Vipassana claims to be a scientific, non-sectarian technique that somehow brings you to enlightenment — which doesn’t sound that scientific for a bearer of sceptic mindset. But see below how this ancient doctrine that operates words such as Saṅkhāra and Paññā, can be translated to the terms of modern neuroscience.
Up until recently, my system of beliefs was very well described in this great Wait But Why’s post. In a nutshell:
- The purpose of life is to learn, know, and perceive — essentially, wisdom.
- Your mind, which is what allows you to perform all of these cool actions — essentially, to gain wisdom, — is a combination of a brilliant Rational Thinker, aka The Conscious, and old-fashioned Primary Instincts, aka The Unconscious.
- Hence, to gain wisdom you’ve got to help the good guy (Rational thinker) beat Primary Instincts every now and then (preferably always).
Sounds about right, eh? (Given that important values of Love, Tolerance, etc. are mere consequences of wisdom in that system of coordinates). So how does one become a boxing trainer for their own Conscious?
This is the answer WBW provides:
…The easiest and most effective way to thin out the fog [which is produced by Primary Instincts and clouds your conscious judgement] is simply to be aware of it. By knowing that fog exists, understanding what it is and the different forms it takes, and learning to recognize when you’re in it, you hinder its ability to run your life.
Now here comes my own recipe of learning, for free: keep asking ‘how’ (not ‘how’ as in ‘how do you know what you think you know’, but as in ‘how does one do it’) until you get concrete, bite-sized instructions.
Thing is, I’d love to stay aware of the fog, but — if only I knew how. Fog (e.g. emotions) tends to overwhelm me right before I actually remember to be aware of it.
And then I learnt about Vipassana.
What is Vipassana?
Vipassana is a meditation technique that is taught in 10-day courses. If you open Vipassana website you’ll find a bunch of tempting gimmicks, namely: awareness, non-delusion, self-control and peace. What’s not to like? An organization whose sole purpose is to teach the way — anyone, anytime, for free.
The entire practice is actually a mental training. Just as we use physical exercises to improve our bodily health, Vipassana can be used to develop a healthy mind… It is unrealistic to expect all problems to be solved in ten days. Within that time, however, the essentials of Vipassana can be learned so that it can be applied in daily life.
Since I was already a Headspace subscriber, I fell for Vipassana greatly. Two years later I finally managed to apply for a 10-days course in one of the European Vipassana centres in time (which means 15 minutes after registration is open: the demand is quite remarkable). Two more months, and I travelled to Krutyn’, Poland.
Getting to the course
At first thought, I got a ticket to heaven: pastoral landscapes, comforting vegan food, and even complete silence felt like a detox program for overweary office workers. But heaven quickly turned into an absolute nightmare: hours and hours of what seemed to be tiresome and meaningless efforts to meditate, vague instructions, explanations that always came long after I needed them (so-called discourses — basically, pre-recorded lectures, — are played at the end of each day). And what explanations! Did you know that everything consists of kalapas, subatomic particles that Buddha Gotama somehow managed to feel (the deed as impossible as you getting burnt by light of Melnick 34, a star in 163,000 light years distance)? How about citing differences between suta-, cinta-, and bhavana-mayā paññā? And what am I to do with the fact that my next incarnation will inherit the strongest saṅkhāra that I develop during my miserable presence here?
What made things worse, during those discourses The Teacher (who, by the way, is dead for 10 years now) kept repeating the words scientific and non-sectarian, which made even the most wholehearted of us start suspecting something completely opposite. That’s the problem of having a conversation with a tape-recorded respondent: no matter how many times you mentally tell them ‘Yeah, I got it,’ they just wouldn’t listen!
So during the first days, despite my best efforts to put aside my know-it-all-attitude and to genuinely practice the technique, I was mostly calculating possible escape routes, and fighting images of inevitable embarrassment once I’d take them. Mulish obstinacy, red corner, brooding sceptic, blue corner, let’s get ready to rumble.
But during the 4th day’s discourse I heard something that made me change my attitude completely, and till the end of the course I was calmer, and more devoted than ever. That something was a Buddhism-approved description of how the brain works, and why this particular meditation can change you, and it was so logical I just had to give up on my criticism.
How do you think the brain works?
Remember that Wait But Why post? It’s also got awesome illustrations:
The problem with this picture is that it represents a model of mind as outdated as picturing an atom as a tiny-tiny planet (which, by coincidence, was also included in the very same post):
I’m not saying it’s incorrect, but it’s oversimplifying. Both models are going back to the beginning of 20th century (1, 2). Thanks to the astonishing progress in physics we now teach wave–particle duality in schools (at least, in high school). But do we regularly catch up with the latest discoveries in neuroscience? I, for one, do not.
So how does the brain work?
Imagine you walk in a forest and spot a bear which you immediately get scared of and start running away from.
The simplest model of your behaviour would be: You see → You get scared → You run. But if you dig in a little deeper, you realize that seeing is actually a consequence of getting image with your eyes, interpreting it as a bear and, most importantly, becoming more or less aware of this picture presence.
Likewise, ‘getting scared’ is also a complicated process that includes memory of your previous encounters with bears, basic instincts (such as aversion towards unknown that we all experience in the presence of any unfamiliar phenomena) and — this is the most counterintuitive part — reaction of your body towards the stimuli. This is ‘somatic markers hypothesis’ that was surmised by William James (and independently Carl Lange) more than a century ago: your fear is a result of both your bodily reaction (adrenaline development) and your judgement of the situation, which, in turn, is based not only upon whatever ‘objective reality’ you experience, but also upon your memory, habits, and goals. If, for some reason, your body does not produce adrenaline, you won’t be able to experience fear. Likewise, if you’ve been given a shot of adrenaline but you don’t see anything scary — no fear for you, bro.
And yes again, you can become more or less aware of this emotion.
What about running away? At first sight it seems that the sequence is: you want to run and you run. Things, however, are not that simple. Current theories argue that what we thought to be our free will is merely our attention that we use to become aware of the decision that was already chosen. One popular analogy to the brain’s work is a NY stock market, with all those brokers deliriously shouting ‘Buy! Buy! Sell! Sell!’. The brokers (neuron circuits) that shout louder than others climb higher on the processing stairs (you don’t hear subtle sounds when it’s noisy all around — those signals simply aren’t processed into actual sounds in your head), and the boldest guys get the prize — the action. To lure you even more, the brokers can be of different nature: some are habit-based, and some are goal-oriented.
If you had to ski every morning from home, the most frequent track would become thicker and thicker, consequently increasing the chance you’d take the same route tomorrow. Sometimes, of course, you’d have to go in another direction and you’d overcome the seductiveness of the beaten trail — you’d develop a new track, a new mental trace. This process is called Hebbian learning after the Canadian psychologist Donald Hebb.
I find these points no less than astonishing, so let’s recite them once more:
- Emotions you experience are interpretations of your bodily reactions to the stimuli.
- Each time you create an interpretation of the stimuli you spot, you form a memory trace — basically, several neurons stick together. This increases the chance you’ll create the same interpretation next time.
- You actually decide what to do before you become aware of the decision.
- Attention is all we’ve got.
What Buddhism has to say about it
And now let’s see how Vipassana Teacher S.N. Goenka is selling it. I’m putting an un-edited quote from The Discourse Summaries, so you can compare it to the ‘where cognitive science stands at the moment’-summary above by yourself.
The first segment [of mind] is called vinnana, which may be translated as consciousness. …The function of this part of the mind is to cognize, simply to know, without differentiating. A sound comes into contact with the ear, and the vinnana notes only the fact that a sound has come.
Then the next part of the mind starts working: sanna, perception. A sound has come, and from one’s past experience and memories, one recognizes it: a sound…words…words of praise…good; or else, a sound…words…words of abuse…bad. One gives an evaluation of good or bad, according to one’s past experience.
At once the third part of the mind starts working: vedana, sensation. As soon as a sound comes, there is a sensation on the body, but when the perception recognizes it and gives it a valuation, the sensation becomes pleasant or unpleasant, in accordance with that valuation. For example: a sound has come…words…words of praise…good — and one feels a pleasant sensation throughout the body. Or else; a sound has come…words…words of abuse…bad — and one feels an unpleasant sensation throughout the body. Sensations arise on the body, and are felt by the mind; this is the function called vedana.
Then the fourth part of the mind starts working: sankhara, reaction. A sound has come…words…words of praise… good…pleasant sensation — and one starts liking it: “This praise is wonderful! I want more!” Or else: a sound has come… words…words of abuse…bad…unpleasant sensation — and one starts disliking it: “I can’t bear this abuse, stop it !”
At each of the sense doors, the same process occurs; eyes, ears, nose, tongue, body. Similarly, when a thought or imagination comes into contact with the mind, in the same way a sensation arises on the body, pleasant or unpleasant, and one starts reacting with liking or disliking. This momentary liking develops into great craving; this disliking develops into great aversion. One starts tying knots inside. Here is the real seed that gives fruit, the action that will have results: the sankhara, the mental reaction. Every moment one keeps sowing this seed, keeps reacting with liking or disliking, craving or aversion, and by doing so makes oneself miserable.
I don’t know how they did it without any kind of EEG available, but for me this seems to be a perfect match to all those Wikipedia articles I narrated in the post. And if this doesn’t build some trust for the technique, I don’t know what could.
This was what was explained to me on the day 4 and this was what made me so sympathetic towards the technique. It suddenly turned out that those ancient fellows — and their countless disciples — were very, very close to what is currently considered to be the truth, maybe not in their reasoning (reincarnations? subatomic elements?) but in their observations.
Great thing about theory during Vipassana is that it’s immediately followed up with a practical part. The sole purpose of explaining you the mind is basically to give you grounds to trust the technique (the way you trust math when playing poker), and I wouldn’t be myself if I didn’t check the instructions for any kind of logical flaws. And you know what? Vipassana seems to be a reasonable way to train your mind.
Meditation: Training Bayesian brain
The idea behind Vipassana meditation technique is very straightforward: you sit in silence, motionless, with your eyes closed, and observe sensations in your body. But it happens to teach you quite a few things — I don’t know anything else this efficient. And when I say ‘happens’ I’m not referring to the meditation studies (though quite a lot of them take place at the moment), but simply to how well it goes along with the behaviour model above.
The skills you’re about to acquire with Vipassana can be cited as following:
- Focus. Being able to focus is a great thing; though any meditation technique is training you to focus, this one is toughest and, don’t mind me saying, purest (because you don’t distract yourself even by counting inhales).
- Awareness of your body. Also a great thing by itself, but remember that somatic markers hypothesis? Thing is, you can focus on sensations — and thus spare yourself from creating interpretations (e.g. emotions). Like volunteers in the famous Stanley Schachter and Jerome Singer’ experiment who were warned of the effects of epinephrine and therefore did not develop fear or excitement.
- Objectivity. Once you stop immediately processing sensations into emotions and then chasing the train of thoughts that follows any emotion (“My back hurts so much → I want to stop it → How much longer do I need to sit? → Does everyone feel the same way?..”) you’ll perceive things more objectively. Objectivity particularly helps to cope with pain: when pain is free from hating its reason, and your body, and the mother nature who created pain in the first place… — you simply feel less of it! I’d say this is my favourite skill.
- Not reacting. Free will, the way we think of it, may be an illusion, but we’ve got nothing else. Free will, this ability to decide what’s important (no matter how predetermined those decisions are) and to turn our attention to it — essentially, to deliberately hear the goal-oriented neurons, — is what makes us us, isn’t it? And by dedicating your time to motionless meditation, by not reacting to numbness in your legs and tiredness in your back and tickling on your face — you basically train your will. Yes, IRL stakes are higher, temptations are more promising, and procrastination never lets go, but just the way regular pushups should help you lift your luggage to the 15th floor — training your will allows you to follow whatever decisions you make. Eventually.
And here comes the hard part
Eventually is a key word.
Nothing ever comes easy — I’d say it’s great when something at least comes. But participating in Vipassana 10-day course is hard (would it be a swimming camp you’d definitely call ‘hard’ doing the crawl for 12 hours a day from day 1); your mind, disguised as ‘rationality’ and ‘healthy scepticism’, will readily find you every reason to quit, and this is not working is to be the first.
Thing is, it really goes slow, and the teachers are clearly too concerned about accuracy in passing the technique to exclude controversial things such as everlasting recites of terms in pāli. But it’s definitely worth trying it yourself: I see no reason why the essence of it shouldn’t be working for a normally-functioning adult brain.
And me? I’ve only just started. I admit I’ve reduced the daily meditation time from recommended hours to minutes in less than two weeks, but I’m keeping at it. Hell, I don’t know a better way anyways.