Peace & Joy
Peace & Joy

Ten-Day Vipassana Meditation Course — Part III

Part I (overview)Part II (breath meditation)Part III (vipassanā meditation)

This article (Part III) gives an overview of vipassanā meditation, which is taught from day four onwards at the 10-day course taught by S N Goenka.


My original motivation for writing Part III was to share detailed instructions of vipasannā with others and to describe the healing mechanism underlying the technique. On the first night after returning from my second course, I jotted down as much about the technique, the ancillary guidelines and the landmarks along the journey as I could remember. The process of weaving these into an article helped me in many ways.

First, I realized that the instructions use quite a few concepts which can be grasped only by actually learning the technique from a course or from a teacher. Some of these concepts may not make sense unless sufficient progress in breath meditation has been made, which is a prerequisite for vipasannā. Also, since I am far from being a qualified teacher, there is the danger of writing something that is incorrect. So I have refrained from spelling out detailed instructions in the final version of this article.

Second, I ran into difficulties with Pali words like saṅkhāra. Such words are central to Buddhist philosophy and are used many times by S N Goenka in his discourses. By browsing the web, I realized that many authors refrain from substituting certain Pali words by English words or phrases because none is a perfect equivalent. The word saṅkhāra is such a word. It also has multiple shades of meaning.

Finally, I realized that I have a broad overview of the healing mechanism, but I do not understand the details! From personal experience, I can vouch for its efficacy. However, to write about the mechanism clearly, I ought to make further progress with regular practice and I should familiarize myself with Buddhist literature.

Still, I would like to present an overview of the technique and the healing mechanism so that you may get a glimpse of what it is all about.

The Technique

Vipassanā meditation is taught on the fourth day at the 10-day course. Development in breath meditation, which is taught on the first three days, is a prerequisite for vipassanā. Please read Part II to learn more about breath meditation.

The main concepts used for vipassanā instructions by S N Goenka are 'sensations' (gross solidified sensations, blind areas, uniform subtle sensations), 'moving your attention' (part by part, free flow), 'equanimity' (craving, aversion) and 'awareness'. These concepts are more challenging to understand than those used for breath meditation. I feel that a teacher's guidance is necessary to get the technique right. Vipassanā should not be learnt from books and articles, which serve other purposes like reference manuals and inspirational texts.

Brief Summary: The gist of vipassanā meditation, as taught in the 10-day course, is to observe sensations all over the body with awareness and equanimity. Examples of sensations are point pain, dull pain, heaviness, lightness, throbbing, touch of air, touch of cloth and so on. In one of the discourses, S N Goenka explains the word 'sensation' at great length because it is commonly misunderstood. Awareness means undivided attention, a skill that was acquired by breath meditation. Equanimity means observing sensations without craving for pleasant sensations and aversion for unpleasant sensations. In S N Goenka's words, awareness and equanimity are like two wings of a bird — both are equally important for flying.

Scanning Techniques: Do we observe sensations everywhere at once? No. On the fourth day, we divide the surface area of the body into fairly large parts like forehead, eyes, cheeks, chin, shoulders, feet and so on. We then visit each of these parts in sequence, observing whatever sensations arise in these parts. From the fifth to the ninth day, different techniques for scanning the body are developed. These are combinations of two basic techniques: 'part by part' and 'free flow', to be deployed depending upon what kind of sensations are arising in different parts of the body. These techniques are best learnt from a teacher. On the last two days, S N Goenka briefly describes advanced techniques for scanning the body, to be used by students who have made considerable progress.

Ancillary Instructions: Many ancillary instructions are given. For example, you should try to observe the least perceptible sensation in any part, you should keep on moving without getting stuck at any part, that no part should be missed, and so on. These ancillary instructions are important.

Types of Sensations: S N Goenka uses three phrases for different kinds of sensations: 'gross solidified sensations' which are unpleasant, 'blind areas' where no sensations can be felt and 'uniform subtle sensations' which are pleasant. At all times, we should observe these sensations without aversion or craving, with awareness and equanimity. With practice, the ability to observe sensations in smaller and smaller parts of the body shall be acquired, as small as a fingertip!

Landmarks: Initially, the ability to observe sensations in some body parts shall be acquired. Then a day shall come when sensations can be observed in all parts; there shall be no blind areas. This is an important landmark. However, it is not permanent in the sense that blind areas might emerge the very next day. With further practice, a day shall come when 'uniform subtle sensations' shall be felt everywhere. This landmark is also not permanent in the sense that the very next day, you might encounter 'gross subtle sensations' or even 'blind areas'. S N Goenka emphasizes that these landmarks should not be mistaken for goals of any kind, as some students do. Eventually, there shall be a day when 'dissolution' (bhaṅgānupassanā ñāṇa) happens - I don't quite understand what this means. It is an important landmark in the journey. However, this is not the final goal either. There are many other steps before one attains nibbāna (liberation). In one of his last discourses, S N Goenka says that the journey is very long.

Anicca — anatta — dukkha: What is the point of observing sensations, day after day? One reason is that we heal ourselves by learning not to react with craving or aversion to events. This is explained in more detail in the section below. Another goal is to understand three concepts: anicca — anatta — dukkha.

As one keeps on observing sensations in smaller and smaller parts of the body, many truths about sensations start becoming clearer. First, all sensations arise and pass away. No sensation is permanent. This phenomenon is called anicca (impermanence), and can quickly be verified when one starts vipassanā. However, internalizing that anicca characterizes all phenomena requires sustained practice. Second, sensations cannot be created; they are out of our control but they can be observed. S N Goenka warns us not to look for any specific sensation anywhere, otherwise we will be lost. The lack of control over sensations leads to an understanding of anatta (non-self). Finally, by observing combinations of sensations over time and noticing their relationships with craving and aversion, one starts understanding dukkha (unsatisfactoriness, suffering).

Mettā: On the last day, the third and final meditation technique is taught: mettā-bhāvanā (cultivation of loving-kindness). The idea is quite simple: we end our meditation by radiating feelings of love, peace and happiness towards everybody for two to five minutes.

The Healing Mechanism

The Buddhist texts describe the healing mechanism underlying vipassanā in great detail. Lacking sufficient knowledge and the right vocabulary, I present my broad understanding in plain English.

Misery: In one of the discourses, S N Goenka mentions that two kinds of events in our lives make us miserable. One, when something unwanted happens, we react with aversion towards such events. Two, when something that we want is not happening, we react with craving for such events. Thus craving and aversion are at the root of our misery.

What are the signs of being miserable? Outwardly, our demeanor smacks of some combination of anger, hatred, ill-will, passion, fear end ego. Internally, our mind quickly meanders towards thoughts pertaining to the event. At the same time, our breath becomes shorter and harder. Also, we get sensations at different parts of our body. In the normal course of life, many of these sensations are imperceptible but we can develop our ability to observe them by practicing vipassanā.

Depending upon the intensity of our misery, we dwell in it for a few seconds or minutes or hours or days or weeks or months or years or lifetimes.

A miserable person makes others miserable.

Non-reaction: It is important to realize that events are merely events, many of these are out of our control. However, our reaction is under our control. We can learn not to react with aversion towards unwanted events and not to react with craving for events that we want to happen but are not happening. Vipassanā meditation helps us cultivate such abilities of non-reaction. Let us see how.

During the 10-day course, especially from the fourth day onwards, we start remembering events that make us miserable. Concomitant with these memories are sensations that arise in our body. In Buddhist literature, the word saṅkhāra (which I loosely understand as 'ability to react') explains this phenomenon. S N Goenka says that a steady stream of our "old stock of saṅkhāras" comes up from the unconscious to the conscious. By merely observing the sensations that result, without craving or aversion, we change the habit pattern of our mind and neutralize these saṅkhāras, thereby healing us.

Many people report that after the 10-day course, events that bothered them earlier do not bother them any more. They become more peaceful and pleasant, such changes being noticeable in their demeanor by others.

Vipassanā meditation would actually take you a step beyond non-reaction to events. You shall start generating compassion for even those who harm you.

Compassion: In one of his discourses, S N Goenka mentions that as we make progress in vipassanā, we shall start generating compassion for an aggressor because we would understand that the aggressor is usually far more miserable than the victim. This will helps us understand how Jesus Christ, for example, had great love and compassion for people who were physically harming him. This is a powerful teaching to internalize.

How do we start generating such compassion? I feel that the mechanism is somewhat as follows. The practice of mettā-bhāvanā (cultivation of loving-kindness) for everybody helps us. Also, during vipassanā, we remember our past where we generated misery for ourselves and for others, for example, due to our own anger and agitation. By seeing ourselves in the role of an aggressor, we forgive ourselves, then start forgiving others and generate compassion for them.

Contrast with Therapy: In psychotherapy and hypnotherapy, the healing mechanism is to come to terms with painful or distressing events in earlier life by revisiting those events, reliving that experience and seeing these events from a third person's perspective. Sometimes, we actually forget the events themselves but we retain abstract anger or abstract fear in us and our mind gets trained to react in unhealthy ways in certain situations. A therapist helps us change the habit pattern of our mind so that we no longer react with emotions like anger, hatred and fear in such situations.

In vipassanā, one goes through a therapeutic process similar to psychotherapy or hypnotherapy, but without a specialist guiding our thoughts. First, the mind is made tranquil and sharp with breath meditation. Then, when vipassanā is practiced, memories and sensations associated with painful or distressing events in our lives automatically start becoming prominent; they arise from the unconscious to the conscious. Maintaining the practice from the fifth day onwards is particularly challenging because we have stirred a storm that makes our mind turbulent. At the same time, through breath meditation, we have also acquired the ability to weather the storm by remaining unperturbed. So with perseverance, during vipassanā meditation, we observe the storm as it arises and passes away, with equanimity, without aversion or craving, thereby training our mind not to react. Such purification of the mind not only heals us of misery caused by past events but also prepares for the future. We learn how to face the vicissitudes of life with equanimity.

May all be peaceful.

3 Feb 2009
© Copyright 2008—2017, Gurmeet Manku.