This is the third in a series of blog posts about the theory and practice of Vipassana (Insight Meditation), as specifically taught by SN Goenka.
In the first post, I tried to laid out the basic nature of the method, and its benefits, as best I could.
In the second, I tried to enumerate and explain the ways in which the Vipassana retreats work to entrap you in their orbit. In other words, I attempted to sift through what I consider to be the “culty” elements of the institution.
This post will try to find a point of balance to end on. I’ll rehearse the benefits and the drawbacks, and then introduce a few points which counterbalance the drawbacks.
Then I’ll introduce one last drawback, and spend the rest of the post trying to get past that.
I. Why the positives outweigh the negatives
So let’s get straight to it.
In my opinion, the benefits of getting ten days to practice the stuff I mentioned in the first post outweigh the drawbacks of the manipulative elements in the second post.
The benefits can be summed up thus.
- The first is that you get a bunch of stuff for free. Lodging and food and water and showers. And you also get meditation instructions.
- But the more important thing is what they take away.
Let me explain it this way.
In any task, there are two parts of it. The first is “actually doing the task”. And the second is deciding whether to do the task in the first place, deciding how urgent it is, figuring out how to do it, deciding how to split up the time and resources, etc. etc.
And so, in collective endeavours, as quickly as we possibly can, we end up dividing up the labour. Ideally, we all agree we want this thing done. So you just sit there and figure all the stuff out. And when you’ve done that, just tell us what to do and when to do it. That way, the whole thing gets done much faster.
The problem is, when you’re alone, you have to do both these things yourself. And that is actually extremely tricky.
Let’s take clearing up your room. The actual clearing up can be very easy — it wouldn’t even take five minutes. But the task of deciding to do it and giving yourself clear instructions to do it right now can be much, much harder. Hence, we can procrastinate for hours or days, even for such a simple task.
So taking the burden of all these moment-to-moment decisions from you — once you’ve freely chosen to allow them to do that for ten days — is a major benefit.
And see, the thing is, it’s not just that they make it easier for you. This actually makes it less dangerous.
Because the mechanism we have to force ourselves to do things we think we “should” can very quickly become very damaging. The typical term for it is the “super-ego” — the bit of your mind that has internalized all the social mechanisms of control you’ve ever come across.
And you do not want that bit of your mind to be the one in charge of your meditation.
So, let’s say you try to just sit at home. Every few minutes, your old habits will kick in, and the temptation will be to get up and check your phone, or watch a video, or do whatever it is you usually do at home. The first ten times you resist, it may be fine. But soon enough, the task of constantly denying yourself will take a huge toll; before long, you will be overcome by despair.
And if you still manage to keep on with it, eventually, you’ll start to be in physical pain. Your instincts will be begging you to get up. And if, at that point, you have to force yourself to stay put… then you’re basically just stabbing your brain, creating deep wounds you’ll eventually have to find a way to heal. The forcing yourself to sit will cause more pain than the actual ache in your legs.
It is possible to maintain your dignity even in a prison or a labour camp. It is possible to just follow their orders externally while keeping your freedom on the inside. But once the violent oppressor is actually in your head, then it’s basically game over.
And that’s the biggest benefit which these Vipassana retreats give you. There’s a sense of community — a lot of doubts which would usually surface get nipped in the bud. “Why am I doing this…? Well, everyone else is doing it, so it must be fine.” This is waaaaaaay more convenient than letting your superego whip you into compliance.
So, just to be clear, I am by no means some cartoon anarchist, refusing to contemplate even the most minor and temporary ceding of authority to others. Everything I’ve just described is not a disadvantage with Vipassana. It’s distinctly a benefit.
On the other hand, there are the drawbacks in the last post. Mainly, the instructions you receive, and the way in which they are given, are liable to mislead you into thinking of the spiritual path as this mindless repetition of a single easily-explained exercise, rather than actually being about the cultivation of understanding and insight. So you’ll see a lot of progress at first, but then your lack of personal understanding means you’ll get stuck, and then mis-attribute what makes the process effective, and fall into the loop of going back through Goenka’s videos where everything makes simple sense again.
However. This drawback is diminished by a few considerations.
Firstly, there’s the fact that you’ve read these blog posts.
By that, I don’t really mean “you’ve now had the trick explained to you, and so you won’t get brainwashed from now on”.
It’s more that you’re the kind of person who reads such things in the first place. This means you’re someone who looks for alternative viewpoints on things, and can sit through them without letting the discomfort and dissonance overwhelm you. That means that you would have been perfectly capable of looking for a critical perspective elsewhere, or developing one yourself.
Secondly, there’s the lack of viable alternatives.
It’s all very well for me to say you should stop using Facebook… but where else are you going to have access to a self-maintaining contact book of everyone you know?
Just so with Vipassana.
Thirdly, there’s what I’ll call the McDonald’s effect.
No matter how unappetizing you might find it to eat there, and how unhealthy in the long term, you at least know what you’re getting when you step into one. So if you’re in a foreign and unfamiliar place, you can at least be assured you’ll be getting something edible when you go through those golden arches, and that it probably won’t give you food poisoning.
Goenka’s annoying, but he’s not that bad. Whereas if you go to some random person’s intensive meditation retreat, you might get something really good… or you might be locked in there with a total nutcase.
So — better the safe and blandly unpleasant option than the potentially dangerous one.
Fourthly, there’s the simple fact of the regression to the mean. The temptation with these things is always to think that this has changed everything forever. And what usually follows is that you find you’re largely in the same position you were before. Usually, this is viewed as something depressing. But, all things considered, this very effect means that no matter how impressionable you are, it probably won’t shift your worldview as much as you initially think it might.
Fifth, and most crucially… is that you’ve got to start somewhere. It doesn’t really matter where you start, so long as you start somewhere vaguely in the right direction. You can always correct course later. It’s not as if your first hundred hours of meditation are going to go that differently with some other teacher and their magic, one-size-fits-all One True Way.
A bit more on the spirit of this point later, though.
II. Wait, so how come there’s still so much blog post left?
With the above, I think I’ve covered most of the basic considerations which might lead you to attend or avoid these retreats.
But there is one major issue which I haven’t addressed yet, even if it has pretty obviously pervaded everything that has come before. I’ll lay it out explicitly now, and the rest of this piece will be dedicated to an attempt to overcome it.
I will, as usual, present the idea via a colourful little analogy.
Let me introduce you to a character I’ll call Virginity Vince.
Virginity Vince has a hobby.
And that is being the first sexual partner for as many different people as possible.
It doesn’t strictly have to be virgins, mind you. A lot of people have had multiple partners in the past, while still maintaining that same sense of innocence you get with first-timers. The main point is how impressionable you are — how likely you are to be influenced by the encounter for the rest of your life; how large a part of your imagination Vince will be able to stake out as his personal domain. As a matter of fact, Vince has a significant sideline in sleeping with lonely older women, largely widows and divorcées, who often fall even harder for him than the 18-year-olds.
Virginity Vince has a… well-oiled routine.
He returns home from his job as a protein powder salesman, showers, applies liberal quantities of hair product and cologne, and then gets in his discount sports car and does the rounds of the local bars.
Once there, he selects a target. He’s gotten really good at noticing people who have a hole in their lives they want to fill, and have recently come round to the idea that a penis might be exactly what would do it for them. He doesn’t need to convince them from scratch; all he needs to do is provide the final step.
With the target selected, he starts his gameplan.
He goes through his perfectly practised sequence of pick-up lines — from the initial greeting to buying them their first drink to the first touch on a bare shoulder, right down to the “Come on, baby… let’s take this elsewhere”. With military precision, he proceeds through the well-rehearsed steps.
And then it’s back to his bachelor pad, with the chilled Lambrini and the plastic roses all laid out ahead of time.
Once they’re naked on his red velvet duvet, he commences his patented Sex Sequence (registered trademark).
He staaaaaaarts aaaaat theee top of the head… theeee top-of-the-head… and caresses them downwards in the same pre-planned, unvarying routine he’s applied to every single one of his previous conquests — tailor-made to fit the archetypal shy virgin.
And when the act is over, he has a pre-prepared routine for that too: showing them out the door, making a show of reluctance to part… and then, with a knowing smile tinged with just a touch of sadness, he leaves with something like…
“We’ll always have tonight…”
“May all beings find real happiness… real peace…”
And then he repeats the exact same procedure the following evening with someone else.
He doesn’t exclusively target one-night stands. He will be willing to meet you again… but only for the exact same routine. There is no deepening of the relationship; there’s no moving on to a greater level of intimacy. There’s just the same cologne, the pick-up lines at the same bar, the same Lambrini, the same plastic roses, and the same Sex Routine, from the top of the head down to the toes.
Now. It’s difficult to pin down precisely what it is about Virginity Vince that so discomfits us.
A friend of his, defending him, might go down the list, trying to corner you into sounding unreasonable.
“What, do you have something against hair products? Or picking people up at a bar? Or caressing an ear, then a nipple, then the other ear, then the inner thigh, in that order? ………..or is that you have something against sex? Is that it? Are you a prude — or worse, some kind of religious fanatic? Do you have a problem with multiple orgasms? Do you think we should all wait for marriage, and that people who have one-night stands should be put to the stake? Are you saying we should only teach abstinence in schools, and outlaw condoms? You puritanical zealot!”
But all this is very much besides the point.
It’s not any single one of the things Virginity Vince does. It’s not even all of the things put together.
It’s something in the attitude behind it, and how it contrasts with the activity he participates in.
For someone who invests sex and physical intimacy with a lot of meaning, Vince is deeply repellent. He takes something sacred or quasi-sacred, and profanes it with the soullessness of his approach and the mechanical way he carries it out.
The key aspect is how Uncanny it is. Like a mannequin done up to look like a family member. It’s about how closely it resembles something we value, but departs in some extremely small and subtle way. This arouses in us the strongest feeling of revulsion — much more than it would if it hadn’t resembled something we valued at all.
I’ve tried to leaven the load with as much humour as I could muster (and, in the end, humour is perhaps the primary means to overcome our feelings for him — viewing him as ridiculous rather than disgusting), but the basic picture should probably remain:
There’s something really off-putting at the thought of losing your virginity to Virginity Vince.
The thought of letting down our barriers and mingling ourselves with… someone like him… is horrifying. The idea that the rest of our romantic lives would indelibly bear the imprint first set out by Vince fills us with disgust. We’d rather spend the night out on the streets, by ourselves, in the cold and rain. I, for one, would rather die alone.
And, see, it’s not as if he’s really a bad person.
Virginity Vince is not a rapist.
He’s not a sadist.
He doesn’t cause anyone any form of direct pain.
A lot of people might even really enjoy having sex with him.
But for some people… he’s just kind of icky.
He makes us feel like we would somehow be reduced by contact with him — that having sex with him would erode something at the very core of our romantic heart.
So, time to bring the analogy back round to its (very obvious) conclusion.
S.N. Goenka is a bit like Virginity Vince.
All the points I mentioned in my previous post are like the cologne and the Lambrini and the pick-up lines. None of these things are very bad in and of themselves. It’s just that, taken together, they can turn us off the people employing them.
Now, of course: we are all a bit like Virginity Vince.
Pretty much everything we do, we do for love and attention. Because the love and attention of other monkeys has always been the thing that gets us everything else of value. This is true of our evolutionary history as a species, and it’s especially true of our history as individuals. For the first, foundational years of lives, our primary skill was in calling attention to ourselves so that other people would come around and give us things. It was pretty much our only skill, besides maybe breathing and shitting.
And that impulse often morphs into fairly weird forms in later life. A plumber spends his time fixing the pipes that funnel out your faeces largely for this reason — because the impulse a monkey has to bring his friends a tasty piece of fruit has somehow evolved into fixing strangers’ toilets.
And gurus are exactly the same. They are hairless apes who have found that making certain noises in front of people makes them congregate around and shower them with attention. And so they keep doing that.
And all that is perfectly fine. It’s just a question of degree. We sense how much someone has sublimated this urge — until, in the end, they do it just to do it, rather than for what it can get them. We sense how much someone is self-aware about the impulses behind their actions — because the same impulses and the same actions are rendered increasingly more tolerable when filtered through that lens of self-awareness.
And what happens when we sense that the person in front of us hasn’t sublimated their urges very much, and isn’t that self-aware, and that what they’re doing has a strong element of manipulative attention-seeking… it sets off negative emotions in us.
And that’s the deal with Virginity Vince.
So let’s be clear. There are a lot of people who are more like Virginity Vince than S.N. Goenka.
And there are a lot of people who are just as much like Virginity Vince as Goenka is. The vast majority of famous gurus and public intellectuals make me feel this way. My most recent bugbear has been “Osho”, or Rajneesh. He’s really been getting my goat lately — partly because his actions were so many orders of magnitude worse than Goenka’s, because his insincerity is so staggeringly titanic in its proportions, and because he’s nevertheless so often correct in what he says, which makes the previous points all the harder to stomach.
And, by the by, you’ll find people like this in every single group of serious meditators. They’ll hang around, waiting for the new guy to start struggling with his weakness and his neuroses and his empty delusions, at which point they’ll come in with an encouraging word and a pat on the shoulder, and get a rush from the emotional connection of being the one to give you a hand up when you’ve fallen into your lowest moment — or just get a kick out of showing off how easily they can go through the long hours of meditation the beginner will be so agitated by. You’ll soon find out why most veterans will hold aloof from the beginners entirely; they’ll just leave ’em to it, and try to avoid the inevitable gushing praise at “how inspirational it was to watch you veterans hold so firm and unperturbed through all of it!”.
But anyway. Even though there are people who give me a worse impression in this respect than Goenka, nevertheless, he is a good example of the kind of thing that gets under my skin — and his organization and teachings are, after all, the object of this sequence of blog posts, so it’s about him that I’ll be speaking.
One last point before I finally get over my anxiety and just get on with it.
There’s a video interview with a Welsh stonecarver that deeply inspired me, and neatly put together a lot of very meaningful ideas I’d come across in different places. I first watched it around the same time I went on my first Vipassana retreat, so the two have become quite interlinked in my memory. I’ve transcribed some of it below.
I love teaching. I love being with students and helping them to find themselves. And I never, ever have told students what to do. Because I believe then, they’ll do what you just told them — they won’t think for themselves. So what I try to do in my teaching is to give students confidence in their own thinking and in their own attitudes. And have faith in that. And help them to find that faith. Because I’m a great believer that students in all classes, in all things in life, are capable of doing everything for themselves, given the right guidance. (…)
So, the way I teach is to let people get in there, and… For example, when they come down to do carving, I just give them a chisel, I tell them nothing. Because I want to find what they do naturally. And it’s surprising how many people will do the right thing, or close to the right thing, by being left alone. And then I’ll encourage them to go further. (…)
And the reward for me, as a result of that, is that I produce so many individuals, and that gives me a lot of pleasure. And nobody that’s been taught by me does anything like me. You know, they don’t become clones of me, in any form. And I think that’s very important.
And often, you find people who have been taught by very great people in different crafts, but you can tell. You can see the influence. Of their mentors, if you wish, in their work. And that annoys me—-it doesn’t annoy me, it upsets me. Because it stops the self coming through.
Ieuan Rees, “On Teaching”
And that’s the core of it. Goenka annoys–no, he doesn’t annoy me. He upsets me. For the reasons described above.
Please let me elaborate a little further on this point. I’m sorry, and thank you — it is currently necessary for me take such a long way round in order to calm down enough to continue.
There’s a story my mother often tells about me.
The OJ Simpson murder trial began on my sixth birthday.
We were in the checkout at the grocery store, buying food for a big dinner. There was a television on the wall playing the court proceedings. This was the first I’d heard of the situation. I asked what was going on. An old man standing behind us explained that they were trying to figure out whether or not this man had killed his wife.
“Oh, that’s easy.” I said. “He obviously didn’t do it.”
The man looked at me, confused.
“Why do you say that?”
“Because she’s his wife, right? He loves her. He married her, after all. Why would he kill her?”
The way my mother tells it, everyone in earshot was floored, and had their breath taken away by the beauty of my purity and innocence.
But the incident stuck deeply in my mind for a slightly different reason. I had a distinct sense of “…wait. They all seemed surprised when I said that. Maybe I’m missing something…”
Over the coming weeks and months, as I realized that he had probably done exactly what he was accused of, I came in contact with a very distinct sensation.
I was upset. I was so, so, so upset. I felt so confused, and so hurt, so personally wounded, down to the depths of my soul. The fact that someone — anyone — had done that left me inconsolable. Just remembering it now has left me crying for half an hour.
Now. Obviously, Goenka is not a murderer. He has improved the lives of many thousands of people. But the fact of the matter is that Goenka induces the same kind of emotional response in me at 31 years of age that OJ Simpson did at 6. And I have no choice but to take this emotion seriously.
There is a genuineness, an innocence, at the root of my aversion to him which is, by that token, simply impossible to deny outright without betraying that which must never, ever be betrayed in me.
Seeing the mindlessness and automatism with which the people who have gone through Goenka’s courses parrot the points he makes and replicate the framework he lays out — without any sign that they have understood it themselves, or could explain it in different words, let alone tell you why it works — makes me feel uncomfortable and slightly nauseous. The same as if a friend were to tell me they’d just had a fling with Virginity Vince.
Now. It has taken me months to finish this stupid fucking blog post.
In large part, it is because I have been grappling with the other side of this.
It is very clear that a large part of my animus comes from jealousy and ego. Every time I think of him, I am confronted with a feeling of powerlessness and insignificance. I dwell on the fact that he’s written himself in the hearts of hundreds of thousands of people, while I rot away in isolation and anonymity. I am all too painfully aware that a lot of my dislike arises from this.
There is also a huge amount of fear: fear of having people feel about me the way I feel about Goenka and Osho and other gurus. Of people sensing the desperation of my need to be needed and appreciated. Of people noticing my Virginity Vince-ness. And so this entire detailed inquiry into their faults is largely driven by the recognition of our points of similarity; my critique of them is part of my self-critique, based on my fear of judgement and being disliked and viewed as creepy and sleazy and manipulative and exploitative. I am profoundly ashamed and embarrassed of myself, and consistently frustrated at how slow I am to shed the parts of myself I dislike. And that colours how I view them; my tendency to dwell on the bits I don’t like about myself leads me to notice first and foremost what I don’t like about them.
All this, when added to my emotional frailty, has made it very difficult to trust my own motivations. I find it very challenging to hold to my point of view when it contrasts so strongly with that of others, and even more challenging to share it.
But, however slowly, one lives and learns.
So, to sum up.
There are some basic reasons why you might not with to go to these retreats. But there are some very obvious counter-reasons to go.
But then there are two much more serious reasons not to go — things that make us feel aversion to Goenka and the Vipassana institution.
The first is jealousy and ego and fear.
The second is a direct, pure feeling of being upset.
The first is something we should try and get over, even if it is extremely difficult to begin doing in a serious way. But that is not what I am going to be discussing here.
With the second thing, it’s even more difficult. Because there, you are not fully convinced that this is the right thing to be doing. And it is this issue which I will be trying to address.
Chances are, you almost certainly won’t feel any of this as strongly as I do. The Welsh stonecarver I quoted loves teaching. It means a lot to him. So it upsets him when he sees someone doing it in a way which contrasts with his values. And I’m the same. This means a lot to me. There’s nothing else in my life except the quest for enlightenment. And so, I’ll be especially sensitive to this. When I see someone acting in the way I described in my previous post, whether consciously or unconsciously, it has an exaggerated effect on me.
But if you’re the kind of person who has stuck with this so far, you probably feel at least a little bit of the same thing — if not about Goenka, then surely about someone else.
And so, I thought it useful to try and share with you ways in which we can overcome the fact that we’re “legitimately” upset.
I will present two main points for your consideration.
III. Following the law of nature
In these posts, I have tried to keep my focus as narrow as possible, and avoid any critique of Goenka’s vision at a serious, substantive level.
I will make one exception here, to help me explain the point I’m trying to make:
I think his take on impermanence is so shallow an understanding that it borders on being a misunderstanding.
III.1. Insight into impermanence
For Goenka, liberating insight is almost entirely reducible to the understanding that phenomena are impermanent (anicca) — more specifically, that the pleasant and unpleasant physical sensations fluctuate, and we should therefore avoid becoming attached to the pleasant and averse to the unpleasant.
For the moment, I am going to suggest we think about things a different way, instead.
If you don’t understand something very well, you will form inaccurate expectations, and engender disappointment when they fail.
If you understand something very well, you will form more accurate expectations, and will experience disappointment less frequently.
If you understand something perfectly, you will form perfect expectations, and will never be disappointed.
As such, the deeper and better your understanding, the less you will suffer.
I’ll give you an example.
Imagine a person. We’ll call them Person A.
Person A has no notion that the world outdoors has varying levels of brightness.
They will thus be absolutely terrified when the night starts to fall, and when things just suddenly go bright out of nowhere around dawn.
Now, imagine that Person B understands that light and darkness are impermanent. This person will be less terrified than the first. In this, Goenka and I agree entirely.
But now imagine Person C, who understands not just that light and darkness are impermanent… but rather, that there are roughly 12 hours of light followed by roughly 12 hours of dark. So, it’s not just that the two alternate randomly, with no rhyme or reason. There’s a regularity to the flux. And the better you understand the particular characteristics of the flux, the happier you’ll be.
And so, imagine Person D understands the notion of the changing of the seasons.
(………….and let’s assume they don’t live on the equator…)
We have a year which lasts 365 days. For half that time, the hours of light grow longer. And for the other half, the hours of darkness are in ascendance.
This person will not be surprised that, sometimes, there’s only 8 hours of darkness in a night… and other times, there are only 8 hours of light in a day.
The winter would probably scare the shit out of Person C. Not so with Person D. Because it aligns with their expectations.
Last one. Imagine that Person E understands that all this happens… not just because that’s simply the way things are, but rather, because the earth is a spheroid object which is spinning around the sun. When one half of the sphere is facing the sun, it’s day; when the other half is facing it, it’s night.
And because it spins on a tilted axis (with more radical differences the farther you are from the equator), the amount of daylight fluctuates through the year. When one end of the planet is tilting away from the Sun, it’s winter, and the daylight is shorter; when it’s tilting towards the sun, it’s summer, and the daylight is longer.
(And let’s say that they understand this really, really well. They didn’t just half-listen while this was explained in school, then forgot about it. It’s something that is very firmly built into their picture of what’s going on in the world.)
Person D won’t be shocked when it’s dark and cold in winter… but they might very well find themselves wishing that this winter day could have a few more hours of daylight, and be disappointed that this isn’t happening.
Person E, however, wouldn’t find themselves thinking that. Not really. Because, for them, when they picture a winter’s day having more hours of daylight… they’d have to picture the Earth reversing its spin, and the other side of the world being suddenly plunged into darkness. Or the entire tilt of the Earth being switched.
To think of a few more hours daylight in winter, to them, is to think of cataclysm and mass chaos.
And so, when they’re miserable and cold and wishing for warm weather, that feeling would manifest instead as the thought:
Gee, I wish I could move somewhere warmer…
Which is something they could actually do.
Rather than wishing for the whole planet to move. Which… probably won’t happen.
You hopefully get my point.
It’s almost never enough to simply realize that things change.
That is not going to have very fundamental effects on your levels of suffering.
It’s a deeply embedded understanding of how things change that will lead you to develop a picture of the world that won’t leave you constantly surprised and disappointed. That’s why it’s called “insight” — vipassana. Because the deeper and more fundamental your insight, the freer you are.
And, obviously, this doesn’t just apply to the world “outside” of us — the Sun, the Earth, etc.
More fundamental than that, in terms of our happiness, is understanding the “internal” fluctuations of our mind. Which is what this meditation business is all about.
There’s one more element to mention. So far I’ve been explaining this in terms of “greater insight leading to more accurate expectations”.
But there’s something else at play here. And that’s “greater insight leading to a shift in your desires”.
So, rather than take the example of the changing daylight, let’s take the changing weather as a whole.
A meteorologist (weather scientist) and I have the exact same knowledge that the weather changes. Just in terms of understanding that sometimes it’s sunny and sometimes it’s rainy, there’s nothing to choose between us.
However. When I think of the weather, all I think about is its aesthetics or its convenience to me.
When a meteorologist thinks of the weather, though, there’s something else going on. They’re actually interested in it. Sure, they’ll appreciate it when it’s sunny outside, or grumble at it when it rains on their parade. But they’ll also geek out about it, rain or shine.
So, I’ll step outside in the morning (……maybe make it early afternoon…) and go:
Ugh, it’s raining again today. Guess I gotta bring the umbrella. Gee, it’s been cloudy for days now… when’s it gonna be sunny?
Whereas a meteorologist will go something like:
Oh, it’s raining again. Better bring an umbrella. That’s interesting, though; last week it seemed that the barometric pressure would be dropping — that the ridge of high pressure coming in from the West would have passed this area and moved northwards. Huh. What’s going on there? If you compare it to records from previous years, there seems to be a shift in………
What I’m saying is that, the more you understand something, the more that your relationship with it shifts.
At first, you only care about it in terms of how it affects you. But soon enough, you start to care about understanding it for its own sake.
And, after a certain point, the pleasure you get from understanding it outweighs the pleasure you get from how it affects you practically.
Like, a stamp collector gets pleasure out of collecting stamps itself — not just the fact that they can be sure they’ll always have a stamp available to send a letter.
A mechanic gets pleasure out of tinkering with cars, not just the safety of knowing they won’t be stranded if their car breaks down.
A judo blackbelt gets pleasure from practicing and competing in judo, not just knowing they can handle themselves if someone picks a fight with them in the street.
Just so. If you really get into the habit of self-observation, the pleasure you gain from noticing you’re in discomfort actually starts to outweigh the discomfort you’re in. Just the same as a meteorologist may get more pleasure from thinking about what caused the rainy weather than they are made uncomfortable by the lack of sunlight.
Of course, this usually only goes to a certain point. If a hurricane comes out of nowhere and destroys the meteorologist’s home and causes harm to their family, it’s natural that they’d be more put out by the disturbance to their life than intrigued by the abnormality of the weather event. But still — this shift in your approach to things can go a remarkably long way. The question of exactly how far is, perhaps, the fundamental question of sagehood. I’ll keep you posted if and when I find out more.
So that’s just a general point about how and why it is that insight affects your happiness.
III.2. The nature of impermanence
OK. So. How do things change, then?
Real simply stated:
They try not to change. And they fail. And the ones we end up seeing are the ones that fail more slowly.
A little less simply:
Well, firstly, there aren’t really discrete “things”. There’s just the universe as a whole. In the same way that what “really exists” is the ocean, and individual waves are just a part of that.
But there are certain patterns in the universe which are more discernible than others.
(There are tiny little ripples of waves that only last a second. And there are really big ones that last minutes, or hours. And then there are currents, like the Gulf Stream, which last for centuries, or longer.)
And these patterns have a self-perpetuating mechanism. There’s something about them that makes them roughly maintain their shape into the next moment.
The patterns which do not have a self-perpetuating mechanism disappear very quickly.
Those that last long enough to be noticed have a particularly effective mechanism.
So, like, think of stars. They don’t just wink out of existence willy-nilly. They have something holding them together, so that they last for billions of years. And yes, they are different every moment… but not *that* different. Stars don’t go from “burning mass of hydrogen” to “tree-shaped clump of goo” to “forty quadrillion ballerinas dancing tango”. They go from “burning mass of hydrogen” to “differently arranged burning mass of hydrogen” to… you get it.
OK. So. Biology works the same as physics, in this sense. There are certain patterns of molecules called cells. And certain patterns of cells called species. And these species perpetuate themselves. The ones that don’t aren’t there for us to talk about.
And the same is true with social patterns: groups of people and ideas. They have a certain aptitude to spread among us. The ones that have a very low aptitude don’t spread, and thus do not get discussed.
For example. “Let’s make a club where we kill ourselves at every club meeting.” Such a club would not spread much. And so none of us have ever seen or heard of such a club. (There’s no shortage of “Let’s make a club where we kill those other people”, though…)
OK. So. Here’s my last example.
Let’s imagine two video games which are virtually identical in every important way.
Except one of those video games has a mechanic where you get bonuses for logging on daily. Log on three days in a row, and you get 10 gold coins. Ten days in a row, and you get a 100 gold coins.
Which game do you think will have people logging in more often?
Or what if one of the games offers bonuses if you get one of your friends to start playing it?
Which game do you think will have more players?
Goenka and his Vipassana courses are like the video game with the exploitative mechanic. The way they operate is more likely to lead to other people coming to their courses and giving them donations.
Put in a different way: there are billions of monkeys making noises. And some of them make noises in a way that make other monkeys pay attention, and go and get other monkeys to listen too. And the monkey that makes noises in the way best suited to grab other monkeys’ attention, and get them to bring still more monkeys to come and listen, will get more and more monkeys to come and listen to the noises, and start repeating the noises.
…up to a point. Because even stars do not last forever.
So that’s a really, really simple primer on the underlying logic (or, in Goenka’s language, “dhamma”, or “law of nature”) dictating the way things change.
And once you understand that, you slowly stop getting so disappointed by these things. Little by little, you start to deepen your understanding of this dhamma — start seeing how it manifests itself in different kinds of phenomena — and you slowly start to move away from our default mode of delusive thinking.
Because we usually don’t think this way. We usually think the opposite. We view people as acting towards an end, or telos. And we think they’re doing what they’re doing because they willed themselves to do it, because they want to.
And then we look at other things, and apply the same logic. We think the viruses are trying to kill us, because they hate us. Or the sky is raining on us, because we’ve made it sad.
Well, this is basically the same thing, but backwards. The sun isn’t parching a desert because it’s angry and wants to hurt the lizards, or warming a meadow because it’s happy and wants to help the deer. It’s simply doing its thing — the thing which allows it to continue into the next moment, in a way that maintains itself as closely as possible to how it was the moment before. If it changes too much, it will cease to be recognizable as the sun, and thus “disappear”; if it doesn’t change enough, and fails to adapt, it will also disappear.
(But because the sun is a relatively stable pattern in spacetime, that’s not going to happen. It has hit upon a real good groove, and will keep following its basic process for billions of years.)
And so, the deeper your understanding of this dhamma, the less anger and confusion you’ll feel at diseases. It’s just a virus, trying to maintain itself and spreading. I’m going to try and stop it spreading, because it would prevent me from maintaining myself and spreading. But I don’t necessarily have to be angry at it while I do that (or, more accurately: the better I understand this point, the less angry I’ll be).
It’s just doing its thing. Trying to maintain itself into the next moment. Just like everything else in the universe.
And same with Goenka and his courses. He’s just a meme which is trying to exist and spread. The other thousands of meditation teachers are other memes which are trying to spread. His meme is more viral than the other memes, because it exploits the holes in our psychology better than the others do. And that’s that. Sure, you can try to do things differently. But no point getting angry at him. No point even feeling distressed. It’s just the way these things work.
So. Let’s speak a little more about how this general trend of impermanence manifests itself in social terms.
The history of ideologies is a history of idol-worship and authoritarianism.
Because we’re monkeys. We evolved in small group units, with authority being invested in individual monkeys. That’s the organizational mechanism that we settled on in our evolutionary history (or rather — the mechanism which, in settling itself, made us).
But then we transition to massive, massive group units. At first city states, then nations, then transnational movements like Christianity, Islam, Buddhism, global capitalism etc.
But we’re still running on the same hardware. So we try, as best we can, to understand these massive group units in the same way we did the small ones — that is, we look for individuals who are the leaders of this group. Because that’s something that fits our pre-existing framework. Rather than thinking “This social group is a Leviathan unto itself; a body politic which is deserving of being perceived as an independent unity as much as any single living organism, or any other part of nature.” Which would require something of a departure from our instinctive mode of operating.
Thus, Christian ideas begot a fixation on the person of Jesus of Nazareth. Buddhist ideas begot a fixation on the person of Siddhartha Gautama. Republican ideas begot a fixation on Napoleon. Marxist ideas begot a fixation on a Lenin or a Mao. Now we have Silicon Valley capitalism and Elon Musk — even though the individual person of Elon Musk has virtually no power to do anything, or handle on the titanic squid monster of the ideology and social system he stands as a figurehead for. Or take Greta Thunberg and environmentalism. What the heck does she personally have to do with the idea of not obliterating our planet? Not much — it’s just that our minds are looking for a single person to coalesce a complex issue around, and she’s the one that happened to go viral.
And just so with this set of ideas. The 20th Century demanded a watered-down form of Buddhism, one that comes with no philosophical complications and requires no radical lifestyle changes beyond vegetarianism and an insipid teetotalism — something that can be easily consumed, quickly and en masse. And so the “Insight Meditation movement” begot a fixation on Goenka and his product.
This is the pattern of things, a result of the nature of the human mind, as it manifests itself individually and collectively. The set of ideas which will, in the short term, best consolidate itself and spread is one which coalesces around a single person, and keeps its doctrine down to a few, simple points.
The process of internal insight will reveal the core mechanisms of this to you: our hankering for deliverance in human form, and for short-term relief from doubt, regardless of the consequent long-term confusion. Watch how you react to the therapist or doctor who ends up healing you: it’s to their person that the loyalty and gratitude will first gravitate, not to the science of medicine, the infrastructure of caretaking, or the evolution of society.
So that’s my main argument as to why Vipassana is basically, fundamentally fine in its current form.
It’s just like the sun in space, or a wave on the ocean. The virus analogy is actually a very good one. Viruses, ideally, wouldn’t kill you or cause you harm. Because if you die, they’re out on the street. It’d be like burning down the tenement you live in. All they want is to be along for the ride. They want you to host them. Because without you, there’s nowhere for them to exist.
And just so with Goenka. He’s dead now. The only way for that pattern to exist in the present moment, in any form, is if people keep playing his video recordings, so he can live on in our heads. All the more so for his teaching; from the very beginning, the only place that it could continue to exist is in our heads.
So Goenka, and his teaching, are just momentary ripples in the ocean of existence — patterns in a web. And these patterns are just following their self-perpetuation protocol, trying to roll onwards into the future, and spread farther and farther.
So, no matter what you think of Vipassana retreats, they’re just adhering to the law of nature; to hate it is to hate the law of nature.
And you shouldn’t hate the law of nature.
For one thing, you’ll come off the worse in that trade.
And for another, it’s only by learning to love it that one can find a new basis for happiness, beyond the vagaries of our private fates.
…OK. Next point.
IV. Mastering your revulsion response
IV.1. Physical self-preservation
We are biological beings: living creatures designed to stay that way as long as possible.
What this means is that we seek out things that will help us stay alive, and avoid things that might kill us.
Try picturing a little furry creature, making its way around the world.
It perceives something nice nearby, and goes towards it. A pleasant, food-like smell. A cool, open space when it’s hot. A warm, enclosed space when it’s cold.
It perceives something not nice nearby, and avoids it. Imagine it coming across a bush with some thorns or barbs on it. Watch as it squeaks, recoils, and then shivers any time it draws near to the bush again.
That’s us. We can satisfactorily explain the vast, vast majority of our behaviour as some form or another of that basic pattern.
Now. What happens when this furry creature comes across something useful or dangerous is that it switches modes.
Before, it had been in Exploration Mode. It had a wide scope of awareness, and was on the lookout for many things, many of which it might not have seen before. So it was very open minded, very flexible.
But once it finds something relevant, it changes things up.
The first thing to note is that its awareness narrows in scope. It homes in on the useful or dangerous object. Other parts of its awareness fall away.
The second thing to note is that it starts acting more automatically; it falls back on direct, simple patterns of pre-programmed behaviour.
Why? Because the Exploration Mode is precisely about juggling through and sorting a great many things. It accordingly has quite a complex operating procedure. In other words, it uses a lot of energy; it’s inefficient. If we pursue an object we really need while still in this mode, we’ll get muddled — we’ll have our attention drawn towards irrelevant things, like the texture of the soil beneath us, or the mating calls of the birds around us, or the dappled pattern of the sunlight passing through the swaying leaves and reflecting on the swirling eddies of the stream, etc. etc. Our actions will be accordingly slowed and hampered. And the desirable object might well go away in the meantime. Thus, once the Exploration Mode has identified a relevant object, we can fall back on the efficiency of response patterns which don’t rely on the massive, unwieldy apparatus of full consciousness and perception.
And the more desirable the object is perceived as, the more extreme the narrowing-down of consciousness, and the more instinctual, direct, and pre-programmed our response to it is.
This is even clearer when in the presence of a dangerous object. The furry animal perceives it, and then — bang. Nothing else exists. It just has to run run run run run… or attack attack attack attack attack. Or freeze in place and play dead. The three classic survival responses. And the more dangerous the object, the more intense this mode-switch is: the more narrow the focus, the more instinctual and inflexible the behaviour.
Now. As humans, we have an abnormally strong exploration mode — we are able to take into account a staggering quantity of factors, in comparison to other animals.
This has some funny consequences. For example:
A baby gazelle is ready to sprint within seconds of being jettisoned from the womb.
A baby human is absolutely fucking useless in every way for literally years.
In exchange for this extremely inconvenient characteristic, we have the ability to adjust our patterns of instinctual behaviour.
A gazelle will respond to threat always and invariably in the same way. If its usual defence mechanisms don’t work, it will just keep freaking out and trying to do them anyway until it dies.
By contrast, different humans will respond in different ways, depending on their early childhood experiences. And even after then, we have the ability to keep making adjustments. We can go into Exploration Mode towards our own mental processes, wiggle our way through the tangle, and tinker, edit, rewrite, rework…
So. Let’s say two cavemen were to get into a fight.
The first serious action would probably be this: one human would swing their fist at the other’s face.
This makes sense. The human is clever. It knows that if it can impair the sight, breathing, or brain function of the other human, it has won the fight.
Let’s take the position of the other human. At this point, it perceives a threat — incoming fist. And so, all other parts of the environment get shut out for now. And it engages its instinctual defence pattern.
In this case, it closes its eyelids and scrunches together its facial muscles, to protect its eyeballs. And it leans backwards, to put distance between its face and the onrushing fist.
Problem is: neither of these two things are the best response — it’s just the easiest reflex for evolution to fall into. It’s probably better than just standing there, but not by all that much. You see — shutting its eyes means it takes away its main means of information-gathering. That makes it very difficult to avoid the next punch, let alone run away or counter-attack.
What’s more, leaning backwards exposes its chin. That’s an extremely sensitive spot; striking it acts as a lever, spinning the head around rapidly, causing maximal disturbance to the brain, and thus knocking the human out and rendering it defenceless.
So. What should it do instead?
The exact opposite, basically.
You keep your eyes open as long as possible, and tilt your head forwards, tucking your chin in. You then move using the most distant muscles of your body possible: your feet, legs, and hips, and torso, not your neck and upper back.
But how on earth do you do that? You’re going against the most hard-wired response pattern we have!
Well. That’s the thing.
First off, you try and de-couple the stimulus from the response pattern. In other words, you try to stop your mind from leaving Exploration Mode. Instead of following your instincts, you instead hold back and do nothing. Then you start to train a new response pattern.
That’s what they do in boxing gyms. And that, incidentally, is what makes or breaks you as a boxer. The people who go on to do it well don’t mind getting punched in the face that much. That’s why they’re able to stay calm and quickly learn the new response pattern — because the initial self-preservation response just wasn’t as strong. They’re natural thrill-seekers. As a group species, it pays to have one or two members who are a bit weird this way, so you can have them on the front lines. And then to have someone who’s a bit weird the other way, a bit more of a coward, so they can think of throwing rocks from the back, and then maybe invent slings, and so on.
Anyway. So in a boxing gym, over the course of training, you will have hundreds and hundreds and hundreds of punches thrown at you, in drills and light sparring. And you will slowly learn to stop screwing your eyes shut and turning away, and instead keep them open. You’ll get tapped on the face a few times as a result, but that’s fine. You keep doing it, and eventually, you’re able to largely keep your eyes open, or open them again quickly. Slowly but surely, the dips and weaves and pivots you’ve been drilling will take the place of your previous flinching.
So what’ve we established?
In order to avoid getting punched in the face, counter-intuitively, you have to suspend your instinctual defence mechanisms and instead learn new ones.
Now. Even outside of a fist-fight, this is extremely important in our lives. A lot of the pain we cause ourselves is because we perceive something as a threat to our physical existence, and then immediately go into fight-or-flight mode.
So, you hear about someone getting sick and dying. Or read about someone getting in a car crash and dying. Or really anything bad happening in the news. And what happens next? The furry animal flinches, squeals, and flees.
Even without any specific reminders, we have the general understanding that we too are going to die. And if every time you think of that, you start throwing punches or running away screaming or freezing in fear, then you’ll probably dig yourself an early grave.
And so, the same logic applies.
In order to live better, we have to learn to suspend our most fundamental response patterns and shift them to something more useful to us.
This is why the charnel ground contemplations — sitting around in the spot where they throw the dead bodies, or at least imagining it — form such an integral part of traditional satipatthana practice (“the establishment of mindfulness” — or what Goenka calls Vipassana). It’s about stopping these maladaptive reactions to the thought of injury and death, which lie at the root of so much of our behaviour, and replacing them with more useful ones.
III.2. Mental self-preservation
Alright. Now here’s the key thing.
We don’t just have these responses for threats to our physical self-preservation.
We have them for threats to our mental self-preservation, or attacks on our personality.
Let’s say me and my hunter-gatherer comrades were one day attacked by a sabre-toothed tiger or something. And let’s say I were to be bitten by those sabre-teeth. That would be bad.
But let’s say me and my hunter-gatherer comrades were one day attacked by a coin-swinging hypnotist or something. And let’s say he were to waggle his fingers, mutter some words, and totally change my system of values. He could make it so that instead of wanting to keep myself alive, I could want to kill myself, and would jump off the nearest cliff. Or he could make it so that instead of benefiting my family and friends, and keeping them alive, I wanted to cause them harm and kill them.
That, you see, would also be bad. That could, in fact, be worse than the first scenario.
And so we have the exact same defence mechanisms in place for when we perceive our minds to be under threat.
When we perceive a physical object that could somehow overpower or infiltrate our bodies and mess with its internal order, we respond in a certain way. When we perceive an object that could somehow overpower or infiltrate our mind and mess with its internal order, we respond in exactly the same way. Because our mind is the main thing keeping us alive. Take it away, and you’d need feeding tubes and ventilators and all sorts of hullabaloo.
And that, I reckon, is what’s going on when we react badly to Goenka, or Virginity Vince, or that one singer / movie director / Youtuber you really hate. You sense that something is trying to sneak in and erode your most deeply held beliefs — the most essential bits of your mind and personality. That is to say: your ideals of beauty, of ethics, and truth.
So here’s the thought.
Imagine you’re trying to repeat a sequence of numbers in your head. Someone has just told you a phone number or something, and you don’t have a pen and paper to hand, and so you have to keep repeating it in your head so you don’t forget it until you can write it down.
And let’s say there are traffic noises coming from outside. Perhaps that’ll be a little distracting, but not so bad.
Or let’s say there’s people walking along the sidewalk, trying to have a conversation. That’s more distracting. Because our mind recognizes that as something meaningful, not just noise, and so will try to pay attention to it and figure it out. And that means that it would be more difficult to keep repeating that number in your head.
Now. Imagine there’s someone in the same room as you, repeating a different sequence of numbers.
That, you see, would be disastrous.
Precisely because it is so close to what we’re trying to do, it will be maximally distracting. It will intermingle with the sequence we’re trying to hold in mind, and thus be the single most disruptive input we could have. The single most eroding influence to the thing we’re trying hardest to preserve — precisely because it’s close enough to stand a real chance of changing it.
Or try to imagine singing a song in your head while someone else sings a very similar song, just with a few notes changed around.
The most injurious object that could be approaching you and disrupt your body is the sharp point of a knife, or a bullet. This is a small point which can pierce straight through your defences.
Just so, the most injurious object to our core sense of values isn’t anything that looks big. It’s something small — something that can find its way through the cracks in our defences and expose us at our most vulnerable.
That’s why we’re way more scared of snakes and spiders than we are of elephants or even tigers. The danger of the large animal is obvious; that of the apparently innocuous small animal is harder to spot, and thus, we have to make sure we’re especially wary of it.
Or, even worse — something that looks benign, but isn’t. Mushrooms and berries are usually good. But poisonous ones… oh no! It will sneak through our defences as a desirable object, and then undermine us from the inside. Better be especially, especially careful about these.
And it is precisely this acute sense of absolute mental danger that is being activated when we recognize that uncanny approach of something that looks like something really, really good……. but is just slightly off, somehow.
Cue absolute terror, complete revulsion.
I have no justification for this section except my own indulgence.
A seminal experience in my life was watching the anime Neon Genesis Evangelion in my mid-teens.
The whole schtick is that it appears, at first glance, to be just another show about teenagers piloting giant robots to fight aliens and save the Earth. And then it very rapidly morphs into something else.
See, the ‘aliens’ invading Earth, and the ‘robots’ designed specifically to combat them, have the capacity to generate this thing called an “A.T. Field”, which can deflect all manner of conventional weapons.
It looks like this.
And, like everything else in the show, it soon evolves from sci-fi plot device to existential set-piece.
Turns out the “A.T.” in “A.T. Field” stands for Absolute Terror.
And it is the boundary that keeps each mind — each pocket of awareness — as a separate entity, so that we all don’t meld into one indistinguishable mental mulch. The “aliens” and “robots” are merely able to extend this barrier of consciousness into a physical one.
This is the light of my soul. A sacred territory in which no one may intrude. Aren’t you Lilim [humans] even aware that your AT field is merely that wall that encloses every mind that exists?
So that’s what’s happening with the kind of thing we’ve been talking about in this essay.
Your A.T. Field is being triggered, and shooting up.
At a fundamental level, you’re not doing anything wrong. It’s the most natural thing in the world.
It is, in fact, the very first practice of the first step on the Noble Eightfold path. You start with Right Intention, and the first way you manifest Right Intention is nekkhamma — renunciation. Another crucial term for it is viveka — commonly translated as seclusion.
The first thing you do when you step on the path is to step away from things that take your mind in the wrong direction. You put as much distance as you can from things that would contaminate your mind. Otherwise you will never be able to begin to purify it.
This point cannot be overstated.
This response — this revulsion, this desire to separate oneself off and preserve one’s mental arrangement — is as legitimate as they come.
But, see — it’s exactly the same thing as getting punched in the face.
Past a certain point, our natural, legitimate response stops being useful to us.
Getting emotionally agitated in response to people who piss us off is only going to make things worse for us. Raising up our A.T. Fields at the drop of a hat is not a particularly healthy habit.
Much more useful would be staying chill and doing pretty much anything other than going around in circles in our head about how much we hate these people.
The first, and very obvious, point is that this response prevents us from ever learning anything. If everyone who says something contrary to your pre-existing beliefs causes the same response in you as a scorpion or feral dog, then you’re going to end up very stupid indeed, and potentially even voting for Trump come November.
This is something we all have to go through at some point. Those of us who still argue about everything and can’t stand the presence of alternative opinions will end up either very lonely, surrounded by idiots, or extremely tense in whatever relationships still remain.
But the more subtle point is that, unless you find a way to seriously mitigate your revulsion response to people who do the things you like, but in a cheaper, emptier way… then you are going to be miiiiiiiiiserable.
I mean, just think about it.
The more you invest in something, work on it, reflect on it, develop it… the more refined and subtle your take on it becomes.
And that, by definition, means that the more unrefined and unsubtle most of the other takes on it become, relatively speaking. Such that, if ever you reach a spot where your take is extremely well-developed, then the vast majority of other takes will necessarily be less developed.
So the only solution is, and can only ever be, learning to make it so that that causes you less pain.
If that were the only problem, then it would more or less be fine. The thing is that the structures in place to spread and share people’s takes on things magnify this effect, rather than diminish it.
Especially in a system whereby institutions are competing to make money — in other words, to exploit you; or in other words, to get resources from you and expand their operations, rather to than make you a wise person — then the less well-developed versions of things will generally tend to rise to the top.
Besides — the more subtle and refined your take on something is, typically, the less likely you are to be able to stomach the kind of disingenuous behaviour necessary to reach the platforms of worldly power.
Putting this all together: for every person who has an excellent take on something, there will be more people who have a slightly less excellent take, and are a lot more willing to play the game — pander to the producers, the publishers, the Twitter and YouTube algorithms, etc.
So unless we can learn a way to mitigate this instinctual survival mechanism, we are going to be so exhausted fending off the constant prodding of dipshits that we won’t have the energy to do anything else. Better to let it all hit you and slough right off, like water off a duck’s back.
And…………..OK, I guess I just can’t get around this point.
The fact of the matter is that there is a place in your mind which is absolutely and completely inviolable. Which cannot be hurt by any factor of experience whatsoever, no matter how traumatic it would be to the other places in your mind. Somewhere even Virginity Vince can’t weasel his little weasel into. A place more illuminated than what we typically think of as our soul; a place more sacred than that which any self-imposed barriers to our awareness could ever defend.
The simplest way to describe it is probably as a retreat backwards, to a higher or more distant vantage point (even if that does come with the unfortunate side-effect of implying coldness or indifference). Being in the snake pit will probably leave you with snake bites. Standing at the edge of it, looking downwards, you can see all the snakes just as well as you could before (better, even), but you’ll be as safe as if you were many miles away.
Basically, you stop identifying so much with the individual contents of your experience, and identify instead as the very field of experience itself.
The classic metaphor here is of a mirror. A mirror is not affected by any of the images which it displays. You could show it the ugliest thing or the most beautiful thing in the world, and it wouldn’t cause a single change in the mirror itself. If you show it something else in the next moment, not a trace of the previous thing would remain. The mirror wouldn’t be relieved that the ugly was replaced by the less ugly, or disappointed that the beautiful was replaced by the less beautiful. It would simply reflect the new view before it.
And it is simply the case that consciousness can be like a mirror, under certain conditions. It is not an innate fact of consciousness that it has to operate as it usually operates — with pre-determined emotional responses to particular inputs, or subdivided in certain ways which we think are necessary or universal, simply because they were previously omnipresent in our experience. You simply have to change the patterns of neural activation in the human brain for experience to be constituted very differently — to say nothing of non-human forms of the process which we might tentatively identify, for want of a better word, as “consciousness”.
And this is another place where Goenka (and the Theravadin Buddhist tradition in general) is confused and, as a result, confusing.
He sticks to the Buddhist nomenclature and classifications, whereby the highest expression of these states is known as nirvana or nibbana. The term more literally means extinguishing, like of a flame. But Goenka’s preferred translation/interpretation is “The Unconditioned; the ultimate reality which is beyond mind and matter”.
However, in a sense, it’s totally conditioned. It obviously relies on a great many factors to be possible; otherwise, there would be no point to Buddhist practices and the Eightfold Path. And obviously, if someone is in a state like this, and you split their head in two with a cleaver, they will no longer be in a state like this. Beyond that, it is conditioned by the very nature of space, time, and consciousness; that nature is not subverted by any change in our mindset. These states are just as much a manifestation of reality as anything else. There is no shift in the underlying physical and metaphysical status — no question of a fundamental escape from the laws of Nature.
But there are two related senses in which “unconditioned” is an excellent label for this kind of experience.
Usually, when you focus on a particular kind of mental object or experiential content, your mind immediately and irresistibly embarks on a set sequence of movements.
To illustrate this, let’s take the absolute classic Spinoza example.
And in this way each of us will pass from one thought to another, as each one’s association has ordered the images of things in the body.
For example, a soldier, having seen traces of a horse in the sand, will immediately pass from the thought of a horse to the thought of a horseman, and from that to the thought of war, and so on.
But a farmer will pass from the thought of a horse to the thought of a plow, and then to that of a field, and so on.
And so each one, according as he has been accustomed to join and connect the images of things in this or that way, will pass from one thought to another.
Ethics, Book II, Proposition 18, Scholium.
(Edwin Curley translation)
And then, depending on whether these objects help our survival — or, to be more precise, to the extent that they reinforce the currently existing order in our bodies and minds — we feel pleasure or pain. And subsequently, if left unchecked, we feel craving or aversion, and start to instinctively flinch away or get dragged towards these things.
Essentially, our consciousness is like a stream, which is determined to go this way or that way when given a certain input, based on the combination of our innate biological characteristics and how these have been shaped by our past experiences.
This combination is the internal conditioning of our minds. And it is mostly this that the historical Buddha was referring to when he talked about karma. This chain of mental cause and effect — not so much the “external” notion of cause and effect between physical objects. This, actually, was probably his single most important innovation to ancient Indian thought, and kind of the lynchpin of his whole system. (cf. Gombrich, What the Buddha Thought)
And the point is: in this inviolate state of mind I am describing, you won’t really be subject to this kind of past conditioning. Your experience will not be driven around by these pre-existing patterns of association and emotional response, with your awareness being carried helplessly by its current. You will have become untethered from these layers of experiential filtering.
Often, no mental object whatsoever will arise, for an extended period; and in the same stroke, no sense of an observer arises either.
But if a mental object does arise, then you will be presented with the same initial perception (e.g. a hoofprint), but you will not go down that particular tributary of the stream of consciousness (horseman –> war; plow –> field…).
You either remain there, in that first moment of perception, without elaboration…
or you see all the initial steps of the stream of thought you would have taken, as if in a sudden flash, without having to actually go through it…
or you embark on a new stream of thought — one in which it the mental object in question is perceived in an entirely new way.
We may say that, in this frame of mind, the object is imbued with absolute, rather than relative, value. It is not good, as opposed to some other thing, which is bad (relative value). It is good simply because it is itself (absolute value). What else could it be, other than exactly itself? A hoofprint is what it is; the image of a hoofprint is what it is… and that is that. And what’s more, as God famously put it on the first six days… we see that it is good. And its goodness doesn’t take away from any other thing; that other thing is also exactly itself, and thus also has exactly the same absolute value.
And, for that matter, when exactly did I become so sure that these were two separate things? The need to distinguish between them seems irrelevant now — because there’s no practical difference between mental contents, some of which will cause me pleasure and help me, and some of which will cause me pain and hurt me, the need to separate objects off from each other does not arise. And so your mind stops making distinctions between them; you start literally perceiving them that way; and you realize that the world of distinctly different things you inhabit was a mental construct which is not actually absolute.
And now I’ve already kind of slipped into the second point: just as our automatic patterns of thought, our conditioning, is suspended… so also is our notion of conditionality itself.
To contemplate something as conditioned, you have to mentally separate it off from this other thing, and then create the concept of their (causal) relation. You understand an event or experience by internally dividing it into at least these three mental constructs, which your mind then juggles in place, simultaneously.
Well, the internal trigger which sets off this process of division and mental construction is not activated in these states, and so your experience will not be filtered through them. Your experience of the logic of conditionality is entirely suspended — you do not perceive things in this way. There are no individual things to be conditioned by other individual things, or by systems which are ontologically distinct from the thing itself. There is just the dharmadhatu — the realm of the dharma — the great web of reality.
The resultant experience is typically classified as “unity”, or “oneness” — without necessarily implying any kind of blending of mental contents into a homogeneous soup. These states can maintain themselves even with your eyes open and seeing the exact same arrangement of colors and shapes as normal; it’s just that this arrangement is not being filtered and interpreted through the neural circuitry responsible for notions of separateness, and thus causality, or conditionality.
Anyway. In these moments, you might as well be friggin’ anyone or anything. The process of internal conditioning which constitutes your personality is, for all intents and purposes, non-existent. It is from this experience that the notion of a universal mind, or shared consciousness, comes in. When you strip away all this conditioning, all that remains is the awareness of various mental contents. But just as the awareness feels basically the same for each of us individually, from one moment to the next, even as the objects it is aware of fluctuate or even disappear entirely… just so, awareness must be the same between all of us. There must just be Awareness, which happens to be awareness of this-or-that, depending on which head it’s peaking out of.
As with most every issue, I’m of two minds on this one.
What I mean to be saying is: it can be extremely weird when you come back from this “naked” experience, as it were, and put back on the clothes of your particular personality. It can genuinely come as a tremendous shock. Sometimes immediately, sometimes a bit further down the line.
“Oh, Jesus. I’m… me. I… totally forgot that for a second there.”
You can have real trouble re-adjusting. Your previous worldview has generally been shattered, at least as some steady, universal, absolutely reliable bedrock. This is particularly tricky with your notion of value. What am I supposed to do, now that I’ve seen this? What basis have I to prefer one thing to another? The previous basis I thought I had has just been uprooted from their deepest foundations. All the reasons for doing things, which I’d previously had such faith in, have now evaporated. What new guidelines can take their place? Or must I forever fluctuate between mystical bliss and total disorientation?
From this arises the trope of all the 20th Century Westerners who have fallen into this frame of mind suddenly and unexpectedly, and then had to drop out of society and lived on a park bench for a few years, before slowly picking themselves back up again.
That’s what I’ve been struggling with. There are periods of time in which I basically get it. And these periods have become more frequent. And by now, I think I’m beginning to wrap my head around what exactly it is that I “get” when I “get it”, so that it’s easier to remind myself when I slip into old habits, and pull myself back out.
But OK, OK — here’s the kicker.
Now we’re actually getting to the point.
Sure. These mental states can cause a lot of trouble.
But, without them, we are, essentially, fucked.
More specifically: without accessing these frames of mind in some form or another, to some degree of intensity or another, I simply don’t see a way around that old conundrum which Ovid put into the following words.
Video meliora, proboque, deteriora sequor
I see the good, approve of it, and follow the bad.
In other words:
>see good thing
>be like “That’s a good thing. I should totally go there.”
>go in completely the opposite fucking direction
>arrive at bad thing
>rub it all over my face
>get to hate myself for it too
It is only such liberated frames of mind — however light, however fleeting — which present us with a way out of this vicious cycle.
This works in two ways.
First, the more “cognitive” side. It allows us to relativise certain aspects of our experience, and thus diminish their force on us, which we could not when we thought of them as absolute. In other words, they give us insight. They allow us to see the world in a new, less miserable way.
And, see, the thing is, not much has changed in my beliefs, on a formal level, before and after these experiences. I’ve always thought that these rather radical points of view were basically correct, through pure logic and reflection. But it’s a bit like knowing that fire is hot because you studied thermodynamics, and knowing it’s hot because you stuck your hand into it and got burned. It’s about how deep-seated the understanding is; how much it gets into your “muscle memory”; how much of your brain and mind is imbued with this understanding. If it’s only at a very high and fragile level of abstraction, then it’s not going to have the force to counter-act all the other parts of your mind that don’t get it; you can’t be rationally explaining it yourself at every second of the day.
So, these experiences are both the fruit and seed of a cogntitive shift. They are the result — the actualization — of a process of insight, and also the cause of future insight.
Secondly, there’s the more “affective”, or emotional, or motivational side. By which I mean that these experiences become the only thing motivating us to pursue a lifestyle in a different direction than before, when we exclusively chased particular contents of experience — sense pleasure, esteem, possessions, etc. — rather than pursuing a new relation to the contents of experience.
Of course, this comes with complications — chasing these states at a conscious level causes a stress and pain which prevents you from accessing them. But that is a problem that unravels of itself of its own accord; the more you experience it, the lighter the hand you hold it with. Once you’re going in that direction, you’re basically fine. The only hitch is that you will eventually slide backwards into your old habits of craving for particular contents of sense experience, and then afterwards you’ll crave for the release from the compulsion to pursue these contents. But it really seems that you do get the hang of it all after a while, one cycle at a time, until you reach a place of equipoise.
But anyway. Point is. At a subconscious level, the bliss experienced in these states, and in the lead-up to and aftermath of these states, is a crucial part in motivating you to take a different course than the pursuit of the less satisfying but much more readily accessible forms of pleasure.
Here’s the crucial point. This is why I’ve mentioned all of this right now.
The thing is: mental revulsion — this raising of your A.T. Field — is probably one of the last things holding you back from experiencing these states.
Everyone has got some form of these hang-ups. If cooking is your Thing, it’ll be some annoying TV chef; if it’s music, then it’ll be some kitsch, watered down version of something you like. My Thing is religion, and so for me, my hang up is people like Goenka. The particular object of our obsessive hatred is irrelevant; the common form these obsessions take is the important bit.
Of course, one probably has to take care of all the other impediments first.
Before we go any further, let’s make it quite clear that if you are in a condition of constant deprivation of your basic needs (including social and psychological needs), none of this will happen. The mental forces which exist to keep you alive and healthy will not allow themselves to be turned off in such a condition, except by overloading them — by becoming so extremely miserable that you snap (though this results in a simple deadening and nullification of experience more often than a transformation). And it is entirely out of the question to allow anyone to have to go through that, if it is in any way possible to prevent it. But let’s assume you’re not in the total dumps for now.
The obvious first thing is sensual desire. We don’t want to hear it — nobody likes a party pooper, and we especially don’t like people kicking our crutches out from under us when our legs are in such pain –…but we do, at some point, have to try and figure out why this is such a common and recurring trope in spirituality and philosophy.
Specifically, I’m referring to compulsive sensual desire. Like a junkie has for heroin. When the arising of an urge for some physical thing or person in the world overpowers us and makes us act against our better judgement.
This one is tricky, of course, but you’re eventually forced to get the hang of it: either through repeated deprivation or over-saturation, it eventually hits you that you gotta try something else. But this subject has been covered by pretty much every spiritual teacher and philosopher ever. Also, there’s just not that much to say; it’s not very complicated — it’s just kind of tedious to go through.
I’ll only point out that I’m not talking about eliminating the compulsion and obsession for these things — let alone the desire for them (trying to eliminate the desire is probably just the result of confusion). I just mean getting the slightest purchase on the compulsiveness, so you can begin to steer yourself in a different direction.
The second one is a little more subtle: attachment to limited views. Free will, determinism, objective morality, egoistic hedonism, Buddhism, secular humanism, science, poetry, Marxism, perspectivism, etc. etc. etc. ad nauseam. Your rigid insistence that any of these particular perspectives and thought structures is true (rather than a useful, beautiful, or revealing way of looking at things) directly prevents the experience of open and liberated frames of mind.
But that too can fall away in fairly short order.
…OK, maybe I’m being a little glib here. But………………….no, actually. On second thought: it really can fall away quite quickly. Cus there’s just no way you’re smart enough to come up with a unified theory convincing enough to even seem either consistent or comprehensive, let alone both. Unless you’re actually Spinoza. In which case, please get in touch — I want to kiss you.
So let’s get to the really tricky ones.
Agitation at the suffering of the world — the genocides, the famines, the plagues, the exploitation, the enslavement.
The kind of thing that leads to these constant performances of public commiseration — this endless outpouring of “thoughts and prayers”, or “Thank you to our healthcare workers”, or “may all beings be well and happy”, which we use to reassure ourselves and police our collective commitment (purging those who fail to respond with the correct noises and body language).
The kind of thing that also leads to the most chronic forms of personal despair and resentment towards the universe — our fundamental unwillingness to embrace existence.
But this one, funnily enough, isn’t all that hard, in my personal experience. I mean, obviously, it took me years and years. Which is to say: it only took me years and years –not years and years and years and years. I very rarely get maudlin about these things these days, and I’m very quick to settle down my ethical and political indignation when it erupts.
Why? Well, let’s return to the well-known analogy of the monkey, or whatever furry animal you wish. If you try to cage it, or tether it or shut it up, it will only become enraged and resist all the harder.
So let’s take this agitation at terrible injustice.
Me: I am filled with fury and disgust and despair at the unnecessary suffering in the world, specifically that caused and continued by human activity.
Also me: Yup. That makes total sense. I reckon it’s pretty much inevitable you’d feel that way.
Me: NO BUT—oh, wait, what? It is? You agree?
Also me: Yeah, of course, man. Who the fuck wouldn’t be infuriated and disgusted, and then fall into despair?
Me: ….oh. Well then. That’s good. ……[silence]
Now let’s contrast that with:
Me: I am filled with fury and disgust that this motherfucker is doing this thing I really like, but worse, and everyone thinks they’re great.
Also me: Oh no! That’s bad! You’re a bad person! Stop feeling that way!
Me: !!! You’re one of them! Fuck youuuuuu! Now I won’t shut up for hours!
Also me: [migraine]
You see — it’s trickier.
But it is not, I think, impossible. You just have to do what you did before: realize, first-hand, exactly why and how it’s inevitable that you’ll feel that way.
To wit, and in summary: because it’s activating your fight-or-flight response to the prospect of immediate psychic extinction.
And then it’s exacerbated by the thought of loss of social status for yourself and your group of like-minded people: if “this motherfucker” is getting plaudits for his trashier version of what you like by society at large, then that means that they’re taking the place you and yours could have held. And that, as I mentioned, is our distinctive survival mechanism as human beings — calling out for others’ attention so that they take care of us. So if we lose our place to someone else, and they get the attention and resources instead… you guessed it. We die. Or, at least, that’s what our mind thinks is going to happen.
So it makes 110% sense that we feel that way; it’s triggering two of our most absolutely fundamental drives.
So you just accept it as natural and watch it calm down like all the other warning mechanisms we have for potential danger.
In other words: in light of that understanding, you observe the movements of your mind. You notice which things tend to draw your attention this way and that, how your attention changes in character depending on what it is focused on. Your insight deepens, and your freedom from painful and instinctive mental patterns increases accordingly.
And, as I said, I reckon it is the raising of these barriers between ourselves and our experience — a feature of our consciousness which arises inevitably from its most basic nature — that prevents us from accessing these highly desirable frames of mind.
Or, to put it another way — these mental states are the very manifestation of a shift in our mental habits, and a lowering of our internal barriers to our own consciousness. If that doesn’t seem true already, purely in the abstract, then I think self-observation demonstrates pretty clearly why that is and how exactly that works. But I’ll try and explain that in my next post.
But anyway. As always, I digress.
That, ladies and gentlemen, is why you should go to a Vipassana retreat, even if the whole thing really creeps you out.
That’s why you should go… especially if the whole thing creeps you out.
Two main reasons.
Firstly, if you haven’t tried it out before, these retreats will give you an extremely solid handle on the basics of this whole “halt and rewrite your basic response pattern” thing. It’ll help you get over the usual impediments: sensual desire, attachment to limited views (with the exception of its own), agitation at the suffering of the world, etc.
(You could, of course, learn this at whichever other meditation retreat you prefer, or by consistent private practice, which will be annoying in a different way.)
And secondly, Goenka will be the perfect sparring partner to help you master your reflexive response to spiritual assault. So long as you’ve gotten a good handle on the basics of emotional regulation, and won’t fly off the handle into rage or despair from repeated exposure to something you find unsettling… then every time his stupid voice comes over the loudspeaker or his stupid face comes on the screen, you’ll have the perfect opportunity to watch your mind contract, constrict, flinch away, and start to rant or whine or any of its usual defence mechanisms.
Then you can slowly settle it down, and start to do something else.
Like some actual, sustained, lucid, serious thinking about how stupid Goenka’s face is.
OK. OK. …OK. I’m good. I’ve got it off my chest. Now I’ll never say another harsh thing about him ever, ever, ever again.
His face is stu—