true to myself” rut.
We pinch ourselves off from the rest of that process of eternal change which is the universe. And than we grieve over how lonely we feel.
While it’s true I feel lonely and value very highly deep mutual understanding and communication with a friend, I reject your claim that this is because I have a concept for ‘me’.
We ignore our inherent connectedness to all other beings and we decide that ‘I’ have to get more for ‘me’; then we marvel at how greedy and insensitive human beings are. And on it goes. Every evil deed, every example of heartlessness in the world stems directly from this false sense of ‘me’ as distinct from all else that is out there.
Evil deeds are the result of natural human conflict, of the fact that it’s often possible to profit at another man’s expense, not because a ‘me’ concept prevents us from thinking ‘when I harm any being, I’m harming the all-beings I’m a part of’. Maybe it feels good to think this, but I’m here for insight, not bullshit.
These are all major insights, of course. Each one is a deep- reaching understanding of one of the fundamental issues of human existence. They do not occur quickly, nor without considerable effort. But the payoff is big.
I wish you could make a reasonable case for the claims you’ve made, instead of making such extravagant promises of reward after years of commitment, which by the way will certainly bias my thinking if I foolishly choose to so commit.
They lead to a total transformation of your life. Every second of your existence thereafter is changed. The meditator who pushes all the way down this track achieves perfect mental health, a pure love for all that lives and complete cessation of suffering. That is not small goal. But you don’t have to go all the way to reap benefits. They start right away and they pile up over the years.
Good, so you’re still enticing me with the promise that you’re going to explain something that’s testable and will immediately give me some abilities or pleasure I didn’t have before. I guess I can keep reading.
In the practice of mediation you become sensitive to the actual experience of living, to how things feel. You do not sit around developing subtle and aesthetic thoughts about living. You live. Vipassana meditation more than anything else is learning to live.
Okay, but what is it?