Vipassana Meditation: The Art of Living

Vipassana meditation is a technique of Buddhist meditation that can induce and facilitate transformative experiences for an individual. It carries with it a rich history of enlightening many people and being lost and found several times over. It is most famously known as the method of meditation that Gautama Buddha used when he became enlightened under the tree.

Vipassana meditation is a technique of Buddhist meditation that can induce and facilitate transformative experiences for an individual.

It carries with it a rich history of enlightening many people and being lost and found several times over. It is most famously known as the method of meditation that Gautama Buddha used when he became enlightened under the tree.

The aim of the technique is to liberate oneself from the suffering that Buddhists claim to be intrinsic in life, to be able to remain objective in the face of physical and mental pain and to generate compassion for all living beings through loving-kindness meditation.

Perhaps, you’ve heard about Vipassana before but are not really sure what exactly it entails. Keep reading, we are going to go into detail about the history, the philosophy, and the technique itself.

We are also going to tell the story of S.N. Goenka, the man who made it possible for people everywhere to learn this technique for free at Vipassana meditation retreat centres around the world.

vipassana meditation

The History of Vipassana Meditation

The word ‘vipassana’ literally means ‘bare sight’ or ‘to see things as they really are’. It is one of India’s most ancient techniques of meditation. It is said to have existed long before Gautama the Buddha or Siddhartha Gautama himself, who live from the fifth to the fourth century BCE.

Gautama Buddha was revered as an enlightened being (Buddha) that rediscovered the technique and ancient path of training the mind to transcend craving and aversion. This path is also known as ‘Dhamma’ or ‘Dharma’.  

As the story goes, Siddhartha Gautama renounced his life as the son of aristocratic parents and dedicated himself to the path of enlightenment. Being utterly motivated to achieve enlightenment and understand the realm of pain, he sat beneath a tree and made a strong determination that he would not move until he became fully enlightened.

This tree, ‘the Bodhi Tree’ still stands today in Bihar, India, though its age is visible, and it is decaying at a steady pace, dying little by little each day.

So, at the age of 35 he became enlightened, and having experienced the wonderful fruits of Dhamma first-hand, he decided to dedicate his life to teaching the Vipassana technique to anyone who cared to learn. He spent the next 45 years of his life teaching the technique, and when he took his last breath at the age of 80, he was still teaching it to an eager individual at the side of his death bed.

Though Gautama Buddha is famously known as the founder of the Buddhist religion, he did not consider the technique of Vipassana a sectarian technique, which only devotees of Buddhism could learn. He considered it a universal technique of following the breath and observing oneself, that anyone, from any religion, group. or sect, could learn and benefit from.

Among his devotees were members of many religious groups, but suffering is a universal experience, and liberation a universal possibility.

S.N Goenka – The Rediscovery of Vipassana Meditation

S.N Goenka, also known to Vipassana old students as ‘Goenka Ji’ was a Burmese businessman. While religion was (and still is) a big part of Burmese life, he himself was not especially religious. Having grown up in a conservative Hindu household, he associated religion with the practice of rites, rituals, and devotion. After finding the Vipassana meditation technique, he renounced them, deeming them as unpractical and unhelpful.

S.N Goenka met Vipassana meditation in an unlikely way. As previously mentioned, he was a businessman, concerned primarily with material existence and success. At some point in his business career, he began having agonizing migraines.

He visited many doctors, even travelling the globe in search of one who could resolve his problem but found no answers. Many doctors suggested that his problems were of a psychosomatic nature, as none were able to find an alternative root cause for the pain he was enduring.

In desperation, and developing a dependence on morphine, which he used to combat the pain, he turned to a friend who advised him to try this technique of meditation.

At that time, Vipassana meditation had largely died out, but a small group of teachers in Myanmar were still teaching the tradition. This friend probed Goenka to try it, seeing as there were no other options, he decided to give it a go.

Like now, at the time, learning the Vipassana meditation technique involved going to a meditation retreat centre for 10-days to learn the technique from start to finish. Goenka, after two days of meditation, became frustrated and agitated.

He was convinced that this technique was not for him, discouraged by how difficult he found it to sit and meditate, he started to leave. As he was leaving a friend stopped him, appealing to his better nature, begging him to stay and finish what he has started.

In the end, he stayed and finished the retreat. Not only did his migraines, which were so terribly painful and persistent finally disappear, but he felt as though he has gained true insight into the nature of life. He felt cured, not only from his physical ills but from the psychological disturbances that caused them.

After that, he used the money he made in his career as a businessman to set up more centres like this one. He made it so that anyone who wanted to learn the technique could come to do so for free, as the centres worked purely on a donation-based system.

Vipassana Meditation Today – The Silent Meditation Retreat

Today, thanks to the initial efforts of S.N Goenka, there are many of these Vipassana meditation centres around the world.

A Vipassana meditation retreat consists of spending ten days in noble silence, foregoing all contact with the outside world, all forms of entertainment, speech, and anything else you can think of.

The meditation schedule begins at four-thirty in the morning, with ten hours of meditation each day, for ten days.

Episode 2 – Psychedelics, Science & Spirituality

Marion Gildea is a Master’s research intern in the field of Psychedelic Medicine at Imperial College London. In this podcast conversation, we discuss the current position of psychedelic research, its potential for clinical usage, depth psychology, and spirituality.
We discuss the subconscious mind as a sort of unknown entity that dictates behaviour from unseen corners, and how different approaches, including modern psychology and ancient Buddhist philosophy view this phenomenon.

In this episode I speak with Marion Gildea, a Master’s research intern in the field of Psychedelic Medicine at Imperial College London.

In this conversation, we discuss the current position of psychedelic research, its potential for clinical usage, depth psychology, and spirituality. We discuss the subconscious mind as a sort of unknown entity that dictates behaviour from unseen corners of the psyche, and how different approaches, including modern psychology and ancient Buddhist philosophy approach this phenomenon.

We go into detail about psychedelic research, what the experience is like for psychedelic research volunteers who participate in psychedelic research. We discuss the essence of the spiritual experience that often accompanies being under the influence of psychedelics, and the difficulty in reconciling those feelings with our scientific understanding of the nature of reality.

Still being in the early days of podcasting, please forgive the sound quality. We will be looking toward making a number of improvements as time goes by and hope it doesn’t stop you from enjoying the conversation all the same.

If this is something you are interested in, I encourage to follow or subscribe to the website. Alternatively, you could like our Facebook page, as all published material will be posted there!

Pushing Up Daisies: Mindfulness & Death Anxiety

A deep reflection on approaches toward death. A review of popular theories on death anxiety with a scientifically supported narrative on the role of mindfulness in death-related anxiety.

Death is one of those topics of conversation that really illustrates the starkly contrasting and fundamentally different ways of approaching life. Some people (including me) can’t seem to get it off their minds, off the tip of their tongue. It is the backdrop of every scene of our lives, every decision we make is driven by the engine of death-related thoughts. We perpetually try to solve the puzzle of how to die peacefully, how to die painlessly and how to deal with grief when it comes, if it hasn’t already. Others suppress it, avoiding thinking and talking about it at basically all costs, understandably, not wanting to engage in painful, morbid topics of discussion.

Recently, I have become obsessively interested in what all of this might mean, namely, what the meaning behind these differing strategies toward death-related thoughts might be. I kept noticing how differently people react to death being brought up in conversation. I found it equally disturbing as I did interesting how bringing up death in a discussion could lead one person to become so viscerally angry with me for ‘ruining the vibe’ while with another person, it can generate profound and engaging conversations. What is the fundamental difference between these two kinds of people? How does it correspond with other areas of life?

As part of a research project at university, I chose to study this exact topic, and I would like to share my findings with you here. Of course, if you are the kind of person that feels your skin crawl when you hear the word ‘death’, you may have already stopped reading. If you haven’t, however, I would urge you to try to bear it until the end of this article, as you might well find something useful in it.

The findings from my research support the hypothesis that mindful processing, rather than suppression of death-related thoughts, results in better life outcomes. Results from studies I have reviewed support this finding, within the framework of an old and broadly cited theory of death anxiety, Terror Management Theory.

Terror Management Theory

This theory posits that we humans have an underlying awareness of our own mortality, which serves as a source of devastating anxiety that is largely repressed and combatted against. To buffer against this anxiety or terror, we place great importance on our cultural worldview and self-esteem, in a sort of attempt to achieve immortality through legacy.

The meaning, structure, and sense of belonging we achieve by acting and thinking in such ways that boost our self-esteem, front as a sort of protective shield against the truthful notion of our own mortality. I have come across several professors who seem to find this theory rather distasteful, but I cannot, for the life of me, understand why.

Terror management theory has been supported in over 400 empirical studies, across more than 20 countries. To me, this vast range of support is suggestive that this strategy towards mortality salience (death awareness) is in some sense universal, given that it is relatively easy to detect in individuals cross-culturally. However, is it the optimal approach to thoughts of death?

The Problem with Disregarding Death

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Science is often regarded as the most effective method of uncovering the truth. Whether that truth is of a pleasant or unpleasant nature is irrelevant in the wake of objectivity. In another sense, there is nothing truer than the fact that we are mortal, yet many of us actually use a certain level of our cognitive computational power to suppress this harrowing fact of life, the fact of death.

We differ from all other species with regards to our awareness of our inevitable death. It is not obvious what the evolutionary purpose of this awareness might be (if there even is one) but what is clear is that the system of death-related thought suppression that is in place in many of us with regards to this topic, is not the optimal strategy that could be employed. What is clear is that there are some real consequences involved in abiding by the normative taboo in discussing and reflecting upon death.

One heart-breaking example of the dire consequences of this taboo comes from a story of a 94-year-old man, in the intensive care unit in John Hopkins hospital, who has become too frail to speak for himself. His daughter, when confronted by the case doctor and asked, ‘Did you ever plan for what should be done should a situation like this arise?’, responded with disgust and shock at the doctor’s question saying ‘of course not!’ in an offended tone.

This is just one real-life example of the statistic that only 1 in 200 people have a plan set in place for their family after they die, and only 1 in 500 people have a plan in place for if they become too frail to represent themselves (which is what will happen to most of us).

Given that these are obviously not ideal circumstances (to be so unprepared), there seems to be some very consequential dissonance between outcomes we would rather have in life and the normative model we use. For all its faults and follies, religion presented one positive thing for humans, in that its promotion of an afterlife buffered us against death anxiety. Since the western departure from religion during the scientific revolution, what have we done to replace this buffer?

If indeed Terror Management Theory is an accurate description, it would suggest that we have simply opted to zoom in to our self-esteem, dedicating our mental faculties to becoming evermore egocentric. This theory becomes far easier to swallow when we simply look around to see how people behave on social media, platforms for people to write their autobiographical story, in which the immortal legacy of their characters and work surpass our physical mortality in importance.

The Dual Process Model of Terror Management

So, terror management theory says that we suppress thoughts of death and buffer against death anxiety using self-esteem. You might be wondering exactly how that works in real-time. The dual-process model of terror management takes a closer look at the dynamics of how that works.

This model basically says that we use two defence types when faced with mortality salience cues. The first defence type, known as proximal (immediate) defences, get activated immediately after being exposed to a ‘mortality salience cue’. A mortality salience cue is just some external stimulus that prompts awareness of death, a picture of a coffin. for example.

The common proximal defence that people used in the studies that tested this model were people’s intention to engage in health behaviours. In other words, when people were faced with death cues, they combatted the anxiety by promising themselves to live healthier lives by say, quitting smoking, exercising more or eating a healthier diet. The end goal of proximal defences is to get these death-related thoughts out of conscious awareness, as fast and effectively as possible.

When this happens, the second defence type becomes active, the distal defence (measured after a delay period). Distal defences come into play when death thoughts are outside the scope of focal attention, but still ‘accessible’. These defences focus on promoting the image of the symbolic self, promoting self-esteem. Interestingly, and to further support terror management theory as a whole, people with lower self-esteem reported higher levels of death anxiety when measured after this delay period.

The Role of Mindfulness in Death Anxiety

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Mindfulness is the backbone of eastern philosophy, it has roots in all schools of Buddhism, Yoga and Taoism. It can be defined as the objective awareness of the present moment. The psychological and physical health benefits of mindfulness and meditation are not anything new. It has been occupying the attention of many psychological researchers since its stance to popularity in recent years. It has been studied both in basic and clinical settings.

Due to the nature of this concept, it has been difficult to study it as a psychological construct. Some have more of a propensity toward mindfulness than others, yet it can also be effectively learned through the practice of meditation. A recent study came up with a new measure of trait mindfulness, referred to as ‘end-state mindfulness’. This is the tendency of an individual to see things as they are in the moment, without attaching subjective judgments to perceptual experiences.

This ‘end state mindfulness’ was found, in the same study, to be negatively correlated with rumination, thought suppression and neuroticism. It was also found to moderate the negative effect usually associated with the exposure of mortality salience cues.

Mindfulness can be thought of as an exemplar of the experiential mode of conscious processing (Teasdale*, 1999), which seems to be a formidably opposing force to terror management, which aims to suppress.

In line with this conceptualization of mindfulness, a series of experiments and studies examined whether trait mindfulness reduced the defensive responses to death awareness cues. It turns out it does. Results from these studies showed the positive relationship between mindfulness and self-esteem, the usual buffer against thoughts of death. But rather than buffering, it was shown that mindfulness predicted reduced suppression of death, and those who scored higher on trait mindfulness, spent longer when doing a writing exercise about their own death. They were more willing to sit down and consciously process thoughts of dying.

This series of seven studies were the first to examine the role of mindfulness in terror management theory, and collectively they show that mindfulness reduces the engagement in both proximal and distal defences. Rather they promote the unbiased, conscious processing of death. Mindfulness has been shown to increase our empathy and concern for others  and promote the endorsement of intrinsic (personal growth and development), rather than extrinsic (wealth and status) goals.

This becomes very interesting when we look at the relationship between intrinsic and extrinsic goal orientation and subjective feeling of life satisfaction in the face of death awareness. One recent study found that those with more extrinsic goal orientations were more likely to process these cues as unpleasant threats and those with more intrinsic goal orientations were more likely to experience them as meaningful reflective experiences. This suggests that mindfulness is a contrasting strategy to terror management strategy that results in a qualitatively better attitude toward both life and death.

So, on one end of the spectrum, you have people that suppress thoughts of dying, they rely on the quality of their self-esteem to combat death anxiety. This is unfortunate for people will less self-esteem because they are likely to experience greater levels of death-related anxiety. On the other end of the spectrum, you have mindful people, who process thoughts of dying consciously and deliberately. They are not only more empathic people but they also (because of having intrinsic goal orientations) report higher levels of life satisfaction. People who process death reflectively are also more likely to engage in prosocial behaviour in the workplace compared to their anxious counterparts, who withdraw and engage in self-protective behaviours.

Last thoughts

The thing is, we are all going to die, and so is everyone we know. Many of them will go before us and we will be left to deal with the grief of their absence. We have every right to be anxious about death, it’s the worst possible thing, that will definitely happen to all of us. Although, just because it’s painful to think about, it doesn’t mean that we should just avoid thinking about it all together. As illustrated in the above example of the 94-year-old man, never having a conversation with his daughter about the possibility of him dying, we can see how this can lead to undesirable outcomes.

Mindfulness has proven its mettle for being capable of bringing improvement and positivity to so many areas of human life, quelling death anxiety is no exception. If we know that this mindful processing of death related thoughts leads us to have greater subjective feelings of life satisfaction, more empathy for others and be more prosocial to those we work with, why would we choose to continue suppressing thoughts of death?

Of course, many of the studies mentioned above were correlational in nature, and as social psychological studies (which often are not replicable) the result should be taken tentatively.

If this is something you are interested in, I encourage to follow or subscribe to the website. Alternatively, you could like our Facebook page, as all published material will be posted there!

References

Greenberg, J. P. (1997). Terror management theory of self-esteem and cultural. Academic Press.

Goldenberg, N. A. (2011). No atheists in foxholes: Arguments for (but not against) afterlife belief buffers mortality salience effects for atheists. British Journal of Social Psychology

Let’s talk about dying – Peter Saul – TedTalk

Bastien Trémolière, W. D.-F. (2013). The grim reasoner: Analytical reasoning under. Thinking & Reasoning.

Andrew A. Abeyta, J. J. (2014). Exploring the effects of self-esteem and mortality salience on
proximal and distally measured death anxiety

Tom Pyszczynski, J. G. (1999). A Dual-Process Model of Defense Against Conscious and
Unconscious. e American Psychological Association, Inc.

Brown, K. W. (2005). Are psychological and ecological well-being compatible? The role of values,
mindfulness, and lifestyle. Social Indicators Research, 74, 349–368

Noguchi, K. (2017). Mindfulness as an end-state: construction of a trait measure. Mississippi :
Elsevier

Donald, J. N. (2019). British Journal of Psychology (2019), 110, 101–125© 2018 The British
Psychological Does your mindfulness benefit others?

Niemiec, C. P. (2010). Being Present in the Face of Existential Threat: The Role of Trait. American Psychological Association

Vail, K. E. (2019). Pushing up daisies: Goal orientations, death awareness, and satisfaction with life.
Elsevier

Grant, A. (2009). The Hot and Cool of Death Awareness at Work: Mortality Cues, Aging, and Self-Protective and Prosocial Motivations

A History of the Chinese Martial Arts

A short reflection on the early days of eastern practices, some key historical figures, and the interplay between Daosim and Buddhism.

Bodhidharma & Buddhist Qi Gong

In 527 A.D, a well-regarded ‘bodhisattva’, or ‘enlightened being’ named Bodhidharma (known by the Chinese as ‘Da Mo’) was invited by Emperor Liang Wu Di into China to preach Buddhism. Bodhidharma, who was once the prince of a small tribe in southern India, is often depicted for his barbaric appearances. He was said to be a hairy, bearded, dark skinned man, dressed in orange robes, as many Mahayana Buddhists did at the time.

After the emperor (for reasons unknown) decided that he did not like Bodhidharma, the monk was forced to retreat to a temple in Shaolin. Upon arriving, he saw that the priests who resided in that temple were physically very weak. Many had become ill, as they had been fully neglecting their physical bodies, thinking that it was not necessary to cultivate physically to attain enlightenment. This is still considered true for many meditation intensive schools of practice, Vipassana, being one very notable example.

They believed it was altogether, a waste of time to exercise the body and laughed it off. Bodhidharma then put the argument to them, that attaining enlightenment requires time. That by being weak and sickly they are decreasing their longevity, shortening the span of their life and therefore, shortening the time with which they had, to work towards becoming enlightened.

The monks agreed that this was true and Bodhidharma stayed in the Shaolin temple, ardently working on the problem at hand. After nine full years, he emerged with a series of techniques, known as ‘Da Mo’s Muscle/Tendon Changing & Marrow/Brain Washing Classics’.

In this book is a series of physical, breath and meditation exercises, aimed to increase the strength of the physical body and bring one’s mind closer to an enlightened state. These exercises are commonly referred to as a type of ‘Qi Gong’, directly translated as ‘energy work’. Qi Gong is said to be the ancestor or parent of Tai Chi, which is an evolved, martial form of the healing art. Tai Chi is said to be the child of Qi Gong and the sibling of Kung Fu.

It is characterized by its martial arts-type forms, involving highly technical coordination of a liquid-like flow of movement and focuses on mindful presence and relaxation.

Where is Tai Chi From?

In the 12th century, a Taoist monk named Zhang San Feng, who had given away his property to his family and was living life in accordance with the Tao, was strolling leisurely between the summits of the Wu Dang mountains in Hubei province in China. He stopped, captivated by the sight of a bird attacking a snake. After seeing how the snake defended itself, keeping still, observing and then lunging in for a fatal bite upon the bird, he was inspired.

It was from this legend that Tai Chi Chuan is said to have emerged, and that it was Zhang San Feng went on to create a set of 72 Tai Chi Chuan movements.

Prior to the discovery of old documents, which confirmed the existence of Zhang San Feng, many people believed, and in some cases still do, that Tai Chi was created in Chen village, Henan Province. Yang style is possibly the most popular style of Tai Chi which circulates around the west today, it is said to be a later expression of Chen style and can also be traced back to Chen Village.

Internal and External Tai Chi

While styles such as Yang and Chen are said to be ‘external’, what is now Wudang Taoist Tai Chi is characterized by being uniquely ‘internal’. Now, what exactly is meant by ‘external’ and ‘internal’? There is also some room for debating the implications of these labels and where they come from. Some will say that the ‘external’ styles are characterized as being ‘hard’, while the other ‘soft’, some will argue that as Tai Chi as a whole is comprised of both external and internal exercises, that one focuses more heavily on one part than the other. But interestingly there is also another argument which relates not to the practice itself, but to the geographical origin. The styles which originated from Chen Village date back to being influenced by Da Mo. As Da Mo came from India, the manifestations of his influence are labelled as ‘external’ (outside of China). Taoism, being indigenous to the Chinese Wudang mountains, has resulted in their style being named ‘internal”.

Again, it is quite difficult to say with any certainty at this time, and there seems to be much room to open argument on the subject still, as is the nature with ancient histories.

Taoism vs Buddhism

For many people, distinguishing the difference between Taoist philosophy and Buddhism is a very convoluted and tightly tangled endeavour, and with good reason! Most people know at least, that Taoism is Chinese and Buddhism was originally Indian (though the Buddha himself came from Nepal).

”Do not dwell on the past, do not dream of the future, concentrate the mind on the present moment”

-Gautama The Buddha

Actually, Taoism is comprised of a large degree of Buddhist philosophy, over time they absorbed many of the philosophies of Buddhism that were being preached in China, being influenced by the general zeitgeist.

It apparently wasn’t uncommon for Taoist and Buddhist monks to befriend each other and share philosophies. However, while Taoism’s open- minded approach to learning enabled it to move like water and adapt, Buddhism was far more conservative than that, and refrained from making new adaptations based on newly available knowledge.

The Buddhist’s then were absolutely forbidden from eating meat, drinking alcohol, in the cases of monkhood they were forbidden from sexual activity and made to shave their heads. The Taoist’s had a slight touch of rascality to them. They could eat meat, drink wine, grow their hair long and priest’s (in some casts) were even allowed to marry and have children.

”If you are depressed, you are living in the past.

If you are anxious, you are living in the future.

If you are at peace, you are living in the present”

-Lao Tzu

Despite these considerably minor differences, both philosophies aim toward the same goal of enlightenment and cultivating the ‘Tao’. They both focus on taming the emotional body, in order to achieve inner peace, purifying the self and attaining the ultimate goal of enlightenment in order to escape the cycles of ‘Samsara’ (cyclical death and rebirth).

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References

  • Dr Yang Jwing Ming, The Root of Chinese Qi Gong
  • Qigong, The Secret of Youth: Da Mo’s Muscle/Tendon Changing and Marrow/Brain Washing Classics