Day 6: Purely Scientific
I will admit that I knew absolutely nothing about vipassana meditation when I signed up for this course. In fact, I knew almost nothing about meditation. I had just started dipping my toe into the waters of meditation a mere two months before the course. I have a lot of time on my hands with this travel, and, honestly, regular meditation seems to offer a lot of benefits.
I had not yet achieved regular meditation status, and the longest I had actually been able to sit and meditate for was about 30 minutes.
When I read about these donation-based courses in a book it seemed like a great way to push myself into learning about meditation, a sort of sink or swim approach to the practice. And they have courses all over the world so, surely, I would be able to attend one of them.
That is how I found myself at a 10-day meditation course and how I learned about vipassana.
Vipassana meditation is a little different from other types of meditation. It does not involve any visualization. There is no chanting or mantras. It does not matter what position you sit in. You can sit any way you want, but you have to sit perfectly still.
The entire point of vipassana is not reacting. Your leg hurts? Notice it but don’t react. You have an itch? Notice it. Don’t react. A thought just popped into your head? You guessed it, notice it. Don’t react.
As you sit and meditate, you scan your body for sensations – hot, cold, itchy, painful, tingly, etc. Keeping in mind that these sensations, like everything in life, are temporary. You simply sit through them until they are gone. By doing this you are retraining your brain, proving to yourself that you do not need to react so hastily to everything. That is how you practice vipassana meditation, and I like that idea. Sitting through these sensations do remind me that life is fleeting. This too will pass.
As we sit through the evening lessons, however, I become less and less convinced.
The first few discourses are enticing. Goenka, the founder of these programs, talks about how this course is like a surgery for your brain, removing layers and layers of built up…stuff. You will, over these ten days, learn how to retrain your brain. And during each discourse he continually reminds us that this practice is entirely secular and purely scientific.
But each day the discourses get a little harder to swallow.
He says that vipassana is a purely scientific practice because we are all made of molecules, and all molecules vibrate. By noticing our sensations, eventually we will get to the point where we can feel vibrations on an atomic level.
It’s a bit of a stretch, but okay.
He goes on to say that when we have a sensation and react then our minds are creating an attachment (positive or negative) to that sensation. Those attachments are called sankaras. Sometimes there are big sankaras, those are the ones that come back to haunt you. The only way to get rid of these old, big, ugly sankaras is to stop creating new sankaras. By sitting still and not reacting to any sensations you have stopped creating new sankaras. That is when your old sankaras will start to bubble to the surface, and the way you get rid of those? Simple. Don’t react to them. These sankaras will present themselves as different sensations in the body. An anger sankara will present as heat, for example. It’s all purely scientific, right?
He had lost me by that point. I am sorry, but I cannot accept all of that. I especially cannot accept that he keeps insisting that it is pure science. I’m not a scientist, but I’m pretty sure this is not at all scientific. It’s also clearly Buddhist, although he does say that you do not have to subscribe to the entire belief system in order to practice vipassana meditation. I guess when you believe in reincarnation you have all the time in the world to convert people.
But I’m here. I agreed to stay for ten days, and I do think that there are some good things to take from all of this even if I don’t agree with the entire philosophy.