An analysis of the Vipassana mediation technique from a critical and scientific viewpoint
Vipassana is a form of meditation. It is not a religion or a doctrine. The assistant-teachers and Mr.Goenka in his lectures emphasize this point and go to great lengths to make it very clear that Vipassana is not a religion. They do not want, need, or expect you to leave any religious philosophy that you follow. Vipassana is about learning to focus your mind and train the mind to actually not think at all. And that might intially seem a bit counterproductive. Why train your mind to do nothing? this is because our mind is always in an agitated state. Especially in this day and age, where we are constantly bombarded with information overload, our mind is always running. Training your mind to do nothing sounds surprisingly simple, but in reality, it is actually very hard. The way to teach your mind to do nothing as figured out by the Buddha, he is to focus on certain things already present in your body.
What is the one thing that is always present in your body? It is your breath. So the Buddha said, why not use your breath as a means to focus your brain and get it to not do anything? So that is the first part of the Vipassana meditation. It is called Anapana and it involves you focusing on your breath, the incoming breath and the outgoing breath. Nothing forced, just the way it happens all day and all night long. The idea is just to focus on the breath so that your brain stops thinking and wandering and going all over the place. Very simple technique. The second step in Vipassana. This is about focusing on sensations on your body to get your mind to not think about other things. This is sort of an expansion or extension of the idea of focusing on your breath. The same concept, but instead of breath you are focusing on the sensations in your body. This provides a larger canvas to use and lot more, data, if you may, or a lot more surface or lot more inputs to work with. Focusing on the sensations on your body allows for meditation by getting your brain to think about things that are happening already in your body. While breathing is very obvious, sensations on your skin, on your body, even inside your body are present all the time, but they are neither as apparent or as easily fely as breathing. So this requires a little bit more work and more focus, more concentration and more effort. But it does happen with enough effort. You can actually feel the sensations that are occurring on your body all the time. And these, you do not have to create. It’s interesting that they are already there just like breathing. You just have to focus hard enough to feel them. So that sort of takes you to the next state of meditation, which gives you brain plenty of things to work with and ends up depriving other thoughts from occurring. And as the Buddha says, a majority of these thoughts are either cravings or aversions. Feelings of anger or feelings of antipathy towards other people. Focusing on the sensations on your body, allows you to get away from those thoughts. And that’s a great start. What Vipassana ultimately aims to do is to remove these thoughts from even occuring. It’s a very interesting philosophy and we shall talk about it in another article.
Can addictions and long standing habit patterns be changed through meditation? The answer to that is a resounding yes. And this is based off of personal experience. I am a person of science, a true believer in the methods and procedures of science. I am an engineer, which means I have trained my mind to think logically, to look at all the facts as they are and question everything. I would never have believed that meditation can actually have an impact at a physical level. That is the theory put forward by the Buddha. Now whether you want to believe it or not, that’s the theory and you just need to experience it at some level. The theory further states that if you focus long and hard enough, and if you take the effort, the physical sensations happening on your body can actually connect to deep-rooted, emotional triggers within your brain. We all know from studies that addiction is driven by the dopamine cycle. Our brain craves for a jolt of dopamine, which is a neuro chemical that is produced within the brain. And that gives your brain a jolt, which is what the brain craves for. And this craving can be satisfied by triggering some external event like eating chocolate or watching a movie or other sometimes more harmful activities like taking drugs or watching excessive porn. So once this desire is fulfilled and the dopamine has been produced, the brain consumes it very quickly. And then after a certain amount of time, the brain wants another jolt of dopamine. This is a very well recognized and accepted psycho chemical phenomenon happening in the human brain. A lot of addictions can be traced to this very cycle. What the Buddha said is that meditation and focusing on sensations on your body can act truly lead to altering the chemical reactions that happen in your brain. By focusing on these sensations, you can literally pull out the chemicals that trigger the dopamine cycle. Just like a surgeon goes in and with a scalpel can cut out a tumor, in a very similar fashion using vipassana you can make modifications at a physical level. Again, for most people, this connection may seem impossible or bizarre. But based on personal experience, I would say that this is definitely possible. Not easy but possible. You can actually start to see changes in your habit patterns.
These are gradual. It’s not going to happen overnight. For me personally, it was a matter of a few months before I started to notice changes. In small habit patterns and very simple things like brushing my teeth at night. A very easy thing that one should do for years. I knew that’s exactly what I should be doing, but somehow I have never gotten myself to do it. My brain was always running ahead of me, especially closer to bedtime, and somehow convincing me there was okay not to brush. After practicing vipassana meditation, lo and behold, every night, I find myself at that point where I’m at peace and I can actually brush my teeth. A simple but effective outcome