How (Goenka’s) Vipassana works

I recently got back from one of those 10-day meditation courses in the Goenka tradition of the Vipassana movement. And there are three things I want to say about it — each in its own blog post.

Basically, think of the 10-day course like an hour-long radio programme.

You see, his whole shtick is one of false neutrality; he claims he’s just teaching a technique of meditation and nothing else… while actually preaching a very specific, sectarian religion.
He’s basically like the kid wading into the playground melee, telling everyone to stop fighting or he’ll tell the teacher… while rabbit punching everyone he can in the back of the head. Well, sorry man. You can’t spend all your time throwing punches and then claim to be out of the game.
Goenka does present a theology and a metaphysics, both of which are (kind of hilariously) trash. And he presents an extremely suspect ethics, which
(a) is trash on purely ethical terms, and
(b) is rigorously apolitical, to the level of being anti-political, which I think is evil.

And the point is — I’m not going to discuss any of that here. No theology. No metaphysics. No ethics. No politics.

I’m going to play along with the shtick, take him at his word, and concentrate exclusively on the technique of meditation, pure and simple, and the way he teaches it.

But first, a little housekeeping.

1 – [All the technical, italicized terminology I’ll be referencing is in Pali, unless otherwise specified.]

2 – [I’ve been studying Spinoza’s Ethics recently, and it shows. These posts will be permeated with the spirit of his work, and many, many of his concepts. I just don’t want to be name-dropping him every few lines, so that’s the last I’m gonna say about it. But yes — if you’ve read Spinoza, and think I’ve stolen a point from him… you’re 100% right, I have definitely stolen that point from him.]

OK. Here goes.

I. Basic set-up

You spend ten days at a meditation centre, separated into male and female sections. You agree to certain rules, the most crucial of which is not talking. Then you meditate for the majority of the day, in the main meditation hall or in your room. These are guided by audio recordings of the founder of the organization — SN Goenka. In the evening, you watch a video-recorded discourse by Goenka.

In the first three days, you practice anapanasati — mindfulness of breathing. You pay attention to the feeling and fact of your breathing, specifically in the nose area. When your mind wanders, you bring it back to your nose.

From Day 4, you practice what they call vipassana — or insight meditation. In their version, this basically consists in doing a body scan: you systematically examine the physical sensations of your body, from the top of your head down to your feet. Over the course of the next five days, they have you do this in slightly different ways.

They end with a bit of “metta“, or loving-kindness meditation, in which you generate feelings of compassion and goodwill.

II. Basic Theory

Goenka’s understanding of vipassana — as best I could tell from a single run-through, without being allowed to take notes — is presented in the evening discourses: in about two sentences on Day 4, a few minutes on Day 5, and the first part of Day 9.

I’ll begin with his somewhat idiosyncratic description of the core Buddhist notion of the five skandhas [Pali – “khandhas“] — the “aggregates” or, literally, “bundles”, into which your conscious experience is divided.

Firstly, there’s rupa — form, or matter. That’s actual, physical stuff. For example, your ear. There are vibrations in the air, and they come to the side of your head, into your inner ear, and vibrate your ear drum, which sends electrical signals through your nerves. 

Secondly, there’s viññāṇa — consciousness, or awareness. At this point, you become aware of sense input, through one of the six sense doors [sight, hearing, smell, taste, touch, and mind]. But you have not yet processed this input into an idea of what that thing is.
So, to follow our example: your ear drum vibrates, and then you go “Oh! Hearing’s a thing. There’s a sound!”
Or, an image arises through your Sight Sense-door. Or a flavour arises through your Taste Sense-door. Or a thought arises through your Mind Sense-door. And your attention swivels to that experience.

Anyway, the important bit starts here.

The fourth phase is vedanā — sensation.

Here’s Goenka’s take.

At this point, you generate a feeling somewhere in your body, which is either pleasant or unpleasant (or neutral, but he doesn’t emphasize the third option very much).

So, for example. You hear the sound of a bird, and then you get a little rush of pleasant prickles on your head or up your back. Or your hear the sound of a friend saying something mean to you, and you feel a sick sensation at the pit of your stomach.

And then there’s the fifth phase: saṅkhāra. Translated variously as “mental formation”, “volition”, “karmic activity”, “conditioned response”…
For Goenka, there’s just two kinds of sankhara: craving and aversion.
The Yogachara school of Buddhism, being the Yogachara school of Buddhism, identifies 51 of them.

Essentially, it’s your reaction to the previous stages. It’s you jumping to a conclusion about it, coming to a judgement about it, forming an attitude about it, telling yourself a story about it. And this is usually done without even being aware that you’ve come to that conclusion/judgement/attitude/story. And it’s usually rather crude, animalistic, and ignorant. It usually happens so quickly that you don’t notice; you just find yourself carried away on a certain line of thought or carrying out certain actions, unaware that before doing that, you already adopted a stance towards the content of the first four stages. And then, in the future, when you come across this thing or something similar to it, you’ll immediately start thinking or acting on the basis of that stance you never noticed yourself adopting.

So, like, you hear a bird and go “Oh, birds are great!”. Or you hear your friend insult you, and go “My friend’s an asshole! Fuck you, friend!” And then the next time you hear a bird, you’ll immediately go “Nice!” And next time you hear your friend’s voice, you’ll immediately go “Ugh!”

Alright. All the major cards are on the table. Now we’re going to start playing. Here goes.

According to Goenka, for every thing we become conscious of [phase 2] and perceive as a distinct thing [phase 3], there’s a subsequent physical sensation in the body [phase 4].

Your mind is constantly monitoring these sensations, at a level just below your normal focus of consciousness.

And you have spent your life forming fixed opinions about things you perceive, and then seeking them out or avoiding them, in a sort of auto-pilot mode — gravitating towards things that made you feel nice tingles and away from things that made you feel unpleasant aching — all without understanding why.

(As far as I can tell, this is, at best, tangentially related to Buddhism. It’s basically the James-Lange theory of emotion.)

The key insight here is that what you’re reacting to is not actually the thing outside. You’re not reacting to the bird; you’re not reacting to your friend. You’re not even reacting to your perception of the bird or your friend.

What you’re reacting to is how that thing makes you feel. You’re reacting to the pleasant tingles the birdsong causes in you, or the sick feeling in the pit of your stomach. But that’s not the way you usually think about it, at the conscious level. Because you’re moving through the phases so quickly, you blur them together, and come away thinking you like the bird, or hate your friend — when really what you like is the pleasant or unpleasant physical sensation that’s generated as a result of the perception of these external objects.

And that oversight creates a problem. Because you think you basically like the external thing, you start chasing it, and either end up disappointed when you don’t get it, or addicted. And because you think you dislike the external thing, you start hating it, or feel disgusted at it, etc. And this is a major problem. Because hating something causes more unpleasant physical sensations in your body, which makes you even more unhappy. Especially when you get fixated on it, and keep thinking about it, even after the external object is no longer there. And each time you bring it up in your mind, you generate unpleasant sensations. And then you immediately react against it, getting angry at the thing in your mind, which creates more unpleasant sensations, so you get angrier at it, etc. etc. etc.

So. What can be done about this?

Well, so far as the first four phases are concerned — basically nothing. Unless you gouge out your ears, you can’t help the vibrations coming into your eardrum [1]. And realistically, you can’t stop yourself from switching gears into hearing mode [2], or from identifying the noise [3], or from having an immediate, sensory feeling about it [4].

What you can actually bring under conscious control is the fifth thing — your sankhara, or reaction.

You are, at least under certain circumstances, able to just perceive the thing, then notice the (physical) feeling it causes, and… that’s it. Just observe it calmly. Not react to it. If you do that, you can then act on the basis of something else, rather than blindly react to the negative feeling. You can put yourself in a position to notice all the relevant factors of a situation which are available to your conscious awareness, and act on the basis of that, rather than the reduced sample we’re usually accessing.

So to go back to the example of being insulted by a friend. Normally, you just can’t help responding in a really annoyed way — because you’re subconsciously reacting to the sick feeling in the pit of your stomach, and are automatically trying to do something to make it go away. But if you slow down, observe the sick feeling, and then hold off a little, you can subsequently switch gears, and act on your desire to defuse the situation, rather than your desire to make-the-bad-person-shut-up-so-my-belly-no-more-ouch-ouch. And then your mind is responding to your desire to accomplish some rationally determined goal, rather than blindly (and thus, not very effectively) trying to destroy or push away the cause of unhappiness, or grab at the cause of your happiness.

And the process of Goenka-style vipassana is basically going round and round and round your body, training yourself to do that.

While you do that, he will instruct you to notice three things.

Firstly, all the sensations you notice as you examine your body, whether pleasant or unpleasant, all eventually move or go away. In other words, over time, you notice that they’re all impermanent [aniccā]. Before you sat down and started observing them, you were kind of subconsciously working on the assumption they were permanent, the same way a dog will be distraught every time their ‘owner’ leaves the house, and gets over the moon when they return — because it does not understand that they’re just nipping out to the shops. But once you look and see that these sensations are constantly in flux, he argues, you will realize that you should not get attached to them.

Secondly, all the sensations are impersonal. [anattā] They’re just… there. When you didn’t observe them directly, you were subconsciously acting on the understanding that these sensations were part of “you”. But when you examine them, you notice that they’re just things that are happening — the narrative that they are things that are happening to some constant entity called “I” is not actually present in the things themselves.

Thirdly, the process of getting attached to these sensations, and identifying them with a consistent character called “I”, leads to suffering, or dissatisfaction. [dukkhā]
As you observe yourself, you see this pattern repeat itself again and again. And as you continue to observe yourself, you start to make out these tendencies more and more clearly. And once you are able to perceive them with perfect clarity… these tendencies will fade away and disappear.

These are the three marks of existence, or characteristics of experience — another core Buddhist doctrine. 

And this is vipassana. It is the dual process of:

(a) – examining your field of awareness
(b) – coming to understand it.

And because you don’t really know what to look for once you’re there, it’s hard to do (b). Hence the teaching of the 3 tilakkhaṇas, or characteristics of experience.

So that’s the basic theory of what it is you’ll be doing there.

There’s one more element I have to mention, but am struggling to do in a succinct fashion.

Basically, sooner or later, you start to trip.

So, um…… OK.

If you spend a very long time paying very close attention to something, your mind starts “expanding” to take more and more of it in.
So, the most obvious example is when you’re in a dark room for a long time, and then suddenly step outside into the daylight. You’ll reel back from the overstimulation, because your pupils have dilated — literally expanded — to take in more light.
Well, it’s basically the same with the whole process of awareness. Spend a long time meditating, and eventually, you’ll get to the point where a bush you would normally have walked straight past, ten times out of ten, will suddenly seize you as being incredibly beautiful and precious and interesting. The “pupils of your mind”, as it were, have expanded to take in more information.

And if you spend a very long time just sitting there and not reacting to anything, your mind starts taking that as a challenge, and comes up with bigger and bigger things to throw your way.

So, sit there long enough, and your mind will be like:

Hey. Hey. Your legs hurt. Hey. Hey. Hey. Hey. Hey. …your legs hurt. …huh? Nothing. OK. Hey. Hey. Know what? You’re missing out on the big football match that’s going on outside by just sitting here. …no reaction? Hmm. ……hey. Hey. Hey. ……….HEY!!! Remember that time your father told you he wished you had never been born?

And then you’ll be like:

…oh yeah. Nothing I’ve been doing in my life recently has made me happy. All my hobbies have been joyless; all the pretty sights I walk past each day have elicited nothing in me; all the people I encounter have just been tiresome. And it’s really all because I’ve been thinking I’m worthless this whole time.

But now I understand that my dad was just really unhappy at the time, and lashed out, and that was the most direct option his auto-pilot had available to express its unhappiness. So of course it went straight to that.

Now that I’m aware of all this, I don’t actually feel worthless anymore. So now my hobbies and the pretty sights and the nice people can actually make me happy.

In so many words, you start to go nuts. And by going nuts, you can make relatively radical changes to your mental structure.

Because you’re going nuts, you can access very deep-rooted thought patterns which normally operate way under the surface of your day-to-day concerns. Because you’re spending ten days in isolation and silence, you have the space and time to just sit and notice them, rather than act on them.
And then, because you’re going nuts and your brain is way more plastic and malleable than usual, you can re-route them into a more healthy, useful pattern, in a relatively short span of time.

But if you’ve never been to a long-term meditation retreat before, or done hard drugs, or, like, been hospitalized… this all might catch you a bit by surprise, and leave you rather confused as to what just happened, and why.

On the other hand, if you *have* been on a long-term meditation retreat before, and more or less know what you’re doing already, then you can go a whole ‘nuther level of nuts.
But if that’s you, you probably don’t need me to explain it.
And also… I just really, really don’t have the time to get into that now. So we’ll leave that stuff for another day, and keep on with the basics.

III. A Few Examples

The explanation above was all pretty abstract. So let me walk you through a couple of concrete examples.

Alright. Say you’re eating lunch with a friend, having a totally normal, friendly conversation.

Except you’re actually sitting on one of those hotplates they use to cook hamburgers in a fast food joint. And, without you noticing, it’s slowly getting hotter and hotter, to the point where it’s causing you significant discomfort in your butt. Which, in this example, let’s say you still don’t notice.

As it gets hotter and hotter, you start getting more irritable, more impatient, more unpleasant to your friend.

Why? Because you’re in pain (in your butt, because of the hotplate), but you’re not conscious of it. However, you are still reacting, subconsciously, by trying to push away the object you are aware of (your friend). And because you’re missing all this stuff that’s going on in the background, you’re confused as to why you’re behaving badly to your friend, and have no idea how to stop doing it. 

So — how to remedy the situation?

OK. So, in that example, there was physical pain from a physical cause. And so, the way to remove that pain was to remove the physical cause.

So let’s switch to a more realistic version.

You’re sitting there having lunch with your friend, and something they’re saying is causing you physical discomfort. (Let’s stick with the “sick feeling in your stomach” example.) And you’re not consciously aware of that… but subconsciously, you are, and so you’re starting to become irritable, impatient, unpleasant.

So, what you do is stop and become aware of the physical discomfort you’re in.

Now. Unlike the previous case, you don’t really have to do anything else. There’s no physical object (a burning hotplate) you have to remove. You just observe the unpleasant sensation. And in observing it, you come to understand how it came about. And, understanding it, it diminishes.

In other words: the simple process of calmly observing the discomfort which arises from a psychic cause — so long as you’re capable of doing that in the first place, which, it’s true, requires a bit of practice — diminishes the discomfort. And then you can act based on your other desires.

Why does the simple fact of paying attention to it dissipate the discomfort? The quickest way I can think of explaining it is this. Try slapping yourself on the cheek, just hard enough to leave a feeling of heat or some tingling. Now imagine someone else slapped you with precisely the same force. You realize that the second would have hurt a lot more. The difference is that, in doing it yourself, you’re aware of the whole process from start to finish. “There’s an incoming impact at exactly this amount of force in 3…2…1….aha.” 
There’s nothing to surprise you, and no feeling of external threat you have to brace against.

In a nutshell, hearing words you don’t like without observing the unpleasant physical sensation it engenders is like being slapped by someone. And hearing those words while observing the unpleasant sensation it engenders is like slapping yourself. You actually feel less pain in the second case.

However, this obviously requires your capacity for calm observation to be higher than the intensity of the sensation — otherwise, you get overwhelmed, and start reacting to it anyway. A dyke, or sea wall, only works if it’s higher than the water it’s trying to keep out. If the sea level rises, due to a tsunami, for example… then the dyke will be overrun. The higher your capacity and skill at calmly observing yourself, the higher and sturdier your walls against the wind-tossed sea of your emotions.

Here’s how you might come to discover this process while on one of these retreats.

Step 1: Try to focus. Fail.

So, it’s been a day or two since you arrived. You’re sitting there, trying to focus on your breath. But you can’t, because you’re in a lot of discomfort. Your mind and body are not at all used to the experience of total motionlessness in an unfamiliar posture for many hours in a darkened room. All they want to do is go somewhere else. And so, over the course of the sitting, you’re constantly shifting, fidgeting, and having your mind wander disconnectedly.

Step 2: Notice reactions.

At some point, you shift your focus to the areas where it hurts. You try to just sit still and observe the pain. And then you suddenly fidget.

This is the first breakthrough.

When you fidgeted, you moved without any kind of conscious control. You had no awareness that you were going to make that movement before it happened.


Once it did happen, you noticed it immediately.

Before, you didn’t notice each fidget, or each time your mind wandered, trying to escape your present situation. You only registered, at the end of the sitting, “dang, I barely spent any time at all watching my breath! I couldn’t even sit still!”

That’s because these were reactions to the pain. And you weren’t looking at the pain.

But now, because you were looking at the pain, you were able to catch the reaction (fidgeting) red-handed, right as it left the scene of the crime.

That’s the second step.

Step 3: Observe reactions.

So now you sit there, observing the painful sensations, and on the lookout for reactions.

OK… pain in my right leg… pain in my right leg… pain in my right l–ah! I scrunched up my face. Alright. Back to the pain… pain in my right leg… pain in my right leg… ah! I wiggled my feet. OK.

Step 4: Observe experience.

Now, if you keep doing this (with occasional breaks and rest periods, so you don’t get overwhelmed by frustration), what you will eventually find is that you stop reacting. No more fidgeting. No more face scrunching. You are able to just sit still and observe the pain, without making any involuntary movements.

Congratulations. At this point, instead of reacting against the pain (usually by tightening up your muscles or getting into an angry rant), your mind accepts the discomfort and starts to filter it out, your body starts to relax, and the perceived pain diminishes a great deal, or disappears entirely.

Step 5: Learn about yourself. Upgrade systems.

So now you move on to the next challenge. You’re there, observing whatever it is you’re being told to observe. And then a thought crops up. For this example, let’s say it’s an embarrassing memory, where you dropped a vase and were laughed at by a group of your peers.

Because of the habit you have been training through the observation of the physical discomfort, you will immediately notice that you react in two ways.

First, you react physically. You cringe; you grimace; you shake your head. OK. Having noticed that, you now know what to look out for, and will proceed to do that less and less as time goes on and you keep catching yourself doing it.

But you also react mentally. In, let’s say, two ways.

1) You scramble to think of something else.

2) You start ruminating about it.
(That is, you start ranting about it in your head, based on discomfort.)

You might, for example, start making a case for why this was unfair. “No one warned me it was expensive… what assholes!”
Or you might imagine a scenario where one of the people who witnessed the event dropped an expensive clock, and you’re there to mock them.

But then, soon enough — because you’ve built up this habit of self-examination — you will automatically snap out of it, and notice that you’re reacting to this memory, entirely out of your conscious control. The memory came [Phases 2 and 3], and before you knew it, you were ruminating about it. You missed the step where you felt a sensation [Phase 4], and you also missed the step where you generated the sankhara [Phase 5] — where you jumped to a conclusion about it (“Ah fuck that’s so embarrassing, I hate this”). Instead, you went straight into a line of thought premised on that conclusion.

So you take a step back, and just replay the memory. And then you notice how you feel about it [Phase 4].

And you recognize that the physical reaction (*cringe*) and the mental reaction (“Oh God, think of something else, think of something else…”) were both done without noticing the fact that the memory caused you a feeling of physical discomfort somewhere — headache, stomachache, shoulder tension…

So now, you just sit there and watch the sensations aroused by the memory.

“OK, so, when I think of this incident, my chest tightens and I get a pain in my temples.”

And thus, you never move on to Phase 5. You don’t bite at the bait.

But when you just watch them, these feelings of discomfort fade away.

And then you no longer have any impulse to grimace or ruminate about the topic.

So you return to what you were doing — continuing with your examination of your left arm, say — with no trouble.

Or, indeed, you can think about the memory in a calm and collected way. “Aha. I see what happened there. I see how I have been reacting to it. I understand why. This no longer seems like such a big deal anymore.”

And then, in the future, when you recall this memory, you are now much, much more likely to short-circuit the old pattern of grimacing and ruminating, and instead just notice how you feel about it until the feeling fades and you move on.

And one by one, all sorts of negative reaction patterns start to get re-wired.

I’ll stop here, because the further steps you might go through no longer bear any relation to anything they mention on the Vipassana course.

So that’s basically what they have you learning to do for ten days. And, if I’m going to be totally honest, I’m not particularly impressed by how they do it. But, whatever. It’s basically a good thing. Therefore, going on Vipassana retreats is basically a good idea.

They come, however, with a few drawbacks. And those drawbacks, I’ll discuss in the next blog post.

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One thought on “How (Goenka’s) Vipassana works

  1. Thank you for your illuminating explanation. I now feel that if I go, I’d be better prepared and able to make more of it. You made it very easy to picture. Clearly put forth. 👏 Thanks


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